Tuesday, May 26, 2020

There's a correlation between SARS-CoV-2 in sewage and new COVID-19 cases

Cumulative cultural evolution


Our species’ ecological success is supported by our ability to selectively learn beneficial social information, resulting in the accumulation of innovations over time. Population size affects the social information available to subsequent generations of learners and constrains cumulative culture.

Population structure constrains the flow of social information and can promote the accumulation of innovations by bringing culturally distinct groups into contact. Effective population structure results from a combination of structural barriers (e.g., lack of contact between individuals) and behavioral barriers (e.g., unwillingness to share social information).

Compared with non-human primates, humans live in large networks of unrelated individuals that might be conducive to the accumulation of cultural innovations. This social structure might partly result from selection pressures linked to our extensive reliance on culturally accumulated knowledge.


Our species has the peculiar ability to accumulate cultural innovations over multiple generations, a phenomenon termed ‘cumulative cultural evolution’ (CCE). Recent years have seen a proliferation of empirical and theoretical work exploring the interplay between demography and CCE. This has generated intense discussion about whether demographic models can help explain historical patterns of cultural changes. Here, we synthesize empirical and theoretical studies from multiple fields to highlight how both population size and structure can shape the pool of cultural information that individuals can build upon to innovate, present the potential pathways through which humans’ unique social structure might promote CCE, and discuss whether humans’ social networks might partly result from selection pressures linked to our extensive reliance on culturally accumulated knowledge.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Rhythms of Speech and Rhythms of Brains

The brain has rhythms - and so do music and speech. Recent research reveals that the temporal structure of speech and music and the temporal organization of various brain structures align in systematic ways. The role that brain rhythms play in perception and cognition continues to be elucidated through studies of various types. I will describe some intuitively simple and fun but surprising results that illuminate the temporal structure of linguistic experience. From recognizing speech to building abstract grammatical structures, how the brain constructs and represents time reveals unexpected puzzles about language.⠀

David Poeppel is the Director of the Department of Neuroscience at the Max-Planck-Institute (MPIEA) in Frankfurt, Germany and a Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at NYU. He also directs the Center for Language, Music, and Emotion (CLaME) at NYU and Max Planck.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Logistics R Us, but....we're no match for the current corona virus

David Segal, What Happened to the Great American Logistics Machine? NYTimes, May 22, 2020:
It was reassuring to watch leaders of Walmart, CVS, Target and others gather in the Rose Garden with President Trump in mid-March to announce that the companies would chip in to rapidly expand Covid-19 testing, working in tandem with the administration. Today, Target has exactly one testing site, in the parking lot of its store in Chula Vista, Calif. After a stumbling start, Walmart announced that it had beaten its goal of opening 100 sites by May 31. CVS had opened 50 sites as of mid-May, and promised to have 1,000 open by the end of the month.

Every bit helps, but 1,101 sites won’t get us to the goal of five million tests a day that Mr. Trump referred to in late April.

You’d never know it from the halting pace of this rollout, but the United States is a pioneer in public-private partnerships. Spectacularly ambitious ones, in fact. Like the moon landing. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration hired 20,000 companies across all 50 states to produce and assemble the roughly six million parts needed for each of the Apollo missions. They included Playtex, best known as the maker of the Cross Your Heart bra, which was hired to build the spacesuits worn by the astronauts. (We know about comfortable, flexible garments, Playtex said in its pitch.)

“In some ways, NASA had to invent large-project management for the modern era,” Charles Fishman wrote in “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon,” “while supervising the invention and perfection of the technology to do something that had never been done before.”

Back in the present, and back on earth, the coronavirus is offering a real-time demonstration of how to hopscotch the globe, with ease and speed. Exactly how it gets around is, to some degree, a mystery we are still solving. (Cats can give it to cats, a study published this month concluded.) But starting from an unknown patient zero, it has infected nearly five million people around the world in a matter of months, enlisting victims in its supply chain and deploying them as vehicles to get around.

Iris petals [red background]

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Paul Romer on what's wrong with economics [with coda on what he learned about post-scarcity society at Burning Man]

From a recent conversation with Tyler Cowen (Paul Romer on a Culture of Science and Working Hard):
ROMER:...but I think the lesson from the financial crisis, which we’re learning again now, is one about the fragility of extensive interconnection. We’ve paid attention to optimize efficiency with massive reliance on specialization and these complicated supply chains.

But the growth, the proliferation of connection means that our system is more fragile than we realize. A shock comes, and things happen that we didn’t anticipate. But again, that’s part of learning about a very new type of economy which is changing in real time.

The ones that struck me as being particularly worrisome were, first, I think the negative effect that economists have had in terms of protecting competition. Through the law and economics movement, we ratified this notion that big is okay as long as you can make some case that it’s efficient.

The upshot is, is that I think because of technical economics and the arguments of economists, antitrust is much more tolerant now of dominant firms, and if we believe that competition’s good in a whole bunch of ways, this could actually be very, very harmful. So that’s one.

COWEN: Doesn’t Amazon look pretty good right now in the midst of the pandemic? Do you wish we had split it up into different parts?

ROMER: My sense is that we’d be better off if we had five Amazons instead of one.* And I don’t see why we couldn’t have five Amazons if we, as voters, say, “This is the kind of society we want to live in. Let’s just aim for that.” And same thing — the more worrisome positions are those of the tech firms that are so deeply connected now to many aspects of our lives and where there’s really very little competition and a lot of opacity about what these firms actually do.

COWEN: Let me try to defend the economics profession a bit more. If we look at climate policy, a lot of economists have recommended a carbon tax — not quite a consensus, but a very common view. Now, of course we haven’t done it, but it seems to me the profession, in some manner, is essentially correct there. So you would side with the profession on that?

ROMER: Yeah. Again, in some sense, the main point of the article that I’m making is that economists need to accept that our role is that of the technical adviser. We can say, “If you apply a carbon tax, carbon emissions will go down. Here’s what other effects we think they’ll have. But it’s up to you, the voters, to decide whether you want to follow that policy or not.”

So, if the voters don’t follow us, I think, to a first approximation, that’s not really our responsibility. And what I’m critical of is this tendency for economists to assume the responsibility of philosopher king and say to voters, “Well, we know better what a society should be like, what society should do. Listen to us. We’ll tell you the way things should be. We’ll tell you what you should do.”

And, in truth, I think we get into that mode a lot more than we realize. Certainly, some members of the profession get into that mode. And I think they’ve done, really, quite a bit of harm when they did that.
What Romer learned at Burning Man:
Another thing that really stood out, which is not exactly a surprise, but maybe it was the surprise in that group — if you ask, what do people do if you put them in a setting where there’s supposed to be no compensation, no quid pro quo, and you just give them a chance to be there for a week. What do they do?

They work. What people do at Burning Man is they go there and they work. They’ll do a different job, like they’ll work as part of the volunteer police force, or they’ll help maintain sanitation. They’ll work to set up something which offers a service to other people. But there’s enormous satisfaction that we draw from accomplishment and the provision of the output that we produce, making it available to others.

If somebody asked me, “What’s a post-scarcity society going to look like?” Somebody actually said this to me there. He was like, “What does post-scarcity society look like?” People work hard because they like it. They work on things that they care about and they think others will care about, and that’s an encouraging insight, I think, about people.
*See another post I did today:  Are we grappling with problems beyond our conceptual means? [counterfeit capitalism][#Progress_Studies, NOT].

Let them eat ... [yum!]

Are we grappling with problems beyond our conceptual means? [counterfeit capitalism][#Progress_Studies, NOT]

I take the question from the final chapter, of David Hays,  The Evolution of Technology Through Four Cognitive Ranks (1993). In section 8.4, “The Rise and Fall of Civilizations” Hays observes:
For the fall of empires, there have been many explanations, all too specific for me. Do I care whether it was disease, depletion of the soil, restlessness of the proletarians, intrusion of barbarians, corruption of the elite? Not much. The level of abstraction appropriate to this question seems to me to be this: Every empire has grown too large for its cultural rank. Specifically, every empire has grown until it created for itself problems too complex for it to solve with the means of thought available to it. The substance of the problems may be unique to each empire, but the increasing complexity of problems with size of political unit is universal.
Don’t let the word “empire” mislead you. It by no means excludes the current American imperium, though Hays would not have used that term. He was, we both were, and I remain, concerned about the future.

The issue seems particularly acute during the current pandemic. While some/much of the inadequacy of America's response can be attributed to the flailings of the Trump administration, I don't think all of in can. And, in any event, we have the fact, after all, that Donald Trump was elected in the first place – see, e.g. the podcast by Robert Wright and Ezra Klein I embedded here. Is America's political system failing?

Pizza Aribtrage

Tyler Cowen has just linked to a much narrower and more specific example involving "pizza arbitrage." Ranjan Roy tells a story of a friend who runs a pizza business. Friend wasn't offering delivering services but a startup, Doordash, was not only offering to deliver Friend's pizzas, but was charging less than cost for those pizzas:
Doordash was causing him real problems. The most common was, Doordash delivery drivers didn't have the proper bags for pizza so it inevitably would arrive cold. It led to his employees wasting time responding to complaints and even some bad Yelp reviews.

But he brought up another problem - the prices were off. He was frustrated that customers were seeing incorrectly low prices. A pizza that he charged $24 for was listed as $16 by Doordash.

My first thought: I wondered if Doordash is artificially lowering prices for customer acquisition purposes.

My second thought: I knew Doordash scraped restaurant websites. After we discussed it more, it was clear that the way his menu was set up on his website, Doordash had mistakenly taken the price for a plain cheese pizza and applied it to a 'specialty' pizza with a bunch of toppings.

My third thought: Cue the Wall Street trader in me…..ARBITRAGE!!!!
They decided to try an experiment:
[Friend] called in and placed an order for 10 pizzas to a friend's house and charged $160 to his personal credit card. A Doordash call center then called into his restaurant and put in the order for those 10 pizzas. A Doordash driver showed up with a credit card and paid $240 for the pizzas.

It worked.

Trade 1

We went over the actual costs. Each pizza cost him approximately $7 ($6.50 in ingredients, $0.50 for the box). So if he paid $160 out of pocket plus $70 in expenses to net $240 from Doordash, he just made $10 in pure arbitrage profit. For all that trouble, it wasn't really worth it, but that first experiment did work.

My mind, as a combination trader and startup person, instantly had the though - just run this arbitrage over and over. You could massively even grow your top-line revenue while netting riskless profit, and maybe even get acquired at an inflated valuation :) He told me to chill out. Maybe this is why he runs an "actual business" while I trade options while doing brand consulting and writing newsletters. [...]

So over a few weeks, almost to humor me, we did a few of these "trades". I was genuinely curious if Doordash would catch on but they didn't. I had visions of building a network of restauranteurs all executing this strategy in tandem, all drinking from the Softbank teat before the money ran dry, but went back to work doing content strategy stuff.
Ranjan goes on to point out that this sort of fakery isn't unique to Doordash; Grubhub and UberEats have been doing such things as well. He goes on to conclude:
You have insanely large pools of capital creating an incredibly inefficient money-losing business model. It's used to subsidize an untenable customer expectation. You leverage a broken workforce to minimize your genuine labor expenses. The companies unload their capital cannons on customer acquisition, while this week’s Uber-Grubhub news reminds us, the only viable endgame is a promise of monopoly concentration and increased prices. But is that even viable?

Has Joe Rogan just made a deal with the devil?

As you may know, Rogan has just made a deal to have his podcast distributed exclusively on Spotify. Matt Stoller is worried.
Yesterday audio streaming giant Spotify announced a deal with podcast king Joe Rogan, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that Rogan will be paid more than $100 million over several years in return for making his insanely popular show exclusive to the Spotify service. This is huge news. Investors were pleased; Spotify’s stock was up 8.42%, which is roughly $2.5 billion, or twenty five times what Rogan will be paid. From the perspective of someone who appreciates independent voices and an independent press, however, I’m concerned.
What's up?
As the web used to be, today podcasting is an open market, with advertising, podcasting, and distribution mostly separated from one another. Distribution happens through an open standard called RSS, and there’s very little behavioral ad targeting. I’m asked on fun weird podcasts all the time; podcasting feels like the web prior to the roll-up of power by Google and Facebook, with a lot of new voices, some very successful and most marginal, but quite authentic.

So what is Spotify trying to do?

First, Spotify is gaining power over podcast distribution by forcing customers to use its app to listen to must-have content, by either buying production directly or striking exclusive deals, as it did with Rogan. This is a tying or bundling strategy. Once Spotify has a gatekeeping power over distribution, it can eliminate the open standard rival RSS, and control which podcasts get access to listeners. The final stage is monetization through data collection and ad targeting. Once Spotify has gatekeeping power over distribution and a large ad targeting business, it will also be able to control who can monetize podcasts, because advertisers will increasingly just want to hit specific audience members, as opposed to advertise on specific shows.
What's this mean to Rogan's listeners? (I'm one, I only listen now and then on YouTube, and more often to clips than full shows.) After explaining a bit about anti-trust law, Stoller continues:
...Rogan has made it clear that there are likely to be few consumer benefits. He promised his listeners that “it will be the exact same show. I am not going to be an employee of Spotify. We’re going to be working with the same crew doing the exact same show.” The only difference is consumers won’t be able to get the Rogan show through other channels. It’s purely a restraint of trade. In other words, there’s literally no justification for this deal as anything but a payoff to Rogan from an aspiring monopolist who seeks to force Rogan listeners to use the Spotify app. It’s a leverage of Rogan’s legal monopoly over his own copyrighted material to create a distribution monopoly, which was one of the legal issues at stake in the 1948 Paramount decrees case that ended the monopolistic Hollywood studio system.

Now, I can imagine the argument that targeted advertising brings some sort of benefit I’m leaving out, that Rogan’s ad inventory will bring scale for podcast monetization. But the downside to consumers is quite obvious, while no one has been able to

Spotify isn’t the only bad actor here. The corporation is under heavy pressure from Amazon, Apple, and Google, all of whom have interests in the streaming music and podcast business, and all of whom can cross-subsidize with other streams of revenue. They also have gatekeeping control over Spotify through app stores. Here’s Spotify protesting to one of Congress’s Antitrust Subcommittees how Apple uses its bottleneck power.
Apple operates a platform that, for over a billion people around the world, is the gateway to the internet. Apple is both the owner of the iOS platform and the App Store—and a competitor to services like Spotify. In theory, this is fine. But in Apple’s case, they continue to give themselves an unfair advantage at every turn.
If you put Spotify where Apple is, and and change a few words so that this describes streaming instead of apps, this sentence describes Spotify’s strategy. They want to become the gateway to streaming, so they can tax the ecosystem. (It’s admittedly a bit more complex since Spotify is indirectly taxing via ad targeting and has to pay for music rights whereas Apple is directly taxing via an app store fee, but the power dynamics are similar.) show that targeted advertising is a net positive.
There's more at the link, including notes on McKinsey, Softbank, Trump's deal with Phlow, which manufactures chemical precursors to pharmaceuticals, contract tracing.

Identity Poitics: Robert Wright talks with Ezra Klein

One quick take: Klein makes a useful distinction between identity and policy as the basis for politics. Policy can be and generally always is negotiated. Identity can't be negotiated. The Civil Rights movement forced the South out of the Democratic Party and thus turned the two parties toward identity-based coalitions and away from policy-based coalitions.

Early in the discussion Klein notes that, for all the commentary asserting the Trump's election was a fluke, when you examine recent presidential elections carefully it doesn't seem all that unusual.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Intermodal transfer – draw what you feel

What’s Up? Alternative Hollywood History [Media Notes 32]

I watched Netflix’s Hollywood a week ago and enjoyed it; lots of fun, though draggy here and there, and a bit soapy, too, if you catch my drift. It attracted a lot of commentary, much around its alternative history premise. As you may know, it’s set in Hollywood in the late 1940s and includes (versions of) real people (e.g. Anna May Wong, Rock Hudson, and Hattie McDaniels) amid mostly fictional characters. This is a world in which a gay black screen writer gets his script made into a film directed by a half-Filipino director and with a black star. Not only that, but the movie’s a hit, takes home some Oscars, and the gay screenwriter and Rock Hudson hold hands on the red carpet in front of all the cameras. What fun.

Some of the commentary was not at all happy with this alternative version of our world, such as this piece in the New York Post, Netflix’s ‘Hollywood’ is a reality-altering, potentially dangerous TV series, but I think Aisha Harris gets things right in The New York Times, In Netflix’s ‘Hollywood,’ One Movie Fixes Racism. Hooray! – clever title, that; I wonder who wrote it. She’s quite aware of Hollywood’s history on these matters, and ours as well. Given all the reservations, all the work yet to be done:
... There is something to be said for the show’s fluffy confection of ahistoricism when it’s not indulging in myths of racial reconciliation and movies-as-changemakers.

The happy resolutions conjured up by message films from the “Hollywood” era almost always benefited straight white people and no one else. Here is a fantasy set in the past where women, people of color and queer characters ultimately win, too.

Yes, the Avises of the world are able to pat themselves on the backs for doing the right thing. But Archie, Camille and Anna May also get to pursue their dreams and see their success open doors for others. They survive, they flourish, they are happy.

A part of me can’t ignore what it feels like to see this Technicolor spectacle populated by these faces and experiences, to see the 1940s depicted through a 2020 lens — browner, less sexually repressed, more women calling the shots. “Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be,” says one character in “Hollywood.” [...]
The show is willfully naïve and laughably self-satisfied. But as far as dreams go, it’s also progress.
I conclude that the series presupposes an audience with some sophistication in these matters, an audience that knows things weren’t at all like that back in the day, and that we’ve still got a ways to go. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun, does it?

* * * * *

We'll meet again.... [apocalypse then and now?]

Friends and neighbors during the current pandemic on VE Day 2020 in Britain:

Following the Queen's address, people were invited to stand on their doorsteps and sing Dame Vera Lynn's 'We'll Meet Again'.

Today the nation came together, even when forced apart by lockdown, to remember the end of war in Europe and mark 75 years since VE Day.

The Queen said the message of VE Day is "never give up, never despair", remembering the sacrifices of the Second World War generation in a poignant speech.*
That bears comparison with the final scene of Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove:

*H/t Blair Sabol, @ New York Social Diary, who also informs us:
In these times of massive furloughs and viral shedding it’s hard to hold onto anything, let alone find any kind of diversions or escape valves. In early April it was reported that French police turned back a private jet from London trying to get to the Riviera – the highfliers were 7 men (40 to 50 years old) and 3 women (23 to 25 years old). The men were from the Ukraine and worked in high finance and the women were in the “escort biz.”

They had hired a villa in Cannes. But when the plane hit the tarmac in Marseille, the police refused entry since they couldn’t prove their trip was “essential” via an international travel certificate. Very Jeffrey Epstein to be sure, but in the “Covid” era? For those with the cash — where there’s a will there’s a private jet and that show still goes on.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Technological change and leisure activity

Łukasz Rachel, Leisure-enhancing technological change, VOX, CEPR Policy Portal, 24 May 2019.
Our time, attention, and data are central in today’s economy. We spend ever more time glued to our screens, while businesses innovate tirelessly to attract ‘eyeballs.’ Clearly, the leisure economy has redefined the way we spend our time. Perhaps less obviously, it has had a profound impact on the macroeconomy.

Economists have studied time allocation decisions at least since the seminal work of Becker (1965). More recently, research noted the decline in average hours worked and the steady rise in leisure hours (Aguiar and Hurst 2007, Boppart and Krusell 2016), and considered the impact of some technologies such as video games on labour market participation (Aguiar et al. 2017). [...]

I focus on leisure-enhancing innovations – services that are supplied free of charge and are designed specifically to draw in viewers. Such innovations make economic sense because the attention they attract can profitably be used for advertising. Building this simple mechanism into a macroeconomic model of innovation-driven growth helps explain some of the salient puzzles observed in the data. The theory explains why so much innovation takes place in the leisure sector, and elucidates the puzzling disconnect between technology, which seems to be racing ahead, and productivity, which is stagnant. It accounts for the rapidly changing time-allocation patterns. It also carries implications for measurement of GDP, and, by highlighting the inefficiencies of market equilibrium, forms a useful framework for thinking about policy.

Neural coordination of sleep