Monday, November 2, 2015

Ukrainian Birth Statistics

How much has the Maidan coup and the subsequent war damaged Ukrainian society? The Ukraine's GDP has fallen off a cliff, but that could overstate the extent of the disaster. The Maidan elite is shadier than its predecessors and the amount of lawlessness has gone up under it, so the underground portion of the Ukrainian economy, the kind that's not reflected in most economic statistics, is likely to have grown at the expense of the legal one. 

I think that birth statistics are much more trustworthy than any kind of economic data. I'm sure that almost all births are still recorded in the Ukraine. Their number is sensitive to economic conditions. Births fell precipitously all over the non-Muslim parts of the former USSR in the 1990s. The current economic and political disaster in the Ukraine is similar to that of the 1990s in many ways. So I think that a look at current Ukrainian demographics can shed some light at the severity of the crisis. 

I found official Ukrainian demographic statistics here. They have data up to August of this year. In the table below I compared the number of births in August of 2013, 2014 and 2015 in all the regions of the Ukraine that the junta fully controls. They had data for the two war-torn regions too, but I removed it because it's unlikely to be complete.

Births by Region of the Ukraine

Region Aug 13 Aug 14 Aug 15 2 yr % change
Vinnitsa 1,559 1,414 1,405 -9.9
Volyn 1,412 1,195 1,184 -16.1
Dnepropetrovsk 3,157 3,174 2,792 -11.6
Zhitomir 1,338 1,248 1,138 -14.9
Zakarpatye 1,728 1,591 1,425 -17.5
Zaporozhye 1,677 1,668 1,356 -19.1
Ivano-Frankovsk 1,499 1,427 1,256 -16.2
Kiev (w/o the city) 1,872 1,834 1,714 -8.4
Kirovograd 981 930 781 -20.4
Lvov 2,790 2,630 2,379 -14.7
Nikolayev 1,236 1,209 1,000 -19.1
Odessa 2,723 2,586 2,391 -12.2
Poltava 1,344 1,250 1,177 -12.4
Rovno 1,628 1,501 1,373 -15.7
Sumy 909 914 859 -5.5
Ternopol 1,102 951 895 -18.8
Kharkov 2,412 2,388 2,074 -14.0
Kherson 1,082 1,034 943 -12.8
Khmelnitskiy 1,278 1,228 1,159 -9.3
Cherkasy 1,091 1,064 934 -14.4
Chernovtsy 1,064 1,066 924 -13.2
Chernigov 890 803 809 -9.1
City of Kiev 3,019 2,954 3,017 -0.1

Total: 37,791 36,059 32,985 -12.7

The decline is both broad and serious. 

Most of the children born in August of 2014 must have been conceived at the end of 2013, before the fateful coup. So why would there be fewer of them compared to the number born in August of 2013? Some of the mothers could have moved out of the country or had abortions once the economy tanked. One of the things we're looking at here is emigration. 

Why did births fall the least in Kiev? I'm guessing it's because a lot of the refugees from the war zone settled there. Most of the refugees went to Russia, but some went into the peaceful parts of the Ukraine. It seems plausible that aid to them would be more readily available in the capital. Why did the Sumy region suffer less than most? That I don't know. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

More Verse

A while ago I wrote a little poem about eternity and the fate of civilization, which was quite a departure from my usual poetic topic, puns. I have my pretentious moments, just like everyone else. It later occurred to me that this poem could become a part of a much larger work: a description and justification of all of my political and philosophical beliefs in verse. 'Cause why not? The chance that I will complete this project isn't huge, but here's a newly-minted second part of it, which, if I ever do finish the whole thing, will precede the "first" part by many pages.

Holy books are filled with fiction.
Wishful thinking, clumsy lies
And internal contradiction
Make their authors seem unwise.

Whether one God or eleven
Rule their model of the skies,
They treat fate, the Earth and heaven
As if they had ears and eyes.

As if they could understand them.
Answer pleas, forgive mistakes,
Pity, comfort and command them.
Mend their hearts and sooth their aches.

Our big brains evolved to give us
A leg up on other men,
So that they don't outlive us
And their genes don't spread again.

So we're good at understanding
Human minds and human acts,
But much worse at comprehending
Random chance and cold, hard facts.

When we scream at our devices,
Tell a keyboard to be damned
Or attribute human vices
To a printer that has jammed

We act much like those believers
Who beg fate, the Earth and sky
To deliver them from fevers
And to save them when they die.

I'm not as down on religion as these verses imply when taken by themselves. If I continue the poem, I will talk about faith's positive aspects in the next section.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Quick Impressions of the Dem Debate

I've seen suggestions over the last few years that Hillary's health has been failing, that "something happened to her" while she was Secretary of State. Based on the debate I'll note that very few people sound as sharp and energetic at her age as she does. At any age, actually. And I'm saying this as someone who sincerely wishes her to fail. Her tone, style and presentation were spectacular.

I know that Jim Webb wrote a book about being Scots-Irish. The emotional difference between him and Chafee is like a cheap caricature of the Rebel/Yankee difference drawn by a Southerner who's still bitter about the Confederate defeat. Chafee's personality seemed to have been designed with the express purpose of giving the word "harmless" negative connotations.

O'Malley looked phony, sinister and inept. Bernie looked kooky. The general amount of craziness wasn't higher than during the GOP debates though. It was just directed towards different issues. I have no idea what the betting markets say, but I'd put Hillary's chances of winning the presidency at about 60% now.

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Look at One of Svetlana Alexievich's Books

I don't know enough about the hard sciences to judge if the people who get Nobels for them truly deserve them. But literature is usually written for the enjoyment of non-specialists, I speak the language of this year's winner natively and I love good writing, so I decided to check out one of her works.

Of course I know that she got this prize for hating Putin and Lukashenko. But there are lots of writers like this, and some of them are bound to have more talent than others. If in some alternate universe I got a place on the Nobel-giving committee, I'd promote my politics through it as hard as the current members promote theirs. People's lives and the future of civilization depend on the outcome of ideological struggles. But the Nobel is a great brand, and the height of the soap box that it provides partly depends on the quality of the winners. So of all the writers with whom I mostly agree I'd pick the ones with the awesomest style - people like Roissy/Heartiste, Jim Goad, Greg Cochran or the Derb. Is the Nobel organization well-run enough to do that now? That was one of the things I wanted to find out.

By the way, if you think that the authors I mentioned above shouldn't qualify because what they do isn't literature, you should know that the Derb has published novels, while Svetlana Alexievich, this year's winner, has not. She's a journalist instead.

The first book of hers that I found on the Internet for free was about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and is called Chernobyl Prayer (a Chronicle of the Future).

It starts with a vague epigraph: "we're air, we're not land...." That's followed by a quote from a Belorussian newspaper: "Belarus... for the world we are terra incognita, an unknown, unexplored land."

OK, so she aims her writing at the kind of people who need "terra incognita" translated to them. Interesting to know.

"White Russia - this is approximately how the name of our country sounds in the English language."

No, it's not. English speakers don't know that the Bel part of Belarus means "white". I've only read two sentences and there's already a factual inaccuracy.

A few lines down it says that the population of Belarus is still mostly rural. I thought "that can't be true". Checked the Wikipedia - yep, it hasn't been true since 1975. Both of these errors occur in quotes that Alexievich put at the start of her book under the heading "historical reference", so it's clear that she thought that this was accurate info.

"Among the causes of demographic decline [in Belarus] radiation takes the first place." Oh come on, even she can't possibly believe that. The quote is from 1996, when all of the non-Muslim parts of the former USSR, even the ones located 10 time zones away from Chernobyl, were suffering huge demographic declines due to the catastrophic impoverishment brought on by the liberal gangsters and thieves whom Alexievich supports. Chernobyl was child's play compared to the human toll of her benefactors' hatred and greed, and I say this as someone who lost his thyroid to Chernobyl-related cancer.

"In the Gomel and Mogilev regions, which suffered the most from the Chernobyl accident, mortality was 20% higher than natality."

Specifically in 1996 deaths outnumbered births in Russia by 59%. 1,304,638 births and 2,082,249 deaths. Russia is huge and the wind after the accident wasn't blowing its way, so it wasn't affected by radiation much. I only got sick from it because 5 years later I, my mom and her sister spent 2 weeks in Chernigov, a Ukrainian city close to Chernobyl. It's where my mom's parents were from, and we still had relatives there. While in Chernigov we must have eaten something that was grown locally that had radiation in it because two of us (my aunt and I) lost our thyroids later.

"Over the last 10 years mortality increased by 23.5%" She's quoting a Belarusian newspaper about Belarus here. Well, in Russia from 1986 to 1994 the number of deaths per year increased by 53.6%. That's not radiation, that's liberalism. And this woman is a liberal.

After a few more paragraphs of history and statistics, all of it quoted from other publications, Alexievich starts her actual reporting with the story of the wife of a fireman who died after helping put out the fire on the day of the accident. The style is exactly like that of my grandma and her friends talking about their long-suffering lives on some park bench back in Moscow. This narrative is recorded as direct speech, so I still haven't encountered Alexievish's Nobel-calibre style at this point.

It's all very sad of course. Women love to hear and tell personal stories like this, but being a nerd I would have rather read interviews with engineers about what actually went wrong and how it could have been avoided.

Throughout this very feminine story I got occasional unintentional glimpses of the magnitude of the containment and evacuation operations that went on in the days after the accident. The organizational capacity of the late Soviet state on display here reminded me of those stories of hurricanes killing thousands in the Dominican Republic but leaving Cuba largely unscathed. A country looted out by Alexievich's liberal friends wouldn't just suffer more accidents than the late USSR, its response to them would also be dozens of times smaller and less efficient. Oh, why am I saying "would"? The modern Ukraine is exactly that kind of a country.

As I read more and more, I'm trying to remember April of 1986 myself. Even in Moscow there was some fear and anxiety. My parents tuned in to the BBC's Russian Service for info. I remember it being said that a particular type of mushroom, often sold at outdoor markets, absorbed radiation more than other kinds of foods.

The woman's story about the illness and death of her firefighter husband and of her infant daughter ends. It was insanely depressing, but all female stories about suffering and loss are like that. Shouldn't Nobel winners be at least unique?

At the start of the next section Alexievich tells us that the Chernobyl accident was "the main event of the 20th century, in spite of all the terrible wars and revolutions for which that century will be remembered". I'm chalking that up to chick logic. A certain quantity of pseudo-profound nonsense follows. I'm finally up against this year's Nobel prize winner's own voice. It's boring and pompous: "Chernobyl is a secret which we will still have to uncover. An unread sign. Perhaps a mystery for the twenty-first century. A challenge to it." Of course she's not talking about anything technical here - it's all hot air.

"The facts were simply not enough anymore, one was drawn to look beyond the facts, to get into the meaning of what was happening." Oh really? The carelessness she showed with the "facts" which she quoted at the start of this book suggests that she's simply bored by them instead.

She says that Chernobyl left everyone confused because throughout the ages the measure of horror was war. "We are in a new history, a history of catastrophes has begun." She is utterly devoid of any sense of historical perspective. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, epidemics - never happened. She goes on and on about the revolutionary newness of radiation's invisibility, but viruses have always been invisible too, and much more deadly.

After that there is another interview with a survivor, who compares Chernobyl to the horrors of WWII, which he had seen as a child.

By this time I got an idea of what this book is like - survivors' tales and the author's feelings about them. That's not terrible. I've skimmed through much worse books than that in my life, and lots of them. But it's not the kind of stuff I would have picked if I were a PC liberal on the Nobel Prize committee. There must be thousands of better liberal writers in the Russosphere.

I must say that the reminder that the bad guys are sometimes seriously inefficient offset some of the horror left in me by the book's vivid descriptions of radiation sickness.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

What Are Smart People LIke? Part II

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about what smart people are like. Today I'll talk about some things that I missed in it.

It seems to me that happiness, energy level and athleticism are uncorrelated with intelligence.

There is a stereotype that very smart people are likelier to go crazy than most. It definitely predates the movie A Beautiful Mind. Normally I have a lot of respect for stereotypes but I doubt that this one is true. The smart people I've known haven't gone crazy at a higher rate than average or stupid ones. Also, a lot of typical smart-guy behavior will seem crazy to normals even when it's not. Unusual hobbies, weird ideas about politics. This has probably fed that stereotype.

Some faces definitely look smarter than others, but smart people are much easier to tell by their voices. Many always sound ironic, even when they're trying to sound serious. The intonation changes more frequently and imparts more non-verbal information per word and per sentence than that of an average person's voice. In other words it's more complex.

Not all very smart people have the kind of voice I'm talking about it, just most. Smart women are as likely to have it as smart men. Unfortunately for civilization the typical male smart-ironic voice sounds less masculine than the average male voice.

Does high IQ get one any chicks? Well, it's positively correlated with wealth, which women like, and with nerdiness, which they don't. If we control for both of those variables, the answer is "no". As I explained in my first post on this subject, all women, even smart ones, are bored by all the topics to which intelligence can be usefully applied. So talking to a smart guy isn't any more interesting to a smart woman than talking to an average guy.

Smart men on the other hand definitely have a preference for smart women. First I know this because I know myself. Second, because of what I've seen among my friends and acquaintances. Third, rich smart guys, who can have anyone, tend to marry smart women.

Mark Zuckerberg's wife was voted class genius in high school, then was accepted by Harvard, which is harder for Asians than for others. Bill Gates's wife was a valedictorian in high school and got comp sci, economics and business degrees from Duke. Sergey Brin's ex-wife is a daughter of a Stanford professor emeritus in physics. She graduated from Yale and co-founded a very successful company.

If women are bored by all the topics to which high intelligence can be usefully applied, why do smart men prefer them to average women? I don't know. Because they want smarter children? Then why doesn't this logic work with women?

In my first post on this topic I said that above 90 IQ attractiveness becomes uncorrelated with intelligence. I really meant visual attractiveness. The smartest woman I've ever known was not visually attractive, but her smarts compensated for that somewhat.

Back to voices: smart people are greatly annoyed by those that sound stupid. It's a fingernails-on-chalkboard kind of reaction. I can't listen to any rap or R&B vocals because of this. Most country and pop music sounds awful to me for the same reason. I'm always shocked that anyone would pay money to hear some of that stuff. Yet they do. The window that this opens on the average person's mind is frightening.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

On Jewish Intelligence

The three most popular explanations of Jewish intelligence are the occupational, Talmudic and Levantine theories. This post is about their respective pros and cons.

The occupational theory implies that Jews came to Europe with an unremarkable mean IQ, got involved in commerce and banking and then got smarter while working in those professions.

One of this theory's assumptions is that banking and commerce select for intelligence more than farming or, say, blacksmithing do. To put it another way, this theory says that intelligence is more useful in commerce than in farming and that the advantage that a smart merchant has over unintelligent ones is greater than the advantage that a smart farmer has over unintelligent farmers.

Is this really true? It could be. The capacity for hard work could be more important than IQ in farming, and the two are not perfectly correlated. For example, it seems to me that in Mexico people of Spanish descent are both smarter and less hard-working than people of Amerindian descent. Southeast Asians and low-caste East Indians are two more examples of hardworking groups with modest mean IQs. Northern Italians are as smart as Germans, but probably less hard-working.

Why did Jews become involved in commerce after coming to Europe? Probably because they were a part of a wide diaspora. They had contacts all over the Mediterranean world and beyond. A wide network of contacts provides an advantage in commerce. OK, but Roman-era slave trade brought lots of Middle Easterners to the European parts of the empire. Pax Romana and good Roman roads led to a general mixing of peoples which created many diasporas. Why did Jews end up as the chief mercantile people of Europe and the Middle East then? Why not some other population?

Well, the other diasporas - Cappadocians, Bythinians, Parthians, etc. - didn't last in Europe. They disappeared when all of their European members accepted Christianity and assimilated into the general Christian melting pot of their particular place of residence.

OK, then why did a lot of Jews stick to their religion while everyone around them abandoned theirs in favor of Christianity or Islam? Most late pagan survivals were in hard-to-access areas like the Afghan and Kurdish mountains, the Caucasus, the Canary Islands, etc. Jews were the only ones who resisted conversion in easily-reached, urban environments. Why?

The fact that Jews were already monotheists when Christianity and Islam appeared on the scene could have been a factor. Monotheism is "stickier" than polytheism. People are more likely to want to fight for it. I'm not aware of any religious wars that were fought before the spread of monotheism, among polytheists. And all of the religious wars that have been fought between monotheists and polytheists (Charlemagne's Saxon campaigns, for example) were ultimately won by monotheists. They seem to have had more motivation. If you think that there's only one God in the Universe, then all other people's Gods will seem false to you. A polytheist might add some foreign God to his pantheon from time to time. A monotheist cannot. From his perspective polytheists and rival monotheists are wrong about the most fundamental issues in the Universe.

One can find historical instances of Jews being converted to Christianity (in 14th and 15th century Spain for example) and Islam (Sabbatai Zevi and his followers). But I think that this sort of thing is harder to do than converting polytheists to monotheism.

Why did monotheism arise among Jews earlier than among most peoples? The earliest known example of monotheism is Akhenaton's Aten cult in Egypt. Surprisingly in light of monotheism's later performance, the Aten cult wasn't sticky. Egyptians reverted to polytheism after Akhenaton's death. Canaan (a part of which later became Judea) was a vassal of Egypt during Akhenaton's lifetime. So its population would have been exposed to the Aten cult. But to a lesser extent than Egyptians. And the particular Jewish version of monotheism was born quite a few centuries after Akhenaten's death. In summary, I don't know why monotheism appeared among Jews earlier than among most peoples. This is where this particular line of inquiry breaks off. So let's start another one.

The Talmudic theory of Jewish intelligence emphasizes the fact that the nature of Judaism changed after the failure of Jewish revolts against Roman authority in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and most Jews were exiled from Judea in the aftermath of Roman victory. Proponents of the Talmudic theory say that before this happened Judaism revolved around sacrifices in the Temple. With the Temple destroyed, Judaism found another focus for itself in the study of religious and legal texts.

The Talmud was written after the failure of anti-Roman revolts and partly in exile. Its prose is complex and legalistic. The Talmudic theory of Jewish intelligence claims that over the following centuries those Jews who did not enjoy the close study of complicated legal texts left the religion. Those who liked it and were good at it stayed. It is certainly true that being proficient at the study and interpretation of scripture carries prestige in modern ultra-orthodox Jewish communities. Being descended from famous Talmudic scholars is a point of pride, as is having one's daughter marry one.

The biggest argument for the Talmudic theory is that modern Jewish intelligence is highly verbal and legalistic in nature. The other mercantile peoples of the world - the overseas Chinese, the Armenians, the Greeks (who are partly descended from Phanariots, hence all those shipping magnates) do not show the lopsided Jewish IQ profile where verbal intelligence far outscores the visio-spatial kind. They are not hugely overrepresented in the legal profession like Jews are, or among artists' and athletes' agents who have to draw up and understand complicated contracts.

Most Jewish contributions to STEM were in theory. There were no Jewish Edisons, Teslas, Wright Brothers, Korolyovs or Wozniaks. Tinkering with three-dimensional objects isn't very Jewish. I remember reading an interview with Einstein in which he was asked how his typical work day looked. He said that he stared at a blank piece of paper and thought. Sometimes he took a book from a bookcase, read from it, put it back, thought some more. Sometimes he wrote something down. THAT's Jewish.

Well, the contributions to STEM made by other mercantile minorities aren't concentrated in theory. Actually it's my impression that the children of overseas Chinese are drawn to engineering instead.

The best argument for the occupational theory is that the intelligence of Sephardic Jews seems to have decreased after their expulsion from Iberia to North Africa. High intelligence has costs - genetic diseases and probably other stuff too. Extra neurons require extra resources. Predators have exactly the size of teeth that they need - in the long run nature does not waste anything. Mammal species that come to live in the darkness gradually lose sight. Bird species that don't need to fly anymore gradually lose the ability to do it.

North Africans are less intelligent than Spaniards and Portuguese. Outsmarting them in business transactions is easier than outsmarting Europeans. So perhaps the intellectual capacity that was no longer needed gradually fell away.

A rival explanation of the intellectual decline of Sephardic Jews is that North Africans are more clannish than Iberians. I don't know if it's a good idea to fight fire with fire, but the best way to oppose clannishness is definitely with clannishness. It's certainly a better weapon for that purpose than intelligence. One might call this the it-takes-one-to-know-one theory of interethnic relations. The more clannish behavior of North Africans could have reduced the Sephardim's business opportunities. As they became less of a mercantile minority, their need for high intelligence would have decreased, and, as I said before, in the long run nature does not waste resources.

Both of the explanations for the intellectual decline of Sephardic Jews that I'm aware of imply that the occupational, mercantile theory of Jewish intelligence is correct. But Jews' high verbal intelligence compared with other mercantile peoples implies that the Talmudic theory is correct. Of course both could be correct. Several causes could have contributed to the observed outcome.

The third, Levantine theory of Jewish intelligence starts with the fact that the main mercantile minority of the 1200 BC - 200 BC period in the Mediterranean were Phoenicians. They were close cousins and neighbors of ancient Israelites. From what I understand, the two languages were mutually intelligible in Old Testament times. "Phoenicians" is a Greek term. They actually called themselves Canaanites. Israelites started off as a subset of Canaanites, the hicks from Canaan's southern uplands, but then developed unusual religious theories of their own and split off into an endogamous community. The remaining Canaanites, the people of what's now coastal Lebanon, were both more cosmopolitan and more culturally conservative than the Israelites. Which is unusual. They kept the ancestral Semitic polytheistic religion and the ancestral demonym "Canaan" much longer than the Jews.

Jews did not display many outward signs of high IQ until the appearance of Radhanites in the second half of the first millennium AD. Yet their close cousins Phoenicians dominated Mediterranean commerce 2,000 years before that. Could that be a coincidence? Phoenicians' closest living descendants, Levantine Christians, are pretty good at business. Everyone who follows Steve Sailer's blog is aware of Carlos Slim and Tony Rezko, but more importantly than that the Christian community of Lebanon is much wealthier than local Muslim communities. Levantine Christian immigrants to the West assimilate very quickly. They and car-be-queing Algerians of the French banlieues might as well come from different planets.

I've once seen someone suggest that modern Jews descend from Phoenicians more than from ancient Israelites. He thought that the Phoenician mercantile diaspora could have converted to Judaism en masse during the centuries right before or right after the start of the Christian era. Why? Because monotheism usually trumps polytheism and because the particular Jewish kind of monotheism drew on Canaanite folklore and was expressed in a language that Phoenicians and Carthaginians understood.

I'm not aware of any evidence that this actually happened, but it would certainly explain some things. Fortunately modern genetic techniques have made this hypothesis testable.

I think that the first two theories, the occupational and the Talmudic, could probably explain Jewish intelligence together. It's possible that Jews also inherited some amount of business acumen from ancient (I'm talking about 2nd millenium BC) Canaanites. The idea of the Phoenician diaspora converting to Judaism in Roman times is a lot of fun, but I think it's a bit too crazy to be true.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Thoughts on the GOP Race

A few years ago I wrote a post about nerdy politicians. Politics is full of glad-handing and back-slapping, yet there have always been a lot of nerds in it. It recently came to my attention that one type of human that's rare in the top reaches of that profession is the bitch. Yes, this is a post about Carly Fiorina.

I used to watch C-SPAN a lot, so I think I have a pretty good understanding of what kinds of people win elections in America. Thinking back I can't recall many females among them that came off cattier than the average woman on the street. Many are matronly, some school-marmish. The Nice White Lady is common in the halls of power. Sarah Palin is kind of a cool mom type. I don't think any of them are as bitchy as Fiorina though.

Moving off-shore, Thatcher was emotionally cold, but not catty, I don't think. Merkel is bland. It seems that people just won't vote for obvious bitches. Every time you get ready to turn sour on humanity you discover some redeeming feature of it that you haven't noticed before. This is one of those.

I remember John Kerry's wife being described as a bitch and I have a feeling that Nancy Reagan might be one, but they haven't won any elections. Interestingly, people are quite willing to support bitchy entertainers. Madonna, Courtney Love, Whitney Houston, etc. "Divas". But politics is different.

Based on the above Fiorina doesn't have much of a chance. Who does? Jeb. Republicans are more patriarchal than Democrats, so they nominate the establishment candidate, the guy whose turn it is this year, more often. Rubio has a small chance, even though he looks like a puppy. Kasich has a small chance. Unfortunately I don't think that Trump is going to win. This race has always been Jeb's to lose.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Middle Eastern Admixture in Roman-era Italy

Yesterday I learned via the Race/History/Evolution Notes blog about a new study that showed that roughly a third of southern Italian and Tuscan genetic ancestry came from the Middle East in Roman times.

Early admixture involving source groups most similar to contemporary populations from in and around the Levant (which we define as the World Region containing individuals from Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi, Yemen and Egypt) is seen at high proportions in several clusters from Italy dating to the first half of the first millennium CE, from Southern Italy (itali8: 295CE (72BCE-604CE); α = 0.34), Tuscany (tsi23: 400CE(30BCE-686); α = 0.29), and Sardinia, as well as in a large cluster from Armenia at an early date (armen27: 363BCE(1085BCE-383CE)). [. . .] these events loosely coincide with the formation of the pan-Mediterranean Roman Empire [S?], which may also have allowed increased gene flow from east to west Mediterranean

I've written about this in my review of Robert Graves's I, Claudius. Years ago I came upon an article whose author used grave inscription statistics to claim that the early-Roman-era population of Italy was partially replaced in imperial times by Middle Eastern slaves. 

I've read lots of contradictory historical claims in my life. Why did I believe that one? Because it fit other data. Rome experienced a gradual shift from a typically-European political setup (popular assemblies, elections, debates, term limits) to a typically-Middle Eastern one (the worship of the absolute monarch as a God). At the same time its native religion was to a large extent replaced with Middle Eastern ones (Mithraism, Christianity, the Cybele cult, Egyptian Gods), which then fought it out against each other for supremacy with well-known results. 

The quote above states that the study measured the admixture from a region that includes "Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi, Yemen and Egypt". Why didn't they include Turkey? Anatolia was an enormously important part of the ancient Med world and a large source of slaves for the Romans. I'm guessing that the admixture result would have been higher if Turkey was included. And, now that I think of it, where are Libya, Algeria and Tunisia (the ancient Africa and Numidia)? Also, the amount of Middle Eastern ancestry in Italy must have been decreased somewhat by the Germanic invasions of the 400 AD - 800 AD period. 

I'm interested in this partly because I'm a product of this mixture myself and partly because it can shed light on the history of civilization. Greece also gradually went from a typically-European political setup to a typically-Middle Eastern one. It also imported Middle Eastern slaves, starting after Alexander's conquest. And a couple of centuries after that conquest Greece's mathematical and proto-scientific progress stopped. Which is the same thing as saying that the quality of its intellectual life gradually merged with that of the Near East. 

Based on all of that I feel confident in predicting that genetic studies will show (maybe they've already shown it and I just don't know it) that modern Greeks have even less to do with classic-era Greeks than modern Italians have to do with the Italians of the time of the Roman Republic. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Second GOP Debate

Like last time, I liked Rand Paul the most. He said that Iran wouldn't have gotten stronger if the US didn't overthrow Saddam, that if Obama bombed Assad a few years ago, ISIS would now be in Damascus and that every time America topples a secular Middle Eastern dictator, civil war and theocracy take his place. This was an enormous contrast to the general craziness of the evening. To a question about US ground troops in Syria he said "you'll have to look to the other 14 candidates for that. There will always be a Bush or a Clinton for you if you want that."

Of course he had to spoil this by favoring the decriminalization of pot - how I hate libertardery! But war and peace are more important. Rand made the least effort to fake sincerity, coming off as a smart-ass who was bored by everyone else's phoniness. I don't think that's a pose. Cruz may or may not be smarter, and his sincerity may have even been real, but he was still painful to watch. If Robin Williams were alive, he would have probably refused opportunities to parody Cruz as being too easy.

Carly Fiorina's bitchiness quotient must be at least a standard deviation above Hillary's. There's also something wrong with her mouth. I used to watch CNBC a lot, so I know that it looked normal while she was running HP into the ground. So it's plastic surgery, not a birth defect. Why am I being mean to an old woman? Cause she wants to bomb half the world into smithereens.

At one point the Donald was being playfully patronizing to Jeb. Jeb made a bid for the upper hand by raising his voice, talking over Trump and staring at him militantly from his greater height. Trump cranked up the patronizing tone in response: "excuse me, excuse me?" meaning "are you kidding me? from THIS guy?" [NY outer boroughs shoulder shrug]. Bush raised his voice further, drowning Trump out.

During the breaks CNN was running an ad for a movie about the man who walked a tight rope between the old Twin Towers. I was thinking "is Trump gonna slip now, is this the end? He IS 69, so it's not impossible."

The Donald stepped back and said quietly (which was by then a relaxed contrast to Jeb's shouting), even more patronizingly (which I had not known was possible) and lethally, "more energy this time, I like it, I like it." The patting of the loser on the back and the insincere words of encouragement to him about him maybe getting better at this some day were merely implied. That was the coolest moment of the whole debate.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Artistic Preferences

My favorite novelist is, without a question, Kingsley Amis. I should record here how I first came upon his works.

Sometime in the late 1990s I saw his son Martin talking about literature on C-SPAN. He's a brilliant guy, so when I later saw his autobiography on sale, I got curious and bought it. In spite of his smarts Martin turned out to be a terrible writer. And I'm not basing that judgement solely on his bio. I've also looked through Money, Other People and his historical work Koba the Dread. But I did get something really, really useful out of that autobiography. He mentioned his father in it a lot. And in a way that made me curious.

If you're going to try Kingsley's novels, you should probably start with Lucky Jim, his first and most famous one. But I wouldn't say that it's the best one. I don't know what the best one is. He maintained a shockingly high level of quality for more than 35 years. In some moods I think that One Fat Englishman is the best. In others that it's The Green Man. You Can't Do Both, Take a Girl Like You, Difficulties with Girls, The Old Devils, The Biographer's Mustache, The Russian Girl, Girl, 20 are all masterpieces. Stylistically speaking his Memoirs are the best non-fiction book I've ever read. And it's great content-wise too - he knew a lot of interesting people.

Kinglsey's main themes were the hatred of pretension, crankiness (even in young age) and guilt. When I tried writing a novel myself, I ended up unconsciously imitating his style. I don't do that anymore. First I wasn't any good at it and second it was very difficult and time-consuming. I spent dozens of hours per page, giving up after about 30 pages.

In general if you want to get in touch with genius, literature is a pretty good vehicle. Very few people know what exactly it took to come up with particular scientific or technological advances. The discoverer himself, a few of his rivals. To begin with, an outsider wouldn't know what the level of knowledge was before the contribution was made.

But smart people like reading for fun and a certain percentage of them eventually say "I could do that too". And unless they're very pretentious the end result will be accessible to reasonably smart laymen.

Other novelists I like a lot:

Evelyn Waugh, specifically Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief and Scoop. I reviewed Brideshead Revisited on this blog, and unfortunately it wasn't very good.

P. G. Wodehouse. I've read three of his Jeeves and Wooster novels - Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, Right Ho, Jeeves and Jeeves in the Morning. They were all brilliant.

Patrick O'Brien. I explained the reasons here. (It would be best to start reading that from the bottom).

My acquaintance with Russian fiction mostly comes from school. I liked Chekhov's short stories the most in those years. I've looked at them as an adult and I still think they're great.

I've written some bad English poetry, but I haven't read as much of the good kind as I would like. Kipling was the best practitioner of it that I'm aware of. If you're curious about what his best stuff was like, this is representative.

On to music. I'm very sure that the best period was Baroque, but it's difficult for me to name the best piece or even the best composer. I've spent a lot of time learning Bach's Little Fugue on the piano but it's not because I think it's his best. The piano was invented during the Baroque period, but it didn't become popular until after it ended. Because of that very few Baroque pieces were written for it. The Little Fugue was written for the organ but for some reason fits the piano very well, and that's the main reason I'm learning it.

Vivaldi's Four Seasons is a contender for the title of the best, but while the manual dexterity in this video is stunning, the result is still much worse than the original orchestral version.

The best 20th-century songwriter I know of was Paul McCartney, followed by Paul Simon. "John or Paul" is a good test of whether or not you like music for its own sake. Lennon was more alpha, which people like, and more political, which helped musicians at that time, but if I had to come up with a list of 100 best 20th-century songwriters, he wouldn't be on it.

Again, no favorite song, either of McCartney's or from the 20th century in general. I'm putting Paul on top because he wrote more great songs than anyone else that I'm aware of, not because one of them is my favorite of all time. I can't really pick a favorite. Yesterday, Blackbird, Eleanor Rigby, Let It Be, Here, There, Everywhere, For No One, I Will, Penny Lane, When I'm 64, She's Leaving Home, I'll Follow the Sun, Golden Slumbers, Another Day, Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey, Maybe I'm Amazed, The Mull of Kintyre, No More Lonely Nights, Calico Skies and lots of others are great. Some, like Yesterday or I Will, seem perfect. Some have flaws - for example the backing vocals in Here, There, Everywhere sound cheesy, and McCartney's voice is perhaps a little too sweet on it, yet the melody could be the best one I've ever heard.

The idea that Paul's genius died with the Beatles is wrong. The number of great songs per decade gradually declined, but their quality didn't. Beautiful Night, for example, is as good as his best Beatles songs.

The visual arts:

The best TV shows I know of are old British sitcoms. Faulty Towers, the first season of Blackadder, the Young Ones and the Jeeves and Wooster series with Fry and Laurie stand out in my mind the most. Favorite episodes are the one where Blackadder is married to the Spanish Infanta and the one where Basil Fawlty hires builders to work on his hotel. Unfortunately the first of those has disappeared from YouTube.

I've never liked movies. I think I've seen three in the last year, two of them pretty much against my will. So my judgments about them are based on near-total ignorance. I remember liking Trainspotting a lot. The fact that it made drug addiction look kind of cool is immoral, but it was a fun movie. Office Space, Mike Judge's first movie, was very funny. The Monty Python movies were brilliant.

My father's main hobby was painting, so I grew up around lots of art albums and constant talk of art. Consequently I'm more sure about my judgements here than in other fields.

I think that the best period was Impressionism, but the best painter was Van Gogh, who's classified as a Post-Impressionist. Rembrandt's late self-portraits are famous for a very good reason. On to the stuff that not everyone might know about:

The best 20th-century painter that I'm aware of was Hugo Pratt. Here's the Google image result for "Hugo Pratt aquarelles". I have a big album of those at home, and there are many stunning ones in it that seem to be absent from the Internet. If I ever get around to reviewing it on this blog, I should scan some in as a public service. The colors, compositions and characters are... there are words for this.

Pratt made money with comic books. I've checked them out. Artistically they're much worse than his aquarelles and the story lines are childish - just what you'd expect from the medium. The aquarelles though amaze me every time I look at them.

Gothic cathedrals are likely the best architecture that's ever been done. I'm curious about the intellectual history of the world. The Middle Ages are often seen as a great civilization wasteland, and this is mostly true. Yet Gothic architecture was born in the 12th century. It's subtle, beautiful and unlike anything that came before it. No stylistic connection to the Greco-Roman world, for example. If you forget technology and concentrate on how things make you feel instead, it appears to have been something entirely new for the time. It's very difficult to come up with things that are both new and good in the arts. And there haven't been any new things of that level of quality since then, not in architecture. It just doesn't fit the usual assumptions about the Middle Ages.

The best sculptor I know of was Arno Breker. There's a problem here: he worked for Hitler and I'm Jewish. Well, first it's art. He didn't shoot anybody. Second, if one wants to hate all the things that Hitler promoted more than other politicians of his time, one would have to hate environmentalism, vegetarianism, laws against animal cruelty, anti-smoking legislation and lots of other stuff. I think he was fond of Viennese pastries too. One can draw a line between mass murder and the stuff that just happened contemporaneously with it.

Breker did not get the same sort of post-war pass as the VW Beetle because some of his art portrays what one might call superior man. And I understand the politics behind that. But the question of whether or not it's beautiful is separate from that. Humans have been sculpting for 40,000 years and as far as I know, he might have been the best one at it ever.