Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Tuesday Night Links

  • Measured by growing stock, the United States enjoyed its forest transition around 1950, and, measured by area, about 1990. The forest transition began around 1900, when states such as Connecticut had almost no forest, and now encompasses dozens of states. The thick green cover of New England, Pennsylvania, and New York today would be unrecognizable to Teddy Roosevelt, who knew them as wheat fields, pastures mown by sheep, and hillsides denuded by logging. The forest transition, like peak farmland, involves forces of both supply and demand. Foresters manage the supply better through smarter harvesting and replanting. Simply shifting from harvesting in cool slow-growing forests to warmer faster-growing ones can make a difference. A hectare of cool US forest adds about 3.6 cubic meters of wood per year, while a hectare of warm US forest adds 7.4. A shift in the US harvest between 1976 and 2001 from cool regions to the warm Southeast decreased logged area from 17.8 to 14.7 million hectares, a decrease of 3.1 million hectares, far more than either the 0.9 million hectares of Yellowstone Park or 1.3 million of Connecticut. [Jesse H. Ausubel]
  • In a cogent sense, I have spent, at this writing, about eighty-eight years preparing for Wordle. I work with words, I am paid by the word, I majored in English, and today I major in Wordle. On the remote chance that someone in the English-speaking world who is unfamiliar with Wordle ever happens upon this essay, I should explain that Wordle is a simple, straightforward online game. Each day, a five-letter word is hiding in the cloud, and you have six guesses to name it. On a grid five squares wide and six rows high, you enter your first guess. If your first guess is correct, it was something like a fifteen-thousand-to-one shot and feels like winning a lottery. Wordle responds to your first guess by filling in the background of each of your letters with one of three colors. The background turns charcoal gray if the letter is not part of the day’s secret word, yellow if the letter is in the word but not in that position, and green if the letter is right for the position it is in. [John McPhee]
  • When Bill was at Oxford, studying P.P.E. (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics) as a Rhodes Scholar, he not only played basketball for the university but also flew to Italy to play professionally for a Milanese meatpacker called Simmenthal. In his second Oxford year, he wrote to me asking that I go to Trenton and buy from the state government a book titled “New Jersey Civil Practice Laws and Rules.” I sent it to Oxford. Widely predicted to be a future governor of Missouri, Bill was weaving the first threads of a carpetbag. [John McPhee]
  • Altman has added to his startup stakes by drawing on a debt line from JPMorgan Chase, his longtime personal bank, allowing him to pour hundreds of millions of dollars more into private companies. Altman’s strategy, not previously reported, is rare among venture capitalists given the volatile nature of startup investing, where high percentages of young companies go bust. Taking on such personal levels of debt is a risky gamble. [WSJ
  • Each block on the diagonal of this graph represents a person, or a family, whose only “identity” in 2024 is this transient echo of their genes. All traces of their name, their birthplace, their life, hopes, dreams, loves, and losses are lost forever. In all probability, they lived and died in a community that didn’t produce any kind of written records. But with technology and math we can find the echo of their existence in the relatedness of a few hundred living descendants today. Even though I did this work in about 2019, I was reminded of it recently because of my work on the scroll prize and the question of how much of our lost past can be recovered with statistics and skill. Even though this sort of genetic analysis extends some limited genealogical knowledge about a century beyond paper records in NW Europe, it has its limitations. Every generation scrambles the data and cuts the signal by a factor of two. [Casey Handmer]
  • Mortality rates in the United States fell more rapidly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than in any other period in American history. This decline coincided with an epidemiological transition and the disappearance of a mortality "penalty" associated with living in urban areas. There is little empirical evidence and much unresolved debate about what caused these improvements, however. In this article, we report the causal influence of clean water technologies--filtration and chlorination--on mortality in major cities during the early twentieth century. Plausibly exogenous variation in the timing and location of technology adoption was used to identify these effects, and the validity of this identifying assumption is examined in detail. We found that clean water was responsible for nearly half the total mortality reduction in major cities, three quarters of the infant mortality reduction, and nearly two thirds of the child mortality reduction. [David M. Cutler and Grant Miller]
  • The access capitalist enjoys a number of advantages over his progenitor, the Washington lobbyist. For a start, he stands to become very rich, very quickly. The lawyer-lobbyist merely rents his influence. The access capitalist effectively sells the present value of all his influence, in perpetuity, each time he makes a phone call. What’s more, the access capitalist can plausibly represent himself as a higher social type—a businessperson rather than an influence-peddler—which gives him an edge if he decides to return to politics. But perhaps best of all for those who have spent their lives in politics, the access capitalist doesn’t really need to know much about business. Wall Street has proved brutal to the many beginners, such as David Stockman and Larry Speakes, who have gone there to work from Washington. That true capitalism requires something more than connections is the source of Carlyle’s appeal: only a merchant bank that trades more on whom one knows rather than on what one knows can provide a real home for the access capitalist. [The New Republic]

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