Photo of the day

Love this idea— abandoned Olympic facilities.  Some on the page are really old, so it seems reasonable.  But wow, are there a lot of white elephants from Athens 2004.

2004 Helliniko Olympic Softball Stadium — Athens, Greece

Jamie McGregor Smith: Borrow, Build, Abandon – Athenian Adventures in Concrete and Steel

Immigration consensus

Despite how polarized are politics have become, on a lot of issues Americans’ issue positions aren’t actually as far apart as you think (I’m actually in the middle of reviewing a really interesting political science manuscript about this matter)  Anyway, over at Wonkblog Dan Hopkins has a nice guest post about this fact in relation to immigration:

Ongoing research that MIT’s Jens Hainmueller and I have conducted shows that among voters, there is a striking level of agreement about which immigrants to admit to the U.S.  In a nationally representative survey conducted in December of 2011 and January of 2012, we asked respondents to look at pairs of hypothetical immigrants to the U.S. and then indicate which of the two they wanted to see admitted.

The design of the survey forced everyone to make a choice. For each pairing, we randomly varied nine attributes of the immigrant profiles, so that a respondent might find herself choosing between a Mexican gardener with a high school education and a Chinese child care provider with two years of college…

We see, for example, that having a college degree makes an immigrant about 20 percentage points more likely to be admitted, and that being a doctor has a positive effect of about the same magnitude.  The figure also makes clear that speaking fluent English carries a marked advantage, while having no plans to work once in the country puts an immigrant at a pronounced disadvantage.  The image of the hard-working immigrant resonates not just in politicians’ speeches but in Americans’ attitudes as well.  It’s as if our respondents are acting like the nation’s Human Resources department, screening for immigrants who would contribute economically…

And contrary to the perception that the American public is politically divided about which immigrants to admit, Democrats and Republicans exhibit strikingly similar preferences, as the following chart shows.

This chart below is big, but it’s really kind of amazing.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chart with less difference between Democrats and Republicans:

And here’s the very clear conclusion:

When it comes to the question of the types of immigrants to be admitted, there is a hidden American immigration consensus, one that crosses party lines.  From these results, it seems clear that Americans would be likely to support a more skill-based immigration system, such as the one employed at the federal level in Canada.

Of course, the killer is, somehow we’re not able to do this policy-wise.  The American people support it.  It obviously makes sense from a cost-benefit perspective, but the politics currently don’t seem to allow it.  As I’m sure I mentioned before, it used to drive me crazy that my Canadian friend with a PhD in physiology and expertise in statistics that he put to work on developing new drugs had to struggle mightily to get a green card and was in constant fear of deportment (actually just got a green card this month, I believe).

Humanity in the petri dish

Sometime back friend and reader Damon included a link to this amazing article in comments.  I’ve been meaning to give it the most it deserves, but been a little slow on it.  Now is the perfect time.  Why?  Chances are good you are not working the day after Thanksgiving and have time to read the whole thing (long, but most definitely worth it) rather than just my summary.

The author, Charles Mann, wrote 1493 (about how the biological mingling of old and new world had myriad profound implications), probably my favorite book I read last year.  The basic gist of this piece is that the best analogy for humanity right now is like bacteria that has grown explosively in a petri dish, but has now reached the edges of the petri dish.  Mann covers a vast array of science from anthropology, to agriculture, to microbiology, to entomology, to environmental science, etc., and weaves them all together to tell a great story about humanity (kind of like his book, actually).  I was actually familiar with much of the information from other reading, but Mann brought it all together into a new, and much more interesting coherent whole.

To me, two parts were especially interesting.  1) The genetic bottleneck where humankind almost died out:

About 75,000 years ago, a huge volcano exploded on the island of Sumatra…

In the long run, the eruption raised Asian soil fertility. In the short term, it was catastrophic. Dust hid the sun for as much as a decade, plunging the earth into a years-long winter accompanied by widespread drought. A vegetation collapse was followed by a collapse in the species that depended on vegetation, followed by a collapse in the species that depended on the species that depended on vegetation. Temperatures may have remained colder than normal for a thousand years. Orangutans, tigers, chimpanzees, cheetahs—all were pushed to the verge of extinction.

At about this time, many geneticists believe, Homo sapiens’ numbers shrank dramatically, perhaps to a few thousand people—the size of a big urban high school. [emphasis mine] The clearest evidence of this bottleneck is also its main legacy: humankind’s remarkable genetic uniformity. Countless people have viewed the differences between races as worth killing for, but compared to other primates—even compared to most other mammals—human beings are almost indistinguishable, genetically speaking.

Of all the facts/anecdotes in the study of human origins, that one just always blows me away.  I also really enjoyed reading about humanity’s “great leap forward” (a frequent topic in Robert Sawyer’s science fiction, which I much enjoy):

Our species had so little capacity for innovation that archaeologists have found almost no evidence of cultural or social change during our first 100,000 years of existence. Equally important, for almost all that time these early humans were confined to a single, small area in the hot, dry savanna of East Africa (and possibly a second, still smaller area in southern Africa).

But now jump forward 50,000 years. East Africa looks much the same. So do the humans in it—but suddenly they are drawing and carving images, weaving ropes and baskets, shaping and wielding specialized tools, burying the dead in formal ceremonies, and perhaps worshipping supernatural beings. They are wearing clothes—lice-filled clothes, to be sure, but clothes nonetheless. Momentously, they are using language. And they are dramatically increasing their range. Homo sapiens is exploding across the planet.

What caused this remarkable change? By geologists’ standards, 50,000 years is an instant, a finger snap, a rounding error. Nonetheless, most researchers believe that in that flicker of time, favorable mutations swept through our species, transforming anatomically modern humans into behaviorally modern humans.

Why that great leap forward?  There’s much debate, but most all the answers are based on that evolutionary bottleneck.

Okay, that’s enough.  Now find some time this weekend and read the whole piece.

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