Category Archives: Clippings

How old is the tale of the smith and the devil?

Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales

Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani

Ancient population expansions and dispersals often leave enduring signatures in the cultural traditions of their descendants, as well as in their genes and languages. The international folktale record has long been regarded as a rich context in which to explore these legacies. To date, investigations in this area have been complicated by a lack of historical data and the impact of more recent waves of diffusion. In this study, we introduce new methods for tackling these problems by applying comparative phylogenetic methods and autologistic modelling to analyse the relationships between folktales, population histories and geographical distances in Indo-European-speaking societies. We find strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance. Moreover, we show that these oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record, and find evidence that one tale (‘The Smith and the Devil’) can be traced back to the Bronze Age. On a broader level, the kinds of stories told in ancestral societies can provide important insights into their culture, furnishing new perspectives on linguistic, genetic and archaeological reconstructions of human prehistory.

Canons of good spin

Dan Dennet’s canons of good spin (heard in Reverse-engineering Religion):

  • It is not a bare-faced lie
  • You have to be able to say it with a straight face
  • It has to relieve skepticism without arousing curiosity
  • It should seem profound

Literature: fantasy vs. realism

…judged by the standards of fantasy, modernist realist fiction, with its narrow focus on daily details of contemporary human affairs, is suffocating and unimaginative, almost unavoidably trivial, and ominously anthropocentric.

(Ursula K. Le Guin, The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists)

Size doesn’t matter; age does

John Haltiwanger, Ron S. Jarmin, and Javier Miranda, “Who Creates Jobs? Small versus Large versus Young”, The Review of Economics and Statistics, May 2013, Vol. 95, No. 2, Pages 347-361.


The view that small businesses create the most jobs remains appealing to policymakers and small business advocates. Using data from the Census Bureau’s Business Dynamics Statistics and Longitudinal Business Database, we explore the many issues at the core of this ongoing debate. We find that the relationship between firm size and employment growth is sensitive to these issues. However, our main finding is that once we control for firm age, there is no systematic relationship between firm size and growth. Our findings highlight the important role of business start-ups and young businesses in U.S. job creation.

The entire article is here.

How much connectivity is too much?

From InfoWorld:

Researchers: Having too many connections weakens networks

By Joab Jackson

When it comes to connecting networks or other systems together, it is best to have many, but not too many, connections, mathematicians have found.

Administrators and network engineers have long assumed that the more connections they insert between multiple networks, the more resilient the communications between these networks will be. The Internet, for example, derives much of its resiliency from multiple, redundant links. But this is true only up to a point. Too many connections can actually be dangerous, because failures in one network can easily cascade to the other, noted Charles Brummitt, a mathematics researcher at the University of California, Davis, who led a team that looked into this issue.

Instead, network owners should fine-tune the number of connections for maximum resiliency, Brummitt said.

Brummitt’s team published its work in this week’s issue of the “Proceedings of The National Academies of Science.”

The work is a mathematical model of how a collection of systems works together. “We’re taking a larger view and studying networks of networks,” he said. Interconnected networks can be vulnerable to cascading failures, in which a failure, or overload, in one network can disrupt another network. In a typical scenario, when one network is overloaded, it will offload its traffic to the second network. But if a failure is enough to overwhelm the first network, it may overwhelm the second network as well.

“There are some benefits to opening connections to another network. When your network is under stress, the neighboring network can help you out. But in some cases, the neighboring network can be volatile and make your problems worse. There is a trade-off,” Brummitt said. “We are trying to measure this trade-off and find what amount of interdependence among different networks would minimize the risk of large, spreading failures.”

The study, also available in draft form (PDF) at ArXiv, primarily studied interlocked power grids but could apply to computer networks and interconnected computer systems as well, the authors note. The work could influence thinking on issues such as how to best deal with DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attacks, which can take down individual servers and nearby routers, causing traffic to be rerouted to nearby networks. Balancing workloads across multiple cloud computing services could be another area where the work would apply.

“As a first theoretical step, it’s very nice work,” said Cris Moore, a professor in the computer science department at the University of New Mexico. Moore was not involved in the project. “They found a sweet spot in the middle,” between too much connectivity and not enough, he said. “If you have some interconnection between clusters but not too much, then [the clusters] can help each other bear a load, without causing avalanches [of work] sloshing back and forth.”

Of course, one of the largest networks of networks is the Internet. For the Internet, backbone providers peer with one another, or connect their networks together, which allows Internet traffic to move seamlessly from source to destination. Much has been made about the Internet’s natural resiliency in the face of disaster. But is it as resilient as it could be?

“That’s a thorny question,” Brummitt admitted. “I don’t think we are in a position to make any guesses. Even understanding the network structure of the Internet is a problem in itself. But the Internet has proved to be rather resilient. So far, it seems like the Internet is not too interdependent. But this is speculative.”

Social Security: a view from the past

Paul Krugman writes:

…in discussions of Social Security it’s often argued that in the program’s early years, nobody could have imagined the increases in life expectancy that have actually occurred, so nobody could have imagined that we’d have as many beneficiaries relative to the number of people of working age. And I thought I knew that this was wrong — that people in the 30s and 40s did know about rising life expectancy, and expected it to continue.

Well, it turns out that Table 9 in the 1945 report (pdf) shows high and low estimates of the population distribution looking forward as far as 2000, which we can compare with the actual population distribution in 2000.

What you can see right away is that the SSA expected a much smaller population than we actually ended up with — the baby boom and immigration weren’t anticipated. But they also expected a somewhat older population than we actually got: their “low” estimate put the ratio of seniors to adults under 65 at 20.8%, almost the same as the actual 21.1%, while the “high” estimate put the ratio at 29.1%. That is, in 1945 the Trustees thought that America would probably be a grayer, older country by 2000 than it actually ended up being.

All this has only limited bearing on the future, as we move into an even older country. But it’s still interesting, at least insofar as it debunks a common Beltway legend.

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Smart Grid in China

From Institutional Investor:

Investors Want to Plug Into China’s Smart-Grid Market

01 Apr 2010
Xiang Ji

Beijing’s massive conversion to a smart power grid could just one-up the rest of the world. Savvy entrepreneurs and investors are looking to get a piece of the green action.

When Beijing announced a $585 billion stimulus package in November 2008, Jeffrey Kang spotted an opportunity. The package’s vast investment mandates included one aimed at upgrading the country’s electricity distribution system to a smart grid that would use high-tech meters to precisely match supply with demand in households and offices. The energy savings would be an obvious boon for the planet — but savvy entrepreneurs and investors like Kang also wanted a piece of the green action.

China Electricity Council, a national power industry association, estimates that total spending on the smart grid will hit $40 billion by 2011, although the entire project likely won’t be completed until 2020. An estimated 300 million old electricity meters are to be replaced by smart meters that encourage lower energy use by displaying usage prominently. The meters can also track household energy patterns and adjust distribution accordingly.

The whole smart-grid system — comprising ultrahigh-voltage transmission lines, sensors and smart meters, all connected through computer networks — enhances energy efficiency not only by matching supply and demand, but also by more efficiently managing intermittent renewable energy sources.

Entrepreneurs and investors see great prospects in the conversion to a smart grid. Kang, who is CEO of Nasdaq-listed, Shenzhen-based module supplier Cogo Group, signed a deal in April 2009 to acquire China’s Mega Smart Group, a supplier of parts for smart-meter makers. Kang estimates the deal will generate $20 million in sales in the first year, or about 7 percent of Cogo’s total revenue. And that’s only the start. “Smart meters will be a key driver in our growth going forward,” says Kang. Just last month Yale University said it had invested in Redwood City, California’s Silver Spring Networks, a smart-meter manufacturer planning an IPO in 2010.

SBI Energy, a Rockville, Maryland–based market research firm, forecasts that the smart-grid market will grow from $90 billion in 2009 to $171 billion in 2014. SBI says government and corporate mandates to convert to climate-friendly energy systems will drive the boom.

Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, a Menlo Park, California–based venture capital firm, predicts that the world’s electricity grid will eventually be set up “so that smart transformers are feeding information to smart way stations and talking to smart meters.” VC firms’ interest in smart grids emerged only recently, with investments as of last year totaling $414 million. By contrast, solar power has attracted $1.2 billion of VC funds, according to consulting firm Cleantech Group.

London-based VC firm WHEB Ventures not long ago made a capital injection of an undisclosed sum in PassivSystems, a Berkshire, U.K., company that makes energy management systems that fit into smart grids. “Though it’s still in early stages, smart grid represents a potentially vast global market,” says Megan Bingham-Walker, an associate at WHEB Ventures, which manages £114 million ($170.2 million). President Barack Obama last October granted $3.4 billion in stimulus money to develop smart-grid technology and install upgraded meters in the U.S.; utilities are to match these funds. Europe, meanwhile, has mandated that 20 percent of its energy must come from renewable sources by 2020.

Still, investors looking to plug directly into the smart-grid market may find it difficult to do so. For instance, Robert Metcalfe, a partner at Polaris Venture Partners, a $3 billion, Waltham, Massachusetts–based private equity firm, has been screening energy-management software developers but has yet to write a check. “One of the challenges is that there is no standard to root for, making it hard to recognize the winner,” he laments.

Paul Krugman on the problems of common currency

The pain in Spain…

…isn’t hard to explain. Spain was basically Florida, with a housing bubble inflated by both resident and holiday purchases, and now the bubble has burst.

But Spain is in worse shape than Florida, for two reasons — reasons familiar to anyone who was involved in the great debate about whether the euro was a good idea.

First, Europe doesn’t have a central government; Spain, unlike Florida, can’t draw on Social Security and Medicare checks from Washington. So the burden of recession falls entirely on the local budget — hence the country’s declining credit rating.

Second, the United States has a more or less geographically integrated labor market: workers move from distressed regions to those with better prospects. (The housing bust has, however, reduced mobility because people can’t sell their houses.) Europe does not: yes, there’s a fair bit of mobility both among the elite and among low-wage workers at the bottom, but nothing like the US level.

So what can Spain do? It needs to become more competitive — but it can’t have a devaluation, because it’s a euro country. So the only alternative is wage cuts, which are desperately hard to achieve (and create big problems for debtors.

Contrary to what everyone seemed to be saying even a few weeks ago, being a member of the eurozone doesn’t immunize countries against crisis. In Spain’s case (and Italy’s, and Ireland’s, and Greece’s) the euro may well be making things worse.

And Britain’s plunging pound, unpopular though it is, may turn out to have been a very good thing.