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when cross-disciplinary studies go bad

I have long respected the work of the Santa Fe Institute, home to “multidisciplinary collaborations in the physical, biological, computational, and social sciences” in pursuit of an “understanding of complex adaptive systems,” which are found everywhere from cells to cities. I was therefore disappointed by a recent article on Santa Fe Institute President Geoffrey West, who appears to believe that mankind is on the path to “imminent destruction” (to his credit, those are the journalist’s words, not his.) Beyond the sensational conclusion, I was put off by the surprisingly questionable logic employed by the theoretical physicist and the disconnect between his conclusions and reality.
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Filed under: General Welfare

the city: good for migrants, bad for genes?

Arnold Kling and Richard Florida have recently started up blog conversation on whether cities are creative growth centers or urban death traps.

Kling quotes Razib Khan:

up until the year 1900 the world’s cities were massive genetic blackholes. Cities only kept their population up through migration, which explains how Rome shrunk to 30,000 inhabitants by the 7th century.

Kling asks how this jives with Jane Jacobs, who contends that urban settlements have been the catalysts of economic growth. Jacobs isn’t directly contradicted by the genetic data, but the two certainly appear to point in different directions. If cities were genetic graveyards up until 1900, how can it be that cities were simultaneously hubs of economic growth?
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Filed under: General Welfare

in defense of historical context

I was struck by a recent article by Ed Glaeser, which takes a historical look back at the policies and ideologies of politicians from Henry Clay to Woodrow Wilson.

While I generally find Glaeser’s perspective to be in line with my own, I found his historical characterizations grating: positive depictions of Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, negative characterizations of Alexander Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt — yikes.
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Filed under: Economic Policy

three millenia of waste management

For the past few months I have searched high and low for a book that would provide me with a comprehensive understanding of the history of waste management in relationship to the rise and decline (or perhaps more appropriately, growth and diseased death) of human societies. This book would cover the history of sanitation, from aqueducts to soap to sewers, and explain how proper waste management acted as an upper bound on city growth, with failure resulting in biblical plagues that would wipe out entire towns and set back development hundreds of years.

I came across The Big Necessity and Flushed, among others -reading the latter and adding the former to an increasingly formidable “to-read” pile- but neither had the historical context I was looking for. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: General Welfare, Health