Good Reads: From algorithms, to Roman walls, to the new liberals and conservatives

This week's round-up of Good Reads include doubts about algorithms' 'all-power,' the recipe for Roman concrete, the need for a Turkish Mandela, young liberals who may be more conservative than they realize, and the usefulness of military 'land power.'

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File
Johnny Depp is one of only three actors who reliably bring a positive box office return.

Algorithms all-powerful?

In spite of appearances – from the US National Security Agency searching American phone records for patterns to Google counting keywords in e-mails to decide which ads to display – the algorithm may not conquer all.

This is the conclusion that science reporter Tom Whipple comes around to in his article “Slaves to the Algorithm” in the magazine Intelligent Life, a sister publication of The Economist. An algorithm is how so-called big data is crunched into something meaningful. “If p, then q” is an algorithm, but in the age of fast computers, the “p” can include billions of data points.

Mr. Whipple explores the work of a company, Epagogix, that forecasts the earning power of proposed movies for Hollywood studios, based on thousands of factors punched into its software. It seems to work. And has uncovered some fun facts. One is that so-called bankable movie stars are almost nonexistent. Only three actors, Epagogix has found, actually bring a positive return on investment – Will Smith, Brad Pitt, and Johnny Depp.

But human judgment has hardly left the picture. The head of Epagogix notes that his program assumes that everything about the movie is done well – that the dialogue is credible and the actors good (stars or not). And even so, his algorithms can’t discern if the movie is good, only if, done well, a lot of people are likely to pay to see it.

Whipple discusses another facet of algorithms. They are good at finding patterns, sometimes surprising ones, in big numbers. They are not so good at predicting the behavior of individuals. Dating sites, for example, have yet to show any scientific evidence that they can predict who will hit it off with whom.

Lost recipe for Roman concrete, cracked

Some technology just isn’t what it used to be. The Portland cement that we use to make concrete these days doesn’t have a fraction of the lasting power of the aggregate the Romans used a couple millenniums ago. According to a report by Bernhard Warner in Bloomberg Businessweek, research engineers studying 12 ancient Roman-built harbors found that the breakwaters made of Roman concrete have stood the pounding waves for 2,000 years and are still intact. Modern concrete has a working life under water of a mere 50 years. The older, stronger stuff had an added advantage: Its manufacture was relatively clean. Creating Portland cement releases a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

Needed: a Turkish Mandela

One of the central dangers in Turkey today is of a slide into two sharply polarized camps – the government and its conservative, religious, largely rural backers on one side and the more affluent, secular, and modernizing protesters on the other. They have come to be called “black Turks” and “white Turks.”

Daron Acemoglu, a Turkish-born economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been writing about the current troubles in his country of origin on his Why Nations Fail blog. He notes that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently grouped Turks into “black” and “white,” putting himself among the “black Turks.”

How do societies break out of cycles of polarization? Mr. Acemoglu consults history and finds several routes, but the most attractive is when a leader musters the vision and courage to make peace across the fault lines and show goodwill to the other side.

“So bottom line: we badly need a Turkish Mandela,” he says.

What they really mean by ‘conservative’ 

Meanwhile, Americans may not be quite as polarized as they think they are. A series of three new studies find that young adults who call themselves liberal Democrats are overall not quite as liberal on the issues as they think they are. But young people from the rest of the political spectrum tend to bill themselves as more conservative than they are on the issues. The biggest disparity is among those who regard themselves as most conservative. Not so much, it turns out. When asked their stands on a dozen major issues from welfare to gay rights, they didn’t toe as conservative a line as they thought they did, according to the studies, which were reported first in an academic journal, and brought to us by Tom Jacobs in Pacific Standard magazine. Clearly, conservatism is the more popular brand, even when it’s not an obvious fit.

The benefits of military ‘land power’ 

With US forces finally checking out of Afghanistan and American attention pivoting to East Asia, it’s time for some soul-searching: What’s the Army for?

Maj. Robert M. Chamberlain, writing in the Armed Forces Journal, sees future peace and prosperity in currently unfashionable land power. Terrorists who hole up in the world’s backwaters can best be pursued by special forces teams and armed drones. The Navy can protect the world’s sea lanes and global commerce. Air power can strike awesomely anywhere. But land power – the job of the Army and Marines – is inherently less threatening, he argues. “Land power is the only avenue by which America can enhance regional security and stability, deter Chinese militarism and encourage Chinese commitment to the global status quo.”

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