The Original Kon-Tiki Expedition

Genetics researchers at Stanford have determined that there was contact between Native Americans and Polynesian peoples some three centuries before European contact, based on the result of a large-scale genetic study across multiple countries:

Ioannidis and a team of international researchers collected genetic data from more than 800 living Indigenous inhabitants of several South American countries, Mexico and Polynesia, conducting extensive genetic analyses to find signals of common ancestry. Based on trackable, heritable segments of DNA, the team was able to trace common genetic signatures of Native American and Polynesian DNA back hundreds of years.

That’s via Stanford Medical News Center.

According to one of the researchers, Alexander Ioannidis, the genetics indicate contact took place about 300 years before Columbus first landed in the Bahamas:

“It was conclusive evidence that there was a single shared contact event.” In other words, Polynesians and Native Americans met at one point in history, and during that time people from the two cultures produced children with both Native American and Polynesian DNA. Statistical analyses confirmed the event occurred in the Middle Ages, around A.D. 1200, which is “around the time that these islands were originally being settled by native Polynesians,” Ioannidis said. Using computational methods developed as part of Ioannidis’ graduate work, the team then localized the source of the Native American DNA to modern-day Colombia.

Theories of pre-Columbian contact between certain indigenous South American peoples and Polynesians have been around for a while. The 1947 Kon-Tiki Expedition, led by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, was an attempt to prove that an oceanic voyage from South America to Polynesia was feasible using a raft made with materials and methods known to the people of the time. It sailed 4,300 miles, from Callo, Peru, to an empty atoll in French Polynesia, in 101 days.

Heyerdahl contended that native South Americans made contact with Polynesian islanders around 1100 AD, not far from the date given by the Stanford team.

The Age of the Untrepreneur

Last November two business school professors and one education school postdoc posted a paper to SSRN titled Towards an Untrepreneurial Economy? The Entrepreneurship Industry and the Rise of the Veblenian Entrepreneur. (I came across this article via this tweet from Agnes Callard).

It describes in vivid detail something I’ve noticed in the culture but have been unable to clearly articulate. Here’s the abstract:

What is driving the declining quality of innovation-driven entrepreneurship? In this paper, we argue the growing entrepreneurship industry is an important yet overlooked explanation. This rapidly growing industry has transformed the nature of entrepreneurship and encouraged a particular form of low-quality entrepreneurship. It has done so by leveraging the Ideology of Entrepreneurialism to mass-produce and mass-market products that make possible what we term Veblenian Entrepreneurship. This is entrepreneurship pursued primarily as a form of conspicuous consumption. Aside from lowering average entrepreneurial quality, Veblenian Entrepreneurship has a range of (short-run) positive and (medium and long-run) negative effects for both individuals and society at large. We argue that the rise of the Veblenian Entrepreneur has contributed to creating an increasingly Untrepreneurial Economy. That is an economy which superficially appears innovation-driven and dynamic, but is actually rife with inefficiencies and unable to generate economically meaningful growth through innovation.

According to the authors, there is a whole industry behind celebrating the entrepreneur, which creates a desire to become an entrepreneur among people who are otherwise not cut out for it and offers advice and services to help them along:

While entrepreneurship is conventionally thought of as a more or less productive activity (depending on the skills of the entrepreneur), the wider cultural celebration of entrepreneurship that is enabled by the ideology of entrepreneurship and propagated by the Entrepreneurship Industry can turn entrepreneurship into an activity that it is socially valued, even heroic, to enact (Malach-Pines et al, 2005). It can also turn entrepreneurship into an activity that can support identity work (Ulla & Jarna, 2013). Moreover, the Entrepreneurship Industry– by offering products marketed to entrepreneurs and imbued with attractive meanings – makes it possible to use consumption as a means of scaffolding an entrepreneurial identity: one can consume like an entrepreneur to build the identity of being one.

Rather than engaging in a productive activity, Veblan entrepreneurs are really engaging in a form of conspicuous consumption:

When Veblenian entrepreneurs like their innovation driven counterparts invest considerable efforts in this entrepreneurial work, they are not doing so because they are obsessed with succeeding. Rather they engage in this because work is a form of quasi-leisure that may well be strenuous and demanding, but only in the same way that big-game safaris and playing polo are strenuous in a fundamentally recreational way.

I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in other areas as well. Professional writers who also teach writing workshops will often talk about the workshop junkie, an amateur writer who is pretty good but lacks the desire or skill or discipline to push into the professional realm, and so is content to just perpetually participate in workshops to maintain their identity as a writer. This is particularly visible on Twitter, where some use the #amwriting hashtag to signal their identity as writers and solicit validation of this identity. They’re certainly putting in the work, but I’ve often wondered if the creation of a great work of art might not be the ultimate goal of their effort.

Traditional forms of cosplay seem much easier to me.

Mapping Cities With Radio Waves

A team of archeologists have used ground penetrating radar (GPR) to map the ancient Roman city of Falerii, which was abandoned about a thousand years ago and has been only minimally excavated.

Alongside their findings about the city, their paper, published in this month’s issue of the journal Antiquity, discusses the technology they used in some detail:

The GPR network, towed by an all-terrain vehicle, comprises 15 500MHz antennae. (…) As the width of one antenna housing is ~0.25m, the arrangement of the antennae in two offset rows results in a vertical profile spacing of 0.125m (Figure 2b). In order to meet sample density requirements (Grasmueck et al. 2005; Verdonck et al. 2015), a second pass was made, reducing the transect spacing to 0.0625m (Figure 2b).

Here’s a picture of the rig they used:

I wonder how long until we see specialty vehicles outfitted with ground penetrating radar and other sensors driving around modern cities, like Google Streetview cars, mapping subterranean infrastructure.

Andreessen on What to Build & How

This past April venture capitalist Marc Andreessen posted a passionate jeremiad called It’s Time to Build that launched a thousand takes across the web (my favorite critical response to the essay, by the way, was two episodes of the Track Changes podcast by Paul Ford and Rich Ziade, the second of which lays out an interesting vision of digital public goods. See here and here.)

In a recent interview for The Observer Effect, Andreessen elaborates on his initial essay. When asked to pick the one thing that he wishes people would go out and start building he comes back three:

Well, I will pick three! It’s kind of the holy trinity of our modern dilemma. It’s health care, it’s education and it’s housing. It’s the big three. So basically, what’s happened is the industries in which we build like crazy, they have crashing prices. And so we build TVs like crazy, we build cars like crazy, we make food like crazy. The price on all that stuff has really fallen dramatically over the last 20 years which is an incredibly good thing for ordinary people. Falling prices are really, really good for people because you can buy more for every dollar.

There are two ways here: you get paid more or everything you buy is cheaper. And people always really underestimate, I think, the benefits of everything getting cheaper. And so the stuff that we actually build is getting cheaper all the time. And that’s fantastic. The stuff we *don’t* build, and very specifically, we don’t have housing, we’re not building schools, and we’re not building anything close to the health care system that we should have – for those things the prices just are skyrocketing. That’s where you get this zero sum politics. I think people have a very keen level of awareness. They can’t put it into formal economic terms but they have a keen awareness of the markers of a modern western lifestyle. It’s things like – I want to be able to own a house, I want to live in a nice neighborhood and I want to be able to send my kids to a really good school and I want to have really good health care. 

And those are the three things where the price levels are increasingly out of reach. However we built those systems in the past, it’s failing us. And so we need to rethink. Quite literally, it’s like, okay, where are the schools? Where are the hospitals? Where are the houses?

Andreessen frames this as a failure of price signaling: in a healthy free market high prices incentivize the creation (or, to use Silicon Valley’s favorite word, the “building”) of more supply. The reason it is so hard to build more housing, schools and health care services is in large part the myriad regulations and government-imposed processes at all layers of government that impose high costs and slow innovation to a dribble.

Silicon Valley’s typical approach to disruption is to act first and ask for forgiveness (and pay the requisite fines) later. That worked pretty well for taxi and hospitality startups, which were peripheral concerns for elected officials and the bureaucratic class. But the regulatory moat surrounding the three sectors Andreessen highlights are a horse of a different color. It’s the difference between knocking over your local bank and robbing Fort Knox.