The Technologies, Economics And Regulations That Make Netflix A Cultural Innovator

A thoughtful piece by Todd VanDerWerff at Vox argues that:

Netflix is accidentally inventing a new art form – not quite TV and not quite film.

I agree.

First, to be clear, the piece and I are talking about the Netflix streaming service, which has morphed far beyond the mail order DVD rental system with an socially interesting prioritized waiting system that it was at first.

It turns out that movie streaming also wasn’t that revolutionary.  This was just like renting a movie at a local video store with less waiting and a monthly membership fee which some video rental operations had already started to offer.

What really made Netflix streaming culturally innovative at first was binge watching whole seasons of television shows at once.

You’ve done it, I’ve done it, our kids have done it.  It was possible in theory before by renting DVDs of a whole season of television shows, but that was expensive and wasn’t something that video rental store customers were used to doing or imagined themselves doing.  On Netflix, binge watching a season cost no more than watching an episode every week at an appointed time the way we used to do it with broadcast television.

Binge watching TV shows on Netflix (or once you gained the habit on Netflix, elsewhere, where the show wasn’t available on Netflix) significantly changed the experience of watching television shows.

It upset the status hierarchy of video based media, of which the movies had previously been the uncontested top dog, offering two hours of uninterrupted polished pieces instead of half hour or one hour TV episodes made with lower budgets, with a week in between episodes, interrupted at least every fifteen minutes by about 12 minutes or more per hour of commercials.  A movie had dozens of show times a week at various area theaters and could also be obtained at the video rental store on demand.  TV episodes were only available at an appointed half hour or hour each week (except for daily soap operas with really poor production values), unless you recorded them with a difficult to program and low quality video recorder.  And, for roughly half to two-thirds of the year, any given TV show was airing reruns.  Diligent TV watchers spent most of the year in a new episode desert.

Suddenly, with Netflix, television was commercial free, available on your schedule, with no reruns unless you want them, and you could watch an entire season over a few days or a couple of weeks, capturing fine details and story arcs put their by the screen writers who see the show as a package, which got lost with all of the interruptions, delays, and occasional out of order or missed episodes of ordinary TV watching.  Higher quality content from made for cable television programming that had funding other than commercials and didn’t have to meet suitable for children censorship standards on networks like Showtime and HBO appeared just shortly before Netflix hit.

As a result, movies now became one off short stories or mini-series when there were sequels, while TV shows with eight hours or more of content per season, became the novels of the video world, something that developing world soap operas (telenovelas in Spanish, but present in similar forms in Japan, Korea, Nigeria and elsewhere) had aspired to, but never quite attained.  And, when you binge watch, the ability to spread eight or more hours of fictional world indulgence over the times you have to enjoy it, with pauses when you feel like it, put the feel of reading a novel into TV episodes as well.

This makes sense.  A movie script typically runs 80 to 120 pages or so, some of which is scene description and blocking rather than dialog.  Most adapted movies take a novel that runs 250 to 750 or so pages and condense it into the much shorter movie format, inevitably leaving the view with an abridged version of the original.  Notably, some of the best movies, e.g. Blade Runner and many of the Disney movies like The Little Mermaid, adapt short stories or fables or myths or short children’s books, so that they don’t have to abridge the story.

Binge watching, however, merely opened the door to innovation.  The experiments that Netflix has been able to open the door to with its original programming have really changed the medium.  Netflix has been able to innovate radically in generating content, because its business model and its technology don’t have the same constraints and incentives as traditional broadcast television.

Seasons can now have wildly varying length.  A new concept can be presented in a four episode trial.  A few Netflix original shows (for example, Orange in the New Black, Sense8, and Ascension) have episodes that are longer than an hour.

Like independent films, Netflix original programming can appeal to niche or culturally elite audiences, rather than trying to maximize the number of eyes on the screen watching the same show at any given time which pushes programmers to make lowest common denominator compromises. Since Netflix can stream hundreds of different shows to its overall audience at once, Netflix doesn’t have to deny viewers their most popular content to cater to niche views the way that any broadcast medium does.  This allows Netflix to have a total prime time audience far greater than any broadcast network limiting to airing one show at a time, even if the number of viewers of any particular program on any given day is much lower than the number of views of any particular program on a given day in a broadcast television format.

Indeed, Netflix original content has the most comparative advantage, relative to broadcast or cable TV and the movies, by not just stealing market share from those traditional mediums, but by actually serving niche demands that were entirely unmet by the old media due to their technological, economic and regulatory constraints.  Netflix can serve everyone who like the old TV and movie content, but can also offer content to additional viewers who don’t like anything that was on offer in the old formats very much.

Netflix also could have chosen to enter the market at the high end, catering to high end customers with a high monthly price, but instead, has made itself more transformative culturally by following a business model that is about maximizing its membership base at a price many times cheaper than a cable TV subscription, despite the fact that it offers a product that is qualitatively different and bettter than broadcast TV which cable TV merely replicates with better reception, more channels (most of which are awful), and fewer censorship restrictions on cable TV only content.

Netflix didn’t invent streaming video, which had been available via streaming video on premium TV channels for ages.  But, cable TV operators priced this service based upon the going to the movies alternative, without seeing, as Netflix did, how transformative it could be to offer steaming at an easily affordable flat price instead.  The inherent nature of intellectual property content, which doesn’t cost meaningfully more to make more copies of in the digital age than it does to make one copy, was a natural fit to this model.

But, the rest of the industry clung to the old physical property economic models even though they had never really made sense and were ultimately superseded in the case of broadcast television and radio when innovators of those media came to the same realization that maximizing spending by making content wildly available at a minimal cost, rather than maximizing spending per unit provided, was the name of the game.  The ability of Netflix to limit access to its otherwise unlimited content with passwords, however, gave it the capacity to shift from the commercial and donation based model of broadcast television, radio, Google, Hulu and more, to a subscription based model.  And, by making legitimate unlimited access so cheap, Netflix has dramatically undercut piracy which is no longer worth the hassle when the public can access intellectual property content at a reasonable price, legitimately, so these economics have made it unnecessary to make heavy use of punitive enforcement tools like anti-piracy lawsuits aimed at ordinary content views in order to support their own business model.

There is also no incentive for Netflix which isn’t paid by the episode, to engage in the recent odious trend in movie sequel making to break the last book in a movie adaptation into two parts, purely to force movie goers who are already hooked on the series, to buy one more movie ticket over the course of the series.  Or, worse in the case of an adapted literary series like Lord of the Rings that turns the shortest book of the entire four book saga, the prequel The Hobbit, which is the only one of the four books which could have been done justice in one ordinary length movie, into three very long movies that are long in setting and cinematography, and thin and far off canon in their story.

And, since Netflix originals aren’t financed by commercials, producers don’t have to worry about alienating customers of an unrelated product.  Advertisers don’t like controversial programming, and tying a brand, say Chick-fil-a, to a controversy unrelated to the product itself, say gay rights (in the case of Chick-fil-a, spawning a nationwide boycott which still damps its sales to liberals even though the company has largely backed down from its political stances), is bad for business.  Netflix originals don’t even have an incentive to avoid criticizing the commercialism that makes broadcast television possible, in general.

Knowing from the start that the audience will be binge watching the episodes in order, without much interruption, writers don’t have to spend as much of each episode rehashing the premise of the show and recapping what happened in relevant previous episodes.  They know that even if they really stump a modest percentage of their audience, that those viewer can go back and watch the referenced episode over again.

And, both cable TV, for example, in series like Game of Thrones and True Blood, and Netflix originals in shows like Hemlock Grove and Sense8, have not only pushed boundaries beyond what would be allowed by censors on broadcast television.  They have pushed on beyond the boundaries of what would be permitted by movie censors to achieve an “R” (children allowed only with an adult) rating, to the “NC-17” rating originally envisioned as a category reserved for pornography.  Thus, for what is really the first time in the history of the dramatic medium, it is now possible to easily access highly explicit and violent content that still tells a legitimate dramatic story, rather than serving as mere window dressing for pure pornography.  A handful of serious works like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita, and the Bible have crossed that line before, but performances of them in dramatic works have generally held back the violence and carnality that are described and/or implied in them.

Not everyone thinks that opening the door to more explicit and violent programming (which realistically, any tween or teenager can access more easily than the vast majority of adults can control it) is a good thing.  And, binge watching keeps us glued to our screens when we could be out living actual lives.  But, on the whole, Netflix have been a revolutionary technological and economic innovation that is one of the important factors that makes the quality of life in 2015 better than it was in 1997, when Netflix was founded.

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An Unnecessary Police Homicide In Boulder, Colorado

[P]olice were called to an apartment at 1841 19th Street in Boulder at around 10:30 p.m. on a report of a man thought to be under the influence of LSD who was attacking others with a knife. Upon their arrival, officers found an injured party who was taken to the hospital and is expected to recover. . . . 

[The Boulder Daily Camera] reports that officers encountered [Sam] Forgy [a 22-year-old who was majoring in applied mathematics at CU Boulder] as they were climbing the stairwell to his apartment, on the second floor of the complex. He was nude and holding a hammer. The cops maintain that they repeatedly ordered Forgy to drop the hammer. 

Police feared Forgy was going to jump onto them with the hammer, the Daily Camera notes — so one officer tried to Tase him. When the Taser failed to fell Forgy, a second cop fired his gun, killing him. The number of shots hasn’t been specified to date; witnesses estimate that there were between three and five. Moreover, one person who heard the exchange said the shooting of the gun and the Taser were close to simultaneous.

Via Westword.

I understand that sometimes people point guns at or shoot police, or rush at them with knives, and that responding with a firearm may be their only choice.

It is very hard to conclude that a naked guy on drugs holding a hammer precariously standing alone on a fifteen foot high stairway balcony railing poses the same kind of threat.

Are the Boulder police incapable of backing off and trying to defuse the situation?

Do they not realize that a hammer is rarely a deadly weapon when wielded by a naked college student on drugs who can barely maintain his balance on a balcony railing?

Are they so unsure of their own physical prowess that they think that two of them, after all the training that they have received, fully clothed and armed with batons and mace are no match for a naked college student on drugs with a hammer?

The officer who fired this shot does not belong on a police force, anywhere.  His actions were at a minimum cowardly and proof of his incompetence.  Worse, they tend to show a deeply flawed culture in the force, that shoots first, and considers other options only after the suspect is dead. Arguably, this is really a case of simple unpremeditated, perhaps heat of passion, murder.

There is simply no version of the facts available to us in which this shooting was justified as self-defense or to carry out an arrest.

The Boulder Police Department should promptly fire the officer who killed Sam Forgy and then an independent individual should review the case to see if criminal charges should be brought.

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Corporate And Municipal Bond Ratings By The Numbers

American Corporate and Municipal Bond Ratings

On April 11, 2014, there were only three companies with AAA credit ratings in the U.S. according to S&P. Those companies were Johnson & Johnson, Exxon-Mobil, and Microsoft.

The number of companies with the top-credit rating has been dwindling for years. Back in 1980, there were more than 60 U.S. companies rated AAA by S&P. That fell to six in 2008. Since then,” General Electric, Pfizer and ADP were downgraded.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there were four or five AAA rated companies today, but I don’t have the exact figure.

Just 800 companies (less than 5%) have investment grade bonds out of 23,000 U.S. companies with revenues over $35 million whose credit was reviewed by bond rating agencies. But, only about 1,800 companies with non-investment grade bonds, however, have actually issued publicly traded bonds. So, about 30% of publicly traded bonds are investment grade, and only about 0.1%-0.2% of publicly traded bonds are AAA rated. Companies with sales of less than $35 million per year are not eligible for an investment grade bond rating.

An investment grade bond rating, in practice, roughly corresponds to classification of a “large capitalization” stock, although in principle, bond ratings are not directly dependent upon market capitalization.

The rating system at Standard and Poors and at Fitch ranks investment grade bonds as follows (Moody’s equivalent rating):

AAA (Aaa)
AA+ (Aa1)
AA (Aa2)
AA- (Aa3)
A+ (A1)
A (A2)
A- (A3)
BBB+ (Baa1)
BBB (Baa2)
BBB- (Baa3)

Moody’s rating are somewhat more strict than comparable ratings by Standard and Poors (S&P) as illustrated by historic default rates for bonds of a given rating.

Historical default rates vary greatly, but in the S&P system through 2007, averaged about 0.6% for AAA, 1.5% for AA, 2.9% for A, 10.3% for BBB, 29.9% for BB, 53.7% for B, and 69.2% for any kind of C rating.  This is measured over the life of the long term bond and is not an annual default rate.

Historical default rates on municipal bonds are much lower than default rates on corporate bonds with the same rating until 2010 when Moody’s and Fitch abolished the separate system (S&P abolished the separate system in 2001).  More recent municipal bond issues are rated on the same scale as corporate bonds.  For example, in the old system, S&P BB rated municipal bonds have about the same default rate on average as S&P AA rated corporate bonds.  Investment grade municipal bonds as rated by any major bond rating agencies under the old system have default rates lower than AAA rated corporate bonds.

Chinese Corporate Bond Ratings

In contrast, in China:

Around 97% of existing yuan-denominated bonds hold ratings of double-A to triple-A—the best a company can get.

That is from Fiona Law at the Wall Street Journal, cited by Christopher Balding, and ultimately Alex Frangos via Marginal Revolution.

Meanwhile, a Chinese government agency, the China Securities Finance Corp (CSF), central bank-backed refinancing institution, is now “among top 10 shareholders of many listed-firms” as Chinese regulators have stepped in to prop up a collapsing stock market. Effectively, this is turning what had until recently been a mostly theoretical communist basis of the Chinese economy into one in which state ownership of enterprise is again rapidly becoming the norm.

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Human Sacrifice In Nepal

A Nepalese man with an ill child went to a local holy man who told the man with the ailing child that a human sacrifice of a boy was necessary to save the ill child. A ten year old boy was lured away and then kidnapped for the purpose. The human sacrifice ritual was carried out.

Three days later the missing boy’s body was found. Local police say that five men have confessed to participation in the crime, and six more, including the holy man, have been arrested in connection with the crime. Life sentences are possible under Nepalese law.

CNN (at the link above) provides the following context for the killing:

The village, in the Nawalparasi district bordering India, is home to some of the country’s poorest and uneducated people — often known as “untouchables” in the traditional caste system. Both the victim and the accused in this recent killing are from this social class. 

Superstitions such as the sacrificial slaughter of animals such as water buffaloes, goats and chickens are common among the country’s mainly Hindu population. The ritual killing of animals during the Gadhimai festival — celebrated every five years — takes place in the belief it will bring prosperity. 

“(It’s) very unfortunate what happened,” said Hari Prasad Mainai, Nawalparasi’s chief district officer. “From the government level, we are going to launch (an) awareness program against these superstitions in the villages of Nawalparasi district.”

Nawalparasi, Nepal (map from Wikipedia)

 A few observations:

* We still live in “a demon haunted world”, to use Carl Sagan’s words.

* Most deaths related to religious belief involve either denial of health care because of a belief that religious cures will suffice, or the executions or lynchings of suspects maleficent witches or sorcerers in the name of Muslim, Christian or animist belief systems.  Ritual sacrifice claims in the last few centuries or so have almost always been false, or the work of isolated mentally ill serial killers.

* It is notable that this ritual sacrifice was carried out with an intent to heal, rather than an intent to harm others, and was not a produce of any manner of Satanism.

* The apparent ready confessions of the many people involved is notable, although there may be more to the story to explain how they were obtained.  Still, it is often the case that people acting in what they felt at the time was a righteous manner, be it at the direction of a holy man, or in furtherance of a cause such as terrorists, often do confess.

* This case is one of many that establish that Hinduism as practiced, is not all peace and love, and has its brutalities.

* The fact that the individuals involved on all sides in this incident were Dalits probably helps to explain the swift and sure law enforcement action to punish those involved.  There may even be an element to this prosecution that punishes a caste-less holy man for the hubris of pretending to do a Brahmin’s job.  It is not obvious that similar acts by more socio-economically established people who be handled the same way (although it might be that higher caste individuals would not have done it.)

* The story does not relate how the ill boy who was supposed to be cured by the sacrifice fared.  It could be that a willingness to confess was tied to his recovery (on the ground that the price was worth it), or his failure (on the ground that the justification for the act was undermined).

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Debt Priority Structure And The Systemic Risk Of A Financial Crisis

A technical analysis of how networks of debt obligations with different priorities can lead to systemic risk which can precipitate a financial crisis can be summed up with one simple conclusion:

a necessary condition for minimizing systemic risk is that at least 50% of debts in the entire market should exist as senior debts.

Previous attempts to reduce systemic risk in the banking sector, such as those imposed by the FDIC have focused on a similarly simple indicator – limits on the amount of leverage that an institution may have relative to its equity (typically banks must have equity reserves of at least 20% of their total assets).

This study says that just as there is a minimum level of equity investment that matters, there is also a minimum senior to junior debt ratio that matters.  Thus, a bank with 20% equity, 40% senior debt, and 40% junior debt, or another less risky mix of assets, faces minimal systemic risk, while the presence of banks with more risky portfolios than this benchmark significantly enhances the systemic risk that the banking system will collapse in a financial crisis.

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A Strategy In The War On ISIS?

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is ultimately a theocratic dictatorship, and like almost all dictatorships past and present, the security of its rulers is insured by an elite military force lavished with resources and chosen for its loyalty.  In the case of ISIS, this is an elite brigade of about 4,000 troops called the “Shield of Islam” which is heavy with foreign fighters of whom the Chechens are particularly feared.

Apparently, the behind the scenes strategy of the U.S. and many of its allies in the air power and special forces oriented fight against ISIS is to destroy the Shield of Islam on the theory that if this unit that plays a central role in securing the authority and power base of the regime is destroyed or experiences major desertions, that the regime too will soon fall.

This may or may not work, but it is the most sensible strategy I’ve heard yet.

But, it does have one serious problem.  What if it succeeds?

We still have no back up plan for when the regime collapses.  And, we still can offer the people now ruled by ISIS no alternative regime to offer them but the rump regimes of non-Kurdish, non-Sunni Iraq, and loyalist Syria which perpetrates horrors on its own citizens in a truly gruesome civil war that has displaced half of the nation’s population.  Given those choices, people now ruled by ISIS may be willing to tolerate the abominations imposed by ISIS on that theory that the ISIS regime, like the theocracy in Iran, may eventually moderate itself, and that ISIS at least offers them a nation-state and some measure of self-determination, rather what appears to them to involve perpetual subordination to factions that hate them in a multi-ethnic state.

* * * *

As an aside another truly remarkable development related to the Chechens has taken place.

Russia went to the mat in a brutal counterinsurgency against Chechen rebels not so long ago.  But, rather than decapitate the Chechen insurgency, they identified one of the strongest rebel sympathizing moderate political leaders and cut a deal with him.  In exchange for loyalty to Russian and to Vladamir Putin personally, they could get autonomy and earn respect as the Russian leader’s bulldogs in disputes foreign (such as the “covert” Russian war in Eastern Ukraine), and domestic (e.g. assassinating and intimidating political opponents).  As a result, one of the most powerful internal military adversaries of Russia has been transformed almost overnight into one of Russia’s most loyal forces.

This is arguably the biggest military about face since the Emperor of Japan signed the Treaty ending World War II and irrevocably shifted his countries alliances from the World War II axis powers to the World War II allied powers, particularly, the United States.

Arguably, Vladamir Putin’s strategy to deal with the Chechen rebels is exactly the opposite of the one that rumor has it (as reported earlier in this post) the U.S. and its allies are employing against ISIS.  Rather than trying to sever its head, which might lead anarchy, Russia’s military suppressed every other aspect of the Chechen rebel organization while leaving a leader of their movement strong enough to negotiate a peace treaty that would work on terms tolerable to each side.

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The Case For A New Australia

Imagine that you are the Vice President of the West African country of Liberia, an elder statesman by Liberian standards who went to college with a man who is just now retiring early from his career as a Swedish prison warden because he wants to see the world, and also with a woman who is now the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa, and another who is the U.S. Pardon Attorney in the Justice Department.

You fervently want to recruit the talent needed to get your country on the right track after years of civil war and economic malaise.

What do you do?

Suppose you invite all three of your well connected allies to meet you for an informal lunch at a Liberian restaurant in Washington D.C. not far from the Liberian embassy, to hear your proposal.

Liberia would extend offers to men and women serving long prison terms in federal prisons in the United States to migrate to Liberia at Liberia’s expense where, under the supervision and control of the former Swedish prison warden who would provide for their daily living needs, they would apply their personal and professional skill sets to the development of the Liberian economy.  Volunteers who successfully complete a five year program would be granted freedom, Liberian citizenship, a homestead and modest lump sum compensation award for their service, and an unconditional pardon for their crimes, but would have to give up their U.S. citizenship.  Volunteers who were not successful in the program would be transferred to Liberian prisons to serve the remainder of their terms under their U.S. prison sentences.

A treaty negotiated by the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa, and a commutation decree drafted by the U.S. Pardon Attorney, who would vet candidates for offers before they could be extended, who facilitate the arrangement.

The initial program would involve an ambitious group of 300 inmates serving sentences for crimes including securities fraud, computer crimes, drug dealing, and immigration offenses, who would receive their orientation in a shuttered Liberian military base in the Liberian countryside where they would be housed in abandoned military barracks.  A similar sized class of inmates would be admitted to the program in each successive year.

The Swedish director of the program would use the techniques he used running Sweden’s famously human and rehabilitation oriented prison system to help Americans who would have otherwise rotted in U.S. federal prisons for decades turn a new leaf performing meaningful work that utilizes their professional skills and cultural capital as once functional participants in advanced industrial society to developing Liberia’s economy.  Graduates of the program would emerge familiar with the day to day workings of the Liberian economy, more educated and skilled than the vast majority of Liberians, with international connections, and a small nest egg that could be parlayed into Liberian based business empires.

These inmates would be free of clan, tribal and political faction ties, would have no scores to settle with powerful Liberians in and out of power, and would be subtly pressured to focus on what they have in common as opposed to their own differences with each other, by the utterly foreign nature of the society and physical environment that they find themselves immersed in as part of the program.  This would allow them to rise above the corruption that paralyzes so many emerging economies.

The same willingness to achieve their ends with outside the box solutions that landed them in prison in the United States might be more functional as they try to devise solutions that hidebound international development bureaucrats would never consider.

The U.S. would achieve the goal of exiling these individuals from their own society, and would save something on the order of $10 million in the first year, $20 million in the second year, $30 million in the third years, and so on, saving half a billion dollars from the federal prison budget in the first decade by reducing the number of federal inmates at the end of a decade by 3,000 people.

If the program worked well in its first decade, there is no reason it couldn’t be replicated in a dozen other places.

A similar project in world history, called Australia, worked out rather well.  There is no reason that it couldn’t be repeated.  The core principles aren’t so different in either case.

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Sentences Are Not Just Strings Of Random Words In Grammatical Order

Language Log explored the claim that one of ten nouns chosen at random, followed by one of ten verbs chosen at random, followed by one of ten adjectives chosen at random, can produce 1,000 grammatical sentences.

While this seems like a sensible claim, the reality is closer to 30-40 sentences.  Lots of word strings that naively seem to put the rights parts of speech in the right word order for a language don’t actually produce real idiomatic sentences in a language.

In general, as programmers have learned from programming language software, it is frequently more helpful to conceptualize grammar in terms of the empirical probability that a given word will follow the words that precede it, than it is to think of it as a set of formal rules that systematize those relationships.  The exceptions turn out to be important, high frequency phrases, and the formal rules that have been articulated are often insufficient to accurately discard a myriad of combinations of words that formally comply with the rules but are not used by idiomatic speakers of the language.

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Social Class, Delayed Gratification and the Physiological Costs Of Social Climbing

IT BEGAN with some marshmallows. . . . Those who had resisted, he found, did better at school than those who had given in. As adults they got better jobs, were less likely to use drugs and got into trouble with the law less frequently. Moreover, children’s family circumstances suggested that impulsive behaviour was as much learned as inherited. This suggested that it could be unlearned—improving the child in question’s chances in life 

. . . . Recent observations, however, raise the possibility that developing self-control is not always an unalloyed good. Work published two years ago by Gene Brody of the University of Georgia, who looked at a group of young black Americans, showed that those who exhibited self-control as teenagers did indeed get the expected benefits. But if such self-controllers came from deprived backgrounds, they developed higher blood pressure, were more likely to be obese and had higher levels of stress hormones than their less-self-controlled peers. That correlation did not apply to people who started farther up the social ladder.

Dr Brody and his colleagues have followed this study with one that comes to an equally astonishing conclusion: for people born at the bottom of the social heap, self-control speeds up the process of ageing. This research, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at DNA methylation . . . . Dr Brody and his colleagues followed almost 300 black American teenagers of different backgrounds as they aged from 17 to 22. For the first few years the researchers assessed their volunteers’ levels of self-control, and also looked for signs of depression, aggression and drug use. They assessed, too, those volunteers’ socioeconomic backgrounds. But the last examination, when participants were 22 years old, was different. Then, the researchers took a blood sample, recorded the DNA-methylation patterns of cells in it, and worked out how much these deviated from the pattern expected at that particular age. . . . for people from high-status backgrounds, higher self-control meant lower cellular ages. For those whose background was low-status, the reverse was true. Their cells were ageing faster. Add this to the previous data on blood pressure, stress and obesity, and the medical prognosis of these initially low-status individuals does not look promising. . . . 

No biologist would find surprising the idea that an animal—any animal—which was rising through its social hierarchy would find the experience stressful. And research into gene methylation, part of a field called epigenetics, suggests changing methylation patterns are a common response to changing circumstances as well as changing age, as the body’s physiology struggles to keep up.

From the Economist.

Another possibility, of course, is that self-controlled is less of a learned behavior, and more of a genetic one, a flaw that could arise because researchers inferred from their never perfectly clear data because they interpreting their results at a time when a prevailing emphasis on nurture v. nature tended to overstate nurture effects was at its apex. Impulsivity is part of a complex of personality traits that are about 50% inherited and some sub-aspects of that personality trait may be even more strongly inherited.

If impulsivity is strongly inherited, then higher blood pressure, obesity, stress hormones and cell aging could reflect the costs of struggling against natural genetic inclination, rather than the stress effects of social climbing.

Either way, the question is: Are the well documented benefits of impulse control are worth the struggle for those at the bottom of the social pyramid?

I think that most people would say that they are. But, it is also worth recognizing that social climbing through behavior modification is personally costly for the people who do it.

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Quote of the Day

The evil zombie sock-puppet condition of the GOP is the most gruesome single symptom of our failing democracy, and one that has inflicted immense harm not just on our country but the entire world. . . . The Republican Party did not organically evolve into a xenophobic, all-white party of hate that seeks to roll back not just the Civil Rights movement and feminism, but the entire Enlightenment.

Andrew O’Hehir

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