Book Notes: Against the Grain

Audio book, Oct 2019.

“Did humans domesticate wheat, or did wheat domesticate humans?”

This is one of those Joe Rogan-esque questions that has stuck with me after reading it somewhere. So I was happy to find this book which looks at the shift from the nomadic hunter-gather lifestyle to the settled agricultural life among early humans.

Scott describes 3 buckets of early human life:

Pastoralist / Hunter-gatherer:

  • Largely meat based diet
  • Reproduction limited by need to carry around infants

Late Neolithic Multi-Species Resettlement Camp: 

  • Grew some crops / depended on multiple sources of food (raised meat / local crops / foraging / fishing / raiding)
  • Started to domesticate animals
  • If there were pandemic diseases or crop failures, they moved elsewhere

State / Barbarian System:

  • Complex division of labor allowed some members of society to not participate in food production (eg priests, government)
  • Highly sensitive to crop failure, ecological change, or plunder
  • Government pushes dependence on a few crops in order to tax them or have stores for re-distribution
  • Sedentary lifestyle and grain-based diet improves reproduction rate (earlier onset of puberty, no need to carry kids around)
  • “Barbarians” (lit: people who do not speak Greek) are in a symbiosis with the state. They alternately trade with the state, plunder it, or engage in a protection racket where they agree not to attack it or attack its enemies.
  • There are no “barbarians” without state because the term implies a state-centered worldview.
  • Barbarians eventually died out because they dug their own graves. They were co-opted by the state and turned against outside enemies or used for slaving.

Historical Bias towards Sedentism

Scott spends a lot of time pointing out flaws in the historiography of early states. Think about how many metaphors and loaded terms are used about early civilization:

Humans evolved from a nomadic lifestyle to an agricultural one. But is this really a higher form of existence? Early humans (especially in the multi-species resettlement camp) had an extremely wide variety of food options. They spent less time finding calories. They grew some crops, foraged, fished, and hunted. If there were any problems at a given site, they simply moved on. Doesn’t sound so bad.

If a complex settled society (eg the Incas) reverts to pastoralism it is said to have collapsed.

Scott says this bias is because you simply can’t write a history if there is no artifact or writing to look at. History is written about the kings because they leave castles, written records, and other cool things behind to study.

Why Grain?

A central question of the book is “If pre-agricultural life was so wonderful why did humans become so grain dependent?

The answer is that the rise of grains went in parallel with the rise of early states. Farming grains was beneficial for the state so the states encouraged grain cultivation whenever possible.

Let’s look at a list of properties of grains that made them attractive to states:

  • They can be stored for long periods of time
  • They have a high calorie to weight ratio
  • It is easy to confiscate (tax) and transport
  • It is infinitely divisible, making it easier to tax and distribute
  • Easy to use an early currency / unit of value
  • Easy to estimate yield of grain from a given amount of land and known weather conditions
  • High-grain diet encourages earlier puberty, so gives a reproductive advantage to sedentism

But grain had many important disadvantages:

  • Becoming overly dependent on grain means that crop failures or environmental changes could lead to
  • Grain needs constant attention (weeding, plowing, harrowing, etc). This was closely connected with slavery and increases in state taxation
  • Grain stores were easily plundered, leading to the state-barbarian symbiosis

So, yes, early H-Gs a better diet and “work-life balance.”And they didn’t have the energy density of grains that allowed societies to become stratified and full of non-food production roles.

How to Influence Elections with Digital Ads

Planet Money podcast had a recent episode on a team that tried to help the Democratic candidate Doug Jones score his unlikely win in the 2017 Alabama senate special election.

I had a bunch of unanswered questions from the podcast episode, so when I was poking around for this post I found a longer writeup by Tovo Labs (the group behind the campaign). Here are my notes, and unanswered questions at this point:

The Campaign 

They used targeted ads to get various segments of the electorate to take a logical set of actions:

  • Unregistered, but likely D ==> register to vote online
  • Registered D ==> commit to voting via mood-boosting messaging, eg “everything depends on you”
  • Moderate Rs ==> vote for a write-in candidate (showed articles from other conservatives who were voting for write-in candidates)
  • Conservative Rs ==> stay home on election day (showed articles by conservative voices  writing against the Republican)

Ad Samples

These are great. Planet Money weren’t kidding when they said the ad  creative looked like it was done in MS Paint. Here are few ad examples they provided:

Shown to likely D voters to boost turnout
Ads Sent to Moderate R’s to encourage write-ins
Shown to conservative R’s to depress turnout

Technology & Results

Here is where things get interesting. The piece describes how they were able to target their ads at a level of granularity that I didn’t think was possible. In particular, they were able to:

  • Use negative targeting to isolate populations in six of Alabama’s 35 state senate districts to show their ads; three got the ads, and three didn’t as a control group. These districts were selected because they have similar voting histories and demographics.
  • Target the four political ads in those districts to people with those specific political ideologies

The article says they used an (unnamed) demand side platform to spray these ads across content sites and social media. Major DSPs operating now include The Trade Desk, Adobe, Criteo, and Centro.

The ads received a CTR (click-through-rate) of .25%, meaning a quarter of a percent of people who viewed the ads clicked. Based on some websites I own that run Google’s Adsense program, this seems low, although I am not comparing apples-to-apples. I bet I could get higher CTRs by tinkering with the ads.

In the end they saw the following results:

  • 3.9% lift in Democratic turnout in the target districts vs control
  • 2.5% drop in moderate GOP turnout vs control
  • 4.4% drop in conservative GOP turnout vs control

In addition to the bigger voting effect, the staunch conservatives were said to have had a much higher level of engagement with the ads than the other groups. This jives with a lot of what I’ve hear anecdotally about conservative news outlets like Drudge and talk radio being wonderfuly effective places to advertise.

Thoughts & Lingering Questions 

It’s unclear to me how they targeted people to such a granular level of geography and political ideology. I could see running ads in publications that they knew to cater to these groups (eg Breitbart, Daily Caller, etc) but I still don’t see how the DSPs have enough data to reliably say whether you’re, say, a moderate R vs a hardcore R. I know that you can also geotarget by city or town, so you could hit population centers in a given district, but I’m amazed that they are able to reliably hit everyone in a district (a 35th of the state of Alabama).

While platforms like Facebook and Google do not let you target down to the individual person, it is trivial to do this because people’s browsing activity and devices have many unique signatures. How long before advertisers can target ads to an individual person’s psychographic profile that is matched against the voter roll record?

What demand side platform was used? Does it offer this to other customers? Is this a built-in feature? Or something cooked up for this particular project?  The articles does mention that the DSP they used had not done political ad targeting before. Is it in the business now?

It is significant that Tovo Labs, a small company, was not able to do this with the off-the-shelf ad targeting available to civilians like me who work in the Facebook ads interface or Google ad buying interface. Although it did make me sign up for some accounts with these platforms to get more information about how they work.

There is still a ton of debate as to whether digital ads — whether done by foreign powers or local grassroots are a good thing or bad. I think that’s largely irrelevant at this point and it’s more of an arms race dynamic.

And this stuff is cheap. The project’s budget was ~$100k.