Links: The end of the American era, synthetic leather, the sound of silence, and more!

* “How Trump Is Ending the American Era.” We could also say, “How voters are ending the American era.” If voters are dumb enough to be bamboozled, maybe we deserve neither peace nor prosperity.

* “Chelsea Manning: The Dystopia We Signed Up for.”

* Martin Amis: ‘I miss the English.'” Many of his more recent novels have been tedious but Money is still amazing.

* Leather grown using biotechnology is about to hit the catwalk. Good news is underrated.

* Why Koreans shun the suburbs.

* “Cheaper, Lighter, Quieter: The Electrification of Flight Is at Hand.” Maybe.

* How the media’s “get Clinton” effort led to Trump (a rephrasing of Paul Krugman’s tweet). 2016 was and is really a media failure story.

* As electric motors improve, more things are being electrified.

* “The Sound of Silence:” “There’s too much downside in sharing any opinion that could easily be misinterpreted online. Even facts are dangerous to share if they don’t align with what people want to believe.” Interestingly, the same is true in schools, which is part of the reason so much of school is so drearily tedious.

* “How to Read a Chocolate Bar Label to Buy the Best Chocolate.” Surprisingly useful. Chocosphere is the most useful online retailer for chocolate.

The Ends of the World — Peter Brannen

The Ends of the World is titled well and is also fascinating—one of the best books I’ve read recently. It tells five (or arguably six) linked stories about mass extinctions; like most people I’m aware of the extinction of the dinosaurs, but I hadn’t realized that in many respects that extinction is actually less interesting than the other four. The dinosaurs steal the show, yet the other extinctions are at least as important—which is part of what makes The Ends of the World valuable. The 500-million-year history of complex life on earth is something most of us, including me, don’t know much about.

We should. For reasons that become apparent as the book moves forward, we may be repeating many histories of mass extinctions. Brannen traces how. Each chapter is set up like a detective story: People figure out that a mass extinction occurred, and paleontologists and geologists have to work backward from crime to culprit, examining various hypotheses along the way. The structure is effective but also difficult to excerpt.

But the preceding sentences also don’t give a flavor for the writing, which is excellent, and it matches the information. For example, the worst extinction of all time isn’t the End-Cretaceous mass extinction, when the dinosaurs died—it’s the End-Permian mass extinction, when nearly all plant and animal life on earth died. Spoiler alert: in the End-Permian event, massive volcanic activity in what we now call Siberia ejected huge amounts of carbon, methane, and other gasses into the atmosphere. But, in addition to that, lava ran into something else:

The Siberian Traps intruded through, and cooked, huge stores of coal, oil, and gas that had built up over hundreds of millions of years during the Paleozoic. The magma had no economic motive, but the effect was broadly familiar: it burned through huge reserves of fossil fuel in a few thousand years as surely as fossil fuels ignited in pistons and in power plants.

Uh oh:

Today humans emit a staggering 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year, perhaps the fastest rate of any period in the last 300 million years of earth history—a period that, you’ll note, includes the End-Permian mass extinction. Burning through every last oily drop and anthracite chunk of fossil fuel on earth would release roughly 5,000 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. If we do, the planet will become unrecognizable.

If there is slight good news, it’s that the End-Permian mass extinction event range from 10,000 gigatons of carbon to 48,000 gigatons. We’re unlikely to hit figures that catastrophic, but it’s dispiriting enough to think that, for the last several decades, we’ve had the technologies we need to dramatically reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere and we’ve simply chosen not to use them. I’m young enough that I may be trying to explain the psychology and politics behind that decision to grand children in fifty years,

Still, we’re living through an extinction right now, but one that goes back ten of thousands of years. Brannen writes:

even Africa lost 21 percent of its megafauna, with larger animals getting hit the hardest.

British geologist Anthony Hallam (with a somewhat unseemly triumphalism) cites this record of precolonial ecological ruin to ‘dispel once and for all the romantic idea of the superior ecological wisdom of non-western and pre-colonial societies. The notion of the noble savage living in harmony with Nature should be dispatched to the realm of mythology were it belongs. Human beings have never lived in harmony with nature.’

Oddly, for a book about deep time and long time, the paper quality of the physical object is shitty. One would think that publisher (and author, although I don’t think most writers get much of a say on this) would want to produce a physical book that will last longer than the decade or two that most modern books are made to endure. The lousy paper stock implies, “We don’t really give a damn about the final product we produce.” Which is one of the points of the book: Most of us humans don’t.

And we don’t connect our own actions to global consequences. Towards the end of the book Brannen writes, “avoiding [seven to twelve degrees of average, planet-wide warming] will require the goodwill of energy companies to leave 80 percent of their profitable reserves in the ground, and the creation of staggeringly large new sources of carbon-free energy.” But he’s mixing up supply (from the energy companies) and demand (from consumers) here. Energy companies only dig up all those fossil fuels because people want to burn them. If people stop wanting to burn them through some combination of conservation and alternative technologies, energy companies will have no reason to dig.

I’m part of the problem. Back when I had a car, I could’ve bought a Prius, but for some reason I wasn’t thinking closely about energy efficiency at the time and got a Civic. The better car probably only would’ve saved a couple thousand gallons of gas, but multiplied across many people that matters. A friend just moved to L.A., did a similar calculation (or no calculation) and bought some kind of Subaru that probably cost more than, say, a Chevy Volt. Both of us are probably better informed about many planetary challenges than the average person and both of us are sending a signal to those dastardly energy companies to dig up more fossil fuels (and thus contribute to global warming).

Sort of like how people buying books printed on shitty paper are also encouraging publishers to keep printing books on shitty paper.

Who cares when it was released?

A reader asked how I find books like Rapture and why I write, seemingly at random, about older books. The “finding” answer is hard: books get found from all kinds of sources, including other writers, blogs, newspapers, friends, browsing (rarely, but sometimes), essays, and tweets (rarely). A great essay will get me to read a book more effectively than anything else apart from a friend or reader who knows me well; a great essay led me to Lonesome Dove, for example, and in my mind I imagine other people finding this blog and using it to find the right book at the right time.

The “why” answer is also pretty simple: I don’t really care when a book (or movie, or album, or whatever) was released; I care about whether it’s good and whether it should be read. If it’s good I want to read it, regardless of when it was published. Publishing companies may work on marketers’ schedules, but readers don’t have to and shouldn’t. If you know something I should read, send that email.

Links: Self-driving cars, software, music, pile it high, and more!

* “GM and Cruise announce first mass-production self-driving car.” Wow.

* The demon haunted world: How modern software enables all kinds of cheating in all kinds of domains.

* “How Local Housing Regulations Smother the U.S. Economy;” nothing here that regular readers don’t know, but the venue is of great interest.

* “Was Charlottesville a Turning Point for the ‘Alt-Right‘?” The Oklahoma City Bombing was a similar turning point in the ’90s: when anti-government rhetoric becomes “blowing shit up,” the rhetoric is no longer so acceptable and the stage after rhetoric and after voting is very bad. Someone on Twitter (I forgot who—apologies) pointed out that the extreme left in the ’70s lost steam when it started blowing shit up as well.

* Music is sex, a podcast on Slate and thus presumably SFW. Seems kind of obvious, though.

* “Attacked by Rotten Tomatoes;” Hollywood is apparently angry that fewer people are seeing shitty movies. But Rotten Tomatoes has been around for a long time; what else has changed recently?

* “Impeaching Trump is a long shot. There’s another way to protect the country.” This would at least be an improvement.

* “Forager v Farmer, Elaborated.”

* “The Uncomfortable Truth About Campus Rape Policy: At many schools, the rules intended to protect victims of sexual assault mean students have lost their right to due process.” Who could have predicted

* “Pile it high: Singapore’s prefab tower revolution.” It’s possible to dramatically lower the cost of construction itself.

* “The story of Quillette,” which I’ve been wondering about.

* “Why Teachers Need Freedom.” Seems obvious to me.

Links: The end of the world, cheap sex, the war on stuff, Nakaya and fountain pens, college is the new high school, and more!

* “The Ends of the World is page-turner about mass extinction.” Note: “The evidence suggests that every single time, mass extinction was the result of runaway alterations in the planet’s atmospheric composition.”

* “‘I’ve done nothing wrong’: Utah nurse’s arrest prompts police apology.” Incredibly vile behavior; one wonders how often such things happened, unrecorded, prior to the advent of police body cameras.

* “‘Cheap sex’ is making men give up on marriage,” which is based on Mark Regnerus’s book Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy.

* The Netherlands has become an agricultural giant by showing what the future of farming could look like.

* The case of Stephen Greenblatt:” “Thus did Greenblatt help initiate the long, slow destruction of the serious study of literature in the American academy.”

* Marie Kondo and the relentless war on stuff. See also Paul Graham’s “Stuff.”

* How Nakaya, a Japanese Pen Maker, Anticipated the Writing-Tool Renaissance. Personally I’ve been a fan of Sailor fountain pens, but more often these days I just use Pigma Micron pens that’re easier to carry around (and lose).

* École 42, a free, teacher-less university in France, is schooling thousands of future-proof programmers. Cool.

* “Republican Party Autopsy Author Goes Off On GOP As Trump’s DACA Decision Nears: ‘Those in Republican leadership who have enabled his behavior by standing silent or making excuses for him deserve the reckoning that will eventually come for the GOP,’ Sally Bradshaw, a longtime adviser to Jeb Bush, told BuzzFeed News.” One hopes, but this does seem awfully optimistic.

* “Undercover in North Korea: ‘All Paths Lead to Catastrophe.'” Maybe the best piece on this topic I’ve seen so far, and not just more of the usual.

* “College is the new High School and that should terrify everyone.” An overstated headline, but still a useful piece. That being said, “college” means such a wide array of institutions, experiences, and instruction that it’s almost meaningless to lump all of them together.

* “Why do entrepreneurs get such a bad rap?” In movies, anyway. I suspect that evil is more interesting than good, which is also why we get so many movies about robbers and gangsters and so few about, say, content, functional families.

‘Maybe in 50 years there won’t be novels’

Claire Messud: ‘Maybe in 50 years there won’t be novels:’ As her fifth novel is published, the American writer warns that shrinking attention spans could prove the death of long fiction” makes an interesting point that is definitely plausible and may also be correct. Still, while average attention spans may be shrinking, elite attention spans may be as long as they ever were—they have to be to do good work. The people who make Twitter, Facebook, and SnapChat need intense concentration to do the work they do (everyone ought to at least attempt a programming class, if for no other reason than to understand the kind of mental effort it entails). If we’re going to keep the lights on, the Internet working at all, and the world running, we need to be able to concentrate long enough to really understand a topic deeply.

As fewer people can do this, the value of doing it rises. My own work as a grant writer depends on concentration; part of the reason we have a business is because most people can’t concentrate long enough to learn to write well and then apply that learning to grant applications. As I wrote in 2012, “Grant writing is long-form, not fragmentary.” Cal Newport makes a similar point, although not about grant writing, in Deep Work.

The contemporary tension between an attention-addled majority and a deep-working minority fuels Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem. It’s not the most readable of novels because the made-up vocabulary of the future is so grating. The idea is a reasonable one (our present vocabulary is different from the past’s vocabulary, so won’t the same be true of the future?), but the novel also shows the technical problems that attempting to implement that idea entail. I wonder if Messud has read Anathem.

Anyway, to return to Messud, I suspect this is true: “That we can’t fathom other people, or ourselves, is the engine of fiction” and as long as it remains true there will be an appetite for novels among at least some people.

By the way, I’ve started a couple of Messud’s books and never cottoned to them. Maybe the flaw is mine.

Linking does not imply endorsement

Linking does not imply endorsement. I link to interesting pieces that seem to be well thought out and that have the possibility of being in part true. I use the word “seem” in the preceding sentence because I don’t always have the capacity or knowledge to evaluate every claim in every article, and for that reason it’s always possible for something to be simply wrong without me knowing it.

It seems to me that today we have an excess of certainty and too little room for wondering things out loud. That’s part of the reason I like posts like “Unpopular ideas about social norms.” Many of us are not doing enough to wonder about things that could be true or could be false, and we’re spending too much time on things we feel must be true or must be false. The (possibly inherent) desire to signal fundamental traits about ourselves, as Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind, may also blind us to possibilities and to thinking better. Granted, the preceding sentence may just be signaling on my part—it’s probably not possible to get entirely outside signaling—but it would at least be good to be aware of one’s own signaling tendencies.

In “Links: How America is going haywire, high-heel heaven, where are the trains?, and more!“, I noted two articles, one on “The Most Common Error in Media Coverage of the Google Memo” and the other on “Men Are Better At Maps Until Women Take This Spatial Visualization Course,” and a friend said they could be read in opposition. To which I say: Great! I don’t think there is a final answer (or if there is it’s not available at this time) to the questions they raise. Moreover, I don’t think it’s a great idea demand total obedience to a particular “side”—even though many people do just that. Let’s try to achieve understanding first and judgment later.

If we go far back enough in time we’d find lots of commonly held opinions that today we find odious or simply wrong. Commonly held opinions today were the minority back then. Which should lead us to ask, “What minority or nonexistent views today could be commonly held or dominant opinions in the future?” It would be very strange if today we’d somehow gotten everything right, for all time! In saying so I’m channeling Paul Graham’s “What You Can’t Say,” which, in the era of glib Twitter and Facebook slagging, seems more relevant and less remembered than ever.

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