Links: Drugs ought to be legalized, epistemology, The Case Against Education, homes for humans, and more!

* “Against the Demonization of Drugs.” Again, this ought to be obvious.

* Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is an amazing, highly recommended book.

* “Why Are Conservatives More Susceptible to Believing Lies?“, although I’d like to see more about “are they?” beforehand.

* Bryan Caplan’s next book, The Case Against Education, is available for pre-order here. I’ve been looking forward to it for years.

* “‘Homes for human beings’: Millennial-driven anti-NIMBY movement is winning with a simple message.” Good.

* “Mind the gap:” a long, riveting story about how land-use policy scuppered new businesses.

* “How One Las Vegas ED Saved Hundreds of Lives After the Worst Mass Shooting in U.S. History.”

* “Shades of Greene:” Zadie Smith on Graham Greene.

* “Students are leading the assault on free speech — and faculty members and administrators are enabling them.”

* “Why dating is drudgery;” note that the article is in The New Yorker and thus better than its headline may imply.

* “Outbreak: Our Next Global Pandemic.” Be scared.

Links: Teaching Madame Bovary, Amsterdam, how faxes impair medicine, startups and farming, and more!

* “Teaching Madame Bovary,” a marvelous essay, and I would add that students like to judge before understanding. In this they’re only supported by the entire culture. But one thing instructors can and should ask for is understanding, and only after that judgment. Maybe I make the same error.

* “Bitter pill,” on second-, third-, and fourth-order effects from reliable contraception; not much of my views in it but consistently interesting and plausible.

* Douthat asks, “What’s the Matter With Republicans?

* “Five reasons why Amsterdam works so well for bikes.” Note that any American city could copy all five factors.

* “The Broken Check and Balance,” on how the Constitution is ill-suited to today’s U.S., which is polarized as has rarely if ever happened before.

* The fax of life: It’s 2017. American medicine still runs on fax machines because doctors and administrators think that making medical records easier to transfer will make patients change providers more easily. In other words, this is yet another patient-unfriendly, anti-competitive part of the healthcare landscape.

* “Philosophy Professor Tells Bisexual Student Who Criticized Islam ‘We’re Not Going to Let You Damage the Program.'” Wow, if true, and yet secret recordings are also not good.

* “Many Academics Are Eager to Publish in Worthless Journals.” This time from the NYT.

* Why Timber Towers Are on the Rise in France.

* “Mimesis Machines and Millennials.”

* “When the Academy Retreats: Thought-policing and value-signaling are pre-empting free and open discussion on college campuses.” It’s pretty depressing that we’re still fighting for free speech in 2017.

* Denver Radically Expanded Its Transit. So Why Are More People Driving Cars?

* “Meet the startups fighting Bay Area’s soaring housing costs.” These efforts are useful but pretty marginal; the basic problem remains: it’s illegal to build the housing that people want to live in.

* “Seven megatrends that could beat global warming: ‘There is reason for hope.'”

* “Startup ‘Plenty’ wants to build a giant indoor farm next to every major city.”

* “Could Rome Have Had an Industrial Revolution?

* “Forfeiting The Patriarchal Dividend,” a piece likely to anger some of you and not necessarily my view.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things — Ben Horowitz

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is one of the best books I’ve read recently and one of those books whose subject matter is unlikely to interest most of you, but the execution is so good that you ought to read it anyway. The best books transcend their subject; this is probably the best passage in an already great book:

Most business relationships either become too tense to tolerate or not tense enough to be productive after a while. Either people challenge each other to the point where they don’t like each other or they become complacent about each other’s feedback and no longer benefit from the relationship.

Implicitly, you could strike the adjective “business” and replace it with a lot of others… or perhaps strike it altogether and still achieve a similar effect. I’ve often felt exactly what Horowitz is describing but never conceptualized it that way. Over and over again, I found myself marking passages and putting checkmarks next to them. In most books, that practice falls off a third of the way through; in this one, I kept going to the very end.

Many sections just demonstrate that Horowitz gets things. Like:

“What would you do if capital were free?” is a dangerous question to ask an entrepreneur. It’s kind of like asking a fat person, “What would you do if ice cream had the exact same nutritional value as broccoli?” The thinking this question leads to can be extremely dangerous.

Wishful thinking can block useful thinking. Which most of us don’t think, or don’t think consciously.

He’s thinking about antifragility before Nassim Taleb wrote the eponymous book:

The close call was a sign to me that the entire operation was far too fragile. I got another sign when our largest competitor, Exodus, filed for bankruptcy on September 26. It was a truly incredible bankruptcy in that the company had been valued at $50 billion a little more than a year earlier. It was also remarkable because Exodus had raised $800 million on a “fully funded plan” just nine months earlier. An Exodus executive later joked to me: “When we drove off a cliff, we left no skid marks.” It Exodus could lose $50 billion in market capitalization and $800 million in cash that fast, I needed a backup plan.

I’m surprised there aren’t more novels set among venture capitalists or startups. The drama is all there. Maybe most writers don’t realize it, but Horowitz is good at stakes and drama. His stories are too often to quote in full, but they’re full of narrative drama and tension in a way most books aren’t. And some character descriptions are as good as anything in fiction:

Wow. I had no idea who I was dealing with until that point. Understanding how differently Frank viewed the world than the people at Opsware helped clarify my thoughts. Frank expected to get screwed by us. It’s what always happened to him in his job and presumably in his personal life. We needed something dramatic to break his psychology. We needed to be associated with the airport bar, not with his job or his family.

Horowitz had an epiphany and he acted on it. Hard Things could be seen as a series of epiphanies, and we get to follow him through.

We’re often told to attend to data, likely because most people don’t, but once you attend to data, “Sometimes only the founder has the courage to ignore the data.” Like Peter Thiel, Horowitz argues that your life is not a lottery ticket and that markets are often wrong (or at least that insiders can see things that the outsiders who create market values cannot):

If I’d learned anything it was that conventional wisdom had nothing to do with the truth and the efficient markets hypothesis was deceptive. How else could one explain Opsware trading at half of the cash we had in the bank when we had a $20 million a year contract and fifty of the smartest engineers in the world? No, markets weren’t “efficient” at finding the truth; they were just very efficient at converging on a conclusion—often the wrong conclusion.

Almost anyone trying to do anything useful should be thinking about what good ideas are not being pursued: “Wall Street does not believe Opsware is a good idea, but I do.”

“The wrong conclusion:” if markets can converge on “the wrong conclusion,” so can individuals and societies. Some of Hard Things can be read as a critique of American society: “My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive.” American society is regularly considered to be positive, but in a way that isn’t necessarily founded on skill or improvement. The “self-esteem” movement is part of this trend, even though moving towards self-efficacy would be an improvement. In class, when I started teaching I was often too positive. Now I’m less positive and more likely to emphasize that growth often comes from pain and struggle. The deadlift doesn’t get higher without some pain, and the best lifters learn to love the pain. Same with intellectual, psychological, or emotional growth. Yet we have a society that shies away from those truths.

I’ve heard about Hard Things many times but this recommendation tipped me into reading it, and I hope my recommendation tips you. The best books can be read many ways and applied to many situations, and this is one of the best. I didn’t expect it to be, which makes it all the more delightful.

Links: More on lab-grown meat, a vaccine for the common cold, the university and reformation, and more!

* Memphis Meats Bets That Lab-Grown Meat Can Solve the Global Food Crisis.

* “Why can’t we cure the common cold?” Turns out that we likely can be choose not to for economic, legal, and regulatory reasons, which is terrible.

* “Rising Rents Are Pushing More Tenants Past the Breaking Point.” Maybe this will get more voters interested in the seemingly boring issue of zoning.

* From The Economist (and thus likely not an outright crank or virtue signaling piece), “Why do women still earn a lot less than men? When they do the same job, though, their salaries are practically the same.”

* The university must be the site of the next Reformation – here’s why.” I’m not convinced this must be true, but it could be true. The writer is also missing a lot of the other functions universities serve, the most important of which may actually be coaching, encouragement, and goal setting.

* “The White-Minstrel Show,” which went all over the Internet when it was published but which I’m just now getting to.

* “Too Many People Dream of a Charmed Life in Academia: Brilliant colleagues. Curious students. High status. Earning less than half of what a kindergarten teacher makes.” Regular readers of course know this, but based on the way grad schools keep filling up it appears most people do not.

* “An argument that professors shouldn’t stay silent about threats to speech on campus.” More easily said than done, especially because most faculty are contingent; I think the story of administration cowardice is most interesting here.

* “The Last Days of the Leather Fortress,” about the Armory in San Francisco and its longtime use by an adult film company; link is likely SFW as the story is published by Hazlitt.

* “The world in 2076: The population bomb has imploded.” Anyone worried about overpopulation is fighting the last war and ought to read Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.

* “Record surge in atmospheric CO2 seen in 2016.”

* “Why Professors Are Writing Crap That Nobody Reads.” In short, they’re incentivized to.

* “Russia Uses Its Oil Giant, Rosneft, as a Foreign Policy Tool.” Another reason to prefer electric cars.

“F*cked,” the book by Corinne Fisher and Krystyna Hutchinson, is not good

F*cked: Being Sexually Explorative and Self-Confident in a World That’s Screwed seems promising and I’m sympathetic to its premise, but the execution is poor. The pull quote for an early chapter says, “Self-esteem isn’t everything. / It’s just that there’s nothing without it.” Is that true? I don’t know, but there is something without self-esteem. Like, say, the earth. “Everything” and “nothing” are too vague to be useful here. In the same chapter, Fisher writes, “Until I began recording the Guys We Fucked podcast, I really had no idea just how bad people felt about themselves.” Do people feel that bad about themselves? How do we know? We get no evidence and Fisher seems unfamiliar with selection bias; someone writing to an agony aunt is likely to feel worse than a random person in a population.

Another early chapter says, “Shame is nothing new—it’s been used for centuries.” But no longer than 999 years? Or more than that? If it’s more, why “centuries?” One minute searching the literature brings up, “Cross-Cultural Differences and Similarities in Proneness to Shame: An Adaptationist and Ecological Approach.” Almost everything they write about has people who’ve spent their careers studying it, but almost none of that knowledge percolates into the text. A pity.

Psychology Today, a pop psych site, appears at least three times, and there are lots of generalizations but no works cited page. In that respect it’s not worse than the books it criticizes (“We were tired of these books that pander to women like we’re all hot messes, unable to handle our emotions without the assistance of a man, a glass of rosé, and a Xanax”), but there is better out there. A book like The Guide to Getting It On is better.

F*cked presupposes so much anxiety in its readers; again, articles like “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed” come to mind while reading it, as they did while reading La Belle Sauvage. The books opens, “Are you a degenerate cum dumpster who isn’t worthy of love or affection? Probably not, but odds are someone has made you feel that way at one point in time.” No, and probably no one has. Examples like this are way rhetorical questions should be used sparingly, if at all.

Don’t be like me and fall for the book, even if you are like me and sympathetic to its premise.

La Belle Sauvage — Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage is good but suffers from a problem: it occurs a little more than a decade before His Dark Materials and concerns Lyra as a baby. But anyone who’s read His Dark Materials knows that she survives. The supposed threats to her are drained of potency and that in turn drains the book of vibrancy. It feels more like a kids’ book than His Dark Materials, too.

There is even a strange moment on the third page, about Malcolm: “he took tips to be the generosity of providence, and came to think of himself as lucky, which did him no harm later in life.” So we know he survives, too.

Many sections are charming, though not in a flashy way:

There was probably nowhere, he thought, where anyone could learn so much about the world as this little bend of the river, with the inn on one side and the priory on the other.

There are probably many people who do think that you could learn more “about the world” somewhere else, but an 11-year-old could very easily believe otherwise, as Malcolm does.

Malcolm is also charmingly unmanaged; many passages like this:

“I lent the canoe to someone, and that man brought it back.”
“Oh. Well, get on and take these dinners through. Table by the fire.”

between Malcolm and his mother feel not of this world, or at least the chattering-class part of it. Valuable items like canoes would probably be the subject of much supervision today. Too much. Articles like “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed” came to mind as I read Malcolm’s journey towards antifragility.

Scholars are important in the Pullman world, which is a refreshing change from much of our world.

Sprinkled throughout the book is a sense of malevolent bureaucracy, religious in form here but transferable to other kinds. The Consistorial Court of Discipline, the “Environmental Protection” people, the League of St. Alexander: they all have an undertone of official harassment, and even people not formally part of the organization can act like people in the organization. Yet suspicion of bureaucracy is not enough to impede its growth. The individuals matter, even the ones who are “terrifying” like Sister Benedicta. Even those adults who aren’t part of bureaucracies, per se, are making or speculating on bureaucratic pronouncements, like “I should think every boat that exists will have been requisitioned by the authorities.”

Despite moments of interest, La Belle Sauvage is not as narratively compelling as The Golden Compass, though I don’t entirely know why. Even apart from the issue of Lyra surviving, I often found my attention wandering, thinking about other books.

This piece is excellent and discusses the thematic elements, although it’s also spoiler-laden.

Links: Nashville, the social experiment, education and outrage, and more!

* Me, on Grant Writing Confidential, on “Nashville, seen and unseen,” regarding a recent trip there.

* “Sex and the Seductions of Social Explanation.” Concerns a very interesting book that I’ve now ordered.

* “Why Trump Just Might Blow Up NAFTA.” All of us may eventually suffer the poor choices of 2016 voters.

* “Education in the age of outrage.” I think part of what individuals (like me!) can do is simply try to tone down the outrage machine and focus on facts and understanding first and evaluation second (or third). Most people want to do judgment first and understanding later, if ever, which is not very satisfying for anyone, even the outraged.

* “Kimbal Musk wants to feed America, Silicon-Valley style.” Great! Sign me up.

* “A Jane Austen Kind of Guy: I get it that women find my affinity for their writer intrusive, but her world has much to offer men, too.”

* “‘Willing to Do Everything,’ Mothers Defend Sons Accused of Sexual Assault.” It’s surprising that almost no one saw this coming.

* “We Libertarians Were Really Wrong About School Vouchers” has an overstated headline but is interesting throughout for anyone interested in education, and this especially is true: “The socioeconomic status of the students in a school is somewhat easier for parents to observe than the quality of the pedagogy.” Really good teaching looks a lot like average if not below average teaching for a very long time, and it’s often hard to tell if the teaching has been any good until long after the class is over. Most of us know this anecdotally.

* “Cheater’s Poker: Esther Perel’s suave, crowd-pleasing take on surviving infidelity.”

* “Teenage Wasteland,” by Claire Lehman of Quilette, on Jean Twenge’s book iGen.

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