Briefly noted: Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments

Edge.org’s annual question book, Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments, is out in paper—and it’s available in its entirety online. Many responses discuss global climate change, like this one:

There is no real difficulty in identifying the most important news of 2015. Global warming is the news that will remain news for the foreseeable future, because our world will continue to warm at a rate that has never been seen before, at least at the moment without a foreseeable end.

The choice is a good and important though depressing one, but one should note that some progress is being made in terms of decarbonization of energy, the spread of electric vehicles, and the like. It may also be that we need or want less stuff than we once did:

Chris Goodall and a number of other commentators have documented this decoupling extensively: UK government data also shows a reduction in material use from about 12 tons a year per person to around 9 tons from 2000 to 2013. Japan shows a similar pattern.

Maybe the most obvious avatar of this change is the smartphone.

The other big groupings are particle physics and genetic engineering. In the former group, for example, Sarah Demers writes:

The terrifying possibility floating through these “Higgs and nothing else” conversations is that we might reach the end of exploration at the energy frontier. Without better clues of our undiscovered physics, we might not have sufficient motivation to build a higher energy machine. Even if we convince ourselves, could we convince the world and marshal the necessary resources to break the energy frontier again and continue to probe nature under the extreme conditions that teach us about nature’s building blocks?

The particle physicists seem about split between optimism that we’ll get breakthroughs and the terror described here that we’ll reach the end of effective measurement and breakthroughs. Yet many of the writers enumerate the many unresolved problems in physics, which could be read as a rebuke to people who say or imply that there’s nothing left to do, no blank spaces left on the map, and nothing left to discover.

Links: College and speech, subways, textbooks, the manipulated citizen, and more!

* “Don’t Blame Politics for the Crisis at American Colleges: Campus life has been increasingly riled by controversies over perceived offenses. An administrative culture is partly responsible.” Still, one has to ask: is there a crisis? If so, what is it, and for whom is it a crisis?

* All aboard: the Second Avenue Subway is here. See also: Why does infrastructure cost so damn much in the U.S.?

* In keeping with the above: “Considerations on cost disease.” A much more vital essay than its title, maybe, suggests.

* A useful reminder: “Ordinary Americans Carried Out Inhumane Acts For Trump.”

* I Helped Create the Milo Trolling Playbook. You Should Stop Playing Right Into It. From Ryan Holiday of Trust Me, I’m Lying fame. We are easily manipulated, myself likely included.

* To Live Your Best Life, Do Mathematics.

* “Garry Kasparov, a top Putin critic, on how to oppose Trump: ‘making him look like a loser is crucial.'”

* Stan Smith knows you think he’s just a sneaker, a very weird and fascinating story.

* “Love is like cocaine.”

* Why great critics make disastrous judgments.

* “Top Hat Raises $22.5 Million to Go After Pearson, McGraw-Hill.” Good.

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction — Derek Thompson

In 2011, a pseudonymous woman wrote a book about a BDSM romance between an improbably matched couple who in many ways defy romantic convention. When you read the preceding sentence you probably think of 50 Shades of Grey, a terribly written book that eventually got turned into a massive movie. But I’m actually referencing Never the Face: A Story of Desire, a well-written book—at the link I expend 2,000 words analyzing it—that’s also been totally forgotten. The post I wrote is one of my least-read pieces. Aside from my post and a Guernica magazine interview, it appears that no one has written anything about Never the Face. A paperback edition was never released. Even a Kindle edition is absent. Never the Face never went viral.

Why?

hit_makersI don’t know. Certainly the topic has a long history—the Marquis de Sade wrote extensively and famously about what we now call BDSM in the 18th Century—but Never the Face never got going. Thompson attempts to find out why some of the answers as to why many if not most people have heard of 50 Shades while Never the Face is likely to remain forever obscure. He even has a chapter devoted to 50 Shades, and while he traces the mechanics of the book back to its fan fiction origins, he doesn’t answer—and probably can’t—why that particular work of fan fiction took off. He notes that E. L. James vigorously networked with other readers, but I bet other fan fic writers did too. We don’t see them, however—they’re cultural dark matter to us.

At the end of that 50 Shades chapter Thompson writes:

To understand why some hits get so big, one cannot look exclusively at characteristics like familiarity or at marketing strategies like one-to-one-million moments. The broadcasts come first, but they are not enough. A handful of products will inevitably become massively popular each year for the simple reason that, once they are pushed into the national consciousness, people just can’t stop talking about them.

So how do you get people to talk?

That question doesn’t have easy answers either; one of the more interesting I’ve seen comes from Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.

I finished Hit Makers a week or two ago and its ideas have been popping up in my mind since; for example, the next links post will include “Why Great Critics Make Disastrous Judgments.” Hit Makers offers a useful answer: some works are so new and different that they can’t be evaluated by previous metrics. They are most advanced yet acceptable (or acceptable to many readers). Critics, bringing their previously developed and honed sensibility to the new work, miss what makes it good, and they miss the way the new work will make the critical conversation itself swerve. Cultural evolution is unpredictable, and we’re all nodes in the shaping of things. Great critics make a lot of judgments, and by the sheer quantity of them some are bound to be bad. New works can have the function of teaching us how to read the new works themselves. It takes time to let the new work work on your mind.

There are other examples of weird popularity. In “Stan Smith is more than just a shoe,” Lauren Schwartzberg profiles a mostly forgotten, middling tennis player who, decades ago, managed to sign an endorsement contract with Adidas, who released a shoe named after him. That shoe achieved improbable pop culture stardom and has sold millions of copies per year for years on end. It’s so popular that other companies make their own versions; I didn’t realize this, but I actually own a pair of Cole Haan’s copy of Stan Smith sneakers (but they’re not very comfortable and I walk wrong in them). Somehow, though, Stan Smiths have retained their cool aura over decades of fashion changes.

Hit Makers is too long and rich to summarize briefly. I will note, however, that sometimes the data is just depressing:

Television proved an irresistible seductress. By 1965, more than 90 percent of households had a television set, and they were spending more than five hours watching it every day.

One is awed by the sheer waste of time, energy, and attention. Still, when I hear critics of education talk about the problems with the school system, sometimes I think about what the alternatives may be: for many people, they are TV (or now Facebook and its equivalents: “In 2012, for the first time ever, Americans spent more time interacting with digital devices like their laptops and phones than with television”). Digital devices are probably an improvement on TV but not on many alternatives.

One is also awed by the amount of time people waste on what seems to be bullshit on Facebook. But many makers make contrarian bets that still work. HBO and The Sopranos is one example Thompson uses. That is actually an important part of HBO’s business model: do something different from what everyone else is doing. Being a contrarian is dangerous, though, since most contrarians are simply wrong. And one also faces supply and demand problems. My own medium may be the best example of those problems:

Writing in the twenty-first century might be the most competitive industry in human history. The barriers are low, the supply is massive, and the competition is global, with countless publishers producing content for a global audience.

Yet writers—like this one—keep doing it. Content is everywhere but insight is rare. Keep hunting insight. It may lead you to hits.

A field guide to Trump Resistance demonstrations

My father, Isaac, wrote this post.

As a young man, I was very involved in the antiwar movement, as well as other social justice causes. I went to many demonstrations, organized some, and spent two weeks registering African American voters in Natchez, MS during one Spring Break (I wasn’t smart enough to go to Fort Lauderdale). Like President Obama, I was trained by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as a community organizer and spent over a year working as a community organizer in a low-income African American neighborhood. You can read about my background as a true-believer radical at the link.

While I long ago hung up my demonstrating spurs, looking back over four decades to my activist and community organizing days gives me an unusual perspective on the sudden eruption of large street demonstrations by the Resistance to Trump.* This is my guide to Resistance fighters, who are willing to leave their coffee shops, yoga studios and Whole Foods for the suddenly trendy act of street demonstrations.

Not everyone in the thousands of people marching will necessarily share your desire for the peaceful exercise of group free speech. Some demonstrators likely have ulterior motives, whether they be the black masked anarchists who seem to love to break Starbucks windows, or, potentially much worse agent provocateurs. Such infiltrators could be aligned with some interest group, which could include Trump supporters, police—or, I suppose, even Putin, if you’re a conspiratorial sort.

As the protests grow, local cops and politicians, including Democrats, are going to be under increasing pressure to contain demonstrations to enable people to get to work, etc. It only takes a few agitators to turn a peaceful march into a riot. I know this first hand, as I was part of a demonstration of about 5,000 students protesting a speech by then HUD Secretary George Romney that suddenly turned ugly. Within a few minutes, some people in the crowd starting taunting the police and rushing the stage where Romney was speaking. A later investigation found that the people who rushed the stage were actually police agent provocateurs planted in the march. Waves of baton wielding cops moved on us from all sides. Tear gas canisters went flying. I got fairly badly tear gassed and retreated to a nearby classroom building to hide in a bathroom and wash my eyes, which is a different meaning for “sheltering” in place and a different meaning than today’s “safe space” advocates have in mind.

In a large march or demonstration, you’ll only see what happening immediately around you, and you can quickly get caught up in a riot without realizing that a riot is happening. Always be aware of your surroundings and who’s nearby.

Try to give yourself an escape route and be prepared to bolt. This is not the time for flip-flops and t-shirts. Wear running shoes, long pants, and a long sleeved shirt, since tear gas and CS gas (much stronger than tear gas and sometimes used by police), irritate the skin as well as the eyes. Carry a hanky and water bottle in case you need wash your eyes out if you get teargassed. Above all, resist the urge to get in the face of cops, throw projectiles or otherwise provoke police—they will use their batons to defend themselves and you might easily be handcuffed and carted off to jail.

Leave your babies, kids, and dogs at home. While pushing a stroller makes for great TV/Facebook/Instagram videos, kids and pets will be in extreme danger if a riot develops and you won’t be able to protect them.

The biggest danger is that counter-marchers will appear. So far, the Resistance marchers have had the field to themselves. Eventually, counter-marchers will start showing up. Over 60 million Americans voted for Trump and they also know how to use social media. Two opposing groups of peaceful demonstrators are not a problem, and police will usually try to keep them separated.

But just as there are anarchists aligned with the Resistance, some pro-Trumpsters may show up with ax handles and be intent on mayhem. Trump has fairly strong support among police unions, veterans, and bikers, for example, and these guys may show up ready to fight.

The police rank and file may also be more sympathetic to the counter-marchers than the Resistance and might just let the two groups tangle for a while. Or the police themselves can become the counter-marchers, like the Chicago Police Department at the Democratic Convention in 1968, which was later deemed a “police riot.” I don’t think any cops were disciplined, but hundreds of demonstrators were badly injured and the Chicago Seven faced years of litigation.

The free expression of political opinions is the bedrock of the American democracy and I’m all for showing opposition to the politics and politicians of the day. As the Rollings Stones said in “You Don’t Always Get What You Want,” “And I went down to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse.” Don’t needlessly open yourself to abuse.


* I think conjuring up images of WW II France is overwrought, unless volunteers from Brooklyn and Santa Monica are going to parachute into coal country and disguise themselves by wearing red Make America Great hats, chewing tobacco, and driving Ford F-150s. If I were a community organizer on this project, I would use the term “Rebel Alliance” instead. The French Resistance were all white folk, while Star Wars goes for ethnic and inter-planetary species diversity.

“How to build an autocracy”

How to build an autocracy” appears in this month’s Atlantic and may turn out to be the most important article of 2017. It’s so important that I’m putting it in a standalone post rather than including it as an item amid others in a link list. One hopes that the future David Frum imagines in it doesn’t come to pass.

But if it doesn’t, it won’t because individual people choose not to let it come to pass. Knowledge is one step in that process. Action is another.

We seem to have collectively forgotten history. We’ve seen authoritarianism before. What’s odd is seeing it again—although Richard Rorty may have predicted it twenty years ago; until the last election I complacently thought, “It can’t happen here.” I was wrong.

Links: Feminist sympathizes with “men’s rights,” Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hollywood, clothes and costs, and more

* “How this feminist found herself sympathising with the men’s rights movement.”

* At least one smart, well-informed person, Radley Balko, thinks “In Gorsuch, Trump gave Democrats a gift. They should take it.” I don’t know enough to have an opinion but generally like Balko’s skepticism towards the consolidation of government power over individuals and also like his book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. Most of the discussion I’ve seen so far has been unenlightening.

* Scott Alexander on Eichmann in Jerusalem; I find the sections on bureaucratic and societal resistance most interesting. When I was younger I thought the “what” and “why” about a thing were the most interesting parts, but now I see that the “how” is at least as important.

* “Pants For the Cost of A Postage Stamp: A Conversation with Jacob Yazejian, Used Clothing Exporter.” This is an example of the “how” question being explained.

* “How Immigration Uncertainty Threatens America’s Tech Dominance.” Well-known to people in the field and not known at all among voters.

* America needs to abandon its reverence for bachelor’s degrees.

* “Why Hollywood as We Know It Is Already Over,” although I have been reading similar-ish articles for ~10 years.

* “The psychology of why 94 deaths from terrorism are scarier than 301,797 deaths from guns.”

* Things you don’t expect to read in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “‘I Have Multiple Loves:’ Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory.”

* Evan McMullins is trying to save democracy.

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