Links: The cost of construction, writing really long fiction, computerized farms, and more!

* Why American Costs Are So High.

* “What’s Left of the Center-Left?” Depressing. Also depressing, Clinton-era centrist Democrat Brad DeLong explains why the center-left is dead.

* Charlie Stross: Lessons learned: writing really long fiction.

* “What if All the World’s Economic Woes Are Part of the Same Problem?“, and that problem is demographic: an aging workforce is less innovative, takes fewer risks, and is more sclerotic overall.

* “Leaked Documents Show the U.S. Tracking Journalists Through a Secret Database.” How is this the country we’ve ended up living in?

* “Why Do People Love to Hate Steven Pinker? By proclaiming the gospel of human progress, the Harvard psychologist has made a lot of enemies.” I see a lot of straw-manning Pinker and almost no steel-manning of him.

* “Progressivism and the West;” we are our own worst enemies!

* “This is Roquette Science: How computerized arugula (aka roquette) farms take over the world.”

* But at least one random writer thinks Biden will win, which sounds like a good, electable outcome to me.

* An essay against Taleb’s Antifragile.

* “The Industrial Revolution of Shame.” Does this enhance rewards to shamelessness?

* On the new translation of The Odyssey.

* Attraction Inequality and the Dating Economy.

* “US to build six nuclear power plants in India.” Total comedy given the seeming inability of the US to build nuclear power plants in the US.

The college bribery scandal vs. Lambda School

Many of you have seen the news, but, while the bribery scandal is sucking up all the attention in the media, Lambda School is offering a $2,000/month living stipend to some students and Western Governors University is continuing to quietly grow. The Lambda School story is a useful juxtaposition with the college-bribery scandal. Tyler Cowen has a good piece on the bribery scandal (although to me the scandal looks pretty much like business-as-usual among colleges, which are wrapped up in mimetic rivalry, rather than a scandal as such, unless the definition of a scandal is “when someone accidentally tells the truth”):

Many wealthy Americans perceive higher education to be an ethics-free, law-free zone where the only restraint on your behavior is whatever you can get away with.

This may be an overly cynical take, but to what extent do universities act like ethics-free, law-free zones? They accept students (and their student loan payments) who are unlikely to matriculate; they have no skin in the game regarding student loans; insiders understand the “paying for the party” phenomenon, while outsiders don’t; too frequently, universities don’t seem to defend free speech or inquiry. In short, many universities are exploiting information asymmetries between them and their students and those students’s parents—especially the weakest and worst-informed students. Discrimination against Asians in admissions is common at some schools and is another open secret, albeit less secret than it once was. When you realize what colleges are doing to students and their families, why is it a surprise when students and their families reciprocate?

To be sure, this is not true of all universities, not all the time, not all parts of all universities, so maybe I am just too close to the sausage factory. But I see a whole lot of bad behavior, even when most of the individual actors are well-meaning. Colleges have evolved in a curious set of directions, and no one attempting to design a system from scratch would choose what we have now. That is not a reason to imagine some kind of perfect world, but it is worth asking how we might evolve out of the current system, despite the many barriers to doing so. We’re also not seeing employers search for alternate credentialing sources, at least from what I can ascertain.

See also “I Was a College Admissions Officer. This Is What I Saw.” In a social media age, why are we not seeing more of these pieces? (EDIT: Maybe we are? This is another one, scalding and also congruent with my experiences.) Overall, I think colleges are really, really good at marketing, and arguably marketing is their core competency. A really good marketer, however, can convince you that marketing is not their core competency.

Links: Breakthrough technologies, breaking technology habits, the nature of language, and more!

* How one guy ditched his phone and unbroke his brain.

* America’s Professional Elite: Wealthy, Successful and Miserable. Maybe.

* “Better babblers.” This rings true:

After eighteen years of being a professor, I’ve graded many student essays. And while I usually try to teach a deep structure of concepts, what the median student actually learns seems to mostly be a set of low order correlations. They know what words to use, which words tend to go together, which combinations tend to have positive associations, and so on. But if you ask an exam question where the deep structure answer differs from answer you’d guess looking at low order correlations, most students usually give the wrong answer.

* Related to the above, “Humans Who Are Not Concentrating Are Not General Intelligences.” This may argue for more in-depth books and articles and less Twitter.

* Thoughts on pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter Internet culture.

* “University of California system terminates subscriptions with world’s largest scientific publisher in push for open access to publicly funded research.” Unabashedly good news.

* The New ‘Dream Home’ Should Be a Condo. An obvious point to regular readers, but here it is.

* Money Out of Nowhere: How Internet Marketplaces Unlock Economic Wealth.

* “‘Men Are Scum’: Inside Facebook’s War on Hate Speech.” Some of the framing is bad but the overall article is far superior to most of its type.

* “A Radically Moderate Answer to Climate Change.” You may be getting tired of reading about nuclear power, yet we still seem as a culture not to be paying attention to it. See also “Nuclear goes retro — with a much greener outlook.” By the way, Vacant-land mythology impedes serious energy discussions, so renewables are not a panacea.

* “‘Do you ever think about me?’: the children sex tourists leave behind.” Brutal, fascinating.

* “The Era of Limited Government Is Over.” This is bad news even for people who favor greater government control.

* “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff ran $1M slush fund by diverting campaign cash to his own companies.” The greater the purity facade, the more entertaining the fall.

* “Arizona State University: From party school to global brand.” The story is poorly organized but despite that, there are interesting nuggets throughout. The story’s quality and venue may also indicate why people interested in ideas migrated away from most newspapers.

* “Markets Aren’t Buying Denial on Climate Change: Investors who put money at risk behave as if it’s not a hoax.”

* 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2019, curated by Bill Gates.

Digital Minimalism — Cal Newport

All of Cal Newport’s books could be titled, “How to Be an Effective Person.” Or, maybe, “How to Be an Effective Person In This Technological Epoch.” Digital Minimalism is, like Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, about why you should quit or drastically limit the digital distractions that have proliferated in much of modern life. To me, it seemed obviously necessary to do so a long time ago, so there’s a large component of preaching-to-the-choir in me reading and now recommending this book. I’m barely on Facebook or most other social networks, which seem anathema to doing anything substantive or important.

A story. A friend sent me an email about Newport’s article “Is email making professors stupid?” I told him that, even in grad school, I’d figured out the problems with email and checked it, typically, once per day—sometimes every other day. The other grad students were in awe of that (low?) rate. I was like, “How do you get any writing done otherwise?” I leave it as an exercise to the reader to square this circle. You may notice that some of my novels are out there and their novels are not.

In my experience, too, most profs actually like the distraction, the work-like feeling without having to do the hard part. In reality, it is not at all hard to open your email every other day and spent 90%+ of your time focused on your work. If you don’t do this, then, as Newport says, “The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.” And yet many of us, as measured by data, do just that. I buy many of Newport’s arguments while also being skeptical that we’ll see large-scale change. Yet we should seek individual change; many of the online systems are psychologically bad for us:

The techno-philosopher Jaron Lanier convincingly argues that the primacy of anger and outrage outline is, in some sense, an unavoidable feature of the medium: In an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs that positive and constructive thoughts. For heavy Internet users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity—a steep price that many don’t even realize they’re paying to support their compulsive connectivity.

Is “the primacy of anger and outrage” really “an unavoidable feature?” I like to think not; I like to think that I try to avoid anger and outrage, making those tertiary features at best, and instead I try to focus on ideas and thinking. So I like to think that I’m avoiding those things.

Still, compulsive connectivity online may also be costing us offline, real-world connection. That’s a point in Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, which you should also read.

The book describes how modern social media systems and apps exploit our desire for random or intermittent positive reinforcement. Because we don’t know what we’re going to get anytime we boot up Twitter or similar, we want to visit those sites more often. We lose perspective on what’s more important—finishing a vital long-term project or checking for whatever the news of the day might be, however trivial. Or seeing random thoughts from our friends. Newport doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t have friends or that social networking systems don’t have some value—he just points out that we can derive a huge amount of the value from a tiny amount of time (“minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them more more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make life good”). But our “drive for social approval” often encourages us to stay superficially connected, instead of deeply connected.

In the book, we also get visits to the Amish, suggestions we take a 30-day break from digital bullshit, and case studies from Newport’s readers. I don’t think “Solitude and Leadership” is cited, but it might as well have been.

Another version of this book might be, “opportunity costs matter.” If there’s anything missing, it’s a deeper exploration of why, if many digital social media tools are bad for us, we persist using them—and what our use may say about us. Perhaps revealed preferences show that most of us don’t give a damn about the intentional life. Probably we never have. Maybe we never will. Arguably, history is a long drive towards greater connectivity, and, if this trend is centuries, maybe millennia, old, we can expect it to continue. Many older religious figures worried deeply that technologies would take people away from their religious communities and from God, and those figures were actually right. Few of us, however, want to go back.

For a book about craft and living an intentional life, the paper quality of this book is oddly bad.

Links: Email’s evils, nuclear needs, rail reductions, Jordan Peterson talk, and debt, debt, debt

* Is email making professors stupid?

* The trouble in getting to Denmark.

* Why the United States will never have high-speed rail, or, the downsides of federalism and our legal culture.

* Conversation with Tyler, “Jordan Peterson on Mythology, Fame, and Reading People.” Lord of the Rings is mentioned. This one is a favorite and also a rebuttal to the occasional “intellectual lightweight” comments one sees online.

* “The Nuclear Option: As atomic power fades, a new band of supporters argues that it is still our best source of clean, reliable, and—yes—safe electricity.”

* “How Student Debt Dragged A Generation Down — And What We Can Do About It.” The supposed “solutions” are pretty lame and don’t solve moral hazard problems. We have a huge problem in that there is a tension between access and cost control. For example, right now many universities have zero incentive to offer programs that will pay back loans and admit students likely to be able to pay back loans. If you make colleges and universities have some skin in the game, though, they will immediately change access rules. “There is no such thing as a free lunch” is a useful rule here. We also need cultural changes: the idea that a degree guarantees a good job and high income is ridiculous, but we don’t want to confront that reality, either. In short, this writer is like 85% correct, but the other 15% really matters.

* “Postmodern Philosophy is a Debating Strategy,” and not an accurate description of much of anything.

* “Climeworks: The Tiny Swiss Company That Thinks It Can Help Stop Climate Change.” Not just the usual.

* From Literature to Web Development: My first 6 weeks at Lambda School.

* “What Happens When Techno-Utopians Actually Run a Country” is not a good title, as the article concerns Italy’s political scene and what happens when the revolutionaries win the power, but the article itself is interesting and makes me wish Umberto Eco were still alive and writing.

* Betty Ballantine, Who Helped Introduce Paperbacks, Dies at 99.

* “Accused College Students Deserve the Presumption of Innocence: Nineteen attorneys general are lobbying against extending that right in Title IX cases on campus.” The current situation is bizarre—and does not reflect well on universities.

* China Will Likely Corner the 5G Market—and the US Has No Plan.

* The evolution of America’s apartment buildings.” Most of these look good to me; I’d move in.

* The Story of Storytelling.

* The state of culture on the Internet, albeit disguised as a different topic.

* “A tale of two 20003s: high rises or high rents.” Fairly obvious and yet strangely opaque to many people.

* System76 Thelio: A Review.

* “I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.”

Links: Reading, distraction, Soundcloud rap, Lionel Trilling, bleak Instagram, and more!

* How SoundCloud Rap Took Over Music. I have no idea if any of this is true, but I laughed consistently throughout.

* I prefer the Arts & Letters Daily title, “Lionel Trilling belonged to the last generation of academics who believed that they had something of social importance to communicate.”

* “If San Francisco is so great, why is everyone I love leaving?” This author manages to write a couple thousand words without mentioning “zoning” or “supply” or “demand,” demonstrating that she actually has no idea what’s going on.

* Cal Newport on Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes.

* White gold: the rise of alternative milks.

* “‘The Linux of social media’—How LiveJournal pioneered (then lost) blogging.” Interesting that LiveJournal couldn’t turn itself into WordPress or Facebook. In some ways, this is a mismanagement and missed opportunities story. Despite all the Facebook hate in the media, LiveJournal’s story shows how many things Facebook got right—whether you like the company or not, its users sure seem to like it.

* The Oxford Bodleian Library’s ‘secret trove of obscene material.’ In the Times Literary Supplement, so it’s likely SFW. Similarly, “Psst, want to see some dirty books? Try the British Library.”

* The bleak reality of the Instagram experience.

* “Why Have Other Countries Been Dropping Their Wealth Taxes?” Pay attention to reality, not to the slogans.

* The article about Ursula K. le Guin.

* “The Throwback Democrat: Sherrod Brown could help his party win back white working-class voters—but he’s out of sync with the mercilessness of American politics.” Do Democrats want to be Twitter woke, or do they want to win?

* A Sensible Climate Change Solution, Borrowed From Sweden.

* “Public Education’s Dirty Secret.” Matches what I’ve heard. One advantages colleges have, which I rarely see mentioned, is that people actively hostile to the classroom experience leave or are made to leave.

* “Since when is reading James Baldwin out loud in class an academic crime?” Academia parodies itself so effectively that the need for academic novels seems to have dropped.

* “Is the Revolution of 3D-Printed Building Getting Closer?” Let’s hope so, as that would likely substantially decrease construction costs.

* Japanese urbanism and its application to the Anglo-World.

* “Tyler Cowen’s Gospel of Prosperity,” an interview as marvelous as the book that generated it, Stubborn Attachments.

* Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction.

* “The Twitter Takeover of Politics Is Just Getting Started.” Depressing and important. See also The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

Teaching demands starting where comprehension ends

How Craig Barton wishes he’d taught maths” is from Timothy Gowers‘s blog, and many sections are not unique to math; they apply to teaching almost anything. Like this:

I’m jumping around a bit here, but a semi-counterintuitive idea that he advocates, which is apparently backed up by serious research, is what he calls pretesting. This means testing people on material that they have not yet been taught. As long as this is done carefully, so that it doesn’t put students off completely, this turns out to be very valuable, because it prepares the brain to be receptive to the idea that will help to solve that pesky problem. And indeed, after a moment of getting used to the idea, I found it not counterintuitive at all.

In English, “pretesting” as such is often not possible, but it’s useful to attempt to gauge students’s knowledge and go back to wherever the student is confused—which may be very simple aspects of language, like parts of speech. I often had debates about this subject in grad school, when other grad students or professors would lament students’s weak grasp of “basics” or “fundamentals” like comma rules. The stern professors had a point, in that university students should know those things, but I would counter that, if students don’t know them, it’s useful to teach them, even in “advanced” classes. Sometimes students seem to have not been taught much of anything in high-school English classes. Many high-school English classes have devolved into discussions of feelings and vague hand-waving about a given book, and students emerge from them with few concrete skills.

To be sure, sometimes the opposite is true. While teaching in grad school, I had a series of students, all good writers, all of whom had been taught by a particular teacher in a particular high school, and she apparently really drilled students in close reading and essay construction, like someone out of “The Writing Revolution.” The results showed. I meant to send her a letter thanking her but never did. I would guess that she did a form of “pretesting,” albeit without multiple-choice questions, to ascertain students’s skill levels and then base each day in class on what students know. I used to do something similar at times, by doing quick yes/no questions based on raised hands, in order to get a sense of where students were. Now, reading “How Craig Barton wishes he’d taught maths,” I think I should have spent more time and energy on assessment.

In most if not all subjects, it’s not possible to teach (or learn) advanced topics without mastering fundamentals, so an instructor should go back to wherever someone lacks mastery and begin building up from there. If that doesn’t happen, students—in the broadest sense, even outside formal school—at most muddle through and at worst waste everyone’s time. It’s nice to see someone as eminent as Timothy Gowers coming to a similar conclusion.

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