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.

What great writing looks like: “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”

In Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Rhodes quotes nuclear physicist Rudolf Peierls as saying that “[Traitor and spy Klaus Fuchs] was courteous and even-tempered. He was rather silent, unless one asked him a question, when he would give a full and articulate answer; for this Genia called ‘Penny-in-the-slot.'” That’s on page 57.

On page 175, Rhodes describes the famous Trinity atomic bomb test at Alamagordo, New Mexico, and quotes I. I. Rabi, another physicist, at length. Then Rhodes writes, “Fuchs was there to see the new thing he had caused to proliferate, the new control, but no one put a penny in his slot, so he left no record of how the unique experience affected him.” “No one put a penny in his slot:” the phrase does a lot of deft work in that sentence, pointing to the seeming incuriosity of everyone around Fuchs; to Fuchs’s character itself; to the way he responds rather than initiating (despite him working on atomic weapon initiator design). Rhodes takes what could have been an evocative-but-throwaway line and reconfigures it, connecting the two sections of the book through unusual but suddenly gorgeous language.

Another point about this pairing: it can’t really be generalized to a rule. Few if any writing books advise good writers to call back to an evocative description a hundred pages later, and to do so with an unexpected twist. Rhodes does it. He hits the high note here.

The book itself is about history, technology, politics, human motivation, human character, institutions, industrial organization, and many other topics. He writes, for example, about what made communism attractive to western communists, despite the fact that it doesn’t work. He writes, “Communism in any case was intensely fashionable at English universities between the World Wars.” It seems strange that anyone could have been attracted to Communism; as Stalin’s Great Terror unfolds through the 1930s, it becomes even stranger. Then again, socialism is having a strange vogue today, among people who seem not to quite understand what it entails (one definition, from Apple’s included Oxford American Diction: “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”) It’s possible of course for a “community” to own a company today, as with coops, or for individuals to own companies; they just tend to be outcompeted by publicly-owned companies, which ought to tell us something useful.

Still, Communism as a topic remains of interest not so much because of the fact that it fails, but because it could inspire people to betray their own, functional countries in favor of a dystopian hellscape like Soviet Russia. What makes a person do that? What does the motivation of a person doing that tell us about people as a whole, personality as a whole? What makes people choose and advocate for the clearly inferior choice? These are questions without final answers, which makes them interesting.

Links: Cheese and olive oil, Greenland is melting, aspirational mate pursuit, OLED computer displays, and more!

* “Greenland’s Melting Ice Nears a ‘Tipping Point.'” I wonder what it is going to take for us to start really doing something, like taxing carbon emissions and building a substantial number of new nuclear power plants.

* Funny book review: “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now.” Or, as Arts & Letters Daily puts it, “When did campy misandry become contemporary shorthand for communicating one’s feminist bona fides?” A favorite line: “Having a relationship is a lot like writing: To be good at it, you have to be interested in other people and believe you have something interesting to offer them in return. Many people who pursue either do so poorly because they are actually interested only in themselves.”

* CO2 rises in well-sealed, closed-door bedrooms, so maybe, when possible/feasible, we shouldn’t sleep with the door closed?

* “Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating markets.”

* “Are we in the Middle of a Programming Bubble?” I have wondered about this, as it seems that programming, or some aspects of it, is paid disproportionately to many peer professions. So why don’t markets adjust? Or are markets adjusting? Is information about just how well programming can pay not propagating to the rest of the market? Or is it really really that hard and most people can’t do it?

* “15-inch, 4K OLED laptops are coming thanks to new displays from Samsung.” OLED displays are amazing, as everyone who has used one knows.

* “[The United Arab Emirates] Held Me as a Spy—And the West Is Complicit.” I don’t get the interest in or fascination with Dubai. The country’s marketing of its liberal values is just marketing.

* “California will sue Huntington Beach over blocked homebuilding.” Good news.

* Colleges and governments have been fleecing Millennials.

* “Another Side of #MeToo: Male Managers Fearful of Mentoring Women.” It’s like no one thinks of second-order consequences.

* How Ideologues Captured the Canadian Publishing Industry.

* Don’t go to law school, but you already know that.

* “Facebook Reports Record Profit.” Keep this story in mind when you read all those hysterical media stories about the company; as you’ve read here, there is no actual Facebook crisis—just a media one. Again, I agree with most of the Facebook criticism, but my verbal agreement is less important than the behavior of users.

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

* “Why is high school four years?” It could be three or five.

* Why fiction sales are plummeting. Some of the criticism from “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now” is likely applicable to fiction too.

* “The Millennial Generation and the Problem of Meaning: Explaining Jordan Peterson’s meteoric rise.”

* Parmigiano-Reggiano is Italy’s practically perfect food? I would have thought olive oil.

Links: The death of the blog, what we can infer from behavior, insect collapse, and more!

* “The Millions Will Live on, But the Indie Book Blog Is Dead.” Shoot. Am I dead?

* “Impeach Donald Trump,” note the source here.

* “Nothing Can Stop Google. DuckDuckGo Is Trying Anyway.” There is much caterwauling in the media about privacy, Google, and Facebook. Using DuckDuckGo is one of the easiest and simplest ways of (marginally) increasing a person’s privacy. Yet almost no one does it (except me). What should we infer from that?

* “I work with kids. Here’s why they’re consumed with anxiety.”

* “The Rise and Demise of RSS.” I still use an RSS reader most days.

* “The Art of the Pan: What’s the Point of a Bad Review in 2019?” To warn readers?

* “Is This Higher Education’s Golden Age?” An interesting read but sort of wrong: higher education does have a curious stranglehold over many people’s lives, and yet its largesse is concentrated among a small number of people.

* Turns out that “Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most.”

* “Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems.’” By the way, it also looks like we are living through climate change’s worst-case scenario.

* Interview with poet and culture guy Dana Gioia.

* “Elsevier journal editors resign, start rival open-access journal.” This is good news.

* “‘They Own the System’: Amazon Rewrites Book Industry by Marching Into Publishing.” This is not optimal in many ways, but I also don’t see an alternative. Book publishers and retailers have been complacent forever, and by the time they woke up (have they awoken?), it was too late.

* “China’s Looming Crisis: A Shrinking Population.” Maybe we ought to try harder to make sure we don’t face the same challenge.

* “Why do authors have to be ‘moral’? Because their publishing contracts tell them so. My compulsion to rub strangers up the wrong way in a political sense grows only more enticing.”

* Insurance problems may kill football.

Links: Concentration and the artist’s task, institutions advance faster than cognition, The Sopranos, and more!

* “A $20,243 bike crash: Zuckerberg hospital’s aggressive tactics leave patients with big bills. I spent a year writing about ER bills. Zuckerberg San Francisco General has the most surprising billing practices I’ve seen.” I previously wrote about the need for price transparency. We need it now, even for ERs.

* Waymo’s CEO says autonomous cars “will always have constraints.” They are not a panacea for urban transit and are not going to be here in the next five years, and they will likely be weather-dependent.

* Is fusion power much closer to becoming reality than is commonly anticipated? If so, it will solve or substantially ameliorate the world’s energy problems, along with the geopolitical conflicts fueled by the world’s desire for oil.

* The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

* What we gain from keeping books.

* Progress happens in institutions, not morals?

* “Meat-free ‘Impossible Burger 2.0’ tastes even closer to the real deal.” I tried Beyond Meat burger and found them surprisingly good.

* U.S. Carbon Emissions Surged in 2018 Even as Coal Plants Closed. We need nuclear energy and battery-powered cars, now.

* Interview of David Chase, who spearheaded The Sopranos.

* “Mommy bloggers” when their kids grow up. If I were the kid, I’d be outraged too. It’s a tremendous violation of privacy.

* More buildings should be made of wood.

* Ocean Warming Is Accelerating Faster Than Thought.

* Voters don’t even really know what taxation rates are, let alone what they should be. What conclusions should be drawn from this?

* The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter.

* Saudi Women, Tired of Restraints, Find Ways to Flee.

* “Tucker Carlson has sparked the most interesting debate in conservative politics.” Note that I’m not endorsing the conclusions from either Carlson or the writer of this article, but I will say that it’s nice to see non-stupid political pieces.

* “F.B.I. Opened Inquiry Into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia.”

* Conceivably NSFW, but: “A painted table, modelled after one that was owned by Catherine the Great (1729-1796)?” Is this authentic? I can’t tell. I do want one.

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