Links: Kinlessness, Segway’s revenge, System76’s open-source hardware, hot sauce, and more!

* Kinlessness, a sad but very interesting piece.

* Segway was supposed to change the world. Two decades later, it just might.

* Another take on that mystery interstellar object that could be a discarded solar sail.

* System76 on US Manufacturing and Open Hardware. The company makes open-source desktops and laptops.

* What I Learned From Making Hot Sauce at Scale. I ordered some hot sauce based on this article!

* A lawsuit reveals how peculiar Harvard’s definition of merit is. The “Hebrew problem” has now become the “Asian problem” at Harvard.

* Why the Danes encourage their kids to swing axes, play with fire, and ride bikes in traffic.

* “The Saruman Trap: When power is corrupt, there is no way to escape its toxic influence.” My personal favorite in this batch, but I’m a sucker for anything LOTR.

* “Teachers Have a Responsibility: Two educators talk about teaching students to think critically, and keeping personal politics out of the classroom.” It seems obvious to me, yet I see too little of it.

* “GM’s electric bikes unveiled.” File under “Headlines I never thought I’d see outside of The Onion.”

* People Across the Country Are [Supposedly] Increasingly Worried About Climate Change—and It’s Changing How They Vote.

* “Think Professors Are Liberal? Try School Administrators.” I have seen some of the results, and they are not good.

* The Joe Rogan podcast with Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay; the latter two are responsible for the the Grievance Studies Scandal. It’s another version of the Sokal hoax. For a while I thought about blogging stupid humanities papers, but there were too many of them and (almost) on one seems to care. Plus, the Twitter account Real Peer Review is already doing the job. The most interesting thing about Boghossian and Lindsay on Rogan is the extent to which Rogan offers a very large, mainstream platform for their ideas. Word about academic chicanery is getting out.

* “Six Secrets from the Planner of Sevilla’s Lightning Bike Network.”

The Elephant in the Brain – Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler

The book is here and you should read it, although I think most people don’t actually want to know its contents. Most of us, I suspect, prefer to lie to ourselves and each other. Consider some of the evidence Hanson and Simler present:

Why do patients spend so much on medical care? To get healthier: That’s their one and only goal, right?

Maybe not. Consider some of the puzzling data points Robin discovered. To start with, people in developed countries consumer way too much medicine—doctor visits, drugs, diagnostic tests, and so forth—well beyond what’s useful for staying healthy. Large randomized studies, for example, find that people given free healthcare consume a lot more medicine (relative to the unsubsidized control group), yet don’t end up noticeably healthier.

So why doesn’t anyone know about this? I think we don’t want to know. For that reason, I’m not sure this book will be popular. Most people write, and maybe think, based on slogans: we see this all the time, everywhere, online.* I doubt that the fact that people over-consume free healthcare will have any effect at all on most people, but arguing that healthcare is a basic human right will—that activates people’s caring moral foundation. This book is likely to be read by weirdos who may not have much effect on the rest of society.

The first page of chapter four has one of the great footnotes of all time.

Let me pull one section that amuses me; I occasionally make an argument that friends think is harmlessly eccentric at best and outright offensive at worst: TV and movies are better than live theater because their range of possible expression is so much greater. Good video uses a range of scenes, actors, and sounds; it isn’t inhibited by the limitations of the stage. Most people I’ve said this to have said that I miss the point (maybe they’re right) and that live theater is beautiful for its own sake. Usually I’m just looked at like I’m weird (again, the lookers may be right).

Enter Hanson and Simler:

Artists routinely sacrifice expressive power and manufacturing precision in order to make something more “impressive” as a fitness display.

One place we find this sacrifice is in the performing arts. For example, by almost any any measure of technical control, film exceeds live theater. Film directors can fuss endlessly over lighting, set design, and camera angles […] And the results are frequently sublime, which is one reason film has become the most popular dramatic and comedic medium of our time. And yet consumers continue to relish live performances, shelling out even for back-row seats at many times the price of a movie ticket. Why? In part, because performing live is a handicap. With such little margin for error, the results are that much more impressive. A similar trade-off arises for musicians (e.g., lip syncing is anathema) and standup comics, and for the improve versus sketch-comedy troupes. A live performance, or even more so an improvised one, won’t be as technically perfect as a prerecorded one, but it succeeds by putting the artists’ talents on full display.

To be fair, too, in the case of music and standup, the artists are often trying out material and experimenting with audience reaction, before turning the final result into a video or similar product. In some cases, like improv, the audience becomes part of the product. We’re trying to be impressive, and the harder it is to be impressive, the more one is impressed.

But consciously saying, “I’m an artist to increase my reproductive fitness” is not impressive and no one says it. Hanson and Simler offer some mechanisms:

We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives—we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people. And in order to throw them off the trail, our brains often keep ‘us,’ our conscious minds, in the dark. The less we know of our own ugly motives, the easier it is to hide them from others.

Self-deception is therefore strategic, a ploy our brains use to look good while behaving badly.

It’s interesting too, in light of their chapter on art, to think about what counts as art. Writing a novel? Yes. Painting a picture? Yes. Writing or designing an operating system? Not much, and not to most people. “Writing an operating system” may have occurred too recently in our evolutionary history to make doing so an attractive sexual display. But if we know we’re making art as a mating display should we then take that knowledge and direct our time and resources into other fields?

It’s a question that should be more seriously considered. And I write this as someone who has written novels and is working on one now.

One short question we might want to ask ourselves in many endeavors is, “Am I doing this to be maximally effective at the thing I am doing, or am I doing this thing to signal some other trait or achieve some other goal?”

Hanson’s previous book is The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, which is very interesting for the right person—of whom there are not many, including me. It applies economic analysis to a world in which human brains can be emulated can thus intelligence is almost freed from pesky material constraints like birth, senescence, and death. As a book it’s a bit like science fiction without a story. Post-singularity SF often works poorly to baseline humans because humans are bad at conceiving what non-human intelligence or consciousness might be like. The Age of Em is very good at what it is, but it’s notable that almost no one tries to write in its genre.

Here is a review of Elephant in an unexpected venue. Others may be found. I have not found any good rebuttals of it; it may be a book easier to ignore than rebut. I’m going to re-read it. It’s not the kind of book one absorbs the first time.


* “Most people write, and maybe think, based on slogans” may itself be a slogan: I’m not immune!

Links: The chair, the planet, Ursula K. le Guin, the problems on campus, and more!

* Anthropocene: why the chair should be the symbol for our sedentary age. I use a motorized sit-stand desk and you should too, if you’re a computer-type person who spends too much time at desks.

* “When Will the Planet Be Too Hot for Humans? Much, Much Sooner Than You Imagine.” This is essential reading and helps explain why I post so often about scooters, electric cars, etc. Right now the situation is unbelievably grim and yet almost no one acts like it. For more, see Peter Watts, The Adorable Optimism of the IPCC. I’m not quite as pessimistic due to the possibility of technological amelioration; Y Combinator, for example, is requesting that companies focused on carbon removal technologies apply.

* Always Beginning, on Ursula K. le Guin.

* Productivity, economics, technology, and much more in this nerdy interview.

* The life and death of a laptop battery, an interesting project. By the way: Apple just announced new MacBook Airs, which are probably the best mainstream laptop right now. They also announced new Mac Minis.

* Finally, the drug that keeps you young?

* Death of a bookman: the rise and fall of a publisher.

* How to build a Moon base. Have you read Andy Weir’s novel Artemis, which is set on a near-future moon base?

* “Sarah Kliff brings transparency to ER prices, one hospital bill at a time.” If you’ve been to an ER in the last couple years, please send Sarah copies of your mystery bills.

* Women challenging the “campus rape” narrative. Concerning Australia potentially importing the madness from the US.

* “Living Beneath the Ground in an Australian Desert,” in keeping with the theme from link #2, and also interesting in its own right.

* “‘Good Intentions Gone Awry’: Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind. Book Review.”

* Quiet Day at a Pittsburgh Synagogue Became a Battle to Survive.

* Could the interstellar object Oumuamua be a lightsail from an alien civilization? Short answer: not real likely. Unfortunately, it’s also done a round trip out of the solar system, so we’ll likely never know.

Links: Student loans, loneliness, why identity politics are tedious, jealousy’s origins, and more!

* The Student Loan Debt Crisis Is About to Get Worse. Having observed the U.S. college system up close for a long time, I find it baffling that it’s managed to persist as long as it has. Actually, no: it’s persisted this long because young people don’t vote, and consequently no politician cares about their problems.

* To Prevent Loneliness, Start in the Classroom. A good thought, but it is striking to me how the safetyism obsession is probably increasing loneliness in schools. Lost Connections is also relevant reading here.

* New 100-mile electric van matches diesel vans on price, Workhorse says. Extremely good news if true.

* “The Right Finds the Perfect Weapon Against the Left: Conservatives are using identity politics to destroy liberalism from within.” Perhaps we ought to reduce identity based on demographic characteristics, which are (fairly, but not perfectly) immutable, and increase identity based on other characteristics—like what a person does or makes. We should also be thinking about how to improve the conversation, as I fear too few people are doing. Tyler Cowen wrote this article, and he also just released the book Stubborn Attachments, which, among many other things, attempts to do just that.

* Jamal Khashoggi: What the Arab world needs most is free expression. This is the journalist who was murdered by Saudi Arabia in the Suadi consulate in Turkey.

* Where does jealousy come from?

* “This is exactly how a nuclear war would kill you: This is how the world ends — not with a bang, but with a lot of really big bombs.” From Vox. See also my essay on why I think Trump raises the likelihood of bad, extreme outcomes.

* An interview with Heather Mac Donald on her book The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture. Probably too reasonable to be read widely, but here it is.

* “Life Got You Down? Time to Read The Master and Margarita.” This is germane in many circumstances: “It’s a novel that encourages you not to take yourself too seriously, no matter how bad things have got.” I read it again, but I still don’t get it. Why does it start with so much about Ivan and Berlioz? What are the characters doing? Where are they going? What do they want? Why the ball at the end? The novel feels like a pointless ramble. Perhaps the fault is mine. Each individual sentence is easily understood but the characters and their motivations, if any, are opaque. Maybe that’s the “point,” but if so, then I still don’t enjoy the novel or need it to get to that point.

* On the new Francis Fukuyama book, and the man himself; I like the book.

* “Marxists against wokeness: For an antidote to today’s identitarian leftism, look to old-school radicals like CLR James.” This would at least be a net improvement.

* “How IBM’s Thinkpad became a design icon.” Modern Lenovo Thinkpads are still quite nice. Pity Lenovo quit making the OLED model.

* “The Emperor’s Woke Clothes: Campus Week: How did an elite, repressive minority policing speech and culture through political correctness come to browbeat the American democratic majority?” Something is wrong in a small number of nonetheless noisy universities.

* “A Remarkably Hard College Course Proves Remarkably Popular.” There’s also a distinct lack of postmodernist nonsense in it, as one Twitter person observed.

* “These Americans fled the country to escape their giant student debt.” Still, they seem not to be listening to market signals: “He then went back to school to pursue a master’s degree in comparative literature at the University of Colorado Boulder.” The market for humanities professors is soft and has been for decades.

The odd salience of older books: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

My novel The Dead Zone arose from two questions: Can a political assassin ever be right? And if he is, could you make him the protagonist of a novel? The good guy? These ideas called for a dangerously unstable politician, it seemed to me—a fellow who could climb the political ladder by showing the world a jolly, jes’-folks face and charming the voters by refusing to play the game in the usual way. (Greg Stillson’s campaign tactics as I imagined them twenty years ago were very similar to the ones Jesse Ventura used in his successful campaign for the governor’s seat in Minnesota. Thank goodness Ventura doesn’t seem like Stillson in any other ways.)

On Writing was published in 2000 and in the book King says he wrote it in 1997. When I first read it, nothing about this passage stood out. Today, everything about it stands out. I wonder if The Dead Zone has seen a sales bump in the current political climate.

Who is Michael Ovitz?

Who is Michael Ovitz? has a straightforward answer, as presented in the book: Michael Ovitz is a guy who does deals and works on self-improvement and what you see is what you get. People who like him perceive him as effective and people who dislike him perceive him as an asshole and it’s possible that both groups are right. A person’s “strengths” and a person’s “weaknesses” are often the same, just perceived or framed differently.

Ovitz founded the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and the book’s key sentences may be, “We were lucky to work in a golden age of commercial film. People went to the local multiplex three times a month, piracy had yet to explode, and cable was in its infancy. With so many movies being made, and with our increasing share of the talent, by the early 1980s, CAA was poised for an explosive run.” But you won’t find these sentences in the opening sections of Who is Michael Ovitz?. Ovitz, and CAA generally, hit the timing perfectly: it is unlikely that agents matter as much today, or even that movies and TV matter as much today, relative to the digital platforms that increasingly deliver them and a relentless stream of commentary on them.

Almost every major success is the result of both luck and skill, and I’m not trying to denigrate the latter, but an Ovitz-like career in Hollywood is probably not very possible today. It might be possible at, say, Netflix—which may generate the most interesting memoirs in ten or twenty years.

The unsaid is often very interesting:

[W]hen we launched CAA, I had started a private project (one that took me ten years) of watching every film that had won one of the five big-category Oscars. I discovered why Gone with the Wind had passed the test of time and How Green Was My Valley hadn’t; I learned the relationship between vision and craft. At the same time, I was boning up on the deal structure of movies and on which actors and directors had currency. Film had its own language, and I needed to be bilingual.

You, like me, may wonder: okay, then tell us why some movies last and others don’t. That’s perhaps one of the most valuable things people involved in narrative arts can know. Maybe Ovitz can’t communicate it—or maybe, more likely, there is no secret. I’m reminded of people who think they can beat the stock market. Yes, a very small number of them seem to be able to, like Renaissance Capital. The overwhelming majority of people who think they can, however, are wrong. It’s also possible that Ovitz is more making markets than buying or selling in them, as his description of Rain Man‘s journey shows. But I wonder how many movies had paths like Rain Man‘s and failed.

Hollywood as a space of mass, consensual delusion is useful here. What is “currency,” if not a kind of consensual delusion? Maybe Ovitz “learned the relationship between vision and craft,” or maybe he’s bought into the delusion. Overall, however, I may just have read too much in behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology to buy a lot of the argument in the book. Kahneman, Tversky, Ariely, many others: put them together and a lot of the stories we tell ourselves don’t seem to fit together so well.

I’d be curious to see an Ovitz book or essay collection on critical analyses of movies, perhaps in the Camille Paglia line. Show us what you see in the movies!

Ovitz, as portrayed in Who is Michael Ovitz?, just works harder and longer than other people, and he works to read more, learn more, and understand more. Even things that most people would call “hobbies,” like his interest in art, here feed into his faculties as an agent. He may be an effective manager, or he may be the kind of person who manages and leads by example. An agent is a kind of consultant, and I’m a consultant, and this is congruent with my own experience: “You have to risk alienating your clients. When you tell someone the truth, all they can do is get upset—they can’t call you an idiot.” The truth often hurts, and it helps to try to learn how to phrase the truth as kindly as possible. But the sting will remain.

There are few interesting sentences in the book.

Links: The climate of the climate, libraries, “Untrue,” chiles, definite optimism, and more!

* Do we have only twelve more years to avert climate crisis? Some readers have asked why I so often post about electric cars, Tesla, nuclear energy, zoning/housing, and micro-mobility (electric scooters, etc.). Those things are all bound up with the climate crisis. Although most writers consider all these issues as separate and distinct, they are actually interrelated, whether most writers realize this (or not).

* “The Case for Making Cities Out of Wood,” things I had not considered but that are very interesting.

* Growing Up in the Library.

* The Movie Assassin, one of the funniest essays I’ve ever read.

* “The ‘Untrue’ Woman: A new book makes the case for the primacy of the female libido, and for a societal reckoning with that reality.” I’m a bit skeptical; have you read it?

* “The Printed World in Peril.” If you’re like me, you’ve read this sort of thing many times in many guises, and yet something about the theme keeps you reading the next piece in the genre.

* “Saving the Prized Chile That Grows Only in Oaxaca’s Mountains.” Yum.

* “How Technology Grows (a restatement of definite optimism),” likely the most important piece in this batch.

* “Two Students Hooked Up. It Was Clearly Consensual. He Still Spent $12,000 Defending Himself.” Maybe universities ought to get out of the human housing business, which might curtail some of these absurdities.

* “To Avoid Climate Catastrophe, Your Transportation Choices Matter.”

* “Why you have (probably) already bought your last car.” Interesting, though I’m skeptical on the timing.

* “How an Anonymous Accusation Derailed My Life.” This is the sort of thing Quillette is publishing and that almost no one else will even touch.

* Stop obsessing about China.

* “‘We Didn’t Realize How Soon It’s Going to Come:‘ Is there anything that can actually stop the impending disaster detailed in the scary new climate report?”

* Former Google engineer on his experience working with censored products; vital reading.

* “The Crisis of Intimacy in the Age of Digital Connectivity.” See also my essay, “Facebook and cellphones might be really bad for relationships,” which seems underrated to me.

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