Links: Faux productivity, the novel, parenting by contract, global warming, and more!

* “How ‘time-saving’ technology destroys our productivity: The endless tasks it can be used to create leave us working longer and longer hours.” Maybe the most important link in this batch. In my own work, I’ve seen this phenomenon and wrote about it in “How computers have made grant writing worse.”

* “Considering the Novel in the Age of Obama,” much better than the title implies but also a good exploration of why most people neither read nor care about “literary” fiction.

* We need a contract for co-parenting, not just for marriage, a point I expect to keep becoming more important over time.

* Roivant, an important pharmaceutical startup that’s trying to cut the time necessary to develop new drugs.

* “America, America,” scary, important.

* That Time I Turned a Routine Traffic Ticket into the Constitutional Trial of the Century.”

* Do dating apps fuel a rise in casual sex? Funny story, weak data, the kids today are out of control, just like they’ve always been.

* 2016 was the hottest year on record, surpassing the previous record holder (2015) and the one before that (2014).

Caught in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble

In a Tweet Benedict Evans mentions, “I’m always baffled when people are surprised by charts like this. What do people think the world was like 250 years ago? Isn’t this obvious?”


I replied, “I teach undergrads; it isn’t obvious to most, and most either don’t think about it or rely on TV-based historical fiction,” but that’s too glib; the chart’s demonstration of growing wealth is obvious to people who’ve read a lot of history and who’re immersed in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble, but that’s a small part of the population. Most people don’t really, really think about or study history, and to the extent they think about it at all they rely on hazy, unsourced stereotypes.

I’ve read lots of student papers (and for that matter Internet comments) saying things like, “In the past, [claim here].” Some will even say, “In the old days…” In the margins I will write in reply, “Which years and geographic areas are you thinking about?” When I ask those kinds of questions in class students look at me strangely, like I’ve suddenly demanded they perform gymnastics.

The past really is a foreign country and unless someone has made the effort to learn about it directly, meta-learn how to learn, and learn how the people in a given time period likely thought, it can look like the present but with different clothes. That’s often how it’s presented in TV, movies, and pop fiction (see e.g. “Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels“). To take one obvious example, characters in such TV shows and movies often have modern sexual and religious mores, ignoring that many of the sexual mores and rules of the last ~500 years of European and American history evolved because a) reliable contraception was unavailable or extremely limited, b) a child born to a single woman could end up killing both child and woman due to lack of money and/or food, and c) many STIs that are now treated with a quick antibiotic were death sentences.

In most countries today, people don’t worry about starving to death, so the kind of absolute poverty that’s stunningly declined in the last couple centuries takes a strong imaginative leap to inhabit. People also seem to experience hedonic adaptation, so the many things that make our lives easy and pleasant become invisible (that’s true of me too).

So the average person probably never thinks about what the world was like 250 years ago, and, if they do, they probably don’t have the baseline knowledge necessary to conceptualize and contextualize it properly. Those of us caught in the nerd-o-sphere and researcher bubble, like myself, do. Our sense of “obvious” shifts with the environment we inhabit and the education we’ve had (or the education we’re continuing all the time).

And about that education system. Years ago I used to read tech sites in which self-taught autodidacts would fulminate about the failures of the conventional school system and prophesize about how the liberation of information will remake the educational sector into a free intellectual utopia in which students would learn much faster and at their own pace, leading to peace, harmony, and knowledge; in this world, rather than being bludgeoned by teachers and professors, students would become self-motivated because they’d be unshackled from conventional curriculums. To some extent I believed those criticisms and prophecies. One day we would set students free and they’d joyously learn for the sake of learning.

Then I started teaching and discovered that the conventional school system exists to work on or with the vast majority of the population, which doesn’t give a fig about the joy of knowledge or intrinsic learning or whatever else Internet nerds and PhDs love. The self-taught autodidacts who wrote on Slashdot (back then) and Hacker News or Reddit or blogs today are a distinct minority and at most a couple percent of the total population. Often they were or are poorly served in some ways by the conventional education system, especially because they often have unusual ways of interacting socially.

Now, today, I’ve both taught regular, non-nerd students and read books like Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, and I’ve realized why the education system has evolved the way it has. Most people, left to their own devices, don’t study poetry and math and so on. They watch videos on YouTube and TV and play videogames and chat with their friends. Those are all fine activities and I’ve of course done all of them, but the average person doesn’t much engage in systematic skill- and knowledge-building of the sort that dedicated study is (ideally) supposed to do.

In short, the nerds who want to reform the education system are very different than the average student the system is designed to serve, in a way similar to the way the average person in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble is likely very different from the average person, who hardcore nerds may not know or interact with very much.

I’m very much in that nerd-o-sphere and if you’re reading this there’s a high probability you are too. And when I write about undergrads, remember that I’m writing about the top half of the population in terms of motivation, cognition, and tenacity.

Links: Why your city has no money, Thiel’s weak defense, novels, movements, and more!

* The Real Reason Your City Has No Money.

* “Peter Thiel, Trump’s Tech Pal, Explains Himself,” wildly unconvincing and specious; it’s bizarre to read Thiel’s criticisms of others that apply primarily to himself. He wrote Zero to One.

* Thinking about the process of being an artist and a writer: Lessons from David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses.

* There’s “No proof music lessons make children any smarter.”

* “The Novel as Math Problem: As a formal exercise, Paul Auster’s 4321 is impeccable. As a story, it’s curiously cold.” I’ll pass.

* Why Most Economists Are So Worried About Trump.

* An excellent, important point: “Every movement…has a smart version and a stupid version, I try to (almost) always consider the smart version. The stupid version is always wrong for just about anything.” I have sometimes been guilty of attacking the stupid version.

* “Housing supply is [finally, almost] catching up to demand.”

* “Elena’s career exemplifies two cultures in women’s writing that are not supposed to mix: the unimpeachably high, where abstract desires are worked out in texts accessible only to educated elites, and the thrillingly low—writing that, driven by big, vulgar passions, grips the popular imagination but is not to be taken seriously.”

Links: Writers and cash, hate, friendship, laptops, book making and mending

* “Make America Mate Again,” very much an underrated issue that has not made it much into the general culture.

* “The Friendship That Created Behavioral Economics,” on Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project.

* “Anatomy of a Hoax: How the physicist Alan Sokal hoodwinked a group of humanists and why, 20 years later, it still matters.” I’m not sure it does still matter, but it is entertaining!

* “U.S. Says Putin Ordered Broad Campaign of Influence to Help Trump Win Election.” In short, Americans fell for it.

* “How Japan has almost eradicated gun crime.” The secret is unsurprising.

* Rake’s Progress: A Look at the Well-Traveled Casanova.

* “Donald Trump isn’t Hitler, Mussolini, or even Putin. He’s Trump; but that, in itself, presents a real danger.”

* “Dell’s latest XPS 13 DE still delivers Linux in a svelte package.”

* “He Fixes the Spines of Books, Without an Understudy: Donald Vass has been mending books in the Seattle area for 26 years, but his craft is a fading one.”

* “The Soviet Union Is Gone, But It’s Still Collapsing: And 5 other unlearned lessons from leading experts about modern Russia and the death of an empire.” Better than the title makes it sound.

* “Buffalo Becomes First City to Bid Minimum Parking Goodbye,” good news.

* “Why is it so hard for writers to talk about how much money they make?” Probably because for most the answer is “not much.”

Briefly noted: Underground Airlines — Ben H. Winters

You may have seen the good reviews, but I gave up after 50 pages, many of which look like this:

Underground Airlines

The premise is clever—the Civil War is averted and slavery persists in four states up to the present day—but the writing is not. One wishes to read instead Elmore Leonard, who is a master of the kind of style attempted here. Almost every page is overwritten. Many of the pieces in Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliche apply here too.

Good books I read in 2016

A reader pointed out that I didn’t write a “best of 2016” post, which is correct, but “best of” strikes me wrong, so I’m going to write about good books that I happened to read in 2016 and that you should read too.

* The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis, probably the best book I read all year, except maybe for Blindsight, but that is so different that the two aren’t really comparable.

* Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century by Masha Gessen, another narrative nonfiction book, though this one emerged and escaped my notice in 2009.

* The Map and the Territory by Houellebecq, still weird and likely always weird; Houellebecq has his misses, especially The Possibility of an Island, but his hits are strong, weird, and different—with “different” too often meaning “bad,” but not in his case.

* Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, one of those amazing books worth re-reading whenever you can’t find a new book to read.

* The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, which is novelistic in detail and beautifully reported. I didn’t fully know where the music everyone listens to comes from and now I do.

I’ve been having trouble finding really good novels, though my tastes are idiosyncratic and I don’t have rules for what makes a good novel besides the tautological, “Be really good.” If you have suggestions drop me a line.

The most-visited post I wrote last year is “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.”

%d bloggers like this: