Links: Zoning and the quality of human life, great art, the institutional climate, and more!

* David Brooks: “How We Are Ruining America.” Notice that residential zoning restrictions are number one. Improve that and you get a lot of secondary and tertiary improvements “free.”

* “The Obsessive Art and Great Confession of Charlotte Salomon: Painter, auteur, enigma, murderer. The work of the German Jewish artist, killed in the Holocaust, has long been overshadowed by her life and times.” Article by Toni Bentley of The Surrender fame.

* “A Conversation with Malcolm Gladwell: Revisiting Brown v. Board.” Extremely interesting and contrarian in an intelligent way that shows many familiar things in a light I’d never considered.

* Does a secret yearning for monarchy and hierarchy attract us to Game of Thrones?

* “The planet will be too hot for humans much sooner than you think.” Yet seemingly almost no one is paying attention, or voting as if they are paying attention.

* “What Russian journalists think about how American reporters cover Putin and Trump.”

* Underreported Chinese investment in U.S. industries; not an overtly contrarian piece but definitely one that shows the complexity behind typical headlines and assertions.

* “As opioid overdoses exact a higher price, communities ponder who should be saved.”

* “As companies relocate to big cities, suburban towns are left scrambling.” I’m a city person, and while I understand why some people would want suburban towns in theory, I’ll never want to live in one.

* “Jane Austen, Emma, and what characters do.”

* Should community colleges abolish mandatory algebra classes? I’m admittedly 50/50 on this one, leaning towards “no” yet simultaneously aware that I took no real math classes as an undergrad. This question is also hard because the real question underlying it is, “What is education for?” And that brings us towards questions of signaling versus skill acquisition.

Links: Model 3, transit success in Chicago, Hollywood memoir, markets, free speech and free minds

* Tesla to hold “Handover party for first 30 customer Model 3’s on the 28th! Production grows exponentially, so Aug should be 100 cars and Sept above 1500.” That is the entire text of the announcement tweet.

* The guilty pleasures of Hollywood memoirs.

* Rahm Emmanuel: “In Chicago, the trains actually run on time.” This is actually productive, not gloating; some of the dumber responses online have attributed bad motives to Emmnauel that he does not evince in the text.

* “Why market competition has not brought down health care costs.” History and analysis are good but I don’t buy the solution. I’d like to see mandatory price transparency, savings accounts, and (government-run) catastrophic insurance. Oddly, we are evolving towards a world where basically all insurance is catastrophic insurance. I think my deductible is now something like $5,000.

* “Why Did a UCLA Instructor with a Popular Free-Speech Course Lose His Job?

* I wrote a snarky title saying, “President who understands nothing of Western Civilization gives speech urging defense of Western Civilization,” but then I realized, why bother with the link? The headline is enough, and many of you likely know the reference.

* “What on Earth Is Wrong With Connecticut?” The state seems to combine high taxes with suburban-style development (without a major city to mediate).

* “This Is How Big Oil Will Die,” with the author’s 1999 interview at Kodak being particularly funny.

* Canadian money is better than U.S. money.

* Are the Social Sciences Undergoing a Purity Spiral?

* “America’s First Postmodern President: Trump’s ascendance is no accident. He’s the culmination of our epoch of unreality. What does that herald for the resistance?” Oddly, some of the academic left has contributed to the intellectual environment that spawned Trump.

* Grid Batteries Are Poised to Become Cheaper Than Natural-Gas Plants in Minnesota.

Life: What is happiness? edition

“I do not promise happiness, and I don’t know what it is. You New World people are, what is the word, hipped on the idea of happiness, as if it were a constant and measurable thing, and settled and excused everything. If it is anything at all it is a by-product of other conditions of life, and some people whose lives do not appear to be at all enviable, or indeed admirable, are happy. Forget your happiness.”

—Robertson Davies, The Manticore

Lost technologies, Seveneves, and The Secret of Our Success

Spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t read Seveneves by now they probably don’t matter.

Seveneves is an unusual and great novel, and it’s great as long as you attribute some of its less plausible elements to an author building a world. One plausible element is the way humanity comes together and keeps the social, political, and economic systems functional enough to launch large numbers of spacecraft in the face of imminent collective death. If we collectively had two years to live, I suspect total breakdown would follow, leaving us with no Cloud Ark (and no story—thus we go along with the premise).

But that’s not the main thing I want to write about. Instead, consider the loss of knowledge that inherently comes with population decline. In Seveneves humanity declines to seven women living in space on a massive iron remnant of the moon. They slowly repopulate, with their descendants living in space for five thousand years. But a population of seven would probably not be able to retain and transmit the specialized knowledge necessary for survival on most parts of Earth, let alone space.

That isn’t a speculative claim. We have pretty good evidence for the way small populations lose knowledge. Something drew me to re-reading Joseph Henrich’s excellent book The Secret of Our Success, and maybe the sections about technological loss are part of it. He writes about many examples of European explorers getting lost and dying in relatively fecund environments because they don’t have the local knowledge and customs necessary to survive. He writes about indigenous groups too, including the Polar Intuit, who “live in an isolated region of northwestern Greenland [. . . .] They are the northernmost human population that has ever existed” (211). But

Sometime in the 1820s an epidemic hit this population and selectively killed off many of its oldest and most knowledgable members. With the sudden disappearance of the know-how carried by these individuals, the group collectively lost its ability to make some of its most crucial and complex tools, including leisters, bows and arrows, the heat-trapping long entry ways for snow houses, and most important, kayaks.

As a result, “The population declined until 1862, when another group of Intuit from around Baffin Island ran across them while traveling along the Greenland coast. The subsequent cultural reconnection led the Polar Intuit to rapidly reacquire what they had lost.” Which is essential:

Though crucial to survival in the Arctic, the lost technologies were not things that the Polar Intuit could easily recreate Even having seen these technologies in operation as children, and with their population crashing, neither the older generation nor an entirely new generation responded to Mother Necessity by devising kayaks, leisters, compound bows, or long tunnel entrances.

Innovation is hard and relatively rare. We’re all part of a network that transmits knowledge horizontally, from peer to peer, and vertically, from older person to younger person. Today, people in first-world countries are used to innovation because we’re part of a vast network of billions of people who are constantly learning from each and transmitting the innovations that do arise. We’re used to seemingly automatic innovation, because so many people are working on so many problems. Unless we’re employed as researchers, we’re often not cognizant of how much effort goes into both discovery and then transmission.

Without that dense network of people, though, much of what we know would be lost. Maybe the best-known example of technology loss happened when the Roman Empire fell, followed by the way ancient Egyptians lost the know-how necessary to build pyramids and other epic engineering works.

In a Seveneves scenario, it’s highly unlikely that the novel’s protagonists would be able to sustain and transmit the knowledge necessary to live somewhere on earth, let alone somewhere as hostile as space. Quick: how helpful would you be in designing and manufacturing microchips, solar panels, nuclear reactors, plant biology, or oxygen systems? Yeah, me too. Those complex technologies have research, design, and manufacture facets that are embodied in the heads of thousands if not millions of individuals. The level of specialization our society has achieved is incredible, but we rarely think about how incredible it really is.

This is not so much a criticism of the novel—I consider the fact that they do survive part of granting the author his due—but it is a contextualization of the novel’s ideas. The evidence that knowledge is fragile is more pervasive and available than I’d thought when I was younger. We like stories of individual agency, but in actuality we’re better conceived of as parts in a massive system. We can see our susceptibility to conspiracy theories as beliefs in the excessive power of the individual. In an essay from Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson writes: “Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself, and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening.” The world itself is big, densely interconnected, and our ability to change it is real but often smaller than we imagine.

Henrich writes:

Once individuals evolve to learn from one another with sufficient accuracy (fidelity), social groups of individuals develop what might be called collective brains. The power of these collective brains to develop increasingly effective tools and technologies, as well as other forms of nonmaterial culture (e.g., know-how), depends in part on the size of the group of individuals engaged and on their social connectedness. (212)

The Secret of Our Success also cites laboratory recreations of similar principles; those experiments are too long to describe here, but they are clever. If there are good critiques of the chapter and idea, I haven’t found them (and if you know any, let’s use our collective brain by posting links in the comments). Henrich emphasizes:

If a population suddenly shrinks or gets socially disconnected, it can actually lose adaptive cultural information, resulting in a loss of technical skills and the disappearance of complex technologies. [. . . ] A population’s size and social interconnectedness sets a maximum on the size of a group’s collective brain. (218-9)

That size cap means that small populations in space, even if they are composed of highly skilled and competent individuals, are unlikely to survive over generations. They are unlikely to survive even if they have the rest of humanity’s explicit knowledge recorded on disk. There is too much tacit knowledge for explicit knowledge in and of itself to be useful, as anyone who has ever tried to learn from a book and then from a good teacher knows. Someday we may be able to survive indefinitely in space, but today we’re far from that stage.

Almost all post-apocalyptic novels face the small-population dilemma to some extent (I’d argue that Seveneves can be seen as a post-apocalyptic novel with a novel apocalypse). Think of the role played by the nuclear reactor in Steven King’s The Stand: the characters in the immediate aftermath must decide if they’re going to live in the dark and regress to hunter-gatherer times, at best, or if they’re going to save and use the reactor to live in the light (the metaphoric implications are not hard to perceive here). In one of the earliest post-apocalyptic novels, Earth Abides, two generations after the disaster, descendants of technologically sophisticated people are reduced to using melted-down coins as tips for spears and arrows. In Threads, the movie (and my nominee for scariest movie ever made), the descendants of survivors of nuclear war lose most of their vocabulary and are reduced to what is by modern standards an impoverished language that is a sort of inadvertent 1984 newspeak.* Let’s hope we don’t find out what actually happens after nuclear war.

In short, kill enough neurons in the collective brain and the brain itself stops working. Which has happened before. And it could happen again.


* Check out the cars in Britain in Threads: that reminds us of the possibilities of technological progress and advancement.

Links: Ben Sasse, housing, grifting, Margaux Fragoso, cryptocurrencies (not in an SF context), and more!

* To no one’s surprise, “evidence for harm caused by microaggression is incoherent, unscientific and weak.” But virtue-signaling enabled by complaining about “microaggressions” remains robust.

* Ben Sasse’s conversation with Tyler. If I lived in Nebraska I’d likely vote for him for Senator.

* “The only thing the Bay Area’s tenant activists hate more than high rent is each other.” Comedy. If this weren’t already so absurd I’d encourage a modern-day Trollope to write a satire of it. Barchester Towers lives.

* “Why are so many American men so easily grifted?” A term I’ve rarely heard yet it’s oddly accurate.

* “California lawmakers have tried for 50 years to fix the state’s housing crisis. This is why they’ve failed.”

* Margaux Fragoso dies at 38, of ovarian cancer. She wrote Tiger, Tiger, a strange, haunting, memorable book that I never wrote about; it’s one of those books whose reviews tend to say much more about the reviewer than about the book itself.

* “A Path Less Taken to the Peak of the Math World.”

* “ Will social media kill the novel? Andrew O’Hagan on the end of private life.” Overwrought but useful.

* “A generational failure: As the U.S. fantasizes, the rest of the world builds a new transport system.”

* “Are cryptocurrencies about to go mainstream?” A year ago I would’ve said no; now I’m not so sure. Here is an intelligent but not super technical description of ethereum. I don’t grok it in fullness.

Links: The great melt, the bike, social media and the novel, and more

* “Antarctica Is Melting, and Giant Ice Cracks Are Just the Start.” And: “95-Degree Days: How Extreme Heat Could Spread Across the World.”

* Why is cycling so popular in the Netherlands? Also: Japan shows the way to affordable mega cities.

* Social media and the novel: “Writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter. What does a world in which our interior lives are played out online mean for the novel?” Still, I’d argue that the amount of our “real” or “interior” selves we put on social media is pretty small. Among people I know really well, I’m struck by the wide gap between what their Facebook presents and what they say over coffee or beer.

* “OnePlus 5 review—The best sub-$500 phone you can buy.” Good news for everyone: Apple has more competition and Android users have a good phone that doesn’t cost as much as or more than an iPhone.

* “Making cities denser always sparks resistance. Here’s how to overcome it.”

* “Why It’s No Longer Possible for Any Country to Win a War.”

* St. John’s college teaches every student the exact same stuff. Interesting. Odd though that they appear to teach no computer science.

* There is a new Charles C. Mann book coming out:

In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups–Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in this balanced, authoritative, nonpolemical new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt, a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug, whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry.

HT TC.

Violence and the sacred on campus

Dan Wang has an interesting piece, “Violence and the Sacred: College as an incubator of Girardian terror,” that you should read before you read this one, because I’m going to agree slightly and disagree slightly with it. He writes:

Where should we expect Girard’s predictions for mimetic crises to run most rampant? At places where values are confused and people are much the same. To me, that description best fits one place in particular: the American college.

I think he’s right about the way American colleges are homogeneous and the way homogeneity can create mimetic conflict, but that kind of mimetic conflict is also limited to a relatively small group and, in a political sense, they’re mostly activists (I argue something very similar in “Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent,” which is based on my experiences teaching college students). Ninety-five percent of college students are not that susceptible to mimetic contagion for many reasons, one important one being that, for the most part, they have no idea what’s going on (and I include myself when I was a college student and arguably now) and are more interested in self development, partying, getting a job, and getting laid than they are in mimetic competition for status-oriented pursuits.

That being said, I also suspect that, the richer the students and the society, the more prone we are to mimetic conflict. In the absence of real problems humans tend to invent ones. That, for example, is one of the more charitable readings of Trump as president: we’re so rich that we feel we can elect an unqualified buffoon to office and get away with it. If we felt we were facing real crises, we’d be warier of electing a buffoon.

Back to Wang:

Mimetic contagion magnifies small fights by making people focus on each other. These processes follow their own logic until they reach conclusions that look so extreme to the outside world. Once internal rivalries are sorted out, people coalesce into groups united against something foreign. These tendencies help explain why events on campus so often make the news. It seems like every other week we see some campus activity being labeled a “witch hunt,” “riot,” or something else that involves violence, implied or explicit. I don’t care to link to these events, they’re so easy to find. It’s interesting to see that academics are increasingly becoming the target of student activities. The Girardian terror devours its children first, who have tolerated or fanned mimetic contagion for so long.

Remember, though, that the crazy campus protests and the abuse of the campus bureaucracy occurs among a small number of students at a small number of schools—to return to an earlier point, the students at Yale are rich and satisfied enough to go bonkers over Halloween costumes; students at community colleges are too worried about paying the rent. The vast majority of students respect and admire free speech and get the importance of free ideas. Those events that “so often make the news” make the news because they’re pretty uncommon, even at rich, well-marketed schools.

One problem campuses do have, however, is that the more reasonable students are often reluctant to challenge the crazier, noisier ones. And these days, contingent faculty (like myself) are reluctant to explicitly challenge the crazier and noisier ones, because when college administrators see a ruckus they mostly want that ruckus to go away, and one easy way to make it go away is to make sure there are no extra sections next semester. The student soon graduates and the adjunct goes away even sooner. Ruckus solved!

Don’t get me wrong—those events are bad and the administrators (and sometimes faculty) should stand up for the freedom to speak and think. But always think about the incentives facing the actors in a given situation when you start applying highly abstract moral reasoning from outside the situation.

Wang notes many of the ways that students engage in zero-sum competition:

Once people enter college, they get socialized into group environments that usually continue to operate in zero-sum competitive dynamics. These include orchestras and sport teams; fraternities and sororities; and many types of clubs.

There’s a lot of truth there, but I’m not sure fraternities and sororities are good examples. There, I think the students are less in the grip of mimetic contagion and more in the grip of simple libido (which brings us to an easier supply-demand story and perhaps evolutionary biology story—as I argue at the preceding link). They have zero-sum qualities, but people can and do start new fraternities and sororities, and I don’t know that most fraternities and sororities have the kinds of hard caps that make them truly zero sum.

I’d say that the worst mimetic crises are actually experienced not by undergrads but by humanities grad students (Wang addresses grad students towards the end of his essay). In the humanities, there are almost no jobs after graduation. The field has become highly political in nature and grad school has become cotillion for eggheads. The dearth of jobs and challenges in getting them is one reason grad students are willing to do and think whatever their professors say: the students need to do everything right if they’re going to have an even remote chance of getting a real gig. Over time you get nonsense like most of “literary theory” and Alan Sokal debunkings.*

Science isn’t immune to mimetic crises, but at least scientists have the real world as a fairly objective measuring stick. From what I’ve observed, the humanities have the most serious crises, followed by the social sciences, and followed finally by the hard sciences. Business and law schools are probably somewhere near the rank of the social sciences (and Wang’s Thiel quotes about MBAs are great).

Then Wang shifts to talk about Big Little Lies, and his reading of the show is also excellent:

I haven’t watched much TV recently, but the new show I’ve liked best is *Big Little Lies* on HBO. Rich suburban moms, with desires mediated by their children, are incited towards violence against each other in gorgeous Monterey, California. Who can resist?

I can! I watched a couple episodes and while the murder premise held my attention initially, the stultifying atmosphere of stupendously rich and childish idiots drove me away. It wasn’t funny enough to justify itself. In other words, I dislike it for some of the reasons Wang likes it. But seeing it through that Girardian lens makes me like it better, or at least understand it better. You could also do a good Girardian reading of the first season of UnREAL, which is my favorite recent TV show.

Then there’s this, which is just important and probably underrated:

Because acts of youth are more easily recalled, our future elites will be made up of people who’ve managed to keep their records unsullied. What happens when most records of our life are accessible via Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, or blogs? I think that makes it so that our future leaders will be selected for whether they were willing to be really boring in their 20s, who have no recorded indiscretions that might derail a Senate confirmation. Are these the people we want to be governed by?

Among my friends I hear a common joke or refrain: “I could never run for office after last weekend.” Or: “I could never run for office after the pics I sent her.” Except it’s not really a joke (though in the age of Trump I begin to wonder how true it is: maybe the electorate is more accepting than I’d previously thought). And you know what? I could never run for office. I also have a terrible personality for politics, but many people who show political promise can’t run in a polarized world that remembers everything. Not until the culture changes.

I’m not a Girardian and whenever I’ve started his books I’ve felt torn in two: some passages and sections are brilliant and some are idiotic, and sometimes brilliance and idiocy are right next to each other. Is the latter the price of the former? I just looked for my copy of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, but I can’t find it and suspect I must have donated it somewhere along the way, assuming that I’d never read it again. My copy of Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World seems to have also disappeared.

Still, after the thousand words above, I do wonder if it would be a good idea to tell college students that they are susceptible to mimetic crises. There is no good mechanism for doing so right now, but the idea is a good one. I also favor explicitly telling students that some majors and paths to graduation are pretty bogus in terms of learning and are mostly there to keep students happy (they get a degree), professors happy (they get a job), and administrators happy (they get tuition money). One could at least conceive of colleges telling students to be wary of mimetic desire. One cannot conceive of them telling students to be wary of the incentives the college itself faces.

EDIT: I also thought, and maybe still think to some extent, that sexual attractiveness is not that subject to mimetic desire, at least among men. But while reading Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success I came across this passage, which supports the sexual aspects of mimetic desire (though not mimetic crises):

neuroscientists have examined the process by which people change their ratings of facial attractiveness in response to cultural learning. In one experiment, male participants rated 180 female faces on a seven-point scale from 1, unattractive, to 7, attractive. After each rating, they were then shown what they believed to be the average rating for that face by other men. In reality, however, on 60 random faces this rating was generated by computer to be 2 to 3 points higher or lower than the participants’ ratings. The rest of the time, the ‘average rating’ was calculated to be close to the participant’s own rating. Then, a half an hour later, participants underwent brain scanning while they rated all 180 faces again, though no average scores were provided this time. The questions are, how did seeing others’ attractiveness ratings influence their subsequent ratings of the same faces, and what was going on in their brains?

As usual, participants raised their attractiveness ratings when they saw higher averages from others and reduced them when they saw lower ratings. The brain scans reveal that seeing the different ratings of others altered their subjective evaluations of those faces. Combined with data from other similar studies, it appears that shifting to agree with others altered their subjective evaluations of faces. Combined with data from other similar studies, it appears that shifting to agree with others is internally (neurologically) rewarding and results in enduring neural modifications that change preferences or valuations. (265)

So we have at least one experimentally verified example of mimetic desire operating on men’s views of women. The faking of other people’s evaluations is a particularly nice touch!

This may also argue that we have much stronger incentives to manipulate user reviews than I’d previously thought. If so, that in turn applies we should not trust Amazon reviews that much.


* It’s still possible to find humanities articles that would make the kinds of moves that Wang does in his post: take someone interesting, comment on its relationship to some larger society, and tie it into some work of art in a novel-but-readable way. Today, though, that style of peer-reviewed article has mostly disappeared under an avalanche of bad writing and “theory.”

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