“Sisu:” a new favorite word that comes from Finnish and was popularized by war

A Thousand Lakes of Red Blood on White Snow” brilliantly describes how tiny Finland successfully fought the Soviet Union twice during World War II:

Thus with a thousand lakes of warm red blood on cold white snow did the Finns purchase their escape from assimilation into the Soviet Union, ensuring that when the Iron Curtain was drawn, it ran along the eastern side of Finland rather than the western one.

The word “sisu” captures the mindset necessary to persevere against formidable, unlikely odds, though it is unlikely to have the resonance it needs unless you’ve read the entire article:

Sisu resists exact translation into other languages but loosely translated refers to a stoic toughness consisting of strength of will, determination, and perseverance in the face of adversity and against repeated setbacks; it means stubborn fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds; the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and fighting with the will to win.

Sisu is more than mere physical courage, requiring an inner strength nourished by optimism, tempered by realism, and powered by a great deal of pig-headed obstinacy.

“Grit,” “stoicism,” and “tenacity” express similar concepts in English.

Anyone know a good, general history of Finland? Many people are currently enamored of its schools, but perhaps the same cultural thing that enabled the country to fight the Winter War also enable it to succeed educationally where others fail.

Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High — Mike Power

Drugs Unlimited is an excellent companion to Daniel Okrent’s Last Call, since both are about the madness of the laws that forbid or restrict mind-altering substances. But Drugs Unlimited shares a flaw and strength with Last Call, too: both books are repetitive, with tons of minute historical detail that feels easy to skip. Unless you wish to become an expert in the subject both are better checked out of libraries than bought.

Drugs Unlimited follows a pattern and cites many, many examples of that pattern: Chemist or enthusiast comes up with a novel drug or drug variation; people try and like it; governments eventually ban it (there are chapters devoted to “LSD in the 1960s, heroin in the 1980s and Ecstasy in the 1980s and 1990s”). The process then repeats, though we’re now in a stage in which it’s difficult for governments to ban or regulate every conceivable substance, leading to an online free-for-all.

Drugs_unlimitedShould you wish to enter the free-for-all Drugs Unlimited provides an introduction and useful guidance. Drugs have become more widely available than ever in the last ten years, and perhaps the most interesting thing about their availability has been their lack of impact on society, which continues to function. Nonetheless we get a chronicle of the new drug world: “Widely available and hugely popular, mephedrone was the first mass-market ‘downloadable’ drug, in the sense that it was, uniquely for the mass market, originally only available online.” That I’ve never heard of mephedrone makes me feel uncool.

It’s appropriate that I’m discussing this book on a blog, since Power writes:

Conventional academic research and government-sponsored investigations into attitudes and use patterns are being supplanted in their authority by the unmediated voices of users themselves, as social networks become central to the daily experience of a new generation of drug users.

He doesn’t cite Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters but he might as well: one could take out the word “drug” and replace it with “readers” or “listeners” or any number of other verbs. Still, there is a persistent feeling that “the unmediated voices of users” are better informed than the highly mediated voices of the media, or of academics.

Drugs Unlimited is also a media critique: “Saunders also detailed [Ecstasy’s] darker, more negative sides in an honest appraisal that was sorely lacking in mainstream coverage.” Or: “My responses to [Ecstasy] and its surrounding culture, and those of everyone I knew, were markedly different from the media’s representation of them.” Or: “hysterical media coverage of the perceive threats of new drugs and corresponding knee-jerk government action seem to be [. . .] guaranteed.”

Power likes drugs: he’s taken them, and he writes sensuously of the way “drugs can send users into bizarre internal spaces, imaginary realms where mind and body are dissociated from each other, and where the only limits to the experience are those of the imagination.” He should perhaps more strongly emphasize the dangers of mixing different drugs, since that along with poorly manufactured drugs is how people die. The extent to which schools, the “responsible” media, and other authority figures systematically lie about drugs is shocking. Although “Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?” came out after Drugs Unlimited, it would fit into Power’s narrative.

Drugs Unlimited is lightly technical, and you’ll find sentences like these: “PIHKAL reveals in practical detail the chemical synthesis and human dosage of hundreds of psychoactive substances, each of which are in the phenethylamine class.” The book is neither well nor poorly written. It would not surprise me, however, were copies to travel to many unexpected places and inspired many unexpected people. Perhaps you’re one.

Links: Books, Is Marriage Worth Saving?, drinking, new Stephenson, standing desks, swagger, and more!

* Matt Yglesias thinks Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers; see also my related post “Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz.” The section “book publishers are terrible at marketing” is particularly interesting.

* “Is Marriage Worth Saving?” Given the subject of Asking Anna it should not be a surprise that I read with interest.

* “An interactive map of gender ratios among single people in cities;” virtually all cities have more unattached men than women in the 20 – 34 demographic, implying that many women are willing and happy to date older—sometimes substantially so.

* “Why College Kids Drink Like They’re Getting Extra Credit for It,” maybe.

* First details of Neal Stephenson’s next novel, Seveneves.

* “How Standing Desks Can Help Students Focus in the Classroom;” I’m all for it and since reading this I’ve been encouraging my students to stand when they write in class. I use a standing desk.

* “Prof. Alan Dershowitz: ‘Harvard’s policy was written by people who think sexual assault is so heinous a crime that even innocence is not a defense.‘”

* How to get swagger.

We are our own enemies: “Arts & Entertainments” edition

In “The Collective Conscience of Reality Television: In a format without a code of conduct, viewers drive the limits of the exploitation and privacy invasions allowed onscreen” Serena Elavia writes that “What viewers will or won’t watch matters immensely to networks; in fact, they seem function as the networks’ sole ‘conscience.'” She’s right, and it’s a point too infrequently made: most of the cultural “problems” that the commentariat identifies arise because the audience responds to whatever the “problem” might be, whether it’s improbably hot and photoshopped models or reality TV or football or soda.

This is important because words like “society” or “the media” are actually shorthands for “the aggregated preferences of many, perhaps millions, of individuals.” You can’t really blame “society” for much of anything; you can at best blame the many individuals who hold and perpetuate beliefs or practices or whatever. “Conscience” is distributed, and it’s arguably becoming more distributed in the Internet age, when the means of discussions are (literally) at everyone’s fingertips. This blog is a good example of that principle in action.

Elavia’s point is also similar to one made by Brian Moody, the producer in Christopher Beha’s novel Arts & Entertainments. Towards the end of the novel he and Eddie, the everyman nebbish protagonist, discuss the nature of TV and, beneath that, the nature of God, and Moody says:

The audience has only way of expressing its interest—by watching. They might watch because they love you. They might watch because they hate you. They might watch because they’re sick. Doesn’t matter. Is that good or bad? The question doesn’t make any sense. Good is whatever the audience watches [. . . .] The audience is all there is [. . . .] I care about the audience, and I won’t defy them.

That last line, about how Moody “won’t defy” the audience, is scary because it implies he’ll do anything. Kill a man? If the audience wants it—and some dark corners of the Internet imply there is a market for murder. Moody is unsettling because he’ll do anything to anyone around him if the audience wills it. Most of us would like to imagine our friends, and even strangers, will not under any circumstances murder, torture, or rape us. Moody implies that in the right circumstances he would, or he would allow it to happen, almost as a form of worship.

Right now we don’t live in Moody’s world: as Elavia observes, producers only stop when audiences protest. Which raises a question: What happens if audiences don’t protest? That sort of question underlies books like The Hunger Games. Over time it may become more salient. Fiction and history teach us that we don’t really know what our neighbors and friends and strangers will do in real crises. Many, however, will indulge or release the darkness within.

Thoughts on the movie “Birdman”

* The first three quarters are excellent. The last quarter is too long but still good; audiences don’t need to be hit over the head with symbolism. We laughed, though not always at the parts that the rest of the theater laughed at. A few times I was the only person laughing.

* Birdman is among other things functional review of the Transformers series; Birdman is not merely conceptual art, as Transformers 4 may be.

birdman-poster* I didn’t feel stupid watching it.

* What might the camera work signify? To most it will be brilliant or hateful, but it is at least distinctive, and distinctive in a “that must have been very hard to do” way.

* Theater folk are fucked up, but we already know that, don’t we? From the works of Michael Tolkin, among others.

* This is the kind of movie about which movie people like to say, “It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore.” See also point #3, above. Good movies are harder to find but still get made.

* Birdman is different than Gone Girl and yet both are absorbing.

* The rants are winners.

Links: What does arousal feel like for women?, campus politics, decision fatigue, geography, and more!

* Mostly SFW: “girls of Reddit what is it like to be horny from a girls perspective?

* “Why One Male College Student Abandoned Affirmative Consent;” I am endlessly struck by the gap between the commentariat and what I observe at Saturday night parties and bars.

* Relatedly, “Neo-Victorianism on Campus: Is this the end of the collegiate bacchanal?”, which is an underreported perspective and yet one Katie Roiphe discussed 20 years ago. The more I know, the more apt I am to be the annoying guy complaining about historical context.

textual-2047* On decision fatigue, which I definitely suffer from.

* Perhaps related to the above, “Doctors Tell All—and It’s Bad,” which can be profitably read in conjunction with “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school.”

* “Why Kids Sext,” a 100,000-word article that could be summarized as “For the same reasons adults do” or “cause it’s fun, the same reason why kid these days listen to that infernal devil music: Jazz.”

* “‘The Bell Curve’ 20 years later: A Q&A with Charles Murray;” the section about genetic alteration of genes that affect intelligence is of the most interest. I’m still not convinced our tests for measuring intelligence are great. Then again see “Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming.”

* Where young college graduates want to live; Portland and Austin are both on my radar.

Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz

In “What is the welfare cost of Amazon supply restrictions on books?” Tyler Cowen writes on whether Amazon’s much-publicized maneuvers against publishers are welfare-enhancing or welfare-destroying; most of the former answers tend to come from readers and indie publishers, while most of the latter answers tend to come from publishers and established authors. I however was compelled to comment on a separate and to my mind under-discussed issue: the lack of any sense of history in most of these discussions.

The same class of writers who five years ago were aghast at the lack of support for literary fiction among publishers now decry Amazon; they’re supporting the same publishers who were until recently the cravenly commercial forces destroying “quality” literary fiction. “The plight of literary fiction” has been an evergreen essay topic for as long as I’ve been cognizant of literary culture. Literary fiction was (or is) in plight because publishers supposedly don’t support and readers are too busy masturbating to romance fiction or science fiction tech fantasies (or whatever) to read lit fic.

Tangentially, I’m also amazed that, in rereading the preceding sentence, it seems to make sense and flow nicely without any commas. Perhaps it is the influence of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which I bought naturally from Amazon and which has me thinking about nesting and recursion more than any time since CS 102.

The link in the preceding paragraph also goes to Amazon.

Links: Are cops dumb?, humiliation, teachers, traffic, fear, how to be attractive to women, and more!

* Speculative, though it would explain a lot: “Can Someone Be Too Smart To Be A Cop?

* This Is How Judges Humiliate Pregnant Teens Who Want Abortions.

* “This Is Not A Startup Story: In 2011, I started a book business with my best friend called Emily Books.”

* “A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned.”

* “Why 12-Foot Traffic Lanes Are Disastrous for Safety and Must Be Replaced Now.”

* Why People Fear Vaccines, and Always Have; per another Slate article, parents who don’t vaccinate their kids should be sued and/or charged.

* How To Be Attractive To Women, Pt.2: Signaling Attractive Traits. Much of this is also applicable to women.

* “What It’s Like to Carry Your Nobel Prize through Airport Security,” a completely hilarious piece one could imagine Feynman writing.

Owning vs sharing: Don’t get caught in the ugly middle

In a tweet Paul Graham writes: “As buying and selling become easier, owning approaches sharing.” That describes my behavior regarding many objects, especially electronics: for as long as I’ve been buying Macs and Mac products, I’ve been selling the old versions on Craigslist for a third to half of their initial value. In some sense I’m actually leasing them, but using myself as the leasing agent. Although I’ve owned a car I actually prefer not to and Uber is accelerating the ability to rent cars when needed and avoid the hassles of ownership. Housing has of course long been both rented and owned, and like many economists I find the U.S. obsession with owning housing to be misguided.

But there are other ways too that owning approaches sharing in my life:

  • Old cameras and lenses get sold to fund new ones. Like Macs, they tend to retain a fair amount of value—usually about half for lenses and a third for camera bodies.
  • It’s not uncommon for me to sell books that look promising but don’t live up to expectations, almost always through Amazon (despite Amazon’s encourage for buyers to scam sellers; for objects worth less than $20 I don’t think the issue is overwhelmingly important).
  • Although I haven’t begun doing this yet, I think that selling bikes may be more economical than moving them. The last bike I moved from Tucson to New York was probably a net loss and should’ve been sold instead of shipped.

There are some items that still aren’t easily sold, like beds and furniture, in part because they’re heavy, in part because they can harbor bed bugs, and in part because they just aren’t that valuable. I don’t have the citation handy, but I’ve read that Ikea might be facilitating mobility by making it cheap and easy to setup new apartments: it’s possible to buy a couch, a chair, some dishes, a bed, and some shelves for under $1,000, in the course of an afternoon (although I’d prefer a Tuft & Needle bed, but that’s an aside).

Among my friends, city-to-city moves often entail dumping most of their stuff and buying it again at the destination, since the moving cost is too high to justify the hassle. That’s less true of me because I have a sit-stand desk and some other pretty expensive gear, but in this respect I’m in the minority. Keeping a minority of one’s stuff may also lead to a more satisfying, experience-rich life, at least for some people.

The habit of either having very expensive and durable stuff or throwaway stuff may also be indicative of the polarization of many domains, in which it makes sense to either buy or be the best, or buy throwaway stuff or don’t bother competing. Don’t get caught in the ugly middle. Like “Death before inconvenience,” “Don’t get caught in the ugly middle,” is something companies should contemplate.

Owning cars and houses in particular is just insanely expensive. In “The Cheapest Generation,” Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissmann observe that

Smartphones compete against cars for young people’s big-ticket dollars, since the cost of a good phone and data plan can exceed $1,000 a year.

But cars cost close to $10,000 a year, according to AAA—or at least an order of magnitude more than a phone. Even if other transportation expenses (Uber, bikes, subways (where available)) cost a couple thousand dollars, they’re still significantly cheaper than owning a car. And a phone plus a data plan enables those alternatives. Owning and sharing may be less opposed than they were once believed to be.

Links: Becoming fluent in math, “How to be attractive to women,” essays, and more

* “How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math: Sorry, education reformers, it’s still memorization and repetition we need.”

* “How To Be Attractive To Women, Pt. 1: Our Embarrassing Stories,” which I wish I’d heard and absorbed when I was 12 or 13. I made pretty much all the mistakes discussed at the link.

* “Science proves that you love your dog like a baby,” which is unsurprising given how many people use pets as emotional substitutes for children.

* What is an essay? by John Jeremiah Sullivan, which should be read in tandem with Paul Graham’s “The Age of the Essay.”

* Yet another police brutality video: “Kid tapes cop smashing car window, dragging man away after tasering him.”

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