Life: The purpose of life edition

“I may think socializing is a way to waste time,” Zhang says. “Also, maybe I’m a little shy.” [. . .]

Seven days a week, he arrives at his office around eight or nine and stays until six or seven. The longest he has taken off from thinking is two weeks. Sometimes he wakes in the morning thinking of a math problem he had been considering when he fell asleep. Outside his office is a long corridor that he likes to walk up and down. Otherwise, he walks outside.

“What is the purpose of life” is a question everyone answers with their life.

The blockquote is from “The Pursuit of Beauty: Yitang Zhang solves a pure-math mystery,” and the article is itself beautiful and brilliant. Edward Frenkel gets name checked, and his book Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality could be profitably read in tandem.

Sometimes when I read articles about income distribution and fights over slicing up the massive economic pie I think of articles like “The Pursuit of Beauty.” What would a world in which people signaled less and did more look like? But the preceding sentence is itself signaling, so I’m part of the problem by saying so.

Life: Laughter and “Rapture” edition

“They were both laughing. Laughing made everything harmless and carefree and sweet. That’s the sort of idiot she was, taken by an easy laugh. Laughter took danger out of it. It was one way to get a woman: make her laugh. It disarms her and distracts her from the perils that may, and most likely do, lie ahead. Laughing throws a person’s balance off, and in that state she is more easily toppled.”

—Susan Minot, Rapture; I find the book funny although I’m not sure most people would. “thought it was funny” may be the ultimate subjective assertion. Rapture is available for $4 on Amazon, and for that price you should definitely read it if you think you’ll at all enjoy the subject matter. The product description makes it sound more gimmicky than it actually is.

The quote above is on page 17 and to me is the key to the novel.

Thoughts on “Mozart in the Jungle”

* Mozart in the Jungle is charming if sadly devoid of the sexposition that HBO and Showtime have become famous for. Most writers take a too-holy-for-nudes attitude. Bullshit. The show also provides many, many opportunities for double entendres and obvious metaphors.

Related perhaps to the above, charm is hard to define but easy to feel.

*mozart-in-the-jungle-poster Why aren’t there any classical venues that let listeners stand up and drink beer and buy t-shirts with clever slogans on them? Or do such venues exist and I’m unaware of them? I’m interested in listening—see this, from 2008, for example—but the symphonic experience I find stultifying.

* The show admittedly chose many clichéd pieces. Hardcore classical music people—all nine of you—may dislike it for that reason, or may dislike it for the same reason cops dislike cop shows and doctors dislike hospital shows.

* The unions are reasonably vilified. So are police over-responses. Though this hasn’t arisen much yet in the show, “You can’t protect yourself from the market” could be one Cowenian economic takeaway.

* Arts and artists are inevitably more glamorous in TV shows and in movies than in real life.

* Here is the New York Times on Mozart. I haven’t seen many intelligent pieces on it. Like Entourage before it, Mozart may be too light and charming to attract essayists. Why write an essay when the first asterisk in this post encapsulates the show?

GeekDesk “Max” sit-stand desk review: Two years with a motorized desk

The single, most important thing about this GeekDesk review can be encapsulated in a single sentence: I’d never return, full-time and voluntarily, to a conventional desk. The rest is mere commentary. Detailed commentary, to be sure, but the important stuff should be up front.

I’m going to divide this review into two major sections: the first is about using the sit-stand desk, and the second is about installing it.


Geekdesk_and_iMac_2There is by now extensive evidence that sitting for long periods of time is terrible for both health and for concentration. The former has only recently hit the news; see this New York Times story or “The health hazards of sitting” from The Washington Post. Others may be easily found. Yet standing for long periods is also unlikely to be good for you, as anyone who has worked retail or restaurants already knows. Hence the sit-stand desk. Sites like Hacker News are rife with testimonials about standers. Let me add to the cacophony.

The latter issue—concentration—is less easily measured, but many of us who do brainwork at desks know the impossible-to-ignore feeling that we must stand and pace. A standing desk facilitates that kind of concentration.

For a long time I got a magical “wow” feeling when I tire of standing and watch the desk lower, or when I tire of sitting and watch the desk rise. Very few products of any sort offer that “Wow.” By now, however, having a sit-stand desk is mundane. We can acclimate to almost anything—and in one particular domain acclimation is called the “Coolidge Effect“— but, as mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t want to go back.

Like any sort of change there is a break-in period, and someone used to sitting for most of the day shouldn’t go to standing for most of it. Start with half an hour or an hour at a time. To the extent I have a method it’s simple: when I’m tired of standing I sit and vice-versa.

Geekdesk_and_iMac_3One other point: pretty much everyone I’ve seen who has tried a mat recommends getting a mat (see, for example, this thread for a wide array of testimonials). I haven’t seen anyone who tried a mat and didn’t like or recommend one. The good ones cost at least $60. Geekdesk now sells a mat, and I’m sure theirs is fine.

Otherwise, I don’t have much to report about usage—which is probably good; like any tool, a desk exists to support some other end. The memory feature on the GeekDesk Max works well. I haven’t thought about it in ages. The desk’s motor (or, more properly, motors: I believe it has one in each leg) is quiet and smooth. In the years I’ve had mine I’ve discerned no changes in the quality of the motor. I suppose it could die tomorrow, and the official warranty is only for two years, but GeekDesk seems like the kind of company that’ll either replace the desk if it dies the day after the warranty expires or cut you a deal on a new one. More on the quality of the company is below.

My desk also has a Humanscale keyboard tray attached. The Humanscale systems have become much more expensive since I bought mine, but I don’t know much about the alternatives. I do know that used versions are available on eBay and Craigslist. I also know that the keyboard trays will last for decades because my parents originally bought ones about twenty years ago. Most of the keyboard trays also offer 360 degree ranges of motions, which can be handy.

The motor—or more properly motors, because I believe there is one in each leg—is still quiet and smooth after about two years of use.


I like to imagine money spent on computer / desk setups to be allocated pretty damn well, considering how many hours a week I spend working at a computer. But people are funny about money: Dan Ariely describes some of the ways people mis-allocate money based on anchor points in Predictably Irrational.

Most people, if you press them, have some important indulgence they think “worth” spending money on. It might be shoes, lingerie, cars, boats, sports, travel, or hobbies, but it’s almost always there. The surprise at the expense of really good desks is, to my mind, an indication of priorities more than any comment on the absolute value or lack thereof in a workspace.

It’s almost impossible to say whether something like this is “worth it” to another person, but the usual points in favor a sit-stand desk are simple: many people spend 20 to 60 hours a week at a desk. On a cost-per-day basis, a good desk costs less than coffee or ramen. Put that way the upfront costs seem much smaller. It is interesting that many people are willing to pay four figures for minor car creature comforts but spend much less on desks or beds, which are often occupied for ten times as long as a car. Nonetheless anchoring effects are strong and perhaps they can’t be overcome.

I don’t know how long the motor on this desk will last. A conventional desk can probably endure for decades, and that’s obviously not true of a desk with moving parts. This desk comes with a two-year warranty. I’m guessing too that GeekDesk the company will either knock some cash off a new version or do something else nice if the desk dies the day after the warranty expires.


If you’re not accustomed to using power tools and building things on your own, pay the $95 or so to have your desk built for you. If I’d done this, I would’ve saved a lot of time and hassle. When I first bought the desk, I had no idea what I was doing and screwed up the screwing-in process by not having a drill-bit extender. Seems like an obvious point in retrospect, but at the time I messed up in the installation and ended up stripping a screw and installing others at an angle. In addition, although the screws Geekdesk sent were “self-starting,” they should still be installed with pilot holes.

desk_problems-7416I’m jumping ahead of myself, and I could tell the long and somewhat boring story about how this happened, but the short version is that I called GeekDesk not really sure about what I’d fucked up. GeekDesk’s customer service is insanely fabulous. About 80 – 85% of the problems were my own damn fault, and I should’ve been more careful when I assembled the desk, and I should’ve been more careful with the screws. But I wasn’t, and when I gave up and punted, Isaiah actually hired the installer at GeekDesk’s expense. I volunteered to pay, but they said they’d do it. Very few companies go this far.

The installer was a third-party company; perhaps not surprisingly, GeekDesk does not have a horde of desk installers across the nation. Unfortunately, the guy GeekDesk sent installed the screws at an angle just like I did, and in the process of screwing around (haha!) with them, managed to strip two heads, which then caused him to go to Home Depot for some more screws. This doesn’t inspire confidence in him, or in the self-starting screw system.

stripped_screw-7394In my case, I’ve seldom had any need to use power tools and am an amateur. But his entire profession involves putting things like desks together correctly. He was also ready to leave the mis-screwed screws, until I pointed out that the desk was still wobbling.

Anyway, for the Humanscale track I drilled small pilot holes, and now the desk doesn’t wobble, provided that it’s braced against a wall sufficient to absorb shock but not so much as to impede the motor. The desk doesn’t feel as solid as the Maxon Series 1000 desk it replaced, but I haven’t notice any monitor shake either.

(A side note: most reviews for newspapers or magazines appear after the writer has tried the product for a few days or weeks. I prefer to write them after a few months or years: that’s often how long it takes to really evaluate value.)

There are other, similar sit-stand desks, like the NextDesk Terra, but it’s $1,500 and I can’t discern any obvious improvements. It’s also wider, at 63 inches, than the GeekDesk. The Wirecutter‘s reviewers like it better; still, I’d rather save the money and use the Geekdesk.

Here is an earlier post on GeekDesk; note the datestamp.

Morcock, Melville House, school, boundaries and norms, the greatest NCY pictures you’ve ever seen, and more!

* “The Anti-Tolkien,” about Michael Moorcock, is quite good and worth reading but it does one thing that consistently annoys me: it doesn’t tell new readers where we should start. Any piece about a long-established and/or prolific artist should have a suggested starting point. Few if any artists are equally good across dozens of works. In the case of Elmore Leonard, for example, I’d suggest starting with Get Shorty and Out of Sight in that order.

* Melville House on publishing The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. You “should” read it, though you probably won’t.

NYC_Skyline* Don’t be a full-time adjunct and don’t go to grad school, which ought to be obvious.

* The Unappreciated Success Of Charter Schools.

* Dr. Ali: On sexual boundaries, exotic lovers and three ways I answer your dating questions

* It’s always been hard to make a living in art.

* Incredible NYC pictures taken from 7,500 feet.

* Heat Death: Venture Capital in the ’80s is unexpected and well-cited.

What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.

Same Performance, Better Grades: Academic achievement hasn’t improved much, so why are college-goers getting higher GPAs than ever before?” doesn’t cite Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, though it should. Both the article and the book observe that grade inflation is real and doesn’t reflect increased student knowledge. But neither book nor article bring up an obvious question: What incentive does an individual professor have to grade honestly (or, as students might call it, “harshly”)?

When an individual professor grades students harshly, the students give low evaluation scores (which the article does, to its credit, note), but more importantly they can create a lot of extra work in the form of emails to be answered and, to a lesser extent, office hour visits generated. Much of htat work is not rewarding, intellectually or remuneratively, although office hours can be. Professors are rewarded primarily by producing research and in some schools to a lesser extent for getting high student evaluations, and grading honestly is counterproductive for either of those goals; it’s like a professional athlete honing his knitting skills.

Helicopter parenting may also contribute to student expectations around grades, and administrator expectations that students’s input will be valued in terms of who to hire, fire, and promote. I haven’t experienced helicopter parenting first-hand, but I have heard the stories, and I have heard about grad students and adjuncts going to meetings based on low grades; the message gets disseminated even if it isn’t stated explicitly.

I’ve gotten lots of unhappy emails and, more rarely, calls from students. The perhaps most interesting ones come from students who plagiarized papers but thought I should excuse the plagiarism. In middle or high school perhaps that would be appropriate, but not college, and their efforts take time and mental energy to deal with. If even the plagiarizers want a hearing and elaborate negotiations and second chances, imagine the students who just wrote weak papers!

There’s no check on giving high grades, especially in squishy humanities courses like the ones I teach. The article says “Ultimately, grade inflation has severe consequences,” but then lists extremely un-severe consequences, like difficulty “for employers to vet the caliber of an applicant” (do employers actually do this?) or misleading students, “who often use their grades as benchmarks to help diagnose their strengths and weaknesses.” Some students do that but many don’t. The “severe consequences” paragraph feels like it was invented by a student for a paper.

Finally, the much-ballyhooed shift from tenured faculty to adjuncts means that even small or unjustified complaints can mean the difference between a given adjunct getting a course or not getting a course, if the opportunity is down to two, or a small number, of potential instructors. I’ve not heard of any adjunct, grad student, or instructor getting static for giving overly high grades. Give low grades or run a demanding class, though, and it can and does happen. Many adjunct decide to buckle up for safety’s sake, instead of going wild by not wearing that seatbelt.

Colleges mostly know that the students will pay tuition (or rather, their parents and their loan originators will) if they are happy with the educational product, and professors know they are more likely to keep getting paid if they have fewer student complaints rather than more. Colleges have set up programs that are designed to graduate students with limited skills but real tuition money. Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton describes the consequences.

Want more serious grades? Provide the incentives to give them. Almost no one wants more serious grades.

See also “Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing” and “The validity of grades.” Moreover, the NBER paper “Why Have College Completion Rates Increased? An Analysis of Rising Grades” finds that “grade inflation can explain much of the change in graduation rates. We show that GPA is a strong predictor of graduation rates and that GPAs have been rising since the 1990s. We also find that in national survey data and rich administrative data from 9 large public universities increases in college GPAs cannot be explained by student demographics, preparation, and school factors.” The paper seems consistent with anecdotal impressions.

Briefly noted: Decoded – Mai Jia

Here is The New Yorker on Decoded (“This unusual spy thriller has neither page-turning plot twists nor a master villain”) and here is The New York Times. The book is not bad, which I realize is damning, and it suffers in comparison to Cryptonomicon, a novel whose explanations of cryptography are brilliant. Both novels, interestingly and perhaps significantly, start with the parents or grandparents of the nominally central characters. There are comments in Decoded about the nature of stories:

It all happened so long ago that everyone who saw her suffer and die is now dead themselves, but the story of the terrible agony that she endured has been passed down from one generation to the next, as the tale of an appalling battle might have been.

How much are we to trust stories “passed down from one generation to the next?” Maybe only as little as we are to trust that cryptographic protocols have been properly implemented. The woman giving birth in this passage was part of a rich clan that, like most rich clans, can’t maintain its structure over time, since, “very few of the young people who had left were interested in returning to carry on the family business.” The family doesn’t get enmeshed in the new government, either, at least until the “hero,” Rong Jinzhen, comes along.

I’m looking for some evocative quote to give a sense of the writing, but it feels flat and there is very little dialogue. Perhaps I’m missing something as Tyler Cowen finds its compelling. Perhaps I’m blind to the novel’s psychology. But the book is too easy to put down and forget.

Links: Flying torches the planet, Birdman, books, crazy creative people, fertility, and more

* “Every Time You Fly, You Trash The Planet — And There’s No Easy Fix,” an underappreciated point; I know many people who see SUVs as environmentally evil and travel as virtuous, when their love of the latter more than offsets their hatred of the former.

* Oliver Peters on Birdman, which is an unusual and very good movie.

* Mark Zuckerberg discovers books.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* English PhDs can’t get jobs, which would-be English PhDs ought to know.

* The messy minds of creative people.

* “How California Bested Texas“—except in terms that arguably matter most, population growth.

* “Why do women know so little about their own fertility?” And that this issue gets mixed up in politics is itself depressing. The facts, people! Start with them.

* This Guy Took a Photo Every Time He Saw Someone Reading a Book on the Subway.

Life: Transience edition

“Reflect often on the speed with which all things in being, or coming into being, are carried past and swept away. Existence is like a river in ceaseless flow, its actions a constant succession of change, its causes innumerable in their variety: scarcely anything stands still, even what is most immediate. Reflect too on the yawning gulf of past and future time, in which all things vanish. So in all this it must be folly for anyone to be puffed with ambition, racked in struggle, or indignant at his lot—as if this was anything lasting or likely to trouble him for long.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations; Lil’ Jon alludes to and was inspired by Aurelius in “Turn Down for What.” Note too that I’m not convinced the premise of the passage necessarily or sufficiently supports the conclusion.

Why bother observing inconsistencies?

A friend noticed that I tend to say things like this: “The number of people who are genuinely interested in this kind of social policy minutia is probably small, as the popular support for programs like UPK shows” and he asked: why bother if no one cares?

In some existential sense one could ask why anyone bothers doing anything. More specific to this case, I write to find out what I think—I’m not alone in this—and writing solely for yourself has a pointless, masturbatory quality. I also write the kinds of things I like to read, and to understand the world better. Not everyone is interested in that but I am and presumably many readers of this blog are.

Most ideas also have histories, and most beliefs about subjects outside of science don’t advance linearly.* They’re subject to fashion. So one way to determine current fault lines in social (and legal) thinking is to look at what other people in other places and other times have thought.

Take this example: In Sexual Personae Camille Paglia says that the Marquis de Sade’s work “demonstrates the relativism of sexual and criminal codes.” His major works were done more than 200 years ago. Is it not strange that the same points are made, over and over again, through the generations? One reading of this could be that posts like mine are useless: little changes, despite writers like me. Another could be that the optimist hopes tomorrow will be better, for some value of better, than today despite evidence to the contrary.

In Western society criminal codes are designed above all to regulate three things: violence, sex, and property. The relations among the three could be said to be the primary driver of life and hence literature. One could derive a general principle from lots of specific examples.

Virtually everything “big” starts small. This is true of startups, other businesses, novels, countries, and life itself (via evolution). In general it’s better to start with the specific and move towards the general. The more specific the better in most cases. While it is true that most people don’t especially care about hypocrisy, some do, and observing how a society or individual responds to hypocrisy or is hypocritical can be tremendously revealing. Some people don’t care about revelation, and that’s okay. My reasons for writing this blog and thinking about and observing things are similar to the ones Paul Graham enumerates:

I do it, first of all, for the same reason I did look under rocks as a kid: plain curiosity. And I’m especially curious about anything that’s forbidden. Let me see and decide for myself.

Second, I do it because I don’t like the idea of being mistaken. If, like other eras, we believe things that will later seem ridiculous, I want to know what they are so that I, at least, can avoid believing them.

Third, I do it because it’s good for the brain. To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to.

I tend not to get in too much “trouble” because I’m not well known enough to generate intense scrutiny or hate mail or misreadings. People misreading Graham are legion and frequently, unintentionally, hilarious. I don’t have nearly as many, but I still like to think I’m making a difference, however small, at the margins.

* This could be an argument for being in fields that unambiguously advance: at least you know when you’re right, as opposed to being merely morally fashionable.

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