Robin Hanson’s “The Age of Em” scheduled for 2016—

See his blog announcement for more; I’ll definitely be getting a copy.

One could profitably read it next to Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, which is also recommended for some but not all readers. I don’t have enough intelligent commentary to add to blog about Superintelligence.

What a bizarre set of sentences:

The first paragraph from a New York Times article:

Kleiner Perkins’s victory Friday in the gender discrimination suit brought by Ellen Pao could be seen as an affirmation of the Silicon Valley old boys club. But venture capitalists have said that the trial has already put the tech industry on notice: It can no longer operate as a band of outsiders, often oblivious to rules that govern the modern workplace — even if that has been a key to its success.

So venture capitalists have to stop doing the very things that have “been a key to [their] success?” Won’t they then presumably be outcompeted by those who are willing to do those things? The “rules that govern the modern workplace” may also be one of the reasons startups are popular: they don’t have those rules. Paul Graham notes that “Nothing kills startups like distractions.” “Workplace rules” seem like they’d fall under the heading “distractions.”

The most intelligent commentary I’ve seen on this matter is Philip Greenspun’s. The gap between the press’s portrayal and what I’ve seen from people in the industry is even vaster than the gap between what I see in the press about nonprofits / government, and what actually happens on the ground.

The Spellman Files — Lisa Lutz

I laughed (which could be an ideal two-word review of every comedic novel), especially during the first half of The Spellman Files, and laughter balms many errors. Unlike most mystery or nominal mystery stories The Spellman Files is worth reading, but on a sentence level the novel is a mass of clichés, though the premise is interesting and the narrative proceeds intelligently. One can only wish that the same intelligence that structured the narrative also be used to consider the sentences.

Spellman_filesClichés accumulate like snow in Boston: “Finker was none the wiser” (8). Or: “But for many years, my attributes (for what they’re worth) were obscured by my defiant ways” (19). We don’t need “for what they’re worth;” attributes, like most other nouns, are only there for what they’re worth, not for what they’re not worth (though negating that cliché does raise interesting intellectual possibilities; alas that we don’t see such possibilities deployed here). Parents take a child’s story “with a grain of salt” (252). These are the sorts of problems that should’ve been edited out yet they weren’t.

The language gets a little better as the novel proceeds, but the initial problems are never resolved. Too bad. There’s a better novel in this one, and this one isn’t terrible. As with many plot-dependent books the outcome is less satisfying than the buildup. Yet the dialogue consistently shines:

“Nice duds,” I said as Daniel put his briefcase on the floor and slid into the car.
“Thanks. This is my drug-buying outfit,” Daniel said dryly.
“Did you bring the money?” I asked.
“Yes, I brought the drug money,” he said.
“You can just say ‘money’; you don’t have to say ‘drug money.'”
“Yes, I brought the money.”

I feel like I too would mistakenly say “drug money.” I’ll note too that in The Spellman Files Family dysfunction meets family work meets a sexually adventurous protagonist whose adventurousness is not played for drama. It’s an unusual combination on the plot and character level.

Family businesses exert a special pull on those not involved in them, perhaps because they wrap economic and psychological forces unusually closely together. Work also means status: “While I had already made a name for myself as the difficult child, my status as employee redeemed many of my other less-than qualities.” To those involved, family businesses may be annoying and even weirdly repulsive for precisely the same reasons. Combining the family business with the detective story is a winning mutation.

Other sentences work: “like so many other alpha males, my brother thinks monogamy is something you do somewhere between age forty and retirement” (71). Interesting that Isabel, the narrator, has enough data to generalize about the nature of “alpha males” and that she casually uses the term. Perhaps it’s seeping into the general lexicon.

Finally, one smaller note, not wholly about The Spellman Files: Novels are compendiums of social negotiation and fuck-ups; the fuck-ups tend to be more interesting in fiction and sometimes in real life, though in life one lives with the consequences.

Links: Political ideas, evolved preferences, rejection of the modern world, we are what we eat, and more!

* “The melting of Antarctica was already really bad. It just got worse.” Or, important news that no one wants to hear or act on.

* “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas: How it is that we once again find ourselves rooting out sin, shunning heretics, and heralding the end times:”

Our social and political life is awash in unconsciously held Christian ideas broken from the theology that gave them meaning, and it’s hungry for the identification of sinners—the better to prove the virtue of the accusers and, perhaps especially, to demonstrate the sociopolitical power of the accusers. Moreover, in our curious transformation from an honor culture into a full-fledged fame culture over the past century, we have only recently discovered that fame proves just as fragile as honor ever was, a discovery hurried along by the lightning speed of the Internet.

I’ve long said in private that the religious influence on American culture remains much stronger than is often supposed. That strain is particularly strong, though rarely acknowledged, in modern feminism.

* “8,000 Years Ago, 17 Women Reproduced for Every One Man: An analysis of modern DNA uncovers a rough dating scene after the advent of agriculture.”

* Why is the world so troubled right now? Rejection of modernity and technology may be to blame.

* “An Interview With the NYU Professor Banned From the United Arab Emirates,” which tells you a lot in particular about NYU.

* On government, voting, and costs.

* “The Myth of High-Protein Diets.” Maybe. Nonetheless, everyone approves of vegetables.

* “Hospitals Are Robbing Us Blind: Forget Obamacare. The real villains in the American health care system are greedy hospitals and the politicians who protect them.”

* “The spectacular rise and surprising exit of a Hollywood executive: Richard Nanula had big jobs at Disney, Amgen and Miramax. Now he is alleged to have filmed sex scenes with porn actresses” is not that interesting, except for one thing: “Saint told AVN that she had her attorney make sure that the scene was posted to St. Clair’s website to legitimize the shoot.” So it’s illegal to buy or sell sex… unless it’s being taped. I think Richard Pryor observed that it’s odd that it’s legal to have sex and legal to buy things but not legal to buy sex.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things is not an Apple product but a mid-sized beautiful book that you should read. I say this even as someone with reservations about some of the content; as with many books that deal with love advice I wish more had been known and said about evolutionary biology. Yet it may be that we’ve evolved to not want to confront truths we perceive as ugly: better to turn away and signal our own goodness than to say we’re often incentivized to do things that current social conditions tell us are wrong.

TinybeautifulthingsThe end of the preceding paragraph if intentionally vague, but let me say that the book is beautifully written, bizarrely so given that it’s an advice column collection; perhaps any form, attended to with enough care, can become beautiful.

It’s hard to quote a section from Tiny Beautiful Things, even a long section, that conveys its tone. Most possible quotes sound treacly out of context (“You are loved”) or don’t appropriately convey Strayed’s mix of stories (she worked with high-risk middle-school girls and used that experience as a parable) and abstract points (see the previous mention: “You are loved”). Then again too, many people are not loved in the ways they want to be loved or by the people they want to love them. Strayed’s first answer to the first question in the book is, “The last word my mother ever said to me was ‘love.'” She starts with stories—parables, really—and in doing so she follows a millennia-old strategy; people remember the stories from the Christian Bible and the Torah but forget the tedious sections that recount lineages or offer specific rules about worship or other practices. Stories and math are eternal. A lot of specific instruction remains bound by time.

In the same opening question, she says too:

There’s a saying about drug addicts that they stop maturing emotionally at the age they started using, and I’ve known enough addicts to believe this to be true enough. I think the same thing can happen in longtime monogamy. Perhaps some of your limited interpretations about what it means to say the word “love” are left over from what you thought it meant all those years ago, when you first committed yourself to your ex-wife. That was the past, as you say, but I suspect that a piece of yourself is still frozen there.

One could alternately say, “We are all growing or dying.” The amazing thing is the number of people who choose the latter, intellectually and psychologically.

Some sections feel stoic, in the best way, as when Strayed says, “Suffering is what happens when truly horrible things happen to us.” I’d add, too, that sometimes suffering means nothing except itself. Much suffering teachings nothing and ennobles nothing. It just is, though we live in a culture in which everything must mean something. It often doesn’t.

Then there are the sections where Strayed could go deeper than she does. In one, a woman writes that the man who knocked her up isn’t terribly interested in being involved with her or the baby. They have a tenuous relationship and he leaves—probably seeking another nulliparous woman. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart applies here, but it isn’t story-driven or personal enough to merit inclusion. The fundamental forces are there but ignored.

I write this often, but I wish Strayed had read more evolutionary biology; seemingly inexplicable and cruel romantic acts and betrayals become explicable. Since I began—first I think with Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind and then with others, like David Buss’s TheEvolution of Desire.

But Darwin has still not propagated outwards towards pop culture. Maybe we’ve evolved to rejection the insights evolutionary biology offers. We’re storytelling animals, and we want to reject stories that make us question our own consciousness and decision-making process. (Blindsight, though brilliant, may be unpalatable in this respect.) Railing is more fun, though, than looking for fundamentals. Words like “feel” and “feelings” are everywhere. Words like “incentives” are nowhere.

Yet the beauty reminds. So does rock-like reality: “We get work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor.” A lot of us want the adoration and the success and the whatever without getting our asses on the floor.

I wrote more about Strayed in “Standard At-Risk Youth or Ex-Offender Empowerment Program: Improve Lives Through ‘X!’“, though that post may be more specialized than you’re seeking.

Links: Best-seller list bogosity, unions and schools, book design, DNA tests, and more

* Manipulating best-seller lists, which is well known to people in the industry but little known outside it. This especially is interesting: “To end up in the top ten on Amazon, all it takes is about 300 printed copies sold in one day,” because it’s well within my own not-substantial financial reach.

* “What Do Unions Know About Running Schools?” Hilariously, not much it would appear; the New York City Teachers Union opened a charter school in 2005, but it’s now closing: “What’s striking is that the school was managed poorly even after the union staked its reputation on the project. This suggests that the union either did not take the charter project seriously – or that it knows less about running schools than it thinks.”

* We’ve entered a golden era of book design; I myself am shocked at how well Damonza’s cover design for Asking Anna works.

* “To Have and To Hold: The challenges of digital publishing have galvanised a new spirit in book design and production. Is it just the decadent flourish of a disappearing format?” I’ve long said that publishers need to differentiate paper books from ebooks by making the former into the art objects they really ought to be.

* Terence Tao: the Mozart of maths.

* Someone found this blog by searching for “poems about the consequences of sexting.” I’m… puzzled.

* “Radical Vaccine Design Effective Against Herpes Viruses,” which is hugely important in many ways, but the development of this vaccine should retard AIDS transmission.

* “Who’s the daddy? Paternity can now be verified by a simple test” is interesting mostly for its subtext: that men are suckers and don’t matter. Farrell may be more right than many want to admit in The Myth of Male Power.

* Grantland (and hence SFW): What happens when teenagers and young adults, the main consumers of porn, won’t pay for it? Or: “A trip to the Adult Video News Awards.”

* “US students are fleeing law schools and pouring into engineering,” or, economics works!

* “Why great novels don’t get noticed now: ‘Dear Thief’ was one of the best novels published last year. So why haven’t you heard of it? Gaby Wood meets its author, Samantha Harvey.” I ordered a copy.

* “Dancing On Our Own: Why White America Ditched Couple Dancing.”

* Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, 10 years later.

The moderator problem: How Reddit and related news sites decline

Online communities often grow from a small, enthusiastic, intelligent niche group that is relatively self-policing to a larger, amorphous group that becomes stupider at a rate that’s an exponent of the number of users (the linked book is excellent on this topic). Initial moderators are usually enthusiasts and small groups are more like communities than cities. Later moderators, though, are usually adversely selected: What kind of person would voluntarily spend lots of time and energy policing a community for no money? Consequently, online community decline is often exacerbated by the moderator or moderators who eventually take over or seek power.

The psychology of someone who is willing to moderate a Reddit subsection—or any similar site, like many mailing lists—is not good. This sort of person is willing to spend a time at a thankless task that is hard to do well and rarely if ever remunerative.

Those who start at that task do so optimistically but often quit as their lives change or the task becomes more onerous. Who gets left? People with axes to grind; people with no sense of perspective; petty tyrants; and so on. I don’t use Reddit much for many reasons, but low moderator quality is one. I rarely bother messaging them because doing so is largely a waste of time.

The problem with moderators is not dissimilar from the problem of users: People who regularly have something interesting to say and the means to say it well get blogs, as I wrote in “Social news sites and forums should encourage users to blog.” Those who don’t stay on Reddit. The average Reddit contributor has little stake in long-term reputation—unlike bloggers, journalists, and academics who use real names—and that shows in the quality and quantity of posts. That may not hurt the site—the popularity of bad TV shows over many years demonstrates lowest-common denominator issues—but it should hurt in terms of high-quality users.

A form of Gresham’s Law applies to social sites and to moderators: bad commentary pushes out the good, and smart people flee stupid comments. One could alternately call this a tragedy of the commons, in which communal spaces become overrun with spam or commentary so stupid that it might as well be spam.

Reddit and similar sites can have an orthogonal problem, however, as they become so afraid of self-interested commentary or posts that they forbid it—thus causing smart people to go elsewhere with their thoughts, and leaving the dregs unwilling or able to create standalone communities or blogs.

This may be part of the reason why Reddit—even on the “good” subsections—tend to be better for beginners: anyone who gets past the beginning stages needs more expert advice than Redditors can provide. The same is happening to Hacker News, too, or it has already happened, though not as severely: Hacker News has an advantage in that its survival and the intelligent commentary on it is tied to a business that is in turn tied to ideas. Its moderators have a stronger incentive to get it right, since they’re not driven primarily by ego or overwhelming fear of “spam.”

That being said, anyone who has seen an unmoderated forum is aware of the fact that unmoderated forums are unusable. So getting rid of moderators is not a solution. In general the mechanisms of exit, voice, and loyalty, as described by Hirshman at the link, apply on the level of online communities. But constantly shifting for newer communities where smart people congregate is at best difficult and at worst a waste of time in and of itself. Reddit has to some extent worked on this problem through the sub-Reddit system, which is a better-than-nothing solution but not a great one.

Maybe there is no good solution to this from the perspective of smart users other than withdrawal. Better blogs written by smart individuals or groups are better than virtually any online, Reddit-like community I’ve found. Which is too bad. But I doubt most people in latter-day moderator positions are even willing or able to read this post, and, if they are, I don’t think they’ll understand it, and, if they do, I don’t think they’ll accept any of it.

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