Links: Energy (fusion, cars), AI research, flu shots, Texas, “trigger warnings,” and more!

* Stellar work: Research into fusion has gone down a blind alley, but a means of escape may now be at hand. File this under “Good news that should be more widely reported.” Most of the world’s “political” problems are really energy problems in another form, which is why I often link to discussions of energy, energy production, and energy politics.

* “Why Texas Is Our Future,” and why so many people are moving there, from “Texas Forever: How I Found the American Dream in the Lone Star State.” The latter piece inspired me to check just how much I lose to New York City and State taxes. The answer is distressing. Many superficially liberal cities are actually inhumane to normal residents, and many superficially conservative cities are actually far more humane.

* Charles observes, probably correctly: “I think if people knew what passes for “AI research”, they’d be a lot less worried about a dystopian outcome. Or, to quote Andrew Ng, “I don’t work on preventing AI from turning evil for the same reason that I don’t work on combating overpopulation on the planet Mars.”

* “For God’s Sake, Go Get a Flu Shot.” This may be the most immediately actionable piece you read today.

* “Why San Francisco’s way of doing business beat Los Angeles’.”

* “Bernie Sanders’ campaign is such a counterexample. It fits poorly with the ‘low nonwhite representation is caused by insufficiently strong social justice orientation’ theory, but very well with the counter-theory I propose in that post: nonwhites are just generally less eager to join weird intellectual signaling-laden countercultural movements.”

* The invisible device that powers everything you do, on lithium-ion batteries and John Goodenough, who is responsible for more of the modern world than is commonly realized.

* Car dealers are awful. It’s time to kill the dumb laws that keep them in business.

* A professor sympathetic to “trigger warnings” tires of them. And, in addition: “My trigger-warning disaster: ‘9 1/2 Weeks,’ ‘The Wire’ and how coddled young radicals got discomfort all wrong.”

* Is wheat only so bad for you because of industrial farming and breeding? See also Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, which changed my eating habits, though I think Taubes overstates the case against fruit. It may be that “flour” is not as bad for you as is commonly assumed, but rather that the peculiar way flour is produced and disseminated is horrible for you.

* Why high-speed rail doesn’t work in the U.S., from someone who actually works on rail projects.

* First test drives of the 2016 Volt are emerging and make the car sound promising.

Briefly noted: Mozart in the Jungle — Blair Tindall

Mozart in the Jungle is surprisingly good and an ode to all the sex musicians have, the drugs musicians do (“I watched Janet bent over the desk to snort cocaine through a straw” occurs on page 2), and most notably a cautionary tale about the economics that underlie their industry. In Mozart in the Jungle Tindall succeeds as few do yet still barely succeeds enough to feed herself. The later sections, as she contemplates her own approaching infertility, she turns melancholy, because she knows that while others in her age group have families she has an oboe. Many adventures at age 22 are slogs at 40, and this is something many 22-year-olds know in passing but don’t feel till they’re much older.

Mozart_in_the_jungleTindall’s relative success still feels like failure to her, financially and, often, artistically. Megan McArdle’s recent post on journalism strikes many notes similar to Tindall’s; the two are both writing about glamour industries battered by changing economics and excess supply (facilitated by digital transmission) relative to demand. In Tindall’s case, the number of financially secure oboe players is probably in the single and low double digits. She makes that threshold, but only in an artistically tedious way. For her, the smart thing to do is get out. When she makes decisions as a 20-year-old, she fails to realize that as a 35- or 40-year-old she will want and feel different things.

In school she finds that “my classmates toiled harder over their textbooks than I did over my oboe, yet they didn’t receive the same special attention.” Attention, though, is a dangerous stimulant, and so too are other stimulants, here recalled and made comic by an older mind reviewing a younger event:

Jose took off the same black turtleneck and dashiki he wore every day, the odor of his unwashed body mixing with cheap musk. We kissed, embracing as the climate of Brahams’s G-minor quintet washed over us. Jose peeled away my top gently, caressing my shoulders, nuzzling my neck and pulling back the covers. I could see another woman’s menstrual blood smeared on the bottom sheet, but I let him push me back on the bedding.

It goes… okay. The gap between fantasy and reality recurs through the memoir, to the very end:

A young person who dreamily “wants to go to Juilliard” or “be a concert pianist” should research the reality of those statements. [. . .] I’m one of those part-time musicians now. When I do play music, it is a joy. The reality of performing full-time wasn’t the fantasy I’d imagined as a little girl. What offers me a meaningful life today are the infinite possibilities in our modern world, of which music is only one. Thousands of people have been influenced by the Sierra magazine articles I’ve written about environmental conservation.

Incidentally, that quote also sums my feeling about grad school in the humanities.

Tindall also wistfully sees her Upper West Side neighbors go from libidinously ravenous, providing her a voyeuristic thrill as they have continual passionate sex, to parents, while Tindall plays the oboe and can’t or won’t maintain long-term relationships as her child-bearing years slip away like leaves off a tree in Boston in autumn. The memoir also came out before Tindall stalked her ex-boyfriend, Bill Nye, so there may be more to her story and character than Mozart in the Jungle.

Links: Your house, cars, dubious campus policies, nuclear power, NIMBYs, and more

* “The most disruptive technology of the last century is in your house,” an underappreciated and lovely point: “The number of hours that people spent per week preparing meals, doing laundry and cleaning fell from 58 in 1900 to only 18 hours in 1970, and it has declined further since then.”

* Europe’s love affair with diesel cars has been a disaster.

* The Little Disturbances of Man.

The Limits Of The Digital Revolution: Why Our Washing Machines Won’t Go To The Moon:” On the future of work and why innovation may be slowing.

* For Students Accused Of Campus Rape, Legal Victories Win Back Rights, which makes too much sense; see also “‘Have We Learned Anything From the Columbia Rape Case?’ Not at the New York Times.”

* “You’ll Be Able to Buy Any Volvo as an Electric by 2019,” though I wonder if this is true.

* “Nuclear power is cheap, reliable, emissions-free–and struggling to keep up.” Nuclear power should be at the top of the agenda, especially when combined with electric cars. By the way, the next edition of the Chevy Volt is getting great reviews, and the development process behind the car is detailed in The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World. The Powerhouse is not a Tom-Wolfe-quality book but is interesting throughout and will make you respect the Volt.

* FYI for the grad students among you:

The decline of school-age children has important implications for colleges. College enrollment fell over the past few years just as the college-age population peaked. According to Census projections, the college-age population won’t return to the 2012 peak for more than 20 years.

* Students don’t seem to be learning anything in school, globally, which ought to depress those of us who do classroom work.

* Depressing, but: “This speech convinced me Israel’s wave of violence is so much worse than it looks.”

* How NIMBYs make your paycheck smaller.

* “Free” college tuition for everyone is not a good idea:

A more pressing issue is that community college is already close to de facto free for lower-income individuals, if they piece grants and aid together. Yet the completion rate at these colleges is at best approaching thirty-eight percent. The real problems come before college, and encouraging more people to attend four-year colleges is unlikely to do much good. In any case, here is further evidence that higher subsidies to community college attendance very often do not lead to more actual education. The same or worse is likely to hold for state universities.

Thoughts on “The Martian,” the movie

* The Martian is thrilling and the best movie I’ve seen in recent memory. The people telling you to see it are right. It’s a definite win in 3D.

* Very few contemporary movies are pro-science and optimistic about the abilities of humans to get things done and solve big problems, as Michael Solana argues in “Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It’s Making Us All Fear Technology” and Neal Stephenson argues here (and elsewhere). Although many of us fear what will happen technologically in the future, few of us would want to return to the technologies of the past—which will probably also be true in the future. Few contemporary movies depict engineers as heroes.

* The absence of SpaceX or an analogous company (Blue Origin, for example) seems odd, as private companies seem poised to win the race to Mars. The presence of China’s space agency seems wise, though.

* The movie is a lesson in perspective: most of us are mired in minutia instead of thinking about how to concretely make the world a better place, one day at a time. Spacecraft happen through trillions of tiny decisions. What have you done, today, to make the world a slightly better place? (Imagination can count.)

* The Martian depicts “ah-ha!” moments well, in ways that are compatible with Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. I also didn’t expect to hear phrases like “The Hohmann transfer window” used correctly.

The new Houellebecq is out:

Submission by Houellebecq

 

And some of its themes will be familiar to fans: On the first page, François is finishing school, and he “realized that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me.” As it is for everyone Houellebecq character. And, later:

You have to take an interest in life, I told myself. I wondered what could interest me, now that I was finished with love. I could take a course in wine tasting, maybe, or start collecting model airplanes.

My afternoon seminar was exhausting. Doctoral students tended to be exhausting. For them it was all just starting to mean something, and for me nothing mattered except which Indian dinner I’d microwave (Chicken Biryani? Chicken Tikka Masala? Chicken Rogan Josh?) while I watched the political talk shows on France 2.

Most of us take an interest in something instinctively, almost automatically; meaning is a question but not the only one, and if the Indian dinner matters we at least want a good one. The condition of a Houellebecq narrator is boredom punctuated by sex with an improbably attractive woman or an unexpected act of violence. Despite that most of his novels, except for The Possibility of an Island, rivet: He asks questions others may ask but answers in ways few others will. Different but not in a bad way is a small territory that feels expansive in his books, which are an unpassionate redescription of life in the age of pleasure, which so few columnists get. Tom Wolfe gets status; Houellebecq gets apathy.

Houellebecq's novels

Praise, criticism, and hypocrisy around people you know

I got some pushback on two recent posts, in which I said “Bess Stillman is the best med school essay writer there is” and that Mate is good but that I’m not an unbiased observer. The basic thrust of the pushback is that I shouldn’t talk about books or services or people I have a direct connection to. But I don’t think it’s true: Dr. Stillman is the best person in her genre I’ve ever seen, and Mate is the book that young straight guys (and probably some older straight guys) need to read. It’s possible to praise those works without compromising intellectual integrity, and indeed if I thought either of their works weren’t good I’d be silent. Silence is often tact; I’m sure some people I know dislike or feel neutral towards Asking Anna or The Hook, and for the most part they’ve said nothing. But approval matters too, and Dr. Stillman’s admission consulting and Mate are worth your attention; attention is the scarcest commodity in the modern information economy and I don’t want to waste mine or yours.*

We live in an information-rich and insight-poor environment. Much of the writing masquerading as insight isn’t, really, and I want to imagine that I’m ever-so-slightly changing the ratio of information to insight. That happens not only around books or ideas I write about, but also about books or ideas or services by people I know—and there is still a key difference between people who I know in real life and people I don’t. For as long as humans are humans personal interactions will matter. That’s why I only do book interviews in person: there’s a different energy there that unlocks ideas not unlocked via written interviews. I’m not saying one medium is better than the other—they’re different—but I am saying the outcomes tend to be different in ways hard to define but easy to feel and notice.

Within this context, it’s possible to be silent when something is not worth attention and loud when something is. If you’re writing bad things about your significant other in a public space, you should really reconsider who you are married to, dating, or sleeping with. Actually, the person you are married to, dating, or sleeping with ought really to reconsider you. The place to offer (suitable delicately phrased) criticism is in private, not on the public Internet.

I of course am not the first person to discuss these matters and I won’t be the last. They’re matters tact, money, and interest, which never go out of style and are always a challenge for every era, and arguably moreso for ours. Authenticity is a bogus concept and yet it’s everywhere (and its bogosity makes it attractive to marketers and other people with shit to sell). I like to think I’m disinclined towards bullshit, in the Frankfurt sense, while still being able to speak to books, works, products, and services that I know through personal connections. So I include disclaimers about potential conflicts of interest where they’re relevant and otherwise try to say things that are true and interesting. The world has an eternal shortage of statements that are true and interesting.


* That’s also one reason why I no longer write negative reviews of books or other materials that are bad in uninteresting ways.

Links: Electric cars, the booming erotic toy industry, academic freedom’s worst enemies, iMacs get love, and more

* In California, Electric Cars Outpace Plugs, and Sparks Fly.

* “The Race to Build the Perfect Couples’ Sex Toy,” conceivably NSFW but there are no photos or drawings of humans. I found it interesting throughout.

* “Cinemas must ‘drastically improve’ or lose audiences, says Christopher Nolan.” He’s wrong about the “real film” issue: he should be more worried at the shocking level of dilapidation at movie theaters, and the worse level of food available.

* “Professors teach students how to stifle academic freedom, U.K. scholar argues in new book,” and students are oddly eager to do whatever authority figures tell them to do.

* “Inside the lab: Why Apple still sweats the details on iMac,” a fascinating story; Apple also updated iMacs on October 13. I use a 5K iMac, and it’s an amazing machine. If you order one, make sure you get the Fusion drive upgrade. The 21.5″ models are now reasonably affordable.

* What a city designed only for bikes would look like.

* How Harvard fights unions; it is entertaining to me how university people, who are probably the most theoretically pro-union group in the U.S., can’t or won’t allow unions in their institutions, or actively fight against them.

* “The Porn Business Isn’t Anything Like You Think It Is,” which is safe-for-work.

* “Why ‘game’ and ‘pickup’ are popular in the Anglo-sphere” (otherwise titled “The Male Hunger For Endless Shallow Relationships Is A Symptom Of A Fundamentally Broken Society”); speculative. See also “The appeal of ‘pickup’ or ‘game’ or ‘The Redpill’ is a failure of education and socialization.”

When there are too many administrators, which ones do *you* fire?

You know there are too many administrators when even The Nation argues there are too many administrators.* More importantly, though, everyone regardless of political bent is against “administrators” in the abstract but almost no one lists which administrators should be on the chopping block. Too few articles and polemicists say, “These are the 100 positions I’d eliminate at the University of Washington.” If a school decided to fire its “Diversity” department in the name of cost cutting, The Nation would be the first publication screaming about racism and institutional indifference and the betrayal of high-need populations. Everyone rails about administrators, but no one has concrete plans to halt their proliferation.

Consider UC-Berkeley’s “Vice Chancellor’s Office for Equity & Inclusion;” perhaps UC-Berkeley doesn’t need seven “equity and inclusion” teams or 17 employees in the Vice Chancellor’s Office for Equity & Inclusion.** The staff includes several financial analysts and a graphic designer exclusive to that office. California’s public salary database shows that that graphic designer earned $75,800 in 2014. The Development Director earns $109,000. The Executive Assistant earns $91,400. The Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion earns $209,000 a year. And so on. But UC-Berkeley will probably never cut this department (maybe that’s a Good Thing).

One sees this elsewhere. At Marymount Manhattan College, last week I got an email about a “Change of Title IX Coordinator.” That’s another part of one administrator’s job that didn’t exist decades ago. In addition, the email says the school “undertook an assessment of how best to comply with evolving federal and state legislation.” Which is another way of saying, “We spent a bunch of time and man hours.” Followed, since this is a large, modern organization, by numerous email followups. There were also “mandated student, faculty, and staff trainings” (emphasis added). Maybe that work is good and maybe it isn’t, but it’s still indicative of the time and energy and activities that otherwise hated administrators are doing.

(Title IX, by the way, is the subject of Laura Kipnis’s hilarious, expensive Title IX inquisition. I wouldn’t blame you if you left this somewhat dry article to read her funnier, ribald essay.)

I don’t want to pick on any particular school or even the education industry specifically. Regulatory compliance costs are increasing in virtually all industries, including the financial industry (link goes to a PDF) and many others. We rarely consider the systematic effects of regulatory compliance and instead think of each particular regulation / requirement in isolation. Nonetheless, when we get a lot of regulatory and other mandatory or optional costs together, we see the need for more lawyers, bureaucrats, administrators, and other people who all need to be paid and who have to be at least somewhat good at abstract thinking, writing, and statistics.

To be sure, the presidents and so forth making $500,000 or more per year is obscene on its face, but those are a relatively small number of positions, and, while I agree that college presidents should behave more like part of the university and less like corporate titans, I’m not sure that a small number of overly paid people is the biggest problem. I am sure that the next time I see someone announcing that we need to first fire all the administrators I’ll send them this post and get nothing in response.


* But here’s one, alternate explanation.

** Much of this post and its research came from a friend, who gave me permission to publish it.

Links: The intellectual foundations of American democracy, parking costs, more on “Mate,” Neil Strauss of “The Game” is back, and more

* “American democracy is doomed;” don’t attend too much to the clickbait headline, but this may be the most important thing you read all day, week, or month.

* Parking costs are eating our housing.

* Robin Hanson on Mate, and also Tyler Cowen on Mate (see also me on Mate, though note too that I was the precise target audience for this book when I was younger).

* Why aren’t America’s ports automated? Short answer: Unions.

* “How Tasteless Suburbs Become Beloved Urban Neighborhoods.”

* “America: Abandon Your Reverence for the Bachelor’s Degree: Many high-school graduates must choose between two bad options: a four-year program for which they’re not academically or emotionally prepared, or job-specific training that might put a ceiling on their careers.” This should by now be obvious, and I argued the same in “Taking Apprenticeships Seriously: The need for alternate paths.”

* “Soldiers of Reddit who’ve fought in Afghanistan, what preconceptions did you have that turned out to be completely wrong?” The answers are fascinating throughout and demonstrate the total folly of trying to impose democracy on a country that in some respects resembles many “countries” of 3,000 years ago than countries of today. Sample:

I’d have to say this is not a perception but rather a culture shock. I was never part of any interrogations but I was told that some of the Taliban we had been fighting believed we had force fields that were causing their weapons, most notably RPGs, to not hit us.

It had nothing to do with skill of the user or the weapons capabilities. They actually believed our technology was that superior.

And a follow-up:

One of the guys in my unit was monitoring enemy radio traffic with an interpreter. They were flying around a Raven, and listening to the chatter about it. The conversation went something like this:

“Where do they find pilots to fly such a small plane?”

“They have trained mice to fly them, you fool!”

* Neil Strauss, who wrote The Game, is back with a new book and publicity for said book: “Neil Strauss: ‘My thinking was: If this woman’s going to be naked with me – I must be OK. It doesn’t last.’ His book The Game made him a fortune, but left Neil Strauss in treatment for sex addiction. Ten years later, he’s a changed man.” Here is another review / discussion on Slate. Here is a post in which I discuss The Game.

I’m not convinced “sex addiction” exists. I did pre-order The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.

Briefly noted: The Word Exchange — Alena Graedon

The best criticism of this novel is “Human, All Too Inhuman,” in which James Wood, among other things, defines hysterical realism. “Human, All Too Inhuman” was written before The Word Exchange but still applies to it. The novel is good on a sentence-by-sentence level but is poorly and tediously plotted; malformations on the macro level are hard to describe but easily noticeable. I’ll happily start the next Graedon novel because this one shows much promise. The Word Exchange concerns a near-future world in which Anana works with her father, Doug, on the world’s last paper dictionary. Her father disappears, the Dictionary as a product and institution are attacked, and Anana needs to find out why. Yet on page 75 she writes:

But this was no ordinary book burning. Our digital corpus was also being dismantled, by pale, nimble hands. Who, I wondered, would want to destroy the Dictionary? Did Doug know? Was that why he’d vanished?

Word_Exchange_cover this point something more should have happened than random thoughts, discussions about Hegel, Anana’s time in college, her relationship with pseudo-friend Max, and many other threads so random that one has to wonder if or when they’ll cohere.

The novel channels many others: Stephenson, Gibson, even Carlos Ruiz Zafón, all of whose complete works you should try first, especially Snow Crash and Pattern Recognition.

There are echoes, maybe unintentionally, of The Name of the Rose (think of the moment when Ubertino and William are speaking together and William says, “I like also to listen to words, and then I think about them,” which one could say also of Anana and the other characters in The Word Exchange, though they lack Williams’s rigor.) Yet that novel, for all its abstruse Catholic metaphysics, is bound by a murder; people like murder stories because the stakes are plain: Death is bad, preventing it is good, and murderers need to be subjected to justice. In The Word Exchange no stakes are clear. By page 130 the narrative is still wandering and navel gazing; it’s only in the 130 – 140 range that things start to cohere, slightly.

Writers are fond of murder for a reason; if not murder, then comedy, and though there is a disappearance in The Word Exchange there is no murder. John Updike’s novelistic alter ego Bech knows the draw of murder:

Murdering critics is something most writers, I suspect, have wanted to do. The device of poisoning an envelope flap was used, I discovered later, in an episode of Seinfeld, but by then it was too late, my die was cast.

Art imitates other art even unintentionally. Murder and mystery are good too to emulate, and The Word Exchange is conscious, maybe too conscious, of its emulations. It is not consciousness enough of the pleasures of narrative, of structure, of figuring out the “why” and not just the “how.”

In The Word Exchange I want less… Brooklyn? It’s hard to choose an adjective. The novel feels written or narrated by a bright and precocious but ultimately annoying student who has not yet learned how to be in the world. Even the acknowledgements page is annoying, beginning as it does with “I have a real community of minds to thank.” As opposed to a false community of minds? Why not just say, “Group of people?” The sheer number of people thanked may be indicative of the problems with the story: Too many people said too many things and no central person adequately controlled the outcome.

The praise for The Word Exchange indicates why one can’t trust critics.

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