Links: Paper, criticism, Volts, engineering, wealth, revealed preferences, and more!

* “How Paper Shaped Civilization.”

* “Beware critics with theories,” a point made too infrequently among nattering academics. I remember staring into the medium distance in grad school seminars, listening to professors pontificate about how nothing is outside language, and wanting to throw water bottles at them to demonstrate that yes, in fact, some things are outside language.

* “How the 2016 Chevy Volt added 18 miles of EV range” and got better all around. The Volt is a consistently underrated car. On Hacker News someone asked, “Why don’t more folks respect this car?” That’s an excellent question, and I find most answers unconvincing. My guess is more psychological or sociological: GM has none of the sex appeal / marketing that Tesla or even BMW has. For that reason the Volt is easily overlooked or disrespected; in addition, it’s an important car but doesn’t have the pizzazz of an all-electric car. Still, it’s available today, relatively cheaply, and that should count for a lot. People don’t realize what an incredible engineering achievement it is.

* We’re 10 to 30 times richer than we were 200 years ago (points rarely made). Saliently to this blog, we also have many more good books to read, with more being written every year!

* Adam Gopnik on “The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump,” which is similar to my essay “People can believe in madness for surprisingly long periods of time.”

* Unsurprisingly, even “environmentalists” will sell their land or mineral rights to oil companies. The phrase “revealed preferences” comes to mind.

* “Behind the Making of Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience,” more interesting than it sounds. See my thoughts here.

* Pay Attention To Libertarian Gary Johnson; He’s Pulling 10 Percent vs. Trump And Clinton.

* “The Perils of Writing a Mildly Provocative Email at Yale,” which is another chapter in campus madness.

* Skeptical of the content, but I read it as funny: “Gay Until Labor Day: Stretching Female Sexuality in the Hamptons.”

* “Is everything wrestling?” Especially in politics?

Links: The madness of social justice warrior culture, batteries, bikes, being cheap, and more!

* “Safe from ‘safe spaces:’ On the rare good sense of a college administrator” has an innocuous title but is a magnificent piece. Only the necessity of writing it is distressing.

* How Battery-Powered Rides Could Transform Your Commute.

* “Germany To Give €1 Billion Electric Car Subsidy.” Shit.

* The Cheap Ticket Into the ‘Elite’ Class

* “Why U.S. Infrastructure Costs So Much,” which are “are among the world’s highest.”

* “Employers Struggle to Find Workers Who Can Pass a Drug Test.” Perhaps the solution is overly radical, but employers could judge employees by their work, rather than their recreational hobbies? I’ve never been drug tested on the job.

* “Get Out of Jail, Now Pay Up: Your Fines Are Waiting: Eliminating monetary penalties that accompany conviction may help ex-convicts get on their feet.” Sample: “The story of my research—the story that must be told—is that our 21st century criminal justice system stains people’s lives forever.”

* “The American economy’s big problem: we don’t have enough companies like Tesla.” There are returns to workers and consumers when small companies become large ones; one problem Europe has is that going from startup to huge is very hard. Europe has lots of tiny companies and a bunch of behemoths, but very few that go from the one to the other.


* “Forty Percent of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today,” which helps explain why NYC, like LA, Seattle, and many other places are so expensive today: It’s illegal to build the housing that people want to live in.

* “Nail-Biting Livestreams of New York City Bike Commutes: Intrepid cyclists are taking to the streets with GoPros to show the uninitiated an all-too-real slice of their experience.” I just bought a GoPro for this purpose! Though I didn’t realize that I’d need to buy a battery and MicroSD card for it too, so I don’t yet have it set up. This is my most recent bike post.

The GoPro is much smaller than I imagined, and the pictures include a small Rhodia notebook for scale.

Thoughts on the movie “The Nice Guys”

* It’s charming: Charm is hard to define but easy to feel. The plot is ridiculous without being stupid, which is a more important distinction than it seems. Shane Black, the director, also did the underrated and forgotten Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In an age of Netflix and streaming, I’m surprised Kiss Kiss Bang Bang hasn’t been rediscovered.

Nice Guys* Like many caper movies (and books), The Nice Guys is about principled dirtbags, but observing life I’ve run into few, if any, principled dirtbags, and many unprincipled, standard-issue dirtbags. Shades of Elmore Leonard abound.

* One of the movie’s lessons may be, “Never lose your pistol.” But it’s not really a “lesson” movie.

* The Nice Guys‘s villain is unusual and unusually interesting, though not overstated or supernatural. You may be reminded of the second, not-very-good season of True Detective. But The Nice Guys gets tone as right as True Detective gets it wrong.

* The number of people who die in cars is amazing. Even today, around 30,000 people die annually in cars. You’d think this would lead to a transportation revolution and political outcry, but it doesn’t. About 3,000 people died, once, on 9/11. If the U.S. response to mass car death were proportional to the U.S. response to 9/11, we’d be living in a very different world.

* Seattle is now larger than Detroit, and Seattle isn’t even that big (this won’t make sense unless you’ve seen the movie).

* Were the ’70s as fun at the time as they’re now depicted in retrospect?

Briefly noted: Kindle Voyage

For a while I’ve had a Kindle Voyage. It’s functional and the screen is nice. Not much has changed since this 2010 post. Amazon still has no good system for organizing and sorting books, and Amazon doesn’t want you to use desktop computers and that shows in their whole ecosystem design.

The Voyage hardware is, at best, slightly better than the last Kindle iteration I used. Really, though, the improvements are so marginal that I can’t imagine anyone buying the new version unless their old one dies or is lost, as happened to me: Amazon will often knock some money off the new version if you ask them to “repair” the old version. To get the discount, Amazon requires that you send the broken Kindle to them. I don’t know what happens after that. Probably Amazon trashes it, but I’d like to imagine that it’s refurbished.

A lot about the Kindle Voyage is okay. There’s little to love. If you’re going to bother buy a Kindle the Voyage is a better choice than the regular Kindle Paperwhites because it has buttons, albeit buttons that aren’t as prominent or tactile as I’d like.

I don’t use the Kindle for books much, because I still prefer paper and Instapaper is my killer app. At the margins, I now read more nonfiction and fewer books in general, including novels. You’ve probably read or noticed that too many popular nonfiction books are just unsatisfactorily elongated articles. Preferring to read those rather than just clicking the “buy book” button is easier with Instapaper.

This review is thorough and says most of what I’d say. I don’t know how people produce many thousands of words in Kindle reviews. It’s a device without a personality. Which isn’t bad: It just is. There are good use cases for it, but not for me using it.

I still find button presses annoyingly too easy.


People can believe in madness for surprisingly long periods of time:

I’m re-reading Zero to One, and one of its early points has surprising salience to politics right now. Collective madness is one of the book’s themes; Thiel notes that “Dot-com mania was intense but short—18 months of insanity from September 1998 to March 2000.” During that time, Thiel says he knew a “40-something rad student” who “was running six difference companies in 1999.” Yet:

Usually, it’s considered weird to be a 4o-year-old graduate student. Usually, it’s considered insane to start a half-dozen companies at once. But in the late ’90s, people could believe that was a winning combination.

That chapter, “Party Like It’s 1999,” starts with a quote from Nietzche: “Madness is rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” Is it so rare in individuals? I see people doing insane-seeming things all the time. Going to grad school in the humanities is one (I did that, by the way, although I at least had a well-developed backup plan). Continuing to date transparently bad people is another.  Imagining the world to be a fundamentally stable place is a third, though one that has less immediate interpersonal relevance.

Still, the problem of collective insanity is a real one with lots of historical precedence. Hugo Chavez was originally elected fairly in Venezuela. Putin was originally elected fairly in Russia. Erdoğan was originally elected Prime Minister of Turkey fairly. In all three cases, the people spoke… wrongly. Horribly wrongly, and in ways that were at least somewhat clear at the time. Much as I hate to violate Godwin’s Law, the National Socialists were originally elected, or at least gained legitimate parliamentary seats. Mythologically, vampires must be invited into the home. The greatest danger is not the thing that should transparently be resisted. The greatest danger is the thing blithely accepted to the inner circle.

The U.S. has historically eschewed demagogues. Charles Lindergh never became president. Neither did Huey Long. The closest we’ve gotten in recent memory is Richard Nixon. The U.S. has historically eschewed outright incompetents too. But madness in groups, parties, and nations can persist for surprisingly long periods of time. It can be weirdly persistent, especially because, as Thiel argues implicitly throughout Zero to One, it’s very hard to really think for yourself. I’m not sure I do it well. There is a kind of Dunning-Kruger Effect for thinking for yourself.

That’s the context for why thinking people are scared about Trump as president. He’s manifestly unfit and unqualified, and yet it’s not uncommon for people to elect demagogic incompetents. Andrew Sullivan thinks we’ve never been as good a breeding ground for tyranny as we are now. That’s overstating the case—the 1930s were far more dangerous—but the argument itself is a reasonable one, and that itself is scary. We may be collectively partying like it’s 1999, and not in a good way.

I don’t write this from a partisan perspective or out of partisan animus. This blog rarely deal with direct political issues (though it often touches meta-politics). I’m politically disaffected; neither major party represents me or has the right ideas to move the country forward. Yet the recurrence of collective madness in history scares me. It should scare you too. The next American presidential election should, one hopes, deal such a terrific blow to the forces of madness that have taken over one party in particular that it is forced to re-constitute itself in the next four years.

Links: Literacy, novels, where jeans come from, the campus war on free speech, and more!

* Why suburbia sucks.

* “Are we sex-literate? Why we should all be writing more about pleasure.” Maybe.

* “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru: How Ben Rhodes rewrote the rules of diplomacy for the digital age,” a must-read for readers and writers, and much better than the title may imply. But see also this piece, on the many takedowns of the original piece; my interest is primarily literary, though.

* “How the Jeans Capital of the World Moved from Texas to China.” It is possible to buy jeans made in the U.S., Canada, or Japan, but they tend to be very expensive (e.g. Naked and Famous).

* “Camille Paglia: The Modern Campus Has Declared War on Free Speech.”

* Why Used Electric Car Batteries Could Be Crucial To A Clean Energy Future.

* Like so much else, you will not read “Too little too late: Sheryl Sandberg apologizes for Lean In” on Facebook. Sample: “When I wrote that post I got so many emails that requested confidentiality that said no one can say anything bad about her because Facebook controls the majority of traffic to media sites.”

* “Exploring the Elizabeth line, one of the world’s largest construction projects:” Crossrail is being in London.

* “The miserable French workplace,” which reminds me of Tyler Cowen’s observation that, if you think economics is a bad major, just try to talk to someone who doesn’t know any economics.

* “After LAUSD iPad program failure, Apple’s help spurs ‘success’ in other schools.”

Re-reading Cryptonomicon

It’s still excellent, and it’s so excellent that it’s one of the books I re-read when I can’t find anything good to read. The density of Cryptonomicon’s ideas and the strange (at first) construction of its plot makes it a particularly promising re-reading, since getting the full effect the first time through is almost impossible.

CryptonomiconThe novel is very fond of explaining things and so are its characters. “Things” seems like a vague, loose word here but it’s appropriate given the diversity of explanation. To list the topics that come up would be too tedious for this post but would be in keeping with the novel. Take one example, as a character explains startup financing in the ’90s:

We begin with nothing but the idea. That’s what the NDA is for—to protect your idea. We work on the idea together—put our brainpower to it—and get stock in return.

Except that, as we know now, ideas aren’t that important (the execution is important) and the best ideas are usually mocked at first. But the rest is pretty accurate, and the dialogue shows that the characters have ideas, share ideas, care about ideas, and fight over ideas. Ideas—actual ideas, as opposed to what many intellectuals think of as ideas—don’t appear often in novels. To the extent they do, ideas usually appear as grand abstractions tediously embodied in specific characters.

Skip some sections if they don’t speak to you the first time through; they may later, though the famous Cap’n’Crunch scene still does little for me, or to me.

Few books describe real nerd culture:

“You have jet lag now?” Goto asks brightly—following (Randy assumes) a script from an English textbook. He’s a handsome guy with a winning smile. He’s probably in his forties, though Nipponese people seem to have a whole different aging algorithm so this may be way off.
“No,” Randy answers. Being a nerd, he answers such questions badly, succinctly, and truthfully. He knows that Goto essentially does not care whether Randy has jet lag or not. He is vaguely conscious that Avi, if he were here, would use Goto’s question as it was intended—as an opening for cheery social batter. Until he reached thirty, Randy felt bad about the fact that he was not socially deft. Now he doesn’t give a damn. Pretty soon he’ll probably start being proud of it.

Conversation is a skill and it’s a skill most nerds don’t develop, which may be why they face troubles in dating. Nerds spend lots of time with machines and to some extent that time begins to shape their minds to think like machines.

The psychologies of innovators and deep thinkers may not be viable subjects for literary writers, or, if they are, I haven’t seen the fruit of those writers’ labor.

Most novels that are called “novels of ideas” are actually not. Finding a novel of ideas embedded congenially in a novel of intense action is unusual, especially when most novels of ideas are actually novels of navel gazing. Cryptonomicon also violates many of the rules one hears from MFA types and is useful for that reason: many “novels” are not actually novel.

Copies are available for $.01 on Amazon (which means $4 with shipping), and that’s a steal.

Links: Fiction and love and Bookslut, fusion power, weirdness as a personality trait, and more!

* “How fiction ruined love: Have representations of romance from ‘Madame Bovary’ to ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ ruined the real thing?” The piece is by Alain de Botton and is better than the title suggests.

* “‘I Just Don’t Find American Literature Interesting’: Lit-Blog Pioneer Jessa Crispin Closes Bookslut, Does Not Bite Tongue.” I like Bookslut.

* “Ted Cruz for Human President;” notice: “Ted Cruz is only one being and not several.”

* “Did This Couple Design the World’s Best Sex Toy?“, which is about more than its most salient, headline-forward point.

* The billionaire-backed plans to harness fusion; more good news.

* Why Were Early Psychedelicists So Weird?” More interesting than it sounds:

A 2011 study found that a single dose of psilocybin could permanently increase the personality dimension of Openness To Experience. I’m emphasizing that because personality is otherwise pretty stable after adulthood; nothing should be able to do this. But magic mushrooms apparently have this effect, and not subtly either; participants who had a mystical experience on psilocybin had Openness increase up to half a standard deviation compared to placebo, and the change was stable sixteen months later. This is really scary. I mean, I like Openness To Experience, but something that can produce large, permanent personality changes is so far beyond anything else we have in psychiatry that it’s kind of terrifying.

* Amtrak turns 45 today. Here’s why American passenger trains are so bad.

* Can SpaceX really land on Mars? Absolutely, says an engineer who would know.

* “There’s One Show That Could Fill All the Holes in Your TV Viewing: Penny Dreadful.” A show that oddly seems to get no press.

* “Economist ethnically profiled, interrogated for doing math on American Airlines flight.”

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