Links: The warm north pole, resistance done right, the new intellectuals, and the need to read

* “The North Pole is an insane 36 degrees warmer than normal as winter descends.” Which may be the most important story on the planet right now—not the election, not Apple’s latest moves, not whether some celebrity is sunbathing topless. And: “An expert’s view on unusually warm Arctic temperatures.” In the 2030s we will not be able to say we weren’t warned.

* “The End of Identity Liberalism: Our fixation on diversity cost us this election — and more.” Unlikely to be true and simultaneously long overdue.

* Luigi Zingales: “The Right Way to Resist Trump.” Five years ago he wrote “Dodging the Trump Bullet: Americans—and Republicans—are lucky that the Donald has bowed out.” If I saw that earlier piece at all I probably laughed at it. I was wrong. Here is a conversation between Luigi and Tyler.

* “NIH Scientists Identify Potent Antibody That Neutralizes Nearly All HIV Strains.”

* “The New Intellectuals: Is the academic jobs crisis a boon to public culture?“, surprisingly good and captures many of my feelings about peer review. It’s amazing to me that more people don’t understand the opportunity cost of grad school and simply start by teaching high school instead, which is far more remunerative than attempting to become a humanities professor (for most people).

* “The President and the bomb.” If you aren’t scared you aren’t paying attention.

* How the thoughts and actions of J L Austin live on. Austen’s book How to Do Things with Words is one of the few good things that came out of grad school.

* “Blame the Banks for All Those Boring Chain Stores Ruining Your City.” Title sounds stupid but the content is not.

* The Need to Read.

Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century — Masha Gessen

Perfect Rigor is the best and most fascinating book I’ve read recently, and it is the sort of book I often seek but too rarely find. The story concerns Grigory Perelman, the man who solved the Poincaré Conjecture and whose eccentricities and life history may or may not be related to his mathematical faculty but certainly make for bizarre, enlightening, and entertaining reading.

perfect_rigorPerelman was born into Soviet Russia, a place where the professional study and practice of math were frequently under peril. Soviet math survived Stalinism and the horror of the Soviet Union more generally in part from luck and in part from need, but they suffered from being cut off from the rest of the math world. Still, as Gessen writes:

mathematicians as a group slipped by the first rounds of purges because mathematics was too obscure for propaganda. Over the nearly four decades of Stalin’s reign, however, it would turn out that nothing was too obscure from destruction.

Plus, modern wars cannot be fought successfully without mathematicians. Many, many mathematicians. Math has another useful property from the perspective of Communists living in a resource-deprived, poorly organized society: good math can be done even in conditions of relative privation (which may not be true of, say, engineering).

So math in Russia survived Stalin, even while many other fields suffered. There is a fascinating historical counter-narrative in which Russia evades Communism and Germany evades Nazism via World War I not happening, or not happening the way it did. In that alternate world, tens of millions of people live and contribute to the betterment of humanity. Instead of that world, however, we have the world that World War I bequeathed us and the countless people lost to murderous state machines.

Perelman and his direct family at least were not killed. And in the Soviet Union, math continued to be practiced freely, or mostly freely:

In the after-hours lectures and seminars, the mathematical conversation in the Soviet Union was reborn, and the appeal of mathematics to a mind in search of challenge, logic, and consistency once again became evident. “In the post-Stalin Soviet Union it was one of the most natural ways for a freethinking intellectual to seek self-realization,” said Grigory Shabat, a well-known Moscow mathematician. “If I had been free to choose any profession, I would have become a literary critic. But I wanted to work, not spend my life fighting the censors.”

It was good to do math because there was so little else to do. The many pleasures offered by American or Western European work were not available. Creative freedoms were minimal. Math was among the few places a person could be creative.

Some sections Perfect Rigor are just novel and unknown to me, descriptions of a sub-culture that I’d never thought properly about:

Competitive mathematics is more like a sport than most people imagine. It has its coaches, its clubs, its practice sessions, and, of course, its competitions. Natural ability is necessary but entirely insufficient for success: the talented child needs to have the right coach, the right team, the right kind of family support, and, most important, the will to win. At the beginning, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between future stars and those who will be good but never great.

I wonder how necessary “the will to win” is, especially given how much later in the book Gessen describes the professional world of math in different terms: “The mathematics community in the United States, and even the world, is very small and very peaceful.” Still, leaving that potential issue aside, the analogy to sport is a powerful one, since sports are more familiar to the average person than math.

More details: Gessen writes of herself:

My own first-grade teacher, in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Moscow that looked just like Perelman’s neighborhood on the outskirts of Leningrad, actually made me pretend my reading skills were as poor as the other children’s, enforcing her own vision of conforming to grade level.

Russia’s many afterschool math clubs did non conform to this bizarre, Harrison Bergeron vision. Which may be why Russia could continue to produce prodigious mathematicians even as much of the rest of its society decayed under the cruelties and absurdities of Communist rule. Those cruelties and absurdities are well-known, and they emerge in the way the Soviet Union sought contradictory goals:

The entire Soviet system of secondary education was based on the concept of uniformity: everyone was to be taught the same thing at the same time, using the same textbooks. But the Soviet Union still craved international prestige—in fact, that need became more and more pronounced as the technological rivalries of the second half of the century heated up.

Uniformity and excellence are mutually exclusive. As often happens, when ideology and reality diverge, ideology gives way, as it did to some extent for Perelman’s school. His school

let him avoid confronting the fact that he lived among humans, each with his or her own ideas and thoughts, to say nothing of emotions and desires. Many gifted children realize with a start as they mature that the world of ideas and the world of people compete for their attention and energy.

Perelman, it appears, never had to choose one over the other. He’s spent his life firmly in the world of ideas, rarely dealing with the world of humans. It is hard to say whether the world or humans or ideas is stranger; presented properly, either can seem strange. Perelman’s life seems strange but also pure and beautiful in a way that I would at times like to emulate but cannot, any more than I think he could emulate my life.

Perfect Rigor speculates some about Perelman’s motives and personality, or personalities, but cannot know them certainly. Sergei Rukshin is Perelman’s first serious math coach, and even very early he is happy with one of Perelman’s interests, or lack of interests: “He was never interested in girls,” unlike many of his classmates, who were caught “doing something as undignified and distracting as kissing a girl.” Life is about trade-offs and on some level Perfect Rigor encourages us to consider some of the tradeoffs some high-level mathematicians make (though not all: Feynman, for example, devotes some stories in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! to understanding women).

Maybe lack of sexual interest is in part from the demand side as much as the supply side. Perelman himself is, when he is young, “an ugly duckling among ugly ducklings,” though that changes a little when he is older. One wonders about the links, if any, between physical appearance and math (or other intellectual) skill. The vigorous rejection of “surface” matters seems common among high achievers, though I wonder if I’m letting myself be subject to the availability heuristic.

Used copies of Perfect Rigor on Amazon are gloriously cheap. I don’t know how I missed the book when it first appeared in 2009.

Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse

In a best-case Trump scenario, he bumbles around for four years doing not much except embarrassing himself and the country, but few substantive political changes actually occur; in the worst-case Trump scenario, however, Trump starts or provokes a nuclear war that either extinguishes the human race or at least wipes out the United States and one or more other countries. I still view the latter scenario as unlikely, but it’s far more likely than I would’ve judged it three weeks weeks ago, and when I’ve mentioned increasing fear of nuclear war I’ve gotten a weirdly large amount of pushback.

Most of that pushback seems like wishful thinking. To understand the danger, Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon is a good book about nuclear policy and history, but Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser is probably better for people who know little about the subject. Command and Control details the (scarily) short lines between the president and launching, or attempting to launch, nuclear weapons is appallingly short.

To understand why Trump is scary, it is necessary to understand two things: 1. That in theory the president is supposed to be able to order a nuclear launch anywhere, at any time, and have missiles in the air and 2. The way seemingly minor quarrels among countries have sometimes led to historically catastrophic outcomes.

Let us deal with the first point: while the president is supposed to be able to order an unprovoked nuclear attack at any time, there is at least some precedent for a gray area around nuclear weapons:

[I]n 1974, in the last days of the Watergate scandal, Mr. Nixon was drinking heavily and his aides saw what they feared was a growing emotional instability. His new secretary of defense, James R. Schlesinger, himself a hawkish Cold Warrior, instructed the military to divert any emergency orders — especially one involving nuclear weapons — to him or the secretary of state, Henry A. Kissinger.

It was a completely extralegal order, perhaps mutinous. But no one questioned it.

“Although Schlesinger’s order raised questions about who was actually in command,” Eric Schlosser writes in “Command and Control,” a 2013 book, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

This is at least somewhat heartening, as it implies that the generals in charge of executing nuclear launch commands simply will not do so unprovoked. The human nuclear bureaucracy and apparatus is itself hopefully not suicidal and homicidal. Still, that is a slender hope, as Alex Wellerstein describes in “The President and the bomb.”

To be sure, it’s also possible that Obama, Biden, and for that matter someone like Paul Ryan is having quiet conversations with the Secret Service and the military about what to do with a rogue nuclear launch order. Those quiet conversations might be arguably unconstitutional, but if the choice is between constitutionality and the death of everyone and everything, one should hope that the few people charged with mechanically carrying out orders will second-guess those orders.

Beyond that, the history of World War I should scare us. World War I was a catastrophe that killed tens of millions of people and it was a war that no one wanted. I doubt most people have the faintest idea how World War I got started, and if you want to annoy your friends try asking them. Hell, I’m not even sure I could give a good answer. Still, consider some background reading:

* This is Tobias Stone’s “History Tells Us What Will Happen Next With Brexit And Trump.”

* Here is one description of “How Trump Could Realistically Start a Nuclear War.”

* Here is “The real danger,” also about the possibility of direct, great power wars.

* At the same time, see “Commander-In-Chief Donald Trump Will Have Terrifying Powers. Thanks, Obama.” It can be fun to have secret, unchecked powers when your guy is in office, but is incredibly dangerous when the other guy does.

Almost everyone has forgotten about World War I, but in the short prelude to it people acted like it was normal. Check out the sleepwalking into war described in the Hardcore History podcast, around 1:38. In the horrible late July and early August of 1914, people went on holiday and shopkeepers assured their customers that nothing untoward would happen (One sees similar noises in the normalization of Trump). World trade had been expanding for decades; everyone “knew” that war would be suicidal; it seemed implausible that the death of a minor noble would lead to conflagration.

A similar set of circumstances could happen today. The flashpoint could be in the South China Sea, which is a disputed area. It could be the Baltic states. It could be Syria. It could be almost anywhere that the U.S. could pointlessly clash with China or Russia. Trump is obsessed with revenge and in a skirmish or dispute between U.S. forces and Chinese or Russian forces, which escalates rapidly in a tit-for-tat fashion.

Like this scenario: a Chinese ship fires on a U.S. ship in the South China Sea. The U.S. ship flees with a few causalities and Trump orders an attack on a Chinese ship in retaliation. The ship sinks, and China cannot possibly accept disrespect and in turn sinks a sub and imposes trade sanctions. The U.S. rallies to the flag and does the same. Eventually China uses a supercav missile to take out a U.S. carrier.

One could spin out an infinite number of scenarios like the above, which may develop very quickly, over the course of days or weeks. Tit-for-tat may be an attractive strategy for small bands of humans or proto-humans in hunter-gatherer or agricultural societies fighting each other. It could end the world in the nuclear age.

I’m not too worried about Trump and domestic policy. He is likely to do some bad and foolish things, but they are unlikely to be existential threats. I am worried about Trump and the end of the world.

Maybe nothing catastrophically bad will happen. I hope so and think that will be true. But to pretend he is a “normal” politician (or to vote for him) is to be willfully blind to history and to the man himself. In darker moments I wonder: maybe we don’t deserve democracy or freedom. Those who will not even vote for it—and half the potential electorate didn’t vote—don’t deserve it. Maybe institutions will resist Trump for the next four years, or resist his most militaristic and dangerous impulses. Maybe they won’t.

Again, I think the likely scenario is that Trump bumbles for four years and gets voted out of office. But nuclear war is a too-likely scenario and one that seems so far outside most people’s Overton window that they won’t even consider it, much as the total destruction that preceded World War I was inconceivably by any of the belligerents (had they realized it they would not have marched off to war, and many of the soliders themselves would have dramatically resisted conscription; they marched to their own deaths).

If you are not scared you’re not paying attention.

We are one black swan event from disaster. The last worldwide, negative black swan event was arguably World War II. Perhaps the 71 years separating us from then is long enough to have forgotten how bad bad really is.

I don’t expect this post to change any minds. All of the information in it was available three weeks ago and that didn’t change shit. This is a post based on logic and knowledge and logic and knowledge played little role in the election. Maybe, outside of elite spheres, it plays little role at all in human life. I only hope that the apocalyptic scenario doesn’t come to pass. If it does, “I told you so” will be no comfort, as it wasn’t in the aftermath of World War I. In that war the prophets and historians were ignored, as they were in the 2016 election. Let us pray that some of the prophets and historians are wrong.

Life: Living meaningfully edition

“While perhaps unintuitive, research that examines the differences between meaning and happiness finds that the things that give us a sense of meaning don’t necessarily make us happy. Moreover, people who report having meaningful lives are often more interested in doing things for others, while those who focus mostly on doing things for themselves report being only superficially happy.”

—Dan Ariely, Payoff. Here is a previous post on hearing him speak about Predictably Irrational in Seattle.

Links: Irrationality, concrete as a weapon, and why social media is terrible for multiethnic democracies

* “How Two Trailblazing Psychologists Turned the World of Decision Science Upside Down,” a really marvelous piece and one that feels highly relevant right now.

* “Never, never, never normalize this:” “It’s become depressingly clear the last few days that even many American liberals don’t understand the magnitude of what’s happened.”

* The Most Effective Weapon on the Modern Battlefield is Concrete.

* “Why social media is terrible for multiethnic democracies,” another of these important stories that’ll go unread by the people who really need to read them.

* Millennials are leaving coastal cities, choosing central ones. In short, the rent is too damn high.

*
Why social media is terrible for multiethnic democracies
, from Jonathan Haidt.

* To Mars, Not a Moment Too Soon.

Briefly noted: The Map and the Territory — Houellebecq

The number of ideas in The Map and the Territory is too high to enumerate, and the novel is structurally weird, but it’s weird in a way that’s still functional. Like all of Houellebecq it’s fascinating, though not in a way that’s easy to describe, and it touches many Houellbecqian themes: The weakness of contemporary France; the need for tourism; the fight between stability and novelty; the status of the artist; the faux accepted role of the market as the arbiter of all value; the need to express sexuality and form relationships despite the futility of both acts. At least in this one a shocking unexpected terrorist bloodbath is not the denouement, however fitting and brutal it was in one of Houellebecq’s other novels.

Consider this:

Barely amiable in the first few minutes, the stocky estate agent went into a lyrical trance when he learned that Jed was an artist. It was the first time, he exclaimed, that he’d had the opportunity to sell an artist’s studio to an artist! Jed feared for a moment that he would declare his solidarity with authentic artists against the bourgeois bohemians and other such philistines who inflated prices, thus making artist’s studios inaccessible to artists, but what can you do? I can’t go against the truth of the market: it’s not my role. But fortunately this did not happen.

the_map_and_the_territoryThe notion of the “artist” has been made into a nostgalia item that was long ago marketized. Today’s artists still need cheap space, but they won’t find it in most “major” Western cities.

It may be that the best medium for a given time shifts. It was painting in the Renaissance, novels and what we now call classical music in the 19th Century, movies and what we now call pop music in the 20th Century, and maybe something like design in the 21st. Still, real artists ship and show their work:

You can work alone for years, it’s actually the only way to work, truth be told; but there always comes a moment when you feel the need to show your work to the world, less to receive its judgment than to reassure yourself about the existence of this work, or even of your own existence, for in a social species individuality is little more than a short piece of fiction.

Are we just neurons in a massive, transhuman brain, each of us thinking we are individual but actually just part of the mess, sending encoded messages from person to person via sound, light, or other mean? One sees Houellebecq’s taste for moving from the level of the individual outwards to the level of society or species. It’s a favorite move and one I see remarked on too infrequently.

It’s hard to convey the feeling of a Houellebecq novel from blockquotes alone, as the way sections connect do not feel like the way sections connect in other novels. Sometimes long times pass; few causal relationships, if any, are established. In that sense Houellbecq is a kind of anti-thriller, where everything is cause-effect in a way the real world isn’t.

Houellebecq’s pessimism seems easier to countenance given recent political events. One wonders if he will eventually be seen as a deeply political writer who connects the personal and political in ways that most trendy or PC writers don’t, or can’t.

Links: Tea, writers and money, the danger of autocrats, Apple and open source, and more

* How much did Russia’s classic writers earn? Not that much, in many cases.

* A Russian dissident explains exactly why Clinton’s concession speech is so dangerous.

* “Climate change may be escalating so fast it could be ‘game over’, scientists warn.”

* “
Donald Trump’s presidency is going to be a disaster for the white working class
.” File under “Decisions have consequences.”

* President Obama Should Shut Down the NSA’s Mass Spying Before It’s Too Late.

* “‘Maybe Americans Should Know What It’s Like to Have a Dictator.’” What I’ve been thinking and sometimes saying.

* From 2015: “American democracy is doomed:” “America’s constitutional democracy is going to collapse.”

* “Apple is doubling down on open source,” good news if it’s true.

* Prepare For Regime Change, Not Policy Change.

* Book reviewing used to be a blood sport. How has it become so benign and polite? Here are some of my thoughts. I like negative reviews.

* Tony Gebely’s Tea: A User’s Guide is out. Know what you’re getting: This is a book that “isn’t about all tea. It’s about specialty tea. Specialty tea production prioritizes quality over quantity.” Phrased differently, it’s a book for obsessive tea nerds, or just obsessive nerds who are now interested in tea. Much of it is definitional and encyclopedic. Expect many sentences like, “The goal of green tea production is to preserve the natural polyphenols in the leaves by preventing oxidation.” Most people are content to drink; this is a book for those who want to know.

%d bloggers like this: