Links: Food, odd campus culture, ebikes, quality literary feuds, and more!

* “Quinoa is the new Big Mac: Can Eatsa succeed in delicious and inexpensive plant-based fast food?”

* The inventor of the red Solo cup has died. Real tragedy.

* “Student Accused of Rape By ‘Mattress Girl’ Sues Columbia U., Publishes Dozens of Damning Texts.” See a related discussion in this post.

* “The personal is political” (note: the personal is not necessarily political and if someone tells you it is, tell them to get stuffed).

* Low Definition in Higher Education: When college students are told what to think and what not to say, who suffers in the end?

* Ebikes: I Sing the Ride Electric.

* “When did Literary Feuds Become So Boring? Duels between writers were once epic. Now they’re just petty.”

* “The long political history of sneakers;” the article sounds dumb but is actually good.

* Trump’s Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

* “Why People Vote for Counterproductive Policies.” And: “‘What the Russians Did Was Utterly Unprecedented.’” Voter irrationality has always been an interesting topic but it’s become more interesting and salient since 2010, with a special rise this year.

* Open societies are facing major crises. I don’t think Soros’s answer is the right one or that most people even know who or what they might mean by “elites,” but the problems are clear and not going away.

Links: The widowhood effect, Mac desktops, nuclear power, campus identity politics, and more!

* “The widowhood effect: What it’s like to lose a spouse in your 30s.” Brutal, moving, and you may cry. Consider yourself warned.

* Tim Cook alleges that great desktop Macs are in the works. I’ll believe it when I see them.

* To Slow Global Warming, We Need Nuclear Power.

* “How Silicon Valley Nails Silicon Valley,” unexpectedly hilarious.

* Campus Identity Politics Is Dooming Liberal Causes, according to Mark Lilla, who you may remember from The Shipwrecked Mind.

* “How Amazon’s problems with cheap knockoffs got real.” I’ve become much more sensitized to this issue and less likely to buy non-books from Amazon for precisely this reason.

* “World War III, by mistake.” See also “Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse.”

* “If anyone is alive in 100 years to write a history of the 2016 U.S. election they will not believe how dumb it was.”

* “Automakers Prepare for an America That’s Over the Whole Car Thing.” The bizarre thing to me is that Americans ever loved cars in the first place. See also “Cars and generational shift” and “Owning vs sharing: Don’t get caught in the ugly middle.”

Thoughts on the movie “Arrival”

* Trust the good reviews, as they’re correct about Arrival.

arrival* I like the movie’s implicit criticism of morons, which is too rare. Too often in movies the institution is the bad guy and the uncredentialed are, automatically and by virtue of being outsiders, the good guys. Contagion (the movie) also has this quality. It’s also rare to see academics depicted as admirable (or useful).

* It’s a stranger and somber movie, maybe not keeping with the times. It’s also weirdly applicable to current politics.

* Think of it too as a modern The Day the Earth Stood Still, especially because few of us will want to watch the original as a movie. As a cultural artifact and statement of its times it is still interesting.

* See also my 2013 comments on Gravity.

Circumstances under which going to law school can make sense

The reasons you should avoid law school are well known and I won’t repeat them here, but the other day I was explaining to a former student why she shouldn’t go to law school and she asked a perceptive question: Who should go? Under what conditions should a person go?

The answer is “almost no one” and “almost never,” but law school can be okay in a handful of circumstances:

* People who have already worked in law firms, probably as a paralegal but maybe under other circumstances, and who thus understand what the day-to-day life of a lawyer is like. That firm should have a job waiting and ready to go for the person before the person starts law school.

* People who have family (or close family friends) in law firms who can set the law school applicant up with a job straight out of school. If your uncle has a firm and wants you to take over that firm, law school can make sense.

* People with a very specific sense of what they want a law degree for and what they want to do with it—for example, people who desperately want to fight for voting rights, or immigrant rights, or something along those lines, and are convinced that those fights will be their life’s work, regardless of other challenges.

That’s really it; if I’m missing something, leave a comment or send an email. Law school mostly works for people who don’t need law school and only need the credentials that law school entails. There is a reason why most lawyers learned the craft on the job as apprentices, and law school only became a requirement in the post-World War II-era as a way of raising the salaries and status of then-existing lawyers.

Even going to highly ranked schools doesn’t make sense because, while you may get a big-firm job straight out of school, you’ll still be shackled to the work by student loan debt slavery, and you’ll still have to be a lawyer at the end (which most people don’t really want to do), and you’ll still probably not make partner (which means that you’re mostly working to line someone else’s pocket).

Don’t go to law school.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds — Michael Lewis

The Undoing Project is entertainingly written, appears well-researched, and is also tremendously important—three things that, while not intrinsically opposed, occur together too infrequently. It’s so funny that I burst out laughing during class, while students were engaged in peer review, and every pair of eyes turned to me. I wanted to stop myself but couldn’t. It’s the best book I’ve read in recent memory and you should stop whatever else you’re doing to read it.

undoing_projectThe “tremendously important” part is important for many reasons, one being that most people don’t seem to even know the (many) biases humans are prone to, let alone that knowing the biases often isn’t enough to change the behavior. We can understand the problems and still not turn understanding into action.*

Still, there are steps we can consciously take to attempt to minimize or combat our biases. For example, “People had trouble seeing when their minds were misleading them; on the other hand, they could sometimes see when other people’s minds were misleading them.” That means we have to minimize hierarchy in many situations; empower people to speak up when they perceive problems; and listen to those who have differences of opinion, even if we want to immediately assume they’re wrong.

There are too many good sections in the book to cite them all. One example:

People did not choose between things. They chose between descriptions of things. Economists, and anyone else who wanted to believe that human beings were rational, could rationalize, or try to rationalize, loss aversion. But how did you rationalize this? Economists assumed that you could simply measure what people wanted from what they chose. But what if what you want changes with the context in which the options are offered to you?”

Conveying the humor in The Undoing Project is hard, maybe impossible, because so much of it is embedded in larger stories.

“Amos approached intellectual life strategically, as if it were an oil field to be drilled, and after two years of sitting through philosophy classes he announced that philosophy was a dry well. ‘I remember his words,’ recalled Amnon. ‘He said, “There is nothing we can do in philosophy. Plato solved too many of the problems. We can’t have any impact in this area. There are too many smart guys and too few problems left, and the problems have no solutions.”’”

I wonder if English lit suffers from the same (or a similar) problem. There’s been little progress since the advent of close reading, and the development of “critical theory” or “theory” is often if anything a step back. If there is anything interesting going on right now it seems to be in some aspect of applying computers to literature, but that is likely more a CS problem than an English lit problem.

We do get an ethnology of academia, too. Like:

Economists were brash and self-assured. Psychologists were nuanced and doubtful. ‘Psychologists as a rule will only interrupt a presentation for clarification,’ says psychologist Dan Gilbert. ‘Economists will interrupt to show how smart they are.’ ‘In economics it is completely normal to be rude,’ says economist George Loewenstein. ‘We tried to create a psychology and economics seminar at Yale. We had our first meeting. The psychologists came out completely bruised. We never had a second meeting.’ In the early 1990s, Amos’s former student Steven Sloman invited an equal number of economists and psychologists to a conference in France. ‘And I swear to God I spent three-quarters of my time telling the economists to shut up,’ said Sloman. ‘The problem,’ says Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, ‘is that psychologists think economists are immoral and economists think psychologists are stupid.’

There seems to be no solution.

There also seems to be no solution for the systematic errors in human cognition. As I noted above, awareness is not enough. Even imagining possible futures is not enough, because one may come to predominate and stifle the others before they can be explored:

What people did in many complicated real-life problems—when trying to decide if Egypt might invade Israel, say, or their husband might leave them for another woman—was to construct scenarios. The stories we make up, rooted in our memories, effectively replace probability judgements. ‘The production of a compelling scenario is likely to constrain future thinking,’ wrote Danny to Amos. ‘There is much evidence showing that, once an uncertain situation has been perceived or interpreted in a particular fashion, it is quite difficult to view it in any other way.

The parallels to present world politics are too clear. We have forgotten the lessons of totalitarianism in just a generation and a half. We are too fond of constructing Kahneman’s rosy scenarios, which replace probability judgments. The probability of nuclear conflagration has grown in recent times. Yet we discount it. Recent elections in the U.S., U.K., Poland, and Hungary are systematic cognitive errors writ large.

The number of cognitive errors we’re subject to staggers. It’s “not just that people don’t know what they don’t know, but that they don’t bother to factor their ignorance into their judgments” (192). This book should above all make us doubt ourselves more, and especially doubt ourselves even when we think ourselves sophisticated. Over and over, we see people who receive training in statistics make basic statistical errors. We see people violate the law of small numbers.

I cannot recall all the times I’ve explained sample bias problems to people—rarely clients but more often students or friends—only to sense that no one is getting what I’m saying, or, if they do get it, they don’t care. The more one understands recurring cognitive weaknesses the more one sees them, the more I worry about succumbing to them myself. I myself succumbed to them in the last election, by substituting the opinions of people who are readily observable around me for the opinions of the much larger political body. And I myself wonder how often people have explained cognitive biases to me, or pointed out cognitive biases in action, only for me to ignore them.

The secret to the successful friendship between Kahneman and Tversky seems to have been pleasure: “‘We just found each other more interesting than anyone else,’ said Danny. ‘Even if we had just spent the entire day working together.’ They’d become a single mind, creating ideas about why people did what they did, and cooking up odd experiments to tests them.” The joint mind: It seems beautiful. I wonder how many of us accomplish such a feat. Lewis does cite a writer who began a book about productive pairs but never finished it. Another writer, Joshua Wolf Shenk, wrote and published Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.

Lewis quotes his beautifully articulate subjects: “It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.”

This is a kind of boring NYT review. This is a better New Yorker review, from Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, who are both cited repeatedly in the book itself. For example:

[Cass] Sunstein was particularly interested in what was now being called ‘choice architecture.’ The decisions people made were driven by the way they were presented. People didn’t simply know what they wanted: they took cues from their environment. They constructed their preferences. And they followed paths of least resistance, even when they paid a heavy price for it.

How are you paying?

* Maybe the robots do deserve to win.

Links: The politics of resistance, cars, Peter Watts on Westworld, reading, traffic patterns, and more

* “We’re about to see states’ rights used defensively against Trump,” a frequently misunderstood point.

* “Investors Get Ready for the Coming Electric Car Revolution.”

green_machine-0460* “Russia and the Threat to Liberal Democracy: How Vladimir Putin is making the world safe for autocracy.” File under, “Headlines I never thought I’d see.”

* Peter Watts on Westworld. Here is me on Watts’ Blindsight.

* GM begins delivering the first Chevy Bolts. Good news and an important milestone.

* The Iago problem.

* Doug Lemov on reading, a podcast.

* “Why Obamacare enrollees voted for Trump,” a weird and fascinating piece of journalism as well as further confirmation of The Myth of the Rational Voter.

* “Why So Few Resisted Hitler,” which has striking applications today.

* Fear is a totally rational reaction to the Donald Trump presidency.

* “Los Angeles Drivers on the 405 Ask: Was $1.6 Billion Worth It?” The answer is “probably not,” and we can never build enough freeways because of induced demand. The only real way to improve transport is via subways.

* “Will the man running a sex party like a startup be able to leave anyone satisfied?” I would love a two-year moratorium on the word “disrupt” and ideally for the word “startup” to mean what it actually means.

Life: Myth and biology edition

“But if art… is a harmony parallel to nature, as I’ve said, then the exploration of nature should be no less exciting and no less spiritually rewarding than the function of art. I mean, it’s the same field. When one’s bliss is actually science… it has to be. I remember that when I was in prep school, biology was the thing that grabbed me, and now I think of mythology as a function of biology, a statement of the impulse system and the organs. Not something that’s made up in the head. What’s made up in the head is the fiction; what comes out of [the heart]  is a myth.”

—Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey

Links: Russia, nuclear fusion, phage therapy, diamonds, and more!

* “The dying Russians,” from 2014, a tremendously sad piece. Yet it also has important geopolitical implications for the U.S.: Russia is a shrinking country almost entirely dependent on oil. As time goes on, the U.S.’s position gets better and Russia’s gets worse.

* The Input Club: Meet The Guys Looking To Disrupt The Keyboard Industry. See previous keyboard reviews.

the pen is mightier?

* After 60 years, is nuclear fusion finally poised to deliver?

* “Making sense of modern pornography,” from the New Yorker and likely SFW.

* “Will Viruses Save Us From Superbugs? When antibiotics failed a severely ill patient, it was a pond virus that saved him.” Beautiful, inspiring, hopeful.

* “An Unsung Hero of the Nuclear Age: Maj. Harold Hering and the forbidden question that cost him his career.” Brilliant, scary, important, and tied to “Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse.”

* Lab-Grown Diamonds Come Into Their Own.

* Russia plants porn in dissidents’ computers. I will take this opportunity to recommend Three Felonies A Day (again). Theoretically, if someone—anyone—sends a nude photo of a person under age 18 to your phone, you are guilty of a felony. Something to think about in an age of ever-expanding government and police powers.

* “Eight miles of water: underground with Manhattan’s new aquatic lifeline,” an awesome infrastructure project that ought to get more attention.

Briefly noted: Dreamland: The True Tales of America’s Opiate Epidemic — Sam Quinones

Dreamland is well-reported and consistently interesting, but its chapters are chopped into tiny pieces that interrupt narrative flow—the word dream is disrupted. Many if not most chapters are around 800 to a thousand words, yet the book covers several important threads: the rise and marketing of Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharmaceutical; the drug sales practices of Xalisco natives who figure out how to game the U.S. legal and immigration systems; and the insatiable love Americans have for drugs.

dreamlandDespite the chopped narrative problem, however, Dreamland covers important developments around opioid addiction and its origins. The better sections are arresting; for example, the description of the Xalisco traffickers could be from a business case study, as the Xalisco organizations respond to a number of different factors: supply and demand, a difficult regulatory environment, and unique managerial challenges (the best business case studies are themselves little novels, with the artistry that implies).

In many forgotten cities, most of the wealthy top has left or disappeared, most of the productive middle has moved to a relative handful of cities and suburbs, and many of those who remain are poor. While elite cities accrue service-sector advantages and develop information economies, many other places that existed for agriculture or manufacturing are suffering, and there’s no real way to help them. As a result, “Remaining behind was a thin slice of educated people. They found work in the schools or the hospitals, in some way or other tending to those for whom the factory closings were the beginning of an American nightmare.” “Nightmare” is too strong a word here—one thinks of Behind the Beautiful Forevers—but the challenges seem insurmountable over the short term.

“Nightmares” is not the only linguistic misfire. Some of the writing is cliché: “Two Portsmouths exist today.” You will have heard the “two [geographic area]” terminology. Some sentences are merely banal. Too many say things like, “I learned, too, that envidia—envy, jealousy—was a destructive force in the rancho.” Is there any society for which that is not true? Every society experiences envy, hate, jealousy, striving, signaling, and so on.

In the Two Portsmouths,

One is a town of abandoned buildings at the edge of the Ohio River. The other resides in the memories of thousands in the town’s diaspora who grew up during its better years and return to the actual Portsmouth rarely, if at all.

Heroin remains a statistical phenomenon for me, maybe because of where I live. I’ve never known anyone who has admitted to doing it and I’ve never been offered it. No one I know has died from it. It’s just… out there, somewhere, mostly in the media (which is maybe a reason to read less news, not more). Yet it’s killing tens of thousands of people a year. Dreamland takes this data from statistical abstraction to specific people.

Be ready to notice more after you’ve read Dreamland. For example, the Wall Street Journal just published “For Small-Town Cops, Opioid Scourge Hits Close to Home,” this time about a common drug named fentanyl.

Dreamland’s ending disappoints, maybe because there is no real solution short to the problem. Decriminalization and better treatment options may help but will not cure. The policy recommendations Quinones offers amount to “more of the same.” We may see improvements at the margins but are unlikely to see a solution to the problem of humans liking mind-altering substances.

Here is Isaac’s take on Dreamland. Here is Tyler Cowen on rural America, suggesting we “Support a voluntary temperance movement for zero alcohol, zero drugs.” It’s not for me but I take the reasoning seriously and it’s clear that large numbers of people can’t handle alcohol or drugs, for whatever reasons, and that the pharmacological utopians of the ’60s and ’70s were wrong, or wrong about the experiences of many people.

Links: The post-literacy age, Eco on fascism, literary studies, everything matters, books, and more!

* “Donald Trump, the First President of Our Post-Literate Age.” I’m reminded too of “Twilight of the Books,” from 2007 and now bizarrely, powerfully prescient.

* A charming guide to choosing books.

* “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red.’


* A conversation with Martin Amis, which is really excellent. See here for another.

* Umberto Eco on fascism, from 1995, an essay that I never thought would be relevant again but here we are.

* There’s a reason authoritarians usually begin by assailing the press.

* “What’s Wrong With Literary Studies? Some scholars think the field has become cynical and paranoid.” Finally! Good news.

* Everything mattered: lessons from 2016’s bizarre presidential election.

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