Links: Zoning and the quality of human life, great art, the institutional climate, and more!

* David Brooks: “How We Are Ruining America.” Notice that residential zoning restrictions are number one. Improve that and you get a lot of secondary and tertiary improvements “free.”

* “The Obsessive Art and Great Confession of Charlotte Salomon: Painter, auteur, enigma, murderer. The work of the German Jewish artist, killed in the Holocaust, has long been overshadowed by her life and times.” Article by Toni Bentley of The Surrender fame.

* “A Conversation with Malcolm Gladwell: Revisiting Brown v. Board.” Extremely interesting and contrarian in an intelligent way that shows many familiar things in a light I’d never considered.

* Does a secret yearning for monarchy and hierarchy attract us to Game of Thrones?

* “The planet will be too hot for humans much sooner than you think.” Yet seemingly almost no one is paying attention, or voting as if they are paying attention.

* “What Russian journalists think about how American reporters cover Putin and Trump.”

* Underreported Chinese investment in U.S. industries; not an overtly contrarian piece but definitely one that shows the complexity behind typical headlines and assertions.

* “As opioid overdoses exact a higher price, communities ponder who should be saved.”

* “As companies relocate to big cities, suburban towns are left scrambling.” I’m a city person, and while I understand why some people would want suburban towns in theory, I’ll never want to live in one.

* “Jane Austen, Emma, and what characters do.”

* Should community colleges abolish mandatory algebra classes? I’m admittedly 50/50 on this one, leaning towards “no” yet simultaneously aware that I took no real math classes as an undergrad. This question is also hard because the real question underlying it is, “What is education for?” And that brings us towards questions of signaling versus skill acquisition.

Links: Model 3, transit success in Chicago, Hollywood memoir, markets, free speech and free minds

* Tesla to hold “Handover party for first 30 customer Model 3’s on the 28th! Production grows exponentially, so Aug should be 100 cars and Sept above 1500.” That is the entire text of the announcement tweet.

* The guilty pleasures of Hollywood memoirs.

* Rahm Emmanuel: “In Chicago, the trains actually run on time.” This is actually productive, not gloating; some of the dumber responses online have attributed bad motives to Emmnauel that he does not evince in the text.

* “Why market competition has not brought down health care costs.” History and analysis are good but I don’t buy the solution. I’d like to see mandatory price transparency, savings accounts, and (government-run) catastrophic insurance. Oddly, we are evolving towards a world where basically all insurance is catastrophic insurance. I think my deductible is now something like $5,000.

* “Why Did a UCLA Instructor with a Popular Free-Speech Course Lose His Job?

* I wrote a snarky title saying, “President who understands nothing of Western Civilization gives speech urging defense of Western Civilization,” but then I realized, why bother with the link? The headline is enough, and many of you likely know the reference.

* “What on Earth Is Wrong With Connecticut?” The state seems to combine high taxes with suburban-style development (without a major city to mediate).

* “This Is How Big Oil Will Die,” with the author’s 1999 interview at Kodak being particularly funny.

* Canadian money is better than U.S. money.

* Are the Social Sciences Undergoing a Purity Spiral?

* “America’s First Postmodern President: Trump’s ascendance is no accident. He’s the culmination of our epoch of unreality. What does that herald for the resistance?” Oddly, some of the academic left has contributed to the intellectual environment that spawned Trump.

* Grid Batteries Are Poised to Become Cheaper Than Natural-Gas Plants in Minnesota.

Life: What is happiness? edition

“I do not promise happiness, and I don’t know what it is. You New World people are, what is the word, hipped on the idea of happiness, as if it were a constant and measurable thing, and settled and excused everything. If it is anything at all it is a by-product of other conditions of life, and some people whose lives do not appear to be at all enviable, or indeed admirable, are happy. Forget your happiness.”

—Robertson Davies, The Manticore

Lost technologies, Seveneves, and The Secret of Our Success

Spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t read Seveneves by now they probably don’t matter.

Seveneves is an unusual and great novel, and it’s great as long as you attribute some of its less plausible elements to an author building a world. One plausible element is the way humanity comes together and keeps the social, political, and economic systems functional enough to launch large numbers of spacecraft in the face of imminent collective death. If we collectively had two years to live, I suspect total breakdown would follow, leaving us with no Cloud Ark (and no story—thus we go along with the premise).

But that’s not the main thing I want to write about. Instead, consider the loss of knowledge that inherently comes with population decline. In Seveneves humanity declines to seven women living in space on a massive iron remnant of the moon. They slowly repopulate, with their descendants living in space for five thousand years. But a population of seven would probably not be able to retain and transmit the specialized knowledge necessary for survival on most parts of Earth, let alone space.

That isn’t a speculative claim. We have pretty good evidence for the way small populations lose knowledge. Something drew me to re-reading Joseph Henrich’s excellent book The Secret of Our Success, and maybe the sections about technological loss are part of it. He writes about many examples of European explorers getting lost and dying in relatively fecund environments because they don’t have the local knowledge and customs necessary to survive. He writes about indigenous groups too, including the Polar Intuit, who “live in an isolated region of northwestern Greenland [. . . .] They are the northernmost human population that has ever existed” (211). But

Sometime in the 1820s an epidemic hit this population and selectively killed off many of its oldest and most knowledgable members. With the sudden disappearance of the know-how carried by these individuals, the group collectively lost its ability to make some of its most crucial and complex tools, including leisters, bows and arrows, the heat-trapping long entry ways for snow houses, and most important, kayaks.

As a result, “The population declined until 1862, when another group of Intuit from around Baffin Island ran across them while traveling along the Greenland coast. The subsequent cultural reconnection led the Polar Intuit to rapidly reacquire what they had lost.” Which is essential:

Though crucial to survival in the Arctic, the lost technologies were not things that the Polar Intuit could easily recreate Even having seen these technologies in operation as children, and with their population crashing, neither the older generation nor an entirely new generation responded to Mother Necessity by devising kayaks, leisters, compound bows, or long tunnel entrances.

Innovation is hard and relatively rare. We’re all part of a network that transmits knowledge horizontally, from peer to peer, and vertically, from older person to younger person. Today, people in first-world countries are used to innovation because we’re part of a vast network of billions of people who are constantly learning from each and transmitting the innovations that do arise. We’re used to seemingly automatic innovation, because so many people are working on so many problems. Unless we’re employed as researchers, we’re often not cognizant of how much effort goes into both discovery and then transmission.

Without that dense network of people, though, much of what we know would be lost. Maybe the best-known example of technology loss happened when the Roman Empire fell, followed by the way ancient Egyptians lost the know-how necessary to build pyramids and other epic engineering works.

In a Seveneves scenario, it’s highly unlikely that the novel’s protagonists would be able to sustain and transmit the knowledge necessary to live somewhere on earth, let alone somewhere as hostile as space. Quick: how helpful would you be in designing and manufacturing microchips, solar panels, nuclear reactors, plant biology, or oxygen systems? Yeah, me too. Those complex technologies have research, design, and manufacture facets that are embodied in the heads of thousands if not millions of individuals. The level of specialization our society has achieved is incredible, but we rarely think about how incredible it really is.

This is not so much a criticism of the novel—I consider the fact that they do survive part of granting the author his due—but it is a contextualization of the novel’s ideas. The evidence that knowledge is fragile is more pervasive and available than I’d thought when I was younger. We like stories of individual agency, but in actuality we’re better conceived of as parts in a massive system. We can see our susceptibility to conspiracy theories as beliefs in the excessive power of the individual. In an essay from Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson writes: “Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself, and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening.” The world itself is big, densely interconnected, and our ability to change it is real but often smaller than we imagine.

Henrich writes:

Once individuals evolve to learn from one another with sufficient accuracy (fidelity), social groups of individuals develop what might be called collective brains. The power of these collective brains to develop increasingly effective tools and technologies, as well as other forms of nonmaterial culture (e.g., know-how), depends in part on the size of the group of individuals engaged and on their social connectedness. (212)

The Secret of Our Success also cites laboratory recreations of similar principles; those experiments are too long to describe here, but they are clever. If there are good critiques of the chapter and idea, I haven’t found them (and if you know any, let’s use our collective brain by posting links in the comments). Henrich emphasizes:

If a population suddenly shrinks or gets socially disconnected, it can actually lose adaptive cultural information, resulting in a loss of technical skills and the disappearance of complex technologies. [. . . ] A population’s size and social interconnectedness sets a maximum on the size of a group’s collective brain. (218-9)

That size cap means that small populations in space, even if they are composed of highly skilled and competent individuals, are unlikely to survive over generations. They are unlikely to survive even if they have the rest of humanity’s explicit knowledge recorded on disk. There is too much tacit knowledge for explicit knowledge in and of itself to be useful, as anyone who has ever tried to learn from a book and then from a good teacher knows. Someday we may be able to survive indefinitely in space, but today we’re far from that stage.

Almost all post-apocalyptic novels face the small-population dilemma to some extent (I’d argue that Seveneves can be seen as a post-apocalyptic novel with a novel apocalypse). Think of the role played by the nuclear reactor in Steven King’s The Stand: the characters in the immediate aftermath must decide if they’re going to live in the dark and regress to hunter-gatherer times, at best, or if they’re going to save and use the reactor to live in the light (the metaphoric implications are not hard to perceive here). In one of the earliest post-apocalyptic novels, Earth Abides, two generations after the disaster, descendants of technologically sophisticated people are reduced to using melted-down coins as tips for spears and arrows. In Threads, the movie (and my nominee for scariest movie ever made), the descendants of survivors of nuclear war lose most of their vocabulary and are reduced to what is by modern standards an impoverished language that is a sort of inadvertent 1984 newspeak.* Let’s hope we don’t find out what actually happens after nuclear war.

In short, kill enough neurons in the collective brain and the brain itself stops working. Which has happened before. And it could happen again.


* Check out the cars in Britain in Threads: that reminds us of the possibilities of technological progress and advancement.

Links: Ben Sasse, housing, grifting, Margaux Fragoso, cryptocurrencies (not in an SF context), and more!

* To no one’s surprise, “evidence for harm caused by microaggression is incoherent, unscientific and weak.” But virtue-signaling enabled by complaining about “microaggressions” remains robust.

* Ben Sasse’s conversation with Tyler. If I lived in Nebraska I’d likely vote for him for Senator.

* “The only thing the Bay Area’s tenant activists hate more than high rent is each other.” Comedy. If this weren’t already so absurd I’d encourage a modern-day Trollope to write a satire of it. Barchester Towers lives.

* “Why are so many American men so easily grifted?” A term I’ve rarely heard yet it’s oddly accurate.

* “California lawmakers have tried for 50 years to fix the state’s housing crisis. This is why they’ve failed.”

* Margaux Fragoso dies at 38, of ovarian cancer. She wrote Tiger, Tiger, a strange, haunting, memorable book that I never wrote about; it’s one of those books whose reviews tend to say much more about the reviewer than about the book itself.

* “A Path Less Taken to the Peak of the Math World.”

* “ Will social media kill the novel? Andrew O’Hagan on the end of private life.” Overwrought but useful.

* “A generational failure: As the U.S. fantasizes, the rest of the world builds a new transport system.”

* “Are cryptocurrencies about to go mainstream?” A year ago I would’ve said no; now I’m not so sure. Here is an intelligent but not super technical description of ethereum. I don’t grok it in fullness.

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