Links: Teen monitoring apps don’t work; education; free speech and thought, and more!

* “Teen Monitoring Apps Don’t Work and Just Make Teens Hate Their Parents, Study;” I doubt this is the last word and haven’t looked at the original study.

* Almost no one knows what education really means.

* “The Myth of ‘Learning Styles.’” I wonder if “concentration” is the real secret. It seems to be, at least anecdotally.

* “Monopsony and Higher Education,” which is just another way to say “don’t go to academic grad school.” But you already know that, of course.

* Subprime mortgages make a comeback. Will anyone who is surprised please raise their hand?

* “The Skeptics Are Wrong Part 2: Speech Culture on Campus is Changing:” for the worse, it would appear.

* “Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem: Dismayed about American politics? Look in the mirror.” Things that seem obvious to me but not, apparently, to others.

* “John Brockman: Pioneer of scientific literature,” and also underrated.

* “Why Did New York City Stop Building Subways?

* “Syria War’s Game Theory Is Too Complex to Predict.” One of the rare good pieces on this subject (that I’ve seen).

* “Linux computer maker System76 to move manufacturing to the U.S.” Very cool news; this is their website. Right now there’s much brouhaha and signaling about “privacy.” You can tell people are serious when they delete Facebook and install Linux.

* “Gay China Rises Up,” a headline I didn’t expect about a subject I know little about.

* “How a Porn Star Became More Credible Than the President.” It’s in Vanity Fair and thus likely SFW.

* “This college professor gives her students extra credit for going on dates.” I laughed and also think that maybe we really do have more or deeper societal / social problems than I’d imagined. Maybe we’re really mis-prioritizing our lives. It’s striking to me, now, how much emphasis upper middle class parents and schools put on intellectual intelligence and how little they put on social and emotional intelligence.

* “VW vows to build massive electric car charging network across US;” good news if it comes to fruition.

“Bean freaks: On the hunt for an elusive legume”

Bean freaks: On the hunt for an elusive legume” is among the more charming and hilarious stories I’ve read recently and it’s highly recommended. There are many interesting moments in it, but this tangent caught my attention:

In his late teens, Sando lost weight and found his crowd, learned to improvise on the piano, and discovered, to his great surprise, that he’d become rather good-looking. “What we call a twink now,” he says. Although he never found a true, long-term partner, he married a friend of a friend in his late thirties and had two boys with her, now nineteen and sixteen. “I’d had every lesbian on the planet ask me for sperm,” he says. “But there was a side of me that said, ‘I can’t do this as a passive bystander.’ ” They raised the boys in adjacent houses for a few years, then divorced. “Theres a sitcom waiting to happen,” he says. But he tells the story flatly, without grievance or irony, as if giving a deposition. “The truth is that your sexual identity is just about the least interesting thing about you,” he says. “Do you play an instrument? That would be interesting.”

I think he’s right about the sitcom, and, while I said something like this in a previous post, I’ll say here that I think we’re going to see a lot more gay, bisexual, non-monogamous, etc. characters in movies, TV, and novels not because of a desire to represent those people, or whatever, though that desire may exist, but because of all the new and interesting plotlines and situations those orientations / interests / proclivities open up. Many writers are at their base pragmatists. They (or we) will use whatever material is available and, ideally, hasn’t been done before. As far as I know, a gay man marrying a lesbian and having two kids together, then raising them side-by-side, hasn’t been done and offers lots of material.

Speaking of laughter, this last sentence got me:

Still, admitting that you’re obsessed with beans is a little like saying you collect decorative plates. It marks your taste as untrustworthy. I’ve seen the reaction often enough in my family: the eye roll and stifled cough, the muttered aside as I show yet another guest the wonders of my well-lit and cleverly organized bean closet. As my daughter Evangeline put it one night, a bit melodramatically, when I served beans for the third time in a week, “Lord, why couldn’t it have been bacon or chocolate?”

If the bean club were still open, I’d subscribe. (This will make sense in the context of the article.)

Skin in the Game – Nassim Taleb

Skin in the Game is congruent with Tom Ricks’ book The Generals. Almost all generals and high-ranking officers in the U.S. military are now exempt from real risk, as Ricks argues—they are exempt even the risk of being fired or reassigned for simple incompetence (or being ill-suited to a role). Almost all enlisted men and junior officers, however, are heavily exposed to real risk, like being killed. That risk asymmetry should give pause to someone contemplating joining. The risk profile for generals prior to the Korean war, while not as a great as the risk profile for regular soldiers, was more reasonable than it is today. Military contractors are arguably the greatest beneficiary of the military today. If more people knew (and acted like they knew) this, we might see changes.

In Skin in the Game Taleb has many, many unusual examples, many of them good; he reads more like an old-fashioned philosopher (that is: one who wants to be read, heard, and understood, as opposed to one who wants tenure), and I mean that as a compliment. One of his rules is, “No person in a transaction should have certainty about the outcomes while the other one has uncertainty.” I wonder how this rule could be applied to colleges, especially under a student-loan system, in which the college is certain to be paid by the student, the student’s family, or the student’s bank (which is really to say, the bank’s student), while the student may see a variable return on investment—especially if the student is ill-equipped in the first place. Colleges may be selling credentials more than skills. But almost no one thinks about those things in advance.

Skin in the Game will, like Antifragile, frustrate you if you demand that every single sentence be true and useful. Some of Taleb’s micro-examples are bad, like his thing against GMOs:

In my war with the Monsanto machine, the advocates of genetically modified organisms (transgenics) kept countering me with benefit analyses (which were often bogus and doctored up), not tail risk analyses for repeated exposures

This view is incoherent because virtually every food eaten today has been “genetically modified,” inefficiently, through selective breeding. If you wish to learn just how hard this is, see The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. Transgenics speed the process. See this sad tale, and the links, for one researcher in the field who is giving up due to widespread opposition. He points out that, over and over again, transgenic have been shown to be safe.

Taleb is right that there are tail risks to transgenics… but that’s also theoretically true of traditional cross-breeding, and it’s also true of not engaging in transgenics. The alternative to high-efficiency transgenics is environmental degradation and, in many places, starvation. That’s pretty bad, and there’s a serious, usually unstated, environmental trade-off between signaling environmental caring and opposite transgenics (nuclear energy is the same).

Despite incorrect micro-examples, Skin in the Game is great and you should read it. It is less uneven than Antifragile. It’s also an excellent book to re-read (don’t expect to get everything the first time through) because Taleb gives so many examples and is overflowing with ideas.

Like: “If your private life conflicts with your intellectual opinion, it cancels your intellectual ideas, not your private life.” Something easily and frequently forgotten, or never considered in the first place. Look at what people do, not what they say. One of the many charming parts of Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy is the apparently wide gap between what many philosophers wrote and how they appeared to live. Maybe the truest philosophers don’t write but do.

Or consider:

the highest form of virtue is unpopular. This does not mean that virtue is inherently unpopular, or correlates with unpopularity, only that unpopular acts signal some risk taking and genuine behavior.

A very Peter Thiel point: he asks what popular view is wrong and what unpopular views a given person holds.

Or consider:

The only definition of rationality that I’ve found that is practically, empirically, and mathematically rigorous is the following: what is rational is that which allows for survival.

This may be true, but most of us in the West now survive, unless we do something truly stupid, dangerous, or brave. So our wealth and comfort may enable us to be irrational, because we’re much less likely to pay the ultimate penalty than we once were. Darwin Awards aside, we mostly make it. We can worry more about terrorism than the much more immediate and likely specter of death in the form of the car, which kills far more people every year in the United States than terrorism.

To his credit, though, Taleb does write:

The Chernoff bound can be explained as follows. The probability that the number of people who drown in their bathtubs in the United States doubles next year [. . .] is one per several trillions lifetimes of the universe. This cannot be said about the doubling of the number of people killed by terrorism over the same period.

He’s right that the number who could be killed by terrorism is massive, especially given the risk of nuclear and biological weapons. But the disproportionate focus on terrorism takes too much attention from risks that seem mundane, like getting into cars. Everyone expects to get into car crashes. Perhaps we should be thinking more seriously about that. Too bad almost no one is.

Links: Sci-fi and the future, the future of clothing, the scientific paper, the disappearing doctor, and more!

* How science fiction feeds the fuel solutions of the future.

* The Future of Clothing Isn’t in Tatters. See also the book Junkyard Planet, which is amazingly good.

* “Belief in College Has Become Religious,” though not by me, unless exposure has made me the equivalent of an atheist.

* How the humble bicycle can save our cities. Oddly, it never mentions ebikes. Also, Electric bike purchases pulling people from private cars, finds NITC study. This should be obvious to anyone who’s ever ridden an electric bike. Propella makes a $1,000 ebike that looks pretty good.

* “The scientific paper is obsolete,” a much more thorough and interesting treatment than is implied by the title.

* Politics vs aesthetics: on James Wood. Wood is awesome and not everything has to be political everywhere, all the time. Aesthetics endure much better than politics.

* The Disappearing Doctor: How Mega-Mergers Are Changing the Business of Medical Care

* A New Study Shows How American Polarization Is Driven by a Team Sport Mentality, Not by Disagreement on Issues. Seems pretty obvious to me; just try asking people who are superficially political how the federal budget is divided up. Their answers are likely to be revealing. And, to use a Jonathan Haidt point, why should opinions on, say, abortion, be correlated with opinions on taxes? The two issues seem totally separate.

* “Why ‘The China Hustle’ is a finance documentary all U.S. investors need to see.” I can’t attest to the veracity of this one, but it at least seems plausible.

* Why bother observing inconsistencies?

Junkyard Planet — Adam Minter

I wish I’d read Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade when it came out: it’s both informative and, sometimes, strangely lyrical, which I wasn’t expecting in a book about the scrap metal business. You may think a book titled “Junkyard Planet” is boring, and I anticipated precisely that and was proved wrong. For Minter the scrap business is tied up with his family: he grew up in in the industry, so, like a writer from a restaurant family, he gets things most journalists don’t, or wouldn’t (“Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of wandering among the family junk inventory, often with my grandmother, finding treasures:” a sentence few of us can utter).

He’s also refreshingly direct about costs and benefits; many writers want to condemn the global recycling trade because of the obvious pollution produced in China. But Minter goes the extra step and asks: why do things exist as they do? Will exist this way in the future?

This book aims to explain why the hidden world of globalized recycling and reclamation is the most logical (and greenest) endpoint in a long chain that begins with the harvest in your home recycling bin, or down at the local junkyard. There are few moral certainties here, but there is a guarantee: if what you toss into your recycling bin can be used in some way, the international scrap recycling business will manage to deliver it to the person or company who can do so most profitably.

It turns out that “Huge, mind-bending, Silicon Valley-scale fortunes have been built by figuring out how to move the scrap newspapers in your recycling bin to the country where they’re most in demand.” Did you know that? Me neither. I learned from every page. It also turns out that for a couple decades following World War II, most dead cars were simply discarded in vast junkyards or chucked wherever they could be concealed. It took China decades in turn to go through all that American scrap (“the world’s most recycled product (by weight) isn’t a newspaper, a notebook computer, or a plastic water bottle—it’s an American automobile, most of which is metal”).

By the way, there are many important reasons to choose electric or plug-in electric cars, but one of them is the car’s valuable battery. Even in a decade or two, when the battery is likely to be too depleted for automotive use, it’s still likely to be valuable as grid storage. Seriously: “
Why Used Electric Car Batteries Could Be Crucial To A Clean Energy Future
.” Individual choices today are going to matter a decade or two from now.

For now, though, there are two major ways to get raw materials for new goods:

Digging mines was one way to obtain those raw materials; the other was to go to the United States, the place that many scrap traders call the Saudi Arabia of Scrap, the land where there’s more scrap than the people can handle on their own. It’s a funny nickname, Saudi Arabia of Scrap, but it’s not meant as a compliment. Rather, it’s an opportunity to exploit.

Think about this quote, too, every time you hear about a “shortage” of some commodity (nickel, cobalt, poorly named “rare earth” metals). A “shortage” usually means that someone doesn’t want to buy at a given price. You’ll know there’s really a shortage of something when you can sell old laptops, phones, or computers to Best Buy for a couple bucks. Right now, it’s not profitably enough to pay for out-of-date electronics. If and when it is profitable enough, you’ll be able to sell them—and profit will likely motivate more than green signaling.

By the way, what China is doing now is what the U.S. did more than a century ago; in the nineteenth century,

The U.S. was not yet scrapping its old infrastructure, [. . .] so it looked abroad to Europe [. . .] for raw materials. According to data culled by Carl Zimring, U.S. imports of scrap iron and steel grew from 38,580 tons in 1884 to 380,744 tons in 1887—a tenfold increase during, not coincidentally, a railroad building binge.

There are many more points of interest in the book. The total amount of recycling going on is much greater than I imagined, but it’s primarily happening behind the scenes and far behind the headlines.

In some ways, Junkyard Planet tells a circular story: each developing country goes from poor and a tremendous importer of “junk” (which is not actually junk), then moves up the value chain towards wealth and producing more apparent junk than it consumes. The obvious question is, “When will the world run out of poor, developing countries?” One hopes the answer is, “Soon.”

Links: GMO research, the outrage machine, common fallacies, scientists and movies, and more!

* Why one scientist is quitting GMO research, since he’s exhausted by the relentlessly negative response. Yet it appears that GMOs are a net improvement by many metrics. We are trending towards ten billion people and need to feed them.

* “Why the Outrage?: Cambridge Analytica,” one of the very few intelligent pieces I’ve seen. In response to Internet outrage, I say: Facebook will change when people stop using it. The measurable response to outrage about Facebook since its inception has been near zero: more people use Facebook and use it longer, quarter after quarter. Look for revealed preferences. See also “Facebook is America’s scapegoat du jour.”

* Speaking of scapegoats and falsehoods, “Preventive care doesn’t save money and bankruptcies aren’t widely caused by lack of insurance. Which is not what many of us, including me, intuitively expect, but there you have it. So what is really going on?

* “‘Christianity as default is gone’: the rise of a non-Christian Europe.”

* The Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right.

* “Why do so many scientists want to be filmmakers?” Is the inverse true too?

* “Ways To Live A Full Life (And Leave Nothing On The Table) By Age 30;” I’m not convinced by numbers 5, 10, 14, 26, 28, or 29, but that’s not too surprising in any list of 40 life-knowledge things.

* “Universities balk at the tyranny of anonymous feedback: Lecturers feel pilloried by student comments that show bias and can blight careers.” Old news, new wrapper. Still, many university types seem to like anonymous feedback (also known as gossip) in other domains.

* Things Russ Roberts learned from Jordan B. Peterson.

* “Scientists say we’re on the cusp of a carbon dioxide–recycling revolution.” Great news if true.

* “Is This the Hardest Course in the Humanities?” I’m not surprised that most humanities courses are suffering for enrollments.

* “On Harold Bloom’s new book on Shakespeare’s King Lear,” a much more interesting piece than the title may make you think.

What it’s like going to a Conversation with Tyler

I forgot to post this expeditiously, but I was at this conversation between Tyler Cowen and Matt Levine. You may listen to Conversations with Tyler, as I do, and wonder what they’re like live. I suspect they’re all different from each other, because some occur on university campuses, some are one-on-one, and this happened at what I think is Bloomberg News’s headquarters.

Some last-minute work things meant that I only arrived just before the start, but I did get a chance to chat before the chat, so to speak. Of the half dozen or so people I talked to, all were there for Matt, not Tyler, so they knew finance, and I often got that sense of turning off when they found out I wasn’t in the guild: there is no good business or networking opportunity here, so it’s time to move on—this isn’t a bad thing and in some circumstances I’ve done the same thing (“this isn’t what I’m here for, so let me keep looking”). But I was in “intellectual curiosity” mode more than “job networking” mode and in that mode I’m broader minded.

Almost everyone looked the same, but in a way hard to describe. If you’ve ever been to gatherings of consultants or finance people in New York (or similar places?), you’ll know what I mean: either light pastel colors or very dark clothes, lots of tucked-in dress shirts, a sense of restraint. It’s a little different, though, than similar gatherings in L.A., where people are not just more tan but more… glossy? Wearing short-sleeved shirts? The audience was almost all guys.

Bloomberg central feels like a combination of Deathstar and sleek Silicon Valley moguldom. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a better-designed space, but enough good design starts to feel oppressive. Security guys were all over the place, though not, I think, to protect the speakers. I think they’re just… there. Very visibly there.

During the talk itself, every time the word “risk” was mentioned, I thought of Nassim Taleb. How much do we really understand about derivatives and swaps? In my case very little, but even in the case of experts and “experts” I wonder if the answer is very much. I could be totally wrong, of course.

After the talk I had to leave quickly, alas, but maybe the crowd was less interest-seeky after a couple drinks.

If you get a chance to go, you totally should. Live events are good for many reasons, one being that they act as a reminder about why educational utopians who think online education is likely to upend live education may be wrong. The real world is very high resolution. I discovered that, when I listen to podcasts, I’m almost always moving, most often but not exclusively when I’m making dinner. It’s hard for me to sit still and purely listen for an entire hour, even to very engaging conversation. This is similar to my thinking about most modern classical music venues: they’re usually too hushed, too cerebral, too little audience movement, and too little beer.

Live audience events also do complex status transfers that I don’t entirely get, but they’re easy to feel in the moment. That’s obvious on some level but I very rarely see it stated as such.

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