Links: Good keyboard origins, housing as a cost center, vaccines, publishing, and more!

* “Cherry MX History: A German Company With American Roots.” Cherry makes the keyswitches in many, if not most, high-quality keyboards today. I still get emails about my Model M / Unicomp Customizer review, as well as my Kinesis Advantage review. Some have asked why I stopped writing keyboard reviews, and the answer is simple: there are many, many good keyboards out there today. To me, the differences among them are often marginal. When I wrote those pieces, fewer good keyboards were readily available. I’ve tried a couple new ones (e.g. the Ergodox-EZ, which is nice but a little too much like a science fair project for my taste), but the Kinesis works and it’s hard to envision one much better than it. With many tools, it’s best to find “good enough” and then stop. I found “good enough.”

* Renting is not “throwing money away.”

* China Is Trying to Wipe Taiwan Off the Map, and There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About It.

* The erotics of mentorship. Things that are politically incorrect but interesting.

* The Democratic Party Picked an Odd Time to Have an Identity Crisis. Agreed.

* “Home Values Grew Most in Markets with Strictest Land Use Regulations.” Supply and demand continue to explain housing costs.

* The Education Department to require colleges to publish data on graduates’ debt and earnings by major. Good, and long overdue, like that library book the college requires you to pay for prior to receiving your diploma.

* “In upstate New York, an ecstasy-inspired psychedelic temple rises.” Have you read the new Michael Pollan book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence? It’s great.

* Anti-Vaccine Activists Have Taken Vaccine Science Hostage. Outrageous and true.

* Unions’ Fees Take a Hit After Decision From Supreme Court. Good news all around.

* Does Television Kill Your Sex Life? Microeconometric Evidence from 80 Countries. “Under our most conservative estimate, we find that television ownership is associated with approximately a 6% reduction in the likelihood of having had sex in the past week, consistent with a small degree of substitutability between television viewing and sexual activity.”

* The world is losing the war against climate change. Perhaps we ought to do something about that?

* Book publishing is actually a thriving business? Consider the source, though.

* Can American cities make room for the electric moped?” Sure hope so.

* Hollywood Doesn’t Make Movies Like ‘The Fugitive’ Anymore.

* “The New Housing Crisis: Shut Out of the Market.” We’re building less housing per capita than any other previous generation in the last hundred years. That’s why housing is eating the economy.

What motivates charitable giving?

Many of you don’t read Grant Writing Confidential, the other blog I contribute to, but “Philanthropy is not being disrupted by Silicon Valley” has wide applicability and will interest many of you, so I’m linking to it from here. There’s also a subtler, deeper point that I didn’t elaborate there: I think most people don’t understand what motivates charitable giving (I didn’t, for a long time). That may be good—perhaps greater ignorance leads to greater giving—but it seems obvious to me now.

It seems strange that greater ignorance would leave to more giving, but I think about my own experiences, since I’ve worked for nonprofit and public agencies in varying capacities for about 15 years. And I’ve been associated with universities in various capacities for about the same length of time. Before I began working in and around universities, for example, I likely thought that donations to universities are an axiomatically good thing.* Now I know a lot more about them and am also a lot more skeptical: universities use far too much of their money on administrators and amenities—signaling functions, basically (the hate for colleges in some precincts has its origins in excess administration). Now I’m much less pro-university and, if I had a bunch of cash to give away, I’d be very unlikely to dump it on a university. I know there’d be a decent chance that most of that money would fund runaway tuition sticker prices.

To be sure, there are probably good ways to give money to universities. Probably the best is to fund particular science labs at non-elite, non-wealthy schools. Stanford probably doesn’t need more money in its labs, but most University of [State] schools probably do, and funding them is underrated. But to learn which labs at which schools need funding is such an undertaking that knowledge would-be donors might simply not bother. In that respect, ignorance might be good—for me, too.

I also used to be convinced that more transparency is better in the vast majority of human realms. Now I’m not so sure. We seem to have far greater political transparency than we once did, thanks to the Internet and some other features of the modern media, but has that made politics better? If so, I don’t see it: We can’t get infrastructure built, and many lobbies are good at pushing their narratives out.

The truth is not transparent and obvious, as I once thought it was, and virtually all of us are susceptible to advertising, marketing, and sloganeering. That last one is especially apparent on Twitter. We “know” some of the important solutions to improving infrastructure development, but in the same sense we (in the sense of “the human race”) know how quantum mechanics work. But I can’t give you a detailed, technically accurate description of quantum mechanics, and how many humans can? A million, maybe, out of seven billion people? Less? I know more about what needs to be done regarding infrastructure, but to explain it all would take a long time a lot of background reading. Most people won’t bother. What good is transparency if the best answers are difficult enough to comprehend that no one seeks them?

Even this post is less likely to be read and understand than a random sloganeering, virtue signaling Tweet is going to be repeated. Knowledge is hard and feelings are easy. That itself is not a popular thing to say but it is true. And if “Knowledge is hard and feelings are easy” were turned into a viral Tweet, it would only demonstrate its own point! Frustrating, in a way, but perhaps the lesson is “chill out, because it’s really hard to get substantive improvements in the world, and most of those improvements probably don’t happen on the Internet.”

You may have noticed that I’ve wandered a long way from the title of this post. That’s deliberate. What motivates human giving probably shouldn’t be stated, because stating it runs contrary to social desirability bias. I will say that “effectiveness” and “ensuring the greatest efficiency per dollar spent” do not motivate the vast majority of donors—though almost all donors will cite those ideas. If you’re the sort of person who wants to know what motivates giving, and you’re frustrated by the way this essay doesn’t directly answer your question, see “Philanthropy is not being disrupted by Silicon Valley,” which offers some answers and links to better ones. But I don’t think most of us really want to know.


* The word “likely” is important because I don’t fully know my mental state from a long time ago.

“Oh, the Humanities!”

It’s pretty rare for a blog post, even one like “ Mea culpa: there *is* a crisis in the humanities,” to inspire a New York Times op ed, but here we have “Oh, the Humanities! New data on college majors confirms an old trend. Technocracy is crushing the life out of humanism.” It’s an excellent essay. Having spent a long time working in the humanities (a weird phrase, if you think about it) and having written extensively about the problems with the humanities as currently practiced in academia, I naturally have some thoughts.

Douthat notes the decline in humanities majors and says, “this acceleration is no doubt partially driven by economic concerns.” That’s true. Then we get this interesting move:

In an Apollonian culture, eager for “Useful Knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts. And both the turn toward radical politics and the turn toward high theory are attempts by humanists in the academy to supply that justification — to rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.

There is likely some truth here too. In this reading, the humanities have turned from traditional religious feeling and redirected the religious impulse in a political direction.

Douthat has some ideas about how to improve:

First, a return of serious academic interest in the possible (I would say likely) truth of religious claims. Second, a regained sense of history as a repository of wisdom and example rather than just a litany of crimes and wrongthink. Finally, a cultural recoil from the tyranny of the digital and the virtual and the Very Online, today’s version of the technocratic, technological, potentially totalitarian Machine that Jacobs’s Christian humanists opposed.

I think number two is particularly useful, number three is reasonable, and number one is fine but somewhat unlikely and not terribly congruent with my own inclinations. But I also think that the biggest problem with the humanities as currently practiced is the turn from uninterested inquiry about what is true, what is valuable, what is beautiful, what is worth remembering, what should be made, etc., and toward politics, activism, and taking sides in current political debates—especially when those debates are highly interested in stratifying groups of people based on demographic characteristics, then assigning values to those groups.

That said, I’m not the first person to say as much and have zero impact. Major structural forces stand in the way of reform. The current grad-school-to-tenure structure kills most serious, divergent thinking and encourages a group-think monoculture. Higher-ed growth peaked around 1975; not surprisingly, the current “culture wars” or “theory wars” or whatever you want to call them got going in earnest in the 1980s, when there was little job growth among humanities academics. And they’ve been going, in various ways, ever since.

Before the 1980s, most people who got PhDs in the humanities eventually got jobs of some kind or other. This meant heterodox thinkers could show up, snag a foothold somewhere, and change the culture of the academic humanities. People like Camille Paglia or Harold Bloom or even Paul de Man (not my favorite writer) all have this quality. But since the 1980s, the number of jobs has shrunk, the length of grad school has lengthened, and heterodox thinkers have (mostly) been pushed out. Interesting writers like Jonathan Gottschall work as adjuncts, if they work at all.

Today, the jobs situation is arguably worse than ever: I can’t find the report off-hand, the Modern Language Association tracks published, tenure-track jobs, and those declined from about a thousand a year before 2008 to about 300 – 400 per year now.

Current humanities profs hire new humanities profs who already agree with them, politically speaking. Current tenured profs tenure new profs who already agree. This dynamic wasn’t nearly as strong when pretty much everyone got a job, even those who advocated for weird new ideas that eventually became the norm. That process is dead. Eliminating tenure might help the situation some, but any desire to eliminate tenure as a practice will be deeply opposed by the powerful who benefit from it.

So I’m not incredibly optimistic about a return to reason among humanities academics. Barring that return to reason, a lot of smart students are going to look at humanities classes and the people teaching them, then decide to go major in economics (I thought about majoring in econ).

I remember taking a literary theory class when I was an undergrad and wondering how otherwise seemingly-smart people could take some of that terrible writing and thinking seriously. Still, I was interested in reading and fiction, so I ignored the worst parts of what I read (Foucault, Judith Butler—those kinds of people) and kept on going, even into grad school. I liked to read and still do. I’d started writing (bad, at the time) novels. I didn’t realize the extent to which novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel are awfully close to nonfiction.

By now, the smartest people avoid most humanities subjects as undergrads and then grad students, or potential grad students. Not all of the smartest people, but most of them. And that anti-clumping tendency leaves behind people who don’t know any better or who are willing to repeat the endless and tedious postmodernist mantras like initiates into the cult (and there is the connection to Douthat, who’d like us to acknowledge the religious impulse more than most of us now do). Some of them are excellent sheep: a phrase from William Deresiewicz that he applies to students at elite schools but that might also be applied to many humanities grad students.

MFA programs, last time I checked, are still doing pretty well, and that’s probably because they’re somewhat tethered to the real world and the desire to write things other humans might want to read. That desire seems to have disappeared in most of humanistic academia. Leaving the obvious question: “Why bother?” And that is the question I can no longer answer.

Links: The humanities crisis (measured), China’s history, lots about fires, Immigrant, Montana, and more!

* “Mea culpa: there *is* a crisis in the humanities.” Note that it’s also possible for lots of bad trends, like postmodernist nonsense, to endure for some period of time, but to eventually weaken the structure sufficiently for it to collapse. A system can endure a lot of strain before it gives way. People began calling the 2009 housing crisis as early as 2003 and 2004. People have been calling the crisis in the humanities for longer, but it may now finally be on us, in measurable ways.

* Why Was the 20th Century Not a Chinese Century?: An Outtake from “Slouching Towards Utopia?: An Economic History of the Long 20th Century.” Probably my favorite essay from this batch.

* Meet Brad Sewell, Campaign Furniture Founder and CEO. Overall, Campaign seems like an underrated company, though this interview is not very good. See also my essay, “Does Ikea enable mobility?

* Four or five times I ignored links to “The Big Business of Being Gwyneth Paltrow,” figuring the target is too easy and the essay would be stupid (I’ve read plenty of vapid profiles)—but I was wrong and the article is hilarious. Like “Frank Sinatra has a cold,” this may be a pinnacle example of the genre. The writer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, deserves accolades for this. Looks like she hasn’t done any books. She should.

* “The childless, aging future.” Pretty depressing, seen like that. Another example of lost connections, perhaps.

* “The Peculiar Math That Could Underlie the Laws of Nature.” Interesting science journalism, but also: “Whether or how Furey’s work connects to string theory remains to be puzzled out. So does her future. She’s looking for a faculty job now, but failing that, there’s always the ski slopes or the accordion.” Perhaps it is not such a good idea to go to grad school. Or perhaps experts know something that didn’t make it to the article.

* Epistocracy: a political theorist’s case for letting only the informed vote.

* “How did the end of the world become old news?” Sample: “Last week, wildfires broke out in the Arctic Circle, where temperatures reached almost 90 degrees; they are still roiling northern Sweden, 21 of them.”

* “Erotic Exploration in Immigrant, Montana.” Not quite a novel I want to read but likely a novel some of you want to read.

* “The most relaxing vacation you can take is going nowhere at all.” Reading is underrated, hectic vacations overrated.

* “TSA is tracking regular travelers like terrorists in secret surveillance program.” Vile.

* “Why restaurants became so loud — and how to fight back.”

* Immigrant girl hides in auto shop after escaping from Florida detention facility; owner turns her in anyway. We might want to think about the kind of country we’re living in. I try not to post many outrage links, but sometimes it’s worth doing.

* SpaceX’s Secret Weapon Is Gwynne Shotwell.

* As California burns, many fear the future of extreme fire has arrived.

* Peter Thiel interview.

* Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.

* How to write a book without losing your mind. I think “losing your mind” is a feature, not a bug.

Adventures in the Screen Trade — William Goldman

I’ve cited Adventures before, and it seems to have aged 25 years since 2011. Still as a historical work, it’s of interest—like the way movies started as YouTube, shifted to what we’d call “movies” today, and maybe are shifting back towards YouTube:

By the year 1910, there were over nine thousand theatres in operation across the country.

Movies, of course, were shorter then. D.W. Griffith, in one five-year stretch, directed over five hundred ‘movies.’ Not only were they of less duration, they were also a good deal more simplistic than what we are used to today; one early hit consisted in its entirety of nothing but a horse eating hay. (The filmmaker who created the horse movie followed up with another smash—some footage of a pillow fight between his two daughters.)

Sound familiar? Animals eating, children being cute, no real story—it’s YouTube. YouTube gives us a distribution mechanism that takes us back towards the start of the film era. Had there not been laws and mores against it, one could imagine a good deal of pornography being shot and shown then: another topic of great interest today, albeit not directly on YouTube.

Goldman’s notion of “stars” may be changing too: the entitled behavior he describes seems to be going away, because today no one, or almost no one, goes to see a move just to see a particular actor. When Goldman wrote, narrative visual entertainment was limited to a small number of TV stations and movies. That was it. Today, narrative visual entertainment is effectively limitless. How people watch has changed, and that in turn has changed the industry.

Everyone has a take on Los Angeles; Goldman is not an exception.

But my particular crazies are not why I find writing so difficult. It’s more like this: Everything’s so goddamn nice out there. Sure, they bitch about their smog, but unless you’re a Hawaiian born and bred, the weather is terrific. And so many of the basic necessities of life are made so easy for you: The markets are often open twenty-four hours a day, nobody snarls at you in the stores when you’re trying to buy something. It’s all just . . . swell.

Is it still so swell? Some of those advantages have changed: I perceive Southern Californians as nice, but in a superficial way. The East Coast probably has 24-hour markets now—as many as California’s. Paul Graham even lists the California attitude as an advantage for startups:

What makes the Bay Area superior is the attitude of the people. I notice that when I come home to Boston. The first thing I see when I walk out of the airline terminal is the fat, grumpy guy in charge of the taxi line. I brace myself for rudeness: remember, you’re back on the East Coast now.

The atmosphere varies from city to city, and fragile organisms like startups are exceedingly sensitive to such variation. If it hadn’t already been hijacked as a new euphemism for liberal, the word to describe the atmosphere in the Bay Area would be “progressive.” People there are trying to build the future. Boston has MIT and Harvard, but it also has a lot of truculent, unionized employees like the police who recently held the Democratic National Convention for ransom, and a lot of people trying to be Thurston Howell. Two sides of an obsolete coin.

Today, though, California is less nice: cruel zoning and Prop 13 have made living there far more expensive than it was in Goldman’s day. Back then, maybe it was too nice. Now it’s slammed by traffic and the cost of housing is astronomical. The only people who can afford to live there are the rich and desperate to succeed. Maybe that makes the state better for startups (empirically, this seems to be true so far), but I wonder if the high cost of living, along with tighter profit margins, will eventually drive the movie talent cluster out.

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