Links: The chair, the planet, Ursula K. le Guin, the problems on campus, and more!

* Anthropocene: why the chair should be the symbol for our sedentary age. I use a motorized sit-stand desk and you should too, if you’re a computer-type person who spends too much time at desks.

* “When Will the Planet Be Too Hot for Humans? Much, Much Sooner Than You Imagine.” This is essential reading and helps explain why I post so often about scooters, electric cars, etc. Right now the situation is unbelievably grim and yet almost no one acts like it. For more, see Peter Watts, The Adorable Optimism of the IPCC. I’m not quite as pessimistic due to the possibility of technological amelioration; Y Combinator, for example, is requesting that companies focused on carbon removal technologies apply.

* Always Beginning, on Ursula K. le Guin.

* Productivity, economics, technology, and much more in this nerdy interview.

* The life and death of a laptop battery, an interesting project. By the way: Apple just announced new MacBook Airs, which are probably the best mainstream laptop right now. They also announced new Mac Minis.

* Finally, the drug that keeps you young?

* Death of a bookman: the rise and fall of a publisher.

* How to build a Moon base. Have you read Andy Weir’s novel Artemis, which is set on a near-future moon base?

* “Sarah Kliff brings transparency to ER prices, one hospital bill at a time.” If you’ve been to an ER in the last couple years, please send Sarah copies of your mystery bills.

* Women challenging the “campus rape” narrative. Concerning Australia potentially importing the madness from the US.

* “Living Beneath the Ground in an Australian Desert,” in keeping with the theme from link #2, and also interesting in its own right.

* “‘Good Intentions Gone Awry’: Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind. Book Review.”

* Quiet Day at a Pittsburgh Synagogue Became a Battle to Survive.

* Could the interstellar object Oumuamua be a lightsail from an alien civilization? Short answer: not real likely. Unfortunately, it’s also done a round trip out of the solar system, so we’ll likely never know.

Links: Student loans, loneliness, why identity politics are tedious, jealousy’s origins, and more!

* The Student Loan Debt Crisis Is About to Get Worse. Having observed the U.S. college system up close for a long time, I find it baffling that it’s managed to persist as long as it has. Actually, no: it’s persisted this long because young people don’t vote, and consequently no politician cares about their problems.

* To Prevent Loneliness, Start in the Classroom. A good thought, but it is striking to me how the safetyism obsession is probably increasing loneliness in schools. Lost Connections is also relevant reading here.

* New 100-mile electric van matches diesel vans on price, Workhorse says. Extremely good news if true.

* “The Right Finds the Perfect Weapon Against the Left: Conservatives are using identity politics to destroy liberalism from within.” Perhaps we ought to reduce identity based on demographic characteristics, which are (fairly, but not perfectly) immutable, and increase identity based on other characteristics—like what a person does or makes. We should also be thinking about how to improve the conversation, as I fear too few people are doing. Tyler Cowen wrote this article, and he also just released the book Stubborn Attachments, which, among many other things, attempts to do just that.

* Jamal Khashoggi: What the Arab world needs most is free expression. This is the journalist who was murdered by Saudi Arabia in the Suadi consulate in Turkey.

* Where does jealousy come from?

* “This is exactly how a nuclear war would kill you: This is how the world ends — not with a bang, but with a lot of really big bombs.” From Vox. See also my essay on why I think Trump raises the likelihood of bad, extreme outcomes.

* An interview with Heather Mac Donald on her book The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture. Probably too reasonable to be read widely, but here it is.

* “Life Got You Down? Time to Read The Master and Margarita.” This is germane in many circumstances: “It’s a novel that encourages you not to take yourself too seriously, no matter how bad things have got.” I read it again, but I still don’t get it. Why does it start with so much about Ivan and Berlioz? What are the characters doing? Where are they going? What do they want? Why the ball at the end? The novel feels like a pointless ramble. Perhaps the fault is mine. Each individual sentence is easily understood but the characters and their motivations, if any, are opaque. Maybe that’s the “point,” but if so, then I still don’t enjoy the novel or need it to get to that point.

* On the new Francis Fukuyama book, and the man himself; I like the book.

* “Marxists against wokeness: For an antidote to today’s identitarian leftism, look to old-school radicals like CLR James.” This would at least be a net improvement.

* “How IBM’s Thinkpad became a design icon.” Modern Lenovo Thinkpads are still quite nice. Pity Lenovo quit making the OLED model.

* “The Emperor’s Woke Clothes: Campus Week: How did an elite, repressive minority policing speech and culture through political correctness come to browbeat the American democratic majority?” Something is wrong in a small number of nonetheless noisy universities.

* “A Remarkably Hard College Course Proves Remarkably Popular.” There’s also a distinct lack of postmodernist nonsense in it, as one Twitter person observed.

* “These Americans fled the country to escape their giant student debt.” Still, they seem not to be listening to market signals: “He then went back to school to pursue a master’s degree in comparative literature at the University of Colorado Boulder.” The market for humanities professors is soft and has been for decades.

The odd salience of older books: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

My novel The Dead Zone arose from two questions: Can a political assassin ever be right? And if he is, could you make him the protagonist of a novel? The good guy? These ideas called for a dangerously unstable politician, it seemed to me—a fellow who could climb the political ladder by showing the world a jolly, jes’-folks face and charming the voters by refusing to play the game in the usual way. (Greg Stillson’s campaign tactics as I imagined them twenty years ago were very similar to the ones Jesse Ventura used in his successful campaign for the governor’s seat in Minnesota. Thank goodness Ventura doesn’t seem like Stillson in any other ways.)

On Writing was published in 2000 and in the book King says he wrote it in 1997. When I first read it, nothing about this passage stood out. Today, everything about it stands out. I wonder if The Dead Zone has seen a sales bump in the current political climate.

Who is Michael Ovitz?

Who is Michael Ovitz? has a straightforward answer, as presented in the book: Michael Ovitz is a guy who does deals and works on self-improvement and what you see is what you get. People who like him perceive him as effective and people who dislike him perceive him as an asshole and it’s possible that both groups are right. A person’s “strengths” and a person’s “weaknesses” are often the same, just perceived or framed differently.

Ovitz founded the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and the book’s key sentences may be, “We were lucky to work in a golden age of commercial film. People went to the local multiplex three times a month, piracy had yet to explode, and cable was in its infancy. With so many movies being made, and with our increasing share of the talent, by the early 1980s, CAA was poised for an explosive run.” But you won’t find these sentences in the opening sections of Who is Michael Ovitz?. Ovitz, and CAA generally, hit the timing perfectly: it is unlikely that agents matter as much today, or even that movies and TV matter as much today, relative to the digital platforms that increasingly deliver them and a relentless stream of commentary on them.

Almost every major success is the result of both luck and skill, and I’m not trying to denigrate the latter, but an Ovitz-like career in Hollywood is probably not very possible today. It might be possible at, say, Netflix—which may generate the most interesting memoirs in ten or twenty years.

The unsaid is often very interesting:

[W]hen we launched CAA, I had started a private project (one that took me ten years) of watching every film that had won one of the five big-category Oscars. I discovered why Gone with the Wind had passed the test of time and How Green Was My Valley hadn’t; I learned the relationship between vision and craft. At the same time, I was boning up on the deal structure of movies and on which actors and directors had currency. Film had its own language, and I needed to be bilingual.

You, like me, may wonder: okay, then tell us why some movies last and others don’t. That’s perhaps one of the most valuable things people involved in narrative arts can know. Maybe Ovitz can’t communicate it—or maybe, more likely, there is no secret. I’m reminded of people who think they can beat the stock market. Yes, a very small number of them seem to be able to, like Renaissance Capital. The overwhelming majority of people who think they can, however, are wrong. It’s also possible that Ovitz is more making markets than buying or selling in them, as his description of Rain Man‘s journey shows. But I wonder how many movies had paths like Rain Man‘s and failed.

Hollywood as a space of mass, consensual delusion is useful here. What is “currency,” if not a kind of consensual delusion? Maybe Ovitz “learned the relationship between vision and craft,” or maybe he’s bought into the delusion. Overall, however, I may just have read too much in behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology to buy a lot of the argument in the book. Kahneman, Tversky, Ariely, many others: put them together and a lot of the stories we tell ourselves don’t seem to fit together so well.

I’d be curious to see an Ovitz book or essay collection on critical analyses of movies, perhaps in the Camille Paglia line. Show us what you see in the movies!

Ovitz, as portrayed in Who is Michael Ovitz?, just works harder and longer than other people, and he works to read more, learn more, and understand more. Even things that most people would call “hobbies,” like his interest in art, here feed into his faculties as an agent. He may be an effective manager, or he may be the kind of person who manages and leads by example. An agent is a kind of consultant, and I’m a consultant, and this is congruent with my own experience: “You have to risk alienating your clients. When you tell someone the truth, all they can do is get upset—they can’t call you an idiot.” The truth often hurts, and it helps to try to learn how to phrase the truth as kindly as possible. But the sting will remain.

There are few interesting sentences in the book.

Links: The climate of the climate, libraries, “Untrue,” chiles, definite optimism, and more!

* Do we have only twelve more years to avert climate crisis? Some readers have asked why I so often post about electric cars, Tesla, nuclear energy, zoning/housing, and micro-mobility (electric scooters, etc.). Those things are all bound up with the climate crisis. Although most writers consider all these issues as separate and distinct, they are actually interrelated, whether most writers realize this (or not).

* “The Case for Making Cities Out of Wood,” things I had not considered but that are very interesting.

* Growing Up in the Library.

* The Movie Assassin, one of the funniest essays I’ve ever read.

* “The ‘Untrue’ Woman: A new book makes the case for the primacy of the female libido, and for a societal reckoning with that reality.” I’m a bit skeptical; have you read it?

* “The Printed World in Peril.” If you’re like me, you’ve read this sort of thing many times in many guises, and yet something about the theme keeps you reading the next piece in the genre.

* “Saving the Prized Chile That Grows Only in Oaxaca’s Mountains.” Yum.

* “How Technology Grows (a restatement of definite optimism),” likely the most important piece in this batch.

* “Two Students Hooked Up. It Was Clearly Consensual. He Still Spent $12,000 Defending Himself.” Maybe universities ought to get out of the human housing business, which might curtail some of these absurdities.

* “To Avoid Climate Catastrophe, Your Transportation Choices Matter.”

* “Why you have (probably) already bought your last car.” Interesting, though I’m skeptical on the timing.

* “How an Anonymous Accusation Derailed My Life.” This is the sort of thing Quillette is publishing and that almost no one else will even touch.

* Stop obsessing about China.

* “‘We Didn’t Realize How Soon It’s Going to Come:‘ Is there anything that can actually stop the impending disaster detailed in the scary new climate report?”

* Former Google engineer on his experience working with censored products; vital reading.

* “The Crisis of Intimacy in the Age of Digital Connectivity.” See also my essay, “Facebook and cellphones might be really bad for relationships,” which seems underrated to me.

Millennials “need” to start voting and probably won’t

Millennials Need to Start Voting Before the Gerontocracy Kills Us All” is another one of those articles that, with minor changes, could have been published anytime in the last twenty years. I suspect that the writer will be able to adjust it, with minor changes, and re-publish it anytime in the next twenty years. As far as I know, younger people have always voted in lower numbers than old people, and this election is likely to be part of the trend:

The consequences of that election have not persuaded America’s (predominantly left-leaning) millennial nonvoters of the importance of political participation. A new survey from PRRI and The Atlantic suggests that only one-third of 18-to-29-year-old voters are certain to cast ballots next month. Among Donald Trump’s cohort, that figure is 81 percent.

Voting is more important than most other political behaviors, yet other political behaviors (like posting to Facebook and Twitter) may feel better in the short term. While Grandma and Grandpa may not be tweeting much, they get to the polls and consequently no one is willing to touch the issues they care most about.

There is a book out right now about how women are supposedly mad and that’s going to translate into big political changes. Maybe that’s true, but I’ve been reading similar articles for, again, as long as I’ve been politically aware; I mentally file them next to the articles about how the Democratic Party is going to forge a permanent majority coalition because of the rising number of minorities, who are routinely mocked and alienated by Republicans. I predict that Democrats gain seats in the House and likely take it in 2018; that the Senate remains near parity; and that the 2020 election is highly competitive. The first two predictions are based solely on historical trends: the party in the presidency tends to lose House and Senate seats in mid-term elections. Whatever anger women may feel or not feel, and we’re likely to see continued trends in historical terms.

I posit this: it’s useful to remind myself how many people live in the United States as a whole (about 325 million in 2017, according to the 2017 Census Update). It’s extremely easy to convince ourselves that the bubble we inhabit represents the whole. It’s almost impossible for the human mind to truly grasp just how large 325 million is. At the same time, most people who work in the media and write books live in the California-New-York-DC media complex. The people who live in the media complex don’t fully grasp just how small their world really is (and I would include myself in this group).

Do Millennials “need” to start voting in this election cycle? Yeah, sure, just like they did in the last one… and the one before… and the one before that. Are women “angry?” Maybe, but the data I’ve seen indicates that something like 45% of women who voted, voted for Trump, and something like a third to 40% of eligible voters didn’t vote at all—many of them presumably women. Today, Bryan Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter remains the best explanation of political behavior I’ve read. Books like the one about how women are angry describe a small set of information-dense persons really well and the majority of the population not so well. I’m one of those infovores and if you’re reading this you probably one too, but you are not like most people and the number of people reading this is totally dwarfed by the total US population and total US voting population.

Media people: Let’s get real!

By the way: I’ve been bamboozled by arguments like the one about Millenial voters or the one about angry women many times. That’s why I’m skeptical. Left-wing anger and dismay seem to have grown more acute from the period going from 1994 to the present, and yet the right seems to have won more elections in that period. What, if anything, should we infer from this?

Links: SpaceX, academia, book length, book anxiety, hotel startups, batteries, and more

* A Weird MIT Dorm Dies, and a Crisis Blooms at Colleges; in keeping with The Coddling of the American Mind.

* “Horror is a dark and piercing reflection of our anxious times.” I was originally going to skip this, but it’s excellent and much better than the title implies. Highly recommended.

* The Printed Word in Peril: The age of Homo virtualis is upon us. Is this a requiem for a Gutenberg mind?

* Books are getting longer, and they probably shouldn’t be getting longer. Perhaps we have not yet learned that it’s not necessarily, the size, it’s how you use it?

* Should we have a “dumb investment” agreement through the SEC? Democracy and transparency are good, aren’t they?

* “‘We’re moving to higher ground’: America’s era of climate mass migration is here.” Shouldn’t this have already happened a while ago?

* Inside the eight desperate weeks that saved SpaceX from ruin.

* How San Francisco demolished the California dream via its own housing laws.

* 24-Year-Old Ritesh Agarwal Built a $5 Billion Hotel Startup in Five Years. Cool.

* Zinc-air battery is supposedly ready for commercial deployment and also supposedly offers lower cost than lithium-ion batteries.

* “‘This guy doesn’t know anything’: the inside story of Trump’s shambolic transition team.” Much more detailed and interesting than the usual, and it also remind me of my rare political-ish post, Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse. So far we’ve been lucky: no potential pandemics, terrorist attacks, or new wars. As I wrote then: “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.”

* Wim Ouboter, the Man Behind the Scooter Revolution.

* “Russian Elon Musk’ raped and tortured to death in custody, say experts.” I wonder why smart and competent-seeming people who can get out of Russia stay in Russia. For most of the last 200 years, if not longer, the smartest thing anyone in Russia could do was (and today is) get out of Russia. Staying seems to have limited upside compared to these very significant downsides.

* Are people finally figuring out that business school is pretty bogus?

* Car crashes killed 37,133 people in the US in 2017. Remember this when you hear about minor acts of terrorism and other news-worthy but not-that-dangerous news.

* Iron Ox, a new autonomous farm, wants to produce food without human workers.

* “That’s clearly a form of punishment, however informal or extrajudicial. But the punishment seems far from swift, certain or fair, based on decades-old accusations without contemporaneous corroboration, aired solely due to political contingencies, urged on by a left avid to convict him of something.” I have not said much about the saga, which leaves almost all of its partisans looking and sounding worse than before, and this is one of the few intelligent pieces I’ve read on it. Virtue signaling and mood affiliation are strong in most commentary about this.

Where I’m Reading From — Tim Parks

Engagement with art, whether it is such a painting, or the interrelatedness of characters and environment in a novel, or the interplay of motifs in music, had the effect of countering what Bateson saw as our dangerous yearning to arrive at a crude understanding of the world and then intervene.

If that’s true, we ought to be thinking more about complex art and less about our “crude understanding” of how the world works; alas, Twitter and Facebook seem to push us towards crude and unusually incorrect understanding and away from real complexity. The quote is from Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books, a charming book full of similarly quotable and stimulating lines. It even stirs a very vague desire in me to read Thomas Hardy, despite many previous attempts, all ending in failure.

Little in the book is completely new but much of it is well-stated. Consider another claim, which I can’t decide to be true or false:

Identity is largely a question of the pattern of our responses when presented with a new situation, a new book. Certainly the idea of impartiality is a chimera. To be impartial about narrative would be to come from nowhere, to be no one.

If that is true, and it may be, perhaps we should learn from literature and Paul Graham to keep our identity small, so as to minimize the “pattern of our responses” and maximize our ability to see the true and/or new.

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