Steve Levine’s “The Powerhouse” and the Chevy Volt

The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War describes how we got to today’s electric cars, and it does so by following the vicissitudes of Argonne National Labs, which played a key role in battery development, as well as many of the scientists and players who help develop batteries. Much of the narrative structure comes from GM’s quest to build the Chevy Volt, a car that is amazing and widely underappreciated, because the conditions and assumptions that led to its development have changed.

In the late ’00s and early ’10s, almost no one foresaw the rise of fracking, which has put a lid on oil prices. If fracking hadn’t come along when it did, oil would probably be between $100 and $200 a barrel today, and GM wouldn’t be able to build enough Volts. GM’s management would look like geniuses. Instead, as has been widely reported, GM is closing a bunch of plants, likely including the one that makes Volts. People are short-sighted and, when gas prices fall, we buy bigger cars.

The Volt is neither as cheap as a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) car nor as interesting as an electric. It appears that most people want a pure electric or a conventional ICE car, and hybrids like the Volt are stuck in between. Most people don’t give a damn about climate change or Saudi and Russian repression, at least as measured by their behaviors when it comes to buying cars (You might argue that this is bad—I would—but, at least in terms of mass behavior, it’s true). Today, articles like, “Why Oil Prices Took Such a Tumble, and What Comes Next” are common:

It was only at the start of October that analysts were wondering if oil would soon cost $100 a barrel. Then a trap door opened and oil prices have been in a rapid descent since, losing nearly a third of their value in about eight weeks.

The spread of electric vehicles is also going to cap oil price rises. As prices rise, more people will shift towards electrics. But people who rag on the Volt don’t understand why it was green-lit in the first place, and they should read The Powerhouse. Aside from being an account of the Volt, The Powerhouse is about the way science and engineering actually get done. Those fields are rarely about single individuals and often about groups, companies, universities, and the interactions among the individuals that compose the larger structures. To be sure, individuals are important (John Goodenough is a battery hero, and there are many others named in the book), but we rarely succeed alone.

The Powerhouse has flaws, as a book. Its timeline jumps around, from chapter to chapter, at times. Most of its chapters are 800 – 2,000 words, a sign that many originated as blog posts or news stories, and their integration isn’t ideal. Levine is a working journalist and so may have had less time than he would have liked to complete the book. The acknowledgements page starts, “When I began to consider a book on batteries, the reception from friends and advisers was all but unanimous: don’t do it.” I’m glad he wrote the book and will recommend it, despite its firm place in a particular time and its structural challenges. Levine created a coherent story out of many disparate pieces, and that alone is admirable.

Links: Philanthropy popups, scientific credit, nuclear fusion, free speech, free being, and more!

* TALENT SEARCH: Tyler Cowen on the value of sole proprietor pop-up philanthropic shops.

* The Problem with Scientific Credit.

* On Paying for the Party, another work critical of academia.

* “The Rise of the Resentniks: And the populist war on excellence.”

* Science is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck.

* The Fading Battlefields of World War I.

* Inside Bill Browder’s War Against Putin ought to be made into a movie.

* Successful second round of nuclear fusion experiments with Wendelstein 7-X.

* “The new boomtowns: Why more people are relocating to ‘secondary’ cities.” Exclusionary zoning along the coasts has spillover effects, in other words.

* Eric Schmidt on the Life-Changing Magic of Systematizing, Scaling, and Saying Thanks.

* Rebecca Kulka has had an impressive, insane, and amazing life. This interview is incredible. I didn’t think I’d care for it and I was wrong.

* Why Is the Fight for Free Speech Led by the Psychologists? This seems plausible to me. English literature was lost to darkness long ago, which I wish I’d realized before I went to grad school in it. See also me on The Coddling of the American Mind.

* “Making what Harvard is about transparent.” Money, prestige, exclusivity; it is another brand.

* “Make School gains accreditation for 2-year applied computer science bachelor’s degree.” This is a bigger deal than it at first looks: accreditation bodies are among the major barriers that stop comprehensive higher education reform. And accreditors are an underappreciated barrier by anyone unfamiliar with the deeper, institutional and structural forces that keep college tuition high.

The Coddling of the American Mind — Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

Apart from its intellectual content and institutional structure descriptions, The Coddling of the American Mind makes being a contemporary college student in some schools sound like a terrible experience:

Life in a call-out culture requires constant vigilance, fear, and self-censorship. Many in the audience may feel sympathy for the person being shamed but are afraid to speak up, yielding the false impression that the audience is unanimous in its condemnation.

Who would want to live this way? It sounds exhausting and tedious. If we’ve built exhausting and tedious ways to live into the college experience, perhaps we ought to stop doing that. I also find it strange that, in virtually every generation, free speech and free thought have to be re-litigated. The rationale behind opposing free speech and thought changes, but the opposition remains.

Coddling is congruent with this conversation between Claire Lehmann and Tyler Cowen, where Lehmann describes Australian universities:

COWEN: With respect to political correctness, how is it that Australian universities are different?

LEHMANN: I think the fact that they’re public makes a big difference because students are not paying vast sums to go to university in the first place, so students have less power.

If you’re a student, and you make a complaint against a professor in an Australian university, the university’s just going to shrug its shoulders, and you’ll be sort of walked out of the room. Students have much less power to make complaints and have their grievances heard. That’s one factor.

Another factor is, we don’t have this hothouse environment where students go and live on campus and have their social life collapsed into their university life.

Most students in Australia live at home with their parents or move into a share house and then travel to university, but they don’t live on campus. So there isn’t this compression where your entire life is the campus environment. That’s another factor.

Overall, I suspect the American university environment as a total institution where students live, study, and play might be a better one in some essential ways: it may foster more entrepreneurship, due to students being physically proximate to one another. American universities have a much greater history of alumni involvement (and donations), donations likely being tied into the sense of affinity with the university generated by living on campus.

But Haidt and Lukianoff are pointing to some of the potential costs: when everything happens on campus, no one gets a break from “call-out culture” or accusations of being “offensive.” I think I would laugh at this sort of thing if I were an undergrad today, or choose bigger schools (the authors use an example from Smith College) that are more normal and less homogenous and neurotic. Bigger schools have more diverse student bodies and fewer students with the time and energy to relentlessly surveil one another. The authors describe how “Reports from around the country are remarkably similar; students at many colleges today are walking on eggshells, afraid of saying the wrong thing, liking the wrong post, or coming to the defense of someone who they know to be innocent, out of fear they themselves will be called out by a mob on social media.”

Professors, especially in humanities departments, seem to be helping to create this atmosphere by embracing “micro aggressions,” “intersectionality,” and similar doctrines of fragility. Perhaps professors ought to stop doing that, too. I wonder too if or when students will stop wanting to attend schools like Smith, where the “Us vs them” worldview prevails.

School itself may be becoming more boring: “Many professors say they now teach and speak more cautiously, because one slip or simple misunderstanding could lead to vilification and even threats from any number of sources.” And, in an age of ubiquitous cameras, it’s easy to take something out of context. Matthew Reed, who has long maintained a blog called “Dean Dad,” has written about how he would adopt certain political perspectives in class (Marxist, fascist, authoritarian, libertarian, etc.) in an attempt to get students to understand what some of those ideologies entail and what their advocates might say. So he’d say things he doesn’t believe in order to get students to think. But that strategy is prone to the camera-and-splice practice. It’s a tension I feel, too: in class I often raise ideas or reading to encourage thinking or offer pushback against apparent groupthink. Universities are supposed to exist to help students (and people more generally) think independently; while courtesy is important, at what point does “caution” become tedium, or censorship?

Schools encourage fragility in other ways:

“Always trust your feelings,” said Misoponos, and that dictum hay sound wise and familiar. You’ve heard versions of it from a variety of sappy novels and pop psychology gurus. But the second Great Untruth—the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning—is a direct contradiction of much ancient wisdom. [. . .] Sages in many societies have converged on the insight that feelings are always compelling, but not always reliable.

More important than ancient sages, modern psychologists and behavioral economists have found and argued the same. Feelings of fear, uncertainty, and doubt are strangely encouraged: “Administrators often acted in ways that gave the impression that students were in constant danger and in need of protection from a variety of risks and discomforts.” How odd: 18- and 19-year-olds in the military face risks and discomforts like, you know, being shot. Maybe the issue is that our society has too little risk, or risk that is invisible (this is your occasional reminder that about 30,000 people die in car crashes every year, and hundreds of thousands more are mangled, yet we do little to alleviate the car-centric world).

Umberto Eco says, “Art is an escape from personal emotion, as both Joyce and Eliot had taught me.” Yet we often treat personal emotion as the final arbiter and decider of things. “Personal emotion” is very close the word “feelings.” We should be wary of trusting those feelings; art enables to escape from our own feelings into someone else’s conception of the world, if we allow it to. The study of art in many universities seemingly discourages this. Perhaps we ought to read more Eco.

I wonder if Coddling is going to end up being one of those important books no one reads.

It is also interesting to read Coddling in close proximity to Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Perhaps we need less iPhone and more magic mushrooms. I’d actually like to hear a conversation among Pollan, Haidt, and Lukianoff. The other day I was telling a friend about How to Change Your Mind, and he said that not only had he tried psychedelics in high school, but his experience cured or alleviated his stutter and helped him find his way in the world. The plural of anecdote is not data, but it’s hard to imagine safety culture approving of psychedelic experiences (despite their safety, which Pollan describes in detail).

In The Lord of the Rings when Aragorn and his companions believe that Gandalf has perished in Moria; Gimli says that “Gandalf chose to come himself, and he was the first to be lost… his foresight failed him.” Aragorn replies, “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others.” And neither is life: it is not founded on foreknowledge of safety. Adventure is necessary to become a whole person. Yet childhood and even universities are today increasingly obsessed with safety, to the detriment of the development of children and students. In my experience, military veterans returning to college are among the most intersting and diligent students. We seem to have forgotten Gandalf’s lessons. One advantage in reading old books may be some of the forgotten cultural assumptions beneath them; in The Lord of the Rings risk is necessary for reward, and the quality of a life is not dependent on the elimination of challenge.

Here’s a good critical review.

Links: Cars and death, why the rent is too damn high, doctors as debt collectors, and more!

* “Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year.” An evergreen article. Imagine 30,000 people were killed by terrorism in the United States.

* Single-Family Home Zoning vs. ‘Generation Priced Out.’ Useful for anyone who thinks their rent is too damn high (like I do).

* “Doctors Are Fed Up With Being Turned Into Debt Collectors.” Maybe we ought to go back to a world of transparent pricing, paid in advance?

* “Chicago Expelled a Male Student 4 Days Before Graduation Because His Ex Made a Dubious Sexual Violence Claim.” More of the usual, in other words. And universities wonder why they have a PR problem!

* “Eric Schmidt on the Life-Changing Magic of Systematizing, Scaling, and Saying Thanks,” a conversation with Tyler Cowen.

* “Oil Demand for Cars Is Already Falling: Electric vehicles are displacing hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, exceeding expectations.” We get too little good news; here is some.

* “The Creation of Deviance,” note: “The activities of university administrators may also fit a larger pattern, one in which agents of social control readily create the need for their own services.”

* It is becoming more plausible to remove CO2 from air.

* The myth of stagnant incomes.

* Demand for humanities majors is low in the job market, although that is not the actual title of this essay, and you probably already know it, but I will pass it along anyway. In addition, “Telling a Lame Joke in an Elevator Can Endanger an Academic Career.” The obvious point: don’t go to grad school in the humanities.

* “The Disaster That Was the Vietnam War.” A war with few if any truly good guys.

* Robert Langlands, The Greatest Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of. Unless, of course, you’ve read Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, as I recommend!

* Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments—A Review.

Novels that turn on scientific or technical breakthroughs

Spoilers ahead.

Andy Weir’s novel Artemis and Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder are different in many ways, but apart from being excellent they both share an unusual point: their plots are driven by technological breakthroughs. In Artemis, the breakthrough is a zero attenuation fiber optic cable; the acronym ZAFO appears early in the novel and remains opaque until about halfway through. The “Artemis” of the title refers to a near-future moon base that is in economic trouble: there is little economic reason for humans to inhabit the moon apart from tourism, which is insufficient to sustain the base. The novel posits, however, that a technical breakthrough could lead to a massive new industry. The moon base’s administrator says:

Just imagine what a revelation that was for O Palácio [a Brazilian crime syndicate or mafia group]. All of a sudden, their insignificant money-laundering company was poised to corner an emerging billion-dollar industry. From that point on, they were all in. But Artemis is very far away from Brazil, and they had only one enforcer on site, thank God.

This passage is characteristic of the novel in another way: it’s not very attentive to language. Perhaps the character speaking would say “All of a sudden,” instead of the correct “All of the sudden.” Artemis has a lot of the bad language habits that MFA programs, whatever their flaws, tend to help writers avoid or ameliorate.

In State of Wonder, Marina Singh goes deep into the Amazon jungle to find her former supervisor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is continuing her own mentor’s research into a tribal group where the women have extended fertility. At the same time, Swenson is seeking an anti-malaria drug that may stem from the same source.

I’m trying to think of other novels that have a technical breakthrough at their core. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is one (the data haven at the end likely qualifies as a technical breakthrough). Yet I can think of few others. If you know any, please leave pointers in the comments. Perhaps more novelists should be thinking about how technological or scientific breakthroughs might power the plots of novels. Alternately, perhaps more novels do this than I realize, and I don’t have a good sense of other, similar novels that have been published.

Ian McEwan’s Solar is another one.

I can’t recall any 18th or 19th century novels that turn on technical breakthroughs.

Links: Paglia, farmers, boomtowns, Rams, Sapiens, and more!

* High-tech farmers are using LED lights in ways that seem to border on science fiction.

* “The new boomtowns: Why more people are relocating to ‘secondary’ cities.” As someone looking to do just that, for the usual reasons, it makes total sense to me.

* Scott Sumner on global warming and carbon taxes.

* “How the GOP Gave Up on Porn.” Seemingly everyone has given up on it, which is maybe not so good.

* Rams, on Dieter Rams.

* George RR Martin interview on writer’s block, which is what all of his modern interviews are actually about.

* “Pretentious, impenetrable, hard work … better? Why we need difficult books.” The bigger problem is that most “impenetrable” and “hard” books have nothing substantial in or to them. You discover their supposed secrets and find them to be totally empty, sort of like how Gollum goes under the Misty Mountains searching for secrets and gets nothing.

* Camille Paglia: It’s Time for a New Map of the Gender World.

* Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Yuval Noah Harari, Their Principal Doomsayer, and he is the author of Sapiens.

* Herman Hesse: Outside Man.

* The optimized anti-style of Allbirds shoes.

* The never-ending now. It ends in books! Past, present, future (“future” typically being science fiction).

* “The Novel Isn’t Dead—Please Stop Writing Eulogies.” Yes, another of these, but what can I say: I’m addicted to the genre, both of the death notices and of the life notices.

* Toronto Cleared Cars Off a Major Transit Corridor — And it Worked!

* Monica Lewinsky: “‘Who Gets to Live in Victimville?’: Why I Participated in a New Docuseries on The Clinton Affair.” It’s odd to me that claiming to be a victim is so popular and that claiming the mantle of victimhood, rather than that of skill or competence, is so popular.

* Terrorism is not effective, it seems, yet that does not stop us from fearing it.

Is there an actual Facebook crisis, or media narrative about Facebook crisis?

Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis” just appeared in the New York Times, but the whole thing seems imaginary: is there an actual crisis, outside the media narrative? Has Facebook seen an actual fall in monthly, weekly, or daily active users? That data would support a crisis narrative, but the best the article can do is, “its pell-mell growth has slowed.” Slowing growth makes sense for a company with two billion people using it; all companies eventually reach market saturation.

To me, the story reads a lot like a media narrative that has very little to do with users’s actual lives. And I’ve been reading variations on “Why Facebook sucks” and “Why Facebook is doomed” for a very long time. It’s like the “Why this is the year of Linux on the desktop,” but for media companies.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m barely a Facebook user and I agree with much of the criticism. You can argue that Facebook is bad for reasons x, y, z, and I may even agree—but what I do, anecdotally, is less significant than what users do and want to do. As always, “revealed preferences” are useful: every time someone uses Facebook, that person is implicitly showing that they like Facebook more than not and find it valuable more than not. Aggregate those decisions together, and we see that there is no crisis. Facebook continues to grow. I personally think people should read more books and spend less time on Facebook, but I’m a literary boffin type person who would say the same of television. Lots of literary boffin type persons have had the same view of TV since TV came out—you should read more books and watch less TV—but, in the data, people didn’t watch less TV until quite recently, when Facebook started to replace TV.

The conventional media sources, including the NYT, don’t want to confront their own role in the 2016 election—the relentless focus on Clinton’s email server was insane. What should have been a footnote, at best, instead saw nearly wall-to-wall coverage. We don’t want to acknowledge that most people’s epistemological skill is low. Why look at ourselves, when we have this handy scapegoat right… over… there?

Facebook is a Girardian scapegoat for a media ecosystem that is unable or unwilling to consider its own role in the 2016 fiasco. With any media story, there are at least two stories: the story itself and the decision behind working on and publishing and positioning that particular story. The second story is very seldom discussed by journalists and media companies themselves, but it’s an important issue in itself.

In a tweet, Kara Swisher wrote that Zuckerberg is “unkillable, unfireable and untouchable.” I disagree: users can fire him whenever they want. Swisher had a good retort: “Remember aol.” Still, large, mature markets behave differently than small, immature markets: in 1900, there were many car companies. By 1950, only a few were left. Market size and market age both matter. Facebook reportedly has two billion users, a substantial fraction of the entire human population. It has survived Google+ and its users have demonstrated that they love wasting spending time online. Maybe they’ll find an alternate way to do it (again, I’m not personally a big Facebook user), but if they do, I don’t think it’ll be because of the 5000th media scare story about Facebook. So far, I’ve read zero media stories that cite Rene Girard and the scapegoating mechanism. I don’t think the media understands itself right now.

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