Links: Concentration and the artist’s task, institutions advance faster than cognition, The Sopranos, and more!

* “A $20,243 bike crash: Zuckerberg hospital’s aggressive tactics leave patients with big bills. I spent a year writing about ER bills. Zuckerberg San Francisco General has the most surprising billing practices I’ve seen.” I previously wrote about the need for price transparency. We need it now, even for ERs.

* Waymo’s CEO says autonomous cars “will always have constraints.” They are not a panacea for urban transit and are not going to be here in the next five years, and they will likely be weather-dependent.

* Is fusion power much closer to becoming reality than is commonly anticipated? If so, it will solve or substantially ameliorate the world’s energy problems, along with the geopolitical conflicts fueled by the world’s desire for oil.

* The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

* What we gain from keeping books.

* Progress happens in institutions, not morals?

* “Meat-free ‘Impossible Burger 2.0’ tastes even closer to the real deal.” I tried Beyond Meat burger and found them surprisingly good.

* U.S. Carbon Emissions Surged in 2018 Even as Coal Plants Closed. We need nuclear energy and battery-powered cars, now.

* Interview of David Chase, who spearheaded The Sopranos.

* “Mommy bloggers” when their kids grow up. If I were the kid, I’d be outraged too. It’s a tremendous violation of privacy.

* More buildings should be made of wood.

* Ocean Warming Is Accelerating Faster Than Thought.

* Voters don’t even really know what taxation rates are, let alone what they should be. What conclusions should be drawn from this?

* The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter.

* Saudi Women, Tired of Restraints, Find Ways to Flee.

* “Tucker Carlson has sparked the most interesting debate in conservative politics.” Note that I’m not endorsing the conclusions from either Carlson or the writer of this article, but I will say that it’s nice to see non-stupid political pieces.

* “F.B.I. Opened Inquiry Into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia.”

* Conceivably NSFW, but: “A painted table, modelled after one that was owned by Catherine the Great (1729-1796)?” Is this authentic? I can’t tell. I do want one.

Links: The fight against free speech, why not to get in bar fights, student loans, states of mind, and more!

* The Upside of Your Dark Side, Free Speech, and ‘Problems of Comfort’.

* Why not to get in bar fights; even if you “win,” you often lose.

* Why the West Coast Is Suddenly Beating the East Coast on Transportation?

* “What a Student Loan ‘Bubble’ Bursting Might Look Like?” This is not a great article but the question itself is a good one. The big issues remain: 1. Student loans can’t be discharged through bankruptcy and 2. Right now, schools have almost zero incentive to systematically, substantially reduce costs to students.

* “What Europeans Talk about when They Talk about Brexit.” Fascinating, better than the title may suggest.

* “Why Internet Censorship Doesn’t Work and Never Will.” You could replace “censorship” with “moderating at scale.”

* “How America Grew Bored With Love: The pop love song and rom-com have died, relics in a world of instant gratification and consumerism.” A good polemic, but I’m not convinced it’s true.

* Riva-Melissa Tez has a very unusual background; she also has good followers on Twitter.

* Are experiences and states of mind irreducible and incredibly important for every aspect of modern life? Are they in short supply, relative to most other inputs, in the modern world? Ignore the title on this essay, which is much better than the title implies.

* Log Cabins? No, These Wooden Buildings Are High-Rises.

* “One of the most readable criticisms of US housing finance and policy I’ve ever seen,” a better title from Patrick McKenzie than the actual title.

* The Portland Trailblazers discover quality coffee.

The elite case against big product “x” (today it’s Facebook)

For most of my life I’ve been reading well-structured, well-supported, well-written, and well-cited pieces arguing for why and how people should not do extremely popular thing x, where x can change based on the person making the argument. Often the argument itself is quite good but does very little to create mass behavior change on the ground. I often agree with the argument, but whether I agree with it or not is less relevant than whether the majority of the population changes its behavior in measurable ways (for truly popular products and services, they don’t). Today, the x is Facebook.

Based on past examples of “the elite case against ‘x,'” I predict that today’s NYT and BBC articles do very little to change real-world, measurable behavior around Facebook and social media. To the extent people move away from Facebook, it will be toward some other Facebook property like Instagram or toward some other system that still has broadly similar properties, like Discord, Snapchat, etc. Today’s case against Facebook, or social media more generally, reminds me of the elite case against:

* TV. TV rots your brain and is worse than reading books. It destroys high culture and is merely a vehicle for advertising. Sophisticated pleasures are better than reality TV and the other “trash” on TV.” Yet TV remains popular. Even in 2017, “Watching TV was the leisure activity that occupied the most time (2.8 hours per day). And 2.8 hours per day is lower than the “four hours per day” time I’ve seen quoted elsewhere. Today, though, most people don’t even bother arguing against TV.

* Fast food, especially McDonald’s, Taco Bell, etc. It’s filled with sugar and, rather than being called “food,” it should probably be called, “an edible food-like substance.” There is also an elite case against factory farming and animal torture, which pretty much all fast food suppliers do. Yet McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and similar companies remain massive.

* Oil companies. Oil use has led us to more than 400ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. We’re on the way to cooking ourselves. Yet the market response to hybrid vehicles has been to ignore them. Almost no one walks or bikes to work. Again, I would argue that more people should do these things, but what I think people should do, and what people do, are quite different.

Oddly, I see the elite case against car companies and airplane companies much less frequently than I do against oil companies.

* Tobacco. It gives you lung cancer and smoking cigarettes isn’t even that good. While it appears that smoking rates have been declining for decades, 15.5% of adults still smoke. Taxation may be doing more to drive people away from tobacco than asserting the number and ways that tobacco is bad.

* Video games. They’re a way to evade the real world and perform activities that feel like fitness-enhancing activities but are actually just mental masturbation, but without the physical limits imposed by actual masturbation. They simulate the social world in a way that makes us more isolated and frustrated than ever before.

What other examples am I missing?

Today, we have the elite case against social media. It may be accurate. It’s generated good books, like Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Social media has generated lots of op-eds and parenting guides. Some people have announced publicly that they’re deleting their Facebook or Instagram page, yet Facebook is a public company and keeps reporting massive levels of use and engagement.

It turns out that what people want to do, is quite different from what The New York Times thinks people should do.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe — Chris Taylor

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe isn’t bad but the writer relies overmuch on cliche: “James’s wartime story was enough to make my jaw hit the floor when I met him” or “I must have seen that Star Wars poster a million times.” I kept taking my pen to the book, as there is a better one waiting to unlocked from this one. But the middle section, especially about the creative process that went into Star Wars, is very interesting and even redeeming; the book feels rushed to press, maybe to hit a deadline or because the writer needed the advance money, which is too bad: I’m reminded of Thomas Ricks’ description of the Churchill and Orwell rewrites. Had How Star Wars received the same it might have been a great examination of where art comes from.

Instead, it’s okay, and you have to wade through some tedious chapters. One wishes Taylor had had more time. He loses the war against cliché. He writes of “a genre that liked to recycle plots.” Arguably all plots are recycled, at an appropriate level of abstraction. Famously, few of Shakespeare’s plots are his own. We get many statements about plot like every story being about “A stranger comes to town or someone leave town.”

Some of the best writing comes from others:

Normally, when this most private man [Lucas] goes into public at a press-attended gathering, he wears the face best described by Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, who compared Lucas to a small-town banker: “impeccably polite and implacably distanced, as though fearing you might ask an inappropriate question or request a loan.”

Odd, though, that “editor in chief” isn’t “editor-in-chief,” right?

The close reading of the original script, versus the shooting script, begins on page 111 and continues from there. It’s an impressive section that’s too long to quote, and it’s impressive because of Taylor’s close reading of everything wrong in the original that goes right in the later versions. Lucas’s then-wife, Marcia, played a critical role in the process. Lawrence Kasdan worked on the second two movies. Lucas alone would have created a disaster; he’s like raw iron that needs to be alloyed to create steel. Marcia Lucas and Kasdan helped unlock the good version within; the three “prequel” movies released after the original three were so bad in part because Lucas accepted almost no outside influence and had the money to do whatever he wanted. “Infinite resources” turned out to be a drawback rather than a virtue for him. The parallels between the writing of this book and the making of the movie are notable.

The real question is unanswered, and unanswerable: why did George Lucas do it, and not thousands or millions of others? Why do so many people attempt and fail to do what he did? We don’t find out; likely, we can’t find out.

Here is an article, better written than the book, that covers some of the information. If you deeply like Star Wars or are deeply interested in creative processes (I’d count myself among the latter), this book is for you. Those casually interested in either should read elsewhere.

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