Links: The accidental criminals, the criminalizing of basic commerce, the American shoe, electric flight, and more!

* “How to Become a Federal Criminal.” It’s incredibly easy to do and you and I have likely done it.

* “Inside’s Vicious Battle With the Feds.” The lack of interest in this country in many forms of freedom is notable, and this article could be related to the one immediately above.

* “Democracy Is Not Coming to China Anytime Soon.” We’ll see what China’s first major recession in decades brings, though.

* The End of the Age of Paternity Secrets.

* “Why The American Shoe Disappeared And Why It’s So Hard To Bring It Back.”

* Why the age of electric flight is finally upon us.

* “I’m a Journalist but I Didn’t Fully Realize the Terrible Power of U.S. Border Officials Until They Violated My Rights and Privacy.” And somewhat bizarrely, we keep voting for this?

* In 2000, Paul Krugman pointed out that rent control is bad. It’s still bad today; if you want to subsidize housing, the optimal way to do it is to build a whole lot of it, then give vouchers to the people who you want to subsidize. Local voters don’t like either: owners of existing housing want to limit the supply of it, and they don’t want to pay taxes to provide vouchers. Rent control is popular because it can be an immediate benefit to some existing renters, but the costs are enormous and bourn by the future. Mortgaging the future is a popular Baby Boomer pasttime, but it’d be nice to stop doing that.

* “Two-thirds of American employees regret their college degrees?” And: “About 75% of humanities majors said they regretted their college education?”

* “The Wild Ride at Babe.Net.” A lot could be said here about truth and reality that is not said; I am not going to say it either, for fear of the usual backlash.

* “The Boomers Ruined Everything.” Much better than the title implies and deals with the zoning problems that are immiserating millions.

* Peter Watts video on SF, climate, and other things. Also, Climeworks has started paid CO2 removal.

City of Girls — Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls is Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, and it’s well-summarized by its protagonist’s comment on a play: “To my mind, there was never anything better than those simple, enthusiastic revues. They made me happy. They were designed to make people happy without making the audience work too hard to understand what was going on.” If you want a fun story about being young in the 1940 – 1960 area, with lots of sporting that doesn’t involve a foot-, basket-, soccer-, or ping-pong ball, this is that book. Had someone less famous written it, it likely wouldn’t have been noticed, but that’s not the case, so it has been, or is being, noticed. There’s some weak prose and many interesting moments, and the beginning effectively and rightly tells you not to work too hard, only for you to realize by the end that you’ve been deceived. It tells you not to work too hard and to have fun instead frequently: “People will tell you not to waste your youth having too much fun, but they’re wrong. Youth is an irreplaceable treasure, and the only respectable thing to do with irreplaceable treasure is to waste it,” lest you forget. And it lulls you. I was lulled. In a lot of books, characters focused on frivolous and intense pleasures get a comeuppance; in this one, they just have a good time, a bit like Funny Girl.

There’s a lot of great dialogue, which I can be a sucker for:

“Isn’t it your theater, Peg?”
“Technically, yes. But I can’t do anything without Olive, Billy. You know that. She’s essential.”
“Essential but bothersome.”
“Yes, but you are only one of those things. I need Olive. I don’t need you. That’s always been the difference between you.”

Almost no character says what they mean and means what they say, delightfully. Yet early comedy moves into later pathos, and this is a paragraph, from the end of the novel, expressing ideas we see expressed too infrequently in the Internet, social media age:

In that moment, I felt overcome by a sense of mercy—not only for Frank, but also for that younger version of myself. I even felt mercy for Walter, with all his pride and condemnation. How humiliated Walter must have felt by me, and how dreadful it must have been for him to feel exposed like that in front of someone he considered a subordinate—and Walter considered everyone a subordinate. How angry he must have been, to have to clean up my mess in the middle of the night. Then my mercy swelled…

It seems there are many stories passed around online that could do with a little bit of mercy and understanding—thoughts and emotions hard to fit into a Tweet. Twitter is low-context medium, novels are full of context, and life has the most context of all, if we can notice it.

The playhouse where most of the novel occurs is like a startup: “I had nobody to report to and nothing was expected of me. If I wanted to help out with costumes, I could, but I was given no formal job.” Except in a startup, every duty is expected of everyone, but the lack of formality is because without constant effort, nothing happens. There are things I didn’t know exist—what exactly are “doeskin trousers?” The eye for fashion is novel to me. It’s not a type of leather, as I’d assumed: “It is similar to duvetyn, but lighter; usually softer and less densely napped than melton.” That clears things right up.

Most of all, City of Girls is about what it means to be a child versus an adult—an idea I missed the first time through. The adults pay for their fun with personal responsibility; the kids don’t, or don’t quite, and learn to deal with responsibility for frivolity and pleasure. Vivian is a kind of early Karley Sciortino, without some aspects of sex-positive modern culture to fall back on.

The book is humane: it doesn’t feel political and almost none are purely types; the absence of outright villains and heroes refreshes. The characters’s many weaknesses are not signs of evil, but signs of humanity. Weaknesses don’t cancel a person’s existence, particularly because weaknesses are often the flipsides of strengths. On some level these points are obvious, yet we seem to forget them easily, particularly but not exclusively on the Internet.

A so-so interview with Gilbert.

Links: Tin House, sugar’s dangers, the productive madness of ’80s Bennington, moon bases, and more!

* Remembering Tin House, a Literary Haven for ‘Brilliant Weirdos.’

* It’s time to treat sugar like smoking.

* “Money, Madness, Cocaine and Literary Genius: An Oral History of the 1980s’ Most Decadent College.” There’s a TV series in this entertaining article; while noting Bennington’s flaws, it’s also a reminder that almost all colleges today are trying to be the same: follow the same model, churn the students the same way, seek prestige the same way, chase the same professors. Some notable schools, like Caltech, deviate, but similarities far outweigh diversity diversity. A friend noted in an email that there seem to be few colleges with a distinctive grass-roots culture, and, that if you went to a school like Bennington back then, you were really cut off; you probably didn’t have a phone in your dorm room and only a handful of people had TVs. A different world.

* “The Race to Develop the Moon.” A bit snarkier and less technical than one would hope.

* Alone. See also Lost Connections, a book covering similar territory. Many of us individuals haven’t adequately responded to changing macro forces. We’re overweighting some factors and underweighting connection.

* The public humiliation diet. Could this be related to the links immediately above?

* “Why Don’t Women Vote For Feminist Parties?

* “Why Housing Policy Feels Like Generational Warfare.” Because that’s what it is, and housing can’t be both affordable and a “good” investment. We’ve collectively implemented the latter value over the former, particularly via 1970s zoning reforms, and we’re living with the consequences today.

* More Millennials Are Dying ‘Deaths of Despair,’ as Overdose and Suicide Rates Climb.

* The climate renegade, an interesting story about an irascible-seeming fellow right out of a Stephenson novel.

* “Oberlin College case shows how universities are losing their way?”

* “Americans Need More Neighbors: A big idea in Minneapolis points the way for other cities desperately in need of housing.” Obvious but needs to be repeated.

* Depressing: “agents and publishers want a book–any book–tied to a big name, to promote. They know that most readers don’t get past page 30. As long as there’s a commercial hook, that’s what they care about.” When I don’t get past page 30 it’s because the book is no good.

* Welcome to my secret underground layer: About building a neutrino detector. Don’t get too caught up in the day-to-day unhappiness on social media: lots of people are doing cool things, but “doing cool things” is less viral than social outrage and social virtue signaling.

* “The idea of criminalising prostitutes’ clients is spreading,” the major downside being that it seems to make sex workers less safe and doesn’t seem to have many, if any, of its intended effects. Laws against sex work are like laws against housing construction, they frequently do the exact opposite of what their proponents say they want to see achieved while remaining astonishingly popular.

* “China’s ‘Thought Transformation’ Camps:” If you look back at history and think to yourself that, during the 1930s or 1940s, you would have been one of the “good guys,” you may want to ask yourself: what should you be doing about this? (I ask myself that.)

* “Canadian permafrost thaws 70 years earlier than predicted.” Climate change models may predict change more slowly than actual change happens—it’s possible that they understate how rapidly the climate will change and is changing in response to human CO2 and methane emissions.

* “Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds.” He of The Three-Body Problem. Comments on kindness versus cruelty at the macro level, and the relationship of that to China versus the U.S., are notable. Like many others, I will observe that China hasn’t had a substantial economic setback in 40 years (largely because it started from such a low point after implementing socialism). We’re going to see how well that model works when a recession finally hits, which it will, eventually.

* Old-school car guy and reviewer buys Tesla.

Links: Lightsails in space, wow, what is that?, the opening of the mind, the cost of costs, and more!


* Dear Millennials: The Feeling Is Mutual. Notice: “at least it means he isn’t prepared to capitulate to the icy codes of personal decorum written by people who don’t know the difference between exuberant human warmth and unwarranted sexual advances” and “Does it ever occur to some of our more militant millennials that the pitiless standards they apply to others will someday be applied pitilessly to them?”

* “Why books don’t work,” for some things, anyway.

* “‘Wow, What Is That?’ Navy Pilots Report Unexplained Flying Objects.” Also, piggybacking on that, “Multiple F/A-18 Pilots Disclose Recent UFOs Encounters, New Radar Tech Key In Detection.”

* “The Lure of Western Europe.” Rather depressing that this needs to be written.

* “Expand vs Fight in Social Justice, Fertility, Bioconservatism, & AI Risk.” Similar to the “growth mindset” theory prevalent in education.

* “Room 222: Four Seasons in Academic Hell.” More of the same, content-wise, and in keeping with iGen and The Coddling of the American Mind, both fundamental statements about current mores.

* Is the Democratic party going from being the party of formal entitlements for the poor to the party of the informal entitlement of the affluent?

* An amazing thread about healthcare in France.

* “The Reopening of the Liberal Mind: Bard College President Leon Botstein explains how his school remains free of the student outbursts that afflict similar institutions.”

* “‘If I disappear’: Chinese students make farewell messages amid crackdowns.” I’m a bit of a China skeptic, long term; I don’t think that most intelligent, high-capability people will want to live in such a regime.

* The city guide to open source.

* “Buyer’s Remorse: High Debt and Low Pay Leave Some College Grads Rueful.” You don’t say! None of these articles cite Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education, but they should.

* “College Enrollments Fall Again: Overall enrollment at colleges and universities is down for the seventh year in a row, continuing a trend that is putting pressure on many smaller schools.”

* “Why Your Next Home Computer Should Be an Old Xeon Workstation.”

* “The Long Road to the Student Debt Crisis: A series of well-intentioned government decisions since the 1960s has left us with today’s out-of-control higher education market.”

* Adding ‘luxury’ housing to a city reduces rents elsewhere. Supply and demand: they still function!

* What’s the Difference between LightSail 1 and LightSail 2?

Briefly noted: Delta-V, Permission, and The Stand

* Delta-V by Daniel Suarez is an SF novel with an SF novel’s typical poor writing. The second chapter begins with the scene: “The United States Senate Appropriations Subcommittee…” is in Washington DC. Two paragraphs later, “Three US senators sat…” Well, yes: would they be Mexican senators? Or Knesset members? Can’t we assume they’re US senators? Clumsy writing on almost every page made me give up, like “That meant eighteen people were definitely going into space on Joyce’s dime. Tighe hoped to be one of those people.” Suarez doesn’t need “of those people.” These basic errors are representative, not cherry-picked. Don’t be fooled, as the interesting premise can’t be sustained into a good novel because of consistently low prose quality.

There are some good moments; in one scene, on the first asteroid to be mined, two characters discuss creating metal parts via chemical vapor deposition (CVD):

“It’s existed since Ludwig Mond invented it back in 1890.”
“I’ve honestly never heard of it.”
“Back on Earth it’s less toxic to just use a blast furnace. Up here in space, though, CVD is going to be critical for precision manufacturing.”
[…] “It’s like alchemy.”
“No, it’s better than alchemy—it’s science.”

A fine point too rarely encountered, and a high end to the chapter.

* Permission by Saskia Vogel, an okay book but its timeline seems somewhat random and muddled to me. Too many novels are in the improbable reaches of the movie/TV glamor industries; people substitute “hope” for wages in those industries, with results that are often not good. In this novel, a dominatrix conveniently moves next door to a woman who becomes interested in her. Rather than what you may be thinking, more of the novel is like this: “Everything inside me, ocean. I inhaled with both my nose and mouth, greedy for air, feeling my lungs expand. My body was mostly water, but only mostly, still” than like this: “I was wearing a semi-sheer basque with a matching thong. He buried his face in my cleavage,” but there is some of both—like life, one could argue.

You have to be okay with the one-sentence paragraphs:

Only her.
Only this.
Only now.

So deep, man, right? Pass the joint. I didn’t regret reading it but am not sure it’ll stick with me, or most people. You could say that Nine and a Half Weeks got there first and is still colonizing this territory.

* I read Stephen King’s The Stand when I was 11 or 12, and it holds up better than Robert Jordan but not as well as I’d like: it has moments—a rural cop describes how his wife “neatens” the cells, for instance, the word being wholly appropriate—but it has some howlers in it too, like the doctor who says:

They are the symptoms of the common cold, of influenza, of pneumonia. We can cure all of those things, Nick. Unless the patient is very young or very old, or perhaps already weakened by a previous illness, antibiotics will knock them out.

Colds and influenzas are viruses, not bacteria, and antibiotics don’t affect them. If anyone had a cure for the common cold, they’d be a billionaire. It’s conceivable that we could today have a vaccine for the common cold, but the regulatory structure put in place by the FDA doesn’t favor it.

Still, the paranoid style in it is depressingly modern (look for all the mentions of not just government failure but active malice), although in the novel the paranoia and distrust are correct. It could be contrasted with the movie Contagion in “Bureaucratic Heroism,” a great essay with an unlikely title. Today, it feels like a product of disillusionment from the Vietnam war. But excess skepticism may be as bad or almost as bad as excess trust.

It’s also still scary, when the prose doesn’t interfere with the fear.

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