Links: Loneliness in American society, things British and American, gifting books, and more!

* “Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.” Lessons for today.

* And, also, “The Blundering Brilliance of Boris Johnson.” Many interesting ideas and also important lessons for the next elections. Twitter is not the real world.

* “Etiquette of gifting books.” My philosophy is different: give for yourself, not for the person who gets the book, and have zero expectations. Don’t ask about it or ask for it back. Just give it and let it be. Conversations in book form are great; write in your book, give it to your friend, and accept your friends’ annotated books. It’s an all-round win.

* Having Kids, by Paul Graham, so you know it’s going to be interesting. May also connect with the last link, regarding social connection and loneliness.

* Growth is good. Ideas too rarely entertained, even by people who still oppose them in the end.

* California oceans acidifying at alarming rate, study finds.

* “A CT scan costs $1,100 in the US — and $140 in Holland.” You’ve heard it before, but: price transparency now. See also, however, “Doctors Win Again, in Cautionary Tale for Democrats: Surprise billing legislation suddenly stalled. The proposal might have lowered the pay of some physicians.”

* The politics of exhaustion. Maybe.

* “When will the Netherlands disappear?” I’m surprised by the continued in-migration to Florida, Arizona, and Texas: all states that are susceptible to major climate disruptions.

* “Mossberg: Tim Cook’s Apple had a great decade but no new blockbusters.” Would prefer greater focus on computers.

* Sex Differences in Personality are Large and Important. Obvious to almost everyone, except people in certain media and academic precincts.

* The End of Econ Blogging’s Golden Age. In almost all fields the reliance on “peer reviewed journals” is overdone.

* The left is having an identity crisis. Better essay than the title implies.

* Is undersea mining going to happen?

* “Men are banding together in class-action lawsuits against discrimination in Title IX cases.” Once the genie of treating people as primarily members of oppressed groups gets out of the bottle, it’s hard to stuff back in.

* Efforts to bring back to the chestnut tree.

* Alienated, Alone and Angry: What the Digital Revolution Did to Us. Maybe. I think we’re going to have to learn digital hygiene.

* “A Lonely Plea: ‘Anybody Need a Grandma for Christmas?’ A woman from Tulsa, Okla., with no place to go for the holidays became a painful reminder of the isolation felt by many older Americans.” A microcosm for American society’s grim news, perhaps, and compatible with Lost Connections by Johann Hari—an impressive and recommended book.

Links: Lessons to unlearn, carbon capture and storage, status and signaling, and more!

* The Lesson to Unlearn. It is dangerous to have someone like Graham focused on the weaknesses of the education industry, because he’s well positioned to accelerate changes. I believe Lambda School is (or was) funded by Y Combinator.

* Update on carbon capture and storage, which is probably the most important link in this batch. Climeworks offers CO2 storage subscriptions and we can infer from their popularity or lack thereof how many people actually give a damn about global climate change.

* The New Yorker on William Gibson. Haven’t gotten into the last few Gibsons, but I still admire Pattern Recognition.

* Medical billing: where all the frauds are legal. We need price transparency, now.

* Oklo launches Aurora advanced fission clean energy plant in US.

* 2019: the year the revolt went global. From Martin Gurri.

* Women wearing leggings at work. Who cares?

* Why white-collar workers spend all day at the office. It’s a signaling race. Most writers know we have 2 – 4 decent hours in us, for example.

* “The Cynic’s Guide to Reading Business Books.” An excellent meta-read of books more generally.

* “The lonesome Irishman.” On the movie The Irishman; the essay almost makes me want to watch it, but not quite enough, because I feel like I’ve seen enough mob movies. After The Sopranos, Goodfellas, The Godfather, and probably some more, plus reading Diego Gambetta’s Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate, I think that universe is pretty played out. Killing people is also bad. Many of the things that thrive in the underworld should be legalized, like gambling has been and marijuana is being. If gambling, prostitution, and most non-opioid drugs are legal, there’s not much left for the mob to do, and it will be starved of revenue, because most activities are best done using conventional means and corporate or legal structures.

Maybe cars are just really bad, but they’re normal, so we don’t pay attention to how bad

In the United States, 30,000 – 40,000 people are killed by and in cars every year; hundreds of thousands more are maimed. Think of ten to twelve 9/11s, every year—yet the issue gets little airplay, despite its importance. Perhaps we ought to be working a lot harder to build a society that is less dependent on murderous cars. Almost everyone knows someone who has been killed or maimed in a car crash. But, for whatever reason, most of us don’t think about the sheer amount of death and destruction attached to cars—maybe because the numbers are too vast. So I’ve decided to foreground the issue by listing some of the car crash victims whose names and/or stories I’ve come across. I’m not looking for them, but I keep noticing how many writers casually mention death in and by cars. Right now, today, it’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed:

John sighed. He asked Margo to look at the caller ID and tell him who had called, but she shook her head and turned away. John reached for the phone with his right hand. Then they collided with a black SUV coming straight at them.

Strapped in their booster seats were five-year-old Gracie and six-year-old Gabe. Irish twins, born just a year apart and inseparable. The loves of John’s life. Gracie survived along with John and Margo. Gabe, seated directly behind John and at exactly the point of impact, died at the scene.

Two paragraphs, one death. We need to do a “five whys” analysis on this. Part of the answer involves inattentiveness due to the phone, yes. But why is everyone in cars? Why are so many distracted amateurs operating these machines? Why is our society built around them? What would an alternate transit setup look like (one that valued human life)? These questions are almost entirely absent. The larger issues aren’t foregrounded. Cities that could help cut the car-based death rate refuse to do so. We have a bad strategy and our collective decision is to keep pursuing it. Despite the way death appears everywhere, every day:

* “In the summer of 2019, we had been T-boned by a drunk and high driver going 90 miles an hour in a 50-mile-an-hour zone. My wife, Gail, and I had survived the crash, but our two teenage children in the back seat, Ruby and Hart, had not.”

* “Three years earlier, my husband, Eric, and I had lost our 22-month-old son, Seamus, when they were struck in a crosswalk by a careless driver.” From “When Sturdy Love Is What You Need.”

* “A few months later the young woman came to see me. She and her boyfriend had had a terrible car crash. He had died, and his family had turned her out of the house they had lived in together” (137). From The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a memoir by Catherine Millet. Everyone knows someone who has died this way.

* “About a decade ago, Derek Sarno, the elder of the pair at 48, was working as a chef and restaurateur in New Hampshire when his longtime partner was killed in a car accident.” From “The Vegetarians at the Gate.”

* “I was back in my hometown cruising the makeup aisles of a 24-hour drugstore around midnight on the eve of my sister’s funeral. I was 23 and my 22-year-old sister had died in a car accident five days earlier.” From “When Lips Speak for Themselves.”

* Miss France Hopeful Morgane Rolland Dies After Being Struck by a Tractor-Trailer.

* Interview with actress Anjelica Huston: “You were 17 and your brother Tony was 18 when your mother was killed in a car [crash] in France.”

* Kevin Hart reportedly able to walk after serious car crash. This one isn’t a fatality, but wouldn’t he have liked to not have been in a car wreck?

* Mother Dies After Halloween Crash That Killed Husband and Toddler. “Joseph and Raihan Awaida were walking home with their 3-year-old son on Halloween night when the entire family was hit by an SUV.” Maybe we should work harder to segment uses and discourage driving: one SUV kills an entire family.

* “Then, in her thirties, [Joanna Parfit] died in a car crash.”

* “In September 1996, after turning thirty-four years old, Paul [Simons] donned a jersey and shorts, hopped on his… bicycle, and set off on a fast ride through Old Field Road in Setauket, near his boyhood home. Out of nowhere, an elderly woman backed her car out of the driveway, unaware [Paul] was riding past. She hit Paul, crushing and killing him instantly, a random and tragic accident. Several days later, the woman, traumatized by the experience, had a heart attack and died.” (159) That’s from The Man Who Solved the Market, a biography of Jim Simons. The writer, Gregory Zuckerman, is not astute enough to realize and then argue that this was not a totally random event: it’s an event engineered by systematic choices made over the course of decades, if not a century, to prioritize car and car travel over life. The elderly should not be driving, yet we’ve decided to ignore their inabilities because cars are so woven into the urban fabric of life.

* “‘I’ve never felt such heartbreak and anger’: Toronto family mourns 23-year-old cyclist Alex Amaro, killed last week on Dufferin St.” The street is apparently notoriously and horribly dangerous, and yet Toronto has done nothing about it, despite the danger and deaths (plural).

* “Lars Vilks: Muhammad cartoonist killed in traffic collision.” This guy survived 15 years of extremist Muslims threatening to kill him, and then died in what appears to be a generic car crash.

We should all be striving for life after parking, however utopian that sounds today (getting everyone to quit smoking probably seemed utopian 50 years ago, but here we are). Unfortunately, absurdly expensive infrastructure costs inhibit the development of better transit systems. I’ve changed my view on this issue substantially between when I was younger and today. Housing and transit issues are tremendous determinants of the quality of human life, as well as the quality of our politics, and many of the screeds you read about “income inequality” (a term I dislike because we really want everyone to have a decent baseline quality of life, regardless of whether someone is super rich), education, and health are really about housing and transit—we just don’t, for the most part, think of them this way. Very few reporters or “intellectuals” (a word worthy of scare quotes) connect the dots. So I’m going to connect them here, even though others don’t, and keep adding to this list. Maybe it will personalize the idea that cars are bad in a way that the raw data does not.

We can and should do better: instead of expecting millions of distracted amateurs to correctly pilot fast, multi-ton machines, we should be working towards a world

Links: The challenges of intracity travel, the dark side of progress, streaming life, unknown SF writers, and more!

* A scenario for Google’s collapse. I don’t buy it, but could it have a 10% or 15% chance of being accurate? I get some reader pushback about some links and ideas, so I’ll note again here that I post things that are interesting, intellectually stimulating or novel, and have at least some chance of being true—even if I don’t agree with them.

* The dark side of progress?, among other topics. A rare take and, like the scenario for Google’s collapse, not my main view.

* Is it possible that bad AI inputs will doom some authoritarian governments?

* Mark Zuckerberg Interviews Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen on the Nature and Causes of Progress. Many topics will be familiar to regular readers, but I’m posting this for the sake of completeness.

* “The Inside Story of Christopher Steele’s Trump Dossier.” Or, the challenges of writing spy/espionage fiction, because the real world is so weird.

* Jennifer Ringley: The first woman to stream her life.

* The Zen of Weight Lifting.

* “The Real Class War:” more interesting than its title implies, though it’s missing one key idea: the way we’ve increased housing costs far faster than inflation via land-use restrictions.

* The Resurrection of John M. Ford, the Greatest Sci-Fi Writer You’ve Never Read. Strange timing for this, though, as the new editions don’t come out till 2020 and aren’t available on Amazon.

* Is there a limit to what our brains can understand? I tend to think yes, just based on everyday observation, and based on reading about the Von Neumanns of the world. We still don’t understand much about consciousness.

* What If Companies Get Big Because They’re Better?

* “America’s Rivalry With China Is Nothing Like the Cold War.” I’m not totally convinced but the view is well-stated and the evidence is strong.

* Even 50 year old climate models correctly predict global warming.

* Ken Liu and Chinese science fiction. In China literary fiction that touches political issues is mostly forbidden or censored, so the energy needed to make sense of the world flows elsewhere.

* “This Is Why Your Holiday Travel Is Awful.” A history of Penn Station, Robert Moses, and the growth of veto choke points that prevent anyone from doing anything anywhere.

* “Tumblr’s First Year Without Porn.” It went poorly for the site.

* “Oceans running out of oxygen.” Humanity shrugs.

* I Was Once a Socialist. Then I Saw How It Worked.

Conversations with Friends — Sally Rooney

You may have been fooled by the New Yorker profile of Sally Rooney, as I was, but don’t be: Conversations with Friends is boring—there’s nothing horribly wrong with it but little right with it either. There is some juvenile BS on almost every page; if you haven’t read the books listed here quit this review now and go pick up some of. It’s hard to find representative sentences in Conversations because they’re all representative, and flat: “He never usually trailed off his sentences this way. He started to feel agitated. I said again I didn’t mean to be distant with him. I didn’t understand what he was trying to say and I was afraid of what it might have been.” We get pages and pages like this. Also: “never usually?” Or, “I felt his body then, his heat and complex weight.” Complex weight? As opposed to simple weight?

The book is about a girl’s affair with a married man, and she kinda sorta tries polyamory lite, but without thinking much about it or having any social or community structure for it. Conversations a “kinda sorta” sort of book, which is why it’s so unsatisfying. The sentences are short and it’s easy to skip sentences, paragraphs, pages, without losing anything. Still, Conversations gives hope to unpublished writers, because if it can get published and pushed, you might be able to too.

I want the protagonist to get a job on a fishing boat, or building rockets for SpaceX, or working in an emergency room, or doing anything, anywhere, apart from interning for literary agents and spending too much time listening to professors or living in libraries. There is a world beyond university humanities departments, thankfully, but it is opaque to Frances and her friends. Conversations are fine, but conversations among people with no goals, no dreams, and no purpose lead one to wonder why they aren’t short stories.

Not every book needs to challenge and this one doesn’t. It’s the literary equivalent of an anodyne meal at a “new American” restaurant that does the same thing thousands of similar establishments do. It won’t offend or wow anyone. If this is the “millennial novel,” we have nothing to fear but our own emptiness, and the social media we use to try and stuff the emptiness into some shape. But you could do worse; I read to the end but am also trying not to do the classic bad critic move of generalizing from specific individuals to much larger groups. If I were to do that, I would draw much different sociological or demographic conclusions than have others I’ve read. So much art really is read as simply confirming our priors.

Links: Wealth tax failures, information flow, genius and obsession, bad romance, and more!

* “France Tried Soaking the Rich. It Didn’t Go Well.” Try to focus on substance and effectiveness of proposals, not how they make you feel or what signals you think they might communicate.

* Defecting Chinese spy offers information trove to Australian government.

* Paul Graham’s bus ticket theory of genius.

* Psilocybin for Major Depression Granted Breakthrough Therapy by FDA

* U.S. Tech Companies Prop Up China’s Vast Surveillance Network.

* Bad romance, a long and well-reported piece on the bizarreness of the National Inquirer.

* How single men and women are making politics more extreme.

* “Indiana Wesleyan Student Kicked Out of Honors College for Questioning Cultural Appropriation: Bias incident reports, safety concerns, and harassment charges, all because of a slightly trollish Facebook post.” Remember when universities were about debating ideas? You probably do remember my post about journalists and academics as modern-day clerics, persecuting modern-day heresy.

* “System76 Will Begin Shipping 2 Linux Laptops With Coreboot-Based Open Source Firmware.” It is striking how many people make noise about privacy and freedom online versus how many take concrete, simple steps to improve those things.

* “
Why Are College Students So Afraid of Me?
Because adults at places like Bucknell and Holy Cross have convinced them they are oppressed.”

* Popcorn’s multi-sensory appeal.

* U.S. birth rate falls for 4th year in a row: “A final tally of babies born in the U.S. last year confirms that the birth rate fell again in 2018, reaching the lowest level in more than three decades.” It’s hard to see this as a sign of optimism. We need to decrease housing costs by building a lot more housing, yet we’re not doing that.

* China’s growing threat to academic freedom.

* Napoleon Chagnon Is Dead: What academe’s shameful treatment of him tells us about truth and ethics now.

* How real chocolate gets farmed and made. Most chocolate that’s heavily marketed is bad.

* “Our Planet May Be Barreling Toward a Tipping Point.” In the meantime, we can’t even execute climate-friendly strategies like removing urban height limits and parking minimums, or building low-emission nuclear power plants.

* The bottleneck in US higher ed.

* Jeff Sypeck on the vogue for political rigidity in “young adult” novels, among other topics, including cultural change over time. Being into comic books used to be seen as weird and undesirable, for example?

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