Briefly noted: The Devil’s Candy, Maigret and the Old People, Fantastic Fungi

* I was looking for a book and not finding any to satisfaction, so I grabbed The Devil’s Candy, which is still great, and it’s also refreshingly devoid of PC nonsense. It’s the story of the making of Bonfire of the Vanities, the movie, which details how no single decision is bad, exactly, yet the accretion of good-seeming-at-the-time decisions leads to a bad movie. It’s got lots of droll humor, like a visit to the American Film Institute’s (AFI) annual tribute dinner, where “Occasionally the bold experimenters honored there [by the AFI members] were in the odd position of accepting praise from the very people who had ruined their careers, the studio executives who pretended to admire daring films but didn’t want to finance them.” Today, cameras are digital, but little seems to have changed. Hollywood is supine to China and Netflix exists, but the basic story shape remains.

* The Dutch House by Ann Patchett; this book is almost relentlessly boring, yet I kept reading for some reason. It’s more family saga, blah blah blah, lots of feelings, I guess. The sort of book that explains why murder stories are so popular; one years for darkness, intrigue, a knife in the back, shocking and horrible family secrets (what is the real relationship between Maeve and the narrator?), but all we get is dribs and drabs of things.

* Fantastic Fungi, edited by Paul Stamets: Think of it as a collection of mushroom photography, though it has many short essays too. Speaking of forest ecology and the relationship of mushrooms and mycelium, one contributor says, “Mushrooms are literally ‘the tip of the iceberg.'” That’s not true: mushrooms are figuratively the tip of the iceberg. Stamets writes, “We’re going down a slippery slope. As we deforest the planet and cut down old-growth forests, we accelerate carbon loss…” Forests in the United States are actually growing, and the same is true of Europe. So we’re not universally cutting down forests; that’s a huge problem in Brazil, but the U.S. and Europe are heading in a net positive direction. Another contributor says, “Nature has kept us alive since the beginning of human life.” Sort of: you could also say “nature” has been trying to kill us since the beginning of human life and just hasn’t succeeded yet (nature also gives us uranium, which we can use to kill ourselves en masse). Another writer says, “every decision comes down to the bottom line because the world is run by economists and accountants.” More accurately, the world is run by consumers and voters. Someone cites Bolt Threads’s efforts to create “leather” from mushrooms, but the company seems to have begun putting out press releases in 2016 and no products seem to be on the market today. I could go on. There is too much sleight-of-mind in Fantastic Fungi.

I’ve not seen the film.

* Maigret and the Old People by Georges Simenon: A fine Maigret. As usual, characters claim things like, “I know hardly anything,” and then turn out to know things. Maybe a lot of detective fiction is appealing because everyday people turn out to be essential in a way that is not felt in a lot of everyday life. The old people of the title turn out to be decrepit titled European “nobility,” and one does not have to stretch far to see the book poking at the absurdity of hereditary titles.

Links: Flickr’s fall, focus as competitive advantage, state capacity, reshaping Britain, and more!

* “The rise, fall and resurrection of Flickr.” About other topics too.

* How focus became more valuable than intelligence. Ties well into Cal Newport’s books on this subject.

* “The telling conservative backlash to a Virginia zoning reform proposal, explained.” Reforming land-use controls is the single best way to improve the average person’s life with minimal cost. If someone is talking about “income inequality” and similar topics without discussing how much land-use controls are costing the average person, they are not serious.

* The Swinging 1660s.

* What libertarianism has become and will become – State Capacity Libertarianism. Surprising on many points.

* “America Is Now the Divided Republic the Framers Feared.”

* AI and adaptive learning in education. This could and should be a big deal.

* “Denser Housing Is Gaining Traction on America’s East Coast: Maryland joins Virginia with a new proposal to tackle the affordable housing crisis. And it’s sweeping in its ambition.” Lowering the cost of housing is the easiest and most readily solvable problem in the United States today, because the problems are almost entirely legal and regulatory, rather than technological.

* Dan Wang on science, technology, China, and many other matters of interest.

* What Jordan Peterson Did for Rob Henderson.

* Has J.K. Rowling figured out a way to break our cancel culture? One hopes so. A little bit of “no” and ignoring the fools goes a long way.

* Letting nurse practitioners be independent increases access to health care? See also my most-read essay, “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school.”

* “Dominic Cummings’s plan to reshape the state.” Cummings communicates via blog, in complete sentences and complex thoughts. I don’t know of any other politician or high-level government official in any country who does the same.

* “ Concentrate! The challenge of chess – learning how to hold complexity in mind and still make good decisions – is also the challenge of life.”

* Ricky Gervais teaches Hollywood what speaking truth to power really means.

* “The inside story of how scientists produced an Ebola vaccine.” An impressive story with an undercurrent of the question, “Why can’t more vaccines be produced in a process closer to the Ebola vaccine process?”

* “Dating apps need women. Advertisers need diversity. AI companies offer a solution: Fake people.”

* Overly long and complain-y essay about turning books and magazine articles into movies. Or, more often, they get optioned and then disappear. Still useful for people curious about journalism, fiction, and TV shows.

* America’s National Climate Strategy Starts with NEPA. Unglamorous but important.

* If Libertarianism Hollowed Out, Why?

“Education” is not the same as “learning” or “quality”

Millenials are supposedly “Playing Catch-Up in the Game of Life” and approaching “Middle Age in Crisis,” if one is to believe the Wall Street Journal; this stood out most to me: “Even with record levels of education, the troubles of millennials have delayed traditional adult milestones in ways expected to alter the nation’s demographic and economic contours through the end of the century” (emphasis added). But is all “education” created the same? How many people have degree not required for the job they’re working? Has the writer read The Case Against Education, which argues that much if not most of what we call “education” is wasteful?

If education is mostly about signaling, then the more people acquire the signal, the less the signal means anything—which seems to explain a lot of the reason why people moved from not needing high school to needing high school and from not needing college to “needing” college. We’re in an expensive credentialing arms race, which is great for college administrative staff but may not confer real skills and abilities on many of those who have “record levels of education” but whose education may also have record levels of “not meaning anything.”

We’ve also systematically raised the cost of housing in most municipalities, by erecting legal barriers to building more of it. This artificially raises the prices of the assets of people who bought in the ’70s into the ’90s but hurts the rest of us. Millenials spend more money and time in education, while regulatory barriers push up the cost of housing, and yet the reporter in this story doesn’t quite connect these features with each other.

Links: Psychedelics, “trash” may outlast us, where humans can afford to live, and more!

* The things humans have left and are leaving behind.

* Blight wiped out the American chestnut. Parallel efforts are close to bringing it back. Chestnuts are underrated as food sources. I have read that, in the 19th and early 20th Century, the US was a popular immigration destination because vast chestnut forests meant that it was (relatively) difficult to starve to death in the US: one could eat chestnuts.

* “Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies.” One thing I note: “Under Chavismo, there were genuine attempts to create alternative models of collective ownership and democratic participation in economic life. In particular, the formation of worker cooperatives and various forms of social enterprises was heavily promoted.” There is such a thing as too much organizational hierarchy but there is also such a thing as too little—or as an organization being too democratic. Worker cooperatives consistently get out-competed by more hierarchical and conventional organizations; what should we draw from that fact?

* “California population growth slowest since 1900 as residents leave, immigration decelerates..” There is a simple solution to this: legalize the building of a lot more housing. We have the technology and have had it for a century. This is purely a political and legal problem, which means it’s very solvable.

* “From the Age of Persuasion to the Age of Offense.” Persuasion is better. I am also offensive.

* From Woodstock to Brexit: What happened to the middle class? An interesting take that’s not precisely mine; as with so many analyses it leaves out the corrosive effects of land-use restrictions that artificially and substantially raise the cost of housing. See for example “Britain’s Housing Crisis” and “To End U.K. Housing Shortage, Build More Houses. Duh.” Britain has the same problems the U.S. does and the solution is simple and effective.

* The 2010s were supposed to bring the ebook revolution. It never quite came.

* “The Sound and the Story: Exploring the World of Paradise Lost.” By Philip Pullman.

* “My semester with the snowflakes.” A 52-year-old veteran goes to Yale and has many of his expectations overturned. I’d emphasize that the “snowflake” and “social justice warrior” phenomenon, along with the battles against free speech, come from a small minority of students. The seemingly strange thing is administrator willingness to tolerate attacks on free speech and thought—or willingness to tolerate demands for infantilization. But these things make more sense when one realizes that higher education is now run like a business and administrators are managers responding to consumer complaints. The managerial mindset needs to address every complaint, regardless of validity or contrariness to the organization’s real mission.

* Humans might be maladapted for space, which would either stop us from going to Mars or substantially complicate efforts.

* “‘Garages aren’t even cheap anymore:’ Bay Area exodus drives lowest growth rate in years.” Many cities are destroying themselves via restrictive zoning, as noted above.

* “I asked my students to turn in their cell phones and write about living without them.

* “Government Standards Are Making 5-Year-Olds and Kindergarten Teachers Miserable.” Bureaucracy wins again.

* Magic mushroom compound psilocybin found safe for consumption in largest ever controlled study.

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