Links: What I worked on, living an optimal life, Patricia Highsmith, and more!

* Paul Graham’s life story, under the header “What I worked on.”

* “California State Legislator Introduces Bill to Decriminalize Psychedelics.”

* “How We Did It: Two new books flesh out the history of smut, from Etsy-like handicrafts to the sexy swamp of Tumblr.” On The People’s Porn: A History of Handmade Pornography in America and Ana Valens’ Tumblr Porn. How do they compare to Thy Neighbor’s Wife, one wonders? Or at least I did, but then I read the second one and it feels more like an extended Tumblr riff mixed with an undergrad term paper than a book.

* Cancel the New York Times, on the seeming narrowing of permissible opinion online. Maybe pseudonyms are the way to go online now, in which case I’m making a mistake right now.

* “France Sees an Existential Threat From American Campuses: Prominent politicians and intellectuals say social theories from the United States on race, gender and post-colonialism are undermining their society.” The growth of this from fringe campus nonsense to hitting real workplaces still surprises me, although I wonder also if we’re going to see workplace norms change too.

* On Patricia Highsmith. I read the biography, which seems well done, and Highsmith seems to have led a life of sex, booze, and writing, probably in that order.

* “Why did I leave Google or, why did I stay so long?” Not just the usual, and a statement of work as a paycheck versus work as changing the world.

* John McWhorter: “The Neoracists: A new religion is preached across America. It’s nonsense posing as wisdom.” Persuasion.community is also producing disproportionately good and interesting writing right now. Tablet Mag is also good but won’t let readers read articles unless Javascript is enabled, which is very annoying. NoScript is a great, and educational, extension.

* “Whatever the faults of overconfidence or contrarianism sometimes may be, it seems clear to me that spreading a society-wide message that the solution is to simply trust the existing outputs of society, whether those come in the form of academic institutions, media, governments or markets, is not the solution. All of these institutions can only work precisely because of the presence of individuals who think that they do not work, or who at least think that they can be wrong at least some of the time.” Things may be the way they are for reasons mostly good, but things can also be made better if enough people want them to be made better.

* “I helped build ByteDance’s censorship machine.” ByteDance is the parent company of TikTok.

* The admissions office versus standards?

* Effort. It’s usually underestimated and underappreciated. Relatedly, it’s far easier to “comment” or “critique” than it is to make things. I sometimes like to think of it as the distinction between consuming and producing; many people find the move from school to the real world challenging because that’s also a move from a consumption-based world to a production-based world.

Links: Apple & China, Clubhouse & podcasts, the bad article about Slate Star Codex, and more!

* Detailed article about Apple in the Tim Cook era, with emphasis on Apple’s commitment to manufacturing in China. Apple doesn’t appear worried about China invading or attempting to invade Taiwan; it’s also notable that, as with Disney and China, there’s little public outcry or discussion. What should we draw from that, regarding many social/political controversies in the U.S.? What things should be prominent but aren’t? One comment on the great stagnation and the growth of bureaucracy in the U.S.:

“Jon Rubinstein, a senior vice president for hardware engineering during Jobs’s second tour at Apple, recalls almost having a heart attack in 2005 when he went with Gou to see a new factory in Shenzhen for the iPod Nano—a tiny device 80% smaller than Apple’s original MP3 player—only to find an empty field. Within months, though, a large structure and production line were in place. ‘In the U.S. you couldn’t even get the permits approved in that time frame,’ he says.”

In possibly related, and definitely good, news: “Samsung Foundry: New $17 Billion Fab in the USA by Late 2023.”

* On Clubhouse, the social media app focused on audio, but not a podcast app either.

* “The Mushrooms Will Survive Us,” on the popularity of mushroom cultivation as a hobby.

* Good interview with Zeynep Tüfekçi, who called the pandemic early and has done much on privacy, technology, and human interaction.

* Coinbase founder “Brian Armstrong on the Crypto Economy” and other topics, like the need to focus.

* “Extremely Online: The Novel.” A review I’m happy to have read for a novel I’m fine with not having read.

* “‘It’s Chaos’: Behind the Scenes of Donald McNeil’s New York Times Exit: Senior editors beamed in by video, staffers raged on Slack, and takes flowed on Twitter. Even with all the recent Times drama—Caliphate, Chillsgate—the McNeil mess, said one reporter, is ‘the most explosive scandal I’ve seen at the paper.'” It’s drama on the one hand, yes, but also emblematic of the times (the times of the Times, you might say) on the other.

* Thinking about how we perceive psychiatric conditions, with thoughts about evolution and such as well.

* “California Is Making Liberals Squirm:” the state is ruled almost entirely by democrats, but it’s not a state that anyone would call “well-governed.” Matt Yglesias had a similar essay in November, covering Massachusetts, another state that people are, on the net, leaving—for states that are both warmer and also politically redder.

* The NYT article on Slate Star Codex (SSC) came out and it’s terrible: here is an example of what more accurate quoting from Scott Alexander would look like, and here is a partial list of the ways the NYT attempts to mislead readers. I had some NYT complaints in 2015, and, while I still cite it frequently—I did in this links post—but don’t fully trust it. You can’t. SSC is also, to my mind, a strange choice for such a hit piece, because curious readers can go read SSC instantaneously and see that the author is being disingenuous, at best. There’s an implied threat in the NYT article: if you think for yourself, become popular, and don’t toe the line, you will become a target. The SSC comment on the article has ten times the integrity and thought than the article itself. How do we know what we know? We ought to be working harder to answer such questions.

* Another take about the above, this time on what “middlebrow” means.

Links: Charter schools, how not to cover books, healing divisions, and more!

* Are charter schools being punished for their successes? Too much mood affiliation in the given headline, but of interest nonetheless.

* “‘Their goal is to destroy everyone’: Uighur camp detainees allege systematic rape,” from the BBC. A horrifying story.

* “A YouTuber Shoots to Literary Fame in France, Ruffling Feathers” is a terrible article because it manages to say nothing at all about the quality of the book in question. Its author seems terrified to take a stance, and so presents the scenario as one of interest groups, rather than of literary or artistic quality. How boring.

* “How to Talk to Millennials About Capitalism: Polls show that young people embrace socialism—but they also distrust government regulation and admire entrepreneurialism and small business.” Not a great title but an interesting article; for most people, “socialism” seems to be a mood or identity affiliation, not a policy preference or set of policy proposals.

* “The reshaped Mac experience,” and “reshaped for the worse” one might add. I’ve noticed some of these things, but they’re aren’t sufficiently irritating to make me leave altogether. Messages and iMessage are also key bits of infrastructure for me.

* “Jonathan Haidt Is Trying to Heal America’s Divisions.” Good, and a good article. We could and should spend more time slowing down, thinking, and recognizing common humanity—and less time on Facebook.

* “Students Punished for ‘Vulgar’ Social Media Posts Are Fighting Back.” Good. The administrative overreach should see a backlash.

* The relentless Jeff Bezos.

* “Luck, foresight and science: How an unheralded team developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time.” A tremendously impressive story.

* “The Terrifying Warning Lurking in the Earth’s Ancient Rock Record.” An adaptation, essentially, of The Ends of the World (a great book worth reading). Few people incorporate the basic points made by such research analyses into their everyday lives: the gap between the “terrifying warning” and the sales of pickup trucks, for example, is vast, and perhaps widening.

* What is the value of restraint?

* “The Journalistic Tattletale and Censorship Industry Suffers Several Well-Deserved Blows.” Not the exact framing I’d prefer but a description of a real issue.

The effect of zoning restrictions on the life of the artist

Zena Hitz’s book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life delivers what it promises: a description of the beauty, importance, and pleasure of learning and doing for their own sake: “If human beings flourish from their inner core rather than in the realm of impact and results, then the inner work of learning is fundamental to human happiness, as far from pointless wheel spinning as are the forms of tenderness we owe our children or grandchildren.” David Perrell just interviewed Hitz, and she observes what many of us have felt: that the zoning laws that impede housing development cost us spiritually, not just in terms of dollars:

I spent a semester a couple of years ago in South Bend Indiana. That’s where I actually wrote the book. And I was astonished at what a difference it made to be in a place where the real estate was relatively cheap, for how people lived.

So for instance, I think there was this couple, they ran a nonprofit jazz club and got pianos out of the landfill and redid them and gave them to schools. Now, again, that’s not the kind of life you can lead… And they lived off of donations, as far as I knew, maybe they had some income from one place or another.

You can’t live that life on the Coasts. You’re always scrambling for your rent or your mortgage or whatever it is. The cost of housing is so high that it crushes people’s imaginations, people’s ways of thinking about their lives. And ironically, in places… I mean, in California, it breaks my heart because I’ve been out here for a little while, visiting family, and it’s so beautiful. There’s so much contemplation to be done in California.

The idea of living out here and wasting all your time making money so you can pay your mortgage is horrifying. You’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world, take a walk and think about things. So I think that’s really true. I think we don’t think enough about how really concrete this all is. If your real estate is too expensive, you’re not going to live as good a life. And I think that should change the way that we live, but how that’s going to work out in the long-term, I’m not really sure.

That’s a long blockquote, but it’s germane to the larger point. Having spent time in L.A. and New York, the difference between those places and lower-cost places is palpable: virtually everyone, except perhaps the few with inherited wealth, feels, correctly, they need to hustle to make it. And we’ve deliberately voted for societies in which that’s the default, by making the cost of housing so high through supply restrictions—and it is supply restrictions driving costs: see the research cited in this piece, for example, for more on that subject. But the debates about easing zoning rarely talk about the real improvements to human life that such policies can bring.

Hitz also says:

So the United States, for instance, very wealthy in the 1960s you look at what people’s lives were like in say, my parents’ generation, that’s the baby boomers basically. And it didn’t cost anything to live in LA, you could have a part-time job in a coffee shop and live in LA or San Francisco, and have plenty of time to read and do what you wanted. And that’s just not a reality anymore the economic situation has changed dramatically.

I’d love to have more time to read and do what I want. And I have some: I don’t want to pretend I don’t. But housing costs have dominated a lot of my existence. In the 1950s, when building new housing was largely legal, rents for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan were about $530 a month. Since COVID struck, rates have fallen, but they still appear to be about $3,000 per month, or about 5.5x what they were in the ’50s. The life of the mind is hard to live on the coasts, although many programmers also have brilliant minds whose tendencies are well-rewarded.

Hitz’s book touches the same themes as her Perrell interview:

San Francisco in the 1970s was a strange place for many famous reasons, but its basic commitment to leisure is clear to me only now that we have passed into a far less leisurely age. Reading and thinking for their own sake went along with outings to the stony beaches and dark mountain forests of Northern California, without a clear object or specialized skills or expensive equipment. (2)

I’ve been part of this change: I’d prefer to spend fewer hours working as a grant writing consultant and more hours writing novels: but one of those activities pays far better than the other, so it gets the majority of my time. I’m symptomatic of my generation: rents and student loans have squeezed my life in a particular direction.

We’ve legislated ourselves into working relentlessly to support the assets of landowners. This is insane, stated this way, and yet it’s how the political system has evolved. Parking minimums lead everyone to need expensive cars, because buildings are so spread out that biking becomes impractical (places like Phoenix, or L.A.’s Inland Empire, are the apotheosis of such policies). Maybe we should reconsider both, and consider what life could be like if we’d prioritize lowering costs, rather than forever working to inflate asset prices and have to buy and maintain cars.

One slight caveat to Hitz’s generalizations: I do think a lot of people, including tech people and the philosophers who do tech, read and think for their own sake. “For their own sake” or “for their own sake” also conceal much: true uselessness seems rare. It’s difficult to predict what will be “useful.” My favorite example of this is Tolkien: inventing imaginary languages and mythologies didn’t seem terribly “useful” relative to his work as a philologist and professor. But those useless activities turned out to be essential to writing one of the great imaginative works of all time. “Useful” is hard to predict.

Links: Patricia Highsmith the person, free speech, know your amphetamines, and more!

* A poisonous person, Patricia Highsmith was an enduring writer. Highsmith “abjured monogamy herself, believing it undermined her creativity.” That is a theory, I suppose.

* “China seized my sister. Biden must fight for her and all enslaved Uighurs.” A few of you have said that you’re tired of the China-related links, which is understandable, but, simultaneously, we have a massive genocidal regime that’s massively imprisoning, sterilizing, and sometimes murdering ethnic minorities within its own borders, while simultaneously threatening to invade democratic neighbors, and those things are really bad.

* “The Office of Free Speech: A Not-So-Modest Proposal for Academia.” Consistent with me in “Have journalists and academics become modern-day clerics?

* “The Climate Crisis Is Worse Than You Can Imagine. Here’s What Happens If You Try. A climate scientist spent years trying to get people to pay attention to the disaster ahead. His wife is exhausted. His older son thinks there’s no future. And nobody but him will use the outdoor toilet he built to shrink his carbon footprint.”

* Know your amphetamines, from the new Slate Star Codex, now called Astral Codex Ten, because why not?

* “The New Censors: Journalists celebrate the destruction of freedoms on which their profession depends.” A strange development, to my eye, but maybe the gatekeepers don’t like no longer being gatekeepers.

* “The US failure to authorize the AstraZeneca vaccine in the midst of a pandemic when thousands are dying daily and a factory in Baltimore is warmed up and ready to run is a tragedy and dereliction of duty of epic proportions.”

* “The ‘induced demand’ case against YIMBYism is wrong.” Fairly obvious, but one keeps seeing the point reappear.

* “Why Facebook and Apple are going to war over privacy.” There is an element here of “two giant monsters clashing.”

* “Bryan Fogel on Why Netflix and Streamers Were Scared of Releasing ‘The Dissident.’” Hollywood loves stories about plucky dissidents overcoming powerful empires, but in reality Hollywood is chasing the money.

* Beating Back Cancel Culture: A Case Study from the Field of Artificial Intelligence.

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