Links: Freedom of speech and thought, hospital prices, the “climate left,” and more!

* “How I Liberated My College Classroom: I created a special seminar to discuss controversial issues freely, and the results were eye-opening.” I think this kind of environment used to be a normal seminar, not a “special” one.

* “Get Lucky:” “Ours is not the first society to plunge into a completely moronic frenzy of witch hunts and moral purity tests in an effort to vanquish some non-existent foe or avenge some imagined victim.”

* The least-interesting generation?

* Social Media Is Killing Discourse Because It’s Too Much Like TV. An important point that, because it’s not a quick video, will probably be missed.

* “April Powers Condemned Jew-Hate. Then She Lost Her Job.” As a “diversity officer,” at that!

* “Education and Masculinity—An Interview with Will Knowland:” Ideas rarely today encountered.

* “Hospitals Have Started Posting Their Prices Online. Here’s What They Reveal.” “Not yet as much as they should” is one answer.

* “‘Financially Hobbled for Life’: The Elite Master’s Degrees That Don’t Pay Off. Columbia and other top universities push master’s programs that fail to generate enough income for graduates to keep up with six-figure federal loans.” Schools should have skin in the game, yes, but also, masters degrees in film? Publishing? Come on. An IPO requires a prospectus, which warns investors about investment risks. Investors who invest poorly lose their money. Should the same be true of schools?

* “The West’s cultural revolution is over: The return of censorship, speech codes and taboos suggests society returning to normal.” I’m not so sure the analogies are apt, especially with regards to censorship—the crypto revolution is arguably weakening censorship and censoriousness—but the argument interests:

Those who grew up in the late 20th century were living in a highly unusual time, one that could never be sustained, a sexual and cultural revolution that began in 1963 or 1968. But it has ended and, as all revolutionaries must do after storming the Bastille, they have built Bastilles of their own. The new order has brought in numerous methods used by the old order to exert control — not just censorship, but word taboo and rituals which everyone is forced to go along with, or at least not openly criticise. You might call it the new intolerance, or woke extremism, but all societies need the policing of social norms.

* “Doing Away with College: Will society kill higher education before higher education kills society?” An essay linked to the two links immediately above.

* “What is the climate left doing?” The best analysis of the issue I’ve seen, and it regards the confusion between signaling tribal identity versus getting things done.

* “The Failures That Made Ian Fleming.” On the new biography of the author of James Bond.

* Interview with Matt Yglesias, by Noah Smith, highly substantive.

* “Book review: Crazy Like Us.”

* A listing of Xinjiang camp, rape, and murder victims.

Links: China’s iron grip on Hollywood, the sociobiology debate, carbontech, and more!

* “China’s iron grip on Hollywood began in 1998 with a Martin Scorsese movie and a groveling apology from Disney.” This is one of these big stories that’s not being told much, and it’s important because the people who tell many of the biggest and most important stories in our society are in effect subject to the censorship of the Chinese government. Weirdly, at least to me, many of the people who profess to be against oppression and such are silent on this issue, which seems proportionally more important than many issues of great media and social media prominence.

* “The high cost of divorce.” That is, literal, legal costs.

* “Rereading Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate.” I read Defenders of the Truth a few years ago, and it is a good but very thorough book. Very, very thorough. Few will want to follow all of its twists and turns, I think.

* “Education Week: Educational Assessments are Valid, Reliable, and Remarkably Predictive,” yet extremely politically suspect in some precincts. There is also a great podcast with Marc Andreessen in which he talks about this and related matters.

* Bad apple: the cancelled writer and programmer who was supposed to work at Apple is back.

* “The man whose software ate the world.” Same author as above: worth subscribing to.

* “Where Did the Coronavirus Come From? What We Already Know Is Troubling.” Long, impressive, detailed, and consistent with the “lab leak” hypothesis.

* “Has the Carbontech Revolution Begun?” One hopes so.

* “Mate Selection for Modernity.” Depressing, maybe, but knowledge is also power, I’ve been told.

* “Culture Wars are Long Wars.” Perspective counts.

* “Sixty years of climate change warnings.”

* “Why a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be a catastrophe for China and the world.” A catastrophic miscalculation, or series of them, have led to a number of catastrophic wars: just because something will be catastrophic, doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

* “The plants that change our consciousness: How three plant-derived drugs – caffeine, opium and mescaline – shape society.”

Golden Hill — Francis Spufford

Golden Hill might be the most amazing novel I’ve read since Lonesome Dove: after a string of duds I’m pleased to find a novel so cleverly written and plotted. The latter point matters: every time Golden Hill seems to be too pleased with its own reproduction of eighteenth-century language, a shocking turn reminds one of the stakes, and that the novel is not primarily an exercise in language mimicry (though it is that too, and pleasingly). Laura Miller’s review induced me to it, though the review doesn’t and maybe can’t give a good sense of just how delightful the book is. Most of us who aren’t seeking tenure won’t care how much it relates to 18th Century antecedents or 20th Century recreations of those antecedents; we care if the book is any good and gives pleasure, and it does. The machinations of money and money transfer drive the plot: has the first great novel that turns on Bitcoin or Ethereum been written, yet? Long before digital coinage, Mr. Smith shows in New York, in 1746, and says little of himself, but he presents a bill for cash. The counting-house man, Mr. Lovell, wants to know, as does the reader, “What is this thing? And who are you?” Smith says, “What it seems to be. What I seem to be. A paper worth a thousand pounds; and a traveler who owns it.” The dialogue on the pages that follow is a witty duel, and Lovell reminds Smith that “Commerce is trust, sir. Commerce is need and need together, sir.” Can Smith and Lovell trust each other? And why? The trust is not only commercial but romantic and sexual as well: Lovell has a pair of daughters, who are intrigued by this curious man, who is rich—or is he? If he is attempting to steal money, what else might he attempt to steal?

The sentences satisfy, and the style is winkingly old, with many clauses strung together: “As a mason must build a wall one brick at a time, though the finished wall be smooth and sheer, so in individual pieces did Mr. Smith’s consciousness return to him, the next day, as he lay in the truckle bed of Mrs. Lee’s gable-end bedroom, and assembled the world again.” Or: “Mr. Lovell, to whom few things retained the force of novelty, and who misliked extremely the sensation when they did, as if firm ground underfoot had been replaced on the instant by a scrabbling fall in vacuo—was, at the moment the door opened on Broad Way, hesitating in his parlour.” We learn much about Mr. Lovell, there, and why he may be unusually suspicious of Smith, whose novelty continues through the novel. He is busy watching others, but he “failed to perceive, as he reflected and considered, that others were meanwhile reflecting and considering upon him.” His perspective seems stable at first, but he is often surprised, as his own assumptions about others prove wrong. First impressions are often dashed, as are second-, third-, and fourth impressions. The best impression of the novel may be not the first time through but the second, when what seem to be minor, though depressing, details, like Smith noticing “a coffle of shuffling black men in irons underscoring the street music with a dismal clank.”

Still: antecedents. Golden Hill reminds me of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, though Golden Hill is blessedly shorter. The Sot-Weed Factor is amazing, but too many plot turns leaves one reeling and discombobulated, like an excess of drink; as with many things is life, some is good and too much is not better, and by the midpoint of The Sot-Weed Factor a yearning for resolution sets in, and tedium overcomes investment. Like Golden Hill, it decides to situate, as best it can, the reader in the mind of a man from centuries ago. There is much happening in Golden Hill’s many metaphors. Septimus tells Smith, “the ships come and go again, and the most part of the traffic of souls passes straight through. They walk up from the slips to the streets and are gone; the continent devours them. New-York is but a gullet. Few stay.” “A gullet:” a piece of the digestive track, and few of us wish to be subjected to digestion. The New World was brutal, then. Death everywhere, and, horribly, “we have no theatre” in New York. Naturally, a play is eventually got up, and plays into the rest of the book, which is braided tightly together, the early parts reappearing in the later.

The way Golden Hill speaks of today’s dilemmas garbed in the past is interesting, but maybe most interesting is the way that it, like The Name of the Rose, is a text composed of other texts, and made the better for it. The hook, though, remains the plot: it is in motion, with the plays within plays within plays, and political theater and theater theater are much the same—as they are today and likely will be tomorrow. Each time I felt sure-footed reading Godlen Hill, something shifted, and left me off balance, in a way that’s hard to describe easily felt as a reader. I didn’t foresee the ending, though it seems obvious in retrospect: a bit ridiculous, and with some unlikely elements, but it fits. “Where do you get your ideas?” is among the least good questions that can be asked, and yet this novel combines elements so unexpectedly that I’d like to ask its author about them.

Links: Modern narcissism culture, technology saves the world, freedom, and more!

* It is obscene: a reflection in three parts. One of the best essays I’ve read in recent memory, and one that speaks to the narcissism often cloaked in rhetoric of fairness or caring. It’s consistent also with “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.”

* Technology saves the world: a counterfactual examination of what the pandemic might have been like.

* Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Bomber Mafia, may be largely simplified and inaccurate.

* “U.S. Housing Market Needs 5.5 Million More Units, Says New Report: Construction of new homes in the last two decades lagged behind historical levels, contributing to a recent surge in home prices.” Building more housing, fast, is probably the simplest way to get a lot of money in everyday people’s pockets, fast.

* “Kids need freedom, too.” One of these obvious statements that is nonetheless mostly absent.

* Is the COVID-19 lab-leak hypothesis likely wrong?

* Whatever happened to flirting?

* “‘How Much Damage Have My Colleagues and I Done?’ A former dean of students loses faith in how colleges handle sexual assault.” What appears to be a rare admission, for this venue and from this kind of person.

* How children fail, a review of a fascinating book that’s many decades old and yet, based on the excerpts, seems like it could’ve been written yesterday. Ordered. And now mostly read: many of its comments resonate with my classroom experiences, even though I don’t teach children.

* Why everyone hates the media: surprisingly subtle and useful. Most “information” is not about information per se: this essay is compatible with the one immediately linked below.

* John Stuart Mill on why most Internet arguments are pointless: most arguments and beliefs are based on people’s feelings. Citing facts, or apparent facts, in response to feelings rarely changes anything.

* “ American Basketball Pro Spent Eight Months in Secretive China Detention A human-rights group says a legal form of Chinese detention that often leaves people cut off from family and lawyers is used at a ‘mass level’”

* Good interview with Marc Andreesen.

* Antonio García Martínez, cancelled by Apple, on future plans.

Links: Empowerment and projects, the need for close reading, digital and real worlds, and more!

* The empowering of the American mind.

* A project of one’s own, by Paul Graham, which articulates something I’ve felt and yet not expressed.

* “A backlash against gender ideology is starting in universities?” The question mark is mine.

* Close reading for grant writers.

* “China’s Uyghurs living in a ‘dystopian hellscape’, says Amnesty report .”

* “Decadence and Andreessen’s Dilemma.” On the distinction between digital and real world.

* “Truth, Reading, Decadence,” which isn’t a great title for an essay about how the passing of Harold Bloom reflects declining interest in studying English literature. You’ll see much in common with my comments here.

* “Amy Chua and the age of infantilization.” Plausible, and very congruent with Jonathan Haidt’s work.

* “Built-to-Rent Suburbs Are Poised to Spread Across the U.S.: Economic forces and generational preferences are leading to a new kind of housing: subdivisions designed for renters and managed like apartment buildings. What does it mean for suburbia?” This is close to my position and thinking: I’ve watched a lot of people go bankrupt or nearly bankrupt over housing decisions. For most people, buying property is an extremely leveraged (and thus dangerous) bet that can easily go wrong, and the bet relies on the cost of housing going up over time—which it has, since the 1970s, in many “superstar cities”—but it hasn’t everywhere (owners in Los Angeles have made a ton of money—people in Baltimore, less so). When a person is “buying a housing unit,” it’s more accurate to say a bank is buying a housing unit, and then someone is paying the bank for the next thirty years.

Buying a housing unit typically incurs closing costs in the range of 5 – 10% of the housing unit, so a putatively $400,000 house, to make any real gains at all, needs something like $40,000 in gains due to sale costs. Buying a housing unit also implies that work and commuting will remain relatively constant: long commutes are among the worst things a person can do for quality of life, and they effectively lower a person’s hourly rate. Maybe buying a house made a lot of sense when the typical household had one working man in it, and that man worked one or two jobs in his entire life. It makes a lot less sense for couples, both of whom work and change jobs frequently. The “buy a house, live in it for 30 years” model works pretty poorly today. Perhaps, with the passing of the Baby Boomers, we’ll see smarter and more varied housing options open up. Our current system was designed for the lives of the 1950s, not the lives of the 2020s. Housing, healthcare, transit, and education are the highest parts of a typical person’s budget, usually but not always in that order, and three of those fields are the focus of The Great Stagnation, and for good reason. People who study those areas mostly know what the problems are and what solutions might look like, but stakeholders in the status quo in each area fight change. That fight is defining life and demographics today, even when the notional issue is something else.

Right now, renting is cheaper than buying in all 50 major metros in the U.S., though this is unlikely to persist forever.

* Ezra Klein interviews Sam Altman on general artificial intelligence (AGI) and many other topics.

* How does Asia work?

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