Links: The cruelty of the desalination rejection, the virtues of low expectations, and more!

* “California regulator rejects desalination plant despite historic drought.” This is the scarcity agenda.

* Low expectations and demands keep families together.

* America’s neglect of nuclear energy has weakened our global influence.

* “The Rotten Core of Our Political System: In their new account of the 2020 election, two reporters reveal just how broken American democracy has become.”

* “Let’s state this plainly: Pennsylvania Republicans just nominated a full-blown insurrectionist who intends to use the power of the office to ensure that, as long as he is governor, no Democratic presidential candidate wins his state again.” That would seem to me to be bad, and peaceful transfers of power are good.

* “The twilight of identity politics? Progressive groupthink is falling to pieces.” Maybe, but seems optimistic to me.

* “Why Do We Swallow What Big Oil and the Green Movement Tell Us?” If someone claims to be interested in “the environment” or “climate” or similar, and isn’t agitating for nuclear power, that person doesn’t know much in this domain.

* “Framework’s new laptop means the promise of modular gadgets might be coming true.” I don’t own one, but it looks really impressive (the screen aspect ratio is wonderful!).

* How did the journal Nature become so prestigious? And why are we such suckers for bullshit “prestige?”

* Details about the FDA’s folly in creating the baby formula shortage.

* Ideas that lead to life fulfillment.

Briefly noted: The Death of the Artist, Writers & Lovers, In Search of Mycotopia

* The Science of Making Friends: Perhaps the most useful element of this book isn’t so much in the book itself, but the idea that making friends is 1. a skill that 2. can be practiced and 3. ultimately improved. Taking something that is “intuitive” for most people, and seen as something you’ve either somehow “got” or “don’t” and breaking it into discrete steps has value. The forward notes that “Dr. Liz Laugeson has devoted her career to studying the behaviors that lead to social failure and finding ways to teach alternate ways of acting.” The framing is not ideal for many people—it’s targeting teens or young adults with autism, and their parents—but the basic material is valuable.

I wonder if the rise of smartphones and many hours per day of screen time increases the need for education on “how to interact with people,” since there may be less organic, in-person interaction happening. There are delicate balances to be achieved, too: being too quiet is “weird” but being “hyperverbose, talking incessantly with little notice of the interests of others” is too. We’ve all been around people who appear to take “very little notice of their conversational partner.” What makes those people not realize what they’re doing?

The Science of Making Friends is often too basic—would anyone disagree that “Arguments and disagreements are relatively common among teenagers and young adults?” Aren’t arguments and disagreements common among adults and the elderly, too? Many olds are plenty spicy, with the “don’t-give-a-damn-attitude” that often comes with minimal concern about certain kinds and classes of romantic opportunities. Speaking of, there are some very important but missing ideas in The Science of Making Friends, like the way much conversation is about status (who’s up, who’s down, how can the speaker move up, and so forth) and sex (which is hard to separate from status). Take those out, and what do most people’s conversations consist of? The number of Vaclav Smil fans is small. People love gossip and aren’t nearly as fond of data.

The sections about online socializing are hilariously out of date and bordering on counterproductive. But the ability to attempt to notice what successful people do, and then do that, remains useful.

I wonder what a high school class about “the art and science of social life” would look like; if I were a high school teacher, I might try to find out. The high school curriculum seems peculiarly ossified, perhaps by state and federal mandates, but is there room to try new things?

* The Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicz: A well-written, well-argued book that covers ground that’s too familiar to me, but that would be a great gift to the high school student thinking about going to art school or getting an art degree: at least that student wouldn’t be able to say, in 20 years, “No one warned me.” The number of people, even highly talent and driven people, who make it, is tiny. The famous artists who say “Don’t give up on your dreams” are quoted in admiring profiles; the unfamous artists who can’t pay their rent or child support aren’t quoted in admiring profiles because those profiles don’t exist.

The basic problem with most of the information arts (books, TV, music—everything from pre-social media) is that, now, everything is available. Everyone is competing with everyone: that’s been truer for books than for embodied music or TV or movies, for most of the histories of each medium, but, online, almost every book, TV show, movie, or song ever recorded can be accessed instantaneously. When I write a novel, I’m still competing, in some sense, with Fitzgerald or Carlos Ruiz Zafón or millions of others. TV used to need to fit in a 24-hour day (with only a small slice of that day “prime time”) and movies used to occur only in theaters or on a physical medium. Now, TV and movies are Netflix, and a few other companies. That’s not counting the vast expansion of user-generated media. What’s the artist to do? Being rich is one way. Striking it rich is another, albeit rare. “Marry a rich spouse” is not a good life plan, although I guess it’s nice for those to whom it happens; attempting to engineer it seems to have many costs. Finding a sinecure at a university or other media company was more plausible pre-2009. If you notice the improbability of all these solutions, well, know that Deresiewicz is likely aware of the improbability too.

Some problems have no answers, and an industry’s secular decline is often unanswerable. Advertising revenue will not return to newspapers or local TV. Revenue revenue is unlikely to return to the book or music or movie industries (although music does sell everything in the world except music). TV is doing better than might be expected but that makes it merely a slightly less brutal industry than it used to be. The phrase “learn to code” never appears in the book and yet hovers over it, the invisible angel of the subject matter. The healthcare and tech sectors seem to be infinitely expanding: they’re where the money is. Marc Andreessen said recently:

[Noah Smith]: If you could give some advice — career advice, or otherwise — to a smart 23-year-old American today, what would it be?

[Andreessen]: Don’t follow your passion. Seriously. Don’t follow your passion. Your passion is likely more dumb and useless than anything else. Your passion should be your hobby, not your work. Do it in your spare time.

Instead, at work, seek to contribute. Find the hottest, most vibrant part of the economy you can and figure out how you can contribute best and most. Make yourself of value to the people around you, to your customers and coworkers, and try to increase that value every day.

It can sometimes feel that all the exciting things have already happened, that the frontier is closed, that we’re at the end of technological history and there’s nothing left to do but maintain what already exists. This is just a failure of imagination. In fact, the opposite is true. We’re surrounding by rotting incumbents that will all need to be replaced by new technologies. Let’s get on it.

Good advice. Where is the frontier? It may not be in most of the pre-social-media arts (this is an observation, not a statement of approval).

* Writers & Lovers by Lily King: A well-executed novel, but I’ve read too many novels about writers, although this one warns regarding what being a “writer” is often like: “My loans for college and grad school all went into default when I was in Spain, and when I came back I learned that the penalties, fees, and collection costs had nearly doubled the original amount I owed.” Another character meets “a Milton scholar with excellent posture and a trust fund.” The trust fund is silently behind more grad students than is commonly realized (you’ll notice congruence between The Death of the Artist and themes in Writers & Lovers). The protagonist’s lassitude means she “didn’t mean to move back to Massachusetts, I just had no other plan.” She expresses her “bewilderment at why [a couple getting married] would participate in a hollow, misogynistic ritual that will only end in misery,” showing an incredible lack of imaginative range and insight for someone who is supposed to be a writer.

* In Search of Mycotopia by Doug Bierend: Sounds promising, yet there is a lot of “conversations about social justice” posturing, and statements like “Low-cost mushroom farms can be set up within a matter of weeks, in a wide variety of environments, leading many to see fungi as potential allies in struggles for food security and medicinal sovereignty.” “Food security” compared to what, when? “Medicinal sovereignty” compared to what, when? A fascinating topic marred by such things, to the point that I gave up early. There’s a better book somewhere inside this one.

Links: On heat pumps, the wolf, and robot poetry (all separate topics), and more!

* The need for heat pumps and other non-methane-gas energy technologies.

* How bad government policy fuels the infant formula shortage.

* “Casting out the wolf in our midst.” Long, poetic, concerning violence and deep history, and possibly not wholly right but of great interest anyway. Not politically correct, either. I’m subscribing to Razib’s RSS feed.

* Why people can’t stop adding “lol” to texts.

* Robots are writing poetry, and many people can’t tell the difference.

* “The ACLU has lost its way:” something so obvious I’m tempted not to link it—but I also used to be a member.

* On Bayraktar drones and the man behind them. New Yorker, seems thorough.

* “The Ghost Writer’s Mistress: New York psychoanalyst and novelist Arlene Heyman recalls her youthful relationship with Bernard Malamud.” Am surprised to see this.

* Until Feb. 2022, many of democracy’s critics seemed to be gaining traction; since then, we’ve been reminded of democracy’s virtues, among them the ability to peacefully transfer power and remove insane rulers. Autocracies don’t have these features and consequently are prone to the kinds of extreme negative outcomes that generally don’t occur in democracies. Being able to correct mistakes is important.

* The mysterious disappearance of revolutionary mathematician Alexander Grothendieck.

* How to quit intensive, or helicopter, parenting.

* Some writing advice.

Links: Tribal language, hyphens, RSS, land use, and more!

* “‘Disabled’ is not a bad word. Stop telling people with disabilities it is.”

* “College Became the Default. Let’s Rethink That.” It’s nice to see the NYT catch up to things I wrote in 2017.

* How to use a hyphen. A charming article.

* Ways to increase the surface area of blogging via RSS. I approve, naturally, while noting that most indicators have been moving in the wrong direction for years. Blogging also continues to have a key advantage over other media forms: visibility to search engines.

* “Why Chinese Culture Has Not Conquered Us All.” Although I still suspect the basic, obvious, answer may be the most correct one.

* Tim Bray on riding his ebike. The bike company Specialized is going to sell appropriately price ebikes.

* Vaclav Smil on climate and other matters.

* We only hire the trendiest, or, programmer moneyball.

* “What DALL-E 2 can and cannot do,” so far.

* “America’s homebuilding trend (that isn’t).” We need to create housing abundance, but we’re not doing so, and that failure is bad. Even basketcase San Francisco, however, may be moving towards “yes in my backyard,” or “YIMBY,” abundance politics.

* An insane story about a 15-year-old girl who may have been medically sterilized.

Links: The case for seriousness, historical comparisons, and much more!

* The case for American seriousness, one of the best essays I’ve read recently and one that describes many phenomena in media, culture, and technology. Unfortunately most of us neither live nor vote for seriousness or earnestness.

* “‘That’s it? It’s over? I was 30. What a brutal business’: pop stars on life after the spotlight moves on.” I’ve read about a quarter of the source book so far, and it’s interesting, but less psychologically focused than I might have imagined, and very UK focused.

* Arnold Kling on the “Intellectual Dark Web,” with the most interesting bit appearing at the end, comparing today to 1964.

* The epistemic minor leagues, which you are perhaps experiencing right now.

* “The humanities are facing a credibility crisis.” And have been for at least, what, a decade? Maybe longer? Notice: “[T]he conflation of our scholarship and our political advocacy doesn’t improve our credibility; it undermines it. Indeed, people often assume that humanities scholars start with political commitments and backfill the evidence rather than starting with questions to answer through some relatively transparent process of inquiry. The idea that humanities scholars are activists first and only then scholars leaves much of the public skeptical of the work we do.”

* “Books Become Games: Simulation, Gamification, and the Rise of Algorithmic Capitalism:”

Most of the podcasters I’ve encountered, if I may be honest, remind me of nothing so much as the classic Onion “advice column”, from back before that newspaper was generated by AI (as far as I can tell), that consisted in a book-report on Animal Farm by a kid who hasn’t read it. It’s “well worth the $5.99 purchase price,” he wrote. “It’s so good, in fact, that if I was in Canada, I would be happy to pay the higher price of $7.99.” Similarly, questions I’ve been getting on my book, I can’t help but notice, are often drawn entirely from the sheet of promotional copy that is included with it.

Another favorite moment: “The gamification of our social life, which was honed and perfected on social media before it jumped the fence to affectivity, labor, and who knows what’s next, forces us to sacrifice free play to strategic play, and the leisurely flight of the imagination to narrow problem-solving.”

* The books that made Michel Houellebecq.

* Balaji: “Decentralizing Education with Synthesis.” Substantial education reform hasn’t worked yet, but that doesn’t mean it never will.

* “Inside the New Right, Where Peter Thiel Is Placing His Biggest Bets.” I note this, which I think is mostly wrong: “But they share a the basic worldview: that individualist liberal ideology, increasingly bureaucratic governments, and big tech are all combining into a world that is at once tyrannical, chaotic, and devoid of the systems of value and morality that give human life richness and meaning—as Blake Masters recently put it, a ‘dystopian hell-world.'”People choose big tech. People like the individualist liberal ideology. People vote for big government, on the left and the right; it’s humorous for anyone with the vaguest knowledge of what was actually done in terms of policy and budget from 2017 – 2021 to see Trump-affiliated or Trump-liking people oppose “increasingly bureaucratic governments.”

* Attempting to lower construction costs by moving to pre-fabricated pieces. Bespoke is expensive, and bespoke is the opposite of abundance. Mass manufacturing is good.

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