Links: Where fantasy ends, public domain day, bicycle booming, and more!

* The Roleplaying Coup, on the way online life endorses and encourages the construction of fantasy worlds.

* “Party Like It’s 1925 On Public Domain Day (Gatsby And Dalloway Are In).” Copyright should really be limited to 50-year terms. Still, it’s nice to know that schools will collectively save millions of dollars a year buying The Great Gatsby.

* What happened in the insurrectionist riot.

* “The great bicycle boom of 2020.” The bikes are there; now the city infrastructure is needed.

* “The Undoing of China’s Economic Miracle:” maybe. How much does the prioritization of politics over competition matter?

* Time for consequences, for Trump—and his enablers. Better late than never, I guess, if there are real consequences. In 2016 I wrote “Vote for Clinton or Johnson for president” based on the many obvious reasons—and based on the history of the 1920s and -30s. Many of us who know something about that era have probably asked ourselves, “What would we have done, if we’d been alive then?” We don’t have a perfect answer and can’t, but the last four years have provided a partial answer. Did you enable? Were you silent? Did you resist, such as you can?

* “How American Individualism Fuels Family Estrangement.” Not sure the purported cause is correct.

* “The military has a hate group problem. But it doesn’t know how bad it’s gotten: The rise of extremism in the ranks is seen as a ‘crisis issue’ but the military’s efforts to weed out radicals are ‘haphazard’ at best.” Uh-oh.

* “The paradox of information abundance:” some are better informed than ever, while others consume junk, in the same way that great nutrition is easier than ever, but so is terrible nutrition.

* “Why aren’t we wearing better masks?” A vital question. Real n95s and kn95s are available here, but how is an average person supposed to know that? The site looks little different than many knockoff sites.

* “‘Our souls are dead’: how I survived a Chinese ‘re-education’ camp for Uighurs: After 10 years living in France, I returned to China to sign some papers and I was locked up. For the next two years, I was systematically dehumanised, humiliated and brainwashed.” It is still notable to me that this topic isn’t a primary focus on social media.

* Moderna co-founder and board chairman on the permission to leap, among many other topics of great interest. The first link in this batch concerns fantasy; the last, reality.

Santa Monica requiem: Reflections as 2020 drifted into 2021

My father, Isaac, wrote this.

I stayed at the new the Proper Hotel in Downtown Santa Monica (“SaMo” to the locals) at 7th Street and Wilshire Boulevard over New Years: any hotel during COVID-19 is surreal; this was the first time I’d returned to SaMo since decamping from LA for Scottsdale in June. It was also the first time I experienced with profound sadness what has become of SaMo after ten months of rolling COVID-19 lockdowns, the permanent scars left by the protests/riots in late May, the omnipresent shadow of homeless everywhere, and, perhaps most striking, the air of apprehension obvious among the few non-homeless on the streets. Call this post a requiem for a lost SaMo that may never really come back.

I first saw SaMo as an 18-year University of Minnesota sophomore in December 1969, when visiting my brother Jerry, who lived there. He picked me up at LAX in his British Racing Green MGB, and I felt like I was, somehow, home; SaMo immediately struck me as the California Dreaming myth I developed from watching movies and TV shows, and listening to the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and the “Laurel Canyon sound” on transistor and AM car radios as a teen in the Great Frozen North.

SaMo had a beautiful beach and beautiful people in the sunshine, with the charming pier, pastel houses and low-rise apartment buildings threaded by the boulevards of small shops with the names I knew from sitcoms, movies, and Raymond Chandler novels. Chandler fictionalized SaMo as “Bay City” in his novels and as soon as I saw the pier, I recognized it as the Lido Pier from The Big Sleep. “Bay City” can still found as part of business names, including Bay Cities Italian Deli; the Deli was looted during the riots, and, while it’s open again, the joy of waiting for your Godmother sandwich with dozens of others in front of the enticing deli case and scouting for obscure Italian jams is gone. Grabbing a to-go sandwich is a soulless experience and obviates the point of neighborhood institutions.

I lived in SaMo twice: first for two years at 23rd and Wilshire in a townhouse I owned with by brother in the early 80s and again for about three years, starting in 2013, in an apartment downtown at 7th and Broadway. When Jake a little boy, I knew the the SaMo City Manager, who recruited me to apply to be the Assistant Manager, but I came in second, as the City Council wanted to hire a woman. If I’d gotten that job, Jake might have grown up in SaMo and I would’ve been responsible for the redevelopment of the pier, the 3rd Street Promenade, and the mid-rise housing developments that transformed the formerly sleepy Downtown in the 90s.

Until the late 80s, like much of LA, SaMo was still relatively affordable—at least for the parts of the city south of Wilshire Boulevard and west of Lincoln Boulevard. Since then, and particularly with the rise of “Silicon Beach” a decade ago, SaMo has become unaffordable, expect for the few living in a subsidized or rent controlled apartment or the upper middle class and the one percenters. Like San Francisco, Manhattan, and Seattle, there is essentially no middle class left in SaMo. The population was 83,249 in 1960 and just 90,401 six decades later in 2020—essentially no growth, despite a near-doubling of the United States. When you choke off the supply of housing in an otherwise desirable area, you’re also committing to high prices. San Francisco reportedly now has more pet dogs than children, and that’s likely the case in SaMo. The median household income is $96,570 in 2020, which is high compared to the US, but not remotely high enough to afford the average sale price of a house—$1.27M—or even the average monthly rent of $3,851.

I drove around downtown before going to the Proper. Boarded-up windows and vacant store fronts are common; in the Before Times, vacant store fronts in SaMo were rare. Downtown SaMo has always been one of LA’s few true walkable districts, but, while there were a fair number of cars on the streets, in the middle of a beautiful sunny Thursday New Years Eve day afternoon, there were almost no pedestrians, and the 3rd Street Promenade was ghostly. A friend of mine had already told me that the Bloomingdales Department Store, which anchored the Santa Monica Place Mall at the southern end of the Promenade, had closed permanently. The homeless, however, were out in force.

Since the late ’70s, the city has more or less embraced, or one might say encouraged, homelessness. But, and this is a big but, the SaMo homeless generally hung out in parks and a few well-known areas, and they weren’t aggressive. When I lived downtown in the mid-2010s, I felt perfectly safe walking, even at night.

When I parked, I talked over the walking issue with the young valet, and he said about walking around, “No way brotha, I know the bad homeless dudes around here but you don’t.” He also told me to stay away from Reed Park, just across Wilshire from the hotel. Since I had my 95-pound Golden Retriever with me, who needed a walk, I figured it would be okay to walk to the park—but it was filled with homeless and tents. The city has created a nice-looking tot lot and children’s play area behind high fences in the park, but there wasn’t a kid or mom in sight. I walked around one side of the park and retreated to hotel, which is essentially a fortress.

New Year’s Day morning, I went to Sidecar Donuts, where three or four moms in Lululemon leggings and guys in skinny jeans were in line, but there was a palpable nervous feeling: everyone there seemed to want to get our donuts and get back into cars or, in my case, the Proper. No small talk and zero sense of community. With the ongoing COVID recession and general malaise hanging over SaMo, I don’t think Sidecar and similar places will survive long.

Decades ago, SaMo was one of the first cities to adopt the strategy of “Community Policing,” which involves foot and bike patrols and assigning the same cops to the beat so that the community comes to know them and they know the community. When I last lived in SaMo, I regularly encountered smiling cops on foot or bikes. During the two days I spent there, I didn’t see a single foot or velo cop. Community policing was developed to replace the former “Fort Apache” style of policing, in which the cops stay in their station and cars.

A place’s vibe is delicate and hard to describe, yet pervasive when you’re there. SaMo’s vibe has changed radically in the last year, in a way that’s hard to appreciate without being there.

I’ve worked the last 45 years in and around urban issues, first for cities in economic development and then for the past 27 years writing grant proposals. The SaMo of my memory, or maybe my dreams, no longer exists. Maybe it will again in a year or two.

Links: Many deep dives

* Dan Wang’s 2020 letter, which is mostly but not exclusively about his life in and observations about China. He writes, “This year made me believe that China is the country with the most can-do spirit in the world. Every segment of society mobilized to contain the pandemic. One manufacturer expressed astonishment to me at how slowly western counterparts moved. US companies had to ask whether making masks aligned with the company’s core competence.” See also “On cultures that build;” for some reason, American culture has de-emphasized building and making things, to our collective detriment. We have lots of veto players and too few doers.

* “How Biden Can Rebuild a Divided and Distrustful Nation: Americans Must Get to Know One Another Again.” From it: “The United States’ two political parties are sorting into distinctive groups based on who they are rather than on their policy preferences” and “Because partisan sorting is no longer primarily about one’s policy views but instead about one’s deepest values or identity, the ‘other party’ is no longer just the opposition but the enemy; and politics is no longer about finding compromises that can address common problems but about winning a war for one’s own side.” It may turn out that having religion be about one’s deepest values or identity, or family, is a much better belief system than having politics in their place. It is strange, though, to see one party attack the fundamentals of democracy itself, since democracy is supposed to be the foundation of American politics.

* “America Can’t Even Produce the Things It Invented: The United States can bring manufacturing back — which will bring back good jobs and protect national interests.”

* “Worse Than Treason: No amount of rationalizing can change the fact that the majority of the Republican Party is advocating for the overthrow of an American election.” Anyone remember a few years ago when the Republican Party thought democracy so important that it was worth invading another country for? No?

* The factories in the Xinjiang camps: China’s slave labor force?

* “Experts on how to fight America’s disinformation crisis.” I’m not convinced this can be “fixed” per se, because most people are not interested in epistemology, and (relatively) free speech and zero-cost distribution means that people can develop fantasy worlds easily. When a small percentage of the population does this, it doesn’t matter much, but we’re trying to figure out what happens when a much larger percentage of the population does this.

* “Charter schools deliver extraordinary results, but their political support among Democrats has collapsed.” I notice this: “They instill schoolwide cultures of respect for learning and orderly environments, so that one or two disruptive students can’t bring classes to a standstill,” which is something many of my friends who are teachers talk about: one student can often veto 30 other students’s experiences. This also tells us something important about the gap between rhetoric and reality regarding race: “Polls show that the backlash against charters has been mainly confined to white liberals, while Black and Latino Democrats — whose children are disproportionately enrolled in those schools — remain supportive.”

As with the links above (and posted over the last several years) regarding our inability to build, I suspect we’re suffering from “good enough” syndrome in schools. “Good enough” and “I’ve got mine” breeds complacency, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. Will we find that complacency breaks down eventually? Or that it is already breaking down now?

* “WhatsApp gives users an ultimatum: Share data with Facebook or stop using the app.” Time to switch to Signal?

* “Making policy for a low-trust world” is a boring title for an essay that ties lots of policy, social, and other ideas together; it’s hard to pick one as being most important, but the example of the extremely slow coronavirus vaccine rollout is useful. We should prioritize doing things fast, and we don’t, and that has many negative consequences.

* “CO2 already emitted will warm Earth beyond climate targets, study finds: ‘Committed warming’ is 2.3 C, higher than previous estimates; but it can be delayed.” Time for that Climeworks subscription.

Links The evils of the non-compete clause, how COVID-19 spread, the nature of the future, and more!

* Texas needs to ban non-competes: one of these little, seemingly inconsequential things that may have big impacts over time.

* “Pandemic Leads Dozens of Universities to Pause Ph.D. Admissions: More than 140 humanities and social sciences programs at top schools have suspended admitting students for fall 2021.” Good.

* The NYT on novelist Walter Tevis.

* “25 Days That Changed the World: How Covid-19 Slipped China’s Grasp,” an important and well-reported article.

* “John Collison: ‘It is entirely plausible that you could set up Stripe in Dublin now:’ Stripe co-founder on how his billion-dollar company continues to evolve.”

* “An Economist’s Guide to Potty Training,” which is more entertaining than it sounds, and fundamentally about incentives. Incentives matter and they’re hard.

* Curious and sometimes offensive interview with Anna Khachiyan, of the Red Scare podcast.

* How Perfectionism Has Made the Pandemic Worse.

* “The End of the World as We Know It?,” due to population decline? Bryan Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is one take.

* The disruption of Intel, and many other points about the history and state of computing.

* “My two weeks with John le Carré: What I learned about writing, fame and grace when I showed him around Miami in 1991.” Extremely charming but also deep.

* “Peer-reviewed papers are getting increasingly boring:” see: “We need to challenge the conventional peer-reviewed research paper, by which I refer to a publication was reviewed by 2 to 5 peers before getting published. . . . Research used to be more more like ‘blogging’. You would write up your ideas and share them. People could read them and criticize them.” There are too many veto players, and an excess of veto players tends to ossify a field and create excessively tedious papers and books. Here is one simple, partial solution to some of these problems.

Links: The nature of expression, the best books of 2020, the social reality, and more!

* Tyler Cowen’s very best books of 2020, and I’ve found this as well: “Finally, I will note that the ‘best books lists’ of other institutions have grown much worse, even over the last year. A good list has never been more valuable, and please note my recommendations are never done to fill a quota, ‘achieve balance,’ right previous wrongs, or whatever. They are what I think are the best books. Scary how rare that has become.” Book reviews, including the NYT’s, have become dramatically less useful in the last few years, and book bloggers have mostly disappeared (do you know of any I ought to follow?). Goodreads has never been a favorite for me, and it’s been widely neglected by Amazon.

* Data suggests significant COVID-19 protection with some vaccines, even without a second shot. If studies prove that’s true, it could be a game changer. This should obviously be studied, now. “First doses first” makes a similar point: given the efficacy of the first dose, we should get first doses to as many people as possible, then worry about second doses. If we had a two-dose regimen that was “only” 90% effective, or even 80% effective, we’d still be ecstatic.

* “When I went to college, almost every course was serious. Even ‘Physics for Poets’ was intended to convey important knowledge. Now if you want a rigorous education you have to select courses carefully.” See also Paying for the Party, an essential book for understanding higher ed, which makes a similar point although in different words and using different emphases; Academically Adrift is also good, and I’ve not seen serious rebuttals to it.

* “The Veterans Organizing to Stop Trumpism.”

* “ How and why I stopped buying new laptops.” A reasonable and interesting point in many respects, but, at the same time, having a computer die unexpectedly is annoying, common, and disruptive. And high-definition screens are amazing: mine, for example, is 5120 x 2880.

* Congress is about to ban most surprise medical bills. Good. I’d love to see price transparency but there seems to be almost no constituency for healthcare price transparency, outside of nerds and economists.

* “The Internet is for Porn,” and note that this is an essay. The stigma around the subject still exists, though, and stigma around a popular field means opportunity. It’ll be interesting to see whether the credit card processors’s actions help drive the cryptocurrency economy, as some have predicted.

* “100 Tips for a Better Life.” I notice: “Deficiencies do not make you special. The older you get, the more your inability to cook will be a red flag for people.”

* Eyes Wide Shut, explained. Explaining it may not make it a good movie, however.

* If you think the CDC has been incompetent, if not abysmal, here is more evidence supporting that thought.

* “Tell Only Lies: Americans are increasingly afraid to express themselves honestly.” Maybe, but can’t we express ourselves anonymously more easily than ever?

Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past — J Storrs Hall

Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past tries to answer the question in its title, and the short answer proposed is some combination of “centralized funding streams” “bureaucratic inertia,” “cultural malaise and indifference” and “regulation.” In his own words, Hall says that “cultural reaction and regulatory ossification have combined to dam up the normal flow of experimentation in high power technology.” Are these the right, complete answers, though? The most-right answer seems to be “flying is hard, consumes a lot of energy, and has catastrophic outcomes when done wrong:” humans are bad enough at driving in two dimensions, and Hall describes flying’s challenges. The normal flow of experimentation may have been dammed up, but it may be dammed up against fundamental problems. Despite this uncertainty, Hall asks the right questions, which too few people are asking, and he stimulates a lot of thought. For that reason he should be read: yet, with almost every field he cites, I wonder what an expert would say. He takes optimistic science fiction seriously and looks at it as inspiration.

We’re supposed to have flying cars, clean nuclear power, and so on. Instead, since the ’70s, we’ve seen many positive trends flatline, as Hall writes:

We are used to prices going up because of inflation, but there are some things—typically the most important things—whose costs keep stubbornly going up in real terms, i.e. even adjusted for inflation. Housing costs twice as much, on average. Primary education costs three times as much as in the 60s, and children are not learning more. Until the Seventies, health care costs and longevity in the US grew at about the same rates as in comparable developed countries; since then longevity has grown more slowly and costs have grown much faster. Medical care now costs six times as much as in the 60s: in 1960, the average worker worked ten days to pay for his health insurance; today, 60 days

This is a scandal but it’s not consistent front-page news. We should be massively debating what to do about it and how to end the relentless cost inflation, but many people can’t even get the diagnosis vaguely right, and anti-market bias is common. Hall’s work is consistent with, and cites, The Great Stagnation, as well as Peter Thiel (both of whom are cited). As a society, we’ve seen the costs of healthcare, education, infrastructure, and housing, balloon. We’re not much committed, as a society, to trying to fix those issues. Maybe we’re too wealthy to bother.

Hall says that “within a decade or two [. . . .] We will begin to make machines that can make ‘absolutely anything,’ in the sense that a printer can print any page or a 3-D printer can make any shape in its plastic, but in a wide range of engineering materials and with atomic precision.” One hopes so. The optimism is refreshing, but why, beyond bureaucracy and inertia, if the claims about what could be are true, are the miraculous things Storrs sees possible in aviation and other fields not currently true.

Hall is least convincing when discussing why we shouldn’t worry about greenhouse gas emissions; he correctly identifies some incorrect previous climate predictions but ignores the fact that some incorrect predictions were made does not mean that all future predictions are incorrect. We also have good data on previous global mass extinction events, and five of the six are linked to rapidly changing carbon levels. Paul Ehrlich was notoriously wrong in The Population Bomb, yes, but we do face real challenges that must be addressed technologically; it’s true that many “environmentalist” groups are hypocritical at best and counterproductive at worse, but that also doesn’t mean we aren’t facing real and severe problems related to carbon and methane emissions.

I’m not a fatalist in this respect and you shouldn’t be either: we need to develop negative emissions technologies (which is why Climeworks subscriptions, for example, are important). Hall also makes overbroad claims like “Cars, trucks, and highways were clearly one of the major causes of the postwar boom.” Were they “one of the major causes?” Or was the truly major cause the large-scale destruction of most of the rest of the industrial world, coupled with large swaths of the world being controlled by communists? The link between “Cars, trucks, and highways” and “the postwar boom” is not clear, and we can’t re-run history to find out whether this causal link exists. There are many such assertions. Hall critiques some bovine aspects of modern culture and cultural malaise, but he may be showing his own acculturation: people who were born before the extreme costs of traffic and air pollution (see, for example, “Air Pollution Reduces IQ, a Lot“) were loved and still love cars; those who were born after, don’t.

Infrastructure costs, though, whether for highways or subways, have outpaced inflation for decades, meaning that we can’t seem to collectively build either. I’d prefer subways, but the political and legal world inhibits either.

Regardless of one’s position on cars and highways, something, or somethings, happened in the ’70s, and we’ve not recovered from that period. Maybe we’re recovering now (it’s notoriously hard to judge the present). Hall is describing the technological and cultural problems that became apparent in the ’70s, but are their roots primarily in culture, primarily in science, primarily in institutions, or in all of the above?

Some of Hall’s techno-cultural comments have unexpected resonance:

Perhaps the most enduring and popular champion of the “world of tomorrow” throughout the actual postwar period was the avuncular Walt Disney, with offerings ranging from Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom to his planned Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, i.e. EPCOT. Fittingly, after his death the Disney company built EPCOT as a kind of permanent World’s Fair.

Today, Disney is notable for its relentlessly supplicating behavior towards the world’s largest totalitarian government (yesterday’s post covers this subject as well); as Sonny Bunch said in Disney’s Bob Iger shouldn’t be ambassador to China. No Hollywood executive should be,” Iger and Disney have spent decades kowtowing to China, to the point that, “Under [Iger’s] watch, the company’s Marvel division recast a Tibetan character from the Doctor Strange movies as a Celtic woman.” Consider Disney’s silence on Uighur genocide:

Disney executives had thought that the original “Mulan” would please both the Chinese government and Chinese filmgoers. But because Disney had distributed “Kundun” (1997), a film glorifying the Dalai Lama, Beijing restricted the studio’s ability to work in China. Disney spent the next several years trying to get back into the party’s good graces. “We made a stupid mistake in releasing ‘Kundun,’” the then-CEO of Disney Michael Eisner told Premier Zhu Rongji in October 1998. “Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.”

Disney makes many films and other products about the ability of plucky rebels to overcome large empires: but when it comes to its real-world behavior, Disney is on the side of the massive, super coercive empire. Who knew that Walt Disney’s “world of tomorrow” would include what can be described, at its most charitable, as ignoring totalitarianism and genocide?

Where Is My Flying Car? could, and should, be tightened by a careful editor, and it’s organized strangely, with discussions of the flying car, for example, interrupted and then returned to—but the conclusion that many of our problems are fundamentally caused by a failure to invest intelligently in fundamental technologies and a failure to get out of our own way may be unattractive to the dominant discourse in publishing. Someone famous like Peter Thiel can get away with such a book, while someone less famous can’t.

The phrase “Perhaps the most” occurs twelve times in the book, and “the bottom line” occurs more than twenty. Too many quotes adorn the start of every chapter (“Heinlein” is mentioned more than two dozen times—but not as often as the word “obvious”). The editing is not great, but, while I don’t know the book’s publication history, perhaps being unpalatable to commercial publishing houses is consistent with the book’s thesis. Publishing houses increasingly specialize in “woke” or “social justice” issues: not in envisioning what a brighter future might be like, or how to get from here to there. For that, we have to turn on self-publishing on Amazon, where the editing is worse but the ideas more vital. If you know other self-published books I should be reading, please let me know.

Roots of Progress has a good review of and essay on Where Is My Flying Car? I read “Aviation Outsider Boom Builds Supersonic Jet for Transatlantic Flight” after I’d finished the first draft of this essay, and Boom’s supersonic airplane is the sort of thing that, conceivably, we should have had earlier—but we don’t, to the detriment of all of us. Faster travel around the globe would not just be a boom but a boon, and the kind of boon consistent with Hall’s vision.

Where are the woke on Disney and China?

I have sat through numerous talks and seen numerous social media messages about the evils of imperialism, and in particular western imperialism—so where’s the mass outrage over China today, and the efforts by Disney and Hollywood to court China? China is a literal, real-world imperialist power, today; China has crushed Hong Kong’s independent, imprisoned perhaps a million of its own people based on their race and religion, and invaded and occupied Tibet—and Taiwan may be next. But I never read “imperialist” or “racist” critiques from the usual suspects. Why not?

Search for “imperialism” on Twitter, for example, and you’ll find numerous people denouncing what they take to be “imperialism” or various kinds of imperialisms, but few dealing with China. This bit about Bob Iger’s complicity with Chinese government repression got me thinking about why some targets draw much “woke” ire while others don’t. My working hypothesis is that China seems far away from the United States and too different to understand—even though companies and individuals are regularly attacked for their associations with other Americans, they rarely seem to be for their associations with China. The NBA, to take another example, fervently favors police reform in the United States, but is largely silent on China (to be sure, I don’t agree with all the posturing at the link, but pay attention to the underlying point). My working theory is that the situation between the woke and China is analogous to the way that comparisons to your wife’s sister’s husband’s income can create a lot of jealousy while comparisons to the truly wealthy don’t.

In addition, could it be that Disney’s specialty in child-like stories of simple, Manichaean stories of good versus evil appeal to the same people, or kinds of person, most likely to be attracted to the quasi-religious “woke” mindset? To my knowledge, I’ve not seen these questions asked, and Disney products, like Star Wars movies and TV shows, seem to remain broadly popular, including on the far left. It’s also worth emphasizing that some have spoken about Disney’s action’s; the Twitter thread about Iger links to “Why Disney’s new ‘Mulan’ is a scandal.” But the issue seems to elicit relatively little ire and prominence, compared to many others. Few sustained movements or organizations are devoted to these issues.

What views make someone a pariah, and why? What associations make someone a pariah, and why? What views and associations elicit intense anger, and why? I don’t have full answers to any of these questions but think them worth asking. No one seems to be calling for boycotts of Disney, even though Disney is toadying to an actual imperialist state.

Links: Learning from podcasts, carbon capture and storage, Apple and China, and more!

* Things Ryan Holiday has learned from a decade of podcasts, note: “An essential piece of advice I got from the author Steven Pressfield: There are professional habits and amateur ones. Which are you practicing? Is this a pro or an amateur move? Ask yourself that. Constantly.” One downside of school is that it almost always inculcates and encourages amateur habits—without telling students what’s going on. Separately, after quitting or finishing a podcast (the former being vastly more common than the latter), I try to keep a log of what I’ve listened to and what I noticed in it, or remember from it. Then I re-read the log occasionally, which only takes a few minutes; this helps move podcasts from a “listen and forget” activity to a “change your ideas” activity.

* The Substack Discourse and the Self-Referentiality of Everything. A bad title for a good essay, on what happens when the institutional academic and journalist discourse gets poisoned. See also me, “Have journalists and academics become modern-day clerics?

* Elon Musk moves from California to Texas: Prop 13 and NIMBYism claim more victims. Elon also “decries ‘M.B.A.-ization’ of America.”

* Oracle is also moving its headquarters to Texas. Texas’s real question is still whether it will ban non-competes, since that ban is California’s vital secret sauce.

* “Cambridge University votes to safeguard free speech.” Heartening news that one wishes could be described as “normal” not “heartening.”

* Jesse Singal’s book The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills is coming out soon.

* “Nick Kristof and the Holy War on Pornhub: Having declared victory in its war on Backpage and sex work, the liberal-conservative coalition has pivoted to porn.”

* “Researchers identify a new personality construct that describes the tendency to see oneself as a victim.” This explains some of what’s happening online and in schools. See also Haidt and Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind.

* “China launches ‘gray-zone’ warfare to subdue Taiwan.” Simultaneously, Apple wants to sell us out to China: in that respect, maybe it has much in common with the rest of Hollywood.

* “Earnestness,” by Paul Graham.

* “She Stalked Her Daughter’s Killers Across Mexico, One by One.” An incredible story one hopes to see made into a book, given the number of vague points in this relatively short article.

* More on carbon capture and storage, most of it familiar. I’ve been annoying my friends who posture as environmentalists by asking if they have a Climeworks subscription.

Links: Novels of work, the spy novel in the age of surveillance, and more about surveillance, and more in general

* On Chinese work novels.

* “Hit by Covid-19, Colleges Do the Unthinkable and Cut Tenure: Schools facing steep drops in revenue scale back the age-old role of faculty in governance.” Note: “This year, the pandemic accelerated financial problems as well as tensions between administrators and faculty. Fall enrollment for freshman and international students fell 16% and 43%, respectively, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and a survey of 700 schools conducted by 10 higher education associations.”

* “‘Shattered’: Inside the secret battle to save America’s undercover spies in the digital age.” Everyone else is having the same problems. Scarily, totalitarianism enabled by technology may be much more possible than totalitarianism used to be.

* “The Zürich Interviews – Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry: Unrepentant Baguette Merchant: Boring us with tales of the superiority of the French. Why having a Mommy GF makes Macron powerful. Islamism in France. Jerry Lewis as the funniest man in history.” The sort of thing one wishes to see more of in the larger media; thankfully, we now have Substack and podcasts. “Interesting” does not mean “correct.”

* “The Great Walter Williams, Radical Troublemaker,” amusing throughout; the real radicals are thinkers, and they’re not necessarily picking a political side: “Williams: I am not a part of a movement. I have never been part of a movement, I just do my own thing.” And: “Walter was never politically correct. He once demanded that our Dean do something about the lack of representation of Asian-Americans on the GMU basketball team. He enjoyed his iconoclasm but his provocations were designed to get people to stop and think not to offend.”

* “Leaders Who Act Like Outsiders Invite Trouble.” Institutions are defining what the modern world is going to look like, and many of them are going to need to learn how to say “no” and how to ignore Twitter anger. See also me, recently: “Dissent, insiders, and outsiders: Institutions in the age of Twitter.”

* “White Evangelicals Made a Deal With the Devil. Now What?” I’ve wondered about this too. I also wonder, though, if the number of white evangelicals is actually declining, or if the author is cherrypicking numbers that support the story.

* Billionaires Build, by Paul Graham.

* “What Are the Humanities? Why Are They Worth Saving?” A rant, yes, overstated, yes, and yet compelling, too? And an essay that speaks to the growing utility of Substack.

* Helen Dale, who wrote Kingdom of the Wicked (Book I is a favorite), on “Jordan Peterson and the only balanced review of 12 Rules for Life.” Amy Alkon’s book Unf***ology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence appears too. Echoes of “Harry Potter and the Childish Adult:” “Derivative narrative clichés work with children because they are comfortingly recognizable and immediately available to the child’s own power of fantasizing.”

* “The Super-Scary Theory of the 21st Century:” essentially, that social media leads many political units to tear themselves apart, but authoritarian regimes are better at holding themselves together. It seems unlikely but not impossible. A big 21st Century question is, to my mind, what happens if, or rather when, China experiences its first big economic downtown since it began to liberalize in the 80s. Can they repress their way out?

* Gas stoves are bad for air quality, and much worse than we realized, it seems.

Dissent, insiders, and outsiders: Institutions in the age of Twitter

How does an organization deal with differing viewpoints among its constituents, and how do constituents dissent?

Someone in Google’s AI division was recently fired, or the person’s resignation accepted, depending on one’s perspective, for reasons related to a violation of process and organizational norms, or something else, again depending on one’s perspective. The specifics of that incident can be disputed, but the more interesting level of abstraction might ask how organizations process conflict and what underlying conflict model participants have. I recently re-read Noah Smith’s essay “Leaders Who Act Like Outsiders Invite Trouble;” he’s dealing with the leadup to World War II but also says: “This extraordinary trend of rank-and-file members challenging the leaders of their organizations goes beyond simple populism. There may be no word for this trend in the English language. But there is one in Japanese: gekokujo.” And later, “The real danger of gekokujo, however, comes from the establishment’s response to the threat. Eventually, party bosses, executives and other powerful figures may get tired of being pushed around.”

If you’ve been reading the news, you’ll have seen gekokujo, as institutions are being pushed by the Twitter mob, and by the Twitter mob mentality, even when the mobbing person is formally within the institution. I think we’re learning, or going to have to re-learn, things like “Why did companies traditionally encourage people to leave politics and religion at the door?” and “What’s the acceptable level of discourse within the institution, before you’re not a part of it any more?”

Colleges and universities in particular seem to be susceptible to these problems, and some are inculcating environments and cultures that may not be good for working in large groups. One recent example of these challenges occurred at Haverford college, but here too the news has many other examples, and the Haverford story seems particularly dreadful.

The basic idea that organizations have to decide who’s inside and who’s outside is old: Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States is one great discussion. Organizations also used to unfairly exclude large swaths of the population based on demographic factors, and that’s (obviously) bad. Today, though, many organizations have in effect, if not intent, decided that it’s okay for some of their members to attack the good faith of other members of the organization, and to attack the coherentness of the organization itself. There are probably limits to how much this can be done, and still retain a functional organization, let alone a maximally functional organization.

The other big change involves the ability to coordinate relatively large numbers of people: digital tools have made this easier, in a relatively short time—thus the “Twitter mob” terminology that came to mind a few paragraphs ago; I kept the term, because it seems like a reasonable placeholder for that class of behavior. Digital tools ease the ability of a small percentage of total people to be a large absolute number of people. For example, if 100,000 people are interested in or somehow connected to an organization, and one percent of them want to fundamentally disrupt the organization, change its direction, or arrange an attack, that’s 1,000 people—which feels like a lot. It’s far above the Dunbar number and too many for one or two public-facing people to deal with. In addition, in some ways journalists and academics have become modern-day clerics, and they’re often eager to highlight and disseminate news of disputes of this sort.

Over time, I expect organizations are going to need to develop new cultural norms if they’re going to maintain their integrity in the face of coordinated groups that represent relatively small percentages of people but large absolute numbers of people. The larger the organization, the more susceptible it may be to these kinds of attacks. I’d expect more organizations to, for example, explicitly say that attacking other members of the organization in bad faith will result in expulsion, as seems to have happened in the Google example.

Evergreen College, which hosted an early example of this kind of attack (on a biology professor named Bret Weinstein), has seen its enrollment drop by about a third.

Martin Gurri’s book The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium examines the contours of the new information world, and the relative slowness of institutions to adapt to it. Even companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, which have enabled sentiment amplification, were founded before their own user bases became so massive.

Within organizations, an excess of conformity is a problem—innovation doesn’t occur from simply following orders—but so is an excess of chaos. Modern intellectual organizations, like tech companies or universities, probably need more “chaos” (in the sense of information transfer) than, say, old-school manufacturing companies, which primarily needed compliance. “Old-school” is a key phrase, because from what I understand, modern manufacturing companies are all tech companies too, and they need the people closest to the process to be able to speak up if something is amiss or needs to be changed. Modern information companies need workers to speak up and suggest new ideas, new ways of doing things, and so on. That’s arguably part of the job of every person in the organization.

Discussion at work of controversial identity issues can probably function if all parties assume good faith from the other parties (Google is said to have had a freewheeling culture in this regard from around the time of its founding up till relatively recently). Such discussions probably won’t function without fundamental good faith, and good faith is hard to describe, but most of us know it when we see it, and defining every element of it would probably be impossible, while cultivating it as a general principle is desirable. Trying to maintain such an environment is tough: I know that intimately because I’ve tried to maintain it in classrooms, and those experiences led me to write “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.” It’s hard to teach, or run an information organization, without a culture that lets people think out loud, in good faith, with relatively little fear of arbitrary reprisal. Universities, in particular, are supposed to be oriented around new ideas and discussing ideas. Organizations also need some amount of hierarchy: without it, decisions can’t or don’t get made, and the organizational processes themselves don’t function. Excessive attacks lead to the “gekokujo” problem Smith describes. Over time organizations are likely going to have to develop antibodies to the novel dynamics of the digital world.

A lot of potential learning opportunities aren’t happening, because we’re instead dividing people into inquisitors and heretics, when very few should be the former, and very are truly the latter. One aspect of “Professionalism” might be “assuming good faith on the part of other parties, until proven otherwise.”

On the other hand, maybe these cultural skirmishes don’t matter much, like brawlers in a tavern across the street from the research lab. Google’s AlphaFold has made a huge leap in protein folding efforts (Google reorganized itself, so technically both Google and AlphaFold are part of the “Alphabet” parent company). Waymo, another Google endeavor, may be leading the way towards driverless cars, and it claims to be expanding its driverless car service. Compared to big technical achievements, media fights are minor. Fifty years from now, driverless cars will be taken for granted, along with customizable biology, people will be struggling to understand what was at stake culturally, in much the way most people don’t get what the Know-Nothing party, of the Hundred Years War, were really about, but we take electricity and the printing press for granted.

 

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