Links: Breaking deadlock, the cultural critic’s death, how do we know what we know, and more!

* Why we should embrace nuclear power.

* “An online tool that can break political deadlock.” Seems optimistic to me and I think most people screaming online like political hatred and rancor. Most normal people don’t do a lot of Twitter or political Facebook. I tend to like people more, the less I see of them on Facebook, and for that reason I want to stay away from Facebook.

* “The death of the great cultural critic.” I also observe that many great cultural critics were caught up with grad schools in various ways that now seem pretty implausible.

* The oil age is ending. Unless that oil ends up being used in spacecraft instead.

* “Another possibility is that all the board seats and face-to-face contact are mostly worthless and that private shareholders think they are better at long-term evaluations than public shareholders, but they are wrong.” A point similar to Thinking, Fast and Slow, as well as Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler. We’re great at fooling ourselves and fooling ourselves often feels good too.

* The global population crash. Overpopulation isn’t a problem; underpopulation is.

* The SpaceX Starship is a very big deal. And so is Starlink.

* Alarming loss of insects and spiders. And we’re indifferent to it.

* “New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed.” The conclusion is unexpected and also extremely plausible.

* The new invisible competitors, from 2007 yet still germane.

* “The Key to Electric Cars Is Batteries. Chinese Firm CATL Dominates the Industry.” Our response? To shrug.

* “The rot at the heart of American democracy: A political scientist explains the biggest threats to America’s political stability.” Many voters seem not to care.

* Two form of despair, in case you haven’t yet read enough academia quit-lit. I have, but I thought I’d pass this along for those of you who still like the genre. This one has some unusual religious infusion.

* “Those People We Tried to Cancel? They’re All Hanging Out Together.” Entertaining, but also a depressing statement about media and education culture.

* Pay attention to what people are not talking about. And you’re probably better at doing that than the average person (if you’re reading this), but could you be better? I could be.

* Amazingly boring article on the rise and fall of Booth Tarkington. Apparently he cannot be made interesting.

Links: Airbnb and culture, where do we draw the line?, money in politics, and more!

* “How Airbnb is silently changing Himalayan villages.” A deep and beautiful meditation on markets, incentives, and more. I’m subscribing to the site.

* “Every Child Can Become a Lover of Books.” The series starts with a note on how “In the next five years, most of America’s most experienced teachers will retire. The Baby Boomers are leaving behind a nation of more novice educators. In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. Less than three decades later, that number had fallen to just three years leading a classroom.” But the word “zoning” never appears; in many cities and first-tier suburbs, outrageous land-use laws drive up the cost of housing and make it impractical for teachers to live a normal financial existence. There are undoubtedly many reasons teachers leave, but the financial climate is one, and it’s one we can’t easily buy our way out of—but we sure can reform land-use laws.

* “A Million People Are Jailed at China’s Gulags. I Managed to Escape. Here’s What Really Goes on Inside. Rape, torture and human experiments. Sayragul Sauytbay offers firsthand testimony from a Xinjiang ‘reeducation’ camp.” And this gets little media coverage.

* “The Nazi Party: IBM & ‘Death’s Calculator.’” Given recent news, how many companies do you suppose are asking themselves, “What’s my limit?”

* “Apple’s new Catalina operating system won’t run old versions of Word.” We have been thinking about migrating off Macs at some point; Windows seems to be better than it used to be, and Windows laptops were almost universally terrible ten years ago. Today, the Dell XPS line and Microsoft’s Surfaces both look really nice. Many of the “Just works” aspects of OS X (or, today, MacOS) seem to have declined or disappeared.

* A long piece on Facebook and its dilemmas, that conveniently forgets the role of the media in the 2016 election (remember those thousands of “Clinton email” stories?).

* “I Almost Flipped a Deep Red District. Here’s What I Learned.” We still live in a center-right country, but almost the entire media infrastructure in concentrated in New York and LA—two of the left-most metros in the entire country.

* Inside the collapse of Dyson’s electric car dream. Making cars is really hard.

* “Even the Chinese find it difficult to manufacture in the United States.” I’d add a “Maybe” tag to this one.

* Is there not really much “money in politics,” contrary to what’s often, and thoughtlessly, asserted?

* “Why don’t rich people stop working?” And do what instead? The quality of the thinking here isn’t very high but the question is interesting. Besides, what’s the best way to change the world today? It’s probably not journalism and the media, and that idea helps explain why we have the media we do.

* “Harold Bloom warned America that the literary culture that sustained him was in the process of being sacrificed on the altar of social justice.” And that project has pretty much been completed.

* Why the novel matters. The crux:

It disregards what we would like to say, and be, and appear to be. Tolstoy complained that with Anna Karenina, he sat down to write a condemnatory tale about a woman incapable of self-restraint but that she herself would not permit it. She demanded the more difficult, socially unacceptable and errantly human truth about herself be heard instead. Luckily Tolstoy’s talent proved equal to the challenge and knew he had to follow where she led.

This is why the novel matters, why it always has and why, in dark times, it matters more than in cheerier ones. By its nature the novel cannot be a rush of lights and pictures and noise.

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? If so few people read novels, do they “matter” in a larger, global,

* Boeing is now a finance-guy culture, not an engineering culture, and that’s the root cause for the 737 MAX failures.

* Weak arguments for why we need English majors. “Need” is doing a lot of work here, and I’m not sure how good that data on mid-careerist is.

* We Need to Dream Bigger Than Bike Lanes.

* “‘Watership Down’ and the Crisis of Liberalism.”

* “Meghan Daum’s merciless take on modern feminism, woke-ness and cancel culture.” Looks a little boring to me, and better cited than read, but some of you may like it.

Teachers and the income ceiling

The teacher pay gap is a myth? Maybe. This one has a different spin than the typical unthinking “teachers are underpaid” articles (it argues they’re not, and yes there is data to support the assertion), which is why I point to it specifically, but I think both sides are underestimating an important point about flexibility and possibility in any given career; teaching has a relatively low pay ceiling and even if a given teacher wants to work twice as hard and make twice as much money, that’s really difficult and potentially impossible. High IQ and high conscientiousness persons in other professions, meanwhile, can maximize incomes to a much greater extent than teachers. For example, as a consultant there are various avenues I can explore to further raise my income, but if I taught high school I couldn’t. In big metro areas, too, there are also many more employers to choose from than most teachers can choose from, since there’s usually one district, or a handful in nearby areas; at the same time, high rents in many superstar cities make teaching less attractive, so the “teacher pay” story is also a story about land-use regulations that raise the cost of housing—it’s just never discussed in those terms.

Teaching has other challenges: bureaucracy is a real problem and so is low morale, perhaps related to bureaucracy. In most sectors, if you don’t like the bureaucracy at one company you can switch to another, but this is considerably harder for teachers, since most districts are local monopolies. Financial returns to IQ also seem to be going up and at the same time we’re making housing in many cities and first-tier suburbs out-of-control expensive—so teachers are really taking it financially, from both the cost-of-living side and from the payment side. I have heard through the grapevine, for example, that pretty much every new public school teacher in Seattle says the same thing about how she got there: “My husband got a job at Amazon and…” That’s no doubt an exaggeration, but how much of one?

To use myself as an example, my parents moved from California to a boring suburb when I was a kid, and they left California because the cost of housing was so high. I checked how much they paid for the house in the boring suburb; in inflation-adjusted terms, they paid about $350,000 in today’s dollars. The same house is estimated to be worth about $700,000 today, so the cost has just about doubled in real terms, but that suburb forbids townhouses in the vast majority of its land, so no one can buy the house, knock it down, and put two houses on the same lot. If that were legal, we’d not have the housing crisis we do in many high-productivity cities and their suburbs. If we could lower the overall cost of living, struggles around teacher pay would seem less dire. Oregon, for example, has legalized duplexes and fourplexes statewide, so it will offer a natural experiment in lowering housing costs.

Let’s return to the original link:

shortages exist precisely where expected in a nationwide labor market that pays an increasing premium for STEM and other specialized skills. When researchers have examined the teaching vacancies that districts say they have trouble filling, they find that elementary, English, and social-studies teachers are not the problem. In fact, the Department of Education found that 20 states and the District of Columbia produced over twice as many elementary-education graduates as they had elementary-teaching positions to fill. At the same time, some districts struggle to fill STEM and special-education positions.

It’s hard to measure teacher “productivity” and yet almost no one bothers trying. So the most productive teachers are incentivized to move somewhere they can be paid in line with their productivity, which can’t be at most schools. Talk about an adverse selection problem! We have problems in data and definitions in both health care and teaching; rarely have two fields absorbed so much concentrated thought and produced so little change. The data and definition problems make it much harder to evaluate quality, inputs, and outputs than in other fields, especially those related to manufacturing. In most businesses, a major goal is simple (profit) and measurement is comparatively simple. The output of high-quality teaching may not manifest itself for decades, and very little of the value improvement is captured by the educator. By contrast, if you build a better widget, there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to capture more of the widget value beyond the cost of production.

Because we’re not measuring, or able to measure, teacher quality effectively, most schools also seem to pay based on years of experience. Anecdotally, I’ve been told that it can be very hard to get hired by another public school after 10 – 15 years of experience, because then you’re too expensive and most schools would rather hire cheaper teachers. So this is another way of ossifying the labor market.

There’s also a narrative about teachers working a lot of hours per week, but Bureau of Labor Statistics data consistently show that teachers work 40 hours a week. One example, although I have seen many other similar ones. Anecdotes consistently run one way, and data consistently runs another.

Overall, however, it seems that the number of people trying to have a completely honest conversation around this topic is not high, and many who argue that we should pay teachers “more” don’t know what “more” looks like. We may also see lots of composition effect problems, in which people who can get higher wages or better working conditions leave and get them, while those who can’t stay at school districts and take what they can get, which is at least consistent with some of the teachers I had in high school, but that may not be desirable at the societal level.

Links: Political dissidents in the news, Lockwood on Updike, boredom and revolution, pricing, and more!

* “He Never Intended To Become A Political Dissident, But Then He Started Beating Up Tai Chi Masters.” On China and many other topics.

* Patricia Lockwood on John Updike, which is much better than I thought it’d be (like Updike she does great sentences), and the title, “Malfunctioning Sex Robot: Updike Redux” is funny too. But there’s still too much air-of-superiority-don’t-we-all-agree-about-everything.

* We’re on the cusp of radical change in agriculture? Maybe.

* Where a lot of PC ideas come from.

* Xu Xiaodong Never Intended To Become A Chinese Political Dissident, But Then He Started Beating Up Tai Chi Masters. Much funnier than you might think. All the Cold War novels of dark repression comedy are becoming or have become relevant again.

* Death By 1,000 Clicks: Where Electronic Health Records Went Wrong. I do a lot of work for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and hang out with a lot of doctors. Just about all doctors and healthcare people hate FQHCs. EHRs also seem to have the same problem as a lot of enterprise and education software: people who choose the software are not primary users of the software and thus judge it differently than primary users.

* How do we move the needle on progress? Many of the themes will be familiar to regular readers.

* The end of sex? Not something commonly seen and also something some of you aren’t going to like.

* The China Cultural Clash. Better than the other pieces on this issue.

* “Sea ‘Boiling’ with Methane Discovered in Siberia.” Expect a lot more of this as global warming accelerates. Also, Fracking boom tied to methane spike in Earth’s atmosphere. We are not working hard enough on nuclear energy.

* How not to be alone.

* Nasa works hard to get probes to land on Mars.

* Pricing niche products: Why sell a mechanical keyboard kit for $1,668?

* “The Deadly Boredom of ‘A Meaningless Life’.”

Links: The financial dangers of college, losing my religion, His Dark Materials, and more!

* “A Very Dangerous Place for a Child Is College.” Yes, and yet we’re not really discussing it.

* More vegetarian options make more people choose vegetables.

* Related to the above: Impossible foods and its efforts to replace burgers.

* America’s New Sex Bureaucracy. And we somehow like this?

* “Three decades ago, Americans lost religion. Why?” The short-term political expediency of twining one political party with religion may have bad long-term consequences. We also seem to have taken up new religions—a common theme on this blog.

* “How climate change is melting, drying and flooding Earth – in pictures.” Source is not bogus, either.

* Research and “gender wars.” I don’t think most of the rhetoric has anything to do with facts or research; it’s mostly tribal and value signaling, so I’m not real optimistic on this one. When an issue takes on tribal valence, quality of discourse and thinking tends to decline.

* “The Atavism of Cancel Culture: Its social rewards are immediate and gratifying, its dangers distant and abstract.” Another of these, “And we somehow like this?” articles.

* “Why It’s So Hard for Entrepreneurs to Get Really Rich in Europe.” I’d frame it differently: “Another reason it’s so hard to scale businesses in Europe.”

* The Fallen Worlds of Philip Pullman. His Dark Materials is great and if you haven’t read it, you should.

* The Seven-Year Auto Loan: America’s Middle Class Can’t Afford Their Cars. The response ought to be to reform zoning laws and support the construction of more and better mass transit, but the likely response will be “business as usual.”

Briefly noted: The Three Languages of Politics, Maigret at Picratt’s, The Ditch

* The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides (Arnold Kling): Like Kling I “would like to see political discussion conducted with less tribal animosity and instead with more mutual respect and reasoned deliberation.” But I don’t expect to see it in the near future, though I am hopeful for the medium to far future. And I’d also ask the author about him seeing “more mutual respect and reasoned deliberation” in political discourse—as compared to what? Or when? Deliberation seems better than it was in, say, 1850 – 1865, and problems today, though severe, still seem considerably less severe than they were in the 1930s. The Soviet Union did not go for “less tribal animosity” throughout the Cold War, although the Soviet nemesis may have reduced some local tribal animosity.

Still, Kling writes that “This book can help you recognize when someone is making a political argument that is divisive and serves no constructive purpose.” Which is most of the time; identifying such things is good and I approve, but I also suspect not very many people who really need this book will read it, and that politics is to most people and voters a team sport first, and an information problem or network second, or twentieth.

Something about politics may also bring out the worst in many of us: I’ve also noticed an uptick in weak comments about politically-related writing on this blog—those comments are much more frequent than in writing about books or other subjects. When I delete them, the authors sometime reappear for more invective (which is also deleted). We need tribal identities over, under, or beyond political identities; I read somewhere that political matters are not enough to base an identity on, which seems true and underrated. Ross Douthat has also said that, if you don’t like the religious right, you’re really not going to like the non-religious right, and so far that seems surprisingly correct to me.

* The Ditch (Herman Koch); can’t figure out what’s special about this writer, but maybe translation is the issue—or Europhilia among reviewers. I’m looking for representative, evocative sentences and finding none. Koch gets lots of notice but I’m not seeing what the reviewers seem to see. Maybe you know?

* Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Mark Harris) is strangely boring, and no man would wish it to be longer than it is. Culminates in Academy Awards minutia, somehow. Reminiscent in some ways of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor. But if you have a keen interest in movies and the movie business of the 1960s, this is your book.

* The Ideas That Made America (Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen ) sounds promising, but don’t be fooled: you don’t get many of them, and you get too much of the obvious, like “The movement of ideas rarely respects national borders.” No shit? Why would anyone (outside of academia) think otherwise? To be fair, she does later say that intellectual exchanges between the U.S. north and south were rare, but then why not just say that in one sentence, instead of many more than it requires? There is some detail about how slavery was justified in the south, but to call that thinking “bare rationalization” is an understatement.

* Maigret at Picratt’s is another of the Maigret novels, though “novella” is probably more accurate, and one that often feels strangely contemporary. Being a party animal and aging are not very compatible, which is obvious and yet not stated as such often. Today, continual references to police bicycles stand out. Of one early murder victim we find, “Heads turned as she passed. You sensed she came from a different world, the world of the night, and there was something almost indecent about her in the harsh light of a winter’s day.” People differ; Maigret wishes to know all. The French look to Americans for guidance (“Apparently it’s what they do in America in the burlesques”), just as the Americans look back across the Atlantic for the same. “You know how it is” occurs in dialogue at least once, and “I understand” several times. Do we all seek understanding? If so, why is it so hard to find?

Links: Cycling like the Dutch, the culture war comes for NYC kids, smartphones and culture, and more!

* “How I Learned to Cycle Like a Dutchman.” This seems so much more pleasant than the American alternative, and simultaneously much less likely to kill and maim people.

* “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids.” The subtext is, “If you’re a normal person, get out of New York.” The city is fine for the very rich or very poor and terrible for most people in between; the very rich can buy their way out of the crazier aspects of the culture war, if they choose, but those who are barely covering rent and onerous taxes cannot.

* Progress, but not fast enough, on Gen IV nuclear reactors.

* Mom won’t buy her teenagers smartphones. See also iGen and also The Coddling of the American Mind for related ideas.

* “The myth of the wealthy welder.” Provides useful perspective but for many people, the choice is between something like welding or poverty, not welding and a successful degree in a remunerative subject from a four-year school. We need a lot more apprenticeships and vocational education and a lot less standard-issue four-year college.

* “The Story of Caroline Calloway & Her Ghostwriter Natalie.” Like the second link, the meta lesson is get out of New York / LA. Moreover, going to expensive private schools has significant downsides, especially when one majors in the humanities in them.

* “‘Ecological grief’ grips scientists witnessing Great Barrier Reef’s decline.” Collective response: nothing.

* Greedy hospitals fleecing the poor. And not just the poor, either, as I’ve discovered.

* Why the Fossil Record Is Mostly Males. One of the many stories that may make you doubt some contemporary social-culture-media norms.

* Did you know peer review wasn’t ubiquitous until the ’70s? This should give reformers heart.

* Can innovation be sped up? Maybe not, in this reading. I’d argue we’re not even seriously trying.

* “George Washing University (GWU) aims to get smaller and ‘better.'” “Better” is a weird metric here. The president “wants to expand programs in science, technology, engineering and math.” It’s telling that the humanities are absent from that list: I wonder how many humanities professors are working to make the field more rigorous and less ideological.

* Social media could make it hard to grow up? Flatters my existing prejudices, so beware.

* Why do some people become readers?

* The widely discussed Boeing 737 Max article, but it’s about a whole lot more. Killing Bombardier looks pretty dumb today. Boeing is dysfunctional and yet there’s no practical alternative to it.

* How to reform the economics PhD. Econ is not the only field that could do with similar reforms.

* Speaking of schools, a pdf on the effet of being the child of an alumni, an athlete, or the child of a faculty of a faculty member on Harvard admissions, based on data thrown off by that lawsuit about how Harvard discriminates against Asians.

* Will America’s debt doom us? Remember, the sign of the crisis is the crisis.

* The college admission trilemma.

* “A Decade Later, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Has Left an Abyssal Wasteland.” It’s curious that we rarely take such things into account when considering urban policy.

%d bloggers like this: