What great writing looks like: “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”

In Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Rhodes quotes nuclear physicist Rudolf Peierls as saying that “[Traitor and spy Klaus Fuchs] was courteous and even-tempered. He was rather silent, unless one asked him a question, when he would give a full and articulate answer; for this Genia called ‘Penny-in-the-slot.'” That’s on page 57.

On page 175, Rhodes describes the famous Trinity atomic bomb test at Alamagordo, New Mexico, and quotes I. I. Rabi, another physicist, at length. Then Rhodes writes, “Fuchs was there to see the new thing he had caused to proliferate, the new control, but no one put a penny in his slot, so he left no record of how the unique experience affected him.” “No one put a penny in his slot:” the phrase does a lot of deft work in that sentence, pointing to the seeming incuriosity of everyone around Fuchs; to Fuchs’s character itself; to the way he responds rather than initiating (despite him working on atomic weapon initiator design). Rhodes takes what could have been an evocative-but-throwaway line and reconfigures it, connecting the two sections of the book through unusual but suddenly gorgeous language.

Another point about this pairing: it can’t really be generalized to a rule. Few if any writing books advise good writers to call back to an evocative description a hundred pages later, and to do so with an unexpected twist. Rhodes does it. He hits the high note here.

The book itself is about history, technology, politics, human motivation, human character, institutions, industrial organization, and many other topics. He writes, for example, about what made communism attractive to western communists, despite the fact that it doesn’t work. He writes, “Communism in any case was intensely fashionable at English universities between the World Wars.” It seems strange that anyone could have been attracted to Communism; as Stalin’s Great Terror unfolds through the 1930s, it becomes even stranger. Then again, socialism is having a strange vogue today, among people who seem not to quite understand what it entails (one definition, from Apple’s included Oxford American Diction: “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”) It’s possible of course for a “community” to own a company today, as with coops, or for individuals to own companies; they just tend to be outcompeted by publicly-owned companies, which ought to tell us something useful.

Still, Communism as a topic remains of interest not so much because of the fact that it fails, but because it could inspire people to betray their own, functional countries in favor of a dystopian hellscape like Soviet Russia. What makes a person do that? What does the motivation of a person doing that tell us about people as a whole, personality as a whole? What makes people choose and advocate for the clearly inferior choice? These are questions without final answers, which makes them interesting.

Links: Cheese and olive oil, Greenland is melting, aspirational mate pursuit, OLED computer displays, and more!

* “Greenland’s Melting Ice Nears a ‘Tipping Point.'” I wonder what it is going to take for us to start really doing something, like taxing carbon emissions and building a substantial number of new nuclear power plants.

* Funny book review: “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now.” Or, as Arts & Letters Daily puts it, “When did campy misandry become contemporary shorthand for communicating one’s feminist bona fides?” A favorite line: “Having a relationship is a lot like writing: To be good at it, you have to be interested in other people and believe you have something interesting to offer them in return. Many people who pursue either do so poorly because they are actually interested only in themselves.”

* CO2 rises in well-sealed, closed-door bedrooms, so maybe, when possible/feasible, we shouldn’t sleep with the door closed?

* “Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating markets.”

* “Are we in the Middle of a Programming Bubble?” I have wondered about this, as it seems that programming, or some aspects of it, is paid disproportionately to many peer professions. So why don’t markets adjust? Or are markets adjusting? Is information about just how well programming can pay not propagating to the rest of the market? Or is it really really that hard and most people can’t do it?

* “15-inch, 4K OLED laptops are coming thanks to new displays from Samsung.” OLED displays are amazing, as everyone who has used one knows.

* “[The United Arab Emirates] Held Me as a Spy—And the West Is Complicit.” I don’t get the interest in or fascination with Dubai. The country’s marketing of its liberal values is just marketing.

* “California will sue Huntington Beach over blocked homebuilding.” Good news.

* Colleges and governments have been fleecing Millennials.

* “Another Side of #MeToo: Male Managers Fearful of Mentoring Women.” It’s like no one thinks of second-order consequences.

* How Ideologues Captured the Canadian Publishing Industry.

* Don’t go to law school, but you already know that.

* “Facebook Reports Record Profit.” Keep this story in mind when you read all those hysterical media stories about the company; as you’ve read here, there is no actual Facebook crisis—just a media one. Again, I agree with most of the Facebook criticism, but my verbal agreement is less important than the behavior of users.

* Cal Newport on Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes.

* “Why is high school four years?” It could be three or five.

* Why fiction sales are plummeting. Some of the criticism from “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now” is likely applicable to fiction too.

* “The Millennial Generation and the Problem of Meaning: Explaining Jordan Peterson’s meteoric rise.”

* Parmigiano-Reggiano is Italy’s practically perfect food? I would have thought olive oil.

Links: The death of the blog, what we can infer from behavior, insect collapse, and more!

* “The Millions Will Live on, But the Indie Book Blog Is Dead.” Shoot. Am I dead?

* “Impeach Donald Trump,” note the source here.

* “Nothing Can Stop Google. DuckDuckGo Is Trying Anyway.” There is much caterwauling in the media about privacy, Google, and Facebook. Using DuckDuckGo is one of the easiest and simplest ways of (marginally) increasing a person’s privacy. Yet almost no one does it (except me). What should we infer from that?

* “I work with kids. Here’s why they’re consumed with anxiety.”

* “The Rise and Demise of RSS.” I still use an RSS reader most days.

* “The Art of the Pan: What’s the Point of a Bad Review in 2019?” To warn readers?

* “Is This Higher Education’s Golden Age?” An interesting read but sort of wrong: higher education does have a curious stranglehold over many people’s lives, and yet its largesse is concentrated among a small number of people.

* Turns out that “Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most.”

* “Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems.’” By the way, it also looks like we are living through climate change’s worst-case scenario.

* Interview with poet and culture guy Dana Gioia.

* “Elsevier journal editors resign, start rival open-access journal.” This is good news.

* “‘They Own the System’: Amazon Rewrites Book Industry by Marching Into Publishing.” This is not optimal in many ways, but I also don’t see an alternative. Book publishers and retailers have been complacent forever, and by the time they woke up (have they awoken?), it was too late.

* “China’s Looming Crisis: A Shrinking Population.” Maybe we ought to try harder to make sure we don’t face the same challenge.

* “Why do authors have to be ‘moral’? Because their publishing contracts tell them so. My compulsion to rub strangers up the wrong way in a political sense grows only more enticing.”

* Insurance problems may kill football.

Links: Concentration and the artist’s task, institutions advance faster than cognition, The Sopranos, and more!

* “A $20,243 bike crash: Zuckerberg hospital’s aggressive tactics leave patients with big bills. I spent a year writing about ER bills. Zuckerberg San Francisco General has the most surprising billing practices I’ve seen.” I previously wrote about the need for price transparency. We need it now, even for ERs.

* Waymo’s CEO says autonomous cars “will always have constraints.” They are not a panacea for urban transit and are not going to be here in the next five years, and they will likely be weather-dependent.

* Is fusion power much closer to becoming reality than is commonly anticipated? If so, it will solve or substantially ameliorate the world’s energy problems, along with the geopolitical conflicts fueled by the world’s desire for oil.

* The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

* What we gain from keeping books.

* Progress happens in institutions, not morals?

* “Meat-free ‘Impossible Burger 2.0’ tastes even closer to the real deal.” I tried Beyond Meat burger and found them surprisingly good.

* U.S. Carbon Emissions Surged in 2018 Even as Coal Plants Closed. We need nuclear energy and battery-powered cars, now.

* Interview of David Chase, who spearheaded The Sopranos.

* “Mommy bloggers” when their kids grow up. If I were the kid, I’d be outraged too. It’s a tremendous violation of privacy.

* More buildings should be made of wood.

* Ocean Warming Is Accelerating Faster Than Thought.

* Voters don’t even really know what taxation rates are, let alone what they should be. What conclusions should be drawn from this?

* The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter.

* Saudi Women, Tired of Restraints, Find Ways to Flee.

* “Tucker Carlson has sparked the most interesting debate in conservative politics.” Note that I’m not endorsing the conclusions from either Carlson or the writer of this article, but I will say that it’s nice to see non-stupid political pieces.

* “F.B.I. Opened Inquiry Into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia.”

* Conceivably NSFW, but: “A painted table, modelled after one that was owned by Catherine the Great (1729-1796)?” Is this authentic? I can’t tell. I do want one.

Links: The fight against free speech, why not to get in bar fights, student loans, states of mind, and more!

* The Upside of Your Dark Side, Free Speech, and ‘Problems of Comfort’.

* Why not to get in bar fights; even if you “win,” you often lose.

* Why the West Coast Is Suddenly Beating the East Coast on Transportation?

* “What a Student Loan ‘Bubble’ Bursting Might Look Like?” This is not a great article but the question itself is a good one. The big issues remain: 1. Student loans can’t be discharged through bankruptcy and 2. Right now, schools have almost zero incentive to systematically, substantially reduce costs to students.

* “What Europeans Talk about when They Talk about Brexit.” Fascinating, better than the title may suggest.

* “Why Internet Censorship Doesn’t Work and Never Will.” You could replace “censorship” with “moderating at scale.”

* “How America Grew Bored With Love: The pop love song and rom-com have died, relics in a world of instant gratification and consumerism.” A good polemic, but I’m not convinced it’s true.

* Riva-Melissa Tez has a very unusual background; she also has good followers on Twitter.

* Are experiences and states of mind irreducible and incredibly important for every aspect of modern life? Are they in short supply, relative to most other inputs, in the modern world? Ignore the title on this essay, which is much better than the title implies.

* Log Cabins? No, These Wooden Buildings Are High-Rises.

* “One of the most readable criticisms of US housing finance and policy I’ve ever seen,” a better title from Patrick McKenzie than the actual title.

* The Portland Trailblazers discover quality coffee.

The elite case against big product “x” (today it’s Facebook)

For most of my life I’ve been reading well-structured, well-supported, well-written, and well-cited pieces arguing for why and how people should not do extremely popular thing x, where x can change based on the person making the argument. Often the argument is quite good but doesn’t create mass behavior change on the ground. I often agree with the argument, but whether I agree with it or not is less relevant than whether the majority of the population changes its behavior in measurable ways (for truly popular products and services, they don’t). Today, the x is Facebook.

Based on past examples of “the elite case against ‘x,'” I predict that today’s NYT and BBC articles do very little to change real-world, measurable behavior around Facebook and social media. To the extent people move away from Facebook, it will be toward some other Facebook property like Instagram or toward some other system that still has broadly similar properties, like Discord, Snapchat, etc. Today’s case against Facebook, or social media more generally, reminds me of the elite case against:

* TV. TV rots your brain and is worse than reading books. It destroys high culture and is merely a vehicle for advertising. Sophisticated pleasures are better than reality TV and the other “trash” on TV.” Yet TV remains popular. Even in 2017, “Watching TV was the leisure activity that occupied the most time (2.8 hours per day). And 2.8 hours per day is lower than the “four hours per day” time I’ve seen quoted elsewhere. Today, though, most people, even cultural elites, don’t even bother arguing against TV.

* Fast food, especially McDonald’s, Taco Bell, etc. It’s filled with sugar and, rather than being called “food,” it should probably be called, “an edible food-like substance.” There is also an elite case against factory farming and animal torture, which pretty much all fast food suppliers do. Yet McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and similar companies remain massive. Michael Pollan has done good work articulating the elite case against fast food.

* Oil companies. Oil use has led us to more than 400ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. We’re on the way to cooking ourselves. Yet the market response to hybrid vehicles has been to ignore them. Almost no one walks or bikes to work. Again, I would argue that more people should do these things, but what I think people should do, and what people do, are quite different. We like to attack oil companies instead of the consumer behavior that supports oil companies.

Oddly, I see the elite case against car companies and airplane companies much less frequently than I do against oil companies.

* Tobacco. It gives you lung cancer and smoking cigarettes isn’t even that good. While it appears that smoking rates have been declining for decades, 15.5% of adults still smoke. Taxation may be doing more to drive people away from tobacco than asserting the number and ways that tobacco is bad.

* Video games. They’re a way to evade the real world and perform activities that feel like fitness-enhancing activities but are actually just mental masturbation, but without the physical limits imposed by actual masturbation. They simulate the social world in a way that makes us more isolated and frustrated than ever before.

What other examples am I missing?

Today, we have the elite case against social media. It may be accurate. It’s generated good books, like Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Social media has generated lots of op-eds and parenting guides. Some individuals have announced publicly that they’re deleting their Facebook or Instagram page, yet Facebook is a public company and keeps reporting massive levels of use and engagement.

It turns out that what people want to do, is quite different from what The New York Times thinks people should do.

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