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.

Links: The electric scooter, the comfort college, stamina succeeds?, and more

* “The rise of the electric scooter.” Which is awesome and underrated in the media.

* The rise of the comfort college. Depressing and consistent with my classroom experiences. Strangely, the New York Times Book Review just published a letter to the editor on related subjects.

* Does poetry have street cred? Does it just need to focus on being more structured and less boring?

* Are too many people going to college? It’s strange that these ideas aren’t also more common.

* Apple stacked the app store with its own products. If there’s a monopoly problem in tech companies right now, it’s almost certainly with Apple, not with the usual suspects.

* “The One Thing No Israeli Wants to Discuss.” The contemporary discourse around the Middle East is frequently missing precisely this history—it’s as if someone is trying to understand some aspects of contemporary American politics without mentioning 9/11.

* Universities say they want strong academics and diversity, but they really want rich kids. I can only say that I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling going on in this cafe.

* Stamina succeeds?

* Why industry is quietly going green. Amusing and counterintuitive.

* “Malaria breakthrough as scientists find ‘highly effective’ way to kill parasite.” This is likely to be bigger news than anything else you read this month, if it’s true.

* Food innovation news.

* “Why Are American Homes So Big?” A lot of them are too big and located in the wrong places.

* The rush from judgment. Views rarely heard, except sometimes from Bryan Caplan.

Coders — Clive Thompson

Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World is promising, but many sections are too wrapped up in media business rituals for it to be great. That said, if you’ve not read about the mindsets that cognitively demanding enterprises demand, the book provides a good introduction to them. Despite that, it likely underemphasizes and underplays the extreme meritocracy of the tech world, where code works—or doesn’t, and products work—or don’t. The large amount of signaling cruft that has accumulated in many other worlds is (mostly) absent. Coders are arguably the end result of a centuries-long process away from being who you are because of you or your family’s place in the social order and towards being who you are because of what you can do. Maybe that will change over time, but it hasn’t yet, and tech is attractive to outsiders in general because you can’t fake your way in, and, if you do, you’ll likely be found out relatively quickly.

Thompson disagrees, it seems. He writes, “the software industry has long cherished its self-image of a pure meritocracy.” I don’t think many people think a “pure” meritocracy is possible, so this notion has a whiff of the strawman about it because of the word “pure.” A better question might be, is the software business meritocratic compared to many other industries? Sure seems like it, given the way the Internet opens the field to talented but uncredentialed outsiders. Thompson goes on to assert it’s not true, without providing real evidence (though he has some typical media stories). For example, the chapter “10x, rock stars, and the myth of meritocracy” has lots of stories but very little, if any, data, and none that supports the central point. Chapter 7 is worse.

Despite that, there are useful threads; for example, people complained vociferously about Facebook’s News Feed when it was introduced. But “the day after News Feed emerged, Sanghvi and the team found that people were spending twice as much time on Facebook as before.” Revealed preferences, in other words: we could call our era the “revealed preferences” era, because so much of our online lives shows things that we don’t want to say. The aggregate of our desires is often quite different from what we say we want. Still, it might be inhumane to live in a world where shading the truth is a lot harder, and we’re in a world where online denunciations are becoming more common yet our cultural immune system hasn’t adjusted to them yet.

After I read Coders, I read “Robert A. Caro on the Means and Ends of Power,” and it makes me think: Who is going to be the Caro of the coding generation? The writer who is so deep into the technical mind, the mind that has shaped the digital tools almost all of use, that he says it all? Thompson has the potential to get there, but Coders doesn’t arrange the material right. He gets that, to Ruchi Sanghvi, Facebook as a company “was different, it was vibrant, it was alive,” as she says. That’s a powerful force and, as someone who’s worked in and around government and universities for years, I see the appeal of being in a startup where urgency is everywhere. But Thompson also writes things like, “Facebook looked at our lives as a problem of inefficient transmission of information.” Did it? Or was it just an experiment? Maybe an experiment in self-presentation? arguably those two questions are variants on “transmission of information,” but, equally arguably, “transmission of information” is too abstract for what Facebook was, or is. That’s the sort of thing someone like Caro is likely to get right, while many others are likely to get it wrong.

But, despite that, I think this is correct, or, if not correct, interesting:

Back during the Revolutionary America of the late eighteenth century, the key profession was law. The American style of government is composed of nothing but laws, of course.

I wonder if “writer” has ever been the key profession, or if it’s always been the profession of the carpers instead of the doers. Nonetheless, the theme of coding’s rise reappears elsewhere: “Sure, politics, law, and business are powerful, but if you want to really remold the contours of society? Write code.” That, at least, his view of the ’90s and the Internet.

For one coder,

It was like constantly solving puzzles: trying to make an algorithm run faster, trying to debug a gnarly piece of code that wasn’t working right. The mental chess colonized her mind, and she found herself pondering coding problems all day long.

Sounds like many writers on writing, who also find that the top-of-mind project colonizes their minds—if they’re to do it at the highest levels. Both fields are also prone to generating the question, “Where do good ideas come from?”, which has no answer at this stage of technological and human knowledge.

Yet solving puzzles also means managing frustration, because another section declares it writing it well to need “a boundless, nigh masochistic ability to endure brutal, grinding frustration.” Why do some people find some things, like running or coding, as fun, while many if not most others hate them? We are again running into unanswerable psychological questions with large-scale social implications. Yet the work also engenders “a sense of clarity, of proof that his work actually was valid.”

You can no doubt sense my ambivalence about Coders. Thompson needs to give up his media rituals and relentless political correctness henpecking; they’re likely to mark Coders as being too much of its time, rather than for all time. There is a classic in this book, but the book is too of its media moment to be the classic. And that’s a pity, to see someone with a lot of material who misuses the material.

Links: Real-life rules, active learning, Germans and nudity, group novels, and more!

* “Why It’s So Hard for Young People to Date Offline.” Where there is a shortage, there is an opportunity.

* Active learning works, but students don’t like it. Matches my anecdotal experiences in teaching.

* “Camille Paglia: A Feminist Capitalist Professor Under Fire .”

* Literary prizes, sales, and popularity, somewhat quantified.

* “When Did College Turn So Cruel?

* Germans like nudity. Nudism nudity.

* Can you write a novel as a group? I don’t see why not. This is also not related to the group issues in the link immediately above.

* Bicycles can help save the planet and improve our cities.

* “‘Father Is Surgeon,’ ‘1 Mil Pledge’: The Role of Money in USC Admissions: Emails in college admissions cheating scandal show the role donations played in decisions to accept students.” This one has a lot of comeuppance and schadenfreude. One lawyer “in the admissions-cheating scheme has argued that parents donated to USC as part of a standard admissions practice that was actively encouraged by USC.” Seems really plausible to me: the whole thing reads a bit like the mafia being pissed off that amateurs are elbowing into its turf, or a branch of government elbowing into the mafia’s turf. There’s just so much comedy in this story. Remember the link about how did (some parts of) the college system become so cruel? This is part of the story, and it’s a story about the behavior of the schools themselves.

* Walter Mosley on quitting the writers room. Has one of the great all-time lines in it.

* “How ancient poetry can revitalise our erotic imaginations.” Maybe.

* Edward Luttwak from 1994: “Why Fascism is the Wave of the Future.” Had I read this ten years ago I would have found it absurd. No longer.

* Room with a viewer: How TV became president. Most of the blame on Facebook and other Internet platforms seems misguided, relative to the importance of plain old TV.

Links: Satellite internet, epistemology many ways, the penny-book business, Houellebecq, and more!

* Satellite Internet companies could save consumers $30 billion per year. Seems optimistic, as terrestrial companies will have to drop their prices, but competition is always welcomed.

* “The Info War of All Against All.” The re-litigating of epistemology is an interesting effect of the Internet.

* “The Provocations of Camille Paglia,” which is an overview of her work.

* “Secret Memos Show the Government Has Been Lying About Backpage.” You can trust the government.

* A penny for your books. From 2015 and still charming.

* Please add RSS support to your site, if it’s not got it already. There is much bleating online about privacy, platform diversity, etc., and little action towards improvement. This is a concrete action step that can be taken.

* “Michel Houellebecq, France’s Master Of ‘Materialist Horror’.” A better title than it sounds. I’m reading Rene Girard and keep thinking of Houellebecq.

* “How to review a novel.” Some fine points, but over time I’ve come to appreciate the reviews that are intelligent, but also personal and idiosyncratic. Many reviews manage to do the one or the other.

* A history of the “political” novel. Most sad but accurate is the second half of the essay, which discusses how the novel’s loss of centrality to the culture also means politicians (correctly) don’t feel they need to respond to novels. I have been annoying my literary friends by pointing out that decades of Philip Roth’s humanist and often political novels have brought us to McConnell-Trump—although this point would have scanned differently in 2011.

* Why housing is so expensive, from an unusual source.

* “What Happens When You Don’t Pay a Hospital Bill.” It’s astounding to me that we don’t better and further regulate hospital biling practices.

* Flight Shame: The Climate Hazards of Air Travel.

* “‘The Great Scattering’: How Identity Panic Took Root in the Void Once Occupied by Family Life.”

* Progress Studies, Some Initial Thoughts.

* Is Life Worth Living After 75? Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel Doctor Says No.

* The long-forgotten history of how carmakers invented jaywalking, and in the process stole the streets from humans.

Links: The summer of grammar, keep your politics/religion to yourself, epistemology many ways, and more!

* The long hot summer of grammar. My kind of summar. Summer, I meant; the spelling may be weak, but the grammar goes on.

* Woman spends tens of thousands of dollars getting an MFA: “I’m Emptying My Bank Account to Go to Columbia.” It would be a decent idea to teach financial literacy in school, including the “follow the money” principle.

* Google Doesn’t Want Staff Debating Politics at Work Anymore. Personally, I can’t imagine why.

* How the great truth dawned. On Russians, literature, religion, and other ideas of interest. Probably can’t be digested in a single reading, and that’s a positive.

* Analyzing Trinitite: A (Radioactive) Piece of Nuclear History.

* “Misinformation Has Created a New World Disorder: Our willingness to share content without thinking is exploited to spread disinformation.”

* “Bureaucrats Put the Squeeze on College Newspapers: The corporatization of higher education has rendered a once-indispensable part of student life irrelevant, right when it’s needed the most.”

* The neo-puritan revival. A weird trend to my thinking.

* Perhaps related to the link immediately above, “‘Luxury beliefs’ are the latest status symbol for rich Americans

* The info war of all against all.

* “ Standing Up to the Moral Outrage Industry: What we can learn from how Yale handled Sarah Braasch and the ‘napping while black’ incident.” I’d also note that there’s usually something amiss with someone who is a 44-year-old graduate student.

* “Software was eating the world — now landlords are eating everything.” We can more easily change laws than develop technology that doesn’t yet exist, however.

* The long game of research.It’s easy to forget how hard knowing things really is, especially in the immediate gratification attention economy.

The Seventh Function of Language — Laurent Binet

The Seventh Function of Language is wildly funny, at least for the specialist group of humanities academics and those steeped in humanities academic nonsense of the last 30 – 40 years. For everyone else, it may be like reading a prolonged in-joke. Virtually every field has its jokes that require particular background to get (I’ve heard many doctors tell stories whose punchline is something like, “And then the PCDH level hit 50, followed by an ADL of 200!” Laughter all around, except for me). In the novel, Roland Barthes doesn’t die from a typical car crash in 1980; instead, he is murdered. But by who, and why?

A hardboiled French detective (or “Superintendent,” which is France’s equivalent) must team up with a humanities lecturer to find out, because in the world of The Seventh Function it’s apparent that a link exists between Barthes’s work and his murder. They don’t exactly have a Holmes and Watson relationship, as neither Bayard (the superintendent) or Herzog (the lecturer) make brilliant leaps of deduction; rather, both complement each other, each alternating between bumbling and brilliance. Readers of The Name of the Rose will recognize both the detective/side-kick motif as well as the way a murder is linked to the intellectual work being done by the deceased. In most crime fiction—as, apparently, in most crime—the motives are small and often paltry, if not outright pathetic: theft, revenge, jealousy, sex. “Money and/or sex” pretty much summarizes why people kill (and perhaps why many people live). That sets up the novel’s idea, in which someone is killed for an idea.

The novel’s central, unstated joke is that, in the real world, no one would bother killing over literary theory because literary theory is so wildly unimportant (“Bayard gets the gist: Roland Barthes’s language is gibberish. But in that case why waste your time reading him?”). At Barthes’s funeral, Bayard thinks:

To get anywhere in this investigation, he knows that he has to understand what he’s searching for. What did Barthes possess of such value that someone not only stole it from him but they wanted to kill him for it too?

The real world answer is “nothing.” He, like other French intellectuals, has nothing worth killing over. And if you have nothing conceivably worth killing over, are your ideas of any value? The answer could plausibly be “yes,” but in the case of Barthes and others it is still “no.” And the money question structures a lot of relations: Bayard thinks of Foucault, “Does this guy earn more than he does?”

Semiotics permeates:

Many is an interpreting machine and, with a little imagination, he sees signs everywhere: in the color of his wife’s coat, in the stripe on the door of his car, in the eating habits of the people next door, in France’s monthly unemployment figures, in the banana-like taste of Beaujolais nouveau (for it always tastes either like banana or, less often, raspberry. Why? No one knows, but there must be an explanation, and it is semiological.)…

There are also various amusing authorial intrusions and one could say the usual things about them. The downside of The Seventh Function is that its underlying thrust is similar to the numerous other academic novels out there; if you’ve read a couple, you’ve read them all. The upsides are considerable, however, among them the comedy of allusion and the gap between immediate, venal human behavior and the olympian ideas enclosed in books produced by often-silly humans. If the idea stated in the book and the author’s behavior don’t match, what lesson should we take from that mismatch?

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