Maybe cars are just really bad, but they’re normal, so we don’t pay attention to how bad

In the United States, 30,000 – 40,000 people are killed by and in cars every year; hundreds of thousands more are maimed. Think of ten to twelve 9/11s, every year—yet the issue gets little airplay, despite its importance. Perhaps we ought to be working a lot harder to build a society that is less dependent on murderous cars. Almost everyone knows someone who has been killed or maimed in a car crash. But, for whatever reason, most of us don’t think about the sheer amount of death and destruction attached to cars—maybe because the numbers are too vast. So I’ve decided to foreground the issue by listing some of the car crash victims whose names and/or stories I’ve come across. I’m not looking for them, but I keep noticing how many writers casually mention death in and by cars. Right now, today, it’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed:

John sighed. He asked Margo to look at the caller ID and tell him who had called, but she shook her head and turned away. John reached for the phone with his right hand. Then they collided with a black SUV coming straight at them.

Strapped in their booster seats were five-year-old Gracie and six-year-old Gabe. Irish twins, born just a year apart and inseparable. The loves of John’s life. Gracie survived along with John and Margo. Gabe, seated directly behind John and at exactly the point of impact, died at the scene.

Two paragraphs, one death. We need to do a “five whys” analysis on this. Part of the answer involves inattentiveness due to the phone, yes. But why is everyone in cars? Why are so many distracted amateurs operating these machines? Why is our society built around them? What would an alternate transit setup look like (one that valued human life)? These questions are almost entirely absent. The larger issues aren’t foregrounded. Cities that could help cut the car-based death rate refuse to do so. We have a bad strategy and our collective decision is to keep pursuing it. Despite the way death appears everywhere, every day:

* “Three years earlier, my husband, Eric, and I had lost our 22-month-old son, Seamus, when they were struck in a crosswalk by a careless driver.” From “When Sturdy Love Is What You Need.”

* “A few months later the young woman came to see me. She and her boyfriend had had a terrible car crash. He had died, and his family had turned her out of the house they had lived in together” (137). From The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a memoir by Catherine Millet. Everyone knows someone who has died this way.

* “About a decade ago, Derek Sarno, the elder of the pair at 48, was working as a chef and restaurateur in New Hampshire when his longtime partner was killed in a car accident.” From “The Vegetarians at the Gate.”

* “I was back in my hometown cruising the makeup aisles of a 24-hour drugstore around midnight on the eve of my sister’s funeral. I was 23 and my 22-year-old sister had died in a car accident five days earlier.” From “When Lips Speak for Themselves.”

* Miss France Hopeful Morgane Rolland Dies After Being Struck by a Tractor-Trailer.

* Interview with actress Anjelica Huston: “You were 17 and your brother Tony was 18 when your mother was killed in a car [crash] in France.”

* Kevin Hart reportedly able to walk after serious car crash. This one isn’t a fatality, but wouldn’t he have liked to not have been in a car wreck?

* Mother Dies After Halloween Crash That Killed Husband and Toddler. “Joseph and Raihan Awaida were walking home with their 3-year-old son on Halloween night when the entire family was hit by an SUV.” Maybe we should work harder to segment uses and discourage driving: one SUV kills an entire family.

* “Then, in her thirties, [Joanna Parfit] died in a car crash.”

* “In September 1996, after turning thirty-four years old, Paul [Simons] donned a jersey and shorts, hopped on his… bicycle, and set off on a fast ride through Old Field Road in Setauket, near his boyhood home. Out of nowhere, an elderly woman backed her car out of the driveway, unaware [Paul] was riding past. She hit Paul, crushing and killing him instantly, a random and tragic accident. Several days later, the woman, traumatized by the experience, had a heart attack and died.” (159) That’s from The Man Who Solved the Market, a biography of Jim Simons. The writer, Gregory Zuckerman, is not astute enough to realize that this was not a totally random event: it’s an event engineered by systematic choices made over the course of decades, if not a century, to prioritize car and car travel over life. The elderly should not be driving, yet we’ve decided to ignore their inabilities because cars are so woven into the urban fabric of life.

Overall, we should all be striving for life after parking, however utopian that sounds today (getting everyone to quit smoking probably seemed utopian 50 years ago, but here we are). Unfortunately, absurdly expensive infrastructure costs inhibit the development of better transit systems. I’ve changed my view on this issue substantially between when I was younger and today. Housing and transit issues are tremendous determinants of the quality of human life, as well as the quality of our politics, and many of the screeds you read about “income inequality” (a term I dislike because we really want everyone to have a decent baseline quality of life, regardless of whether someone is super rich), education, and health are really about housing and transit—we just don’t think of them this way. Very few reporters or “intellectuals” (a word worthy of scare quotes) connect the dots. So I’m going to connect them here, even though others don’t, and keep adding to this list. Maybe it will personalize the idea that cars are bad in a way that the raw data does not.

Links: The challenges of intracity travel, the dark side of progress, streaming life, unknown SF writers, and more!

* A scenario for Google’s collapse. I don’t buy it, but could it have a 10% or 15% chance of being accurate? I get some reader pushback about some links and ideas, so I’ll note again here that I post things that are interesting, intellectually stimulating or novel, and have at least some chance of being true—even if I don’t agree with them.

* The dark side of progress?, among other topics. A rare take and, like the scenario for Google’s collapse, not my main view.

* Is it possible that bad AI inputs will doom some authoritarian governments?

* Mark Zuckerberg Interviews Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen on the Nature and Causes of Progress. Many topics will be familiar to regular readers, but I’m posting this for the sake of completeness.

* “The Inside Story of Christopher Steele’s Trump Dossier.” Or, the challenges of writing spy/espionage fiction, because the real world is so weird.

* Jennifer Ringley: The first woman to stream her life.

* The Zen of Weight Lifting.

* “The Real Class War:” more interesting than its title implies, though it’s missing one key idea: the way we’ve increased housing costs far faster than inflation via land-use restrictions.

* The Resurrection of John M. Ford, the Greatest Sci-Fi Writer You’ve Never Read. Strange timing for this, though, as the new editions don’t come out till 2020 and aren’t available on Amazon.

* Is there a limit to what our brains can understand? I tend to think yes, just based on everyday observation, and based on reading about the Von Neumanns of the world. We still don’t understand much about consciousness.

* What If Companies Get Big Because They’re Better?

* “America’s Rivalry With China Is Nothing Like the Cold War.” I’m not totally convinced but the view is well-stated and the evidence is strong.

* Even 50 year old climate models correctly predict global warming.

* Ken Liu and Chinese science fiction. In China literary fiction that touches political issues is mostly forbidden or censored, so the energy needed to make sense of the world flows elsewhere.

* “This Is Why Your Holiday Travel Is Awful.” A history of Penn Station, Robert Moses, and the growth of veto choke points that prevent anyone from doing anything anywhere.

* “Tumblr’s First Year Without Porn.” It went poorly for the site.

* “Oceans running out of oxygen.” Humanity shrugs.

* I Was Once a Socialist. Then I Saw How It Worked.

Conversations with Friends — Sally Rooney

You may have been fooled by the New Yorker profile of Sally Rooney, as I was, but don’t be: Conversations with Friends is boring—there’s nothing horribly wrong with it but little right with it either. There is some juvenile BS on almost every page; if you haven’t read the books listed here quit this review now and go pick up some of. It’s hard to find representative sentences in Conversations because they’re all representative, and flat: “He never usually trailed off his sentences this way. He started to feel agitated. I said again I didn’t mean to be distant with him. I didn’t understand what he was trying to say and I was afraid of what it might have been.” We get pages and pages like this. Also: “never usually?” Or, “I felt his body then, his heat and complex weight.” Complex weight? As opposed to simple weight?

The book is about a girl’s affair with a married man, and she kinda sorta tries polyamory lite, but without thinking much about it or having any social or community structure for it. Conversations a “kinda sorta” sort of book, which is why it’s so unsatisfying. The sentences are short and it’s easy to skip sentences, paragraphs, pages, without losing anything. Still, Conversations gives hope to unpublished writers, because if it can get published and pushed, you might be able to too.

I want the protagonist to get a job on a fishing boat, or building rockets for SpaceX, or working in an emergency room, or doing anything, anywhere, apart from interning for literary agents and spending too much time listening to professors or living in libraries. There is a world beyond university humanities departments, thankfully, but it is opaque to Frances and her friends. Conversations are fine, but conversations among people with no goals, no dreams, and no purpose lead one to wonder why they aren’t short stories.

Not every book needs to challenge and this one doesn’t. It’s the literary equivalent of an anodyne meal at a “new American” restaurant that does the same thing thousands of similar establishments do. It won’t offend or wow anyone. If this is the “millennial novel,” we have nothing to fear but our own emptiness, and the social media we use to try and stuff the emptiness into some shape. But you could do worse; I read to the end but am also trying not to do the classic bad critic move of generalizing from specific individuals to much larger groups. If I were to do that, I would draw much different sociological or demographic conclusions than have others I’ve read. So much art really is read as simply confirming our priors.

Links: Wealth tax failures, information flow, genius and obsession, bad romance, and more!

* “France Tried Soaking the Rich. It Didn’t Go Well.” Try to focus on substance and effectiveness of proposals, not how they make you feel or what signals you think they might communicate.

* Defecting Chinese spy offers information trove to Australian government.

* Paul Graham’s bus ticket theory of genius.

* Psilocybin for Major Depression Granted Breakthrough Therapy by FDA

* U.S. Tech Companies Prop Up China’s Vast Surveillance Network.

* Bad romance, a long and well-reported piece on the bizarreness of the National Inquirer.

* How single men and women are making politics more extreme.

* “Indiana Wesleyan Student Kicked Out of Honors College for Questioning Cultural Appropriation: Bias incident reports, safety concerns, and harassment charges, all because of a slightly trollish Facebook post.” Remember when universities were about debating ideas? You probably do remember my post about journalists and academics as modern-day clerics, persecuting modern-day heresy.

* “System76 Will Begin Shipping 2 Linux Laptops With Coreboot-Based Open Source Firmware.” It is striking how many people make noise about privacy and freedom online versus how many take concrete, simple steps to improve those things.

* “
Why Are College Students So Afraid of Me?
Because adults at places like Bucknell and Holy Cross have convinced them they are oppressed.”

* Popcorn’s multi-sensory appeal.

* U.S. birth rate falls for 4th year in a row: “A final tally of babies born in the U.S. last year confirms that the birth rate fell again in 2018, reaching the lowest level in more than three decades.” It’s hard to see this as a sign of optimism. We need to decrease housing costs by building a lot more housing, yet we’re not doing that.

* China’s growing threat to academic freedom.

* Napoleon Chagnon Is Dead: What academe’s shameful treatment of him tells us about truth and ethics now.

* How real chocolate gets farmed and made. Most chocolate that’s heavily marketed is bad.

* “Our Planet May Be Barreling Toward a Tipping Point.” In the meantime, we can’t even execute climate-friendly strategies like removing urban height limits and parking minimums, or building low-emission nuclear power plants.

* The bottleneck in US higher ed.

* Jeff Sypeck on the vogue for political rigidity in “young adult” novels, among other topics, including cultural change over time. Being into comic books used to be seen as weird and undesirable, for example?

Links: The refragmentation, the ideas underlying politics, Firefox and freedom, and more!

* Firefox’s Fight for the Future of the Web. If you want the web to be open and free, you should choose Firefox.

* Roth/Updike, in case you want to hear more about the topic; both of them have under-plotted books, and the lack of plot makes their work less interesting. I’ve read lots by both, but little sticks. I kept wanting them to get to a point, but the point never arrived. Both are best in shorter works, where lack of plot drags less.

* Interstellar space even weirder than expected, NASA probe reveals.

* “Lotto lout Michael Carroll reveals working as £10-an-hour coalman.” Entertaining.

* “Far From Boring: Meet the Most Interesting Tunnel Boring Machines.”

* “Cities Worldwide Are Reimagining Their Relationship With Cars.” Too expensive, too inefficient, and too polluting.

* Blogs were and are better than “social” media sites.

* The end of babies. Ignore the dumb stuff about capitalism that ignores the role of land-use policies in pushing people against children; parts of the linked essay are painful but there is good material in it. See Bryan Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, too.

* Peter Thiel: The End of the Computer Age? Familiar subject for Thiel readers.

* “Why We’re All Wired for ‘Constructive Conspiracism’.” A useful link when your friends talk about conspiracy theories.

* “How America Ends.” Not hysterical and not the usual. Relatedly, “Why social media makes it seem like everything is going haywire.”

* “The Refragmentation.” I have never seen this important idea expressed in anything like this way, anywhere.

Have journalists and academics become modern-day clerics?

This guy was wrongly and somewhat insanely accused of sexual impropriety by two neo-puritans; stories about individual injustice can be interesting, but this one seems like an embodiment of a larger trend, and, although the story is long and some of the author’s assumptions are dubious, I think there’s a different, conceivably better, takeaway than the one implied: don’t go into academia (at least the humanities) or journalism. Both fields are fiercely, insanely combative for very small amounts of money; because the money is so bad, many people get or stay in them for non-monetary ideological reasons, almost the way priests, pastors, or other religious figures used to choose low incomes and high purpose (or “purpose” if we’re feeling cynical). Not only that, but clerics often know the answer to the question before the question has even been asked, and they don’t need free inquiry because the answers are already available—attributes that are very bad, yet seem to be increasingly common, in journalism and academia.

Obviously journalism and academia have never been great fields for getting rich, but the business model for both has fallen apart in the last 20 years. The people willing to tolerate the low pay and awful conditions must have other motives (a few are independently wealthy) to go into them. I’m not arguing that other motives have never existed, but today you’d have to be absurdly committed to those other motives. That there are new secular religions is not an observation original to me, but once I heard that idea a lot of other strange-seeming things about modern culture clicked into place. Low pay, low status, and low prestige occupations must do something for the people who go into them.

Once an individual enters the highly mimetic and extremely ideological space, he becomes a good target for destruction—and makes a good scapegoat for anyone who is not getting the money or recognition they think they deserve. Or for anyone who is simply angry or feels ill-used. The people who are robust or anti-fragile stay out of this space.

Meanwhile, less ideological and much wealthier professions may not have been, or be, immune from the cultural psychosis in a few media and academic fields, but they’re much less susceptible to mimetic contagions and ripping-downs. The people in them have greater incomes and resources. They have a greater sense of doing something in the world that is not primarily intellectual, and thus probably not primarily mimetic and ideological.

There’s a personal dimension to these observations, because I was attracted to both journalism and academia, but the former has shed at least half its jobs over the last two decades and the latter became untenable post-2008. I’ve enough interaction with both fields to get the cultural tenor of them, and smart people largely choose more lucrative and less crazy industries. Like many people attracted to journalism, I read books like All the President’s Men in high school and wanted to model Woodward and Bernstein. But almost no reporters today are like Woodward and Bernstein. They’re more likely to be writing Buzzfeed clickbait, and nothing generates more clicks than outrage. Smart people interested in journalism can do a minimal amount of research and realize that the field is oversubscribed and should be avoided.

When I hear students say they’re majoring in journalism, I look at them cockeyed, regardless of gender; there’s fierce competition coupled with few rewards. The journalism industry has evolved to take advantage of youthful idealism, much like fashion, publishing, film, and a few other industries. Perhaps that is why these industries attract so many writers to insider satires: the gap between idealistic expectation and cynical reality is very wide.

Even if thousands of people read this and follow its advice, thousands more persons will keep attempting to claw their way into journalism or academia. It is an unwise move. We have people like David Graeber buying into the innuendo and career attack culture. Smart people look at this and do something else, something where a random smear is less likely to cost an entire career.

We’re in the midst of a new-puritan revival and yet large parts of the media ecosystem are ignoring this idea, often because they’re part of it.

It is grimly funny to have read the first story linked next to a piece that quotes Solzhenitsyn: “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. . . . it is in the nature of a human being to seek a justification for his actions.” Ideology is back, and destruction is easier the construction. Our cultural immune system seems to have failed to figure this out, yet. Short-form social media like Facebook and Twitter arguably encourage black and white thinking, because there’s not enough space to develop nuance. There is enough space, however, to say that the bad guy is right over there, and we should go attack that bad guy for whatever thought crimes or wrongthink they may have committed.

Ideally, academics and journalists come to a given situation or set of facts and don’t know the answer in advance. In an ideal world, they try to figure out what’s true and why. “Ideal” is repeated twice because, historically, departures from the ideal is common, but having ideological neutrality and an investigatory posture is preferable to knowing the answer in advance and judging people based on demographic characteristics and prearranged prejudices, yet those traits seem to have seeped into the academic and journalistic cultures.

Combine this with present-day youth culture that equates feelings with facts and felt harm with real harm, and you get a pretty toxic stew—”toxic” being a favorite word of the new clerics. See further, America’s New Sex Bureaucracy. If you feel it’s wrong, it must be wrong, and probably illegal; if you feel it’s right, it must be right, and therefore desirable. This kind of thinking has generated some backlash, but not enough to save some of the demographic undesirables who wander into the kill zone of journalism or academia. Meanwhile, loneliness seems to be more acute than ever, and we’re stuck wondering why.

Links: Diamonds are too much forever for the diamond industry, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Ted Gioia conversation, and more

* Conversation with Ted Gioia; I share the Steven Pinker view, however.

* Things about Phoebe Waller-Bridge. There is not too much of the usual PC stuff, though a little bit appears.

* Age of Invention: Rise of the Mathematicians.

* “Here’s the weird thing about a post-Christian Christendom.” That’s WEIRD as in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. We’re quite different than most people have been, ever, and we’re not properly appreciating it, or how differently we’ve been acculturated.

* “How the Insufferably Woke Help Trump: Democrats are insulting and condescending to the swing-state voters they need the most.” More of the obvious, yet here we are.

* Christianity has some aspects that are good that we don’t give it credit for. And, if you take the Christianity out of the American political right, you might be left with something closer to authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism, both of which are much worse than Christianity. By the way, I didn’t see this development coming either, and almost no one did.

* “Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.” Also seems obvious, though it’s nice to hear a high-status person say it.

* Apple engages in planned obsolescence. Apple also just released a 16″ Macbook Pro, for those of you in the market for such things, and it has a functional keyboard again.

* “Welcome to Culture War 2.0: The Great Realignment.” It’s ill news when too few people are willing to stand up to rationality, free inquiry, and intellectual diversity.

* “Scientists Didn’t Think Climate Change Would Happen So Fast. Now we’re facing consequences once viewed as fringe scenarios.” And the collective response is still to shrug and ignore.

* “Sometimes, Straussians hide truths in plain sight. When they do, they’re concealed in unpopular characters, such as devils, beggars, and buffoons. Pseudonymous Twitter accounts are the new Straussian philosophers, but with one important twist. Instead of sharing their names and hiding the truth, today’s Straussians hide their names, but share the truth.”

* “Government Must Have Reasonable Suspicion of Digital Contraband Before Searching Electronic Devices at the U.S. Border.”

* How California Became America’s Housing Market Nightmare.

* Diamonds keep getting cheaper.

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