Briefly noted: Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments

Edge.org’s annual question book, Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments, is out in paper—and it’s available in its entirety online. Many responses discuss global climate change, like this one:

There is no real difficulty in identifying the most important news of 2015. Global warming is the news that will remain news for the foreseeable future, because our world will continue to warm at a rate that has never been seen before, at least at the moment without a foreseeable end.

The choice is a good and important though depressing one, but one should note that some progress is being made in terms of decarbonization of energy, the spread of electric vehicles, and the like. It may also be that we need or want less stuff than we once did:

Chris Goodall and a number of other commentators have documented this decoupling extensively: UK government data also shows a reduction in material use from about 12 tons a year per person to around 9 tons from 2000 to 2013. Japan shows a similar pattern.

Maybe the most obvious avatar of this change is the smartphone.

The other big groupings are particle physics and genetic engineering. In the former group, for example, Sarah Demers writes:

The terrifying possibility floating through these “Higgs and nothing else” conversations is that we might reach the end of exploration at the energy frontier. Without better clues of our undiscovered physics, we might not have sufficient motivation to build a higher energy machine. Even if we convince ourselves, could we convince the world and marshal the necessary resources to break the energy frontier again and continue to probe nature under the extreme conditions that teach us about nature’s building blocks?

The particle physicists seem about split between optimism that we’ll get breakthroughs and the terror described here that we’ll reach the end of effective measurement and breakthroughs. Yet many of the writers enumerate the many unresolved problems in physics, which could be read as a rebuke to people who say or imply that there’s nothing left to do, no blank spaces left on the map, and nothing left to discover.

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction — Derek Thompson

In 2011, a pseudonymous woman wrote a book about a BDSM romance between an improbably matched couple who in many ways defy romantic convention. When you read the preceding sentence you probably think of 50 Shades of Grey, a terribly written book that eventually got turned into a massive movie. But I’m actually referencing Never the Face: A Story of Desire, a well-written book—at the link I expend 2,000 words analyzing it—that’s also been totally forgotten. The post I wrote is one of my least-read pieces. Aside from my post and a Guernica magazine interview, it appears that no one has written anything about Never the Face. A paperback edition was never released. Even a Kindle edition is absent. Never the Face never went viral.

Why?

hit_makersI don’t know. Certainly the topic has a long history—the Marquis de Sade wrote extensively and famously about what we now call BDSM in the 18th Century—but Never the Face never got going. Thompson attempts to find out why some of the answers as to why many if not most people have heard of 50 Shades while Never the Face is likely to remain forever obscure. He even has a chapter devoted to 50 Shades, and while he traces the mechanics of the book back to its fan fiction origins, he doesn’t answer—and probably can’t—why that particular work of fan fiction took off. He notes that E. L. James vigorously networked with other readers, but I bet other fan fic writers did too. We don’t see them, however—they’re cultural dark matter to us.

At the end of that 50 Shades chapter Thompson writes:

To understand why some hits get so big, one cannot look exclusively at characteristics like familiarity or at marketing strategies like one-to-one-million moments. The broadcasts come first, but they are not enough. A handful of products will inevitably become massively popular each year for the simple reason that, once they are pushed into the national consciousness, people just can’t stop talking about them.

So how do you get people to talk?

That question doesn’t have easy answers either; one of the more interesting I’ve seen comes from Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.

I finished Hit Makers a week or two ago and its ideas have been popping up in my mind since; for example, the next links post will include “Why Great Critics Make Disastrous Judgments.” Hit Makers offers a useful answer: some works are so new and different that they can’t be evaluated by previous metrics. They are most advanced yet acceptable (or acceptable to many readers). Critics, bringing their previously developed and honed sensibility to the new work, miss what makes it good, and they miss the way the new work will make the critical conversation itself swerve. Cultural evolution is unpredictable, and we’re all nodes in the shaping of things. Great critics make a lot of judgments, and by the sheer quantity of them some are bound to be bad. New works can have the function of teaching us how to read the new works themselves. It takes time to let the new work work on your mind.

There are other examples of weird popularity. In “Stan Smith is more than just a shoe,” Lauren Schwartzberg profiles a mostly forgotten, middling tennis player who, decades ago, managed to sign an endorsement contract with Adidas, who released a shoe named after him. That shoe achieved improbable pop culture stardom and has sold millions of copies per year for years on end. It’s so popular that other companies make their own versions; I didn’t realize this, but I actually own a pair of Cole Haan’s copy of Stan Smith sneakers (but they’re not very comfortable and I walk wrong in them). Somehow, though, Stan Smiths have retained their cool aura over decades of fashion changes.

Hit Makers is too long and rich to summarize briefly. I will note, however, that sometimes the data is just depressing:

Television proved an irresistible seductress. By 1965, more than 90 percent of households had a television set, and they were spending more than five hours watching it every day.

One is awed by the sheer waste of time, energy, and attention. Still, when I hear critics of education talk about the problems with the school system, sometimes I think about what the alternatives may be: for many people, they are TV (or now Facebook and its equivalents: “In 2012, for the first time ever, Americans spent more time interacting with digital devices like their laptops and phones than with television”). Digital devices are probably an improvement on TV but not on many alternatives.

One is also awed by the amount of time people waste on what seems to be bullshit on Facebook. But many makers make contrarian bets that still work. HBO and The Sopranos is one example Thompson uses. That is actually an important part of HBO’s business model: do something different from what everyone else is doing. Being a contrarian is dangerous, though, since most contrarians are simply wrong. And one also faces supply and demand problems. My own medium may be the best example of those problems:

Writing in the twenty-first century might be the most competitive industry in human history. The barriers are low, the supply is massive, and the competition is global, with countless publishers producing content for a global audience.

Yet writers—like this one—keep doing it. Content is everywhere but insight is rare. Keep hunting insight. It may lead you to hits.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow — Paul Theroux

V.S. Naipaul as a character in a novel would be unbelievable because his hysterical obtuseness would seem unrealistic; no one would want to read a book about him, especially as he’s seen at the beginning of Sir Vidia’s Shadow. Only Theroux’s perspective makes this one readable. Many greats are ornery—one favorite depiction is Dr. Swenson in State of Wonder—but this one seems not great enough to justify his orneriness; if I’d been Theroux I think I would’ve given up at or just after the first meeting. Phrases like, “Who needs all that negativity?” are overused and have been corrupted by New Age morons, but reading about Naipaul one does have to ask: Who needs all that negativity?

State of Wonder is a good comparison. Switch the literary examples for scientific ones and the sexes and this could be Swenson:

He knew his own mind. He knew what he wanted. It was clear that he would not find what he was looking for Uganda — anyway, he had already given up on us. He had impossibly high standards. He said there was no point in having standards unless they were high. He did not compromise. He expected the best, in writing, in speaking, in behavior, in reading.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow sometimes reads like a parody yet isn’t one. One sees the contradictions in Naipaul, in Theroux, and their relationship pop up; the many brilliant scenes the beginning of the memoir eventually set up this, which doesn’t occur until page 71:

I was just a young man in Africa, trying to make my life. He was one of the strangest men I had ever met, and absolutely the most difficult. He was almost unlovable. He was contradictory, he quizzed me incessantly, he challenged everything I said, he demanded attention, he could be petty, he uttered heresies about Africa, he fussed, he mocked, he made his innocent wife cry, he had impossibly high standards, he was self-important, he was obsessive on the subject of his health. He hated children, music, and dogs. But he was also brilliant, and passionate in his convictions, and to be with him, as a friend or fellow writer, I had always to be at my best.

sir_vidias_shadowA few people hate children, a few more hate dogs, but music? Almost no one hates music, not even me, who is not the most musically inclined or astute person alive. One gets the sense in this paragraph too of how irritating Naipaul can be: the repeated “He was” begins to weigh, like a literary weight, as it and variations on it is repeated, until the relief of the “But” that tells us the good sides of Naipaul, the shining sides, the reasons one would want to be around him.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow can be read many ways, which is one of its pleasures. It can be read as Theroux’s education in humanity; Naipaul is like no one else yet still somehow manages to operate somewhat. Theroux is educated in other ways. He is educated in the literary marketplace, which is brutal and poorly remunerated. He learns other things. At the beginning of the book Theroux’s lover is immediately eager to have his baby. After their three-month romance both discover she is four months pregnant. The lesson is clear yet it seems to be one each generation must re-learn.

What else? As noted in the preceding paragraph the book is about many things; being a writer is one, and peppered throughout we learn about writers’ struggles. Naipaul goes off on a journalism assignment that “meant breaking off work on his book, a hard thing to do.” Yet Theroux “was teaching every day and also working on a novel, so it consoled me to hear about his interruptions.” “Consoled” is an interesting word here, with its implication of grief or disappointment assuaged. Maybe teaching every day is a grief, but finding someone else in a condition of grief may make us feel empathy, but there is also a little notion, a whisper, of small-minded competitiveness here.

Maybe the best thing about Sir Vidia’s Shadow is the way every word feels essential, deliberate, chosen. It demands and rewards close attention the way too few books I’ve read lately do. Those that demand attention because of the quality of their sentences often have dull or empty plots. Those that demand attention because of their content often have dull sentences. Sir Vidia’s Shadow brings together both sides—or should I say “brings both sides together?” After reading such a book, the answer matters again.

Still, I keep noticing the struggles, especially about money. There is rarely enough of it and the principles do shockingly large amounts of work for shockingly small amounts of money. Scenes of privation are too frequent to quote at length, but I will give one touch from midway through:

My strategy has been to write and survive that way; my strategy was not working. A novel, a book of criticism, scores of book reviews, a collection of short stories — this in less than a year had produced such a paltry income that I was grateful to my wife for getting a job. Now I was at work on my seventh novel. . .

Grant writing may be hard but it is not so hard as this. The artists’ struggle with money is an old story and one told too rarely in schools. Reading about Theroux’s struggles also make me wonder how many writers and would-be writers are out there, living like Theroux, but never quite making it, leading them to mid- and late-life bitterness at their own struggles and fiscal catastrophes.

Some moments are useful in the age of distraction: “At the age of thirty, I had my first telephone.” One senses a conceivable link between that and the novels written.

I will not give away the end, which is hard to read and more emotionally powerful than one might initially expect. There are shades of the end of Michael Lewis’s much more recent book The Undoing Project. There is something powerful and terrible about broken friendship, which is beyond even the terribleness of romantic breakups. But breakup and breakdown is in Sir Vidia’s character. One sees it throughout the book. Theroux knows as much and takes his risks. In fairy tales and mythology it is rare that a mortal who consorts with supernatural beings comes out of the encounter, be it brief or be it a marriage, well. Sir Vidia’s Shadow is not a fairy tale but it has elements of the fairy tale in it, and one sees that the long friendship teaches Theroux much, yet the friendship cannot forever endure Sir Vidia’s nature.

Briefly noted: Underground Airlines — Ben H. Winters

You may have seen the good reviews, but I gave up after 50 pages, many of which look like this:

Underground Airlines

The premise is clever—the Civil War is averted and slavery persists in four states up to the present day—but the writing is not. One wishes to read instead Elmore Leonard, who is a master of the kind of style attempted here. Almost every page is overwritten. Many of the pieces in Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliche apply here too.

Good books I read in 2016

A reader pointed out that I didn’t write a “best of 2016” post, which is correct, but “best of” strikes me wrong, so I’m going to write about good books that I happened to read in 2016 and that you should read too.

* The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis, probably the best book I read all year, except maybe for Blindsight, but that is so different that the two aren’t really comparable.

* Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century by Masha Gessen, another narrative nonfiction book, though this one emerged and escaped my notice in 2009.

* The Map and the Territory by Houellebecq, still weird and likely always weird; Houellebecq has his misses, especially The Possibility of an Island, but his hits are strong, weird, and different—with “different” too often meaning “bad,” but not in his case.

* Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, one of those amazing books worth re-reading whenever you can’t find a new book to read.

* The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, which is novelistic in detail and beautifully reported. I didn’t fully know where the music everyone listens to comes from and now I do.

I’ve been having trouble finding really good novels, though my tastes are idiosyncratic and I don’t have rules for what makes a good novel besides the tautological, “Be really good.” If you have suggestions drop me a line.

The most-visited post I wrote last year is “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.”

The Trespasser — Tana French

I don’t remember where I first learned about French, but “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels” inspired me to read The Trespasser. The novel is not bad and if you like the genre you might dig it—it’s not offensively written—but halfway through one feels like nothing much has happened, the dead girl, Aislinn, remains a cipher, and maybe a bunch of stuff will add up to something but maybe it won’t. Comparisons to Gone Girl are not quite apt because in that novel something changes virtually every chapter, and around halfway through the big reveal occurs.

trespasserIn The Trespasser things meander to no particular end. From a marketing perspective the endless comparisons to Gone Girl makes sense, but from a narrative perspective they rarely do. Gone Girl does seem to break the narrative pattern in a way that’s difficult to repeat, and that may help explain why it is so read and still so good.

Still, reading a competently executed book is refreshing, and there are crisp descriptions like, “Breslin likes thinking he’s Mr. Indispensable; he’ll show up just as fast for a shitty domestic as he would for a skin-stripping serial killer, because he knows the poor victim is bollixed until he gets there to save the day.” Arguably the part of the sentence before the semicolon could be omitted, with the reader left to infer it, but one gets a sense of someone whose virtue is motivated by self-love more than caring for mankind. We also get a lot of standard detective-fiction patter, like “I didn’t use to be like this. I’ve always had a temper on me, but I’ve always kept it under control, no matter how hard I had to bite down.” Why are tempers always under control and not over control? What does control of a temper mean, versus a temper having control? The kinds of standardized language one finds in the novel never gets to those questions. It’s actually hard to find really characteristic quotes because The Trespasser doesn’t stray far enough from its genre:

The point is, this isn’t the telly, where cops are all blood brothers and anyone who gets on the wrong side of a cop ends up dead in a ditch while the rest of us lose the evidence. I don’t have any squad loyalty.

The writing is often good but not quite good enough to justify the plot. I still await “the next Gone Girl.”

A surprisingly large amount of the novel describes the bureaucracy of police departments (which is a surprisingly large amount of many contemporary detective novels and maybe novels set more generally in offices). Bureaucracy may be the characteristic fact of life. See also “Bartlebys All.”

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds — Michael Lewis

The Undoing Project is entertainingly written, appears well-researched, and is also tremendously important—three things that, while not intrinsically opposed, occur together too infrequently. It’s so funny that I burst out laughing during class, while students were engaged in peer review, and every pair of eyes turned to me. I wanted to stop myself but couldn’t. It’s the best book I’ve read in recent memory and you should stop whatever else you’re doing to read it.

undoing_projectThe “tremendously important” part is important for many reasons, one being that most people don’t seem to even know the (many) biases humans are prone to, let alone that knowing the biases often isn’t enough to change the behavior. We can understand the problems and still not turn understanding into action.*

Still, there are steps we can consciously take to attempt to minimize or combat our biases. For example, “People had trouble seeing when their minds were misleading them; on the other hand, they could sometimes see when other people’s minds were misleading them.” That means we have to minimize hierarchy in many situations; empower people to speak up when they perceive problems; and listen to those who have differences of opinion, even if we want to immediately assume they’re wrong.

There are too many good sections in the book to cite them all. One example:

People did not choose between things. They chose between descriptions of things. Economists, and anyone else who wanted to believe that human beings were rational, could rationalize, or try to rationalize, loss aversion. But how did you rationalize this? Economists assumed that you could simply measure what people wanted from what they chose. But what if what you want changes with the context in which the options are offered to you?”

Conveying the humor in The Undoing Project is hard, maybe impossible, because so much of it is embedded in larger stories.

“Amos approached intellectual life strategically, as if it were an oil field to be drilled, and after two years of sitting through philosophy classes he announced that philosophy was a dry well. ‘I remember his words,’ recalled Amnon. ‘He said, “There is nothing we can do in philosophy. Plato solved too many of the problems. We can’t have any impact in this area. There are too many smart guys and too few problems left, and the problems have no solutions.”’”

I wonder if English lit suffers from the same (or a similar) problem. There’s been little progress since the advent of close reading, and the development of “critical theory” or “theory” is often if anything a step back. If there is anything interesting going on right now it seems to be in some aspect of applying computers to literature, but that is likely more a CS problem than an English lit problem.

We do get an ethnology of academia, too. Like:

Economists were brash and self-assured. Psychologists were nuanced and doubtful. ‘Psychologists as a rule will only interrupt a presentation for clarification,’ says psychologist Dan Gilbert. ‘Economists will interrupt to show how smart they are.’ ‘In economics it is completely normal to be rude,’ says economist George Loewenstein. ‘We tried to create a psychology and economics seminar at Yale. We had our first meeting. The psychologists came out completely bruised. We never had a second meeting.’ In the early 1990s, Amos’s former student Steven Sloman invited an equal number of economists and psychologists to a conference in France. ‘And I swear to God I spent three-quarters of my time telling the economists to shut up,’ said Sloman. ‘The problem,’ says Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, ‘is that psychologists think economists are immoral and economists think psychologists are stupid.’

There seems to be no solution.

There also seems to be no solution for the systematic errors in human cognition. As I noted above, awareness is not enough. Even imagining possible futures is not enough, because one may come to predominate and stifle the others before they can be explored:

What people did in many complicated real-life problems—when trying to decide if Egypt might invade Israel, say, or their husband might leave them for another woman—was to construct scenarios. The stories we make up, rooted in our memories, effectively replace probability judgements. ‘The production of a compelling scenario is likely to constrain future thinking,’ wrote Danny to Amos. ‘There is much evidence showing that, once an uncertain situation has been perceived or interpreted in a particular fashion, it is quite difficult to view it in any other way.

The parallels to present world politics are too clear. We have forgotten the lessons of totalitarianism in just a generation and a half. We are too fond of constructing Kahneman’s rosy scenarios, which replace probability judgments. The probability of nuclear conflagration has grown in recent times. Yet we discount it. Recent elections in the U.S., U.K., Poland, and Hungary are systematic cognitive errors writ large.

The number of cognitive errors we’re subject to staggers. It’s “not just that people don’t know what they don’t know, but that they don’t bother to factor their ignorance into their judgments” (192). This book should above all make us doubt ourselves more, and especially doubt ourselves even when we think ourselves sophisticated. Over and over, we see people who receive training in statistics make basic statistical errors. We see people violate the law of small numbers.

I cannot recall all the times I’ve explained sample bias problems to people—rarely clients but more often students or friends—only to sense that no one is getting what I’m saying, or, if they do get it, they don’t care. The more one understands recurring cognitive weaknesses the more one sees them, the more I worry about succumbing to them myself. I myself succumbed to them in the last election, by substituting the opinions of people who are readily observable around me for the opinions of the much larger political body. And I myself wonder how often people have explained cognitive biases to me, or pointed out cognitive biases in action, only for me to ignore them.

The secret to the successful friendship between Kahneman and Tversky seems to have been pleasure: “‘We just found each other more interesting than anyone else,’ said Danny. ‘Even if we had just spent the entire day working together.’ They’d become a single mind, creating ideas about why people did what they did, and cooking up odd experiments to tests them.” The joint mind: It seems beautiful. I wonder how many of us accomplish such a feat. Lewis does cite a writer who began a book about productive pairs but never finished it. Another writer, Joshua Wolf Shenk, wrote and published Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.

Lewis quotes his beautifully articulate subjects: “It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.”

This is a kind of boring NYT review. This is a better New Yorker review, from Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, who are both cited repeatedly in the book itself. For example:

[Cass] Sunstein was particularly interested in what was now being called ‘choice architecture.’ The decisions people made were driven by the way they were presented. People didn’t simply know what they wanted: they took cues from their environment. They constructed their preferences. And they followed paths of least resistance, even when they paid a heavy price for it.

How are you paying?


* Maybe the robots do deserve to win.

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