Vote for Clinton or Johnson for president:

If polls are to be believed the presidential race was much closer than it should have been; they are widening now, but their previous narrowness is a travesty because Trump is unfit to be president. There are longer explanations as to why Trump is such a calamity and so unfit for office, like “SSC Endorses Clinton, Johnson, Or Stein” or many others, but perhaps the best thing I’ve read on Trump is “The question of what Donald Trump ‘really believes’ has no answer” (it came out before this weekend’s fiasco and I started this post before this weekend’s fiasco—I wish I’d posted this sooner). The “really believes” article is too detailed to be excerpted effectively but here is one key part:

When he utters words, his primary intent is not to say something, to describe a set of facts in the world; his primary intent is to do something, i.e., to position himself in a social hierarchy. This essential distinction explains why Trump has so flummoxed the media and its fact-checkers; it’s as though they are critiquing the color choices of someone who is colorblind.

Most of us are simultaneously trying to say something about the state of the world and trying to raise our place in it (or raise the place of our allies or lower the place of someone else). Particularly fact-based enterprises like science and engineering are notoriously averse to strongly positional-based enterprises like marketing and sales, where belief matters more than truth (or where belief is true, which is not true in engineering: It is not enough to believe that your bridge will remain standing). But Trump takes the basic way virtually all people signal their status to such an extreme that his speech and, it seems, mind are totally devoid of content altogether.

The number of people who would ordinarily be politically silent but who cannot be silent in the face of ineptness combined with cruelty is large. LeBron James endorses Clinton. Mathematician Terry Tao writes, “It ought to be common knowledge that Donald Trump is not fit for the presidency of the United States of America” (he’s right: it ought to be).

I’m not famous but will note that you should vote for Clinton or Johnson. This is not like any presidential election I’ve been alive for. The risks are real and the difference between Clinton and Trump is not one of policy. It is one of basic competence.

The situation is so bad that The Atlantic’s editors have endorsed Clinton—only the third time in the history of the magazine that it has endorsed a candidate for president (the other two were Lincoln and LBJ):

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has no record of public service and no qualifications for public office. His affect is that of an infomercial huckster; he traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself. He is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.

The reviewIn ‘Hitler,’ an Ascent From ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue” is only superficially writing about Germany from 1931 – 45. It is really a commentary on Trump, like notes about how “Hitler as a politician … rose to power through demagoguery, showmanship and nativist appeals to the masses.” That’s part of Trump’s appeal. Or it was part of Trump’s appeal. One hopes that appeal is fading. The distressing thing is watching people fall for it (or did until recently), or view Trump as a way to express other grievances.

We collectively must not be willfully blind and the United States is better than Trump.

It is impossible to be even slightly skilled at close reading and not perceive Trump’s many weaknesses as a speaker, thinker, or human. If nothing else this election may be a test of the United States’ education level and the quality of its educational system. In all the other elections I’ve lived through, major politicians have had strengths and weaknesses, but none have been outright demagogues or dangerous to the fabric of democracy itself. This election is different and that’s why I’m writing this. America is better than this.

I hope to never again endorse political candidates, but when the structure and stability of the country itself is at risk it is a mistake not to say something, somewhere, publicly. Writing this post is itself depressing.

Thoughts on Tolkien’s Letters and ossification by age

I’ve read Tolkien’s letters before, but as with most reading, each reading is different because I know, think, and believe different things. Tolkien’s occasional crankiness stands out in this reading. He doesn’t like cars (or “motor-cars” in his words) or most industrial / mechanical processes. To him the future often seems grimly industrial, and passages like this speak to his view of what would become modern culture:

Music will give place to jiving: which as far as I can make out means holding a ‘jam session’ round a piano (an instrument properly intended to produce the sounds devised by, say, Chopin) and hitting it so hard that it breaks. This delicately cultured amusement is said to be a ‘fever’ in the U.S.A.

letters_tolkienOne wonders what he’d think of computerized music, if such a term has any meaning anymore: Distinction between digital and analogue music is so blurred as to be useless today. And at least the “jam session” Tolkien does not much like demands more skill than a record, CD, or now mp3.

To my mind too a piano is not “properly intended” to do anything: It’s an instrument or tool that people will apply to all sorts of uses, many unforeseen or unintended. Chopin is one but there are many others, not necessarily worse. I imagine Tolkien did not “get” the Beatles.

I wonder if most people are just most comfortable with the technological world that spans from their childhoods to age 30 or 40, and what comes after often seems unnecessary, gratuitous, or even obscene. When I see the apartments many old people live in, I’m often struck by the lack of prominent computers and by the clutter and (to my eyes) ugly bric-a-brac (even T.G.I.F. is shedding clutter in favor of minimalism). What do they do all day? Old people are often in turn surprised by how much I use computers. I, in another turn, find Snapchat to be of little use, although its popularity is undeniable. When students and my cousins have tried to explain it to me the conversation is often comical.

The usual explanation goes something like, Snapchat lets you tell people what you’re doing; for example you might take a video of yourself on the way to the store, or to the beach, or a concert. I usually then ask, “Why would anyone care?” The conversation breaks down towards mutual incomprehension: They cannot explain the role of this very important tool in their lives, anymore than I could explain video games when I played them as a teenager; I’m too old or set in my ways to understand on a sub-verbal level Snapchat’s uses.

There is an interesting parallel between technology ossification and the way many people seem to lose friends and stop making new friends around age 30. Maybe some common root lies at the bottom of both phenomena.

To return to Tolkien and his dislike of motor-cars, though, Tolkien also got to experience the worst of mechanization in WWI, so his dislike has strong roots, given that virtually everyone he knew was killed using mechanized weapons and the generals who fought WWI had no idea how technology had changed warfare. If virtually everyone I know had died in mechanized warfare I might not love mechanization or machines either.

Like all leter collections the best parts of the letters are scattered amid a lot of material that’s unlikely to be of interest to most people. Unlike most letter collections this one is uncommonly deep and contains uncommonly deep analysis of the author’s own works. To most people who are uninterested in The Lord of the Rings or the Edwardian era the letters will be of no interest. To those who find either fascinating the letters may fascinate.

People vote with their feet, and also the U.S. is not Sweden

Two pieces about Anu Partanen’s book The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life say much about the blindness of some writers: “Stockholm Syndrome: Spotify threatened to abandon Sweden if the government didn’t address over-regulation and sky-high taxes” is poorly titled and more interesting than the title suggests, and so is “What’s So Special About Finland?” Neither says much about the book itself but both together say much about the U.S. media interest in Nordic countries.

Following the Nordic model would make large parts of the U.S. population worse off; that’s why people are moving away from Nordic-model cities and states and towards inexpensive, laissez-fair cities and states.

Let me elaborate. Partanen and most media people are not normal and have not normal needs, desires, and willingness to pay for big-city amenities. But most people aren’t willing to pay for those things that’s why sprawly cities, especially in Texas, are the ones that’re experiencing the fastest population growth in the U.S. People choose to move to them much more so than New York or L.A. or a handful of other media capitols. Partanen and her husband live in NYC as writers. I get the appeal, but they’re relatively low-earners in the second-most-expensive city in the country, and New York is in many ways least like the rest of the country. Partanen even says:

First of all, the taxes are not necessarily as high as many Americans think. One of the myths I encounter often is that Americans are like, ‘You pay 70 percent of your income in taxes.’ No, we do not. For someone who lives in a city like San Francisco or New York City—where you have federal taxes, state taxes, city taxes, property taxes—the tax burden is not very different [than the tax burden in Finland]. I discuss my own taxes in the book and I discovered this to be true: that I did pay about the same or even more in New York than I would have paid on my income in Finland. I’ve talked to many Nordics in the U.S. who say the same thing.

So SF and NYC are already paying these crazy taxes… and apparently not getting much in return. Why then should the rest of the U.S. seek to emulate them? When I’ve said that I think Seattle is a much better value than NYC, in part because of crazy tax issues, people often respond, “So you don’t like public schools or fire fighters?” But Seattle, Austin, Nashville, and other similar cities seem to have those public services too, without anything like NYC’s cost of living. So the solution to high taxes and not-great services in those cities is to pay even more? If so, I’m not too surprised most of the US does not want to be more like Scandinavia (or SF).

To be fair, it would be interesting to see what happens if SF, NYC, and LA disempowered municipal unions and liberalized their zoning codes, both of which would lower costs substantially. For now, though, we’re seeing all three cities systematically drive people out. They’re choosing places that are not very Scandinavian.

Partanen and her husband are not very representative of the overall American experience. It’d be interesting to read a story about Finnish people who move to relatively inexpensive suburbs, don’t spend an overwhelming amount on housing, and basically like their lives. A European friend of mine, for example, has a sister who was born in a medium-sized European country and is basically doing that in Florida, and she seems to like it.

People who live in NYC are self-selected to be obsessive weirdos (who also often want to write books). Which is fine. I’m one of those people but I’m also aware that I’m atypical.

In short, revealed preferences show that most Americans prefer a non-Nordic model. They also show why state-level taxation is better on average than federal-level taxation, since at least people who don’t like state-level taxation regimes can easily move to another state. Score one for the Exit, Voice, and Loyalty world.

I never thought I’d vote for Hillary Clinton, yet here I am:

I never thought I’d vote for Hillary Clinton, and I really never thought I’d be excited to do so, but here I am, voting for her today: It turns out that she’s by far the sanest choice in an insane landscape. Most political commentary is really about signalling (including people who say, “most political commentary is really about signalling,” since they’re making a point and trying to signal their intelligence). Still, to understand why I vote for sanity, consider Jonathan Rauch’s argument in “Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy” and “Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders’s Plans.” The former explains that it turns out some level of cash handouts actually make politics function much better.

Many of you may remember the fight over “earmarks” from the 2000s—that is, whether Congresspeople should be able to allocate cash for specific purposes in their districts. I thought eliminating earmarks would be a good idea. Turns out I was wrong: Eliminating earmarks means that it is much harder for party leaders to keep their members in line.

As a result, we get more and more moves towards ideological purity, at the expense of, you know, making the country run. Congress has broken down in the last decade or so in part because party leaders can’t discipline their followers by taking away money that should go to members’ districts. The Tea Party, and, on the left, Bernie Sanders, can become more prominent because of that issue.

I’m not the first person to notice this—”How to fix what ails Congress: bring back earmarks” is one good account—but it is a serious problem that has caused particular dysfunction among Republicans, who appear ready to nominate people who are manifestly unqualified for being a big-city mayor, let alone president.

Ideological purity turns out to be very bad. Jonathan Haidt’s “The top 10 reasons American politics are so broken” (and “The Ten Causes of America’s Political Dysfunction“), along with the paper he links to, “Why the Center Does Not Hold: The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America,” explains why.

The papers I’ve been citing also explain why it turns out that Obama has been a much better president than most people, including me, realized, or thought in advance. He’s an incrementalist, a negotiator, a thinker, and a realist—all traits that are not selected for amid political polarization. Clinton is too.

Trump and Sanders espouse opposing policies (to the extent Trump espouses any policies), but both are alike in that they are “outsiders” who want to tear down existing systems; they are both temperamentally similar in that they don’t want to work within existing systems. Both are poor traits in leaders and figureheads. We want evolutionaries, not revolutionaries.

It may simply be that, as Matt Yglesias argues, “American democracy is doomed.” I hope not, but the bout of insanity on right and left does not auger well.

I haven’t dealt much with the specifics of Sanders policies apart from the second link in this post because the short version of the critique is, “There’s no way to pay for all this stuff.” Or even a small amount of this stuff. Alvin Chang observes, probably correctly, that “Most Bernie Sanders supporters aren’t willing to pay for his revolution.” If you ask most people if they want more services, handouts, and stuff, they say yes. If you ask most people if they want lower taxes, they say yes. Stated in those terms, you can see the problem.

If you want to understand that people don’t want to pay higher taxes, look at where they’re moving. The major population growth metros are in Texas. Phoenix and Atlanta do really well too. People are moving to lower-cost states, and that should tell us something important about revealed preferences. Hell, I just voted in the New York primary, and I’d like to move to Austin or Nashville, chiefly for cost-of-living reasons.

As for Sanders and banks, the bigger issue than “big banks” is the “shadow” banking system, which I don’t fully understand, but I do understand well enough to know that Sanders is wildly focused on the wrong things.

Still, the last two paragraphs probably don’t matter because the vast majority of Sanders voters aren’t looking at policies; they’re looking at mood and feelings, and I doubt that 1 in 20 people who start this post will have gotten this far, because it’s wonkish, detailed, and not heavily mood affiliated. Out of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of politics, the “How” is often most important and least discussed.

“First, do no harm” is a good political rule, but it’s also kinda boring. I rarely write about politics because most of the time most politics in the U.S. are about incremental changes, about which I have some opinions, but those opinions aren’t important, and they’re as poorly thought out as the political opinions you see on Facebook. In the last couple presidential cycles, I’ve had opinions and voted accordingly, but the major party candidates have mostly been kinda okay. In 2012, Romney would’ve done some things differently from Obama, but I don’t think he would’ve been a total disaster.

This cycle is scary because at least two candidates would likely be total disasters. Yet people keep voting for those candidates and posting mood affiliated comments on them and so forth.

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age — Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly

The first chapter of All Things Shining is strong and so is the second, on David Foster Wallace, but the book gets duller as it goes on, sustaining as it does its readings based on other books. There is something curiously empty about it, like a modern art museum that is much duller than a celebrity’s Instagram account. It is too well mannered. Academia’s mores rules. All Things Shining encourages us to find shining meaning in things but it itself doesn’t feel shiningly meaningful, as even sections like Lewis Hyde’s The Gift do.

Deciding that something is boring is easier than fully understanding why something is boring. I haven’t quite figured out the “Why” question regarding All Things Shining. The book does remind one of why great novels endure; story is still powerful and narratives without story are hard to sustain, especially when many claims seem somewhat dubious:

Modern life can seem to be defined by [uncertainty]. An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and most of us could admit to finding ourselves at last occasionally wavering. Far from being certain and unhesitating, our lives can at the extreme seem shot through with hesitation and indecision, culminating in choices finally made on the basis of nothing at all.

I said that this is “somewhat dubious” because it is, even if we do face many choices. At bottom we each have to choose for ourselves what is important, and then pursue that thing. It might be pleasure or technology or words or research or money. Universals are likely absent and “The burden of choice is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It proliferates in a world that no longer has any God or gods, nor even any sense of what is sacred and inviolable, to focus on our understanding of what we are.” The “burden of choice” also comes from the fact that many of us can pay the rent and pay for food, which leaves us with more time for self-contemplation. Maybe too much time.

I’m fond of telling students that you know you’re an adult when you realize that, if you can’t pay the rent and pay for food, you won’t have anywhere to live or anything to eat. Sometimes a focus on base material conditions is helpful. And forgetting that a very large number of people are justifiably focused on this issues is sometimes too easy for tenured academics.

Some paragraphs are both useful and yet I wonder what polls would say:

The Greeks of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age.

Did the average Greek of Homer’s era live intense and meaningful lives? What about their children? What happened when their children died? Or was the average Greek covered in shit (link likely safe for work), slaving away to support a tiny number of nobles who focused on political games, consuming the marginal product of labor of the peasants, and fighting pointless, zero-sum wars with other nobles?

Still, the book has some interesting sections, and it is a deeper discussion of its issues than you’ll find on most of the Internet The discussions of craftsmanship are glancing but perhaps most interesting. Maybe if Wallace had conceptualized himself first as a craftsman and then as an everything else things would have gone better. Maybe not, though, and it’s hard to criticize one of the most truthful writers of his generation for not doing even better than he did.

Man’s search for meaning goes on.


Cameras are above all else about sharing

In “Sony’s latest camera and some disappointing sensor sales results,” Phillip Greenspun writes that the reward for Sony’s technically innovative sensors has been flat or declining sales. That’s because Sony misses the point: The number one thing camera companies need to do is integrate with Facebook. Camera companies have no one but themselves to blame for their decline. Way back in 2011 Flip Video had a plan for Wi-Fi enabled video cameras that had a Vine- or YouTube-like social system and interface. Every Flip camera was going to have Wi-Fi as a first-class feature. Cisco unfortunately killed Flip right before the launch, but Flip was at least a company that understood what was happening. In the intervening year zero camera companies have attempted to do what Flip was ready to launch.

Olympus_OMD-1351Which is an amazing story in the annals of corporate stupidity. For the vast majority of people images are ways of signaling: signaling their character, their sense of fun, their sexuality, their lives. Image quality is not terribly important for that purpose, and image quality became “good enough” for most people with the iPhone 4 (which, not coincidentally, Instagram was founded). In 2010. Six years ago. Normal people don’t do detailed technical comparisons of their phone cameras. At most they ask, “Is yours good?” and the reply is usually “Yeah, it’s pretty good.”

The camera companies are technical geniuses and social morons. They ignore the absolute most important use case for 95 – 98% of their market. By now it may be too late to attract users accustomed to high-quality smartphone interfaces. But the camera companies are still barely even fine. The interface for getting photos from the modern cameras I have to my phone is horrific.

Apart from a relative handful of nerds like me, no one gives a shit about image quality once it reaches some acceptable level that it reached long ago. No one wants to recharge batteries or stick the SD card in the computer. For the last five or so years every camera iteration has gotten better autofocus and better low-light performance and a host of other handy but marginal features that no one cares about except professionals and Internet gear wankers.

I wrote about this dynamic in “Photography and Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over.” Others have written about it elsewhere. In that post I also observed that photography companies are also marketing morons. They still are. Greenspun is excited by the release of the Sony A6300. That camera is technically incredible. It also has a terrible name that likely means nothing to 99% of readers of this blog. Except for people who follow cameras with the passion normal people reserve for sports or celebrities, “A6300” means nothing. Sony is missing the main point with its sensors and its cameras. They need more anthropologists / sociologists and fewer outright engineers.

The race to the bottom of victimhood and “social justice” culture

In “A Different Kind of Diversity Fear” Matthew Reed writes of a junior professor who

mentioned that many faculty of his age group get really quiet when diversity comes up because they’re afraid that in saying something inadvertently off-key, they’ll get tagged as anti-diversity. Rather than take the chance, they simply wait for the subject to change.

I’ve witnessed similar things in schools where I’ve taught, and this is happening because the diversity coalition is, weirdly, eating its own supporters. At Seliger + Associates we see related challenges in grant writing and wrote about a particular instance in “Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing.” The story at the link is hilarious and demonstrates the dangers of saying almost anything about diversity or related matters, since the line between cultural sensitivity and cultural insensitivity barely exists and moves constantly, without warning.

It’s virtually impossible for people, even well-meaning people sympathetic to the social justice worldview, to know whether they’re saying the right thing or the wrong thing about diversity, inclusion, or related matters. Inadvertently saying the wrong thing means being accused of insensitivity—or worse (Scott Alexander touches similar themes in “Radicalizing the Romanceless“). People who are actively trying to be sensitive can’t predict whether they’ll be accused of being insensitive.

Jonathan Haidt has also written about the dangers of victim culture, in “Where microaggressions really come from: A sociological account” and “The Yale Problem Begins in High School:”

Their high schools have thoroughly socialized them into what sociologists call victimhood culture, which weakens students by turning them into “moral dependents” who cannot deal with problems on their own. They must get adult authorities to validate their victim status.

Victimhood culture has also taken root in universities. It isn’t a purely left-wing phenomenon anymore, either: right-wing students can also take on the mantle of oppression, especially in a university context when right-wing students are the minority. In the United States, can a religious Christian be a victim? What about Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? That line of thinking, and the competition to be the bigger victim, can lead to a race to the bottom over who is a victim and who isn’t.

From a professor’s point of view, it takes only one well-meaning but inadvertent comment to end up pilloried. As noted previously, the likely reception of the comment is unknowable, while the accusation can be almost as damning as conviction. In that environment, the optimal solution for someone who values their job is the one Reed’s prof came up with: silence.

Silence around important issues is probably bad, but one doesn’t need elaborate game theory to see why it happens. There is no defense against insensitivity or “triggering.” In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Haidt write:

Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on “blaming the victim,” it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity. The thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card. This leads to what Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor at this magazine, calls the “offendedness sweepstakes,” in which opposing parties use claims of offense as cudgels. In the process, the bar for what we consider unacceptable speech is lowered further and further.

I’ve seen the offendedness sweepstakes play out in classrooms. It’s ugly. It’s also impossible to adjudicate different people’s different levels of offendedness because there’s no real standard to compare one person’s level of offense to another’s. I can tell whether a paper is poorly written or well written or whether an argument is well-researched or poorly researched, but I can’t tell whether student x has a better “claim” to victimhood than student y.

The obvious counter to perpetual offendedness is that living in the world requires some level of fortitude and resilience. The flipside to that, however, is that people (including professors) can use “fortitude and resilience” as excuses for being jerks or being deliberately provocative in a non-productive manner.

Still, the current academic climate seems to have swung too far towards the offendedness sweepstakes and too far from fortitude and resilience. But we’re unlikely to see a fortitude coalition form, and even attempting to do such a thing risks the “insensitive” label. So we get more and more offense and less and less thought.

Outside of academia and some media circles none of this matters.

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