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.

Onwards.

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.

“From Pickup Artist to Pariah” buries the lead

In “From Pickup Artist to Pariah: Jared Rutledge fancied himself a big man of the ‘manosphere.’ But when his online musings about 46 women were exposed, his whole town turned against him,” oddly, the most interesting and perhaps important parts of the article are buried or de-emphasized:

In 2012, he slept with three women; in 2013, 17; in 2014, 22. In manosphere terms, he was spinning plates — keeping multiple casual relationships going at once.

In other words… it worked, at least according to this writer. And:

I met four women at a downtown bar. All were on Jared’s List of Lays. Over cocktails and ramen, the women told me about Jared’s sexual habits, his occasional flakiness, his black-and-white worldview. [. . .] They seemed most troubled by just how fine he had been to date. “I really liked him,” said W. “And that’s what makes me feel so gullible.”

In other words… it worked, at least according to the women interviewed as framed by this writer.

How might a Straussian read “From Pickup Artist to Pariah?” Parts of the article, and not those already quoted, could be inserted directly into Onion stories.

The first sentence of Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World is “Dear Bernard-Henri Lévy, We have, as they say, nothing in common—except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.” Is being contemptible sometimes a sign of status? As BHL implies, the greatest hatred is often reserved for that which might be true.*

In other news, the Wall Street Journal reports today that “Global Temperatures Set Record for Second Straight Year: 2015 was the warmest year world-wide since reliable global record-keeping began in 1880.”

In Julie Klausner’s book, I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux Sensitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I’ve Dated, she writes at the very end, “Around this time of graduation or evolution or whatever you call becoming thirty, I started fending off the guys I didn’t like before I slept with them. It was the first change I noticed in my behavior that really marked my twenties being over.” Maybe Rutledge’s mistake is of tone: Comedians are sometimes forgiven and sometimes thrown into the fire. No one is ever forgiven seriousness.


Houellebecq also writes, “there is in those I admire a tendency toward irresponsibility that I find only too easy to understand.” He is not the first person to admire irresponsibility. In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!“, Richard Feynman says:

Von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was Von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility.

The more you do it the better you get: Why Americans might not work less

In “Why Do Americans Work So Much?“, Rebecca Rosen poses some answers to the question in the title, most notably, “American inequality means that the gains of increasing productivity are not widely shared. In other words, most Americans are too poor to work less.” I’m not convinced this is true; one problem we have involves the difficulty or illegality of building and selling relatively inexpensive housing in high-demand areas (see here and here for two discussions, and please don’t leave a comment unless you’ve read both links thoroughly). Some of what looks like financial “inequality” is actually people paying a shit ton of money for housing in New York, Seattle, L.A., and similar places, rather than living in cheaper places like Houston or Phoenix. Homeowners who vote in those areas vote to keep housing prices high by strangling supply.

Plus, I’d add that, per “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?“, financial inequality isn’t the only kind, though for some reason it’s gotten an overwhelming amount of play in the press over the last ten years. I’ve seen people speculate that financial inequality is fun to attack because money can easily be taken from someone at the point of a gun and given to someone else, while other forms of inequality like beauty or a playful disposition can’t be taken so easily.

Still, there’s one other important factor that may be unexplored: Demanding and remunerative cognitive jobs may not be easy to partition. That is, one person doing a cognitively demanding job 40 hours per week is way more efficient than two people doing the same job for 20 hours a week. And that same person may be even more efficient working 50 or 60 hours a week.

Let me explain. With some classic manufacturing tasks—let’s imagine a very simple one, like turning an hex key—you can do x turns per hour times y hours. With many high-value jobs, and even ambiguously defined median-value jobs, that isn’t true. In my not-tremendous-but-not-zero experience in coding, having one person stuff as much of the code base—that is, the problem space—into their head as possible makes the work better. The person learns a lot about edge cases and keeps larger parts of the codebase in their mind. The cost of attempting to explain the code base to another person is much higher than keeping it all in one’s head.

Among professors, the ones who’ve read the most and written the most usually exponentially better than those who have read 75% and written 75% as much. They’re 5x as valuable, not 33% more valuable.

One sees similar patterns recur across cognitively demanding fields. Once a person has put in the 10,000 hours necessary to master that field, each additional hour is highly valuable, and, even better, the problem domain is better understood. That’s part of the reason law firms charge so much for top lawyers. Those top lawyers have skills that can only be developed through extensive, extreme practice.

I see this effect in grant writing: we don’t split proposal tasks because doing so vastly increases the communication overhead. I’m much more efficient in writing an entire proposal than two or three people could be each writing parts. We’ve rescued numerous doomed proposals from organizations that attempted this approach and failed.

Many of you have probably heard about unfinished and perhaps unfinishable projects (often initiated by government). Here’s a list of famous failed software projects. Some of those projects simply become so massive that latency and bandwidth between the workers in the project overwhelm the doing of actual work. The project becomes all management and no substance. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, we’ve seen many grant proposals fail because of too many writers and no real captain. At least with proposals, the final work product is sufficiently simple that a single person can write an entire narrative. In software, thousands of people or more may contribute to a project (depending on where you draw the line, hundreds of thousands may contribute: does anyone who has worked on the compiler or version control system or integrated development environment (IDE) count?).

Put these trends together and you get people working more because the costs of splitting up tasks are so much higher. If you put five junior lawyers on a project, they may come up with a worse answer or set of answers than a single senior lawyer who has the problem space in his head. The same thing could conceivably be true in software as well. The costs of interconnection are real. This will increase inequality because top people are so valuable while simultaneously meaning that a person can’t earn x% of the income through x% of the work. A person must do 100% or not compete at all.

This is also consistent with changes in financial remuneration, which the original author considers. It’s also consistent with Paul Graham’s observations in “The Refragmentation.”

Finally, there may also be signaling issues. Here is one Robin Hanson post on related concerns. At some point, Hanson described working for Lockheed before he did his Ph.D., and if I recall correctly he tried to work fewer hours for commensurately lower pay, and that did not go over well. Maybe Lockheed was cognizant of the task-splitting costs I note above, or maybe they were more concerned with what Hanson was communicating about his devotion to the job, or what example he’d set to the others.

So earning may not be scalable. It may be binary. We may not be “working” less because we’re poor. We may be working less because the nature of many tasks and occupations are binary: You win big by working big hours or don’t work much at all.

EDIT: See also “You Don’t Need More Free Time,” which argues that we may not need more free time, but rather the right free time—when our friends are free. I also wonder if too much “free” time is also enervating in its own way.

Briefly noted: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life — William Deresiewicz

Excellent Sheep is great though polemical—snide remarks about tech companies are neither true nor useful—and one gets a sense of its contents from “Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts,” which went viral for the best of reasons (as opposed to the worst, which is more common). “Eros in the Classroom” is also good, though curiously erotically attenuated, and could be read profitably in tandem with Laura Kipnis’s “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” The two point to the need for satirization of contemporary academic mores, but that satirization is already so thorough that its failure to make much of a dent inside academia is obvious.

excellent_SheepBut Excellent Sheep is comprehensive, despite its overreach. But major orators know that if they have the audience the audience will forgive much, as such is the case here. The book is situated as one that fills a need and one that speaks to the author’s earlier self:

This book, in many ways, is a letter to my twenty-year-old self. It talks about the kinds of things I wish someone had encouraged me to think about when I was going to college—such as what the point of college might be in the first place.

I was like so many kids today (and so many kids back then.) I went off to college like a sleepwalker, like a zombie. College was a blank. College was the ‘next thing.’ [. . .] Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top—in a word, ‘success.’

I was perhaps slightly less blank but barely so. That being said, I often try to talk to current college students about what college is about and usually get resistance. So it may be that Deresiewicz’s twenty-year-old self wouldn’t listen to older Deresiewicz anyway. And, like almost any book of this sort, Excellent Sheep probably won’t be read by many of the students who could most benefit from reading it. Many who might be handed it might resist it. Slightly analogously, I’m struck by Emily Nussbaum’s description of Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior: “In 1988, when her short-story collection Bad Behavior came out, it became a dorm-room bible for women I knew: Finally, here was a fiction writer unafraid to walk straight through the feminist battlefields of that very strange period.” I’ve assigned it before and it’s not been treated as a Bible; some students cottoned to it but some strongly resisted, though I also don’t think of it as dealing with “the feminist battlefields” of anything: I think of the stories as being about individuals, not dreary ideologies or ideological think-pieces.

Deresiewicz has a keen grasp of what’s happening in contemporary academia and, often, life itself. He writes of a “system,” or “a set of tightly interlocking parts,” including “private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants, test-prep courses and enrichment programs; the admissions process itself; [. . .] the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the BA [. . .]” and of course much more. But this paragraph is the most interesting:

What that system does to kds and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it—those are the subjects of this book. I was teaching a class at Yale on the literature of friendship. One day we got around to talking about the importance of being alone. The ability to engage in introspection, I suggested, is the essential precondition for living the life of the mind, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. My students took this in for a second—introspection, solitude, the life of the mind, things they probably had not been asked to think about before—then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you just saying that we’re all just, like really excellent sheep?”

He goes on: “The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” I’ve noticed those things. They are of course not pervasive. But I also find them impossible to miss.

Excellent Sheep is a truer work of philosophy than 99% of the stuff published under the banner of “philosophy.”

Already I’ve chewed through a thousand words and two long blockquotes and have gotten to page three of Excellent Sheep. That should speak to the book’s quality. To attend to its every argument would be to almost write another book. As I said before, don’t trust everything. But do read it. It is also interesting to me that this article about Peter Thiel describes his mistrust of the education system, which partially evolved from his unhappiness with a track-based life and system. Yet this system persists for reasons, some of which Megan McArdle articulates in “What Really Scares Helicopter Parents.” The system has been in construction for decades. Startups are one route around them. Self-publishing is another. One can no doubt imagine more.

Many people are bad at being and bad at purpose. Including, possibly, me. Excellent Sheep challenges them, which is to say, us.

 

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