Links: Fiction and dominance, conversations and ideas, what’s happening with fragility?, and more!

* “The Fiction of Winners & Losers,” by Tim Parks.

* Conversations and Ideas.

* China has squandered its first great opportunity to be a global leader and cement alliances. Unfortunately, the hostile U.S. posture means we’re ill-equipped to capitalize; we don’t even have TPP in place, which we should have had years ago.

* “Elon Musk, Blasting Off in Domestic Bliss.” Amusing but not especially informative.

* “Colleges Are Deeply Unequal Workplaces: As universities plan to reopen, they continue to overlook the concerns of campus staff.” Almost too obvious to post, but it’s observing given the amount of noise one hears from academics on the subject of “inequality.”

* “Riding an E-Bike Changed My Perspective on How We Get Around.” If you’ve never tried riding one, you should.

* “The Battle to Invent the Automatic Rice Cooker.” The Zojirushi “neurofuzzy” rice cookers are amazing.

* Publish & Perish, on the negative equilibrium academia has, in many respects, inadvertently settled into.

* A useful description of aspects of modern culture:

Schulman describes this episode in a book she wrote some years later, Conflict Is Not Abuse. The book’s central insight is that people experiencing the inevitable discomfort of human misunderstanding often overstate the harm that has been done to them — they describe themselves as victims rather than as participants in a shared situation. And overstating harm itself can cause harm, whether it leads to social shunning or physical violence.

Schulman argues that people rush to see themselves as victims for a variety of reasons: because they’re accustomed to being unopposed, because they’re accustomed to being oppressed, because it’s a quick escape from discomfort — from criticism, disagreement, confusion, and conflict. But when we avoid those uncomfortable feelings, we avoid the possibility of change. Instead, Schulman wants friends to hold each other accountable, ask questions, and intervene to help each other talk through disagreements — not treat “loyalty” as an excuse to bear grudges.

* “Women in Xinjiang shine a light on a campaign of abuse and control by Beijing.” What would you have done in the 1930s?

* The roots of wokeism, from Andrew Sullivan’s new system.

* “Make it now: the rise of the present tense in fiction.”

* Might buildings can 3-d print houses—even the roof.

Links: Information asymmetries, the relationship of relationships, beauty and “privilege,” and more!

* “LA’s PocketList gives renters better information, faster, about which apartments are available in cities.” Seems like a work of genius, if it works.

* Are there useful similarities between employment and romantic relationships?

* “The Greatest Privilege We Never Talk About: Beauty.” Except, of course, here at TSS, where you read essays like, “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?

* “I’ve Seen a Future Without Cars, and It’s Amazing: Why do American cities waste so much space on cars?” An excellent question, and one asked too infrequently.

* “Anne Applebaum: how my old friends paved the way for Trump and Brexit.” I have a soft spot for heretics.

* Is employment persistence like romantic relationship persistence? Why do norms about “rights” to a position differ in one situation versus the other? I don’t necessarily agree with the analogy but it makes me think.

* Potential large-scale CO2 removal via enhanced rock weathering with croplands: a hugely underrated topic.

* How to plan a space mission. Feats of epic engineering are under-covered and under-reported. If you run into stories about them, send me a link.

* Ross Douthat’s ten theses about “cancel culture.”

* “Lessons from the Awkward Life and Death of the Segway: The ‘personal transporter’ promised to change cities back in 2001. It didn’t. But its demise should be a warning for today’s urban mobility disrupters.” It was too expensive, the batteries were bad, and, worst of all, riders feel they look stupid on one. Today, very good electric bikes are, miraculously, under $1,000. Very good electric scooters are $500 – $700. City planning, however, continues to lag behind, and we continue to be caught in unfortunate path dependence.

* COVID was a preventible catastrophe in the United States. This article lays out the details, the precedents, and how a normal administration would react. It could be subtitled, “Your vote counts.” We all, in a sense, chose the bad federal reaction.

* “The lost art of having a chat: what happened when I stopped texting and started talking.”

* The TikTok War. Lots of thought in this one.

* “Does the white upper class feel exhausted and oppressed by meritocracy?” A great piece that looks, as few do, at the dark psychological shadow. Most of the media and social media are in denial about the shadow.

Links: Annie Duke and probability, Joyce Carol Oates being herself, free speech, and more!

* “Annie Duke on Poker, Probabilities, and How We Make Decisions.” Often hilarious.

* The Unruly Genius of Joyce Carol Oates.

* “China Suppression Of Uighur Minorities Meets U.N. Definition Of Genocide, Report Says.” Yet this gets almost no play among the culture-war people. Why not?

* ‘A Preventable Catastrophe’, by James Fallows, and a deeply reported and extremely distressing article about what went wrong with the United States’s COVID response, or lack thereof. This is perhaps the most distressing part:

“China is a very hard target,” a man who recently worked in an intelligence organization told me. “We have to be very deliberate about what we focus on”—which in normal times would be military developments or suspected espionage threats. “The bottom line is that for a place like Wuhan, you really are going to rely on open-source or informal leads.” During the Obama administration, the U.S. had negotiated to have its observers stationed in many cities across China, through a program called Predict. But the Trump administration did not fill those positions, including in Wuhan. This meant that no one was on site to learn about, for instance, the unexplained closure on January 1 of the city’s main downtown Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a so-called wet market where wild animals, live or already killed, were on sale along with fish and domesticated animals. It was at this market that the first animal-to-human transfer of the virus is generally thought to have occurred, probably from a bat. But by that time, as Marisa Taylor of Reuters first reported, the Trump administration had removed dozens of CDC representatives in China.

We had the opportunity to have eyes and ears on the ground, we fumbled it. Long-time readers may remember this. At the time I didn’t specify a pandemic as a or the likely reason why the individual in question was (and is) unfit, but the pandemic response is in keeping with what’s written there. One of the best long-term things the U.S. can do is inflict severe brain drain on China, and yet we’re now doing the exact opposite.

* More China news: “Did a Chinese Hack Kill Canada’s Greatest Tech Company? Nortel was once a world leader in wireless technology. Then came a hack and the rise of Huawei.” On the other hand, from the Hacker News comments: “I interned at Nortel in early 2000’s right before it all went down. I can tell you the engineering culture was rotten within. No-one was doing anything useful for years. Many orgs were built around milking the ancient layer 2 passport switch. The layer 3 router meant to compete with Cisco was 3 years late and only sold a few dozen units. There was accounting fraud going on at the highest level – delivery trucks circles around to pad the books.”

* “Conflict culture is making social unsocial.” Maybe getting off social media will, or can, help?

* Boom’s supersonic jets are ready for rollout, one hopes.

* What the police really believe.

* The movie Starship Troopers is still very good and germane, though it wasn’t understood when it was released. Art endures.

* “A Land of Monopolists: From Portable Toilets to Mixed Martial Arts: Private equity ‘roll-ups’ hit virtually everything in the economy, from mail sorting software to mixed martial arts to portable toilets to dentists.” One of these stories that, if accurate,

* An ugly story, on Twitter, about “cancel culture.”

* “Imagine a future without cars.” NYC could be the leader in this, but many other cities could follow, if they really wanted to.

* Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages.

Links: Cultures that build, culture more generally, love, lifeguards, thinking, and more!

* On Cultures That Build. This blog, Scholars Stage, has been consistently interesting on a range of topics for a long time, and so it’s recommended for your RSS feed.

* Useful: “Ramit Sethi talks about how you can just not reply to stuff. It felt rude at first, but then I realized it was ruder to ignore the people I care about to respond to things I didn’t ask for in the first place. Selective ignoring is the key to productivity, I’m afraid.” Notice the word “selective.” If you ignore everything all the time, that’s probably bad. But if you’re “on top of things” you may not be advancing the more important projects.

* 10% less democracy might improve outcomes. Too little voting is bad but too much voting may also be bad.

* “The University Is Like a CD in the Streaming Age.” Maybe. It’s an intriguing analogy I don’t really buy. Also, what percentage of people go mostly for the social and development aspects, as opposed to the learning-things aspect?

* “Can an Unloved Child Learn to Love?” On the ghastly Romanian orphanages. In “Foster Family Agencies (FFAs) and why political rhetoric rarely focuses on child abuse,” I mention that orphanages could conceivably offer a better system than the current foster-care system, but their PR is terrible, due to articles just like this one.

* Boss of the beach, about NYC lifeguards and, more importantly, the dysfunctions of public-sector unions. Seems mostly hilarious in the first half—more hijinks than outright evil—but allowing people to drown is terrible.

* Another quit-lit piece from an academic, or former academic.

* “Much of today’s intelligentsia cannot think.” I’d say that much of it doesn’t even try and, perhaps more vitally, the dopamine hit of social media and the fast regurgitation of pre-digested but possibly wrong ideas is superficially attractive, like drinking pop and eating fast food. There have always been “intelligentsia” who repeat wrong slogans (look at the apologists for the Soviet Union, for example), but the incentives for them to form mobs is higher than it once was. Twitter is worse than blogs! The link below, “The silence is deafening,” also applies fruitfully to this one. It may be that the most intelligent part of the intelligentsia is not the loudest.

* “Cycling, Art, and Utopian Possibilities.”

* Apple and Facebook, an analysis from Ben Thompson at Stratechery; something about Facebook in particular renders most intelligent writers inane or blinkered, and Thompson is the big exception to that principle. I’m not a big Facebook user or fan but that seems a minority taste on my part.

* Oklo, developer of ‘micro’ nuclear reactor, aims to prove environmentalist doubters wrong. More vitally, they seem to be making real progress.

* “Forget Google, time to end the Visa-MasterCard duopoly.”

* Why does DARPA work? Much more interesting than the title may suggest.

* “Losing the Narrative: The Genre Fiction of the Professional Class.” Overstated, yes, but among the most interesting essays I’ve read in a long time, and I read a lot.

* “The silence is deafening,” on why many defaults in social media don’t work and often produce poor outcomes.

Links: Being still, robot food delivery, reading others’s reading, and more!

* Can you be still?.

* The starship food delivery app delivers food via autonomous robots. My guess is that this one isn’t quite ready for primetime but is getting better every year. Learned via The pandemic is bringing us closer to our robot takeout future. We’re not there yet, but we’re starting to see the shape of things to come.

* Shakespeare and Company’s clientele’s book lists. Many “high culture” writers read everything—high, low, in between—as you’d expect.

* Bruce Sterling: Farewell the beyond. He’s been writing his blog for 17 years and is finally—and sadly, in my view—giving it up.

* Studies on slack. High sophistication, lots of unexpected ideas.

* How battery costs fell six-fold in a decade.

* MacOS 10.15: Slow by design. Thankfully I haven’t “upgraded,” although MacOS 10.15 doesn’t seem to be an actual upgrade, to my eye.

* “Elon Musk Is the Hero America Deserves.” SpaceX is getting ready to send astronauts into space: focus on the substance, not the noise.

* Social Anxiety, #MeToo, and Disaster. Not just more of the usual; note: “Rather than counter-productively condemn others for their paranoia, my goal is to deescalate the tensions. ‘Safety first’ is a tempting but dangerous motto. Instead, let us all try to ‘Make risk reasonable again.’ Use moderate caution yourself- and kindly invite others to do the same. Listen to both Anxious and Angry. Side with neither.” Something about social media seems to encourage with-us-or-against-us, false-binary thinking. The culture of “safetyism” that seems to have taken root rarely seems to be questioned.

* “Donald Trump, the Most Unmanly President: Why don’t the president’s supporters hold him to their own standard of masculinity?” Funny venue for this one, too.

* The future of college is online, and it’s cheaper? Maybe.

* Don’t believe the China hype. Maybe, again.

* Millions of abandoned oil wells are leaking methane, a climate menace.

* Dropbox is a total mess. This matches my experience, and Dropbox’s steady bloat and creep has made me keep an eye out for a replacement.

Engineering in the dark: Why American street design is almost uniformly awful.

* Rachel Harmon on policing, a substantive interview and podcast. I’m surprised police unions weren’t mentioned, though, since that seems like an obvious era to reform. I’ve also not seen any localities or state legislatures dissolve any police unions (if I’m wrong on this, let me know). My guess is that legislators think the protests will pass and voters have short memories, but the police unions will continue to be pivotal in local and state elections for years to come. In other police news, the Atlantic finds, The Culture of Policing Is Broken.

* The coming chip wars.

“Why technology will never fix education”

Why technology will never fix education” is a 2015 article that’s also absurdly relevant in the COVID era of distance education, and this paragraph in particular resonates with my teaching experience:

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is. And there, for good or ill, the main carrot of a college education is the certified degree and transcript, and the main stick is social pressure. Most students are seeking credentials that graduate schools and employers will take seriously and an environment in which they’re prodded to do the work. But neither of these things is cheaply available online.

For the last few years, I’ve often asked students to look at their phones’s “Screen Time” (iOS) or “Digital Wellbeing” (Android) apps. These apps measure how much time a person spends using their phone each day, and most students report 3 – 7 hours per day on their phones. The top apps are usually Instagram, SnapChat, and Facebook. Student often laugh bashfully at the sheer number of hours they spend on their phones, and some later confess they’re abashed. I ask the same thing when students tell me how “busy” they are during office hours (no one ever says they’re not busy). So far, both the data and anecdotes I’ve seen or heard support the “ban connected devices in class” position I’ve held for a while. The greatest discipline needed today seems to be the discipline not to stare relentlessly at the phone.

But what happens when class comes from a connected, distraction-laden device?

In my experience so far, the online education experience hasn’t been great, although it went better than I feared, and I think that, as norms shift, we’ll see online education become more effective. But the big hurdle remains motivation, not information. And I too find teaching via Zoom (or similar, presumably) unsatisfying, because it seems that concentration and motivation are harder on it. Perhaps online education is just increasing the distance between highly structured and self-motivated people versus everyone else.


Links: Falling birth rates, book reviews as book reviews, space dust, and more!

* “The Secret Lives of Fungi.”

* “A Radical Proposal: Book reviews should review books: Give us more judgement, more opinions and more criticism.” Sure, why not?

* What happens to all that space dust hitting the atmosphere? “An international team found that rooftops and other cityscapes readily collect the extraterrestrial dust in ways that can ease its identification, contrary to science authorities who long pooh-poohed the idea as little more than an urban myth kept alive by amateur astronomers.” We really are all made of stars.

* “Exclusive: Tesla’s secret batteries aim to rework the maths for electric cars and the grid.” Maybe. It does seem that nickel and low-cobalt batteries are coming. The second-life systems are also hugely impressive: one rarely appreciated reason to pick electric vehicles is that their batteries can be repurposed for grid storage when the car itself reaches end-of-life. Over time, “Millions of used electric car batteries will help store energy for the grid,” which sounds good to me.

* Why are American kids treated as a different species from adults? See also Bringing Up Bébé by Druckerman.

* The novel isn’t central the cultural conversation anymore. Why? That said, I think the novel will appeal to people who find a lot of video boring—although that might be a declining segment of the population.

* HN commenter on Huawei’s practice of stealing source code and technology.

* Colleges are deluding themselves. I wonder how Lambda School is doing? Separately, in 2018 one person wrote: “Modern universities are exercises in insanity?” Maybe, although this one is missing a lot, too.

* “If I could bring one thing back to the internet it would be blogs.” Many good lines in this one. Here you all are, too! Making blogs happen.

* “Door dash and pizza arbitrage.” Unexpectedly hilarious.

* Beware of underpriced drugs for covid-19 treatments. Or, put another way, “We must be willing to reward value because today’s prices send signals to future market participants.” Capping profits today means fewer efforts tomorrow: this is a repeated game, not a one-off game.

* Benefits of cutting out sugar.

* U.S. birth rates fall to record low. These articles never mention the way U.S. housing prices have outpaced inflation for years, due to parochial land interests wielding local zoning to increase the value of their property, and the failure of states or the federal government stepping in to stop this practice. At the same time, healthcare costs are bizarre and unpredictable: a few years ago, it cost me a random $4,500 to fix a minor problem on my toe, and none of the podiatrists I talked to were willing to give me a cash fee quote. All of them were deeply interested in my deductible and making sure I hit it. I’d like to see mandatory price transparency in healthcare, but almost no one is pursuing that policy, to the detriment of all of us.

Links: Chestnut trees, oil’s collapse, Adam Tooze, writing, and more!

* “A Satellite Lets Scientists See Antarctica’s Melting Like Never Before.” It’s also possible that Rising CO2 Levels May Trigger Cognitive Impairment. If you haven’t, get an Autopilot home CO2 monitor. My bedroom, when the door is closed, will routinely exceed 3000 ppm CO2—and sometimes 4000 ppm. For reference, humans evolved in an environment of around 220 – 240 ppm. Cognitive decline may set in as soon as 1000 ppm. Have you ever been in a meeting and felt your head start to swim by the end? It might not just be boredom: it might be all the CO2 in the room. Bring your CO2 monitor and be the hero your organization needs.

* Can genetic engineering bring back the chestnut tree? If so, that would be great news: chestnuts produce lots of cheap food and good wood.

* “Oil’s Collapse Is a Geopolitical Reset In Disguise.” Good. If we hasten the move to electric vehicles, low prices could be sustained indefinitely.

* The Early Days of China’s Coronavirus Coverup. If not for Chinese censorship, the rest of the world might have been much better prepared.

* Adam Tooze interviewed on many subjects, including:

the historically unusual decision to have a high-cost lockdown during a pandemic, why he believes in a swoosh-shaped recovery, portents of financial crises in China and the West, which emerging economies are currently most at risk, what Keynes got wrong about the Treaty of Versailles, why the Weimar Republic failed, whether Hitler was a Keynesian, the political and economic prospects of various EU members, his trick to writing a lot, how Twitter encourages him to read more, what he taught executives at BP, and his advice for visiting Germany.

You’ve seen him appear here before.

* The politics of information: Much deeper and more profound than it may at first appear.

* “It’s time to take UFOs seriously. Seriously.” My default bet is still that the recent Navy videos were released deliberately, as part of an underlying (dis)information campaign. But the probability of UFOs being aliens has gone up—from what to what, I can’t quite say, but “up.”

* “World’s Largest Producer of Rubbing Alcohol Can’t Manufacturer Hand Sanitizer.” I don’t want to do a lot of the outrage pieces, but this is indeed outrageous.

* “Our bookless future.” You’ve probably seen similar, but here’s another sample. “Twilight of the Books,” from 2007, is also a fine version of this basic idea.

* “The coming disruption to college.” A bit too rant-y and overstated, but he’s got a point, no? Tyler Cowen also think the crisis on campus is here to stay. The extent to which international students subsidize U.S. higher ed is also well-known in the business and poorly known everywhere else.

* “When Did Humans Become a Burrowing Species? Digging into our drive to tunnel, bore, and head underground.”

* “The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet: At 22, he single-handedly put a stop to the worst cyberattack the world had ever seen. Then he was arrested by the FBI. This is his untold story.” The story is bonkers and amazing, and it’s also waiting to made into a movie.

* Megan Abbott on writing and Dare Me: “I’m not fast. People think I am because I have a lot of books, but I just don’t do anything else.” I watched the TV version of Dare Me and found it pallid compared to the book: the book is narrated from Addy’s perspective, and Beth looms large in Addy’s view. In the TV show, they both seem like angsty, conceited, ridiculous teenagers—not scary or powerful but ridiculous.

Links: Geopolitical shakes, energy still matters, Robert Stone, and more!

* “Xi fears Japan-led manufacturing exodus from China: The year of the metal rat returns every 60 years — and brings calamity with it.”

* The Limits of Clean Energy.

* Higher education economic problems. Some of the framing and political jabs can and should be ignored, but the material points remain.

* Lockdown socialism will collapse. A good post and something too few of us are acknowledging. I think we’re also not admitting that we’re going to see a real standards-of-living reduction.

* The anti-Trump Republicans. We call these “the honest ones.”

* On Robert Stone.

* Gem Fatale, on the movie Uncut Gems. I started Uncut Gems but one of the protagonist’s early decisions seemed so foolish (giving that important item to Garnett, for example) that I quit. Too much shouting, too. Some good scenes. The author of the linked essay is Clancy Martin, who wrote How to Sell. Given Hollywood’s desire to make everything into a movie or TV show, I’m surprised no one has taken up How To Sell.

* We’ve Built Cities We Can’t Afford.

* “Build Cities for Bikes, Buses, and Feet–Not Cars.” Seems obvious. Few people who understand induced demand or the dangers of small particle air pollution believe otherwise.

* It’s time to build for good. Congruent with the above two links.

* 68 bits of advice from Kevin Kelly, who is unusually interesting.

What’s happening in the hospitals?

And not just in the emergency rooms and intensive care units:

Doctors learn the business of the body, not the business of medicine. But modern health care is an industry with a bottom line measured in dollars, not wellness. As we train, we’re told to “stay in our lane”—an important lane, to be sure—and just worry about being good healers. The rest, the pesky business of how the wheel turns, can be managed by the rapidly expanding pool of administrators. In “staying in our lane,” we don’t feel the insidious ways the business of medicine has eroded the value of the doctor-patient relationship. Instead, patients have become a commodity and physicians a cog. We’re blind to the chaos and danger around us. We might note how focused administrators are on metrics of efficiency and patient satisfaction scores, even if efficiency doesn’t mean quality, and higher patient satisfaction scores are linked to higher overall mortality rate. But we’re hired to provide the services approved by the hospital, and insurers, which is frequently not to our own standards of patient care.

I see this dynamic continuing in the midst of the COVID crisis. As hospitals and politicians continue calling for help in public, the rhetoric has been that there are too few doctors to manage the crisis. They said this even as doctors were fired or told to leave midshift for wearing their own protective equipment. Colleagues who were pointing out dangerous practices for both employees and patients were asked or pressured into leaving. Colleagues who were lower risk and looking for fairly paid work were passed over because other health care workers—who were made to believe there were no other doctors available to work—were being brought in as unpaid labor. They were told there was no money to be found, despite high reported revenues and administrative salaries in the multimillions.

Much more at the link; look for the April 17 entry, which is the most substantive part.

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