Links: Political dissidents in the news, Lockwood on Updike, boredom and revolution, pricing, and more!

* “He Never Intended To Become A Political Dissident, But Then He Started Beating Up Tai Chi Masters.” On China and many other topics.

* Patricia Lockwood on John Updike, which is much better than I thought it’d be (like Updike she does great sentences), and the title, “Malfunctioning Sex Robot: Updike Redux” is funny too. But there’s still too much air-of-superiority-don’t-we-all-agree-about-everything.

* We’re on the cusp of radical change in agriculture? Maybe.

* Where a lot of PC ideas come from.

* Xu Xiaodong Never Intended To Become A Chinese Political Dissident, But Then He Started Beating Up Tai Chi Masters. Much funnier than you might think. All the Cold War novels of dark repression comedy are becoming or have become relevant again.

* Death By 1,000 Clicks: Where Electronic Health Records Went Wrong. I do a lot of work for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and hang out with a lot of doctors. Just about all doctors and healthcare people hate FQHCs. EHRs also seem to have the same problem as a lot of enterprise and education software: people who choose the software are not primary users of the software and thus judge it differently than primary users.

* How do we move the needle on progress? Many of the themes will be familiar to regular readers.

* The end of sex? Not something commonly seen and also something some of you aren’t going to like.

* The China Cultural Clash. Better than the other pieces on this issue.

* “Sea ‘Boiling’ with Methane Discovered in Siberia.” Expect a lot more of this as global warming accelerates. Also, Fracking boom tied to methane spike in Earth’s atmosphere. We are not working hard enough on nuclear energy.

* How not to be alone.

* Nasa works hard to get probes to land on Mars.

* Pricing niche products: Why sell a mechanical keyboard kit for $1,668?

* “The Deadly Boredom of ‘A Meaningless Life’.”

Links: The financial dangers of college, losing my religion, His Dark Materials, and more!

* “A Very Dangerous Place for a Child Is College.” Yes, and yet we’re not really discussing it.

* More vegetarian options make more people choose vegetables.

* Related to the above: Impossible foods and its efforts to replace burgers.

* America’s New Sex Bureaucracy. And we somehow like this?

* “Three decades ago, Americans lost religion. Why?” The short-term political expediency of twining one political party with religion may have bad long-term consequences. We also seem to have taken up new religions—a common theme on this blog.

* “How climate change is melting, drying and flooding Earth – in pictures.” Source is not bogus, either.

* Research and “gender wars.” I don’t think most of the rhetoric has anything to do with facts or research; it’s mostly tribal and value signaling, so I’m not real optimistic on this one. When an issue takes on tribal valence, quality of discourse and thinking tends to decline.

* “The Atavism of Cancel Culture: Its social rewards are immediate and gratifying, its dangers distant and abstract.” Another of these, “And we somehow like this?” articles.

* “Why It’s So Hard for Entrepreneurs to Get Really Rich in Europe.” I’d frame it differently: “Another reason it’s so hard to scale businesses in Europe.”

* The Fallen Worlds of Philip Pullman. His Dark Materials is great and if you haven’t read it, you should.

* The Seven-Year Auto Loan: America’s Middle Class Can’t Afford Their Cars. The response ought to be to reform zoning laws and support the construction of more and better mass transit, but the likely response will be “business as usual.”

Briefly noted: The Three Languages of Politics, Maigret at Picratt’s, The Ditch

* The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides (Arnold Kling): Like Kling I “would like to see political discussion conducted with less tribal animosity and instead with more mutual respect and reasoned deliberation.” But I don’t expect to see it in the near future, though I am hopeful for the medium to far future. And I’d also ask the author about him seeing “more mutual respect and reasoned deliberation” in political discourse—as compared to what? Or when? Deliberation seems better than it was in, say, 1850 – 1865, and problems today, though severe, still seem considerably less severe than they were in the 1930s. The Soviet Union did not go for “less tribal animosity” throughout the Cold War, although the Soviet nemesis may have reduced some local tribal animosity.

Still, Kling writes that “This book can help you recognize when someone is making a political argument that is divisive and serves no constructive purpose.” Which is most of the time; identifying such things is good and I approve, but I also suspect not very many people who really need this book will read it, and that politics is to most people and voters a team sport first, and an information problem or network second, or twentieth.

Something about politics may also bring out the worst in many of us: I’ve also noticed an uptick in weak comments about politically-related writing on this blog—those comments are much more frequent than in writing about books or other subjects. When I delete them, the authors sometime reappear for more invective (which is also deleted). We need tribal identities over, under, or beyond political identities; I read somewhere that political matters are not enough to base an identity on, which seems true and underrated. Ross Douthat has also said that, if you don’t like the religious right, you’re really not going to like the non-religious right, and so far that seems surprisingly correct to me.

* The Ditch (Herman Koch); can’t figure out what’s special about this writer, but maybe translation is the issue—or Europhilia among reviewers. I’m looking for representative, evocative sentences and finding none. Koch gets lots of notice but I’m not seeing what the reviewers seem to see. Maybe you know?

* Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Mark Harris) is strangely boring, and no man would wish it to be longer than it is. Culminates in Academy Awards minutia, somehow. Reminiscent in some ways of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor. But if you have a keen interest in movies and the movie business of the 1960s, this is your book.

* The Ideas That Made America (Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen ) sounds promising, but don’t be fooled: you don’t get many of them, and you get too much of the obvious, like “The movement of ideas rarely respects national borders.” No shit? Why would anyone (outside of academia) think otherwise? To be fair, she does later say that intellectual exchanges between the U.S. north and south were rare, but then why not just say that in one sentence, instead of many more than it requires? There is some detail about how slavery was justified in the south, but to call that thinking “bare rationalization” is an understatement.

* Maigret at Picratt’s is another of the Maigret novels, though “novella” is probably more accurate, and one that often feels strangely contemporary. Being a party animal and aging are not very compatible, which is obvious and yet not stated as such often. Today, continual references to police bicycles stand out. Of one early murder victim we find, “Heads turned as she passed. You sensed she came from a different world, the world of the night, and there was something almost indecent about her in the harsh light of a winter’s day.” People differ; Maigret wishes to know all. The French look to Americans for guidance (“Apparently it’s what they do in America in the burlesques”), just as the Americans look back across the Atlantic for the same. “You know how it is” occurs in dialogue at least once, and “I understand” several times. Do we all seek understanding? If so, why is it so hard to find?

Links: Cycling like the Dutch, the culture war comes for NYC kids, smartphones and culture, and more!

* “How I Learned to Cycle Like a Dutchman.” This seems so much more pleasant than the American alternative, and simultaneously much less likely to kill and maim people.

* “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids.” The subtext is, “If you’re a normal person, get out of New York.” The city is fine for the very rich or very poor and terrible for most people in between; the very rich can buy their way out of the crazier aspects of the culture war, if they choose, but those who are barely covering rent and onerous taxes cannot.

* Progress, but not fast enough, on Gen IV nuclear reactors.

* Mom won’t buy her teenagers smartphones. See also iGen and also The Coddling of the American Mind for related ideas.

* “The myth of the wealthy welder.” Provides useful perspective but for many people, the choice is between something like welding or poverty, not welding and a successful degree in a remunerative subject from a four-year school. We need a lot more apprenticeships and vocational education and a lot less standard-issue four-year college.

* “The Story of Caroline Calloway & Her Ghostwriter Natalie.” Like the second link, the meta lesson is get out of New York / LA. Moreover, going to expensive private schools has significant downsides, especially when one majors in the humanities in them.

* “‘Ecological grief’ grips scientists witnessing Great Barrier Reef’s decline.” Collective response: nothing.

* Greedy hospitals fleecing the poor. And not just the poor, either, as I’ve discovered.

* Why the Fossil Record Is Mostly Males. One of the many stories that may make you doubt some contemporary social-culture-media norms.

* Did you know peer review wasn’t ubiquitous until the ’70s? This should give reformers heart.

* Can innovation be sped up? Maybe not, in this reading. I’d argue we’re not even seriously trying.

* “George Washing University (GWU) aims to get smaller and ‘better.'” “Better” is a weird metric here. The president “wants to expand programs in science, technology, engineering and math.” It’s telling that the humanities are absent from that list: I wonder how many humanities professors are working to make the field more rigorous and less ideological.

* Social media could make it hard to grow up? Flatters my existing prejudices, so beware.

* Why do some people become readers?

* The widely discussed Boeing 737 Max article, but it’s about a whole lot more. Killing Bombardier looks pretty dumb today. Boeing is dysfunctional and yet there’s no practical alternative to it.

* How to reform the economics PhD. Econ is not the only field that could do with similar reforms.

* Speaking of schools, a pdf on the effet of being the child of an alumni, an athlete, or the child of a faculty of a faculty member on Harvard admissions, based on data thrown off by that lawsuit about how Harvard discriminates against Asians.

* Will America’s debt doom us? Remember, the sign of the crisis is the crisis.

* The college admission trilemma.

* “A Decade Later, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Has Left an Abyssal Wasteland.” It’s curious that we rarely take such things into account when considering urban policy.

Links: The electric scooter, the comfort college, stamina succeeds?, and more

* “The rise of the electric scooter.” Which is awesome and underrated in the media.

* The rise of the comfort college. Depressing and consistent with my classroom experiences. Strangely, the New York Times Book Review just published a letter to the editor on related subjects.

* Does poetry have street cred? Does it just need to focus on being more structured and less boring?

* Are too many people going to college? It’s strange that these ideas aren’t also more common.

* Apple stacked the app store with its own products. If there’s a monopoly problem in tech companies right now, it’s almost certainly with Apple, not with the usual suspects.

* “The One Thing No Israeli Wants to Discuss.” The contemporary discourse around the Middle East is frequently missing precisely this history—it’s as if someone is trying to understand some aspects of contemporary American politics without mentioning 9/11.

* Universities say they want strong academics and diversity, but they really want rich kids. I can only say that I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling going on in this cafe.

* Stamina succeeds?

* Why industry is quietly going green. Amusing and counterintuitive.

* “Malaria breakthrough as scientists find ‘highly effective’ way to kill parasite.” This is likely to be bigger news than anything else you read this month, if it’s true.

* Food innovation news.

* “Why Are American Homes So Big?” A lot of them are too big and located in the wrong places.

* The rush from judgment. Views rarely heard, except sometimes from Bryan Caplan.

Coders — Clive Thompson

Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World is promising, but many sections are too wrapped up in media business rituals for it to be great. That said, if you’ve not read about the mindsets that cognitively demanding enterprises demand, the book provides a good introduction to them. Despite that, it likely underemphasizes and underplays the extreme meritocracy of the tech world, where code works—or doesn’t, and products work—or don’t. The large amount of signaling cruft that has accumulated in many other worlds is (mostly) absent. Coders are arguably the end result of a centuries-long process away from being who you are because of you or your family’s place in the social order and towards being who you are because of what you can do. Maybe that will change over time, but it hasn’t yet, and tech is attractive to outsiders in general because you can’t fake your way in, and, if you do, you’ll likely be found out relatively quickly.

Thompson disagrees, it seems. He writes, “the software industry has long cherished its self-image of a pure meritocracy.” I don’t think many people think a “pure” meritocracy is possible, so this notion has a whiff of the strawman about it because of the word “pure.” A better question might be, is the software business meritocratic compared to many other industries? Sure seems like it, given the way the Internet opens the field to talented but uncredentialed outsiders. Thompson goes on to assert it’s not true, without providing real evidence (though he has some typical media stories). For example, the chapter “10x, rock stars, and the myth of meritocracy” has lots of stories but very little, if any, data, and none that supports the central point. Chapter 7 is worse.

Despite that, there are useful threads; for example, people complained vociferously about Facebook’s News Feed when it was introduced. But “the day after News Feed emerged, Sanghvi and the team found that people were spending twice as much time on Facebook as before.” Revealed preferences, in other words: we could call our era the “revealed preferences” era, because so much of our online lives shows things that we don’t want to say. The aggregate of our desires is often quite different from what we say we want. Still, it might be inhumane to live in a world where shading the truth is a lot harder, and we’re in a world where online denunciations are becoming more common yet our cultural immune system hasn’t adjusted to them yet.

After I read Coders, I read “Robert A. Caro on the Means and Ends of Power,” and it makes me think: Who is going to be the Caro of the coding generation? The writer who is so deep into the technical mind, the mind that has shaped the digital tools almost all of use, that he says it all? Thompson has the potential to get there, but Coders doesn’t arrange the material right. He gets that, to Ruchi Sanghvi, Facebook as a company “was different, it was vibrant, it was alive,” as she says. That’s a powerful force and, as someone who’s worked in and around government and universities for years, I see the appeal of being in a startup where urgency is everywhere. But Thompson also writes things like, “Facebook looked at our lives as a problem of inefficient transmission of information.” Did it? Or was it just an experiment? Maybe an experiment in self-presentation? arguably those two questions are variants on “transmission of information,” but, equally arguably, “transmission of information” is too abstract for what Facebook was, or is. That’s the sort of thing someone like Caro is likely to get right, while many others are likely to get it wrong.

But, despite that, I think this is correct, or, if not correct, interesting:

Back during the Revolutionary America of the late eighteenth century, the key profession was law. The American style of government is composed of nothing but laws, of course.

I wonder if “writer” has ever been the key profession, or if it’s always been the profession of the carpers instead of the doers. Nonetheless, the theme of coding’s rise reappears elsewhere: “Sure, politics, law, and business are powerful, but if you want to really remold the contours of society? Write code.” That, at least, his view of the ’90s and the Internet.

For one coder,

It was like constantly solving puzzles: trying to make an algorithm run faster, trying to debug a gnarly piece of code that wasn’t working right. The mental chess colonized her mind, and she found herself pondering coding problems all day long.

Sounds like many writers on writing, who also find that the top-of-mind project colonizes their minds—if they’re to do it at the highest levels. Both fields are also prone to generating the question, “Where do good ideas come from?”, which has no answer at this stage of technological and human knowledge.

Yet solving puzzles also means managing frustration, because another section declares it writing it well to need “a boundless, nigh masochistic ability to endure brutal, grinding frustration.” Why do some people find some things, like running or coding, as fun, while many if not most others hate them? We are again running into unanswerable psychological questions with large-scale social implications. Yet the work also engenders “a sense of clarity, of proof that his work actually was valid.”

You can no doubt sense my ambivalence about Coders. Thompson needs to give up his media rituals and relentless political correctness henpecking; they’re likely to mark Coders as being too much of its time, rather than for all time. There is a classic in this book, but the book is too of its media moment to be the classic. And that’s a pity, to see someone with a lot of material who misuses the material.

Links: Real-life rules, active learning, Germans and nudity, group novels, and more!

* “Why It’s So Hard for Young People to Date Offline.” Where there is a shortage, there is an opportunity.

* Active learning works, but students don’t like it. Matches my anecdotal experiences in teaching.

* “Camille Paglia: A Feminist Capitalist Professor Under Fire .”

* Literary prizes, sales, and popularity, somewhat quantified.

* “When Did College Turn So Cruel?

* Germans like nudity. Nudism nudity.

* Can you write a novel as a group? I don’t see why not. This is also not related to the group issues in the link immediately above.

* Bicycles can help save the planet and improve our cities.

* “‘Father Is Surgeon,’ ‘1 Mil Pledge’: The Role of Money in USC Admissions: Emails in college admissions cheating scandal show the role donations played in decisions to accept students.” This one has a lot of comeuppance and schadenfreude. One lawyer “in the admissions-cheating scheme has argued that parents donated to USC as part of a standard admissions practice that was actively encouraged by USC.” Seems really plausible to me: the whole thing reads a bit like the mafia being pissed off that amateurs are elbowing into its turf, or a branch of government elbowing into the mafia’s turf. There’s just so much comedy in this story. Remember the link about how did (some parts of) the college system become so cruel? This is part of the story, and it’s a story about the behavior of the schools themselves.

* Walter Mosley on quitting the writers room. Has one of the great all-time lines in it.

* “How ancient poetry can revitalise our erotic imaginations.” Maybe.

* Edward Luttwak from 1994: “Why Fascism is the Wave of the Future.” Had I read this ten years ago I would have found it absurd. No longer.

* Room with a viewer: How TV became president. Most of the blame on Facebook and other Internet platforms seems misguided, relative to the importance of plain old TV.

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