Links: The fight against free speech, why not to get in bar fights, student loans, states of mind, and more!

* The Upside of Your Dark Side, Free Speech, and ‘Problems of Comfort’.

* Why not to get in bar fights; even if you “win,” you often lose.

* Why the West Coast Is Suddenly Beating the East Coast on Transportation?

* “What a Student Loan ‘Bubble’ Bursting Might Look Like?” This is not a great article but the question itself is a good one. The big issues remain: 1. Student loans can’t be discharged through bankruptcy and 2. Right now, schools have almost zero incentive to systematically, substantially reduce costs to students.

* “What Europeans Talk about when They Talk about Brexit.” Fascinating, better than the title may suggest.

* “Why Internet Censorship Doesn’t Work and Never Will.” You could replace “censorship” with “moderating at scale.”

* “How America Grew Bored With Love: The pop love song and rom-com have died, relics in a world of instant gratification and consumerism.” A good polemic, but I’m not convinced it’s true.

* Riva-Melissa Tez has a very unusual background; she also has good followers on Twitter.

* Are experiences and states of mind irreducible and incredibly important for every aspect of modern life? Are they in short supply, relative to most other inputs, in the modern world? Ignore the title on this essay, which is much better than the title implies.

* Log Cabins? No, These Wooden Buildings Are High-Rises.

* “One of the most readable criticisms of US housing finance and policy I’ve ever seen,” a better title from Patrick McKenzie than the actual title.

* The Portland Trailblazers discover quality coffee.

The elite case against big product “x” (today it’s Facebook)

For most of my life I’ve been reading well-structured, well-supported, well-written, and well-cited pieces arguing for why and how people should not do extremely popular thing x, where x can change based on the person making the argument. Often the argument itself is quite good but does very little to create mass behavior change on the ground. I often agree with the argument, but whether I agree with it or not is less relevant than whether the majority of the population changes its behavior in measurable ways (for truly popular products and services, they don’t). Today, the x is Facebook.

Based on past examples of “the elite case against ‘x,'” I predict that today’s NYT and BBC articles do very little to change real-world, measurable behavior around Facebook and social media. To the extent people move away from Facebook, it will be toward some other Facebook property like Instagram or toward some other system that still has broadly similar properties, like Discord, Snapchat, etc. Today’s case against Facebook, or social media more generally, reminds me of the elite case against:

* TV. TV rots your brain and is worse than reading books. It destroys high culture and is merely a vehicle for advertising. Sophisticated pleasures are better than reality TV and the other “trash” on TV.” Yet TV remains popular. Even in 2017, “Watching TV was the leisure activity that occupied the most time (2.8 hours per day). And 2.8 hours per day is lower than the “four hours per day” time I’ve seen quoted elsewhere. Today, though, most people don’t even bother arguing against TV.

* Fast food, especially McDonald’s, Taco Bell, etc. It’s filled with sugar and, rather than being called “food,” it should probably be called, “an edible food-like substance.” There is also an elite case against factory farming and animal torture, which pretty much all fast food suppliers do. Yet McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and similar companies remain massive.

* Oil companies. Oil use has led us to more than 400ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. We’re on the way to cooking ourselves. Yet the market response to hybrid vehicles has been to ignore them. Almost no one walks or bikes to work. Again, I would argue that more people should do these things, but what I think people should do, and what people do, are quite different.

Oddly, I see the elite case against car companies and airplane companies much less frequently than I do against oil companies.

* Tobacco. It gives you lung cancer and smoking cigarettes isn’t even that good. While it appears that smoking rates have been declining for decades, 15.5% of adults still smoke. Taxation may be doing more to drive people away from tobacco than asserting the number and ways that tobacco is bad.

* Video games. They’re a way to evade the real world and perform activities that feel like fitness-enhancing activities but are actually just mental masturbation, but without the physical limits imposed by actual masturbation. They simulate the social world in a way that makes us more isolated and frustrated than ever before.

What other examples am I missing?

Today, we have the elite case against social media. It may be accurate. It’s generated good books, like Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Social media has generated lots of op-eds and parenting guides. Some people have announced publicly that they’re deleting their Facebook or Instagram page, yet Facebook is a public company and keeps reporting massive levels of use and engagement.

It turns out that what people want to do, is quite different from what The New York Times thinks people should do.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe — Chris Taylor

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe isn’t bad but the writer relies overmuch on cliche: “James’s wartime story was enough to make my jaw hit the floor when I met him” or “I must have seen that Star Wars poster a million times.” I kept taking my pen to the book, as there is a better one waiting to unlocked from this one. But the middle section, especially about the creative process that went into Star Wars, is very interesting and even redeeming; the book feels rushed to press, maybe to hit a deadline or because the writer needed the advance money, which is too bad: I’m reminded of Thomas Ricks’ description of the Churchill and Orwell rewrites. Had How Star Wars received the same it might have been a great examination of where art comes from.

Instead, it’s okay, and you have to wade through some tedious chapters. One wishes Taylor had had more time. He loses the war against cliché. He writes of “a genre that liked to recycle plots.” Arguably all plots are recycled, at an appropriate level of abstraction. Famously, few of Shakespeare’s plots are his own. We get many statements about plot like every story being about “A stranger comes to town or someone leave town.”

Some of the best writing comes from others:

Normally, when this most private man [Lucas] goes into public at a press-attended gathering, he wears the face best described by Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, who compared Lucas to a small-town banker: “impeccably polite and implacably distanced, as though fearing you might ask an inappropriate question or request a loan.”

Odd, though, that “editor in chief” isn’t “editor-in-chief,” right?

The close reading of the original script, versus the shooting script, begins on page 111 and continues from there. It’s an impressive section that’s too long to quote, and it’s impressive because of Taylor’s close reading of everything wrong in the original that goes right in the later versions. Lucas’s then-wife, Marcia, played a critical role in the process. Lawrence Kasdan worked on the second two movies. Lucas alone would have created a disaster; he’s like raw iron that needs to be alloyed to create steel. Marcia Lucas and Kasdan helped unlock the good version within; the three “prequel” movies released after the original three were so bad in part because Lucas accepted almost no outside influence and had the money to do whatever he wanted. “Infinite resources” turned out to be a drawback rather than a virtue for him. The parallels between the writing of this book and the making of the movie are notable.

The real question is unanswered, and unanswerable: why did George Lucas do it, and not thousands or millions of others? Why do so many people attempt and fail to do what he did? We don’t find out; likely, we can’t find out.

Here is an article, better written than the book, that covers some of the information. If you deeply like Star Wars or are deeply interested in creative processes (I’d count myself among the latter), this book is for you. Those casually interested in either should read elsewhere.

Links: The future of the book, the archetype of the artist, price transparency, evolutionary psychopathology, and more!

* The ‘Future Book’ Is Here, but It’s Not What We Expected. Woah: “Almost half of author earnings now come from independently published books. Independent books don’t outsell big-five books, but they offer higher royalty rates—roughly 70 percent versus 25 percent. For the first time—perhaps since the invention of the printing press—authors and small presses have viable independent options beyond the ‘traditional’ publishing path with its gatekeepers.”

* An essay on Lionel Trilling, not that interesting, but I note this: “English departments have replaced the personalized essay at which Trilling excelled with the impersonal apparatus of theory and jargon, and whatever the agenda of the humanities in the academy they are fading away in the culture at large.” I didn’t appreciate the extent to which that’s true when I started grad school. If I had, I think I would’ve made other plans. Also: “The self is created in privacy.”

* How the Myth of the Hedonistic Artist Lost Its Allure.

* Do I offend? A piece compatible with.

* “I Used to Write for Sports Illustrated. Now I Deliver Packages for Amazon.” This is yet another reason to not try to be a “writer.”

* The World’s Leading Electric-Car Visionary Is Wan Gang, not Elon Musk?

* “Two Roads for the New French Right,” a much deeper piece than the headline implies.

* Hospital prices are about to go public. Good news if true. I wrote about some of the madness in the current healthcare market in the linked GWC story. Few people think systematically on this issue, and most of the simple fixes you hear people advocate are either wrong or missing pieces.

* “How Hitler Nearly Destroyed the Great American Novel: When Houghton Mifflin published ‘Mein Kampf’ in 1933, it sparked what could be the strangest saga in publishing history.”

* U.S. Grip on the Market for Higher Education Is Slipping. Perhaps we should stop actively alienating much of the rest of the world, if we want to retain the lead in this vibrant export industry?

* Book Review: Evolutionary Psychopathology. I have now read some chapters in the book, and it will be of interest for some people, but it is written in the textbook genre.

* “A tour of elementary OS, perhaps the Linux world’s best hope for the mainstream.” It is strange to me that Linux still has so many problems with mainstream use, as I write this on the verge of 2019.

* Nuclear energy is key to saving the planet. A point you have read here many times, but it’s still true.

* “Let the Fountain Pens Flow!” I switched to Pigma Micron PN writing pens a while ago because they’re just less fussy, especially for carrying around.

* Sugar’s Sick Secrets: How Industry Forces Have Manipulated Science to Downplay the Harm. If you are going to do a resolution for 2019, “eliminate sugar” is a good one.

Links: The reality principle, Columbus, the case against sugar, the nature of fashion, and more!

* “The Unsafe Feminist: Rebecca West and the ‘Bitter Rapture’ of Truth.” A good intro: “In an era when indulgent university administrators and professors treat students like spoiled children, one longs for intellectuals who address their audience as adults.”

* Law schools are bad for democracy. And many other things.

* The Corruption of the Republican Party.

* “How Hermann Hesse became a hero of the Sixties counterculture.” I read this as comedy.

* Columbus is doing really well, but if it doesn’t develop a rail system it will choke on its own traffic—like Nashville.

* The U.S. Appetite for Sugar Has Skyrocketed, with bad consequences.

* The Itsy-Bitsy, Teenie-Weenie, Very Litigious Bikini.

* Techies miss what Facebook actually is. See also me, “Is there an actual Facebook crisis, or media narrative about Facebook crisis?

* 2018 Was the Year of the Scooter? In other news, did you know the electric Vespa is supposed to be published in 2019?

* How meritocracy and populism reinforce each other’s faults.

* “Number of babies born in Japan is the lowest since records began.” Pretty distressing, if you think about it.

* Middle school in 2008 vs 2018.

* “Direct Instruction: A Half Century of Research Shows Superior Results.” Yet it may implicitly lower the status of teachers, so guess how much uptake of this method has occurred?

* The gap between the very good and the truly great.

* True Things About Me by Kay Davies, a book you should read.

Good books I read this year

I like “good books I read” as opposed to “books published in 2018,” because if they’re worth reading, they’re probably worth reading regardless of when they happened to be published.

* The Coddling of the American Mind; it’s about some of what’s wrong with American universities, and a lot of what’s wrong with modern parenting, and many other topics besides. A deeper read may reveal that it’s about how to live a good life, like so many books.

* Golden Hill: A Story of Old New York. A hilarious, witty, depressing, and amazing novel that is just the right length and astonishing in its language and plot. I didn’t see the final twist coming, although some friends claim they did. I like the idea of a public repository of “predictions” halfway through a book, as opposed to saying after finishing, “I knew what was going to happen.” Did you? Really?

* Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression. A book congruent with Coddling and, again, about the many bad decisions we’ve made as individuals and societies concerning meaning, connection, growth, and development. Many of us, likely including me, mis-prioritize our time and effort.

* Skin in the Game. Asymmetries in risk profiles affect so many domains; in addition, talk is cheap. Ignore most of what people say and pay attention to what people do. Many of our most fucked-up institutions (schools, hospitals/medical care) have too little or inadequate skin in the game.

* Junkyard Planet. A charming, unexpected book about where our things come from and where they go.

* The Case Against Education. Most of education is about signaling. Once you realize that, many puzzling aspects of the school situation become clearer. Why are so many schools crushingly mediocre, if not outright bad? Why is it not actually important that they get better? Why does every college major take four years? Why do we measure seat time, not learning? Why have so many reforms failed?

* Slutever, the book, a book that some of you will dislike, but also a book that more of you will like than will admit in public. Don’t worry, you can tell Amazon that you plan to read it—Amazon won’t tell. Personally, I like the slightly lurid, throwback-to-the-pulps cover, but if you don’t, there’s a Kindle version you can hide.

* Kingdom of the Wicked: Book One: Rules, which I didn’t technically read this year but I will include it, because you should read it.

* Artemis, about a plausible moon-colony scenario.

* Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, about a story that is much more interesting than headlines may have led you to believe. It also humanizes many of the figures behind the headlines. “Reality has a lot of detail,” as many of us infovore-types can forget.

* The Seventh Function of Language, a novel meant most for those of you who have spent time in the academic loonybin. If you’re not familiar with the silliness of humanities academia, you likely won’t enjoy it as much. If you have, you’ll likely love it.

* The Black Prince, a novel where all of Iris Murdoch’s preoccupations come together successfully. Push through the first 75 pages. Many of her other novels feel tedious and indulgent to me, but not this one.

* The Lord of the Rings, a novel I re-read periodically and always discover something new.

* The State of Affairs, Esther Perel’s book about infidelity, relationships, and many other topics. This may also be a salient time of year to read the book. As far as I can tell, no one else is doing the kind of work she is doing on and in this topic.

What should I read in 2019? Or tomorrow?

The most despicable sentences I’ve read recently

In November, NASA announced it would be conducting a “cultural assessment study” of SpaceX and Boeing to ensure the companies were meeting NASA’s requirements of “adherence to a drug-free environment.” The Washington Post reported that officials had indicated “the review was prompted by the recent behavior of SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk.”

From this piece. Boeing is good at hewing to bureaucratic edicts issued by bureaucratic organizations but is bad at recovering rocket stages and decreasing the price of space launch. SpaceX is great at, you know, putting shit into space, which is what both companies are putatively supposed to be doing. For Boeing, compliance with infinite rules and regulations takes precedence over lowering the cost of space access.

The quoted paragraph reminds me of Peter Thiel’s point in Zero to One: as HP floundered, it was still really good at “following the rules,” but really terrible at building products people want. Senior administrators were adepts at process but novices at results. Many people who are good at results do not care for excessive process.

Perhaps we should focus less on virtue signaling and demographics, and more on results. I suspect the NASA of the 1960s was not terribly interested in its employees’s private lives, but it was very interested in putting a man on the moon. Today, NASA seems unable to do the latter but very good at the former.

We need fewer bureaucrats and bureaucratic barriers and more people with a piratical gleam in their eye trying new things. Elon Musk has that piratical gleam and that is part of what makes him a hero, despite his flaws (which are real). Online, it is easy to tear people down (The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium describes how the Internet enables nihilism and tearing people down while doing too little real building of new things—comprehensive post this important book will be forthcoming). It costs a billion dollars a mile to build new urban rail in the United States, since contractors must specialize in placating politicians, employing too many people at too high waves (“In his exposé, Rosenthal talked about labor problems: severe overstaffing, with some workers doing jobs that are no longer necessary, and wages well into six figures”), and dealing with lawsuits rather than specializing in building shit quickly. We need to find our way to a new, better equilibrium that de-emphasizes drug testing for harmless substances and emphasizes getting the thing done.

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