Links: Cars and death, why the rent is too damn high, doctors as debt collectors, and more!

* “Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year.” An evergreen article. Imagine 30,000 people were killed by terrorism in the United States.

* Single-Family Home Zoning vs. ‘Generation Priced Out.’ Useful for anyone who thinks their rent is too damn high (like I do).

* “Doctors Are Fed Up With Being Turned Into Debt Collectors.” Maybe we ought to go back to a world of transparent pricing, paid in advance?

* “Chicago Expelled a Male Student 4 Days Before Graduation Because His Ex Made a Dubious Sexual Violence Claim.” More of the usual, in other words. And universities wonder why they have a PR problem!

* “Eric Schmidt on the Life-Changing Magic of Systematizing, Scaling, and Saying Thanks,” a conversation with Tyler Cowen.

* “Oil Demand for Cars Is Already Falling: Electric vehicles are displacing hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, exceeding expectations.” We get too little good news; here is some.

* “The Creation of Deviance,” note: “The activities of university administrators may also fit a larger pattern, one in which agents of social control readily create the need for their own services.”

* It is becoming more plausible to remove CO2 from air.

* The myth of stagnant incomes.

* Demand for humanities majors is low in the job market, although that is not the actual title of this essay, and you probably already know it, but I will pass it along anyway. In addition, “Telling a Lame Joke in an Elevator Can Endanger an Academic Career.” The obvious point: don’t go to grad school in the humanities.

* “The Disaster That Was the Vietnam War.” A war with few if any truly good guys.

* Robert Langlands, The Greatest Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of. Unless, of course, you’ve read Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, as I recommend!

* Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments—A Review.

Novels that turn on scientific or technical breakthroughs

Spoilers ahead.

Andy Weir’s novel Artemis and Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder are different in many ways, but apart from being excellent they both share an unusual point: their plots are driven by technological breakthroughs. In Artemis, the breakthrough is a zero attenuation fiber optic cable; the acronym ZAFO appears early in the novel and remains opaque until about halfway through. The “Artemis” of the title refers to a near-future moon base that is in economic trouble: there is little economic reason for humans to inhabit the moon apart from tourism, which is insufficient to sustain the base. The novel posits, however, that a technical breakthrough could lead to a massive new industry. The moon base’s administrator says:

Just imagine what a revelation that was for O Palácio [a Brazilian crime syndicate or mafia group]. All of a sudden, their insignificant money-laundering company was poised to corner an emerging billion-dollar industry. From that point on, they were all in. But Artemis is very far away from Brazil, and they had only one enforcer on site, thank God.

This passage is characteristic of the novel in another way: it’s not very attentive to language. Perhaps the character speaking would say “All of a sudden,” instead of the correct “All of the sudden.” Artemis has a lot of the bad language habits that MFA programs, whatever their flaws, tend to help writers avoid or ameliorate.

In State of Wonder, Marina Singh goes deep into the Amazon jungle to find her former supervisor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is continuing her own mentor’s research into a tribal group where the women have extended fertility. At the same time, Swenson is seeking an anti-malaria drug that may stem from the same source.

I’m trying to think of other novels that have a technical breakthrough at their core. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is one (the data haven at the end likely qualifies as a technical breakthrough). Yet I can think of few others. If you know any, please leave pointers in the comments. Perhaps more novelists should be thinking about how technological or scientific breakthroughs might power the plots of novels. Alternately, perhaps more novels do this than I realize, and I don’t have a good sense of other, similar novels that have been published.

Ian McEwan’s Solar is another one.

I can’t recall any 18th or 19th century novels that turn on technical breakthroughs.

Links: Paglia, farmers, boomtowns, Rams, Sapiens, and more!

* High-tech farmers are using LED lights in ways that seem to border on science fiction.

* “The new boomtowns: Why more people are relocating to ‘secondary’ cities.” As someone looking to do just that, for the usual reasons, it makes total sense to me.

* Scott Sumner on global warming and carbon taxes.

* “How the GOP Gave Up on Porn.” Seemingly everyone has given up on it, which is maybe not so good.

* Rams, on Dieter Rams.

* George RR Martin interview on writer’s block, which is what all of his modern interviews are actually about.

* “Pretentious, impenetrable, hard work … better? Why we need difficult books.” The bigger problem is that most “impenetrable” and “hard” books have nothing substantial in or to them. You discover their supposed secrets and find them to be totally empty, sort of like how Gollum goes under the Misty Mountains searching for secrets and gets nothing.

* Camille Paglia: It’s Time for a New Map of the Gender World.

* Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Yuval Noah Harari, Their Principal Doomsayer, and he is the author of Sapiens.

* Herman Hesse: Outside Man.

* The optimized anti-style of Allbirds shoes.

* The never-ending now. It ends in books! Past, present, future (“future” typically being science fiction).

* “The Novel Isn’t Dead—Please Stop Writing Eulogies.” Yes, another of these, but what can I say: I’m addicted to the genre, both of the death notices and of the life notices.

* Toronto Cleared Cars Off a Major Transit Corridor — And it Worked!

* Monica Lewinsky: “‘Who Gets to Live in Victimville?’: Why I Participated in a New Docuseries on The Clinton Affair.” It’s odd to me that claiming to be a victim is so popular and that claiming the mantle of victimhood, rather than that of skill or competence, is so popular.

* Terrorism is not effective, it seems, yet that does not stop us from fearing it.

Is there an actual Facebook crisis, or media narrative about Facebook crisis?

Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis” just appeared in the New York Times, but the whole thing seems imaginary: is there an actual crisis, outside the media narrative? Has Facebook seen an actual fall in monthly, weekly, or daily active users? That data would support a crisis narrative, but the best the article can do is, “its pell-mell growth has slowed.” Slowing growth makes sense for a company with two billion people using it; all companies eventually reach market saturation.

To me, the story reads a lot like a media narrative that has very little to do with users’s actual lives. And I’ve been reading variations on “Why Facebook sucks” and “Why Facebook is doomed” for a very long time. It’s like the “Why this is the year of Linux on the desktop,” but for media companies.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m barely a Facebook user and I agree with much of the criticism. You can argue that Facebook is bad for reasons x, y, z, and I may even agree—but what I do, anecdotally, is less significant than what users do and want to do. As always, “revealed preferences” are useful: every time someone uses Facebook, that person is implicitly showing that they like Facebook more than not and find it valuable more than not. Aggregate those decisions together, and we see that there is no crisis. Facebook continues to grow. I personally think people should read more books and spend less time on Facebook, but I’m a literary boffin type person who would say the same of television. Lots of literary boffin type persons have had the same view of TV since TV came out—you should read more books and watch less TV—but, in the data, people didn’t watch less TV until quite recently, when Facebook started to replace TV.

The conventional media sources, including the NYT, don’t want to confront their own role in the 2016 election—the relentless focus on Clinton’s email server was insane. What should have been a footnote, at best, instead saw nearly wall-to-wall coverage. We don’t want to acknowledge that most people’s epistemological skill is low. Why look at ourselves, when we have this handy scapegoat right… over… there?

Facebook is a Girardian scapegoat for a media ecosystem that is unable or unwilling to consider its own role in the 2016 fiasco. With any media story, there are at least two stories: the story itself and the decision behind working on and publishing and positioning that particular story. The second story is very seldom discussed by journalists and media companies themselves, but it’s an important issue in itself.

In a tweet, Kara Swisher wrote that Zuckerberg is “unkillable, unfireable and untouchable.” I disagree: users can fire him whenever they want. Swisher had a good retort: “Remember aol.” Still, large, mature markets behave differently than small, immature markets: in 1900, there were many car companies. By 1950, only a few were left. Market size and market age both matter. Facebook reportedly has two billion users, a substantial fraction of the entire human population. It has survived Google+ and its users have demonstrated that they love wasting spending time online. Maybe they’ll find an alternate way to do it (again, I’m not personally a big Facebook user), but if they do, I don’t think it’ll be because of the 5000th media scare story about Facebook. So far, I’ve read zero media stories that cite Rene Girard and the scapegoating mechanism. I don’t think the media understands itself right now.

Links: Mac Minis, the fall of driving, AbeBooks, the Neo-Puritan revival, progress in biology, Claire Lehmann, and more!

* The 2018 Mac Mini is actually a good machine, unlike the last few iterations of it.

* “Has Americans’ love affair with driving gotten stuck in traffic?: Baby boomers’ enthusiasm for the open road is giving way to millenials’ disillusionment with stop-and-go commutes that require they spend more time in their cars than they receive in vacation time.” How could it not, says I. See also my 2012 essay, “Cars and generational shift.” I expect scooter shares and the like to further erode car preference.

* Amazon’s AbeBooks backs down after booksellers stage global protest. AbeBooks is still quite good.

* “NPR: Neo-Puritan Revival.” This is something I have been wondering about (and occasionally writing about) for a while. There’s also an “everything old is new again” element, because seemingly everyone except me has forgotten about Katie Roiphe’s early-90s book The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism, which hits many of the same subjects we’re seeing batted around, yet again, today.

* Robert Nagle’s shift to ebooks.

* Sequencing is the new microscope, on how biology has come to bootstrap itself.

* Why We Need Innovative Nuclear Power.

* Claire Lehmann: The Voice of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web.’ If you are not following Quillette, you should.

* How the race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke became the closest in Texas in 40 years.

* Peer review: the worst way to judge research, except for all the others. It turns out that academics are susceptible to prestige bias, as are the rest of us.

* “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception.” Nuclear war is still the problem that gets too little attention, as it will render pretty much everything people squabble about on Twitter and Twitter-adjacent sites irrelevant.

* “‘The Academy Is Largely Itself Responsible for Its Own Peril’: Jill Lepore on writing the story of America.” This is particularly annoying: “[W]hat you’re being trained to do is employ a jargon that instantiates your authority in the abstruseness of your prose. You display what you know by writing in a way that other people can’t understand. That’s not how I understand writing.”

Links: Kinlessness, Segway’s revenge, System76’s open-source hardware, hot sauce, and more!

* Kinlessness, a sad but very interesting piece.

* Segway was supposed to change the world. Two decades later, it just might.

* Another take on that mystery interstellar object that could be a discarded solar sail.

* System76 on US Manufacturing and Open Hardware. The company makes open-source desktops and laptops.

* What I Learned From Making Hot Sauce at Scale. I ordered some hot sauce based on this article!

* A lawsuit reveals how peculiar Harvard’s definition of merit is. The “Hebrew problem” has now become the “Asian problem” at Harvard.

* Why the Danes encourage their kids to swing axes, play with fire, and ride bikes in traffic.

* “The Saruman Trap: When power is corrupt, there is no way to escape its toxic influence.” My personal favorite in this batch, but I’m a sucker for anything LOTR.

* “Teachers Have a Responsibility: Two educators talk about teaching students to think critically, and keeping personal politics out of the classroom.” It seems obvious to me, yet I see too little of it.

* “GM’s electric bikes unveiled.” File under “Headlines I never thought I’d see outside of The Onion.”

* People Across the Country Are [Supposedly] Increasingly Worried About Climate Change—and It’s Changing How They Vote.

* “Think Professors Are Liberal? Try School Administrators.” I have seen some of the results, and they are not good.

* The Joe Rogan podcast with Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay; the latter two are responsible for the the Grievance Studies Scandal. It’s another version of the Sokal hoax. For a while I thought about blogging stupid humanities papers, but there were too many of them and (almost) on one seems to care. Plus, the Twitter account Real Peer Review is already doing the job. The most interesting thing about Boghossian and Lindsay on Rogan is the extent to which Rogan offers a very large, mainstream platform for their ideas. Word about academic chicanery is getting out.

* “Six Secrets from the Planner of Sevilla’s Lightning Bike Network.”

The Elephant in the Brain – Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler

The book is here and you should read it, although I think most people don’t actually want to know its contents. Most of us, I suspect, prefer to lie to ourselves and each other. Consider some of the evidence Hanson and Simler present:

Why do patients spend so much on medical care? To get healthier: That’s their one and only goal, right?

Maybe not. Consider some of the puzzling data points Robin discovered. To start with, people in developed countries consumer way too much medicine—doctor visits, drugs, diagnostic tests, and so forth—well beyond what’s useful for staying healthy. Large randomized studies, for example, find that people given free healthcare consume a lot more medicine (relative to the unsubsidized control group), yet don’t end up noticeably healthier.

So why doesn’t anyone know about this? I think we don’t want to know. For that reason, I’m not sure this book will be popular. Most people write, and maybe think, based on slogans: we see this all the time, everywhere, online.* I doubt that the fact that people over-consume free healthcare will have any effect at all on most people, but arguing that healthcare is a basic human right will—that activates people’s caring moral foundation. This book is likely to be read by weirdos who may not have much effect on the rest of society.

The first page of chapter four has one of the great footnotes of all time.

Let me pull one section that amuses me; I occasionally make an argument that friends think is harmlessly eccentric at best and outright offensive at worst: TV and movies are better than live theater because their range of possible expression is so much greater. Good video uses a range of scenes, actors, and sounds; it isn’t inhibited by the limitations of the stage. Most people I’ve said this to have said that I miss the point (maybe they’re right) and that live theater is beautiful for its own sake. Usually I’m just looked at like I’m weird (again, the lookers may be right).

Enter Hanson and Simler:

Artists routinely sacrifice expressive power and manufacturing precision in order to make something more “impressive” as a fitness display.

One place we find this sacrifice is in the performing arts. For example, by almost any any measure of technical control, film exceeds live theater. Film directors can fuss endlessly over lighting, set design, and camera angles […] And the results are frequently sublime, which is one reason film has become the most popular dramatic and comedic medium of our time. And yet consumers continue to relish live performances, shelling out even for back-row seats at many times the price of a movie ticket. Why? In part, because performing live is a handicap. With such little margin for error, the results are that much more impressive. A similar trade-off arises for musicians (e.g., lip syncing is anathema) and standup comics, and for the improve versus sketch-comedy troupes. A live performance, or even more so an improvised one, won’t be as technically perfect as a prerecorded one, but it succeeds by putting the artists’ talents on full display.

To be fair, too, in the case of music and standup, the artists are often trying out material and experimenting with audience reaction, before turning the final result into a video or similar product. In some cases, like improv, the audience becomes part of the product. We’re trying to be impressive, and the harder it is to be impressive, the more one is impressed.

But consciously saying, “I’m an artist to increase my reproductive fitness” is not impressive and no one says it. Hanson and Simler offer some mechanisms:

We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives—we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people. And in order to throw them off the trail, our brains often keep ‘us,’ our conscious minds, in the dark. The less we know of our own ugly motives, the easier it is to hide them from others.

Self-deception is therefore strategic, a ploy our brains use to look good while behaving badly.

It’s interesting too, in light of their chapter on art, to think about what counts as art. Writing a novel? Yes. Painting a picture? Yes. Writing or designing an operating system? Not much, and not to most people. “Writing an operating system” may have occurred too recently in our evolutionary history to make doing so an attractive sexual display. But if we know we’re making art as a mating display should we then take that knowledge and direct our time and resources into other fields?

It’s a question that should be more seriously considered. And I write this as someone who has written novels and is working on one now.

One short question we might want to ask ourselves in many endeavors is, “Am I doing this to be maximally effective at the thing I am doing, or am I doing this thing to signal some other trait or achieve some other goal?”

Hanson’s previous book is The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, which is very interesting for the right person—of whom there are not many, including me. It applies economic analysis to a world in which human brains can be emulated can thus intelligence is almost freed from pesky material constraints like birth, senescence, and death. As a book it’s a bit like science fiction without a story. Post-singularity SF often works poorly to baseline humans because humans are bad at conceiving what non-human intelligence or consciousness might be like. The Age of Em is very good at what it is, but it’s notable that almost no one tries to write in its genre.

Here is a review of Elephant in an unexpected venue. Others may be found. I have not found any good rebuttals of it; it may be a book easier to ignore than rebut. I’m going to re-read it. It’s not the kind of book one absorbs the first time.


* “Most people write, and maybe think, based on slogans” may itself be a slogan: I’m not immune!

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