Links: Bitcoin, politics and pessimism, vocational education, censorship, and more!

* The case for political pessimism, which I unfortunately find likely:

But there are deeper reasons why optimism for the political future of the country is unearned. Something profoundly destabilizing is happening to the United States. Trump is a major symptom, and a contributing cause, of it. But it goes far beyond him, to implicate vast swaths of our politics and culture.

* We’re seeing a shortage of skilled trades jobs and an excess of weak bachelor’s degrees. In “Rare good political news: Boosting apprenticeships,” I wrote about how pretty much everyone who teaches college knows there are a lot of students who should be doing something useful that is not college.

* Where should you fear private internet censorship the most? Thinking on this issue has not been so good, from what I’ve seen.

* “Our Trouble with Sex: A Christian Story?” Maybe not, as it turns out.

* “The Difficulties of Running a Sex-Inspired Startup;” article is at Fast Company and thus likely SFW.

* How concrete cemented its place in history.

* Wind and solar power are on track to exceed expectations. Again. Good news!

* “The Fight Against Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Might Start With Vaccines.”

* “Amy’s Drive Thru, America’s First Meat-Free Fast-Food Restaurant Is Getting Ready To Expand.”

* “Bitcoin’s Academic Pedigree: The concept of cryptocurrencies is built from forgotten ideas in research literature.” A fascinating story and largely unknown to me and, I suspect, many others.

Links: Fusion, the joy of syntax, unpopular ideas about social norms, the Title IX Star Chamber, and more!

* Nuclear fusion: Still almost there, and now almost there even more than before.

* “Feasibility of cooling the Earth with a cloud of small spacecraft near the inner Lagrange point (L1).” Basically, everyone (or at least everyone involved in science) is aware of how carbon output is heating the earth. But no one, for most values of “one,” is doing anything to reduce carbon output, so mitigation strategies are likely to become necessary to avoid human extinction.

* Alaska’s thawing soils are now pouring carbon dioxide into the air. And our collective response is to debate Nazis and identity politics.

* The joy of syntax.

* “Unpopular ideas about social norms.” We should see more of this, even if the writer of the ideas doesn’t agree.

* “8 Instagram Influencers Explain What Ingrid Goes West Gets Scarily Right.” A depressing yet fascinating article. Do people live like this? How? Why do so many other people want to virtually follow them? What gives?

* “How I Survived the Title IX Star Chamber.” If a quasi-state organization like a college explicitly says, “not to bring an attorney,” it’s a good idea to bring an attorney.

* “Too Much Debt Is Making Us Sticks-in-the-Mud.” Subtler and more useful than the title may make it appear.

* The secret life of a book manuscript. It also points to why the self-publishing industry is not a panacea and has many problems of its own.

* “The Premium Mediocre Life,” an overstated case but I get what he means.

* Humanities PhDs awarded in record numbers while available jobs continue to shrink. Perhaps people should stop going? This is my contribution to the “don’t go to grad school” genre.

iGen — Jean M. Twenge: The kids aren’t all right?

It’s somewhat hard for me to love iGen because it fits the overall genre of “the kids are going to hell,” even if the author is savvy to that very problem and disavows it in the intro. I’m also now just old enough to no longer be part of the kids but not so old that I’ve forgotten all those “Oh my god the teens!” stories that described me as a teenager and college student.

In grad school, one of my professors had a book that assembled early reactions to the novel, which from the late 18th Century until close to the 20th Century was seen as depraved, a waste of time, a waste of talent, and morally corrupting. In other words, an activity that we now perceive as pretty high status was then seen as very low status, which often caused young men to be lazy and dissolute and young women to be morally impure. Corruption was clear and it came from words.

Oddly, in some ways those early criticisms were right, just too early: as a society we have largely secularized, and, although I wouldn’t lay all or even most of the reason why on the novel as a genre, it likely played a role by more freely disseminating information and letting people think for themselves, rather than having the clergy do all the thinking and information dissemination from the pulpit. When you let people think and read for themselves, many of them become less enamored of tedious religious works and the fellows who interpret those religious works to mean that giving to the church is good and sex is bad—very, very bad.

Today the smartphone is the great bugaboo of the age and we’ve not figured out how it ought to be integrated into society. Among my own peer group it’s now somewhat common to have phone-free parties, the better to be in the moment and avoid incriminating next-morning evidence, but it’s still common to lay a phone face-up on a table over coffee or drinks. But smartphone cultural practices haven’t really firmed up and smartphones have apparently taken over the lives of the Youth. The skeptical word “apparently” probably isn’t needed in the preceding sentence, because Twenge has lots of data demonstrating it.

One of the many admirable things about the book is how data-driven it is. Data, plus mostly avoiding the “The kids are going to hell” stuff, makes the book wildly readable and interesting. Still, not everyone is convinced; here’s one writer’s context and here’s another’s, arguing that smartphones aren’t actually destroying a generation.

The strange thing to me about constant smartphone life is that it seems so boring. Maybe from the inside it’s better. It’s all communication and little if any content underneath that communication. So much chatter and so little to say. Boredom as a theme runs through the book:

More and more teens are leaving high school never having had a paying job, driven a car by themselves, gone out on a date, had sex, or tried alcohol.

Sounds like a boring life. But it may also be a cheap one. Smartphone use may have deleterious effects but it’s also pretty cheap; once you have the phone and the data, marginal use is nearly free. So cost-effectiveness may drive smartphone obsession too, although Twenge doesn’t say it explicitly. Still, at some point I think even teenagers should get exhausted with relentless texting about nothing and want to go do things in the real world. Everyone feels left out but no one does anything about it.

Still, leading a boring life is not unique to this generation, although it’s wasting time online instead of wasting it on TV. For many decades, the average American watched four to five hours of TV a night—a terrible waste, it seems to me, especially given how much space was dedicated to commercials, but that’s what people did and what many people continue to do. If you have a choice of wasting time via TV or smartphone, smartphone seems like a marginal win.

Most likely, I think, teenagers are wasting most of their time, like most teenagers of most developed countries of most of the last hundred or so years, and will probably quit it when they have to pay their own rent.

Yet knowledge of smartphone problems seems also to widespread:

iGen’ers are addicted to their phones, and they know it. Many also know it’s not entirely a good thing. It’s clear that most teens (and adults) would be better off if they spent less time with screens. “Social media is destroying our lives,” one teen told Nancy Jo Sales in her book American Girls. “So why don’t you go off it?” Sales asked. “Because then we would have no life,” the girl said.

That seems unlikely, but logic is tough and most people’s revealed preferences show phone love. Apparently the data show that iGen is “at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011.” I wonder if something has really changed, or if something has changed regarding the self-reporting that people do. Perhaps it’s now more socially acceptable to report depression, in surveys or to doctors and others.

We get similar data later in the book: “Nevertheless, the case highlights a nationwide problem: the often inadequate resources for mental health assistance on campus.” If mental health assistance is inadequate today, when was it adequate? Why? What’s changed? And are we looking historically and cross culturally? In 1942 – 45, American men of college age were mostly fighting the Nazis and Japanese and probably also had inadequate mental health resources. Today, Kurdish teenagers fight ISIS. Because someone has a worse problem than you do doesn’t invalidate the problem, but there’s a startling lack of context to assertions like these; if the problem is the phone, turn off the phone.

This generation is supposed to be more inclusive by some measures, which I can believe, but I doubt it’s more inclusive overall; instead I suspect it’s going to be as exclusive as any generation, just based on different criteria. What those criteria are I can’t say, but I’m sure they’ll be there.

I’ve chatted a lot with a friend who grew up in the center of Gen X, and he remembers a generation that, according to the media, was filled with druggie dropouts who totally lack ambition. Those same people are now in the middle of their lives and seem to be fine, with reasonably normal distributions, and most of them seem to do what most people end up doing: getting a job and having kids. The dropouts of the late 80s and early 90s are the dads and moms of today.

One interesting thing for readers of this blog: it seems that iGen teens are “less likely to read than teens of previous eras:”

In the late 1970s, the clear majority of teens read a book or magazine nearly every day, but by 2015, only 16% did. In other words, three times as many Boomers as iGen’ers read a book or magazine every day.

You can quibble with that particular metric but Twenge presents others. Moreover:

Perhaps this move away from print is innocuous, especially if teens are still keeping up their academic skills. But they are not: SAT scores have slid since the mid-2000s, especially in writing (a 13-point decline since 2006) and critical reading (a 13-point decline since 2005).

This is echoed by 2007 article “Twilight of the Books.” One fast trick I use in assessing student writing skills is simple: I ask students to write their favorite book on an index card and why that book is a favorite. Answers tend to correlate to reading and writing skills.

Still, when I was in high school I liked to read and was mostly looked at as a weirdo for enjoying reading. In college I read Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man during a summer when I was a lifeguard, and the other lifeguards thought it weird that I’d laugh because of a book. So while the data may point to a decline in reading, I’m not sure that the overall social situation has changed too much.

Mostly, I wonder what will happen to iGen’ers as they age. The empty-headed seem to have a harder and harder time the older they get and the more the structures that define high school and college fall away. But that too may have been true for a long time: people who try new things and continually learn and grow tend to have better lives than those who don’t.

Recommendations like this: “I believe textbooks also need to stop covering so many topics in so much detail” seem unlikely to help people develop personalities or reading skills. That is a real quote, by the way: it’s on page 308. Twenge qualifies it in the rest of the paragraph, but the real world remains complex and trying to simplify it for the militantly ignorant will not help them or human understanding of the world. Ignorance is a condition we ought to aspire to cure, not perpetuate.

Still, I have seen arguments like this one since forever:

When I’ve polled my students about how they’d prefer to spend class time, most have said they are fine with lectures as long as they convey information that is helpful to doing well on exams. They like discussion but don’t want it to take too much time away from learning the material they’ll be tested on.

Lectures have always been terrible ways of conveying information; they were just technologically expedient for much of human history, and jettisoning them will lose little. Still, when students are very much focused on exam or paper grades, I often like to ask: What’s the point of doing well on the paper? Usually the answer is “to do well in class,” and so on, but if one extends far enough outward the more interesting answers start to pop up.

Bottom line is that the book is interesting but ought to be read skeptically. Overall I’m happy to have read it and read the whole thing carefully, which isn’t so common. It’s fun to imagine how this book will appear 50 years from now, when someone being born today might write about it. I imagine a historian or social critic who analyzes it as a document of its times, when those times and the processes immediately roiling the present have passed. Most of the books about the horrors of the generations that came of age in the 60s or 70s now look at least a little hysterical. From the vantage of 50 years later, I suspect this generation will look like it turned out okay too.

Beyond Meat burgers are pretty good

I saw them in a grocery store:

and made them the next night:

and can report back that Alex Tabarrok is right: they’re pretty good. Like him I’ll buy them again.

There actually isn’t much to say about the burgers, which is good news. They taste good. They’re easy to make. Nothing gets killed in order to make them. They’re a drop-in replacement for conventional burgers. Sometimes “not much to say” is the best news of all; that was true of the Priority Classic bike and it’s true of the Beyond Meat burger.

Right now lots of venture capitalists and companies are exploring lab-grown meat. That’s great news. In the meantime Beyond Meat is a small but noticeable step in the right direction.

By the way, I also tried Soylent (another thing that might be called “non-traditional food,” although I don’t think the category has a proper name) and found it, if not vile, then at least unpalatable. I bought more of it than I should have and ended up dumping the majority.

Links: Identity politics are bad, SpaceX, online shame, cheating, and books, books, books

* Why identity politics are bad for the left and everyone else, featuring Mark Lilla.

* “Meet Gwynne Shotwell, the Woman Who Could Take Us to Mars: The SpaceX president sees no extraterrestrial challenge too big to tackle.”

* “Who should be shamed, and who not?” We’re not thinking very hard about this.

* “America, Home of the Transactional Marriage,” though it strikes me that there may be more going on here than the author describes.

* “The Books We Don’t Understand;” I especially like the paragraph about The Fermata. Smut, literary and otherwise, is also underrated by many literary mandarin types.

* What We Can Learn from Women Who Cheat. Relatedly, maybe, “Assessing Female Mate Preferences: Answers to Ten Common Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology.”

* “William Gibson Has a Theory About Our Cultural Obsession With Dystopias.” I like this: “Seriously, what I find far more ominous is how seldom, today, we see the phrase ‘the 22nd century.'” Still can’t get into graphic novels in most cases, however.

* Are You a Carboholic? Why Cutting Carbs Is So Tough.

* Concerns About College Costs Mean Fewer Luxury Dorms. Also in academia, “The Tenure Track Is Too Rigid to Help Diversity.” Tenure reform is one of the major ways we could make academia more humane.

* “In ‘Campus Confidential,’ a Professor Laments That Teaching Is Not the Priority of Teachers.” Seems so obvious that I’m surprised an entire book had to be written on the subject.

* Aging Parents With Lots of Stuff, and Children Who Don’t Want It. In an age of lots of cheap stuff, holding onto anything that’s not being actively used doesn’t make any sense.

* “How Seattle morphed from bikeshare failure to industry leader in five months.”

Links: The lonely, how writers write, free speech, and unfree housing

* The legion lonely.

* How writers write.

* Vidya Narayanan: “I’m An Ex-Google Woman Tech Leader And I’m Sick Of Our Approach To Diversity!

* Conservatives say campus speech is under threat. That’s been true for most of history.

* “83 percent of Bay Area renters plan to leave, says survey.” Makes sense to me. In some ways the Bay Area is the least humane part of the country.

* “The L.A. Rag Trade,” about the deep inside.

* “A comprehensive guide to the new science of treating lower back pain.” More important and better researched than it seems. Oddly, too, I’ve recently begun doing yoga (recommended in the article), and when I tell my friends that they laugh at me.

* “The Unfortunate Fallout of Campus Postmodernism: The roots of the current campus madness.” A point that seems obvious to me yet one rarely hears.

* “The electric bike conundrum,” except it isn’t actually a conundrum and cheap electric bikes may reshape cities.

* 50 years ago and today, a hilarious and also depressing piece.

* Housing costs are the real driver of inequality in America, a theme familiar to regular readers but unfamiliar to many.

* “Forget Car-Free Buildings. Bike-Only Condos Are Coming.”

* “Herpes cure needs free-to-choose medicine.”

David Kirkpatrick’s “The Facebook Effect,” seven years later

It’s weird reading The Facebook Effect today, because already it feels like ancient history. It celebrates Facebook having 400 million users, when today it has two billion. It was written before the iPhone became the world’s dominant computing platform, so the many references to PCs feels odd. There are bromides like, “Facebook is bringing the world together,” which may not even be meaningful enough to evaluate as true or false. Yet many sections still seem relevant and fortuitous. The suspenseful sections about early fundraising are about humans, incentives, and game theory. The tension between short and long term remain in terms of both companies and individual lives. Others could be listed.

To me Facebook is still kind of boring; I don’t think people’s real selves, to the extent there are such things, get posted often, and when they do, the result is often embarrassment. And I find that the more I see of people on the site, the less I like them, implying that maybe knowing “more,” or more without context, isn’t so good. Yet its sheer popularity is clear, and I expect questions about what that means to persist, maybe throughout my life. “Generation Why?” is one good take in the genre but likely not the last.

The Facebook Effect doesn’t much answer that question and it probably can’t. The “why?” is embodied in millions if not billions of individual choices. But The Facebook Effect has lots of insight, as long as one’s willing to tolerate sentences like, “Facebook is bringing the world together.” For example, if you’re somewhat into photography, like I am, you’ve probably seen people debating various issues around megapixel count, lens quality, and image quality. Except no one cares about photo or picture quality / resolution. People only care about their friends and people they know. These may seem like dumb assertions but Facebook reveals evidence for them.

In 2006 Facebook introduced photo tagging, and one decision “the photos team” was particularly important:

They took a gamble and decided to compress photos into much smaller digital files, so that when they appeared on Facebook they were significantly lower in resolution than the originals. That meant they would upload faster, so users could select a number of photos on their PC and see them online within minutes.

Would people accept low-resolution photos? Would they use the tags?

The short answer to both is “yes.” People don’t give a damn about resolution. They care about the photo’s semiotics: “Ordinary photos had become, in effect, more articulate. They conveyed a casual message. When it was tagged, a photo on Facebook expressed and elaborated on your friend relationships.” Outside of very small sites occupied by photo nerds, like 500px, the photo isn’t about the perceive image quality; it’s about what the photo depicts of the person (and it’s almost always a person) in it. We import our groupishness from real life to photos. Which seems totally obvious now to everyone except people on photography forums yet wasn’t so obvious during Facebook’s earlier forms.

People also relentlessly use Facebook to… criticize Facebook: “As with any Facebook controversy, the viral distribution tools of Facebook itself were used against it.” But in the crucial terms of exit, voice, and loyalty, almost no one exits. Which tells Facebook as much as it needs to know. The company is a case study in stated vesus revealed preferences. However much people may say they revile, distrust, or dislike the company, or however much they may acknowledge that most of Facebook is a time waste, they keep going back. We have clichés like “actions speak louder than words” for a reason.

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