Briefly noted: Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments

Edge.org’s annual question book, Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments, is out in paper—and it’s available in its entirety online. Many responses discuss global climate change, like this one:

There is no real difficulty in identifying the most important news of 2015. Global warming is the news that will remain news for the foreseeable future, because our world will continue to warm at a rate that has never been seen before, at least at the moment without a foreseeable end.

The choice is a good and important though depressing one, but one should note that some progress is being made in terms of decarbonization of energy, the spread of electric vehicles, and the like. It may also be that we need or want less stuff than we once did:

Chris Goodall and a number of other commentators have documented this decoupling extensively: UK government data also shows a reduction in material use from about 12 tons a year per person to around 9 tons from 2000 to 2013. Japan shows a similar pattern.

Maybe the most obvious avatar of this change is the smartphone.

The other big groupings are particle physics and genetic engineering. In the former group, for example, Sarah Demers writes:

The terrifying possibility floating through these “Higgs and nothing else” conversations is that we might reach the end of exploration at the energy frontier. Without better clues of our undiscovered physics, we might not have sufficient motivation to build a higher energy machine. Even if we convince ourselves, could we convince the world and marshal the necessary resources to break the energy frontier again and continue to probe nature under the extreme conditions that teach us about nature’s building blocks?

The particle physicists seem about split between optimism that we’ll get breakthroughs and the terror described here that we’ll reach the end of effective measurement and breakthroughs. Yet many of the writers enumerate the many unresolved problems in physics, which could be read as a rebuke to people who say or imply that there’s nothing left to do, no blank spaces left on the map, and nothing left to discover.

Good books I read in 2016

A reader pointed out that I didn’t write a “best of 2016” post, which is correct, but “best of” strikes me wrong, so I’m going to write about good books that I happened to read in 2016 and that you should read too.

* The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis, probably the best book I read all year, except maybe for Blindsight, but that is so different that the two aren’t really comparable.

* Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century by Masha Gessen, another narrative nonfiction book, though this one emerged and escaped my notice in 2009.

* The Map and the Territory by Houellebecq, still weird and likely always weird; Houellebecq has his misses, especially The Possibility of an Island, but his hits are strong, weird, and different—with “different” too often meaning “bad,” but not in his case.

* Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, one of those amazing books worth re-reading whenever you can’t find a new book to read.

* The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, which is novelistic in detail and beautifully reported. I didn’t fully know where the music everyone listens to comes from and now I do.

I’ve been having trouble finding really good novels, though my tastes are idiosyncratic and I don’t have rules for what makes a good novel besides the tautological, “Be really good.” If you have suggestions drop me a line.

The most-visited post I wrote last year is “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.”

Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” is distinctly contemporary

A reader suggested that in light of Date-onomics I get a copy of the original Sex and the City book. I see why. Though published in 1996, it feels shockingly contemporary, like something you’d read in New York Magazine, or Slutever, or 1,001 other places. If Sex and the City were a little more explicit (Bushnell prefers “unmentionable” to “penis” or “cock,” for example) and added in references to smartphones, Instagram, texting etiquette, and online dating, it would still have the basic set of issues and problems and challenges and behaviors of 2016. The tone of the stories feels bloggy and podcast-y (which is a descriptive observation, not a slur).

sex_and_the_cityOn the Internet you really can say whatever the fuck you want, including “fuck,” and becoming accustomed to that makes Sex and the City feel a little linguistically reticent. To be sure, it goes a lot of places in terms of description but it doesn’t get to all the explicit places the online-only writers do; Sex and the City generally stops at the bedroom door and resumes at the restaurant recap the next day.

Being originally part of a newspaper also means that the lows aren’t quite as low as the online writers, many of whom don’t have anyone to edit their material or tell them that piece x is filler and ought to be cut. But they also don’t have editors to tell them that piece x is in “bad taste,” which means that bad taste as a concept barely exists (here I am tempted to list some examples, but if you keep your eye around the Internet you’ll find some on your own). I hate the word “heteronormative,” but Sex and the City is more heteronormative than online writers are.

What else? Some modern books about love, sex, and dating often have a harder data edge: that’s the point of Dataclysm and Date-onomics. The big way our knowledge has collectively grown in the last twenty years in this domain comes from the revealed preferences of online dating. That lets us know things less through gossip and more through how people behave, at least in online interactions.

It is common to read claims about how the Internet has changed everything, and while data tells us a lot, the basic challenges that emerge in Sex and the City remain. Still, I prefer a Straussian reading of Sex and the City in which guys read the books in order to discover how they should present themselves, market themselves, and be.

Perhaps the book’s most important theme is the need for novelty and stimulation, maybe because novelty-seekers are drawn to New York, despite the city’s costs and many inconveniences. Boredom is a great sin: “You get tired of being around anyone after a while” (63). Or: “Miranda checked the labels: Savile Row—boring” (90). Or: “While many women would have killed to have a date with Scotty, the TV producer, Camilla told me she had been bored” (105). Or: “I already have too many Chanel bags. They bore me” (109; what do you do for the person who has everything, which is a larger number of people than is commonly assumed?). Or: “Where’s the new place to go? I want to make sure my ward here has a good time this evening. I think she’s bored” (141). Or: “The truth is, he bored me” (198).

Boredom is part of a simple paradox at the heart of many of the stories—a paradox prevents some of the characters from getting off the party carousel: “this was the kind of life she’d grown up believing she could have, simply because she wanted it. But the men you wanted didn’t want it, or you; and the men who did want it were too boring” (85). And there is no way in Bushnell’s world to avoid that paradox. Men might want to think about it too, and how it affects their own choices. The characters in Sex and the City are experiencing the problems and fruits of freedom: “[Edith] Wharton thought no one could have freedom, but [Henry] James knew no one wanted it,” and “Freedom’s unpalatable qualities are hard to accept.” So too is accepting the choices one makes. In first three quarters of the book, Samantha Jones makes occasional appearances to disparage her dates and men in general. By page 181, “Lately, Sam had been complaining about not having a boyfriend.” Er. She spends most of book engaging in boyfriend-incompatible thoughts and behaviors.

The women in Sex and the City are chronically outraged by male behavior while chronically and simultaneously rewarding it with sex. The phrase “revealed preferences” is relevant.

Snobbery is ever-present (“She’s like an auto mechanic from nowhere’sville”), almost a sport, in a way that would be hard to take, at least for me, in real life. The brand-name snobbery is much more irksome than much of the bedroom material.

Used copies on Amazon are cheap and plentiful, for good reason. It’s a fun, historically interesting read, but once is enough. Re-selling it is too time consuming for me, but I’m donating it to a thrift shop which will probably recycle it back onto Amazon.

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age — Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly

The first chapter of All Things Shining is strong and so is the second, on David Foster Wallace, but the book gets duller as it goes on, sustaining as it does its readings based on other books. There is something curiously empty about it, like a modern art museum that is much duller than a celebrity’s Instagram account. It is too well mannered. Academia’s mores rules. All Things Shining encourages us to find shining meaning in things but it itself doesn’t feel shiningly meaningful, as even sections like Lewis Hyde’s The Gift do.

Deciding that something is boring is easier than fully understanding why something is boring. I haven’t quite figured out the “Why” question regarding All Things Shining. The book does remind one of why great novels endure; story is still powerful and narratives without story are hard to sustain, especially when many claims seem somewhat dubious:

Modern life can seem to be defined by [uncertainty]. An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and most of us could admit to finding ourselves at last occasionally wavering. Far from being certain and unhesitating, our lives can at the extreme seem shot through with hesitation and indecision, culminating in choices finally made on the basis of nothing at all.

I said that this is “somewhat dubious” because it is, even if we do face many choices. At bottom we each have to choose for ourselves what is important, and then pursue that thing. It might be pleasure or technology or words or research or money. Universals are likely absent and “The burden of choice is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It proliferates in a world that no longer has any God or gods, nor even any sense of what is sacred and inviolable, to focus on our understanding of what we are.” The “burden of choice” also comes from the fact that many of us can pay the rent and pay for food, which leaves us with more time for self-contemplation. Maybe too much time.

I’m fond of telling students that you know you’re an adult when you realize that, if you can’t pay the rent and pay for food, you won’t have anywhere to live or anything to eat. Sometimes a focus on base material conditions is helpful. And forgetting that a very large number of people are justifiably focused on this issues is sometimes too easy for tenured academics.

Some paragraphs are both useful and yet I wonder what polls would say:

The Greeks of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age.

Did the average Greek of Homer’s era live intense and meaningful lives? What about their children? What happened when their children died? Or was the average Greek covered in shit (link likely safe for work), slaving away to support a tiny number of nobles who focused on political games, consuming the marginal product of labor of the peasants, and fighting pointless, zero-sum wars with other nobles?

Still, the book has some interesting sections, and it is a deeper discussion of its issues than you’ll find on most of the Internet The discussions of craftsmanship are glancing but perhaps most interesting. Maybe if Wallace had conceptualized himself first as a craftsman and then as an everything else things would have gone better. Maybe not, though, and it’s hard to criticize one of the most truthful writers of his generation for not doing even better than he did.

Man’s search for meaning goes on.

Onwards.

Links: Demography is destiny, how could you like that book?, open access, friendship, and more

* “As China’s Workforce Dwindles, the World Scrambles for Alternatives:” an underreported story.

* “How Could You Like That Book?” by Tim Parks:

No sooner have I articulated my amazement, my sense of betrayal almost, than I begin to feel insecure. Is it really possible that so many people I respect have got it wrong? Close friends as well. Am I an inveterate elitist? A puritan? Or resentful of other people’s success? Shouldn’t I perhaps relax and enjoy my reading a little more rather than approaching books with constant suspicion?

The world is full of people who admire books I don’t and vice-versa. When I tell students I found the first Hunger Games or Harry Potter books dull they’re astonished.

* “Open Access and the Power of Editorial Boards: Why Elsevier Plays Hardball with Deviant Linguists.” To me the most intersting thing is that equivalents of arXiv.org haven’t arise in the humanities. That may say more about the intellectual importance of the humanities than any other piece of data, information, or opinion.

* Why car dealers are reluctant to sell electric cars, a bit of ill news.

* Dream of New Kind of Credit Union Is Extinguished by Bureaucracy.

* “How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult.”

* “The Yale Problem Begins in High School,” by Jonathan Haidt of The Righteous Mind fame. Notice especially the links Haidt offers.

* “‘Self and Soul’: Mark Edmundson’s biting critique of modern complacency.”

* “Literature vs genre is a battle where both sides lose,” an over-discussed topic maybe, but also a true one. Some points, like this one, are ridiculous: “But literary authors aren’t self-publishing their books on Kindle. Quite the opposite. They have a swish sounding publisher.” See also last year’s “Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz:”

I’m most amazed at the way the same class of writers who five years ago were aghast at the lack of support for literary fiction among publishers are now the ones decrying Amazon and supporting the same publishers who were until recently the cravenly commercial forces destroying “quality” literary fiction.

Briefly noted: “Mate” is out and it’s good — Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller

As previously noted, Mate: Become the Man Women Want is out and it’s good.* As the book says in the introduction, “Your culture has failed you and the women you’re trying to meet.” The book is part of the remedy. When I read the draft a couple months ago I told Tucker, “I wish I could teleport a copy of Mate back in time and give it to my 13-year-old self, and then instruct him to read it once a year for the next decade.” That’s still true. If you know any teenage or early 20s guys who are likely straight, give them a copy of this book. It is not going to be useful for everyone and indeed I expect some of you to strongly dislike it. People like how-to in many fields but often not this one.

Mate_CoverThe book emphasizes empathy: “If you always try to understand the woman’s perspective—what they want, why they want it, and how to ethically give it to them—then you will find it much easier to become attractive to them, and you’ll be much more successful with your mating efforts.” There are no shortcuts. For a while I’ve been describing the empathy gap, because I increasingly think that the average man doesn’t much understand or try to understand the average woman—and vice-versa. That’s why books like Mate, or Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, are valuable: they work to close the empathy gap.

Parts of the book will be obvious to older guys who have their lives together—that showering and grooming are important will not be news, but most of us can also probably remember the shambling smelly kids in school. Other parts counteract some of the more dubious parts of our culture, like the claim that women are attracted most by money and that all women are “gold diggers.” For most women most of the time other things matter most, like how “individual women just your fuckability by your social network. So you had better have proof—social proof—that it exists.” Most people, men and women, who want a relationship reasonably want to know the person they’re having a relationship with, and that means knowing friends and family—and knowing they exist. Many of us have had the experience of sleeping with someone who keeps us totally separate from the rest of their lives. Sometimes that can be good—we don’t “count”—but for actual relationships it’s not.

There are still hilarious metaphors and comparisons, like “[A lot of guys think they need to have a ton of money,] then the women will just magically appear, like monarch butterflies to milkweed, flies to honey, rappers to Scarface posters.” But there are fewer of them: The book is entertaining but it leans informational. I at least felt rueful for my teenage and college self when I read some sections. Perhaps my favorite moment occurs two-thirds through the book, when Max and Miller are noting some of the artistic skills that women like, like music, storytelling, and, saliently for this quote, drawing:

The key thing here is to cultivate actual skill rather than indulge in modernist expressionism or abstract art. The poet John Ciardi pointed out, “Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at women and persuade themselves they have a better idea.”

I’ve never read as concise and accurate description of why so much modern art is so bogus.

The bibliography is useful.


* As also previously noted, I now know Tucker well enough to not be an unbiased critic.

Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives — Joseph Heath

There is something futile about this otherwise consistently interesting book, and Heath says as much towards the end:

It should go without saying that writing books about the decline of reason is not the sort of thing that is likely to slow the decline of reason. It is simply preaching to the choir. Anyone who makes it to the end of a three-hundred-page book on the subject is obviously not part of the problem. Furthermore, the project of reversing the trend is too big and too complicated for any one person to accomplish much.

Enlightenment_heathNonetheless I enjoyed and recommend Enlightenment 2.0; here is Alex Tabarrok’s review, which introduced me to the book. Its subjects and sources seem eclectic at first: Hollywood movies, Fox News, politics, 18th Century writers, philosophers, economists. Not all its examples are plausible. But the single golden braid of what rationality means runs through the book, and Heath identifies patterns I’ve inchoately felt but never quite described. Readers who are familiar with the extensive irrationality literature—Thinking, Fast and Slow is perhaps the best, though not the only, example—may find sections repetitive. Yet the overall impact is strong.

Reading the irrationality shows how rational, logical people are proving that people are irrational and illogical. Yet it takes rationality to demonstrate how we aren’t, and that alone may justify rationality (the existence of the contemporary world shows that it is possible for rationality to flourish). In most domains, too, individuals suffer most of the consequences of irrationality: If you spend more than you make, you suffer more than me; if you sleep with people you shouldn’t, you suffer more than me. The exception comes from voting; I don’t see Bryan Caplan cited in the index but Heath points to many of the themes Caplan does in The Myth of the Rational Voter, another recommended and yet depressing book because it posits a problem to which there is no good solution. Comedy is one partial solution, as Heath says about liberal comedians attacking conservative lunatic initiatives, and so is setting up the right systems, or right sort of systems:

To the extent we are able to achieve something resembling rationality, it is usually because we have good kludges. As productivity expert David Allen put it, ‘To a great degree, the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives. I know that’s true of me. The smart part of us sets things for us to do that the non-so-smart [sic] part responds to almost automatically, creating behavior that produces high-performance results. We trick ourselves into doing what we ought to be doing.’

I would call myself a “high-performing person” and would not call myself a productivity expert, but one of my most-used programs prevents me from using other programs effectively: Mac Freedom. For ten dollars, this program will turn off your Internet access for a specified period of time (you can get it back by rebooting, should you really need it). The Internet is amazing but can also be noxious and distracting. Freedom reminds me that I should pursue my long-term goals and that most “news” is total garbage and that my life (and the world) is not going to get better based on whether I inhale someone else’s intellectual garbage. I’d argue Facebook is even worse than news in this respect, and, now that everyone is on Facebook, the quality of Facebook has declined further: people are worried about what their moms and bosses and employers will think, so they shunt the real parts of their lives to pseudonymous services.

Still, much news is superficially attractive and has that dangerous quality of feeling like learning even when it isn’t. I’m susceptible to it and, even before reading about Allen, I’d developed some strategies for resisting. Those strategies aren’t perfect and depending on what I’m working on I may genuinely need the Internet, but most of the time concentration is the scarcest resource, rather than information. And well-structured information is scarcer than “information,” which makes books more valuable than many articles. Still, I need to trick myself into remembering this.

Heath notes that some concepts are not intuitive, don’t make us “feel” correctly, and yet are essential for the workings of modern life. But it’s easy for demagogues or just plainly ignorant politicians to appeal to feelings that are popular but simplistic and wrong. Heath says that liberals have a harder time with this, as their preferred policies require coordination and complex understanding of multiple moving parts.

I like the observation in “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup,” in which Scott Alexander observes that Team Red and Team Blue seem more often to decide on issues based on opposing whatever the other one wants, rather than initial dispassionate analysis followed by decision.

My favorite issue that works along these lines is housing policy, which is especially interesting because both Team Red and Team Blue tend to oppose sensible, affordable housing policies, but for slightly different reasons. As I wrote here (and have written elsewhere), housing affects everything from schools to the real power of money (which may be different from “income”) to the environment to intellectual growth and development. Yet housing policy has devolved in the last forty or so years and is barely on most people’s radar. Markets are dysfunctional due to land-control uses. Team Blue is concerned about incomes, and sometimes even real incomes, and housing policy is hugely important in this domain. Team red is concerned about markets, at least superficially, and yet housing and land development is widely distorted. (Team Red often opposes markets when markets don’t produce their desired social outcomes, which is a topic for another time.)

As a side note regarding the subtitle, I’ll say that I don’t feel my life to be insane or not sane. I’ll also say that this is not true only of politics, but also some weirdly large swaths of the humanities:

[Harry] Frankfurt’s important contribution [via the book On Bullshit] was to have distinguished between lying and bullshitting. What characterizes the bullshitter is that, unlike the liar, who at least maintains the pretense of telling the truth, the bullshitter has simply opted out of the truth-telling game. There is no pretense with the bullshitter. Although producing ordinary declarative sentences that would normally be evaluated under the categories of truth and falsity, the bullshitter is not even trying to say something that sounds true.

When someone has opted out of the truth-telling game there is almost no reason to talk to them.

Much of Enlightenment 2.0 is distressing to those of us who like to imagine ourselves as rationalists. Yet the world is still by many metrics improving. I’m tempted to start a new series in which every December I post “Good news in review,” since most news is biased towards problems, deaths, fuck-ups, and the like. Yet overall by most metrics people are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives. That’s a huge but under-emphasized point. Many of the big, preventable killers in the United States—like cars and guns—could be better dealt with through policy, as long as people understand just how many other people die from those causes. Most of us don’t attend to them, however, and prefer salient deaths like shark attacks and terrorism.

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