Miscellanea: February 2019

Links

99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About in 2018 – Angus Hervey

There’s a Problem With a Bunch of Psychology Textbooks – Jesse Singal at The Cut. “In a paper published last month in Current Psychology by Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University and Jeffrey Brown and Amanda Torres of Texas A&M, the authors evaluated a bunch of psychology textbooks to see how rigorously they covered a bunch of controversial or frequently misrepresented subjects. The results weren’t great.”

The financial world and the magical elixir of confidence – Matt Seybold at aeon.co

Mic shuts down, a victim of management hubris and Facebook’s pivot to video – Mathew Ingram at Columbia Journalism Review

Dymaxion Chronofile – Wikipedia. “The Dymaxion Chronofile is Buckminster Fuller‘s attempt to document his life as completely as possible. He created a very large scrapbook in which he documented his life every 15 minutes from 1920 to 1983. The scrapbook contains copies of all correspondence, bills, notes, sketches, and clippings from newspapers. The total collection is estimated to be 270 feet (80 m) worth of paper. This is said to be the most documented human life in history.”

The option value of civilization – Tyler Cowen quoting a commenter at Marginal Revolution

Four in-depth pieces on various facets of callout/victimhood culture:

Right Wing Nerds vs. the New Common Sense – Dain Fitzgerald at Splice Today. “’If I see someone in a Batman t-shirt, I no longer assume they’re a sensitive soul,’ laments Jennifer Wright at The New York Times. ‘Instead, I wonder if they harassed women during Gamergate or hang out on incel message boards talking about how Elliot Rodger was right to kill “blonde sorority sluts.”’

A Batman shirt did this.”

White Progressives Shifting Democratic Party to Left and Polarizing America – David French at National Review. “Whites jumped from 34 percent liberal to 54 percent. Only a minority of black and Hispanic Democrats call themselves liberal. Moreover, the liberal surge is driven primarily by college-educated white progressives — the exact people who occupy the commanding heights of American media, the academy, and pop culture. This white-liberal surge dovetails with other data, including the comprehensive “Hidden Tribes” study identifying left-wing polarization as being primarily driven by a “progressive activist” class that is disproportionately white, disproportionately college-educated, and disproportionately secular…And, again, white progressives aren’t just any American constituency. They’re the most culturally powerful people on the planet. This increasingly rapid secularization and liberalization makes national unity far more difficult. There are times when progressives can win and yet get more angry.”

A Witch-Hunt on Instagram – Kathrine Jebsen Moore at Quillette. Believe it or not, knitting is super problematic.

RIP Culture War Thread – Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex. Scott has shut down the weekly Culture War thread at /r/SlateStarCodex: “During the last few years of Culture War thread, a consensus grew up that it was heavily right-wing. This isn’t what these data show, and on the few times I looked at it myself, it wasn’t what I saw either…Whatever its biases and whatever its flaws, the Culture War thread was a place where very strange people from all parts of the political spectrum were able to engage with each other, treat each other respectfully, and sometimes even change their minds about some things.

“People settled on a narrative. The Culture War thread was made up entirely of homophobic transphobic alt-right neo-Nazis…All these people definitely existed, some of them in droves. All of them had the right to speak; sometimes I sympathized with some of their points. If this had been the complaint, I would have admitted to it right away…But instead it was always that the the thread was “dominated by” or “only had” or “was an echo chamber for” homophobic transphobic alt-right neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that the subreddit was dominated by homophobic etc neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that the SSC community was dominated by homophobic etc neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that I personally was a homophobic etc neo-Nazi of them all. I am a pro-gay Jew who has dated trans people and votes pretty much straight Democrat. I lost distant family in the Holocaust. You can imagine how much fun this was for me.”

 

Videos

Aliens under the Ice – Life on Rogue Planets – Kurzgesagt on YouTube

Slaughterbots – Stop Autonomous Weapons on YouTube

 

Books

God Emperor of Dune, by Frank Herbert (2/5): I tried. I really did. I wanted to like this book so much, and I intend to give the series another shot at some point in the future. But after a legendary first book and unsteady second and third books, God Emperor of Dune finally broke my spirit. I just don’t give a shit about breeding programs and lonely worm-gods and thirsty Amazon bodyguards anymore. I will hand in my nerd card at the earliest possible moment.

The Pocket Guide to Action, by Kyle Eschenroeder (4/5): Exactly what it says on the tin, a good collection of motivating meditations on doing.

Tools of Titans, by Tim Ferriss (4.5/5): My second time reading this was just as fulfilling as the first. There’s just so much information packed in this book that it’s impossible to use even 10% of what you come across in one reading, so if you’re like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the sheer quantity of useful life hacks that you’d forgotten between reads.

 

Music

The Dear Hunter – Wait

Puscifer – Rev 22-20

Scotland the Brave

 

TV

Game of Thrones, Seasons 1-2: In an effort to get my nerd card back after the Dune debacle, I’m rewatching Seasons 1-7 of Game of Thrones in preparation for the eighth and final season. This is a very rewarding show to rewatch; so far, I’ve picked up on missed jokes (“cut off his manhood and feed it to the goats”), forgotten characters, and some big themes that I had lost in the details of episode-to-episode viewing. The biggest idea I’ve settled on so far is how much the violence and suffering in the show isn’t random, contrary to popular opinion. Rather, Game of Thrones enforces cause-and-effect so ruthlessly that many viewers, conditioned to expect good consequences from foolish actions, believe their favorite characters are being punished by a capricious creator. The seeds for the middle, however, were sown in the beginning, and if the showrunners did their job, so were the seeds for ending.

True Detective, Season 1: Easily one of the best single seasons of television I’ve ever seen. Everything I can think of is flawless: the casting, the acting, the pacing, the Southern-Gothic, fever-dream setting. Even better, it transcends the usual boundaries of hard-boiled mystery to ask provocative questions about religion, power, and why people—the good and the bad—do what they do.

Miscellanea: January 2019

Links

The Carbon Footprint of Superheroes and The Geology of Game of Thrones – Miles Traer

How to Lose Tens of Thousands of Dollars on Amazon – Alana Semuels at The Atlantic. Also see Inside the Strange Yet Profitable World of Retail Arbitrage.

How to Eat an Elephant – Tamara Winter on Medium. Helpful tips include “Before dinner, write down tomorrow’s priority list” and “Try not to use your cellphone in bed.” The stuff all (most?) of us know we should do, but don’t.

What a Newfound Kingdom Means for the Tree of Life – Jonathan Lambert at Quanta Magazine

The war over supercooled water – Ashley G. Smart at Physics Today

Defenders of Human Rights Are Making a Comeback – Kenneth Roth at Foreign Policy

‘I’m Petitioning … for the Return of My Life’ – John Leland at The New York Times. “I feel as if I have absolutely no rights at all in the country in which I was born, and therefore in the rest of the world,” Ms. Funke said. She compared her situation to being in prison, then thought better of it. “It’s worse than incarceration,” she said. “At least in prison you have rights.”

In the Fake News Era, Native Ads Are Muddying the Waters – Kat J. McAlipine at Boston University. “Even though her online survey divulged to participants that they were viewing advertisements, many people—more than 9 out of 10 participants—thought they’d been looking at an article.” Study here.

Econ Envy – Julia Rohrer at The 100% CI.

Why the Left is So Afraid of Jordan Peterson – Caitlin Flanagan at The Atlantic. “There are plenty of reasons for individual readers to dislike Jordan Peterson. He’s a Jungian and that isn’t your cup of tea; he is, by his own admission, a very serious person and you think he should lighten up now and then; you find him boring; you’re not interested in either identity politics or in the arguments against it. There are many legitimate reasons to disagree with him on a number of subjects, and many people of good will do. But there is no coherent reason for the left’s obliterating and irrational hatred of Jordan Peterson. What, then, accounts for it?”

Brexit: A Test for Humanity – Tyler Cowen at Bloomberg

A philosophy professor argues kids should use more technology, not less – Jenny Anderson at Quartz

The Covington Scissor – Ross Douthat at The New York Times, referencing Scott Alexander. See also I Failed the Covington Catholic Test by Julie Irwin Zimmerman.

Why Ex-Churchgoers Flocked to Trump – Timothy P. Carney at The American Conservative

Go to More Parties? Social Occasions as Home to Unexpected Turning Points in Life Trajectories – Alice Goffman at Social Psychology Quarterly

Videos

Why Are There So Few Smartphones In Popular Movies? – Nerdwriter at YouTube

Non-Invasive Brain Surgery – Veritasium at YouTube

How Much of the Earth Can You See at Once? – Vsauce at YouTube

Why Our Villains Are Different Now – Wisecrack at YouTube

Books

Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari (4/5). Sapiens is one of those books that, even if you don’t come away with anything specifically new or exciting or impressive, you just have to respect anyway for its sheer ambition. Covering five figures’ worth of human history in a few hundred pages, Sapiens didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know so much as place a bunch of things I already knew right next to each other and provoke question after question about why those things lined up the way they did.

 

Music

Ben Howard – Promise

Chris Stapleton – Parachute

Fink – Looking Too Closely

Philip Glass – Six Etudes for Piano – q = 108

 

Movies

Annihilation (4.5/5): I’m still not sure what to think about Annihilation. But I think I think I really like it. Its only real shortcomings were excesses of jump scares and squishy science, but I think the latter still fell within the constraints of the plot and the former is a trivial reason to dislike an otherwise excellent movie. The very fact that I’m still processing this film is testament to how multifaceted the story was and how truly alien its portrayal of an otherworldly visitor was.

Aquaman (3/5): It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s enjoyable to watch and continues the trend of steadily improving post-Wonder Woman DC movies.

I Love You, Man (3.5/5): A sweet and mild bro-comedy. This movie had been recommended to me many times and I’m glad I finally broke down and watched it.

A Knight’s Tale (4/5): You can trash old-fashioned good-vs-evil stories all you want, but it’s hard to dislike them when they’re done as well as A Knight’s Tale. Paul Bettany and Alan Tudyk very nearly steal the spotlight from Heath Ledger.

 

TV

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (3/5): So far, I’ve gotten five different endings (SPOILERS AHEAD). While I enjoyed the experience and admire the creators’ willingness to push the envelope, I did come away feeling cheated by the way the different endings effectively retcon their own stories—depending on the choices you make, Stefan may be starring in a movie, he may actually be in the middle of a giant conspiracy, or he may just be bonkers all along. This changing meta-narrative relieves the storytellers from the burden of having to maintain any in-narrative consistency, drastically reducing the payoff as the viewer-storyteller on the other side of the screen.

Miscellanea: December 2018

Links

Climate Solutions: Is It Feasible to Remove Enough CO2 from the Air? – Elizabeth Kolbert at Yale E360

Witches Now Outnumber Presbyterians In The United States – Jonathan Turley.

The national security adviser who colluded with foreign powers — decades before Michael Flynn – Shane O’Sullivan at The Washington Post

Russia’s Secret Weapon? America’s Idiocracy – Michael Weiss at The Daily Beast. “When, exactly, does an unemployed coal miner in Lackawanna already wary of immigrants and the “mainstream media” become convinced that his interests are best served by voting for Trump over Clinton? Will a Pizza-gate ad purchased in rubles or an “Obama Created ISIS” meme cooked up in St. Petersburg be his tipping point, or just more proof that his original prejudices were correct all along? At what point does a millennial democratic socialist in Detroit decide to skip voting altogether to put the finishing touches on her long-awaited Jacobin essay about the Zionist hegemony encoded in Seinfeld? Is it before or after spending 20 minutes reading Sputnik’s slippery summary of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Goldman Sachs executives? I doubt even Nate Silver would be able to tell you.”

The Man Who Saves You from Yourself – Nathaniel Rich at Harper’s. “Nobody ever joins a cult. One joins a nonprofit group that promotes green technology, animal rights, or transcendental meditation. One joins a yoga class or an entrepreneurial workshop. One begins practicing an Eastern religion that preaches peace and forbearance. The first rule of recruitment, writes Margaret Singer, the doyenne of cult scholarship, is that a recruit must never suspect he or she is being recruited. The second rule is that the cult must monopolize the recruit’s time. Therefore, in order to have any chance of rescuing a new acolyte, it is critical to act quickly. The problem is that family and friends, much like the new cult member, are often slow to admit the severity of the situation.”

Meet the Double Agent Who Now Controls House Conservatives – Andrew Desiderio at The Daily Beast

Does political party trump ideology? – Andrea Christensen at BYU.edu

Republicans have become their own caricature of postmodernism – Ryan Cooper at The Week

How Russian Trolls Used Meme Warfare to Divide America – Nicholas Thompson and Issie Lapowsky at Wired

How Did the Republican Party Get So Corrupt? – George Packer at The Atlantic

Crossing The Aisle Didn’t Save Republicans This Year – Geoffrey Skelley and Gus Wezerek at FiveThirtyEight. Ahem.

Global Warming Is Setting Fire to American Leadership – Stephen M. Walt

A Preview of Your Chinese FutureBruno Maçães at Foreign Policy

China’s penetration of Silicon Valley creates risks for startups – Heather Somerville at Reuters

The Digital Maginot Line – Renee DiResta at Ribbonfarm. “In a warm information war, the human mind is the territory. If you aren’t a combatant, you are the territory.”

I’m Sorry But This Is Just Sheer Propaganda – Nathan J. Robinson at Current Affairs

How Much Does Climate Science Matter In A World Run By Politics? – FiveThirtyEight Team.

Videos

The Roman Triumph – Historia Civilis at YouTube

Biotechnology and Brain Computer Interfaces – Siraj Raval at YouTube

Slow Motion Suppressor Physics at 150,000 fps (Schlieren Imagery) – Smarter Every Day at YouTube

What is Federal Land? – CGP Grey at YouTube

The Artificial Intelligence That Deleted A Century – Tom Scott at YouTube

Books

The 4-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferriss (3.5/5): Many years ago, this was my introduction to the works of Tim Ferriss, like it was for many people, and I hated it. I couldn’t believe so many people fell for such obvious snake oil sold by such an obvious douchebag. It wasn’t until several recommendations for his podcast led me to give it a listen, and while I still think 4HWW is far from perfect, I’ve since come to appreciate its unconventional pragmatism.

Zero to One, by Peter Thiel (4.5/5): While I’ve expressed my disagreements with Thiel on AI before, it’s hard to deny Thiel’s genius as an entrepreneur and social critic. Zero to One emphasizes the importance—no, the necessity—of nonconformity and creativity to anyone who wants to make a difference in the world, particularly through business. Highly recommended.

How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler (5/5): Exactly what it says on the cover. While written in 1940, it is possibly even more important in the 21st century as information literacy plays a greater and greater role in the survival and prosperity of democratic societies. Clear and practical.

 

Music

Katatonia – Ambitions

Kenny Wayne Shepherd – Blue on Black

Mechina – Anathema

 

Movies

Mary Poppins Returns (3/5): The plot was rather thin (mouseover for spoilers), but the acting, spectacle, and overall spirit of the movie are exactly what you’d expect from a new Mary Poppins movie. Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda are particularly outstanding as the two leads.

They Shall Not Grow Old (4.5/5): Engaging, technically impressive, and respectfully attentive to detail. My only wish was that it went deeper; with all the archive video and audio they had and the relatively short runtime of 1:39, it seems it could have done so if they wanted it to.

 

TV

The Vietnam War (5/5): One must always be cautious when comparing real-world events, particularly ones causing such deep wounds as the Vietnam War, to fiction, but I couldn’t help thinking of Greek tragedy when watching Ken Burns’ impeccable documentary series. Tragic irony bleeds from the screen at every turn; the sense within each leader, soldier, and civilian that their hands have been forced and they simply have to take each brutal next step clashes with their (and our) later regret, their recognition that things could have—must have—gone differently. The Vietnam War is a masterpiece. You will almost certainly feel more somber and less sure of yourself after watching it, and that’s why you should do so.

Miscellanea: November 2018

Links

‘Good guys’ in superhero films more violent than villains – Science Daily. “The researchers tallied an average of 23 acts of violence per hour associated with the films’ protagonists, compared with 18 violent acts per hour for the antagonists. The researchers also found the films showed male characters in nearly five times as many violent acts (34 per hour, on average), than female characters, who were engaged in an average of 7 violent acts per hour.”

What the New Sokal Hoax Reveals About Academia – Yascha Mounk at The Atlantic

The Dystopian Future of Facebook – Mark Kernan at Counterpunch

May You Live in Epic Times – Venkatesh Rao at Ribbonfarm

Trump is going to escalate his attacks on American democracy post-election, no matter who wins – Evan McMullin at NBC

In China’s Xinjiang, surveillance is all pervasive – Adrian Brown at Al Jazeera. The first personal account I’ve read of life in Xinjiang, from a reporter who tried to dig deeper and was blocked at virtually every avenue.

What if the Placebo Effect Isn’t a Trick? – Gary Greenberg at The New York Times

Strategy Without Politics is No Strategy: A Lesson of World War I for the Trump Era – Kori Schake at Lawfare

Non-Conformist Influence – Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias. See also Hanson on world government.

The Secretive Puppetmaster Behind Trump’s Supreme Court Pick – Jay Michaelson at The Daily Beast. “When President Donald Trump nominates a justice to the Supreme Court on Monday night, he will be carrying out the agenda of a small, secretive network of extremely conservative Catholic activists already responsible for placing three justices (Alito, Roberts, and Gorsuch) on the high court…At the center of the network is Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, the association of legal professionals that has been the pipeline for nearly all of Trump’s judicial nominees…Directly or through surrogates, he has placed dozens of life-tenure judges on the federal bench; effectively controls the Judicial Crisis Network, which led the opposition to President Obama’s high court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland; he heavily influences the Becket Fund law firm that represented Hobby Lobby in its successful challenge of contraception; and now supervises admissions and hires at the George Mason Law School, newly renamed in memory of Justice Antonin Scalia.”

Are Killer Robots the Future of War? Parsing the Facts on Autonomous Weapons – Kelsey D. Atherton at The New York Times

Here Comes ‘The Journal of Controversial Ideas.’ Cue the Outcry. – Tom Bartlett at The Chronicle of Higher Education

How much did the housing shock drive political polarization? – Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution

Fertility fraud: People conceived through errors, misdeeds in the industry are pressing for justice – Ariana Eunjung Cha at The Washington Post

In China, The Communist Party’s Latest, Unlikely Target: Young Marxists – Rob Schmitz at NPR

First analysis of ‘pre-registered’ studies shows sharp rise in null findings – Matthew Warren at Nature

Everything You Know About State Education Rankings Is Wrong – Stan Liebowitz and Matthew L. Kelly at Reason. “…mainstream rankings confirm the biases of many media outlets and the self-serving interests of education functionaries who only gain from higher spending—while also giving short shrift to minority students in predominantly white states. As a result, we suspect that the usual narrative based on those flawed state rankings will continue to predominate.”

Should Evolution Treat Our Microbes as Part of Us? – Andrew Rae at Quanta Magazine

Remember that study saying America is an oligarchy? 3 rebuttals say it’s wrong – Dylan Matthews at Vox. Referring to this study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”

Why You Shouldn’t Study Psychology – Maple, Maypole. “A great deal of psychology literature is pretty similar to my first job out of university: Totally pointless, but it’s considered bad form to point this out and get everyone in trouble. A huge amount of the research in psychology does not replicate at all, and many of the most popular claims are obviously ridiculous. However, careers depend on us pretending they aren’t ridiculous, so there is a culture of simply pretending that everything works and ignoring inconvenient results. I’ve even met a lot of psychologists that have managed to successfully self-delude themselves even though they know they can’t understand the statistics involved.”

“They Say We’re White Supremacists”: Inside the Strange World of Conservative College Women – Nancy Jo Sales at Vanity Fair. “She didn’t believe Trump was a racist, she said: ‘I think [his racist comments are] a mix of what he actually feels and political theater. Being a businessman, I think, he knows how to sell something, so he’s trying to create this brand, because he knows if he keeps saying these things, people will keep watching and wondering what is he going to do next and that will intrigue some to vote for him.’” Hmm.

The Miseducation of Sheryl Sandberg – Duff McDonald at Vanity Fair

 

Videos

End of Space – Creating a Prison for Humanity – Kurzgesagt at YouTube

How Viral Videos Masked a Louisiana Prep School’s Problems – NYT News at YouTube

Instant Messaging and the Signal Protocol – Computerphile at YouTube

AI in China – Siraj Raval at YouTube

The kg is dead, long live the kg – Veritasium at YouTube

Visualizing turbulence with a home demo – 3Blue1Brown with Physics Girl at YouTube

Who Owns The Statue of Liberty? (New Jersey vs New York) – CGP Grey at YouTube

Special mention goes to The Great War, a standout YouTube channel that, for the last four years, has uploaded a video every week detailing what was going on in the First World War 100 years before, as well as uploading supplementary videos exploring individuals, countries, and topics in greater depth. With the passing of the 100-year anniversary of Armistice Day, the channel is wrapping up its namesake project and moving on to new horizons. Indy Neidell, the entertaining and informative host of the channel, has started his own project exploring World War Two.

Books

Radicals Chasing Utopia, by Jamie Bartlett (3/5): Jamie Bartlett wanders from fringe to fringe, rubbing shoulders with everyone from transhumanist biohackers to right-wing anti-Islam activists. It was interesting enough, and I learned something new with just about every group he embedded himself with, but it felt episodic. Analysis of the common threads between these radical groups—or lack thereof—was hard to come by.

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg (5/5): Masterful and terrifying. Nuclear war has taken a backseat to newer threats like AI and bioterrorism in many people’s minds, but in this book, Ellsberg reveals just how precarious the post-nuclear world was when he worked as a high-level planner at the RAND Corporation—and how the Doomsday Machine operates on a more sensitive trigger today than it ever did in the height of the Cold War.

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, by Niall Ferguson (2/5): A disappointingly thin work from a historian/author who can do better. Normally I’m all in favor of concision, but The Great Degeneration simply doesn’t have enough meat on its bones. Ferguson doesn’t give himself enough ammo to back up his major claims, even where he’s correct, and in my opinion he heavily relies on faulty readings of Francis Fukuyama and Nassim Taleb.

Music

Bing & Ruth – Starwood Choker

Collapse Under the Empire – The Last Reminder

Oh, Sleeper — Oxygen

Slipknot – All Out Life

Two Feet – Love is a Bitch

Miscellanea: Threefer Madness

Someone forgot to turn the internet off while The Next Five Minutes was away, and links have been accumulating at an alarming rate. They’ve been found scurrying all over the server rooms and internet tubes, even threatening to overrun the blog itself. It was only after an arduous week-long hunt that we managed to collect all three months’ worth of articles, videos, books, and music and corral them all in one long post.

Links

In With the Out Crowd – Steve Lagerfield at The Hedgehog Review. Reminded me of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Lonely Dissent.

Future Dystopias Are Our Past and Present Human Nature – Tom Ruby at Bluegrass Critical Thinking Solutions. See also The Surprisingly Solid Mathematical Case of the Tinfoil Hat Gun Prepper from April’s Miscellanea.

The Bro Code – James Palmer at ChinaFile.

It Took a Village to Raise Kavanaugh – David Brooks at The New York Times. “The conservative legal establishment is fully mature. Trump bucked the conservative foreign policy establishment and the conservative economic establishment, but he’s given the conservative legal establishment more power than ever before, which is why there are so few never-Trumpers in legal circles… It’s a lesson for everybody. If you emphasize professional excellence first, if you gain a foothold in society’s mainstream institutions, if you build a cohesive band of brothers and sisters, you can transform the landscape of your field.”

What the West Is Becoming — Bruno Maçães at National Review. “To understand what the West is becoming, travel to Turkey, Egypt, or Pakistan. These are countries that, while never admitted to the club, were always of enormous strategic importance for Western powers, whose constant involvement created a culture of suspicion and resentment. What has been taking place in the U.S. since the 2016 elections would look strikingly familiar to Turks or Egyptians. Some episode or other of foreign involvement in the democratic process is reported. That is bad enough as far as it goes, but it gets worse. Once the fatal virus of suspicion enters the political bloodstream, it will never leave.” Tyler Cowen riffs on similar themes of trust and the international order in his column for Bloomberg.

India’s Biometric Database Is Creating A Perfect Surveillance State — And U.S. Tech Companies Are On Board – Paul Blumenthal and Gopal Sathe at The Huffington Post.

Meet the Anarchists Making Their Own Medicine – Daniel Oberhaus at Vice.

Did China think Donald Trump was bluffing on trade? How Beijing got it wrong – Wendy Wu and Kristin Huang at the South China Morning Post. An positive take on the Trump administration’s trade war with China, and how while we may lose ground economically, China may lose ground strategically. Compare and contrast with Shannon Mercer and Robert Williams’ negative take at Lawfare, as well as Timothy Heath’s broader analysis of China’s position, also at Lawfare.

A new digital divide: Young people who can’t use keyboards – Toshihiko Katsuda at The Asahi Shimbun.

The Strange Life of a Murderer Turned Crime Blogger – Kenneth R. Rosen at Wired.

Chinese interference in New Zealand at ‘critical’ stage, says Canada spy report – Eleanor Ainge Roy at The Guardian. The arms race over new forms of information warfare have only just begun, and their escalations beyond Russia’s now-confirmed interference in 2016 have gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Our doctors are too educated – Akhilesh Pathipathi at The Washington Post.

In-Groups, Out-Groups, and the IDW – Jacob Falkovich at Quillette. A sort of self-defense from the IDW, given that Quillette has found itself as the online epicenter of the movement. I’m still broadly positive toward the IDW; with recent revelations on the sad state of left-leaning academic disciplines, the Democrats’ inability to form a coherent worldview, and the ever-intensifying threat of the radical right, I think the IDW—or at least something like it—is more important now than ever.

Paul Singer, Doomsday Investor – Sheelah Kolhatkar at The New Yorker

If the Future is Big – Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias. Examines the implications of long-term thinking on our present actions. See also More Than Death, Fear DecayTwo Types of Future Filters, and Future Influence Is Hard.

Reality Maintenance – Venkatesh Rao at Ribbonfarm.

Exterminate Mosquitoes for the Sake of Humanity – James D. Miller at Quillette

The School Shootings That Weren’t – Anya Kamenetz at NPR. “This spring the U.S. Education Department reported that in the 2015-2016 school year, ‘nearly 240 schools … reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting.’ The number is far higher than most other estimates. But NPR reached out to every one of those schools repeatedly over the course of three months and found that more than two-thirds of these reported incidents never happened.”

Why aren’t kids being taught to read? – Emily Hanford at APM Reports.

The Big Myth About Teenage Anxiety – Richard A. Friedman at The New York Times

Russia is quietly seizing territory in Georgia as it warns of a ‘horrible conflict’ if the Eurasian country joins NATO – John Haltiwanger at Business Insider.

Neural Correlates of Four Broad Temperament Dimensions: Testing Predictions for a Novel Construct of Personality – Brown, Acevedo, and Fisher at PLOS One. For years, personality psychology has been dominated by a well-validated system known as the Big Five, which relies on “factors” rather than “types,” i.e. you simply have higher or lower scores on various characteristics rather than getting described in a categorically different manner from someone else. This study suggests that may be changing.

Dissolving the Fermi Paradox – Sandberg, Drexler, and Ord at the Future of Humanity Institute. I think “dissolving” is probably a strong word, but the authors do point out a surprisingly simple reason why there might be a discrepancy between our expectations of alien life and the reality that we haven’t found it. Perhaps the paper downgrades it from a paradox to a mere conundrum.

Videos

The State of Brain-Machine Interfaces – YouTube

The World in UV – Veritasium at YouTube

A Beetle’s Beloved Beer Bottle – Brain Scoop at YouTube

Wormholes Explained – Breaking Spacetime – Kurzgesagt at YouTube

Heroism and Moral Victory – The Lord of the Rings (part 1) – Like Stories of Old at YouTube. Part 2 (A Mythology of Hope) can be found here.

Books

Citizen Soldiers, by Stephen Ambrose (3.5/5): Another solid Stephen Ambrose work that found a good balance of engagement and thoroughness.

How to Make a Spaceship, by Julian Guthrie (3.5/5): Tells the story of Peter Diamandis (author of Bold, mentioned in July’s miscellanea), as well as a few other figures from the X-Prize saga I’d never heard of before. Seemed quite partial to the Randian worldview, often explicitly, but given that the book is about a group of frustrated entrepreneurs beating the government at its own game, I can’t judge it too harshly.

Brain Rules, by John Medina (4/5): Straightforward, brief, and practical. Lacks depth, but if you’re looking for a quick-and-dirty guide to brain health you could definitely do worse.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris (4/5): While a long-time listener of Harris’ podcast, I’d never read any of his books until Waking Up, which I found to be an enlightening (no, really) and thought-provoking work of neuroscience, philosophy, and spirituality. Especially recommended for those interested in a) mindfulness meditation without the woo, or b) neuroscientific reasons to be skeptical about souls and dualism.

Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens (4.5/5): This was my second time reading Letters to a Young Contrarian, and while I enjoyed it plenty the first time, I think I’m in a better position to appreciate Hitchens now a few years later; see the first two essays linked above for a nice complement. Hitchens’ flowery prose is the only thing stopping me from giving this five stars.

Children of Dune, by Frank Herbert (4/5): Children of Dune is a marked step up from Dune Messiah and very nearly matches the original. Where the overwrought intrigue of Dune Messiah left that work a confused mess, Children of Dune manages to blend deception, action, and character development much more deftly.

The Evolving Self, by Robert Kegan (4.5/5): I just finished The Evolving Self a few days ago and there’s still plenty to digest. The long and short of it is that Kegan (writing in 1982) believed that the most effective way to understand human psychological development is by looking at how people come to see various aspects of life (the physical world, relationships, social structures, etc.) as either subjects (bound to the self) or objects (separate from the self), depending on what is appropriate for a person’s stage of development. Lots to learn—a breakdown is forthcoming (fingers crossed).

Music

Alice in Chains – Them Bones

Auf Der Maur – Followed the Waves

Bonobo – Second Sun

DevilDriver – Sail (AWOLNATION cover)

Dorothy – Who Do You Love?

Max Richter – The Departure

Muse – The Dark Side

TesseracT – Luminary

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – What Comes Back

Analysis: A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger

Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question shows a variety of ways that asking better questions can provoke positive change in life, relationships, and business, and provides a broad framework for how to do so in actionable ways. It’s a flawed book, but a worthwhile read with an underappreciated thesis.

Top 5 Key Concepts

Page 8: A “Beautiful Question” changes the way we think and serves as a catalyst

“A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

Page 23: Navigating modern society requires us to retain childlike curiosity

“As expertise loses its ‘shelf life,’ it also loses some of its value. If we think of ‘questions’ and ‘answers’ as stocks on the market, then we could say that, in this current environment, questions are rising in value while answers are declining…We must become, in a word, neotenous (neoteny being a biological term that describes the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood). To do so, we must rediscover the tool that kids use so well in those early years: the question. [MIT’s Joi] Ito puts it quite simply: ‘You don’t learn unless you question.’”

Page 75: Different problems call for different mindsets and different questions

“Each stage of the problem-solving process has distinct challenges and issues—requiring a different mind-set, along with different types of questions. Expertise is helpful at certain points, not so helpful at others; wide-open, unfettered divergent thinking is critical at one stage, discipline and focus is called for at another. By thinking of questioning and problem-solving in a more structured way, we can remind ourselves to shift approaches, change tools, and adjust our questions according to which stage we’re entering.”

Page 133: You’re never quite done questioning; successful inquiry leads to more inquiry

“While the How stage is positioned here as a third and final stage of innovative questioning, there really is no final stage—because the questions don’t end, even when you arrive at a solution. Many successful questioners, having arrived at an ‘answer,’ quickly return to asking questions. Often, they’re questioning the very answers they found, which may not have been definitive. There is invariably room (and the need) to find ways to improve those solutions, to expand upon them, take them to another level.”

Page 183: People avoid questioning primarily because they’re scared they won’t find satisfactory answers

“Among the reasons people tend to avoid fundamental questioning of much of what they do in their lives (especially the important things), four stand out:

  • Questioning is seen as counterproductive; it’s the answers that most people are focused on finding, because answers, it is believed, will provide ways to solve problems, move ahead, improve life.
  • The right time for asking fundamental questions never seems to present itself; either it’s too soon or too late.
  • Knowing the right questions to ask is difficult (so better not to ask at all)
  • Perhaps the most significant: What if we find we have no good answers to the important questions we raise? Fearing that, many figure it’s better not to invite that additional uncertainty and doubt into their lives.”

Top 5 Practical Takeaways

Page 31: Effective questioning often takes the form of 1) Why?, 2) What If?, and 3) How?

“In observing how questioners tackle problems, I noticed a pattern in many of the stories:

  • Person encounters a situation that is less than ideal; asks Why.
  • Person begins to come up with ideas for possible improvements/solutions—with such ideas usually surfacing in the form of What If possibilities.
  • Person takes one of these possibilities and tries to implement it or make it real; this mostly involves figuring out How.

The Why/What If/How sequence represents a basic and logical progression, drawing, in part, on several existing models that break down the creative problem-solving process.”

Page 107: Knowledge forms the raw material that gets connected by effective questioning

“In particular, if your curiosity has been focused on a particular problem, and you’ve been doing dep thinking, contextual inquiry, questioning the problem from various perspectives and angles, asking your multiple Whys—it all becomes fodder for later insights and smart recombinations.

“So even though it can initially be beneficial to approach a problem with a beginner’s mind, as you progress to imagining What If solutions, it’s useful to have some acquired knowledge on the problem—preferably gathered from diverse viewpoints. It also helps to have a wide base of knowledge on all sorts of things that might seem to be unrelated to the problem—the more eclectic your storehouse of information, the more possibilities for unexpected connections.”

Pg. 112: Deliberately think wrong

“The idea, then, is to force your brain off those predictable paths by purposely ‘thinking wrong’—coming up with ideas that seem to make no sense, mixing and matching things that don’t normally go together.”

Pg. 146: Use questioning to impose and remove constraints

“History and routine aren’t the only things that can impede a company’s forward movement. Various real-world constraints can also inhibit a company’s ability to adapt and innovate; for example, being overly concerned with practical issues such as costs and budgets tends to limit the scope of creative thinking. That’s why some business leaders (including Steve Jobs when he headed Apple) have been known to use What If hypothetical questioning to temporarily remove practical constraints…

“By temporarily removing these restrictions, people’s imaginations are freed up to find the best idea, cost notwithstanding. You might end up with a ground-breaking possibility that can then be scaled back to make it more affordable.

“Conversely, using What If questions to impose constraints can also be effective. By challenging people to think about creating or achieving something within extreme limits—What if we could only charge ten bucks for our hundred-dollar service?—it forces a rethinking of real-world practicalities and assumptions.”

Pg. 195: Use experiments to act upon your questions

“…experimentation can be thought of as, simply, the way you act upon questions. You wonder about something new or different; you try it out; you assess the results. That’s an experiment.

“…If you randomly try things in life, it can lead to haphazard results; but if you bring thought to trying new approaches or experiences—if you take the time to consider why they might be worth trying, and what might be the best way to test them out, and then assess whether the trial was a success and worth following up on—it’s a more practical way to bring change into your life.”

Top 5 Disagreements

A More Beautiful Question has one overarching problem that appears in multiple contexts throughout the book, and it’s the way the book deals with prior knowledge. While there are some half-hearted caveats (e.g. pg. 107) to make sure the reader knows that no, knowledge doesn’t ALWAYS hamper creativity and questioning, the book frequently claims or insinuates that “the value of explicit information is dropping” and that knowledge may be “obsolete.” But if you have read Make It Stick (or my analysis of it), you know that the often-denigrated “rote memorization” is actually crucial to performing any higher-level cognitive tasks.

Think of everything you hold in your memory—everything from the little facts and figures to the broader conceptual understanding—and picture it as a giant cluster, where each bit of knowledge is a separate piece that contributes to the whole and makes it a little bit bigger. New knowledge comes flying toward it, sometimes missing but sometimes sticking, and the bigger the cluster is, the more surface area there is for new knowledge to stick to. In this way, knowledge has a snowball effect where everything you learn makes it easier to learn yet more things, but only when it’s actually kept in the snowball. If you rely on writing or computers to be substitutes for memory, you lose that extra surface area and that cumulative advantage to learning new things.

Picture your snowball of knowledge again, and picture each piece of knowledge being combined, compared, and contrasted with all the other pieces; this is what it’s like when you exercise higher-level skills like creativity and analysis. Contrary to the “wisdom” that is rapidly becoming conventional in the digital age, it is not sufficient to hold those individual bits of knowledge outside your head with the use of technology. Research has conclusively shown that students who carry more basic facts around in their memory are able to perform better at higher-level tasks. When you create, you need raw material to create with. When you analyze, you need some thing to analyze.

A More Beautiful Question does acknowledge certain circumstances where prior knowledge is helpful, but based on my reading, I’m afraid that uninformed readers will come away with the misconception that they should deprioritize memorization of facts if they want to become better thinkers on complex topics. It’s important that readers understand that the opposite is true: simply having basic, nuts-and-bolts information about a topic readily available in memory dramatically increases one’s ability to perform more complex cognitive tasks.

Connections to Other Works

Outgoing Connections

  • Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel
    • “In the current era of Google and Watson, with databases doing much of the ‘knowing’ for us, many critics today question the wisdom of an education system that still revolves around teaching students to memorize facts. One such education critic, the author Sugata Mitra, made just this point at a TED Conference by tossing out the provocative question Is ‘knowing’ obsolete? Of course, not all knowledge is mere factual information; the TED question, as worded, is overly broad. But if we zero in on a narrow kind of knowledge—stored facts or ‘answers’—then that kind of ‘knowing’ might be better left to machines with more memory.” (pg. 27)
  • Zero to One, by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
    • “PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel believes entrepreneurs can find ideas to pursue by asking themselves, What is something I believe that nearly no one agrees with me on?” (pg. 151)
  • Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl
    • “The author and creativity coach Eric Maisel says that when people ask, How can I find the meaning of life?, they’re asking a ‘completely useless question.’ That classic query is based on the flawed notion that ‘meaning’ is an objective truth to be found out there somewhere. Better to think of it this way, Maisel says: We have to construct meaning in our lives, based on everyday choices—and every one of those choices is a question. Why should I do X? Is it work my time and effort to do Y?” (pg. 185)
  • The Four-Hour Body and The Four-Hour Chef, by Tim Ferriss
    • “…experimentation can be thought of as, simply, the ways you act upon questions. You wonder about something new or different; you try it out; you assess the results. That’s an experiment…If you randomly try things in life, it can lead to haphazard results; but if you bring thought to trying new approaches or experiences—if you take time to consider why they might be worth trying, and what might be the best way to test them out, and then assess whether the trial was a success and worth following up on—it’s a more practical way to bring change into your life.” (pg. 195)
  • Superforecasting, by Philip Tetlock
    • “…one other question comes highly recommended from Michael Corning, a top engineer at Microsoft, who said he has relied on this in both his work and his life: What are the odds I’m wrong? As Corning points out, just pausing every once in a while to ponder this question can provide a check on our natural tendency to be overly certain of our own views.” (pg. 206)

Incoming Connections

Closing Thoughts

The question is a woefully underused tool, and Warren Berger deserves credit for exploring it in detail for a popular audience, thereby providing them with the skills to use it in a variety of potentially profound arenas, but stumbles by denigrating prior knowledge and leaving readers unequipped to integrate it into their questions.

Final Score: 3.5/5

Miscellanea: July 2018

Links

Normcore – Jedediah Purdy at Dissent

Europe needs to start planning for a future with no U.S. – Anne Applebaum at The Washington Post

Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web – Bari Weiss at The New York Times. I’m a bit late to the party—the article was written in May—but I’m fascinated by the both the existence of and reaction to the group. I’ve paid attention to various figures in the group for years, primarily Harris, Rogan, Sommers, and Shermer, and have seen them coalesce into what could at one point have generally been described as a center-left reaction against identity politics. I’m a fan of this in principle, but puzzled by some of the strange bedfellows the IDW has created. Ben Shapiro, for instance, strikes me as intelligent and well-spoken, but not quite enough so to warrant his apparent rock-star intellectual status, and his rarely-discussed but open bigotry would in a sane universe be enough to disqualify him from a group desperately trying to establish a third way between the insanities of racism and political correctness.

Napoleon was the Best General Ever, and the math proves it – Ethan Arsht at Towards Data Science. Many asterisks on that statement, but still an entertaining and enlightening approach to the oft-debated topic of who the greatest general in history really was.

All it takes to win McDonald’s Monopoly is a massive, country-wide criminal conspiracy – Randall Colburn at The AV Club

Basic Income, Not Basic Jobs: Against Hijacking Utopia – Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex

Why Many Young Russians See a Hero in Putin – Julia Ioffe at National Geographic

How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You) – Tim Urban at Wait But Why

Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party – The Weekly Sift

Why Being a Foster Child Made Me More Conservative – Rob Henderson at The New York Times

What Happens to the Plastic We Throw Out – National Geographic

Fork Science – Bayesian Investor Blog

The Coming Age of Special Warfare – The XX Committee

Epistemic Spillovers: Learning Others’ Political Views Reduces the Ability to Assess and Use Their Expertise in Nonpolitical Domains – Marks et al. in Harvard Law School, Public Law & Legal Theory, Research Paper Series. “We find that participants falsely concluded that politically like-minded others were better at categorizing shapes and thus chose to hear from them. Participants were also more influenced by politically like-minded others, even when they had good reason not to be. The results demonstrate that knowing about others’ political views interferes with the ability to learn about their competency in unrelated tasks, leading to suboptimal information-seeking decisions and errors in judgement.”

Artificial Neural Nets Grow Brainlike Navigation Cells – John Rennie in Quanta. “’I think with this work, we were able to give a proof of principle that grid cells are used for taking shortcuts,’ Banino said. The results therefore supported theories that grid cells in the brain are capable of both path integration and vector-based navigation. Comparable experimental proof with studies on living animals, he added, would be much more difficult to obtain.”

How to change emotions with a word – The Economist

 

Videos

World Models Explained – Siraj Raval at YouTube

Code vs. Data – Computerphile at YouTube

 

Books

Endurance, by Alfred Lansing (5/5): Rarely has a book humbled and thrilled me as much as Endurance. Even having read it before, I felt my stomach drop with every failure and my heart soar with every success just as I did the first time I experienced this wonderful work of historical adventure. Lansing did an incredible job of painting such a rich picture of the expedition with such a short volume, always turning just the right phrase to evoke a complete Antarctic landscape and the twenty-eight men who occupied it for hundreds of days before making their escape.

Bold, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler (4/5): Bold was a refreshing dose of techno-optimism, if a slightly dated-feeling one (believing tech is good is sooooo 2015). Diamandis and Kotler demonstrate a variety of ways that an enterprising individual or team can take advantage of hidden nonlinearities in the world even without the resources of big governments or corporations. It did seem as though the authors were a bit too quick to try and draw examples from Diamandis’ own life even when many of Diamandis’ entrepreneurial successes seem to only loosely connect to the specific exponential lessons of the book. This is hardly a slight against Diamandis, however, and reading Bold inspired me to read Julian Guthrie’s biography of him titled How to Make a Spaceship.

 

Music

Audrey Fall – Wolmar

Delain – April Rain

Foo Fighters – The Line

Nine Inch Nails – 12 Ghosts II

Ramin Djawadi – Codex

 

Movies

Derren Brown: The Push (Netflix) (7/10): A month has passed and I’m still not sure what to think of The Push. Everything it says about human nature, I basically agree with—we’re easily scared, easily manipulated, easily fooled; walking murder machines when coaxed just so. That said, I still found it hard to swallow a lot of this movie. First, remember that all those characteristics apply to us, the viewers, not just the unwitting actors on screen, and realize that even given everything shown to us, the setup of The Push was a highly abnormal scenario, with participants pre-screened for high compliance and then put into a carefully crafted pressure cooker. Second, remember that we probably didn’t even see everything that truly went into the production, and that what was left out could be more telling than what was left in.

 

TV Shows

Westworld Season 2 (9/10): Ignore the skeptics: Westworld is still one of the best shows on TV. The second season had a few mid-season hiccups preventing it from reaching quite as high as the first, but it recovered well with several strong episodes leading into a dark, poignant finale. If season 3 happens (and it certainly looks that way), the show will be a very different animal going forward; there’s still plenty of room for more storytelling, but the end of season 2 clearly marked the end of a phase.