4 stars

Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die | New Statesman

While I don’t agree with every point, Tony Blair’s criticism of Western progressive parties is pretty cogent; well worth reading in full, no matter your politics:

Joe Biden’s victory in the United States apart, progressive politics across the globe is badly placed: four election defeats for the UK Labour Party and no one betting against a fifth; the German SPD placed behind a moderate Green Party; the French Socialists, who won the presidency in 2012, now polling at 11 per cent; the Italian left imploded and divided; the Spanish and Swedish socialists hanging on to power, but way below their earlier levels of support.

And truth be told, no sensible Democrat or democrat should overplay the Biden victory. He won against an incumbent like no other, considered by centre-ground voters to be uniquely strange and unacceptable in his behaviour. […]

The progressive problem is that, in an era where people want change in a changing world, and a fairer, better and more prosperous future, the radical progressives aren’t sensible and the sensible aren’t radical. The choice is therefore between those who fail to inspire hope and those who inspire as much fear as hope. So, the running is made by the new radical left, with the “moderates” dragged along behind, uncomfortably mouthing a watered-down version of the left’s policies while occasionally trying to dig in their heels to stop further sliding towards the alienation of the centre.

The result is that today progressive politics has an old-fashioned economic message of Big State, tax and spend which, other than the spending part (which the right can do anyway), is not particularly attractive. This is combined with a new-fashioned social/cultural message around extreme identity and anti-police politics which, for large swathes of people, is voter-repellent. “Defund the police” may be the left’s most damaging political slogan since “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. It leaves the right with an economic message which seems more practical, and a powerful cultural message around defending flag, family and fireside traditional values. To top it off, the right evinces a pride in their nation, while parts of the left seem embarrassed by the very notion. […]

The thinking of the new left radicals across the West – which is really the rediscovery of 1960s Marxist-inspired left policy by a new generation – is largely redundant to answering the challenge. Public ownership of industry, “free” university tuition, much heavier regulation – all of these traditional solutions, as well as being politically challenging, will not materially impact people’s lives in anything like the manner of technological change, and may be regressive if they reduce the power of social mobility and social aspiration. They seem “radical” because they come from a traditional left which presented them as such, but politically they are mostly now museum pieces, lingering relics of outdated ideology. […]

You can literally go through the policy catalogue, from crime to defence to the environment, and in every case the potential of technological change is enormous and revolutionary. This is the future. But you can’t organise the future with a playbook from the past.

Precisely because a new younger generation are looking for radical policy, as every new generation does, and because they’re not really finding it in an economic message which doesn’t enthuse, so progressives have defaulted to issues around culture, gender, race and identity. Handling these issues successfully is an equally great challenge for modern progressives.


3 stars

Crazy New Ideas | Paul Graham

Simple but compelling:

There's one kind of opinion I'd be very afraid to express publicly. If someone I knew to be both a domain expert and a reasonable person proposed an idea that sounded preposterous, I'd be very reluctant to say “That will never work.”

Anyone who has studied the history of ideas, and especially the history of science, knows that's how big things start. Someone proposes an idea that sounds crazy, most people dismiss it, then it gradually takes over the world.

Most implausible-sounding ideas are in fact bad and could be safely dismissed. But not when they're proposed by reasonable domain experts. If the person proposing the idea is reasonable, then they know how implausible it sounds. And yet they're proposing it anyway. That suggests they know something you don't. And if they have deep domain expertise, that's probably the source of it.


Native Americans and Polynesians Met Around 1200 A.D. | Smithsonian Magazine

Perhaps others won’t be as impressed as I was, but to me this is mind-blowing if true; reminds me of how 1491 changed the way I thought of the Western Hemisphere:

Genetic analysis of their modern descendants shows that people from the Pacific Islands and South America interacted long before Europeans arrived


The Darkness | Noahpinion

Perhaps a decent companion to the Tony Blair piece:

There is a Darkness creeping over our world.

That is a melodramatic thing to say. But when I reach for words to express the profound unease that I feel watching the advance of illiberalism across my planet, the language of fantasy novels, children’s movies, and video games is the only one that seems up to the task. Throughout my youth, I consumed a great many stories that all had the same basic premise — an ancient evil, long ago banished from our world, is now returning, and once again we are called upon to rise up and fight it. Perhaps all those stories shaped my worldview and made me see complex, gritty reality in epic, Manichean terms. Or perhaps the stories were written by people who had themselves lived through a global wave of illiberalism, and were trying to pass down a warning.

There is plenty of darkness in the world even at the best of times. Wars, ethnic cleansing, rights violations, suppression of speech and religion…these things are always, or almost always, happening in some part of the globe. No leader and no country is spotless. And yet observers of comparative government and human rights are able to clearly identify times when respect for the rights and liberties of human beings begins to gutter and wane.

We are now in one of those times. The news headlines from around the world give us a continual stream of dark portents. Concentration camps and forced mass sterilization of minorities in China. Millions rendered stateless by a new law in India amid a retreat of secularism. A coup attempt and election denial as a normalized political strategy in America. Rising authoritarianism in Turkey, in Hungary, in Brazil, in the Philippines, in Israel. Protesters massacred in Myanmar, massacred in Iran, suppressed in Belarus, suppressed in Hong Kong. Mass surveillance everywhere. Internet shutdowns. “Anti-terrorism” laws.

But headlines are just anecdotes. Unfortunately data tells the same story. […]

How did our world begin to fall into Darkness? Why did a 25-year trend of increasing human freedom and human rights stall and go into reverse? Everyone is going to have their favorite answer to this question. Those will include the death of the WW2 generation, the rise of social media, new disruptive technologies, economic inequality, the failures of late capitalism, and so on. Any and all of those might well be contributing factors. But while we’re here, I might as well tell you my answer.

My answer is “fear”.


2 stars

What I told my kids | Shtetl-Optimized

Another piece I don’t fully endorse but that makes several excellent points:

You’ll hear that it’s not as simple as the Israelis are good guys and Palestinians are bad guys, or vice versa. And that’s true.

But it’s also not so complicated that there are no clearly identifiable good guys or bad guys. It’s just that they cut across the sides.

The good guys are anyone, on either side, whose ideal end state is two countries, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace.

The bad guys are anyone, on either side, whose ideal end state is the other side being, if not outright exterminated, then expelled from its current main population centers (ones where it’s been for several generations or more) and forcibly resettled someplace far away.

(And those whose ideal end state is everyone living together with no border — possibly as part of the general abolition of nation-states? They’re not bad guys; they can plead insanity.) […]

Netanyahu and Hamas are allies, not enemies. Both now blatantly, obviously rely on the other to stay in power, to demonstrate their worldview and thereby beat their internal adversaries.

Whenever you see anyone opine about this conflict, on Facebook or Twitter or in an op-ed or anywhere else, keep your focus relentlessly on the question of what that person wants, of what they’d do if they had unlimited power. If they’re a Zionist who talks about how “there’s no such place as Palestine,” how it’s a newly invented political construct: OK then, does that mean they’d relocate the 5 million self-described Palestinians to Jordan? Or where? If, on the other side, someone keeps talking about the “Zionist occupation,” always leaving it strategically unspecified whether they mean just the West Bank and parts of East Jerusalem or also Tel Aviv and Haifa, if they talk about the Nakba (catastrophe) of Israel’s creation in 1947 … OK then, what’s to be done with the 7 million Jews now living there? Should they go back to the European countries that murdered their families, or the Arab countries that expelled them? Should the US take them all? Out with it!

Don’t let them dodge the question. Don’t let them change the subject to something they’d much rather talk about, like the details of the other side’s latest outrage. Those details always seem so important, and yet everyone’s stance on every specific outrage is like 80% predictable if you know their desired end state. So just keep asking directly about their desired end state.


Every Bridge For Every Situation, Explained by an Engineer | Kottke

Educator and structural engineer Nehemiah Mabry sat down with Wired to talk about all the different kinds of bridges in the world (cable-stayed, suspension, arch, truss) and which types are used in which situations.


Your Book Review: Addiction By Design | Astral Codex Ten

Yet another ACX book review not written by Scott; I must be getting soft:

Randomness is addictive, in rats. B. F. Skinner learned that when he created his eponymous rat boxes. The boxes had levers that, when pressed, dispensed food pellets. Rats in boxes where one press resulted in one pellet pressed the lever when hungry. But rats in boxes where one press randomly resulted in no, one, or many pellets, became addicted to pressing the lever. That mammalian attraction to randomness lies at the heart of all gambling.

But machine gambling is not like other kinds of gambling. The book overflows with metaphors straining to describe how machine gambling is the supercharged version of table games like poker, blackjack, and roulette. Machine gambling is deforestation ruining the rainforest of diverse table games. Machines are invasive kudzu outcompeting and killing the native table games. Machine gambling is the crack cocaine to table games’ cocaine.

In about two decades, machine gambling went from being a side attraction to keep wives busy while their husbands played table games to the source of 85% of casino profits. You know how shopping malls have benches for husbands to sit on while their wives shop in stores? Imagine that those benches became the mall. (If you’re reading this in 2025, shopping malls were, uh, a collection of permanent pop-up stores under the same roof.)

The first time I went to Vegas, I knew a few tricks casinos would use to encourage me to gamble too much. I knew the hotel rooms were purposefully cheap, to entice me to visit Vegas. I knew casinos would have neither windows nor clocks, to help me lose my sense of time. I knew they would be full of bright lights and loud sounds, to overstimulate me. I knew nothing. Those tricks are old hat, as quaint as doilies. Machine gambling is a brave new world.

Machine gambling comes in the form of many games, but one example is enough to illustrate the pattern, so let’s discuss slot machines.


Rebekah Jones, the COVID Whistleblower Who Wasn’t | National Review

This is a story about Rebekah Jones, a former dashboard manager at the Florida Department of Health (FDOH), who has single-handedly managed to convince millions of Americans that Governor Ron DeSantis has been fudging the state’s COVID-19 data.

When I write “single-handedly,” I mean it, for Jones is not one of the people who have advanced this conspiracy theory but rather is the person who has advanced this conspiracy theory. It has been repeated by others, sure: by partisans across the Internet, by unscrupulous Florida Democrats such as Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist, and on television, by MSNBC in particular. But it flows from a single place: Rebekah Jones. To understand that is to understand the whole game. This is about Jones, and Jones alone. If she falls, it falls.

And boy does it deserve to fall.

Jones’s central claim is nothing less dramatic than that she has uncovered a massive conspiracy in the third most populous state in the nation, and that, having done so, she has been ruthlessly persecuted by the governor and his “Gestapo.” Specifically, Jones claims that, while she was working at the FDOH last year, she was instructed by her superiors to alter the “raw” data so that Florida’s COVID response would look better, and that, having refused, she was fired. Were this charge true, it would reflect one of the most breathtaking political scandals in all of American history. […]

On Twitter, on cable news, in Cosmopolitan, and beyond, Jones knows exactly which buttons to push in order to rally the gullible and get out her message. Sober Democrats have tried to inform their party about her: “You may see a conspiracy theory and you want it to be true and you believe it to be true and you forward it to try to make it be true, but that doesn’t make it true,” warns Jared Moskowitz, the progressive Democrat who has led Florida’s fight against COVID. But his warnings have fallen on deaf ears. Since she first made her claims a little under a year ago, Jones has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through multiple GoFundMe accounts (and, once she realized that she was losing a percentage to credit-card fees, through paper checks); she has become a darling of the online Left; and, by pointing to her own, privately run dashboard, which shows numbers that make Florida’s COVID response look worse than it has been, she has caused millions of people to believe quite sincerely that the state’s many successes during the pandemic have been built atop fraud.


This Is How Wokeness Ends | New York Times

David Brooks:

I’m less alarmed by all of this because I have more confidence than Dreher and many other conservatives in the American establishment’s ability to co-opt and water down every radical progressive ideology. In the 1960s, left-wing radicals wanted to overthrow capitalism. We ended up with Whole Foods. The co-optation of wokeness seems to be happening right now.

The thing we call wokeness contains many elements. At its core is an honest and good-faith effort to grapple with the legacies of racism. In 2021, this element of wokeness has produced more understanding, inclusion and racial progress than we’ve seen in over 50 years. This part of wokeness is great.

But wokeness gets weirder when it’s entangled in the perversities of our meritocracy, when it involves demonstrating one’s enlightenment by using language — “problematize,” “heteronormativity,” “cisgender,” “intersectionality” — inculcated in elite schools or with difficult texts. […]

People who engage in this discourse have been enculturated by our best and most expensive schools. If you look at the places where the splashy woke controversies have taken place, they have often been posh prep schools, like Harvard-Westlake or Dalton, or pricey colleges, like Bryn Mawr or Princeton.

The meritocracy at this level is very competitive. Performing the discourse by canceling and shaming becomes a way of establishing your status and power as an enlightened person. It becomes a way of showing — despite your secret self-doubts — that you really belong. It also becomes a way of showing the world that you are anti-elite, even though you work, study and live in circles that are extremely elite. […]

The people at the C.I.A., Disney, Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola aren’t faking it when they perform the acts we now call woke capitalism. They went to the same schools and share the same dominant culture and want the same reputational benefits.

But as the discourse gets more corporatized it’s going to get watered down. The primary ideology in America is success; that ideology has a tendency to absorb all rivals.


1 star

The Economics of Non-Alcoholic Spirits, Explained | InsideHook

Probably needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but still interesting:

How much would you pay for a bottle of spirits? And does your answer change if that spirit contains no alcohol?

It’s a question that arises for anyone tempted to try the more than 100 brands of booze-free distillates that have recently entered the market. Consumers are clearly intrigued by them, but one has to wonder: If the spirits don’t contain alcohol, why do they cost as much (or sometimes more) than their conventional counterparts?

“It’s a totally natural question,” says Seth O’Malley, founding distiller at Wilderton, a non-alcoholic spirits brand produced in Portland, OR. O’Malley previously worked as a distiller of gin and other spirits, and when non-alcoholic spirits began appearing, he says the prices didn’t quite compute for him. “It wasn’t until I was on the other side that I realized it was quite an expensive product to make.”


Half-Renovated Houses | Kottke

When the once burgeoning coal industry in Ruhrgebiet, Germany, began to decline, many of the workers’ apartments were sold off. Oftentimes, new owners only purchased half of the building — miners maintained a lifelong right of residence to their quarters — creating a stark split between the left and right sides of the structure.


How tall can a Lego tower get? | BBC

It's not just children who like to build towers with Lego - the internet is alive with discussion on how many Lego bricks, stacked one on top of the other, it would take to destroy the bottom brick. So what's the answer?

There has been a burning debate on the social news website Reddit.

It's a trivial question you might think, but one the Open University's engineering department has - at the request of the BBC's More or Less programme - fired up its labs to try to answer.


Offense vs. defense in the current NBA | Marginal Revolution

Another way to show that is the correlation between a team’s defensive rating and its overall win percentage (.546). That’s the lowest it’s been since 1985-86. Meanwhile, there’s a far stronger correlation between a team’s offensive rating and its win percentage (.848). In general, offense tends to relate better to winning games than defense in the NBA. Typically, the two figures are much closer together than we see now.


Russia Is Going to Try to Clone an Army of 3,000-Year-Old Scythian Warriors | Popular Mechanics

Clickbait, but why not:

When you hold a job like Defense Minister of Russia, you presumably have to be bold and think outside the box to protect your country from enemy advances. And with his latest strategic idea—cloning an entire army of ancient warriors—Sergei Shoigu is certainly taking a big swing.

In an online session of the Russian Geographical Society last month, Shoigu, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggested using the DNA of 3,000-year-old Scythian warriors to potentially bring them back to life. Yes, really.


Texas Covid and school reopenings | Marginal Revolution

Results from our preferred specification imply that school reopenings led to at least 43,000 additional COVID-19 cases and 800 additional fatalities within the first two months. We then use SafeGraph mobility data to provide evidence that spillovers to adults’ behaviors contributed to these large effects. Median time spent outside the home on a typical weekday increased substantially in neighborhoods with large numbers of school-age children, suggesting a return to in-person work or increased outside-of-home leisure activities among parents.


About this newsletter