4 stars

Living with a Visionary | New Yorker

For more than fifty years, my wife and I shared a world. Then, as Diana’s health declined, her hallucinations became her own reality. […]

She is fully articulate, in many ways her familiar self. She asks me if I saw the opera. I’m not sure which opera she means; we’ve seen many over the fifty years that we’ve been married. She means the one last night in our back yard. She describes it in detail—the stage set, the costumes, the “really amazing” lighting, the beautiful voices. I ask her what opera was performed. Now I get another look, not a sly one but a suspicious one.

“You don’t believe me, do you?”

I say that it’s not a matter of belief but of perception. I can’t see what she sees. She tells me that this is a great pity. I miss so much of life. I used to have something of an imagination, but I’ve evidently lost it. Maybe she should start spending time with someone else. Also, she knows about my girlfriend. The one in the red jacket. There is no girlfriend, but there is a red jacket hanging over the back of her walker. Suddenly, she forgets the girlfriend and remembers the opera. “Oh,” she says. “It was ‘La Traviata,’ and we went together with Anna Netrebko before she sang.”

Now I have my own brief vision. Diana is only twenty-one, I am twenty-five. We have just arrived in South Bend, where I am teaching English at Notre Dame. A friend wrote about us in those days as having appeared to him like two fawns in the grove of our local Arcadia. Diana wore the clothes she had brought from England, including her miniskirt, and people in cars would honk their horns and stare. In London, where we had met, it had been the middle of the nineteen-sixties; at our Midwestern college, it was more like the fifties. A former student told me that when I held classes at home, for a change of scene, he and his classmates took bets on who would be lucky enough to talk to her.

I see her walking in from the kitchen with tea and her homemade scones. College boys—only boys were admitted back then—lift china cups balanced on wafer-thin saucers. Some have never eaten a crumbly scone or sipped tea out of such a delicate cup. Diana is often told she looks like Julie Christie, and my students all want to be Omar Sharif, Christie’s co-star in “Doctor Zhivago.” Some write poems inspired by Lara, Zhivago’s muse. Diana smiles at them, greeting those whose names she remembers. Hello, Vince. Hi there, Richard. She dazzles them. She dazzles me.


What I Worked On | Paul Graham

Only stranieri (foreigners) had to take this entrance exam. In retrospect it may well have been a way of excluding them, because there were so many stranieri attracted by the idea of studying art in Florence that the Italian students would otherwise have been outnumbered. I was in decent shape at painting and drawing from the RISD foundation that summer, but I still don't know how I managed to pass the written exam. I remember that I answered the essay question by writing about Cezanne, and that I cranked up the intellectual level as high as I could to make the most of my limited vocabulary.

I'm only up to age 25 and already there are such conspicuous patterns. Here I was, yet again about to attend some august institution in the hopes of learning about some prestigious subject, and yet again about to be disappointed. The students and faculty in the painting department at the Accademia were the nicest people you could imagine, but they had long since arrived at an arrangement whereby the students wouldn't require the faculty to teach anything, and in return the faculty wouldn't require the students to learn anything. And at the same time all involved would adhere outwardly to the conventions of a 19th century atelier. We actually had one of those little stoves, fed with kindling, that you see in 19th century studio paintings, and a nude model sitting as close to it as possible without getting burned. Except hardly anyone else painted her besides me. The rest of the students spent their time chatting or occasionally trying to imitate things they'd seen in American art magazines. […]

The best thing about New York for me was the presence of Idelle and Julian Weber. Idelle Weber was a painter, one of the early photorealists, and I'd taken her painting class at Harvard. I've never known a teacher more beloved by her students. Large numbers of former students kept in touch with her, including me. After I moved to New York I became her de facto studio assistant.

She liked to paint on big, square canvases, 4 to 5 feet on a side. One day in late 1994 as I was stretching one of these monsters there was something on the radio about a famous fund manager. He wasn't that much older than me, and was super rich. The thought suddenly occurred to me: why don't I become rich? Then I'll be able to work on whatever I want.

Meanwhile I'd been hearing more and more about this new thing called the World Wide Web. Robert Morris showed it to me when I visited him in Cambridge, where he was now in grad school at Harvard. It seemed to me that the web would be a big deal. I'd seen what graphical user interfaces had done for the popularity of microcomputers. It seemed like the web would do the same for the internet.

If I wanted to get rich, here was the next train leaving the station. I was right about that part. What I got wrong was the idea. I decided we should start a company to put art galleries online. I can't honestly say, after reading so many Y Combinator applications, that this was the worst startup idea ever, but it was up there. Art galleries didn't want to be online, and still don't, not the fancy ones.


3 stars

4K Time Lapse of a Boat Navigating Dutch Canals | Kottke

Perhaps not for everyone, but I thought this was wonderful: pleasant scenery, a variety of interesting engineering, Dvorak’s New World Symphony as a soundtrack. You’ll probably know in the first minute whether to keep watching.

This is a captivating 4K time lapse video of a boat navigating the canals and waterways of the Netherlands. Infrastructure nerds will appreciate all of the bridges, locks, piers, signals, etc.


Book Review: The Cult Of Smart | Astral Codex Ten

In future issues, I will try (but perhaps not very hard) to not include three 3-star Astral Codex Ten pieces in a row. But Scott’s back, and he’s on a roll. (I will say that even as someone who found most of school horribly boring, Scott’s occasionally-all-caps screed at the end seems a bit excessive, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend his follow-up post.)

Oscar Wilde supposedly said George Bernard Shaw "has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends". Socialist blogger Freddie DeBoer is the opposite: few allies, but deeply respected by his enemies. I disagree with him about everything, so naturally I am a big fan of his work - which meant I was happy to read his latest book, The Cult Of Smart. […]

One one level, the titular Cult Of Smart is just the belief that enough education can solve any problem. But more fundamentally it's also the troubling belief that after we jettison unfair theories of superiority based on skin color, sex, and whatever else, we're finally left with what really determines your value as a human being - how smart you are. DeBoer recalls hearing an immigrant mother proudly describe her older kid's achievements in math, science, etc, "and then her younger son ran by, and she said, offhand, 'This one, he is maybe not so smart.'" DeBoer was originally shocked to hear someone describe her own son that way, then realized that he wouldn't have thought twice if she'd dismissed him as unathletic, or bad at music. Intelligence is considered such a basic measure of human worth that to dismiss someone as unintelligent seems like consigning them into the outer darkness. […]

So maybe equality of opportunity is a stupid goal. DeBoer argues for equality of results. This is a pretty extreme demand, but he's a Marxist and he means what he says. He wants a world where smart people and dull people have equally comfortable lives, and where intelligence can take its rightful place as one of many virtues which are nice to have but not the sole measure of your worth.

...but he realizes that destroying capitalism is a tall order, so he also includes some "moderate" policy prescriptions we can work on before the Revolution.


Ontology Of Psychiatric Conditions: Tradeoffs And Failures | Astral Codex Ten

You might not think that something with that title could be this interesting:

I think most psychiatric disorders exist on a spectrum from mostly-tradeoff to mostly-failure (what we might call "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" versions of the same phenotype).

Mostly-tradeoff ADHD looks like someone who is adventurous, likes variety, and thrives in high-stress situations, but is also bad at tolerating boring situations.

Mostly-tradeoff schizophrenia (which might be schizotypal personality disorder, or a subset of it, I'm not sure) looks like someone who is creative, attuned to interesting patterns, and charismatic, but also a bit odd and superstitious.

Mostly-tradeoff OCD (which might be obsessive-compulsive personality disorder) looks like somebody who's responsible and perfectionist, but has trouble letting things go. […]

This is why I'm sometimes friendly towards, but other times skeptical of, the "neurodiversity" movement. Many autistic people say that autism is just another, equally good, way to be human, not a disease that requires a cure. I think this is completely true for some autistic people - the ones at a different point in tradeoff-space, who are still on the genetic Pareto frontier of inclusive fitness. I think it's absolutely false for other autistic people, the ones who got that way through brain injuries or in utero infections, and tend to be found in institutions having seizures or trying to bite their own fingers off. Instead of insisting that psychiatric conditions cannot possibly be bad for anybody and it's always just social prejudice all the way down, they would be better off admitting that this can be true for some people and false for others.


Contra Weyl On Technocracy | Astral Codex Ten

I am not defending technocracy.

Nobody ever defends technocracy. It's like "elitism" or "statism". There is no Statist Party. Nobody holds rallies demanding more statism. There is no Citizens for Statism Facebook page with thousands of likes and followers. Yet for some reason libertarians don't win every single national election. Strange, isn't it? […]

I am not defending technocracy. But I do like evidence-based policy. So I read with interest Glen Weyl's Why I Am Not A Technocrat. It starts with a short summary of Seeing Like A State. It ties this into modern "evidence-based policy" and "mechanism design". It talks about how technocrats will always have their own insular culture and biases and paradigms, which prevent them from seeing the real world in its full complexity. Therefore, we should be careful about supposedly "objective" policies, and make sure they are always heavily informed by real people's real knowledge. […]

But it worries me that everyone analyzes the exact same three examples of the failures of top-down planning: Soviet collective farms, Brasilia, and Robert Moses. I’d like to propose some other case studies:

1. Mandatory vaccinations: Technocrats used complicated mathematical models to determine that mass vaccination would create a "herd immunity" to disease. Certain that their models were "objectively" correct and so could not possibly be flawed, these elites decided to force vaccines on a hostile population. Despite popular protest (did you know that in 1800s England, anti-smallpox-vaccine rallies attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators?), these technocrats continued to want to "arrogantly remake the world in their image," and pushed ahead with their plan, ignoring normal citizens' warnings that their policies might have unintended consequences, like causing autism.

2. School desegregation: Nine unelected experts with Harvard and Yale degrees, using a bunch of Latin terms like a certiori and de facto that ordinary people could not understand let alone criticize, decided to completely upend the traditional education system of thousands of small communities to make it better conform to some rules written in a two-hundred-year-old document. The communities themselves opposed it strongly enough to offer violent resistance, but the technocrats steamrolled over all objections and sent in the National Guard to enforce their orders.

3. The interstate highway system: 1950s army bureaucrats with a Prussia fetish decided America needed its own equivalent of the Reichsautobahn. The federal government came up with a Robert-Moses-like plan to spend $114 billion over several decades to build a rectangular grid of numbered giant roads all up and down the country, literally paving over whatever was there before, all according to pre-agreed federal standards. The public had so little say in the process that they started hundreds of freeway revolts trying to organize to prevent freeways from being built through their cities; the government crushed these when it could, and relocated the freeways to less politically influential areas when it couldn't.


2 stars

Three Bull Cases for Starlink | The Diff

SpaceX recently raised $850m at a $74bn valuation, up 60% since August. One reason for this is the company's plans for Starlink, which aims to provide low-latency Internet around the world through a constellation of 10,000+ satellites.

Elon Musk has noted that low-earth orbit constellations have been tried before, and every single one of them has gone bankrupt. Is there any reason to think that this time is different? I have a few. […]

SpaceX has hinted at being unbound by conventional laws; Starlink's terms of service say:

For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.

And Musk has also disregarded the earthly authority of the SEC, California's stay-at-home orderflamethrower regulations, etc.

SpaceX will raise some interesting governance questions if it does try to implement Mars Law, but Starlink raises more interesting questions right here on earth. As more countries start blocking content and regulating platforms, the ability to do so becomes part of the definition of national sovereignty. A country that can say "no" to Facebook, Amazon, Google, or Bytedance is different from one that can't. Starlink will, of course, be subject to regulations just like any other earthbound service provider, but it will be hard to ban; some of the hardware is distributed to individual customers, and the rest is in low earth orbit.


What do prime-age ‘NILF’ men do all day? | American Enterprise Institute

I disagree with the conclusions (and remain a strong supporter of UBI), but the data here is interesting and perhaps unsurprising:

Just how and why so many men in the prime of life should now be swept up in this flight from work is a matter of continuing scholarly research and debate. For now, it will suffice to observe that these many millions of men already draw on resources sufficient to afford a work-free existence.

So what do these work-free men do with all their time? […]

Perhaps more surprisingly, their time freed from work is not repurposed into helping out around the home, such as doing housework, cooking, and other tasks of home maintenance. In fact, they devote significantly less time to such home chores than unemployed men—less, too, than women with jobs. NILF men also spend much less time helping to care for other household members than working women—less time, as well, than unemployed men. […]

The portrait of daily life that emerges from time-use surveys for grown men who are more or less entirely disconnected from the world of work is sobering. So far as can be divined statistically, their independence from obligations of the workforce does not translate into any obvious enhancement in their own quality of life or improvement in the well-being of others.

To go by the information they themselves report, quite the contrary seems to be true. Though they have nothing but time on their hands, they are not terribly involved in care for their home or for others in it. They are increasingly disinclined to embark on activities that take them outside the house. The central focus of their waking day is the television or computer screen, to which they commit as much time as many men and women devote to a full-time job. So far as we can tell, moreover, screen time is sucking up a still-increasing portion of their waking hours.


A Quite Possibly Wonderful Summer | The Atlantic

Families will gather. Restaurants will reopen. People will travel. The pandemic may feel like it’s behind us—even if it’s not.


Grey Lady Steel Man | Model Citizen

Rarely will I actively discourage you from reading something I include (otherwise why include it?), but unless you were one of the handful of people who found the Scott Alexander v. New York Times dispute of particular interest, don’t bother. But since I spent so much time defending Scott last week, I feel obliged to offer this compelling counterpoint from Will Wilkinson, which did lead me to substantially (though not entirely) change my view:

This weekend, the New York Times published a piece by Cade Metz about Scott Siskind, the brilliant blogging psychiatrist formerly known as Scott Alexander, and the so-called “rationalist” community that grew up around his former blog, Slate Star Codex (SSC), which Siskind sunk to the bottom of the sea this summer because Metz was working on an article about him and the SSC scene but wouldn’t promise not to refer to Siskind by his real name. (SSC recently re-launched as Astral Codex Ten here on Substack. I highly recommend it.)

Now, I didn’t find Metz’s piece particularly illuminating because I’ve been in and around this community to various degrees since its inception. Yet I didn’t find it especially objectionable, either. This has put me way out of step with practically everyone else who has ever been in and around SSC circles. The drama around Slate Star Codex, Scott’s real last name, and the New York Times makes it abundantly clear that Siskind inspires intense loyalty. But this fierce loyalty, when joined with Siskind’s self-admittedly irrational fixation on keeping the general public in the dark about his real identity (which he did not actually do much to conceal), has created a sort of group-think reality distortion field around the whole fiasco that SSC partisans can’t seem to penetrate.

In particular, the hostility toward Metz and the piece he produced after Siskind finally chose to identify himself strikes me as astoundingly blind to the fact that Metz was confronted with such a dramatic, unexpected, unsettling experience — was assailed with a massive wave of “retaliatory” hostility — the first time around simply because he wanted to write an ordinary article according to his understanding of his publication’s rules. If it didn’t occur to you that the article Metz eventually did write about SSC after undergoing all that grief might at some level be trying to ask and answer the question, “What the fucking hell happened to me the first time I tried this and why?” then you should probably ask yourself why it didn’t. I’ll get back to that.


What Was the Wing? | The Cut

I remember, over New Year’s in 2017, trying to explain to a friend’s boyfriend what the Wing was. My friend and I were very animated as we did this — full of vigorous opinions and ready facts — but we seemed not to be doing a great job. All parties were a little stoned, which didn’t help, but a larger difficulty stood in our way. My friend and I were saying things about Instagram and Glossier and Lena Dunham and yet totally failing to justify our in-depth knowledge of a co-working space where neither of us worked. How to account for the gulf between our interest and the facts? What was the Wing, really? Googling Vogue photos of founder Audrey Gelman’s wedding provided no actual answer.

The world was introduced to the Wing on the eve of Hillary Clinton’s presumed victory: The first of what would eventually be 11 locations opened its doors in October 2016. The Wing had plush workspaces, high-end toiletries, and an in-house café; it promised live events and opportunities for networking — all without men. Shortly after the opening, the New York Times sent a reporter to the city’s newest cynosure of gossip and curiosity to observe the Election Night festivities. What was clearly conceived as a scene report on girl power ascendant became, instead, an “election night roller coaster” that slid to a halt in defeat. In retrospect, this could have been seen as a bad omen. Somehow it was not, or at least not right away.


Clubhouse’s Inevitability | Stratechery

The most obvious difference between Clubhouse and podcasts is how much dramatically easier it is to both create a conversation and to listen to one. This step change is very much inline with the shift from blogging to Twitter, from website publishing to Instagram, or from YouTube to TikTok.

Secondly, like those successful networks, Clubhouse centralizes creation and consumption into a tight feedback loop. In fact, conversation consumers can, by raising their hand and being recognized by the moderator, become creators in a matter of seconds.

This capability is enabled by the “only on the Internet” feature that makes Clubhouse transformational: the fact that it is live. In many mediums this feature would be fatal: one isn’t always free to watch a live video, and believe me, it is not very exciting to watch me type. However, the fact that audio can be consumed while you are doing something else allows the immediacy and vibrancy of live conversation to shine.


How a joke ended up before Canada’s top court | BBC

A decade ago, as part of his stand-up act, a Canadian comedian began telling a joke about a disabled young singer. This is how that joke ended up in front of the country's top court.


1 star

Dan Rose | Twitter (via Threadreader)

People often ask me to compare working for Bezos vs Zuck. I worked with Mark much more closely for much longer, but I did work directly with Jeff in my last 2 years at Amazon incubating the Kindle. Here are some thoughts on similarities that make them both generational leaders


WFH Is Corroding Our Trust in Each Other | Harvard Business Review

Over the past eight months, we’ve worked with and researched dozens of companies that are wrestling with this challenge in settings as varied as professional services, oil and gas, finance and insurance, healthcare, telecommunications, automotive, and tech. In each of them, we’ve seen a shift from the positive, “We’ve figured out this virtual work thing!” sentiments to the recognition that trust in their organizations — in individuals, relationships, and the organization — is fundamentally at risk. Increased reports of electronic monitoring also suggest that executives’ confidence in having figured it out is starting to ebb.


Trump Hotel Employees Reveal What It Was Really Like Catering to the Right Wing Elite | Washingtonian

Four years' worth of stories about VIP visits and grooming protocols, palm-greasing, rotten vegetables, and that time they lost Steve Mnuchin’s coat.


How are bitcoin created? | The Hustle

An illustrated guide to bitcoin mining, blockchains, and the “minting” process of cryptocurrency’s most popular coin.


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