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Very, very good pieces this week.
Delightful, excellent piece from 1993 that — I imagine — is even better with hindsight:
At the moment, the best way to communicate with another person on the information highway is to exchange electronic mail: to write a message on a computer and send it through the telephone lines into someone else’s computer. In the future, people will send each other sound and pictures as well as text, and do it in real time, and improved technology will make it possible to have rich, human electronic exchanges, but at present E-mail is the closest thing we have to that. […]
Sitting at my computer one day, I realized that I could try to communicate with Bill Gates, the chairman and co-founder of the software giant Microsoft, on the information highway. At least, I could send E-mail to his electronic address, which is widely available, not tell anyone at Microsoft I was doing it, and see what happened. I wrote:
I am the guy who is writing the article about you for The New Yorker. It occurs to me that we ought to be able to do some of the work through e-mail. Which raises this fascinating question—What kind of understanding of another person can e-mail give you? . . .
You could begin by telling me what you think is unique about e-mail as a form of communication.
I hit “return,” and the computer said, “mail sent.” I walked out to the kitchen to get a drink of water and played with the cat for a while, then came back and sat at my computer. Thinking that I was probably wasting money, I nevertheless logged on again and entered my password.
“You have mail,” the computer said. […]
We began to E-mail each other three or four times a week. I would have a question about something and say to myself, “I’m going to E-mail Bill about that,” and I’d write him a message and get a one- or two-page message back within twenty-four hours, sometimes much sooner. At the beginning of our electronic relationship, I would wake up in the middle of the night and lie in bed wondering if I had E-mail from Bill. Generally, he seemed to write messages at night, sleep (maybe), then send them the next morning. We were intimate in a curious way, in the sense of being wired into each other’s minds, but our contact was elaborately stylized, like ballroom dancing. […]
When Gates was in his twenties, his mother color-coördinated his clothes—he had green days, beige days, blue days—and then the job was taken over by girlfriends, and now it will presumably fall to his wife, but so far no one has really handled the task successfully. “A lot of his friends have said, ‘Bill, come on, let’s go on a shopping spree, we’ll buy you some clothes,’ but it never works,” Ann Winblad, who is now a highly respected venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, and was the woman in Bill’s life for five years, told me. “Bill just doesn’t think about clothes. And his hygiene is not good. And his glasses—how can he see out of them? But Bill’s attitude is: I’m in this pure mind state, and clothes and hygiene are last on the list.” Esther Dyson, who edits a computer industry newsletter called Release 1.0., says, “I’m told that within Microsoft certain people are allowed to take Bill’s glasses off and wipe them, but I’ve never done it. You know, it’s like—‘Don’t try this at home.’ ”
Harris and other live-streamers had been chatting on camera with Balch and a member of his cohort: a talkative teen-ager in a backward baseball cap, with a semi-automatic rifle slung across his chest. A videographer said, “So you guys are full-on ready to defend the property?” The teen-ager, whose name was Kyle Rittenhouse, replied, “Yes, we are,” adding, officiously, “Now, if I can ask—can you guys step back?”
Rittenhouse’s chubby cheeks and high, arched eyebrows gave his face a bemused, childish quality. A first-aid kit dangled at his hip. He explained that he planned to provide first aid to anyone needing it, and said that his gun was for self-protection—“obviously.” He wasn’t old enough to be a certified E.M.T., yet he shouted, “I am an E.M.T.!,” and proclaimed, “If you are injured, come to me! ” Adopting the language of first responders, he told a streamer, “If there’s somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way.” […]
Rittenhouse stood over McGinniss for half a minute. Amid the sound of more gunfire, he didn’t stoop to check on the injured man or offer his first-aid kit. “Call 911!” McGinniss told him. Rittenhouse called a friend instead. Sprinting out of the parking lot, he said, “I just shot somebody!”
Demonstrators were yelling: “What’d he do?” “Shot someone!” “Cranium that boy!” Rittenhouse ran down the street toward the whirring lights of police vehicles. To those who had heard only the gunfire and the shouting, he must have resembled a mass shooter: they tend to be heavily armed, white, and male.
A demonstrator ran up behind Rittenhouse and smacked him in the head. When Rittenhouse tripped and fell, another man executed a flying kick; Rittenhouse fired twice, from the ground, and missed. Another demonstrator whacked him in the neck with the edge of a skateboard and tried to grab his rifle; Rittenhouse shot him in the heart. A third demonstrator approached with a handgun; Rittenhouse shot him in the arm, nearly blowing it off. […]
The protest footage had convinced them that Rittenhouse was a patriot who, after months of destructive unrest in U.S. cities, had finally put “Antifa” in check by bravely exercising his Second Amendment rights. Carlson, on Fox News, declared, “How shocked are we that seventeen-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
The glorification extended, weirdly, to Rittenhouse’s street instincts. Gun users praised his “trigger discipline,” noting that he’d fired only when “attacked.” A sportsman in Washington State blogged that Rittenhouse had “accomplished” the feat of hitting “several moving ‘targets’ closing in from multiple angles, throwing things at you, kicking you in the head, and hitting you in the head.” Another fan concocted a macabre “Kyle Drill” at a shooting range. On YouTube, a survivalist praised Rittenhouse’s “mind-set” during “urban warfare.” The worshipful tone intensified when Rittenhouse’s admirers learned more about Joseph Rosenbaum, the first man he’d killed. Rosenbaum wasn’t an antifascist, but he’d spent more than a decade in prison for child molestation.
Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood: A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture | Scholar’s Stage
Call-out culture, as they see it, is a manifestation of a much broader shift in the way Americans perceive and resolve social conflicts. This shift is a natural and predictable response to the changing distribution of power within American society. They argue that this isn’t the first time such a shift has happened. The emerging moral matrix which gives birth to trigger warnings and call-outs is the third system of its type. Campbell and Manning describe it as a “Culture of Victimhood.” They name the moral system that preceded it a “Culture of Dignity.” Filling out the trinity is the “Culture of Honor.” Honor is the oldest conflict-resolution device of the three, and a fitting place to begin our discussion. […]
A “Culture of Victimhood” is a perfectly natural response to this shift in the distribution of power. Remember that the central purpose of moral cultures is to help resolve or deter disputes. Dignity cultures provide a moral code to regulate disputes among equals from the same community. They also help individuals in a community–citizens–organize to protect their joint interests. 21st century America has lost this ability to organize and solve problems at the local level. The most effective way to resolve disputes is appeal to the powerful third parties: corporations, the federal government, or the great mass of people weakly connected by social media. The easiest way to earn the sympathy of these powers is to be the unambiguous victim in the dispute.
Victim culture is here to stay. It’s success cannot be blamed on the ideologue or the propagandist, but on deeper changes in the structure of American society. That the values of this culture would eventually arise was inevitable once American these changes occured. This was understood more than two centuries ago. Alexis de Tocqueville speculated on what American society would look like when its elements had been atomized and equalized. His description sounds remarkably like that of Campbell and Manning:
In times of equality no one is obliged to lend his assistance to his fellow men and no one has the right to expect any great support from them, [so] each man is both independent and weak. These two conditions, which must not be viewed either separately or connected together, give the citizens of democracies very contradictory urges. Independence fills him with confidence and pride among his equals while his vulnerability occasionally makes him feel the need for outside support, which he cannot expect from one of his own people since they are all powerless and unsympathetic. In such extreme circumstances he naturally turns his gaze towards this huge authority rising about the general impotence. His needs and, above all, his desires, constantly bring him back to that authority which he end ups regarding as the sole and necessary support for his weakness as an individual…
"After this," says Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix, "there is no turning back."
You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Today I'm offering a red pill (of sorts): an eye-opening account of social status. I won't say there's "no turning back" after reading this — but I've seen down the rabbit hole, and it's indeed as deep as advertised.
If you decide to join me (warning: long), by the end of this essay you'll know most of the important things I know about social status. There are wider and more practical perspectives we could take, but today we're going straight down, i.e., into the theoretical and evolutionary roots of the thing. […]
The beginning of wisdom about social status is learning to distinguish its two (and only two) primary forms: dominance and prestige. These are, as one research paper puts it, the "two ways to the top."
If dominance is the kind of status we get from intimidating others, prestige is the kind of status we get from doing impressive things or having impressive traits or skills. […]
At this point, I hope you have a feel for the difference between dominance and prestige. Now we're about to head further down the rabbit hole, to investigate the evolutionary origins of the prestige system. What purpose, in other words, did prestige serve for our ancestors? (And therefore, by extension, what purpose does it serve for us today?)
Unfortunately, the logic of prestige isn't nearly as simple and straightforward as the logic of dominance. In fact it's a bit tangled, and if we aren't careful, we're liable to miss the whole point. […]
All of which brings us, finally, to the point. Why do other babblers voluntarily defer to prestigious ones? The answer is simply(!) that babblers with lots of prestige are useful to the group, and therefore useful to keep around. This is how it ends up being in the selfish interest of other babblers to defer to those with high prestige.
Consider these two scenarios:
Should an upstart beta male challenge the alpha to a showdown? If the alpha has high prestige, the beta might reason as follows: "I actually stand a good chance of being able to win this fight. On the other hand, this guy has been a pretty good leader. He brings me food, helps defend a great territory, and always takes guard duty, even when we haven't eaten in a long time. Maybe I'll hold off challenging him until next year. In the meantime, it's not so bad being number two in such a solid group." If the alpha in question were less prestigious (less helpful), the beta would be considerably more eager to try his luck in a showdown.
Should the alpha male allow the beta to mate? If the beta has high prestige, the alpha might reason as follows: "This guy is pretty useful to me. He helps feed the nestlings, most of which are my offspring, and he's a strong, brave fighter. If I don't keep him happy, he's likely to leave the group — or else challenge me, in desperation, to a fight (which he'll probably lose). Better to throw him some concessions than risk losing him as a valuable member of the group." If the beta in question were less prestigious, the alpha would be more willing to risk losing him than allow him to share in the group's reproductive success.
Clearly these decisions are complex and multifaceted, but the prestige of one's rival is an important factor, and it will often tip decisions (at the margin) in ways that favor those with high prestige.
Peter Thiel Gamed Silicon Valley, Donald Trump, and Democracy to Make Billions, Tax-Free | Bloomberg Businessweek
The moment of bro tenderness may have been awkward for Thiel, but it was kind of an achievement. Until the Trump Tower meeting, in December 2016, he’d been known as a wealthy and eccentric venture capitalist—a key figure in Silicon Valley for sure, but hardly someone with political clout. His support of Trump, starting in May 2016, when fellow Davos-goers were mostly bedded down with other candidates, had changed that. He’d gotten a prime-time slot at the Republican National Convention, and then, days after the leak of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump bragged about sexual assault, kicked in a donation of $1.25 million. Ignore the sexist language, Thiel advised; voters should take Trump “seriously, not literally.” The argument prevailed, and now Thiel was in an enviable position: a power broker between the unconventional leader-elect of the free world and an industry that was said to hate him. […]
Much had been made during the campaign about the gulf between Silicon Valley and the Republican Party. The Valley favored immigration and tolerance; Trump wanted to build the wall and roll back rights for LGBT Americans. The Valley prized expertise; Trump used his own coarseness as a credential. Pundits had predicted that these differences would be insurmountable—and indeed early accounts of the meeting, based on the four or so minutes during which media were allowed in the room, suggested that this was what had happened. Business Insider published a photo of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Google’s Larry Page, and Bezos grimacing under the headline “This Perfectly Captures the First Meeting Between Trump and All the Tech CEOs Who Opposed Him.”
But Silicon Valley also reflected the values of the man who’d organized the meeting, and Thiel—a gay immigrant technologist with two Stanford degrees, who’d somehow found his way to becoming a fervent Trump supporter—seemed to value the expansion of his own wealth above almost all else. After the press left, according to notes from the meeting and the accounts of five people familiar with its details, the tech CEOs followed his lead. They were polite, even solicitous, thanking Trump profusely and repeatedly as he cracked wise at their expense. Trump negged Bezos over his ownership of the Washington Post and Cook over Apple’s balance sheet. “Tim has a problem,” Trump said. “He has too much cash.” The CEOs listened politely.
The American health care system is built on the idea that a pill is a pill. Generic drugs are considered equal to and interchangeable with one another — and also with the name brand. This gospel has existed since 1984, when a law known as Hatch-Waxman was passed, allowing companies to make drugs that had gone off patent without having to replicate the same expensive clinical trials. For the most part, all they had to do was prove that the generic was manufactured using good practices and worked in the body in a similar way, within an acceptable range.
Hatch-Waxman has been a stunning success. Americans have grown increasingly comfortable with generic medications, which now represent 90 percent of the prescriptions that are filled in this country. Their widespread use has translated into trillions of dollars in savings. Politicians and experts agree that any hope we have for affordable, universal health care rests on generic drugs. […]
Just how dependent Americans are on faraway factories is difficult to tell, since the place a drug was made — and even the name of the company contracted to make it — are considered trade secrets in the pharmaceutical industry. You read that right. Americans have no way of knowing where their pills come from. In theory, the F.D.A. knows where drugs are made, but the agency can’t disclose that information publicly.
This secrecy, combined with the shift to low-wage countries, doesn’t bode well for quality, according to John Gray, an Ohio State professor who studies the relationship between drug recalls and countries of origin. Because of the industry’s lack of transparency, Professor Gray has to get creative to find data to crunch. “We know where our shirts are made, but not where our drugs are made, which is arguably more important,” he told me. “If our shirts are shoddily made, we can tell and we are not going to buy them again.” But we often don’t know if our drugs are shoddily made, unless something terrible happens.
In 2008, at least 81 people died from a poisoned blood thinner traced back to a Chinese supplier in what has been described as a “deliberate scheme to adulterate a lifesaving medication.” Ten years later, Valsartan, a generic drug used to treat high blood pressure, was found to contain a probable carcinogen. Even without high-profile catastrophes, drugs that don’t work as well as they should can take a quiet toll. For instance, when New Zealand’s national heath system switched to a generic antidepressant, some patients reported a worsening in their condition.
I grew up in a household in which my mother’s grief over losing her own mother as a very young child was never expressed. She didn’t come from a generation that helped kids cope with trauma; she came from the generation that just carried on—and she had. But something in her never healed, and my sister and I felt it in a hundred ways. The page in Babar that described his mother’s death had been neatly torn out of the book; many fairy tales could not be read at all. Secrets were kept.
The lesson I learned about talking with children about sad things was this: Wrap everything in a happy story, no matter how implausible; protect them at all costs; lie. […]
I told her about the boys, and she asked what they understood about my cancer. I told her about the bump and the special medicine. Gently but firmly, she said that I couldn’t do that. She told me that the next time they fell down and got a bump, they would think they’d become seriously sick. And when they had to take medicine, they would be afraid their hair would fall out. I thought about the bottle of bright-red children’s Tylenol with its special measuring spoon, and about the pink antibiotics they got for ear infections, and I realized she was right.
Instead, she said that I should tell them that I had a disease called cancer, that it was a very rare disease, and that they couldn’t catch it. And she said that I should tell them I was on chemotherapy.
It seemed obscene. Tell two 5-year-olds about chemotherapy?
She looked at a shelf filled with children’s books—the kind of children’s books you never, ever want to read to your children. She gave me one, and I drove home with it. I didn’t think this was the right thing to do, but what did I know?
When I started following the search industry closely around a decade ago, you could neatly divide the world into two markets: there was search in China, where Google didn't have a shot, and there was search outside of China, where Google was either the dominant company by far or on the way there. (The simple stat for demonstrating that around 2010 was that the top three search engines in the UK were Google.com, Google.co.uk, and the Google-owned YouTube.) Since then, Seznam, the Czech search engine that once had #1 market share in that country, has lost to Google, while Yahoo! Japan switched to powering its results with Google, and Korea's Naver has held on to its share, although this seems to be declining.
In Russia, Yandex went through a period of decline, but since reaching a low point in early 2017, the company has actually gained share, and now sits at around 60% market share in Russia. […]
It's not completely clear why Yandex's market share started to tick up a few years ago, but it can't have hurt that Google closed down a Russian engineering office in response to stricter Russian Internet rules in 2014 and has since faced indignities like a police raid on their Moscow office a few days ago. […]
So Yandex turns out to be an interesting illustration of tech nationalism. Search engines are important, especially in a country whose political system depends on shaping the flow of discourse and the availability of information. Yandex is a valuable company, but it's also a valuable strategic asset, so it's a great business in which shareholders will always be the junior partners.
The closing days of the First World War gave birth to modern combat. Previous to these developments, advances in firepower made titans of the trenchworks. For four years the trenches were assaulted: for four years storms of steel mowed all offensives down. But as the war reached its end tactics were developed to storm through the gauntlet. Stephen Biddle has called these tactics, and what evolved out of them, “the modern system of battle.” The closing developments of the 1918 made offensives possible again—but the playing field remained tilted towards the defender. 20th century operations specialists usually figured that—technology and training being equal—an attacking force needed a three to one numerical advantage to break through prepared defenses.
I wonder if we properly appreciate how the inherent strength of the defense contributed to strategic stability during the Cold War. It mattered that most of the major crisis points—the DMZ separating North from South, the Fulda Gap funneling tanks East to West—were heavily fortified bits of land. Once defenses went up, a successful attack against them would require both advanced planning and concentrated mass. Neither could be had on a whim. Strategic stability was in part the fruits of a strong tactical defense.
I worry that politicians and military planners in Washington, Beijing, and Tokyo do not fully realize that what was true in Western Europe in the Cold War is not true in the Western Pacific. Battle at sea does not favor the defender. Naval tactics reward the side that hits first and hits fast. In 21st century conditions, war by missile and air raid follow a similar logic: weapons systems are too frail and too centralized to guarantee a secure second strike. The next bout of great power competition will not follow the logic of the last. In the conflicts to come the advantage will lie with he who strikes first. Leaders on both sides of the Pacific will face terrible pressures to seize this advantage lest their enemies seize it first.
Great Art Explained is one of my favorite newish YouTube channels and I’ve been slowly working my way through their back catalogue. Today’s watch was a 15-minute explanation of one of the signature masterpieces of the Renaissance, Michelangelo’s David. The details related to the carving of the swollen jugular vein and the variable visibility of the veins in the hands is fantastic.
Six years ago, I began homeschooling my elder sons, Aidan and Tristan. They attended Fairfax County Public Schools for K-6, becoming more disgruntled with every passing year. Even though they went to an alleged “honors” school for grades 4-6, they were bored out of their minds. The academic material was too easy and moved far too slowly. The non-academic material was humiliatingly infantile. And non-academics – music, dance, chorus, art, poster projects – consumed a majority of their day. As elementary school graduation approached, my sons were hungry for a change.
So what did we do? In consultation with my pupils, I prepared an ultra-academic curriculum. Hours of math every day. Reading serious books. Writing serious essays. Taking college classes. And mastering bodies of knowledge.
Expect a rollercoaster ride.
That’s all I can say. Climb into the car near the front of the rows, buckle your seatbelt, then grip the chrome handle in front of you. Clack. Clack. Clack. The car is nearing the top of the first high hill now. Get ready to raise your hands and scream.
The first time we were pregnant was 10 years ago. The very same day we first announced the pregnancy to friends, my wife, Mary, began to bleed. What a day of highs and lows it was. That morning, people were so happy for us, then that afternoon we stood at the front counter of an emergency room, our faces ashen. Mustering the lowest, most-controlled voice I possess, I said to the receptionist one short sentence I will remember forever: “I think my wife is having a miscarriage.”
It’s an odd thing about miscarriages. They just happen. Sometimes there’s an underlying cause that can be addressed, but often there’s virtually nothing that anybody—no medical doctor, minister, or magician—can do to prevent them. They occur in about 1 in every 5 pregnancies. Doctors will tell you that it’s the body’s way of cleansing something that wasn’t meant to be. There’s no rhyme, nor reason. Just mystery, and vagueness. Something to wonder about, but not understand.
Yet each one is heartrending. And a man finds himself in a unique spot. He’s often the silent sufferer, the one called upon to support and encourage and comfort. Yet inside he’s as equally torn up as his spouse or girlfriend, as unsure of what to do next, as grief-filled, discouraged, and aching. How can a man navigate this difficult season?
I hate to have to write about Covid policy again. During the pandemic, when we argued about masks and lockdowns and vaccine allocation, we developed a predictable rhythm for these discussions — Thomas Pueyo or Nate Silver or Matt Yglesias or whoever would suggest doing something differently, a bunch of other people would shriek at the guy to stay in his lane and trust the public health experts, and then right-wing people would come out of the woodwork to denounce the public health experts as liars and incompetents. Sometimes the suggestion would eventually become consensus or official policy (masking, vaccinating old people first), sometimes the suggestion would be discarded (“first doses first”, selective lockdowns), and either way the discussion would be memory-holed, with no one remembering the times they were wrong.
So anyway, that’s probably going to happen again here — at least if anyone bothers to pay attention to my suggestion. Hopefully others will take up the call. But, it’s time to say it anyway: We need to make and distribute boosters against specific Covid-19 variants — Delta, and whatever nastier variants come after it. […]
In other words, the faster we get variant-specific boosters, the faster the whole world gets to the post-pandemic future. Even without the imperative to protect Americans in the short term, that is a compelling moral case for ramping up our industrial capacity and creating variant-specific boosters right now.
So let’s start talking more about variant-specific boosters, instead of largely ignoring them as we’ve been doing so far.
Drones have been around for awhile now, but I have yet to tire of the bird’s-eye images captured from above this remarkable planet of ours. The gallery of the winning images in the 2021 Drone Photo Awards is full of tiny doses of the overview effect.
When my best friend in Austin quips, “It’s great living in a blue city in a red state,” I’m often tempted to reply, “We really don’t know what it would be like to live in a red city in a red state – or even a red city in a blue state.” Why? Because they barely exist. Zero cities with over one million people currently have Republican mayors.
From the standpoint of the textbook Median Voter Model, this is awfully puzzling. Even if urbanites are extremely left-wing, you would expect urban Republicans to move sharply left to accommodate them. Once they do so, the standard prediction is that Republicans will win half the time. But plainly they don’t. […]
Even if this story were broadly true, however, it still wouldn’t explain the uniformity of left-wing cities. You think there would be room for at least one mega-city that created a safe haven for rich urbanites who want to complacently enjoy their riches without having to deal with – or pay to remedy – any of the classic “urban problems.” And it seems like a staunchly Republican city could easily deliver this package by offering little redistribution (or actively redistributing from poor-to-rich!) combined with punitive approaches to homelessness and crime. Such policies don’t need to “work” in the sense of solving the social problem; they just need to work in the sense of exporting the social problem elsewhere.