Links for 3/13/2021

Being productive, teaching math, NASA wasting money, and 2020 election demographics...


  • What I worked on (Paul Graham) Paul Graham is someone who I would say has good ‘taste’. In his case it was a taste for successful business ideas and technology. His success is probably partly luck but also some sort intuitive sense of what choices and paths will be maximally productive. It appears to be an underrated aspect of fruitful intellectual endeavor as well. Some people seem to have a knack for asking good questions and generate more useful avenues of research and ideas than they have the time to pursue. Robin Hanson is this kind of person. I read a book a few years ago (Inadequate Equilibria) that asks, “When should you think that you may be able to do something unusually well?” and I think it’s probably approaching this same idea from a slightly different direction. What is out there in the world that you have a pretty good shot at meaningfully improving based on your own skills and the different incentives you face compared to other people interested in the same thing? But it’s not just specific skills and differing incentives. There are probably general skills around framing problems and rigorously working out the implications of competing theories so that inconsistencies and contradictions become apparent. This blog post gets at one way to frame your own knowledge in order to generate useful questions. Scott Alexander appears to be good at holding up theories against some phenomenon of interest and generating useful questions based on the results. This blog post, specifically the end, is a good example.

  • A mathematician’s lament (Paul Lockhart) Mathematician decries the state of mathematics teaching in primary school. For some reason, people who have devoted their lives to mathematics are surprised that math isn’t taught in ways that cultivate the wonder they felt as children at being exposed to math. They blame the method of teaching, but I suspect the problem is mostly the students. Not very many will love math even under the best circumstances, and you still have to teach them anyway. Still good.

  • Another take on the worthlessness of modern poetry (Scholar’s Stage) Link to related links linked to previously. Also somewhat related.

  • SLS: is cancellation too good? (Casey Handmer) I don’t have much interest in NASA or know much about the Space Launch System, but I enjoyed the strongly worded indictment of mismanagement, bureaucratic sclerosis, and waste at both NASA and Boeing.

  • Dumb and dumber: when neocons and Obama liberals agree (David Goldman) Article from eight years ago on U.S. intervention in Egypt, Syria, and Libya.

  • Interesting analysis of the 2020 election (David Shor) There was more support for Trump among African Americans and Hispanics in 2020 than in 2016: “At the subgroup level, Democrats gained somewhere between half a percent to one percent among non-college whites and roughly 7 percent among white college graduates (which is kind of crazy). Our support among African Americans declined by something like one to 2 percent. And then Hispanic support dropped by 8 to 9 percent. The jury is still out on Asian Americans. We’re waiting on data from California before we say anything. But there’s evidence that there was something like a 5 percent decline in Asian American support for Democrats, likely with a lot of variance among subgroups.”

  • Fussell on muscle (Sam Fussell) Paul Fussell, Princeton English professor, wrote Class: A Guide Through the American Status System that I linked to the other week. But did you know his son became a professional bodybuilder and chronicled his unlikely journey in the aptly titled Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder? Link is to an interview following up with Sam Fussell twenty years after publication of his book.

  • The Last Days of Target (Joe Castaldo, Canadian Business) The untold tale of Target Canada’s difficult birth, tough life and brutal death.

  • The University of California and The SAT: Speaking the Truth? (Andrew Conway, Psychology Today) Is the SAT biased and does it reduce diversity at college campuses?

  • ‘You’ve Got Mail’ as lens into 90s politics (Jacobin) From the article: The politically complacent ’90s produced a surprisingly large number of mainstream American rom-coms about fighting the Man. You’ve Got Mail gave us a new fantasy, fully neoliberalized: What if the Man is Mr. Right?

Books I’m Reading:

  • The Life of Samuel Johnson (James Boswell) I have seen this recommended or referenced in various places over the years. Wikipedia says many claim it as the greatest biography ever written in the English language. Also, from Wikipedia, one reviewer describes the author, James Boswell, as “Servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot, bloated with family pride, and eternally blustering about the dignity of a born gentleman, yet stooping to be a talebearer, an eavesdropper, a common butt in the taverns of London[;] ... such was this man, and such he was content and proud to be.” But also that “Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them.”

  • The Captive Mind (Czeslaw Milosz) From the Amazon description: The best known prose work by the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature examines the moral and intellectual conflicts faced by men and women living under totalitarianism of the left or right.