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18 November 2015

Wednesday Links -- 18 November 2015

Here are some of the things I found interesting this week. If I had to pick a theme, it'd be Historical Connections. The Atlantic talks about our changing perception of suburban development. Compare Bloomberg's article about China's second-generation douchey rich kids with the Awl's history of Esquire magazine and the making of the American bachelor. Seattle Met has a really good article about the history of Seattle's craft beer scene in light of Elysian Brewing's recent acquisiton by a megacorp.

There's a new attempt to clarify academic writing. Well, it's been tried before:
Lester S. King, MD, has produced the best book on scientific writing I have read (and I think I have read most such books as well as many essays intended to guide would-be writers). The 11 chapters flow easily and readably from first ("The Present Scene") to last ("Setting Up a Course in Medical Writing"). Each chapter can be read profitably as a unit, yet remains part of the whole, valuable alike to teachers, editors, writers, and would-be writers.
This review comes from 1978. So while Why Not Say It Clearly? is a damn fine book (I own it and have read it), I don't think it had a strong, lasting corrective effect on jargonization in academia.

The LessWrong / Effective Altruism communities have a general affinity for "nootropic" (cognition-enhancing) drugs like modafinil. And while I'm a proponent of human enhancement in principle, let's just say I won't be an early adopter. This 2009 New Yorker piece gives some insight into the incentives created by nootropic and amphetamine use. Needless to say, this needs some serious philosophy. Not everyone who goes hard on Adderall or Provigil is going to become the next Paul Erdős:
His colleague Alfréd Rényi said, "a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems", and Erdős drank copious quantities. (This quotation is often attributed incorrectly to Erdős, but Erdős himself ascribed it to Rényi.) After 1971 he also took amphetamines, despite the concern of his friends, one of whom (Ron Graham) bet him $500 that he could not stop taking the drug for a month. Erdős won the bet, but complained that during his abstinence, mathematics had been set back by a month: "Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper." After he won the bet, he promptly resumed his amphetamine use.
I do, however, love me some beer, which is why I had some very mixed feelings when I heard that Elysian Brewing was getting bought out by AB-InBev, that is, by the makers of Bud Lite (and the abomination that is Bud Lite with Clamato).
 This Seattle Met article about Dick Cantwell, one of the founders of Elysian, is a powerful read, almost a Greek tragedy.

Two articles on non-trends in technology. Aeon Magazine asks, "Why have digital books stopped evolving?" while Idle Words explains how the Wright Brothers stymied the development of airplanes for decades after Kitty Hawk, exposing the fundamental failure of the patent system:
The whole point of patents is supposed to be to encourage innovation, reward entrepreneurship, and make sure useful inventions get widely disseminated. But in this case (and in countless others, in other fields), the practical effect of patents turned out to be to hinder innovation - a patent war erupts, and ends up hamstringing truly innovative technologies, all without doing much for the inventors, who weren't motivated by money in the first place.
After all, if the patent system failed small-time tinkerers literally inventing stuff in their garage... how could we even say it works?

Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, is also a mathematics teacher. He also has the thankless task of rebutting ignorant parents whose unreflective anger at Common Core math standards goes viral. Why would a math teacher punish a child for saying 5 x 3 = 15?
If you’re looking at the exam and thinking “The kid got the right answers and that’s all that matters,” well… that’s why you’re not a teacher. I was in front of a classroom for several years and I know it’s entirely possible for a student to get the right answer without solving the problem correctly. Sometimes, that’s because of dumb luck. Sometimes, like in this case, the student just didn’t understand what the teacher was looking for.

I’m not saying I would have taken a full point off each of those questions, but the teacher wasn’t wrong to correct the student. The points didn’t come off because the answer was wrong. The points came off because the process the student was using won’t be helpful in the future.

Another Aeon piece, this time at the intersection of philosophy and cognitive science: Free Will Is Back, and Maybe We Can Measure It

Don't Look Now, But This Guy Just Put Buzzfeed and Upworthy Out of a Job: Generating clickbait with recurrent neural networks. With a bonus website called "Click-o-tron" where all content is generated by said RNNs.


The revolution in vat meat continues apace: Scientists Say Lab-Grown Meat Will Be Available to the Public In Five Years

This treacherous 220V flash drive can fry your computer in seconds: "The USB killer v2.0 features a DC-to-DC converter that charges a set of capacitors hidden inside once it’s been plugged into a USB port. That energy is then redirected back into the device as a 220-volt electric surge, again and again, until the hardware completely fails."

Timothy B. Lee (no relation) at Vox is skeptical about a new "Bitcoin computer." The principle is interesting, but of course the big problem is that it's Bitcoins.

Bloomberg Business wins at headline puns. Children of the Yuan Percent: Everyone Hates China's Rich Kids. Super-wealth induces absurdity regardless of culture, it seems:
Emerging from a nightclub near Workers’ Stadium in Beijing at 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday in June, Mikael Hveem ordered an Uber. He selected the cheapest car option and was surprised when the vehicle that rolled up was a dark blue Maserati. The driver, a young, baby-faced Chinese man, introduced himself as Jason. Hveem asked him why he was driving an Uber—he obviously didn’t need the cash. Jason said he did it to meet people, especially girls. Driving around late at night in Beijing’s nightclub district, he figured he’d find the kind of woman who would be charmed by a clean-cut 22-year-old in a sports car.
There's actually a lot more to unpack there, from the traditional Chinese focus on family name over individuals, to the psychological legacy of the Cultural Revolution. That said, one has to wonder, why do Silicon Valley founders and venture capitalists act so similar to this? America didn't have anything like the Cultural Revolution...

Related: The Awl has a fascinating little history of Esquire and the changing definition of the unmarried American man. There are some incredible excerpts from Esquire's Handbook for Hosts, including why men are inherently better than women at cooking, especially fish, because women don't understand fish(???). Any connections to the modern "Red Pill" and "Men Going Their Own Way" movements are left as an exercise for the reader.

Dylan Matthews at Vox makes a case against "equality of opportunity." No surprise, but he suggests a basic income instead. Can't disagree there!

A writer for City Observatory in the Atlantic: How Tasteless Suburbs Became Beloved Urban Neighborhoods. I was already willing to accept this premise, not just because I'm a filthy urbanist sympathizer but also because I saw some photos of new suburban developments in Seattle from that era (and the Boomer era) and yeah, they're ugly. Mostly by dint of so much land clearance that it's just houses in a sea of dirt. Also, the "Whites Only" housing covenants. The Atlantic piece rightly notes, however, that there's not really an "objective" standard for urban development. In addition, I think this provokes some interesting questions about the role of historical laws in shaping future preferences.

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