Catching a breather, 31/12/18

Thankfully winter break is upon us, or me anyway. And I finally have the time to catch up on some reading and share some of the stuff I’d read during term. As always, I recommend taking this in parts, some of the articles are particularly long reads but well worth the time. I try to keep this to only the very good stuff: what I hope is an enjoyable mix of cultural commentary, wholesomeness, humour, insightful analysis, and all around fun stuff from around the web. Happy New Year!

NY Mag: Paper Tigers – What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?
“I recall one of the strangest conversations I had in the city. A woman came up to me at a party and said she had been moved by a piece of writing I had published. She confessed that prior to reading it, she had never wanted to talk to me, and had always been sure, on the basis of what she could see from across the room, that I was nobody worth talking to, that I was in fact someone to avoid. But she had been wrong about this, she told me: It was now plain to her that I was a person with great reserves of feeling and insight. She did not ask my forgiveness for this brutal misjudgment. Instead, what she wanted to know was—why had I kept that person she had glimpsed in my essay so well hidden? She confessed something of her own hidden sorrow: She had never been beautiful and had decided, early on, that it therefore fell to her to “love the world twice as hard.” Why hadn’t I done that?” Here was a drunk white lady speaking what so many others over the years must have been insufficiently drunk to tell me. It was the key to many things that had, and had not, happened. I understood this encounter better after learning about LEAP, and visiting Asian Playboy’s boot camp. If you are a woman who isn’t beautiful, it is a social reality that you will have to work twice as hard to hold anyone’s attention. You can either linger on the unfairness of this or you can get with the program. If you are an Asian person who holds himself proudly aloof, nobody will respect that, or find it intriguing, or wonder if that challenging façade hides someone worth getting to know. They will simply write you off as someone not worth the trouble of talking to.”

This is the first piece on the list because I feel it’s the most important one to read. Wesley Yang is angsty. And almost rightfully so. This is a piece which looks closely and clearly at what it means to be an Asian American. It covers everything from pickup artists who teach asian men how to pull white girls to H to the bamboo ceiling, the pyramidal racial structure throughout corporate America. I think a lot of the article’s careful exposition might be boiled down to a simple idea: Asian Americans haven’t quite learnt to play to the rules of the society that they have migrated to. In other words, when it comes to how society allocates material success and status, cultural factors play a big deal. And why wouldn’t they? It is less racism than difference passed down through one’s background: Asian Americans tend to be less expressive, and unless they’ve been educated at top private schools they’d likely lack the social literacy required to operate at the ‘pinnacles’ of American society.

“At Stuy, it’s completely different: If you looked at the pinnacle, the girls and the guys are not only good-looking and socially affable, they also get the best grades and star in the school plays and win election to student government. It all converges at the top. It’s like training for high society. It was jarring for us Chinese kids. You got the sense that you had to study hard, but it wasn’t enough.” Mao was becoming clued in to the fact that there was another hierarchy behind the official one that explained why others were getting what he never had—“a high-school sweetheart” figured prominently on this list—and that this mysterious hierarchy was going to determine what happened to him in life.”

I remember an Oxfess written about Singaporeans who learnt to quickly assimilate with British culture, who knew that the ways to fit in were not through Shakespeare and Miller but through love island and the Strokes. I’m not entirely sure assimilation for the sake of assimilation is the right approach. I think there are prudential benefits to doing so. But at the same time, as with all things, we must consider the price of our integrity. The cost of acclimatising as a cultural misfit (even if one is a misfit only by virtue of being a minority) is the same that any other sort of misfit would face in trying to fit in (or accumulate status). The considerations involved with ingratiating yourself with the cultural majority in order to get ahead are no different from those of ingratiating yourself with coworkers and bosses you disdain (or those who you do, in fact like) in order to reap prudential benefits. I quote Yang:

“Having glimpsed just how unacceptable the world judges my demeanor, could I too strive to make up for my shortcomings? Practice a shit-eating grin until it becomes natural? Love the world twice as hard? I see the appeal of getting with the program. But this is not my choice. Striving to meet others’ expectations may be a necessary cost of assimilation, but I am not going to do it. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.”

How do I feel as a Singaporean studying and likely working in the UK? At my recent penultimate interviews for summer, having expressed preference for working in London, I was asked how I found adapting to the UK and its culture. I said it was great – that I’d loved it since boarding school, by embracing a plethora of values, it provided the space for exploration and growth. I might have talked about the unexamined subject in school where my teachers could teach anything and how you’d be hard pressed to find something like that in Singapore. I did also express that what I’d found odd when returning to Oxford it all felt very high school – perhaps because I was older. Truth is, Oxford was a social struggle. But not necessarily because I was asian, though that did make it more difficult. Moreso because I’d chosen to take a particularly hard stance with regards to being myself without compromise. People love to ask if you hang exclusively with Singaporeans. It almost seems as if that’s a proxy for how socially apt or capable you are – whether you can break into the ranks of your formal colonial masters. I reject this value judgement: I have friends who are British, but relations with them did not come easy. We had different priorities and struggled to find common interests. To some extent the differences were cultural, but I like to believe that I am a person in my own right. And I like to believe that when we did become friends, it was largely because we’d growth together as people and come to accept each others’ eccentricities, not because I’d cunningly learnt to assimilate into British culture or pulled the public school card. When I look at my friends in this country, I see that we are all misfits in our own ways, having struggled through first year for different reasons. But we made it through, and I want to believe that we made it through together because we came to appreciate the value that we offered to each other: in other words, I think goodness is culturally agnostic. As Yang writes,

“If the Bamboo Ceiling is ever going to break, it’s probably going to have less to do with any form of behavior assimilation than with the emergence of risk-­takers whose success obviates the need for Asians to meet someone else’s behavioral standard.”

1843 Mag: Why Do We Work So Hard?
“But stepping off the treadmill does not just mean accepting a different vision of one’s prospects with a different salary trajectory. It means upending one’s life entirely: changing locations, tumbling out of the community, losing one’s identity. That is a difficult thing to survive. One must have an extremely strong, secure sense of self to negotiate it.”

This!!! This guy nails everything so clearly. I can’t recommend this article more highly. I am completely shaken by its clarity and implications. //Okay, I wrote that note when I’d just read the article. Emotional impact aside, I more or less agree with his points. We are workaholics (or care unhealthily about work) because the things that come with the work we are fortunate to have: status, friends, identity, meaning, joy of production etc. cannot be found elsewhere. Which is to say, if money were not a consideration, I would likely be doing something similar to what I’m already doing or trying to do.

The Atlantic: Why Self Compassion Works Better Than Self Esteem 
“Well, it seems like it’s just deeply permeated, especially American culture, where we have very high levels of self-esteem and narcissism. I think because of the big self-esteem movement, people just got it in their heads that the key to psychological health was self-esteem. Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell showed that because of this emphasis on self-esteem, we actually got a generation of narcissists. I think it’s generally out there in the culture, but maybe especially among parents and educators.”

I see this as part of the solution to mental health problems in places like Oxford, and also just life in general. Do have a look.

‘An Unshakable Humanism’ — Michael Chabon on Stan Lee

NYT’s The Ethicist: What Should I Do About my Cheating Classmate?
“But your best friend is not only cheating in that race; he’s cheating in the proverbial game of life. The fake record he’s assembling makes him eligible for all sorts of social rewards — the respect of teachers and peers, a place at the college of his choice, career options — that he hasn’t earned. You’re concerned that his habits will lead to his being caught, punished, stigmatized. But he has already lost out. When your putative successes are faked, you’re not entitled to self-respect.”

The ethicist is a lovely column for anyone who cares about thinking about right and wrong. KAA demonstrates how to think like a practical ethicist: how to consider the reasons we might have for or against an action, with the general idea being that as moral beings we are accountable to ourselves, as well as to one another. A must read.

Why I Stopped Saying, ‘I’m Not a Competitive Person’
“By saying that I wasn’t a competitive person, I was giving myself an “out.” I was justifying my shortcomings by rationalizing that they weren’t important to me – that I hadn’t put in my all, so the outcome didn’t truly matter. I had convinced myself it was OK not to give my all. I had given myself permission not to rise to new challenges. Ruthless competition and excessive comparison to the progress of others is debilitating. A healthy competition with yourself is not. I am a competitive person. I want to be better than I was yesterday and the day before. I want to accept new challenges and rise to them – and that means competing with my past self. It means striving to surpass the bars I’ve set in order to set new ones. It means trying things I haven’t tried before and giving it my all when I do. It doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to make mistakes or fail or not excel in certain areas, it simply means that I won’t provide a lazy justification for not doing my best.”

Goals. It takes a lot to compete with yourself and only yourself: in booms we tend towards complacency and in busts towards insecurity (also, the article is basically this quote).

Fantastic Ministers and Where to Find Them: A Wizard’s Guide to SG Politics
“I had this theory that Ong Ye Kung and Chan Chun Sing are actually the same person. I mean, they dress alike, think alike, and talk in that same civil service mumbo-jumbo of innovation-resilience-meritocracy that puts you to sleep more quickly than the draught of living death. However, they do not look alike. And then it struck me: Ong Ye Kung is actually Chan Chun Sing’s first Horcrux. There is a fragment of Chan Chun Sing’s soul trapped inside Ong Ye Kung’s body, giving him the ability to drone on endlessly without any sense of self-awareness or irony.”

This whole article killed me. D-E-A-D DEAD.

TLS’s Footnotes to Plato: Bernard Williams – Ethics from a Human Point of View
“A better place to start, Williams suggests, is with Socrates’ question: how should we live? In order to answer this question we must draw on a set of motivations and interests that are richer and more diverse than those provided by moral theory. The motivations and interests available to us must be those of a person situated in a particular historical and social location, an individual with a particular identity. It is only from this perspective that we can make proper sense of the force and weight of ethical considerations and the extent to which they can or cannot be integrated with other concerns we may have – keeping in mind that not all (important) claims and interests in human life are ethical claims and interests. In taking this approach, however, we must not expect that nothing will change – or that there will be no costs involved in abandoning “morality”.”

I was introduced to Williams by AJK, and Williams remains one of the philosophers whose approach has influenced me the most. This article is an excellent summary of the spirit and core ideas of his work and well worth reading. The rest of the Times Literary Supplement’s column also seems very good. (Via AJK)

How to Talk to People, According to Terry Gross

Spectator: The Lies and Liars of Brexit
“I started my first job at Westminster in 1994, more than half a lifetime ago. I’ve written about more ministerial resignations, scandals, failures of public policy and abdications of leadership than I can remember. None of those failures has ever left me quite as bewildered and despairing as I am today, pondering the latest act in the national farce that is Brexit. Bewildered, despairing and surprisingly angry. Surprisingly because I don’t often get angry with politicians. One of my many failings as a political writer is a reluctance to condemn. Maybe I’ve been captured after years of proximity and familiarity, but I generally see politicians as just as weak and flawed and human as anyone else – no better than the rest of us, but no worse either. But while we all make mistakes, all sometimes lack a little courage, I find it hard to forgive lying. Especially deliberate, persistent and – most of all – consequential lying. And that is really what the Brexit mess is all about: lying. Pretty much everyone involved in this whole sorry mess is lying about something, and sometimes about more than one thing.”

Tbh I enjoy reading angry people rant and this is a great one about Brexit. James Kirkup calling out aaaaall the bullshit that’s led the UK into the omnishambles that is Brexit. I’ll quote my friend Isabel: “A lot of tea was spilt in this article”.

Mergers and Inquisitions: Are You a STARR or a TWAT?
“The TWAT (Technical Wizard with Antisocial Tendencies) species of the IB Analyst genus displays many of the following traits when found in nature: Excel Wizard – has been using Excel since middle school, when he/she first managed the family investment portfolio. Finance Guru – graduated summa cum laude from a top school, and knew more than most of the instructors in summer training. Relentlessly Competitive – is hesitant to help out other analysts because he/she views them as competition. Poor Communicator – sounds nervous or “young” when speaking, can’t coherently explain all the technical wizardry to senior bankers, who sit there dumbfounded as they try to recall what VLOOKUP means. The STARR (Strategic Try-hard with an Awesome Reputation & Relationships), on the other hand, is Outgoing and Socially Adept – will organize group dinners with analysts, gets to know every analyst in the office, and has a good network. “Good Enough” at Excel. “Good Enough” with Accounting and Finance – The STARR is often a non-finance major, so most of his/her knowledge comes from self-study or classroom training. But he/she has developed a strong understanding of 80% of what is required on the job. Relationship Strategist – Instead of spreading himself/herself too thin, the STARR spends most of his time working for only a few “Defenders” – senior bankers who respect and mentor juniors – as opposed to “Pillagers”.

I believe that this is valuable for everyone, even if you don’t want to pursue a career in fuh-nance. By virtue of being an RI boy and Singaporean I was raised in a predominantly TWATT environment – one with a very narrow conception of merit, equating personal excellence in performing tasks with excellence in general. But real life is much more complex, and being a STARR means being able to see the bigger picture, and thus dedicate effort towards what matters. I’m also going to be very frank here. The predominant TWATs I met at ACs and interviews were from Cambridge, while Oxford kids tended to be very STARR. Something to do with joint honours, I suppose.

Self-Care Is Not An Indulgence. It’s A Discipline
“If we are being honest, self-care is actually kind of boring. Which is why self-care is a discipline. It takes discipline to do the things that are good for us instead of what feels good in the moment. It’s takes even more discipline to refuse to take responsibility for other people’s emotional well-being. And it takes discipline to take full and complete responsibility for our own well-being. Self-care is also a discipline because it’s not something you do once in awhile when the world gets crazy. It’s what you do every day, every week, month in and month out. It’s taking care of yourself in a way that doesn’t require you to “indulge” in order to restore balance. It’s making the commitment to stay healthy and balanced as a regular practice.”

I am adding this to the list of general principles which I feel are correct, and which we would be silly and childish for believing otherwise. Repeat after me: self care is a discipline, and self care is boring.

Apple: Share your Gifts
Apple does very good ads. This feels trip is for all my arty (and value-adding) friends out there.

Quartz: You Could be Flirting on Dating Apps with Paid Impersonators
“Every morning I wake up to the same routine. I log into the Tinder account of a 45-year-old man from Texas—a client. I flirt with every woman in his queue for 10 minutes, sending their photos and locations to a central database of potential “Opportunities.” For every phone number I get, I make $1.75. I’m what’s called a “Closer” for the online-dating service ViDA(Virtual Dating Assistants). Men and women (though mostly men) from all over the world pay this company to outsource the labor and tedium of online dating. The matches I speak to on behalf of the Texan man and other clients have no idea they’re chatting with a professional.”

Don’t read the article I just wanted to share the quote: turns out online dating is so bad that people are paid to do it. I feel like I should have predicted this.

The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millenial
”The essence of premium mediocrity is being optimistically prepared for success by at least being in the right place at the right time, at least for a little while, even if you have no idea how to make anything happen during your window of opportunity. Even if you know nothing else, you know to move to San Francisco or New York and hoping something good happens there, rather than sitting around in some dying small town where you know nothing will ever happen and being curious about anything beyond the town is a cultural transgression. This is a strategy open to all. Premium mediocrity is a pattern of consumption that publicly signals upward mobile aspirations, with consciously insincere pretensions to refined taste, while navigating the realities of inexorable downward mobility with sincere anxiety. There are more important things to think about than actually learning to appreciate wine and cheese, such as making rent. But at least pretending to appreciate wine and cheese is necessary to not fall through the cracks in the API.”

I think I shared this on my facebook a while back. This is a really, really good commentary of capitalism (and the new economy? hmm) initially masquerading as a critique on millennial lifestyles.

Adam Sandler: Phone Wallet Keys Official Music Video
Anyone who is my friend knows that this is literally me. (Zann!!)

Slate: I’m a Developer. I Won’t Teach My Kids to Code, and Neither Should You.
”The best developers learn to fuse abstract logic with the sensitivity of an artist. Learning to trust that aesthetic feeling is as much a part of development as any algorithm or coding pattern. … Every time we mixed some ingredients we would pause and look at the dough and talk about the texture and color. Was it smooth? Did we get all the parts mixed evenly? … Every step—precisely measuring ingredients, gauging mixed dough for smoothness and consistency, placing precision cuts to minimize waste—taught him something about quality. It’s hard to teach the difference between merely executing steps, such as following a recipe, and doing something well. It can only be passed on through feel and experience. And every time you involve your kids when you work on something you value, you are teaching them how to do things well. You are preparing them to write code. But you’re not only teaching them that. You’re teaching them the world is full of interesting things to discover. You’re showing them how to be passionate and look for that ephemeral sense of quality in everything they do. The best part is that even if they don’t become coders—most shouldn’t and won’t—the same skills can be used in nearly any career, in every hobby, in every life. When we force kids to learn syntax, we reinforce the idea that if something is not a blatantly employable skill, it’s not valuable. Adults can learn syntax. Only kids can learn to embrace curiosity.”

Yay for teaching your kids goodness, the pursuit of excellence, and the pursuit of things which are valuable in themselves.

Glitter Bomb v Package Thief: Don’t Fuck with a NASA Engineer.
”Someone stole a package from me. Police wouldn’t do anything about it so I spent the last 6 months engineering up some vigilante justice. Revenge is a dish best served fabulously.

What have you been doing if you haven’t seen Youtube’s video of the year yet?

NYT Smarter Living: 5 Cheap-ish Things for a Romantic Date Night

Wired: Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk: Life Inside Tesla’s Production Hell
“A few months later, Doug Field indicated he wanted to take a leave of absence, which one person described to The Wall Street Journal as a “six-week sabbatical.” Field never returned to Tesla; instead he took a job back at Apple. All told, more than 36 Tesla vice presidents or higher-ranking staffers had left the company in the previous two years. Some of them weren’t replaced. Soon, according to various sources, there were 19 people directly reporting to Musk and another 11 executives who did not have superiors. (Tesla disputes those numbers.) Musk had enormous oversight responsibilities, particularly as he was running other companies at the same time. “It felt like the adults were leaving the building,” one senior finance person told me. “There was really no one left who could push back on Elon anymore.”

I love insider accounts, this was a riveting look inside of Tesla.

The Atlantic: The Scandal That Reveals the Fiction of America’s Educational Meritocracy
“This, to be blunt, raises some uncomfortable questions about who belongs in those colleges and universities. These are schools that treat selectivity as a necessary precondition for academic rigor, and then rely on that same selectivity to explain their racially and economically lopsided enrollments. One recent study showed that about 25 percent of graduates from the 99th income percentile attend an “elite” school. The comparable figure for the poorest quintile, even before taking race into account, is one-half of 1 percent. Why do the rules seem so different for white students from affluent backgrounds? Surely plenty of them are relatively average scholars, and yet they don’t make headlines when they’re accepted to an elite institution. And, generally speaking, affluent white students aren’t asked to surmount drill-instructor discipline and punishing, all-work-no-play schooling to prove their worth.”

Random school sends a ridiculous number of underprivileged black kids to Ivy League. NYT discovers in a blockbuster story that it does so by faking transcripts, making students lie etc. But they seem to cope pretty well anyway. Big shocker! Having seen Oxford, I am pretty sure that you could do the same with lots of random people who didn’t make it or even try – they’ll find ways to scrape 2:1s (as I hope to do), even if their mental health might suffer (which would be in line with half the student population).

Playlist: New term new playlist new painkillers
Shameless self promotion 😛

Christian Stucco: A Fervent Defense of Front-running HFTS
Makes a lot of sense to me, and almost made me give up on reading Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys. Lewis seems to have done a pretty bad job of even understanding what High Frequency Trading is.

Cal Newport: On Blogs in the Social Media Age
“Blogs implement a capitalist attention market. If you want attention for your blog you have to earn it through a combination of quality, in the sense that you’re producing something valuable for your readers, and trust, in the sense that you’ve produced enough good stuff over time to establish a good reputation with the fellow bloggers whose links will help grow your audience. Succeeding in this market, like succeeding with a business venture, can be ruthlessly difficult. There’s lots of competition for the attention you’re trying to attract, and even skilled writers often find that something about their voice, or the timing of their topic, fails to catch on. Social media, by contrast, implements a collectivist attention market, where the benefits of receiving attention are redistributed more uniformly to all users. A key dynamic driving the popularity of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, for example, is the following notion: if you like me, I’ll like you. As I noted in Deep Work, if you took the contents of the standard Facebook or Instagram feed and published it on a blog, it wouldn’t attract any readers, or comments, or links. But put this content on a Facebook wall and there’s an implicit social contract in place to motivate the people you know to click a like button, or leave a nice comment in the anticipation that you’ll do the same.”

Overcoming Bias: Social Media Lessons
”In today’s social media, in contrast, most everyone is involved, text is more often displaced by audio, pictures, and video, and we typically use our phones, everywhere and at all times of day. We more often forward what others have said rather than saying things ourselves, the things we forward are more opinionated and less well vetted, and are more about politics, conflict, culture, and personalities … the best organizing principle I can offer is: social media today is more lowbrow than the highbrow versions once envisioned … More carefully vetted news is higher status, and neutral news is higher status than opinionated rants. News about science and politics and the world is higher status that news about local culture and celebrities, which is higher status than personal gossip. The mostly young male nerds who filled social media two decades ago and who tried to look forward envisioned high brow versions made for people like themselves. Such people like to achieve status by sparring in debates on the topics that fill high status traditional media. As they don’t like to admit they do this for status, they didn’t imagine much self-promotion or detailed tracking of individual popularity and status. And as they resented loss of privacy and strong concentrations of corporate power, and they imagined decentralized system with effectively anonymous participants. But in fact ordinary people don’t care as much about privacy and corporate concentration, they don’t as much mind self-promotion and status tracking, they are more interested in gossip and tabloid news than high status news…”

Hanson’s alternative account of social media. Can’t believe I’m actually dedicating brainpower to thinking about these two views (which aren’t mutually exclusive ofc). Cal wants to see it as a shift from capitalism (having to earn attention) to social relation and obligation driven collectivism (everyone is worthy of attention). Hanson sees it as democratisation: the usage demographic has shifted from male nerds to everyone, and everyone is lowbrow. I think they’re saying the same thing and Hanson’s shift explain’s Cal’s shift: the democratisation of the internet has led to the concerns of the many (mutual social affirmation) replacing the concerns of the few (high quality blogging).

SSC’s Links
Always very funny to read.

The Economist: The consolations of philosophy for the middle-aged
”For each neurosis, Mr Setiya reasons out a therapy. Fear of having missed out is, in effect, a wish for “a profound impoverishment in the world”, or, as Plato put it, for “the life of a mollusc”. “Embrace your losses,” he recommends, “as fair payment for the surplus of being alive.” Lamenting missteps is natural, but remember “everything in your subsequent life that flowed from them,” such as (if you have them) your children. A different life might have turned out worse; in any case, no hypothetical alternative can outdo the one you have, with all its nuances and richness, “like the fastidious excess of a peasant scene by Bruegel”.

I do find pop culture philosophy far more attractive than its stuffy academic counterpart. TBH might download this because I sometimes feel far more middle-aged than I should.

VICE: I Sent Fakes of Myself to Be on TV Around the World
“After turning his shed into London’s #1 Restaurant on Tripadvisor and getting a knock-off clothing brand into Paris Fashion Week, Oobah Butler decides to send fake versions of himself on a global press tour – including Australia’s Sunrise – to improve his brand.”

Slate Star Codex: Sort by Controversial
”If you just read a Scissor statement off a list, it’s harmless. It just seems like a trivially true or trivially false thing. It doesn’t activate until you start discussing it with somebody. At first you just think they’re an imbecile. Then they call you an imbecile, and you want to defend yourself. Crescit eundo. You notice all the little ways they’re lying to you and themselves and their audience every time they open their mouth to defend their imbecilic opinion. Then you notice how all the lies are connected, that in order to keep getting the little things like the Scissor statement wrong, they have to drag in everything else. Eventually even that doesn’t work, they’ve just got to make everybody hate you so that nobody will even listen to your argument no matter how obviously true it is. Finally, they don’t care about the Scissor statement anymore. They’ve just dug themselves so deep basing their whole existence around hating you and wanting you to fail that they can’t walk it back. You’ve got to prove them wrong, not because you care about the Scissor statement either, but because otherwise they’ll do anything to poison people against you, make it impossible for them to even understand the argument for why you deserve to exist. You know this is true.”

A really good short story.

Robin Hanson: Can Foundational Physics Be Saved?
In her new book Lost in Math, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder describes just how bad things have become. Previously, physics foundations theorists were disciplined by a strong norm of respecting the theories that best fit the data. But with less data, theorists have turned to mainly judging proposed theories via various standards of “beauty” which advocates claim to have inferred from past patterns of success with data. Except that these standards (and their inferences) are mostly informal, change over time, differ greatly between individuals and schools of thought, and tend to label as “ugly” our actual best theories so far.

Bloomberg: Where British Elites Come From (for Better or Worse)
“Then, we skipped straight to the corridors of power without first having to prove ourselves in provincial newspapers, in business, the professions or the unions. Most of the big players in Brexit went straight from PPE to jobs as political advisors or journalists, and reached the cabinet in their 30s or early 40s. Were the likes of Cameron and Miliband more susceptible to the careless misjudgments that caused the Brexit mess because they were entitled and untested? Quite possibly. Second, there is the way we learned to behave at Oxford. Ambitious young PPEists spent their lives playing at politics or journalism, making the connections that would see them through life, and engaging in the kind of nasty interpersonal rivalries and high jinks that the world is now watching at Westminster. … Ed Luce of the Financial Times, a fellow PPEist, calls us the “essay crisis” generation: “people who mastered the art of delivering their assignments in limpid prose that they had only started working on overnight.” He adds, “If you learn young how to slip past Oxford’s best scholars, the rest of life ought to be a doddle. … John Crace of the Guardian elicited this confession from a PPEist: “The thing is this, PPE is such a big subject that no one can ever know everything, so we all have to bullshit like mad at times to cover up our ignorance. And we by and large get away with it. So we carry on bullshitting once we leave Oxford and most of us are still getting away with it. More broadly, truly understanding economics and philosophy is hard unless you study them a lot and delve into some specialized areas in detail. PPE is a three-year course, like most in the U.K. It should probably be a four-year course, as Greats is. More time and specialization might have trained us to avoid the glib and superficial thinking that gave us the Brexit mess. So might a compulsory thesis.”

I realised that I do respond rather emotionally when I read articles about PPE. They’re so true, and it really, really hurts. In part because I absolutely hate bullshitters – I firmly believe in the importance of deep, careful analysis. I believe in being correct. I believe in hard work, intellectual honesty and sound underlying fundamentals over fake it to make it. I believe that a lot of the degree is rich and interesting and I’d love to do it and take pride in doing it, but even the academically inclined like me are incentivised to defect and allocate significant resources away from it. Part of me can’t help but feel that this model is unsustainable – surely pride and ignorance must fail in the end – but another part of me sees this as how the world is. PPEists will continue to pretend to be wonderkids while fobbing off their degrees and doing things which in the large scheme of things do really matter: learning to work and network with people, learning to politic, and getting a sense of how the real world works. We’re too keenly aware of the bigger things at stake not to. I can’t wait till I stop feeling like a fraud and get actually good at a job (the author was head of FT’s Lex, lol).

When it comes to the course, I think the suggestions are sensible, but might miss out on what the degree is really about. The university wants to preserve its brand name and the value of the PPE course; allowing PPEists to go out and do what they do is crucial to that. Any policies which would force us to engage seriously with the work (beyond our already mad, tbh, scrambling) would render us immensely uncompetitive careers wise – we’re already at a disadvantage relative to the London kids and struggle a lot through the recruitment process. I used to think it was an Oxford problem (if only they could force everyone to care about the degree!), but I realised it was a cross-university defection problem (if only everyone at other universities didn’t ignore their work for a term to apply for jobs!). The fact is, the labour market does not care enough about degrees and intellectual rigour – or enough for them to exclusively matter – and as a result our incentives are heavily skewed. Oxford seems to have addressed this by telling people everyone we’re rigorous via setting us impossible weekly essays, while those impossible standards simultaneously give us leeway to run off and do other things. Truth be told, the lack of rigour is not just an Oxford problem: the workload at other universities in this country make our weekly scrambles look deeply scholarly. A more rigorous analysis (i.e. not mine) would look into what produces good politicians (for Britannia). I’m not sure it’s another year of PPE and continual examinations.

PPE is what defines Oxford kids as STARRs just as technical obsession makes Cambridge kids TWATTish (fighting words :O). I’m not a big fan of spin doctors, and there’s a lot of degree self-hate when it comes to how much we bullshit, but I do feel that someone has to see the bigger picture well enough to play the orchestra. And our ability to realise that the degree is at times pointless and to look outside of it when setting our goals is a testament to that. My peers and I realised that we were overdoing the degree very quickly, all at around the same time. I still wish I could do my degree more, though. I really do.

LessWrong: Your Strength as a Rationalist
“Thus I managed to explain the story within my existing model, though the fit still felt a little forced… Your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality. If you are equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge.”

Either the facts are wrong, or your mental model is wrong (and you’d better know why).

WAPO: Take your sons to see the new Ruth Bader Ginsburg movie — to show them how a powerful man can be a partner.
“Take your sons because it’s good for them to see powerful, brilliant women in leading roles. Because overhearing a group of teenage fanboys excitedly discuss Brie Larson as Captain Marvel in a coffee shop last week legitimately warmed my irritated holiday-season heart. … But mostly take your sons because it’s important for them to see powerful, brilliant men in partnering roles. And because Marty Ginsburg — who in real life championed his wife’s Supreme Court appointment and truly was an excellent cook — is an illustration of a man who understood that his manhood didn’t need to be threatened by his wife’s success, any more than it needed to be threatened by the testicular cancer he learned of early in their marriage. … She sacrificed for his career, then he did the same for hers. She grew because he fed her, literally and spiritually. … The secret, of course, is that all columns about women are equally columns about men, and vice versa, because we all inhabit this earth together, and the friction between us is what ends up shaping who we are. Would more women understand they could be Supreme Court justices if more men understood they were allowed to be not breadwinners but breadmakers? What if we acknowledged that the stereotypes holding some of us back are actually holding all of us back — an impossible equation in which putting one person on an awkward pedestal forces another person down to the dirt?”

Yes. (Via Beatrice)

So I Tried my First Smart Home Robot
Watch this for an ADORABLE video of the Anki Vector. It’s so cute and I want one despite how useless it is. UGH.

Connection Is a Core Human Need, But We Are Terrible at It
“After looking into why many of these patients had such adverse emotional reactions, the doctors discovered something important: The time when each patient began overeating usually correlated with a traumatic event they had no other coping mechanism for. Hari summed up the findings like this: “What we thought was the problem was very often a symptom of a problem that nobody knew anything about. … The biggest problem in most people’s lives is trauma, and trauma is what creates a damaged ability to connect with others. “Trauma” is not a term reserved for the most severe and unrelenting atrocities one can experience. Anytime something scares us and we do not get over that fear, trauma is created. When we don’t believe we have the resources or abilities to cope with a certain problem or stimuli, we create adaptive behaviors to deny or avoid it. It’s not the trauma itself that causes the most long-term damage; it is how the trauma wreaks havoc on the psyche and prevents reintegration into a normal, healthy life where other people and unknown situations are seen as benevolent. … If healing is a return to wholeness, then healing from trauma is remembering that we can trust others, we can trust ourselves, and we can trust life. It is the reintegration into easiness, calmness, and the willingness to allow life to be as it is rather than trying to control how it’s perceived. It is not waiting for others to initiate or sustain that connection. It is our own willingness to try again, be vulnerable again, show up for others, reach out, and make ourselves an active part of our communities and families and friend groups.”

Another piece of work building on and supporting attachment theory. I find this model is very good. It also tells you that good love is healing. Time to quote Irvin Yalom: “Caring is active. Mature love is loving, not being loved. One gives lovingly to the other; one does not fall for the other. Mature caring flows out of one’s richness, not out of one’s poverty-out of growth, not out of need. One does not love because one needs the other to exist, to be whole, to escape overwhelming loneliness. One who loves maturely has met these needs at other times, in other ways, not the least of which was the maternal love which flowed toward one in the early phases of life. Past loving, then, is the source of strength; current loving is the result of strength. To the extent one truly turns toward the other, one is altered. To the extent one brings the other to life, one also becomes more fully alive. One is altered, one is enriched, one is fulfilled, one’s existential loneliness is attenuated. Through caring one is cared for.” (Via JJ)

FT: Insecure Overachiever? You’re Perfect for the Job.
“Yet mention to professionals that insecure overachievement is characteristic of their tribe and they will give a knowing, if nervous, chuckle. It is, after all, the very essence of what their leaders want to enlist and encourage and those same leaders often experience it themselves. … Cass Business School’s Laura Empson, author of Leading Professionals, cites a human resources director who went out of her way to hire insecure overachievers for a big accountancy group. Prof Empson suggested she was like a drug dealer, deliberately seeking out vulnerable people and getting them hooked on the high-status identity of the firm. The HR director did not deny it. … It is true that I have sacrificed my family life,” a partner in an accounting firm says, “but, ultimately, I sacrificed not only my family but also myself.”

So true it hurts and I don’t know what to do about it.

Lesswrong: The Pavlov Strategy
“In other words, Pavlov:
• cooperates when you cooperate with it, except by mistake
• “pushes boundaries” and keeps defecting when you cooperate, until you retaliate
• “concedes when punished” and cooperates after a defect/defect result
• “retaliates against unprovoked aggression”, defecting if you defect on it while it cooperates.

A population of TFT players will be invaded by more “forgiving” strategies like Pavlov, who in turn can be invaded by DefectBot and other uncooperative strategies, which again can be invaded by TFT, which thrives in high-defection environments.  If you track the overall rate of cooperation over time, you get very regular oscillations, though these are quite sensitive to variation in the error and mutation rates and nonperiodic (chaotic) behavior can occur in some regimes. This is strangely reminiscent of Peter Turchin’s theory of secular cycles in history. Periods of peace and prosperity alternate with periods of conflict and poverty; empires rise and fall. Periods of low cooperation happen at the fall of an empire/state/civilization; this enables new empires to rise when a subgroup has better ability to cooperate with itself and fight off its enemies than the surrounding warring peoples; but in peacetime, at the height of an empire, more forgiving and exploitative strategies like Pavlov can emerge, which themselves are vulnerable to the barbaric defectors. … Optimal strategy depends sensitively on who else is in the population, how many errors you make, and how likely strategies are to change (or enter or leave). There are a lot of moving parts here.”

If you even remotely like game theory, read this.

A Critical (But Highly Sympathetic) Reading of New Yorkers’ Sexual Habits and Anxieties
“’12:32 p.m. I get three texts. One from each girl. E wants oral sex and tells me she loves me. A wants to go to a concert in Central Park. Y still wants to cook. This simultaneously excites me—three women want me!—and makes me feel odd.’ This is a distinct shift in the way we experience the world, introducing the nagging urge to make each thing we do the single most satisfying thing we could possibly be doing at any moment. In the face of this enormous pressure, many of the Diarists stay home and masturbate.

A Diarist with any game at all has unlimited opportunity. A few find this enjoyable and are up to the task: Identify the single best sexual partner available, or at least the person most amenable to their requirements at the moment. They use their cell phone to disaggregate, slice up, and repackage their emotional and physical needs, servicing each with a different partner, and hoping to come out ahead. This can get complicated quickly, however, and can lead to uneasy situations.

Among active Diarists, the worry that they will make the wrong choice is surpassed by the fear that they might find themselves without one. To guard against this disaster, everybody is on somebody’s back burner, and everybody has a back burner of their own, which they maintain through open-ended texts, sporadic Facebook messages, G-chats, IM’s, and terse e-mails.Sometimes being relegated to the back burner is a sign of uninterest: the late-night booty call, the option of last resort. As often, it is a place to confine anyone who might become emotionally dangerous. The back burner is a confusing, destabilizing, and exhausting place to be, and yet none of the Diarists—even ones who appear sexually sated—appear to view it as anything but a fact of life. It is clearly less terrifying than the alternative, which is to not be on anyone’s.”

Wesley Yang reads every Sex Diary column and critically analyses them. I love it. Too real.

Mini-reviews & interesting things

  • Glenfarclas 105. ★★★★★
    So I already have a whiskey blog, but I really did enjoy this sweet yet bright and rich whiskey enough to mention it over here.
  • Too Big to Fail (Non-fic) ★★★★

    An absolutely fantastic (and pulitzer winning) piece of journalism: a blow by blow of the fall of Lehman Brothers and how the major players (President of the Fed, Treasury Secretary, Bank CEOs) worked together to stop the entire financial system from falling apart. So many insider accounts. So much detail. Really a must read.

  • My Sassy Girl (Film) ★★★★

    I don’t watch romcoms. But this one made me cry and fall in love all over again. Third re-watch. So great.

  • The Game (Non-fic) ★★★★

    Neil Strauss goes undercover and lives in the world of pickup artists for two years. Genuinely riveting and enjoyable but rather uncomfortable and sad at times.


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