Friday, November 27, 2020

Links 27 November 2020

Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage, Norway (1906), detail

Garrett Jones is unimpressed by critiques of the meroticracy: "Nostalgia for the comfy old days when insiders ran cozy corporate clubs is wildly misplaced."

Feral wallabies in England?

Evidence of volcanism on Mars less than 250,000 years ago; before this the most recent volcanism had been dated to more then 2 million years ago. In a region called "Cerberus Fossae," which I suppose means "Hell Hound Ditches."

NY Times photo essay on life in rural Portugal, fascinating.

4-minute video on the basics of mRNA manipulation, the technology used to develop the new coronavirus vaccines. And a 17-minute CNBC video explaining those new vaccines.

And on the subject of scientific YouTube, here's an amazing video on the power of the equation xn+1= rxn(1-xn), known as the logistic map.

Possibly the most complex diagram you will ever see: the Roche Biochemical Pathways Map

Women who are secretly relieved to be off the hook for holiday planning this year: “I am looking forward to Thanksgiving Day more than I have in 15 years. I am looking forward to the opportunity to choose how we get to spend the day instead of exhausting ourselves pleasing the extended family.” (Washington Post)

NY Times page listing all of their Ten Best Books of the Year selections going back to 2004. Good place to start looking for something to read.

According to this study, 17% of Americans report having no close friends. These researchers are trying to use their data on social networks to explain something about politics but I'm just blown away by that number.

Remembering American plants that were once domesticated but then abandoned, like sumpweed

The 2,000-year-old rock-cut tombs of Hegra in Saudi Arabia are now open to tourists.

The way the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma illegally "turbocharged" sales of Oxycontin seems worse the more I read about it.

Training neural networks to recognize archaeological sites and identify artifacts. (NY Times)

The Queen's Gambit and the problem of unsocialized genius.

Long NY Times piece on young, left-wing heirs and heiresses determined to give away all of their family's ill-gotten gains.

It's too late to cancel William Faulkner for racism, since he already worked so hard to cancel himself, fully aware that his personal life and his fiction were completely at odds.

Is failure a steppingstone toward success, or just failure?

Watch a wild turkey dust bathing.


David said...

I'm unimpressed by Garret Jones' attack on critiques of the meritocracy. He ignores the basic import of such critiques, either because he's willfully misinterpreting the thesis he doesn't like so that it's easier to attack--much like John's experimental psychologists who claim they've proven there's no such thing as individual character because they can create circumstances that show nobody reacts the same way ALL the time--, because he's obtuse, or because he's an economist. I suspect it's a combination of all three.

He suggests that, because anti-meritocrats can't propose a practical non-meritocratic alternative--by which he means an alternative economic system--anti-meritocracy isn't worth the attention of what he calls "serious people"--by which he means, of course, the members of the meritocracy.

The relevant sentence is: "Until the critique of meritocracy arrives at something like, “We want meritocracy done better, and he have a practical way to achieve it,” we should just treat it the way we treat complaining about death and taxes—to be ignored by serious people."

But the sentence itself is a perfect illustration of what so many hate about the meritocracy: not just the numerically-visible inequality it produces, but the arrogance of meritocrats. And arrogance imposes negative social costs (though I'm not surprised Garret Jones would be reluctant to recognize that).

On the numbers, practical alternatives have been proposed, including UBI and happily redistributive taxation.

On the arrogance, I suppose you could say Trumpism proposes a practical alternative too: stop being so arrogant, or we will fuck you up.

What a lot of critics of meritocracy want isn't an alternative, non-meritocratic system, but meritocrats who share the wealth and act better. Social stability and well-being require a ruling class who knows how to play the part well. Right now, some meritocrats, like Atul Gawande, at least have the reputation of being good at it; some, like Garrett Jones, are not--at least not yet.

G. Verloren said...


"What a lot of critics of meritocracy want isn't an alternative, non-meritocratic system, but meritocrats who share the wealth and act better."

So... the delusional Reaganist dream of Trickle Down Economics?

America has a problem of wanting things to work a certain way, magically, and then when it doesn't work for obvious and predictable reasons, refusing to change tack.

Our politics are built on unwritten rules and traditions, rather than actual codes of conduct or comprehensive laws. So are our economics. We give people carte blanche to do what they want with vast amounts of money and power, and then are surprised when at least some of them do awful things. We expect people to behave morally and positively, except we don't lift a finger to promote said behavior in others, and we do even less to stop them from behaving immorally and destructively instead.

But I suppose the problem of the wealthy elite staunchly not doing enough to help the common people make ends meet until everything is one step away from bloody revolt isn't new, nor unique to America... but the American Exceptionalism that leads many people to arrogantly dismiss the need to break from the status quo is.

David said...


Wow, and here was me, totally unaware that redistributive taxation=Reaganism!

G. Verloren said...


Sorry, I misread your intention. You were arguing for the actual sane critics of meritocracy, which I didn't realize.

I guess I'm just too used to hearing Reaganist arguments thrown out whenever I engage with criticisms of meritocracy - I treat it as the default, because I always see it. My bad for leaping to conclusions and assuming the more negative reading of your comment. Turns out, we're actually wholly in agreement - we need to tax the rich, and use that money to help the poor.

G. Verloren said...

"Is failure a steppingstone toward success, or just failure?"

I think the sane answer, as is so often the case for things, is: "It depends".

That said, I clicked through and read the header of the article, and immediately decided - "Hmm, absolutist language with no room for nuance right off the bat, I doubt I need to bother reading any further", and so I didn't.

Some failures you can learn from, others you can't. Arguing toward either absolute is kind of just insane, as you can easily disprove both extremes. Lots of projects are made better by failure causing the undertakers to re-evaluate and make changes; and likewise, lots of failures are completely random and meaningless misfortune.

The world is a spectrum of spectrums, and I'm tired of people trying to reduce it binary states. If you want that kind of absolute rigidity, go into math or physics.

John said...

@David - I thought Jones' weakness was that he doesn't understand the pyramid problem. What I object to in our current system is not meritocracy per se, but the tall, narrow pyramid; i mainly want a flatter pyramid in which poor people have more money and rich people less, however we get there. I see the real danger in meritocracy in intensifying the belief that rich people deserve their money, and I think the rat race is so intense partly because the rewards of "success" are so outsized.

Incidentally I think we have only begun to see the impact of the educational excellence of Asian and west African immigrants; if you think we have white revanchism now, wait until the Ivy League is 75% Asian. I have been wondering if we will end up with the same sorts of bad politics they got in Hungary when the lawyers and bankers were mostly Jewish. At any rate we're going to get some really serious arguments about meritocracy then.

David said...


It seems to me our objections to Jones are rather similar, except yours is stated in much more sophisticated terms. I've never heard the term, "pyramid problem." But I think that, at bottom, we object to much the same thing in meritocracy.

Part of the real danger is that the belief that rich people deserve their money will be intenstified. But surely another part of the real danger is, more or less, the opposite, a widespread disaffection and disenchantment on the part of the ruled? The results include a reluctance to listen to experts--and especially, the existence of a ready-to-hand discourse of rejection when the experts are telling people things the latter don't want to hear, whether the bad news is correct or not. Other possible results of such disaffection include a rejection of all meritocratic expertise in favor of, say, religious authority; a widespread "burn it all down" nihilism; and revolution. Your record on bensozia indicates that you sense this side of the danger also.

In a sense, we want meritocracy. We want our doctor to be knowledgeable and excellent. But we also want our doctor to treat us with respect. And we also want some checks and balances in place before our doctor can, say, outlaw all white sugar. Oh, and we won't mind it if our doctor is richer than us, but not by TOO much.

So some of the problem is about money. But some of the problem, as you have shown repeatedly, is about humiliation, and some of it is about keeping meritocrats from getting Scott Alexander's metaphorical nuclear weapon.

These are all problems with meritocracy. My problem with Garrett Jones was that he was mischaracterizing the objections to meritocracy in order to delegitimize the actual worthwhile objections.

David said...


Thank you for your gracious apology. I do think we were in agreement. And it's okay--I've certainly allowed myself to fall into similar misunderstandings. Well, from time to time, anyway. :-)