Ruminist

Decadence!

There’s a comic book trope where the villain will make a little speech along the lines of: “This world is corrupt!” It’s a succinct way of expressing their motivation for whatever evil scheme they’re cooking up. They want to crown themselves Supreme Overlord of Earth, or replace humans with incorruptible cyborgs, or maybe just blow up the whole damned planet, and it’s up to Our Hero to stop them. It’s a strong trope because it rings true: The world is corrupt, right?  Read more…

Overpromising Information

Clickbait headlines are, for the most part, only a minor nuisance. They describe trivial ephemera as if they were urgently important or incredibly mysterious. Maybe curiosity overtakes you now and then. You click through, roll your eyes, and carry on with your day. But there’s one kind of headline that I hold in utter contempt: The headline that promises an answer to a serious question that the article that follows merely circles around.  Read more…

Not Funny ⇒ Offensive

Some of my friends are comedians. One thing I like about them is their refreshing attitude toward offensive jokes. It’s not that it’s impossible to offend them (it’s not). It’s that their experiences writing and telling jokes has given them an accurate mental model of how offensive jokes really work, and they judge them accordingly. Most people think about offensive jokes this way: “If I hear an offensive joke—that is, a joke with odious moral implications—I will find it unfunny, because I am a good person.” This is the Offensive ⇒ Not Funny theory.  Read more…

There Is No “Point”

Picture this: You’re in a debate. You carefully lay out argument X, then wait for your opponent to point out a flaw in X or offer counter-argument Y. Instead, your opponent fumes with indignation: “X? X? What the hell does X have to do with anything? This is about Ψ!” You’re perplexed, because this is the first time anyone has even mentioned Ψ to you. And yet, somehow, you’re the one who stands accused of making a non-sequitur.  Read more…

Greed Is Good (as a Phenotype)

Here’s a story: An inventor presents an idea for a new product to a group of executives. The executives are horrified. They fear the product could lead to trauma, depression, even suicide. But, despite the executives’ objections, their parent company decides to mass-produce the product. The company rakes in millions. In that telling, you have a familiar tale of sinister capitalists pushing aside morality in pursuit of profits. But in Pagan Kennedy’s telling in last weekend’s New York Times, the invention of the home pregnancy test was a triumph for women’s rights.  Read more…

Dull Stories are Bad Politics

I try not to live in an ideological bubble. My social media feeds offer a wide spectrum of voices: liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, some that are hard to label. On virtually every controversy, I hear disagreement. But on one issue, they’re united: Donald Trump should not be elected President of the United States. And yet, as of this writing, Trump and Clinton are in a dead heat. How can a candidate who has united the intellectual left, right, and center behind her nonetheless be neck-in-neck with her opponent?  Read more…

Review: Zero to One

What’s Peter Thiel up to? Earlier this year, Thiel revealed that he had financed Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, a publication which had outed Thiel as gay. Then it came out that he was slated to be a delegate for Donald Trump. The internet went wild with speculation. To some on the left, a libertarian tech billionaire supporting Trump seemed only to confirm their prior beliefs about libertarians, techies, and billionaires (I’ve heard the phrase “evil genius” a lot), although all three groups are in fact largely anti-Trump.  Read more…

One Weird Trick to Fix Science

Vox recently published a length piece on “The 7 Biggest Problems Facing Science.” For the most part, these are Hard Problems,™ by which I mean problems with no solutions that won’t introduce other problems. For example, one problem is that researchers spend too much time and energy writing grant proposals to secure funding. The boldest solution is to allocate funds by lottery, which is a neat-sounding fix but gets real thorny as soon as you start writing the rules for who gets to participate in the lottery and how often.  Read more…

Stigma and Smarts

In “The War on Stupid People,” recently published in The Atlantic, David H. Freedman argues against stigmatizing the unintelligent: Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.  Read more…

Dark Matter and the World Economy

Things are looking grim. Better than ever, but still grim. That’s the paradox economists have been puzzling over since the world crawled out from the wreckage of the financial crisis of 2008. Growth has been so lackluster that the period following the Great Recession has been dubbed The Great Stagnation. There are several theories for this state of affairs, none of them completely satisfying. All of the preconditions for a boom are there: Cheap energy!  Read more…