Links: December 2017

The American Illusion

In a “Statement on Visit to the USA”, Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, speaks frankly:

I have been struck by the extent to which caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor have been sold to the electorate by some politicians and media, and have been allowed to define the debate. The rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic, and the drivers of economic success. The poor are wasters, losers, and scammers. As a result, money spent on welfare is money down the drain. To complete the picture we are also told that the poor who want to make it in America can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough.

More colorfully:

The American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion, as the United States now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries.

Mopping Up Tears

Andrew Cushing nails The Wirecutter.

Drawing from decades of experience covering cleaning products, we created a grading system by consulting at length with paper towel experts and manufacturers. Then, we corroborated our findings against thousands of online ratings and sources like Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping. To create the tears, we referenced a complete list of every mistake we’ve ever made, usually right as we were trying to fall asleep.

And the people who use it (like me).

Overall, we determined that the best paper towel for mopping up tears were the generic rolls from the nearest grocery store. Like us, they required more effort than they were worth to reach and they completely fell apart under the slightest amount of external pressure.


Acts of Humility

Sendhil Mullainathan, professor of economics at Harvard, muses on human behavior:

Habits are powerful. We persist with many of them because we tend to give undue emphasis to the present. Trying something new can be painful: I might not like what I get and must forgo something I already enjoy. That cost is immediate, while any benefits — even if they are large — will be enjoyed in a future that feels abstract and distant.

Most notably, he suggests a significant reframing on the nature of experimentation.

Experimentation is an act of humility, an acknowledgment that there is simply no way of knowing without trying something different.

For me, this is liberating.

Yet, I admit, as does Mullainathan, that acting on this truth is remarkably more difficult than accepting it.

You Know Nothing

Yuval Noah Harrari, author of Sapiens, on not knowing things:

But I personally like the kind of science that broadens the horizons. I often tell my students at the University that my aim is that after three years, you basically know less than when you first got here. When you first got here, you thought you knew what the world is like and what is war and what is a state, and so forth. After three years, my hope is that you will understand that you actually know far, far less, and you come out with a much broader view of the present and of the future.

(The Illusion of) CTRL

This my favorite album released this year. A sonically vibrant and distinctive self-portrait of shame and acceptance.

SZA’s mother bookends the album. At the beginning:

That’s my greatest fear: that if I lost control, or didn’t have control, things would just be… you know… Fatal.

At the end:

And if it’s an illusion, I don’t want to wake up. I’m gonna hang on to it. Because the alternative is an abyss, is just a hole, a darkness, a nothingness. Who wants that? You know? So that’s what I think about control, and that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it!

Sounds like she’s been reading Kahneman too.