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What I've been reading and watching
Jimmy Carter, nickel markets, Og, schmuck insurance, native American bubble, Never Ending Fantasy, and Men & Violence
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Scott Alexander’s book review contest submission on Jimmy Carter
Matt Levine on nickel markets breaking
Og the Giant
Byrne Hobart on BNPL and schmuck insurance
Erik Hoel on book publishing and The Great Feminisation
1990 - 1995: a Native American cultural bubble?
The Never Ending Story and Fantasy
Razib Khan on the origins of Men, Violence and the Huns
1. Scott Alexander book review contest submission on The Outlier, a biography of Carter is a delightful overview of a President reduced in memory to a sour national address
On Carter pretending to be racist to win a Governor race in Georgia and then backtracking immediately. Pretty funny:
“Just a few minutes into his inaugural speech, Carter drops the pretenses of his campaign and executes on one of the most dramatic about-faces in modern-day political history when he declares that “the era of racial discrimination in Georgia is over.” The crowd gasps audibly, and outgoing Governor Maddox denounces Carter as a liar before the inauguration is even over. But Carter doesn’t care. He’s governor now, and he’s going to do what he wants.”
It’s always probably worse than you think:
“He lobbies heavily for his treaty with every senator, cutting individual deals with each of them as needed. One even goes so far as to say that in exchange for his vote, Carter has to… wait for it… read an entire semantics textbook the senator wrote back when he was a professor. Oh, and Carter also has to tell him what he thinks of it, in detail, to prove he actually read it. Carter is appalled, but he grits his teeth and reads the book. It’s a good thing he does, because the Senate ratifies the treaty by a single vote.”
Like, way way way worse (also why so many wild conspiracies are actually believable):
“Afraid that a last-minute hostage release deal will secure Carter’s reelection, Reagan’s campaign manager William Casey cuts an illegal backroom deal with Iran to ensure the hostages stay put until after the election.”
“On his way out, Carter gives a gloomy farewell address in which he warns against the risk of nuclear war in apocalyptic terms. The survivors—“if there are any,” he says—“would live in despair amid the poisoned ruins of a civilization that had committed suicide.” Hearing the speech, his wife says, “This kind of thing is why you lost.””
On political culture
Someone stole Carter’s debate prep materials and shared them with Reagan, who wiped the floor with him. 20 years later, when someone stole George W. Bush’s debate prep materials and passed them to Al Gore, the Gore campaign immediately alerted the FBI. Al Gore lost.
Is the lesson here that political culture has changed, that integrity is for losers, or something else?
2. Matt Levine on the riot in nickel markets
Matt Levine has a piece on nickel market which is just wild. I am hearing from contacts in Glencore that this has genuinely rattled metals markets, as you’d expect.
“Being responsible and well capitalized and correctly predicting the market price is fine, in financial markets, but it is distinctly second-best. Being irresponsible and undercapitalized but giant is much better. Then you can just tell the market what the price is.”
3. Og the Giant
Last week’s parshah includes Moses’ defeat of Og the King (Numbers 21:33).
Og is an unusual king with a fascinating back story. He also appears in Genesis 14:3 and Deuteronomy 3:11. The rest of his backstory is in the Talmud and the midrushim, with various Sages providing commentary and debate.
I’d love to read a story from his perspective.
He is one of the only surviving giants from before the Flood. He saved Abraham, and for that was given extraordinary long life. But because he saved Abraham for wily purposes, God told him that he would live long to see Abraham’s line (the Jews) prosper and ultimately be slain by their hand. And so it came to pass.
One of my favourite midrashim: Ramban writes that the sons of Noah took the descedents of giants as wives, attracted as they were to the tall beauties.
The attraction of Jewish boys to beautiful tall shiksas has ancient roots indeed (Yes, the joke doesn’t quite work as technically Noah was not Jewish…)
Wikipedia has a good write up on Og.
Giants appear across many cultures. We still live in a world of pygmies of which we do not speak, and increasingly we are learning of related species we extinguished. Perhaps giant cousins were amongst them.
4. Byrne Hobart on BNPL and schmuck insurance
(You can listen to my conversation with Byrne here)
Byrne Hobart has a great write up on BNPL, with a focus on Affirm. Affirm got access to Shopify’s merchants and Shopify got warrants in Affirm as “schmuck insurance”. This deal may have given Affirm the leverage to swing a deal with Amazon, Shopify’s arch-nemesis.
I like Byrne’s line: “That’s the trouble with schmuck insurance: when it pays off, you still feel like a schmuck.”
5. Erik Hoel has a good piece on what it takes to publish a book (via the excellent Byrne Hobart)
One thing that stood out to me is how tough it is to sell a male-centric novel. Whether the writing is masculine or the novel centres around a male protagonist, seems to be a tough market.
On the one hand: this is kind of obvious and fair. Men just don’t read all that much. All the demand these days for literature comes from women. Ie. mainly women read.
On the other hand: would Moby Dick, a Philip Roth, Dostoevsky, Cormac McCarthy, et al get published today?
Feminisation rules everything around me.
6. 1990 - 1995: the Native American cultural bubble?
I’ve been watching Pocahontas with the kids a lot. It’s surprisingly excellent. First rate songs and it treats both colonisers and native Americans with a healthy respect as more or less well intentioned. It does not castigate the warrior spirit. It does not shy away from the ugly (and villainous) rhetoric of genocide harboured by all sides.
They really don’t make them like they used to.
There was about a decade culminating in Pocahontas where the American cultural machine was really into native Americans (really 5 years, but I want to include Never Ending Story in it for its Plains Indian warrior wunderkind protagonist):
Never Ending Story (1984)
Dances with Wolves (1990)
Last of the Mohicans (1992)
The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)
Always hard to know exactly, but these films do seem to play an outsized role in my recollections of the zeitgeist as a child. As extremely unreliable as that is, it’s noteworthy that these essentially American stories featured heavily in the American Protectorate and Cultural Importer Australia. Empirically, it does seem to be a peak in native American cultural production.
Why this moment for this fascination? Why the decline? My guess is the decline has something to do with the subsequent rise in the salience of black issues across America, maybe as well as with 9/11 and the aftermath directing the cultural Eye of Sauron towards the Middle East and muslims. But that’s not super convincing - LA riots were in 1992. Keen for any thoughts on this.
(Inserting Daniel Day Lewis from There Will Be Blood for his role in Last of the Mohicans…. it’s just a really great scene, any excuse will do)
7. Re-watching Never Ending Story with kids
It’s been over 25 years since I last watched it and I gotta say: this bewildering and terrifying epic does not really hold up that well. The kids loved it though.
It is very funny to me that a movie about Fantasia, a land comprised of the hopes and dreams of mankind and threatened by their decline, contains some very definite fantastical teenage hopes and dreams:
One must find a way through the impenetrable and deadly Sphinx Gates indeed! The apex fear and desire of every teenage boy.
8. Razib Khan on the origins of Men, Violence and the Huns
On the origins of men and violence, a really beautiful series:
“Humans are on the low end of the distribution in this characteristic, as gorilla and orangutan males can be twice as large as females, while chimpanzees and bonobo males are still 30% larger. Human males, in contrast, are just 15% larger than females.”
On competition probably being the raison d’etre of men (from here):
“So how do we explain the existence of males, this superfluous sex? The most likely explanation is that the existence of males promotes long-term viability for the population by driving adaptation to unpredictably changing selection pressures. Competition between males results in winners and losers, and if the losers carry more mutations, this process becomes an evolutionary sieve that increases fitness by sweeping harmful genes from the population. Conversely, the fitter males also drive the spread of beneficient genes more rapidly by fathering more offspring. In organisms like fish, ants and worms, where we observe both closely related asexual and sexual species, the asexual species are often numerous, but evolutionarily young, indicating that despite their short-term reproductive advantage they go extinct much faster than the sexual lineages. When you see an asexual success story, you’re usually catching a one-hit-wonder pre-flameout, not a robust dynasty enjoying a long-term steady record of success.”
How it started…
“A 2015 paper comparing genetic diversity between Y chromosomes and mitochondrial (maternal) lineages, found that over 4,000 years ago, for dozens of generations, more than ten women had children for every man in the regions characterized by expansionary Yamnaya. These genetic data make the case for massive levels of de facto polygamy among these early elite Indo-European kindreds.
To the victors go the spoils, indeed.”
…How it’s going:
(Marriage as a social technology to distribute mates. Feminisation rules everything around me)
“Nearly 2,000 years ago, the originally Jewish sect of Christianity adopted the pagan Greco-Roman norm of obligate legal monogamy even for high-status men. Julius Caesar’s son by Cleopatra, Caesarion, was illegitimate, so Caesar had to adopt his grandnephew, Octavian, as his son and heir. This constraint on powerful men continues down to the present in Western societies. Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, is seen as prolific, with six sons and one daughter, but his fertility is lower than that of the median woman in Massachusetts in the late 1600’s. At that time family sizes of over ten children were common in New England. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who combined have more wealth than the poorest half of Americans combined, only have three children each.”
But less snarkily, perhaps the entire history of man is a story of domestication. Domestication through adolescence and then marriage. Mothers as domesticators followed by wives.
What is Civilisation itself if not a domestication of man and harnessing of his talents away from violence to productive means?
“Perhaps here we see the peak fit of the dog/wolf trope to wayward, unrestrained bands of males on the precipice of adulthood. Their potential to coalesce into a powerfully disciplined, loyal and hierarchical pack is undeniable. But until they are fully tamed, trained and their wild impulses fully curbed, they are for all intents and purposes as actual wolves in the midst of society’s hen house. Little wonder then that pastoralist societies conventionally exiled them en masse as far from the center of civilization as possible until that developmental period of peak danger safely passed. Or that they referred to them as dogs and wolves. Often the greatest threat to the stability of society was literally in its midst. Male adolescence was… an inexhaustible reservoir of dogs.”
On the Huns:
“The most militarily consequential innovation before nuclear weapons, the development of cavalry, was pioneered by the Scythians around 1000 BC.”
Is this true? Was the horse and associated technology the most important military advance before nuclear weapons?
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