Brooks and Krugman

It’s that time of year again.  In “The 2015 Sidney Awards” Bobo presents us with Part I of  a selection of the year’s best long-form essays.  Prof. Krugman, in “‘The Big Short,’ Housing Bubbles and Retold Lies,” says the enemies of financial regulation hope you won’t see a new movie, or believe it.  Hmmm…  I’ve stopped going to the movies because the theaters are air conditioned to Arctic levels and I need ear plugs to tolerate the sound levels, but I may have to make an exception for this one.  Here’s Bobo:

It is time once again for the Sidney Awards, when I pick out some of the best long-form essays that you might download for your holiday reading pleasure. This year there were so many fine pieces it’s impossible to read them all without totally ignoring your family.

The first two winners are just great narratives. In “The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World With Logic” in Nautilus, Amanda Gefter described the partnership between Walter Pitts and Warren McCulloch. These two geniuses fit together perfectly. They performed amazing intellectual feats, the first of which was coming up with a working model for how the brain works and laying the groundwork for artificial intelligence.

They also developed an amazing friendship. At one point when they were apart, Pitts wrote McCulloch, “About once a week now I become violently homesick to talk all evening and all night to you.”

Only one person was unhappy with this arrangement: the wife of a third colleague who was jealous of her husband’s academic relationships. She told her husband, falsely, that their daughter had been seduced by his colleagues. That ruptured the whole network of ties.

Pitts was abandoned. He began drinking heavily. He withdrew from most social contact. As Gefter writes, “On May 14, 1969 Walter Pitts died alone in a boarding house in Cambridge, of bleeding esophageal varices, a condition associated with cirrhosis of the liver. Four months later, McCulloch passed away, as if the existence of one without the other were simply illogical, a reverberating loop wrenched open.”

The Zero Armed Bandit,” published in Damn Interesting by Alan Bellows, opens with an amazing problem. In 1980, a security guard finds an ingenious bomb with 28 mysterious toggles in a Lake Tahoe casino. An accompanying note says that any attempt to tilt the bomb or take it apart will set it off. The bomb will apparently wreak destruction within a 1,200-foot radius, including the Harrah’s hotel across the street.

The essay tells two stories — of the father and sons who built the bomb and engineered an equally complex ransom drop-off scheme, and the local officials who had to figure out how to defuse the thing.

The essay shows two groups of bold and creative people, on both sides of the law, competing to solve opposite but wickedly complex problems.

I guess our theme here is the intersection between psychology and intellect. Let me quickly mention two pieces that brilliantly marry psychology, intellect and technology. The first is “What Is Code?” which Paul Ford wrote in Bloomberg Business. We’re surrounded by computer code. Ford gives us a one-stop primer for what it is, how it works, who writes it, the nature of the people who write it and what makes them angry. If you want to understand this ubiquitous stuff, this is the place to go.

If you want a glimpse of technology’s next face, I’d hold up Connie Chan’s post, “When One App Rules Them All: The Case of WeChat and Mobile in China,” on the Andreessan Horowitz site. In America we use different apps for different functions. But China has overleapt us. The Chinese app WeChat basically does everything from texting to dating to banking to accessing city services. It is an app that contains millions of apps within it. As Chan says, it shows what happens when an entire country skips the PC and goes straight to mobile. It suggests a completely unified technological life. As Tyler Cowen noted on his Marginal Revolution blog, this is one of China’s first major innovations in the tech era.

Let us close this first column on the annual awards, named for the philosopher Sidney Hook, with two looks at campus culture. The first is the much-discussed “The Coddling of the American Mind” in The Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. This was the most important article this year on student hypersensitivity, the way some students seek safe spaces in case they are assaulted by microaggressions. The authors invent the apt term “vindictive protectiveness” to capture this mind-set and describe how this mental state leads to depression and leaves students unprepared for the real world.

Students may by offended by the slightest infringement in identity, but as Michael J. Lewis points out in “How Art Became Irrelevant” in Commentary, many are utterly unmoved by art. Lewis writes, “Placing things in context is what contemporary students do best. What they do not do is judge. Instead there was the same frozen polite reserve one observes in the faces of those attending an unfamiliar religious service — the expression that says, I have no say in this.”

Hyper-judgmentalism about self sits side by side with widespread non-judgmentalism about art, philosophy and even literature. This is a weird set of affairs. Fortunately there’s another batch of fine essays coming on Tuesday, which I’m sure will explain all things. ”

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