Dynamist Blog


I'll be speaking and signing books at the Barnes & Noble in Walnut Creek on Wednesday night at 7:30 and at the Stanford bookstore (on the campus) Thursday night at 7:00. Info on these and other public appearances is on the Book Tour page.


If you'd like to listen to my interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation, it's here. (Scroll down.)

The design site Boxes and Arrows has a review of The Substance of Style, along with an interview in which I discuss some of the book's implications for designers in general and interaction design in particular. Interviewer Steve McLaughlin, who also wrote the review, actually got me to say things that I haven't already said a million times--fresh material, folks.

Lileks on our multiparty Hugh Hewitt Show appearance Tuesday: "Hugh had two other guests - a California legislator [John Campbell--vp] and famed SacBee blogger Dan Weintraub, and for the next hour we all discussed the internet and its effects on campaigns. Great fun. And I can say with some confidence that I was the only person on the show who spent most of the time ironing pants." And I can say with some confidence that I was the only person on the show who drank three Diet Cokes while on the air.


Sean Kinsell revises and amends his remarks on Japanese earthquake preparedness, lest readers get the mistaken iimpression that Japanese people just run out into the street:

In Tokyo, you stay inside, too, but you have to wait for instructions. When the leader for your neighborhood comes around and announces that everyone has to leave, you must go along. There are two big problems in Japan that I don't think California has: for one thing, traditional Japanese houses (1) are framed with nice, burnable wood, (2) are shoehorned in in nice, fire-sharing proximity to each other, and (3) are roofed with nice, heavy clunkers of porcelain tiles. Such houses can still be in danger even if they seem fine after the first big quake, and I don't know whether retrofitting them is really even possible.

Buildings from the '80's on follow new, earthquake-proof design codes; in Kobe, they pretty much all survived intact. But even they can be in danger if they're on unstable ground, which is the other big problem. Tokyo is a filigree of old river and creek beds that have been filled in to make buildable real estate, and those areas have a proclivity for melting away underneath buildings in an earthquake (especially if the quake puts them into contact with water). The sections of the Shinkansen, major highways, and big water and gas lines that failed in Kobe turned out to have been, almost to a one, built on or into such infill.

BTW, the NHK special reported that a consultant for the Ministry of the Interior (or Ministry of Territory and Transportation, or however they Anglicize its new name) predicts 7000 deaths in the next big one to hit metro Tokyo. But there has to be lots of give in that figure. Kobe was unprepared for a major earthquake and had 6000 deaths, but it was apparently very lucky: the quake came at 6 a.m., when people were still asleep. A few hours later, the train stations and highways would have been filled with commuters. Imagine an 8.0 earthquake in Tokyo at 8 a.m. on a workday. Or better yet, don't.

Timing matters a lot to earthquake fatalities, at least in developed countries with good construction. The recent Hokkaido quake hit early in the morning, as did the 1994 Northridge quake in L.A. The 1989 San Francisco quake would have been even more devastating if the SF teams hadn't been playing in the World Series, leading people to leave work early. As a result, fewer commuters than usual were on the Bay Bridge and freeway overpasses when they collapsed.


Much has been written already (and ably collected by Juan Non-Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy) on David Brooks's NYT column on the problems of conservatives and libertarians in academia. But two important points have been omitted:

First, many have noted that the problem of political barriers is greater in the humanities and, they might add, the softer social sciences. The usual assumption is that this is because of less rigorous fields have greater room for non-scholarly considerations. That may be true, but supply and demand also play an important role.

When I was in college, my professors advised me against pursuing an academic career, despite my excellent record. They knew nothing of my politics. They knew only that there were no jobs for English Ph.D.s. That was 20 years ago, but the humanities job market hasn't improved much. When supply vastly swamps demand, you get lower wages (all those adjuncts) and, when wages are sticky, you also get non-pecuniary rationing. If a department has hundreds of applicants to choose from, its members will choose the candidate they feel most comfortable with. Humanities departments have those kinds of applicant/job ratios; economics departments and business schools, which face competition from both private sector employers and non-academic government jobs, do not.

Second, it's true that conservatives may be drawn to fields like diplomatic history that are out of fashion. But it's not much easier finding a job if you're a feminist literary critic or material-culture scholar with a libertarian, rather than leftist, view of contracts, consumption, and consent. (As far as I know, there are no conservatives doing such work.) A diplomatic historian can cover some courses no one else wants to teach and otherwise be ignored. But if you're engaging the same questions as your leftist colleagues, you're a lot more likely to make them profoundly uncomfortable.


Jim Pinkerton Fisks Kassite Yuval Levin's latest TechCentral Station attack on biotech progress. (I eagerly await The New Atlantis's equally open-minded publication of pro-biotech articles.) Let me add a few thoughts to Jim's must-read critique.

Levin and his allies have lately aimed their barbs at never-named "utopian libertarians" who don't cotton to Kassian ideas of regulating science to maintain classical notions of "natural norms." They are attacking straw men; indeed, the only libertarian biotech proponent Levin quotes is Ron Bailey, and then only to admit that Ron's no utopian. They use "utopian" the way some people use "nihilist"--inaccurately, and as a way to link their opponents to the 20th century's totalitarian butchers.

If anything, the Kassites are the utopians, aiming at a perfected version of humanity. They are the ones who believe we know exactly what human beings should be. And they are so determined to maintain humanity in a teleologically defined steady state that they apparently cannot grasp that biotech proponents imagine incremental progress, driven by the individual (and familial) pursuit of well-being.

That process is both modest, since it does not aim at an ideal, and dizzying, since it does not ever arrive at a final destination. Love it or hate it, the one thing such open-ended, incremental progress is not is utopian. It imagines no end point, no idea of perfection. It depends entirely on diverse individual pursuits of happiness.

Why do such smart people make such a dumb mistake? In Levin's case, at least, his training appears to be the problem. His intellectual history is marred by the typical Straussian omission of the pragmatic, skeptical, incremental, profoundly anti-utopian liberalism running from the Scottish Enlightenment through today's Hayekian libertarians--the omission, in other words, of the very intellectual tradition with which he is actually arguing.

If you want to uphold the idea that the world has been going downhill since Machiavelli, and that modernity has added nothing important to the wisdom of the ancients, it helps to leave out the tradition that created Anglo-American freedom, prosperity, and longevity.


Happy New Year. I'll be observing Rosh Hashanah with my family in L.A. this weekend. Blogging will resume on Monday.


At the kind, if perhaps foolish, invitation of the host, I will be co-hosting HughHewitt's radio show on Tuesday, giving America the benefits of my scratchy voice. (I guess Cruz "Radio Voice" Bustamante wasn't interested.)


Reader Sean Kinsell writes from Tokyo:

Actually, NHK had a fascinating special on a few weeks ago about that very subject. It was the kind of thing you write about: how neighborhood groups with day-to-day knowledge of their own little parts of Tokyo--hospital administrators and fire companies and schools and such--were learning from Kobe and Sendai how to make sure they were better prepared for the next big quake here than the government-approved planning left them. One neighborhood changed its evacuation route after a drill that was aided by a model of how fires would spread, and so on. Of course, almost none of our power lines are buried, so a skein of live wires is going to collapse on our heads the minute we go outdoors after a quake, anyway.

The first rule of earthquake survival, at least in California, is stay inside. The buildings are built to stay up, and falling debris--never mind power lines--will get you if you go outside.

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