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Notes from Asheville

A town that has more art deco than brutalism — the largest piece of concrete in sight was a modestly sized skate park — is my kind of town. It is at once frozen in time (picture unsupervised tweens riding bicycles and scooters down a quiet tree-lined street) and progressive (in the American sense of having more crystal shops than chain stores and more rainbows than stars’n’stripes posted on storefronts). It is also, for someone who has spent the last 12 years in the Baltimore-DC area, noticeably white, but note more so than would be expected from any place in North Carolina.1

Biltmore is as impressive as you would expect a 250-room house to be, but also shows how much better our lives are compared to the richest of the early 20th century rich. Yes, your 23,000-book library with wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling bookcases is beautiful, but even a person living on the street has access to more books than that from a device in their pocket. Never mind the demands of heating, cleaning, and maintaining the beast. No wonder then that the owners turned it into an amusement park instead of continuing to live there.

A few more observations:

  • Farm Burger is a Southern fast food chain a few notches above Shake Shack that in addition to pretty good beef and incredible vegan burgers also serves roasted bone marrow. The only thing missing was sweetbreads.
  • There are too many hills for it to be a biking town yet there were many people on bicycles. Having mostly narrow, slow-traffic streets downtown helps.
  • There are not one but two interstate highways that bisect the city, but unlike Baltimore’s idiotic I-83 that destroyed many neighborhoods and ruined the city’s walkability, there are plenty of ways to cross the I-240 on foot. Here, having hills actually helped as the highway is in many places nestled between two slopes.
  • Its largest neighbors are Knoxville (approx. 2 hours away), Charlotte (same) and Atlanta (3 and a half). That is… too far away for too little, perhaps?
  • But was the 7+ hour drive from DC worth it? Hell, yes.

  1. The same cannot be said about another picture-perfect town, Frederick, which is distinctly unlike its home state of Maryland. Note, however, that only one of these two states had segregation of some kind in this century. 

Back to microblogging

A brief experiment with Drummer reminded me how fun it was to write short, untitled, tweet-like posts throughout the day without having to be exposed to social networks. Drummer itself was too high-maintenance for the 2020s me, but is a (paid) service whose focus is — and the name does give it away — short, untitled, tweet-like posts with a light layer of social networking.

Which is to say, my old domain is now resurrected as a micro blog with a snazy Edward Tufte-inspired design. The RSS you get there should include updates from this blog, so subscribe to either but not both.

January reading

So far so good. If the first month is anything to go by, I will have the 2022 reading list licked by September.

One last thing about Don’t Look Up

After two failed attempts to explain why exactly I wasn’t thrilled with Adam McKay’s Netflix movie — brevity will only get you so far — I found this review by Scott Alexander to perfectly capture my doubts about the movie’s message. I agree with Alexander only about 60% of the time, but I can agree with 100% of his review.

22 books for 2022

This is the bare minimum of non-medical books I should read this year. The last two years were abysmal in that regard, and I look forward to making excuses for why 2022 was no different.

  • The Scout Mindset (Julia Galef)
  • How to Live (Derek Sivers)
  • Understanding Nonlinear Dynamics (Daniel Kaplan and Leon Glass)
  • Light (M. John Harrison)
  • Safe Haven (Mark Spitznagel)
  • Pieces of the Action (Vannevar Bush)
  • The Demon-Haunted World (Carl Sagan)
  • Where Good Ideas Come From (Steven Johnson)
  • Calculated Risks (Gerd Gigerenzer)
  • Making Things Work (Yaneer Bar-Yam)
  • The Morning Star (Karl Ove Knausgaard)
  • Alexander Hamilton (Ron Chernow)
  • Where Law Ends (Andrew Weissmann)
  • The Fifth Risk (Michael Lewis)
  • Checkpoint Charlie (Ian MacGregor)
  • Checkmate in Berlin (Giles Milton)
  • The Complacent Class (Tyler Cowen)
  • Craft Coffee: A Manual (Jessica Easto)
  • The Complete Father Brown Stories (G. K. Chesterton)
  • Foucault’s Pendulum (Umberto Ecco)
  • Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization (Donald W. Braben)
  • Adventures of a Computational Explorer (Stephen Wolfram)

Science and scientism

A big reason Don’t Look Up didn’t sit right with me was its simplistic view of the scientific consensus. “Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists…” bellows Ariana Grande paternalistically.

Meanwhile, qualified scientists from reputable institutions of higher education act as petty and vindictive prima donnas. The linked article is one scientist’s story of having to suffer through years of academic harassment for publishing a paper that rubbed some of her fellow researchers the wrong way. From the abstract:

A naïve researcher published a scientific article in a respectable journal. She thought her article was straightforward and defensible. It used only publicly available data, and her findings were consistent with much of the literature on the topic. Her coauthors included two distinguished statisticians. To her surprise her publication was met with unusual attacks from some unexpected sources within the research community. These attacks were by and large not pursued through normal channels of scientific discussion. Her research became the target of an aggressive campaign that included insults, errors, misinformation, social media posts, behind-the-scenes gossip and maneuvers, and complaints to her employer. The goal appeared to be to undermine and discredit her work.

Goddamn scientists indeed.

Happy New Year

Infinite Regress HQ wishes a Happy New 2022 to all those who celebrate.1

  1. By the time this gets published, it will be January 1, 2022 in all time zones. The earliest someone has wished me a Happy New Year this season was mid-December (!?). Yes, yes, we won’t see each other until the next year, but let’s see the old year out the door before celebrating the new one. I’m superstitious like that. 

Newsletters of note

Most of these also make an appearance on my list of blogs. All are recommended, though some of the more prolific ones are best consumed in moderation.

Goodbye, Drummer (for now)

Drummer is an online outliner that enables quick, easy, and near real-time posting of text both long form and short — what we used to call blogs back in the good old days of two years ago. Dave Winer created it for his own purposes, but it works beautifuly with just your Twitter account as a login. Here is my page.

As things are still very much in progress, Dave recommended doing daily backups. Sadly, I didn’t, and as of today’s updates a few weeks’ worth of half-baked notes are wiped out from the Drummer server (but thankfully not from the website they helped create). That’ll teach me.

Since posting to that page is on hold until everything is back in order, expect more — dare I say daily — updates here. Managing markdown files is not nearly as intutitive or pleasant to use as Dave’s outliner, but he seemes to be working on an OPML to markdown converter. That will be well worth the wait.

Voices in my head, 2022

Listen to podcasts long enough and you are bound to develop tastes. After 15-some years, mine are these: conversations over stories, with minimal to no editing, and lasting no longer than a couple of hours per episode. Even within these constraints, the list of podcasts I could listen to is near-infinite. Yet these are the few to which I keep returning:

  1. Omnibus, which survived John Roderick’s attempted cancelation to continue providing two poorly-researched topics per week. Highlights of 2021: Mobile Jubilees, The Bottle Conjuror, Officials General, Merkins (yes, those), and The Phantom of New Guinea in which the curious popularity of an obscure Canadian detective show in Serbia makes an appearance.
  2. EconTalk, which continues to be the best general-interest interview show for people who’d rather avoid snake oil salesmen. Highlights of 2021: Dana Giola on poetry (which is in fact the best episode of 2021), Julia Galef on her book Scout Mindset (which I am yet to read, but oh well), Anja Shortland on lost art, Bret Devereaux on ancient Greece and Rome, and Johann Hari on lost connections (which reminded me of a particularly sad episode from my tenure as a heme/onc attending).
  3. Healthcare Unfiltered is the first new healthcare-related podcast I’ve started listening in years. Chadi Nabhan is a good interviewer with an even better access to relevant guests, particularly when he attempts to bring together both sides of a twitter-heated medical debate. Highlights of 2021: Bishal Gyawali on clinical trial design, Aaron Goodman and Matt Wilson on CNS prophylaxis for DLBCL, Barbara Pro and Mehdi Hamadani on PTCL, Mikkael Sekeres and David Steensma on mid-career transition, and Aaron Goodman versus the world, supposedly about randomized clinical trials.
  4. Plenary Session was back on my playlist this year, and mostly Covid-free. Highlights of 2021: Chris Booth, Adam Cifu, Manni Mohyuddin, Bapu Jena, and again Aaron Goodman (who should really start his own podcast instead of squatting in other people’s).
  5. The VPZD Show is the one about Covid. Prasad and Damania have their hearts in the right place and fairly sharp minds; they can evaluate evidence on merits and are willing to admit past mistakes. Without mourning days past when these characteristics were more common — because in fact they weren’t — I’ll just note that in times like these, they are essential. Highlights of 2021 include the entirety of the show, which has only just started.

Previous editions: 2021202020192018The one where I took a break from podcastsThe very first one

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