Monday Links 3/13

Links I liked last week:

1. Against nutrition dogma
This episode of the Invest Like the Best podcast with Peter Attia was the best health-related thing I’ve heard or read in months, even better than the Gary Taubes sugar stuff (although reaching some similar conclusions). Attia is a doctor who is obsessed with extending human lifespan and healthspan (the period of life in which you are active). He’s a close friend of Tim Ferriss, so you might recognize a similar style of experimentation on the border between known science and speculation. But I will say that of all the quacks promoting nutrition tips and life-hacks, Attia seems the most knowledgeable about the state of research. Some topics I found exciting and plan to research further: muscle mass is important because it disposes of glucose and helps keep your glucose levels stable (Attia does continuous glucose monitoring); rapamycin, an mTOR inhibitor, might be a miracle drug that slows the aging process (at least in mice and flies); Attia thinks intermittent fasting (like not eating before 2pm) is more useful than caloric restriction for those who want to lose weight. Also here is Attia sharing a soft tissue preparation and stretching routine for use before exercising. In general, I find it strange that my knowledge of nutrition and exercise has barely progressed beyond whatever the conventional wisdom was ten years ago.

2. Against Hamilton
Back around the peak of Hamilton’s popularity, I saw a few think pieces arguing that Hamilton the man doesn’t deserve the admiration he has received. The most recent entry into that contrarian canon, Matt Stoller’s essay in The Baffler, is the most convincing I’ve seen. Stoller’s main points are that Hamilton did not believe in democracy, fought mainly for the interests of financiers, supported a near mutiny of joint creditor and military interests against the Continental Congress, and tried to create a partisan army where only Federalists could be officers. Plus, how about a revisionist history of the Whiskey Rebellion were the rebels were the good guys! Looking to the present, Stoller sees the plutocratic tendency in American politics originating with Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t deserve the blame for misreading the history so much as Ron Chernow does; Stoller and other academic historians I’ve spoken to dismiss Chernow’s work as hagiography. I think it’s possible to believe that Hamilton was a dangerous figure and that the musical is still great. Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) was, after all, the best character.

3. Against political correctness

William Deresiewicz, long-time gadfly of elite higher education, fires his latest salvo against political correctness on college campuses. I feel like I have more disclaimers and prefaces to lay out than comments on the piece. One, elite colleges are mostly irrelevant in the broader scheme of “normal” higher education. Two, college students have always done things that older people find objectionable, and we definitely spend too much time talking about campus controversies. Three, the interesting implications of this “political correctness” argument have little to do with the Charles Murray incident at Middlebury or other tests of “free speech”; the interesting part, as I see it, has to do with everyday life in a homogeneously liberal community. Deresiewicz argues that elite colleges are essentially religious schools, where the religion is the belief system of the liberal elite: “They possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted.” He shares stories of his own (liberal) students who have learned to keep their mouths shut when they suspect their opinion might be controversial. I imagine most of us can relate.

I think this is unfortunate. It’s not the worst thing in the world; it’s certainly less bad than many other features of our society like widespread racism and sexism. But I reject one common version of this conversation where people say we can only address one of these problems at a time. Deresiewicz suggests making private schools more like public schools, where diversity of opinion seems to follow other kinds of diversity. And of course the value of more diverse communities runs all the way back to childhood: “When different kinds of people grow up together, rather than being introduced to one another under artificial conditions in young adulthood, they learn to talk and play and study together honestly and unselfconsciously—which means, for adolescents, often frankly and roughly—without feeling that they have to tiptoe around sensitivities that are frequently created by the situation itself.”

4. Against everything
Just because. On Ivan Illich, who will merit a longer post from me.

5. From Medusa to Merkel
The classical historian Mary Beard has an essay about women in power from antiquity to Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton. There is a narrative out there that the classical world had more room for women than ours does, but Beard argues that the Amazons, Lysistrata, Athena, and Medusa were all used in service of anti-feminist arguments about the danger and unnaturalness of women’s power. I hadn’t realized how many memes emerged with Trump superimposed on Perseus holding the decapitated head of Clinton/Medusa. How might things get better? You’ve probably seen those rankings of countries by the share of parliament seats held by women, but Beard wants to complicate our understanding of what power should mean for women. “You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means above all thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession.”

6. Why did the Middle East fall behind?
Economic historian Jared Rubin discusses why the Middle East fell behind Europe after the 10th century or so. This is a huge topic, but this blog post is a nice entry point to get acquainted with some of the important arguments. Rubin mostly reviews his own argument from a new book as well as that of Timur Kuran, who wrote maybe the leading book on the topic. Both Rubin and Kuran focus on Islamic law, which they argue served Middle Eastern societies extremely well in the 7th-9th century but did not adapt well for more modern commerce. Traditional Islamic law introduced a structure for business partnerships that was more advanced than anything in the Roman world or Medieval Europe, but these partnerships had flaws (from our modern perspective), such as automatically dissolving upon the death of any partner. Kuran argues that partnerships in the Middle East remained small well after joint stock companies and the modern corporation emerged in Europe. Rubin takes up where Kuran leaves off and asks: well, why didn’t anyone change these laws after the 10th century? His answer is that “rulers relied heavily on the religious elite for legitimacy” and were unwilling to intruding on clerics’ authority over commercial law for the sake of business development. And now we’re back to Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic. Weber actually wrote about Islam too, though I haven’t read it. Here’s a 2011 New Yorker review essay which mentions the Kuran book, disagrees with the idea that Islam has much to do with economic stagnation in the modern Middle East, but doesn’t really address the historical argument.

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