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HLG Notebook | June 2014

1. Data Nerds 1, FIFA 0

It appears that no sporting event can avoid the data analytics/social media grinder. Google, as one might have predicted, has assembled a team of analysts and infographic specialists to interpret every minute of the World Cup. Their analysis puts the U.S. on top:

The U.S. may struggle to keep up with the global elite on the soccer pitch, but when it comes to social media there is no competition. Within minutes of the [US-Germany] game ending, the hashtags “IBelieved,” “BringonBelgium,” “BeatBelgium” and “RoundOf16″ all started trending on Twitter. “The U.S. dominated social media during that game.”


2. Strunk & White’s Outdated Advice

Excellent essay by psycholinguist Stephen Pinker on what makes good writing. Pinker tells the writer not to diagram the perfect sentence, but to “get inside the head of your reader.” But perhaps the essay’s best part is when it takes on one of the sacred cows of the composition industry, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. According to Pinker:

As valuable as The Elements of Style is (and it’s tremendously valuable), it’s got a lot of cockamamie advice…For example, they sternly warn, “Never use ‘contact’ as a verb. Don’t say ‘I’m going to contact him.’ It’s pretentious jargon, pompous and self-important. Indicate that you intend to ‘telephone’ someone or ‘write them’ or ‘knock on their door.’” To a writer in the 21st century, this advice is bizarre.


3. How to Conduct an Interview

Tyler Cowen leads an in-depth conversation with Ralph Nader. While Nader’s comments are largely predictable, Cowen’s questions are not. Though Cowen is never confrontational, he does challenge Nader at every turn. A few examples of Cowen’s tough but respectful approach:

When you look at how much [corporations] actually pay after various forms of maneuvering or evasion, maybe they pay 17-18 percent, which is more or less in the middle of the pack of OECD nations. So if corporations have so much political power in the United States, why is our corporate income tax still so high?

Wouldn’t you admit the fact that Swedish-Americans have better health outcomes than Swedes, and Japanese-Americans have slightly better health outcomes than Japanese, and so on?

If I look back at your career, what do you think is the main thing you’ve been wrong about?


4. Disruption: An Idea Without Critics

Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation meets its first critic. In the New Yorker, Jill Lepore ends the silence:

Most big ideas have loud critics. Not disruption. Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.


5. The Myth of Class Warfare

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has become the most divisive books in years. The French economist argues that capitalism inexorably leads to wealth inequality, and that the best solution is higher taxes on the rich. Many, like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, have cheered the findings. But Jonah Goldberg, in a long, lucid, rebuttal in Commentary, describes Piketty’s work as “a warrant to empower those who think they are smarter than the market – and who feel superior to those most richly rewarded by it.” Goldberg’s argument also suggests that the U.S. is not actually seething with class resentment:

In 1990, Gallup asked Americans whether the country benefits from having a class of rich people. Sixty-two percent said yes. In 2012, 63 percent said yes. It seems that most Americans simply want a fair shake. They don’t really begrudge the success of others, and to the extent they do, they don’t want to do much about it. It’s hard to see how any of this amounts to an inequality-driven powder keg of social unrest waiting to explode.


6. Are Computers Too Smart – Or Not Yet Smart Enough?

Two views on how technology will change the way we manage personal information. Torsen Krauel, editor of Germany’s Die Welt, believes that our thirst for information is destroying the private sphere:

On the one hand, we protest being monitored and want to prevent computers from secretly watching our every move. On the other hand, even ordinary folks like the idea of having eyes everywhere. We want to know, right now, why the subway is late. We want a text message and pictures immediately if our home is being broken into…And we want stock information at our fingertips as fast as the big financial firms have it.

James Fallows is less skeptical, and sees how technology can improve our lives even further. He speaks to five experts about the digital tools that we use to organize information – email, calendars, reminders – and all agree that things will get better. Here is what one of them has to say about Google Glass:

They may be dealing with the wrong human sense…The ubiquitous device may not be something that you see but something that whispers in your ear – a kind of reading glass for the ear that tells you what you need to know.


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