Weekend Reads: September 11, 2021

Las Vegas, 9/11 & Rural Appalachia, Miracles, & More

Hello all,

Lots to share this week — I actually had to pare the newsletter back, as I had accrued reading over the last two weeks. This newsletter includes a wide variety, as well. Hope you enjoy.

Articles

Obligatory 9/11 post: “9/11 made a tiny Pennsylvania town world famous. 20 years later, it feels left out.” by Christopher Maag @ NorthJersey.com via USA Today

I grew up about 20-30 minutes from the crash site of Flight 93 on 9/11. I remember being in school that day and my dad picking me up, explaining to me that terrorists had blown up some buildings in New York City and that he heard another plane had crashed in Somerset County. He was expecting to see smoke in the town of Somerset as he drove in.

Over the years, the Somerset County and surrounding region has been subject of quite a few coastal journalists ogling the region to try to figure out what’s going on in America. It’s a once-Norman Rockwell-like area that had decent job growth from energy and manufacturing, tourism with ski resorts nearby, and a decent quality of life. Like most of rural Appalachia, that’s changed as the cost of doing business in the United States has gotten relatively worse and solar and wind displace coal and (stupidly) natural gas. And opioids have displaced any other kind of substance of abuse in the region.

The county I grew up in has been solidly red for decades, but nearby Cambria County oscillated between blue and red until 2016. Then the journos appeared. Instead of looking at the root causes of people’s discontent with the status quo in the region, many worked to paint the median voter in the region as uneducated and racist hillbillies (I won’t link to one particularly egregious piece at Politico). People who had never known anybody who shipped off to die in Afghanistan or Iraq after 9/11 wrote about why many people in rural America don’t feel bad about the concept of “America First.”

Journos who crack jokes about people dying of opioid overdoses (like the excrementitious commentary at National Review by columnist Kevin Williamson declared that towns like the one I grew up in “deserve to die”) haven’t actually had close family members die of opioid overdoses. To these people, rural Appalachian Americans are a sociopolitical topic for writing prompts at best and scapegoats for political outcomes they don’t like at worst.

That all being said, this piece is actually decent. Over the years, lots of journalists come through Somerset County to talk or write about 9/11. The government came, took a lot of land, built an ugly memorial, and left. The region often gets forgotten in stories about September 11. The region feels “left behind” in the 9/11 narrative. And for good reason. I thought Maag captured the sentiment well without ogling the people of Shanksville as objects to be written about purely for clicks. Worth looking at.

“You can buy stuff online, but getting it is another story,” by Terry Ngyuen @ Vox

This is a decent look at the root of the supply chain issues causing delays and higher prices all over the world. The problem is multi-faceted. Factories that produce inputs for goods — like wood pulp — have shut down and started up again numerous times over the last two years. Half of the world’s sailors are from developing countries that are far down the list for vaccine rollouts. Even wealthy countries have experienced shutdowns at ports that cause backlogs of ships and shipping containers that can take weeks to resolve.

“How to Play Poker,” by Corey Haines

I’m naturally good at poker. I don’t really know why or how but I’ve never really had to practice to at least perform decently among casual players (i.e., I once played at a poker table with John Stossel at a charity poker event and beat him — he was not a great sport). That being said, poker seems to suffer from the same problems lots of games of math and psychology suffer from — a dearth of in-depth beginner material. Most of the stuff out there is either too basic or too advanced. Corey’s guide is both detailed but digestible.

“Doomed to Succeed” by George Gilder @ The New Criterion ($)

The technologist George Gilder (whose books I have recommended previously in this newsletter) has a relatively negative review of Niall Ferguson’s book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe at The New Criterion. George is an excellent writer and one of the few people with a relatively large platform who seems capable of second and third order thinking. Regardless of your stance on Ferguson’s book, this is a fun read.

“The People of Las Vegas” by Amanda Fortini @ Believer Mag

I love Las Vegas (more Vegas content below). This lengthy piece by Amanda Fortini, who is herself a denizen of Sin City, does a great job at humanizing a place that is often thought of either as just the Strip or as cookie cutter homes built in the desert in the lead up to the 2008 Financial Crisis.

I have often wondered whether the general ignorance about Las Vegas is born of laziness, snobbery, or an altogether more insidious impulse. Las Vegas was, of course, déclassé and embarrassing from the start: founded by the Mafia, the first “unaristocratic” Americans, as Tom Wolfe wrote, “to have enough money to build a monument to their style of life.” It’s frequently said that Las Vegas has no culture, but that’s not true. My Italian relatives from Illinois—my aunts with their Carmela Soprano hairdos and long acrylic nails—love it for a reason. They love playing the slots downtown at the Golden Nugget and going out for martini dinners at old-school Italian places. (At one of these, I heard Pia Zadora breathily sing about her “accidents and arrests.”) They love Cirque du Soleil shows, where you can sit and watch first-class acrobats fly across the stage while you sip from a plastic cup of beer. Las Vegas is vernacular culture—“prole,” Wolfe called it—and thus, he notes, “it gets ignored, except on the most sensational level.” Those who think of themselves as cultured and educated look down on Las Vegas as garish and brazen. But concern about “good taste” is often just socially palatable code for classism and racism. This is a working-class town that’s nearly 33 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Black, and 7 percent Asian. It has one of the largest populations of undocumented immigrants in the country, and the eighth-highest rate of homelessness. Consider these demographics, and one starts to understand why the people of Las Vegas get overlooked.

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Videos

Curtis Yarvin on Tucker Carlson Today

Curtis Yarvin is a controversial figure (I even debated about including this link, but it’s easily one of the most talked-about things in my twitter orbit this week so it’s worth sharing). I first heard of him (then under the pseudonym “Mencius Moldbug”) nearly a decade ago from a friend who had gone down the rabbit hole and discovered what was then known merely as the “Dark Enlightenment.” I never thought I’d hear about this guy again — but year after year, somebody I met or talked to at some event would ask something like, “Oh, have you read Moldbug?” or “He’s kind of out there, but Moldbug has thoughts on this…”

I’m now convinced he’s likely the most important American political thinker of the 21st century (as of now, at least, 21 years into the century). And his ideas are much more influential (even if they don’t agree with them) among those who are close to real centers of power in America than, say, Jonah Goldberg or some other DC/NYC professional writer on their 17th book.

Carlson puts it well: whether you agree with Yarvin or not, you should listen to what he has to say. I also found this a good interview at getting a 101 on his ideas — some friends have noted that his writing is too obtuse to get into without a specific interest.

The Thomistic Institute on Miracles and Science

The Thomistic Institute has been putting out an excellent series of videos over the last year or two titled Aquinas 101 and just released a new video this week on the relationship between miracles and a scientific worldview. This video, narrated by Prof. Karin Öberg, an astronomer at Harvard, does a good job of illustrating that a scientific worldview need not imply pure materialism. Materialism, not the scientific way of thinking, requires one to reject the concept of miracles. And believing materialism is not a necessary condition for a scientific worldview.

I also thought this short video of Tesla’s FSD in Ukraine was interesting. I’m skeptical of Tesla’s ability to actually achieve Level 4 autonomy without sensors (and even here, these streets are relatively clear and the weather is good — it’s like how LiDAR companies will test their sensors in white warehouses and then say they have XXX meters of high resolution visibility, give me a break), but it is interesting to see Tesla deploying this, especially in Ukraine where you won’t get as many tech journos chasing it down. (Disclosure: I am a shareholder in a LiDAR company, Luminar.)

Podcasts

The Birth of Vegas by Wondery on Business Wars

Las Vegas has always been a fascinating and weird place. In a certain sense, it’s archetypally American. When you say something like that, some people like to focus in on the consumerism or the hedonism or the kitsch. I’d disagree — Vegas is the archetypal American city because Vegas has reinvented itself so many times.

The American spirit and persona is about the freedom to reinvent yourself. Families came to America from the continent to escape structures that would have kept them within a very specific frame of reference for their lives. Americans went west for the opportunity for a better life. And the American economy has reinvented itself so many times over that it’s difficult to assign a single industry to the United States like you can with so many other countries. This is a well-produced podcast series looking at the birth, death, rebirth, death, and rebirth of Las Vegas since the Hoover Dam through the rise and fall (and rise) of Steve Wynn.

Tweets

Books

Right now I am reading Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. It’s essentially a history of risk analysis and statistics. Too early in it to give a full review, but so far it’s been a fun look at the development of what is really a rather recent field (most developments have come since Blaise Pascal, relatively few earlier unless you go all the way back to the Classical era).

Also listening to How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region after having had it sit on a shelf for too long. (h/t Michael Gibson for the first book, Byrne Hobart for the second)

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That’s it for now. As always, please don’t hesitate to share what you’re enjoying with me. Always interested to see what’s floating around there in the ether.

Cheers,

Zak