Six Ideas That Made Us Think

1. Lie Detection: True or False?

The late New York Times columnist William Safire devoted countless pieces to decrying polygraph tests. But what Safire called “Kafkaesque machines” are now being pushed in new directions by technology. Amit Katwala offers an exhaustive report on the “new frontier in lie detection” – and the “dangers they could unleash on society”:

An increasing number of projects are using AI to combine multiple sources of evidence into a single measure for deception. Machine learning is accelerating deception research by spotting previously unseen patterns in reams of data. Scientists at the University of Maryland, for example, have developed software that they claim can detect deception from courtroom footage with 88% accuracy.

But there are problems. “We have this tremendous capacity to believe our own lies,” says Dan Ariely, the renowned behavioral psychologist, “and once we believe our own lies, we don’t provide any signal of wrongdoing.”

2. “Deep in the Weeds of a Word”

Kory Stamfer makes poetry out of her experience working as a lexicographer at Merriam Webster:

[The] dictionary is a human document, constantly being compiled, proofread, and updated by actual, living, awkward people. In that unassuming brick building in Springfield [Merriam-Webster headquarters], there are a couple dozen people who spend their workweek doing nothing but making dictionaries—sifting the language, categorizing it, describing it, alphabetizing it. They are word nerds who spend the better parts of their lives writing and editing dictionary definitions, thinking deeply about adverbs, and slowly, inexorably going blind. They are lexicographers.

3. Chinese Tyranny: Numbers

Lori Loughlin has nothing on anxious Chinese families. M.E. Strickland offers a deep look at how China’s obsession with quantification, metrics, and numerical goals has distorted its society. One example is the gaokao, the national university entrance exam, which has become symbolic of “the quantified country’s” cat-and-mouse game:

In 2016, the government decided to clamp down on cheating on the gaokao, even threatening jail time for the worst forms. Just how effective this may have been is hard to say, but it repeats a pattern in China’s quantitative governance: When people are measured in something that has significant consequences, they adapt, strategize, and attempt to outwit the measures used over them. In turn, the government tends to respond by doubling down on punishments for those who cheat or defraud the system, but doesn’t rethink the process of measurement and goal-setting itself.

4. “The Best Entrepreneurs Are Middle-Aged”

Mark Zuckerberg once famously argued that “young people are just smarter,” and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has tweeted that “people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.” Now, the MIT Technology Review devotes an entire issue to aging that, among other things, makes a compelling case for why these views are, well, antiquated:Piëch's hierarchical, authoritarian management style contradicted fashionable management wisdom — but proved extremely successful. He respected alpha males of equal caliber: a few statesmen, race drivers, even powerful union leaders. But if you didn't take responsibility, you were on your way out. When he became Audi CEO, he reportedly told his top management: "Meine Herren, with one third of you I am satisfied, another third will have to improve, and the last third will have to leave." And thus it happened

In a rigorous study that looked at 2.7 million company founders, economists at MIT, the US Census Bureau, and Northwestern University concluded the best entrepreneurs are middle-aged. The fastest-growing startups were created by founders with an average age of 45. In a 2018 paper they found that a 50-year-old entrepreneur was nearly twice as likely to build a highly successful company as a 30-year-old. And contrary to Khosla’s tweet, it turns out that industry experience was a significant positive in predicting success.

Tell Timothy Noah, who complained in a recent Politico piece that the U.S. had become “a wheezy gerontocracy,” akin to “a bicycle left in the rain.”

5. When Professional Tennis Met Studio 54

The week after a sizzling US Open finals, Racquet published a tribute to professional tennis sensation, Vitas Gerulitas. The piece, published 25 years after Gerulitas’s premature death at age 40, is 50% tennis history, 50% 1970s New York sociology, and 100% great writing:

A generation after his death—when tennis champions are meticulously calibrated überathletes inhabiting a curated world of kale water, “teams,” and corporate branding—it’s impossible to conceive the swath Vitas cut through the world he so vividly inhabited…In the cosmology of New York nightlife, Broadway Joe Namath was superseded by “Broadway Vitas.” He wasn’t just a tennis star—he was a rock star. If Connors was Elvis, Vitas was Rod Stewart. And enough of a pop icon for Andy Warhol to shoot him for the cover of Interview.

6. Gladwellisms

Andrew Ferguson offers the definitive takedown of Malcom Gladwell and his “method of pop social science, on whose rickety findings he has built his reputation as a public intellectual”:

Gladwell is both a sucker for and a master of obfuscation. Some Gladwellisms have entered everyday speech. In addition to the tipping point,he’s given us connectors, mavens, stickiness, andthe law of the few…In Talking to Strangers, however, Gladwell’s catchphrase factory has unexpectedly shut down. The lack of zippy new sayings contributes to the book’s general sense of fatigue. The closest he comes is the phrase default to truth, which he uses more than 20 times, not counting chapter titles. Default to truth comes to us from a psychologist named Tim Levine, who designed a series of ingenious experiments on college kids to “discover” a universal human truth: All things being equal, we are much more likely to believe that people are telling the truth than that they are lying. Gladwell seems more impressed by this insight than he should be.

Not to be outdone, Steven Poole in The Guardian writes that Gladwell’s job is to be “puzzled by banalities and then replace them, after a great pseudo-intellectual circumambulation, with banalities.”

Websites Worth Reading

Signature Films: A film that defines major cities

Golden Years: Blog devoted to David Bowie songs

National Gallery of Art: Archive of Robert Frank photography

Feeds We Follow

@incunabula: Excellent thread on hand signals used in Hong Kong protests

@syllabus_tweets: Twitter feed of new reading site

@DarenW: Data visualizer for Major League Baseball