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Learning as Investing: 7 Skills That Pay Off in Any Job

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It’s common to talk about learning as an investment. Economists talk about human capital, assuming that skills and knowledge, like machines or factories, are primarily things we can use to earn money.

Of all the reasons to learn, solely making money is hardly the best. I spend most of my learning time on things I don’t expect to earn me a penny.

Yet, since we talk about learning as an investment so frequently, I thought it would be interesting to ponder which skills have the best return on investment. If you were a portfolio manager for human capital, let’s say, what would you learn to maximize your return?

First, Some Quibbles…

The value of knowledge is not universal. For most people, knowing how to sing is not a lucrative skill. And then there’s Beyoncé. Similarly, even if machine learning experts or hedge fund managers can make millions by applying complex math, most people never use calculus outside the classroom.

So the correct, albeit dull, answer to the titular question would mirror the most economically valuable professions.

A more interesting answer would restrict our analysis to skills that are useful in a wide range of professions, abilities that you could add to many lines of work and see a return.

But we can go further. The value investing paradigm argues that the key is finding overlooked opportunities. The best investments aren’t the flashiest, but those that are neglected by everyone else. Invest here, and you can reap bigger returns than by chasing the latest fad.

With these two constraints in mind (i.e., non-profession-specific, underappreciated abilities), here would be my picks for a hypothetical portfolio:

1. Being Really Good at Excel

Everyone wants to be a programmer or AI developer (at least if my newsletter replies are any indication). Excel, in contrast, is boring. But a surprising amount of business activity depends on Excel.

In a previous post, I mentioned a friend who joked that his consulting business was basically just him being good at Excel. After that post was published, I got several emails from people who do the same thing (as well as business owners looking for such people).

Many of the most valuable skills aren’t cutting-edge; instead, they involve being highly skilled with a commonly used tool.

2. Writing Good Emails

Email is the basis for a dizzying amount of our work. My friend, Cal Newport, wrote a whole book about how this results in a “hyperactive hive mind” workflow that ruins our productivity.

Many workplace email threads I’ve seen are sloppy and disorganized which leads to a sea of noise. The bar is set really low here. Being able to organize and express your thoughts in a way that makes action items jump out and reduces back-and-forth is a tremendous asset.

3. Being a Non-Terrible Public Speaker

I have immense respect for good public speakers. Holding an audience’s attention isn’t easy. Doing so while being funny, polite, informative and helpful is an enormous task.

As with email, however, the bar is set quite low here. Being non-terrible as a speaker is enough to make you stand out at conferences and meetings.

At a minimum, you should be able to deliver a talk without reading notes or slides, communicate concisely, and pivot your presentation depending on the needs of your audience. A few months in Toastmasters can make a massive difference if you don’t feel confident speaking.

4. Getting Everything Done You Said You Would

A remarkable amount of economic success just comes down to basic reliability. Did you take on a task or project? Did you finish it on time, or did you need extra reminders and prodding?

Part of this skill is simply being organized and productive. But a lot of it is also about managing expectations. Many people, who feel unable to push back against demands, reluctantly agree to work they’re not sure they can deliver on. Yet this pressured “yes” often backfires and makes them seem less reliable in the future.

Richard Feynman famously got out of extra commitments by claiming to be irresponsible. But most of us aren’t Nobel-level geniuses, so the skill of being dependable is still at a premium for us mortals.

5. Researching Effectively

We tend to associate research with academics and journalists, but finding a comprehensive answer to a question is valuable in any field. Which is the best software to use? What do our competitors do? What do the experts recommend?

Knowing how to do research is hardly automatic. It took me years to figure out how to do systematic research that went beyond simple web searches. Getting answers from other people is itself an art that requires practice.

Even if you can’t be the smartest person in the room, you can learn to access what the smartest people think.

6. Ballparking Numbers

Most of our experience with math in school is finding exact answers to precisely worded questions. This is a shame because very few problems in life are like this. Instead, we more often face vague problems where only some of the numbers needed are known.

The physicist, Enrico Fermi, was famous for his ability to develop a good approximation to such questions. His technique was to start from easier-to-estimate numbers and successively work down to the harder-to-estimate quantities.

To illustrate, try to guess how many piano tuners there are in Chicago. Hard to do, right? But perhaps you could start with the population instead—that’s easy to look up. Then guess how many of those people own pianos. How often would they need to be tuned? How long does it take to tune a piano? If you follow through, you can get remarkably close to the true number.

Practicing the ability to quickly ballpark numbers, to make valid estimates of what things should be, is helpful for any quantitative line of work.

7. Learning New Software Quickly

Getting quickly on top of new software is increasingly a requirement for professions outside of IT. Doctors, teachers, lawyers and engineers constantly face new technical interfaces with their work—if you struggle to learn new software, your core professional skills may be undervalued.

I’ll admit, this isn’t my strong point. While I’m good enough at learning new software, I’m hardly a master. Still, knowing how valuable it is, I’ve made a point of hiring people who have this knack in my own business. Being the go-to person for figuring out new tools can give you a valuable edge over the competition.

Other Valuable Skills

Which skills have I missed? I ignored some skills because they were too profession-specific (programming is still primarily useful for programmers, ditto machine learning). Others I left out because they seem to be commonly appreciated (leadership has its own shelf in the bookstore).

I imagine there are lots of skills that work well for particular fields. Figuring out what customers want to buy is huge in client-facing roles. Similarly, teaching is a tool that goes way beyond K-12.

What portfolio would you craft? If you had to invest, which skills would give you the greatest yield? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

The post Learning as Investing: 7 Skills That Pay Off in Any Job appeared first on Scott H Young.

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Gangles
13 days ago
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Santa Monica, California
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Q, Trust, and You - by Will Wilkinson

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The QAnon conspiracy narrative is built from absolutely insane pieces and lots of people believe in it. I knew that already. But it hits differently when you see it. Watching the first episodes of Q: Into the Storm on HBO and its depiction of totally ordinary, familiar white folks scrolling through their Costco iPads on their Costco sofas spouting bonkers claims, I found myself agog with incredulity. It didn’t matter that their comprehensive enmeshment in this demented, ad hoc revenge fantasia wasn’t actually news to me. It’s sort of like the Grand Canyon. You always knew it was there and enormous. Nevertheless, stunning to see.

I kept thinking: “These people don’t even know what evidence is…”

It’s not as if Qanon devotees are trying to determine the plausibility of the conspiracy’s constituent propositions against some standard of logical consistency or coherence with their pre-existing beliefs. They aren’t doing this badly. They aren’t doing this at all. They read stuff on 8chan and watch videos on YouTube and just believe it. Insofar as there’s any impulse to maintain a web of personal belief that isn’t a chaotic jumble of internal contradiction, they do it by regarding Q’s revelations, and the interpretation thereof by an emergent class exegetical elites, as their fixed points. Everything that conflicts with them, they drop or revise, even if those beliefs were much better grounded in reason and reality. It’s wild!

I was launched back into this bewildered amazement by Laura Nelson’s fascinating piece about QAnon and SoCal woo in the LA Times.

We get treats like this:

When the world shut down in March of 2020, Eva Kohn of San Clemente created a group text to stay in touch with nine other women in the area. Niceties about families and lockdown hobbies devolved over the months into false conspiracy theories: that Democratic elites were harvesting adrenochrome from tortured children to use in satanic rites, that the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was perpetrated by antifa, that the COVID-19 vaccine causes infertility.

People believe this! Lots of people! Now, I doubt that you're very surprised to find that folks who will believe in chakras and auras and manifesting things into reality by, like, thinking about them really hard might also believe that Hillary Clinton devours baby faces or whatever. Still, it’s a bracing reminder of the suggestible wildness of the human mind.

Anyone this epistemically dissipated — anyone this anarchic and antinomian about norms of truth-conducive cognition — can end up believing anything. It’s astonishing to see people fervently believing any old arbitrary thing in a massively coordinated way.

Or maybe not so astonishing. If you know where to look, you can see it every Sunday morning. Maybe it’s not so different from what we all do, in a way.

This bit sparked a thought:

“People aren’t taking QAnon as seriously as they should, given how pervasive it is in these worlds — evangelical Christians, yogis — that otherwise have very little in common,” Schwartz said. “They’re creating a world where truth is whatever you feel like it is.”

It’s that last sentence that got to me. I’ve always found the idea that you can just decide to believe something sort of crazy. For a minute I thought maybe the prevalence of QAnon might be a datapoint that counts in favor of “doxastic voluntarism,” as the philosophers call it. I thought maybe I should reconsider.

But this isn’t a story about individuals who independently want to believe that the Pfizer vax will render your gonads moot, and then proceed to will themselves, one at a time, into believing it. This is mass delusion. That makes it seem less than entirely voluntary. People are getting swept up in QAnon for psychologically normal (though no less troubling) reasons. They’re not just deciding to believe in all this. If an individual were to voice belief in this stuff entirely of his own initiative and on his own steam, we’d suspect a loose connection in the noggin. But we don’t think it’s crazy to believe absolutely batshit stuff as long as enough people believe it. Why is that?

I think it’s because we have no choice but to rely on testimony. I’ve never been eye-to-eye with a virus. I think I’ve seen pictures taken through powerful microscopes. I just take it for granted that these microscopes exist, that they’re powerful enough to take snaps of viruses, and that these alleged depictions are what they’re said to be.

It’s trust. I don’t suspect that any of the people involved in the chain of transmission here are making mischief or telling fibs. The idea that there’s a conspiracy to make me falsely believe that there are pictures of viruses does not jibe with my web of belief. So I don’t give it a second thought. I just assume James Madison was real. All the books say so.

The fact is, almost all the general information in your personal web of belief is stuff you read, stuff somebody told you, stuff you saw on TV. Building a relatively accurate mental model of the world doesn’t have all that much to do with your individual reasoning capacity. It’s mostly about trusting and distrusting the right people. The problem is that few of us have the capacity to independently assess whether someone, or some institution, or some process, is a reliable source of accurate information. You have to depend on other people to tell you whose testimony you ought to trust. There’s no way around it. The bootstrapping problem here is central the human condition. We can’t get started building a model of the world that encompasses more than our own extremely narrow idiosyncratic experience unless, at some point, we simply take somebody’s word for it.

It’s easy to see how, if you start out trusting to wrong people, you can get trapped in a bubble. If you start out trusting the wrong people, they’ll tell you to trust other unreliable people, who in turn will tell you to trust unreliable methods. Worse, they’ll tell you to distrust the trustworthy people spreading the word about the genuinely illuminating results of reliable knowledge-gathering methods. You won’t be listening to the people you ought to be listening to. It’s a problem that comes for most of us, sooner or later. That’s why ideology tends to be self-insulating; it functions as a heuristic for grading the trustworthiness of testimony.

It took me for what feels like forever to finally let go of my ideological libertarianism because I had a hard time extending merited epistemic authority to critics of libertarianism because I’d already extended unmerited epistemic authority to critics of those critics. It didn’t really matter that I was way better at reasoning and evaluating the quality of arguments than most people, thanks to eleventy years of philosophy school.

This side of geometry, just about any serious dispute will turn on a number of empirical assumptions or claims. In sophisticated ideological disputation, confirmation bias takes the form of giving the testimony of some authorities slightly more weight than others, of harboring slightly more concern about the credibility of empirical methods behind inconvenient claims and slightly less about methods that tend to bolster your position. That’s why debates almost never move anyone off their position.

It might even be a little misleading to characterize this as confirmation bias, insofar as that suggests illicitly motivated reasoning. Part of what it means to have a coherent worldview is that your substantive opinions and your views about the reliability of various method of inquiry, experts, and other sources of information are mutually supporting — are in reflective equilibrium.

It’s hard to break out of a stable equilibrium. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be stable. But once you do break out of it, all that is solid melts into air. You rub your eyes and suddenly it’s clear that people you had trusted, who you’d relied upon, were actually full of it. You’re confronted with the fact that you’d been discounting the testimony of extremely trustworthy and reliable people — that you should have been feeling the weight of what they were saying, but weren’t. Even a little reweighting of the relative credibility of expert testimony and various empirical methods can have profound ramifying implications that rock your web of belief.

Now, I’ve come to think that people who really care about getting things right are a bit misguided when they focus on methods of rational cognition. I’m thinking of the so-called “rationalist” community here. If you want an unusually high-fidelity mental model of the world, the main thing isn’t probability theory or an encyclopedic knowledge of the heuristics and biases that so often make our reasoning go wrong. It’s learning who to trust. That’s really all there is to it. That’s the ballgame.

But that’s a lot easier said than done. I can’t use my expertise in macroeconomics to identify which macroeconomists we ought to trust most, because I have no expertise in macroeconomics. I’m going to have to rely on people who understand the subject better than I do to tell me who to trust. But then who do I trust to tell me who to trust?

It’s really not so hard. In any field, there are a bunch of people at the top of the game who garner near-universal deference. Trusting those people is an excellent default. On any subject, you ought to trust the people who have the most training and spend the most time thinking about that subject, especially those who are especially well-regarded by the rest of these people. This suggests a useful litmus test for the reliability of generalists who professionally sort wheat from chaff and present themselves as experts in expert identification — people like Malcolm Gladwell or, say, me. Do they usually hew close to the consensus view of a field’s leading, most authoritative figures? That may be boring, but it’s a good sign that you can count on them when they talk about subjects you know less well.

If they seem to have a taste for mavericks, idiosyncratic bomb-throwers, and thorns in the side of the establishment, it ought to count against them. That’s a sign of ideologues, provocateurs, and book-sale/click maximizers. Beyond prudent conservative alignment with consensus, expert identification is a “humanistic” endeavor, a “soft skill.” A solid STEM education isn’t going to help you and “critical thinking” classes will help less than you’d think. It’s about developing a bullshit detector — a second sense for the subtle sophistry of superficially impressive people on the make. Collecting people who are especially good at identifying trustworthiness and then investing your trust in them is our best bet for generally being right about things.

Model citizens with responsibly sound mental models don’t need to be especially good at independently reasoning or evaluating evidence. They just need to piggyback off people who are. But I digress… sort of.

What’s gone wrong with QAnons is not, as I thought while watching that HBO QAnon doc, that they don’t even know what evidence is, because they do. Testimony is evidence. It’s usually all the evidence we ever get. It’s the basis for most of our perfectly sound, totally justified factual beliefs about the big old external world. What’s gone wrong with QAnons is that they came to trust people who trapped them inside a self-serving hallucination.

Evangelical Christianity teaches people to trust their feelings and the pastoral charisma of hucksters out to get ahead by validating their prejudices — not so different from Marianne Williamson California guru woo. Over time, this became the default epistemology of the American right. Meanwhile, Conservatism Inc. has for decades cultivated distrust in our most reliable and authoritative sources of accurate information — academics, the New York Times, etc. — in an effort to keep their base unified around and agitated by a polarized, highly mobilizing worldview that is, at best, tenuously related to reality. This propaganda shaped and reinforced the political and cultural assumptions of white evangelicals, which worked their way into the content of their weird syncretic Christianity thanks to the grifty, emotive, self-indulgence of their increasingly fused religious/political culture.

All this, together with super-heated negative polarization, readied them to find something captivating and compelling about Donald Trump’s one dumb narcissistic trick of sowing contemptuous distrust in any source of information at odds with his personal interests. The normal follow-the-leader dynamics of partisan opinion-making made it easy for Trump to shut down the influence of anyone or anything telling the truth about Trump. Most of the right’s remaining tethers to reality were left flapping in the wind.

Membership in a community that confers status and trust on people worth trusting about the way things are supplies what you might call epistemic herd immunity. We mostly believe what people like us believe just because they believe it. And that’s fine, as long as the community’s beliefs are ultimately based on trust in genuinely trustworthy people. Under the influence of footloose evangelical epistemology, decades of partisan propaganda and disinformation and, finally, Trump’s “it’s only true if I say it’s true” cult-leader authoritarianism, the American right ceased being that sort of community. It became collectively immunocompromised, susceptible to the rapid transmission of epistemic contagion. It was easy enough for QAnon to win trust and burrow into its hosts by latching onto polarized tribal fidelity to Trump and the cover-up conspiracy theories about Democrats and the Deep State he’d already implanted in his followers to inoculate them against the ugly truth. Once inside the partisan hivemind with root-level permissions, QAnon was able to nuke the remaining exits to reality, achieve full epistemic closure, and trap many thousands in a nightmare dreamscape wholly unmoored from the world.

I don’t care how smart you think you are. It’s dangerous out there, especially if you have an Internet connection. Be careful who you trust. Tune that bullshit detector. Eschew iconoclasts and ideologues. Agree with the respectable consensus. Be a model citizen. And if you get a chance, stick up for maligned yet generally reliable sources of information. Stick up for your local critical race theorist. Stick up for the New York Times. If those suggestions make you stiffen, consider the possibility that you have trust issues.


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Gangles
18 days ago
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I’ve replaced my Switch with a Game Boy Advance SP

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Hand holding a blue Game Boy Advance
Photo: Ana Diaz/Polygon

My GBA SP has become my go-to console to tote around

I used to be convinced that nothing could wrench my Nintendo Switch from my hands. After roughly four years with it, I still can’t believe I can play giant games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or old favorites from my PC like Stardew Valley whenever, and seemingly wherever I wanted.

And it’s not like companies aren’t vying to give me other options. This year will bring all sorts of shiny new toys like the Steam Deck and PlayDate. But the thing that got me to put my Switch down was my Game Boy Advance SP.

What brought me back to the GBA SP was convenience. I realized that I don’t really bring my Switch around with me in my day-to-day life. I would never bring such a chunky-but-delicate console around with me outside. The PlayDate seemed like something that could fill this role, however, after spending a bit of time thinking about pre-ordering it, I realized that I already had a fun, cute-colored handheld in my basement: my SP.

I wasn’t inspired to dig it out until I listened to an in-depth, and surprisingly moving conversation on the best Game Boy Advance games from a podcast called Into the Aether, I finally felt behooved to fish out my Game Boy Advance SP from my growing collection of assorted gamer crap in my basement storage unit.

I now realize that part of what brought me to love the Nintendo Switch is what now is bringing me back to the Game Boy.

I’ve spent the past three years pouring my time into incredible indie games like Iconoclasts and Stardew Valley on my Nintendo Switch. These are games that were informed by games I loved on the Game Boy Advance, like Metroid Fusion and Harvest Moon: Mineral Friends of Town. The Game Boy Advance still has some of the best, most inventive entries for well-established Nintendo franchises (see The Legend of Zelda Minish Cap and Mario and Luigi Superstar Saga.) We’re now seeing a resurgence of the Game Boy Advance era on the Switch with games like Wario Ware: Get It Together!, the Advance Wars remaster, and Metroid Dread.

I just love that I don’t need to be delicate with it. I can snap the clamshell closed and not have to worry about it being in my bag. It’s all one piece so I don’t have to deal with my Joy-Con sliding off, which happens all the time with my Switch. My GBA still doesn’t have any drift issues, either. And while I wish I could use my headphones with it, there’s something nice about not having to deal with another piece of tech. I just keep it next to my keys and grab it on my way out and stuff it in the oversized pocket of my denim jacket. It has the same kind of pleasure as bringing around a small, hand-sized book that fits into most purses that I can pull out whenever I run into a bit of time.

My point here is the Game Boy Advance rules, and my SP rules. The Switch getting these games now feels like a recognition of that. I was looking for the handheld console of my dreams, but I had it all along with my SP. I’ll let it clang around in my bag with no cares, and play its games any day.

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Gangles
22 days ago
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Bring back portable consoles.
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The NYT stopped shilling for cigarettes. Why won't it stop shilling for fossil fuels?

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For more information on how to help those affected by recent climate disasters, try here, here, and here. Or leave a comment with your preferred organization/approach—and help start a conversation on the best ways to lend support.

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Millions of people will be seeking information this morning about Hurricane Ida, the Caldor Fire, and the Chaparral Fire—three ongoing climate disasters leaving tremendous pain and suffering in their paths.

For timely, trustworthy news on these crises, many will likely turn to the New York Times.

The paper of record’s reporting will undoubtedly be of quality. But readers will have to be careful not to get distracted.

In addition to information about these deadly disasters, Times readers today may also be shown advertisements for the fossil fuel industry—the main industry responsible for making the disasters worse.

These advertisements, many of which are created for the industry by the Times, routinely run on the paper’s website alongside its journalism. They attempt to sell readers not on a product, but on an idea: that fossil fuel companies are helping save the planet.

This idea is false, as repeatedly demonstrated by The Times’ own reporting. Fossil fuel ads are political propaganda, attempts by the industry to placate public outrage about climate change.

This outrage is often sparked by deadly disasters like Hurricane Ida and the wildfires in California—each of which were super-charged by extreme, human-caused heat.

In perhaps the most depressing form of serendipity, a new activist campaign to pressure the Times to stop creating and running fossil fuel ads is launching today. Called Ads Not Fit to Print, the campaign argues that fossil fuel advertisements endanger Times readers’ health in the same way now-banned cigarette ads did—and likely, even more.

“What the Times is doing right now is shameful,” said Genevieve Guenther, whose group End Climate Silence is spearheading the campaign.On one hand, they’re trying to seem like part of the reality-based community who acknowledges the climate crisis and wants to solve it. On the other, they're doing everything they can to keep the fossil fuel economy going because it is one of the sources of their own power and they believe in it.”

An ad created by the New York Times’ T Brand Studio for Exxon.

Activists aren’t the only ones taking issue with this practice, either. In conversations with HEATED over the last week, several current and former Times newsroom employees expressed concerns about the paper’s practice of creating and running fossil fuel ads. Their concerns ranged from undermining the Times’ own climate reporting, to harming Times readers’ health, to aiding industry attempts to mislead the public about the deadly effects of fossil fuels.

The issue has also been discussed in the newsroom before, according to three current and former employees whose work focused on climate; the earliest recollection was in late 2019. But those conversations have not yet been formally raised with either Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger or T Brand Studio, the Times arm that creates ads for Big Oil companies like Shell, Exxon and Chevron.

The new activist campaign, then, may represent the first time the issue of fossil fuel ads has been brought directly to Times decision-makers. But it’s unclear if those decision-makers really understand climate science, and if they are aware of the paper’s own history of taking a stand against deadly lies.


In 1999, The New York Times made history by becoming one of the first major newspapers to ban cigarette advertising. The move came amid a heated legal battle between states and the tobacco industry over deceptive advertising of its products, which were killing people at an alarming rate.

While other newspapers refused to budge on the issue, the Times drew a line in the sand. “We don't want to expose our readers to advertising that may be dangerous to their health,” Times spokesperson Nancy Nielsen said at the time.

The decision enraged tobacco companies, which accused the paper of trampling on free speech. But the Times’s then-publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., was unmoved. “The First Amendment gives the press the right to publish what it chooses to,” he said. “It doesn't force the press to publish something, whether that's a news story or an advertisement.”

Seven years later, in 2006, a federal judge found tobacco companies had illegally engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to lie to the public about the deadly effects of smoking through advertisements. Today, the tobacco industry still runs ads, but they are highly restricted due in part to that ruling, and most news outlets don’t run them.

Though many media executives in 1999 considered banning cigarette ads an activist issue, the Times understood it was a matter of journalism. Banning cigarette ads was about stopping the spread of misleading information about a product scientists had unequivocally linked to death.

Twenty-two years later, scientists have unequivocally linked the burning of fossil fuels to climate change, a phenomenon that’s already causing mass death across the world. And it’s expected to cause much more death worldwide the more those fuels continue to be burned.


Some newspapers have already banned fossil fuel ads for the reasons described in the new activist campaign. The British newspaper The Guardian did so in 2019, continuing its reputation for setting standards for climate coverage. The British Medical Journal and Swedish publications Dagens Nyheter and Dagens ETC have done the same.

So what’s standing in the way of the Times applying the same logic for fossil fuel ads that it applied to cigarette ads more than two decades ago?

One possibility is revenue. Though Times communications director Nicole Taylor would not say what percentage of the paper’s ad revenue comes from fossil fuels, she said in an e-mail that ads “are essential to our ability to provide journalists with the resources to do important, time consuming work, including the climate reporting that is read by millions of users per week.

But the Times is increasingly relying on reader subscriptions more than ads to fund its journalism, and so some current and former newsroom employees are skeptical that revenue is the reason. Some believe the reluctance to ban fossil fuel ads comes from the paper’s top editors, and their desire to seem reasonable and non-partisan.

“Nobody on masthead understands climate,” said one former Times newsroom employee who worked on climate, who asked not to be named for professional reasons. They said the topic is “seen as an activist issue” by the paper’s top editorial brass, who understand the urgency of climate change but don’t understand the strong scientific connection between fossil fuels and planetary chaos.

It’s hard to know if that’s true from editors’ public statements. Publisher A. G. Sulzberger hasn’t said much publicly on the issue. Shortly after he became publisher in 2018, Sulzberger told Times readers he considered climate change “one of the most important stories of our time.” In a 2019 lecture, he said his newsroom would do “the most creative, ambitious, and important work on climate change.” In 2020, the paper under his leadership was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prizer in Public Service, for its reporting on the Trump administration’s political war on climate science.

But Sulzberger also said in 2018 that “the science can be dense and complicated,” so he prefers visual storytelling. He also said in a 2019 interview with Der Spiegel that “We know [climate change is] happening, we know it's dangerous, but it's really hard to attribute any one storm to climate change.”

Both of these statements are misleading cliches. Unless you’re talking about specifics like what will happen to clouds, the science of climate change is actually pretty simple. And scientists have been able to attribute storms to climate change for many years—which Times reporting has repeatedly demonstrated, from as far back as 2016 and 2017 to just this week.

Three current and former newsroom employees also told HEATED they recalled Sulzberger speaking against the Guardian’s climate rhetoric at an all-hands meeting in 2018. One former newsroom employee, who asked not to be named out of concern over professional consequences, said Mr. Sulzberger called The Guardian an "activist” organization.

Asked by HEATED to confirm and/or clarify those comments, the Times did not provide a response. The paper also did not answer a question about whether Sulzberger’s understanding of climate science has evolved in the years since his 2018 and 2019 comments.

The paper also did not provide responses to questions about how Times advertising decisions are made; what percentage of Times advertising comes from fossil fuel companies; whether editorial staff have ever raised concerns about fossil fuel ads; or why the paper recently banned fossil fuel ads from running on its climate newsletter and in the podcast “The Daily” but not other places.

What Times communications director Nicole Taylor did provide was an e-mailed statement about the paper’s commitment to climate journalism. Here’s the full statement:

The New York Times is dedicated to seeking the truth and helping people understand the world, and that mission is especially important and urgent in our climate change journalism.

We accept ads that range across a wide spectrum as long as they meet our advertising acceptability guidelines, and all advertising, across our print, digital, audio, and other products, supports our newsroom. Those advertising dollars are essential to our ability to provide journalists with the resources to do important, time consuming work, including the climate reporting that is read by millions of users per week.

We continue to produce more coverage of climate change than any other newspaper in the U.S. or Europe, from interactive visualizations of the world’s most polluted cities to multimedia explorations of ways to fight climate change. All our journalists operate with complete independence, in line with our historic commitment to pursue the truth without fear or favor. 


A month before the Ads Not Fit to Print campaign launched, Guenther sent an e-mail to Sulzberger, hoping he might follow in his father’s footsteps. She also sent it to executive editor Dean Baquet, head of Times branded content Amber Guild, and other employees of the T Brand Studio, according to a copy seen by HEATED.

The e-mail informed Sulzberger and the others of the upcoming activism campaign, and asked the paper to reconsider its stance on fossil fuel ads. Guenther says she did not receive a response.

“I don't know that I felt angry,” she said. “I think I just felt profoundly disappointed.”

“Our goal is to get fossil fuel money out of the media entirely,” she said. “But we wanted to begin with the Times because they do seem to be one of the news outlets that really gets a climate crisis.” If the Times stopped running fossil fuel ads, she said, other major news institutions might follow.

Guenther is now hoping that others will join End Climate Silence and other environmental groups in increasing the pressure for a response from the Times—specifically, from Sulzberger, who she believes to be the key to action. She’s asking people to start by signing her campaign’s petition to the paper—which, she insists, is no small act.

“If we can get enough response to this, I think we’ll justified in bringing it back to [the Times] and saying, look, you're going to be losing readers, you're not going to be attracting young readers,” she said. “If you want to continue to be the paper of record as the climate crisis accelerates, you need to put your money where your mouth is, and stop trying to get your readers to consume more fossil fuels.”

“We may not get them to agree today,” Guenther continued. “But the pressure will be on them. And after a while, that pressure is going to break.”


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Gangles
23 days ago
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There are upwards of 800,000 lakes in Russia’s Sakha Republic, many of whi...

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There are upwards of 800,000 lakes in Russia’s Sakha Republic, many of which are found clustered in its northeastern corner. Sakha, also known as Yakutia, is the most expansive subnational entity in the world, covering nearly 1.2 million square miles (3.1 million square km) – an area almost equal in size to India. About 40% of the republic is north of the Arctic Circle and covered by permafrost, which keeps many of its lakes frozen for 9-10 months of the year.

See more here: https://bit.ly/2CYX8R1

69.052056°, 159.818972°

Source imagery: Maxar

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Gangles
24 days ago
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Santa Monica, California
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Mike Duncan Takes On the Turmoil of History

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Is history made by individual actors—by so-called great men—or by vast, impersonal social forces? Tolstoy, in War and Peace, saw history as the chaos of random events, a swarm of uncoordinated human actions that could never be adequately summarized without falsehood, nor directed by any individual. In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, on the other hand, history has developed into a perfectly rational social science, thus allowing for the accurate predicting and planning of large-scale human behavior over the course of millennia. Splitting the difference in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx famously asserted that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

It’s something of a false choice, a freshman dorm debate, not just because the answer must lie in between, but because history is not so much known definitively as it is lived and experienced and imagined. One can certainly memorize discrete major events—that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, say, or that the Qing dynasty was established in 1644—but such dates in isolation are little more than trivia. History becomes meaningful through stories, and those stories in turn are often lies crafted to justify present political circumstances—for instance, that there has always been a coherent Czech nation dating back to the Middle Ages, or that the American Civil War was fought over tariffs, or that there were no local inhabitants to displace when Zionist settlers first arrived in Palestine. For popular history to be both truthful and meaningful, it must be rigorously combed through in great detail, and then those details must be presented in a way that is intelligible to nonspecialists and that allows space to draw conclusions without necessarily prescribing them. Succeeding at any part of this, much less all of it, is very hard.

Since the fall of 2013, the historian Mike Duncan has recorded, by his own estimate, about 150 hours of his podcast Revolutions, which is currently in the middle of its final season. I’ve listened to all of it, and while waiting for new episodes, I now marathon Duncan’s earlier podcast, The History of Rome, which I’m maybe a quarter of the way through. I also just plowed through Duncan’s newly released second book, Hero of Two Worlds, a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette (perhaps most familiar now as the speed-rapping, French-accented freedom fighter portrayed by Daveed Diggs in a certain Broadway musical), which expands upon three seasons of Revolutions while giving them an individual focus. I guess you could say I’m a Duncanophile, but apparently there are a lot of us—enough to provide Duncan, 41, with a comfortable income even as he makes all his episodes available for free (provided you can tolerate 30 seconds of him pitching Harry’s razors). And I keep winning converts, including my dad, who marathons Revolutions on long solitary walks. 


Revolutions is a chronological blow-by-blow of 10 historical revolutions that took place between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries: the English Civil War of 1642, the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution of 1789, the Haitian Revolution of 1791, the Spanish American wars of independence of the early nineteenth century, the French Revolution of 1830, the pan-European upheavals of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and finally the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Each of these takes up a season, and each season is the product of roughly 20 to 25 books that Duncan has read and synthesized into a coherent narrative.

If that all sounds straightforward, it is, and yet it’s also completely addictive. It’s hard to say exactly why it works so well. There are no gimmicks, no skits, no interviews or special guests, no sound effects, no music besides a few bars of Haydn at the beginning of each episode. Duncan’s voice is cheerful and engaging but not all that distinctive—he sounds like a pretty regular guy who has bounced between the Pacific Northwest, Texas, and Wisconsin (and most recently France, but he’d be the first to make fun of his pronunciation of French and the several other languages he mangles over the course of Revolutions). He tells occasional corny dad jokes but doesn’t pretend he’s a comedian; he has some left-liberal political opinions but never gets on a soapbox. His interpretations of the relevant historiography aren’t particularly radical or groundbreaking, nor are they steeped in academic jargon. He’s folksy but not gratingly so, romantic about the sweep of events but never overwrought. He is, quite simply, telling us what happened.

All of this is more feature than bug; in an age of self-indulgent polemics, deranged conspiracy theories, and pervasive disinformation, to listen to Duncan while washing dishes or folding laundry is to believe that facts are knowable, that historical events of immense complexity can be made legible, and—to attempt to answer the question with which I started this review—that history is made neither by singular individuals nor by social forces, but by the idiosyncratic interplay of decisions within well-placed vanguard classes. Revolutions, in Duncan’s telling, tend to come neither autocratically from the ruling class nor organically from the masses, but via the agitation, organization, and plotting of small, relatively privileged classes with enough resources, education, and access to the actual ruling class to resent their comparative marginalization—and to believe they could do a better job in power. 

To put that more plainly, as Duncan might: It’s not that Napoleon Bonaparte was simply the figurehead for a vast army spreading bourgeois revolution across Europe, nor is it that Bonaparte was a world-historical genius who single-handedly remade Europe in his own image. Instead, Bonaparte should be understood both as a rare talent with the opportunity to make pivotal military and political decisions, and as an exemplar of a class of people (in this case, overwhelmingly men) who could advance socially in the context of the French Revolution and its affiliated wars. To make sense of Bonaparte’s career, one must know the careers of the other, far less famous officers and statesmen and businessmen he interacted with, understand the significance of his key decisions in the context of those relationships, and grasp how small groups of dedicated revolutionaries can change the course of history and how they can be overwhelmed by it—as even Bonaparte ultimately was. And what goes for him also goes for the other dominant figures of his age, from Alexander Hamilton to Toussaint Louverture to Simón Bolívar—all of them decisive actors, and all of them products of wider social networks that shaped events beyond any individual’s control.

This is the kind of detail-oriented storytelling that Duncan excels at. He can tell you why it mattered that this general chose this particular strategy on that day, or why the procedural norms of this clandestine society’s meetings did or did not facilitate agreement, or why a particular monarch chose to listen to one sort of adviser and not another. All of these decisions carry real consequences, but at the same time history isn’t just a bunch of random flukes—there are patterns, there are best practices, there are better and worse instincts to give in to. To follow the intricacies of these events alongside Duncan is to recognize revolutions as neither glorious nor monstrous, but as catastrophes resulting from the accumulated failures of the old regime. Typically, the story Duncan tells is of an oppressive, decadent ruling elite that passes up too many chances to reform, and eventually crumbles in the face of organized violence. That revolutions almost invariably fall short of their ideals, devour their children, and conclude with the establishment of new governments, which have their own egregious defects, is neither more nor less significant to Duncan than the original state failures that set them off in the first place.


Duncan is generous to all the participants in his accounts. Revolutionaries and reformers and reactionaries, kings and bureaucrats and commoners, members of all races and nations and creeds are judged according to the circumstances in which they found themselves and the decisions they might plausibly have made, without any attempt to excuse, for instance, slavery as simply the way things were. This is not to say Duncan is morally neutral: He believes in human dignity, in liberation, in good governance, in the right to speak and worship and protest freely, and in guaranteeing food and shelter and economic opportunity to all. But his belief in human dignity is such that he is capable of empathizing with people in circumstances vastly different from our own, and of taking the choices they confronted as seriously as they did.

At the same time, careful listeners may notice Duncan drifting leftward over the course of the series—a process that is more apparent if one follows the much less filtered @MikeDuncan on Twitter. When Duncan covers the American Revolution in the podcast’s second season, he says the fact that so many Founding Fathers owned slaves simply can’t be justified, before returning to the conflicts over taxation and the colonists’ “rights as Englishmen” that they actually revolted over. Two seasons later, as he delves into the birth of Haiti, Duncan is confronted with a colonial independence movement that was itself overthrown by a slave revolt, and with the subsequent legacy of two centuries of white supremacist debt peonage that has hobbled Haiti’s development right up to the present. (One wonders how he might revisit the story of the Thirteen Colonies armed with this insight.) Over multiple seasons covering nineteenth-century France, Duncan traces the displacement of the political question (should a hereditary aristocracy be forced to give way to a more meritocratic bourgeoisie?) by the more intractable social question (should a government be responsive only to the interests of the wealthy?). And by the most recent season, on Russia, Duncan has clearly gotten deep into Marxist theory, and does a better job of explaining it in plain English than any leftist academic or agitator I’ve ever encountered. It’s also in the context of Russia’s revolutions that women start to play an appropriately central role in Duncan’s telling, not only as individual revolutionaries but as a class with their own demands and interests vis-à-vis the status quo.

Duncan is fair and evenhanded enough in his accounts that listeners of all ideological persuasions can draw lessons, but for those of us on the left, each season of Revolutions might serve as a cautionary tale. This is not to say Duncan is a scold or a left-puncher—his trajectory toward more radical forms of economic justice is clear. But the messy way revolutions play out in his telling amounts to a gentle suggestion that pragmatism and reformism have their virtues; and indeed, that revolutions become possible only when opportunities for reform are repeatedly ignored, and when governments fail in their most basic obligations to the governed.  

Duncan’s decision to center a whole book on Lafayette, the quintessential Enlightenment liberal revolutionary, is a bit of a tell as to his core convictions. Lafayette—whose complicated life and legacy are the subject of a recent Adam Gopnik essay in The New Yorker, based in part on Duncan’s book—was born into France’s rural aristocracy, but chose as a young man to cross the Atlantic and fight on the side of American independence, a cause the French monarchy would eventually come to support for reasons of realpolitik against Great Britain. Lafayette became close to George Washington, distinguished himself in battle, and was rewarded with U.S. citizenship and other honors. Nonetheless, he returned to France, where he played a central role in introducing constitutional governance (among other things, he co-authored the Declaration of the Rights of Man and was personally responsible for creating the tricolor banner that represents France to this day) and rejected his noble roots, throwing in his lot with the bourgeoisie of the Third Estate. He also became a committed abolitionist despite his past complicity in slavery, which Duncan is careful to document. Like so many of his comrades, Lafayette eventually ended up on the wrong side of the Jacobin terror and fled the country; he spent five years in various foreign prisons until Bonaparte humiliated the Habsburgs at the Battle of Rivoli and allowed Lafayette to return home. Under the Bourbon Restoration, Lafayette participated in various conspiracies against the monarchy, and when Parisians finally revolted in July 1830, it was Lafayette who emerged as an elder statesman of the movement and steered the nation in his preferred direction of constitutional monarchy, which it would maintain through his death in 1834 and until 1848, when monarchy in France ended for good. In the United States, Lafayette remains straightforwardly beloved (one of Duncan’s most interesting chapters depicts Lafayette’s grand tour through every state in 1824–1825, during which he was feted everywhere he went); in France, views of Lafayette are as contested as every other aspect of modern French history.

To judge from the conclusion to Hero of Two Worlds, what Duncan admires in Lafayette is not so much his political beliefs per se—as admirable as fighting for basic political rights and (at least gradually) embracing the cause of emancipation are—but rather his constancy, his earnest idealism, his lack of pretension, his willingness to reject his own class privileges in the service of a greater cause, and his internationalism: his commitment to the revolutionary cause across national boundaries and literal oceans. To the extent Duncan has an ideology, it’s that this is a set of ideals worth living by—among the practitioners of politics, certainly, but also among the interpreters.

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Gangles
27 days ago
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