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June 2021

"The Age of the Essay"

Interesting exposition by Paul Graham of one reason why high school and college English is taught so badly. Excerpt:

Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it's not the best way to get at the truth, as I think lawyers would be the first to admit. It's not just that you miss subtleties this way. The real problem is that you can't change the question.

And yet this principle is built into the very structure of the things they teach you to write in high school. The topic sentence is your thesis, chosen in advance, the supporting paragraphs the blows you strike in the conflict, and the conclusion-- uh, what is the conclusion? I was never sure about that in high school. It seemed as if we were just supposed to restate what we said in the first paragraph, but in different enough words that no one could tell. Why bother? But when you understand the origins of this sort of "essay," you can see where the conclusion comes from. It's the concluding remarks to the jury.

Link courtesy of reader JK.

Two more of Graham's essays on writing are quite worthwhile: "Write Simply" and "Writing, Briefly".

"Evaluating the effects of shelter-in-place policies during the COVID-19 pandemic"

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Abstract:

We study the health, behavioral, and economic effects of one of the most politically controversial policies in recent memory, shelter-in-place orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Previous studies have claimed that shelter-in-place orders saved thousands of lives, but we reassess these analyses and show that they are not reliable. We find that shelter-in-place orders had no detectable health benefits, only modest effects on behavior, and small but adverse effects on the economy. To be clear, our study should not be interpreted as evidence that social distancing behaviors are not effective. Many people had already changed their behaviors before the introduction of shelter-in-place orders, and shelter-in-place orders appear to have been ineffective precisely because they did not meaningfully alter social distancing behavior.