The Spellman Files — Lisa Lutz

I laughed (which could be an ideal two-word review of every comedic novel), especially during the first half of The Spellman Files, and laughter balms many errors. Unlike most mystery or nominal mystery stories The Spellman Files is worth reading, but on a sentence level the novel is a mass of clichés, though the premise is interesting and the narrative proceeds intelligently. One can only wish that the same intelligence that structured the narrative also be used to consider the sentences.

Spellman_filesClichés accumulate like snow in Boston: “Finker was none the wiser” (8). Or: “But for many years, my attributes (for what they’re worth) were obscured by my defiant ways” (19). We don’t need “for what they’re worth;” attributes, like most other nouns, are only there for what they’re worth, not for what they’re not worth (though negating that cliché does raise interesting intellectual possibilities; alas that we don’t see such possibilities deployed here). Parents take a child’s story “with a grain of salt” (252). These are the sorts of problems that should’ve been edited out yet they weren’t.

The language gets a little better as the novel proceeds, but the initial problems are never resolved. Too bad. There’s a better novel in this one, and this one isn’t terrible. As with many plot-dependent books the outcome is less satisfying than the buildup. Yet the dialogue consistently shines:

“Nice duds,” I said as Daniel put his briefcase on the floor and slid into the car.
“Thanks. This is my drug-buying outfit,” Daniel said dryly.
“Did you bring the money?” I asked.
“Yes, I brought the drug money,” he said.
“You can just say ‘money'; you don’t have to say ‘drug money.'”
“Yes, I brought the money.”

I feel like I too would mistakenly say “drug money.” I’ll note too that in The Spellman Files Family dysfunction meets family work meets a sexually adventurous protagonist whose adventurousness is not played for drama. It’s an unusual combination on the plot and character level.

Family businesses exert a special pull on those not involved in them, perhaps because they wrap economic and psychological forces unusually closely together. Work also means status: “While I had already made a name for myself as the difficult child, my status as employee redeemed many of my other less-than qualities.” To those involved, family businesses may be annoying and even weirdly repulsive for precisely the same reasons. Combining the family business with the detective story is a winning mutation.

Other sentences work: “like so many other alpha males, my brother thinks monogamy is something you do somewhere between age forty and retirement” (71). Interesting that Isabel, the narrator, has enough data to generalize about the nature of “alpha males” and that she casually uses the term. Perhaps it’s seeping into the general lexicon.

Finally, one smaller note, not wholly about The Spellman Files: Novels are compendiums of social negotiation and fuck-ups; the fuck-ups tend to be more interesting in fiction and sometimes in real life, though in life one lives with the consequences.

Links: Political ideas, evolved preferences, rejection of the modern world, we are what we eat, and more!

* “The melting of Antarctica was already really bad. It just got worse.” Or, important news that no one wants to hear or act on.

* “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas: How it is that we once again find ourselves rooting out sin, shunning heretics, and heralding the end times:”

Our social and political life is awash in unconsciously held Christian ideas broken from the theology that gave them meaning, and it’s hungry for the identification of sinners—the better to prove the virtue of the accusers and, perhaps especially, to demonstrate the sociopolitical power of the accusers. Moreover, in our curious transformation from an honor culture into a full-fledged fame culture over the past century, we have only recently discovered that fame proves just as fragile as honor ever was, a discovery hurried along by the lightning speed of the Internet.

I’ve long said in private that the religious influence on American culture remains much stronger than is often supposed. That strain is particularly strong, though rarely acknowledged, in modern feminism.

* “8,000 Years Ago, 17 Women Reproduced for Every One Man: An analysis of modern DNA uncovers a rough dating scene after the advent of agriculture.”

* Why is the world so troubled right now? Rejection of modernity and technology may be to blame.

* “An Interview With the NYU Professor Banned From the United Arab Emirates,” which tells you a lot in particular about NYU.

* On government, voting, and costs.

* “The Myth of High-Protein Diets.” Maybe. Nonetheless, everyone approves of vegetables.

* “Hospitals Are Robbing Us Blind: Forget Obamacare. The real villains in the American health care system are greedy hospitals and the politicians who protect them.”

* “The spectacular rise and surprising exit of a Hollywood executive: Richard Nanula had big jobs at Disney, Amgen and Miramax. Now he is alleged to have filmed sex scenes with porn actresses” is not that interesting, except for one thing: “Saint told AVN that she had her attorney make sure that the scene was posted to St. Clair’s website to legitimize the shoot.” So it’s illegal to buy or sell sex… unless it’s being taped. I think Richard Pryor observed that it’s odd that it’s legal to have sex and legal to buy things but not legal to buy sex.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things is not an Apple product but a mid-sized beautiful book that you should read. I say this even as someone with reservations about some of the content; as with many books that deal with love advice I wish more had been known and said about evolutionary biology. Yet it may be that we’ve evolved to not want to confront truths we perceive as ugly: better to turn away and signal our own goodness than to say we’re often incentivized to do things that current social conditions tell us are wrong.

TinybeautifulthingsThe end of the preceding paragraph if intentionally vague, but let me say that the book is beautifully written, bizarrely so given that it’s an advice column collection; perhaps any form, attended to with enough care, can become beautiful.

It’s hard to quote a section from Tiny Beautiful Things, even a long section, that conveys its tone. Most possible quotes sound treacly out of context (“You are loved”) or don’t appropriately convey Strayed’s mix of stories (she worked with high-risk middle-school girls and used that experience as a parable) and abstract points (see the previous mention: “You are loved”). Then again too, many people are not loved in the ways they want to be loved or by the people they want to love them. Strayed’s first answer to the first question in the book is, “The last word my mother ever said to me was ‘love.'” She starts with stories—parables, really—and in doing so she follows a millennia-old strategy; people remember the stories from the Christian Bible and the Torah but forget the tedious sections that recount lineages or offer specific rules about worship or other practices. Stories and math are eternal. A lot of specific instruction remains bound by time.

In the same opening question, she says too:

There’s a saying about drug addicts that they stop maturing emotionally at the age they started using, and I’ve known enough addicts to believe this to be true enough. I think the same thing can happen in longtime monogamy. Perhaps some of your limited interpretations about what it means to say the word “love” are left over from what you thought it meant all those years ago, when you first committed yourself to your ex-wife. That was the past, as you say, but I suspect that a piece of yourself is still frozen there.

One could alternately say, “We are all growing or dying.” The amazing thing is the number of people who choose the latter, intellectually and psychologically.

Some sections feel stoic, in the best way, as when Strayed says, “Suffering is what happens when truly horrible things happen to us.” I’d add, too, that sometimes suffering means nothing except itself. Much suffering teachings nothing and ennobles nothing. It just is, though we live in a culture in which everything must mean something. It often doesn’t.

Then there are the sections where Strayed could go deeper than she does. In one, a woman writes that the man who knocked her up isn’t terribly interested in being involved with her or the baby. They have a tenuous relationship and he leaves—probably seeking another nulliparous woman. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart applies here, but it isn’t story-driven or personal enough to merit inclusion. The fundamental forces are there but ignored.

I write this often, but I wish Strayed had read more evolutionary biology; seemingly inexplicable and cruel romantic acts and betrayals become explicable. Since I began—first I think with Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind and then with others, like David Buss’s TheEvolution of Desire.

But Darwin has still not propagated outwards towards pop culture. Maybe we’ve evolved to rejection the insights evolutionary biology offers. We’re storytelling animals, and we want to reject stories that make us question our own consciousness and decision-making process. (Blindsight, though brilliant, may be unpalatable in this respect.) Railing is more fun, though, than looking for fundamentals. Words like “feel” and “feelings” are everywhere. Words like “incentives” are nowhere.

Yet the beauty reminds. So does rock-like reality: “We get work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor.” A lot of us want the adoration and the success and the whatever without getting our asses on the floor.


I wrote more about Strayed in “Standard At-Risk Youth or Ex-Offender Empowerment Program: Improve Lives Through ‘X!’“, though that post may be more specialized than you’re seeking.

Links: Best-seller list bogosity, unions and schools, book design, DNA tests, and more

* Manipulating best-seller lists, which is well known to people in the industry but little known outside it. This especially is interesting: “To end up in the top ten on Amazon, all it takes is about 300 printed copies sold in one day,” because it’s well within my own not-substantial financial reach.

* “What Do Unions Know About Running Schools?” Hilariously, not much it would appear; the New York City Teachers Union opened a charter school in 2005, but it’s now closing: “What’s striking is that the school was managed poorly even after the union staked its reputation on the project. This suggests that the union either did not take the charter project seriously – or that it knows less about running schools than it thinks.”

* We’ve entered a golden era of book design; I myself am shocked at how well Damonza’s cover design for Asking Anna works.

* “To Have and To Hold: The challenges of digital publishing have galvanised a new spirit in book design and production. Is it just the decadent flourish of a disappearing format?” I’ve long said that publishers need to differentiate paper books from ebooks by making the former into the art objects they really ought to be.

* Terence Tao: the Mozart of maths.

* Someone found this blog by searching for “poems about the consequences of sexting.” I’m… puzzled.

* “Radical Vaccine Design Effective Against Herpes Viruses,” which is hugely important in many ways, but the development of this vaccine should retard AIDS transmission.

* “Who’s the daddy? Paternity can now be verified by a simple test” is interesting mostly for its subtext: that men are suckers and don’t matter. Farrell may be more right than many want to admit in The Myth of Male Power.

* Grantland (and hence SFW): What happens when teenagers and young adults, the main consumers of porn, won’t pay for it? Or: “A trip to the Adult Video News Awards.”

* “US students are fleeing law schools and pouring into engineering,” or, economics works!

* “Why great novels don’t get noticed now: ‘Dear Thief’ was one of the best novels published last year. So why haven’t you heard of it? Gaby Wood meets its author, Samantha Harvey.” I ordered a copy.

* “Dancing On Our Own: Why White America Ditched Couple Dancing.”

* Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, 10 years later.

The moderator problem: How Reddit and related news sites decline

Online communities often go from a small, enthusiastic, intelligent niche group that is relatively self-policing to a larger, amorphous group that becomes stupider at a rate that’s an exponent of the number of users (the linked book is excellent on this topic). Initial moderators are usually enthusiasts and small groups are more like communities than cities. Later moderators are usually adversely selected: What kind of person would voluntarily spend lots of time and energy policing a community for no money? Consequently, online community decline is often exacerbated by the moderator or moderators who eventually take over or seek power.

The psychology of someone who is willing to moderate a Reddit subsection—or any similar site, like many mailing lists—is probably not good. It takes someone willing to spend a fair amount of time at a thankless task that is hard to do well and rarely if ever remunerative.

A lot of the people who start at that task do so optimistically but quit as their lives change or the task becomes more onerous. Who gets left? People with axes to grind; people with no sense of perspective; petty tyrants; and so on. I don’t use Reddit much for many reasons, but low moderator quality is one. I rarely bother messaging them because doing so is largely a waste of time.

The problem with moderators is not dissimilar from the problem of users: People who regularly have something interesting to say and the means to say it well get blogs, as I wrote in Social news sites and forums should encourage users to blog. Those who don’t stay on Reddit. The average contributor to Reddit doesn’t have a lot of stake in long-term reputation—as bloggers, journalists, and academics often do—and that shows in the quality and quantity of posts. That may not hurt the site—the popularity of bad TV shows over many years demonstrates lowest-common denominator issues—but it should hurt it in terms of high-quality users.

A form of Gresham’s Law applies to social sites and to moderators: bad commentary pushes out the good, and smart people flee stupid comments. One could alternately call this a tragedy of the commons, in which communal spaces become overrun with spam or commentary so stupid that it might as well be spam.

Reddit and similar sites can have an orthogonal problem, however, as they become so afraid of self-interested commentary or posts that they forbid it—thus causing smart people to go elsewhere with their thoughts, and leaving the dregs unwilling or able to create standalone communities or blogs.

This may be part of the reason why Reddit—even on the “good” subsections—tend to be better for beginners: anyone who gets past the beginning stages needs more expert advice than Redditors can provide. The same is happening to Hacker News, too, or it has already happened, though not as severely: Hacker News has an advantage in that its survival and the intelligent commentary on it is tied to a business that is in turn tied to ideas. Its moderators have a stronger incentive to get it right, since they’re not driven primarily by ego or overwhelming fear of “spam.”

That being said, anyone who has seen an unmoderated forum is aware of the fact that unmoderated forums are unusable. So getting rid of moderators is not a solution. In general the mechanisms of exit, voice, and loyalty, as described by Hirshman at the link, apply on the level of online communities. But constantly shifting for newer communities where smart people congregate is at best difficult and at worst a waste of time in and of itself. Reddit has to some extent worked on this problem through the sub-Reddit system, which is a better-than-nothing solution but not a great one.

Maybe there is no good solution to this from the perspective of smart users other than withdrawal. Better blogs written by smart individuals or groups are better than virtually any online, Reddit-like community I’ve found. Which is too bad. But I doubt most people in latter-day moderator positions are even willing or able to read this post, and, if they are, I don’t think they’ll understand it, and, if they do, I don’t think they’ll accept any of it.

Does IKEA enable mobility?

In “How Ikea took over the world” Beth Kowitt writes:

In the furniture world there’s an oft-cited statistic that we have our sofas longer than our cars and change our dining room tables as frequently as our spouses. Furniture can be its own kind of ball and chain. It’s passed down from generation to generation, or it’s so expensive that people feel it’s forever. From the get-go, Ikea shook up that paradigm. “It traumatized furniture retailing,” says Martin Toogood, who has run several companies that have competed against Ikea over two decades.

Ikea kept its prices down with an obsessive focus on costs. It might skip an extra coating of lacquer on the underside of a table that people never see or use. The company has also stripped out as much labor as possible from the system, pushing tasks that were once done by traditional retailers onto the customer. Flat packed furniture made it easier for customers to take purchases with them, cutting out the expense of stocking and delivery. (Ikea figured out flat packing in 1956, when a designer took the legs off a Lövet table to get it in his trunk.)

I’ve read that IKEA might enable greater mobility by making moving cheaper. Rather than buying a bunch of expensive furniture and then spending thousands of dollars to haul it, IKEA allows people to quickly, and with low search costs, buy functional stuff when they move—and sell or throw away what they don’t use. I’ve been the beneficiary of lightly used stuff: Kowitt says that “One Billy bookcase, an Ikea classic, is sold every 10 seconds,” and the couple of them in my apartment came from Craigslist, either free or for $10.

A modern person looking for a job might find it easier to pack a laptop, a Kindle, a (few) paper books, some pots and pans, and clothes into a couple boxes, ship them, and re-buy everything else on the other side. Being able to focus more experiences, and spending on experiences, might be enabled by IKEA. And with more and more other stuff available cheaply online—Tuft & Needle beds are my favorite pet example—a lot of people can be substantially more mobile. Craigslist may be a substitute for U-Haul.

Furniture isn’t “forever” anymore, and I’ve met “minimum furniture” people who seem very happy with not much stuff: usually they want a desk of some sort, a bed, and maybe a small table and chairs. They rarely have friends over, or if those friends do come over it’s to pre-game, and the apartment is mostly for the big “S”es: sleeping, showering, or sex. Why bother with more?

EDIT: In “A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Chris Dixon About Venture Capital and Startups” Tren Griffin writes:

McKinsey placed little or no value on what Craig McCaw called the ability of people to be “nomadic.” The mobile phone had each of the attributes Chris Dixon noted above. Some people thought of the mobile phone as a toy. Since my first mobile phone cost more than $4,000 dollars I actually felt awkward using it in some social settings. Talking into a mobile phone in some pubic settings would cause people to frown at you.

To continue my example, Craig McCaw was also an enthusiastic personal user of what we then called “cellular” phones. Craig McCaw loved working out of the ‘mobile office’ – meaning cars, planes, boats and ships. Which meant he was a natural enthusiast for the product. When the time came to sell his cable TV business in order to double down on the mobile phone business, the choice was made easy by his love of the mobile phone.

Mobility seems like a long-term secular trend. Cheryl Strayed glamorizes it in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Her writing is as excellent as her life choices are dubious yet revealing of modern character. Bet against a wandering lifestyle at your own peril, and invest in it when you can.

Thoughts on “The Anthropology of Childhood” by David Lancy

As noted previously, The Anthropology of Childhood is excellent, and now I can say that it is excellent throughout. There are too many points to summarize the book effectively or even to hit many of its main points. One could productively read it with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, since both books argue, sometimes implicitly, that upper-middle class Western child-raising practices have become crazed, neurotic, and conceivably even counter-productive (and almost certainly counter-productive in life-satisfaction terms). Consider this example, from Anthropology:

An interesting contrast can be made with WEIRD [Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic] society, where girls are not usually assigned sibcare [sibling care] duties and where young mothers labor alone without the guidance of their old female relatives. “The relative isolation of the nuclear family . . . means that each woman rears her newborn infant from scratch” and young, urban mothers are unprepared for squalling, active, and very unhappy babies (Hubert 1974: 46–47). The foibles of clueless parents have proven to be quite entertaining, as evidenced by “reality” TV shows such Nanny 911, which aired in the USA between 2004 and 2007, and Supernanny (2004 – 2011), in which a competent nanny brings order and harmony to dysfunctional families.

anthro_of_childhoodYet almost no one considers this point, or many similar points.

Wealth may enable a wide range of non-adaptive behaviors and beliefs that can be sustained primarily because we’re rich enough to sustain them. Bedrock beliefs held by many Westerners about the nature of humans and families are actually culturally selected, and some of those beliefs surprised me. Nerds, however, may be unpopular because nerds often attempt to interject facts into belief- and feeling-based conversations; I suspect many citations to The Anthropology of Childhood, and especially the sections on infanticide, will not go down well.

Still, self-deception also helps explain why so many people adapt seemingly non-functional behaviors; Charles Murray describes many of those behaviors in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, a book that like many true books that puncture popular beliefs is deeply unpopular in many quarters. Most people can, if they choose to, easily see whether their partners exhibit traits related to fidelity, tenacity, conscientiousness, grit, and so forth—but many if not most of us choose to ignore these obvious signals. Our values are observed everywhere.

There seems to be a growing bifurcation in American society between crazed, neurotic, and anxious upper-middle class two-parent households in which little Madison needs ice-skating lessons, soccer practice, oboe lessons, and round-the-clock enrichment activities, or else she’ll never be a “success” and will become a drug-addicted prostituted without even a public-school degree, and single-parent low-income households in which any babysitter is a good babysitter and survival is everything. The former need to chill out and the latter… I actually don’t see a good public policy for the latter, though both the political left and right have many strongly held opinions, neither of which have done much to countervail the larger trends Murray describes. Another writer, Michel Houellebecq, describes them as well, though much more obliquely.

The Anthropology of Childhood is, as Michael Erardjan suggests in the New York Times, going to become my go-to baby gift for those who have recently spawned, though careful readers may find sections disconcerting:

Another common tactic used by new mothers is to exaggerate the resemblance between the newborn and their husband [. . .] In spite of the confidence with which humans claim “he looks just like his father,” experimental studies show that babies cannot be reliably paired to their parents on the basis of appearance (Pagel 2012: 315). Studies in our monogamous, adultery-condemning society have shown that 10 percent of men designated as the biological father of a particular child are not (Buss 1994: 66–67), so the baby’s anonymous appearance confers a survival advantage.

If 10 percent of men designated as the biological father of a particular child are not, one has to ask what kinds of fictions prevent a society in which DNA testing is cheap and easy from automatically doing so as a matter of standard practice. The answers may get very ugly very fast.

I want badly for Lancy to write an advice column; something like Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is beautifully written and yet so utterly conditioned by contemporary American beliefs, and so utterly unfamiliar with cross-cultural comparisons or evolutionary biology. Read it anyway—that beauty! that feeling!—but read it with Lancy. Compare and contrast. Imagine what Lancy might say about the myriad of problems medicated, neurotic Americans experience, or think we experience. Most contemporary advice columnists are as much repositories of conventional thinking as religious figures were a century or two ago. Lancy is different. Lancy knows things. But the things he knows we instinctively want to reject—which is why reading him is so valuable.

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