Briefly noted: The Word Exchange — Alena Graedon

The best criticism of this novel is “Human, All Too Inhuman,” in which James Wood, among other things, defines hysterical realism. “Human, All Too Inhuman” was written before The Word Exchange but still applies to it. The novel is good on a sentence-by-sentence level but is poorly and tediously plotted; malformations on the macro level are hard to describe but easily noticeable. I’ll happily start the next Graedon novel because this one shows much promise. The Word Exchange concerns a near-future world in which Anana works with her father, Doug, on the world’s last paper dictionary. Her father disappears, the Dictionary as a product and institution are attacked, and Anana needs to find out why. Yet on page 75 she writes:

But this was no ordinary book burning. Our digital corpus was also being dismantled, by pale, nimble hands. Who, I wondered, would want to destroy the Dictionary? Did Doug know? Was that why he’d vanished?

Word_Exchange_cover this point something more should have happened than random thoughts, discussions about Hegel, Anana’s time in college, her relationship with pseudo-friend Max, and many other threads so random that one has to wonder if or when they’ll cohere.

The novel channels many others: Stephenson, Gibson, even Carlos Ruiz Zafón, all of whose complete works you should try first, especially Snow Crash and Pattern Recognition.

There are echoes, maybe unintentionally, of The Name of the Rose (think of the moment when Ubertino and William are speaking together and William says, “I like also to listen to words, and then I think about them,” which one could say also of Anana and the other characters in The Word Exchange, though they lack Williams’s rigor.) Yet that novel, for all its abstruse Catholic metaphysics, is bound by a murder; people like murder stories because the stakes are plain: Death is bad, preventing it is good, and murderers need to be subjected to justice. In The Word Exchange no stakes are clear. By page 130 the narrative is still wandering and navel gazing; it’s only in the 130 – 140 range that things start to cohere, slightly.

Writers are fond of murder for a reason; if not murder, then comedy, and though there is a disappearance in The Word Exchange there is no murder. John Updike’s novelistic alter ego Bech knows the draw of murder:

Murdering critics is something most writers, I suspect, have wanted to do. The device of poisoning an envelope flap was used, I discovered later, in an episode of Seinfeld, but by then it was too late, my die was cast.

Art imitates other art even unintentionally. Murder and mystery are good too to emulate, and The Word Exchange is conscious, maybe too conscious, of its emulations. It is not consciousness enough of the pleasures of narrative, of structure, of figuring out the “why” and not just the “how.”

In The Word Exchange I want less… Brooklyn? It’s hard to choose an adjective. The novel feels written or narrated by a bright and precocious but ultimately annoying student who has not yet learned how to be in the world. Even the acknowledgements page is annoying, beginning as it does with “I have a real community of minds to thank.” As opposed to a false community of minds? Why not just say, “Group of people?” The sheer number of people thanked may be indicative of the problems with the story: Too many people said too many things and no central person adequately controlled the outcome.

The praise for The Word Exchange indicates why one can’t trust critics.

Guest post: The date NIMBY who’s intolerant of tolerance and Airbnb

My dad, Isaac, wrote this post.

Faithful readers will know that Jake is fairly obsessed with the impact of NIMBYs on increasing the cost of housing and generally mucking up urban development, no matter how beneficial new housing/development is to the community. Years ago, in a former life as a community development director for several California cities, I had plenty of experience running public hearings in which the Citizens United Against Everything would show up with pitchforks and torches to oppose anything new. Admittedly there were no literal pitchforks and torches, but they definitely had ever-present attorneys and demands for Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs). I agree with Jake that the whole NIMBY stuff is not only counter-productive but also gets tiresome quickly.

These days I find myself trolling and JDate in search of yet another “new life partner,” as those of us of a certain age say about the singles world. Most of my bad date experiences are typical of the online dating process and not worthy of your time to read about. One, though, shows the incredible hypocrisy of the NIMBY phenomenon.

I met my date, a banking executive, at a Beverly Hills wine bar. She was reasonably attractive and interesting, and the date was going pretty well until the conversation shifted beyond standard first date interview questions (like, “How is it that all three of your ex-husbands died suddenly?” or “I’m curious as to how it is that you remember watching the Liston/Ali fight if you’re actually 51?”).

My date said she owned a house in the Beverlywood adjacent* neighborhood, and for years she’s led neighborhood opposition to various development projects like group homes** and, of all things, the Museum of Tolerance (MOT), which was built a few years a years ago near her neighborhood. The MOT is affiliated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an internationally renowned Jewish human rights organization, and it’s dedicated to helping visitors understand the Holocaust.

I was amazed when my date told me proudly that she led her neighborhood group in opposing construction of MOT and held up the project for three years at a cost of $3,000,000 to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Given Mr. Wiesenthal’s work as perhaps the most dedicated Nazi hunter, it’s hard to think of an organization or project that deserves more support, rather than roadblocks, than MOT, particularly in a largely Jewish neighborhood. The date began to go downhill when I pointed out to her that her opposition to MOT made her “intolerant of tolerance” (and guilty of wasting good money).

I soldiered on, as I was increasingly fascinated by her amazingly strong NIMBY convictions. I ordered a second glass of wine so I could listen to more. Her current NIMBY passion is several nearby houses that are being rented out on Airbnb. In Beverlywood adjacent, like much of prime LA, the relatively modest post-WWII houses in her neighborhood are being torn down and replaced by McMansions, which means lots of empty bedrooms and huge mortgage payments. Since Beverlywood adjacent is handy to Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, UCLA and Santa Monica, and hotel rooms in the area can easily top $500/night, it’s a natural habitat for Airbnb, from both owner and renter perspectives. This somehow offends her and she’s trying to use the City of LA regulations to put a stop to the moral outrage that is Airbnb. So far she’s had no success in this curious crusade, which just makes her more angry in the finest NIMBY tradition.

While my date was busy complaining about Airbnb in her neighborhood, she also offhandedly said that she often uses Airbnb herself when she travels! The date ended quickly when I pointed out the inherent irony/hypocrisy of this absurd juxtaposition, which she’d apparently never recognized. But NIMBYs are rarely actually interested in the greater good—they want their neighborhood/city frozen in time like a bee in amber. This odd aspect of NIMBYs is true even if they moved into the neighborhood last week, as they invariably want to be the last one across the drawbridge before it’s raised.

* In LaLA land, it’s not usual for relatively modest neighborhoods to seek added cachet by adding “adjacent,” as in Beverlywood adjacent, Bel Air adjacent, Santa Monica adjacent and so on. This is often used in real estate listings, even if the property is miles away from the actual glittering neighborhood.

** Since I’m a former community development director, it was my sad duty to tell my date that group homes can be placed in any residential neighborhood in California, without any special permits, as long as the home has no more than six beds. The one she was concerned about is “sober living home” for recovering alcoholics, but it could just as easily be a half-way house for convicted murderers. She should count her blessings.

Links: The Power Broker, bogus pre schools, Conrad, email, sugar, and more

* “‘The Power Broker,’ 40 Years Later,” which is much more moving than it sounds.

* “Preschool Can Be Worse Than the Alternative.” We’ve worked on numerous proposals for New York City’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) program, and some of that experience has made us… skeptical… of the push for more structured education for everyone, everywhere, all the time.

* “Joseph Conrad’s powerful novels anticipate the bloody political conflicts of the modern world;” a more accurate essay I’ve rarely read.

* “The Real Anti-Facebook Is Good Old Email.” Which I still use more than any other online system, though sometimes I feel out of time for doing so. I do use Dropbox for distributing pictures, though.

* Terence Tao successfully attacks the Erdős discrepancy problem by building on an online collaboration.

* “The Rise and Fall of Erdogan’s Turkey: No other state has catapulted itself into the future quite as rapidly, nor relapsed back into its dark past as suddenly, as Turkey. First there was modernization, and now the beginnings of a civil war. The country is divided by mistrust and hate.”

* The Money Spent Selling Sugar to Americans Is Staggering: Why do we eat what we eat? Three experts attempt to answer.

* The Case of Richard Glossip, who is about to be murdered by the state—in the United States.

Do millennials have a future in Seattle? Do millennials have a future in any superstar cities?

Over in the Seattle section of Reddit someone asked, “Millennials of Seattle: Do you believe that you have a future in this city?”* My answer started small but grew with the telling, until it became an essay in and of itself, since “Seattle” is really a stand-in for numerous other cities (like New York, L.A., Denver, Boston) that combine strong economies with parochial housing policies that cause the high rents that hurt younger and poorer people. Seattle is, like many dense liberal cities, becoming much more of a superstar city of the sort Edward Glaeser defines in The Triumph of the City. It has a densely urbanized core, strong education facilities, and intense research / development / intellectual industries—along with strict land-use controls that raise the cost of housing.

Innovation, in the sense Peter Thiel describes in Zero to One, plus the ability to sell to global markets leads to extremely high earning potential for some people with highly valuable skills. But, for reasons still somewhat opaque to me and rooted in psychology, politics, and law, (they’re somewhat discussed by Glaeser and by Tyler Cowen in Average is Over), liberal and superficially progressive cities like Seattle also tend to generate the aforementioned intense land-use controls and opposition to development. This strangles housing supply.

The combination of high incomes generated by innovation and selling to global markets, along with viciously limited housing supply, tends to price non-superstars out of the market. Various subsidy schemes generate much more noise than practical assistance for people, and markets are at best exceedingly hard to alter through government fiat. So one gets periodic journalistic accounts of supposed housing price “crises.” By contrast to Seattle, New York, or L.A., Sun Belt cities are growing so fast and so consistently because of real affordable housing. People move to them because housing is cheap. Maybe the quality of life isn’t as high in other ways, but affordability is arguably the biggest component of quality of life. Issues with superstar cities and housing affordability are well-known in the research community but those issues haven’t translated much into voters voting for greater housing supply—probably because existing owners hate anything that they perceive will harm them or their economic self-interests in any way.

Enlightenment_heathSomewhat oddly, too, large parts of the progressive community seem to not believe in or accept supply and demand. Without understanding that basic economic principle it’s difficult to have an intelligent discussion about housing costs. It’s like trying to discuss biology with someone who neither understands nor accepts evolution. In newspaper articles and forum threads, one sees over and over again elementary errors in understanding supply and demand. I used to correct them but now mostly don’t bother because those threads and articles are ruled by feelings rather than knowledge, per Heath’s argument in Enlightenment 2.0, and it’s mentally easier to demonize evil “developers” than it is to understand how supply and demand work.

Ignore the many bogeymen named in the media and focus on market fundamentals. Seattle is increasingly great for economic superstars. Most of them probably aren’t wasting time posting to or reading Reddit. If you are not a superstar Seattle is going to be very difficult to build a future in. This is a generalized problem. As I said earlier, voters don’t understand basic economics, and neither do reporters who should know better. Existing property owners prefer to exclude rivalrous uses. So we get too little supply and increasing demand—across a broad range of cities. Courts have largely permitted economic takings in the form of extreme land-use control.

Seattle is the most salient city for this discussions, but Seattle is also growing because San Francisco’s land-use politics are even worse than Seattle’s. While Seattle has been bad, San Francisco has been (and is) far worse. By some measures San Francisco is now the most expensive place in the country to live. For many Silicon Valley tech workers who drive San Francisco housing prices, moving to Seattle immediately increases real income enormously through the one-two punch of (relatively) lower housing prices and no income tax. Seattle is still a steal relative to San Francisco and still has many of the amenities tech nerds like. So Seattle is catching much of San Francisco’s spillover, for good reason, and in turn places like Houston and Austin are catching much of Seattle’s spillover.

See also this discussion and my discussion of Jane Jacobs and urban land politics. Ignore any comments that lack citations to actual research.

Furthermore, as Matt Yglesias points out in The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think, nominally free-market conservatives also tend to oppose development and support extensive land-use controls. But urban cities like Seattle almost always tilt leftward relative to suburbs and rural areas. Why this happens isn’t well understood.

Overall, it’s telling that Seattlites generate a lot of rhetoric around affordable housing and being progressive while simultaneously attacking policies that would actually provide affordable housing and be actually progressive. Some of you may have heard the hot air around Piketty and his book Capital in the 21st Century. But it turns out that, if you properly account for housing and land-use controls, a surprisingly large amount of the supposed disparity between top earners and everyone else goes away. The somewhat dubious obsession that progressives have with wealth concentration is tied up with the other progressive policy of preventing normal housing development!

This is a problem that’s more serious than it looks because parochial land-use controls affect the environment (in the sense of global climate change and resource consumption), as well as the innovation environment (close proximity increases innovation). Let’s talk first about the environment. Sunbelt cities like Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta have minimal mass transit, few mid- and high-rise buildings, and lots and lots of far-flung sub-divisions with cars. This isn’t good for the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, or for the amount of driving that people have to do, but warped land-use controls have given them to us anyway, and the easiest way to get around those land-use controls is to move to the periphery of an urban area and build there. Instead of super energy efficient mid-rises in Seattle, we get fifty tract houses in Dallas.

Then there’s the innovation issue. The more general term for this is “economic geography,” and the striking thing is how industries seem to cluster more in the Internet age. It is not equally easy to start a startup anywhere; they seem to occur in major cities. It isn’t even equally easy to be, say, a rapper: Atlanta produces a way disproportionate number of rappers (See also here). California’s San Fernando Valley appears to be where anyone who does porn professional wants to go. New York still attracts writers, though now they’re exiled to distant parts of the boroughs. My own novels say, “Jake Seliger grew up near Seattle and lives in New York City” (though admittedly I haven’t found much of a literary community here, which is probably my own fault). And so on, for numerous industries, most of them too small to have made a blip on my radar.

These issues interest me both as an intellectual matter and because they play into my work as a grant writer. Many of the ills grant-funded programs are supposed to solve, like poverty and homelessness, are dramatically worsened by persistent, parochial local land-use policies. Few of the superficial progressives in places like Seattle connect land-use policies to larger progressive issues.

So we get large swaths of people priced out of those lucrative job markets altogether, which (most) progressives dislike in theory. Nominal progressives become extreme reactionaries in their own backyards, which ought to tell us something important about them. Still, grant-funded programs that are supposed to boost income and have other positive effects on people’s lives are fighting against the tide . Fighting the tide is at best exceedingly difficult and at worst impossible. I don’t like to think that I’m fighting futile battles or doing futile work, and I consider this post part of the education process.

Few readers have gotten this far, and if you have, congratulations! Nonetheless I don’t expect to have much of an impact. Earlier in this essay I mentioned Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives, and in that book he observes that rationalists tend to get drown out by immediate, emotional responses. In this essay I’m arguing from a position of deliberate reason, while emotional appeals tend to “win” most intuitive arguments.

* I’m reading “Millennials” as referring to people under age 30 who have no special status or insider connections. Very few will have access to paid-off or rent-controlled housing in superstar cities. They’ll be clawing their way from the bottom without handouts. In cities like New York and San Francisco, a few older people have voted themselves into free stuff in the form of rent control. Most Millennials won’t have that.

Links: Standing desks, Elmore Leonard, leaving academia, bogus sexual assault numbers, and more

* A review of studies of standing desks; as you know I use a GeekDesk and am standing as I type this.

* An excellent piece on Elmore Leonard, one of my favorite writers, ever: Start with Get Shorty and Out of Sight, in that order. Like many writers and especially prolific writers his work is uneven, but as always the best more than excuses the worst. Few of us hit the high notes even once.

* “‘Quirkyalone’ Is Still Alone:” note this: “Lately I’ve been having a lot of conversations with friends who find themselves still single in their 30s and 40s and are starting to worry that it’s not [. . . ] New York City’s cruelly Darwinian dating scene or bad luck. It’s just them.” NYC isn’t “cruelly Darwinian:” it has the shape it does because of sex ratios and preferences. The article could be read profitably in tandem with my post on Date-onomics.

* Utter absurdity in the UN: “Fury after Saudi Arabia ‘chosen to head key UN human rights panel.’” This in a country where at least 50% of the population is systematically oppressed in a shocking, breathtaking way.

* The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead.

* Hemingway in love.

* That college sexual assault survey you’ve seen going around? Likely bogus.

Briefly noted: “Mate” is out and it’s good — Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller

As previously noted, Mate: Become the Man Women Want is out and it’s good.* As the book says in the introduction, “Your culture has failed you and the women you’re trying to meet.” The book is part of the remedy. When I read the draft a couple months ago I told Tucker, “I wish I could teleport a copy of Mate back in time and give it to my 13-year-old self, and then instruct him to read it once a year for the next decade.” That’s still true. If you know any teenage or early 20s guys who are likely straight, give them a copy of this book. It is not going to be useful for everyone and indeed I expect some of you to strongly dislike it. People like how-to in many fields but often not this one.

Mate_CoverThe book emphasizes empathy: “If you always try to understand the woman’s perspective—what they want, why they want it, and how to ethically give it to them—then you will find it much easier to become attractive to them, and you’ll be much more successful with your mating efforts.” There are no shortcuts. For a while I’ve been describing the empathy gap, because I increasingly think that the average man doesn’t much understand or try to understand the average woman—and vice-versa. That’s why books like Mate, or Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, are valuable: they work to close the empathy gap.

Parts of the book will be obvious to older guys who have their lives together—that showering and grooming are important will not be news, but most of us can also probably remember the shambling smelly kids in school. Other parts counteract some of the more dubious parts of our culture, like the claim that women are attracted most by money and that all women are “gold diggers.” For most women most of the time other things matter most, like how “individual women just your fuckability by your social network. So you had better have proof—social proof—that it exists.” Most people, men and women, who want a relationship reasonably want to know the person they’re having a relationship with, and that means knowing friends and family—and knowing they exist. Many of us have had the experience of sleeping with someone who keeps us totally separate from the rest of their lives. Sometimes that can be good—we don’t “count”—but for actual relationships it’s not.

There are still hilarious metaphors and comparisons, like “[A lot of guys think they need to have a ton of money,] then the women will just magically appear, like monarch butterflies to milkweed, flies to honey, rappers to Scarface posters.” But there are fewer of them: The book is entertaining but it leans informational. I at least felt rueful for my teenage and college self when I read some sections. Perhaps my favorite moment occurs two-thirds through the book, when Max and Miller are noting some of the artistic skills that women like, like music, storytelling, and, saliently for this quote, drawing:

The key thing here is to cultivate actual skill rather than indulge in modernist expressionism or abstract art. The poet John Ciardi pointed out, “Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at women and persuade themselves they have a better idea.”

I’ve never read as concise and accurate description of why so much modern art is so bogus.

The bibliography is useful.

As also previously noted, I now know Tucker well enough to not be an unbiased critic.

Briefly noted: Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game — Jon Birger

Date-onomics is charming and worth reading for anyone who is single, who is at risk of becoming single, or curious about how markets are created and how people interact with markets in this domain. Apparently there are relatively few of that last group, since Birger says, “I realize that most people do not want to think about supply and demand when contemplating matters of the heart.” Perhaps is right, but to me rejecting knowledge seems like madness. Birger also notes that there “is an assumption that the perceived shortage of college-educated men [. . .] is actually a mirage.” Except that Birger says it’s not a mirage: there are more single college-educated women than men, especially in particular cities (like New York). For men the simple takeaway might be: move to New York or an equivalent city with many more men than women. For women the simple takeaway might be: Silicon Valley, Seattle, and Denver are waiting for you; straight guys working at big tech companies in particular should think carefully about the differences they’re likely to encounter between working the Bay Area versus working in those same companies’s New York City offices.

Still, Birger’s framing of the statistical narrative is dubious. For example, he writes, “Why is it that women like Donovan struggle to find marriage-material men even as male counterparts with less going for them seem to have little trouble with the opposite sex?” Has Birger missed the vast literature on pickup artistry that’s emerged in the last two decades? Is he aware of the Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller book Mate? For most men much of mating life seems to be a tremendous struggle, and it’s one Birger (mostly) dismisses. To me the dating sections of Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man are among the most compelling, because she tries being a man—noting that she expects to get all the advantages and pleasures of the “patriarchy” that she’d been told about for years in women’s studies classes and feminist books.

Instead Vincent finds struggle, rejection, and hardship—and she’s very happy to go back to being a woman. Being a man doesn’t turn out to be the patriarchal cornucopia she imagines, and that Birger implicitly imagines for men.

In Date-onomics, Birger refers repeatedly to “good men” (2), “ambitious men” (7), “eligible men” (13), “good single guys” (14), and meeting “a decent man” (29). There are others. Rarely does he consider what men might be looking for in a woman, or what the kinds of adjectives used in the preceding sentence might conceal. That framing is unfortunate.

It’s especially unfortunate because in the real world people who can assess themselves accurately, improve themselves reasonably, and compromise pragmatically tend to get decent results. Those who can’t, don’t. (From Date-onomics: “Problem is, wealthy women are far less likely than wealthy men to marry down”).

Despite that general fact, Birger argues that many of us don’t have the facts:

The North Carolina high school guidance counselor quoted in the last chapter told me that she has never once had a parent or student ask about the 60:40 ratio at UNC Chapel Hill—despite the fact that this gender ratio is now a dominant feature of UNC social life. “It’s not even on their radar,” the guidance counselor told me.
It should be.

He’s right: It should be. His book, and this blog post, is an attempt to put that issue on the radar. Women may, at the margin, want to go to engineering schools. Men on the margin of going to college or not may want to be aware that college is increasingly where the women are. Knowledge affects behavior, but it isn’t diffused through society uniformly or easily. Despite the many virtues of this book, many of the people who may most need to know what it says are unlikely to pick it up.

Date-onomics is at its best when it’s focusing on facts and anecdotes and at its worst when it’s barely aware of its own framing. That dark matter, though, is obvious to me. I wonder how many will miss it.

EDIT: Hello readers from The Browser! If you like this piece, you’ll probably also like my latest novel, THE HOOK. You should check it out at the link.


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