Echopraxia — Peter Watts

Echopraxia is among the best books I’ve read, ever, and is as weird and good as its predecessor, Blindsight. If you haven’t read Blindsight start with it.

Like Blindsight, I had only some idea about what was happening throughout the first read and less about why. Why that is is itself an interesting: The characters in many books about “smart” people—let’s take Harry Potter as an example—seem like dumb people’s ideas of what smart people are like. In Science Fiction that’s often less true, and in Echopraxia it isn’t true at all. The novel is a smart person’s idea of what intelligence beyond human comprehension but still observable might be like. Too few novels have characters who feel intelligently intelligent, as opposed (possibly) to emotionally intelligent, or simply unintelligent. In many thrillers and detective novels characters are cartoonishly intelligent, through unearned insight; in this respect they have more in common with characters in, say, romance novels than with those in Echopraxia. That is a less popular subject than who is doing what to whom. References in Echopraxia range from Plato’s cave to Dawkins to imaginary future scientists. Minds are often analogized to computers, as in this moment the start of the novel, when vampires rebel against their jailers and creators:

She towered over Sachie like an insectile statue, motionless, even her breathing imperceptible. Moments from death and with nothing better to do, some subroutine in Sachie’s head ticked off the morphometrics: such inhumanly long limbs, the attenuate heat-dissipating allometry of a metabolic engine running hot.

echopraxia_coverWhat is “better to do” moments from death? And are subroutines the right metaphor for the brain? I don’t know, but Echopraxia asks what, if anything, is essential for “humans” (or whether “humans” are essential). The novel takes place fourteen years after the Firefall from Blindsight, but “Fourteen years is a long time for a species raised on instant gratification.” In this world zombies are real, some viral and some surgical: every consciousness is trying to get on top of and sometimes overwhelm another consciousness. Watts is fond of the third-person plural “they” without distinguishing who “they” are in a given moment or situation.

The form of the narrative mirrors the mental state of Brüks—that is, characters are continually having epiphanies that the readers must catch up with later, if we ever do (Why exactly is the Bicameral order being attacked, again, and, more importantly, by who? I think I can answer but am not entirely sure). This is disorienting and at least for me doesn’t stop being disorienting throughout the novel. Was it equally disorienting to write Echopraxia, I have to wonder?

The lack of pronoun referents goes deeper than an observation. One could see Watt’s novels as an extreme version of a theory from the introduction of Umberto Eco’s The Open Work:

[Modern open work] through its lack of conventional sense and order [. . .] represents by analogy the feeling of senselessness, disorder, “discontinuity” that the modern world generates in all of us. Thus, although open works are not the only kind of art to be produced in our time, they are the only kind that is appropriate to it; the conventional sense and order of traditional art reflects an experience of the world wholly different from ours, and deceive ourselves if we try to make this sense and order our own. (xiv)

In Echopraxia the structure of the book is not precisely shocking—it proceeds more or less chronologically through time, and its narrator is not as far as I can tell trying to be deceptive. But if the present has increased “the feeling of senseless, disorder, ‘discontinuity,'” then the post-human and fast-paced technological future will increase that sense further and faster, especially if and when humans create beings (I use the word because I lack a better one) incomprehensible to humans. The future’s experience in this reading will be a “world wholly different from ours,” and imaginative art is one way to prepare for the possibility of that future. For much of human history technology has been a positive force (though anyone caught in the battle of the Somme, or by Russia’s secret police, or by Agent Orange will have reason to disagree), but past returns are no guarantee of future returns.

Technology, Echopraxia implies, can turn myth or nightmare into fact. I did not catch any references to Pandora’s Box, perhaps because such a mythic allusion is too obvious in a book that eschews obviousness at virtually every level, but the applicability is obvious. In The Open Work, Echo writes that “Art knows the world through its own formative structures.” So does consciousness. But what if consciousness is in turn limited by its own formative structures? Verbal and written expression are already tremendously limited, which is part of what gives both, and especially written language, their powers. Addressing those limits in words themselves is a serious and perhaps impossible challenge.

Still, some points recur. The word “gut” appears at least three times that I counted, and maybe more. There is much discussion of “the species” and what traits or habits maintained it in the past but might not be useful in the distant future. There is no such thing as “nature” or “natural life,” and there are no guarantees that humanity as we know it will survive. That there is no real fundamental “you” or “me” is an ancient fear, and Echopraxia terrifies and confuses by saying: “Maybe this fear will yet come to pass.” One reading of the novel is as a description of the transition point from human to non-human. Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles engages similar themes but without overt death, and without the psychological manipulations of Watts. The Elementary Particles does not have the same kind of biohacking and especially viral biohacking. Echopraxia feels more about emergent phenomena and how difficult they are to control—which may explain why Jim Moore’s son Siri Keaton needed, for reasons essential to the story, to experience what he did.

Eco also says that “nowadays, in our technological civilization, objects have become so pervasive, so sophisticated, so autonomous that we feel threatened by them.” The distinction between “objects,” “life,” and “humans” is slowly breaking down. To take one personal example, I, like millions of other humans, have a piece of plastic inserted in my body. In my case, that plastic mimics bone. What happens when it mimics brain? What happens when the greatest threat from pervasive objects is not visible? The answers may be a long time coming and may not involves aliens or vampires.

Science fiction is different from most fiction in that most plots in most fiction devolve to posturing for wealth, sex, status, or political positioning. Echopraxia is particularly different, because it imagines a world so far from our own, and it imagines what a transition point from humans to non-humans might look like, both from the humans’s perspective and, to the extent possible, from the perspective of non- or trans-humans who wish to explain themselves, to the extent they can, to humans. Language is a funny thing; it relies on some level of shared referents in order to work, and trans-humans may come to utterly lack shared referents. Humans may bootstrap trans-humans into being—both because humans want to, and, as Echopraxia and Blindsight imply, because perhaps we must: we must keep advancing in order to try to save ourselves from ourselves.

There is much else to write about Watts. If a novel is a machine for generating interpretations, Echopraxia and Blindsight generate more than most. They are also beautiful, weird, and like no other books I’ve ever read.


Here is The LA Review of Books. Here is Watts on Reddit. Here is a Locus Online review. I don’t remember who first inspired me to read Watts but if I did I’d thank them.

Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives — Joseph Heath

There is something futile about this otherwise consistently interesting book, and Heath says as much towards the end:

It should go without saying that writing books about the decline of reason is not the sort of thing that is likely to slow the decline of reason. It is simply preaching to the choir. Anyone who makes it to the end of a three-hundred-page book on the subject is obviously not part of the problem. Furthermore, the project of reversing the trend is too big and too complicated for any one person to accomplish much.

Enlightenment_heathNonetheless I enjoyed and recommend Enlightenment 2.0; here is Alex Tabarrok’s review, which introduced me to the book. Its subjects and sources seem eclectic at first: Hollywood movies, Fox News, politics, 18th Century writers, philosophers, economists. Not all its examples are plausible. But the single golden braid of what rationality means runs through the book, and Heath identifies patterns I’ve inchoately felt but never quite described. Readers who are familiar with the extensive irrationality literature—Thinking, Fast and Slow is perhaps the best, though not the only, example—may find sections repetitive. Yet the overall impact is strong.

Reading the irrationality shows how rational, logical people are proving that people are irrational and illogical. Yet it takes rationality to demonstrate how we aren’t, and that alone may justify rationality (the existence of the contemporary world shows that it is possible for rationality to flourish). In most domains, too, individuals suffer most of the consequences of irrationality: If you spend more than you make, you suffer more than me; if you sleep with people you shouldn’t, you suffer more than me. The exception comes from voting; I don’t see Bryan Caplan cited in the index but Heath points to many of the themes Caplan does in The Myth of the Rational Voter, another recommended and yet depressing book because it posits a problem to which there is no good solution. Comedy is one partial solution, as Heath says about liberal comedians attacking conservative lunatic initiatives, and so is setting up the right systems, or right sort of systems:

To the extent we are able to achieve something resembling rationality, it is usually because we have good kludges. As productivity expert David Allen put it, ‘To a great degree, the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives. I know that’s true of me. The smart part of us sets things for us to do that the non-so-smart [sic] part responds to almost automatically, creating behavior that produces high-performance results. We trick ourselves into doing what we ought to be doing.’

I would call myself a “high-performing person” and would not call myself a productivity expert, but one of my most-used programs prevents me from using other programs effectively: Mac Freedom. For ten dollars, this program will turn off your Internet access for a specified period of time (you can get it back by rebooting, should you really need it). The Internet is amazing but can also be noxious and distracting. Freedom reminds me that I should pursue my long-term goals and that most “news” is total garbage and that my life (and the world) is not going to get better based on whether I inhale someone else’s intellectual garbage. I’d argue Facebook is even worse than news in this respect, and, now that everyone is on Facebook, the quality of Facebook has declined further: people are worried about what their moms and bosses and employers will think, so they shunt the real parts of their lives to pseudonymous services.

Still, much news is superficially attractive and has that dangerous quality of feeling like learning even when it isn’t. I’m susceptible to it and, even before reading about Allen, I’d developed some strategies for resisting. Those strategies aren’t perfect and depending on what I’m working on I may genuinely need the Internet, but most of the time concentration is the scarcest resource, rather than information. And well-structured information is scarcer than “information,” which makes books more valuable than many articles. Still, I need to trick myself into remembering this.

Heath notes that some concepts are not intuitive, don’t make us “feel” correctly, and yet are essential for the workings of modern life. But it’s easy for demagogues or just plainly ignorant politicians to appeal to feelings that are popular but simplistic and wrong. Heath says that liberals have a harder time with this, as their preferred policies require coordination and complex understanding of multiple moving parts.

I like the observation in “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup,” in which Scott Alexander observes that Team Red and Team Blue seem more often to decide on issues based on opposing whatever the other one wants, rather than initial dispassionate analysis followed by decision.

My favorite issue that works along these lines is housing policy, which is especially interesting because both Team Red and Team Blue tend to oppose sensible, affordable housing policies, but for slightly different reasons. As I wrote here (and have written elsewhere), housing affects everything from schools to the real power of money (which may be different from “income”) to the environment to intellectual growth and development. Yet housing policy has devolved in the last forty or so years and is barely on most people’s radar. Markets are dysfunctional due to land-control uses. Team Blue is concerned about incomes, and sometimes even real incomes, and housing policy is hugely important in this domain. Team red is concerned about markets, at least superficially, and yet housing and land development is widely distorted. (Team Red often opposes markets when markets don’t produce their desired social outcomes, which is a topic for another time.)

As a side note regarding the subtitle, I’ll say that I don’t feel my life to be insane or not sane. I’ll also say that this is not true only of politics, but also some weirdly large swaths of the humanities:

[Harry] Frankfurt’s important contribution [via the book On Bullshit] was to have distinguished between lying and bullshitting. What characterizes the bullshitter is that, unlike the liar, who at least maintains the pretense of telling the truth, the bullshitter has simply opted out of the truth-telling game. There is no pretense with the bullshitter. Although producing ordinary declarative sentences that would normally be evaluated under the categories of truth and falsity, the bullshitter is not even trying to say something that sounds true.

When someone has opted out of the truth-telling game there is almost no reason to talk to them.

Much of Enlightenment 2.0 is distressing to those of us who like to imagine ourselves as rationalists. Yet the world is still by many metrics improving. I’m tempted to start a new series in which every December I post “Good news in review,” since most news is biased towards problems, deaths, fuck-ups, and the like. Yet overall by most metrics people are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives. That’s a huge but under-emphasized point. Many of the big, preventable killers in the United States—like cars and guns—could be better dealt with through policy, as long as people understand just how many other people die from those causes. Most of us don’t attend to them, however, and prefer salient deaths like shark attacks and terrorism.

Briefly noted: The Pattern Scars – Caitlin Sweet

It took half the novel for me realize the problem with The Pattern Scars: It contains virtually no interesting sentences. None that say something unexpected or have unusual musicality or that are patterned in uncommon ways. It’s sentence after sentence of “The footsteps stopped. I could feel someone behind me, but I did not turn.” Or “He was still squeezing my wrist; I wrenched it free.” There are moments that are almost interesting—”I walked quickly so that he would not see my sudden tears, and so that I might outpace my confusion”—but they’re rare. That line works because we normally can’t outpace a mental state—the mental state resides within us—but we get that Nola is trying to clear her mind by walking, and by letting her mind process what’s happening to her and around her.

Sweet has so much potential. She needs only style. None of the boring sentences cited above are offensive on their own, of course, and my own work is filled with unspectacular descriptive sentences that are important for basic understanding. An entire book of voiceless sentences is boring. The promise of something interesting was enough to keep me going; so too was the fact that the novel starts with a child’s point of view, and often simple children develop into sophisticated adults. That doesn’t happen for Nola. The realization, three quarters through the book, that that promise would be dashed made me start skipping pages. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the few reviews of The Pattern Scars I’ve found quote little or not at all from the novel. The story, rendered better, is fine. The attention to the details of words and sentences is lacking.

Briefly noted: The Festival of Insignificance — Milan Kundera

The Festival of Insignificance is out and I don’t know what to make of it. It’s nice enough I suppose but it feels . . . Insubstantial? Disconnected? Do I not get it? Hard to say. Characters or figures appear, are observed or make a speech, then leave. Consider this, from page 110, just 5 pages from the end:

In the broad walk that stretches into the park from l’avenue de l’Obsesrvatoire, a man of about fifty with a mustache, wearing an old worn parka with a long hunting rifle slung from his shoulder, runs toward the circle of the great marble ladies of France. He is shouting and waving his arms. All around, people stop and watch, startled and sympathetic. Yes, sympathetic, for that mustachioed face has an easy quality that freshens the atmosphere in the garden with an idyllic breath of times gone by. It calls up the image of a ladies’ man, a village rake, an adventurer who’s more likable for already being a little older and seasoned. Won over by his country charm, his virile goodness, his folkloric look, the crowd sends him smiles and he responds, pleasing and ingratiating.

Now what? The passage is on its own fine, and maybe it connects in obscure ways to other passages that I haven’t adequately noticed. The odd thing about this passage is that, like many of the scenes, it doesn’t really seem to connect with the rest of the novella. The adjective “Hegelian” appears, which is rarely a good sign. Some passages are witty and perhaps true:

When Ramon had described his theory about observation posts standing each on a different point in history, from which people talk together unable to understand one another, Alain had immediately thought of his girlfriend, because, thanks to her, he knew that even the dialogue between true lovers, if their birth dates are too far apart, is only the intertwining of two monologues, each holding for the other much that is not understood.

Kundera_FestivalThe observation posts are works of art or artists, with the people being the public or possibly other artists: no one understands anyone else because contextual changes make the art feel different to the observer. The lover faces a similar challenge, and it’s one that I know in a different context: teaching. In school I’d listen to out-of-it teachers casually reference TV shows or other phenomena from decades before my time and then watch them be bewildered that something so vital to them and their generation could be a void to ours. Now I’m on the other side of the desk and sense the same thing. Very little culture transcends the time it was produced, and what does transcend that time often does so only through great effort. Ramon senses this intellectually and Alain erotically. Maybe.

But, again, so what? And what of the first-person narrator who speaks as the or a writer? I don’t know, which may be the point of the novella, if there is one.

Art is of course insignificant and significant at the same time. Its role as insignificant is well known, and its significance can be inferred by the ceaseless efforts of religions, governments, and parents to censor it. If art weren’t significant, all that effort into controlling art wouldn’t occur. Political art may be legal in the U.S., but just try writing a political satire of the Chinese government in China. Perhaps the point is that in the West we’ve evolved to a stage where virtually all art is legal and none of it matters, leaving artists and art consumers / experiencers to ask, “What now?”

Maybe there is a stylistic quality to The Festival of Insignificance evident in French that didn’t make it to English. It is always dangerous to assume too much about a translated novel. Maybe too the only good criticism of art is other art, and little conventional criticism rises to the level of art.

Here is Jonathan Rosen writing about it, and ignore the stupid, cliché title, which probably wasn’t his. Too many reviewers are obsessed with the writer instead of the book.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future — Ashlee Vance

Vance’s Elon Musk biography is informationally good but aesthetically average, or even slightly below average (aesthetics are graded non-linearly). You should read it, though, if for no other reason than because Musk is like a High Elf in Middle Earth at the time of The Lord of the Rings: he seems like he belongs to an other age, and I mean that as an extreme compliment. Even compared to other High Nerds he is extreme, and extreme to an extent I thought I understood but didn’t until this book and maybe not even after this book. The scale of his ambition and achievement is epic—so epic that he attracts haters as rock stars attract groupies. The same sexual energy groupies channel into music haters channel into Musk. Elon Musk reminds us, probably inadvertently, that criticism is easy and achievement is hard. Internet culture makes criticism easy, cheap, and pervasive, but achievement remains undebased.

elon_musk_vanceThroughout the book Musk comes across as different from baseline humans; I’m often told that I seem different (and this is rarely meant as a compliment, though even its slightly negative connotation rarely shades to insult), but Musk is way different in terms of values, and in behavior. He tells his then-wife Justine that if she were his employee that he would fire her; as a kid he “seemed to drift off into a trance at times. People spoke to him, but nothing got through when he had a certain, distant look in his eyes. This happened so often that Elon’s parents and doctors thought he might be deaf.” He had a “compulsion to read” and “From a very young age, he seemed to have a book in his hands at all times.” I identify: I have the same problem today, but without the need to constantly innovate and to to beat everyone, everywhere, all the time, at all things. I’m okay with being; Musk, it seems, has never been okay with being.

In life there is much superficial talk about values, like what a person wears or eats, but very little about real value, like how a person makes life vastly better through the provision of goods, services, and arts that can’t exist without an individual driving those things into existence. We think of artists as special because they do those things, and technology and business are Musk’s arts. But he cannot act alone: someone like Lucian Freud, as described in Geordie Greig’s biography, can lose friends and alienate people in a way that someone building businesses can’t (and Musk appears not to have Freud’s lasciviousness, which I note as a fact but do not condemn). Musk has that arguably harder task, though it is a task he assumed early and has never wavered from. His Sauron is things wrong with the present, and he is the Aragorn who can set them right, but his battle is more ambiguous and harder to achieve than Aragorn’s. Corporeal foes are rare but attractive to the human mind, while abstract foes are common and ignored. The link between belief and behavior is stronger in Musk than almost anyone else’s.

It is common to say that some person overcame “incredible odds,” but Musk really did, and is continuing to do so: the full story is outrageous and its flavor can’t really be gained here, but Vance writes that “As 2007 rolled in 2008, Musk’s life became much more tumultuous. Tesla basically had to start over on much of the Roadster, and SpaceX still had dozens of people living on Kwajalein awaiting the next launch of the Falcon 1.” Things get worse. One or both companies were days away from bankruptcy. During that period his ex-wife, Justine, took him for a shocking amount of money in divorce court; at that time Philip Greenspun and friends’s book Real World Divorce: Custody, Child Support, and Alimony in the 50 States didn’t exist, but too many stories like Musk’s drove its creation. If we had any on-the-ball literary agents, they’d be selling Real World Divorce to conventional publishers.

The most interesting question raised by Elon Musk may not be about Musk’s psychology, but about the psychology of his haters (sometimes Vance comes across as one: the book’s introduction is terrible, and there is some idiotic commentary on pages 347 – 350 that I’m not going to further address). Something drives people to root for the failure of others. Legions of assholes, at Valleywag and elsewhere, have wanted, gleefully, to see SpaceX and Tesla fail. The reasons for this are strange: both companies may reshape human life for the ambiguously better. Why root for someone who is doing unalloyed good to fail? I don’t have a good answer. I’m not sure anyone does.

People read the negative crap and because of readers, writers produce it. In “Subtle Mid-Stage Startup Pitfalls” Jessica Livingston writes:

An unfortunate by-product of success is a greater amount of public criticism. Once you make it to the mid-stage, you may start to become well known, especially if you have a consumer product. Two things can happen at this point with the public that always catch founders by surprise: first, complete strangers will start to assign bad intentions to everything you do. Second, the media will only be interested in one thing about you: controversy. Because controversy equals page views. No actual controversy? No problem; they’ll manufacture some.

You can’t prevent yourself from being a target. It’s an automatic consequence of being successful. So the best you can do is react in the right way when people attack you. To some extent you have to resign yourself to letting people lie about you. You can’t engage with every crazy hater or troll. But sometimes you do need to react, especially if something happens that makes more people angry at you than usual. So someone should be watching Twitter, but perhaps not the CEO.

And be very careful about what you say, both as a company and as individuals, even in what might seem like private conversations. Anything you say can turn into a news story nowadays. And you don’t even have to have said something bad–just something someone could willfully misinterpret.

Musk has been willfully misinterpreted by too many people with big megaphones. He has been misinterpreted at least somewhat by Vance, whose journalistic inclination to want to see both sides, even when one side is wrong, occludes his vision. The first pages of the biography wrongly give doubt too prominent a place. I will note that I wouldn’t want to work for Musk’s companies: I don’t have the temperament for 80-hour weeks in pursuit of any cause, however amazing, and his level of abrasiveness would make me quit. Whatever the flaws in his methods, they are effective. Towards the end of the essay Livingston says that companies must above all else “Ship great things.” Musk does that, and, more amazingly, he ships great things that are made of atoms, rather than things made of bits. Awe should have a prominent place in stories about him. Awe has been evacuated from much of modern life, but it still exists in human-dwarfing technical projects.

Too bad we so rarely stop to feel it.

Like many successful (and presumably unsuccessful) alpha nerds, “Elon’s constant yearning to correct people and his abrasive manner put off other kids and added to his feelings of isolation.” Nerds care more about being right than liked (though this can be comical when they’re determined they’re right and they’re, or when they’re dealing with indeterminate problem spaces like social life).

We find that Elon’s parents divorced but little about what might be the real reasons why they did. His school experience was horrible, though at least it appears he wasn’t raped, as was apparently somewhat common at British boarding schools for a long time. He worked as few others do (something he has in common with Kelly Johnson). Extreme achievement often or maybe always requires extreme effort, which is an underappreciated point, especially in contemporary political discourse. One person said, “Elon was the most straight-laced dude you have ever met. He never drank. He never did anything. Zero. Literally nothing.” Except, apparently, “video game binges.” At Zip2, his first startup, “Musk never seemed to leave the office. He slept, not unlike a dog, on a beanbag next to his desk.” The metaphor is again her interesting and maybe misplaced.

That said Musk isn’t today and wasn’t then a messiah: “Musk feel into the classic self-taught coder trap of writing what developers call hairballs—big, monolithic hunks of code that could o berserk for mysterious reasons. The engineers also brought a more refined working structure and realistic deadlines to the engineering group.” In searching for a business, he thought that, based on working at the Bank of Nova Scotia, “bankers are rich and dumb [. . . which] had the feel of a massive opportunity.” A few pages later: “He had an inkling that the bankers were doing finance all wrong and that he could run the business better than anyone else.” Yet the big banks are still with us, and while Paypal has been reasonably successful it hasn’t displaced big banks and if anything the big banks are bigger and richer. Musk also favored Microsoft servers for a startup, which is totally bizarre, then or now, and X.com (Paypal’s predecessor) almost failed due to technology problems.

The relationship between Musk and his ex-wife, Justine, became sordid, and to be fair however much I admire Musk I wouldn’t want marry him. Oddly, too, years ago I read Justine’s novel Bloodangel, but it wasn’t any good.


Here is one okay review from Slate. So far almost all the commentary I’ve seen on Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future has been by people who miss the plot. There are better essays to be written. As so often happens journalists are letting us down, but then again they’re letting us down because we let them let us down.

Lurid & Cute — Adam Thirlwell

No one knows anything and no one beyond the protagonist has any consciousness in Lurid & Cute. It’s the sort of book whose good reviews make one learn to distrust good reviews. The book is not bad. It just sort is, as if someone hoovered up the thoughts of a bright but unambitious hipster and failed to organize them adequately. The narrator isn’t as intellectually associative as someone like Roland Barthes or Camille Paglia, whose styles can sometimes be forgiven for their insights.

Perhaps unsurprisingly I’ve been unable to sell Lurid & Cute on Amazon, where repeated price drops get matched by bots with excess inventory. Sometimes the market speaks and it’s wrong; other times, it speaks and it’s right. The novel starts cleverly:

I liked the bright vibe. But also I knew that although I liked the vibe it was not the vibe of my usual bedroom, just as the girl who was sleeping beside me in what seemed to be a hotel room was not my happy wife. It was that kind of problem situation, and while I acknowledge that some people would not feel that this is after all so bad – and that waking beside a person who is not ethically your own is just the usual way most humans enter the moral realm and therefore, kiddo, live with it – still, I could not be so suave.

But it goes nowhere, albeit in a way that’s hard to describe. The preceding sentences are representative: Thirlwell or his narrator is fond of length, and if you too are fond of length and of digression loosely related to whatever is kind of at hand, you may like it too. The style is often simultaneously too normal and too weird: “The entire history of my wasted time seemed sad to me, like it turned out to be a menace where no menace seemed to be visible, and I berated myself that, vigilant as I always was for signs of menace, I had not noticed that the true menace was right there [. . . ]” The book seems to offer itself as an example of wasted time, too, on par with the YouTube videos mentioned on page 22, but maybe its point is that time wasted and time well-spent are similar. Or more likely the point is the lack of a point, in which case there better be a great story in there. There isn’t here.


Try Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back instead. That novel stays with me long after I finished. It’s a novel about struggle that’s not a struggle to read, a novel indirectly about politics that doesn’t slap readers in the face with politics, a novel about sex as it’s had now without being polemical. There’s so much there and so little in Lurid & Cute.

Kelly: More than My Share of It All — Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson with Maggie Smith

Kelly: More than My Share of It All comes by way of Paul Graham and I see why Graham likes it: Kelly is the sort of person who barely exists anymore. Kelly worked on numerous important aerospace engineering projects from World War II into the 1970s, and he oversaw vital projects like the SR-71 Blackbird and the U-2 Reconnaissance plane—both of which were major innovations. In an era of the totally fucked up F-35 and numerous similar systems, it’s shocking to read about genuinely innovative projects completed on time and sometimes even under budget. It’s shocking too to read about someone who sounds like a person rather than a bureaucrat, and who argues for responsibility instead of buzzwords:

There is a tendency today, which I hate to see, toward design by committee—reviews and recommendations, conferences and consultants, by those not directly doing the job. Nothing very stupid will result, but nothing brilliant either. And it’s in the brilliant concept that a major advance is achieved.

kellyAt the time Kelly worked, large aerospace and related companies acted like Google or Apple do today—perhaps because their founders still ran them. Kelly writes about how he once “telephoned Walter Baird [of the Baird Atomic Company] personally since he and I had worked together on a number of other Skunk Works projects. He immediately agreed to pick up his end of the log.” A direct call to a decision maker is often an improvement over hundreds of hours of committee bullshit. Many people know this intuitively but many systems, in universities and business, have run to committee. Kelly writes, “I fear that the way I like to design and build airplanes one day may no longer be possible.” In that sentence I think he should have “may” before “one,” but the important point remains: that day has arrived.

One could profitably read this book next to Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Musk is a Kelly-like figure, and, together with Zero to One, Kelly tells a story about how large swaths of the nominal technology sector have become sclerotic. Every single person working on the F-35 should be required to read Kelly. But the people at the top of fat and lax military-industrial companies are already getting theirs.

The sense of differences extends to Kelly’s university experience, where he writes that “The professors were broadminded people, with interests and contacts outside the university. They took a personal as well as professional interest in their students.” Today “a personal as well as professional interest” leaves professors open to university politics and sexual harassment claims. Money is tighter; he writes of how the University of Michigan built a wind tunnel and let Kelly operate it part time. He says, “The money didn’t mean anything to the university; renting the tunnel afforded them a chance to see what the students could do.” Money today means a lot to universities, and the faculty seem powerless to reverse that trend.

Kelly and Kelly are about taking reasonable risks with good cost-to-payoff ratios. Risk does imply the possibility of failure, though, and reasonable failure isn’t tolerated in many big institutions. That may help explain why startups are so important, why much innovation happens on the Internet, and why Amazon.com’s ebook systems are so important for writers. Much of Kelly is not written particularly well, but the larger points it makes make it a fascinating historical document anyway, and a reminder of what can be accomplished by determined people in systems that let them succeed.

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