Life: Egotism and the powerful sense of self consciousness generates

An egotist is a self-absorbed creature, delighted with himself and ready to tell the world about his enthralling love affair. But an egoist, like Sir John, is a much more serious being, who makes himself, his instincts, his yearnings, and tastes the touchstone of every experience. The world, truly, is his creation. Outwardly he may be courteous, modest, and charming—and certainly when you knew him Sir John was all of these—but beneath the velvet is the steel ; if anything comes along that will not yield to the steel, the steel will retreat from it and ignore its existence. The egotist is all surface; underneath is a pulpy mess and a lot of self-doubt. But the egoist may be yielding and even deferential in things he doesn’t consider important; in anything that touches his core he is remorseless.

—Robertson Davies, The Deptford Trilogy. Does this sound like anyone you know?

The whole Deptford Trilogy is weird but marvelous. It’s the sort of book I shouldn’t like yet reread periodically. It’s utterly against the feeling of most contemporary fiction or even the sort of fiction that was commonly written when it was published yet works. Critics don’t know what to do with it because it’s very good without being flashy, or without tying into many common critical hobbyhorses. It’s the sort of book I’m always hoping someone will recommend to me.

Links: Leases, cars, bikes, energy, the nurse-doctor essay, and Game of Thrones

* If you lease a car today, Tesla will allegedly have an autonomous car by the time that lease expires.

* How GM Beat Tesla to the First True Mass-Market Electric Car.

* “Anatomy of Wonder: When I revisited Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, I expected to find formidable scholarship. I didn’t expect to find a literary experience.” Joseph Campbell remains excellent too. him and Frye are both critics who can’t effectively exist in contemporary universities.

* An incredible comment from someone who read “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school.”

* NASA: “Coal and Gas are Far More Harmful than Nuclear Power.”

* Game of Thrones: A Girardian Reading, a much weirder and more interesting piece than you may think. On a sentence-by-sentence level Game of the Thrones is incredibly uneven, as I wrote in 2011.

* “The Arabic gang-rape ‘Taharrush’ phenomenon which sees women surrounded by groups of men in crowds and sexually assaulted… and has now spread to Europe.” Perhaps this is a troll, considering the source. Still, let’s assume for a moment it isn’t: I don’t see “Taharrush” happening in the U.S.: big cities like New York, Chicago, and L.A. have too many cops. Smaller cities have too many armed citizens. In Phoenix, Austin, or Houston one or two guys with pistols would end “Taharrush.” See also “The Islamophobic Case for Open Borders” for many rarely heard views.

* Why clean energy is now expanding even when fossil fuels are cheap.

* More details on the Vanhawks Valour smartbike.

* Taking Apprenticeships Seriously: The need for alternate paths.

The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch — Jonathan Gottschall

How many people are willing to admit: “I concluded that I’d been wrong about MMA people, fighters and fans alike?” Admitting to being wrong is a paradoxical show of power: the power to say that you’re weak, rather than pretending to be strong, which only the strong can do. The Professor in the Cage is full of paradox, beginning maybe with the author himself: a cerebral professor who pursues fighting. I get why he does and why he gets the reactions he does. I don’t do MMA but people are surprised that I run and lift. Are those activities in natural opposition to cerebral writers? To anyone in cerebral professions? Not to me, but, evidently, to many.

prof_in_cageA lot guys start MMA because they fear for their own masculinity and want to prove it: “Football captains and bullies don’t need martial arts. They already know they are strong and tough. Guys turn to martial arts when they fear they are weak.” Or, at least, they do in situations—like most of the contemporary Western world—when their physical safety is mostly assured. Much later, in the final chapters, Gottschall says, “half my reason for taking the fight was to try to do a brave thing—to redeem myself, at least in my own eyes, for all the times I’d flinched when I was young.” There may be other possibilities for redemption. Like, say, letting go.

Or channeling your energy in different directions.

The stories of entrepreneurial competition are legion. Gottscahll puts his energy in physical direction, in part because he’s an English professor by day—and a failing one at that. We have certain things in common, Gottschall and me, except I got out earlier, and I haven’t published the books he has. In some ways, though, Gottschall is a warning: How can someone who has done so much interesting work still get no traction in English departments? He could be a cautionary tale in my own warning essay about grad school.

Towards the end of the book Gottschall writes,

I’ve said I took up fighting partly in hopes of getting fired. But that’s only half-true. Becoming a real college professor has been the great ambition of my adult life, and a big part of me is still reluctant to give up on it. In truth, I probably feared being fired as much as I hoped for it.

He also observes that, contrary to what he thought he should do, he finds that “if you train in MMA, it’s hard to stay in the closet about it.” Which may true of any passion or activity that makes you feel most alive. However much you’re supposed to hide it, it’s hard to suppress that instinct. It’s who you are. It makes you slightly evangelical. For Gottschall, too, he finds himself “on crutches, or limping in a walking boot,” which makes MMA fighting particularly hard to ignore. I sometimes reach for metaphors related to lifting and running because they’re handy and relatively easy to understand. They’re also what I know. All of us have stocks of experience and knowledge and that’s part of what colors, filters, or constructs our world.

At base Gottschall is looking for life. In this respect he is like a novelist. He finds it fighting more, maybe, than fucking (or perhaps another book on that subject is yet to emerge). It may not be a mistake that one of James Wood’s books is The Nearest Thing to Life and it in turn discusses novels. Life and life-feeling are tricky to define yet continually sought. Cooperation and competition are perpetually cooperating and competing with each other. In The Professor and the Cage they are physically embodied. That physical embodiment propels the book forward. I don’t think I’ll spoil the book by saying that its denouement is a 47-second fight. In ritualized fighting the journey is the destination.

We find life in many places. Gottschall finds it in the cage.

Other have written about him. “Survival of the Fittest in the English Department: Jonathan Gottschall tried to save literary studies. Instead he ruined his career” is interesting throughout. Is it a surprise that three of the most interesting academics in and around English—Gottschall, Camille Paglia, and William Deresiewicz—have such a strained relationship with the rest of the discipline? I don’t have their fortitude or seeming indifference to material possessions. Give me a new iMac and a $14 hipster cocktail stat. More importantly, Paglia’s two-decades-long protest has led to near-zero change. The structure of the system impedes change and will at least until tenure goes away. In the meantime, though, there is life in the cage.

Links: Unexpected intellectualism, academia, unions, walking, and more!

* “Jonah Peretti on how BuzzFeed is like an early movie studio and why he encourages ‘crushes.’” This piece is much better and more important than you think.

* “Europe’s man problem: Migrants to Europe skew heavily male — and that’s dangerous.”

* “Academics Are So Lefty They Don’t Even See It.” This fits my experience.

* “Long-range forecast,” though I think these points are overstated, the world is continuing to move in the right direction, and too much “news” is really “blips.”

* “OkCupid Adds a Feature for the Polyamorous: Seeing an increased interest in non-monogamous arrangements, the company will allow couples to link their profiles and search for additional mates.” Is the venue itself in which this is being published a sign that the practice described is going mainstream? If so, what does that mean for novelists?

* Unions may no longer be able to forcibly raid their members’ pockets, though the framing in the article itself is quite different.

* “Easing Tenure’s Grip Can Embolden Academia.” Yes, yes, yes, yes.

* Maajid Nawaz: “Why We Can’t Stay Silent on Germany’s Mass Sex Assaults.”

* Bizarrely, where and how kids walk to school is a contentious issue.

* GM May Have Just Changed the Game for Electric Cars. Here’s What It’s Up To. A very important story.

The more you do it the better you get: Why Americans might not work less

In “Why Do Americans Work So Much?“, Rebecca Rosen poses some answers to the question in the title, most notably, “American inequality means that the gains of increasing productivity are not widely shared. In other words, most Americans are too poor to work less.” I’m not convinced this is true; one problem we have involves the difficulty or illegality of building and selling relatively inexpensive housing in high-demand areas (see here and here for two discussions, and please don’t leave a comment unless you’ve read both links thoroughly). Some of what looks like financial “inequality” is actually people paying a shit ton of money for housing in New York, Seattle, L.A., and similar places, rather than living in cheaper places like Houston or Phoenix. Homeowners who vote in those areas vote to keep housing prices high by strangling supply.

Plus, I’d add that, per “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?“, financial inequality isn’t the only kind, though for some reason it’s gotten an overwhelming amount of play in the press over the last ten years. I’ve seen people speculate that financial inequality is fun to attack because money can easily be taken from someone at the point of a gun and given to someone else, while other forms of inequality like beauty or a playful disposition can’t be taken so easily.

Still, there’s one other important factor that may be unexplored: Demanding and remunerative cognitive jobs may not be easy to partition. That is, one person doing a cognitively demanding job 40 hours per week is way more efficient than two people doing the same job for 20 hours a week. And that same person may be even more efficient working 50 or 60 hours a week.

Let me explain. With some classic manufacturing tasks—let’s imagine a very simple one, like turning an hex key—you can do x turns per hour times y hours. With many high-value jobs, and even ambiguously defined median-value jobs, that isn’t true. In my not-tremendous-but-not-zero experience in coding, having one person stuff as much of the code base—that is, the problem space—into their head as possible makes the work better. The person learns a lot about edge cases and keeps larger parts of the codebase in their mind. The cost of attempting to explain the code base to another person is much higher than keeping it all in one’s head.

Among professors, the ones who’ve read the most and written the most usually exponentially better than those who have read 75% and written 75% as much. They’re 5x as valuable, not 33% more valuable.

One sees similar patterns recur across cognitively demanding fields. Once a person has put in the 10,000 hours necessary to master that field, each additional hour is highly valuable, and, even better, the problem domain is better understood. That’s part of the reason law firms charge so much for top lawyers. Those top lawyers have skills that can only be developed through extensive, extreme practice.

I see this effect in grant writing: we don’t split proposal tasks because doing so vastly increases the communication overhead. I’m much more efficient in writing an entire proposal than two or three people could be each writing parts. We’ve rescued numerous doomed proposals from organizations that attempted this approach and failed.

Many of you have probably heard about unfinished and perhaps unfinishable projects (often initiated by government). Here’s a list of famous failed software projects. Some of those projects simply become so massive that latency and bandwidth between the workers in the project overwhelm the doing of actual work. The project becomes all management and no substance. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, we’ve seen many grant proposals fail because of too many writers and no real captain. At least with proposals, the final work product is sufficiently simple that a single person can write an entire narrative. In software, thousands of people or more may contribute to a project (depending on where you draw the line, hundreds of thousands may contribute: does anyone who has worked on the compiler or version control system or integrated development environment (IDE) count?).

Put these trends together and you get people working more because the costs of splitting up tasks are so much higher. If you put five junior lawyers on a project, they may come up with a worse answer or set of answers than a single senior lawyer who has the problem space in his head. The same thing could conceivably be true in software as well. The costs of interconnection are real. This will increase inequality because top people are so valuable while simultaneously meaning that a person can’t earn x% of the income through x% of the work. A person must do 100% or not compete at all.

This is also consistent with changes in financial remuneration, which the original author considers. It’s also consistent with Paul Graham’s observations in “The Refragmentation.”

Finally, there may also be signaling issues. Here is one Robin Hanson post on related concerns. At some point, Hanson described working for Lockheed before he did his Ph.D., and if I recall correctly he tried to work fewer hours for commensurately lower pay, and that did not go over well. Maybe Lockheed was cognizant of the task-splitting costs I note above, or maybe they were more concerned with what Hanson was communicating about his devotion to the job, or what example he’d set to the others.

So earning may not be scalable. It may be binary. We may not be “working” less because we’re poor. We may be working less because the nature of many tasks and occupations are binary: You win big by working big hours or don’t work much at all.

EDIT: See also “You Don’t Need More Free Time,” which argues that we may not need more free time, but rather the right free time—when our friends are free. I also wonder if too much “free” time is also enervating in its own way.

Links: Books, Bolts, Volts, bikes, MacBooks

* “How the books we read shape our lives;” my most important book is probably The Lord of the Rings, though “most important” is of course ridiculous. Here is a 2010 post on influential books (on me).

* “Why Some of the Worst Attacks on Social Science Have Come From Liberals;” I’ve ordered the book discussed in the article.

* “East Germany thrived on snitching lovers, fickle friends and envious schoolkids.” Read properly, this is also a plea for modern privacy in the information age.

* “Why the 2012 non-Retina MacBook Pro still sells.” Makes sense to me: I’m still annoyed that I can’t replace the hard drive in my Retina MBP with a larger one.

* Don’t edit your imagination.

* “Tom Lutz and the ‘Los Angeles Review of Books’ set out to create a new model of literary review.” Great!

* “Chevrolet’s Bolt is an electric vehicle for the masses—and we’ve driven it: 200-mile range, sub-$30,000 price tag, and production begins this year.” This is more important news than it may first appear, and it relates to the many, many articles about global warming that have been appearing.

* Do Societies with Little Coercion Have Little Mental Illness? Original article makes a statement rather than asking a question.

* “Academics, we need to talk.”

* Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas.

* “‘I Am an Attorney Because I Had an Abortion:‘ A powerful amicus brief to the Supreme Court is signed by 113 attorneys who shared their abortion stories.” I hadn’t considered this point: “Unlike same-sex marriage, a constitutionally related right whose appeal derived largely from real-world stories, abortion is typically defended as an abstract, theoretical decision.”

Links: Tolkien, San Francisco, cops, climate change, love

* “Tolkien, The Force Awakens, and the Sadness of Expanded Universes,” an astonishingly excellent post; if I had to draw one lesson it would be that every successful rebellion must eventually end in governance, which results in problems similar to the ones that drove the rebellion in the first place. Fighting the existing order is fun and sexy, but groups of humans need some kind of order, and when the fight dies down some kind of order must exist (or it will be found eventually elsewhere).

* “San Francisco’s Self-Defeating Housing Activists: Tech companies and workers are vilified while longtime homeowners who fight high-density growth continue to profit from rising rents and property values.”

* “In 2015, the second safest year for cops in modern history, the NY Post used phrase “war on cops” over 80 times.” Hat tip pg.

* “We’ve Already Reached the Tipping Point on Global Warming. I’ve Seen It.”

* “Being a cop showed me just how racist and violent the police are. There’s only one fix.”

* “The Financial Benefits of Buying What You Love,” a perhaps underrated point, but how often do you know what you’ll really love before you buy it? Paging, maybe, Vanhawks, given the original link.

* “Iran’s blogfather: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are killing the web.” Maybe. I’d reframe and say that we’re all killing the web, every day, in the choices that we as individuals make. We are the problem.

* The refragmentation, by Paul Graham, and by definition any essay he writes is worth reading.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,588 other followers

%d bloggers like this: