But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past — Chuck Klosterman

But What If We’re Wrong? is consistently delightful in both sentence and idea quality: the chapters are full of astute observations, like “Something becomes truly popular when it becomes interesting to those who don’t particularly care.” Klosterman’s example here is football and that is indeed a winning way to describe football in U.S. culture (though see here for one account of how football may decline); I don’t care about football and perhaps unsurprisingly I select for friends who don’t really care about it, yet in January I went to a friend’s apartment for he Superbowl anyway because other friends who also didn’t care about football were going. On some level this makes no sense yet we did it anyway.

but what if were wrongReality TV has that quality too, and Klosterman discusses it in another chapter. I don’t care about it either, though it has spawned one amazing TV show (UnREAL), at least one excellent novel (Arts & Entertainments), along with lots and lots of good articles. Reality TV producers probably have a better grasp of human psychology than most psychologists. It’s also arguably affected the way people use Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and the plethora of other tools we have to broadcast our fabulous, highly edited lives in the sun and exotic locales and so forth. The Real World got to the unreality of living in front of cameras before the rest of us did.

Speaking of the unreal world, the most striking thing to me is the gap between the Facebook faces of the people I know well and the private conversations with those same people, since the former is inevitably sunny and the latter contains the usual set of human challenges and feelings, which are repressed or distorted by reality TV. For good reason, I might add: the makers of those programs are building specific media properties for entertainment purposes. They know their business well, and their job is to present a specific kind of information system that may or may not be “real,” much the way my job is to write a specific kind of information system that may or may not be real.

The preceding two paragraphs are mostly digression, but they are digression that may feel somewhat like a Klosterman digression. Klosterman makes one think and makes one want to have a beer with him. He makes me want to write more and better. Not all of the chapters are equally strong—the one that starts out with comments about the role of dreaming particularly stands out in this respect, and I also have found discussions about the simulation hypothesis boring since I first heard them. But the overall effect is to make one think and to make one think something apart from the usual battle lines and lines of thought one hears, and that is valuable in itself.

There are many other excellent facets to the book, which feels like the cleverest conversation you’ve ever had rather than a slog through tedious ideas. There are some predecessors—”What You Can’t Say” also wonders what the present will look like centuries from now, and it asks:

It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.

Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right.

So if you believe everything you’re “supposed” to believe, you’re probably doing something wrong (if you believe nothing that you’re “supposed” to believe, you’re probably also doing something wrong, or simply cannot operate in a society that depends on some level of order and coordination). I think Klosterman would agree, although if he said so explicitly I missed it. He does set up the book this way:

What about ideas that are so accepted and internalized that we’re not even in a position to question their fallibility? These ideas are so ingrained in the collective consciousness that it seems fool-hardy to even wonder if they’re potentially untrue.

The ideas that are so accepted are of course the ones we need to question.

Klosterman also recalls the history of failed predictions; my favorite is Paul Ehrlich, who, in 1968, wrote a book called The Population Bomb, about how over-population would annihilate the world; in Klosterman’s words, summarizing Ehrlich, “we should currently be experiencing a dystopian dreamscape where ‘survivors envy the dead,’ which seem true only when I look at Twitter” (that last clause is a good sample of Klosterman’s humor). As most of outside of Syria know, the living do not for the most part envy the dead, growth has continued, and on an inflation-adjusted basis commodities are cheaper than they’ve ever been. We’re on the verge of an energy revolution in which a combination of solar, wind, and nuclear energy will reduce our carbon footprint, while electric cars should dramatically reduce the flow of oil money that is currently propping up despotic regimes like those in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran.

Those predictions are off. So are many predictions about who and what will matter in literature, music, and art. The cultural world of 2016 looks wildly different than the cultural world of 1950, 1900, or 1850, and all of those periods had artistic priorities and worlds vastly different from today’s. As we look backwards from today, the things we find valuable then are different than many of the things that people found valuable at the time. That implies that the cultural world of 2050 or 2100 will probably be different than the world of today, rendering many of our present values and works moot, but in ways that we probably can’t predict, and, “In fact, it often seems like our collective ability to recognize electrifying genius as it occurs paradoxically limits the likelihood of future populations certifying that genius as timeless.”


So far this essay has only discussed a small part of But What If We’re Wrong. There’s much much more. It’s one of the best books I’ve read recently.

Links: Teachers and pay, authoritarianism on the rise, “Stranger Things,” bikes, energy, and more!

* “Pay Gap Between Public-School Teachers and Similar Workers Is Wider Than Ever.”

* “Donald Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin underscores an unsettling truth about the two leaders: Trump and Putin are two of a kind: xenophobic, bigoted demagogues with dual histories of corruption, aggression, and celebration of white supremacy repackaged as patriotic nationalism.”

* Also: “None Dare Call It a Conspiracy: Who was behind the Moscow apartment bombings that accelerated Vladimir Putin’s rise to power?” It would appear that Putin himself and those associated with him are behind the bombings. Note that the link is not to fiction.

* “The Old, American Horror Behind ‘Stranger Things.'” Where there is horror there is Lovecraft.

* “Making bicycles in Detroit is an uphill climb.” My bike came from REI and was made in China.

* “It’s the first new U.S. nuclear reactor in decades. And climate change has made that a very big deal.” Nuclear power is still, oddly, underestimated; note that New England and Germany, both places with lots of superficial climate change worry, are now emitting more carbon dioxide than they used to—because they are phasing out nuclear plants and failing to replace them. In good news, “America’s First Offshore Wind Farm May Power Up a New Industry,” but pay attention to the orders of magnitude involved: “By global standards, the Block Island Wind Farm is a tiny project, just five turbines capable of powering about 17,000 homes.” That’s about 3% of the energy production of the new nuclear reactor.

* “The Legendary Ted Chiang on Seeing His Stories Adapted and the Ever-Expanding Popularity of SF.”

* “Cycling Matches the Pace and Pitches of Tech.” Probably a bogus trend story, but I like riding so I hope not.

* “‘I’ve done really bad things’: The undercover cop who abandoned the war on drugs: Neil Woods used to risk his life to catch drug dealers. But as gangs responded with escalating violence and intimidation – some even poisoning users who talked to the police – he started to see legalisation as the only solution.”

Links: City life, Gary Johnson, Made in the U.S.A., cargo shorts, and more!

* “An atheist of a certain kind,” not the usual on this topic.

* “Why Tokyo is the land of rising home construction but not prices:”

Here is a startling fact: in 2014 there were 142,417 housing starts in the city of Tokyo (population 13.3m, no empty land), more than the 83,657 housing permits issued in the state of California (population 38.7m), or the 137,010 houses started in the entire country of England (population 54.3m).

A social bonus, too: “In Tokyo there are no boring conversations about house prices because they have not changed much. Whether to buy or rent is not a life-changing decision.” I would love to never have those boring conversations ever again, yet they seem everywhere around me.

* “Gary Johnson Has a Plan: On the road with the Libertarian candidate who thinks he can upend this year’s election.”

* “Challenges of Getting a Product Made in the U.S.A.

* “What Happened After I Wrote That Cargo Shorts Story,” hilarious throughout; I used to wear cargo pants and shorts all the time, but eventually I realized the obvious: People judge you based on what you wear, and that deserves attention too.

* “The people who are truly harmed when cities say no to new housing.”

* NSA attacked Pro-Democracy Campaigner, demonstrating (yet again) the ills of secret proceedings and near-unlimited power.

* The race for a Zika vaccine.

* “The case for making New York and San Francisco much, much bigger.”

Briefly noted: The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind of the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia — Michael Booth

The Almost Nearly Perfect People is fun and not too doctrinaire, which is part of what makes it fun; I also have a weakness for cross-cultural books in which person from country A shows up in country B and talks about whatever.

almost_nearly_perfectBooth tells us that at one point at least Scandinavia was not the land of almost nearly perfect people, because “At one point in the 1860s, a tenth of all immigrants arriving in the United States were from Scandinavia.” It is hard to say what that says about this point, however. I would’ve liked more discussions about immigration and emigration, because revealed preferences are more interesting than what people say (and it turns out that the same Scandinavians who vote for high taxes will evade them when possible).

Unusual facts abound in the book, although I haven’t checked the truthfulness of those facts, like “More than 754,000 Danes aged between fifteen and sixty-four—over 20 percent of the working population—do not work whatsoever and are supported by generous unemployment or disability benefits.” From this, we can maybe conclude that perhaps one good reason to try to concentrate disability and related benefits at the state level in the U.S. is to let people vote with their feet (and their votes) more easily than they might elsewhere.

Still, despite paragraphs like the above, we also find that

there is little doubt, Denmark is becoming a two-tier country. More and more Danes who can afford it are turning to private health care—850,000 at the latest count—and poll after poll shows that, though they have the largest per capita public sector in the world, the Danes’ satisfaction levels with their welfare state are in rapid decline.

There appear to be few ways of correcting problems with public-sector satisfaction. Still, Booth says few Danes complain about taxes. We also find sections about “elves” in Iceland, drinking throughout the countries, a passion for historical re-enactment,

In some ways Scandinavian countries are more like the U.S. than is commonly portrayed. For example, Norway has its own, equally intellectually incoherent Donald Trump-like party:

[The Progress Party] started out in the early seventies as an anti-tax movement. Today, it is run on a hybrid right-win/welfare-state platform of a type which can seem quite odd from a UK or US perspective, blending as it does calls for increased public spending, with emphasis on care for the elderly, together with more conventionally right-wing fear-mongering about non-Western immigrants.

Old people vote, want to take working people’s money, and fear change (immigrants are one manifestation of change). Parties that want to stay in power must appeal to the elderly, and the average age of the population is creeping upwards in virtually every developed country. We’ll see more Progress Parties and Trumps. In Norway, the Progress Party is particularly vituperative about Muslims; in the U.S., Trump is particularly vituperative about Hispanics. Presumably hysterical fear mongering works best when the Other is close enough to get riled up about. Yet, as Booth points out, Muslims identify as perhaps three percent of the Norwegian population.

There is probably too much generalization from stories, sensational, or the mundane in The Almost Nearly Perfect People, but that can be forgiven.

It’s not a book I can imagine wanting to re-read.

Here is a review about “The Nordic Theory of Everything” by Anu Partanen, and I suspect the review is better than the book. Here is my essay “People vote with their feet, and also the U.S. is not Sweden.” Here is “Denmark’s Nice, Yes, But Danes Live Better in U.S.,” which hits related ideas.

Links: Toni Bentley strikes, nude photo non-scandals, against Edenism, demographic shocks, and more

* Toni Bentley, fervently and brilliantly, on the latest Gay Talese book, Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

* “Sexism in publishing: ‘My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me, Catherine:’ Author reveals that submitting her manuscript to agents under a male pseudonym brought more than eight times the number of responses.” Most writing on this topic is garbage; this one, by nature of its control group, is not.

* “My Airbnb Nightmare Reality.”

* “The story of Melania Trump’s nude photos shows an unexpected maturity in American life, and the predictably depressing hypocrisy within it, too,” from Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker.

* “Against Edenism” by Peter Thiel.

* “Apple will finally be releasing new laptops, after ridiculously long delays.

* “US fertility rate falls to lowest on record” as Americans fail to reproduce themselves, driving the need for more imports (remember this data when you hear some kinds of political rhetoric). And: “More Old Than Young: A Demographic Shock Sweeps the Globe.”

* “The Next Generation of Wireless — “5G” — Is All Hype: The connectivity we crave — cheap, fast, ubiquitous — won’t happen without more fiber in the ground.”

* L.A. isn’t a suburb. It needs to stop being planned like one.

* “What Makes a McMansion Bad Architecture?” More interesting than maybe it sounds.

People vote with their feet, and also the U.S. is not Sweden

Two pieces about Anu Partanen’s book The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life say much about the blindness of some writers: “Stockholm Syndrome: Spotify threatened to abandon Sweden if the government didn’t address over-regulation and sky-high taxes” is poorly titled and more interesting than the title suggests, and so is “What’s So Special About Finland?” Neither says much about the book itself but both together say much about the U.S. media interest in Nordic countries.

Following the Nordic model would make large parts of the U.S. population worse off; that’s why people are moving away from Nordic-model cities and states and towards inexpensive, laissez-fair cities and states.

Let me elaborate. Partanen and most media people are not normal and have not normal needs, desires, and willingness to pay for big-city amenities. But most people aren’t willing to pay for those things that’s why sprawly cities, especially in Texas, are the ones that’re experiencing the fastest population growth in the U.S. People choose to move to them much more so than New York or L.A. or a handful of other media capitols. Partanen and her husband live in NYC as writers. I get the appeal, but they’re relatively low-earners in the second-most-expensive city in the country, and New York is in many ways least like the rest of the country. Partanen even says:

First of all, the taxes are not necessarily as high as many Americans think. One of the myths I encounter often is that Americans are like, ‘You pay 70 percent of your income in taxes.’ No, we do not. For someone who lives in a city like San Francisco or New York City—where you have federal taxes, state taxes, city taxes, property taxes—the tax burden is not very different [than the tax burden in Finland]. I discuss my own taxes in the book and I discovered this to be true: that I did pay about the same or even more in New York than I would have paid on my income in Finland. I’ve talked to many Nordics in the U.S. who say the same thing.

So SF and NYC are already paying these crazy taxes… and apparently not getting much in return. Why then should the rest of the U.S. seek to emulate them? When I’ve said that I think Seattle is a much better value than NYC, in part because of crazy tax issues, people often respond, “So you don’t like public schools or fire fighters?” But Seattle, Austin, Nashville, and other similar cities seem to have those public services too, without anything like NYC’s cost of living. So the solution to high taxes and not-great services in those cities is to pay even more? If so, I’m not too surprised most of the US does not want to be more like Scandinavia (or SF).

To be fair, it would be interesting to see what happens if SF, NYC, and LA disempowered municipal unions and liberalized their zoning codes, both of which would lower costs substantially. For now, though, we’re seeing all three cities systematically drive people out. They’re choosing places that are not very Scandinavian.

Partanen and her husband are not very representative of the overall American experience. It’d be interesting to read a story about Finnish people who move to relatively inexpensive suburbs, don’t spend an overwhelming amount on housing, and basically like their lives. A European friend of mine, for example, has a sister who was born in a medium-sized European country and is basically doing that in Florida, and she seems to like it.

People who live in NYC are self-selected to be obsessive weirdos (who also often want to write books). Which is fine. I’m one of those people but I’m also aware that I’m atypical.

In short, revealed preferences show that most Americans prefer a non-Nordic model. They also show why state-level taxation is better on average than federal-level taxation, since at least people who don’t like state-level taxation regimes can easily move to another state. Score one for the Exit, Voice, and Loyalty world.

Links: The volt succeeds, the joy of old age, evolutionary mysteries, and intellectuals are freaks

* GM delivers 100,000th Chevy Volt in the US alone.

* Computing pioneer Alan Kay on AI, Apple and future.

* “The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding),” by Oliver Sacks.

* “A Swede Returns to Silicon Valley from China,” which is an interesting perspective I don’t necessarily endorse. Linking does not imply endorsement!

* In The New York Times: “Scientists Ponder an Evolutionary Mystery: The Female Orgasm.”

* The Silicon Valley of Space Start-Ups? It Could be Seattle.

* “The Rifles That Fuel Modern Terror: How the AK-47 and AR-15, ready amplifiers of rage, became weapons of choice for mass killers.”

* “Intellectuals are Freaks: Why professors, pundits, and policy wonks misunderstand the world,” one of my favorite pieces in recent memory.


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