Briefly noted: The Idiot — Elif Batuman

The Idiot is absorbing for 50 pages, the next 50 pages drag, and the rest is a slog. I read it because Batuman wrote the hilarious The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which is an essay collection in which most of the essays are… 50 pages. Maybe not coincidentally. Read The Possessed or, even better, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History instead. You will find that in The Idiot

I had never heard of any Ottoman invasion of Hungary. As a child, I had been told that the Turks and Hungarians were related, that the Huns were Turkic, that both peoples had migrated west from the Altai and spoke similar languages.

In some ways the novel is about all the things the narrator, Selin, has never heard of. The novel captures well the feeling of not knowing anything, surrounded by others who don’t, but is that desirable in a novel?

There are implied problems in industrial and human organization, too:

The Constructed Worlds syllabus was a list of Gary’s favorite books and movies, without any due dates or assignments. We were just supposed to read books, watch movies, and discuss them in class. The discussions were never that great, because everyone chose different books and movies.

That seems predictable. Learning thrives off the right balance between order and chaos. Lean too far in either direction and things fall apart.

Much of The Idiot is an extended, awkward flirtationship between Selin and a slightly older guy named Ivan. Watching shy college students flirt for short periods of time is painful; watching it for hundreds of pages may be worse. Sex makes an appearance here and there:

“Sometimes I wonder about the man I’ll eventually lose my virginity too,” Svetlana continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll happen in college.”

Yet for relatively well-off and fit college students, the characters seem to spend strangely little time wanting to get laid, maybe because Ivy Leaguers are too uptight or wrongly focused to do so. Ivy Leaguers have a reputation for being too neurotic, cerebral, and obedient to do it much, but I don’t know if that reputation is deserved or accurate.

Still, Selin is aware of some of her own position:

In the train station, people were drinking coffee and reading newspapers. I felt glad to see that life was going on—actual life, where people were working and staying awake and trying to accomplish things, which was the point of coffee.

About two-thirds through I skipped to the end and began to read backwards, wondering if maybe things would improve. No luck. It is very long for what it is. So much promise. In some ways the novel delivers what its title promises, however, and many of the individual sentences are well done. Still, if you want a college novel try Joe College instead, after you finish The Secret History. If you have recommendations for college novels, leave them in the comments.

Work and video games

I was reading “Escape to Another World” (highly recommended) and this part made me realize something:

How could society ever value time spent at games as it does time spent on “real” pursuits, on holidays with families or working in the back garden, to say nothing of time on the job? Yet it is possible that just as past generations did not simply normalise the ideal of time off but imbued it with virtue – barbecuing in the garden on weekends or piling the family into the car for a holiday – future generations might make hours spent each day on games something of an institution.

I think part of the challenge is that, historically, many of us pursue hobbies and other activities that are also related to craftsmanship. The world of full of people who, in their spare time, rebuild bikes or cars, or sew quilts, or bind books, or write open-source software, or pursue other kinds of hobbies that have virtues beyond the pleasure of the hobby itself (I am thinking of a book like Shop Class as Soul Craft, though if I recall correctly the idea of craftsmanship as a virtue of its own goes back to Plato). A friend of mine, for example, started up pottery classes; while she enjoys the process, she also gets bowls and mugs out of it. Video games seem have few or none of those secondary effects.

To be sure, a lot of playing video games has likely replaced watching TV, and watching TV has none of those salutary effects either. Still, one has to wonder if video games are also usurping more active forms of activity that also build other kinds of skills (as well as useful objects).

I say this as someone who wasted a fantastic amount of time on video games from ages 12 – 15 or so. Those are years I should’ve been building real skills and abilities (or even having real fun), and instead I spent a lot of them slaying imaginary monsters as a way of avoiding the real world. I can’t imagine being an adult and spending all that time on video games. We can never get back the time we waste, and wasted time compounds—as does invested time.

In my own life, the hobby time I’ve spent reading feeds directly into my professional life. The hobby time I spent working on newspapers in high school and college does too. Many people won’t have so direct a connection—but many do, and will.

To be sure, lots of people play recreational video games that don’t interfere with the rest of their lives. Playing video games as a way of consciously wasting time is fine, but when wasting time becomes a primary activity instead of a secondary or tertiary one it becomes a problem over time. It’s possible to waste a single day mucking around or playing a game or whatever—I have and chances are very high that so have you—but the pervasiveness of them seems new, as Avent writes.

It’s probably better to be the person writing the games than playing the games (and writing them can at times take on some game-like qualities). When you’re otherwise stuck, build skills. No one wants skills in video game playing, but lots of people want other skills that aren’t being built by battling digital orcs. The realest worry may be that many people who start the video game spiral won’t be able to get out.

Links: Wi-Fi kinda sucks, alcohol, coffee, and civilization, free speech and free lives, and more!

* “A deep dive into why Wi-Fi kind of sucks.” Ethernet is now oddly underrated, especially given how cheap cables are from Monoprice.

* How Alcohol and Caffeine Helped Create Civilization.

* “Trump has set the US up to botch a global health crisis.” Which should scare you. We dodged the Ebola bullet more narrowly than most people realize.

* “Middlebury’s Statement of Principle: Learning is possible only where free, reasoned and civil speech is respected.” Though lunatics make the news about academia with distressing frequency, most academics are actually reasonable. But “reasonable” is rarely newsworthy.

* Myths about military spending, from an unlikely source.

* Mike Carper on photography and the business in photography.

* “On Political Correctness: Power, class, and the new campus religion.” See also me on related themes: “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture” and “How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?

* “In the Future, We’ll All Wear Spider Silk.” Very cool if / when it pans out. But I’ve been seeing similar articles for years; maybe spider silk is the cold fusion of fashion.

* Researchers replicate the Milgram Experiment. A timely piece.

* “What If Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?” Sounds stupid but isn’t.

The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream — Tyler Cowen

The Complacent Class came out last week and it’s excellent. Drop everything and read it. That said, if you read Cowen’s previous two books on related subjects, The Great Stagnation and Average is Over, you will recognize some of the underlying facts that drive the narrative (the preceding links go to my previous essays on those two books).

I’m not going to summarize The Complacent Class because it’s already been well-summarized in many places, like “Dreaming small: how America lost its taste for risk” (though you may not be able to cross the FT paywall). This piece is also good. Here is another. Here is another. More may be found.

That being said, the summaries don’t and can’t account for the many, many small details and sometimes counterintuitive swoops the book makes, and some of the articles I’ve seen argue with strawmen. So I’m going to discuss some of the smaller details and possible counterexamples while attempting to avoid fights with inanimate bags of straw.

Cowen enumerates the many ways our desire for safety actually increases risk, but I can think of one macro trend that defies this general point. For all the complacency of the complacent classes, guns are one domain that remains wildly dangerous. Politicians are reluctant to touch anything to do with guns; by at least some measures, gun laws are more lax than ever and it’s easier than ever for anyone, including mentally ill or deranged people, to get guns. Guns kill tens of thousands of people a year; among non-medical issues, only cars rival them (and opioids, if one considers them non-medical). Yet the collective response has been to make guns easier to get, rather than less. We’re over-obsessed with safety in some domains and seemingly under-obsessed in others, including cars and guns.

In the chapter “Why Americans Stopped Creating” Cowen writes:

A recent report by Wells Fargo showed productivity slowdowns in almost every sector of the American economy. Perhaps most strikingly, the sector “professional and technical services” showed no increase in the productivity of the average office worker at all. You might think IT and the wired office has boosted productivity substantially, and it has in some ways, such as enabling rapid-fire communications across great distances or after work hours are over. But the evidence has yet to materialize for any kind of recent boost in office productivity. We don’t yet know why this is, but maybe the time Americans waste on Facebook and texting and social media takes back some of the gains from all that added connectivity and greater ability to network.

This is plausible, and I’ll add that it may not only be that we’re wasting time “on Facebook and texting and social media.” We may also be deploying technological gains in efficiency terms to create more onerous, bureaucratic, or difficult processes that don’t necessarily add value. In 2015, I wrote a post on “How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse.” Computers have enabled us to produce more drafts for clients; clients to comment more on each draft; and, perhaps worst of all, funders to produce longer, harder-to-understand RFPs.

Funders can also just become more demanding in general. When I started working for Seliger + Associates, most foundation and corporate funders wanted a one-, three, or five-page letter proposal, and writing one such proposal was enough to ensure that it could be cleanly and quickly customized for each funder. Many funders are moving to online systems that are hard to use and that often demand persnickety, weird answers to non-standard questions. Our productivity has fallen in some ways, because funders can demand more onerous application processes—which may be attractive to them while raising costs to nonprofit and public agencies.

Email may be another example of technology slowing things down by almost as much as it speeds things up. While email can be very useful often it isn’t, which many of us know as we check it compulsively anyway. In addition to grant writing I do some work as an adjunct professor; I get lots of emails from students, very few of them substantive and most about material covered by the syllabus or about persnickety issues that are best struggled with (the word “persnickety” is useful in dealing with technological availability). I don’t want to turn this into an ill-advised kids-these-days rant, but I’m definitely not convinced that email has improved teaching, learning, or the university experience.

The email bombardment is significant enough that I’ve instead banned email, in part using the rationale at the link, and the results have been good. But not everyone can ban email and it’s still hard for me to separate the substantive from the substanceless. Still, I don’t think being able to receive student emails about sicknesses and petty points around assignments and so forth has improved the education process. Students used to have to wrestle with more problems for themselves, while today they can and do often email questions and concerns that they ought to be able to decide autonomously.

The ways computers have made us more productive are obvious; it’s much faster to write a proposal via computer than typewriter, and it’s more pleasant writing on a 27″ iMac than the 10″ IBM CRT my Dad bought when he started Seliger + Associates. Yet the ways we’ve clawed back gains, through a kind of information Jevons Paradox, are also on my mind. Books like Deep Work take on special salience. How many of you are reading as many books as you used to? I don’t: I do read a lot more longform articles and essays, using Instapaper.com and a Kindle, and while this may be a net improvement I wonder about the costs.

Earlier I mentioned opioids. Cowen writes about what our drugs may say about us:

The 1960s was also an era that called for greater freedom with drug experimentation. But of all the drugs that might have been legalized, American citizens chose the one—marijuana—that makes users spacey, calm, and sleepy. LSD attracted great interest in the 1960s for its ability—for better or worse—to help users see and experience an entirely different world, often with different physical laws. That is now out of fashion.

That point is well-taken, especially regarding marijuana legalization, yet we’ve also seen the growth of molly / ecstasy / MDMA-style uppers that make people better able to connect with each other and that seem most often used in shared, group spaces far from computers. Ayahuasca is popular (or trendy) enough to merit a New Yorker article, “The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale.” I’m not sure molly helps people imagine a different world, like LSD does, but it’s far from the spacey, calming effects of marijuana.

We also all live in our own bubbles, but I’ve been offered that class of drug more often probably than any other. Or maybe people today want to be different enough to be interesting but not so different as to be dangerous; the molly class of drugs, if synthesized in pure form, seems much less dangerous than, say, coke (back to The Complacent Class: “Crack cocaine, a major drug in the 1980s, can rile people up, but for a few decades now it’s been losing ground to heroin and other opioids…”). I don’t have good data on the molly class of drugs and their popularity, and I’d be curious to see if any readers do.

On transport Cowen writes:

The more general picture on transportation can be described with two words: less and slower. The number of bus routes has decreased, and America has done very little to build up its train network, even when additional or faster train lines would be profitable. Although American cities have growing populations and wealth, they haven’t built many new subway systems in the last thirty-five years, with the exception of the partial system in Los Angeles. The Department of Transportation has written, “All indicators show declines in personal travel for every age group, particularly among young people since the early 2000s.”

To me the problems are obvious: traffic is horrendous in many cities; parking is horrendous; plane travel is a relentless horror show, especially given the relentless security theater encountered in airports. For the last six months I’ve been meaning to visit L.A., but I despise going through airports and dealing with the unaccountable TSA goons who man them—and, speaking of subways, there’s no subway from LAX to the rest of the system.

To Seattle’s slight credit, it is (too slowly) building a subway system, which works well so far. Over the next 25 years, it will expand dramatically, but there is no planned route across the 520 floating bridge—people familiar with Seattle will know this is a huge problem. There is progress, but too little, and while Seattle is doing better on housing affordability than San Francisco and some other cities, it isn’t doing as well as it could and should.

Still, in some ways maybe driving less is getting closer to a green energy utopia: we don’t have to drive as much as we once did. In an era of climate change, cell phones, Netflix, and Internet porn may help us avoid or alleviate some of the challenges that arise from the oil economy.

The Complacent Class’s humor is real, underrated, and mostly unnoticed by the commenters I’ve noticed. For example: “There are dating or sex services to find people of specific nationalities, religions, ages, breast sizes, preferred sexual practices, and various weight sizes, including for those who prefer the very obese. Facebook helps people hook up with their exes and their junior high school crushes—not always for the better, of course.” An understatement: one can imagine that junior high crushes are best left in the imaginary past than the somewhat cruel light of the present.

In addition, part of the book’s overall and grimly focused humor comes from the way members of the complacent class (like me) are the people most likely to be reading it and discussing it.

This is an unfair criticism and mostly about my personal preference, but I would’ve liked to see more about books. The comment about Jane Austen being the canonical canonical writer of today, given her interest in matching, versus Dostoyevsky being the canonical canonical writer of the ’60s, being obsessed with morals, murder, and ethics, is good, and I wanted more. Is Gone Girl a fantasy about complacency shattered? Is Seveneves another way of yearning for complacency’s end? Is the seeming end of high culture itself a form of complacency?

I haven’t written much about the chapter on matching, which is interesting throughout, and the chapter “How a Dynamic Society Looks and Feels” is especially good. The last chapter is more speculative, and one wonders what “The Return of Chaos” might mean, beyond current political problems. Still, it’s striking to me that we barely avoided a global catastrophe in the form of Ebola. But I do think we’ve become collectively unaware of how bad, bad can really be. I wrote some about those issues in “Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse,” especially regarding how it’s possible to sleepwalk into war. Many of the things done by Trump so far are bad but not catastrophic. Some catastrophic things may yet come to pass through his action, inaction, or simple incompetence, and we will all bear its costs. Everything, including complacency, has a cost.

Links: What’s up with Russia?, Nastygal.com’s saga, Ikea, Linux laptops, Les Mis, and more!

* “Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War,” from The New Yorker and a much better piece than you think; it’s also not just the usual.

* Comments from a female engineer on why she likes (liked?) Nastygal’s clothes, along with other insights about women and clothes.

* “The Weird Economics Of Ikea,” which are not particularly weird. See also me, “Does IKEA enable mobility?

* “How Victor Hugo came to write Les Misérables.”

* Why Dell’s gamble on Linux laptops has paid off. Linux seems to be getting easier on the desktop. If you’re a non-technical person using it, please leave a comment!

* Almost related to the above: Purism’s coreboot port is done. This is an important step in the company’s effort to ship a completely open source (and modern) laptop.

* “The case for going to bed at 2:30 am.”

* “Trouble at sea: what fossil fuels are doing to our oceans.”

* “In praise of cash;” seems like an obvious point to me.

* “Japan Gets Schooled: Why the Country’s Universities Are Failing.” The comments about the humanities and liberal arts are especially interesting from a Western perspective:

Although Japanese students rank among the top in the OECD for math and science, liberal arts and humanities are languishing. Yet they are critical to the growing creative industries of the future. The government is aware of this challenge.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World — Cal Newport

In college, a guy who lived on my floor and spent seemingly all day every day on his computer, doing not much of anything, always with a browser window open and perpetually scrolling, searching, watching, surfing, or reading—for what I don’t know. I don’t think he knew. There seemed to be no purpose in his activities. I’d ask him sometimes what he was doing, and he never had a real good answer. I don’t remember his name.

deep_workThe difference between that guy then is that he was seen as an isolated weirdo loser (I think, anyway). Now, the way he lives has become for many of us the way we all live. For that reason Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is, properly read, an indictment of me and probably of you. Because it’s an indictment it can be hard to read because it wounds through its accurate dissection of the way many of us live—or rather, don’t live. Newport writes:

Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities. Deep work, in other words, was exactly the type of effort needed to stand out in a cognitively demanding field. . . .

Deep work isn’t only about your “current intellectual capacity”—it’s about improving and developing that intellectual capacity. Your current intellectual capacity probably isn’t and shouldn’t be your final intellectual capacity. Yet:

The ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contract to the behavior of most modern knowledge workers—a group that’s rapidly forgetting the value of going deep.

The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools. This is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit

Sound familiar? Maybe too familiar? It does to me. I’ve gone through periods of very intense deep work and periods of very little deep work. I know what the habits of both look like and I also know the temptations of the shallows. Many of you probably do too, but the reinforcement Newport offers is useful, like a reminder that sugar is terrible. We know. But we need to move from knowing to implementing change. Deep Work covers both.

Newport is not arguing for an all-work-all-the-time approach, and he knows that doing the max necessitates some downtime. I also think there is some important balance necessary between radical “openness” (random browsing, searching, connecting, that sort of thing) and radical “closedness” (shutting the door, solitude, going deep within the self to create). The radically open never get anything important done, like major software, books, articles, essays, or projects. The radically closed probably need an influx of new ideas, influences, concepts, and techniques. Too much of either is a detriment, but I myself am probably now too “open” in this sense.

In almost any finite system, one question should be, “What is the scarce resource here?” For most of us, it’s probably not excessive closedness.

To be sure, I learn much from the Internet, Hacker News, blogs, and so forth, but it is often too tempting to do shallow to medium-depth reading at the expense of more substantive projects. It’s too rare for me to do really deep reading—or writing. I know the problems: “Among other insights, [Clifford] Nass’s research revealed that constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain” and I know the solutions. But the implementation can be hard.

Smartphones can’t be helping this, either, anymore than they can be helping the quality of relationships. Doesn’t stop us from using them, though.

Students report shocking (to me) levels of interest in and keeping up with Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and others. I don’t want this to turn into a “kids these days” essay, in which I wave my cane and tell everyone to get off my damn lawn, but it does seem like it’d be hard to accomplish much with the endless background noise forever buzzing. Then again, I see my friends engage the same behaviors, so maybe age is less a factor than I might think at first. We have all the world’s information in our hands, but what do we do with it? That’s a key question underlying Newport’s book—and all of our lives.

Links: Oceans, coffee, teachers, facts, incompetence, pens, and more!

* “Scientists have detected a major change to the Earth’s oceans.” And it’s a change that’s been long predicted.

* “The Coffee Shaman: Meet the man responsible for third-wave coffee—and the Frappuccino.” I love those coffee shops, although since I work at home I use them in part to escape.

* “Stop Humiliating Teachers,” a lovely piece though unlikely to happen.

* “Why facts don’t change our mind.

* “Why do so many incompetent men become leaders?“, a salient question for obvious reasons.

* “From work to income to health to social mobility, the year 2000 marked the beginning of what has become a distressing era for the United States.” Maybe.

* “A weapon for readers.” You may have seen this weapon deployed here. My favorite weapon right now is this one.

* The great American streetcar myth.

* Is our view of romantic love too narrow? Philosopher Carrie Jenkins makes the case for polyamory.

* “On Meaning, Identity Politics and Bias in the Academy — An Interview with Clay Routledge.” Also about the many odd intellectual currents on campus at the moment.

* On To the House of the Sun.

* “The ‘Civilized’ World Looked On and Did Nothing,” a timely reminder.

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