Links: The climate of the climate, libraries, “Untrue,” chiles, definite optimism, and more!

* Do we have only twelve more years to avert climate crisis? Some readers have asked why I so often post about electric cars, Tesla, nuclear energy, zoning/housing, and micro-mobility (electric scooters, etc.). Those things are all bound up with the climate crisis. Although most writers consider all these issues as separate and distinct, they are actually interrelated, whether most writers realize this (or not).

* “The Case for Making Cities Out of Wood,” things I had not considered but that are very interesting.

* Growing Up in the Library.

* The Movie Assassin, one of the funniest essays I’ve ever read.

* “The ‘Untrue’ Woman: A new book makes the case for the primacy of the female libido, and for a societal reckoning with that reality.” I’m a bit skeptical; have you read it?

* “The Printed World in Peril.” If you’re like me, you’ve read this sort of thing many times in many guises, and yet something about the theme keeps you reading the next piece in the genre.

* “Saving the Prized Chile That Grows Only in Oaxaca’s Mountains.” Yum.

* “How Technology Grows (a restatement of definite optimism),” likely the most important piece in this batch.

* “Two Students Hooked Up. It Was Clearly Consensual. He Still Spent $12,000 Defending Himself.” Maybe universities ought to get out of the human housing business, which might curtail some of these absurdities.

* “To Avoid Climate Catastrophe, Your Transportation Choices Matter.”

* “Why you have (probably) already bought your last car.” Interesting, though I’m skeptical on the timing.

* “How an Anonymous Accusation Derailed My Life.” This is the sort of thing Quillette is publishing and that almost no one else will even touch.

* Stop obsessing about China.

* “‘We Didn’t Realize How Soon It’s Going to Come:‘ Is there anything that can actually stop the impending disaster detailed in the scary new climate report?”

* Former Google engineer on his experience working with censored products; vital reading.

* “The Crisis of Intimacy in the Age of Digital Connectivity.” See also my essay, “Facebook and cellphones might be really bad for relationships,” which seems underrated to me.

Millennials “need” to start voting and probably won’t

Millennials Need to Start Voting Before the Gerontocracy Kills Us All” is another one of those articles that, with minor changes, could have been published anytime in the last twenty years. I suspect that the writer will be able to adjust it, with minor changes, and re-publish it anytime in the next twenty years. As far as I know, younger people have always voted in lower numbers than old people, and this election is likely to be part of the trend:

The consequences of that election have not persuaded America’s (predominantly left-leaning) millennial nonvoters of the importance of political participation. A new survey from PRRI and The Atlantic suggests that only one-third of 18-to-29-year-old voters are certain to cast ballots next month. Among Donald Trump’s cohort, that figure is 81 percent.

Voting is more important than most other political behaviors, yet other political behaviors (like posting to Facebook and Twitter) may feel better in the short term. While Grandma and Grandpa may not be tweeting much, they get to the polls and consequently no one is willing to touch the issues they care most about.

There is a book out right now about how women are supposedly mad and that’s going to translate into big political changes. Maybe that’s true, but I’ve been reading similar articles for, again, as long as I’ve been politically aware; I mentally file them next to the articles about how the Democratic Party is going to forge a permanent majority coalition because of the rising number of minorities, who are routinely mocked and alienated by Republicans. I predict that Democrats gain seats in the House and likely take it in 2018; that the Senate remains near parity; and that the 2020 election is highly competitive. The first two predictions are based solely on historical trends: the party in the presidency tends to lose House and Senate seats in mid-term elections. Whatever anger women may feel or not feel, and we’re likely to see continued trends in historical terms.

I posit this: it’s useful to remind myself how many people live in the United States as a whole (about 325 million in 2017, according to the 2017 Census Update). It’s extremely easy to convince ourselves that the bubble we inhabit represents the whole. It’s almost impossible for the human mind to truly grasp just how large 325 million is. At the same time, most people who work in the media and write books live in the California-New-York-DC media complex. The people who live in the media complex don’t fully grasp just how small their world really is (and I would include myself in this group).

Do Millennials “need” to start voting in this election cycle? Yeah, sure, just like they did in the last one… and the one before… and the one before that. Are women “angry?” Maybe, but the data I’ve seen indicates that something like 45% of women who voted, voted for Trump, and something like a third to 40% of eligible voters didn’t vote at all—many of them presumably women. Today, Bryan Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter remains the best explanation of political behavior I’ve read. Books like the one about how women are angry describe a small set of information-dense persons really well and the majority of the population not so well. I’m one of those infovores and if you’re reading this you probably one too, but you are not like most people and the number of people reading this is totally dwarfed by the total US population and total US voting population.

Media people: Let’s get real!

By the way: I’ve been bamboozled by arguments like the one about Millenial voters or the one about angry women many times. That’s why I’m skeptical. Left-wing anger and dismay seem to have grown more acute from the period going from 1994 to the present, and yet the right seems to have won more elections in that period. What, if anything, should we infer from this?

Links: SpaceX, academia, book length, book anxiety, hotel startups, batteries, and more

* A Weird MIT Dorm Dies, and a Crisis Blooms at Colleges; in keeping with The Coddling of the American Mind.

* “Horror is a dark and piercing reflection of our anxious times.” I was originally going to skip this, but it’s excellent and much better than the title implies. Highly recommended.

* The Printed Word in Peril: The age of Homo virtualis is upon us. Is this a requiem for a Gutenberg mind?

* Books are getting longer, and they probably shouldn’t be getting longer. Perhaps we have not yet learned that it’s not necessarily, the size, it’s how you use it?

* Should we have a “dumb investment” agreement through the SEC? Democracy and transparency are good, aren’t they?

* “‘We’re moving to higher ground’: America’s era of climate mass migration is here.” Shouldn’t this have already happened a while ago?

* Inside the eight desperate weeks that saved SpaceX from ruin.

* How San Francisco demolished the California dream via its own housing laws.

* 24-Year-Old Ritesh Agarwal Built a $5 Billion Hotel Startup in Five Years. Cool.

* Zinc-air battery is supposedly ready for commercial deployment and also supposedly offers lower cost than lithium-ion batteries.

* “‘This guy doesn’t know anything’: the inside story of Trump’s shambolic transition team.” Much more detailed and interesting than the usual, and it also remind me of my rare political-ish post, Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse. So far we’ve been lucky: no potential pandemics, terrorist attacks, or new wars. As I wrote then: “Maybe nothing catastrophically bad will happen. I hope so and think that will be true. But to pretend he is a ‘normal’ politician (or to vote for him) is to be willfully blind to history and to the man himself.”

* Wim Ouboter, the Man Behind the Scooter Revolution.

* “Russian Elon Musk’ raped and tortured to death in custody, say experts.” I wonder why smart and competent-seeming people who can get out of Russia stay in Russia. For most of the last 200 years, if not longer, the smartest thing anyone in Russia could do was (and today is) get out of Russia. Staying seems to have limited upside compared to these very significant downsides.

* Are people finally figuring out that business school is pretty bogus?

* Car crashes killed 37,133 people in the US in 2017. Remember this when you hear about minor acts of terrorism and other news-worthy but not-that-dangerous news.

* Iron Ox, a new autonomous farm, wants to produce food without human workers.

* “That’s clearly a form of punishment, however informal or extrajudicial. But the punishment seems far from swift, certain or fair, based on decades-old accusations without contemporaneous corroboration, aired solely due to political contingencies, urged on by a left avid to convict him of something.” I have not said much about the saga, which leaves almost all of its partisans looking and sounding worse than before, and this is one of the few intelligent pieces I’ve read on it. Virtue signaling and mood affiliation are strong in most commentary about this.

Where I’m Reading From — Tim Parks

Engagement with art, whether it is such a painting, or the interrelatedness of characters and environment in a novel, or the interplay of motifs in music, had the effect of countering what Bateson saw as our dangerous yearning to arrive at a crude understanding of the world and then intervene.

If that’s true, we ought to be thinking more about complex art and less about our “crude understanding” of how the world works; alas, Twitter and Facebook seem to push us towards crude and unusually incorrect understanding and away from real complexity. The quote is from Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books, a charming book full of similarly quotable and stimulating lines. It even stirs a very vague desire in me to read Thomas Hardy, despite many previous attempts, all ending in failure.

Little in the book is completely new but much of it is well-stated. Consider another claim, which I can’t decide to be true or false:

Identity is largely a question of the pattern of our responses when presented with a new situation, a new book. Certainly the idea of impartiality is a chimera. To be impartial about narrative would be to come from nowhere, to be no one.

If that is true, and it may be, perhaps we should learn from literature and Paul Graham to keep our identity small, so as to minimize the “pattern of our responses” and maximize our ability to see the true and/or new.

Links: The book biz, Emergent Ventures, the cost of cars, and more!

* “French bookshops revolt after prize selects novel self-published on Amazon: Booksellers refuse to ‘jump into the wolf’s mouth’ and order Marco Koskas’ Renaudot-longlisted novel online.” Pretty funny for the usual reasons.

* Tyler Cowen’s *Emergent Ventures*, a new project to help foment enlightenment. Highly recommended. I don’t have a good emergent venture, though I’d love to do something education-related. Do you have such a venture? Do you know someone who might?

* A premature attempt at the 21st Century canon.

* “The Current Sex Panic Harks Back to the Era of Coddling Women,” but you may already know that.

* ‘For me, this is paradise’: life in the Spanish city that banned cars.

* How a Professor Was Punished for an Act of Citizenship. You are probably tired of reading these outrageous stories about universities behaving badly (I am), yet they appear so often that I link to some of them. See also, “The Coddling of the American Mind ‘Is Speeding Up.’

* Canadian marijuana stock soars to $12 billion. The headline is too celebrity-gossip for me, but the content is of interest as a sign of social change.

* “Why Is the Home Building Industry Stuck in the 1940s? Embrace pre-fabricated, adaptable homes!”

* RIP the celebrity profile.

* On Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan.

* Very good podcast with Austin Allred of Lambda School, on education and many other topics. I still think that the perfidious combination of accreditation bodies and the federal student loan system will shunt Lambda School and others to the sidelines, but I hope to see the alternatives grow.

* One small change to New York’s intersections is saving pedestrians’ lives.

* George Mason University’s econ department culture; we all ought to move closer to that, I think.

* “These studies offer a realistic view of postdoc life—and guidance for making career decisions that work for you.” This is really depressing: “Most postdocs earned between $39,000 and $55,000, with 5% reporting earnings below $39,000 and 10% above $55,000.” That’s basically saying, “Don’t go to grad school in science, either, because you won’t make any money, even after five to ten years of additional school.”

* America Is Living James Madison’s Nightmare.

* Putting a dollar value on one of oil’s biggest subsidies: military protection. An underrated point.

Links: Open-access journals, revealed preferences, censorship, transit, and more!

* Data from online dating. Bad headline. The seven bullet points at the end are the most interesting (and un-PC) parts.

* Radical open-access plan could spell end to journal subscriptions. Good.

* Understanding postmodern conservatism, a more interesting piece than you’d think from the title.

* “Why are America’s elite universities censoring themselves on China?” Why do we expect them to? Why do buy into the concept of “elite” in this domain?

* “Study: Cities with more transit use could cut road deaths by 40%.” We’re literally willing to die to drive.

* “How Real News Can Be Worse Than Fake News: Too much information can lead to a cynical population that expects little from its leaders.”

* Clayton Christensen: Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years. Given cost increases, that would probably be a net improvement.

* “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” A… not expected op-ed.

* But Rich People Live Here, So We Can’t Be Going Broke!

* Uber Was Right: The scooter backlash vindicates Travis Kalanick’s early tactics.

* Electric scooters are getting more and more popular. It’s time for big cities to embrace them.

* On Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook; in The New Yorker and not just the usual.

* The Chekhov Sentence That Contains Almost All of Life. The new Shteyngart novel sounds unbelievably terrible, but the essay is good.

* Fitted tees, scruff, and understated watches: the secrets of a Silicon Valley stylist. Hilarious.

* The Major Urban Revolution of Minor Transportation Means.

* “I doubt me an it be commercial.” On publishing, writing, and many other topics of interest.

* Fundamentals in fiction and the question of obligations.

“The Wheel of Time” as an adult

In middle school I read the first six or eight Robert Jordan Wheel of Time books; I’ve mentioned that before, but the other day I saw someone reading one of the books in a coffee shop and that inspired me to download some. From the opening pages they are badly written; we find of one character, “with his thick chest and broad face, he was a pillar of reality in that morning, like a stone in the middle of a drifting dream.” What is a “pillar of reality?” As opposed to a “pillar of fantasy?” Does reality typically have pillars? In dreams, stones can drift as much as they want. In isolation this kind of thing happens (not every sentence in a given book is to every person’s taste), but things like it recur again and again. Perhaps they were written too fast, or maybe the writer’s attention was elsewhere. But for very inexperienced readers, as I was, that doesn’t matter: everything is novel.

The novels are very Tolkien-esque, except worse. The novel concerns a quest to defeat “The Dark One,” but The Dark One seems like a bad deal. I mean, his nickname is the Lord of Lies. Yet various people in the Wheel of Time world are eager to sign up to serve him. Why would anyone make a deal with him? People try not to do business with people they don’t trust, and that just concerns money—not the soul itself. Truly evil people don’t announce they’re evil; they call themselves good. In Tolkien, Sauron is at least depicted as once having been fair, and being able to use his powers to daunt and seduce the men who haven’t been exposed to Elvish influence. Tolkien thought through a lot of subtle details that are easily missed in a first pass but picked up later on.

Perhaps the Dark One’s dealmaking skill is a metaphor for life under communist regimes, which are highly duplicitous and not very pleasant, but, if one’s government was part of the Soviet Union, that was part of the deal. Many people who ought to have known better were convinced socialism was a good idea. They may have sold their souls, in essence.

The Jordan view of sexuality is… curious. And very adolescent; as a work that might appeal to 12- or 13-year olds, it makes sense. As a work that appeals to adults, it does not. Many of the characters are very attractive and very attracted to one another, and yet none act on it, or only act on it after months or years of courtship that leads to marriage. This seems improbable. Most adults attempt to fulfill months- or years-long mutual attractions somewhat faster than that. The Wheel of Time‘s sexual world sounds a lot like middle school behavior but not much like adult behavior. A fantasy novel like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is much more reality-grounded in this domain, despite featuring far younger protagonists. As an adult I look at Jordan’s Wikipedia page and am unsurprised to find this: “He described himself as a ‘High Church’ Episcopalian and received communion more than once a week.”

Like a lot of thrillers, something happens in almost every chapter of every book (the early ones, anyway). A sudden attack. A reversal of fortune. The introduction of a new character. But, as with a lot of thrillers, the “something” often doesn’t make much sense. Why are the bad guys so ineffective? Why do they try the same sort of attacks, over and over again, which keep failing? Why do Dark friends not get a better name? Could they hire a branding consultant? Thrillers work if you don’t think too much about them—something I realized after reading Persuader, a novel that’s wildly plausible despite its absurdities. Sometimes I wonder if I could become a thriller writer through a deck of cards with plot points like “sudden betrayal,” “bad guy goes good,” “unexpected fight,” etc. on them.

And the attacks are mostly the same: the same Orc-like creatures suddenly appear, as if from nowhere, and execute the same attacks that fail in the same ways. They’re like video-game monsters. If the Dark One is so brilliant, perhaps he ought to learn new tactics? Or perhaps that’s the curse of a 14-novel series: there are only so many variations on a theme.

It feels like Jordan had a bunch of dice when he was writing. Roll a 2? New attack from Trollocs. Four? New magical items. Double sixes? Dark friends. Someone like Philip Pullman or Carlos Ruiz Zafon has a very different, more organic feel, as well as more bounded worlds that may ultimately be more satisfying worlds. The endless size of The Wheel of Time means flatter characters, more repetition, and the exploration of fewer ideas.

Even as a kid, I gave up on the series. But I wonder about what adults see in it. Many people are of course comforted by and susceptible to simple good-vs-evil stories. When one becomes popular, like The Wheel of Time, pointing to it as being popular because it’s a good-vs-evil story isn’t enough. Maybe it’s popular because it’s simple along so many dimensions. The sentences are simple. The motivations are simple. The plot is less simple on its surface but fairly simple beneath. The good guys win at the end (or appear to: so say Internet summarizers). The Wheel of Time world of motivation is fairly simple. In a complex world, simple has appeal.

The chief protagonist is named Rand al’Thor, and the description of him working magic is notable and concerns what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call “Flow” or what might otherwise be called total concentration, which the channelers must use: “Tam had taught him the Void as an aid to archery, to be one with the bow, the arrow, the target. He made himself one with those imagined black wires.” One reading of Wheel might be about the value of total concentration, although that’s a funny lesson in books that don’t demand total concentration and if anything don’t reward it. But for the reader, especially today in an environment of digital distraction, admiring total concentration may be useful.

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