Links: Zafón, the extinction of the teen sex comedy, nuclear war, electric bikes, romance, and more!

* “The bestselling literary sensation you may struggle to name,” on Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Here are some of my posts on him.

* “The Internet Killed the Teen Sex Comedy: Movies about horned-up teenagers were a Hollywood staple in the ‘90s and ‘00s, but the internet has rendered them all but extinct.” I wonder if that’s true.

* “ We’re Edging Closer To Nuclear War” and almost no one is talking about it.

* An electric bike is not cheating: How it could replace cars for millions of people.

* “Romance is dead – how sex killed the love song: Pop hits are now less likely to be about love than at any time since the 1960s. But wasn’t love always a euphemism for sex, anyway?”

* “Stunning drops in solar and wind costs turn global power market upside down.” This is good news!

* “What a Conservative Sees From Inside Trump’s Washington,” more interesting than it sounds and more interesting than the usual.

* “Books are superior to TV” (better than the usual but you already probably know as much if you’re reading this).

Links: The Boring Company, boredom, marriage and writers, Screw Wisdom, personal essays, and more!

* “Elon Musk’s Boring Company Begins First Tunnel.” I predict it gets bogged down in NIMBYism and “Just say no” California politics but hope that it doesn’t.

* “Behind China’s $1 Trillion Plan to Shake Up the Economic Order.” In other words, China is doing the sort of stuff the United States used to. When you read this piece think also of Peter Thiel’s Zero to One.

* “Trump Revealed Highly Classified Intelligence to Russian Officials.” The stories only get weirder; when will impeachment follow?

* “Killing C.I.A. Informants, China Crippled U.S. Spying Operations,” yet another John le Carré-esque piece.

* “How Researching the Science of Boredom Prepared Me for Marriage.” Unexpected!

* “Is an open marriage a happier marriage?” There is much here for novelists to ponder. See also “The sex plot: a discussion for novelists and readers.”

* “Mercedes-Benz Energy pairs with solar company to sell batteries, rooftop panels.” Good news for competition with Tesla. It’ll be interesting to see if most car companies morph to energy and transportation companies.

* “Humans Accidentally Created a Protective Bubble Around Earth.” Very cool.

* “Screw Wisdom: In a bold new memoir of female middle age, libido obliterates the usual clichés,” by Laura Kipnis (a good sign) and on Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, among other things.

* “Miles of Ice Collapsing Into the Sea;” don’t say you weren’t warned.

* The personal essay boom is supposedly over.

* “ Will McMorran recommends the best books on the Marquis de Sade,” a very good piece and note that I haven’t read much de Sade, maybe because I’m lazy: “The 120 Days is essentially unreadable in every possible way. Unreadable in the sense that it’s hard to read, unreadable in the sense that it’s upsetting to read, and unreadable also in the sense that it’s difficult to decode.”

Life: Bicycle and morality

“Tolstoy had also been in his sixties when he learned how to ride a bicycle. He took his first lesson exactly one month after the death of his and Sonya’s beloved youngest son. Both the bicycle and an introductory lesson were a gift from the Moscow Society of Velocipede-Lovers. One can only guess how Sonya felt, in her mourning, to see her husband teetering along the garden paths. ‘Tolstoy has learned to ride a bicycle,’ Chertkov noted at that time. ‘Is this not inconsistent with Christian ideals?'”

—Elif Batuman, The Possessed, and I can’t help but notice the way many transportation options take on a moral dimension in the eyes of many commentators.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI — David Grann

People who like true crime stories will love Killers of the Flower Moon, but I’m not one of them and find it unmoving, though the scope of the conspiracy it describes is fantastical, and the third part is amazing. Like The Name of the Rose, it seems to be a story of detection and reconstruction: who killed Anna Brown? Brown’s sister, Mollie Burkhart, worried about Brown, though Brown “had often gone on ‘sprees,’ as her family disparagingly called them.” But this wasn’t a spree and what seems to concern one murder, at first, turns out to concern many more.

One can see Killers of the Flower Moon in other ways than a story of detection: as parts of government wrangling with other parts of government; as how demand for government leads to greater supply of government (“For years after the American Revolution, the public opposed the creation of police departments, fearing that they would become forces of oppression”—whether they have is left as an exercise to the reader); of how bureaucracy organizes itself to solve problems; of how feudal or rural systems of justice and law enforcement give way to larger modern structures. There is something for people who want to read about ghastly murders and something for people who like Albert Hirschman. Not many books overlap in that venn diagram! There are many sentences about bureaucratic wrangling, like “Because of [x’s] power, a federal prosecutor warned that it was ‘not only useless but positively dangerous’ to try him in the state legal system” (this occurs late in the book and I removed the person’s name to prevent spoilers).

Large-scale conspiracies are so rare that when they do occur they fascinate (think of my post, “The power of conventional narratives and the great lie“). Imagined conspiracies are much more common than actual ones.

At times Killers of the Flower Moon reminds one of a Western like Lonesome Dove:

[Tom] White was an old-style lawman. He had served in the Texas Rangers near the turn of the century, and he had spent much of his life roaming on horseback across the southwestern frontier, a Winchester rifle or pearl-handled six-shooter in hand, tracking fugitives and murderers and stickup men. [. . .] Even when dressed in a stiff suit, like a door-to-door salesman, he seemed to have sprung from a mythic age.

The West as imagined today is built on myth, and so, too, is the FBI—which, in this telling, springs from the Rangers and from similar sources. Which I hadn’t realized. Maybe you hadn’t either. This book is not for me but it may very well be for you. Very few of the sentences stand out as truly excellent, and that to me is a key metric in a book.

Lost in translation: A 20 year espresso-machine odyssey from the Sylvia to Nespresso to the DeLonghi Magnifica S

My father, Isaac, wrote this.

In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray seems equally confused by Japanese pop culture and a middle aged guy’s uncertain emotions upon encountering the achingly beautiful Scarlett Johansson. Since much of the dialogue was purportedly improvised, I don’t think Bill was acting on either front. Over the past 20 years, I’ve had a series of mostly Italian espresso machines and my experience with these has also been lost in translation.

In 1997, Starbucks had yet to metastasize across most of America and the independent coffee house movement was nascent. So the only effective way for a writer like me to get an espresso jolt in the afternoon was to buy a machine. This was in the early years of web shopping (more Ask Jeeves than Google), but after researching products, I decided to by a Rancilio Sylvia machine, along with a Rancilio Rocky “dosing” burr grinder. I have no idea why an Italian company would decide to randomly name these machines Sylvia and Rocky (see the Lost in Translation note above), but both are still sold and get great reviews. My experience was good—sort of.

The main problem with the Sylvia was (and is) that it was (and is) gigantic. It weighs about 50 pounds. The Rocky is also huge for a burr grinder. Since I’d ordered them online, I was really surprised by their height, weight, and girth. I was even more surprised to see that the instructions for both were only in Italian! In this case, I was lost without translation.

After a series of long phone calls to the vendor back east, I was finally able to make coffee. The Sylvia makes great coffee and an enormous mess. It’s a semi-automatic machine, which means the user has to grind the coffee (hence the need for Rocky), tamp it into the espresso holder, shove the holder back into Sylvia, brew the espresso, and hand steam/froth the milk with the machine’s steam wand into a stainless steel pitcher for a cappuccino.

The good news for us coffee junkies is that the milk can be heated to 200 degrees, since it’s a manual. But steaming the milk at home also means that I had to buy a coffee immersion thermometer, adding to the countertop clutter. While this process can be fun for one or two cups, it’s exhausting to make cappuccino for a crowd. I got pretty good with the wand and could produce far better coffee than Starbucks, but I also had to clean up dry and wet coffee grounds and milk splatter. I felt like I should wear a rubber apron or Ghostbusters jumpsuit when making coffee. Still, I used this combo for about ten years.

About ten years ago, I was in Paris and encountered my first Nespresso machine. Nespresso machines use proprietary pods. This was a revelation—shove a pod into the machine, press a button and coffee, cappuccino, etc., appear with little fuss and no mess.

When I got home, I gave Sylvia to friend with a boat to use as an anchor and bought a compact machine, called “The Cube” (this model is no longer sold). The Cube only made espresso using pods and one had to use a separate frother to create a version of cappuccino. It was easy to use and created very little mess; I no longer needed the hulking Rocky next to it. The Cube system, however, produces frothed, not steamed milk, which means a lukewarm drink. The Cube is also owned by Nestle, a Swiss company, and not only were the instructions in English, but there is a help line staffed by giddy customer service reps. No translation issues with the Cube.

After about another five years, I grew tired of lukewarm coffee that wasn’t quite as good as it should have been and bought my second Nespresso machine, a DeLonghi Lattissima+. This baby was light years better than the Cube, because it is not only compact and easy to use with little mess but also produces actual steamed milk at a hotter temperature (albeit not the scalding temp of the Sylvia).

After about ten years of using Nespresso machines, I got tired of their basic problems. First, the pods have become ever more expensive with time. The pods now cost between $.70 and $1/per pod. I go through at least 10 pods per week, so this quickly rises to the Gillette razor blade problem; Nespresso could actually give away the machines, like a heroin dealer passing out samples. They know you’ll be back. The second issue, however, is insurmountable—no matter which of the so-called “Grand Cru” coffee varieties I bought, the coffee inside the pods is entirely “meh.”

After much googling and a referral from Jake (who reads Megan McArdle’s holiday gadget guides), I decided to give up on Nespresso and dig a new hole with a DeLonghi Magnifica S machine. This is my first “super automatic” machine, which means that it does everything with “one touch.”

Pour the beans of you choice in the hopper, milk in the integrated pitcher, water in the tank, select your brew and voila, there it is. The Magnifica S arrived Saturday. DeLonghi is yet another Italian company. Unlike the Sylvia, the instructions came in English, along with about 20 other languages. Unfortunately, the manual came on a DVD, and as a Mac guy, I haven’t had a DVD drive in years. Also, the first thing you encounter on opening the box is a large warning sheet in 100 point type: PLEASE TO NOT RETURN THIS ITEM TO THE STORE, CALL THE TECH SUPPORT TEAM. Hmmmm.

Back to Google to find the instructions online. For those interested in a Magnifica S, note that DeLonghi makes at least a half dozen machines, all called the Magnifca S, but different is some critical ways and with slightly different model numbers (DeLonghi could learn about product lineup from Apple). More lost in translation: why didn’t just give each one a distinct name, like Sylvia. I bought the Magnifica S model # ECAM 24.462, which has a two line display, as opposed to the 24.262, which uses a forest of pictograms like a McDonalds cash register. Word to the wise: get the 462.

The Magnifica turns out to be almost as big as the Sylvia I started with 20 years. While the instructions I found online were in English, they’d been badly translated from Italian and were incredibly complex and confusing. Now I understood why the warning sheet is included. It took me about an hour and a half to set up the machine—longer that it took me to set up my newest MacBook Pro in December. I’m confident that, while this machine has probably not ended as many relationships as assembling IKEA furniture has, it must have ended a couple.

After much fiddling and attempts to discern the odd instructions and ever stranger illustrations, I finally produced a terrific cappuccino—assuming you use good beans. The machine is indeed one touch when finally configured and, unlike the Nespresso machines, it’s self-cleaning. I used the Streetlevel blend from my favorite coffee shop and roaster, Verve Coffee Roasters. It was roasted last week and is the blend used in Verve coffee shops. Nespresso pods are never quite as good as they should be because the time between roast and use is too long. With the Magnifica, one doesn’t have to suffer mystery coffee, roasted who knows when, in expensive pods.

Links: Measuring atheism, housing and the good life, free speech, Laura Kipnis, and more!

* “How many American atheists are there really?” The question is not that interesting in and of itself but the methodology is fascinating, hilarious, and worthy of Kahneman and Tversky!

* (Possibly NSFW): “American Apparel’s Creative Director Explains the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ Campaign: Iris Alonzo on the controversial advertisement’s mission.” Improbable!

* (Also conceivably NSFW): Sex letters from famous authors, including Joyce, Proust, and others.

* “I Am Cancer,” on another angle of the eviction system; see also Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted.

* Japan shows the way to affordable mega cities.

* “The Arrogance of Blue America,” overstated to be sure but also not the usual.

* “2017 Could Prove to Be a Turning Point for Plug-In Hybrids;” this is extremely important news because plug-in hybrids are an easy bridge between gas- and electric-powered cars.

* “Canada fought the war on science. Here’s how scientists won.” Oddly (maybe? or “normally”), people trust individual stories and anecdotes more than data.

* “Colleges Think Women Having Sex Is Dangerous. Laura Kipnis Says They’re Wrong.”

* Crisis or Stasis?

* The books that made writers want to write.

* “College students aren’t the enemies of free speech,” which ought to be pretty obvious, except:

Part of what’s going on here could come down to preference intensity and opportunity. By which I mean that college students who are in favor of expanding restrictions on free speech might feel relatively more strongly about it than do their pro-free-speech peers, and they have highly visible opportunities to express those views by attempting to no-platform speakers they don’t like, or responding assertively to instances of perceived administrator insensitivity.

In other words, a noisy minority may get all the press—as I wrote in “Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent.” Don’t mistake the minority for the whole!

Briefly noted: Somebody with a Little Hammer — Mary Gaitskill

The essays are not interesting throughout, but the most interesting ones are very interesting; pay special attention to her piece on turning “Secretary” (the short story) into Secretary (the movie) and the piece about Gone Girl which is a brilliant reading that is also wrong and misses part of the point of the movie and, maybe, of art in general. Brilliant but wrong readings are underrated and still help us see art and the world in new ways, and Gaitskill articulates the dark side of Gone Girl, and its popularity, well. Who cares if she misses the point? I’d like more works that miss the point intelligently than get the point boringly (as I may sometimes do, though I prefer not to).

Some sections on topical gender issues are more interesting than the usual, and Gaitskill acknowledges some things that many of her peers don’t, like: “My parents and my teachers believed that social rules existed to protect me and adhering to these rules constituted social responsibility.”

Her reviews often feel more interesting than the books she’s reviewing. Some of those books and their topics haven’t aged well (does anyone care about someone named Joey Buttafuoco, whose name rings a distant semiotic bell and who was apparently a brief ’90s tabloid item?).

Then there are paragraphs that are just very good and make up for whatever isn’t:

Popular music is the most banal and most mysterious thing imaginable, and it’s almost impossible to write about. A good song carries in each phrase fragments of thought, feeling, and sensation, all going by in a flash. It refers to things everybody knows, but it’s rooted in the specific muck of whoever wrote it / sings it. If it’s live, it includes the quick, erotic language of the body, a language at once to subtle and fundamental to be understood by the mind. So, along comes the intellectual writer and—oops! He’s squeezing down on the poor thing so hard, you think he’ll kill it, except he can’t even get his hands on it.

(By the way, John Seabrook is very good on music and doesn’t squeeze down on the poor thing so hard.)

Or this, on the short story version of “Secretary,” which contrasts with the movie one for reasons primarily but not entirely commercial:

In any genuine piece of fiction, the plot is like the surface personality or external body of a human being; it serves to contain the subconscious and viscera of the story. The plot is something you “see” with your rational mind, but the unconscious and the viscera–what you can smell and feel without being able to define–are the deeper subjects of the story. This is particularly true of “Secretary,” the heroine of which is a knot of smothered passion expressed only obliquely and negatively in her outer self. I conceived her as someone of unformed strength and intelligence, qualities that have never been reflected back to her by her world and so have become thwarted, angry, and peculiar. The deeper subject of “Secretary,” then, is the tension between the force and complexity inside the heroine, and how it gets squeezed through the tiny conduit of a personality that she has learned to make small, so that she may live in a small and mute world.

I’m not sure I agree with the notion of plot being advanced here—I think the plot shows us much more, if the writer wants it to—but one sees how plot functions for Gaitskill. It also explains why her short stories are more interesting than her novels: you can evade plot easily for 30 pages but not so easily for 300, with the longer length becoming tedious if the characters don’t act and react to things around them.

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