Links: Reading books versus “social media,” where things go, honesty, drinking like the Romans, and more!

* “In the time you spend on social media each year, you could read 200 books.”

* “Why Japan Wants Your ‘Junk.'” They actually want to set up a recycling superpower. Also: ““Who Killed Mr. Fixit, and How to Bring Him Back: A Q&A with iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens about the demise of the repair industry and a plan to revive it.”

* “Can We Be Honest About Women? Here’s a little secret we have to say out loud: Women love the sexual interplay they experience with men, and they relish men desiring their beauty.” Perhaps most interesting for the organization publishing the story; I’m so old that I remember the days when the left and Democrats were the the standard-bearers for libertinism and the right and Republics were the standard-bearers for censorious schoolmarm-ism—now they’ve switched! (At least in part.)

* “The Case for the Subway: It built the city. Now, no matter the cost — at least $100 billion — the city must rebuild it to survive.”

* Almost all reading used to be aloud.

* “Donald Trump Didn’t Want to Be President: One year ago: the plan to lose, and the administration’s shocked first days.” Makes sense; in a best-case scenario, he declares victory, resigns, and goes home. Also: “Trump Has Created Dangers We Haven’t Even Imagined Yet.” Very bad scenarios: nuclear war, botched bird flu response.

* “Drinking Wine Like the Romans Do: The notion that wine should be consumed out of thin-walled crystal, preferably on a stem, is practically scripture. But one of the hottest new ceramics studios, Mazama Wares, is seeking to change that. Katherine Cole on the unexpected pleasures of drinking wine from terra cotta.” Alas, I looked, and Mazama is charing $42 per cup.

* “We should focus on building ‘unaffordable’ housing.” Over time, it becomes affordable. Much of the bad discussion around this issue is completely, bizarrely ahistorical.

* ““You Can’t Make This S— Up”: My Year Inside Trump’s Insane White House.” Yes, this is the same article everyone else is reading, but it’s actually good.

* “The Novelist’s Complicity.”

* “How Germany Wins at Manufacturing – For Now.” We need more vocational education, as I argue at the link.

* “If It Wasn’t For My Corporate Office Job, I Couldn’t Be a Novelist.” Seems obvious to me.

* 100 influential French women denounce MeToo. Or, for a better source, see here.

* “As Electric Cars’ Prospects Brighten, Japan Fears Being Left Behind.”

* “Uber’s Secret Tool for Keeping the Cops in the Dark.” Although this isn’t the article’s framing, I think it paints Uber as an incredibly impressive company; if this were police raiding organizations or individuals who journalists want to see raised in status, we’d see the authors paint the victims sympathetically and police negatively.

* “‘The desire to have a child never goes away’: how the involuntarily childless are forming a new movement.”

* “What Happened to ‘The Most Liberated Woman in America’? Barbara Williamson co-founded one of the most famous radical sex experiments of the 1970s. Then she got wild.” She was made famous by Gay Talese in Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

The Likeness — Tana French

If you don’t mind the crazy, improbable plot—and it’s crazy and improbable even by murder mystery standards, where authors strain relentlessly to think up new plots—The Likeness is an okay, functional book of its type. In the novel, Cassie Maddox is a cop who, prior to the novel’s start, developed a fake identity to go undercover in order to crack some victimless crime related to drugs. That assignment ends, and as the novel begins, police discover a dead woman who has an ID saying she is Cassie’s old identity—that is, the dead woman had enrolled in grad school under that name and developed a life using that name. But how’d the dead woman get the ID in the first place? Why would she use or need it?

So far, we’re in the land of extreme improbability. Then—and this is where “improbable” moves to “ridiculous”—Cassie and her boss decide to pretend the dead girl actually lived, but suffers from amnesia, and Cassie is going to pretend to be the dead girl, who was pretending to be one of Cassie’s old IDs, because Cassie so closely resembles the dead girl. Who had been living with four of her grad school friends in a big house, where they all see each other every day.

It’s not bad, but it’s also one of these doppelgänger books—books that are like another book, but often not quite as good. If you want a bunch of surprises among a band of tightly-knit college students who are hiding a shocking secret, start with The Secret History, in which an outsider joins a band of four other students who have a dark secret (besides their facility in Latin). Reading a book that’s similar but not quite as good just makes me want to go read the real thing. The Weight of Ink suffered from the same problem: it was like Possession, but without the wit.

When Cassie first hears from the gang she lives with, one says:

We were wrecks. Not Daniel, obviously, he would never do anything as undignified as get upset, he just stuck his head in a book and occasionally came out with some fucking Old Norse quote about arms that remain strong in times of trial, or something.

Daniel plays the role of Henry in The Secret History. The Likeness asks how well we can ever really know a person (answer: not very), and that makes it more interesting than many mysteries, but I flip through it, hunting for some bit of evocative writing, and I’m struggling. There is this, at the end:

I wanted to tell her that being loved is a talent too, that it takes as much guts and as much work as loving; that some people, for whatever reason, never learn the knack.

It’s beautiful, not commonplace, but not inaccurate, either. But more often the sentences can be dropped into any other cop novel: “This case had been different from the first moment.” Which is not a criticism, exactly (not every sentence in every novel is an original), though one does yearn for novelty or at least great precision. Or: “The possibility hit me like a wrecking ball: suicide.” But we know it won’t be suicide; that would deprive us of the pleasure of discovery.

Life: The secret presence

“A novelist talking about the art of the novel is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium. Imagine him rather as a painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvases staring at you from where they lean against the walls. He will talk about himself, but even more about other people, about novels of theirs that he loves and that have a secret presence in his own work.”

—Milan Kundera, The Curtain.

(“Giving a discourse” is awkward; I wonder if it’s an artifact from the translation.)

Links: Victimhood culture, drugs, healthcare prices, legal absurdity, and more!

* Collision with Reality: What Depth Psychology Can Tell Us About Victimhood Culture. See also “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.” We can and should do better.

* Portugal is “winning” the war on drugs via decriminalization.

* Why Do Intellectuals Support Government Solutions?

* “Why American doctors keep doing expensive procedures that don’t work.”

* “Child porn law goes nuts: 14-year-old girl charged for nude selfie.” Even by American legal standards it’s nuts to have the sole victim of a “crime” be the perpetrator of the crime, and for the victim/perpetrator to feel and argue that no harm has taken place.

* “Legal Weed Isn’t The Boon Small Businesses Thought It Would Be.” Should this surprise? Many businesses reap benefits from economies of scale and the number of small agricultural concerns in general is, well, small. The vast majority of people shop on price and larger organizations get prices lower than smaller organizations can.

* Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz pours funds into high-risk research.

* “Does a lower ‘total cost of ownership’ boost electric car sales?” Somewhat, but apparently not that much. People are bad at math, forward planning, and marginal costs. I think this argues towards “nudging” people towards electric cars that have lower long-term costs.

* “On the Front Lines of the GOP’s Civil War.”

* “Consider the Consequences of #BelieveAllWomen.” Can be read productively with “Collision with Reality: What Depth Psychology Can Tell Us About Victimhood Culture.”

* “The Gambler’s Ruin of Small Cities,” or why small cities are shrinking or disappearing: “Once upon a time, it was obvious what towns and small cities did: they served as central places serving a mainly rural population engaged in agriculture and other natural resource-based activities.” That isn’t very true in most places anymore. Tyler Cowen notes, “Why don’t cities grow without limit?

Links: Bike sharing, moral panics, social isolation, academic writing, Saturnalia, and more!

* Let’s start with the good news: “How bike-sharing conquered the world

* “The Current Sex Panic Harks Back to the Era of Coddling Women.”

* “How social isolation is killing us.” But, also, “Debunking Myths About Estrangement.”

* “People Aren’t Having Babies Because The Rent Is Too Damn High.”

* “Ph.D.s Are Still Writing Poorly.” This is news? And: “‘The Great Shame of Our Profession:’ How the humanities survive on exploitation.” This is news? Still, universities treat adjuncts like they do because they can.

* “Lab-Grown Meat Is on the Way.” I tried Beyond Meat burgers and they were pretty good.

* “Drug and Alcohol Deaths at U.S. Workplaces Soar.” But the real issues get little airing amid culture-war grievances.

* “Bonfire of the academies: Two professors on how leftist intolerance is killing higher education.”

* “More Thoughts on Falling Fertility.” Contrary to what you read, overpopulation is not a problem in developed countries. If anything the opposite is likely to be a problem.

* Research quality in economics tends to decline after tenure. The theoretical case for tenure seems ever weaker. Also: “Academic success is either a crapshoot or a scam.” Article is much more intelligent than the title may immediately suggest.

* Why Christmas is really just a Roman holiday: Saturnalia.

* “What to do about cheerleaders,” originally from 2005 but an evergreen. I read it as comedy.

* Hinkley Point is still an important new nuclear power plant. This distressing sentence ought to be at the forefront of many minds: “If anyone can do it, it is the Chinese, who have established themselves as world leaders in the complex engineering challenges involved in building nuclear power plants. (There were 20 reactors under construction in China at the end of March 2017.)”

* “GeekDesk “Max” sit-stand desk review: Two years with a motorized desk.”

Kingdom of the Wicked: Book One: Rules — Helen Dale

Kingdom of the Wicked is one of the best, weirdest, and most fascinating novels I’ve read in recent memory; I’m amazed that it hasn’t garnered more reviews, both from Amazon and the press. It takes a seemingly simple premise—what happens if the Industrial Revolution occurred in ancient Rome?—and combines it with an insurgent campaign against an occupying power in the Middle East and the appearance of Jesus. Is the occupying power good, evil, neither, or both? Kingdom refuses to yield simple answers, which is part of what makes it addicting.

Many sections resonate with very current events: “These men really do believe a ragtag army of insurgents can defeat the greatest military power the world has ever seen. The result will be a bloodbath, you know that better than me” could easily be taken from a news story about contemporary Afghanistan. Yet in the context of the novel, it defamiliarizes the tropes that appear so readily in the news.* We also know from the last 50 years of real history that ragtag armies of insurgents can defeat the greatest military power the world has ever seen, at least by some measures of “defeat.” But in Kingdom, that power isn’t the United States; it’s the Roman Empire in the period Jesus lived.

I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s prediction that The Name of the Rose would be read in at least three different ways; Kingdom can perhaps be read similarly:

The first category of readers will be taken by the plot and the coups de scène, and will accept even the long bookish discussions and the philosophical dialogues, because it will sense that the signs, the traces and revelatory symptoms are nesting precisely in those inattentive pages. The second category will be impassioned by the debate of ideas, and will attempt to establish connections (which the author refuses to authorize) with the present. The third will realize that this text is a textile of other texts, a ‘whodunit’ of quotations, a book built of books.

Kingdom is not a whodunit, and if it is a “textile of other texts,” I do not know those other texts well enough to detect their presence. But I do think Kingdom is a kind of textile of history, though I don’t enough Roman or Biblical history to perceive those patterns, either. David Lodge suggests regarding Eco’s categories that “there is an implied hierarchy in the listing of these kinds of reading, the most approved being the last. A fully appreciative reading must, however, combine all three.” So while I can speak to the plot and coups de scène, as well as the many resonances between imaginary past and actual present, I cannot grasp what may be the deepest level.

That being said, the first two levels offer much material. I will caution, though, that the book may feel slow and strange to start: many odd (to my American background) names appear in rapid succession and are hard to keep straight. Some, like Pontius Pilate, are familiar even to me from history. Many others are not familiar or not from history, and it is not always easy to keep Camilla, Claudia, Caiaphas, Cornelius (whose last name is Getorex, and he is referred to by the one or the other depending on context) and many others straight.

Yet I kept reading, and about halfway through I could not or would not stop. I wasn’t wholly attentive at the beginning, either, maybe due to reading on a bus—or because I couldn’t make up my mind about the book’s quality immediately. Then I finished and immediately began again, to see all that I’d missed or not understood. And there was much to find in a second reading. This reaction might be idiosyncratic, but I forced the book on a friend who had the same reaction: caught halfway through, she finished and turned back to page one.

She also observed that there are a lot of “really hot sex scenes.” That’s true, and they intersect with the political and military contexts beautifully. To say more would be to give away too much of the novel.

Beyond the plot and the correspondences between imagined world and present, many individual sentences are beautiful: “[Caiaphas’s] mind ran like a rodent on a wheel as he tried to think how he was to explain himself to Pilate.” “Like a rodent on a wheel:” that is sometimes how one feels when preparing to explain the inexplicable. This novel combines a turbulent plot with beautiful sentences, as too few novels do. The word “combines” features prominently in this review, for good reason. This book is a combination of many ideas in an unusual way. Unlike most novels, it feels very novel.

In this world, Christianity hasn’t happened yet, so there are no Christians. Islam comes many centuries later, so there are no Muslims; this allows Kingdom to deftly sidestep many current controversies. There are Jews and we’re in a land that corresponds geographically to the modern Middle East, here called Judaea, where the Roman soldiers are unhappy to be living amid cultural aliens. Most of the novel’s narrative perspective happens within Romans, but sometimes we get Jews, who see the Romans a little like modern Palestinians might see Israelis, or as Afghans might see Americans. One senses, perhaps wrongly, that the author sides with the Romans, just as one senses that Umberto Eco sides with William of Baskerville, but everyone gets a hearing. Courtrooms and lawyers frequently appear in Kingdom, so the notion of a “hearing” is not purely metaphorical.

Early in Kingdom, a Jewish cabbie is driving a Roman lawyer and notices the environment:

Whenever he saw Roman soldiers in dress uniform, he always had the same struggle to prevent himself from admiring them. When they were in the streets wearing their desert battle dress and coalscuttle helmets and heavy boots, one could despite them—the body armour even made them look non-human—but not when they wee preening like peacocks and charming the women who wished to reward the Empire’s warriors for their protective efforts.

“Body armour” can make modern soldiers “look non-human.” Many have argued that in the United States, “We Are The Empire” of the Star Wars films: culturally and militarily hegemonic, builder of massive war machines, masters of the physical world. In Kingdom we are Rome—yet we’re also the product of monotheistic religions. Yet even those monotheistic religions haven’t been sufficient to keep a libertine culture from growing; in Kingdom, the libertine culture is the majority culture and thrives in the mainstream; people want what they want and do what they do. In American culture, we often deny wanting what we want, and the next morning we deny what we did. We’re schizophrenic: simultaneously partaking and rebelling, affirming and denying, at war with ourselves, with self-denying, right-wing religious culture circling back around and sometimes combining with self-denying, fear-based left-wing feminist culture. It’s an odd world, if you really think about.

Fortunately or unfortunately, most of us don’t. Not actively. You don’t have to think too hard about the correspondences between our world and Kingdom if you don’t want to: the story itself keeps one’s interest. Speculative fiction readers may have an advantage here, because the world is extremely disorienting at first. Historical figures like Saul of Tarsus and Pontius Pilate appear, but people who don’t know the New Testament won’t necessarily see how strangely these figures are changed. And lots of people don’t know it: I was recently teaching Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and asked students about the famous historical-mythic figure who died at age 33. No one knew.

The novel switches perspectives often at first, but the narrative voice remains similar. It took me till about halfway through to get the characters straight and begin to piece together who everyone was and the main things that most characters might want. But the disorientation is the pleasant sense of being in a foreign place, much like Peter Watt’s novel Blindsight.

I mentioned the novel’s sex scenes. They’re tied to the Roman celebration of sensuality. Many characters notice each other in a way that real people do and fictional characters often don’t. Mary Magdalena, for example, is “a newsreader on JTN” and she is “bar none, the most beautiful woman” one character has ever seen. She is like Ben Yusuf in that she has something of the supernatural about her, so much so that “He could imagine her telling him to do something ridiculous and complying without hesitation.” In the Roman world, sexuality is highlighted rather than sublimated, and when Linnaeus is too intent on her, he says, “Please accept my apologies for staring at you like that.” She replies, “That is the best of Rome . . . You do not pretend.” A world where, if not everybody, then many people have such an attitude is a cultural change.

In the real world, the second-best-known pornographic movie is probably Debbie Does Dallas, which even has its own Wikipedia page (the first is of course Deep Throat, which is immortalized by its role in Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein, and the taking down of Nixon). In Kingdom, a movie called Deborah Does Damascus plays a similar role.

The sly winking to Deborah Does Damascus also reminds one of the novel’s frequent humor. Though that humor is hard to take from its context, I laughed out loud reading it and so did a friend. When the disorientation from entering Kingdom’s world subsides, be ready to laugh.

In the novel; there is a lot of argument about how “women are not free in their country;” maybe the novel is also an experiment asking what freedom, or some definitions of freedom, actually look like. “Freedom” means a lot of things, and it does seem like few people are actually free, or want to be. Even people who want freedom for themselves would often deny it to others; politically salient examples of this seem too obvious and numerous to cite.

If there is a single lesson from the novel it may be that governing is hard, culture is hard, and there is no way to make those problems not-hard.


* Here is Dale’s essay, “What if the Industrial Revolution happened in Rome?” and she is also on Twitter. Here is Mark Koyama, “Could Rome Have Had an Industrial Revolution?” I’ve seen very few American reviews of Kingdom, which is odd considering how good the book is. The next book is supposed to be out soon in “Early 2018,” but from what I can tell it isn’t yet available for pre-order.

I know almost nothing about Roman history but am now reading Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, which is readable, fascinating, and thus far recommended (although I can’t speak to its accuracy because I lack sufficient knowledge to do so).

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