Links: The post-literacy age, Eco on fascism, literary studies, everything matters, books, and more!

* “Donald Trump, the First President of Our Post-Literate Age.” I’m reminded too of “Twilight of the Books,” from 2007 and now bizarrely, powerfully prescient.

* A charming guide to choosing books.

* “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red.’


* A conversation with Martin Amis, which is really excellent. See here for another.

* Umberto Eco on fascism, from 1995, an essay that I never thought would be relevant again but here we are.

* There’s a reason authoritarians usually begin by assailing the press.

* “What’s Wrong With Literary Studies? Some scholars think the field has become cynical and paranoid.” Finally! Good news.

* Everything mattered: lessons from 2016’s bizarre presidential election.

“David Brooks and the Intellectual Collapse of the Center”

David Brooks and the Intellectual Collapse of the Center” is excellent. I may be a small part of that intellectual center, to the point of writing a presidential endorsement post in October—something I’ve never done before, because the climate has never seemed to merit it. But given the potential for catastrophe, it seemed necessary. Some readers have complained about the increasing amount of political content on The Story’s Story, but given the worldwide political darkness that has been descending it seems necessary to attempt to understand it. I would like to go back to mostly ignoring politics apart from straightforward analysis.

And the problem of false equivalence is real, as Chait makes clear at the link: “official centrists would simply relocate themselves to the midpoint of wherever the parties happened to stand.” Yet official centrists should do more than triangulate. They (or we) haven’t done that. They (or we) have also been somewhat asleep over the last six or so years.

I certainly have been and am now attempting to make up for that slumber, in part because I’ve been so wrong about what I thought was politically possible or feasible. Though I’ve read The Myth of the Rational Voter, I didn’t entirely internalize its lessons. Though I’ve read about the extent to which irrationality pervades most human cognition, I didn’t think that we’d become so wildly irrational on a large-scale, public basis. Though I understand that most people know little about history, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which “little” really means “nothing.”

But knowing and understanding things may not matter very much, since we may be living in a post-literate age and I’m writing material that may go largely unread, especially by the people who most need to understand what’s happening.

Life: Jokes and philosophy edition

“[Heidegger’s students] found him funny, but he did not share the joke because his sense of humour was somewhere between peculiar and non-existent. It didn’t matter: his clothes, his rustic Swabian accent and his seriousness only heightened his mystique.”

—Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe, a delightful book I almost didn’t read and a much more pleasurable, informative read than the philosophers it describes.

Links: Political failure, love in the age of smartphones, academic influence, space, and more!

* “What Americans Against Trump Can Learn from the Failures of the Israeli Opposition.”

* “She phubbs me, she phubbs me not: Smartphones could be ruining your love life.” See also me, from 2012, “Facebook and cellphones might be really bad for relationships

* “Maybe America is simply too big,” something I too have been wondering.

* Potential Conflicts Around the Globe for Trump, the Businessman President.

* “Goodbye to Barack Obama’s world: It is the failing of liberal technocrats to think reason governs how people act.”

* Let’s colonize Titan.

* “Oil Industry Anticipates Day of Reckoning: Prospect of ‘peak demand’ prompts debate and long-term planning by global producers.” Good.

* “College Students Want to Kill Foreign Language Requirements.” It would seem that whatever utility it once served has gone away, and the arguments as to why it should remain are weak.

* Why academics are losing relevance in society – and how to stop it.

* “Trump’s lies have a purpose. They are an assault on democracy.

My Secret Life — Anonymous

My Secret Life is a bizarre, disturbing, amazing, fascinating work of Victorian-era pornography. It is anachronistic to label it with a “trigger warning” but it is the rare work that actually deserves the warning; it recounts in great detail the author’s erotic experiences from youth to old age. My Secret Life feels like a book sort of thing that probably wouldn’t get assigned to undergrads today. Still, it is strange and curious enough for me to write about it here (I learned of it via The Voyeur’s Motel, a book that may be considered part of the same genre as My Secret Life). Originally published in or around 1902, it was 11 volumes (!), and the abridged edition I linked to is a single volume that still feels exhausting by its end.

my_secret_lifeIt’s hard to believe that all of My Secret Life is true, and it’s also hard to believe that it is wholly imagined. Today one might call it “creative nonfiction,” which seems to be a phrase that loosely means or connotes truthy, or specious, or “I need to make shit up to make the narrative more compelling.”

The interest in and curiosity about matters generally veiled was great then and remains great now, though today it maybe takes different shapes. There are ceaseless reportorial sections in My Secret Life, and moments when the narrator finds that someone, “One evening being unusually communicative,” explained the matter of “buggery.” That explanation comes from a woman named Camille; the narrator “went there when I wanted a quiet chat and information about sexualities.” That interest appears insatiable, even as its nuances eventually dull the reader’s senses due to repetition.

The need to report and imagine seem relentless. During one extended period with a single woman, the narrator says that “when not thinking of Charlotte, [I] spent my time in writing baudy words and sketching cunts and pricks with pen and ink.” So he is either engaged in the act or considering it in some other way. His work is almost Internet-ready, going even to anonymity.

Some challenges seem eternal, as when the narrator praises a women in this way:

Moreover she was not always plaguing me for money—asking me to pay this, or to lend her to pay that—which is the common habit and trick of harlots from high to low—I felt at sea when Sarah was gone, and recollect that for a month or so I was chaste.

That “chaste” month seems unusual in the narrator’s life, though his whole life seems unusual; that it may be more usual than is usually assumed may be part of the book’s frisson. Still, one hopes that the many vile things the narrator does are not eternal.

My Secret History is an easy book for skipping sections, as the narrator never seems to grow, change, learn, or seriously struggle. As he is at seven, so he is at seventy. But maybe the larger point is that the nature of humanity as a whole may change less than we might like, and that non-technological progress is rarer than we like to think and perhaps barely existent at all.

Links: The warm north pole, resistance done right, the new intellectuals, and the need to read

* “The North Pole is an insane 36 degrees warmer than normal as winter descends.” Which may be the most important story on the planet right now—not the election, not Apple’s latest moves, not whether some celebrity is sunbathing topless. And: “An expert’s view on unusually warm Arctic temperatures.” In the 2030s we will not be able to say we weren’t warned.

* “The End of Identity Liberalism: Our fixation on diversity cost us this election — and more.” Unlikely to be true and simultaneously long overdue.

* Luigi Zingales: “The Right Way to Resist Trump.” Five years ago he wrote “Dodging the Trump Bullet: Americans—and Republicans—are lucky that the Donald has bowed out.” If I saw that earlier piece at all I probably laughed at it. I was wrong. Here is a conversation between Luigi and Tyler.

* “NIH Scientists Identify Potent Antibody That Neutralizes Nearly All HIV Strains.”

* “The New Intellectuals: Is the academic jobs crisis a boon to public culture?“, surprisingly good and captures many of my feelings about peer review. It’s amazing to me that more people don’t understand the opportunity cost of grad school and simply start by teaching high school instead, which is far more remunerative than attempting to become a humanities professor (for most people).

* “The President and the bomb.” If you aren’t scared you aren’t paying attention.

* How the thoughts and actions of J L Austin live on. Austen’s book How to Do Things with Words is one of the few good things that came out of grad school.

* “Blame the Banks for All Those Boring Chain Stores Ruining Your City.” Title sounds stupid but the content is not.

* The Need to Read.

Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century — Masha Gessen

Perfect Rigor is the best and most fascinating book I’ve read recently, and it is the sort of book I often seek but too rarely find. The story concerns Grigory Perelman, the man who solved the Poincaré Conjecture and whose eccentricities and life history may or may not be related to his mathematical faculty but certainly make for bizarre, enlightening, and entertaining reading.

perfect_rigorPerelman was born into Soviet Russia, a place where the professional study and practice of math were frequently under peril. Soviet math survived Stalinism and the horror of the Soviet Union more generally in part from luck and in part from need, but they suffered from being cut off from the rest of the math world. Still, as Gessen writes:

mathematicians as a group slipped by the first rounds of purges because mathematics was too obscure for propaganda. Over the nearly four decades of Stalin’s reign, however, it would turn out that nothing was too obscure from destruction.

Plus, modern wars cannot be fought successfully without mathematicians. Many, many mathematicians. Math has another useful property from the perspective of Communists living in a resource-deprived, poorly organized society: good math can be done even in conditions of relative privation (which may not be true of, say, engineering).

So math in Russia survived Stalin, even while many other fields suffered. There is a fascinating historical counter-narrative in which Russia evades Communism and Germany evades Nazism via World War I not happening, or not happening the way it did. In that alternate world, tens of millions of people live and contribute to the betterment of humanity. Instead of that world, however, we have the world that World War I bequeathed us and the countless people lost to murderous state machines.

Perelman and his direct family at least were not killed. And in the Soviet Union, math continued to be practiced freely, or mostly freely:

In the after-hours lectures and seminars, the mathematical conversation in the Soviet Union was reborn, and the appeal of mathematics to a mind in search of challenge, logic, and consistency once again became evident. “In the post-Stalin Soviet Union it was one of the most natural ways for a freethinking intellectual to seek self-realization,” said Grigory Shabat, a well-known Moscow mathematician. “If I had been free to choose any profession, I would have become a literary critic. But I wanted to work, not spend my life fighting the censors.”

It was good to do math because there was so little else to do. The many pleasures offered by American or Western European work were not available. Creative freedoms were minimal. Math was among the few places a person could be creative.

Some sections Perfect Rigor are just novel and unknown to me, descriptions of a sub-culture that I’d never thought properly about:

Competitive mathematics is more like a sport than most people imagine. It has its coaches, its clubs, its practice sessions, and, of course, its competitions. Natural ability is necessary but entirely insufficient for success: the talented child needs to have the right coach, the right team, the right kind of family support, and, most important, the will to win. At the beginning, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between future stars and those who will be good but never great.

I wonder how necessary “the will to win” is, especially given how much later in the book Gessen describes the professional world of math in different terms: “The mathematics community in the United States, and even the world, is very small and very peaceful.” Still, leaving that potential issue aside, the analogy to sport is a powerful one, since sports are more familiar to the average person than math.

More details: Gessen writes of herself:

My own first-grade teacher, in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Moscow that looked just like Perelman’s neighborhood on the outskirts of Leningrad, actually made me pretend my reading skills were as poor as the other children’s, enforcing her own vision of conforming to grade level.

Russia’s many afterschool math clubs did non conform to this bizarre, Harrison Bergeron vision. Which may be why Russia could continue to produce prodigious mathematicians even as much of the rest of its society decayed under the cruelties and absurdities of Communist rule. Those cruelties and absurdities are well-known, and they emerge in the way the Soviet Union sought contradictory goals:

The entire Soviet system of secondary education was based on the concept of uniformity: everyone was to be taught the same thing at the same time, using the same textbooks. But the Soviet Union still craved international prestige—in fact, that need became more and more pronounced as the technological rivalries of the second half of the century heated up.

Uniformity and excellence are mutually exclusive. As often happens, when ideology and reality diverge, ideology gives way, as it did to some extent for Perelman’s school. His school

let him avoid confronting the fact that he lived among humans, each with his or her own ideas and thoughts, to say nothing of emotions and desires. Many gifted children realize with a start as they mature that the world of ideas and the world of people compete for their attention and energy.

Perelman, it appears, never had to choose one over the other. He’s spent his life firmly in the world of ideas, rarely dealing with the world of humans. It is hard to say whether the world or humans or ideas is stranger; presented properly, either can seem strange. Perelman’s life seems strange but also pure and beautiful in a way that I would at times like to emulate but cannot, any more than I think he could emulate my life.

Perfect Rigor speculates some about Perelman’s motives and personality, or personalities, but cannot know them certainly. Sergei Rukshin is Perelman’s first serious math coach, and even very early he is happy with one of Perelman’s interests, or lack of interests: “He was never interested in girls,” unlike many of his classmates, who were caught “doing something as undignified and distracting as kissing a girl.” Life is about trade-offs and on some level Perfect Rigor encourages us to consider some of the tradeoffs some high-level mathematicians make (though not all: Feynman, for example, devotes some stories in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! to understanding women).

Maybe lack of sexual interest is in part from the demand side as much as the supply side. Perelman himself is, when he is young, “an ugly duckling among ugly ducklings,” though that changes a little when he is older. One wonders about the links, if any, between physical appearance and math (or other intellectual) skill. The vigorous rejection of “surface” matters seems common among high achievers, though I wonder if I’m letting myself be subject to the availability heuristic.

Used copies of Perfect Rigor on Amazon are gloriously cheap. I don’t know how I missed the book when it first appeared in 2009.

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