February links: DevonThink Pro, advice for novelists, dull global English, and more

* DevonThink Pro 2.0 came out today. Read about it at the link; I’m a regular user thanks to Steven Berlin Johnson’s Tool For Thought.

* TSA arrests a student for having Arabic flash cards. Something must be very, very wrong with that institution.

* Mark Sarvas is writing on The Elegant Variation more often again; this post on the lessons of reading a bunch of first novels is compelling for its advice, although that advice feels somewhat vague without specific examples in it.

* “The Real Danger of Debt: The United States is deep in the red — and doesn’t have the political tools to get out.”

* “What’s a Degree Really Worth?” The answer might be “not as much as you think,” at least monetarily. Still, according to the article,

Most researchers agree that college graduates, even in rough economies, generally fare better than individuals with only high-school diplomas. But just how much better is where the math gets fuzzy.

But the article doesn’t deal with a) how much different majors earn and b) what students gain outside of mere earning power, which might not translate directly into money. The first is particularly significant: hard science majors tend to make way more than liberal arts majors like me. The headline might better state, “college is what you make of it, and if you don’t make much of it, don’t expect a huge amount of money on the other end.”

* On foreign currency reserves as a metric of wealth.

* What readers think they want writers to know. There are a lot of questionable assumptions and comments in it, like this: “Readers are what every novelist really wants […]”. Many novelists want readers, but since the Modernists many literary writers have considered scaring away readers to be a sign of success.

The pleas for story also reminds of what James Wood called “the essential juvenility of plot” in How Fiction Works. Although I disagree with Wood’s comment, I think it’s indicative of the fact that different readers have different demands: highly sophisticated readers who’ve experienced thousands of novels probably look for somewhat different things than those who haven’t.

* The Dull New Global Novel:

More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader.

If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as “literary” and “imaginative,” analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those “working for world peace.” So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.

* The value of cities, and note in particular the value of New York, which reflects how the city is organized more than anything else. Metropolises like Phoenix, Tucson, and those in Texas should take note.

* Almost no one knows anything about North Korea, including me, despite having opinions on nuclear sanctions and so forth against the country. Two new books try to remedy that: Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Both those links go to good Slate articles about the books in question.

* Jason Fisher on the online Literary Encyclopedia.

Amusing edit of the day

I’m going through a friend’s edits on the novel I’ve been writing for the last few months and came across this: “Each time you enter a bar you use religious imagery.”

I like how my friend uses the uses the second person “you” to imply that I’m the character. She’s also picked up on the joke regarding modern places of worship. I would consider that success.

(There haven’t been a lot of substantive posts over the last week or so because I’ve been spending every spare moment writing. At some point, space for real thoughts on novels will emerge.)

The validity of grades

Marco Arment writes at Marco.org (proving that he was prescient when it comes to domain names) and created the awesome web service Instapaper, which I use solely for its Kindle export feature. One of his favorite posts is “School grades are hopelessly broken.” It’s worth reading, and Marco is probably right: school grades are too high and don’t reflect real knowledge, but like healthcare or the military, there’s no easy way to fix them.

Although Marco’s essay is mostly right, it also doesn’t propose any real solutions to the problem he describes—because there aren’t any. The incentive for parents in high school is to want their kid to get the highest grade possible; consequently, they will often fight for their kids, leading to an overall negative equilibrium, and one that I benefited from in late middle and early high school when I decided to effectively fail math as an ill-conceived protest against my parents. At the time I didn’t consciously realize this dynamic, or that protesting in ways that chiefly hurt me aren’t terribly wise, but I was also 13 – 15 at the time and didn’t know any better.

For most teachers, the easiest thing to do on an individual level is inflate grades, which reduces complaints from both parents and students. This isn’t optimal on a societal level, which generates posts like Marco’s, but it is on an individual level, and I don’t see an easy way to generate incentives to change this (more on that later). Marco says:

Grades don’t reflect your aptitude, intelligence, or understanding of the subject matter. You don’t need to actually learn much useful material to get good grades. (And many of those who learn exceptionally well don’t get good grades.)

This is probably true. But if grades don’t reflect all this, then imagine what the people with really low GPAs are like. Grades aren’t good at stratifying the high end of the curve, but they at least show some of where the low end is. And I suspect the really high end, especially in hard college majors like engineering, CS, and so forth, are still reasonably good guides to aptitude. Marco says, “You can understand why I don’t trust the validity of grades.” You shouldn’t trust grades fully—but that’s because grades aren’t supposed to be the full measure of man. Nothing is, except maybe life, and what does that really mean?

I see a lot of comments about colleges, high schools, grades, and how to improve those kinds of issues on sites like Hacker News and Slashdot. Most are good at identifying problems; Chris Smeder, for example, tells us how to improve college teaching in three major ways. He’s probably right about all of those, but he misses an important point: most universities are not set up (or, if you like buzzwords, “incentivized”) to reward teaching.

Smeder misses the main point, which isn’t identifying the problem; a gazillion people in the Chronicle of Higher Education have said virtually the same thing at various times. The real problem is solving the problem, which requires changing the incentives that drive professors. At the moment, hiring and tenure decisions at virtually all universities (and all the big ones you’ve heard of) are made mostly on research and publication. Teaching simply doesn’t count for much. Therefore, the people who succeed in getting hired and getting tenured optimize for what they’re being judged on: research and publication. Teaching is secondary. Heroic individuals and people who want to practice better teaching will help somewhat, but they aren’t enough to change the system as a whole.

Once you’ve realized this incentive problem, the question becomes, “How do you change the incentives?” I have no good answers for that, but it’s the real question you should be asking if you’re genuinely interested. And it might keep you from generalizations like this one, which is back to Marco’s essay:

Most people from my generation can’t really do anything else in the real world except bullshit jobs because nobody ever held them to very high standards.

This probably is true of all generations, and the rhetoric of most people during most generations (consider, for example, the New York Times’ Generation Me vs. You Revisited). I suspect that not all the jobs Marco assumes are bullshit are bullshit. And even if all this is true, schools aren’t going to be offering the kind of information he’d presumably like GPAs to show.

I’d get near-zero homework grades because I’d never do it, so I needed (and usually got) near-100% test grades to make up the difference. I’d barely pull through and get a C most of the time.

This works for some people, especially who start their own businesses. Most people don’t and never will. So their grades count. I’m reminded of Paul Graham’s comment from “What You’ll Wish You’d Known:”

In retrospect this was stupid. It was like someone getting fouled in a soccer game and saying, hey, you fouled me, that’s against the rules, and walking off the field in indignation. Fouls happen. The thing to do when you get fouled is not to lose your cool. Just keep playing.

By putting you in this situation, society has fouled you. Yes, as you suspect, a lot of the stuff you learn in your classes is crap. And yes, as you suspect, the college admissions process is largely a charade. But like many fouls, this one was unintentional. So just keep playing.

Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. In either case you let yourself be defined by what they tell you to do. The best plan, I think, is to step onto an orthogonal vector. Don’t just do what they tell you, and don’t just refuse to. Instead treat school as a day job. As day jobs go, it’s pretty sweet. You’re done at 3 o’clock, and you can even work on your own stuff while you’re there.

The right thing to do is your homework, because it’s presumably easy, and then do the rest of your work on your own time. And although GPAs are broken, they’re also the best we’ve got. As Joel Spolsky says in his advice to Computer Science majors:

Never underestimate how big a deal your GPA is. Lots and lots of recruiters and hiring managers, myself included, go straight to the GPA when they scan a resume, and we’re not going to apologize for it. Why? Because the GPA, more than any other one number, reflects the sum of what dozens of professors over a long period of time in many different situations think about your work. SAT scores? Ha! That’s one test over a few hours. The GPA reflects hundreds of papers and midterms and classroom participations over four years. Yeah, it’s got its problems. There has been grade inflation over the years. Nothing about your GPA says whether you got that GPA taking easy classes in home economics at Podunk Community College or taking graduate level Quantum Mechanics at Caltech. Eventually, after I screen out all the 2.5 GPAs from Podunk Community, I’m going to ask for transcripts and recommendations. And then I’m going to look for consistently high grades, not just high grades in computer science.

Marco can be largely right in a micro sense and still be wrong, or at least doesn’t really deal with what should happen in a macro sense. If you’re the principal of a high school, or a college president, or an individual employer, or any number of other positions, what can you do to change the presumed brokenness of grades? How can you transform the system producing said grades? Until you’ve answered that, you’ve done a lot of the work that’s already been done (see, e.g., here for an older view of school problems) without facing the hardest part of the task.

The Art of Teaching — Gilbert Highet

For reasons not clear to me, The Art of Teaching is regularly recommended to teachers or people who want to be teachers. It’s not very good; skip it and read Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom instead, which has advice that’s both more practical and more theoretical than The Art of Teaching.

Highet says that “This book is called The Art of Teaching because I believe that teaching is an art, not a science.” He might be right. But he doesn’t present much evidence as to why it is, or how one can become a better artist in a significant way. A lot of his advice is obvious or vague. Among the obvious parts:

The first essential of good teaching… is that the teacher must know the subject That really means he must continue to learn it.
The second essential is that he must like it.

Among the vague parts:

Learn the peculiar patterns of [your students’] thought and emotions just as you would learn to understand horses or dogs—or other animals (for there are all kinds of different animals implicit in children: the very small ones are often more like birds)—and then you will find that many of the inexplicable things they do are easy to understand, and many of the unpardonable thing easy to forget.

What does it mean to “learn the peculiar patterns” of students’ thought? Highet never says. And I’m leaving aside the double aside he uses, or the fact that he compares students to animals. What’s next—the freshman whisperer?

The Art of Teaching is big on ideas and short on execution. There’s not much to say about it other than a warning to stay away from it.

The Possessions Exercise (According to Geoffrey Miller)

I’m re-reading Geoffrey Miller’s books The Mating Mind and Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, partially for pleasure and partially because some of his ideas might make it into my dissertation. The latter book is worth reading if for nothing other than the exercises he lists at the end, including “The Possessions Exercise:”

List the ten most expensive things (products, services, or experiences) that you have ever paid for (including houses, cars, university degrees, marriage ceremonies, divorce settlements, and taxes). Then, list the ten items that you have ever bought that gave you the most happiness. Count how many items appear on both lists.

(This exercise ought to be conjoined with the reading of Paul Graham’s essay Stuff.)

For many people, I suspect that relatively few items appear on each list, although that might be projection on my own part.

I do a lot of work on my computer, so many of the “bought” items tend to be related to that: an iMac, an Aeron, a Kinesis Advantage. The “university degree” appears on both lists, although I suspect that I often appreciated the experience of being at a university for undergrad as much if not more than the classes I was actually putatively there to take.

The big takeway from Miller’s exercise is obvious: what we really value often isn’t what we pay the most for, but few of us realize that. We overvalue stuff, to use Paul Graham’s phrase, and we undervalue each other, learning, making things, and interpersonal experience.

The Old Man and Me — Elaine Dundy

The Old Man and Me is The Dud Avocado retold by a slightly older protagonist pursuing a slightly older target man. It has some of the same moments of impressive language use, as when Honey Flood—not her stage name, but apparently an invented one—says that:

Bollie was a sort of chain-talker, lighting one end of a conversation to another without letting the first go out.

The image fits, and with Bollie puffing on both conversations where most of us only have the capacity or manners for one, and the good sense to keep it that way. With that small detail, I feel like I’ve met Bollie, or if not him precisely, than someone much like him. Still, the same page has dated slang (what’s a “mizbag?”), and the dialog can be hard to follow at times. Perhaps that dialog is representative of Honey, another American in Europe whose interests are men, money, status, and fun (not necessarily in that order), ideally combined in the same man. Said man turns out to be, chiefly, C.D. McKee, a writer in a day when writers still had groupies and hadn’t been replaced by celebrities as objects of fixation.

Honey’s voice will make the novel—or not. More often it’s the former; she’s clever if irritating at times, and the banter between her and McKee usually works, although sometimes it feels obvious. Consider this exchange about a park, in which C.D. speaks first:

“Parks are for the poor. Alas, that they haven’t a chance to enjoy them. Only the very young and the time-wasters like us can.”
“That’s because you hide them so well. This beauty, for instance. How d’you expect them to find it. I wouldn’t if you hadn’t led me to it.”

It’s not hard to take the park as a metaphor for Honey’s growth as a person in dealing with C.D. The undercurrent of class, if not warfare, then consciousness, continues (“I had been a rich man’s darling, all right. A very rich man’s very darling”), but not to the point of annoyance. But it gets close enough to that state to warrant a mention; Honey isn’t as developed intellectually or socially as someone like Renee Feuer in The Mind-Body Problem, who’d catch the solipsism in comments like this:

Radiating joy, confidence, and anticipation [C.D.] shone like a beacon in contrast to the milling crowd: the careful ones checking and rechecking their tickets, luggage, and timetables; the frantic ones overburdened and rushing in all directions […]

My internal editor drew a line through “the milling crowd,” figuring that we’d understand the milling crowd through the image that follows it. And someone like Renee would catch herself and realize that others are probably having the same thoughts she is, as shown in this XKCD:

It’s the same comic I linked to in my post on Pages For You: narrators and characters who aren’t able to see themselves in the larger sense, or see themselves as other people might see them, become decreasingly satisfying over time, as one reads more novels. Being (or at least feeling) significantly smarter than the character about whom one is reading, without some significantly unusual formal feature to make up for it, makes for tedious reading. The Old Man and Me isn’t tedious, most of the time, and it’s refreshing to find female narrators who are willing to sleep around without shame and connive to get what they want: I’m not sure this is a feminist testament, but at least it makes for an amusing story with writing that keeps Honey from devolving into stereotype and the story from devolving into senescence.

The bottom line: Read The Dud Avocado. Then read The Mind-Body Problem. Still want more? Then find this quasi sequel, but your urge will probably have been satiated unless you’re an American going to Europe, in which case you might empathize with and want to understand those whose footsteps you follow in. Then you can view The Old Man and Me as a learning experience.

The Second Pass also recently wrote on the The Old Man and Me. It’s a blog that I find moving steadily higher in my “must reads.”

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century — George Friedman

The Next 100 Years is fun because of its contrary, anti-conventional wisdom thinking about the shape of nations: instead of assuming the perpetual rise of China and India, the book sees internal weakness in both, as well as greater problems with a resurgent Russia and a nationalistic Turkey. Rather than focusing on current American battles with what Friedman calls “global jihadist,” which he argues are a passing trend in terms of their overall threat, it examines what a more assertive Russia might look like as it tries to expand its influence in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. Immigration from Mexico and Latin America is unpopular in the United States today, that immigration might become desired by the late 2020s as industrialized countries age. The United States is a “young” and “barbaric” country using the definitions Friedman gives. And the list goes on.

The problem with The Next 100 Years is that almost every page also contains a wildly implausible assertion or historical reading. To pick one example: after an extended discussion of Russia’s geopolitical interests leading toward 2020, Friedman says that openings in southern Russia combined with a continued American presence in Afghanistan means that “If there were an army interested in invading, the Russian Federation is virtually indefensible.” By conventional metrics, this is true, but it ignores the thousands of nuclear weapons Russia might have. Such an analysis reads like someone planning military adventures in Europe in 1900: it so utterly miscalculates what kind of destruction would occur under its situations that it really doesn’t seem to understand the situation.

Elsewhere, in a specious discussion of the 50-year cycles of American history, Friedman talks about the cycle “From industrial cities to service suburbs,” along with the malaise of the 1970s. He doesn’t mention the Arab oil embargo, energy spikes, or our response to both—instead he focuses on tax policy. Friedman says that in the 1980s, “Reagan’s solution [to economic problems] was maintaing consumption while simultaneously increasing the amount of investment capital. He did so through ‘supply-side economics’: reducing taxes in order to stimulate investment.” But Friedman completely ignores the monetary policy side and Paul Volcker’s efforts to tame inflation (see here, here, and here for more on him). He also ignores the foreign currency issues regarding China, as described, for example, here.

On the war front, the introduction of The Next 100 Years says regarding World War II that “The United States simultaneously conquered and occupied Japan, almost as an afterthought to the European campaigns.” This a) ignores that Japan was the proximate cause of the United States’ entry to the war, b) ignores the enormous strain of fighting World War II in the Atlantic and Pacific, and c) ignores the hundreds of thousands of United States causalities in the Pacific. Calling it an “afterthought” seems wrong. In addition, Friedman writes that:

A country’s grand strategy is so deeply embedded in that nation’s DNA, and appears so natural and obvious, that politicians and generals are not always aware of it.

Funny: I’ve yet to see a country’s “DNA” expressed as a double-helix, and the idea of countries having completely describable characters seems overly limiting and simplistic in this sense.

Still, despite these kinds of problems, Friedman does an admirable if shaky job of refocusing on long-term trends; for example, he says that Vietnam and Iraq were and are, respectively, “merely isolated episodes in U.S. history, of little lasting importance—except to the Vietnamese and Iraqis.” In both cases (at least so far), it appears unlikely that the United States has been permanently hurt, and the great strengths the country possesses, like the universities and immigration that James Fallows writes about here, have not been affected in major ways.

Friedman ties together demographic trends, the status of women, the status of families, and international politics in novel, unusual ways, arguing (for example) that, for example, Osama bin Laden’s rants often include comments about family values and the status of women that indicate he, like Pat Robertson, is riled up about women being independent enough to choose partners, divorce, and so forth. Demographics power some of the major social and political tensions of our era, even when they’re masked by surface reasoning, much as the 100 Years’ War was putatively about the souls of Catholics and Protestants while actually being about the distribution of power and resources in Europe.

I haven’t said much about Friedman’s views about China because those views are so easily arguable. He thinks that China is riven by tensions between wealthy coastal cities and the poor interior, which might eventually tear the country apart again, and that China is heading towards major problems with bad debt, economic structural incoherence, and banking problems. Maybe: but it’s also possible that China will knit itself closer together through telecommunications, roads, and railroads, and that its central leadership is aware of the problems Friedman enumerates.

By the same token, Russia could collapse again around 2020, but one could construct an equally attractive alternative scenario. In his defense, Friedman says that he thinks the broad outlines he gives will be followed even if the specifics are wrong, and in the epilogue he says:

It might seem far-fetched to speculate that a rising Mexico will ultimately challenge American power, but I suspect that the world we are living in today would have seemed far-fetched to someone living at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I’m sure the world of 2100 will seem “far-fetched” to someone from today, but the real question is, “far-fetched in what way?” The way Friedman describes, or some as-yet unforeseen way? I would bet more the latter, amusing though it is to anticipate the former. Too much is left out, including, notably, the threat of nuclear weapons and the possibility of global climate change. He says, however, that “My mission, as I see it, is to provide you with a sense of what the twenty-first century will look and feel like.” On this account he succeeds, provided that he changes the word “will” to “might.”

Hope or despair for the would-be novelist?

I’m reading the edition of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio edited by Ray Lewis White, and the introduction says:

On September 13, 1915, Sherwood Anderson (1876 – 1941) became thirty-nine years old. He was living in Chicago for the third time, writing advertising copy to support himself while trying to achieve his greatest ambition: to become a published novelist.

It took Anderson—now, if not a major author, then at least an important one—until middle age to find and execute that ambition. Many writers seem to take longer, and at times I wonder how they persevere. Perhaps they are afflicted with what Robertson Davies said novelists must be. I’m reminded of a famous quote, given here in the Guardian: “Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist, once observed: ‘There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.’ “

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