Guy pounds on my door and screams that he’s going to kill me

I wrote this on Friday morning at about 3:00 a.m.

I’ve probably just had the most immediately frightening experience of my life: a little before 2:00 a.m., I’m mostly asleep when I hear someone running up the stairs to my apartment. This is doubly curious because my neighbor, Josh, moved out a few days ago. Some guy starts pounding on my door, demanding that I open up. This scares me, I shout at him that I’m calling 911 (which I do), and tell the dispatcher where I am. The guy is yelling stuff like “open up.”

I grab the couch and push it in the front of the door and grab the chair and push it in front of the couch.

In the meantime, the pounding is sometimes louder, sometimes not, and the guy is shouting things like, “open up,” “I’ll kick your ass,” “open the door and I won’t kill you,” and “if you don’t open the door, I’m going to fucking kill you.”

I pile books on the couch. Hundreds, probably. Heavy library ones, hardcovers, paperbacks, whatever I can grab off the shelves.

Does this guy have some kind of mental illness?

Most of the time I’m not piling books, because there are only so many I can pile before they slide off the couch. Instead I’m hovering at the border between my bedroom (where there’s a window) and the common room (where I can dash for the door). I have a chef’s knife but this is Tucson, where everyone is armed. You know how they say don’t bring a knife to a gunfight? I like it better as a metaphor.

If he breaks down the door and comes in, I’ll flee out my window. If he breaks the window, I’ll try for the door, which I’ve barricaded, which means I’m probably done.

The Tucson PD shows up about 14 minutes (thanks iPhone! And 14 minutes? WTF?) after my initial call to 911. I hear a cop shout for the guy to come down. I am never happier to hear or learn about a cop in my life. I thank the dispatcher profusely. She kept saying things like, “I can’t hear the guy shouting” and variations thereof while we were waiting. In other words, she thought I might be crazy. But a cop did get here.

Eventually Officer Miller knocks on the door, and I open my window (since the door is barricaded) to talk to him. He says the guy is drunk off his ass and thought my apartment was his buddy’s apartment. Next time I worry about the caliber of my friends, I’ll think of this guy. Meanwhile, I’m still fucking terrified, as you probably would be in the circumstances. The adrenaline still hasn’t worn off as I write this. I’m writing in lieu of sleeping because sleep isn’t an option right now.

The guy did some damage to my door, which still shuts, sort of, for the time being. I have a victim report number for the apartment management. When Miller said that he was just some drunk fool, I was relieved. Miller’s observation: if this had been his house, the guy would’ve been staring down the barrel of a gun. My observation: I start to see the appeal of gun ownership.

Miller goes down to his car to do whatever cops do. There’s also a cute blond cop; she comes up to ask a few questions, leaves. She’s not much older than me, if at all, and reminds me a bit of my students, except she’s strapped. Too bad I’m seeing someone. I start cleaning up all those books.

Nothing like a stranger threatening to kill you to make your night more interesting.

And now my library is totally out of order.

Something’s wrong, but you don’t know what: the stupid person’s paradox and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

“Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is:” What happens when you’re too incompetent to judge that you’re incompetent? One of my friends teaches the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) and calls this the stupid person’s paradox—you’re too stupid to realize that you’re stupid. He often found evidence of the stupid person’s paradox in students with high GPAs in very easy majors who then wondered why they were terrible at the test and/or couldn’t read effectively.

I like that name better than the “the Dunning-Kruger Effect,” which finds that “our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.” I wonder if understanding the effect makes us less likely to susceptible to it, or merely makes us implicitly smug that we’re smart enough to understand it and “they” aren’t, but in actuality we suffer just as much.

I find this bit of the article especially interesting:

DAVID DUNNING: People will often make the case, “We can’t be that stupid, or we would have been evolutionarily wiped out as a species a long time ago.” I don’t agree. I find myself saying, “Well, no. Gee, all you need to do is be far enough along to be able to get three square meals or to solve the calorie problem long enough so that you can reproduce. And then, that’s it. You don’t need a lot of smarts. You don’t have to do tensor calculus. You don’t have to do quantum physics to be able to survive to the point where you can reproduce.” One could argue that evolution suggests we’re not idiots, but I would say, “Well, no. Evolution just makes sure we’re not blithering idiots. But, we could be idiots in a lot of different ways and still make it through the day.”

Life: loser edition, courtesy of Lucky Jim

“Your attitude measures up to the two requirements of love. You want to go to bed with her and can’t, and you don’t know her very well. Ignorance of the other person topped with deprivation, Jim. You fit the formula all right, and what’s more you want to go on fitting it. The old hopeless passion, isn’t it?”

—Kinglsey Amis, Lucky Jim

The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700 – 1850 — Joel Mokyr

Ideas matter. So does the ability to execute those ideas. Britain had both, in the form of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, both of which were important but neither of which has been fully considered as twinned phenomena. Nows they have been, and have been impressively.

The Enlightened Economy sounds boring but isn’t, and it ties together two trends that Mokyr argues should be appreciated more: the dovetailing of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, both of which are entangled and driven by ideas to a greater extent than previously appreciated. Both were concerned with ideas; both occurred around the same time; and many participants in one also participated in the other. Furthermore, ideas motivated both; as Mokyr says, “Ideas, in the eighteenth century as much as the twentieth, competed in a market for ideas.” But the idea of a marketplace of ideas was new and relied on a lessening of religious control and a greater willingness to challenge existing ideas and beliefs. Ideas had to be “contestable,” as well as cumulative and consensual, to become useful and lead toward exponential growth. The strange thing is still that the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen earlier or in some other place. The other strange thing is how many ideas that played out across the eighteenth century continue to play out today, as reading The Enlightened Economy or Louis Dupré’s excellent The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture shows.

In terms of economic structure and organizations, consider that Mokyr writes that “More than anything else, the reduction in [the power of British trade guilds] was hastened by mobility; many of the activities that urban craft guilds controlled could and did move out of their geographic sphere to the countryside or to towns free from guild control.” Later on the same page, he says that “The London guilds, known as ‘livery companies’ saw their powers erode when economic activity moved to the suburbs such as Whitechapel and Spitalfields.” You can see the same issues with union or government control versus the private sector, which is still widely debated.

The same basic dynamic has been occurring in the United States for decades: heavy manufacturing in the Northeast and Midwest has become more mobile, both abroad to places like China and Mexico as well as to union-unfriendly Southern states like Alabama. Recent wrangling around car company bailouts showed that political logic follows economic logic: senators representing states with BMW, Toyota, Honda, and Audi plants fulminated against bailouts, while northern states where unions still have some power favored bailouts. In the meantime, however, union power has been waning in the private sector for years, even as it has grown in the public sector, where the inability of cities, towns, school districts, and the like to go bankrupt thanks to immediate competition allows unions to exist. Still, the overall direction of the world is obvious to current observers, even if it wasn’t to many eighteenth Century ones. The power of individual and capital mobility lessens the power of rent seekers (Mokyr: “In the second half of the eighteenth century, most important intellectuals became increasingly hostile to what modern economists would call rent-seeking, namely the use of political power to redistribute rather than create wealth”).

As mentioned previously, one major issue and still unresolved issue is why the Industrial Revolution happened when and where it did. Almost no one knows. The discovery process itself became systematized:

The pre-modern economies were at times capable of creating radical inventions, but such advances tended to settle down rather quickly into new dominant design largely because most inventions were arrived at through trial and error and hit-and-miss procedures. Systematic research and development based on something we would recognize today as scientific rigor was still highly uncommon.

And those techniques are only more common because we pass them down and forget less successful techniques.

Of course, Mokyr is in part writing about the current economy: he writes about workers, locations, idea transmission, and more. Today, Richard Florida relies heavily on concept of “the creative class” (I wonder if I’m a member) in his writing and “highly qualified personnel” (HPQs), as Alex Usher calls them in an academic context. The most interesting thing is how (relatively) few of such people, networked together, can make an enormous difference in not just the quality of their own lives but the productivity of everyone around them. As Paul Graham says in “Taste for Makers“, “Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems. Genes count for little by comparison […]” I’ve been looking for more formal studies of the general ideas around talent clustering but haven’t been able to find any. Nonetheless, such people are likely to be the ones who push society forward through thinking or finding new ideas, becoming repositories of ideas, or seeking new methods of doing things. As Mokyr says:

[… I]t is important to realize that an economy in which there are innovators is not one in which all or even most people are inclined to experiment or to take risks, much less express their disrespect for the wisdom of their teachers and ancestors by declaring the new to be better.

We still see elements of this kind of thinking in the education system, although the system seems better at critiquing itself than it once might have been in the past. Self-modification is relatively rare. The absolute number of people willing to be innovators might now be higher, the percentage might be the same. The comparisons between the eighteenth century and now, which Mokyr sometimes makes and sometimes leaves to the reader, might be the most radical and unusual parts of this book.

It is a book about ideas that on its own contains many ideas that illuminate how the world was changing—and how it is today, as we live in a society that is saturated with ideas—provided that we are willing to find and follow those ideas. And think about them on a meta level—in other words, deal with ideas about ideas. This is relatively hard and requires a lot of training to accomplish. Mokyr reminds us of why it is important.

A final note about the materiality of the book in question: The Enlightened Economy is scholarly and concomitantly expensive. It’s also very nicely bound and easy to read. It feels like it will last a very long time, which is good, because I haven’t digested it yet and doubt many could in a first reading.

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them — Elif Batuman

I’ve been trying and failing to satisfactorily describe The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them to friends and failing to get across the book’s humor, which is unusually rich and deep. Whoever wrote the back cover blurb, with its weird melange of subject matters like a demented person’s shopping list, outdoes me:

If you’re going to read just one book about conference planning, Isaac Babel, Leo Tolstoy, boys’ leg contests, giant apes, Uzbek poetry, the life of the mind, and the resignation of the soul—seek no farther: this is the book for you!!!

It’s funnier still in Roz Chast’s handwriting. The humor, taken out of context, falls flat without the build up from earlier material, as Batuman describes situations that become jokes absurd academic setups involving the relatives of Isaac Babel or the relationship traumas experienced by our plucky, self-aware narrator. Actually, plucky isn’t a fair word: Batuman is deep, and not just because she reads a lot and lives a lot and finds ways to combine living and not living, as when she sees Don Quixote:

Don Quixote, I realized, had broken the binary of life and literature. He had lived life and read books; he lived life through books, generating an even better book. Foucault, meanwhile, broke my idea of literary theory: instead of reducing complexity and beauty, he had produced it. My interest in truth came only later, but beauty had already begun to draw me into the study of literature.

Except that Don Quixote pays for his broken binary with social opprobrium that he, wisely or not, doesn’t realize (or chooses not to realize), and his end on a deathbed leads to his famous renunciation of books of chivalry.

The life lived through books is, to some extent, the only kind of life we can have—or, alternately, we learn to lead our own lives through the narrative examples that others set for us, whether through their being or their stories. And we understand the stories of a single other person better by understanding the stories told by cultures better.

That last sentence is somewhat vague. Let me cite a comic example of someone utterly failing to do so:

While it’s true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can’t do that, what’s it good for? On those grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov’s ‘specifically Jewish alienation.’
‘Right,’ I finally said. ‘As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.’
He nodded: ‘So you see the problem.’

We moved from the high brow, about the power of literature and the reference to the “vale of tears,” to the very low brow, which entails virtually anything having to do with New Jersey, to the middle brow of self absorption. This is good stuff.

And if literature can’t render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness, maybe it’s still good for passing the time until death, or at least idle cocktail party chatter, or at least impressing potential sexual partners with literary repartee, assuming you find the right sort of partner. For Batuman, grad school is that sort of place, although she also dates a banker (it doesn’t work out), and one or two others I’ve forgotten.

There are other grad school jokes, which I have a special appreciate for because I’m in it, and those sometimes combine jokes about Russia (which are also common): “The title of this book is borrowed from Dostoevsky’s weirdest novel, The Demons, formerly translated as The Possessed, which narrates the descent into madness of a circle of intellectuals in a remote Russian province: a situation analogous, in certain ways to my own experiences in graduate school.”

Batuman actually ends up in a remote, former Russian province, in the form of Uzbekistan, where a series of bureaucratic and financial snafus combined with questionable decision making lead her. During a tedious bit of orientation in preparation for going to Uzbekistan, Batuman leaves to find a hat. Despite the risk of death, maybe Batuman is better off in the Caucuses, thinking:

Somehow I ended up in an Urban Outfitters. All around me, girls were buying absolutely unwearable-looking clothes: sheer dresses with V-necks down to the navel; jeans measuring literally two inches from waist to crotch; rhinestone encrusted G-strings with no elasticity whatsoever. I found a hideous white ill-fitting sun hat, bought it, and fled to Barnes & Noble.

She’s not one of them; she’s one of us, which I can say merely because she agrees with me about airports and airplanes (“Air travel is like death: everything is taken from you.”) Compare that to one of my recent ruminations:

As I write this, I sit in a Tucson airpot bar. Airports have everything wrong with them: they are transitional, one-off spaces filled with strangers, the “restaurants” they offer consist of pre-made food with character slightly above a TV dinner, and for some reason we as a society have decided that Constitution rights and privacy don’t apply here. People I don’t know can stop me at will, and merely flying requires that I submit to security theater that is simultaneously ineffective and invasive. Everything is exorbitantly expensive but not of particularly high quality. Menus don’t have beer prices on them.

The airport, in short, is designed to extract money from a captive audience; this might be in part why I don’t care much for sports stadiums, Disneyland, and other areas where I feel vaguely captive.

But I’m less funny than Batuman, which is a good reason to read her, despite the improbability of her subject matter. Batuman’s language is wonderful too: she says that she’s going to Tashkent with “Dan… who was indescribably average in both appearance and demeanor, like some kind of composite sketch.” The comparison is fresh, describes Dan without describing him, and, more importantly, shows exactly how Batuman thinks of him, even if he has some kind of vibrant inner life not apparent on the surface. If so, alas, we get little indication of that inner life, which might be part of his problem, and the problem of many of those who don’t have adventures in Russian books—or any kind at all.

(Here’s a comment on The Possessed from the Literary Saloon.)

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