Late March Links: Sexting times two, English as a baffling language, vocabulary, raising the status of U.S. manufactured goods, Lev Grossman's The Magician King, science as a career, and more

* Sexting lawsuits get stupid.

* Why videogames haven’t grown up yet: sex. And, the writer notes, why do so many videogames deal with it in such a juvenile (read: juvenile boy) way?

* An etiquette guide, and one of the unintentional hilarities of self-publishing.

* “To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more [. . .] ‘Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation [. . . .]’ ” The problem: I don’t see how you can accomplish this without making it harder to fire teachers. One thing most high-status occupations have in common: you have to be good at them to remain in the occupation. If you’re not good, you’ll be forced to the margins of the occupation, suffer financial consequences, and have clients leave you. Until teaching does that, it can’t really improve in status. Until teachers’ unions will accept simpler firing procedures or are eliminated, that can’t happen.

* English, that baffling language.

* AT & T is piping Internet data straight to the NSA. Nasty.

* Microsoft Word Now Includes Squiggly Blue Line To Alert Writer When Word Is Too Advanced For Mainstream Audience.

* Who Is Really a Sex Rebel? Why we are so obsessed with desire among the Victorians.

* A political history of science fiction.

* Neil Gaiman: Why defend freedom of icky speech?

* A Girl’s Nude Photo, and Altered Lives. This is completely insane:

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it.

In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost. Only then would the community try to turn the fiasco into an opportunity to educate.

* Lev Grossman says The Magician King will be out August 9.

* How to manufacture stuff in the U.S.: raise the status of the stuff’s place of origin. This is being written by a guy who has a Tom Bihn (made in Washington State!) messenger bag, so it worked on me.

* Deadbeats and Turnips: understand who can actually pay child support, since sending people who can’t pay to jail is counterproductive.

The basic problem is this: someone (usually the father) can’t pay child support. Virtually all states now send you to jail if you can’t pay court-ordered child support. Sending people to jail has lots of obvious negative effects on the ability to find and keep a job. So you get out of jail, can’t find a job, still have to pay child support and. . . go to jail again.

* How Western Diets Are Making The World Sick. This should be obvious to anyone who’s read Michael Pollan.

* The real science gap, which mirrors Philip Greenspun’s Women in Science. The short version: science is great but science careers are terrible and getting worse. Smart students figure this out and do something other than science PhD programs. Remember this next time someone is bemoaning the lack of American scientists.

Big Sex Little Death — Susie Bright's Memoir

Big Sex Little Death is weirdly boring. I say “weirdly” because you’d expect a book about sexual awakening, development, politics, and exploration to be more exciting; this Slate article on Bright and being wrong convinced me to buy the book. Skip it: read the reviews instead.

Big Sex Little Death has some clever lines and individual section, but as a whole the memoir feels prosaic. There’s an obligatory section on birth, parents, sides of the family, unlikely anecdotes; we find that “My mom didn’t drink” and that “My grandpa was a butcher and ran a chicken ranch,” which is eminently respectable in a memoir and somewhat tedious too. There’s a conventionally slightly broken childhood—isn’t it a requirement that people writing memoirs focus on childhood?—that leads to an adulthood that should hold the reason we’re reading the memoir. It does explain that, sort of, and tells a story about economic sexual censorship that I didn’t realize existed as late as the 1980s. Then again, looking at Amazon and Apple’s policies towards sexually frank books, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. I also hasn’t realized that Bright’s women-run erotica magazine, On Our Backs, even existed.

In disentangling herself from the financial pit that On Our Backs turns out to be, Bright finds the only thing rarer than a hooker with a heart gold: a lawyer with a heart of gold, whom she has say, “Ms. Bright, I’m going to take care of this for you,” without making her pay. Reviews of memoirs often want to engage the question of how much is “true,” and I can believe the whole thing except perhaps for the exchange on page 310. Gun threats, underage and unwise sex, cruelty: all believable. Kind lawyers: less so.

There’s not a lot about the intellectual development that led Bright to work on On Our Backs, or that led her not just to get a lot of action but to write about getting a lot of action. Maybe it’s impossible, or nearly impossible, to describe what leads to intellectual engagement: “I read a lot, liked it, thought about it, and transformed thought in my mind” isn’t very satisfying. And it’s not easy to make actions symbolize intellectual development. If someone knows a good example of such changes shown effectively in literature, I’d love to hear them (one exception: The Adventures of Augie March. Bildungsromans might be as close as we get).

Once Bright gets past the parent bits, she describes how, as a teenager, she starts having sex with socialist, many of them older than her; she says that “lucky for me, some of them were really, really good in bed—and since everyone was down with women’s liberation and nonmonogamy, that made things extra good for me.” This continues:

I was in no one’s debt; I was no one’s property. What little I thought about school anymore involved feeling bad about how scared everyone was: scared of having sex, scared of leaving their gilded cage, scared of dreaming about anything that hadn’t been premeditated by their parents.

And they still are. It’s one of the moments in the book that translates across generations and feels right, since so many parents still treat their children as property. Elsewhere, Bright has finely observed moments, though they sometimes go slightly awry:

People always imagine there is something happening in Los Angeles because of the celebrities. They think that because they see a movie star buy a bag of marshmallows, it must be an event. They think wiping their ass with the same toilet paper that a movie star’s maid wiped her ass with is an accomplishment. This is a company town, and Hollywood is just as crushing as a Carnegie Steel mill. The vast majority of Angelenos have so much nothing in their lives that ‘celebrity nothing’ makes them feel like they have something.

This is almost true: people do imagine something is happening in L.A. But the next sentence is choppy, with all the “t” sounds and the repeated use of the word “they:” “They think that because they see. . .” Still, Bright understands the vacuousness of celebrity worship, but she’s wrong when she says L.A. is “a company town.” There are at least five major movie studios, compared to a single Carnegie Steel mill, and L.A.’s economy is much vaster and more diverse than Pittsburgh’s ever was. That’s part of the reason it was able to thrive; as Edward Glaeser describes in Triumph of the City, cities with diverse economic bases tend to thrive. L.A. is one, even if the movie studios—notice the plural—are very visible.

During that time in L.A., Bright says, “I could not take one more minute of trying to convince the people of Los Angeles that a workers’ revolution and a complete overhaul of society were a tiny bit more exciting than getting a bit role in a Burger King commercial.” I’d like to know what exactly a “workers’ revolution and a complete overhaul of society” means. Revolutions don’t have a great track record, since they tend to include a lot of mindless bloodshed and power struggles. The “workers’ revolution” in Russia that led to the Soviet Union might be the single bloodiest event in human history, according to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. These demands aren’t a coherent political platform; they’re teenage angst writ large and the result of a mind that would be much assisted by taking some economics classics. I’ll take the Burger King commercial and maybe a faster CPU next year, thanks.

So her politic-politics might not be great, but her sexual politics and stories sometimes make more sense. Bright says that women making porn was shocking in the 1970s and 1980s. Apparently, however, women making porn for women is still news, and people are still going, “This is still news?!” I don’t see an end to this cycle. In the personal ream, Bright’s memoir could be titled, “Getting Some Ass From Unusual Places,” since relatively few people have gotten it from such diverse places: a union organizing camp; from college dropouts after she dropped out of high school; from lesbians; from men; and probably people in between. An appropriate subtitle might be, “And Then Thinking About It Afterwards,” Like Karen Owen, Bright has taken quite a survey of her escapes; unlike Owen, Bright isn’t alienated from herself or desires. She’s also more explicitly political, which can be both annoyingly polemical and deeper. Most people don’t think of their lives in overtly political terms, even when it might help them too, and it makes someone who does unusual.

That might be the biggest difference between Bright and many other writers about and havers of sex: she doesn’t regret what she’s done, has actualized her experience, and has never particularly bought into the sex-is-bad paradigm that, although weaker than it once was, still dominates culture for many people. We like everything leading up to sex—sexiness, attractiveness, revealing clothes, preening, buying expensive objects—but we still judge the people who move from signaling to action, despite or because of our own desires for action.

Bright imagines that, after the sexual revolution,

Women wouldn’t be catty. No one would bother to be jealous. Who would have the time? Sex would be friendly and kind and fun. You’d get to see what everyone was like in bed. You’d learn things in bed, and that would be the whole point. Romances would seem like candy cigarettes. You could have all the sex and friendship you wanted for free. Exclusivity would be for bores and babies.

I’m all for it. Alas, the pragmatist or realist in me sees this as so unlikely that I want to label it idealist in the worst sense of the word. Bright knows as much, however, and the eyes of experience looking backward demonstrates that she knows precisely how unlikely this is.

I wish there was more connective tissue between Bright’s experiences and better writing when she describes them. She knows the problems memoirs tend to have:

At the onset of my memoir, I thought I would bring myself up to date on the autobiography racket. I researched the current bestsellers among women authors who had contemplated their life’s journey. The results were so dispiriting: diet books. The weighty befores and afters. You look up men’s memoirs and find some guy climbing a mountain with his bare teeth—the parallel view for women are the mountains of cookies they rejected or succumbed to.

I think she gives men’s memoirs too much credit, since so many of them are equally inane and poorly written. And there are probably reasonably interesting memoirs written by women out there, but I think the bigger problem is “reasonably interesting memoirs” in general. Alas: I’m not sure Big Sex Little Death is one.


You can read more about Bright in this interview. Consider it and the other links in lieu of the book itself.

Tea Review – Fujian Jasmine Pearl

[I’ve started drinking tea after reading A Hacker’s Guide to Tea, and I’m going to start posting reviews here because, well, maybe the world wants to know what I think.]

Fujian Jasmine Pearl, for lack of a better term, “chemically.” I made it for the first time and found its smell to be more like tea drenched in an artificial flavor devised in a PepsiCo™ lab by food scientists than actual tea. The taste was an improvement over the smell, but not so much that I’d actually like to make it again. I love the smell of tea as much as the next guy, but I want it to be fundamentally like tea, not the inside of a warehouse or a perfume.

What gives? I’m guessing that I got a bad batch or that its extreme price makes people like the tea. It’s like a monetary placebo effect. Dan Ariely describes how this works in chapters 9 and 10 of Predictably Irrational, which describe “The effect of expectations: Why the mind gets what it expects” and “The power of price: Why a 50-cent aspirin can do what a penny aspirin can’t.” Both chapters describe how we manage to think our way into liking things. If you want someone to love your product, charge more for it and convince them to buy it. Cue people citing Apple as an example. But you have to offer something aspirational about it; in the case of Adagio, they put Fujian Jasmine Pearl in their “masters” collection. There’s a little story about the tea. There are dozens of glowing reviews. None of them take the Coke-Pepsi challenge on it.

Boredom in books according to Alain de Botton

There are, so Montaigne implied, no legitimate reasons why books in the humanities should be difficult or boring; wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax, nor does an audience benefit from being wearied. Carefully used, boredom can be a valuable indicator of the merit of books. Though it can never be a sufficient judge (and in its more degenerate forms, slips into wilful [sic] indifference and impatience), taking our levels of boredom into account can temper an otherwise excessive tolerance for balderdash. THose who do not listen to their boredom when reading, like those who pay no attention to pain, may be increasing their suffering unnecessarily. Whatever the dangers of being wrongly bored, there are as many pitfalls in never allowing ourselves to lose patience with our reading matter.

—Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy

Why publishers are scared of ebooks — the standard reasons and Amanda Hocking as symbol

Amanda Hocking, the now-famous indie writer, has an interesting post where she says, “Here’s another thing I don’t understand: The way people keep throwing my name around and saying publishers are “terrified” of me and that I really showed them.” They aren’t terrified of her, specifically, as an individual (which she notes), but they are scared of her as a symbol and what she represents: a world where you don’t need publishers as much. She just happens to be an early example of how to make it financially via ebooks. At the moment, publishers have one big advantage that no writer, no matter how skills, can replicate: distribution. If you take that advantage away, a lot of the raisons d’état of publishers goes away.

Later, she says: “And just so we’re clear – ebooks make up at best 20% of the market.” But that’s up from virtually nothing in 2006. In 2001, discs sold on shiny platters made up the vast majority of the music business. In 2011, the “music business” as it existed from the days of the first records until about ten years ago is gone. You still need a big record label if you want to be Lady Gaga, but almost no one else does. Music industry profits have never recovered. This is great for people who want to listen to music but not so good for people who want to make money from music, especially if they can’t actually make music themselves. Media executives, including publishers, know this, which is why they’re watching what happens in book-land so carefully.

“Nobody knows what makes one book a bestseller. Publishers and agents like to pretend they do, but if they did, they would only publish best sellers, and they don’t.” That’s the scariest thing of all: no one knows. This has long been a truism in lots of forms of art. William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade came in 1982, if I recall correctly, and he said almost the same thing about movies: “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess—and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” Or, Scott Adams, if you prefer someone with even less movie experience than Goldman or me:

Evaluating whether an idea is good enough for a movie is a bit like an automobile expert saying a certain brand of car doesn’t taste good. It’s absurd. You can only hold the opinion that a particular movie concept is a good or bad idea if you don’t understand what a movie is or what an idea is.

Movies have a slight advantage in that making movies technically pretty (which requires foley artists, on-set locations, lots of actors, careful detail to light, and lots of other stuff) is still pretty expensive. A lot of people also still go to movie theaters, so that advantage hasn’t completely disappeared. With books, all you really have is the book.

There are probably lots of undiscovered bestsellers out there, which, if writers get tired of submitting to agents and all the rest, they can now relatively cheaply and easily put online and let the market sort it out. Again: if enough people succeed at this, publishers go away.

Big publishers might be dying in the way Paul Graham describes Microsoft being dead. Microsoft will continue making lots of money for the foreseeable future, but it’s no longer leading anything in tech. (Enough people misinterpreted him that he wrote the Cliff’s Notes version too.) They’re not dying in the sense that whoever owns Alfred A. Knopf is going to be gone tomorrow, or the day after. But if their relevance starts to slip, they could fail with surprising speed. Look at what happened to Blockbuster: Netflix undermined them, and within a decade of Netflix on the scene all the Blockbusters near me have “going out of business” signs on them.

Back to Hocking: “Traditional publishing and indie publishing aren’t all that different, and I don’t think people realize that.” They might not be as different as some make them out to be, but from the perspective of shareholders they’re very, very different, in that shareholders can make money off publishers in one model and they probably can’t in the same way in the other. From the perspective of the writer, she’s certainly right, as she goes on to say: writers still have to put in an enormous amount of time and effort. As I’m only too aware.

I’m not the only one saying this. Here’s what Kevin Kelly says: “I don’t think publishers are ready for how low book prices will go. It seems insane, dangerous, life threatening, but inevitable.” It’s scary because $.99 isn’t going to support cushy Manhattan offices, long lunches, interns, marketing departments, and everything else modern publishers do. It’s not going to support 5–10% growth every year, which most investors assume before they part with their money. As mentioned elsewhere, publishers can see what trend lines are like and they’ve all read The Innovator’s Dilemma, like everyone else who does anything business-related. The upshot of the book is that incumbents often recognize disruptive technologies and products and then fail to respond to them effectively anyway. Think of Microsoft and the Internet, or record labels and the Internet, or newspapers and the Internet. Yeah, I keep using “the Internet” as an example, but you can see this in other areas, like American car companies when the Japanese first entered the U.S. market. Microsoft is probably the best example, since the famous “Cornell is WIRED!” e-mail alerted them to the threat, and they responded with Internet Explorer.

Today, 17 years after that e-mail was sent, I’m typing this on an iMac, Google and Facebook are arguably the dominant Internet players, and Microsoft failed utterly to foresee the importance of search, like a lot of other people. Publishers know that they can’t really compete with $.99 – $2.99 ebooks, and that, in most genres, readers just aren’t that picky. Publishers know the sound of a market shifting underneath them because some of them have been to Harvard Business School or hired people who have been to tell them about the history of companies failing to adapt to new models and environments. That’s scary.

I pay some attention to this stuff because I’m about to take the latest plunge in the crocodile pit that is agent land. If I fail, sometime in the next two years or so I’ll probably say, “Screw it, I’m self-publishing.” Chances are, I’ll be the person who wastes a lot of money and time doing so, but that’s also true of traditional publishing. There’s still that small chance I’ll succeed. Although I’m hardly the best judge of these things, I think I would want to read my own novels, and at some point, I won’t have anything to lose by not self-publishing, if the choice is between that and letting my work sit on my hard drive. There might be other people who want to read my work too. Publishers don’t know. I don’t know. But Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple will make it easier for me to find out than Alfred A. Knopf ever did.

More books I don't want to read: Theodor Fontane and Teju Cole

The New Yorker has been running a lot of reviews that describe novels I don’t want to read. The latest: Theodor Fontane’s work, which Daniel Mendelsohn describes this way:

The topography of his plots is admittedly as flat and monotonous as the notoriously bland landscape of his Prussian homeland, Brandenburg (about which he lovingly wrote in a multivolume work). Most of “Cécile” is devoted to the excursions and the chitchat of those hapless tourists; there’s some gossiping, a halfhearted flirtation, and then everyone goes home to Berlin.

“Flat and monotonous” plots? The “excursions and the chitchat of [. . .] hapless tourists?” Give me the latest thriller about mindless warfare and assassination. Or about fast-talking urbanites and their tedious sexual lives. Or anything. Elsewhere, Mendelsohn says, “Even Fontane’s characters are plagued by a certain anxiety about having nothing very exciting to talk about.” That’s enough of a problem in real life, thanks: give me escapism!

Or there’s Teju Cole’s novel Open City, as described by James Wood:

So the novel does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing).

“A single, unbroken paragraph,” limited conversation (which means we’re stuck in someone’s mind), the lack, again of, “event or contrivance,” as if those are bad things, the mark of a second-rate artist who wants to see how people interact with more than themselves and how they respond to adverse events, like the kinds that sometimes happen in life.

I realize Wood doesn’t like plot: in How Fiction Works, he quotes from Adam Smith writing in the eighteenth century regarding how writers use suspense to keep interest and then says, “But the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot […]” I don’t think that’s good or that plot is essentially juvenile and tend to like novels in which the proverbial “something happens” and tend to dislike the ones that feel more like philosophy plus characters.

More books I don’t want to read: Theodor Fontane and Teju Cole

The New Yorker has been running a lot of reviews that describe novels I don’t want to read. The latest: Theodor Fontane’s, which Daniel Mendelsohn describes this way:

The topography of his plots is admittedly as flat and monotonous as the notoriously bland landscape of his Prussian homeland, Brandenburg (about which he lovingly wrote in a multivolume work). Most of “Cécile” is devoted to the excursions and the chitchat of those hapless tourists; there’s some gossiping, a halfhearted flirtation, and then everyone goes home to Berlin.

“Flat and monotonous” plots? The “excursions and the chitchat of [. . .] hapless tourists?” Give me the latest thriller about mindless warfare and assassination. Or about fast-talking urbanites and their tedious sexual lives. Or anything. Elsewhere, Mendelsohn says, “Even Fontane’s characters are plagued by a certain anxiety about having nothing very exciting to talk about.” That’s enough of a problem in real life, thanks: give me escapism!

Or there’s Teju Cole’s novel Open City, as described by James Wood:

So the novel does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing).

“A single, unbroken paragraph,” limited conversation (which means we’re stuck in someone’s mind), the lack, again of, “event or contrivance,” as if those are bad things, the mark of a second-rate artist who wants to see how people interact with more than themselves and how they respond to adverse events, like the kinds that sometimes happen in life.

I realize Wood doesn’t like plot: in How Fiction Works, he quotes from Adam Smith writing in the eighteenth century regarding how writers use suspense to keep interest and then says, “But the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot […]” I don’t think that’s good or that plot is essentially juvenile and tend to like novels in which the proverbial “something happens” and tend to dislike the ones that feel more like philosophy plus characters.

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