Links: Teachers, strippers, self-publishing, In the Realm of the Senses, Fundrise, and more

* The Case for a Teacher Bar Exam. I’m skeptical: teaching is one of the skills that is least captured by standardized tests. See also “How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?

_MG_8427* The Uses of Difficulty. Maybe.

* “Uncovering Union Violence,” which “is an under-reported story.”

* “The North Dakota Stripper Boom,” which is a tale about unexpected expected consequences: “North Dakota [. . .] is experiencing an oil boom, which is leading to an overwhelmingly male population boom, which has some strange spillover consequences.”

* “The Early Education Racket: If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need to go to preschool.” Having written Head Start proposals and read a lot of studies on Head Start and similar programs, I’m not surprised, although this article focuses on the effects of relatively wealthy people (hilarious quote: “research suggests that if you have the time and money to argue over the merits of a Waldorf preschool versus a Montessori one, little Emma isn’t going to suffer either way.”)

* Thorium Reactors, by Peter Reinhardt, which explains one aspect of why thorium-powered power plants might be the future of energy.

* Tips for a successful book launch. This is interesting for its own sake and because Roosh never mentions the word “self-published.” That’s simply assumed.

* Fremen Stillsuit soon to be manufactured? Are the Bene Gesserit up next?

* “Going All the Way: The late Nagisa Oshima’s erotic, transgressive In the Realm of the Senses isn’t about sex. It is sex.

* Fundrise has a new project in the pipeline.

* Copy Of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ Can’t Believe The Notes High Schooler Writing In Margins.

Life: Robert Trivers and the empathy deficit

“When a feeling of power is induced in people, they are less likely to take others’ viewpoint and more likely to center their thinking on themselves. The result is a reduced ability to comprehend how others see, think, and feel. Power, among other things, induces blindness toward others”

—Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools

For Men Only by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn is missing evolutionary biology, behavioral economics, and psychology

For Men Only promises “A Straightforward Guide to the Inner Lives of Women,” but it’s missing any acknowledgment of the vast amount of research that shows:

  • We don’t know what we really want.
  • What we say or think we want often doesn’t match how we behave.
  • We behave different ways at different times and places.

For_men_onlyThe book would benefit from close study of work by Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahneman. For most guys, it’s worth reading, but reading skeptically. I say it’s worth reading because much of the book, especially regarding emotional engagement, matches my mistakes.

The writers, for example, say that “Women tend to process things by talking them through. [. . . while ] Men, however, tend to process things by thinking them through, and not saying anything until they full understand what they are thinking.” That is, on average, true in my experience, and it took a lot of trial and error—and more error—to realize that talking without knowing why one is talking isn’t necessarily a sign of intellectual fatuousness or weakness. It’s a sign that a lot of women are simply “processing,” to use the Feldhahns’s language.

Elsewhere, the Feldhahns say that “When our wife or girlfriend is upset, we do what we would do with other guys: We give her space to work things out. But with very few exceptions, when women are upset they don’t want space. They want a hug.” Space increases feelings of loneliness, not feelings of competence and control. They also say that women often don’t necessarily want solutions to emotional problems—they want empathy, and a listener:

She just wants you to listen = she does want and need you to understand how she’s feeling about the problem. ‘It‘ = an emotional problem. This listening rule does not apply to technical conundrums.

To me, this makes no sense: why share a problem unless you want it resolved? But I’ve learned the the hard way that their reading is correct in many situations, and I’ve tended to discount emotions in favor of trying to solve problems. When this strategy failed, or elicited tears from girls, I would wonder what the fuck is the matter. I mean, when I have problems, I want them fixed, right? But, as the Feldhahns point out, I’m missing that the problem isn’t the problem—it’s a placeholder, in many situations, for something else. I failed to read the situation metaphorically.

The Feldhahns also point out that men overestimate the need to be seen as a “provider” and earn money, while underestimating the need for emotional and sexual closeness (for a literary example of this, pay close attention to the portrayal of Matt French in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me; he spends his life working, or worrying about work, in order to buy a big, crappy house, and neglects his wife to the point that she starts sleeping with another guy who probably makes less money but is sexy and available). Notice the words “overestimate” and “underestimate:” money and ambition matter, but not as much as many men think. The Feldhahns say, “For her, ’emotional security’ matters most: feeling emotionally connected and close to you, and knowing that you are there for her no matter what. Sure, providing financially is appreciated, but for most women it’s nowhere near the top of the list.” Clearly Jeff Feldhahn hasn’t dated some of the cold fish I have, but we’ll leave those stories aside.

From what I can discern, those insights are correct, even if the process that led to those insights is bogus, or at least not optimal. The authors say, “Besides conducting hundreds of in-person interviews, we gathered huge amounts of anecdotal information at dozens of women’s events where Feldhahn was presenting materials from For Women Only.” What people say they want and what they actually do often differ severely, as anyone who has ever listened to girls complain about the “assholes” they sleep with, compared with the “nice guys” they don’t, can attest. But my favorite study on the topic of the discrepancy between what people state in various situations is Alexander and Fisher’s “Truth and consequences: Using the bogus pipeline to examine sex differences in self‐reported sexuality:”

Men report more permissive sexual attitudes and behavior than do women. This experiment tested whether these differences might result from false accommodation to gender norms (distorted reporting consistent with gender stereotypes). Participants completed questionnaires under three conditions. Sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior were negligible in a bogus pipeline condition in which participants believed lying could be detected [meaning that “participants are attached to a non-functioning polygraph and are led to believe that dishonest answers given during an interview or on a survey can be detected by the machine” (28)], moderate in an anonymous condition [where participants don’t believe their answers will be revealed at all], and greatest in an exposure threat condition in which the experimenter could potentially view participants’ responses. This pattern was clearest for behaviors considered less acceptable for women than men (e.g., masturbation, exposure to hardcore & softcore erotica). Results suggest that some sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior reflect responses influenced by normative expectations for men and women

In other words, what people say about their sexual habits and beliefs depend in part on who is listening and how the speaker believes what they say will be interpreted. Given that fact, “in-person interviews” and “anecdotal information at women’s events” are arguably the worst way one could gather data on what women “really” want. Every time the Feldhahns say things like, “70 percent of the women said they’d rather their husband take a lower-paying job that would require financial sacrifices if it allowed more family time” (emphasis added) I wanted to say, “they only say that.”

Beyond the issue of what people say in different contexts, there’s an issue about what people do in different states of mind. In Dan Ariely and George Loewenstein’s paper “The heat of the moment: the effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making,” the authors show that college-aged guys in a “cold” state systematically underestimate their likely sexual preferences and acts when they are in a “hot” state (which the experimenters elicit through showing each individual man porn, encouraging him to masturbate, and then asking the same set of questions). In Predictably Irrational, Ariely describes the difficult of conducting that experiment in the first place because of his university’s human-subjects board, and he speculates that getting permission to operate the same experiment with female subjects would be more difficult still.

The women the Feldhahns speak to are, presumably, in a cold state. What they say they want at that moment, speaking to somewhat high-status writers, may or may not bear any relation to what they want in hot states, or what they want in the private sphere that still exists between their ears. We are all hypocrites, but some of us are better at acknowledging it, and incorporating that knowledge into our thinking, than others.

Perhaps the second-best romantic advice I’ve ever heard is simple: “Don’t pay any attention to what she says—just look at what she does.” (The first-best is “The worst thing she can say is ‘no.'” Alter the gender pronouns to fit your preferences, as needed.) The Feldhahns are paying a lot of attention to what she says.

Jeff also plays himself off as stupid, like many men: “I doubted that a woman could ever be understood. Compared to other complex matters—like the tides, say, or how to figure a baseball player’s ERA—women seemed unknowable. Random even.” That’s because he’s either a) an idiot or b) has bought into large-scale cultural nonsense. Women can be understood. Evolutionary biology is a good place to start: take a look at Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, then the new introduction to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s The Woman That Never Evolved, then Thornhill and Gangestad’s The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality. All of them explain a lot about the pressures women feel, and, by extension, the pressures men feel in response (the pressures men and women feel are, of course, a feedback loop, with one side “responding” to the other).

Individual preferences can’t be understood based on group identification, because individual preferences can vary substantially, but understanding the basic evolutionary and cultural pressures operating on each sex will show why many people behave the way they do. Those “cultural pressures” I mentioned in the previous sentence are also important, and books like Neil Strauss’s The Game discuss them.

Let me return to Hrdy for a moment. In describing her path to the book, she says:

Competition between females is documented for every well-studied species of primate save one: our own. Once we leave the scientific realm, of course, and consider history, literature, and, for many of us, personal experience, examples of highly competitive, manipulative, and even murderous females flock to mind.

Competition between human females also exists—as “history, literature, and [. . .] personal experience” show us (we should get out of the lab and into culture if we’re going to study humans)—but it tends to exist along different dimensions than male competition. That’s why men tend not to notice it. In addition, male scientists suffer a failure of imagination, as Hrdy elegantly puts it: “The history of our knowledge about primate infanticide is in many ways a parable for the biases and fallibility that plague observational sciences: we discount the unimaginable and fail to see what we do not expect.”

Jeff doesn’t understand women because he doesn’t understand that women are also under competitive pressure, though he probably doesn’t realize what he doesn’t understand. Instead of thinking that women are “Random even,” he should be asking: What incentives operate on women that don’t on men? What’s it like to be female in our society? How can I learn more? He’s showing an empathy deficit and a research deficit.

Why are the authors ignorant about the vast literature on deception? They’re not researchers, and they don’t evince any interest in research, which is a major weakness. They’re may be inclined to massage their readers’ prejudice instead of challenging those views. They may also not want to know better, which I say because they say that “This book holds to a biblical world view. [. . . ] because Feldhahn and I view life through our Christian faith, we have seen that these findings are consistent with biblical principles.” In modern America, ensuring that “findings are consistent with biblical principles” is a code-phrase for militant, pointless ignorance. This is where I should point out that intellectual rigor and sophistication can (and should) co-exist with religious belief, but I don’t have the energy for culture-war crap.

The authors also sometimes evade important issues altogether, as their strategic use of passive voice shows here: “In this culture, women are not being protected emotionally. They are being humiliated.” Women are not being “protected emotionally” by who or what? “They are being humiliated” by who or what? As I tell students, cultures don’t just emerge from some amorphous cloud: they’re the result of aggregated individual decisions. Who should be doing the protecting? What does humiliation mean here? It’s hard to emotionally humiliate someone without their consent. This idea is simply asserted, and it’s asserted in a way that removes important information.

Why corporations?

Arnold Kling asks: “Why Large Corporations?” I left a comment citing Peter Thiel’s answer:

Companies exist because they optimally address internal and external coordination costs. In general, as an entity grows, so do its internal coordination costs. But its external coordination costs fall. Totalitarian government is entity writ large; external coordination is easy, since those costs are zero. But internal coordination, as Hayek and the Austrians showed, is hard and costly; central planning doesn’t work.

The flipside is that internal coordination costs for independent contractors are zero, but external coordination costs (uniquely contracting with absolutely everybody one deals with) are very high, possibly paralyzingly so. Optimality—firm size—is a matter of finding the right combination.

This applies to corporations more generally, but large corporations presumably persist because they continue to solve this class of problem. Corporations also solve or ameliorate succession and other problems; one way of re-stating Thiel’s point is that corporations help align the interests of a lot of people in approximately the same direction. This mechanism obviously isn’t perfect, but it’s better than alternatives.

IMG_0298Skepticism of corporations is useful, but only when skeptics understand the problems corporations solve. I took a grad seminar on the Modernism / Postmodernism divide and was assigned the movie The Corporation, which is heavy on innuendo and rhetorical slight-of-hand and light on intellectual acuity. When the seminar discussed the movie, my classmates were happy to assume that corporations are evil—but they couldn’t identify why they exist, let alone offer coherent alternatives that don’t have obvious drawbacks. I’m not in love with the corporate legal form as some kind of ideal, but without a plausible alternative, feeling-based criticism isn’t terribly helpful. It’s like people who criticize coal power plants. . . and nuclear. . . and other viable, large-scale options.

In the seminar’s discussion, other students and the professor conflated publicly-traded corporations with privately traded ones and LLCs with C Corps, etc. (Incidentally, if you want to listen to something hilarious yet depressing, get a bunch of English grad students and professors together and tell them to talk about business). They also thought that all corporations exist solely to make money. That’s not true: Corporations do what their shareholders tell them to do. As far as I know, courts have decided that publicly traded companies need to maximize shareholder value, but single-owner corporations can do whatever the single owner or small group of owners wants them to.

Thiel says this about the advantages of starting a new corporation to accomplish some task:

The easiest answer to “why startups?” is negative: because you can’t develop new technology in existing entities. There’s something wrong with big companies, governments, and non-profits. Perhaps they can’t recognize financial needs; the federal government, hamstrung by its own bureaucracy, obviously overcompensates some while grossly undercompensating others in its employ. Or maybe these entities can’t handle personal needs; you can’t always get recognition, respect, or fame from a huge bureaucracy. Anyone on a mission tends to want to go from 0 to 1. You can only do that if you’re surrounded by others to want to go from 0 to 1. That happens in startups, not huge companies or government.

Usually, developing “new technology” dovetails with making money, but it doesn’t necessarily have to: you could in principle start a nonprofit technology company to conduct research or develop a product (in some businesses, competition between for- and non-profits is common: think of healthcare, or gyms). That no one or almost no one goes this route means that it could be an under-explored avenue for creative and technological success. Or it could be a deadend, and no one goes down it because doing so would be stupid.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers — Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a lesson in perspective. I’ve never felt as rich as I did reading it, which is a compliment to its writer. Forgetting the sheer material wealth virtually all Americans have, even the poorest, is so easy. We become acclimated. If we don’t have the latest iPhone, many of us stupidly think ourselves failures. The acquisitive impulse masters us. Boo forces us out of that acclimation and acquisitiveness and forces us to see the status and survival fights among India’s poorest, who don’t have a (mostly) functioning judicial system.

Behind_the_beautiful_foreversThat’s hard to confront, and the difficulty of doing something is also hard to confront. If massive charities like World Vision can’t conquer India’scorruption, what can a random individual do? Some things, at the margins, but cultures and institutions don’t happen overnight. Much of the West has been building its (functioning) cultures and institutions for centuries. India hasn’t.

But I’m addressing Behind the Beautiful Forevers from the wrong perspective, and making a mistake the book studiously doesn’t make. Boo almost always writes about individuals. To follow one thread about corruption, consider this sequence, the first about Manju, an idealistic teenage girl being schooled in her mother’s effective ways of survival and status:

When Manju first asked about the rumor [that Corporator Subhash Sawant had been accused in court of electoral fraud], Asha had shrugged it off. Her patron had previously made two murder charges disappear. ‘Court cases can be managed in Mumbai,’ as the Corporator put it.

The euphemism—”managed”—is so apt, and so cruel to those who don’t have the power to manage cases. Asha, Manju’s mother, is on the brink of acquiring that power. Later, we find this characterization: “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.” It’s a lesson that everyone in Annawadi learns at some point in this book, whether they are corrupt themselves or deal with the corrupt.

Later still, Manju anticipates receiving a B.A. and then a B.Ed., which will qualify her to be a teacher. But “She had no hope of securing a permanent job at a government school, since such jobs typically required paying enormous bribes to education officials.” That’s the sort of story any American papers, even the husks that remain, would love to carry, and that would generate outrage and indictments. In Manju’s world, it’s the world. We see that “When a new school opened in the pink temple by the sewage lake, many of them [the children Manju taught] gravitated to it, but it closed as soon as the leader of the nonprofit had taken enough photos of children studying to secure the government funds.”

But the inhabitants of Annawadi are there because a Mumbai slum is an improvement on the other major option, which is living in a rural farming village. Two teen girls see as much: “To both Meena and Manju, marrying into a village family was like time-traveling backward” (one of them will survive to the end). Living in a place where “Sewage and sickness looked like life” is an improvement. At the beginning of the book, Annawadians are sharing in the global boom. But the book covers the end of that boom, too; as the economic crisis takes hold,

2009 arrived in the slum under a blanket of poverty, the global recession overlaid by a crisis of fear. More Annawadians had to relearn how to digest rats. Sonu deputized Sunil to catch frogs at Naupada slum, since Naupada frogs tasted better then sewage-lake ones.

Rats are an improvement on starvation, but eating rats and frogs means a status demotion, much as finding an exit from the garbage trade (this will make sense in the context) and then re-entering it means that social status goes up, then goes more painfully down. Status, like wages, is stick.

Starvation is omnipresent in part because charitable donations and government efforts that start at the top of Indian society rarely make their way fully to the bottom, where the Annawadians live, and where Meena and Manju want to time travel forward. Their views are the product of place: “In Meena’s opinion, any mother who financed her daughter’s college education, rarely slapped her, and hadn’t arranged her marriage at age fifteen could be forgiven for other failings.”

Boo mostly reports. She is too canny a writer to lard her book with these observations, however; they would make the book preachy and dull. I had assumed it would be, based on its publicity; I only read a copy because it was forced on me by a friend, and now I understand why. Boo has subject and content. She uses novelistic techniques, most obviously a close third-person narrator, to create, unfairly but compellingly, the minds of her characters / subjects. None of her characters are economists; all are struggling in various capacities.

Yet they are making choices to try and improve their lives: “In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed like the least-bad place to live.” Boo is so good with language: she knows that “least-bad” conveys more than “best,” because there are no good options. She calibrates the sentence to the mental state of the people making the decision about where to live. It’s a small example of the skill Boo shows on practically every page. The immediate desire upon finishing Behind the Beautiful Forever is to reread for the virtuosity of Boo’s language skills while not wanting to because of the terrible struggles she describes. Death is everywhere, like the obstacles imposed by the police and political bureaucracy.

The police seek bribes and know they can, because “To be poor in Annawadi, or in any Mumbai slum, was to be guilty of one thing or another.” Constant guilt means that it is harder to seek official redress for wrongs. For instance:

Abdul’s family knew many of the officers at the local station, just enough to fear them all. When they learned that a family in the slum was making money, they visited every other day to extort some. The worst of the lot had been Constable Pawar, who had brutalized little Deepa, a homeless girl who sold flowers by the Hyatt. But most of them would gladly blow their noses in your last piece of bread.

The image of the police blowing “their noses in your last piece of bread” conveys the vast gap in power: for people who eat rats, bread is valuable and scarce. To gratuitously ruin shows a lack of empathy seldom seen outside psychopaths. The image, like so many in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, lingers.

There is a temptation in books like this to deplore the conditions in which people live, cultural indifference, and widespread corruption. Boo doesn’t. She lets the events speak, as she does in the example of Abdul collecting garbage. Her book is an example to writers, and so is her assessments of status subtleties.

The end of chapter ten is devastating in its understatement; I don’t want to reveal why here because doing so will destroy part of the story, but death appears, as it often does, with the suddenness of its presence in life.

I haven’t seen anyone criticize the quality of Boo’s writing, which is superb throughout. She doesn’t waste words. On her themes and content, the best criticism I’ve seen is here, in Paul Beckett’s piece for the Wall Street Journal’s Indian Edition, where he points out that Boo doesn’t indicate how life looks from the perspective of the cops, the judges, the doctors, or Sister Paulette, or she doesn’t indicate that they turned her away. Boo also did an interview with Bill Gates.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a testament to skilled reporting, a pleasure, and an inspiration for writers who should always want to do better.

Links: Silicon Valley as a city, Parfit on Kant, language weirdness, Kevin Kelly, notebooks, and more

* “A Grand Plan to Make Silicon Valley Into An Urban Paradise: Maybe the suburban land of the tech giants could become a thriving dense metropolis.” Sounds good if improbable to me.

IMG_1878* I added to “On bad writing in philosophy: Derek Parfit on Kant.”

* Awesome: “Tenants’ Deal Removes Bar To New Tower.”

* A weird language moment, from the article “The Winners and Losers in the Fiscal-Cliff Deal:” “The Obama administration has gotten a lot done since Inauguration Day 2009, but what it’s never done is give strong partisan Democrats the kind of to-the-mattresses battle against the GOP that they crave” (emphasis added). The professional minutia of imagined gangsters is apparently well-known enough to use without any explanation of what a “to-the-mattresses battle” is, and how it differs from a non-to-the-mattresses battle.

* Kevin Kelly: The Post-Productive Economy and why we’ve barely seen growth from computing and the Internet, at least yet.

* Why women reject eager men.

* The death of the American shopping mall. Good.

* A random thought: It’s hard to be alive and intellectually engaged without contemplating our relationship with technology.

* Perhaps related to the above, WordPress picked up “Why little black books instead of phones and computers,” and I must say that bloggers are chatty: there are 112 comments on the post (and rising), which beats “Unicomp Customer / Space Saver and the IBM Model M.” That one may have had many more readers, but it only has 68 comments.

* “Prostitutes in Brazil Take Free English Classes Ahead of 2014 World Cup;” the best quote is “I don’t think we will have problems persuading English teachers to provide services for free [. . .] We already have several volunteer psychologists and doctors helping us.”

How not to choose a college: Frank Bruni ignores the really important stuff

Frank Bruni wrote an essay called “How to Choose a College” without mentioning the most important fact about college for the life outcomes of many students: debt. That’s liking writing about the Titanic and ignoring the whole iceberg thing.

In How to Win at the Sport of Business, Mark Cuban writes, “financial debt is the ultimate dream killer. Your first house, car, whatever you might want to buy, is going to be the primary reason you stop looking for what makes you the happiest.” He’s right about debt often being “the ultimate dream killer,” but he should add student loans to his roster of “whatever you might want to buy,” especially because student loans are effectively impossible to discharge through bankruptcy. I don’t think most 18 year olds really understand what tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt will really mean to them five years, ten years, twenty years after they graduate.

To me, the most interesting metric a university could offer these days is the mean, median, and mode debt of students upon graduation.

Money shouldn’t be the only factor in choosing a college, but it should be a major one, unless one has uncommonly wealthy parents.

Rework — Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Rework is the rare book that could and even should be longer than it is: Fried and Hansson even say, “Writers eliminate good pages to make a great book. We cut this book in half between the next-to-last and final drafts. From 57,000 words to about 27,000 words. Trust us, it’s better for it.” I do trust them, but they may have lost some of the fun stories that might give the book more texture. They’re overfond of assertion without demonstration. But so what? The book as a whole is still worth reading. It’ll take an hour or two to get through the whole thing, which is peppered with little moments like, “You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole” or “Don’t sit around and wait for someone else to make the change you want to see. And don’t think it takes a huge team to make that difference today.”

ReworkIn other words: do it now, whatever the “it” happens to be. Waiting is your worst enemy, doing your best friend, and anything that stops you from doing something should be ignored or overcome. Friedman and Hansson are speaking of business, but they’re also speaking of art, science, and almost everything good in this world. They say, “What you do is what matters, not what you think or say or plan.” This is equally true of writing, but a lot of would-be writers seem to like the idea of writing more than the actual writing itself. I often offer this challenge to people who say they want to or wish they could write a novel:

1) Turn off your Internet access and cell phone.

2) Write chapter one over three days (or so; the actual timeframe doesn’t matter, as long as it’s short); continue if you want to.

3) Send me the result. I’ll read it and send it back.

So far, I think one person has taken that challenge, and I never got chapter two. I interpret this as meaning that most people who say they want to write a novel (or write anything else, or learn the guitar, or get laid, or lose weight, or start cooking, or any number of other skilled endeavors) don’t actually want to, because if they did, they would start today. If you shoot for, say, 500 words a day, you’ll have a pile of around 80,000 in six months, leaving some room for missed days, editing, and so forth.

If you shoot for 1,000 words a day, you’ll have it in three months.

This, however, is only the start, which I didn’t realize when I was nearer to the start than I am now. But if you’re not putting in the seat time, writing, you’re not going to do anything and all your intentions aren’t going to matter. Fried and Hansson are pointing this out in the context of business, where it’s equally valid, and there are probably an equal number of people saying, “I should start a business” and “I should write.” Most of them are probably better off not acting on their impulses. But if they do, why not start?

They’re giving you permission you don’t need to be given, but they’re doing it in a way that feels fun. They elevate fun to a cardinal virtue, and they want to get rid of things that aren’t fun or don’t add value to people’s lives. At one point, for instance, they say:

The business world is littered with dead documents that do nothing but waste people’s time. Reports no one reads, diagrams no one looks at, and specs that never resemble the final product. These things take forever to make but only seconds to forget.

Who would want to stand up and proudly proclaim that they write “dead documents?” In this framing, no one. But sometimes a guy with a document that says why thing x is better than thing y wins. Sometimes dead documents serve important signaling functions. That’s the thing about Rework: read it, but don’t assume it’s always right.

Over the last two months I’ve been on a binge of business or quasi business books: Rework, Anything You Want, How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, all of them good in their own way, and all of them subtly contradicting each other in various ways.

If Steve Jobs had written a book about business the Apple way, he’d probably contradict all of them. Yet the writer of each book is successful in their own field. If my Dad and I wrote “Doing Business the Seliger + Associates way,” we’d probably say some things that are similar to what Hansson and Fried say but some things that are very different because of the peculiarities of our field. Every business situation is slightly different. What works in one field may not work in another.

The meta lesson may be that no two successes are exactly alike, and that, while you should read these books, you should also realize that you might use pieces of them but you’re unlikely to use all of them. They’re all to be subjected to interrogation, not venerated.

I can say, however, that each of the books above inspires in its own way, and sometimes inspiration has an importance that goes beyond the immediate truth value of a piece.

Product Review: Rhodia “Webbie” Webnotebook

The Rhodia Webnotebook (or, as people online have dubbed it, the “Webbie”) has an asinine name, but that name shouldn’t prejudice you against the object itself, which is the best notebook I’ve tried since switching away from Moleskine.

Numerous rapturous threads are devoted to this notebook on the Fountain Pen Network (“FPN” to the regulars), which is one of these sites that prove how well-suited the Internet is to connecting people with bizarre, niche hobbies to one another. Being one of those people, I say that with affection. Many, many FPN writers are ecstatic at the prospect of a mass-market notebook whose pages will not let ink bleed through.

Ink bleed was never a problem with Moleskines for me, because I use extra-fine nibs and apparently don’t use inks that saturate paper like rivers do handkerchiefs. Regardless, the Rhodia’s paper is excellent. It’s supposedly acid free too, so the paper won’t degrade before you do under normal use. I’m happier about the durability: I’ve used three Rhodias. None have come close to breaking. A Moleskine broke (though many earlier ones didn’t). An insanely expensive Design.Y notebook broke. A Leuchtturm 1917 has perforated back pages and will probably break.

_MG_8481The Rhodia isn’t perfect. The lines are spaced slightly too wide, at 6.35 mm per line (or .25 inches); they might be great for someone learning how to write, but for someone who already knows, they’re not as useful, and it’s harder to connect ideas on one page to ideas on another. An ideal notebook should be closer to 6 mm per line. Moleskine gets this right. The edge of the cover should be flush with the paper, not a couple millimeters out, forming an unsightly lip. The lines should run to the edge of the page; the current design wastes space, and this is the most important design flaw in the Webnotebook.

They’re small problems that I’d like to see addressed but that don’t detract from the big things. Speaking of size, you can also buy A7-sized notebooks (which are about 4.7 x 3″) from Europe or Australia if you’re willing to pay the obscene shipping. I am, because they’re perfect.

I sent an e-mail to Goulet Pens to ask if they could get A7 notebooks, and Sam Vaughn responded to say that they “can do a special French order for them,” but “when ordering direct from France we have to order by the carton which in this case would be 40 notebooks.” Alas, 40 notebooks would probably be $500 and last for decades. The A7 is a more pocketable size than the 3.5 x 5.5″ American version. Choose it if you can.

Then stop looking and start writing.

EDIT: Rhodia makes much larger, 5.5 x 8.5 notebooks as well. I don’t have any use for them, but visual artist types might.

Life: Comedy edition

“The comic impulse, then, is about a willingness to dwell in the awkward, shameful places we’d prefer not to dwell. It’s what allows us to face the truth of ourselves on behalf of others.”

—Steve Almond, “Funny is the New Deep,” from The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House

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