Links: Denmark, Lost Girls, Human Rights, Houston Adventures, Austin, Biking, and more!

* Divorce, Custody, Child Support, and Alimony in Denmark, which arguably has better outcomes than the U.S.

* Usually I don’t care for graphic novels, but Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls is an exception; this interview with the authors is also excellent and new to me.

* A Cruel and Unusual Record: The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights. (Endorsed.)

* Robert Nagle: “‘That Fish has been fried’–definition and explanation;” I would add that many disagreements end or should end not with agreement, but when both sides have run out of facts, evidence, or ideas.

* Strictly textual but possibly NSFW: “Houston Adventures.”

* Can Austin stay weird as it grows?

* Worse than Manhattan? Bike expert rattled by ride through Seattle.

* “Why the U.S. is being humiliated by the hunt for Snowden,” emphasis added, as the “why” has been largely neglected.

* Stop Attacking Male Writers for Being Sexist: Protagonists don’t have to be likable to be great.

* “Voyager 1 Discovers Bizarre and Baffling Region at Edge of Solar System.”

The sex plot: a discussion for novelists and readers

I wrote to a friend:

I wonder about the extent to which novels in general are continuing to have trouble with sexual liberalization; so many major novels in the canon deal with that topic, but it’s much harder to use those tropes in a permissive age.

He replied: “This intrigues me, but I’m not sure what you mean. Can you elaborate?”


The novel as a genre has tended to thrive on sexual repression, and has used steadily increasing sexual liberation as fuel for plots. Leslie Fiedler wrote about this in Love and Death in the American Novel, and Tony Tanner wrote about it in Adultery and the Novel. In taking courses about the novel as a genre, I was struck by how many times I heard or read phrases like, “X pushed the limits of the sexual mores of his / her day,” where X is any number of writers ranging from Richardson to Flaubert to Dreiser to Roth and Updike. (Weirdly, however, the Marquis de Sade has always been lurking beneath the history of the novel as a genre, mostly unacknowledged and often hidden from the reading public).

But working against sexual repression as such doesn’t really work so well as a plot device anymore because the barriers are mostly down. If you’re over age 18 today, you can more or less do whoever you want as long as they’re not under 18. This may be why professor-student plots are somewhat popular: it’s one of the few forbidden-but-plausible-and-not-gross relationships left.

There are only so many sexual lines one can cross, and too many books like 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, to make the mere crossing of the few lines left all that interesting. When an entire society is set up to repress, re-channel, and control sexuality, a novel like Lady Chatterley’s Lover is shocking. In our society, it’s not. Today, if you want it, go get it—just don’t make promises you can’t keep. It’s not hard to live a life of constant sexual novelty and most parts of society won’t really censure you, provided that you don’t marry someone else, and even then lots of people divorce.

It’s much harder to get wring major consequences from affairs and what not. Don’t want to cheat? Don’t get married. It’s not impossible to use sex and romance plots—my to-be-self-published novel, Asking Anna, is a comedy about such subjects—to get material from these fields, but it’s a greater challenge than it used to be, and hard if not impossible to shock. A novel with the sexual politics of Stranger in a Strange Land wouldn’t have the same shock-value today then it did when it was published, though actually now that I think about it I still think it would raise a few eyebrows.

Some genres, like science fiction, don’t rely on sex plots as much, but even in SF sex plots are still often present. The growth of murder mysteries and thrillers may also represent some veering from sex plots, since premature death is still a big deal and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

On a separate but related note, it also seems that many “literary” writers borrow SF-ish ideas. Think of Ian McEwan’s Solar. Not a great novel, but I liked a lot of what McEwan was doing by meshing discovery, politics, social ideas, environmentalism, science, and a not-very-nice character into one bunch. It’s McEwan, so the writing is good on a sentence-by-sentence level. The technical descriptions are also interesting and too uncommon in novels. I like the idea of writing about intellectual, social, technical, or business discovery as a motive. It’s underutilized as a driver of plot.

One section of Paul Graham’s essay “The Word ‘Hacker’” addresses this point and continues to have a profound impact on me:

Hacking predates computers. When he was working on the Manhattan Project, Richard Feynman used to amuse himself by breaking into safes containing secret documents. This tradition continues today. When we were in grad school, a hacker friend of mine who spent too much time around MIT had his own lock picking kit. (He now runs a hedge fund, a not unrelated enterprise.)

It is sometimes hard to explain to authorities why one would want to do such things. Another friend of mine once got in trouble with the government for breaking into computers. This had only recently been declared a crime, and the FBI found that their usual investigative technique didn’t work. Police investigation apparently begins with a motive. The usual motives are few: drugs, money, sex, revenge. Intellectual curiosity was not one of the motives on the FBI’s list. Indeed, the whole concept seemed foreign to them.

Most novels focus on money, sex, revenge. Why don’t they focus more on intellectual curiosity: perhaps how intellectual curiosity relates to money, sex, revenge, and similar topics? That seems like a fruitful avenue, especially because we might be moving towards a world where many people’s material needs are met, making money less immediately important; though of course many people are still driven by keeping up with the Joneses, in large swaths of the industrialized world we have plenty of money and plenty of stuff.

(A relevant side note about money: Among people interested in “game” and picking up women, it has become a common observation that additional money above the amount needed to buy drinks, dress reasonably well, and live independently doesn’t do much help most guys. A guy making $50,000 a year and a guy making $200,000 a year are mostly on a level playing field, and if the guy making $200,000 has to work 60+ hours a week, he’s at a disadvantage. Personalities and tenacity count far more than incomes, all else being equal. This could be seen as a variant on one of Geoffrey Miller’s points in Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.)

I don’t see money, sex, or revenge—and motives for revenge usually reduce to money and sex—becoming unimportant as long as humans remain humans and not brains in vats or on chips, but intellectual curiosity and a sense of wonder and discovery should be more emphasized in narrative. I think the tedium of Jonathan Franzen’s novels can in part be explained by the tedium of his characters: if those characters had a greater sense of discovery and possibility, they wouldn’t be so annoying. The other day I was listening to a friend describing single electron chain reactions in photosynthesis and how she misses research and life in the lab. It’s very interesting stuff, and the sort of thing that is rarely really discussed in novels.

But it should be!

Plus, the progression of science, technology, economics, and the attitudes that go along with them have ameliorated a lot of the money-revenge resource-distribution fights that used to define every aspect of human existence, instead of most aspects of human existence. To the extent major societal problems in the future are going to be solved—most obviously involving energy, but certainly involving other topics too—the solutions are going to come from intellectual curiosity and the intellectually curious. Maybe we, collectively, should be thinking about art that cultivates and glorifies those traits, instead of art that cultivates or glorifies simple status domination, or the ability to be cooler than the other guy or girl.

Another Paul Graham quote, from “How To Make Wealth:”

Making wealth is not the only way to get rich. For most of human history it has not even been the most common. Until a few centuries ago, the main sources of wealth were mines, slaves and serfs, land, and cattle, and the only ways to acquire these rapidly were by inheritance, marriage, conquest, or confiscation. Naturally wealth had a bad reputation.

Two things changed. The first was the rule of law. For most of the world’s history, if you did somehow accumulate a fortune, the ruler or his henchmen would find a way to steal it. But in medieval Europe something new happened. A new class of merchants and manufacturers began to collect in towns. Together they were able to withstand the local feudal lord. So for the first time in our history, the bullies stopped stealing the nerds’ lunch money. This was naturally a great incentive, and possibly indeed the main cause of the second big change, industrialization.

A great deal has been written about the causes of the Industrial Revolution. But surely a necessary, if not sufficient, condition was that people who made fortunes be able to enjoy them in peace. One piece of evidence is what happened to countries that tried to return to the old model, like the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent Britain under the labor governments of the 1960s and early 1970s. Take away the incentive of wealth, and technical innovation grinds to a halt.

People still steal to get rich, and even more people make many movies and write many books about stealing, along with efforts to thwart thieves. Making stuff people want is, again, an under-explored avenue. It’s also harder to represent dramatically. The movie The Social Network does this successfully, albeit at the expense of accuracy; most of the important parts of Facebook actually happened in the heads of Zuckerberg and other programmers, not in interpersonal drama.

Still, The Social Network works as a movie, and it does something very different than yet another version of Fast & Furious, which is about sex, power, tribal loyalty, and blowing shit up—like most movies (sample from the link: “Like any reasonable person, I watch the Fast and the Furious film franchise primarily for its insights into moral philosophy and political economy. At a fundamental level, the franchise is about what Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard identifies in The Sources of Normativity as the ‘intractable conflicts” that arise from our conflicting practical identities'”). I like Solar despite its flaws in part because the protagonist, Michael, makes his money and gains status by discovering something that may turn out to be essential in solar panels.

Solar and The Social Network don’t deploy straightforward sex / family plots, and that’s refreshing. They’re part of an answer to the question of what happens in a world where you can, if you have sufficient skill or are sufficiently desirable, sleep with anyone who’ll have you? Because that’s the world most people above the age of 18 or 19 find themselves in. Marriage rates are dropping. Arguably the most interesting parts about marriage and children right now are economic: what’s happening with alimony and child support, and how those issues affect behavior and emotions.

Moreover, for the highly sexually experienced—people who’ve had their share of three-ways, sex work, group sex, etc.—the sex plot is going to be dull. Juvenile. If you’ve slept with five people in a week, agonizing over who you’re going to sleep with for the rest of your life isn’t going to seem that important. It’s going to be more important that you find someone who loves you but who also has an sufficient level of adventure compatibility. Arguably a more interesting question is what it takes to be a highly desirable person, which a lot of romance novels appear to be exploring (strangely enough) and how to become that desirable person if you aren’t already. Becoming the sort of person who can get the man / woman / men / women of your dreams is often more interesting than the immediate process of getting him / her / them.

Sex plots need a sense of the sacred attached to sex, along with the dangers of pregnancy that can be ameliorated by IUDs and other forms of birth control. Danger used to generate sacredness. Most people today still don’t want their significant others to sleep with random people, even though many obviously do anyway, but taking away or reducing the risk of pregnancy also reduces the fear and risk of affairs or multiple partners. One reason Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs) got written is not just because of the affairs Plump and her husband have, but because he knocks up the other woman, or the other woman deliberately gets knocked up by him. Women tend to fear that their man will impregnate another woman and thus split his resources / time / affection, and men tend to fear that their woman will be impregnated by another man and thus stick them with the costs of raising another man’s child. While these fears can obviously be alleviated by the judicious use of birth control, not everyone is diligent about birth control and deeply seated fears aren’t always allayed by modern technologies laid over atavistic drives.

The highly adventurous and experienced probably don’t represent a hugely overwhelming portion of the general population, but they probably represent a portion that is either growing or coming out of the closet. Through divorce and other means, many people are already leading a serially monogamous and/or hypocritically adventurous life, though perhaps because they are bad at anticipating what temptation and desire feel like in the moment and good at rationalizing. The only thing missing is intellectual honesty, which may itself be rarer than fidelity.

There will probably always be challenges in admitting to fantasies or taboo desires, and it will probably always be difficult to find another person with roughly similar tastes, predilections, and preferences, but I’m not sure how easy it is to build a novel around those ideas. That question might be best answered in novel form.

Once you get away from the sex plot, where do novels go? Martha McPhee’s Dear Money is one successful recent example. Cryptonomicon is another. Solar, which I mentioned before, is a third. Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is a fourth. More writers need to get this memo, and more readers need to use their attention to direct writers towards topics that matter instead of those that have been exhausted by the tradition.

Further discussion:

* Sexting and society: How do writers respond? Sample:

Questions like “What happens when people do things sexually that they’re not supposed to? How does the community respond? How do they respond?” are the stuff novelists feed on. They motivate innumerable plots, ranging from the beginnings of the English novel at Pamela and Clarissa all the way to the present.

Pamela and Clarissa are interesting as historical documents, but it’s not easy to project the modern mind backward into the dilemmas of someone with a very different set of social and intellectual concerns.

Links: Unmastered: a bad sex memoir, the humanities in life, bikes, housing, happiness, and more

* “Lust Never Sleeps: An academic’s sexual memoir puts the ire in desire;” sample: “Once in a while a book appears that’s so bad you want it to be a satire. If you set out to produce a parody of postfeminist mumbo jumbo, adolescent narcissism, excruciating erotic overshares, pseudopoetry, pretentious academic jargon, and shopworn and unshocking ‘dirty talk,’ you could not do better than Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell.” I bought Katherine Angel’s Unmastered on the strength of an interesting interview and returned it after a few pages of reading and casually flipping through the remainder. I was hoping for something like Bentley’s The Surrender and sadly didn’t get it.

* This Is How to Leak to the Press Today; parts are overwrought: “With the recent revelation that the Department of Justice under the Obama administration secretly obtained phone records for Associated Press journalists — and previous subpoenas by the Bush administration targeting the Washington Post and New York Times — it is clear that whether Democrat or Republican, we now live in a surveillance dystopia beyond Orwell’s Big Brother vision,” but the how-to is accurate.

* “The Humanist Vocation;” I would add that the humanities are extremely important, but the humanities as currently practiced in most university settings are not, and the distinction is a key one for understanding why many people may be turning away from them.

* “Own Your Neighborhood: The real-estate crowdfunding scheme that could revolutionize urban policy by destroying stupid NIMBYism.”

* Alan Jacobs: “Am I a Conservative?” Notice that he does not see the contemporary Republican party as being particularly conservative; his second and third reasons are more interesting than his first.

* The U.S. has become the kind of nation from which you have to seek asylum—that is, the kind of nation you hide from, not go to for protection.

* A Prolonged Depression Is A Poor Affordable Housing Policy.

* The Netherlands is swamped by bikes, which is pretty cool.

* AAA says that the TCO of a car is $9,000 a year.

* The secret to Danish happiness; not all lessons transfer but I take Citi Bike (for which I’ve signed up) and similar efforts as a small step in a positive direction.

Concern trolling, competition, and “Facebook Made Me Do It”

In “Facebook Made Me Do It,” Jenna Wortham says that she was innocently browsing Instagram and saw

a photo of my friend in a hotel room, wearing lime green thong underwear and very little else. It was scandalous, arguably over the top for a photo posted in public where, in theory, anyone who wanted would be able to see it. But people loved it. It had dozens of likes as well as some encouraging comments.

Of course it had dozens of likes and some encouraging comments: as should be obvious, a lot of men like seeing nude and semi-nude women. So do a lot of women; I read the quoted section to my fiancée and she said, “they like it because it’s hot.”

No shit.

So why does Wortham use language that lightly chastises the anonymous thong-wearer-and-poster? What do “arguably over the top” and “scandalous” mean here? Perhaps in 1890 it was scandalous to see women in their underwear. Today one sees women effectively in their underwear on beaches, catalogs, billboards, the Internet, and, not uncommonly, the Internet.

Since it’s not actually a scandal to see a woman in a thong and “arguably over the top” doesn’t really say anything, I think there are separated, unstated reasons related to competition and to a term coined by the Internet: “concern trolling.”

Concern trolling happens when

A person who lurks, then posts, on a site or blog, expressing concern for policies, comments, attitudes of others on the site. It is viewed as insincere, manipulative, condescending.

In this case, it happens on the Internet, and Wortham is expressing faux concern about a friend, when she’s really saying that a) she doesn’t like that the friend can take a shortcut to Instagram fame and attention through posting hot lingerie shots and b) she doesn’t like the friend as a sexual competitor. A friend who does or says something more sexually adventurous than the observer or writer is “over the top” because she’s a competitor; a friend who is less adventurous is uptight. Those kinds of words and phrases only make sense relative to the person using them, and they’re both used to derogate rivals, just in different ways.

Wortham doesn’t want to say as much, however, for an innocuous reason—she only has so many words available, as she writes in the New York Times instead of a blog, and for a less salubrious reason: she wants readers to believe that she’s writing from the voice of God, or the arbiter of culture, or something like that, and has widely shared views on community standards that the friend in the hotel room should uphold. If she explains that the views she’s espousing are really her own, and that they reflect sexual and attention competition in the form of concern trolling.

There’s a term of art that describes Wortham’s problem: “Don’t hate the player—hate the game.” Wortham is, in a highbrow and subtle way, hating the player.

The concern trolling continues later in the article, when Wortham quotes a professor saying, “The fact that the world is going to see you increases the risks you are willing to take.” But there’s no evidence cited for this claim, and, moreover, in the context of the article it’s possible to substitute “fun you’re going to have” for “risks you are willing to take.” Given a choice between inviting Wortham or her friend who posts herself to Instagram in a green thong to a party, and I know who I’m going to invite.

Rereading Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity

I still laughed aloud many times at High Fidelity, although the jokes are almost all context-dependent and so can’t be quoted without causing a quizzical look that says, “You really think that’s funny?” Flipping through it doesn’t yield anything obvious, but I kept smiling at many moments. This is the closest I can get:

There were some nights with Laura when I’d kind of nestle into her back in bed when she was asleep, and I’d be filled with this enormous, nameless terror, except now I have a name for it: Brian. Ha, ha. OK, not really a name, but I can see where it came from, and why I wanted to sleep with Rosie the pain-in-the-arse simultaneous orgasm woman, and if that sounds feeble and self-serving at the same time—oh, right! He sleeps with other women because he has a fear of death!—well, I’m sorry, but that’s the way things are.

Rob’s voice and attitude carry the book, as does the writing, which is largely about nothing yet still moves rapidly from incident to incident, creating plot, which is easily overlooked in novels like this, such as Wilson’s Flatscreen. The continuous happening in the plot contrasts with the non-happening in many of the characters’ lives.

There are moments of astute observation too, as when Laura says “sometimes you need someone to lob into the middle of a bad relationship like a hand grenade and blow it all apart.” Which is true, even if the hand grenade is often made out to be the bad guy (or girl) in the relationship. Often the grenade is the bad guy. But sometimes he (or she) is the catalyst for doing what should have been done long before. When big, life-changing transitions stop happening on a regular basis, (from high school to college, college to grad school and/or work), it becomes distressingly easy to slip into a single path and lose the willingness necessary to make radical changes, whether in work, the mind, or love.

Rob basically knows as much:

None of us is young anymore, but what has just taken place could have happened when I was sixteen, or twenty, or twenty-five. We got to adolescence and just stopped dead; we drew up the map then and left the boundaries exactly as they were.

Life changes even if you don’t. This should be obvious. It takes Laura to tell him what he should already know; when Rob asks “So what should I be doing?”, she replies:

I don’t know. Something. Working. Seeing people. Running a scout troop, or running a club even. Something more than waiting for life to change and keeping your options open. You’d keep your options open for the rest of your life, if you could. You’d be lying on your deathbed, dying of some smoking-related disease, and you’ll be thinking, ‘Well, at least I’ve kept my options open.’

She’s right. Whatever else you’re doing, you should be doing something. But Rob doesn’t, mostly, and as a result his problems are largely self-imposed. He says:

It’s only beginning to occur to me that it’s important to have something going on somewhere, at work or at home, otherwise you’re just clinging on. [. . .] You need as much ballast as possible to stop you from floating away; you need people around you, things going on, otherwise life is like some film where the money ran out, and it’s just one bloke on his own staring into the camera with nothing to do and nobody to speak to, and who’d believe in this character then?

Rob lacks that intellectual ballast. He only listens to music and doesn’t play; at his level of obsession, connoisseurship and taste should pale compared to making (Rob hooks up with an American singer named Marie and says of her place, “thrillingly, there are two guitars leaning against the wall.” He could have two guitars leaning against his wall, although I think one would suffice). Still, I am struck by the extent to which many YouTube videos can be reduced to “one block on his own staring into the camera with nothing to do,” except talk to an audience that isn’t present. Jenna Marbles is a useful approximation of this idea.

There are moments of poignance and useful articulations of the obvious, as when Rob says:

You run the risk of losing anyone who is worth spending time with, unless you are so paranoid about loss that you choose someone unlosable, somebody who could not possibly appeal to anyone else at all.

Being overly fearful of loss increases the likelihood of loss, and Rob is disproportionately anxious. As a college student dating Charlie Rob is “fretful about my abilities as a lover,” and fifteen or so years later he is still fretful about his abilities as a lover. Eventually shouldn’t he just let the anxiety go and figure out what he’s doing? Though he apparently hasn’t in his economic life so perhaps his love and economic lives reflect each other. Rob is a sort of what-not-to-do when it comes to women. He even says, “There are still enough of the old-style, big-mouthed, self-opinionated egomaniacs around to make someone like me appear refreshingly different.” That might work for him, but the big-mouthed egomaniacs are the way they are because what they do tends to work (link is text but potentially NSFW).

For a guy who thinks a lot about his love life, and pop songs that are almost entirely about love, sex, and romance, Rob appears to know very little about actual women. Most pop culture, however, appears to be highly misleading on this score, which may explain why a pop-culture junkie like Rob is or has been highly misled. People who don’t make a concerted effort to learn about actual women. But this is true of much narrative art, especially American narrative art.

In my reading over the last few days, I’m struck by how much more pathetic Rob seems: as I said before, his problems are largely self-imposed, or imposed by his personality, and the solutions also must come from within. Rob fears the women he’s attracted to, like a fifteen-year-old; he goes to a small gig where Marie plays and afterwords she sells CDs: “We all buy one from her, and to our horror she speaks to us.” Most guys are happy to be talking to the people they’re attracted to, and the same obviously applies to women.

In addition, High Fidelity feels like a period piece: Rob owns a record store in an era when CDs and records are mainstream, and people who want to hear a particular song must track down a physical copy of it. Though I was born into that era it feels very long ago and foreign. So does the difficulty of getting ahold of people through the phone. The default state of more people as “alone” then. Computers are almost totally absent. It also feels highly PC, as when Rob recounts “a terribly unsound joke” that is only mildly funny and not really offensive. Why qualify it by saying that it’s “terribly unsound” when it’s not and when interesting humor by its nature is “unsound,” using Rob’s definition?

Why You Shouldn’t Trust Yelp Reviews

My Dad moved on Saturday, and the experience was horrible: the nominal “company” lied about whether the movers were employees or contractors, the movers themselves were inept and late, and they damaged a piece of furniture.

On Sunday my Dad wrote a nasty e-mail to the owner about the experience. On Monday he hadn’t heard anything, so he posted a scathing Yelp review. This afternoon—Tuesday—someone from the company called and said they’d refund the money if he took down the Yelp review.

My Dad paid $1,400 for the move. I hate to repeat myself, but it’s worth contemplating: The moving company found that a single negative Yelp review could be worth $1,400.

Why? As far as we can tell, the moving company consists of a guy with a telephone and a Yelp rating. He hires crews and rents trucks. If he loses his Internet ratings, he’s cooked.

Nonetheless, the important lesson for people on the Internet is that you shouldn’t trust Yelp and similar reviews.

One could argue that my Dad shouldn’t accept money to take down the review, but, as he observed, he’s not out to save the world from crappy movers.

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