Briefly noted: The Great Man — Kate Christensen

The Great Man is one of the best novels I’ve read recently; it should be cited more often. Almost every page delights. It’s the sort of novel I should hate but yet don’t. A longer essay on it is coming, but it’s coming far behind work on Asking Anna, a novel of mine you’ll see more about shortly, and work-for-money. Nonetheless here is one characteristic passage from early in the novel:

“Please sit down,” said Teddy; she intended it as a command. She wasn’t impressed by Henry. She guessed he was forty or thereabouts. He looked like a lightweight, the kind of young man you saw everywhere these days, gutless and bland. He wore soft cotton clothing, a little rumpled from the heat and long drive in the car—she would have bet it was a Volvo. She could smell domesticity on him, the technologically up-to-date apartment on the Upper West Side, the ambitious, hard-edged wife—women were the hard ones at that age. Men turned sheepish and eager to please after about forty. Oscar had been the same way; he’d turned into a bit of hangdog at around forty and hadn’t fully regained his chutzpah until he’d hit fifty or so, but even then, she had never lost interest in him, and she was still interested in him now, even though he was gone.

We learn more about Teddy than about the stages of life and yet she, like almost every character, is half right half the time. One could spend an hour well on this paragraph in a fiction-writing class.

Briefly noted: The Monogamy Gap — Eric Anderson

Any book that claims rigor but approvingly cites Michel Foucault undermines its claim to rigorousness. While the subject of The Monogamy Gap is interesting, the book draws on 120 interviews of university men. That’s all. Its conclusions might be mildly useful for understanding that particular group but its claims shouldn’t be applied beyond that tiny group. There are many useful things to be said about monogamy, but most of them have been and are being said by evolutionary biologists, psychologists, novelists, and memoirists (“memoir writers?”), and to a lesser extent economists.

What Camille Paglia said in “Scholars in Bondage” also applies to The Monogamy Gap.

If this is what his admirers think, what do his detractors think?

“Like Austen’s plots, [Henry] James’s lack adventure and suspense. His novels progress at a very slow pace: his characters waver and postpone action interminably, and their conversations revolve awkwardly around unclear goals without ever seeming to reach them.”

That’s from Thomas Pavel’s The Lives of the Novel: A History, which is unlikely to be of interest to non-specialists but is much more interesting than most of its peers in the genre. There are a surprisingly small number of direct quotes and a surprisingly number of plot summaries but I’m going to read to the end. One paragraph also gave me an idea for a novel, which relatively few books do.

I would probably be less even less charitable than Pavel to Henry James, but a lot of old and well-read people say my view of him is likely to change in the future. Nonetheless I am struck by how few non-academics read him.

Love, Actually: Make a move already

After reading a spate of essays about Love, Actually (“Loathe, Actually,” “The Six Cinematic Crimes of ‘Love Actually,’” “Love Actually Is the Least Romantic Film of All Time“) I watched the movie and realized that none of the writers nail what started bothering me halfway through. It isn’t the gender politics of the movie, which are primarily disliked for the usual reason: people in reality behave differently than writers of essays and feminists would like them to behave. It’s because the characters in Love Actually are stuck at age 15.

The movie’s plot is essentially a series of attraction deferments: someone feels attraction, often quite strongly, and then doesn’t act on it. Instead of going up and saying, “Let’s get a drink later” or “let’s see a movie,” they blush and stutter and wonder. One character says, “takes me ages to get the courage up” to even talk to the other one. That’s a real problem I had when I was, say, 15, and would respond to attraction by hiding.

Why do teenagers do this? They’re stuck in a nasty social situation: high school. They’re inexperienced idiots. That described me fairly well.* There also might be good evolutionary reasons to avoid making romantic moves unlikely to be requited: for most of human history, humans lived in relatively small bands, and making a romantic move was probably a potentially dangerous and life-changing experience. Today, it’s relatively minor, and if one person says no you just move on to the next one. Humiliation is minor and generally forgotten by everyone except the person turned down. We live in a world so different than our ancestral environment that it’s hard to remember how poorly adapted we are to modern life.

The above paragraph might be wrong—it’s a just-so story, and I’m not even sure how to test these ideas—but it is plausible. Still, most of us realize what’s effective in modern life and start doing that as we get older, rather than persisting in endless crushes. In many domains a “no” is actually better than not knowing, or a “maybe,” since a “no” means that you can go on to find someone who says “yes.” Getting to “no” has value in itself.

In life most of us realize that missed opportunities just sort of suck—so when they arise, you seize them. Instead, the characters in Love, Actually pointlessly defer them; in real life, the opposing party often comes up with a boyfriend or girlfriend in the interim. But in movie-land, it all works out, and everyone gets laid. The fellow with the hot Portuguese flatmate should’ve tried speaking the language of love while he was there.

One definition of stupidity is the failure to learn from experience. But the experiences of the characters in the movie are so limited that there isn’t enough screen time for the ups and downs more typical of romantic comedies. All the characters, regardless of their age, also seem to have very little life experiences. The 50-year-olds are mentally 16, but with wrinkles. They lack the forthrightness uncommon in teens but fairly common by… let me make up a number and say 24.

Love Actually isn’t a terrible movie—I laughed, sometimes, and frequently when the exasperated, washed-up singer had to do his hilarious bit—but I can’t see wanting to watch it again. It was also British, which meant there were more nude scenes than an equivalent American movie would have, and those are always welcome. I also get that its characters are, if not caricatures, then at least “broadly drawn.”

* Some people would argue that it still does describe me.

Links: Cars and cities, antibiotics and sex, mattresses, universities, writing advice and more

* Cars Kill Cities.

* How to design happier cities.

* Computer science professor leaves, explains the problems with his institution, and doesn’t include the standard false-guilt genuflection. Or, as he puts it, he’s “going feral.”

* How Tuft & Needle is disrupting the wildly corrupt mattress industry; I’d buy from them next time I need a mattress.

* The media doesn’t talk about suicide and statistics about suicide with guns are nonexistent or bad.

* “No Antibiotics, No Sexual Revolution,” or, “how the legal system is holding back medical innovation.” See also Alex Tabarrok’s wonderful and short book Launching the Innovation Renaissance.

* “Are Graduate Students At Private Schools ‘Employees’?” Given the amount and kind of work they do, it’s hard to answer “no.” At the University of Arizona, English grad students taught two classes per semester, for pay—the same amount of teaching professors did.

* “Solving the Shortage in Primary Care Doctors;” see also my essay “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school.”

* Yet another reason why public schools are as fucked up as they are: Student Gets Suspended, Loses Scholarship After Hugging a Teacher.

* The politics of science fiction.

* “Doctors and nurses need to be replaced by computers and robots.”

* “How to Write: A Year in Advice from Franzen, King, Hosseini, and More: Highlights from 12 months of interviews with writers about their craft and the authors they love.” Perhaps the most notable part is the number of people who give opposing or at least semi-contradictory advice. From that we might infer a meta rule: what works for other people won’t necessarily work for you (or me), and there isn’t necessarily a perfectly “right” way to do it.

Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder — Nassim Taleb

The Black Swan is so good that I’ve been running around telling everyone to read it, which naturally led me to its successor, Antifragile. It, by contrast, is an excellent book to get from the library (per this accurate warning) and an excellent book to read skeptically, given its many dubious claims and stories.

Antifragile_coverThe top-level idea of Antifragile is a good one (many random events trade small gains for tremendous losses, and vice-versa; focus on making sure that you can sustain small losses for big gains, which makes you “antifragile,” as opposed to merely “robust”), but rarely have I read a book with such a correct thesis and so many misrepresentations, needless ad-hominem attacks, and dubious stories that may not demonstrate what the author thinks they demonstrate. Many amuse along the way but could have been removed; for a guy who is fond of the term “narrative fallacy,” Taleb is awfully fond of narratives that could be called fallacious.

I meant to write a real review, but I’ve been beaten to it and would direct you instead to the link, where David Runciman does a better job than I’m likely to. If The Black Swan is an unexpectedly fascinating and insightful work with a deceptively simple main idea that is helpfully explained and elaborated on with virtually every page, Antifragile is the sort of book that can be better read through the reviews than the book itself. As noted in the first paragraph, if you feel the need to verify this claim, at least get Antifragile from the library.

Let’s take one small example of a dubious claim: on pages 83 – 84, Taleb tells a parable about two men, one a banker and one a taxi driver. In that parable the taxi driver differs from the banker:

Because of the variability of his income, [the taxi driver]” keeps moaning that he does not have the job security of his brother—but in fact this is an illusion, for he has a bit more. [. . .] Artisans, say, taxi drivers, prostitutes (a very, very old profession), carpenters, plumbers, tailors, and dentists, have some volatility in their income but they are rather robust to a minor professional Black Swan, one that would bring their income to a complete halt.

But taxi drivers are interesting example because we’re approaching the point at which self- driving cars may become common, which would be a major professional Black Swan for taxi drivers. The Industrial Revolution has been hell on “Artisans,” who today still find it very hard to compete with factories. To be sure, the Internet has made it easier for artisans to do their thing by allowing them to sell on their own websites and on aggregators like Etsy, but artisans as a group are never going to be as important as they were in, say, 1700.

There are also paragraphs so stupid that they defy rational explanation:

both governments and universities have done very, very little for innovation and discovery, precisely because, in addition to their blinding rationalism, they look for the complicated, the lurid, the newsworthy, the narrated, the scientistic, and the grandiose, rarely for the wheel on the suitcase. Simplicity, I realized, does not lead to laurels.

Government and universities have been pivotal in everything from computers to nuclear power to medicine, and saying they “have done very, very little for innovation and discovery” is incredibly, stupidly wrong—the sort of wrong that tempts one to disregard the entire rest of the book. It is useful to have outsiders throwing intellectual stones at academic insiders, but only when the outsiders know more than the insiders. In this case, Taleb is just a crank. A few pages later he does qualify the quoted paragraph, but he shouldn’t have written it.

Elsewhere, Taleb writes that “The intellectual today is vastly more powerful and dangerous than before,” which I find flattering but also unlikely; I also suspect many if not most intellectuals would agree with that assessment, given how many of them write lamentations about their lack of influence.

There are moments like this, which is fascinating: “Criticism, for a book, is a truthful, unfaked badge of attention, signaling that it is not boring: and boring is the only very bad thing for a book,” and then Taleb considers books we now admire that were banned or controversial, like Madame Bovary. But he doesn’t consider other highly criticized books that are now shunned for good reason, like Mein Kampf, or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He also doesn’t consider books that are wrong and important and should be relegated to the highly of ideas, like Das Kapital, which still gets read and taken seriously in some academic precincts. All three are bad books for reasons that have been much discussed, and there is something else that can be very bad for a book: it inspires people to steal things from others or hurt others. That’s what all three encourage.

That’s four samples. And yet he also produces gems like “men of leisure become slaves to inner feelings of dissatisfaction and interests over which they have little control.” In many ways I am reminded of Camille Paglia, who also has much to say about the ruthlessness of nature, often mentions prostitutes, and often goes further than her evidence or ideas merit. Yet as far as I and Google know, very few others have observed the connection.

Let’s talk some more about the positive; one chapter in Antifragile, “Skin in the Game,” is an especially important way to assess the world and assess risk. Taleb quotes Hammurabi’s code:

If a builder builds a house and the house collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house—the builder shall be put to death. If it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, a son of the builder shall be put to death. If it causes the death of a slave of the owner of the house—he shall give to the owner of the house a slave of equal value.

Someone who puts people at risk should be at equal risk themselves. CNN just published “Yemen says U.S. drone struck a wedding convoy, killing 14,” in which 14 people were murdered by the United States; they are probably classified internally as “collateral damage” or by some similarly Orwellian euphemism (although “U.S. officials declined to comment on the report,” because why does the truth matter, anyway?). Imagine that those who ordered or authorized the strike would have their own husbands and wives and children killed in proportion to the number of civilians they killed. No one would order such strikes.

Nor would politicians authorize such strikes if the struck could vote, or if CNN and Fox News covered them for weeks or months at a time, as they would if something similar happened in the U.S. As Conor Friedersdorf correctly observed in The Atlantic, “If a Drone Strike Hit an American Wedding, We’d Ground Our Fleet.” But those who are launching the missiles have no skin in the game, to use Taleb’s favored phrase.

If someone does something wrong, what bad thing happens to them? If a doctor screws up too badly, they at least get sued. But if, say, a teacher’s students can’t read or do math, nothing bad happens to them. Long before I read Taleb, I remember explaining to students that, if they emerge from my classes unable to write effectively, nothing bad happens to me—I’ve never heard about a U of Arizona T.A. being fired for incompetence. The only bad things happen to them, in that they won’t be as good at writing or reading as they would be otherwise. That seemed to be a revelation to them: I don’t think they’d considered how they, not their teachers, bear the risks of a lousy education. Those risks are even more pronounced at the high school level, where most public school teachers are unionized and can’t really be fired.

Academia and government share the property of not having much skin in the game. As Taleb says, “An academic is not designed to remember his opinions because he doesn’t have anything at risk from them.” You often don’t get tenure for being right; you get tenure for publishing, regardless of whether what you’ve said is right.

In his books Taleb is weirdly reluctant to address global warming and climate change, which may be the ultimate nonlinear Black Swan system of our age—prone to sudden shocks that may have catastrophic results. There is a brief mention of the issue on page 415 of Antifragile, but he doesn’t discuss the issue in any detail. The collective response of the world to these dangers is to shrug, make minor changes, and hope for the best.

The danger is real and yet almost no one does anything significant to mitigate those challenges—though the risk of catastrophic change is extraordinarily high and the things that could be done to reduce it are relatively easy compared to what may come. Taleb implicitly endorses action when catastrophic risks are high even when probabilities are low in this section:

which is more dangerous, to mistake a bear for a stone, or mistake a stone for a bear? It is hard for humans to make the first mistake; our intuitions make us overreact to the smallest probability of harm and fall for a certain class of false patterns—those who overreact upon seeing what may look like a bear have had a survival advantage, those who made the opposite mistake left the gene pool.

The metaphor is clear, yet he barely addresses, either in The Black Swan or Antifragile, the way we might be making the global climate extremely fragile through our use of fossil fuels. In the U.S., some of the obvious means to mitigate fossil fuel usage, like building denser urban cores or switching towards nuclear power, are barely on the national agenda and, even when they are on the national agenda, they can easily be blocked by short-sighted local NIMBYs. Nuclear power is particularly curious, since coal power emissions kill far more people in the West than any form of nuclear power. But coal kills people slowly, over time, and mostly invisibly; it never ends up in the news, while any problem with nuclear power sears the media’s collective eyes.

Overall, with climate change, we may be mistaking a bear for a stone, and we may collectively pay the price.

Since Taleb has cultivated an outsider’s persona and portrayed himself, often accurately, as a teller of truths no one else wants to hear, or whose logic others attack despite its accuracy, he seems to have decided that attacks on his logic or his perceived truths automatically make his logic or perceived truths correct. But that’s a simple error in itself, since the attacks are not sufficient to show that he is right, and with any much-attacked thinker there is a danger in becoming so impervious to outside criticism that the work suffers. I suspect that Taleb has moved into that latter category, and there may be an interesting psychological meta narrative about how he moved from his initial outsider, but intellectually rigorous position, to a hybrid insider-outsider in which he no longer feels as compelled to write tightly and correctly as he did before fame (justifiably) found him.

Success breeds the danger of surrounding yourself with yes-men, but a good editor should be the opposite and should tell you hard truths that you don’t necessarily want to hear. Taleb, one feels, is not the sort of guy looking for constructive disagreement. Yet despite the mess in the book, some of its ideas are important. If I were a philosopher I’d be more willing to excuse bad writing and a dubious execution. Since I’m not, it’s hard to get past the book’s many moments in which I went, “That’s not right” or “That doesn’t belong.” But Antifragile also can’t be dismissed outright, because some of its ideas are important and rarely discussed. Given the form those ideas take, I doubt they will get the attention they deserve.

Links: Artists, sex, utility, antibiotics, books, hypocrisy, and more!

* From Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen, and thus perhaps more cerebral and less salacious than might be otherwise expected: “Why don’t people have more sex?

* A lesson we have to learn, over and over again: “Not everyone is going to like the thing you made, and that’s okay:”

Consider this, about having perspective on criticism: If you enjoyed making a thing, and you’re proud of the thing you made, that’s enough. Not everyone is going to like it, and that’s okay. And sometimes, a person who likes your work and a person who don’t will show up within milliseconds of each other to let you know how they feel. One does not need to cancel out the other, positively or negatively; if you’re proud of the work, and you enjoyed the work, that is what’s important.Don’t let the fear of not pleasing someone stop you from being creative.

(The main situation in which it’s not okay is when a person acts as a gatekeeper or has the ability to block forward progress if they don’t like your work; this is a major and under-discussed problem in academia.)

* Why don’t French books sell abroad?

* “When We Lose Antibiotics, Here’s Everything Else We’ll Lose Too.” We’re losing antibiotics.

* Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) of Tennessee’s preschool program show that preschool doesn’t appear to improve the later school performance of those enrolled, or much of anything else.

* On the good news front: “Fed up with slow and pricey Internet, cities start demanding gigabit fiber.”

* “Overall, we Americans have a stronger attachment to U.S. dominance than to fair play or anyone’s rights.”

* An interview with the author, essayist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn; this is especially useful:

I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs. I don’t think people should be allowed to even hear the word “theory” until they’re doing graduate work—for the very good reason that it’s impossible to theorise about texts before one has deep familiarity with them (not that that stopped anyone in the 1980s when I was in grad school). Undergraduates should be taught to have a clean appreciation of what texts say and how they say them, and learn how to write intelligently and clearly about that. If undergraduates had to have a model of criticism it ought to be popular criticism rather than traditional academic criticism.

* “The Stem and the Flower,” or, the distressing politicization of everyday life.

* This quote does not come from the sort of source you would expect it to come from: “When the history of how the United States became a dystopian, surveillance state is written no one will be able to say that we were not warned.”

* “The Other Side of the Story: When I was fourteen, I had a relationship with my eighth grade history teacher. People called me a victim. They called him a villain. But it’s more complicated than that.” This may tie into the first link in this list.

Politics and pernicious expectations

Last month there was a long and mostly stupid discussion about “The Cheapest Generation,” and in the long and mostly stupid discussion someone mentioned delaying having children and that “everyone i know considers the world far too precarious to start a family.” I replied and said that, “By virtually every metric, the world is a much safer, healthier place than it used to be, as Steven Pinker observes in The Better Angels of our Nature. Someone else replied, “Safer? Yes. Healthier? Yes. Stable? No. Between income/job volatility and lack of proper social safety nets (at least in the US), its a dangerous gamble to start a family unless you’re in the right situation.”

I don’t know what “the right situation” is, but I think that person underestimates just how hard most people have worked throughout history and how low their material expectations were—and, by contrast, how high they are now. If you expect two cars, a large house with a room for each child and a spare room too, in a sweet coastal city location like L.A., San Francisco, or Seattle, then yeah, things are tough (though much of that is because of land-use policy, not because of “intrinsic” how prices). If you have lower expectations, however, it’s possible to move to Texas, buy a $140,000 house that maybe isn’t in the world’s best location but is okay, and has room for kids but maybe not tons of extra space, then things aren’t all that expensive. The “right” situation is much cheaper.

Most of the commentariat, however, is looking at NYC / L.A. / Seattle / etc., and wants the “best” schools, and wants a BMW, and interesting vacations to foreign countries, and, and, and… all those things add up. If you radically scale back expectations, a lot of things become more possible. If you realize what people use to expect, your expectations might change too. My grandparents barely escaped the Holocaust and, according to family lore, never really made it to the American middle class. Tales of living in Minneapolis without heat in the winter were and are common.

Along similar lines, Megan McArdle tells this story:

My grandfather worked as a grocery boy until he was 26, in the depths of the Great Depression. For six years, he supported a wife on that salary — and no, it’s not because You Used To Be Able To Support A Family On A Grocery Boy’s Wages Until These Republicans Ruined Everything. He and my grandmother moved into a room in his parents’ home, cut a hole through the wall for their stovepipe and set up housekeeping. They got married on Thanksgiving, because that was the only day he could get off. My grandmother spent six years carefully piecing his tiny salary into envelopes — so much for food, for rent, for gasoline for the car he needed to get eight miles into town. And they stayed married for 67 years, until my grandfather’s death in 2004.

“We didn’t have a dramatic increase in unwed childbearing back in the Great Depression,” sociologist Brad Wilcox told me. “That’s in part because we had a very different understanding of family life and sex and marriage back then. That tells us that it’s not just economic. It’s also about culture and law.”

By modern standards that sounds really crappy, but McArdle’s grandparents managed to have kids and be more-or-less okay in material conditions that would strike most contemporary Americans as being at a level of shocking privation. Yet the commenters above mention “income/job volatility” without noting that, in many circumstances, we have very high incomes—we just choose to spend them instead of save them (Note that I’m guilty of this too and am not throwing stones from my own glass house). In an environment of low or zero growth, or highly uneven growth, that may be a tremendous problem, and the problem has individual and political components—and responses.

To return to McArdle, this time in “How to Put the Brakes on Consumers’ Debt:”

[. . .] this is a conflict between what Walter Russell Mead calls the blue social model and the red-state world where Ramsey lives and finds most of his listeners. We can quibble about this or that [. . . ] But what it boils down to is that Olen thinks that rising economic insecurity calls for a massive expansion of the blue social model, while Ramsey thinks it calls for getting more entrepreneurial and adjusting your lifestyle to meet reduced income expectations. How well you think this works is probably closely connected to where you live.

(Emphasis added)

The whole piece is worth reading, but I think the debate between the two gurus McArdle cites is actually about a large-scale public response to current conditions versus how a particular individual or family should respond. Olen is arguing politics; Ramsey is arguing personal. I also think we’re going to see this change: “But for blue-state professionals, that’s something close to suggesting that they should abandon their kids in the street (or have them take out $150,000 in student loans, which is not much better). The social norm is that you send your kid to the best college he or she can get into, by any means necessary,” because for one thing I’m not convinced any school is worth $150,000 in student loans. Maybe one could make that argument for the very, very elite schools, but not many others.

The problem with arguing for a political response is that most individuals can’t do much on their own to change policies. But they can decide to say, “No, I can’t afford that house or vacation or dinner or whatever.” I also suspect that very few individuals have any coherent idea about how public policies work, as Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter shows. My own pet peeve is urban land use controls, since those raise prices by preventing new development, but very few people connect high prices with supply limits. That’s basic econ, but almost no one acknowledges it. If we collectively can’t even understand that, I’m not optimistic about Olen-style political solutions. Those mostly seem to boil down to taking a lot of money and dumping it into systems and institutions that aren’t necessarily working all that well.

Education is one of those systems, and I suspect that a basic idea is taking hold: a lot of higher education has become increasingly exploitive over time, with student loans fueling the binge. There is very little incentive for most institutions to say, “We’re going to forget about a diversity department staff and counseling staff and subsidizing dorms, and we’re just going to provide professors, classrooms, and labs, and you buy the rest, unsubsidized, if you want to.” We’re going to see some non-elite schools go for radical cost reductions, and we’ll see if people go for them. If the price is good enough they might.

In the meantime, lots of people are moving to places like Texas, where land controls are low. On average they’re leaving places like New York and California. For people with medium or low incomes and high material expectations, that totally makes sense. Historically speaking, I think it’s easy to forget high low material expectations were: until recently, houses were shockingly smaller than they are today. In 1975 the median new home was 1,535 square feet, and now it’s 2,169 square feet—even as family size and children-per-woman has been declining.

To return to the original point in the first paragraph of this post, job volatility might not matter so much for someone who decides to live in a 1,535 square foot house instead of a 2,169 square foot house, and that basic dynamic can be extrapolated across a range of purchases. Most of us, however, ask ourselves, “Why not take the Vicuna?” Then we complain when the world doesn’t conform to our material expectations.

%d bloggers like this: