Life: The meaning of life edition

“Their protest often reduces salvation to the idle contemplation of one’s own inner void; to them, even the merest search for a remedy is a form of complicity with the alienating situation. On the contrary, the only possible salvation demands an active and practical involvement with the situation. Man works, produces a world of objects, and inevitably alienates himself to them. But then he rids himself of his alienation by accepting those objects, by committing himself to them, and, instead of annihilating them, by negating them in the name of transformation, aware that at every transformation he will again find himself confronting the same dialectic situation. . .

If he chooses instead to withdraw into himself and to cultivate his own purity and spiritual independence, he will find not salvation but annihilation. He cannot transcend alienation by refusing to compromise himself in the objective situation that emerges out of his work.”

—Umberto Eco, The Open Work

Guest Post: I Was Customer Number One for Uber Fresh Yesterday!

This post is by my Dad, Isaac Seliger.

It’s hard to be first at anything in America, but yesterday I was the very first Uber Fresh lunch delivery customer. Uber, which is of course taking on the taxi cartels with reasonable success, is trying to become something like a local Amazon–delivering restaurant meals, late-night rolling papers and condoms, for example, or taking the dog to the groomer, and so on. Since no one—including Uber or Amazon—actually knows how to do this, Uber chose this week to test the lunch delivery market in my neighborhood, Downtown Santa Monica.

Downtown SaMo,* as we locals call it, is Santa Monica’s version of the East Village, where Jake lives now, Capitol Hill in Seattle, where he once lived. Which is to say, the area is composed of lots of apartment buildings occupied either by young hipsters like Jake or geezers like me, but few people in between, since the in-betweeners are in prime family time. In Santa Monica, lots of earnest bars selling hand-crafted $12 cocktails ($15 in the East civet pixVillage), $20 small plates of roasted beets and kale, and $5 cups of pour-over coffee. The tragically hip Funnel Mill coffee shop two blocks from me actually sells $90/cup Kopi Luwak Civet Shit coffee, which Jake and I did not try when he last visited.

In short Downtown SaMo is perfect to test Uber Fresh. This week Uber is testing is a single lunch selection from a local restaurant each day, starting yesterday, which is delivered for $12—including the Uber driver’s cut. At 11:30 AM I placed my order using the Uber app and, as promised, the Uber guy showed up within ten minutes. That’s a big improvement on most delivery, which can take anywhere from ten minutes to an hour to never.

Unlike ordering from Eat24 or GrubHub, however, the Uber driver won’t come upstairs, so I met him at the curb. To me this is a big negative: by the time I overcome inertia sufficiently to get myself together to go downstairs, I might as well continue out the door to the dozens of takeout places within a few blocks of me. Death to inconvenience! That could be the rallying cry of a lot of modern consumer-facing startups. It’s not a bad tagline for my own company, Seliger + Associates.

Anyway, the driver turned out to be the typical Uber driver with an an odd, vaguely Eastern European name and accent, accompanied by an Uberette in her late 20s. She popped out of car with a big smile and a free cookie and declared I was the very first Uber Fresh delivery! It helps that the Uber Development Office is nearby.

But how was the food? The lunch was from Tender Greens, an LA-based salad bar chain, which is okay but not exciting. This described lunch, which consisted of a cup of tepid chicken soup, an ordinary Caesar Salad, and, in my case, a very tasty cookie. The best part the container: a nifty black Uber bag. Sort of a party favor or “party favorite,” as Jake’s younger sister used to call them when she was about four.

uber_bag-1148Although being Customer Numero Uno was interesting, I wouldn’t rush to order Uber Fresh again anytime soon. The food was kind of meh, fairly expensive at $12 and, since I had to go downstairs anyway, I could have walked to about 20 lunch places in ten minutes. As a business, the single-meal option is interesting but also problematic given the target demographic, since just about every resident of SaMo (or the East Village or Capitol Hill), except me, has some kind of food concern/issue, and most will want a vegan/gluten free/non-GMO or something alternative. Jake doesn’t like simple carbs, for example. But, as Joe Bob Briggs likes to say, you might want to check it out.

* [Jake’s note: They do?]

Links: Margins, the movie biz, Norman Rush, cheating, diet, methane

* “Let’s talk about margins” is a beautiful essay about much more than its obvious topic, though margins are indeed important and I thought a lot about the margins for physical copies of Asking Anna. Some of the best-designed paperbacks I’ve seen, ever, are the New York Review of Books books, so I decided to mimic their margins. CreateSpace’s paper quality is not as high and their binding not quite as good but I wanted to approximate the experience of that series. The Vintage Contemporaries series also has high-quality design; here is one discussion of the covers. My edition of Bad Behavior is a Vintage Contemporary, although apparently it is now under another imprint. Excellent Sheep has weirdly shitty paper quality, given the subject and sense of historical vision.

I think Steve Jobs would have liked “Let’s talk about margins.”

* “Last Call: The end of the printed newspaper,” and this is not good.

* “If Video is Booming, Why are Revenues Evaporating?“, or, is the video business becoming more like the book business but with prettier principals?

Handsome New York City pig on a leash

Handsome New York City pig on a leash

* There is a remarkably specious and stupid NYT article called “Teaching Is Not a Business,” whose subtext is, “We should keep doing things the way we have always done things and will always do things.” Good luck with that. The programs David L. Kirp cites at the end of the article are particularly hilarious to anyone who has worked on or in them.

* Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison.

* Relatedly, Have the cops gotten too good at catching criminals?

* On Norman Rush; Mating is one of the best novels I’ve read. Subtle Bodies, not so much. Notice: “Ideas in fiction are more potent when they don’t come armored against their own contradictions.” The same is often true in nonfiction. You often don’t have to pick a side, especially in arguments about fundamental values.

* Dubious source, but, “Think men are the unfaithful sex? A study shows WOMEN are the biggest cheats – they’re just better at lying about it.”

* Hard science about diet: What makes us fat.

* Methane is seeping from the sea floor, in what may turn out to be the most important news, possibly ever.

* Body normalization, good luck! Though I don’t perceive it as meant as a political statement.

* Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra, pre-ordered based on the review.

Briefly Noted: “The Fever” — Megan Abbott

I’ve already reviewed The Fever—it’s just under the title Dare Me, with its similar subject matter (high-school girls, transformation, darkness in women, sexuality) and style (half-knowing, unwilling to admit, chopped up narrative). This is not a criticism, Dare Me readers who want more of the same will find The Fever delivers. Like Dare Me the principle concern is female rivalry over high-status guys and female judgment of each other’s sexuality. I won’t say it’s a critique of those topics, though it could be read that way. It could also be seen as a commentary on the eternal conflict between children and parents.

Similarity is not always a bad thing—Elmore Leonard’s many caper novels consistently delivered similar characters, styles, and plots, and again that could be read as weakness or strength as he played with variations around a central concern or set of concerns (which I read as coolness and silence—subjects for an academic paper yet to be written).

the_feverThere is a Paglian tinge to Abbott’s last two novels (sample: “In the school’s hallways, Tom could see it: Gabby carried the glamour of experience, like a dark queen with a bloody train trailing behind.” Unlikely, but poetic, and it tells us about Tom’s overwrought perspective). They may be of less interest to those far from high school or offspring in high school. Abbot is willing to probe darkness in a way rarely seen in TV or movies, which tend to lag books by decades in terms of their willingness to portray what lurks within. Even the better TV stations like HBO and Showtime need to appeal to “Heads of Households,” which explains why the teen series tend to be on network TV or basic cable.

There are comparisons to be made with Caitlin Flanagan, and Abbott wins them; Flanagan’s book Girl Land was published in only 2012 and already the hardcover is justifiably available for $.01 from Amazon. I think I read a library copy. Both the Flanagan essays and the Abbott novels show how little we tend to know about things when we’re young and have no context or framework for understanding them. One could argue that the knowledge for understanding the world is out there, and most teenagers choose not to access it. This leads to confusion. That confusion is reproduced to good effect in the narrative voice and structure of The Fever:

I’m next, Deenie thinks, a few minutes and it’ll be me.
If only she’d gotten it over with a year ago. But she’d heard about how much it hurt and no one else had done it yet, at least not anyone she knew.
Now she’s one of the last one.

The tense moves from present to past back to present, with the “it” deliberately ambiguous in that it sounds like sexuality but may actually be the fever of the title. Naturally hypocrisy appears too, with slightly incestuous overtones, when Eli thinks that “Since then, he could only ever think about his sister, one wall away. And how he hoped Deenie never did things like this. With guys like him.” To be thinking about his sister in this context seems like a mistake of focus. About some things there is little to say; people are people and want what they want, as teenagers are probably taught not to know or admit. The characters are also mostly ignorant: Deenie thinks, “Why did everything have to be about sex, she wondered. Didn’t it make a lot more sense that it was something else?” She hasn’t read or probably even heard of evolutionary biology or Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. I hadn’t either in high school, and I don’t remember my first introduction, but I do know that a couple books on the subject made a lot of previously puzzling behavior fall into place. It’s true that not everything is about sex but so much is about it because we’ve evolved to pay close attention to matters relating to survival and reproduction.

Simple principles give rise to dizzyingly complex behaviors and patterns. Deenie doesn’t know that and in some ways her society conspires with her towards ignorance. One reading of Abbott’s last two novels could be as a move from utter ignorance to slightly greater knowledge. Jealousy is a perpetual companion because there are so few real status ladders to climb in high school (“Everything was so easy for Skye, with her older boyfriends, the way her aunt bought her cool old-time lingerie from vintage shops, the strip of birth control pills she once unfurled for them like candy.”) Skye, however, probably doesn’t think things are easy for Skye, but few high schoolers have the ability to get out of their own heads and into the heads of their companions. The last two paragraphs may be unfair, like saying that Faulkner is merely writing about the machinations of slack-jawed southern yokels who need education and functioning political infrastructure, but there is also some accuracy to them.

The question of whether the fever has supernatural, psychological, microbiological, or other origins does get resolved, but its mechanics are dubious.

Being a dumbass: My experience as “The Underchallenged ‘Lazy Teenager'”

The Underchallenged ‘Lazy Teenager:’ Plenty of time to play videogames but not for school work. Here’s how to help the ‘lost boys‘” describes me from ages 10 – 14 or so. My Dad sent it to me, and he said that it describes me pretty well, because I was hard to motivate. This may also give me greater empathy and compassion for late bloomers than people who are high achievers—at least superficially—for their entire lives.

In middle and high school I had middling to terrible grades and failed or almost failed classes. Had you considered the 8th or 9th grade version of me you wouldn’t necessarily have seen a promising future. My parents were aware that middle and high schoolers who don’t do tolerably well in school tend to have not-bright futures, and they did a lot to try and get me to not be a dumbass. Some of the things they tried were not real successful and others were counterproductive, but it wasn’t easy to figure out why I wanted to play StarCraft and read pulp fantasy novels to the detriment of virtually everything else in my life. (Now I realize, too, that my parents were struggling with their own problems, mostly financial and social in nature, and did not have endless resources or energy to probe the psychological state of a thirteen or fourteen year old; teenagers are not known for their empathy skills. Still, as my Dad said recently, he couldn’t get me in part because he didn’t know why I behaved as I did. He was a very motivated student, primarily because he came from a blue-collar, immigrant family and the alternatives to school were highly visible and utterly dreadful.)

If this were a novel I’d have a tidy resolution and motivation for why I was the way I was, but I don’t. I don’t really know what was going on. Part of that is because our past selves become strangers, ever more poorly remembered over time. Clearly I was a depressed, unhappy loner and had a strong inferiority complex—but why? In an objective sense things were pretty good, or could have been, and I had a higher material standard of living and better safety than at least 90% of humanity. In some sense I knew there were children starving in Africa. For whatever reason I was unhappy about moving from California to Washington when I was ten, but normal kids are unhappy about new places and schools for a couple months, then they make new friends and get over themselves. Instead I stewed for half a decade.

The best I can say is that I didn’t care about school or much of anything at the time. I didn’t have a strong sense of the future, or that the future would be better than the present. Video games and fantasy novels provided an alternative life in the present. None of that, however, explains why I wouldn’t do the very small amount of school work that would’ve made a lot of things much easier. Some questions have no real answer and the “why” of my behavior from 10 – 14 or so may be one of them.

The odd thing, too, is that high school wasn’t challenging. Doing a modicum of homework and studying—on the order of 20 minutes a day—would’ve yielded straight As, or close to it (as I did as a junior and senior).* That would’ve made my later life much easier at little cost. On some level I knew that, which makes the failure to act all the stranger and less explicable.

What changed? Growing up is a plausible answer. One big turnaround moment came from working at Old Navy one summer. Watching adults work for almost no money, under the supervision of controlling morons (who now I realize were themselves being pressured by forces above them and by the generally competitive nature of retail), and whose whole business model entails interchangeable workers is a strong motivator.

The author many years ago; I have almost no pictures from before I bought my first digital camera. I was an early adopted in that domain.

The author many years ago; I have almost no pictures from before I bought my first digital camera, which seems true of many people in my generation. Objects are so heavy and bits so light. I was an early adopter in that domain.

So were my coworkers, most of whom did not seem like me. One guy was, I think, in his 20s, and dating a classmate who was none of the things one generally looks for in a girlfriend: smart, interesting, attractive. Nonetheless they were fond of PDA, and we ended up working at the same time in Old Navy. One day we were folding jeans or whatever, and he told me about his journeys to the spirit realm and how he could inflict punishment on his enemies, or bring success to his friends, based on his supernatural experiences and communing with demons. He said this with what appeared to be the utmost sincerity. I’m often ready to hash out reasonable intellectual disagreements, but his demeanor made me unwilling to voice doubt about him and the spirit world.

Maybe he was trying to mess with me, but if so he a) deserves an Academy Award for his performance, and b) never let me in the joke. Believing in the “spirit world” was congruent with his personality. He didn’t overtly threaten me but he scared me for the obvious reasons.

Anyway, after that I began paying much closer attention to school, and by now the problems I faced are seldom-discussed background noise. Time, imagination, creativity, and effort can even out initial advantages or disadvantages. By now most people probably assume that I’ve been a lifelong diligent student, which is funny not only for the reasons described here but because I’ve always been slightly estranged from school despite long immersion in it (which may be a subject for another post.)

Having experienced what I’ll call for shorthand “being a dumbass” for a period in my life does have one virtue: it gives me a degree of empathy for bad students. Many teachers and professors have been A students and perfect hoop jumpers for their entire lives. Lazy, apathetic, and uninterested students are totally foreign to their minds. That foreignness often—though not always—leads them to scorn or disdain bad students. Students—like pretty much everyone—sense scorn or disdain quite keenly; those kinds of feelings are hard to hide and probably make it harder to reach the students who most need to be reach. This in turn alienates marginal students who accurately think that their teachers don’t like and don’t get them.

My own experience with unmotivated apathy reminds me that who a student—or any person—is today may not be who they are tomorrow. Some students don’t like my subject—English—for reasons that have nothing to do with me. If they flail I shouldn’t take it personally, but I also shouldn’t disdain them. When I went through the dumbass phase some teacher disdain came through quite clearly, and I’ve never forgotten it. I also haven’t forgotten that my personality didn’t really cohere until I was around 24, and though I spent a lot of my life thinking that I was “behind” everyone else in every domain I now realize that I wasn’t necessarily and that many other people faced similar troubles, but most of us don’t share deep, existential troubles for fear of losing face or showing weakness.

I’m not the only person who now seems like a high achiever but got extra chances in many ways. Megan McArdle has had similar experiences with failure or near failure—she wrote about that some in The Upside of Down. A lot of poor kids without good familial or social support fall further and further behind. John Scalzi’s best post is “Being Poor,” and in it he says, “Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.” I didn’t have to live with those choices. Many people do. That point gets lost in a lot of political and public policy debates.

Questions about my thinking and motivation still bother me. I’ve noticed that many people who are unmotivated in high school or college get motivated when they’re forced to move out of their parents’s houses, or their dorms, and sink or swim based on their own efforts. Realizing that you bear the brunt of every action is powerful. The dishes don’t get done unless you do them. Filth becomes a real problem when you bring someone home and that someone’s disgust is palpable—maybe palpable to the point that they leave.

In addition, when I was younger I spent a lot of time being unhappy without understanding that a lot of people are unhappy. In my early twenties I stumbled into evolutionary biology, and from that reading I realized or read that humans haven’t evolved to be happy. We’ve evolved to survive and reproduce—as Darwin noticed—and happiness or satisfaction are not the goals of that process. Being dissatisfied is actually normal, and dissatisfaction is an impetus to go kill a mastodon or find a sexy mate or build a new hut. In modern terms, it might mean “write a novel” or “get a job” or “take dancing lesson” or whatever. At least in the U.S. we’re steeped in the idea that we should enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That last one I’m not so sure about anymore; it might be more reasonable to seek more modest and attainable goals. Goals like: build stuff, have a good time, and not hurt other people in the process. Those goals are still somewhat abstract goals but they are achievable than happiness, which is really abstract and tends to disappear the moment you look at it, like Rorschach in Peter Watts’s novel Blindsight.

I also used to think that the end goal of the mind and social life and school was getting the right answers (I was very naive). Now I know that the right answers are in many domains secondary or tertiary to other goals, like signaling, status, survival, reproduction, feelings, and so on.

Knowing about the potential links between creativity and depression is also helpful; I don’t want to make too much of those, and I don’t think the research is definitive, and knowing that creative people may be predisposed towards depression doesn’t mean that depressed people are necessarily predisposed towards creativity.

I wish someone had explained all this stuff to me, but maybe it wouldn’t have mattered and I wouldn’t have listened. People stuck in their own heads often have to give themselves permission to get themselves out.

* Incidentally, I do vividly remember a teacher named Rob Prufer, who was the sort of guy who inspires the hero teachers commonly depicted in movies and books. When I was a senior I was a better writer than most high school students, as a result of incessant reading, working for my parents, and writing for the school paper. He gave an assignment that required some personal component or reflection—the details have faded with time—and I turned in something that was apparently well-written, detailed, analytical, and totally wrong given the requirements. So he gave me an “F,” and the feeling of that F has stayed with me.

Links: The end of humanity, food, coffee, nuclear power, fear the police

* “A Primer on the Doomsday Argument;” incidentally I am a long-term pessimist on the ultimate fate of humanity, and today’s utter failure to price carbon emissions appropriately or build better cities does not make me hopeful.

* “Five legal rights women have that men do not,” file under “points rarely made” though points 1 and 2 are dubious.

* The science behind eat food, mostly plants, and not too much; I’d add “avoid simple carbs” as perhaps the most important.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* “Olive oil and salad combined ‘explain’ Med diet success; this is basically every third day’s primary meal in our household.

* The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse. Now people talk to their computers.

* This seems impossible: “Y Combinator And Mithril Invest In Helion, A Nuclear Fusion Startup.”

* “Why I don’t call the police [. . . ] It’s become a given for me that if the criminal justice system gets a hold of a black person, there is a terrible risk that it will try to crush him.”

* “A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries. What if he’s right?”

* “How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen,” maybe. My not-original observation is that most people want to know if they will get paid or laid tomorrow, and if their wife’s brother’s husband is making more than they are.

* “My Most Offended Readers Are Ivy-Bound 18-Year-Olds;” my copy of Excellent Sheep arrived yesterday and yes I do love it so far.

Life: Noticing edition

“There were only a few customers in the bar; most of them were men in suits who sat there seemingly enmeshed in a web of habit and accumulated rancor that they called their personalities, so utterly unaware of their entanglements that they clearly considered themselves men of the world, even though they had long ago stopped noticing it.”

—Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior (Recommended; it feels disjointed and confusing, like life, but in a good way).

Links: The will to power, Peter Watts, chairs, prostitution, empathy, Beowulf, and more

* “Many men still buy into a false definition of power: feeling obligated to earn money that someone else spends while we die sooner—5.2 years sooner. That’s not power. That’s being a prisoner of the need for love and approval.”

* An interview with Peter Watts.

* “Are you sitting comfortably?” Which reminds me, I need to post a review of the Herman Miller Embody.

* “Dead Media Ain’t Dead: NYT Strikes,” which is on marketing and many other subjects that normally don’t interest me but damn this is compelling.

* An examination of three books criticizing the Ivy Leagues; I am pre-disposed to like them, but see Derek Huang’s comment here.

* The Economist favors legalizing prostitution.

* “What is it like to be a hot girl?

* Beowulf and the tension between Paganism and Christianity, which is a major topic in Sexual Personae and still an unreconciled (and perhaps unreconcilable) force in contemporary life.

* The suburbs made us fat.

* Calling all sad clowns: David Weigel on fame and depression.

What is college for? Matt Reed’s hypothetical and following the money

Matt Reed’s post “Parity” asks this, partially as a thought experiment and partially as a proposal: “What if every sector of higher education received the same per-student funding? Right now, the more affluent the student body, the more public aid money the sector receives.” He’s right. He goes on to say, “From a social-justice perspective, that’s counterintuitive.” He’s right about that too, and he eventually asks: “What is the argument for spending the most on those who have the most?”

I can’t guarantee this is the argument—and indeed there may not be one, since the higher-education system evolved by accident rather than being planned by design—but one possible answer is that the current system evolved primarily to subsidize and conduct research. If the purpose of the fiscal structure of universities attempts to maximize research rather than social justice, then it may make sense to spend the most money on universities and programs that produce a lot of research. That obviously isn’t community colleges, whatever their other merits.

The idea that universities are primarily about social justice seems to have come along later than the idea of universities as research labs. In the U.S. at least, universities have had a couple major phases: first primarily as seminaries for the clergy; then as finishing schools for the wealthy, which usually coexisted with ways of spreading knowledge about agriculture and teaching; then, during and after World War II, as research hubs; and in the last couple decades as ways of rectifying real or perceived inequality. Reed’s third paragraph starts with “From a social-justice perspective,” and that may not be the dominant perspective among legislators, whether state or national. Certainly during much of the Cold War period from 1945 – 1975, when money poured into universities per Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, it wasn’t.

My dissertation is on academic novels and I’ve now read a huge amount of material related to the conception of universities from 1945 – the present. One persistent theme is that intelligent people in every era disagree both what universities as a whole are for and quite often on the discipline or department level what each discipline or department is for. In this respect Reed’s post is a continuation of this discussion.

My favorite answer about the question of what universities for has been attributed to various people, and here is one rendition: “a university is a happy place if the administration provides football for the alumni, parking for the faculty, and sex for the students.” Incidentally, in all three regards and certainly for the first and last, flagship public universities far outperform their Ivy League peers. It’s nice to be number one in some domains. Murray Sperber’s Beer & Circus argues that sports and sex have been central preoccupations for a very long time; perhaps nerds like me have the wrong perspective.

I wish I had a neat transition into this point, but I don’t while still thinking it important to note: tne problem or virtue with universities comes from the way all sorts of weird cross subsidies happen at all kinds of levels, to the point that I’m not sure it’s possible to disentangle what’s happening fiscally.

EDIT: Malcolm Gladwell’s article “The Order of Things, about the impossibility of ranking heterogeneous colleges in a fair or objective way, is also relevant here:

The U.S. News rankings turn out to be full of these kinds of implicit ideological choices. [. . .] There is no right answer to how much weight a ranking system should give to these two competing values. It’s a matter of which educational model you value more—and here, once again, U.S. News makes its position clear.

I admire Reed for raising the question. But it’s also important to recognize the priorities any division of resources like the one among colleges entails.

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