Links: Bogus authenticity, radicalizing the romanceless, universities, destiny, and more

* “Realer than you: How did authenticity become the hot new status symbol?” The contemporary obsession with travel as a somehow soul-enhancing experience is my favorite example of this general trend. Here is my review of The Authenticity Hoax.

* “Radicalizing the romanceless.” Maybe. Though this is my favorite link from this patch.

* “Promising solution to plastic pollution,” an underrated problem.

* “U.S. Is No. 1, China Is So Yesterday,” which is another underappreciated problem: demography is destiny.

* A totally indecent, untraditional, radical proposal: “universities should prioritize academics.” This may also ameliorate some of the current elite university admissions madness.

* “Kindle Unlimited pisses off Amazon authors;” note that this is one danger of competing on price.

The Dan Savage Interview Problem

Dan Savage’s Playboy interview is interesting for many reasons (among them: Playboy still exists?) and he gets many things right in it and the interview is worth reading. Nonetheless he gets one important thing mostly wrong:

Sex negativity is imposed on us by religion, parents and a culture that can’t deal with sex. [. . .] Judaism, Christianity, Islam and almost every other faith have constantly tried to insert themselves between your genitals and your salvation, because then they can regulate and control you. Then you need them to intercede with God, so they target your junk and stigmatize your sexual desire. If you have somebody by the balls or the ovaries, you’ve got them.

Let me channel Jonathan Haidt and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt writes that “Groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.” Religions serve or served a lot of purposes, and as Savage and Haidt both note regulation was one of them, and sexual regulation exists, as far as I know, in all cultures that have produced writing.

Regulation and control aren’t just about control for their own sake; they’re about solving coordination problems that allow people to act within a system with some expectation of how others will act. Religious regulations weren’t just about stigmatizing desire: they were about trying to create functional societies that minimize jealousy, wasteful resource fights, and so on, while maximizing the chance that the society’s members actually survive and reproduce. Religions act as operating systems for societies (which is a metaphor I’ve stolen from Neal Stephenson). The surviving religions have literally been battled-tested.

Stigmatizing sexual desire happens because desire can be overwhelming and destructive. That was particularly true in an age before birth control, antibiotics, and the many other lovely technologies we take for granted. Even then, a lot of desire found a way towards expression.

It is true that a lot of modern religious figures don’t understand that good guides to life in the year 1000 may not be particularly relevant in post-industrial societies, or that technology may be rapidly reconfiguring what rules make sense and what rules don’t. Robin Hanson has argued in a variety of places (like here and here) that pre-modern foraging societies and farming societies had very different sets of values based on their respective needs. Each group tends to think that its morality is eternal and unchanging, but its morality, rules, and codes may actually arise in response to the conditions of the society. Hanson thinks we may be moving back towards “forager” norms, since we’re now much wealthier and much more able to collectively bear the costs of, say, single motherhood, members of society that don’t produce more than they consume, and so on.

The major Western religions (Christianity and Islam in particular, and Judaism to a large extent) arose or developed in farming societies, and their times have marked them. That sort of idea didn’t of course make it into the religion—one way to enforce religious thinking is to argue that the thinking is eternal and unchanging—and it couldn’t: the Industrial Revolution was impossible to predict before it happened. Values battles of the last 50 (and really more like 100 – 150) years have occurred because social changes lags and sometimes impedes technological change.

We may also see religious systems persist today because followers of religious systems may simply leave many more descendants, who in turn follow the religion, and than those who don’t. I don’t have a citation for this off the top of my head, but it’s fairly well known in social science that religious people have more children, and start having children at younger ages, than secular people. Children tend to act like their parents to a greater extent than is commonly realized.

Given those facts, we may see religions persist because they still enable people to create more people faster than those who don’t participate in such a system. Europe may be a societal-wide example of this phenomenon: it’s probably the least-religious place on earth, and yet the continent is facing serious demographic challenges because of the age distribution of its population and the fact that native-born Europeans are not having enough children. As always there are many other factors at play and I don’t want to isolate religious belief as the sole factor, but there is likely more than correlation going on too.

Note that I’m trying to be relatively value-neutral and descriptive in this post. The amount of value-neutral commentary on these issues is in my view much too low, which may be why we see a lot of ignorance and shouting in public spaces, while people otherwise quietly go about their lives.

I’ll also note that as a religiously indifferent person myself, I find it odd to write this quasi defense of religion. Nonetheless Savage is looking at a small piece of a larger whole and mistakenly thinking that the piece is the whole.

Here is Tyler Cowen on related matters. Here is my earlier post on religion in secular life. The extent to which religious behavior is driven by feeling is underrated. Sex and religion are also fields that some people choose to make their defining characteristic. The religious tendency in this  direction is well-known, but as Katherine Frank writes in Plays Well in Groups: “This is at some level a hobby, sex for fun. As with any hobby, you will make friends, acquaintances and even enemies as you partake. Sex is easy—insert tab A into slot B—but friendship takes time to development” (64). “Hobbies” generally don’t define people, yet how many of the religiously inclined would describe religion as a hobby? Is friendship a hobby?

How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?

Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing” is the rare Grant Writing Confidential post likely to interest Story’s Story readers too, and it concerns a question allegedly given by a high school biology teacher on a high school test about genetics:

“LaShamanda has a heterozygous big bootie, the dominant trait. Her man Fontavius has a small bootie which is recessive. They get married and have a baby named LaPrincess” the biology assignment prompts students.

The assignment then continues to ask, “What is the probability that LaPrincess will inherit her mama’s big bootie?”

As I go on to say in the post, this question comes from media accounts, and we should be skeptical of what we read in the media. But, with that in mind:

Let’s attempt to imagine what might have been going through the teacher’s mind: first off, the teacher said the worksheet “had been passed down to her by other teachers,” which indicates that she might not have looked closely at it. Since I’ve taught plenty of college classes, I can vouch for an instructor’s desire to use what’s been tested and teach efficiently. Secondly, though, she’s probably been hearing discourse and through mandated professional development about cultural sensitivity and incorporating non-dominant or non-Anglo cultures into her teaching for her entire career.

We’re not trying to defend the teacher, but we are saying that her thinking may be understandable, even if the execution is misplaced. Her conundrum, if it exists, can be stated simply: Where does cultural sensitivity end and cultural appropriation or cultural insensitivity begin?

A friend saw the post and he called the big bootie incident a “reverse Poe’s Law,” and while I’d never heard of Poe’s Law it’s brilliant: “Without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.”

The teacher in question, however, might not have been trying to deliberately parody excessive cultural awareness. Being a teacher has taught me a lot, and one thing it’s taught me is that if people have to make thousands of micro decisions in a given year, as teachers do, some are going to end up being wrong. That’s true of me and it’s like true of you in your own life and occupation.

In class, for example, I usually try to err on the side of being entertaining rather than boring, but that has the side effect of being potentially offensive. I’m sure that if someone had a mic on me every time I teach, that person could take something out of context and throw it in an article and make me look bad. Yet I’ve had to sit through insufferably dull classes, which is totally inexcusable in many literature classes, and I don’t want to inflict insufferable dullness on captive students to the extent I can avoid doing so.

Nonetheless in the current media climate, and in a climate in which it’s impossible to tell in advance what’s going to be acceptable to everyone, the risks of being interesting and real are real. The friend who linked to Poe’s law says that the dangerous class on his campus is “The Biology of Sex.” As he says,

If you teach it straight, you end up giving a plumbing lesson. My favored approach is to treat it more like a stand-up routine, but then you run the risk of offending someone. You can usually get away with a lot if you have built up a rapport with your class.

But, on the other hand, he says that no one knows anything about the subject and that students study hard because no one wants to fail sex (the phrase “study hard” may be an expression of my friend’s sense of humor).

I’m inclined toward the benefit of the doubt where possible because we’re now living in a world where a small number of hypersensitive or humorless activists can cause a disproportionate amount of grief. Academic novels have largely traced this development—Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is one good example; Francine Prose’s Blue Angel is another—but they seem to have had little impact. Too bad. Paglia’s descriptions of shrinking violet students is distressingly apt.

As “being reasonably sensitive” transitions towards “being unable to function in a reasonable way” for a small but noisy number of people, we’re going to see more stories like “The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law:”

Imagine a medical student who is training to be a surgeon but who fears that he’ll become distressed if he sees or handles blood. What should his instructors do? Criminal-law teachers face a similar question with law students who are afraid to study rape law.

Much of this issue is academic, because when people hit the real world they’ll often find that clients and customers are indifferent to their feelings or comfort and want their problems solved, whether that problem is rape prosecution or human sexuality or writing or whatever.* Some big companies are intensely bureaucratized and can still have a large institutional feel, but the majority are small and just trying to make it however they can. In which case an excess of sensitivity can be an excessive liability.

EDIT: See also “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.”


* This is one reason it’s often not worth arguing with academics.

Links: Demography, arrests, books as art, are marriage and porn substitutes?

* The Shit Test Encyclopedia; note as always that linking does not imply endorsement and that often the most interesting pieces are ones in which I do not find plausible many claims. Adam Phillips’s book Becoming Freud falls into this category, though it is the only book by or about Freud that I’ve found palatable.

* “Demography Is Rewriting Our Economic Destiny,” an underappreciated and significant issue; this can be read profitably in tandem with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.

* “Decades-long Arrest Wave Vexes Employers: Companies Struggle to Navigate Patchwork of Rules That Either Encourage or Deter Hiring Americans With Criminal Records;” if a third of Americans have arrest records something is seriously wrong with our society.

* “The Innovative Art of the Book-Preserving Underground: How do illustrations for new editions of Fahrenheit 451 or Breakfast at Tiffany’s stay fresh? Artists for The Folio Society remain true to the text.” I’ve bought Folio Society books.

* “Americans aren’t getting married, and researchers think porn is part of the problem,” which must be read skeptically.

* “The Henry Ford of Books,” about James Patterson, who is not good at sentences but perhaps he knows as much: “he is philosophical about his critics, in particular critics of his craft. Patterson decided long ago that he’d rather be a successful popular novelist than a mediocre literary one.” I have often been told that I should be writing nonfiction, and perhaps my own smaller circle of critics are correct. I’ve started a couple of Patterson books without finishing them.

* “How to be an expert in a changing world,” which, like many Graham essays, is about more than it appears to be about; this for instance applies to artists: “Good new ideas come from earnest, energetic, independent-minded people.”

* “The Birdcage: How Hollywood’s toxic (and worsening) addiction to franchises changed movies forever in 2014.” Here is me on Birdman and note too that the author is nostalgic for a time when movies were central to the culture, which hasn’t been true for at least a decade.

Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing

This essay started its life as an e-mail to a student who wanted to know if all writing was, on some level, “just subjective,” which would imply that grading is bogus and so is much of what we do in English classes. I didn’t have time to offer a nuanced explanation of what makes good writing good, so I wrote to him later that night. He didn’t reply to this e-mail.

I was thinking about our conversation and realized that I have more to say about the issues of subjectivity and skill in writing. As you observed, there is an element of subjectivity in judging what’s good writing and what isn’t. But it’s also worth noting that dominant opinions change over time—a lot of the writing from the 18th and 19th Century, for example, was considered “good” if it contained long sentences with balanced, nested clauses. Such stylistic preferences are one reason why a lot of contemporary students have trouble reading such material today, because most of us value variety in sentence structure and value less complexity, overall, in sentence structure. This is normally the place where I could go off on a rant about Facebook and cell phones and texting speak and how the kids these days are going to hell, but I’ll avoid that because it doesn’t appear true overall and certainly isn’t true regarding writing. The trend, including among professional writers writing for other expert writers, has been towards simpler structures and informality (which may speak about the culture as a whole).

IMG_3049That being said, if you want to write a paper full of long, windy clauses and abstruse classical allusions, I’m not going to stop or penalize you and may even reward you, since few if any students write in such a fashion, and I (like most contemporary people) value novelty. As long as the content is strong, I’m willing to roll with somewhat unusual stylistic quirks, and I’m fairly pluralistic in my view of language use.

So how do you, the seeker, figure out what good writing is? You practice, you read, you think about it, you practice some more, like you would if you were learning to play a guitar. I’ve never heard guitar instructors say that their students say all music is subjective; playing the guitar appears to be transparently hard, in the sense that you know you’re bad at it, in a way that writing isn’t. Still, if you’d like to know a lot more about good writing, take a look at Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s ıHow Fiction Works, and Jan Venolia’s Write Right!

When you’re done with those, move on to B. R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto. When you’re done with that, move on to the New York Times’ series Writers on Writing. Collectively, these books will teach you that every word counts and every word choice says something about the writer and the thing the writer is conveying, or trying to convey. Not only that, but every word changes, slightly, the meaning of every word around it. Good writers learn to automatically, subconsciously ask themselves, “Does this word work? Why? Why not? How should I change it? What am I trying to convey here?”

Eventually, over time, skilled writers and thinkers internalize these and other ideas, and their conscious mind moves to other issues, much like a basketball player’s shot happens via muscle memory after it’s been practiced and tweaked over 100,000 repetitions.

In addition, skilled writers are almost always skilled readers, so they have a fairly large, subconscious stock of built-in phrases, ideas, and concepts. Somewhere along the line I’ve read a fair amount about how athletes practice and how athletes become good (perhaps some of that material came from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience). I know how important practice and repetition are to any skill-based human endeavor. So I combined the idea of skill with writing and skill in basketball, since many students are more familiar with sports than with writing. Where did that analogy come from? I don’t know, exactly, but it’s there now, along with the idea that analogies are good, and explaining what I’m doing is good, and so are many other things.

To return to the athletic analogy, skill in sports also has a subjective element. Is Lebron James now better than Michael Jordan was when Jordan ruled? You can have this argument with morons in bars all day long. I’ve heard it and find it particularly tedious because the outcome is so unimportant. But both players are very clearly good, and at the top of their peers in their respective eras. The comparison at least makes sense.

One could also argue about whether Elmore Leonard or Alain de Botton is the better writer, although I would argue that they’re too different to make that a fruitful comparison; Elmore Leonard would be better matched against someone like Raymond Chandler or Patricia Highsmith. But Leonard and de Botton are both fantastically better writers than most freshmen; for one thing, most freshmen haven’t yet mastered the mechanical parts of writing, like how to use commas consistently and correctly (if they wish to), let alone higher questions about vocabulary, metaphor, and so on.

If you really want to get better, spend a lot of time reading, writing, and thinking about those activities. Then look back at your earlier work and judge its quality for yourself. Few students think the first draft of their first paper is as good as the final draft, and I tend to agree. Few people who consciously work throughout their lives think their work as, say, 20-year-old students is as good as their work at age 30.

With regard to thesis statements, good ones tend to have some aspect of how a text (I hate the term “text,” but it fits here) shows something (“Free-indirect speech in ‘She Wasn’t Soft. . .'”), what a text shows, usually symbolically (“is used to demonstrate how Paula and Jason, despite being a couple, really disdain each other”) and have some larger point to make (“which shows that what people think and how people behave don’t always match”).

That’s not a great thesis statement because I’m doing it quickly and freeform, but a better one might say something like, “The use of free-indirect speech in ‘She Wasn’t Soft’ demonstrates that Paula is actually soft, despite her repeated claims to the contrary, and that Jason and Paula’s mutual loathing sustains their relationship, despite what they say.” That’s still not the sort of thesis statement I’d use to write a publishable academic paper, but it’s closer. Many if not most student papers are missing one of those elements. Not every thesis needs all three, but they’re not bad ideas to check for.

Over time and with experience, I’ve developed, and you’ll develop, a fairly good eye for thesis statements. Eventually, when you’re sufficiently practiced, you won’t necessarily use explicit thesis statements—your thesis will be implied in your writing. Neal Stephenson doesn’t really have an explicit thesis statement in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” although his last line may function as one, and Roland Barthes definitely doesn’t have an explicit one in “The Brain of Einstein.” Thesis statements aren’t necessarily appropriate to all genres, all the time.

When I started teaching, I thought I was going to be a revolutionary and not teach thesis statements at all. I wrote about that experience here. The experiment didn’t work. Most undergrads need thesis statements. So I started teaching them, and student papers got better and more focused, and I’ve been doing so ever since.

Your question or questions are about the inherent challenges of writing, and those don’t have easily summarized answers. The problem also comes from language. Language itself is imprecise, or, alternately, layered with meaning; that’s where so much humor and misunderstanding comes from (and humor could be considered a kind of deliberate misunderstanding). I’ve read about how, when computer scientists tried to start making translation systems and natural-language processing systems, they ran into the ambiguity problem—and that problem still hasn’t been fully solved, as anyone who’s tried to use text-to-speech software, or Google translate, can easily find (I wish I could find any citations or discussions regarding this issue; if you happen to run across any, send them over).

This line of questioning also leads into issues of semiotics—how signs, signaling, and reception function—and the degree of specificity necessary to be good. Trying to specify every part of good writing is like trying to specify every aspect of good writing: you get something like McDonald’s. While McDonald’s does a lot of business, I wouldn’t want to eat there, and it’s pretty obvious that something is lost is the process (Joel Spolsky’s article “Big Macs vs. the Naked Chef” (sfw) also uses McDonald’s as a cautionary tale, this time for software developers; you should definitely read it).

I’m going to interrupt this essay to quote from Joel:

The secret of Big Macs is that they’re not very good, but every one is not very good in exactly the same way. If you’re willing to live with not-very-goodness, you can have a Big Mac with absolutely no chance of being surprised in the slightest.

Bad high school teachers often try to get students to write essays that are not very good in exactly the same way. I’m trying to get students, and myself, to write essays that are good and that a human might want to read. This guarantees that different students will approach the problem space in different ways, some more successfully than others, and different essays are going to be good in different ways. I’m trying to get students to think about the process and, more broadly, to think not just about the solutions, but about the domain; how you conceptualize the problem domain will change what you perceive as the solution. Learning to conceptualize the problem domain is an essential part of the writing process that’s often left out of high school and even college. That being said, if you ever find yourself in front of 20 or 30 novice writers, you’ll quickly see that some are much better than others, even if there’s much wiggle room between a C and C+.

I don’t get the sense that students who are unhappy with their grades are unhappy out of a deeply felt and considered sense of aesthetic disagreement about fundamental literary or philosophical principles. I suspect I feel this way partially because I have a fairly wide or broad sense of “good” writing—or at least writing good enough to get through undergrad English classes, and someone with sufficient sophistication and knowledge to make a good argument about aesthetics or the philosophy of writing would be very unlikely to get a sufficiently low mark to want to argue about it. Rather, I think most students who are unhappy about their grades just want better grades, without doing the thinking and writing necessary to get them.

These issues are compounded by the a meta-issue: many if not most K – 12 English (and other humanities) teachers are bad. And many of them aren’t that smart or knowledgeable (which tends to overlap with “bad”). So a lot of students—especially those on the brighter side—inchoately know that their teachers are bad, and that something stinks, and therefore they conclude that English is bogus anyway, as are related fields. This has a lot of unfortunate consequences on both the individual and societal level; books like C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures are one manifestation of this larger problem.

In general, I’d like for people to try and get along, see each other’s points of view, and be tolerant—not only in fields like religion and politics, but also things like the humanities / sciences, or reason / emotion, or any number of the other possibly false binaries that people love to draw for reasons of convenience.

Finally (at least on this topic), if you think I’m completely wrong about what makes good writing (and what makes writing good), you have a huge world out there and can judge the reaction to your writing. Twilight and The Da Vinci Code are poorly written novels, yet millions of people have read and enjoyed them—many fewer than have read Straight Man, one of my favorite novels and one that’s vastly better written. Who’s right: the millions of teenage girls who think they’re in love with the stilted, wooden prose that makes up Edward, or me, who sees the humor in a petulant English department? It depends on what you mean by “right.” If I were a literary agent or editor, I would’ve passed on both Twilight and The Da Vinci Code. Definitions of “good” are uncertain, and the ones I embrace and impose on students are worth questioning. If you can at least understand where I’m coming from and why I hold the views I do, however, I’ll consider my work a relative success.

Most people’s conception of “good” differs at different points in their lives; I’m in my 20s and view writing very differently than I did in my teens. I would be surprised if I view writing the same way in my 40s. One major change is that I’ve done so much reading, and probably will do so much reading. Someone who doesn’t read very much, or doesn’t challenge themselves when they do read, may find that their standards don’t change as much either. I could write much more on this point alone, but for the most part you’ll have to trust me: your tastes will probably change.

This email is a long way of saying, “I’m not trying to bullshit you, but the problem domain itself is hard, and that domain is not easy to explain, without even getting into its solution.”

The short version of this email is “trust me,” or, alternatively, spend the next ten years of your life pondering and contemplating these issues while reading about them, and then you’ll have a pretty good grasp of what good writing means. Writing is one of these 10,000 hour skills in that it probably takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to get good. Start now and you’ll be better in a couple years.

Loneliness and revealed preferences

Philip Greenspun starts a post:

Nearly everyone in the U.S. has Internet access. Many online dating services are inexpensive or free. Many people are single and say that they would prefer to be partnered and/or married.

From the above facts I think it is reasonable to infer that online dating services are not very effective (see my 2011 posting on the subject).

I left a comment, however:

1. The term “revealed preferences” was invented for moments like this.

2. Most people would probably prefer to be partnered and/or married with a person of sufficiently high status, however the first party defines “status.” But many if not most of us have contradictory desires or preferences or dreams.

3. People who can make reasonable compromises do not appear to spend much time alone, especially because they tend to find other people who can make reasonable compromises. We live in a society that valorizes rejecting the existing order and heroically going it alone. In some circumstances that is probably good and probably works, but in many others it’s probably bad and doesn’t work real well.

From points 1 and 2 I infer that the online dating industry may be working reasonably well but that a) search costs are high, b) people don’t want to admit who they can “get” given what they bring to the table, c) a lot of people want novelty more than security regardless of what they say to others, and d) a lot of people are full of shit.

Links: Drinking among faculty, demography, arrests, Michel Houellebecq and more!

* “Think binge drinking is bad among students? Try going to a faculty party sometime.” This hits a point that I often make: teenagers and adults often want to do the same things, for the same reasons.

* Famous Rolling Stone article about alleged campus rape is actually made up.

* “Demography Is Rewriting Our Economic Destiny,” an underappreciated and significant issue; this can be read profitably in tandem with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.

* Welcome to paradise, on legalized prostitution in Germany.

* “Decades-long Arrest Wave Vexes Employers: Companies Struggle to Navigate Patchwork of Rules That Either Encourage or Deter Hiring Americans With Criminal Records;” if a third of Americans have arrest records something is seriously wrong with our society.

* “The Department of Labor’s “American Apprenticeship Initiative” (AAI) Shows Some Forward Thinking by the Feds” is the rare Grant Writing Confidential post likely to interest Story’s Story readers too.

* The new Michel Houellebecq novel, which is of course self-recommending.

* Purity of Essence: One Question for Nell Zink, author of The Wallcreeper, which I ordered based on the interview:

Whatever I was writing at the time, I knew there was no market for it and never would be, because there’s never a market for true art, so my main concern was always to have a job that didn’t require me to write or think. So after I got out of college I worked construction, mostly. I waitressed some in winter. I was a very excitable waitress, but management valued me for my strange talent of taking drink specials seriously. They would order us to sell fuzzy navels at lunchtime, and I would obediently sell twenty fuzzy navels while the other waitstaff ignored them. My life changed forever in 1989, when a friend of my mother’s shanghaied me into taking the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s test of clerical aptitude. Apparently 98.9 percent was an unusual score. As I recall, it was a test of visual acuity and short-term memory involving long sequences of numbers. I started getting these blind, cold-call job offers in the mail from places like the Defense Logistics Agency. Working full-time in construction was really wearing me out.

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