Briefly noted: The Pattern Scars – Caitlin Sweet

It took half the novel for me realize the problem with The Pattern Scars: It contains virtually no interesting sentences. None that say something unexpected or have unusual musicality or that are patterned in uncommon ways. It’s sentence after sentence of “The footsteps stopped. I could feel someone behind me, but I did not turn.” Or “He was still squeezing my wrist; I wrenched it free.” There are moments that are almost interesting—”I walked quickly so that he would not see my sudden tears, and so that I might outpace my confusion”—but they’re rare. That line works because we normally can’t outpace a mental state—the mental state resides within us—but we get that Nola is trying to clear her mind by walking, and by letting her mind process what’s happening to her and around her.

Sweet has so much potential. She needs only style. None of the boring sentences cited above are offensive on their own, of course, and my own work is filled with unspectacular descriptive sentences that are important for basic understanding. An entire book of voiceless sentences is boring. The promise of something interesting was enough to keep me going; so too was the fact that the novel starts with a child’s point of view, and often simple children develop into sophisticated adults. That doesn’t happen for Nola. The realization, three quarters through the book, that that promise would be dashed made me start skipping pages. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the few reviews of The Pattern Scars I’ve found quote little or not at all from the novel. The story, rendered better, is fine. The attention to the details of words and sentences is lacking.

Links: Evil Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), electric cars, book reviewers, and more!

* “The Pecking Disorder: Social Justice Warriors Gone Wild: Culture wars over ‘social justice’ have been wreaking havoc in many communities, including universities and science fiction fandom.” Social Justice Warriors don’t matter outside of academia and government, but inside they can wreck a lot of havoc. Always be wary of zealots.

* Related to the above: “It’s worse than Jerry Seinfeld says: PC is undermining free speech, expression, liberties.” I’ve definitely felt these currents throughout my time as a professor. Only from a tiny minority of students, but that tiny minority is vicious, humorless, and vociferous.

* The Electric Car: “The electric car is going to take over the world. Soon. Let me explain.” Linear versus discontinuous effects are underappreciated. Everyone who has driven a Tesla says it’s the best car ever. The mass-market version is supposed to arrive in 2017. See also “How Tesla Will Change The World,” which is long but clever. Good news, too: Electric vehicle batteries are getting cheaper much faster than we expected. The spoils of technical innovation gets turned into the spoils that politicians fight over surprisingly fast.

* “Book Reviewing’s Grunt Squads,” interesting throughout and especially to me for its discussion of Kirkus, whose Indie division I hired to review Asking Anna. My guess is that they produce few truly negative reviews, and, based on the many indie books I’ve been sent, most books are as bad as literary mandarins imagine.

* Jeff on why I’m wrong about poetry and pop music.

* “The rush from judgment,” or, how being superficially non-judgmental can be barbaric and foolish.

* YC Fellowship: “Ten years ago, Paul Graham said there could be ten times as many startups if more people realized they could try.” And: “YC Fellows will receive $12,000 per team as a grant (though if this continues past this test run, we will probably do a more traditional investment with equity for future Fellows) and access to advice from the YC community.” YC is trying to solve the problems people who can’t get $10K together have.

* Uber: twice as fast, half as expensive for poor people.

* Sea levels will rise much more rapidly than anticipated.

* “The old suburban office park is the new American ghost town.” Too many parking lots and too few interconnections to rail.

Thoughts on the TV show “UnREAL”

* UnREAL is shockingly good until the end of the sixth episode, at which point it devolves, and it’s shockingly good despite the network on which it airs. How’d I find it? I can’t remember. One could read Arts & Entertainments in conjunction with the show.

* In highbrow literary culture “creative nonfiction” and “memoir” are terms that map to “I can make shit up if it works for the story, while being loosely true.” By now readers don’t expect “creative nonfiction” and “memoir” to actually be true, so making some shit up is okay because of the wink-wink situation between reader and writer. “Reality” TV does the same thing, with producers and people on the show acting like joint authors. The stories are about truthiness, not fact. Joseph Heath describes the pervasiveness of truthiness and why that’s bad in Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives. In reality TV truthiness at least doesn’t have real consequences. In politics it does. Maybe that’s why I prefer art to politics.

unreal_poster* The term “selection bias” is important when thinking about reality TV: What kind of person aspires to get on reality TV? Probably not a person representative of all people in all places and probably one who makes for good TV rather than good-for-other-things.

* Like The Americans, the show has a small group of passionate fans, but I’ve seen very little about it in the larger media.

* Until the end of the sixth episode UnREAL was willing to go to the distance in terms of watching bad or amoral people do bad or amoral things. The seventh episode was unwatchably bad. Shows and books can recover from such missteps. EDIT: The eighth episode was a return to form.

* There is a greater family resemblance between UnREAL and the HBO show Entourage than may be obvious at first glance, or from the status markers around each show.

The single-speed State Bicycle review, and a philosophical meditation

I told a friend that I’d sold my old bike and bought a State bike and he replied, “Single-geared bikes look pretty, but gears are amazing. I’ve never ridden a fixie. What’s the deal?”

In status terms they became trendy maybe ten years ago when hipsters started adopting them as a fashion statement (one definition of a hipster might be, “A person (or group) who does something deliberately inefficient and old-fashioned to make a statement”). In some ways single-speed bikes are less practical than gear bikes, since they obviously only one speed, and in that sense they may be like having a record collection instead of ten thousand songs on a computer. But in other ways they’re actually better adapted to some environments: they’re lighter (none of those heavy, metal gears); at a given price point one gets better components; they require much less maintenance (there is no need for “crisp shifting”); if a cheap bike is stolen the pain is lower than an expensive bike. Much of New York is very flat, so, depending on the circumstances, single speeds can be as functional as geared bikes. It’s not surprising that the fixie bike trend got started in New York.

State BikeI spent entirely too much money shipping a Novara Big Buzz bike from Seattle to Tucson and then Tucson to New York. Packing was like ~$70, shipping like ~$150, and re-assembly another ~$50, but Tucson is totally flat (at least the part I occupied) and so is NYC. So I stupidly carted around a big, heavy bike that I finally sold for ~$400 last fall. Now I have a new bike for $450 that is way lighter. When I move again I’ll just sell the damn thing and buy whatever is appropriate at the next place.

The more I think about my moving habits, the more I see the virtue of selling most stuff on one end, moving, and re-buying it on the other. A couple months ago I wrote about how IKEA enables mobility. Moving is really expensive and unpleasant. Cities may be becoming gravity wells for heavy stuff. Low-value, replaceable stuff that can be ditched may be better than having high-value stuff that crushes the person hauling it around. Call this an urban ethic.

Maybe that’s more than you wanted to know about my philosophy of bikes. But, to summarize, single-speed bikes are popular in NYC because the city is (mostly) flat, they’re cheaper, they’re easier to carry up stairs, and theft is less traumatic. Some issues, like weight, can be ameliorated with enough cash. A friend has a folding bike about the weight of my State bike, but it cost $2,700 and mine cost $450.

Still, as things become cheap, one also gets interesting knock-on effects. Really cheap bikes mean that more people ride, which creates more political support for riding infrastructure, which means riding is safer, which means more people do it. Cheaper is not free—brakes still need to be aligned and their pads replaced, and the chain still needs to be cleaned, but adjusting derailleurs and the like doesn’t need to happen.

There’s a temptation to “over spec” for one’s needs—that is, buy the complicated, more expensive thing that a simpler thing can do. One sees this in bikes and cars in particular, but the same thing often happens in computers and other domains. Sometimes the complicated expensive thing is better but sometimes, as in here, it isn’t, even if anxiety makes us ask, “What about the hypothetical, .01% of situations in which the complicated more expensive thing is better?” The real question should always be, “Will this thing make my life better and enable me to become the person I want to be?”

See also “Why I keep fixing my bike.”

The State bike is good, by the way. There are at least half a dozen companies making bikes in this general price range. As far as I can tell most of them are fine.

Links: Art, critics, danger, folly, feminism infantilizes women, money, and more

* How did art become irrelevant? Jeff Sypeck’s answers for poetry. Read it! I’d emphasize that pop music has assumed everyday poetry’s place in the culture. Highbrow academics who study poetry often haven’t realized as much, or choose not to recognize what’s happening on the ground. Poetry is out there but it isn’t mostly in books and it isn’t about the things academic critics find important.

* “Daggers Drawn:” literary critics used to have opinions and knowledge. They’ve since gone feckless. Which may explain why I write some of the reviews I write.

* Why don’t we drive more electric vehicles?

* Road kill: Despite improvements, driving in America remains extraordinarily dangerous. That about 30,000 Americans die in car accidents every year is one of my favorite fun facts for discussions about threats, dangers, urban planning, and so forth.

* “Teenager’s Jailing Brings a Call to Fix Sex Offender Registries,” a point that seems completely obvious to anyone paying attention. I wrote about a similar issue in footnote to this GWC post.

* Laura Kipnis On How Campus Feminism Infantilizes Women.

* “Why we’re so scared of GMOs, according to someone who has studied them since the start;” the fear is pervasive yet irrational and actually dangerous, especially for the food security of developing countries. We need another Green Revolution and this is the only real way forward.

* “A Book Buyer’s Lament,” something I feel keenly.

* “Why “Don’t Worry About Money, Just Travel” Is The Worst Advice Of All Time.” Seriously.

* The glamorous pursuit of garbage.

* Energy, by Sam Altman, a hard problem.

* “Lab Rats: How the Misogyny Police and Sloppy Journalists Smeared a Top Scientist: When “fauxminist” outrage over a minor faux pas can ruin a Nobel winner’s career, this is not good for women, for science, or for the culture.”

Briefly noted: The Festival of Insignificance — Milan Kundera

The Festival of Insignificance is out and I don’t know what to make of it. It’s nice enough I suppose but it feels . . . Insubstantial? Disconnected? Do I not get it? Hard to say. Characters or figures appear, are observed or make a speech, then leave. Consider this, from page 110, just 5 pages from the end:

In the broad walk that stretches into the park from l’avenue de l’Obsesrvatoire, a man of about fifty with a mustache, wearing an old worn parka with a long hunting rifle slung from his shoulder, runs toward the circle of the great marble ladies of France. He is shouting and waving his arms. All around, people stop and watch, startled and sympathetic. Yes, sympathetic, for that mustachioed face has an easy quality that freshens the atmosphere in the garden with an idyllic breath of times gone by. It calls up the image of a ladies’ man, a village rake, an adventurer who’s more likable for already being a little older and seasoned. Won over by his country charm, his virile goodness, his folkloric look, the crowd sends him smiles and he responds, pleasing and ingratiating.

Now what? The passage is on its own fine, and maybe it connects in obscure ways to other passages that I haven’t adequately noticed. The odd thing about this passage is that, like many of the scenes, it doesn’t really seem to connect with the rest of the novella. The adjective “Hegelian” appears, which is rarely a good sign. Some passages are witty and perhaps true:

When Ramon had described his theory about observation posts standing each on a different point in history, from which people talk together unable to understand one another, Alain had immediately thought of his girlfriend, because, thanks to her, he knew that even the dialogue between true lovers, if their birth dates are too far apart, is only the intertwining of two monologues, each holding for the other much that is not understood.

Kundera_FestivalThe observation posts are works of art or artists, with the people being the public or possibly other artists: no one understands anyone else because contextual changes make the art feel different to the observer. The lover faces a similar challenge, and it’s one that I know in a different context: teaching. In school I’d listen to out-of-it teachers casually reference TV shows or other phenomena from decades before my time and then watch them be bewildered that something so vital to them and their generation could be a void to ours. Now I’m on the other side of the desk and sense the same thing. Very little culture transcends the time it was produced, and what does transcend that time often does so only through great effort. Ramon senses this intellectually and Alain erotically. Maybe.

But, again, so what? And what of the first-person narrator who speaks as the or a writer? I don’t know, which may be the point of the novella, if there is one.

Art is of course insignificant and significant at the same time. Its role as insignificant is well known, and its significance can be inferred by the ceaseless efforts of religions, governments, and parents to censor it. If art weren’t significant, all that effort into controlling art wouldn’t occur. Political art may be legal in the U.S., but just try writing a political satire of the Chinese government in China. Perhaps the point is that in the West we’ve evolved to a stage where virtually all art is legal and none of it matters, leaving artists and art consumers / experiencers to ask, “What now?”

Maybe there is a stylistic quality to The Festival of Insignificance evident in French that didn’t make it to English. It is always dangerous to assume too much about a translated novel. Maybe too the only good criticism of art is other art, and little conventional criticism rises to the level of art.

Here is Jonathan Rosen writing about it, and ignore the stupid, cliché title, which probably wasn’t his. Too many reviewers are obsessed with the writer instead of the book.

Links: Being wrong, e-bikes, the culture of academia, sexual culture, art, doing things, and more

* “I got it wrong: seven writers on why they changed their minds.” I’ve written in the genre: “Being wrong and a partial list of ways I’ve been wrong” and “Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong” are two examples. Intellectually distrust anyone who is mature enough to know better and who can’t think of anything they’ve changed their mind about or been wrong about.

* Ford’s latest e-bike prototype features ‘eyes-free navigation’ and a ‘no sweat’ mode. The biggest problem with the story is the lack of price. If this were $1,000 it would be interesting. Any more than that and the bike has Segway’s problems and no probable solution to them.

* “Lawyers for Emma Sulkowicz’s [Victim, Paul Nungesser] Accuse Her of Misandry;” this is the sort of case that, had it appeared in an academic novel, would’ve seemed absurd, and as it plays out in real life its sense of absurdity continues.

* Google Project Fi review. It’s the plan that uses WiFi first and data networks second, which should bring cell phone bills to the $20 – $30 per month range. This is likely to be a big deal. It’ll be interesting to see if the next iPhone supports Project Fi.

* 11 things ultra-productive people do differently, perhaps most importantly: “They fight the tyranny of the urgent.” Second most important: “They don’t multitask.” Have I failed at both? Yes.

* In 1900, Los Angeles had a bike highway — and the US was a world leader in bike lanes. Wow. Shocking to me too.

* “How Art Became Irrelevant,” which oddly does not quote Paglia.

* Solar power still needs to get much cheaper. Are perovskites the answer?

* ‘Affirmative Consent’ Will Make Rape Laws Worse.

* “ This Professor Was Fired for Saying ‘Fuck No’ in Class: The misuse of sexual-harassment policies by pusillanimous college administrators is creating a campus panic.” It’s odd to find this article at this publication.

* Europe’s soft underbelly: “For many decades, Italy has been doing the things that American progressives would recommend, pouring lots of fiscal stimulus into the south, to build up the economy. But nothing seems to work.” What gives?

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