Links: The color of money, social justice nonsense, the shape of the city, and more!

* “When Bitcoin Grows Up,” which also covers what money is, what it might be, and the future of money.

* Parents Are Bankrupting Themselves to Look Adequate; or, more Theory of the Leisure Class. Or Max Weber. The drive to compete is hard to understate.

* “What the ‘Freedom’ of a Car Means to Me in a City Where Everyone Drives: Compared to the subway I was used to, driving in Seattle was freeing—but it was also lonely.”

* “The Tools of Campus Activists Are Being Turned Against Them,” which makes sense and is compatible with my argument in “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.”

* Obvious, but: “National HPV vaccination program would provide big benefits.” I have a jones for the good news that gets overlooked.

* “Trains in space,” a more interesting piece than you’re imagining.

* Fantastic news: SpaceX undercut ULA rocket launch pricing by 40 percent: U.S. Air Force.

* “Unnatural Selection: What will it take to save the world’s reefs and forests?

Briefly noted: Leviathan Wakes — James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is defiantly, definitely okay; the biggest problem with it isn’t the novel itself but having already read Blindsight, which its some similar notes but is just a much, much better novel.

Leviathan Wakes is big on game theory, empathy, and political questions. They start early—”The temptation to have an unexplained comm failure, erase the logs, and let the great god Darwin have his way was always there” happens on page 14—and don’t really relent. Still, I dislike the implication that “the great god Darwin” thinks that individuals and small groups are inwardly selfish; evolution has also endowed us with the ability to cooperate, and humans are super-cooperators, alone among animals.

Leviathan_WakesBut the divisions among people may change shape and form, but they always remain, at least as long as we live in a world of economic scarcity. In Leviathan Wakes, Earthers, Martians, and Belters (those who grow up and/or live in the Asteroid Belt) are the primary divisions. I write this in 2016, and in the current European and American political systems there are spasms around divisions that, viewed from the proper perspective, will seem trivial. The other day I heard someone say that Trump has a point about immigrants. I agreed and amplified, suggesting that he do something about the filthy, lazy Irish and Italians, with their Papist ways and mooching dispositions. The guy I was talking to didn’t know what to do with that; the Know Nothing Party may be gone, but its ideas live on for as long as humans have a powerful psychological need to divide ourselves into tribes.

In Leviathan Wakes some descriptions are good (on a space station, “The air smelled beery with old protein yeast and mushrooms” or “The circle of life on Ceres was so small you could see the curve”), but the text can usually be described as nondescript. It’s rarely bad but rarely stellar. For example, the sentence after the one about the circle of life on Ceres is “He liked it that way,” which is representative of the novel’s language.

The sense of mystery is strong, though, and mostly excuses the sentences. You’ve read worse. You’ve read better. The plot gets sillier as the novel progresses.

What else? There is a convenient magic drive that gets people from place to place relatively rapidly. It’s hard to imagine that genetic engineering won’t have re-made the human species by the time we develop advanced space stations with room for millions of people. Did people in 1750 imagine that in 2000 we’d still be riding horses and firing muskets? Because imagining 2250 without substantial genetic engineering is hard (unless there’s an apocalypse in the meantime, which is also possible).

Leviathan Wakes is guilty of many of Charlie Stross’s space opera clichés, but I mostly forgive it. I just can’t imagine wanting to re-read it.

Thoughts on Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience”

* No one in the show evinces any enthusiasm. If I pitched clients with anything like the affect of the lawyers at the firm where Christine / Chelsea works, we’d have no clients. I don’t have any direct experience with the The Girlfriend Experience world, but I gather that escorts or hookers or whatever you want to call them are fundamentally selling people skills. In the show everyone is unbelievably uncomfortable with each other. Chelsea does say, “I don’t have any friends.” That’s believable. Distressingly believable. For her, there seems to be no there, there.

Girlfriend_Experience* There is almost no humor in the show, yet to my mind the situation is more humorous than dramatic. One sees a little humor in the episode when Chelsea / Christine says to her boss that she has a few clients, “including you.” The implications of that moment are rich, but there are too few such moments. Christine says that their relationship has “always been business.” Where does business end and personal begin? Does it ever?

* The spatial arrangements of The Girlfriend Experience are consistently interesting and revealing. But a show that starts out realistic-seeming and somewhat plausible becomes more and more baroque, ridiculous, soap-operatic, and ludicrous.

* I know it’s annoying when cops say cop shows are bogus and doctors say doctor shows are bogus, but in The Girlfriend Experience none of the lawyers seem to have specialties or areas of expertise (early in the series the firm consists of patent attorneys; later on, they do law far removed from that field). The scenes detailing law are weirdly generic and surface-feeling. The characters speak in word salad. There is no content to go with the form. I work in a field that is not law but is sufficiently adjacent to it to recognize total bullshit. The law discussions are unconvincing. In the real world real issues get discussed in depth by real people. Cryptonomicon depicts this convincingly in fiction. The Girlfriend Experience has a sprinkling of law talk.

* Maybe in the above bullets I’m small-minded and missing the point. The point is not about a realistic lawyer show. The point is about the acts. I will say that some of the foreplay or roleplay talk between lawyer / intern is plausible. Very plausible.

* It’s refreshing to see a woman shown as aggressive in a non-stupid way. Being hardcore is also underrated, and very few TV shows or movie depict being hardcore. Unreal does, which is one of the refreshing and admirable parts of it.

* For someone who is attempting to be a lawyer, Christine / Chelsea does not think very many moves ahead. I’ll avoid real spoilers and just say that episode 11 has to have any actual lawyer rolling their eyes. Her liking sex isn’t what should preclude her from being a lawyer; her being a terrible strategist for herself should.

* The TV show is oddly congruent with the movie Her.

* The protagonist sounds perpetually unconvincing. Maybe that’s intentional. Actually, it almost has to be intentional.

* Being fond of risk in erotic situations makes sense, but the level of risk Christine / Chelsea seeks is probably incompatible with a law firm internship. She’d be more believable as a hacker, in Paul Graham’s sense of the word, since that field is unusually open, unusually unencumbered by unfair occupational licensing, and unusually merit-driven. Law is none of those things. By now, six months in a coding school like the Flatiron School makes more sense than three years in law school. Maybe coding is less attractive because hackers rarely directly fuck with people’s lives the way lawyers sometimes do, but it is a more intelligent occupation for someone with Christine / Chelsea’s appetite for risk.

Hackers, though, are involved in a positive-sum world, rather than the lawyer’s zero-sum world. If you want ennui and anomie, law and management consulting are hard fields to beat. The hacker’s fundamental ethos is to make something new and make something people want. The lawyer’s fundamental ethos is to fight like hell and beat the other guy. The resonances are very different (and they are yet another reason not to go to law school).

* In the bullet above, I’m not knocking risk-seeking or risk-taking or being into stuff that other people don’t understand. I’m also not knocking Christine / Chelsea’s occupation or bifurcated life. Her occupation probably produces more value than many lawyers produce, and that value is more easily measurable in money than law is.

* Victimhood culture is out of control in the United States. We we already know that, but it’s unusual to see it confirmed on TV.

* In contemporary relationships there is a game-theory dynamic in which the person who cares less has control, or power, or “hand.” But following that dynamic to its logical conclusion seems like a crappy way to live, even if superficially rational actors might pursue it. Given the University of Chicago’s role in economics, law, and economics in law, it may not be a coincidence that the show is set there, instead of somewhere cooler like New York, Austin, or Seattle.

Then again, sometimes renting is better than buying.

* How often are people who accuse others of selfishness selfish themselves?

* The show gets better as it goes on. But: The ending? Of the first season? I’m reminded of the debates around the final, series-ending episode of The Sopranos.

* The Girlfriend Experience is also about technology. The Technology and Law Marketing Blog hits the same intersection between law and technology.

* Despite the critical tenor of the above points I’m glad I watched the show. This is one ecstatic review; others may be found.  The Girlfriend Experience isn’t stupid, and “not stupid” is distressingly uncommon characteristic. It also doesn’t feel like it’s a following a Save the Cat-style formula. It’s more willing to be weird and awkward than many TV shows or movies, which is a great, rare virtue. It’s not for everyone. That makes it more likely to be for someone.

Links: Writing days, solar power, mattresses, university students infantilize themselves, and drugs

* “My writing day: Hilary Mantel.”

* How cheap does solar power need to get before it takes over the world?

* The Wirecutter tests the (many) online mattress companies and likes Leesa the best.

* How university students infantilise themselves.

* “So You’re Getting a Ph.D.: Welcome to the worst job market in America.” Which readers of this blog should already know.

* More than 1,000 world leaders say the obvious: the drug “war” has been a disaster. Daniel Okrent’s Last Call is good on this.

* “The alt-right is more than warmed-over white supremacy. It’s that, but way way weirder.” A much better and weirder piece than you’re expecting.

I never thought I’d vote for Hillary Clinton, yet here I am:

I never thought I’d vote for Hillary Clinton, and I really never thought I’d be excited to do so, but here I am, voting for her today: It turns out that she’s by far the sanest choice in an insane landscape. Most political commentary is really about signalling (including people who say, “most political commentary is really about signalling,” since they’re making a point and trying to signal their intelligence). Still, to understand why I vote for sanity, consider Jonathan Rauch’s argument in “Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy” and “Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders’s Plans.” The former explains that it turns out some level of cash handouts actually make politics function much better.

Many of you may remember the fight over “earmarks” from the 2000s—that is, whether Congresspeople should be able to allocate cash for specific purposes in their districts. I thought eliminating earmarks would be a good idea. Turns out I was wrong: Eliminating earmarks means that it is much harder for party leaders to keep their members in line.

As a result, we get more and more moves towards ideological purity, at the expense of, you know, making the country run. Congress has broken down in the last decade or so in part because party leaders can’t discipline their followers by taking away money that should go to members’ districts. The Tea Party, and, on the left, Bernie Sanders, can become more prominent because of that issue.

I’m not the first person to notice this—”How to fix what ails Congress: bring back earmarks” is one good account—but it is a serious problem that has caused particular dysfunction among Republicans, who appear ready to nominate people who are manifestly unqualified for being a big-city mayor, let alone president.

Ideological purity turns out to be very bad. Jonathan Haidt’s “The top 10 reasons American politics are so broken” (and “The Ten Causes of America’s Political Dysfunction“), along with the paper he links to, “Why the Center Does Not Hold: The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America,” explains why.

The papers I’ve been citing also explain why it turns out that Obama has been a much better president than most people, including me, realized, or thought in advance. He’s an incrementalist, a negotiator, a thinker, and a realist—all traits that are not selected for amid political polarization. Clinton is too.

Trump and Sanders espouse opposing policies (to the extent Trump espouses any policies), but both are alike in that they are “outsiders” who want to tear down existing systems; they are both temperamentally similar in that they don’t want to work within existing systems. Both are poor traits in leaders and figureheads. We want evolutionaries, not revolutionaries.

It may simply be that, as Matt Yglesias argues, “American democracy is doomed.” I hope not, but the bout of insanity on right and left does not auger well.

I haven’t dealt much with the specifics of Sanders policies apart from the second link in this post because the short version of the critique is, “There’s no way to pay for all this stuff.” Or even a small amount of this stuff. Alvin Chang observes, probably correctly, that “Most Bernie Sanders supporters aren’t willing to pay for his revolution.” If you ask most people if they want more services, handouts, and stuff, they say yes. If you ask most people if they want lower taxes, they say yes. Stated in those terms, you can see the problem.

If you want to understand that people don’t want to pay higher taxes, look at where they’re moving. The major population growth metros are in Texas. Phoenix and Atlanta do really well too. People are moving to lower-cost states, and that should tell us something important about revealed preferences. Hell, I just voted in the New York primary, and I’d like to move to Austin or Nashville, chiefly for cost-of-living reasons.

As for Sanders and banks, the bigger issue than “big banks” is the “shadow” banking system, which I don’t fully understand, but I do understand well enough to know that Sanders is wildly focused on the wrong things.

Still, the last two paragraphs probably don’t matter because the vast majority of Sanders voters aren’t looking at policies; they’re looking at mood and feelings, and I doubt that 1 in 20 people who start this post will have gotten this far, because it’s wonkish, detailed, and not heavily mood affiliated. Out of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of politics, the “How” is often most important and least discussed.

“First, do no harm” is a good political rule, but it’s also kinda boring. I rarely write about politics because most of the time most politics in the U.S. are about incremental changes, about which I have some opinions, but those opinions aren’t important, and they’re as poorly thought out as the political opinions you see on Facebook. In the last couple presidential cycles, I’ve had opinions and voted accordingly, but the major party candidates have mostly been kinda okay. In 2012, Romney would’ve done some things differently from Obama, but I don’t think he would’ve been a total disaster.

This cycle is scary because at least two candidates would likely be total disasters. Yet people keep voting for those candidates and posting mood affiliated comments on them and so forth.

Gay Talese’s “The Voyeur’s Motel”

Gay Talese’s “The Voyeur’s Motel” is one of the most bizarre, compelling, shocking, vile, disgusting, and fascinating stories I’ve ever read. It’s somewhat but not ridiculously explicit (it was published in The New Yorker and consists solely of text), and, about 80% of the way through, the article takes an unexpected twist that deepens the moral questions that haunt the entire thing.

It starts this way:

I know a married man and father of two who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur. With the assistance of his wife, he cut rectangular holes measuring six by fourteen inches in the ceilings of more than a dozen rooms. Then he covered the openings with louvred aluminum screens that looked like ventilation grilles but were actually observation vents that allowed him, while he knelt in the attic, to see his guests in the rooms below. He watched them for decades, while keeping an exhaustive written record of what he saw and heard. Never once, during all those years, was he caught.

“WTF?” you may be thinking. That at least was what I was thinking and, even after finishing, still am thinking. “The Voyeur’s Motel” is so unusual that I’m not saving it for a usual links post. An eponymous book will be published in July; I pre-ordered, though doing so has a slightly complicit, slimy feel. Talese feels complicit and by extension so should we, the readers. Is moral contagion a thing? Usually I’d argue no.

Talese also wrote Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion-Dollar Deals — John Lefevre

Masters of one medium, like Twitter, aren’t necessarily masters of another medium, like the 80,000-word memoir. They can be but don’t have to be. Lefevre mastered Twitter, but his long-form game is not as strong. That being said I did laugh when reading Straight To Hell; I feel like I couldn’t drink anywhere near the amount Lefevre does, or take anywhere near the amount of drugs. I don’t imagine I’d want to be friends with him. As he puts his life philosophy, “As we see it, if you’re dumb enough to get caught cheating, you probably don’t belong on Wall Street.”* That sounds like a sentence from a Bernie Sanders rally. It isn’t.

Straight_To_HellLeFevre writes, “From my experience, the rich and unscrupulous tend to make for entertaining company.” Speaking of political connections, he could be talking about Donald Trump, which is part of the reason he makes a popular, evil presidential candidates (and I don’t use the word “evil” lightly, but he is evil: the evil of pure id, untempered by knowledge or self-awareness). Straight to Hell has more political resonances than it should, and that may help explain its popularity, as it works on readers’ subconscious.

Still, LeFevre’s company is often entertaining, and the best one can say about his scruples is that he makes public what many would like to be private. The speaker of unpleasant truths has a kind of honor. The book is his unpleasant truths, though it is often about the unpleasant truths he dodged (“Now I know for sure, this deal is never going to work. But I still don’t want to be the one who gets blamed for killing it.”) Machiavelli has a vital role in history for a reason.

Even for people like me, who don’t see money as evil, LeFevre will make them want to see money as evil. (Consider how Sylvia Nasar puts it in Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius: “Historically, money had been seen as powerful, desirable, very likely evil, and mysterious, like natural calamities or epidemics.”) Money can be earned in ways that tend to benefit humanity or, in LeFevre’s world, in ways that tend to be about rent seeking and stealing pieces of the pie, rather than earning them, or expanding the size of the pie. Finance here looks like the latter part. That being said one doesn’t and maybe can’t know whether LeFevre’s book is representative, any more than a movie like Bad Teacher is representative of the teaching industry.

Straight To Hell is a memoir about signaling. The finance world presented in it has descended to an almost-pure signaling hell, in which there is no content, only surface. Hence the ceaseless references to luxury brands and luxury-brand schools. The two have become synonymous, however much humanities-department Marxists may want to deny it. There is a weird kinship between high school memoirs or novels and Straight To Hell. American high schools are painful because there is no content to shape form. Lefevre’s finance world is similar. In it, seniority beats skill (count the number of times the word “senior” appears). Many American high schools are so bad because there is no financially viable way to start an alternative high school that can siphon off smarter students and parents. Banks, in Straight To Hell, operate the same way. If contemporary investment banks operate anything like the way Lefevre depicts them operating, then “fin tech” (or “financial technology companies and products,” to use a phrase du jour) should be a ripe opportunity for startups, because the banks, and their personnel and culture, are so internally fucked up that smart startups ought to be able to eat them.

Unless, of course, regulatory and other barriers kill startups before the startups can really succeed. Still, anyone investing in financial companies should read Straight to Hell. It ought to give them courage, if it’s accurate. I can’t really judge whether it is. I’m too far from the industry. It seems unlikely, but unlikely things turn out to be true all the time. It seemed unlikely that the U.S. government would massively spy on virtually all of its citizens, but Snowden showed that it does. It seemed unlikely that an electric car startup could succeed, but Tesla showed that it can. I won’t discount Straight to Hell without trying to triangulate its portrayals. Still, if it is to be believed then many bankers are redistributing money to escorts and drug dealers. Not that I’m opposed, necessarily, to either group, but it is interesting given recent noise about financial inequality to see money flow from the rich to middle-skill service providers (though the book is not conceptualized or framed in that way; still, often the most interesting parts of a book are those that are unintended).

One could write an interesting piece comparing temperaments in Houellebecq and LeFevre. One could also write an interesting piece comparing Thiel in Zero to One and LeFevre. As Thiel notes, in a discussion about why startups (and other companies) must incentivize their employees with stock and other methods that align incentives:

Cash is attractive. It offers pure optionality: once you get your paycheck, you can do anything you want with it. [. . .] A cash bonus is slightly better than a cash salary—at least it’s contingent on a job well done. But even so-called incentive pay encourages short-term thinking and value grabbing. Any kind of cash is more about the present than the future.

zero to oneStraight to Hell can be seen as a document about “value grabbing” and about living in the hedonistic present. The value grabbing is not purely financial, either: It’s also sexual. The team lives or dies by the current roadshow. Slickness rules. One could also compare Straight to Hell and Zero to One in terms of humor versus earnestness. Zero to One has its moments of humor (think of the brief section comparing hipsters to the Unabomber, or the part about Richard Branson and the naked windsurfing model) but the preponderance of the book is about how to make serious, real improvements in the quality of life for all humans. Straight to Hell is about getting a bonus and getting your dick wet (concern over women’s pleasure is mostly absent, or I’d add something appropriate for women as well). There is nothing intrinsically wrong about either and indeed both have concerned me greatly at various points, but there is something distinctly sublunar about the relentlessness of those concerns, and the way one never looks up from the bonus or the girl or the meal.

Is it a satire? Is the joke on me because I don’t get it? There is much like, “There’s no justice in this world—a valuable lesson to learn at a young age, especially if you want to end up on Wall Street.” Is it bravado, trolling, or truth? After many words I still don’t know.


* If they’ll cheat someone else, they’ll cheat you when they get a chance.

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