Links: New Cowen book, Brexit blues, the horror of public sector unions, cures for cancer, the state of the union and more!

* A new Tyler Cowen book is coming out in February; the link goes to the post describing the book (and how to get a free book) and here is a direct Amazon link to The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.

* “Brexit Blues,” the best piece on this topic I’ve read, and one of the better for describing Trump. It reminds me of the saying, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Ignorance is expensive in voters round the globe right now.

* “It takes way too long to build new housing in expensive cities.”

* This is why people in the know vehemently opposed public-sector unions: “A Metro worker blamed for falsifying records about the tunnel fans that failed during last year’s deadly smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza has been granted his job back by an arbitration panel — and Metro’s largest union has just filed a lawsuit against Metro because the worker hasn’t been reinstated yet.” Or see “How police unions actually hurt police officers.” Unfortunately, it looks like the Supreme Court will not save us. Still, it is odd that the left favors public sector unions, since those very unions make the public sector less efficient and more prone to right-wing attacks.

* “How The Cures For Cancer Snuck Up On Us,” good news all round.

* “A Republican intellectual explains why the Republican Party is going to die;” it is hard to say whether the consequences will be very bad, very good, or somewhere in between. The current Republican Party is bad for democracy, the U.S., and itself.

* “How The West Was Won,” which is actually about how and why “Western” culture took over the world because a) it’s popular and b) it’s not so much Western per se as the result of technologically oriented development.

* The pre-order page for Tom Wolfe’s new novel, The Kingdom of Speech. If Wolfe writes it you ought to read it.

* “Apple’s China Problem Is That Local Phones are Good — and Cheap.” I’d expect this to become more of a “problem” for manufacturers and good news for phone users over time, as the market saturates.

* “Why Police Cannot Be Trusted to Police Themselves,” a point that seems increasingly obvious.

* “A Conversation with Michael Orthofer” is the latest conversation with Tyler, and as always it is excellent. This describes me: “A lot of people come away from travel alienated. They don’t always enjoy travel. They may vaguely feel it was good for them. They had to make too many decisions, and they argue with each other.” I think few people who live in big interesting cities know their homes well, and I also think that loneliness / disconnection / anomie is a bigger problem for most people than the marginal trip / vacation, especially now that U.S. airport security theater is so bad.

Links: Kids with out marriage, novels from China, turning phones into laptops, nurses and doctors

* Why do most Millenials have children out of wedlock? Oddly, the researchers never seem to consider the answers from “Real World Divorce,” or ponder what decades of real-world divorce observation may have done to most people currently of reproductive age.

* “‘The Concubine Culture Is Alive and Well:’ Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s new novel exposes the glittering compromises of the ‘sarong party girl.’ Amazon link straight to the book is here, sounds interesting but not for me.

* One political / cultural / legal reason cops are ultra-violent. It also goes well with “How police unions actually hurt police officers.”

* “This $99 accessory turns your phone into a laptop,” things I had never really imagined and yet could be very helpful for many people. The more powerful phones get and the more capacious their batteries, the more impressive / useful this becomes. Here is their Kickstarter.

* Similar to the above, “Why I left my new MacBook for a $250 Chromebook.” I’d have trouble without Devonthink Pro, which is the killer app for me. Still, Apple’s recent moves have me watching the Linux laptop market, because I’m not sure OS X will remain usable, good, and supported forever.

* “Can a Nurse Practitioner Replace a Physician? Data and personal experience suggests it’s possible. The current shortage of doctors attending veterans might make it necessary.” That last sentence is the key. See also my 2012 essay, “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school.”

* “Confessions of an Ex-Prosecutor: Culture and law conspire to make prosecutors hostile to constitutional rights.” Disturbing and important.

Briefly Noted: Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything — Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

The book is charming and I’m glad I finished, but keep your expectations low. It never proves the assertion in its subtitle and has way too many sections of limited interest about how Seinfeld fared in this time slot or that one or how it competed with forgotten shows (What is Mad About You? again?). Don’t stop reading after the first five pages, which are oddly weak.

seinfeldiaStill, as a case study in creative organization and the risks of not taking risks it’s good. Jerry Seinfeld’s interest in comedy also extends deeply into the past (in college he “wrote a forty-page paper” on comics’ approaches and in his own practice he “tape-recorded his routines, then analyzed them to improve by the next night”). The practice of practice is still underrated. Armstrong writes that when Seinfeld was getting started, “NBC was finishing up its fifth season in first place among the four major networks. It could afford to gamble.” But every non-monopoly organization must gamble: If the last-place network is not doing well, it too must gamble on trying something different if it has already failed at doing the same thing. The worst gamble in virtually every domain except legalized gambling is not gambling.

The NBC line seems like a throwaway, and I wonder if Armstrong did not fully think about its implications and what it means. If she didn’t, that’s okay; neither did the TV executives who wanted to copy Seinfeld’s success without recognizing what went into it:

When [writer] Mehlman went out into the “real world” beyond Seinfeld’s office walls, he found that everyone in television wanted “the next Seinfeld, but they didn’t want to take any of the chances necessary to make such a thing.” They wanted Seinfeld money, but they seemed to resent Seinfeld itself for breaking the rules of television.

Being truly individual is hard. Real gambles are hard. The rhetoric of risk is more attractive than the practice of it. That’s why so many works exhort risk and individuality (like Zero to One) relative to people actually practicing it. I don’t exclude myself from this analysis.

Oh, and one other vital point about organizations: they suffer when their constituent parts seek status more than they do the things they need to do. Larry David eventually left Seinfeld. During the ninth season, “The writers were working most of their waking hours and jostling for power; Seinfeld was writing, producing, and starring; and the main cast members just barely got what they felt they deserved to be paid.” That phrase, “jostling for power” is key. It seems a symptom of organizations past their peak. Facebook tries to minimize office politics. Microsoft brutally encouraged it for many years via its ill-conceived “stack rank” system.

What people do around you matters. Peter Mehlman, Seinfeld’s most important writer apart from Seinfeld himself and Larry David, “moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1989 for a change of scenery,” and “he thought he should take a shot at scriptwriting, since everyone around him was doing it.” There is a propensity to do what everyone around you do does. If you’re in San Francisco you do startups. If you’re caught up among book people you write books. If you’re in L.A. and you write, you write scripts. This implies that you should choose your environment and peer group with greater care than many people (including me) do. People and place exert more influence than we commonly want to imagine. You are not a monad.

Most of the Seinfeld principals justifiably disliked L.A. For Jason Alexander, “In L.A., a veneer of fake niceness covered everything, and it drove him crazy.” By the end of the show, Seinfeld says that he’s “had enough of Los Angeles” and that “I always say that Los Angeles is like Vegas, except the losers stay in town.”

People not intimately familiar Seinfeld should skip Seinfeldia. I wonder if we’ll get a similar treatment for Friends, since, allegedly, Friends is the 20-year-old show that 20-somethings love, according to the possibly bogus trend piece “Is ‘Friends’ Still the Most Popular Show on TV? Why so many 20-somethings want to stream a 20-year-old sitcom about a bunch of 20-somethings sitting around in a coffee shop.” As with most “What those darn kids are up to these days?” stories, it’s difficult or impossible to gauge its accuracy. Still, the appearance of streaming services “compresses” the historical timeline of TV and movies by making many more shows and movies available easily than was the case.

There are jokes, as you’d expect, like “Larry David was what’s known as a comic’s comic, an acquired taste, ‘which means I sucked,’ he often said.” But being funny, even about a funny show, is hard. That’s why Jerry Seinfeld spends his life studying funny.

Here is a decent interview with Armstrong.

Links: Gary Johnson for president, housing problems, drugs, the texture of life and love

* “The Libertarians’ Secret Weapon: The third-party candidacy of Gary Johnson might make the most unpredictable election in modern times even weirder.” It’s from The New Yorker so it isn’t like the numerous garbage political articles that pop up around presidential elections.

* “How police unions actually hurt police officers,” an underappreciated point.

* “We’re Building 6 Homes for Every 10 New Households. Where Will People Live?” When you hear people talking about “income inequality” in the national media, what they’re really saying is, “People feel financially squeezed.” That’s because, since the 1970s, we’ve systematically raised the cost of housing for virtually everybody through zoning rules. But that issue is complex enough that you won’t see slogans or bumper stickers around it.

* Drug Prohibition Has Made Policing More Violent: What can be done to curb the excessive and, sometimes, predatory policing that has emerged from the Drug War?

* “Why Trump’s Prosperous Supporters Are Angry, Too,” not the usual, and “inadequate savings” may be surprisingly salient and motivating.

* “Why NYC Rent Is So High (It’s Not Airbnb).”

* Far better than the title makes it sound: “The Philosopher of Feelings: Martha Nussbaum’s far-reaching ideas illuminate the often ignored elements of human life—aging, inequality, and emotion.”

* “Classic Hollywood’s Secret: Studios Wanted Their Stars to Have Abortions,” unusually sad and affecting.

* “How Anti-Growth Sentiment, Reflected in Zoning Laws, Thwarts Equality.”

Links: The best deep works on politics and culture, plus nerdy discussions of NSFW issues, plus keyboards

* “When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism: And how moral psychology can help explain and reduce tensions between the two.” By far the best article I’ve read recently, only rivaled by the next link.

* Related to the above, “Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad,” an uncommonly interesting and thoughtful piece that can’t be excerpted well but is worth reading in full.

* Possibly NSFW, though it is on and leans nerd: “ Datagasm: Ever-faster feedback loops and micro-targeted digital porn are pushing human sexuality into some seriously weird places.”

* Related to the above, “How sex workers vet identities and keep people honest online,” a link that is likely also safe for work.

* “The L.E.D. Quandary: Why There’s No Such Thing as ‘Built to Last.’” reminds me of Unicomp, which faces similar challenges. As you’ll learn from the preceding link, in the 1980s, IBM made the Model M, a keyboard famous among hackers and writers for its quality, tactile feel, and longevity. Eventually IBM got out of the hardware business and Unicomp took over IBM’s Kentucky manufacturing machines. Today, however, Unicomp has a problem similar to L.E.D. makers: its primary product can last for decades, depriving the company of recurrent revenue from users who would otherwise need to replace their keyboards. From an NPR story: “That old school-industry is still alive in this converted furniture factory and it has the appreciation of certain aging nerds. But those guys just don’t make Unicomp enough money. The trouble with Model M is they rarely break down…”

* Seems obvious, but: “One Reason School Segregation Persists: White parents want it that way.”

* The main source of economic growth is new ideas, which is a point that should be obvious yet needs to be better known.

* “Half Of TSA’s 30,000 Employees Accused Of Misconduct; Nearly A Third Multiple Times.” Unsurprisingly.

Briefly noted: Sweetbitter — Stephanie Danler

You may have read about Sweetbitter, which is a resolutely okay novel that you should not even consider unless you’ve already read and liked Kitchen Confidential and Love Me Back, both of which cover kitchen and restaurant stories (from page 9 of Sweetbitter: “When I got there they told me a lot of stories” about restaurants, Union Square, and New York). Like many New York novels, it has a masturbatory, self-important, and inward-gazing feel. Many of New York’s structural problems can be traced back to Matt Yglesias’s excellent book The Rent Is Too Damn High, but of course none of the characters in literary fiction ever read or know anything beyond what they themselves immediately experience.

sweetbitterYou will find many ridiculous lines like, “in New York City there are absolutely no rules.” The sort of lines that, spoken on a reality TV show, the literati would condescend to, justifiably, but here, in this package, it’s literature, or the sort of novel that makes literary moves. Maybe I’m unfair and the things that are profound or profound-seeming at 22 are different than the things that are profound or profound-seeming later. But there is too much, “Do you know what it means to be a server?” too much concern about “totems of who I was.”

There is also oddly little sex in a novel with too little else to recommend it. The protagonist, Tess, chases her own personal Mr. Big (although his name is appealingly Jake), and the results can either be predictable or more fairy tale than gritty realism.

I didn’t consciously realize until reading this novel and talking to a friend in the restaurant industry that the industry only really works for its employees if or when the employees get pre-tax food subsidies from other restaurants. Let me explain. Many mid- and high-end restaurant workers have an implicit or explicit deal you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours in which they give other “industry” people free food / booze, the value of which can probably add up to thousands of dollars a year, all of it untaxed. Since restaurant industry profits are notoriously low (some estimates are as low as 1 – 4%), some of the pay that would otherwise need to go to servers who’d get taxed on that pay instead goes to them in the form of food. And they expect that favor returned: On Monday you go to Joe’s restaurant, and on Tuesday people from Joe’s go to yours.

Still, it’s not worth reading the novel for that insight. It’s dubiously worth reading a novel with disconnected ejaculations like this all over the page:

“Appetite is not a symptom,” Simone said when I complained of being hungry. “It cannot be cured. It’s a state of being, and like most, has its attendant moral consequences.”

Okay, that’s deep, but so what?

There are good sentences, but they don’t add up to much. I neither regretted finishing nor skimming the second half. When people complain about “MFA fiction,” Sweetbitter is what they’re talking about. I’ll read the next thing Danler writes.

Links: Writers, writer’s block, friends, and life

* “How to Beat Writer’s Block.” In The New Yorker, not the usual Internet drivel.

* “Pharma companies are fighting legal marijuana because painkiller prescriptions drop when weed is legalized.” Talk about unintended consequences.

* “Why 30 is the decade friends disappear — and what to do about it.”

* “The Fight for the ‘Right to Repair:’ Manufacturers have made it increasingly difficult for individuals or independent repair people to fix electronics. A growing movement is fighting back.” The increasing difficulty of repairing Apple products is notable and annoying; for example, only recently did aftermarket hard drives show up for many 2012 – 2015 MacBook Pros.

* Megan McArdle: “Sexual Harassment Is Invisible to Half the Population;” not the dumb stuff you’re used to reading on this topic.

* “So Many Research Scientists, So Few Openings as Professors.”

* “The Complicated Legacy of Helen Gurley Brown,” who founded Cosmo and wrote many other interesting things.

* A promising book about chocolate, though too expensive for me right now.

* Concern trolling, competition, and ‘Facebook Made Me Do It.'”

The Voyeur’s Motel — Gay Talese

The real lesson of The Voyeur’s Motel is not how depraved most people are, but rather how boring they are. In the story, Gerald Foos gets his start as a teenage voyeur by watching his aunt Katheryn “for five or six years,” and while she spent much time nude most of that time was spent “at her dressing table arranging her collection of porcelain miniature dolls from Germany, or her valuable collection of thimbles.” Who knew there even was or is such thing as a “valuable collection of thimbles?”

voyeursmotelMost of the people Foos observes over decades in his hotel are little more interesting; the epigraph to The Voyeur’s Motel could be that famous quote from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Except that most of the individuals and couples Foos observes seem not to know enough to even feel desperation. Instead, to the extent they have or show feelings, they seem to be consumed with petty bickering and bullshit. The number who are luminously full seem small.

Consider the preceding two paragraphs in light of complaints about smart phones and laptops and the Internet relentlessly distracting us, or Internet dating making us flightier or more demanding of partners or more likely to break up. Maybe smartphone distraction is a big improvement on what on preceded it, on arranging porcelain miniature dolls or thimbles. In 1980 Talese goes into the attic and spies on people staying in the hotel:

As I looked through the slats, I saw mostly unhappy people watching television, complaining about minor physical ailments to one another, making unhappy references to the jobs they had, and constant complaints about money and the lack of it, the usual stuff that people say every day to one another, if they’re married or otherwise in cohabitation, but is never reported upon or thought about much beyond the one-on-one relationship. To me, without the Voyeur’s charged anticipation of erotic activity, it was tedium without end, the kind acted out in a motel room by normal couples every day of the year, for eternity.

The things that people consider to be pleasures are also sometimes odd, as Foos says:

My observations indicate that the majority of vacationers spend their time in misery. They fight about money; where to visit; where to eat; where to stay; all their aggressions are somehow immeasurably increased, and this is the time they discover they are not properly matched [. . .] Vacations produce all the anxieties within mankind to come forward during this time, and to perpetuate the worst of emotions.

That’s been my experience, and I wonder if people do them anyway to say they’ve done them, or imagine the best parts of them. Maybe many of us would be better off if, as Rebecca Shuman suggests, more people took her advice in “Alone, Together: To avoid travel stress and major arguments, more couples should vacation together but fly alone.”

Is it real? Hard to say. Talese notes:

Indeed, over the decades since we met, in 1980, I had noticed various inconsistencies in his story: for instance, the first entries in his Voyeur’s Journal are dated 1966,m but the deed of sale for the Manor House, which I obtained recently from the Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, shows that he purchased the place in 1969. And there are other dates in his notes and journals that don’t quite scan.

“Don’t quite scan” may be an understatement. On June 30, Talese actually “disavowed” The Voyeur’s Motel:

Talese overlooked a key fact in his book: Foos sold the motel, located in Aurora, Colo., in 1980 and didn’t reacquire it until eight years later, according to local property records. His absence from the motel raises doubt about some of the things Foos told Talese he saw.

Still: Talese did see the hotel. He later walked back his disavowal. I’m a great believer in the power of fiction and the power of people to make shit up, but even by that standard making up the shit that Foos writes seems unlikely. I guess it to be more real than not real. It seems likely that no one will know.

Given the volume of material, The Voyeur’s Motel is oddly short. This long New Yorker article gives you much of the content and flavor. Still, do not listen to the negative reviews so far, which have mostly been uselessly negative and/or focused on the perceived ethics of the book; almost all of those articles about mostly about the author’s need to perform signaling and status functions, rather than the book itself.

As with Thy Neighbor’s Wife, people expecting nonstop prurience will be disappointed. In some ways the book can productively be read in conjunction with The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, since Goffman’s book is about the social, public self and Talese’s book is about the private, supposedly unobserved and sexual self. To me and, I suspect, many readers and writers of novels the latter is more interesting and less likely to be foreseen.

The Voyeur’s Motel comes back over and over again to the need to reliever torpor. The first quotes are from the start of the book; around the midpoint we get this:

Ordinary life is boring, [Foos] concluded, not for the first time; no wonder that is always a big market for make believe: staged dramas, films, works of fiction, and also the legalized mayhem inherent in sports…

That most people do not try harder to alleviate boredom is an unsolved problem—perhaps most people don’t perceive boredom as Foos does, or they feel powerless, or both. Foos’ second wife is not immune. After retirement, she “devoted much of her free time to alphabetizing his millions of sports cards.” The sports cards are Foos’ thimbles.

Links: Data and stories, cops, bikes, governments, cities, and more!

* “Data Mining Reveals the Six Basic Emotional Arcs of Storytelling,” and their conclusions are likely to be of near-zero help to actual storytellers.

* “End Needless Interactions with Police Officers During Traffic Stops,” another of these “should be obvious” things. And: “My husband is a cop. I’m tired of trying to convince my fellow liberals he’s not a monster.”

* “The Surprising Health Benefits of an Electric Bike.”

* “Sonnen’s new battery for solar self-consumption could succeed in US.”

* From Grant Writing Confidential, a post about an aspect of government few people understand: “It’s possible to get re-programmed funds, if you’re tight with your federal agency program officer.”

* “Thoughts on possible and perceived income inequality.”

* Transit Tax-Increment Financing (TIF) in Chicago.

* “How Expensive Cities Hurt Workers,” which regular readers no doubt know.

Briefly noted: Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley – Antonio Garcia Martinez

Chaos Monkeys is supposed to be refreshingly honest but instead feels slimy; it feels like Martinez is ripping off other people’s good will and earnestness, which is deeply unattractive and raises the urge to altruistically punish. Martinez is aware of it enough to cite it but not enough to surmount it:

Cynicism is the last refuge of the shiftless. I don’t cite this absolutist tendency for the cheap sardonic joke, the asshole hipster who’s too cool for school to believe in anything. No, I cite it because I was as seduced as the next guy sitting there in Pong [the Facebook conference room], perhaps even more.

chaos_monkeysExcept that he is a cynic, he reaches for the sardonic joke, he is the asshole hipster, he grabs the clichés. He has much mud to sling, but he ought to also know the problem with mud as a weapon. What kind of person calls out everyone else for being a poseur and faker? It is odd to read about “a man [who] oozed an off-putting smarminess” in a book about a man who oozed an off-putting smarminess.

The sentence-by-sentence is okay and the content is often interesting. There are details of the ad world I didn’t know about and details about the startup world most people won’t know about. Then there are parts so conceptually and linguistically confused and muddled that I want to take back compliments like “okay” and “interesting:”

This was the major-league, serious shit, take-on-prisoners championship of thee tech entrepreneurship, and if you were going to play, you’d better show up ready to bite the ass off of a bear.

So the sentence moves from sports, to abstraction mixed with the scatological, to warfare, back to sports, to companies, to sports, and then to nonsense. It sort of works as long as you don’t pay too much attention. Chaos Monkeys rewards inattention. But you can’t get away from tone, which wafts through the book like a foul odor from a superficially attractive person. I don’t want to snark at others; I want to know, and Martinez makes snark seem like knowing, which may bedazzle or bamboozle the young or unwary but should put off the people who are building the future, not just manipulating social status symbols.

Like so many stories, the book is also about the madness of coastal real estate markets; in one year Martinez makes a million dollars, which in San Francisco feels justifiably middle-class due to outrageous land-use restrictions that drive up the price of housing and income taxes. I live in New York, which is afflicted with similarly maddening maladies that some subset of voters nonetheless likes.

Sections of the book are inadvertently revealing, which describe problems with the higher education system and the signaling madness that has overtaken it:

it would be my Facebook stock vesting yet to come that would pay for private high schools and Stanford, so Zoë and Noah wouldn’t have to sneak into this country’s elite through the back door from the cattle class, as I had to do.

Ignore even the extraneous “do” at the end of that sentence, as it should’ve been edited out. So much is wrong with that sentence and the mind behind it that my own mind boggles. Let me ignore most of it and I wonder if Zoë and Noah would prefer $300,000 in cash at age 22 rather than private high schools and Stanford. I know I would!

By far the worst part about Chaos Monkeys is that it’s an okay book within which there’s a great book—written perhaps by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s books reward attention. The more attention you give Chaos Monkeys, the more its weaknesses show.

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