Links: The dream, the cars, the madness

* “Why China won’t own next-generation manufacturing.” Maybe.

* “The Devil and John Holmes: John Holmes was a porn star. Eddie Nash was a drug lord. Their association ended in one of the most brutal mass murders in the history of Los Angeles.” If this were a novel I’d call it unrealistic.

* “‘America Is a Dream Country:’ What does it mean to spend years as a Syrian refugee and then land in a brand new life in Erie, Pennsylvania?” A point often missed in abstract political debates.

* “Europe’s ageing population is set to wreak havoc with the economy,” an underappreciated point.

* “Why Electric Cars Will Be Here Sooner Than You Think.”

* A Conversation with Jonathan Haidt, on the madness infecting college campuses (and other topics).

* Are PhD students irrational?

* The demise of the textbook mafia, one hopes.

Thoughts on Tolkien’s Letters and ossification by age

I’ve read Tolkien’s letters before, but as with most reading, each reading is different because I know, think, and believe different things. Tolkien’s occasional crankiness stands out in this reading. He doesn’t like cars (or “motor-cars” in his words) or most industrial / mechanical processes. To him the future often seems grimly industrial, and passages like this speak to his view of what would become modern culture:

Music will give place to jiving: which as far as I can make out means holding a ‘jam session’ round a piano (an instrument properly intended to produce the sounds devised by, say, Chopin) and hitting it so hard that it breaks. This delicately cultured amusement is said to be a ‘fever’ in the U.S.A.

letters_tolkienOne wonders what he’d think of computerized music, if such a term has any meaning anymore: Distinction between digital and analogue music is so blurred as to be useless today. And at least the “jam session” Tolkien does not much like demands more skill than a record, CD, or now mp3.

To my mind too a piano is not “properly intended” to do anything: It’s an instrument or tool that people will apply to all sorts of uses, many unforeseen or unintended. Chopin is one but there are many others, not necessarily worse. I imagine Tolkien did not “get” the Beatles.

I wonder if most people are just most comfortable with the technological world that spans from their childhoods to age 30 or 40, and what comes after often seems unnecessary, gratuitous, or even obscene. When I see the apartments many old people live in, I’m often struck by the lack of prominent computers and by the clutter and (to my eyes) ugly bric-a-brac (even T.G.I.F. is shedding clutter in favor of minimalism). What do they do all day? Old people are often in turn surprised by how much I use computers. I, in another turn, find Snapchat to be of little use, although its popularity is undeniable. When students and my cousins have tried to explain it to me the conversation is often comical.

The usual explanation goes something like, Snapchat lets you tell people what you’re doing; for example you might take a video of yourself on the way to the store, or to the beach, or a concert. I usually then ask, “Why would anyone care?” The conversation breaks down towards mutual incomprehension: They cannot explain the role of this very important tool in their lives, anymore than I could explain video games when I played them as a teenager; I’m too old or set in my ways to understand on a sub-verbal level Snapchat’s uses.

There is an interesting parallel between technology ossification and the way many people seem to lose friends and stop making new friends around age 30. Maybe some common root lies at the bottom of both phenomena.

To return to Tolkien and his dislike of motor-cars, though, Tolkien also got to experience the worst of mechanization in WWI, so his dislike has strong roots, given that virtually everyone he knew was killed using mechanized weapons and the generals who fought WWI had no idea how technology had changed warfare. If virtually everyone I know had died in mechanized warfare I might not love mechanization or machines either.

Like all leter collections the best parts of the letters are scattered amid a lot of material that’s unlikely to be of interest to most people. Unlike most letter collections this one is uncommonly deep and contains uncommonly deep analysis of the author’s own works. To most people who are uninterested in The Lord of the Rings or the Edwardian era the letters will be of no interest. To those who find either fascinating the letters may fascinate.

But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past — Chuck Klosterman

But What If We’re Wrong? is consistently delightful in both sentence and idea quality: the chapters are full of astute observations, like “Something becomes truly popular when it becomes interesting to those who don’t particularly care.” Klosterman’s example here is football and that is indeed a winning way to describe football in U.S. culture (though see here for one account of how football may decline); I don’t care about football and perhaps unsurprisingly I select for friends who don’t really care about it, yet in January I went to a friend’s apartment for he Superbowl anyway because other friends who also didn’t care about football were going. On some level this makes no sense yet we did it anyway.

but what if were wrongReality TV has that quality too, and Klosterman discusses it in another chapter. I don’t care about it either, though it has spawned one amazing TV show (UnREAL), at least one excellent novel (Arts & Entertainments), along with lots and lots of good articles. Reality TV producers probably have a better grasp of human psychology than most psychologists. It’s also arguably affected the way people use Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and the plethora of other tools we have to broadcast our fabulous, highly edited lives in the sun and exotic locales and so forth. The Real World got to the unreality of living in front of cameras before the rest of us did.

Speaking of the unreal world, the most striking thing to me is the gap between the Facebook faces of the people I know well and the private conversations with those same people, since the former is inevitably sunny and the latter contains the usual set of human challenges and feelings, which are repressed or distorted by reality TV. For good reason, I might add: the makers of those programs are building specific media properties for entertainment purposes. They know their business well, and their job is to present a specific kind of information system that may or may not be “real,” much the way my job is to write a specific kind of information system that may or may not be real.

The preceding two paragraphs are mostly digression, but they are digression that may feel somewhat like a Klosterman digression. Klosterman makes one think and makes one want to have a beer with him. He makes me want to write more and better. Not all of the chapters are equally strong—the one that starts out with comments about the role of dreaming particularly stands out in this respect, and I also have found discussions about the simulation hypothesis boring since I first heard them. But the overall effect is to make one think and to make one think something apart from the usual battle lines and lines of thought one hears, and that is valuable in itself.

There are many other excellent facets to the book, which feels like the cleverest conversation you’ve ever had rather than a slog through tedious ideas. There are some predecessors—”What You Can’t Say” also wonders what the present will look like centuries from now, and it asks:

It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.

Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right.

So if you believe everything you’re “supposed” to believe, you’re probably doing something wrong (if you believe nothing that you’re “supposed” to believe, you’re probably also doing something wrong, or simply cannot operate in a society that depends on some level of order and coordination). I think Klosterman would agree, although if he said so explicitly I missed it. He does set up the book this way:

What about ideas that are so accepted and internalized that we’re not even in a position to question their fallibility? These ideas are so ingrained in the collective consciousness that it seems fool-hardy to even wonder if they’re potentially untrue.

The ideas that are so accepted are of course the ones we need to question.

Klosterman also recalls the history of failed predictions; my favorite is Paul Ehrlich, who, in 1968, wrote a book called The Population Bomb, about how over-population would annihilate the world; in Klosterman’s words, summarizing Ehrlich, “we should currently be experiencing a dystopian dreamscape where ‘survivors envy the dead,’ which seem true only when I look at Twitter” (that last clause is a good sample of Klosterman’s humor). As most of outside of Syria know, the living do not for the most part envy the dead, growth has continued, and on an inflation-adjusted basis commodities are cheaper than they’ve ever been. We’re on the verge of an energy revolution in which a combination of solar, wind, and nuclear energy will reduce our carbon footprint, while electric cars should dramatically reduce the flow of oil money that is currently propping up despotic regimes like those in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran.

Those predictions are off. So are many predictions about who and what will matter in literature, music, and art. The cultural world of 2016 looks wildly different than the cultural world of 1950, 1900, or 1850, and all of those periods had artistic priorities and worlds vastly different from today’s. As we look backwards from today, the things we find valuable then are different than many of the things that people found valuable at the time. That implies that the cultural world of 2050 or 2100 will probably be different than the world of today, rendering many of our present values and works moot, but in ways that we probably can’t predict, and, “In fact, it often seems like our collective ability to recognize electrifying genius as it occurs paradoxically limits the likelihood of future populations certifying that genius as timeless.”

Wow.

So far this essay has only discussed a small part of But What If We’re Wrong. There’s much much more. It’s one of the best books I’ve read recently.

Links: Teachers and pay, authoritarianism on the rise, “Stranger Things,” bikes, energy, and more!

* “Pay Gap Between Public-School Teachers and Similar Workers Is Wider Than Ever.”

* “Donald Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin underscores an unsettling truth about the two leaders: Trump and Putin are two of a kind: xenophobic, bigoted demagogues with dual histories of corruption, aggression, and celebration of white supremacy repackaged as patriotic nationalism.”

* Also: “None Dare Call It a Conspiracy: Who was behind the Moscow apartment bombings that accelerated Vladimir Putin’s rise to power?” It would appear that Putin himself and those associated with him are behind the bombings. Note that the link is not to fiction.

* “The Old, American Horror Behind ‘Stranger Things.'” Where there is horror there is Lovecraft.

* “Making bicycles in Detroit is an uphill climb.” My bike came from REI and was made in China.

* “It’s the first new U.S. nuclear reactor in decades. And climate change has made that a very big deal.” Nuclear power is still, oddly, underestimated; note that New England and Germany, both places with lots of superficial climate change worry, are now emitting more carbon dioxide than they used to—because they are phasing out nuclear plants and failing to replace them. In good news, “America’s First Offshore Wind Farm May Power Up a New Industry,” but pay attention to the orders of magnitude involved: “By global standards, the Block Island Wind Farm is a tiny project, just five turbines capable of powering about 17,000 homes.” That’s about 3% of the energy production of the new nuclear reactor.

* “The Legendary Ted Chiang on Seeing His Stories Adapted and the Ever-Expanding Popularity of SF.”

* “Cycling Matches the Pace and Pitches of Tech.” Probably a bogus trend story, but I like riding so I hope not.

* “‘I’ve done really bad things’: The undercover cop who abandoned the war on drugs: Neil Woods used to risk his life to catch drug dealers. But as gangs responded with escalating violence and intimidation – some even poisoning users who talked to the police – he started to see legalisation as the only solution.”

Links: City life, Gary Johnson, Made in the U.S.A., cargo shorts, and more!

* “An atheist of a certain kind,” not the usual on this topic.

* “Why Tokyo is the land of rising home construction but not prices:”

Here is a startling fact: in 2014 there were 142,417 housing starts in the city of Tokyo (population 13.3m, no empty land), more than the 83,657 housing permits issued in the state of California (population 38.7m), or the 137,010 houses started in the entire country of England (population 54.3m).

A social bonus, too: “In Tokyo there are no boring conversations about house prices because they have not changed much. Whether to buy or rent is not a life-changing decision.” I would love to never have those boring conversations ever again, yet they seem everywhere around me.

* “Gary Johnson Has a Plan: On the road with the Libertarian candidate who thinks he can upend this year’s election.”

* “Challenges of Getting a Product Made in the U.S.A.

* “What Happened After I Wrote That Cargo Shorts Story,” hilarious throughout; I used to wear cargo pants and shorts all the time, but eventually I realized the obvious: People judge you based on what you wear, and that deserves attention too.

* “The people who are truly harmed when cities say no to new housing.”

* NSA attacked Pro-Democracy Campaigner, demonstrating (yet again) the ills of secret proceedings and near-unlimited power.

* The race for a Zika vaccine.

* “The case for making New York and San Francisco much, much bigger.”

Briefly noted: The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind of the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia — Michael Booth

The Almost Nearly Perfect People is fun and not too doctrinaire, which is part of what makes it fun; I also have a weakness for cross-cultural books in which person from country A shows up in country B and talks about whatever.

almost_nearly_perfectBooth tells us that at one point at least Scandinavia was not the land of almost nearly perfect people, because “At one point in the 1860s, a tenth of all immigrants arriving in the United States were from Scandinavia.” It is hard to say what that says about this point, however. I would’ve liked more discussions about immigration and emigration, because revealed preferences are more interesting than what people say (and it turns out that the same Scandinavians who vote for high taxes will evade them when possible).

Unusual facts abound in the book, although I haven’t checked the truthfulness of those facts, like “More than 754,000 Danes aged between fifteen and sixty-four—over 20 percent of the working population—do not work whatsoever and are supported by generous unemployment or disability benefits.” From this, we can maybe conclude that perhaps one good reason to try to concentrate disability and related benefits at the state level in the U.S. is to let people vote with their feet (and their votes) more easily than they might elsewhere.

Still, despite paragraphs like the above, we also find that

there is little doubt, Denmark is becoming a two-tier country. More and more Danes who can afford it are turning to private health care—850,000 at the latest count—and poll after poll shows that, though they have the largest per capita public sector in the world, the Danes’ satisfaction levels with their welfare state are in rapid decline.

There appear to be few ways of correcting problems with public-sector satisfaction. Still, Booth says few Danes complain about taxes. We also find sections about “elves” in Iceland, drinking throughout the countries, a passion for historical re-enactment,

In some ways Scandinavian countries are more like the U.S. than is commonly portrayed. For example, Norway has its own, equally intellectually incoherent Donald Trump-like party:

[The Progress Party] started out in the early seventies as an anti-tax movement. Today, it is run on a hybrid right-win/welfare-state platform of a type which can seem quite odd from a UK or US perspective, blending as it does calls for increased public spending, with emphasis on care for the elderly, together with more conventionally right-wing fear-mongering about non-Western immigrants.

Old people vote, want to take working people’s money, and fear change (immigrants are one manifestation of change). Parties that want to stay in power must appeal to the elderly, and the average age of the population is creeping upwards in virtually every developed country. We’ll see more Progress Parties and Trumps. In Norway, the Progress Party is particularly vituperative about Muslims; in the U.S., Trump is particularly vituperative about Hispanics. Presumably hysterical fear mongering works best when the Other is close enough to get riled up about. Yet, as Booth points out, Muslims identify as perhaps three percent of the Norwegian population.

There is probably too much generalization from stories, sensational, or the mundane in The Almost Nearly Perfect People, but that can be forgiven.

It’s not a book I can imagine wanting to re-read.

Here is a review about “The Nordic Theory of Everything” by Anu Partanen, and I suspect the review is better than the book. Here is my essay “People vote with their feet, and also the U.S. is not Sweden.” Here is “Denmark’s Nice, Yes, But Danes Live Better in U.S.,” which hits related ideas.

Links: Toni Bentley strikes, nude photo non-scandals, against Edenism, demographic shocks, and more

* Toni Bentley, fervently and brilliantly, on the latest Gay Talese book, Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

* “Sexism in publishing: ‘My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me, Catherine:’ Author reveals that submitting her manuscript to agents under a male pseudonym brought more than eight times the number of responses.” Most writing on this topic is garbage; this one, by nature of its control group, is not.

* “My Airbnb Nightmare Reality.”

* “The story of Melania Trump’s nude photos shows an unexpected maturity in American life, and the predictably depressing hypocrisy within it, too,” from Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker.

* “Against Edenism” by Peter Thiel.

* “Apple will finally be releasing new laptops, after ridiculously long delays.

* “US fertility rate falls to lowest on record” as Americans fail to reproduce themselves, driving the need for more imports (remember this data when you hear some kinds of political rhetoric). And: “More Old Than Young: A Demographic Shock Sweeps the Globe.”

* “The Next Generation of Wireless — “5G” — Is All Hype: The connectivity we crave — cheap, fast, ubiquitous — won’t happen without more fiber in the ground.”

* L.A. isn’t a suburb. It needs to stop being planned like one.

* “What Makes a McMansion Bad Architecture?” More interesting than maybe it sounds.

People vote with their feet, and also the U.S. is not Sweden

Two pieces about Anu Partanen’s book The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life say much about the blindness of some writers: “Stockholm Syndrome: Spotify threatened to abandon Sweden if the government didn’t address over-regulation and sky-high taxes” is poorly titled and more interesting than the title suggests, and so is “What’s So Special About Finland?” Neither says much about the book itself but both together say much about the U.S. media interest in Nordic countries.

Following the Nordic model would make large parts of the U.S. population worse off; that’s why people are moving away from Nordic-model cities and states and towards inexpensive, laissez-fair cities and states.

Let me elaborate. Partanen and most media people are not normal and have not normal needs, desires, and willingness to pay for big-city amenities. But most people aren’t willing to pay for those things that’s why sprawly cities, especially in Texas, are the ones that’re experiencing the fastest population growth in the U.S. People choose to move to them much more so than New York or L.A. or a handful of other media capitols. Partanen and her husband live in NYC as writers. I get the appeal, but they’re relatively low-earners in the second-most-expensive city in the country, and New York is in many ways least like the rest of the country. Partanen even says:

First of all, the taxes are not necessarily as high as many Americans think. One of the myths I encounter often is that Americans are like, ‘You pay 70 percent of your income in taxes.’ No, we do not. For someone who lives in a city like San Francisco or New York City—where you have federal taxes, state taxes, city taxes, property taxes—the tax burden is not very different [than the tax burden in Finland]. I discuss my own taxes in the book and I discovered this to be true: that I did pay about the same or even more in New York than I would have paid on my income in Finland. I’ve talked to many Nordics in the U.S. who say the same thing.

So SF and NYC are already paying these crazy taxes… and apparently not getting much in return. Why then should the rest of the U.S. seek to emulate them? When I’ve said that I think Seattle is a much better value than NYC, in part because of crazy tax issues, people often respond, “So you don’t like public schools or fire fighters?” But Seattle, Austin, Nashville, and other similar cities seem to have those public services too, without anything like NYC’s cost of living. So the solution to high taxes and not-great services in those cities is to pay even more? If so, I’m not too surprised most of the US does not want to be more like Scandinavia (or SF).

To be fair, it would be interesting to see what happens if SF, NYC, and LA disempowered municipal unions and liberalized their zoning codes, both of which would lower costs substantially. For now, though, we’re seeing all three cities systematically drive people out. They’re choosing places that are not very Scandinavian.

Partanen and her husband are not very representative of the overall American experience. It’d be interesting to read a story about Finnish people who move to relatively inexpensive suburbs, don’t spend an overwhelming amount on housing, and basically like their lives. A European friend of mine, for example, has a sister who was born in a medium-sized European country and is basically doing that in Florida, and she seems to like it.

People who live in NYC are self-selected to be obsessive weirdos (who also often want to write books). Which is fine. I’m one of those people but I’m also aware that I’m atypical.

In short, revealed preferences show that most Americans prefer a non-Nordic model. They also show why state-level taxation is better on average than federal-level taxation, since at least people who don’t like state-level taxation regimes can easily move to another state. Score one for the Exit, Voice, and Loyalty world.

Links: The volt succeeds, the joy of old age, evolutionary mysteries, and intellectuals are freaks

* GM delivers 100,000th Chevy Volt in the US alone.

* Computing pioneer Alan Kay on AI, Apple and future.

* “The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding),” by Oliver Sacks.

* “A Swede Returns to Silicon Valley from China,” which is an interesting perspective I don’t necessarily endorse. Linking does not imply endorsement!

* In The New York Times: “Scientists Ponder an Evolutionary Mystery: The Female Orgasm.”

* The Silicon Valley of Space Start-Ups? It Could be Seattle.

* “The Rifles That Fuel Modern Terror: How the AK-47 and AR-15, ready amplifiers of rage, became weapons of choice for mass killers.”

* “Intellectuals are Freaks: Why professors, pundits, and policy wonks misunderstand the world,” one of my favorite pieces in recent memory.

Moving On — Larry McMurtry

Moving On is at least twice as long as it ought to be and probably longer. Which is a shame, because there’s a pretty good book waiting, even wanting to get out, but it’s hidden. Even its author seems to be aware of its flaws. In the introduction he writes:

A rather puzzling thing to me, as I look through the book today, is that it contains so many rodeo scenes. Few novels, then or ever, have attempted to merge the radically incongruent worlds of graduate school and rodeo. I am now completely at a loss to explain why I wished to attempt this.

That “puzzling thing” remains to this reader. In that introduction he also says something odd:

In the late fifties, with no war on, the romance of journalism tarnished, the romance of investment banking yet to flower, graduate school was where many of the liveliest people chose to tarry while deciding what to do next.

moving_onI take McMurtry’s word that “many of the liveliest people” chose grad school at that time, but by the time I started that time had long since vanished and no memory or residue of it remained.

So why read it, or more importantly, why finish it? The novel’s dialogue is often excellent and a a keen sense of humor runs through. In the grad school section we get incongruity like this:

There was a keen look of concentration on [Clara’s] face as she considered William Duffin. Hank had seen the same look on her face the day before when she was trying to decide whether to do her Chaucer paper on the “Knight’s Tale” or the “Prioress’s Tale.” She reached out and held his genitals, still thinking.

That shift in moods from cerebral to carnal is characteristic, as the novel likes to juxtapose mind and body, high and low, love and indifference.

Moving On is also a time capsule. It was published in 1970 and is set in the ’50s or early ’60s. Some problems that seem contemporary have a long pedigree; for example, “vacations” have been awful for children for a long time:

Every other year her parents would decide to go west and would bundle her and her sister Miri into a Cadillac and spend two or three weeks hurrying between scenic spots while the girls read comic books or Nancy Drew mysteries and waited irritably for the Grand Canyon or some other redeeming wonder to appear.

Or, to take another example, Patsy narrates, “She had read a lot about loneliness and knew it was one of the great problems of modern life, but it had never been very real to her” (393). That ought to sound familiar to anyone who’s read 2000’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Or anyone who’s read the New York Times, which is filled with stories about loneliness and the loss of community and so forth.* The interesting thing to me is not the stories about loneliness but the technologies that we often blame for loneliness. I wonder if instead the loneliness comes from within us.

The narrative of ceaseless social and technological change is attractive, but it’s also less true than is commonly assumed.

Moving On is also unusual in that it portrays the boring, discontented parts of marriage and long-term relationships. At one moment Patsy is stuck out on the road with her boring husband Jim, and “She felt cramped and sat with her back against her door, her legs on the seat, the soles of her feet pressed against Jim’s leg. There was nothing to do but watch the distances, gray and wavery with heat, and so endless.” She’s talking about the car trip, but she’s talking about more than that, too. Outside of Mating in Captivity I’ve rarely read those kinds of stories in Patsy’s tone.

Unfortunately, the novel comes to seem “gray and wavery” and “so endless,” at almost 800 reasonably dense pages. It’s like a guest that outstays his welcome. A pity. Much of it is acutely felt and observed. Its length, though, makes it a curiosity more than a must-read.


* Search for the string “loneliness site:nytimes.com” and you’ll find many, many examples. Like: “How Loneliness Can Make You Sick — and Might Even Kill You,” which could have a few dates and words changed and still be the sort of thing Patsy read decades ago.

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