Links: Dug decriminalization, what’s wrong with higher ed, HGTV’s uncanny valley, life and context, and more!

* “Top medical experts say we should decriminalize all drugs and maybe go even further.” It seems the current approach is ineffective at best and is more likely to be actively harmful, so a new method is in order. Or, rather, a new-old method, because drug laws didn’t come into being until the late 19th Century.

* “How Harvard helps its richest and most arrogant students get ahead,” more probably, some of what’s amiss in education today. It’s the administration response that seems most outrageous; still, I do think about my own writing, in “Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent.”

* “The body’s own fat-metabolism protects against the harmful effects of sugar,” or so it seems.

* “Is your state road system broke? Then hit up. . . the Prius drivers!” An example of misguided policy and failing to think about the bigger picture.

* “Facebook’s Harm Is Taking Life Out of Context.” Seems plausible to me.

* “Is there a Rawlsian argument for redistribution as a form of social insurance?” A brilliant post, do read the whole thing, and note that I have thought this before, albeit phrased differently: “In fact what I observe is people taking the status quo, and its current political debates, as a benchmark of sorts, and choosing sides, yet without outlining the “stopping principles” for their own recommendations.” And I have succumbed to this as well!

* “A 400-year story of progress: How America became the world’s biggest economy.”

* “The Abbie Hoffman of the Right: Donald Trump.” Better than the headlines.

* In Alabama, “Democrats ought to invest in Doug Jones’ campaign against Roy Moore: He’s a longshot, but it’s time to take a stand.” Absolutely. Seemingly no one is attending to this.

* HGTV is a never-ending fantasy loop. Look deeper, and it gets pretty ugly. A weird, fascinating article. I imagine the people on these shows finishing their “perfect” houses, and after the wine is drunk and the camera crew has left, they’re looking at each other, realizing that they don’t even know the person sitting across from them, thinking, “Now what?” What happens when you discover that a house or remodel cannot fill the void in your soul?

* “On Echopraxia by Peter Watts.”

“Persuader” by Lee Child is actually a modern-day fairy tale

At first I was going to write a post about how ridiculous Persuader is: this is a novel in which not once but twice the protagonist somehow outwits opponents who have guns pointed at him. In both circumstances, the obvious, logical thing for the antagonists to do is shoot Jack Reacher, but instead they do the stupid talking villain thing, like no one would do in real life. One of those opponents is so stupid that he throws his gun away in order to engage in hand-to-hand combat with 6’5″ Reacher, like no one would ever do. But this level of inanity, or inanity interpreted in terms of realism, must point to something else, much as the implausibility of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects made me realize that it isn’t trying to be realistic.*

Persuader is a fairy tale about a knight who is caught between the dark forces of chaos, evil, and greed on the one side and the grinding powers of bureaucracy—FBI and military—on the other. He’s a kind of small-c conservative who is interested in the intensely personal and where it intersects with larger forces of darkness, chaos, and excessive order. Chaos is bad because of the way it destabilizes relationships; excessive order is bad in the Reacher universe because it inhibits Reacher from inflicting his own moral code on the universe, and it’s a universe where the bad guys are conveniently universally bad and the good guys are conveniently universally good.

So what myth, or myths, are we getting from Persuader? That the military is sacrosanct and its training superhuman; that bureaucracy is stupid and the individual not; and perhaps most of all that we are less part of a network than we are a making, doing, acting, achieving supernode. This last is a particularly appealing idea, like life after death, and also in most ways a wildly inaccurate one, which is where the mythic elements of Persuader (and maybe the other Reacher books) come into play.

The novel feels paradoxically fascistic and libertarian at the same time, with different strains predominating at different moments, like someone who cannot quite decide between Judaism and atheism, but Reacher is a person of the immediate moment, not of the mind, so he never considers bigger pictures. His is not philosophy. He does think a little about his own past but not in any systematic way. He likes the specifics of gadgets but not of culture. What details he knows (about guns, say) tells as much as those that are superfluous.

The writing is not especially bad for its genre but not especially good either. Towards the beginning, the narrator (likely Reacher) says things like, “Connecting the pillars was a high double gate made from iron bars bent and folded and twisted into fancy shapes.” “Fancy shapes:” that’s a Reacher-like phrase, as he’s too busy kicking ass or whatever to know the term. “I” and “it” have to be the most common words in the novel, apart from the basics. College students sound like they’re described by someone’s hard-scrabble dad (“He had long messy hair and was dressed like a homeless person” or “He was majoring in some kind of contemporary art expression thing that sounded a lot like finger painting to me.”) We never really get out of this basic register.

Often the novel is just boring: “It showed me she and Eliot had at least five guys who would follow them to hell and back.” We can do better than the cliché but we don’t. Not here, not in many places.

How Jack Reacher was built” persuaded me to read Persuader, but one Child novel is enough, especially because Lanchester says it’s the best of them. Overall, the myth of military invincibility does more harm than good, and I prefer my supermen in different guises, perhaps with some weaknesses and humanity.

Still, the novel is not as offensively written as Camino Island, but I still have no desire to read another, ever, and love for Lee Child tells me something important about the person who loves his work (just as someone’s admiration for Elmore Leonard tells me something important, and positive, about theirs). As always I’m open for suggestions and if you have them leave them in the comments.

I did read to the end and remember very little, apart from the plot’s many absurdities. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more analyses of thrillers and similar works in terms of fairy tale and fantasy, which is what a lot of these works really are. Are they out there? I can’t imagine Child being a popular target for academics today, but perhaps there’s work I don’t know of.


*
When I teach Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, students sometimes ask how I (or someone) figure out that the story probably isn’t meant to be interpreted literally. Part of the answer involves implausibility combined with coherent writing: If something is well-done but seems ridiculous, it may be that symbolism or other non-realistic modes are involved, and if we as readers suspect that’s the case, we should start asking why and how.

If I were a camera company I’d be nervous

I’d be nervous because phone makers and especially Apple are iterating so fast on hardware and software that nearly everyone is going to end up using phone cameras, with the exception of some dedicated pros and the most obsessive amateurs. Right now the media is saturated with articles like, “How Apple Built An iPhone Camera That Makes Everyone A Professional Photographer.” Many of those articles overstate the case—but not by much.

To be sure, phone camera sensors remain small, but Apple and Google are making up for size via software; in cameras, as in so many domains, software is eating the world. And the response so far from camera makers has been anemic.

If I were a camera maker, I’d be laser focused on making Android the default camera OS and exposing APIs to software developers. Yet none seem to care.* It’s like none have learned Nokia’s lesson; Nokia was a famously huge cell phone maker that got killed by the transition smartphones and never recovered. I wrote this about cameras in 2014 and it’s still true today. In the last three years camera makers have done almost nothing to improve their basic position, especially regarding software.

“Not learning Nokia’s lesson” is a very dangerous place. And I like the Panasonic G85 I have! It’s a nice camera. But it’s very large. I don’t always have it with me. Looking at phones like the iPhone X I find myself thinking, “Maybe my next camera won’t be a camera.”

Within a year or two most phone cameras are likely to have two lenses and image sensors, along with clever software to weave them together effectively. Already Apple is ahead of the camera makers in other ways; some of those remain beneath the notice of many reviewers. Apple, for example, is offering more advanced codecs, which probably doesn’t mean much to most users, but implementing H.265 video means that Apple can in effect halve the size of most videos. In a storage- and bandwidth-constrained environment, that’s a huge win (just try to shoot 4K video and see what I mean). Camera makers should be at the forefront of such transitions, but they’re not. Again, Samsung’s cameras were out front (they used H.265 in 2015), but no one else followed.

Camera makers are going to be business-school case studies one day, if they aren’t already. They have one job—making the best cameras possible—and already Apple is doing things in a $1,000 smartphone (next year it will likely be $800) that camera makers aren’t doing in $2,000+ cameras.

That’s incredibly bad for camera makers but great for photographers. I may never buy another standalone camera because if phones do pictures and videos better, why bother?


* With the exception of Samsung, which had a brief foray into the camera world but then quit—probably due to a declining market and low margins. And Thom Hogan has been beating the Android drum for years, for good reason, and it appears that no decision makers are listening.

Links: The end of the American era, synthetic leather, the sound of silence, and more!

* “How Trump Is Ending the American Era.” We could also say, “How voters are ending the American era.” If voters are dumb enough to be bamboozled, maybe we deserve neither peace nor prosperity.

* “Chelsea Manning: The Dystopia We Signed Up for.”

* Martin Amis: ‘I miss the English.'” Many of his more recent novels have been tedious but Money is still amazing.

* Leather grown using biotechnology is about to hit the catwalk. Good news is underrated.

* Why Koreans shun the suburbs.

* “Cheaper, Lighter, Quieter: The Electrification of Flight Is at Hand.” Maybe.

* How the media’s “get Clinton” effort led to Trump (a rephrasing of Paul Krugman’s tweet). 2016 was and is really a media failure story.

* As electric motors improve, more things are being electrified.

* “The Sound of Silence:” “There’s too much downside in sharing any opinion that could easily be misinterpreted online. Even facts are dangerous to share if they don’t align with what people want to believe.” Interestingly, the same is true in schools, which is part of the reason so much of school is so drearily tedious.

* “How to Read a Chocolate Bar Label to Buy the Best Chocolate.” Surprisingly useful. Chocosphere is the most useful online retailer for chocolate.

The Ends of the World — Peter Brannen

The Ends of the World is titled well and is also fascinating—one of the best books I’ve read recently. It tells five (or arguably six) linked stories about mass extinctions; like most people I’m aware of the extinction of the dinosaurs, but I hadn’t realized that in many respects that extinction is actually less interesting than the other four. The dinosaurs steal the show, yet the other extinctions are at least as important—which is part of what makes The Ends of the World valuable. The 500-million-year history of complex life on earth is something most of us, including me, don’t know much about.

We should. For reasons that become apparent as the book moves forward, we may be repeating many histories of mass extinctions. Brannen traces how. Each chapter is set up like a detective story: People figure out that a mass extinction occurred, and paleontologists and geologists have to work backward from crime to culprit, examining various hypotheses along the way. The structure is effective but also difficult to excerpt.

But the preceding sentences also don’t give a flavor for the writing, which is excellent, and it matches the information. For example, the worst extinction of all time isn’t the End-Cretaceous mass extinction, when the dinosaurs died—it’s the End-Permian mass extinction, when nearly all plant and animal life on earth died. Spoiler alert: in the End-Permian event, massive volcanic activity in what we now call Siberia ejected huge amounts of carbon, methane, and other gasses into the atmosphere. But, in addition to that, lava ran into something else:

The Siberian Traps intruded through, and cooked, huge stores of coal, oil, and gas that had built up over hundreds of millions of years during the Paleozoic. The magma had no economic motive, but the effect was broadly familiar: it burned through huge reserves of fossil fuel in a few thousand years as surely as fossil fuels ignited in pistons and in power plants.

Uh oh:

Today humans emit a staggering 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year, perhaps the fastest rate of any period in the last 300 million years of earth history—a period that, you’ll note, includes the End-Permian mass extinction. Burning through every last oily drop and anthracite chunk of fossil fuel on earth would release roughly 5,000 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. If we do, the planet will become unrecognizable.

If there is slight good news, it’s that the End-Permian mass extinction event range from 10,000 gigatons of carbon to 48,000 gigatons. We’re unlikely to hit figures that catastrophic, but it’s dispiriting enough to think that, for the last several decades, we’ve had the technologies we need to dramatically reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere and we’ve simply chosen not to use them. I’m young enough that I may be trying to explain the psychology and politics behind that decision to grand children in fifty years,

Still, we’re living through an extinction right now, but one that goes back ten of thousands of years. Brannen writes:

even Africa lost 21 percent of its megafauna, with larger animals getting hit the hardest.

British geologist Anthony Hallam (with a somewhat unseemly triumphalism) cites this record of precolonial ecological ruin to ‘dispel once and for all the romantic idea of the superior ecological wisdom of non-western and pre-colonial societies. The notion of the noble savage living in harmony with Nature should be dispatched to the realm of mythology were it belongs. Human beings have never lived in harmony with nature.’

Oddly, for a book about deep time and long time, the paper quality of the physical object is shitty. One would think that publisher (and author, although I don’t think most writers get much of a say on this) would want to produce a physical book that will last longer than the decade or two that most modern books are made to endure. The lousy paper stock implies, “We don’t really give a damn about the final product we produce.” Which is one of the points of the book: Most of us humans don’t.

And we don’t connect our own actions to global consequences. Towards the end of the book Brannen writes, “avoiding [seven to twelve degrees of average, planet-wide warming] will require the goodwill of energy companies to leave 80 percent of their profitable reserves in the ground, and the creation of staggeringly large new sources of carbon-free energy.” But he’s mixing up supply (from the energy companies) and demand (from consumers) here. Energy companies only dig up all those fossil fuels because people want to burn them. If people stop wanting to burn them through some combination of conservation and alternative technologies, energy companies will have no reason to dig.

I’m part of the problem. Back when I had a car, I could’ve bought a Prius, but for some reason I wasn’t thinking closely about energy efficiency at the time and got a Civic. The better car probably only would’ve saved a couple thousand gallons of gas, but multiplied across many people that matters. A friend just moved to L.A., did a similar calculation (or no calculation) and bought some kind of Subaru that probably cost more than, say, a Chevy Volt. Both of us are probably better informed about many planetary challenges than the average person and both of us are sending a signal to those dastardly energy companies to dig up more fossil fuels (and thus contribute to global warming).

Sort of like how people buying books printed on shitty paper are also encouraging publishers to keep printing books on shitty paper.

Who cares when it was released?

A reader asked how I find books like Rapture and why I write, seemingly at random, about older books. The “finding” answer is hard: books get found from all kinds of sources, including other writers, blogs, newspapers, friends, browsing (rarely, but sometimes), essays, and tweets (rarely). A great essay will get me to read a book more effectively than anything else apart from a friend or reader who knows me well; a great essay led me to Lonesome Dove, for example, and in my mind I imagine other people finding this blog and using it to find the right book at the right time.

The “why” answer is also pretty simple: I don’t really care when a book (or movie, or album, or whatever) was released; I care about whether it’s good and whether it should be read. If it’s good I want to read it, regardless of when it was published. Publishing companies may work on marketers’ schedules, but readers don’t have to and shouldn’t. If you know something I should read, send that email.

Links: Self-driving cars, software, music, pile it high, and more!

* “GM and Cruise announce first mass-production self-driving car.” Wow.

* The demon haunted world: How modern software enables all kinds of cheating in all kinds of domains.

* “How Local Housing Regulations Smother the U.S. Economy;” nothing here that regular readers don’t know, but the venue is of great interest.

* “Was Charlottesville a Turning Point for the ‘Alt-Right‘?” The Oklahoma City Bombing was a similar turning point in the ’90s: when anti-government rhetoric becomes “blowing shit up,” the rhetoric is no longer so acceptable and the stage after rhetoric and after voting is very bad. Someone on Twitter (I forgot who—apologies) pointed out that the extreme left in the ’70s lost steam when it started blowing shit up as well.

* Music is sex, a podcast on Slate and thus presumably SFW. Seems kind of obvious, though.

* “Attacked by Rotten Tomatoes;” Hollywood is apparently angry that fewer people are seeing shitty movies. But Rotten Tomatoes has been around for a long time; what else has changed recently?

* “Impeaching Trump is a long shot. There’s another way to protect the country.” This would at least be an improvement.

* “Forager v Farmer, Elaborated.”

* “The Uncomfortable Truth About Campus Rape Policy: At many schools, the rules intended to protect victims of sexual assault mean students have lost their right to due process.” Who could have predicted

* “Pile it high: Singapore’s prefab tower revolution.” It’s possible to dramatically lower the cost of construction itself.

* “The story of Quillette,” which I’ve been wondering about.

* “Why Teachers Need Freedom.” Seems obvious to me.

%d bloggers like this: