“Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?”

The good guy/bad guy myth: Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?” is one of the most interesting essays on narrative and fiction I’ve ever read, and while I, like most of you, am familiar with the tendency of good guys and bad guys in fiction, I wasn’t cognizant of the way pure good and pure evil as fundamental characterizations only really proliferated around 1700.

In other words, I didn’t notice the narrative water in which I swim. Yet now I can’t stop thinking about a lot of narrative in the terms described.

A while ago, I read most of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and found it boring, perhaps in part because the characters didn’t seem to stand for anything beyond themselves, and they didn’t seem to want anything greater than themselves in any given moment. Yet for most of human civilization, that kind of story may have been more common than many modern stories.

Still, I wonder if we should be even more skeptical of good versus evil stories than I would’ve thought we should be prior to reading this essay.


“Increase Citizen Access to Objective Information in Jordan”

Today’s Federal Register has an unintentionally funny program from the Department of State: “Increase Citizen Access to Objective Information in Jordan.” Usually this is the sort of program I’d ignore, but I immediately thought: “I’d like to increase citizen access to objective information in the United States.”

(Although, strictly speaking, the access is out there—but we simply choose to ignore it.)

Links: Reading books versus “social media,” where things go, honesty, drinking like the Romans, and more!

* “In the time you spend on social media each year, you could read 200 books.”

* “Why Japan Wants Your ‘Junk.'” They actually want to set up a recycling superpower. Also: ““Who Killed Mr. Fixit, and How to Bring Him Back: A Q&A with iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens about the demise of the repair industry and a plan to revive it.”

* “Can We Be Honest About Women? Here’s a little secret we have to say out loud: Women love the sexual interplay they experience with men, and they relish men desiring their beauty.” Perhaps most interesting for the organization publishing the story; I’m so old that I remember the days when the left and Democrats were the the standard-bearers for libertinism and the right and Republics were the standard-bearers for censorious schoolmarm-ism—now they’ve switched! (At least in part.)

* “The Case for the Subway: It built the city. Now, no matter the cost — at least $100 billion — the city must rebuild it to survive.”

* Almost all reading used to be aloud.

* “Donald Trump Didn’t Want to Be President: One year ago: the plan to lose, and the administration’s shocked first days.” Makes sense; in a best-case scenario, he declares victory, resigns, and goes home. Also: “Trump Has Created Dangers We Haven’t Even Imagined Yet.” Very bad scenarios: nuclear war, botched bird flu response.

* “Drinking Wine Like the Romans Do: The notion that wine should be consumed out of thin-walled crystal, preferably on a stem, is practically scripture. But one of the hottest new ceramics studios, Mazama Wares, is seeking to change that. Katherine Cole on the unexpected pleasures of drinking wine from terra cotta.” Alas, I looked, and Mazama is charing $42 per cup.

* “We should focus on building ‘unaffordable’ housing.” Over time, it becomes affordable. Much of the bad discussion around this issue is completely, bizarrely ahistorical.

* ““You Can’t Make This S— Up”: My Year Inside Trump’s Insane White House.” Yes, this is the same article everyone else is reading, but it’s actually good.

* “The Novelist’s Complicity.”

* “How Germany Wins at Manufacturing – For Now.” We need more vocational education, as I argue at the link.

* “If It Wasn’t For My Corporate Office Job, I Couldn’t Be a Novelist.” Seems obvious to me.

* 100 influential French women denounce MeToo. Or, for a better source, see here.

* “As Electric Cars’ Prospects Brighten, Japan Fears Being Left Behind.”

* “Uber’s Secret Tool for Keeping the Cops in the Dark.” Although this isn’t the article’s framing, I think it paints Uber as an incredibly impressive company; if this were police raiding organizations or individuals who journalists want to see raised in status, we’d see the authors paint the victims sympathetically and police negatively.

* “‘The desire to have a child never goes away’: how the involuntarily childless are forming a new movement.”

* “What Happened to ‘The Most Liberated Woman in America’? Barbara Williamson co-founded one of the most famous radical sex experiments of the 1970s. Then she got wild.” She was made famous by Gay Talese in Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

The Likeness — Tana French

If you don’t mind the crazy, improbable plot—and it’s crazy and improbable even by murder mystery standards, where authors strain relentlessly to think up new plots—The Likeness is an okay, functional book of its type. In the novel, Cassie Maddox is a cop who, prior to the novel’s start, developed a fake identity to go undercover in order to crack some victimless crime related to drugs. That assignment ends, and as the novel begins, police discover a dead woman who has an ID saying she is Cassie’s old identity—that is, the dead woman had enrolled in grad school under that name and developed a life using that name. But how’d the dead woman get the ID in the first place? Why would she use or need it?

So far, we’re in the land of extreme improbability. Then—and this is where “improbable” moves to “ridiculous”—Cassie and her boss decide to pretend the dead girl actually lived, but suffers from amnesia, and Cassie is going to pretend to be the dead girl, who was pretending to be one of Cassie’s old IDs, because Cassie so closely resembles the dead girl. Who had been living with four of her grad school friends in a big house, where they all see each other every day.

It’s not bad, but it’s also one of these doppelgänger books—books that are like another book, but often not quite as good. If you want a bunch of surprises among a band of tightly-knit college students who are hiding a shocking secret, start with The Secret History, in which an outsider joins a band of four other students who have a dark secret (besides their facility in Latin). Reading a book that’s similar but not quite as good just makes me want to go read the real thing. The Weight of Ink suffered from the same problem: it was like Possession, but without the wit.

When Cassie first hears from the gang she lives with, one says:

We were wrecks. Not Daniel, obviously, he would never do anything as undignified as get upset, he just stuck his head in a book and occasionally came out with some fucking Old Norse quote about arms that remain strong in times of trial, or something.

Daniel plays the role of Henry in The Secret History. The Likeness asks how well we can ever really know a person (answer: not very), and that makes it more interesting than many mysteries, but I flip through it, hunting for some bit of evocative writing, and I’m struggling. There is this, at the end:

I wanted to tell her that being loved is a talent too, that it takes as much guts and as much work as loving; that some people, for whatever reason, never learn the knack.

It’s beautiful, not commonplace, but not inaccurate, either. But more often the sentences can be dropped into any other cop novel: “This case had been different from the first moment.” Which is not a criticism, exactly (not every sentence in every novel is an original), though one does yearn for novelty or at least great precision. Or: “The possibility hit me like a wrecking ball: suicide.” But we know it won’t be suicide; that would deprive us of the pleasure of discovery.

Life: The secret presence

“A novelist talking about the art of the novel is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium. Imagine him rather as a painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvases staring at you from where they lean against the walls. He will talk about himself, but even more about other people, about novels of theirs that he loves and that have a secret presence in his own work.”

—Milan Kundera, The Curtain.

(“Giving a discourse” is awkward; I wonder if it’s an artifact from the translation.)

Links: Victimhood culture, drugs, healthcare prices, legal absurdity, and more!

* Collision with Reality: What Depth Psychology Can Tell Us About Victimhood Culture. See also “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.” We can and should do better.

* Portugal is “winning” the war on drugs via decriminalization.

* Why Do Intellectuals Support Government Solutions?

* “Why American doctors keep doing expensive procedures that don’t work.”

* “Child porn law goes nuts: 14-year-old girl charged for nude selfie.” Even by American legal standards it’s nuts to have the sole victim of a “crime” be the perpetrator of the crime, and for the victim/perpetrator to feel and argue that no harm has taken place.

* “Legal Weed Isn’t The Boon Small Businesses Thought It Would Be.” Should this surprise? Many businesses reap benefits from economies of scale and the number of small agricultural concerns in general is, well, small. The vast majority of people shop on price and larger organizations get prices lower than smaller organizations can.

* Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz pours funds into high-risk research.

* “Does a lower ‘total cost of ownership’ boost electric car sales?” Somewhat, but apparently not that much. People are bad at math, forward planning, and marginal costs. I think this argues towards “nudging” people towards electric cars that have lower long-term costs.

* “On the Front Lines of the GOP’s Civil War.”

* “Consider the Consequences of #BelieveAllWomen.” Can be read productively with “Collision with Reality: What Depth Psychology Can Tell Us About Victimhood Culture.”

* “The Gambler’s Ruin of Small Cities,” or why small cities are shrinking or disappearing: “Once upon a time, it was obvious what towns and small cities did: they served as central places serving a mainly rural population engaged in agriculture and other natural resource-based activities.” That isn’t very true in most places anymore. Tyler Cowen notes, “Why don’t cities grow without limit?

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