Links: Poetry and career, Palahniuk interviewed, Naipaul, real art, and more

* Reading fiction helps your career, but reading poetry helps more?

* Joe Rogan interviews Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk; usually Rogan is not to my taste, but The same forces Palahniuk describes in publishing are also at work in academia. If you’re wondering why so much of contemporary academia is so boring and sterile, that’s part of it.

* Imagine a world without mandatory college diplomas. Related: “The Student Debt Problem Is Worse Than We Imagined.” Schools have no skin in the game; should we be surprised?

* “Marine scientist predicts ‘a planetary catastrophe.’

* Memories of V. S. Naipaul.

* “Venezuela’s great socialist experiment has brought a country to its knees.” The current vogue for socialism in some quarters, where people ought to know better, is strange.

* “Never Cook at Home: Trust me, I know it’s a drag.” A completely charming article and of course wrong. You should read it!

* Real art is bound to cause offense. I hope so!

* “America Has Fallen Out of Love With the Sedan.” You know all those articles about how bad global warming is getting? This is an article that basically says, “Americans don’t care.”

* “The Nuclear Power Plant of the Future May Be Floating Near Russia.”

* “The Humanities Face a Crisis—of Confidence.” Not the best article on this subject, but it’s okay.

* ‘We Are All Accumulating Mountains of Things.’

* “The Shakespeare Requirement” Is a Sad-Professor Satire That Burns with Moral Anger. I have read too many academic novels to be interested in them anymore, but this one is probably fine.

* Early Work by Andrew Martin Mixes Lust With the Directionless of Youth.

* “GlobalFoundries Stops All 7nm Chip Development.” Non-technical people are likely to skip right past this one, but it has profound implications for the future: GlobalFoundries is one of the largest chip makers in the world, and if it can’t do 7 nanometer, it’s possible that the others can’t, or can’t effectively, either. For the last ~50 years, integrated circuit design has been a huge bright spot in the economic and technological picture—and underappreciated by most people.

* Why the Left Is So Afraid of Jordan Peterson. Much better than you think based on the title.

* People Are Bad at Being Productive in a Limited Time.

* Baylor University used “mole” to aid communications department during sexual assault crisis? This story is crazy enough to be unbelievable in fiction. I read it and think, “Maybe universities should go back to focusing on teaching and research?”

The Rub of Time — Martin Amis

Language is imprecise. Push words too far and they fall apart. This is annoying, for obvious reasons, but also interesting, for artistic ones, and Amis does “a great deal of polishing” in these pieces, “trying to make myself clearer, less ambiguous, and more precise.” And sometimes, I think, imprecise or allusive in interesting ways. As a writer he also confronts the way words also contain a lot of historical residue. Amis mentions Northrop Frye, “a literary philosopher-king to whom I owe fealty.” Fealty: a curious word associated with the Middle Ages and a set of social-economic circumstances that don’t exist in Western Europe or the United States anymore. I’m sure Amis knows it’s a curious word and one that does strange work, here. A lot of Amis words do strange work and that’s part of the reason we like him.

To me, if you’ve not read nonfiction Amis, you’re best off starting with The War Against Cliché, which changed the direction and tenor of my own work. My affection for War may be a historical accident: right work, right time, right mind for a major collision. But it may be that good, and it offers some context for The Rub of Time. The essay that most stands out to me may be the one on Larkin: suddenly, I want to read him, and that’s a great effect of a great essay. “No: Larkin is not a poet’s poet. He is of course a people’s poet, which is what he would have wanted. But he is also, definingly, a novelist’s poet. It is the novelists who revere him.” I’d never thought so. Yet now I do.

Amis gets humor: this will make his own work age well, I think, particularly in an age when momentary political rage too often replaces humor. The humorous Amis is not readily quotable, though, because he’s too contextual. On Twitter, rage seems more common than comedy, when in life the opposite seems true. The smartest people I know seem much fonder of comedy than outrage. And the replacement by outrage of comedy in contemporary universities seems one of their problems, and yet one that no one is doing anything to address. Comedy pierces conventional pieties, of the sort that seem very popular on campus.

Some essays are, in my view, wildly skippable—like the one on a Republican National Convention, or the Trump one. Both the RNC and Trump are fact-free zones; to the extent either generates what might be termed “ideas,” those ideas are too unmoored from something like reality to be worth considering. The best one can hope for regarding the current incarnation of the Republican party is resounding defeat in 2018 and 2020, which leads to a reformation. Then again, I would’ve hoped for the same in 2014 and 2016, by which point the madness in the party had manifested itself, and it didn’t happen. A million intellectually sophisticated essays have done near zero to affect voting outcomes. Which is disheartening to someone who likes writing and reading such essays: if an essay falls in a forest, and no one reads it, does it make a sound?

And some Amis essays are just dated. The porn industry moves fast, and “In Pornoland” is useful historically and to someone interested in the history of the industry, but given that it was published in 2000, it feels its age. The first four paragraphs are hilarious, though, and I won’t quote them so as to not spoil the effect.

Amis is a noticer in his fiction and a noticer in his nonfiction: it’s fun to see the expert doing his thing. He’s done the reading, like most people haven’t. He’s got the context for the reading. He writes that, “Accusing novelists of egotism is like deploring the tendency of champion boxers to turn violent.” He also acknowledges when things have changed. He wrote a long piece on the actor John Travolta, but the postscript notes that “As it turned out, Travolta’s resurgence lacked staying power.” Lacking staying power, however, “is not to be compared with the death of Jett Travolta, in 2009 (a seizure, related to his autism). Jett was 16.” That’s how the piece ends, now: with perspetive, which can sometimes be absent in writing about celebrities.

Amis makes me want to be a better writer. I hope he does the same for you.

Links: Climate, obesity, Kondo, le Carré, the world, and more!

* How ICE went rogue: Inside America’s unfolding immigration crisis. A horrible story that will require national reckoning.

* Climate Report: Not Good. Maybe we should do something about it?

* Beyond fiction: Scott Aaronson’s arrest.

* “The Toll of America’s Obesity.”

* Electric scooters will work in NYC. This is obvious, but it’s also amazing to see the small-c conservative NYT editorial board figure it out. Also, “The Real E-Scooters Story Is Much More Boring Than Media Coverage Suggests.”

* “The Origin Story of Marie Kondo’s Decluttering Empire.” I would guess Kondo is overrated by her adherents and underrated by most people.

* Rich Absentee Landlords Make a Killing from California’s Prop 13. This is congruent with a Grant Writing Confidential post I wrote, “L.A. digs a hole more slowly than economics fills it back in: The Proposition HHH Facilities Program RFP,” which will be of general interest to many of you.

* “How Bill Browder Became Russia’s Most Wanted Man,” an insane story reminiscent of John le Carré but published in The New Yorker.

* “Yes, Another Science Blog: Dear Academia, I loved you, but I’m leaving you. This relationship is hurting me.” From 2014 but characteristic of the genre.

* Shockingly, a sociology professor and gender studies person is embroiled in controversy. Who would have thought? I know it’s depressing to see all these pieces about why it’s a wise idea to stay out of academia, but people keep going into the meat grinder.

* “The Modern Automobile Must Die: If we want to solve climate change, there’s no other option.” More of the obvious, but here it is.

* Identity politics weaken democracy and we should do a lot less of them. Focus on ideas, not the speaker’s demographics.

* “Can We Talk About Toxic Femininity?” Not my view, but it’s telling how little we hear this phrase.

* Massachusetts gives workers new protections against noncompete clauses. Good. Every state should.

* “What Does Knee Surgery Cost? Few Know, and That’s a Problem.” We need price transparency now.

* “Companies dropping college degree as hiring requirement.” Good news if true, but this could easily be a bogus trend story.

What Santa Barbara says

Among Paul Graham’s many interesting observations is:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message

Since reading that I’ve been more attentive to what a city says. I was just in Santa Barbara, which is beautiful but also shockingly boring and sterile. Virtually nothing has changed in it since the 1970s; sometime around then, the city used zoning to freeze its built environment. Today, Santa Barbara feels more like an artifact than a living place. Intellectually and technologically, it’s a dead city. It’s very beautiful, and its message seems to be: you should be rich, beautiful, and relaxed. But the first item and third are at odds. Few buildings are more than two stories. No wonder hotel rooms are crazy expensive.

I didn’t spend much time in San Francisco, but the most immediately apparent thing to me is just how many cars, car lanes, drivers, and parking exist there. For years, I’ve been reading about the city’s environmental pronouncements and commitments. The lived experienced on the ground, however, is one of traffic, cars, and the smell of exhaust. Some parts of the city, like the new transit center, are shockingly beautiful. But the cars on the ground contrast so much with the rhetoric on the Internet. I recently heard the term “performative environmentalism,” and it applies to SF.

Once you’ve ridden a Bird scooter, as I did in L.A., any city without scooters feels deficient, like a city without sidewalks would. If we turned 10% of public parking spaces to scooter and bike parking spaces, we’d see a lot more people out of cars. Oddly, a lot of the rhetoric around Bird scooters concerns where they’re parking, but they weigh like 20 pounds and are maybe six inches by four feet. Seemingly no one considers the many astounding photos of dockless vehicles that currently litter our streets. Perhaps we ought to think more about the rules that apply to the one new things versus the rules that apply to the old thing.

California has an odd Red Queen effect going on, where half of the state is trying to draw people in (weather, tech, economic fecundity) while the other half tries to kick people out (zoning, Prop 13 (it’s crazier than you realize), inadequate mass-transit, traffic). New York has some similar challenges, but it feels more immediately vibrant than Santa Barbara, and similarly vibrant to LA. But without the Bird scooters. Yet. California and New York both feel post-artist, and I mean that in a bad way. We ought to be trying to build cities where everyone can live; sadly, we’re doing the opposite right now. Maybe, as the percentage of renters increases, we’ll see voters behave in ways congruent with their interests, just as homevoters have.

Links: Good keyboard origins, housing as a cost center, vaccines, publishing, and more!

* “Cherry MX History: A German Company With American Roots.” Cherry makes the keyswitches in many, if not most, high-quality keyboards today. I still get emails about my Model M / Unicomp Customizer review, as well as my Kinesis Advantage review. Some have asked why I stopped writing keyboard reviews, and the answer is simple: there are many, many good keyboards out there today. To me, the differences among them are often marginal. When I wrote those pieces, fewer good keyboards were readily available. I’ve tried a couple new ones (e.g. the Ergodox-EZ, which is nice but a little too much like a science fair project for my taste), but the Kinesis works and it’s hard to envision one much better than it. With many tools, it’s best to find “good enough” and then stop. I found “good enough.”

* Renting is not “throwing money away.”

* China Is Trying to Wipe Taiwan Off the Map, and There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About It.

* The erotics of mentorship. Things that are politically incorrect but interesting.

* The Democratic Party Picked an Odd Time to Have an Identity Crisis. Agreed.

* “Home Values Grew Most in Markets with Strictest Land Use Regulations.” Supply and demand continue to explain housing costs.

* The Education Department to require colleges to publish data on graduates’ debt and earnings by major. Good, and long overdue, like that library book the college requires you to pay for prior to receiving your diploma.

* “In upstate New York, an ecstasy-inspired psychedelic temple rises.” Have you read the new Michael Pollan book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence? It’s great.

* Anti-Vaccine Activists Have Taken Vaccine Science Hostage. Outrageous and true.

* Unions’ Fees Take a Hit After Decision From Supreme Court. Good news all around.

* Does Television Kill Your Sex Life? Microeconometric Evidence from 80 Countries. “Under our most conservative estimate, we find that television ownership is associated with approximately a 6% reduction in the likelihood of having had sex in the past week, consistent with a small degree of substitutability between television viewing and sexual activity.”

* The world is losing the war against climate change. Perhaps we ought to do something about that?

* Book publishing is actually a thriving business? Consider the source, though.

* Can American cities make room for the electric moped?” Sure hope so.

* Hollywood Doesn’t Make Movies Like ‘The Fugitive’ Anymore.

* “The New Housing Crisis: Shut Out of the Market.” We’re building less housing per capita than any other previous generation in the last hundred years. That’s why housing is eating the economy.

What motivates charitable giving?

Many of you don’t read Grant Writing Confidential, the other blog I contribute to, but “Philanthropy is not being disrupted by Silicon Valley” has wide applicability and will interest many of you, so I’m linking to it from here. There’s also a subtler, deeper point that I didn’t elaborate there: I think most people don’t understand what motivates charitable giving (I didn’t, for a long time). That may be good—perhaps greater ignorance leads to greater giving—but it seems obvious to me now.

It seems strange that greater ignorance would leave to more giving, but I think about my own experiences, since I’ve worked for nonprofit and public agencies in varying capacities for about 15 years. And I’ve been associated with universities in various capacities for about the same length of time. Before I began working in and around universities, for example, I likely thought that donations to universities are an axiomatically good thing.* Now I know a lot more about them and am also a lot more skeptical: universities use far too much of their money on administrators and amenities—signaling functions, basically (the hate for colleges in some precincts has its origins in excess administration). Now I’m much less pro-university and, if I had a bunch of cash to give away, I’d be very unlikely to dump it on a university. I know there’d be a decent chance that most of that money would fund runaway tuition sticker prices.

To be sure, there are probably good ways to give money to universities. Probably the best is to fund particular science labs at non-elite, non-wealthy schools. Stanford probably doesn’t need more money in its labs, but most University of [State] schools probably do, and funding them is underrated. But to learn which labs at which schools need funding is such an undertaking that knowledge would-be donors might simply not bother. In that respect, ignorance might be good—for me, too.

I also used to be convinced that more transparency is better in the vast majority of human realms. Now I’m not so sure. We seem to have far greater political transparency than we once did, thanks to the Internet and some other features of the modern media, but has that made politics better? If so, I don’t see it: We can’t get infrastructure built, and many lobbies are good at pushing their narratives out.

The truth is not transparent and obvious, as I once thought it was, and virtually all of us are susceptible to advertising, marketing, and sloganeering. That last one is especially apparent on Twitter. We “know” some of the important solutions to improving infrastructure development, but in the same sense we (in the sense of “the human race”) know how quantum mechanics work. But I can’t give you a detailed, technically accurate description of quantum mechanics, and how many humans can? A million, maybe, out of seven billion people? Less? I know more about what needs to be done regarding infrastructure, but to explain it all would take a long time a lot of background reading. Most people won’t bother. What good is transparency if the best answers are difficult enough to comprehend that no one seeks them?

Even this post is less likely to be read and understand than a random sloganeering, virtue signaling Tweet is going to be repeated. Knowledge is hard and feelings are easy. That itself is not a popular thing to say but it is true. And if “Knowledge is hard and feelings are easy” were turned into a viral Tweet, it would only demonstrate its own point! Frustrating, in a way, but perhaps the lesson is “chill out, because it’s really hard to get substantive improvements in the world, and most of those improvements probably don’t happen on the Internet.”

You may have noticed that I’ve wandered a long way from the title of this post. That’s deliberate. What motivates human giving probably shouldn’t be stated, because stating it runs contrary to social desirability bias. I will say that “effectiveness” and “ensuring the greatest efficiency per dollar spent” do not motivate the vast majority of donors—though almost all donors will cite those ideas. If you’re the sort of person who wants to know what motivates giving, and you’re frustrated by the way this essay doesn’t directly answer your question, see “Philanthropy is not being disrupted by Silicon Valley,” which offers some answers and links to better ones. But I don’t think most of us really want to know.


* The word “likely” is important because I don’t fully know my mental state from a long time ago.

“Oh, the Humanities!”

It’s pretty rare for a blog post, even one like “ Mea culpa: there *is* a crisis in the humanities,” to inspire a New York Times op ed, but here we have “Oh, the Humanities! New data on college majors confirms an old trend. Technocracy is crushing the life out of humanism.” It’s an excellent essay. Having spent a long time working in the humanities (a weird phrase, if you think about it) and having written extensively about the problems with the humanities as currently practiced in academia, I naturally have some thoughts.

Douthat notes the decline in humanities majors and says, “this acceleration is no doubt partially driven by economic concerns.” That’s true. Then we get this interesting move:

In an Apollonian culture, eager for “Useful Knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts. And both the turn toward radical politics and the turn toward high theory are attempts by humanists in the academy to supply that justification — to rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.

There is likely some truth here too. In this reading, the humanities have turned from traditional religious feeling and redirected the religious impulse in a political direction.

Douthat has some ideas about how to improve:

First, a return of serious academic interest in the possible (I would say likely) truth of religious claims. Second, a regained sense of history as a repository of wisdom and example rather than just a litany of crimes and wrongthink. Finally, a cultural recoil from the tyranny of the digital and the virtual and the Very Online, today’s version of the technocratic, technological, potentially totalitarian Machine that Jacobs’s Christian humanists opposed.

I think number two is particularly useful, number three is reasonable, and number one is fine but somewhat unlikely and not terribly congruent with my own inclinations. But I also think that the biggest problem with the humanities as currently practiced is the turn from uninterested inquiry about what is true, what is valuable, what is beautiful, what is worth remembering, what should be made, etc., and toward politics, activism, and taking sides in current political debates—especially when those debates are highly interested in stratifying groups of people based on demographic characteristics, then assigning values to those groups.

That said, I’m not the first person to say as much and have zero impact. Major structural forces stand in the way of reform. The current grad-school-to-tenure structure kills most serious, divergent thinking and encourages a group-think monoculture. Higher-ed growth peaked around 1975; not surprisingly, the current “culture wars” or “theory wars” or whatever you want to call them got going in earnest in the 1980s, when there was little job growth among humanities academics. And they’ve been going, in various ways, ever since.

Before the 1980s, most people who got PhDs in the humanities eventually got jobs of some kind or other. This meant heterodox thinkers could show up, snag a foothold somewhere, and change the culture of the academic humanities. People like Camille Paglia or Harold Bloom or even Paul de Man (not my favorite writer) all have this quality. But since the 1980s, the number of jobs has shrunk, the length of grad school has lengthened, and heterodox thinkers have (mostly) been pushed out. Interesting writers like Jonathan Gottschall work as adjuncts, if they work at all.

Today, the jobs situation is arguably worse than ever: I can’t find the report off-hand, the Modern Language Association tracks published, tenure-track jobs, and those declined from about a thousand a year before 2008 to about 300 – 400 per year now.

Current humanities profs hire new humanities profs who already agree with them, politically speaking. Current tenured profs tenure new profs who already agree. This dynamic wasn’t nearly as strong when pretty much everyone got a job, even those who advocated for weird new ideas that eventually became the norm. That process is dead. Eliminating tenure might help the situation some, but any desire to eliminate tenure as a practice will be deeply opposed by the powerful who benefit from it.

So I’m not incredibly optimistic about a return to reason among humanities academics. Barring that return to reason, a lot of smart students are going to look at humanities classes and the people teaching them, then decide to go major in economics (I thought about majoring in econ).

I remember taking a literary theory class when I was an undergrad and wondering how otherwise seemingly-smart people could take some of that terrible writing and thinking seriously. Still, I was interested in reading and fiction, so I ignored the worst parts of what I read (Foucault, Judith Butler—those kinds of people) and kept on going, even into grad school. I liked to read and still do. I’d started writing (bad, at the time) novels. I didn’t realize the extent to which novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel are awfully close to nonfiction.

By now, the smartest people avoid most humanities subjects as undergrads and then grad students, or potential grad students. Not all of the smartest people, but most of them. And that anti-clumping tendency leaves behind people who don’t know any better or who are willing to repeat the endless and tedious postmodernist mantras like initiates into the cult (and there is the connection to Douthat, who’d like us to acknowledge the religious impulse more than most of us now do). Some of them are excellent sheep: a phrase from William Deresiewicz that he applies to students at elite schools but that might also be applied to many humanities grad students.

MFA programs, last time I checked, are still doing pretty well, and that’s probably because they’re somewhat tethered to the real world and the desire to write things other humans might want to read. That desire seems to have disappeared in most of humanistic academia. Leaving the obvious question: “Why bother?” And that is the question I can no longer answer.

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