Links: The book biz, Emergent Ventures, the cost of cars, and more!

* “French bookshops revolt after prize selects novel self-published on Amazon: Booksellers refuse to ‘jump into the wolf’s mouth’ and order Marco Koskas’ Renaudot-longlisted novel online.” Pretty funny for the usual reasons.

* Tyler Cowen’s *Emergent Ventures*, a new project to help foment enlightenment. Highly recommended. I don’t have a good emergent venture, though I’d love to do something education-related. Do you have such a venture? Do you know someone who might?

* A premature attempt at the 21st Century canon.

* “The Current Sex Panic Harks Back to the Era of Coddling Women,” but you may already know that.

* ‘For me, this is paradise’: life in the Spanish city that banned cars.

* How a Professor Was Punished for an Act of Citizenship. You are probably tired of reading these outrageous stories about universities behaving badly (I am), yet they appear so often that I link to some of them. See also, “The Coddling of the American Mind ‘Is Speeding Up.’

* Canadian marijuana stock soars to $12 billion. The headline is too celebrity-gossip for me, but the content is of interest as a sign of social change.

* “Why Is the Home Building Industry Stuck in the 1940s? Embrace pre-fabricated, adaptable homes!”

* RIP the celebrity profile.

* On Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan.

* Very good podcast with Austin Allred of Lambda School, on education and many other topics. I still think that the perfidious combination of accreditation bodies and the federal student loan system will shunt Lambda School and others to the sidelines, but I hope to see the alternatives grow.

* One small change to New York’s intersections is saving pedestrians’ lives.

* George Mason University’s econ department culture; we all ought to move closer to that, I think.

* “These studies offer a realistic view of postdoc life—and guidance for making career decisions that work for you.” This is really depressing: “Most postdocs earned between $39,000 and $55,000, with 5% reporting earnings below $39,000 and 10% above $55,000.” That’s basically saying, “Don’t go to grad school in science, either, because you won’t make any money, even after five to ten years of additional school.”

* America Is Living James Madison’s Nightmare.

* Putting a dollar value on one of oil’s biggest subsidies: military protection. An underrated point.

Links: Open-access journals, revealed preferences, censorship, transit, and more!

* Data from online dating. Bad headline. The seven bullet points at the end are the most interesting (and un-PC) parts.

* Radical open-access plan could spell end to journal subscriptions. Good.

* Understanding postmodern conservatism, a more interesting piece than you’d think from the title.

* “Why are America’s elite universities censoring themselves on China?” Why do we expect them to? Why do buy into the concept of “elite” in this domain?

* “Study: Cities with more transit use could cut road deaths by 40%.” We’re literally willing to die to drive.

* “How Real News Can Be Worse Than Fake News: Too much information can lead to a cynical population that expects little from its leaders.”

* Clayton Christensen: Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years. Given cost increases, that would probably be a net improvement.

* “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” A… not expected op-ed.

* But Rich People Live Here, So We Can’t Be Going Broke!

* Uber Was Right: The scooter backlash vindicates Travis Kalanick’s early tactics.

* Electric scooters are getting more and more popular. It’s time for big cities to embrace them.

* On Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook; in The New Yorker and not just the usual.

* The Chekhov Sentence That Contains Almost All of Life. The new Shteyngart novel sounds unbelievably terrible, but the essay is good.

* Fitted tees, scruff, and understated watches: the secrets of a Silicon Valley stylist. Hilarious.

* The Major Urban Revolution of Minor Transportation Means.

* “I doubt me an it be commercial.” On publishing, writing, and many other topics of interest.

* Fundamentals in fiction and the question of obligations.

“The Wheel of Time” as an adult

In middle school I read the first six or eight Robert Jordan Wheel of Time books; I’ve mentioned that before, but the other day I saw someone reading one of the books in a coffee shop and that inspired me to download some. From the opening pages they are badly written; we find of one character, “with his thick chest and broad face, he was a pillar of reality in that morning, like a stone in the middle of a drifting dream.” What is a “pillar of reality?” As opposed to a “pillar of fantasy?” Does reality typically have pillars? In dreams, stones can drift as much as they want. In isolation this kind of thing happens (not every sentence in a given book is to every person’s taste), but things like it recur again and again. Perhaps they were written too fast, or maybe the writer’s attention was elsewhere. But for very inexperienced readers, as I was, that doesn’t matter: everything is novel.

The novels are very Tolkien-esque, except worse. The novel concerns a quest to defeat “The Dark One,” but The Dark One seems like a bad deal. I mean, his nickname is the Lord of Lies. Yet various people in the Wheel of Time world are eager to sign up to serve him. Why would anyone make a deal with him? People try not to do business with people they don’t trust, and that just concerns money—not the soul itself. Truly evil people don’t announce they’re evil; they call themselves good. In Tolkien, Sauron is at least depicted as once having been fair, and being able to use his powers to daunt and seduce the men who haven’t been exposed to Elvish influence. Tolkien thought through a lot of subtle details that are easily missed in a first pass but picked up later on.

Perhaps the Dark One’s dealmaking skill is a metaphor for life under communist regimes, which are highly duplicitous and not very pleasant, but, if one’s government was part of the Soviet Union, that was part of the deal. Many people who ought to have known better were convinced socialism was a good idea. They may have sold their souls, in essence.

The Jordan view of sexuality is… curious. And very adolescent; as a work that might appeal to 12- or 13-year olds, it makes sense. As a work that appeals to adults, it does not. Many of the characters are very attractive and very attracted to one another, and yet none act on it, or only act on it after months or years of courtship that leads to marriage. This seems improbable. Most adults attempt to fulfill months- or years-long mutual attractions somewhat faster than that. The Wheel of Time‘s sexual world sounds a lot like middle school behavior but not much like adult behavior. A fantasy novel like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is much more reality-grounded in this domain, despite featuring far younger protagonists. As an adult I look at Jordan’s Wikipedia page and am unsurprised to find this: “He described himself as a ‘High Church’ Episcopalian and received communion more than once a week.”

Like a lot of thrillers, something happens in almost every chapter of every book (the early ones, anyway). A sudden attack. A reversal of fortune. The introduction of a new character. But, as with a lot of thrillers, the “something” often doesn’t make much sense. Why are the bad guys so ineffective? Why do they try the same sort of attacks, over and over again, which keep failing? Why do Dark friends not get a better name? Could they hire a branding consultant? Thrillers work if you don’t think too much about them—something I realized after reading Persuader, a novel that’s wildly plausible despite its absurdities. Sometimes I wonder if I could become a thriller writer through a deck of cards with plot points like “sudden betrayal,” “bad guy goes good,” “unexpected fight,” etc. on them.

And the attacks are mostly the same: the same Orc-like creatures suddenly appear, as if from nowhere, and execute the same attacks that fail in the same ways. They’re like video-game monsters. If the Dark One is so brilliant, perhaps he ought to learn new tactics? Or perhaps that’s the curse of a 14-novel series: there are only so many variations on a theme.

It feels like Jordan had a bunch of dice when he was writing. Roll a 2? New attack from Trollocs. Four? New magical items. Double sixes? Dark friends. Someone like Philip Pullman or Carlos Ruiz Zafon has a very different, more organic feel, as well as more bounded worlds that may ultimately be more satisfying worlds. The endless size of The Wheel of Time means flatter characters, more repetition, and the exploration of fewer ideas.

Even as a kid, I gave up on the series. But I wonder about what adults see in it. Many people are of course comforted by and susceptible to simple good-vs-evil stories. When one becomes popular, like The Wheel of Time, pointing to it as being popular because it’s a good-vs-evil story isn’t enough. Maybe it’s popular because it’s simple along so many dimensions. The sentences are simple. The motivations are simple. The plot is less simple on its surface but fairly simple beneath. The good guys win at the end (or appear to: so say Internet summarizers). The Wheel of Time world of motivation is fairly simple. In a complex world, simple has appeal.

The chief protagonist is named Rand al’Thor, and the description of him working magic is notable and concerns what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call “Flow” or what might otherwise be called total concentration, which the channelers must use: “Tam had taught him the Void as an aid to archery, to be one with the bow, the arrow, the target. He made himself one with those imagined black wires.” One reading of Wheel might be about the value of total concentration, although that’s a funny lesson in books that don’t demand total concentration and if anything don’t reward it. But for the reader, especially today in an environment of digital distraction, admiring total concentration may be useful.

The Great Good Place — Roy Oldenburg

The Great Good Place is often dated but still interesting, and it’s highly congruent with Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression; Hari argues that one reason so many of us are anxious and depressed is that we’re spatially disconnected from other humans, and Oldenburg explains how that came to be—and how the physical space we inhabit affects us. Online life is a very poor substitute for in-person life, it seems, and articles like “Teenagers are growing more anxious and depressed” appear routinely. Friends who teach school say kids seem less able to handle their own lives and make independent decisions than the used to. While some of this may be “kids these days” grousing of the typical kind, at least some data indicates otherwise, and it may be that smartphones are bad for many reasons, like deleterious effects on relationships (an essay I wrote in 2012)—yet few of us will give them up or even significantly restrict usage. I have a smartphone too and annoy friends by being disconnected from it. Expected response times for texts seems overly low to me, but that seems to be the way the culture is moving. We’ve let phones replace places, and that’s not a good trade-off.

Our biggest barriers to good human space were and are legal and regulatory:

The preferred and ubiquitous mode of urban development is hostile to both walking and talking. In walking, people become part of their terrain; they become custodians of their neighborhoods. In talking, people get to know one another; they find and create their common interests and realize the collective abilities essential to community and democracy.

We take wealth and burn it through hellacious commutes: “The purchase of the even larger home on the even larger lot in the even more lifeless neighborhood is not so much a matter of joining community as retreating from it.” There are solutions, but they’re grasped tentatively and only with tremendous, pointless resistance. We can do better and choose not to.

Some challenges have gotten worse. Oldenburg anticipates the noise plague in today’s bars and restaurants:

Whatever interrupts conversation’s lively flow is ruinous to a third place, be it a bore, a horde of barbaric college students, or mechanical or electronic gadgetry. Most common among these is the noise that passes for music, though it must be understood that when conversation is to be savored, even Mozart is noise if played too loudly.

Vox says restaurant noise levels are climbing; excess noise seems to kill conviviality. Shouldn’t restaurants have figured this out? Or is Oldenburg, like me, just too far outside the mainstream for his view to matter? What should we infer from it is, rather than from what I want to be? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that I pick restaurants and bars based on noise, or the lack thereof.

To me, the most interesting chapter concerned German beer garden versus Irish taverns. In the late nineteenth century, there were two major models for what might now be called bars: German beer gardens that served low-alcohol beer (usually around 3%) and Irish taverns that served potent whiskey. The former catered to families and whole communities while the latter catered to men alone:

Yet it was the Irish model that eventually prevailed. America adapted itself only to the German national beverage; it kept the beer and dropped most of the amenities with which the Germans had surrounded it. The nation never seemed able to allow the concept of a good tavern, and people who cannot envisage good taverns are doomed to have lesser ones.

German beer gardens are probably the better, pro-social model, but they didn’t prevail, and I’m not entirely sure we know why, although Prohibition seems a major culprit.

Another section on the French cafe describes a largely solved problem: Starbucks, along with innumerable specialty coffee shops, solved it. What was a problem when The Great Good Place was published has become a business. Parking and zoning are still serious problems, but a dearth of coffee shops is not.

Third places are overly-idealized in this book (one could write a counter-book about why they’re bad), but it remains an interesting book with a useful set of concepts.

Links: Dutch cycling culture, the problems in academia, the delightful Claire Lehmann, mushrooms, and more!

* How the Dutch created a casual biking culture. My favorite story in a while.

* The self-defeat of academia. “Own goal” works here too.

* Conversation between Tyler Cowen and Clair Lehmann of Quillette. Appropriately, the link immediately above is to a Quillette essay.

* America’s student debt machine.

* Reflections from Kunming, an unglobalized part of the world.

* “My Affair With the Intellectual Dark Web,” a bad title for a surprisingly humane and interesting piece.

* Why It Can Happen Here: We’re very close to becoming another Poland or Hungary. And almost no one seems worried.

* Teens cutting back on social media? A big “maybe” here.

* What Follows the End of History? Identity Politics.

* “Talk to Your Kids About Porn: Many teens will be exposed to it anyway—often unintentionally—and they need the guidance of their parents to process what they’ve seen.” In the Atlantic. Not a cultural shift I expect to see, but I guess you never know.

* Air pollution causes ‘huge’ reduction in intelligence: study. If true, this is another argument in favor of electric cars, fast.

* “In an efficient market, why would profit-focused companies employ a bunch of people who by their own admission aren’t doing anything valuable?” Link. One possible answer: the market is actually consuming and producing a lot of signaling. Maybe less signaling than profit, but still a lot, except no one wants to admit as much. And signaling is not measurable.

* Livin’ Thing: An Oral History of ‘Boogie Nights.’

* Bending to the law of supply and demand, some colleges are dropping their prices.

* Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History: The political scientist argues that the desire of identity groups for recognition is a key threat to liberalism.

* “His $109K Heart Attack Bill Is Now Down To $332 After NPR Told His Story.” Maybe we should be working harder towards price transparency in healthcare?

* Loneliness is pervasive and rising, particularly among the young. Get off your phones.

* Social media mobs. Sounds unpleasant!

* Electric Vehicles’ Day Will Come, and It Might Come Suddenly.

* How the politics of envy (or ‘income inequality’) work in the broadest sense.”

Giving and receiving books

Tyler Cowen writes, “Why you should hesitate to give books as gifts and instead just throw them out,” which is a fine post, but I’d note that many people are cost-constrained when it comes to books, and many used books now end up on Amazon, where they must be specifically sought out. And I love to give friends books (and receive books), but the following rules for giving books must be obeyed:

1. Zero expectation. The sender must not expect the receiver to read or even consider the book. Books should only be given, never returned, particularly in the age of Amazon. Amazon has made book scarcity a thing of the past. It is even possible to rapidly scan books, using the right equipment, which may be relatively inexpensive. The majority of books I give or send are probably never read, and that’s fine with me.

2. Despite “zero expectation,” the sender must think the book will interest the receiver or be at least as good as the median book the receiver might otherwise read.

3. This is my own idiosyncrasy, but I very rarely throw out books, though I will donate unwanted ones in batches. Someone with different inclinations and hourly rates might automate the process of selling older books on Amazon. The net take from selling a book for even $10 or $12 on Amazon is like $4 – $6—not worth it for me.

4. I like writing in books and like it when my friends do. Receiving a book my friend has annotated is like getting the pleasure of the book and the pleasure of conversation.

5. “Zero expectation” also means “zero expectation” in terms of time. I mail books in batches whenever there are enough and it’s convenient for me. It may be months after I finish a book, and that’s okay. I have a stack sitting around right now, waiting to go out.

6. I like it when publishers send me books! But they often send emails first asking if I’ll promise a review, etc. My stock reply is always the same: Send the book, but I promise nothing.

7. When I was younger I thought I’d be rich when I have the money to buy all the books I can read. Now I have to limit the number of physical books I have due to space and practicality constraints. Large numbers of physical books are not compatible with high levels of mobility. This is very annoying but also true. Bad city zoning makes this problem worse by artificially increasing the price per square foot most people pay for housing in a given locale. Would we have a better media if writers had more space for books and consequently read more?

“How good is the very best next book that you haven’t read but maybe are on the verge of picking up? So many choices in life hinge on that neglected variable.” I say my problem today is finding the best book, which I no longer do so well on my own; if the five best readers I know would send me more books, I would be very happy, even if only one works for me.

It’s striking for me how many people with nothing to say get on social media to say it, relative to simply reading more or learning more. We have all these communication media and too little to fill them with, in my view. It could be that I’m guilty of that right now.

A good rule is, “Would you buy this friend a beer or coffee?” If yes, why not a book? I’d like to see book-giving become more of a social norm, like getting a round of drinks.

%d bloggers like this: