Links: Friendship, dual brains, literature as pain, fusion news, unintended consequences, and more!

* “The Friendship That Made Google Huge,” an extremely charming and positive story.

* “China ‘Is the Only One in the Race’ to Make Electric Buses, Taxis and Trucks.” Perhaps we ought to be thinking less about culture war things and more about who is building the future.

* “Should Studying Literature Be Fun? ‘No’ is too often the answer, as scholars signal their ‘professionalism.'” And people wonder why the number of humanities majors keeps dropping. It’s strange how “fun” has become a suspect value on campus. This article is a long argument against grad school in the humanities.

* Achieving an 80x increase in plasma lifespan (and what it means for fusion energy).

* “Maximizing Your Slut Impact: An Overly Analytical Guide to Camgirling.” It’s extremely detailed and I learned of it via Alex Tabarrok’s Cam Girl Economics. The psychological readings are impressive. I can’t fathom why men would choose to watch “Cam Girls.”

* “Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Cost.” It’s like no one imagined unintended consequences, or understands that incentives affect behavior. Plus, anyone involved in this issue should read Skin in the Game by Taleb—there are a lot of people, especially online, who have no skin in the game while criticizing those who do. More people thinking about this issue should also read my own essay, “Ninety-five percent of people are fine, but it’s that last five percent.” Tail risks are real!

* “Tumblr will ban all adult content on December 17th.” The end of Tumblr, it would seem.

* “In LA, land dedicated to parking is larger than Manhattan. A new study asks, “What if that space was used for housing instead?” We are all paying The High Cost of Free Parking. We just don’t realize it.

* How electric bikes make cities safer.

* Heads up: “Civilisation will collapse if humanity doesn’t take action on global warming.”

* “Are Academics Cowards? The Grip of Grievance Studies and the Sunk Costs of Academic Pursuit.” The short answer is “yes.” Tenure is also supposed to make academics free to speak and free from coercion, yet many seem not to be very interested in free speech.

* Greenhouse Gas Emissions Rise Like a ‘Speeding Freight Train’ in 2018. See previous entry on “civilisation.”

* “Taiwan Can Win a War With China?” “Win” is not my favorite word here, as it’s not apparent that anyone, anywhere, would win such a war, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, as World War I teaches us.

* “Why Doesn’t America Love the Novella?” I thought ebooks would help this situation. I favor a story being as long as it should be and no longer. That is sometimes very long (Lord of the Rings is too short, I feel, and Cryptonomicon is just right), but there are many novels that make me think, “This would be much better if it were 1/4 or 1/2 shorter.”

Links: The state of science, learning relationship skills, attention, Lululemon, and more!

* Scott Alexander asks, “Is science slowing down?

* “The First Lesson of Marriage 101: There Are No Soul Mates.” Improve yourself, first.

* Attention and Memory in the Age of the Disciplinary Spectacle.

* We are heading for a New Cretaceous, not for a new normal. This is important.

* GenZe electric bike review; looks like a good value.

* Is literary glory worth chasing? Probably not, but most people who achieve it are probably not chasing it—or are only chasing it indirectly.

* “Lululemon’s Founder Is an Unlikely Guru. That Might Be Why He’s a Billionaire. Chip Wilson has some odd ideas: Some made him rich, some got him fired.” Is anyone else reminded of Peter Thiel’s Zero to One? Startup founders, like artists, are often different not just in one domain but in many. If they were normal, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. And this is one of the problems in modern universities, as addressed by Haidt and Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind: universities are increasingly against anyone, anywhere, being weird or different, and they will punish weirdness and difference in speech.

* ‘Talent Wants Transit’: Companies Near Transportation Gaining the Upper Hand.

* Meet Alexa: inside the mind of an Instagram person. Sounds depressing.

* Academia’s Case of Stockholm Syndrome.

* Do we need to hide who we are to speak freely in the era of identity politics?

* The Prophet of Envy: a good review of the many Rene Girard books.

A Ladder to the Sky — John Boyle

A Ladder to the Sky is a surprise, and has many mini-surprises in it: I kept almost putting it down, thinking that writers writing about writing has been done too many times. Every time I started to think the novel basic, it confounded me. If you have the “Seen it already” impulse, push through the next 30 pages, as you may be surprised, as I was.

I don’t want to spoil those surprises; if the regular writerly bildungsroman is about books progressively emerging, this one is about the ambition monster getting progressively bigger, like a dragon, until it eats its owner. Or does the owner thrive at the end? I can’t say more here.

The third section is narrated by Maurice’s wife; she’s a writer, too (one possible reading of this novel: writers should spend less time with each other), and has just taken a gig at the University of East Anglia teaching creative writing. She has a Polish student who “just seems to hate everyone, me included. I don’t know why.” Hate is an underrated fuel for art and for achievement more generally. We ought to give it greater respect and pride of place. In today’s twee, overly genteel literary environment that seems impossible, which is part of the reason it’s nice to encounter hate as a motivator in this novel.

“I want to be a success,” the early Maurice Swift says, but it’s an oddly empty formulation, like “I want to be an entrepreneur.” A success—but at what? Measured by who? How? It’s an aspiration too vague to be useful, and maybe even counterproductive: don’t focus on success, focus on what you need to do, today, to achieve it.

Maurice doesn’t, and if he did, there wouldn’t be a novel. Instead, he goes through increasingly gross gyrations to be a “success.”

“A ladder to the sky” is, of course, a ladder to nowhere—which may be what this book is about. It reminds me, in some odd ways, of Clancy Martin’s How to Sell. To sell, first believe the lie. Maurice seems to believe the lie.

There is a lot of “And are you working on anything at the moment, Maurice?” talk. It works, yes, but how about a novel about plumbers? The literary status-jockeying does begin to tire, like a long day of riding horses in a circle. By some point, isn’t it nice to do something else or go somewhere else? It’s tempting to call for a five-year ban of writer-narrators in fiction.

Many of the naive statements are deliberate—they are the statements of naive people, or a naive person—but there are a whole lot of them. Getting A Ladder to the Sky requires at least two readings, though, and that’s one mark of a good book.

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