Links: The summer of grammar, keep your politics/religion to yourself, epistemology many ways, and more!

* The long hot summer of grammar. My kind of summar. Summer, I meant; the spelling may be weak, but the grammar goes on.

* Woman spends tens of thousands of dollars getting an MFA: “I’m Emptying My Bank Account to Go to Columbia.” It would be a decent idea to teach financial literacy in school, including the “follow the money” principle.

* Google Doesn’t Want Staff Debating Politics at Work Anymore. Personally, I can’t imagine why.

* How the great truth dawned. On Russians, literature, religion, and other ideas of interest. Probably can’t be digested in a single reading, and that’s a positive.

* Analyzing Trinitite: A (Radioactive) Piece of Nuclear History.

* “Misinformation Has Created a New World Disorder: Our willingness to share content without thinking is exploited to spread disinformation.”

* “Bureaucrats Put the Squeeze on College Newspapers: The corporatization of higher education has rendered a once-indispensable part of student life irrelevant, right when it’s needed the most.”

* The neo-puritan revival. A weird trend to my thinking.

* Perhaps related to the link immediately above, “‘Luxury beliefs’ are the latest status symbol for rich Americans

* The info war of all against all.

* “ Standing Up to the Moral Outrage Industry: What we can learn from how Yale handled Sarah Braasch and the ‘napping while black’ incident.” I’d also note that there’s usually something amiss with someone who is a 44-year-old graduate student.

* “Software was eating the world — now landlords are eating everything.” We can more easily change laws than develop technology that doesn’t yet exist, however.

* The long game of research.It’s easy to forget how hard knowing things really is, especially in the immediate gratification attention economy.

The Seventh Function of Language — Laurent Binet

The Seventh Function of Language is wildly funny, at least for the specialist group of humanities academics and those steeped in humanities academic nonsense of the last 30 – 40 years. For everyone else, it may be like reading a prolonged in-joke. Virtually every field has its jokes that require particular background to get (I’ve heard many doctors tell stories whose punchline is something like, “And then the PCDH level hit 50, followed by an ADL of 200!” Laughter all around, except for me). In the novel, Roland Barthes doesn’t die from a typical car crash in 1980; instead, he is murdered. But by who, and why?

A hardboiled French detective (or “Superintendent,” which is France’s equivalent) must team up with a humanities lecturer to find out, because in the world of The Seventh Function it’s apparent that a link exists between Barthes’s work and his murder. They don’t exactly have a Holmes and Watson relationship, as neither Bayard (the superintendent) or Herzog (the lecturer) make brilliant leaps of deduction; rather, both complement each other, each alternating between bumbling and brilliance. Readers of The Name of the Rose will recognize both the detective/side-kick motif as well as the way a murder is linked to the intellectual work being done by the deceased. In most crime fiction—as, apparently, in most crime—the motives are small and often paltry, if not outright pathetic: theft, revenge, jealousy, sex. “Money and/or sex” pretty much summarizes why people kill (and perhaps why many people live). That sets up the novel’s idea, in which someone is killed for an idea.

The novel’s central, unstated joke is that, in the real world, no one would bother killing over literary theory because literary theory is so wildly unimportant (“Bayard gets the gist: Roland Barthes’s language is gibberish. But in that case why waste your time reading him?”). At Barthes’s funeral, Bayard thinks:

To get anywhere in this investigation, he knows that he has to understand what he’s searching for. What did Barthes possess of such value that someone not only stole it from him but they wanted to kill him for it too?

The real world answer is “nothing.” He, like other French intellectuals, has nothing worth killing over. And if you have nothing conceivably worth killing over, are your ideas of any value? The answer could plausibly be “yes,” but in the case of Barthes and others it is still “no.” And the money question structures a lot of relations: Bayard thinks of Foucault, “Does this guy earn more than he does?”

Semiotics permeates:

Many is an interpreting machine and, with a little imagination, he sees signs everywhere: in the color of his wife’s coat, in the stripe on the door of his car, in the eating habits of the people next door, in France’s monthly unemployment figures, in the banana-like taste of Beaujolais nouveau (for it always tastes either like banana or, less often, raspberry. Why? No one knows, but there must be an explanation, and it is semiological.)…

There are also various amusing authorial intrusions and one could say the usual things about them. The downside of The Seventh Function is that its underlying thrust is similar to the numerous other academic novels out there; if you’ve read a couple, you’ve read them all. The upsides are considerable, however, among them the comedy of allusion and the gap between immediate, venal human behavior and the olympian ideas enclosed in books produced by often-silly humans. If the idea stated in the book and the author’s behavior don’t match, what lesson should we take from that mismatch?

Links: Childhood’s nature, life science progress, the culture of culture, the comedy of WeWork, and more!

* “We Have Ruined Childhood: For youngsters these days, an hour of free play is like a drop of water in the desert. Of course they’re miserable.” Freedom itself is weirdly out of fashion today, it seems.

* “How Life Sciences Actually Work.” Much more interesting, detailed, and important than you think from the headline.

* Once Upon a Time…Film Critics Became Joyless—A Review. This is me on Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.

* Sources of sex appeal that have some basis in the literature, although I would want to carefully check the methodology and reproducibility of all those studies before drawing any real conclusions.

* Land of the free, on the history of American nudism. Not prurient, if that is important to you.

* WeWork appears to be a comically bad business, as a potential investment.

* “American cities need to phase out cars.” More of the obvious.

* Why is Joe Rogan so popular? Better than a lot of the commentary on the subject, but still missing important pieces.

* Seattle rents drop as housing supply substantially rises.

* “The answer to ‘Will you mentor me?’ is no.” See also me on these subjects. Stephen Wolfram also has thoughts.

* How the Daguerreotype Started a Victorian Black Market for Pornography in London.

* How ancient poetry can revitalise our erotic imaginations.

* Even Columbia can’t get its English PhDs gigs.

Links: How to put more money in people’s pockets, on reading, beauty in books, and more!

* Reforming Land Use Regulations. This is one way to put more money in your pocket.

* “Evidence increases for reading on paper instead of screens.” This is not the final word, but it may sway those of you who are debating whether you should ban screens from class, or whether you should hold class in person or online.

* Can small-scale nuclear fusion reactors work?

* Megan McArdle on the absurdities of “affirmative consent.”

* “Survey: Americans have more confidence in Amazon than government or press.” Observation: delivering packages and web services is difficult but also conceptually simpler than epistemology, and arguably the press is delivering epistemology, even though no one says as much. As for government, expectations seem unreasonably high, but, also, we need to work much harder at figuring out why infrastructure is so damn expensive. If most cities could reliably build subways at Nordic costs we’d all love “the government,” or at least local government.

* Re: the above, see also Tyler Cowen’s Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.

* How ‘safety first’ ethos is destabilizing US society.

* O Oberlin, My Oberlin. On the recent scandal. See also Big Business and that article about trust in Amazon from a few links above.

* The population bust.

* “The battle cry of the politically homeless: Anyone moderate with a brain and anything to lose has largely gone silent.”

* “Are Health Administrators To Blame?“, for either high health care costs or high education costs? Doesn’t look like it, though that’s a popular narrative, for obvious reasons. And there are lots of unsourced, attractive-looking graphs on the Internet that blame administrators.

* “In praise of pretty books.” Agreed, and the Thor Power Tools decision is why we have so few pretty books today. As I understand the situation, prior to Thor, publishers could print up a bunch of books and take some kind of depreciation deduction as they sat around in warehouses. Now, publishers apparently can’t do that, so publishers are strongly incented to sell everything they can in a given year. Consequently, cheap books become more attractive.

* Is line editing a lost art? No.

Trick Mirror — Jia Tolentino

I read one of the essays in a magazine, but the book as a whole is dubious. Take the introduction: she writes that she wrote the book “between the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2018” which was, she says, “a stretch of time when daily experience seemed both like a stopped elevator and an endless state-fair ride, when many of us regularly found ourselves thinking that everything had gotten as bad as we could possibly imagine, after which, of course, things got worse.” “As bad as we could possibly imagine?” That’s a real deficit of imagination, then. As bad as things were during the Cuban Missile Crisis? As during the Able Archer exercise, which the Soviet Union almost took as preparation for nuclear war? As bad as even the Great Recession in 2009? Has Tolentino and “many of us” read Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment now?

Tolentino writes that one of her essays is “about ‘optimization,’ and the rise of athleisure as late-capitalist fetishwaear.” First, athleisure is not, to my knowledge, associated at all with fetish sexual practices (I could be wrong on that but didn’t see any citations or experiences to the contrary in the essay). Second, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen “late capitalism” intelligently defined, or that I’ve ever read a sentence that was improved by including the phrase. How do we know we’re in late capitalism? Is it possible we’re experiencing early capitalism? She later writes that our world is “utterly consumed by capitalism.” What’s that mean? What’s the alternative? We’ve seen examples of the state directing all or almost all economic activity (the Soviet Union, Venezuela), and the result is not good.

It’s also neither clear nor evident that “capitalism” is the best way to analyze many of the Internet platforms. To the extent capitalism involves monetary exchange, I don’t pay Twitter and Twitter doesn’t pay me; same with Facebook or Google. If I’m a business, advertising, I might. And if you don’t like the social media advertising business models, you can also host your own blog. That almost no one does, tells us something, but it’s something Tolentino doesn’t want to get to.

There are assertions like “Mass media always determines the shape of politics and culture.” Really? “Mass media?” Why not technology? Or why don’t politics and culture shape mass media? What way does the causal arrow run?

A while ago, “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now” appeared:

As Arts & Letters Daily puts it, “When did campy misandry become contemporary shorthand for communicating one’s feminist bona fides?” A favorite line: “Having a relationship is a lot like writing: To be good at it, you have to be interested in other people and believe you have something interesting to offer them in return. Many people who pursue either do so poorly because they are actually interested only in themselves.”

You can apply a lot of “Nice for What’s?” analysis to Trick Mirror, but with “the Internet” (exalted and degraded, parent and child, god and satan) standing in for men. Trick Mirror is a very well done version of the Brooklyn hipster writer worldview. Whether that worldview is correct, I will leave to readers.

It’s always been hard to make it in the arts. In some ways, the Internet makes it harder (the supply of writing, video, and photo is way up); in some ways, it makes it easier (it’s possible to become visible in a way that wasn’t in 1980). Today, writing is an incredible secondary skill but a harder primary skill: I see that in Seliger + Associates, where the blog is now a primary marketing mechanism. I also see it in the way every third English major I knew tried to make it as a freelance writer after college. Excess supply relative to demand has predictable effects on prices.

As a reader, the Internet is great: cheap books in the world’s largest used bookstore (finding ones really worth reading is the hard part). Niche interest books are written and made available like they couldn’t be before.

Many people take to the Internet to complain about the Internet. We can choose to live predominantly offline. What should we infer from the fact that many of us, including, it seems, Tolentino, choose not to?

As is too common, the author needs to read more evolutionary biology. Who are women competing for? Why? How does women’s intrasex competition tend to work? Then do the same with men. Many of the answers are out there, but they’re rarely discussed in MFA and English programs. Trick Mirror is a book partially about unexamined assumptions that nonetheless seems to import an awful lot of unexamined assumptions of its own. It’s got a better book lurking inside it, and that’s why it’s frustrating. A bad book is easy to dismiss and a good book is easy to love.

Almost all the reviews I’ve read have been too dutiful and too fawning. Over time it’s become apparent that many book reviews are written for insiders and by insiders, so the exceptions stand out.

Links: English in Europe, social media in America, the nature of language, and more!

* “America’s social-media addiction is getting worse.” No word on America’s novel-reading addiction.

* Relatedly, “The Last Great American Novelist: Toni Morrison and the fate of fiction in an age of distraction.”

* “Death of the Neighborhood Bar.” See also me on The Great Good Place — Roy Oldenburg. Most regulators don’t seem to think about social connection and fabric, or the connection of both to licensure.

* “Don’t Believe a Word by David Shariatmadari review – the truth about language.” Annoyingly, this one won’t be published in the U.S. until January. Pre-ordered.

* “Copenhagen has taken bicycle commuting to a whole new level.” I’m jealous of their clean air and pleasant streets.

* The Suicides in South Korea, and the Suicide of South Korea.

* “Do You Want My Garbage?” “There is a fine line between respecting others’ right to their bad taste, and opting to participate in it.”

* “The Real Problem At Yale Is Not Free Speech.” Lots of things I suspect are incorrect in this one, but the takeaway may be that Yale seems like an unpleasant place to be. So why not go somewhere else, somewhere that is not consumed with bizarre status rituals? Unless you’re on scholarship, in which case it’s likely worth putting up with.

* “As Student Debt Rises, Teens Are Rethinking the College Experience.” Lots of anecdote, little data.

* Big Money Starts to Dump Stocks That Pose Climate Risks.

* Amazon and publishing. None of the other players did anything about this and none of them have the technical teams, experience, or culture to match Amazon. This is another example of software eating the world.

* Was email a mistake? On synchronous vs asynchronous communication and many other topics. I may put this one in my email signature.

* The Power of a Community College.

* “Why solar and wind aren’t enough.” The only plausible energy source compatible with global climate change is nuclear.

* “Parlez-Vous Anglais? Yes, of Course. Europeans speaking perfect English sounds like good news for native speakers, but it may also be a threat.” Good news, says I. And if we can’t compete with their English BA courses, we deserve to lose.

Links: Saving Barnes & Noble, the financial structure of higher ed, the need for excellence, and more!

* “Comcast households watched 6 hours/25 minutes a day of traditional TV, up 6% from the same time period a year before.” The culture you find on this blog, is not mainstream culture.

* To End Student Debt, Tie Tuition to Post-Graduation Salaries?

* Why 16?, on the history age of consent laws—a topic rarely discussed. See also the end of this post, about the racial and gender disparities from such laws:

As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” We want teenagers to be adults when they commit crimes and “children” when they have sex, which tells you more about our culture than about teenagers.

* Perhaps congruent with the link above, “Diversity, Inclusion and Anti-Excellence: A former dean of the Yale Law School sounds a warning.”

* Samuel Pepys’s diary.

* Insured price $2,758, cash price $521. We ought to do something about this?

* How to fix the baby bust.

* The hypersane are among us? I’m still not sure we have a great definition of “hypersanity.”

* Universal Basic Income (UBI) plans don’t work mathematically, as presently advocated by politicians. I’m open to UBI arguments, but I’d like to see us first improve real spending power through comprehensive land use reform. Housing is the most expensive part of most people’s budget and we’re not doing anything like what we can and should be doing in this domain, which makes me think we’re not remotely serious about improving real spending power, let alone getting to UBI.

* “ What If We Haven’t Met Aliens Yet Because They’ve Messed Up Their Planets Too?” Could climate destruction explain the Fermi Paradox?

* How Tyler Cowen chooses fiction. Plus, Tyler on Peter Thiel as intellectual. On Twitter, there was a thread about why many people in academia (and I’m not talking about the humanities exclusively) seem to have disproportionate antipathy to tech people. The author’s thesis was that many tech people have greater, or at least growing, real-world and intellectual influence than academics—something that might not have been true 20 years ago. I’m not endorsing this thesis, but it’s not a ridiculous one, either.

* “China and the Difficulties of Dissent.” Don’t be dissuaded by the title.

* “‘The Big Error Was That She Was Caught’: The Untold Story Behind the Mysterious Disappearance of Fan Bingbing, the World’s Biggest Movie Star.” Implementing a “brain drain” (and talent drain) policy on China, via encouraging Chinese emigration to the United States, is an important argument almost no one is making, or thinking about. This is a trade war we might actually win.

* Open source textbooks are changing higher ed. What took so long?

* “Academia: An Outsider’s Perspective.” Unflattering, but possibly accurate.

* “The Return of Doomsday: The New Nuclear Arms Race—and How Washington and Moscow Can Stop It.” See also my post, “Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse.”

* “The Nihilist in Chief.” I’m not fond of this topic but this one is good.

* Can Britain’s No. 1 Bookseller Save Barnes & Noble?

Links: The end of beef, the science of progress, the need to walk, the nature of language, and more!

* “We Need a New Science of Progress.” Best piece in this batch.

* “What is Amazon?” This is congruent with the link above.

* “Lessons from the East Asian Economic Miracle.” This is congruent with both links above.

* “‘It’s a superpower’: how walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier.” Despite this, for some reason we’ve designed our cities around cars.

* “Stupid, Self-Defeating U.S. Immigration Policy Hands Canada an Opening in Tech.” Obvious to the attentive.

* “Dipsea: the Audio App That’s Transforming Erotica.” This may be a bogus trend story, but it is an interesting one.

* “‘Panic Attack’ review: a wake-up call the woke won’t read.” Surprising venue for this one.

* Why We Call Things ‘Porn’.

* “Gin, Sex, Malaria, and the Hunt for Academic Prestige.” On Margaret Mead’s many adventures. The degree to which her reputation zooms up and down probably says bad things on the net about anthropology as a discipline; I ordered the book.

* “Spare Me the Purity Racket.” Can I get an “Amen?” “The politics of purism makes people stupid. And nasty.” This is one of the problems in some university precincts, too.

* On Norman Rush. Mating is that good.

* Awkward Cause: A Calgary man tries to live an extremely low-carbon lifestyle.

* The beginning of the end for the beef industry?

* “The SLS rocket may have curbed development of on-orbit refueling for a decade.” This is damned depressing if it’s true.

Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood

There are lots of individually funny scenes, but the movie doesn’t add up to much; some people will be more bothered by lack of plot than others. The Sharon Tate figure is peripheral and it’s really a male buddy friendship movie, plus a love letter to old Los Angeles—before Prop 13 screwed up the city and traffic made it almost unlivable.* I saw Once Upon a Time in 70mm, but I think the projector was screwed up—perhaps out of proper focus—because the movie rarely looked right and there was too much judder. The old days were not better, at least when it comes to image quality, and it’s still surprisingly hard to beat Arri Alexas‘s image quality.

I didn’t realize until later than I should have how much the movie itself is a fantasy, perhaps Rick’s fantasy or perhaps Cliff’s. What seems to be peripheral to a given frame may be more important than what’s seemingly central. Despite some carping in the first paragraph, I laughed more than not, though about 40 minutes before the end, I was wondering where the end is. I think writers have learned things about storytelling over the last 50 years, and digital editing systems make it much easier to simply have as many cuts as are needed to assemble the best movie or TV show possible.

The more Rick and Cliff are together in scenes, the better the movie is. But the movie also wanders; there’s a comparison to be made with The Nice Guys, another movie set in a similar time period and another movie in love with LA—but The Nice Guys has a plot.

Most of the reviews have been okay, but this one is better. I think Cliff represents Hollywood’s underlying humanity and Rick, Hollywood’s underlying cruelty.

* Is car-free L.A. plausible now, though? The regional connector should be done in 2022, a Purple Line extension should be done in 2023, and the Crenshaw/LAX Line should be done in 2020. Electric vehicles should also make L.A. more livable, by reducing smog and pollution. To be sure, L.A. today is better than L.A. in 1970, but “better” is far from “optimal.”

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