Late December Links: Robertson Davies’ stock falls, science fiction, typing speed, Jane Austen meets pornography, censorship, and more

* Does Typing Speed Really Matter For Programmers? Answer: probably not, once you reach a relatively low level of speed. I suspect the same is true for writers: I tend to be more limited by my brain than my fingers.

* Steampunk and the origins of science fiction, which go in directions different than the ones you’re probably imagining.

* Anarcho-Monarchism, Tolkien and Dalí.

* A great comment on blogging:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Which am I?

* Possibly NSFW but hilarious: Porn and Penetration, an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

* Literary reputations, with Melville falling and Tolkien gaining. Sadly, Robertson Davies is “falling off a cliff,” which I find distressing because I think he might be the most underrated writer I know, and most people I’ve recommended The Deptford Trilogy to love it; they ask why he isn’t better known, but I have no answer I wish to share publicly.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar speciously asks of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, Why Must We Pretend It Is Not Strange When Adult Celebrities Date Underage Celebrities? There are a couple obvious answers:

1) Taylor Swift, at 20, is nowhere near underage; the fact that she “isn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol” (emphasis in original) says more about U.S. law than what it means to be an adult.

2) Most women appear to want to date men of higher status than themselves. If you’re a celebrity, the only way you can effectively do this is by dating another celebrity.

This assumes the post is serious, which it might not be, or that it’s not merely trolling, which it might be.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* Arizona State makes 30 Rock.

* Amazon’s Kindle censorship. This is a great danger, since we’re moving toward a world in which a handful of companies (Amazon and Apple, most probably) may effectively control the vast majority of electronic books.

(See too the Ars Technica take.)

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer. The real answer: there is always a shortage of smart, motivated people at the top of their field and a glut of people at the bottom of any field.

* Not Really ‘Made in China’: The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

Late December Links: Robertson Davies' stock falls, science fiction, typing speed, Jane Austen meets pornography, censorship, and more

* Does Typing Speed Really Matter For Programmers? Answer: probably not, once you reach a relatively low level of speed. I suspect the same is true for writers: I tend to be more limited by my brain than my fingers.

* Steampunk and the origins of science fiction, which go in directions different than the ones you’re probably imagining.

* Anarcho-Monarchism, Tolkien and Dalí.

* A great comment on blogging:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Which am I?

* Possibly NSFW but hilarious: Porn and Penetration, an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

* Literary reputations, with Melville falling and Tolkien gaining. Sadly, Robertson Davies is “falling off a cliff,” which I find distressing because I think he might be the most underrated writer I know, and most people I’ve recommended The Deptford Trilogy to love it; they ask why he isn’t better known, but I have no answer I wish to share publicly.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar speciously asks of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, Why Must We Pretend It Is Not Strange When Adult Celebrities Date Underage Celebrities? There are a couple obvious answers:

1) Taylor Swift, at 20, is nowhere near underage; the fact that she “isn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol” (emphasis in original) says more about U.S. law than what it means to be an adult.

2) Most women appear to want to date men of higher status than themselves. If you’re a celebrity, the only way you can effectively do this is by dating another celebrity.

This assumes the post is serious, which it might not be, or that it’s not merely trolling, which it might be.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* Arizona State makes 30 Rock.

* Amazon’s Kindle censorship. This is a great danger, since we’re moving toward a world in which a handful of companies (Amazon and Apple, most probably) may effectively control the vast majority of electronic books.

(See too the Ars Technica take.)

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer. The real answer: there is always a shortage of smart, motivated people at the top of their field and a glut of people at the bottom of any field.

* Not Really ‘Made in China’: The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

Conversations with Robertson Davies

I’m tempted to summarize Conversations with Robertson Davies, a collection of interviews with the great author, but I can’t, and even if I could I’d probably do better to give a few thoughts stemming from a comment Davies made about reading. As you can probably surmise, I like Davies’s work, so I find his comments without a fictional scrim interesting too. One exchange particularly resonates:

Robert Fulford: Books are things to be studied, judged rather than experienced. I think you once said that the heresy of the critic is that he is a judge rather than experiencer of literature.
Davies: Yes. […] As for my own books, I hope that the readers will have to use their heads and be collaborators, which is a thing I stressed in that earlier book. They should be collaborators in creating the work of art which is the book.

I tend toward judgement, and my chief criterion for greatness is met when a book causes me to spontaneously stop judging and start experiencing. To be fair, I can’t fully stop judging, but to the extent that my reading becomes more experience and less judgment I am inclined to like and love the book that induces this sensation. The best of Davies’s books—The Deptford Trilogy, The Cornish Trilogy, The Cunning Man—all accomplish this goal. Cryptonomicon and Straight Man and Lord of the Rings achieve the same effect. I wish I could fully explain how and why they do, but part of writing about books is writing about the inexplicable. Criticism is an effort to reveal more of the mystery that can’t ever be fully revealed.

To intersperse Elmore Leonard:

[Q:] There’s this presumption that a book is somehow a higher form of art, of a higher form of expression, than a movie. Do you agree?
[Leonard:] I don’t think the book is a higher form at all. Because most books are not very good. They’re a chore to read.

Occasionally a worthwhile book is also a chore, but only very seldom, and usually because I don’t understand it at first, as I didn’t Romeo and Juliet when reading it as a high school freshman. Recently I described The Bad Girl with language that brings to mind duty. I think Davies felt similar to Leonard regarding bad books, or even books that aren’t essential (essential meaning different things to different people, of course, which might make the debate more a semantic than one getting at underlying truth). Elsewhere in Conversations, Davies recommends reading fewer books but reading them with more depth and feeling.

I hope to read with more depth and feeling, and part of the reason I write is to find both. Paul Graham explains the process well:

Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.

Wow! I started the post writing about Robertson Davies, but along the way became more interested in the diversions than the original topic. And that is a good thing: one idea bumps into another, reminding me of something else, and off I go. I hope that is reading with feeling and intellect. The Elegant Variation, in discussing the maladies affecting book reporting, says “Too many reviews are dull, workmanlike book reports.” I agree, and think that many books are dull and workmanlike, so perhaps the reviews reflect them. That’s why I felt a sense of wonder at Davies’ books, as well as Conversations: they are not dull and workmanlike, and I hope my writing isn’t. After reading Mark Sarvas’s comments, I’ve tried harder not to write dull, workmanlike book reports. Is it working?

I hope so. Davies wrote many reviews of varying quality, but he was also a man who knew good work when he saw it. Conversations is filled with criticism (in the bad sense) of academic criticism (in the sense of commentary). I’ve heard James Wood (a TEV favorite) and others I know I’ve read but can’t think to cite at the moment say or write the same. So here’s to them, and to Davies, and to reading, and to experience.

Robertson Davies: Man of Myth

I’ve continued moving through the Davies oeuvre and even into an authorized biography called Robertson Davies: Man of Myth by Judith Skelton-Grant. It doesn’t appear to be available in paperback in the U.S., and I retrieved it from the stacks of the Seattle Central Library, which are too new to be properly dusty yet. The biography probably hadn’t been moved since it was first placed, and it will probably be years before someone moves it again.

Grant’s biography shares the strengths and weaknesses of most literary biographies in that the writer of the biography is not as captivating and imaginative as the work of the subject even as she helps illuminate the subject’s works. Admirable parts of Man of Myth are written in the plain style employed by Davies in fiction but put to nonfiction uses here. The biography started slowly due chiefly to Davies’ parents lack of color or interest except as they related to him and fueled the family drama in his novels. Their stories are only remarkable in that they somehow produced Robertson. Once he appears seriously on the scene the biography starts to canter at stories about his school days and run when discussing his novels.

Davies’ life provided important fuel and theme: “When suffering boredom from [Upper Canada College], Davies had thought desperately: ‘there’s got to be something better than this.’ He’d wished that reality were sharper, brighter, more intense emotionally, more splendid… at bottom he was sure that he was missing something; life must be more vivid than it seemed.” Many of us feel this way at times, I suppose, and I’m certainly one of them, but I also often think it when reading biographies—if only they could be brighter and more vivid. The biography isn’t as splendid or as emotionally deep as Davies’ novels, which he sees as describing his own spiritual and intellectual development better than a biography of the events of his life ever could. To Grant’s credit she makes the biography a study in the development of both, but even so it can only supplement the novels in a mean way and captures only a small part of the man.

Grant says: “Facts—even his own facts—do not come alive for him until they are transformed by imagination. Striking the balance, establishing a distanced context, checking for accuracy—such exercises hold little appeal to him.” In this paragraph Grant suggests that novels are Davies’ form of autobiography, and that one can track the most important part of his growth—his imagination—through reading them, rather than through the dry facts of his life. Davies’ does not rank among the debacherous and fascinating, as artists sometimes (but do not always) do.

As for Davies’ literal life, something better did come along in the form of fiction, but it only came along through work. The need to work at something as a way of creating identity and exploring the self is a constant theme in Davies’ novels and an implicit theme in Man of Myth. Sections of it also offer insight on Davies and his creative process in a way far deeper than the innumerable people inquiring about where authors “get” ideas, as though they can be picked up at the grocery store with milk and vegetables on the way home from work. Davies talks about the transformation process and the way unleavened fact holds little appeal to him. Yet the process itself I do not describe here, and Davies does not or cannot fully describe because there is a mythological element to it. Unlike, say, building a house, the process of a novel cannot be fully described, and so any reader looking for such a thing will be disappointed, just as those questioners at author events are.


I find writing about Davies difficult because his novels feel like they resist literary inquiry, which seems so banal and pale next to the stories. This may be in part by design; Davies was an academic at Massey college for many years, and “he raised a few hackles in advocating that people should read less, that they should read feelingly rather than critically, and that they should read only what they like.” In other words, he was an academic for a time but also a rogue or outsider, and wrote, whether consciously or not, in a style that makes him unpalatable to contemporary literary criticism. Maybe this is part of the reason he is not better known in the United States, where I have never heard of him in classes or elsewhere. He also links himself to the past in a way likely to make modern academics uncomfortable:

“Painting, fiction, and faking,” a lecture given in 1984, describes how Davies believes the modern artist has a problem because the artists “have lost access to an important resource… the shared myth and religion whose wisdom has captured imaginations and commanded belief across the western world from the time of the ancient Greeks until the present century. The stories of the classical and Judaeo-Christian heritage gave earlier artists a vocabulary that their viewers understood, in which they could frame their most profound insights. Lacking this shared language, modern artists paint the things that arise from their unconscious in a multitude of private forms. In such circumstances it is easy for an artists to fake inspiration, while the viewers, confronted with this multiplicity of new symbols and forms, are faced with extraordinary challenge.”

The process is explicit in The Lyre of Orpheus and What’s Bred in the Bone, two books in which artists make what seems new old, in a manner of copying that is not stealing but rather working within a style of old masters. They are clearly explanations of Davies’ own methods, and his work is no doubt rich in commentary about itself that I was unaware of prior to reading Man of Myth. For that reason the biography is worthwhile, even if parts of it lag and Davies’ novels are of more interest in learning about his life and art than what he did outside of writing.

Life: What is happiness? edition

“I do not promise happiness, and I don’t know what it is. You New World people are, what is the word, hipped on the idea of happiness, as if it were a constant and measurable thing, and settled and excused everything. If it is anything at all it is a by-product of other conditions of life, and some people whose lives do not appear to be at all enviable, or indeed admirable, are happy. Forget your happiness.”

—Robertson Davies, The Manticore

Life: Egotism and the powerful sense of self consciousness generates

An egotist is a self-absorbed creature, delighted with himself and ready to tell the world about his enthralling love affair. But an egoist, like Sir John, is a much more serious being, who makes himself, his instincts, his yearnings, and tastes the touchstone of every experience. The world, truly, is his creation. Outwardly he may be courteous, modest, and charming—and certainly when you knew him Sir John was all of these—but beneath the velvet is the steel ; if anything comes along that will not yield to the steel, the steel will retreat from it and ignore its existence. The egotist is all surface; underneath is a pulpy mess and a lot of self-doubt. But the egoist may be yielding and even deferential in things he doesn’t consider important; in anything that touches his core he is remorseless.

—Robertson Davies, The Deptford Trilogy. Does this sound like anyone you know?

The whole Deptford Trilogy is weird but marvelous. It’s the sort of book I shouldn’t like yet reread periodically. It’s utterly against the feeling of most contemporary fiction or even the sort of fiction that was commonly written when it was published yet works. Critics don’t know what to do with it because it’s very good without being flashy, or without tying into many common critical hobbyhorses. It’s the sort of book I’m always hoping someone will recommend to me.

On the “manosphere” or “Red Pill”

Someone wrote:

I’m a reader of your blog and enjoy your thoughts on a wide variety of things. I’ve gone in the deep end regarding the Red Pill, I just don’t know what to believe and I’m seriously doubting myself at this moment. I picked up a book called The Rational Male by Rollo Tomassi and while it has good stuff in it, I can’t shake the feeling that it treats women like objects and whores ready to move on to the next guy. My gut tells me that isn’t the case but I could be totally wrong. I guess I’m looking for a deep connection with another woman and in that denial phase with all this information. I was inspired by your articles “Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong,” thought you could have some answers. I’m lost and it all seems so insane, if this stuff is true.

First, I wrote about some of the issues with the communities formed by guys who lose or aren’t succeeding with women in “The appeal of ‘pickup’ or ‘game’ or ‘The Redpill’ is a failure of education and socialization” and Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser.

Second, men in the communities you’re referencing ends up in them because they’ve failed in sense. I am not the first to observe that the hardest core feminists and hardest core Red Pillers are more alike in tone and stridency than they’re like normal people who are curious.

Some readers and writers are mostly intellectually interested in the matters discussed by the communities. In many domains, it’s a bad idea to take advice without knowing something of the person giving the advice, what their interests are, so and forth. Taking advice from a pseudonymous stranger on the Internet who knows nothing of you and your life, while you know nothing or them or there life, is… unwise. As Gildor says in The Fellowship of the Ring:

” ‘… The choice is yours: to go or wait.’ [Gildor said.]
‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo, ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’
‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor. ‘Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; how should I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.’ “

Gildor’s reluctance is the reluctance of wisdom.

Be wary of taking advice from anonymous strangers on the Internet with no stake in the outcome of the event itself (this includes taking advice from me, though I do at least use my real name). Some things in The Red Pill and the constellation of related sites are interesting and possibly true, but those things are dwarfed by nonsense, so relying on it for life guidance is at best perilous. What’s the incentive for posting there?

Online communities adversely select for pontificators, because doers are doing. I read the Rollo Tomassi book, The Rational Male, and it’s interesting in places. But it’s also badly written, badly edited, and badly laid out (the version I read suffered from all three). There’s a better book lurking in the book I read. Writing a good book, from the level of the individual word to the level of the book as a whole, is hard—which is why few people do it. Writing a good book is poorly remunerated relative to other activities that take similar time and dedication. On the whole, the number of people with the skills and grit necessary to learn to write a good book are better financially served doing other things. Robertson Davies famously said that the only reason to write a novel is because you feel like you must, or go mad, or die. Few writers have that drive. Maybe Tomassi will. Or maybe he’ll remain overly dogmatic.

Avoid dogma.

Finally, the people who really matter are the artists and the movers. Be one or the other or both. Talk to real people in real life. Get off the computer. The people on Reddit and Twitter and whatever succeeds those two have no sense of art or beauty. The really important things aren’t happening there: they’re happening in the actual world. Diversity exists and matters—not in the politically correct sense of the term “diversity,” but the real sense. Ideas do matter, but they matter most in art and science. If you aren’t taking an idea and spinning it into art, or science, or technology, or business, the idea doesn’t matter. How many angels dance on the head of a pin? For centuries theologians cared. No one does today. Choose what matters: there is some truth in the stuff you’re reading, but the whole story is bigger and broader than any of the reducers to celestial mechanics can imagine.

The Anthropology of Childhood and the common rejoinder to your friends’s parenting delusions

The only baby book you’ll ever need” has been widely shared for good reason, and as of this writing I’m about 15% through The Anthropology of Childhood but know it’s going to become the default gift to reproducing friends. Something about American culture seems to bring out neuroticism in people doing what billions of others have done before them; see also Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Expensive, large-scale programs like New York’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) or the national Early Head Start (EHS) get launched under the assumption that more schooling, earlier, is better for children, it is not obvious that that is true: “While schooling for us may begin with the fetus (if you can believe the hype about expectant mothers listening to Mozart), most societies don’t see children as readily teachable until their cognitive and linguistic skills have mature. This change usually occurs during the fifth to seventh year [. . .]” (16).

anthropology_of_childhoodInsights occur at the national and personal level. I for example was a mostly unhappy child and adolescent, not I think due to my parents or circumstances or whatever but due to inner disposition, and I interestingly became happier when I realized that we’ve not evolved to be happy: we’ve evolved to survive and reproduce. I wish someone had pointed that out earlier. Happiness may or may not be a byproduct and our default “happiness point” probably varies substantially by individual. Furthermore, in an evolutionary sense happiness may be much more contingent than it is widely considered to be in contemporary America: “In the decision to create a child – whether in an Ethiopian village or elsewhere – their wellbeing and happiness is rarely the issue” (26). And farmer societies tend to take small children and put them to work, while forager societies tend to take steps to limit the number of total children had because children take much longer to become economically viable.

To return to my own experience, even as a child I found other children brutal and stupid. Yet almost no one speaks to this idea. Lancy notes that “Our own society views children as precious, innocent, and preternaturally cute cherubs. However, for much of human history, children have been seen as anything but cherubic.” That was my intuition and still is to some extent; few others, apart from Camille Paglia and Robertson Davies have made this point. It may be wrong but it’s barely part of the debate. Many cultures consider babies and small children “sub-human” (16). To be clear, I’m not arguing that American society should do so, but I am arguing that we should know more about our species’s own history and the contingency of our own widespread practices and assumptions.

This topic may, however, be especially resistant to inquiry; childhood and parenting may be particularly fraught because almost everyone has opinions on them (and every adult has been a child) but few of us try to figure out what the research says. The Anthropology of Childhood is a $40 academic book and thus may not be a particularly accessibly way of entering the mainstream, but it should be better known.

It is the sort of book that will repay rereading many times over; this post was meant to be a link, but the writing kept pouring forth until it was a post. Lancy writes that the book began as a short article that was 500 words over his journal’s limit, and he just kept going. It could be read in conjunction with Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood successfully.

Zero to One — Peter Thiel and Blake Masters

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is out and you, like everyone, should read it; the book is of course about startups but its deeper themes are philosophical in nature: how we should think about and relate to the world. The writing is elegant and clear without having a distinctive style that can be easily labeled by calling attention to itself. It is Robertson Davies’s plain style, used well here.

Those who have already read Blake Masters’s CS 183 classnotes—I have—may be disappointed, since they form the core of the book. Nonetheless those notes have been cleaned up, organized, and updated with more recent examples. The thrust Zero to One is also beautiful and optimistic: the future is important, it can be shaped and improved, and individual choices matter. In believing those three things, and especially the second two, Thiel and Masters are swimming upstream against much of contemporary culture.

zero to oneOthers can no doubt comment on the technical aspects of the book, but I will note that much of what Thiel and Masters write sounds like an artists’ manifesto: “The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.” I very rarely read about business as “strange,” and yet the word is apt: all things are strange before they become domesticated by time and ubiquity. Artists usually focus directly on creating new things, but Zero to One describes “how to build companies that create new things.” More people extend the reach of what a single individual can do, but though Thiel has “noticed many patterns [. . .] this book offers no formula for success.” There is none, because innovation is by definition strange and new. He is trying to “help my students see beyond the tracks laid down by academic specialties to the broader future that is theirs to create.”

Academia has many problems and he notices them; I don’t think he uses this as a specific example, but one issue is treating school like a job or primary occupation. It shouldn’t in most cases be. It should be a day job that enables and ideally complements the other things one does. Teachers and professors rarely inculcate this attitude, however, because they themselves have been selected by the school system and have bought into its prejudices and cultures. Charter schools are important for many reasons, one being that they give an opportunity to create new schooling cultures. Montessori is specifically attempting to do that, and it is striking how many successful tech guys went through Montessori schools.

They note that “The business version of our contrarian question is: what valuable company is nobody building?” This question is harder than it looks” (23). The novelists’ version is, “What valuable novel is nobody writing?” One challenge, of course, is that different people have different values for “valuable:” I find most “thrillers” to be boring and un-thrilling, and most thriller readers probably find literary fiction the same.

This could be a description of most narrative fiction: “Our ancestors lived in static, zero-sum societies where success meant seizing things from others. They created new sources of wealth only rarely, and in the long run they could never create enough to save the average person from an extremely hard life.” Romance, the driver of so much fiction, is usually zero-sum: if the protagonist wins the guy or girl, no one else can; if the rival wins the guy or girl, no one else can, while in the real world there are a de facto infinite number of good guys or girls, provided the protagonist—that is, you—are willing to find and attract them. There are an infinite number of jobs, too, and one person getting a job doesn’t prevent someone else from getting another, or making another. Much narrative fiction taps into the zero-sum dynamic. Maybe it shouldn’t, or should more often explicitly question that dynamic.

Thiel and Masters are writing about everything, though they write specifically about startups. They discuss the nature of mass delusion (“Usually, it’s considered weird to be a 40-year-old graduate student. Usually, it’s considered insane to start a half-dozen companies at once. But int he late ’90s, people could believe that this was a winning combination”) and the psychology of founders (“Of the six people who started PayPal, four had built bombs in high school” and “We alternately worship and despise technology founders just as we do celebrities”); there is a hint of a Paglian reading of myth here, and such readings are too rare in a de-mythologized, de-ritualized society. There is more of the journey of the mythic hero in tech startups than is commonly supposed.

Psychology and cultural criticism have a long border; Thiel and Masters write that “competition is an ideology—the ideology—that pervades our society and distorts our thinking” (35). The opposite of competition, which may be something like cooperation or stasis, could be even worse: static societies and companies do not appear to do well or even exist in a world of competitive societies. But I don’t think Thiel and Masters are going in this direction: they are rather reminding us that it is useful to remember that we don’t live in a zero-sum world, largely because of technology and specialization. Most of human existence probably was zero sum, however, and that may explain some psychological quirks that aren’t terribly adaptive in contemporary information and industrial societies.

Competitive ideology has another problem too: it encourages us to compete with everyone, all the time. Picking good competitors is probably almost as important as picking good friends. Most competitive arenas are pointless. People often fight for control, and against other people like them:

Consider the opening line from Romeo and Juliet: “Two houses, both alike in dignity.” The two houses are alike, yet they hate each other. They grow even more similar as the feud escalates. Eventually, they lose sight of why they started fighting in the first place.

I’ve noticed this continually among professors, often specialists in the same area, who are from the outside identical and yet bash each other over minor differences. People more generally seem to seek fights for the sake of fighting, and without realizing that direct fighting is usually a terrible way to change minds—as has been known for decades. It’s often better to not respond to critics and instead to make something new. As Thiel and Masters write: “Rivalry causes us to overemphasize old opportunities and slavishly copy what has worked in the past.” One can see this at an individual level or even a national level: think of the petro-states that exist as they do primarily because they can sell oil to innovation states.

I mentioned psychology already; here is another passage on that theme that also applies to artists, who are often skilled at ignoring or repudiating group beliefs / delusions:

The hazards of imitative competition may partially explain why individuals with an Asperger’s-like social ineptitude seem to be at an advantage in Silicon Valley today. If you’re less sensitive to social cues, you’re less likely to do the same thing as everyone else around you. If you’re interested in making things or programming computers, you’ll be less afraid to pursue those activities single-mindedly and thereby become incredibly good at them. Then when you apply your skills, you’re a little less likely than others to give up your own convictions: this can save you from getting caught up in crowds competing for obvious prizes.

“Making things:” properly read, Zero to One is a recipe book for makers across disciplines. And “getting caught up in crowds competing for obvious prizes:” I remember talking about college sexual adventures with a friend who went to an Ivy-League school and who lamented that so many of the girls were, in his view though not in his words, neurotic achievement-obsessed basket cases. Maybe he misunderstood what those girls were seeking, but maybe he chose the wrong environment for that part of life.

Making things happens at large and small scales. Though we are still somewhat good at making things happen at small scales—as, say, the iPhone shows, or many Kickstarter projects show—we have become less ambitious and too obsessed with vetoes on large projects. Launching the Innovation Renaissance discusses this; so too does Thiel, in a cultural-political context: In the 1950s, people welcome big plans and asked whether they would work. Today, a grant plan coming from a schoolteacher would be dismissed as crankery, and a long-range vision coming from anyone more powerful would be derided as hubris.” We are collectively unable to even muster the political will to build denser cities and reasonable public transportation systems, let alone next-generation nuclear plants and systems for getting cheaply into space. This is a dark problem too rarely discussed by anyone.

It is also a tremendous and tremendously dangerous problem: “Without new technology to relieve competitive pressures, stagnation is likely to erupt into conflict. In case of conflict on a global scale, stagnation collapses into extinction.” There is a direct, underappreciated link between novelty, innovation, and survival. Artist and scientists are arguably at the forefront of ideas, though not always good ideas. Still, there is a brilliant statement at the end, which I’ve read more often in books targeted at novelists:

Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.

This is not an ordinary book about “business.” It is a book about everything, as the best books always are.

Almost every human endeavor is also about relationships, whether we want it to be or not:

The lawyers I worked with ran a valuable business, and they were impressive individuals one by one. But the relationships between them were oddly thin. They spent all day together, but few of them seemed to have much to say to each other outside the office. Why work with a group of people who don’t even like each other? Many seem to think it’s a sacrifice necessary for making money. But taking a merely professional view of the workplace, in which free agents check in and out on a transactional basis, is worse than cold: it’s not even rational. Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long-term future together. If you can’t count durable relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well—even in purely financial terms.

This is again a good description of academia, and it’s also a restatement of the Coase theorem, which I wrote about in similar terms at the link. In most life domains a purely transactional model makes everyone poorer in the ways that count.

Thiel and Masters note that in school “Students who don’t learn best by sitting still at a desk are made to feel somehow inferior, while children who end up defining their identities in terms of this weirdly contrived academic parallel reality.” If you’re awake and paying attention to the school system, it’s hard not to notice its many bizarre perversities—and its problems harm not only the low achieving students but also the high achieving students. Although I spent years being a dumbass, I mostly got tracked to the high-achieving parts of school, and as an adult discussions with others who were stuck on the high-achieving track involve the ways the value system of that track warps those on it. But no one or almost no one tells students that at the time, and parents, teachers, and administrators are in on the conspiracy. Maybe that’s why so many Silicon Valley bigwigs want their kids in Montessori or similar schools.

Moreover, the prestige / rivalry system reinforces a zero-sum mindset, at least for those who buy in, as Thiel did (and only barley escaped):

Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking. For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

I wonder if Thiel and Masters have read Excellent Sheep yet. Deresiewicz has similarly scalding views, though he comes from a different vantage point and throws some pointless, ill-formed bombs at startup culture. Thiel and Masters, however, ask the deep questions, and give major structural advice that one rarely hears from professors: “You should focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future.” I have focused relentlessly on writing better novels, but so far it has not proven valuable in a financial sense. If it weren’t for other ways of monetizing my skills, I would be doing something else, and probably not even writing this post.

Let me return, for a moment, to relationships, since your friends and surroundings count, as Tolkien knew and many others know: “it’s hard to develop new things in big organizations, and it’s even harder to do it by yourself. Bureaucratic hierarchies move slowly, and entrenched interests shy away from risks.” This is another, accurate, critique of academia, and a reminder to attend to our environment. Thiel does say that “a lone genius might create a classic work of art or literature, but he could never create an entire industry.” Even the lone-genius model appears less true than is often imagined: reaching into the biographies of famous artists tends to reveal an ecosystem of friends, rivals, mentors, and helpers. Hemingway famously derided creative writing classes, but he spent much of his early working life showing drafts of his work to Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. Few of us succeed fully in art or business without helpers along the way: hence, perhaps, the Joseph Campbell model that calls for such helpers in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Even in myth the hero does not succeed alone: Frodo and Aragorn need Gandalf. Luke Skywalker needs Han and Obi-Wan. In His Dark Materials Lyra finds an array of helpers.

There are sections I think wrong, like the one on page 78 when Thiel and Masters criticize contemporary Silicon Valley buzzwords, which may reflect generations of learning about startups and the startup environment. Thiel and Masters say that “Secrets about people are relatively underappreciated,” while the opposite is true: we call secrets about people “gossip,” and most narrative art is relentlessly focused on personality, competitive, and “secrets” about people that almost always turn out to be about sex, money, and death. The supposed “secrets” that people hold tend to be more uniform than not. That pattern has persisted in Western art for millennia: the ultimate “secret” at the heart of Oedipus the King (first written circa 400 BC) and Game of Thrones is the same. The only human secret that matters is that one shouldn’t be surprised by human secrets.

These are quibbles about an otherwise great book. Great books do not have to be long. This one isn’t. They have to pack a lot of ideas in the space they h ave. This one does.

To reiterate the first paragraph of this post, you need to read this book. The less you think you need to read it, the more you do. It is in some ways similar to Rework, another anti-conventional-business business book written by nerds. Zero to One is a tremendously important book; although I admire and appreciate trivial books, particularly because most books including my own are, find one that is important—which does not mean “pompous” or “serious”—matters. You should read it. Your friends should read it. Its ideas should be common currency, readily known whether accepted or rejected. It is possible that the future of the world depends on Zero to One finding the right person at the right time, which is true of few other books.

The physical book is itself nicely made; though the binding appears to be glue rather than thread, the paper quality is high, and much higher than most books in its class and most contemporary books, period. The physical book reflects their emphasis on long-term thinking, as too few physical books do. One can read publishers’s opinions on their own works in the ways they choose to manufacture books. Those opinions do not appear to be high. If publishers have a low opinion of their own products, what should investors think?


Here is a good Fortune profile of Thiel. And

Thinking about the process of being an artist and a writer: Lessons from David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses

David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity is the rare academic book that’s also useful for artists—most academic books are as useful for artists as syphilis is for prostitutes (the metaphor is intentionally gross, as it’s designed to express the artist’s reaction to turgid academic books).* This long quote encapsulates Galenson’s main point:

There have been two very different types of artist in the modern era. These two types are distinguished not by their importance, for both are prominently represented among the greatest artists of the era. They are distinguished instead by the methods by which they arrive at their major contributions. In each case their method results from a specific conception of artistic goals, and each method is associated with specific practices in creating art. I call one of these methods aesthetically motivated experimentation, and the other conceptual execution.

Artists who have produced experimental innovations have been motivated by aesthetic criteria: they have aimed at presenting visual perceptions. Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goals.

In contrast, artists who have made conceptual innovations have been motivated by the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions. Their goals for a particular work can usually be stated precisely, before its production, either as a desired image or as a desired process for the work’s execution. Conceptual artists consequently often make detailed preparatory sketches or plans for their paintings. Their execution of their painting is often systematic, since they may think of it as primarily making a preconceived image, and often simply a process of transferring an image they have already created from one surface to another. Conceptual innovators appear suddenly, as a new idea immediately produces a result quite different not only from other artists’ work, but also from the artist’s own previous work. Because it is the idea that is the contribution, conceptual innovations can usually be implemented immediately and completely, and therefore are often embodied in individual breakthrough works that become recognized as the first statement of the innovation.

Malcolm Gladwell steals much of Galenson’s work for his article “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?” I say “steals” because Gladwell’s treatment doesn’t go very far beyond Galenson’s. That might be overwrought, but I still find it mostly true. Gladwell, however, does cite Galenson, which is how I found Old Masters.

I tend more towards the experimental mode: I rarely feel that I’ve succeeded, per se, although I am committed to finishing works—largely because I’ve discovered that finishing is essential to any artist, and one way to separate posers, of whom there are many, from people with real potential is to see if they have something they can show: a story, a picture, a song, whatever—no matter how bad. Then see if they produce something else. I also often repeat themes about growing up, the possibility of real friendship (especially between men and women), the power and estrangement of metaphor, and how to have an artistic temperament that nonetheless is rigorous and interested in understanding the world. I think so, anyway, although it’s naturally hard to judge one’s own works: perhaps someone else would derive different ideas.

I do, however, “tend to make specific preparatory sketches or plans” when I write, more so than I used to, but I’m not bound by them and those plans tend to be discarded about midway through a novel. Some writers apparently make very elaborate plans that they then simply execute, and I am not one, and I do feel very much like I am in “a process of searching” and of discovery, with the discovery being quite pleasurable. In most of my novels, I want to tell a story—I am not as interested in being able to express or communicate “specific ideas or emotions.” Emotions are the reader’s responsibility. Most of the time I start with characters and/or situations and want to see what might happen when those characters or situations develop. Writers who seem highly conceptual and not very interested in narrative, like Joyce, Pynchon, Morrison, and DeLillo are in turn not very interesting to me; they seem bloodless and dull, whatever their virtuosity with language. Unfortunately, they also occupy the academic high ground at the moment, perhaps because their methods and output lend themselves more easily to abstruse literary articles.

Writers like Robertson Davies, Elmore Leonard, (parts of) Tom Wolfe, and (parts of) Francine Prose are of much more interest. Someone like Philip Roth falls in the middle, but to me many of his novels become dull when their characters get bogged down in family or identity or political dilemmas (think of Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater). In addition, there are very few writers whose entire oeuvres I like (Davies is an exception); most of the time I like particular books, or one or two books. Umberto Eco’s novels The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum have not been matched, not even close, by anything else he’s done; ditto for Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, or Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Empire Falls. Martin Amis seems to me to be at the peak of his powers with Money, and nothing else he’s written that I’ve read has the same appeal.

Galenson also sees conceptual innovators as tending to peak when they’re younger. I wonder if this is also related to something Doris Lessing discussed in her Nobel Lecture:

Let us now jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: “Is she good-looking?” If this is a man: “Charismatic? Handsome?” We joke, but it is not a joke.

This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of hype begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening. He, she, is flattered, pleased. But ask in a year’s time what he or she is thinking: “This is the worst thing that could have happened to me.”

Some much-publicised new writers haven’t written again, or haven’t written what they wanted to, meant to. And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears: “Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold on to it, don’t let it go.”

Perhaps this happens chiefly because the feted young writers are conceptual innovators who have run out of concepts they wish to explore. If I have eventual fame and critical praise—not likely, and not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, but the idea arose in the course of writing this—I don’t think it would affect me very much. I would still probably spend a lot of time reading and writing, and going running, and so on. I don’t think I’d want to buy a boat, or believe the flattering lies I’d sometimes hear, or perceive myself as literature’s New Jesus.

It’s also possible that artistic innovators are becoming relatively older than they once were, thanks to increases in the artistic search space. Benjamin Jones sees this happening in scientific and technical leaders in “Age and Great Invention:”

Great achievements in knowledge are produced by older innovators today than they were a century ago. Using data on Nobel Prize winners and great inventors, I find that the mean age at which noted innovations are produced has increased by 6 years over the 20th Century. I estimate shifts in life-cycle productivity and show that innovators have become especially unproductive at younger ages. Meanwhile, the later start to the career is not compensated for by increasing productivity beyond early middle age.

It’s also not clear or obvious to me about the extent to which cultures and societies affect artistic and technical innovations. I do suspect the Internet allows these to spread more rapidly, but beyond that somewhat obvious point I don’t have any other useful, or possibly useful, observations. There’s a strong artistic culture of borrowing and adapting ideas that pays off, especially for Galenson’s conceptual innovators, and it may also pay off for his experimental innovators, who can more easily access works and ideas to react against in creating their own works. It does seem like artists are very good at “questioning, experimenting, observing, associating and networking,” to use Steve Lohr’s phrase, with that last one being associated with broader fame and the dissemination of one’s ideas to others. Galeson even mentions this:

Rapid borrowing and utilization of new artistic devices, across ever wider geographic areas, has become increasingly common in recent decades, in which conceptual approaches to art have predominated. One indication of this progressive globalization of modern art is that art historians are finding that they are no longer able to divide their subject as neatly along geographic lines as in the past.

But I suspect I don’t like conceptual visual art very much: most of it looks facile and superficial to me—exactly the claims that Galenson said tend to be made against such art. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was particularly disappointing: a lot of supposed artists there were trying to be sexually shocking, but they still have nothing on what one can find online. A lot of their stuff also simply seemed random. An iMac or a C-class never seem random. Perhaps modern artists only have to please a small coterie of art insiders, while industrial designers have to please people who want to see and use beautiful, not random.

Another note on art and age: Many people who are programmers / hackers make their greatest technical contributions when they’re young—think of Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds (who created the operating system that bears his name in 1991, while he was a 22-year-old student), Mark Zuckerberg, or the general cult of the young hacker genius. This might be because computer programming is a relatively young field, and it’s still relatively easy for people without a lot of formal training to make major contributions to it at an early age. There are also other effects related to Moore’s Law, the Internet, and so on, but I still find the young age of many major contributors intriguing. It’s possible that people in their 40s or older have made major contributions that I’m simply not aware of, and that the press has an obsession with youth that means I’m drawing on unrepresentative sample because the examples I can come up with are only the salient ones.

Galenson shouldn’t be considered the final word in artistic methods or outcomes, and he knows that his binary is not absolute (“it may be useful to consider the experimental-conceptual distinction not simply as a binary categorization, but rather as a quantitative difference. In this view there is a continuum, with extreme practitioners of either type at the far ends, and moderate practitioners of the two categories arrayed along the intermediate positions of the scale”). Nonetheless, Galenson offers a useful framework for considering how different people with different sorts of artistic temperaments tend to work. I would also add that he can only categorize artists who have actually finished work. Those who start many works and finish none presumably never achieve the fame that would be necessary for him to discuss.

Many artists probably don’t need or want a meta-awareness of their processes. Still, I don’t think anyone who is any kind of artist fails to think at all about how they do what they do, or how their processes might affect their outcomes. Some, however, publicly say that they just follow their feelings, or that they go into a kind of trance. When artists say things like that, they’re probably being partially truthful, but they could start asking: where do feelings come from, and how do I translate feelings that begin as chemicals or electrical impulses in the brain to colors or words? What’s the nature of the artistic trance? But they don’t ask those questions, or, if they do, they don’t share the answer publicly. That’s okay, but it strikes me as deliberate mystification (they’d probably see my relatively high level of awareness as false, as a set of intellectual pretenses masquerading as method).

Nor is one kind of artist necessarily better than the other: notice that I have said I have tendencies towards being experimental more than conceptual, but that doesn’t mean I would denigrate conceptual artists.

Other interesting moments from Old Masters:

“[A]rtistic innovations are not made by isolated geniuses, but are usually based on the lessons of teachers and the collaboration of colleagues.”

“What appears to be necessary for radical conceptual innovation is not youth, but an absence of acquired habits of thought that inhibit sudden departures from existing conventions.”

“Experimental movie directors typically stress the importance of telling a story, with a clear narrative. They generally consider visual images the most important element of a movie, with the script and sound track used to support the images. Many experimental directors specifically state that their primary goal is to entertain the audience, and they often take commercial success to be a sign of their achievement of that goal. Experimental directors typically aim to make the technical aspects of their movies unobtrusive, for they usually believe that the purpose of technique is to create an illusion of reality.”


* Galenson also wrote Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art, which might be interesting to visual artists; I haven’t read it, because I don’t find paintings and other non-cinematic forms of visual art compelling for consumption, let alone production.

%d bloggers like this: