Links: Authoritarianism, how we got to now, NIMBYs, paper, and more!

* “Can it Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America.” In 2015 I would’ve said it’s very unlikely; today, however, I’ve been proven wrong and have to think it’s very possible. One hopes for serious corrections in 2018 and 2020 but there are no guarantees, and assaults on the right to vote are especially worrisome.

* Why everything might have taken so long.

* “Of Course They Hated Her: The Uncomfortable Honesty of Mary McCarthy.” She is still startlingly honest today, and for that reason I think she will never be really popular—but The Group holds up well, while The Groves of Academe is boring and has been superseded by novels like Straight Man or Blue Angel.

* “How ‘Not in My Backyard’ Became ‘Not in My Neighborhood.’” Or, stated differently, why so many cities are now absurdly, disproportionately expensive.

* “American reams: why a ‘paperless world’ still hasn’t happened.” I think the answer is simple: paper solves a set of fundamental and important problems, and many of its drawbacks are also its advantages.

* Is Trump making Bush’s mistake in North Korea? Maybe.

* “Jordan B Peterson, Critical Theory, and the New Bourgeoisie.” If you hear someone say “Critical theory” uncritically, you are likely be slathered in intellectual bullshit.

* “Management and the wealth of nations.” I’ve had only limited experience in this domain but it’s amazingly hard to do well.

* “Let’s Ban Porn.” Not my view but an interesting take and one that one rarely sees.

* “I’m no longer advocating for clean energy; here’s why.” Important though also depressing.

* “American Fertility Is Falling Short of What Women Want.” News rarely heard.

* Students Tweet Mass Shootings Now. Wow. The Onion posts the same story, over and over again: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” By the way, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led efforts to filibuster gun safety legislation.

Links: Jordan B. Peterson, the tyranny of language, what happened to blogs?, distractions, and more!

* “How ‘Cheap Sex’ Is Changing Our Lives – and Our Politics.” But is sex cheap for everyone? I don’t think so, and that is why an essay like “Radicalizing the Romanceless” is so powerful: it describes the people truly forgotten by our society, who aren’t the people PC writers usually claim are forgotten or invisible.

* “What’s so dangerous about Jordan Peterson?” An excellent piece.

* “Tinder and the Tyranny of Language.” Goes well with the first link.

* Joel Spolsky: “Birdcage liners.” Joel is back on his blog! Finally.

* NYC finally orders more subway cars.

* “Babe Turns a Movement Into a Racket.” There are often adults in the room for a reason. Related to the above: “‘MeToo’ and the Taboo Topic of Nature.” I think the taboo topic of nature in certain intellectual precincts will, in the future, be seen as one of the stranger facets of our time.

* The only 7–8 minutes a day you need to master to be truly productive and also “Why the worst distractions are the ones we love.”

* “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track.” File under, “Things that seem obvious yet get no attention.”

* “Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism,” which I find very funny and a few of you will too.

* Ten years of Instapaper, which I use almost every day.

* The startups attempting to disrupt education. One can hope.

Briefly noted: Nexus – Ramez Naam

Read Nexus for the plot rather than the sentences; I’m looking for an evocative sentence to quote by way of example and not finding any, while banal sentences are everywhere. In this world, Nexus is a drug or treatment or process (the “right” word doesn’t exist) can link people’s minds directly together, allowing people to experience what another person experiences—or to invade and control another person’s mind. The protagonist is a grad student who figures out the next technical step in the Nexus process.

One could say that the Nexus drug / treatment will radically increase empathy, with unexpected or unforeseen results. In-group empathy seems to have been important to the evolution of human cooperation, so artificially further increasing empathy could have unpredictable outcomes, just like no one foresaw Facebook as being a central part of the Internet experience for most people. Making empathy radically common could decrease some kinds of violence. But it can also leave people susceptible to predation. But as one character observes, “If Nexus 5 ever gets out, it’ll spread like wildfire. Permanent integration means a user only ever needs to procure a single dose for a lifetime effect. You can’t fight that on the supply side.” He’s right about the supply side, as we’ve seen from the supposed “war on drugs,” and he’s right that people will likely want a drug that leads to unbelievable euphoria, sex, and knowledge—but note too that the character resorts to cliché: “it’ll spread like wildfire.” Do things spread in some other fashion? Can we fine something better here?


Kim and William furiously hit keys [. . .]

Sam took her time in replying. “I’m human, Kade”.

Does a person take time “in replying” or “to reply?” And is just saying “paused” easier? These kinds of language infelicities can be called minor but when they recur throughout the novel they become major.

Still, properly read, Nexus may be about the dangers of dual-use technology: “They’d built Nexus OS to give people new freedoms, new ways to connect, new ways to learn. Not to use it as a tool for control or assassination.” The Internet was arguably invented in part for new ways to connect and learn, and now it’s used for virtue signaling, character assassination, and petty rivalry blown up to the world stage. Things have not gone as I once imagined they would. I used to be an Internet utopian. No more. Yet maybe Nexus would be different, though Nexus also raises the essential philosophical question: “What is real?” If another person can reach into your mind and rearrange it, what stops them from planting whatever memories or preferences they want? What, in this scenario, makes an individual an individual? “Nothing” seems to be the answer to that last question.

In Nexus, as you can likely tell from what I’ve written so far, the ideas seem more important than the words expressing them, which may say something about the underlying work. The book seems destined for TV, where the quality of its sentences won’t matter. I’m not unhappy to have read the book, but if you’ve not read Blindsight and like SF, start there. Still, I’ll read the next Naam novel after the Nexus trilogy.

“Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?”

The good guy/bad guy myth: Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?” is one of the most interesting essays on narrative and fiction I’ve ever read, and while I, like most of you, am familiar with the tendency of good guys and bad guys in fiction, I wasn’t cognizant of the way pure good and pure evil as fundamental characterizations only really proliferated around 1700.

In other words, I didn’t notice the narrative water in which I swim. Yet now I can’t stop thinking about a lot of narrative in the terms described.

A while ago, I read most of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and found it boring, perhaps in part because the characters didn’t seem to stand for anything beyond themselves, and they didn’t seem to want anything greater than themselves in any given moment. Yet for most of human civilization, that kind of story may have been more common than many modern stories.

Still, I wonder if we should be even more skeptical of good versus evil stories than I would’ve thought we should be prior to reading this essay.


“Increase Citizen Access to Objective Information in Jordan”

Today’s Federal Register has an unintentionally funny program from the Department of State: “Increase Citizen Access to Objective Information in Jordan.” Usually this is the sort of program I’d ignore, but I immediately thought: “I’d like to increase citizen access to objective information in the United States.”

(Although, strictly speaking, the access is out there—but we simply choose to ignore it.)

Links: Reading books versus “social media,” where things go, honesty, drinking like the Romans, and more!

* “In the time you spend on social media each year, you could read 200 books.”

* “Why Japan Wants Your ‘Junk.'” They actually want to set up a recycling superpower. Also: ““Who Killed Mr. Fixit, and How to Bring Him Back: A Q&A with iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens about the demise of the repair industry and a plan to revive it.”

* “Can We Be Honest About Women? Here’s a little secret we have to say out loud: Women love the sexual interplay they experience with men, and they relish men desiring their beauty.” Perhaps most interesting for the organization publishing the story; I’m so old that I remember the days when the left and Democrats were the the standard-bearers for libertinism and the right and Republics were the standard-bearers for censorious schoolmarm-ism—now they’ve switched! (At least in part.)

* “The Case for the Subway: It built the city. Now, no matter the cost — at least $100 billion — the city must rebuild it to survive.”

* Almost all reading used to be aloud.

* “Donald Trump Didn’t Want to Be President: One year ago: the plan to lose, and the administration’s shocked first days.” Makes sense; in a best-case scenario, he declares victory, resigns, and goes home. Also: “Trump Has Created Dangers We Haven’t Even Imagined Yet.” Very bad scenarios: nuclear war, botched bird flu response.

* “Drinking Wine Like the Romans Do: The notion that wine should be consumed out of thin-walled crystal, preferably on a stem, is practically scripture. But one of the hottest new ceramics studios, Mazama Wares, is seeking to change that. Katherine Cole on the unexpected pleasures of drinking wine from terra cotta.” Alas, I looked, and Mazama is charing $42 per cup.

* “We should focus on building ‘unaffordable’ housing.” Over time, it becomes affordable. Much of the bad discussion around this issue is completely, bizarrely ahistorical.

* ““You Can’t Make This S— Up”: My Year Inside Trump’s Insane White House.” Yes, this is the same article everyone else is reading, but it’s actually good.

* “The Novelist’s Complicity.”

* “How Germany Wins at Manufacturing – For Now.” We need more vocational education, as I argue at the link.

* “If It Wasn’t For My Corporate Office Job, I Couldn’t Be a Novelist.” Seems obvious to me.

* 100 influential French women denounce MeToo. Or, for a better source, see here.

* “As Electric Cars’ Prospects Brighten, Japan Fears Being Left Behind.”

* “Uber’s Secret Tool for Keeping the Cops in the Dark.” Although this isn’t the article’s framing, I think it paints Uber as an incredibly impressive company; if this were police raiding organizations or individuals who journalists want to see raised in status, we’d see the authors paint the victims sympathetically and police negatively.

* “‘The desire to have a child never goes away’: how the involuntarily childless are forming a new movement.”

* “What Happened to ‘The Most Liberated Woman in America’? Barbara Williamson co-founded one of the most famous radical sex experiments of the 1970s. Then she got wild.” She was made famous by Gay Talese in Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

The Likeness — Tana French

If you don’t mind the crazy, improbable plot—and it’s crazy and improbable even by murder mystery standards, where authors strain relentlessly to think up new plots—The Likeness is an okay, functional book of its type. In the novel, Cassie Maddox is a cop who, prior to the novel’s start, developed a fake identity to go undercover in order to crack some victimless crime related to drugs. That assignment ends, and as the novel begins, police discover a dead woman who has an ID saying she is Cassie’s old identity—that is, the dead woman had enrolled in grad school under that name and developed a life using that name. But how’d the dead woman get the ID in the first place? Why would she use or need it?

So far, we’re in the land of extreme improbability. Then—and this is where “improbable” moves to “ridiculous”—Cassie and her boss decide to pretend the dead girl actually lived, but suffers from amnesia, and Cassie is going to pretend to be the dead girl, who was pretending to be one of Cassie’s old IDs, because Cassie so closely resembles the dead girl. Who had been living with four of her grad school friends in a big house, where they all see each other every day.

It’s not bad, but it’s also one of these doppelgänger books—books that are like another book, but often not quite as good. If you want a bunch of surprises among a band of tightly-knit college students who are hiding a shocking secret, start with The Secret History, in which an outsider joins a band of four other students who have a dark secret (besides their facility in Latin). Reading a book that’s similar but not quite as good just makes me want to go read the real thing. The Weight of Ink suffered from the same problem: it was like Possession, but without the wit.

When Cassie first hears from the gang she lives with, one says:

We were wrecks. Not Daniel, obviously, he would never do anything as undignified as get upset, he just stuck his head in a book and occasionally came out with some fucking Old Norse quote about arms that remain strong in times of trial, or something.

Daniel plays the role of Henry in The Secret History. The Likeness asks how well we can ever really know a person (answer: not very), and that makes it more interesting than many mysteries, but I flip through it, hunting for some bit of evocative writing, and I’m struggling. There is this, at the end:

I wanted to tell her that being loved is a talent too, that it takes as much guts and as much work as loving; that some people, for whatever reason, never learn the knack.

It’s beautiful, not commonplace, but not inaccurate, either. But more often the sentences can be dropped into any other cop novel: “This case had been different from the first moment.” Which is not a criticism, exactly (not every sentence in every novel is an original), though one does yearn for novelty or at least great precision. Or: “The possibility hit me like a wrecking ball: suicide.” But we know it won’t be suicide; that would deprive us of the pleasure of discovery.

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