The most despicable sentences I’ve read recently

In November, NASA announced it would be conducting a “cultural assessment study” of SpaceX and Boeing to ensure the companies were meeting NASA’s requirements of “adherence to a drug-free environment.” The Washington Post reported that officials had indicated “the review was prompted by the recent behavior of SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk.”

From this piece. Boeing is good at hewing to bureaucratic edicts issued by bureaucratic organizations but is bad at recovering rocket stages and decreasing the price of space launch. SpaceX is great at, you know, putting shit into space, which is what both companies are putatively supposed to be doing. For Boeing, compliance with infinite rules and regulations takes precedence over lowering the cost of space access.

The quoted paragraph reminds me of Peter Thiel’s point in Zero to One: as HP floundered, it was still really good at “following the rules,” but really terrible at building products people want. Senior administrators were adepts at process but novices at results. Many people who are good at results do not care for excessive process.

Perhaps we should focus less on virtue signaling and demographics, and more on results. I suspect the NASA of the 1960s was not terribly interested in its employees’s private lives, but it was very interested in putting a man on the moon. Today, NASA seems unable to do the latter but very good at the former.

We need fewer bureaucrats and bureaucratic barriers and more people with a piratical gleam in their eye trying new things. Elon Musk has that piratical gleam and that is part of what makes him a hero, despite his flaws (which are real). Online, it is easy to tear people down (The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium describes how the Internet enables nihilism and tearing people down while doing too little real building of new things—comprehensive post this important book will be forthcoming). It costs a billion dollars a mile to build new urban rail in the United States, since contractors must specialize in placating politicians, employing too many people at too high waves (“In his exposé, Rosenthal talked about labor problems: severe overstaffing, with some workers doing jobs that are no longer necessary, and wages well into six figures”), and dealing with lawsuits rather than specializing in building shit quickly. We need to find our way to a new, better equilibrium that de-emphasizes drug testing for harmless substances and emphasizes getting the thing done.

Links: Shame storms (be shameless), Agatha Christie, paganism?, Houellebecq, and more!

* “Shame Storm;” I’m surprised so many people want to enroll in the “impeccably correct [liberal] opinions” faction.

* What’s going on with protein folding? Why is Google kicking the academic folding community’s ass? Have I wasted a lot of cycles supporting folding@home? I’ve thought about writing a long, reported nonfiction piece about what’s really going on, and what’s really gone on, with folding@home, a very interesting project that doesn’t get the press it once did, but I have no venue for it.

* The Case Against Agatha Christie, an excellent piece.

* Why are construction costs rising?

* The return of Paganism? Better than the title implies.

* “The internet war on sex is here.” Sort of. We all choose. Many of us choose, and then repudiate our choice, and then we choose again the next day, but the repudiation phase occupies more time.

* “World’s first fully electric bus fleet quietens Chinese megacity.” It is worth asking why almost all American cities are behind on this metric.

* Michel Houellebecq, contrarian: “Donald Trump is a Good President.”

* American Entrepreneurs Who Flocked to China Are Heading Home, Disillusioned.

* The Planet Has Seen Sudden Warming Before. It Wiped Out Almost Everything. The book The Ends of the World is highly recommended on this topic.

* Chinese billionaire Jack Ma correctly observes that the US wasted trillions on warfare instead of investing in infrastructure.

* “Academics Should Not Be Activists,” seems obvious and yet here we are.

* Europe Is Dying?

* American is experiencing a crisis of meaning? Not for people working at Tesla or SpaceX!

* “I Have Seen the Future of a Republican Party That Is No Longer Insane.”

* Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers.

* In defense of hate. Agreed. But we need more intelligent hate, as opposed to the kind on Twitter.

Links: The academic-industrial complex, Victorian millennials, the scooter race, the good life, and more!

* “Censorious millennials are the new Victorians.” Interesting throughout and my favorite of this batch.

* “Lime and Bird are each worth 10B+.” Even though I’m intellectually aware of the fact that politics is rarely about policy and often about identity, virtue-signaling, etc., it’s striking to me that superficially “progressive” cities are busy attacking a small, lightweight, and simple technology that can make differences at the margins regarding global warming.

* “The U.S. Appetite for Sugar Has Skyrocketed: Americans are eating too much of the sweet stuff, and a staggering portion of it is coming from drinks like soda.” If you are wondering why everyone in the U.S. is fat, this is why.

* Why many people are less-than-thrilled with the police.

* Funny, charming interview with Quinn Lewis, daughter of Michael Lewis.

* Brexit: A Test for Humanity. We are failing.

* Nightclubs are hell. What’s cool or fun about a thumping, sweaty dungeon full of posing idiots?

* “The Housing Boom Is Already Gigantic. How Long Can It Last?” It may already be over, as interest rates are going up.

* “The Pension Hole for U.S. Cities and States Is the Size of Germany’s Economy.” The Feds ought to mandate defined-benefit plans for all levels of government, to prevent precisely this problem.

* The State of the Publishing Union.

* “Macron Just Doesn’t Get It: He and others on the left are being swept along by world-historical forces they do not fully understand.” The most interesting book on this subject is The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. Highly recommended and better than many of the fragmented, surface-level news stories you’ll read.

* The Feminist Life Script Has Made Many Women Miserable? I would prefer avoiding one-size-fits all structures for billions of individual persons, but it is striking how rarely one sees this perspective.

* “I had pushed for a college education, believing that with it came job security and the freedom to pursue my writing without the burden of poverty.” Another person lied to by the academic industrial complex. The problem is, the world is awash in “writing.” Just “writing” is not a lucrative field. There is a lot of this: “applied to art grants and startup-accelerator programs, and even joined an innovative female-owned co-working space, Splash Coworking” and “I had to host a 12-hour poetry reading to raise money on GoFundMe,” but there is a distinct shortage of “I took an operating system course, which finally taught me how to master pointers and prevent memory leaks.”

Books versus the Internet

A friend and I were talking about how read fewer books and spend more time online than we used to—a conversation that I’m sure is common among readers of this blog. Before the Internet got good (or bad, depending on your perspective), if you wanted to read something, your only choice was the book or magazine or whatever in front of you. I used to read a lot of not-very-good books because I happened to have them lying around.

Now I don’t do that and I’m much more likely to give up on a book. That just happened to me: I read about 100 pages of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game and gave up. Ponderous, pointless-seeming, and why bother with it when Twitter is right there? Or, better, yet, Instapaper in conjunction with a Kindle?

There’s some bad in this—I probably don’t finish some books that would turn out to be great—but some good in it, too. People are probably not reading some of the great books they ought to read. But we’re also probably not reading some of the crap that we’d otherwise read because we have it at hand.

To me, now, the biggest problem is finding books worth reading. And some of those appear via Twitter. Others appear in my mailbox, from writers or publishers. Some of them I forget to recommend in turn (I have a half-finished essay on Golden Hill sitting on my computer). The hard part for me is now searching, sorting, and discovering. That ought to give me a stronger impetus to write and finish more of the books that I’d like to read. I think of some books I like and admire (Joe College, Self-Made Man, Perfect Rigor, Love Me Back) that I bought after a single exposure and am so glad I did. How many good books are out there, but I haven’t had that single exposure to them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* How electric bikes make cities safer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Scott Alexander asks, “Is science slowing down?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Academia’s Case of Stockholm Syndrome.

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

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

A Ladder to the Sky — John Boyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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