Links: The end of a culture, the need for abundance, Inspector Maigret, and more!

* “The Last Member of an Uncontacted Tribe: He lived alone in the forest for twenty-six years before dying last month. What did he experience?” Moving, sad, and beautiful, especially the final paragraph.

* “The Long March of the YIMBYs [“Yes in my backyard”—persons who favor constructing more housing]: Slowly, the tide is starting to turn.”

* “Tech Companies Slowly Shift Production Away From China.” Good, if it’s true.

* “The Case for Abolishing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).” Like the “Patriot Act,” which is not patriotic, NEPA actually harms the environment, rather than helping it. Notice: “If you think a two year, million dollar, 1,000+ page environmental report simply to build new bike lanes in an already developed city seems absurd, you’re not alone.” And, also: “America is absolutely drowning in process, forms, and reviews.”

* “How Europe Stumbled Into an Energy Catastrophe.” “Not building out nuclear power” is the short answer. Notice how many of the plans think about the next months, rather than the next decades. It’s obviously necessary to survive in the short term to get to the long term,

* “The Mysterious Case of Inspector Maigret:” on Georges Simenon and his creation.

* “A Chinese Spy Wanted GE’s Secrets, But the US Got China’s Instead.” On modern spy sagas, which appear to be industrial as much as anything else.

* “I Have Yet to Hear a Satisfactory Answer For Why Adults Care What Young People Think.”

* “The Immorality of ‘The Godfather’.”

* “Transcript: Ezra Klein on the New Supply-Side Economics.” Note: “I come from California, I grew up in Irvine, California. So to watch how liberal, how blue California is and how badly it fails at a lot of the basics of progressive outcomes of making a middle class life affordable for people is to really force yourself to reckon with some things that have gone pretty profoundly wrong in liberal governance.” And also: “Once you begin looking at the paucity of ambition on the supply side, it becomes a little bit hard to stop seeing it.” We’re paying for the scarcity agenda of the last few decades, and we should instead make a lot: in housing, in energy, in education, in subways—and not just in consumer goods.

* “How to Deal with Criticism: 10 Tips for Musicians (and Everyone Else).” Great advice, especially regarding the tension between the need to be able to listen to honest and authentic criticism, while simultaneously ignoring large amounts of bullshit.

* Even at Jacobin mag—not the best venue by any means—they’re figuring out that To Solve the Housing Crisis, We Have to Increase the Housing Supply.”

Briefly noted: “Honor Thy Father,” “After the Ivory Tower Falls,” and “2034”

* Honor Thy Father by Gay Talese: The takeaway may still be “the mafia is bad and so is crime.” Rising in the mafia is hard for many reasons, one being that a criminal needs only to screw up once to be convicted, while the police and prosecutors can screw up many times and still in some sense come out ahead. Honor Thy Father was published in 1971, and it covers an even earlier era; by 1971, a sense of elegy and things passing or being better in the old days already pervades the mafia story. The Sopranos comes out in 1999 and hits the same themes. Maybe all mafia stories have to concern a mythic past: few are set in whenever the mafia’s heyday—perhaps the 19th Century—may have been. The mafia reality is too tawdry for anything but the good days to have been in the past.

There’s much talk about inheritance—”among the inheritors [of the old-world, Italian mafia and mafia practices] were such men as Frank Labruzzo and Bill Bonanno, who now, in the mid-1960s, in an age of space and rockets, were fighting in a feudal war.” “A feudal war,” but with pistols and other firearms: the future may have been there, but it wasn’t evenly distributed. One day, will people be fighting feudal wars in space? Little about engineering or engineers appears in Honor Thy Father: the most important work of the 1930 to 1970 period was happening in California, at Intel and similar companies, though this wasn’t universally recognized at the time—which may make us: where is the most-important, least-recognized work happening today?

Other descriptions in Honor Thy Father remind us of cultural and other chanage; Bonanno “conveyed to his children his disapproval of tattletales. If they saw their brothers, sisters, or cousins doing something wrong, he had said, it was improper for them to go talebearing to adults, adding that nobody had respect for a stool pigeon, not even those who gained by such information.” Many modern institutions are obsessed with “talebearing” and encourage stool-pigeoning (if you’ll forgive the verbing of nouns). Many of the crimes aren’t crimes: the numbers racket is now the lotto (“If the lawmakers would legitimize numbers betting it would hurt business because it would deprive customers of that satisfactory sense of having beaten the system”), and loan sharking has been subsumed by the payday loan industry. Prostitution is still formally illegal but has moved online, where it’s sufficiently out of sight and to be out of mind.

Monotony, boredom, loneliness: these words recur. Whatever glamor one might infer in the mob life, it’s absent in Bonanno’s life, apart I guess from the glamor of high stakes: most of us aren’t shot if we do our jobs poorly, which is good for quality of life but bad for dramatic tension. Most of us can recover from most mistakes, and a “cutthroat industry” is a metaphor.

* After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It by Will Bunch: If there’s a message to After the Ivory Tower Falls, it’s “conditions change.” What makes sense in one set of conditions, won’t in another: college made sense for most people between 1945 and the 1990s. By the 2000s, growing costs started to change the appeal to the marginal student; Bunch’s tone may also stem from him being a journalist, a field that’s shed about half of its jobs since 2000, and declining fields feel very different from growing ones. I know, because I’ve foolishly pursued work in some declining fields, while other friends work for tech companies.

Much of the “everyone must go to college” mantra comes from slight of hand: college graduates earn more than non-graduates; that means college caused the earnings jump. Stated so bluntly, anyone familiar with how correlation is not causation sees the problem: trying to get everyone to go to college winds up weakening the value of the college-degree signal, and, at the same time, most schools are strongly incentivized by the student-loan program to get as many students in their doors as possible. Prices rise, but schools that sell low-value degrees have no feedback mechanism discouraging them from that behavior—a key point in Paying for the Party (which isn’t cited).

Baumol’s Cost Disease isn’t cited by Bunch either, or Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which identifies Baumol’s Cost Disease as a main cause of rising costs. So what do we get? A lot of mood affiliation. In Bunch’s telling, nonprofit colleges bear surprisingly little responsibility for their own predatory behavior. Consider this example: “When faith in the American way of college began to wane after years of runaway tuition, Wall Street smelled blood in the water.” Okay, we have a metaphor around “faith” in the first part of the sentence, but then we have a metaphor around a shark attack in the second? Why would waning “faith” lead to the smell of “blood in the water?” The confusing imagery is part of After the Ivory Tower Falls‘ general confusion; it tends to conflate things that should be separate and separate things that should be conflated. The book speaks to the race for entering exclusionary schools, and yet there’s almost nothing about the most expensive cost for the vast majority of households—housing itself. Without looking at the rising cost of housing over the last 50 years, the rising sense of precarity and competitiveness doesn’t make sense. The cost of living feels higher than it used to be because it is higher than it used to be; Bunch’s grandmother could move to California at a time when exclusionary zoning hadn’t made California unaffordable to most people. We used to have abundance; now we have legally-mandated scarcity, and perhaps that should change. The champions of “diversity” in highly exclusionary schools and enclaves are so unintentionally comedic because of how vigorously they speak about diversity while supporting policies that cause and ensure the exact opposite, while never noticing the contradiction. One form of comedy is saying one thing while doing another.

We see data like “Nearly 40 percent of full-time undergraduates who enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year accumulated some debt but did not have a degree after six years, said Mark Huelsman, the director of policy and advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University.” While schools like Purdue hold down costs and increase value, many others don’t. College is a huge financial and life danger, in a way that it wasn’t in the middle of the 20th Century, but Bunch doesn’t want to foreground the way colleges have contributed.

Some students do really well: those who major in technical subjects like computer science or engineering, especially at state schools with relatively low tuition. Many others don’t; even in expensive, exclusionary schools, it’s not obvious that the payoff is worthwhile, compared to less-expensive schools, particularly for non-geniuses; if you’re doing math 55 at Harvard, great. If you’re doing sociology, is it great? Those graduates will probably be fine, albeit at high tuition costs.

More could be said, but why bother? There is a better book in After the Ivory Tower Falls, but mood affiliation and too little data stops it from appearing.

* 2034: A Novel of the Next World War: Not terribly well written; on the first page, for example, we follow captain Sarah Hunt, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 21: “On a recent sleepless night, she had studied her logbooks and totaled up all the days she had spent traversing the deep ocean, out of sight of land. It added up to nearly nine years. Her memory darted back and forth across those long years, to her watch-standing days as an ensign…” “[O]ut of sight of land” should be removed—”the deep ocean” implies it—and “those long years” should be removed too, since they’re also implied. Expect more of the same, though the plot is interesting: events in the South China Sea and Strait of Hormuz lead to war between the U.S. and China. Spoilers ahead, but the plot deals with the Chinese magically being able to blind U.S. electronic warfare systems—no plausible mechanism for this capability is proposed, unless I missed it, which is possible—and then the U.S. has to resort to older aircraft and systems that aren’t so electronic. This romantic anachronism is like dreaming of a cavalry charge succeeding in World War I. India is the eventual kingmaker; the word “victor” can’t really apply to anyone in a large war, though if there is one, it’s India. As with Tom Clancy novels, the book celebrates diversity in that anyone on the U.S. side can contribute to fighting the CCP.

2034 would make a promising movie—all those visuals of flight decks and missiles—but China now controls Hollywood, so the book will remain the book, unless Peter Thiel wants to fund it. He’s probably not a Story’s Story reader, although you never know.

Links: Rome and an Industrial Revolution, economies of scale in construction, and more!

* Maybe Rome was pretty far from an Industrial Revolution. Sadly. I’d thought “lack of printing press” a big precondition, too.

* Is America falling behind China in science?

* Podcast interview with a pseudonymous recent Harvard grad; there is a transcript, too. The material in the first 15 minutes is boring.

* “Why are there so few economies of scale in construction?

* “Workplace diversity programmes often fail, or backfire: Many may do more to protect against litigation than to reduce discrimination.” It may be that what we choose to foreground has important consequences.

* “Is “Woke” just PC with faster internet?” A usefully historical take.

* “Nature: Manuscripts that are ideologically impure and ‘harmful’ will be rejected.” In case you’re wondering whether the sciences are immune to ideological fads.

* A guide to writing online.

* “On Joseph Tainter: The Collapse of Complex Societies.”

* Arguments in favor of intellectual freedom and the University of Austin.

Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It — M. Nolan Gray

Arbitrary Lines is a very good book, and one whose subject shouldn’t discourage you; as the author admits: “At surface level, zoning is an impossibly boring topic, even by the terms of public policy debate.” The boredom is part of the point, though: because it’s boring, most people don’t get fired up about change. The tedium is protective to the status quo, and the tedium means that “seemingly innocuous zoning rules” have come to control “virtually every facet of American life.” As a result, we’re “systematically moving from high productivity cities to low-productivity cities, in no small part because these are the only places where zoning allows housing to be built.” I’m a tiny part of this massive migration: I moved from New York City to Arizona because New York builds less new housing per capita than almost any other major city, outside of California. The per-square-foot cost of my place in Arizona, in an area that is what passes for urban, is under half that of New York. I’d have liked to stay in New York but not at the literal cost of staying there.

arbitrary_lines_gray

Gray points to the ’70s as a turning point—something I wondered about too: “As a result of the further tightening of zoning restrictions beginning in the 1970s, median housing prices have dramatically outpaced median incomes in many parts of the country over the past half century.” Solutions like “move to the farthest exurbs” don’t work well because they increase car commuting and traffic congestion, with commuting being awful for quality-of-life. In many cities, there is effectively no more exurban fringe: New York and L.A. are out of space within practice reach of their centers. Nominal “environmentalists” who attempt to seal their neighborhoods from new housing units are particularly comedic: they say they’re worried about the environment, while supporting housing policies that are terrible for the environment and foment car commuting. All of us are hypocritical to some extent, but this is well beyond normal, everyday hypocrisy.

Gray goes through zoning’s history: starting in the 1910s and moving onwards. He notes that “Cities such as Providence, Cleveland, and Los Angles grew by a startling 50 percent or more between 1890 and 1920. This in turn triggered a boom in apartment construction, as demand for housing ballooned.” “Ballooned” is a funny word here, given that one can imagine the housing stock as cartoon balloons being inflated. But it’s also useful to conceive of what a dynamic society looks like: a dynamic allows the freedom for landowners to build new housing, without a huge number of veto players stopping them. Outside of the relatively unregulated tech industry—which is where the frontier has moved—we’re a complacent society, not a dynamic one, and housing is one of the places this is clearest (though drug development and the stranglehold imposed by the FDA is another).

In much discourse today, the “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) contingent argues that things are changing “too fast,” whatever that may mean. NIMBYs who claim to be redressing historical racial grievances seem to miss that they’re willing to rapidly adopt new moral or social ideas, while being unwilling to countenance changes in the physical environment that really matter and might embody those moral or social ideas. They’re saying one thing, but not connecting those statements to each other. Much early zoning was about exclusion—Berkeley, California “introduced the first single-family zoning district in the United States,” and Gray reports that “Charles Henry Cheney, a key framer of Berkeley’s 1916 zoning ordinance” worried that “undesirable industries” would bring in “negroes and Orientals.” Today, Berkeley’s rhetoric favors racial harmony and integration, while Berkeley’s median housing price is $1.7 million. Almost no one seems to see the gap between the stated goals. The rationale for modern zoning is different from the original rationale, but the outcome is similar.

Gray worked, and maybe works, in urban planning, so he has stories about its absurdities. There’s a 30,000 foot view of how things work, and there’s an on-the-ground-view, and he’s done both. I appreciate the combination: having worked for decades in grant writing, I see things about the world of nonprofits and public agencies that most people don’t. Like zoning, few are interested in how many nonprofits and public agencies are funded and truly operate. The knowledge is out there, mostly ignored, except by the wonks who can find one another online.

The middle sections of Arbitrary Lines, about how restricting housing supply raises prices, will be familiar to regular readers, or to anyone familiar with basic economics (which excludes a large number of people who think other factors are somehow at play—though we see the supply-restriction story in the data). I’m tempted to quote extensively, but this is a solid “man does not bite dog” story: what one would expect to happen, has happened, helping to lower aggregate wealth and make life harder for millions of people. Gray also has a picture of yard signs, one saying “All are welcome” and another “opposing zoning liberalization in Austin.” There are fun study citations, like that “the typical resident of Vermont—renowned for its commitment to environmentalist causes—consumes three and a half times as much gasoline per year as the typical resident of New York City.” Most people follow their feelings, not data, and so we get the results we get. Still, the affordability crisis has gotten bad enough that we’re starting to see policy responses, and books like Arbitrary Lines should help inform the kinds of staffers who write and encourage legislation.

What can be done? I approve of efforts to enforce change at the state level and hope they succeed, though I wonder if it’s going to take technological innovation to see substantial improvements. Self-driving cars will lower the cost of current zoning, because true self-driving cars would allow us to reallocate most of the vast amount of urban, developed space reserved for parking into something else. The car allowed the exclusionary suburbs of the post-war era to bloom, and the self-driving car may remove the mania for mandating the over-provision of parking spaces. The High Cost of Free Parking is a great, surprising book about a subject that seems as boring as zoning, and yet one that also affects almost every aspect of how we live—including our health.

If this essay seems like too much a summary of the book, that’s because the book is thorough and comprehensive, and apart from some anecdotes I have too little to add. “Zoning” may be invisible, but its results are visible all around us. We pay supernormal amounts to live in areas built before zoning strangled our ability to create functional cities. Human flourishing would increase if Gray’s ideas became widely adopted. Inertia and complacency stand in the way. We can live better, if we choose to.

Links: The cruelty of the desalination rejection, the virtues of low expectations, and more!

* “California regulator rejects desalination plant despite historic drought.” This is the scarcity agenda.

* Low expectations and demands keep families together.

* America’s neglect of nuclear energy has weakened our global influence.

* “The Rotten Core of Our Political System: In their new account of the 2020 election, two reporters reveal just how broken American democracy has become.”

* “Let’s state this plainly: Pennsylvania Republicans just nominated a full-blown insurrectionist who intends to use the power of the office to ensure that, as long as he is governor, no Democratic presidential candidate wins his state again.” That would seem to me to be bad, and peaceful transfers of power are good.

* “The twilight of identity politics? Progressive groupthink is falling to pieces.” Maybe, but seems optimistic to me.

* “Why Do We Swallow What Big Oil and the Green Movement Tell Us?” If someone claims to be interested in “the environment” or “climate” or similar, and isn’t agitating for nuclear power, that person doesn’t know much in this domain.

* “Framework’s new laptop means the promise of modular gadgets might be coming true.” I don’t own one, but it looks really impressive (the screen aspect ratio is wonderful!).

* How did the journal Nature become so prestigious? And why are we such suckers for bullshit “prestige?”

* Details about the FDA’s folly in creating the baby formula shortage.

* Ideas that lead to life fulfillment.

Briefly noted: The Death of the Artist, Writers & Lovers, In Search of Mycotopia

* The Science of Making Friends: Perhaps the most useful element of this book isn’t so much in the book itself, but the idea that making friends is 1. a skill that 2. can be practiced and 3. ultimately improved. Taking something that is “intuitive” for most people, and seen as something you’ve either somehow “got” or “don’t” and breaking it into discrete steps has value. The forward notes that “Dr. Liz Laugeson has devoted her career to studying the behaviors that lead to social failure and finding ways to teach alternate ways of acting.” The framing is not ideal for many people—it’s targeting teens or young adults with autism, and their parents—but the basic material is valuable.

I wonder if the rise of smartphones and many hours per day of screen time increases the need for education on “how to interact with people,” since there may be less organic, in-person interaction happening. There are delicate balances to be achieved, too: being too quiet is “weird” but being “hyperverbose, talking incessantly with little notice of the interests of others” is too. We’ve all been around people who appear to take “very little notice of their conversational partner.” What makes those people not realize what they’re doing?

The Science of Making Friends is often too basic—would anyone disagree that “Arguments and disagreements are relatively common among teenagers and young adults?” Aren’t arguments and disagreements common among adults and the elderly, too? Many olds are plenty spicy, with the “don’t-give-a-damn-attitude” that often comes with minimal concern about certain kinds and classes of romantic opportunities. Speaking of, there are some very important but missing ideas in The Science of Making Friends, like the way much conversation is about status (who’s up, who’s down, how can the speaker move up, and so forth) and sex (which is hard to separate from status). Take those out, and what do most people’s conversations consist of? The number of Vaclav Smil fans is small. People love gossip and aren’t nearly as fond of data.

The sections about online socializing are hilariously out of date and bordering on counterproductive. But the ability to attempt to notice what successful people do, and then do that, remains useful.

I wonder what a high school class about “the art and science of social life” would look like; if I were a high school teacher, I might try to find out. The high school curriculum seems peculiarly ossified, perhaps by state and federal mandates, but is there room to try new things?

* The Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicz: A well-written, well-argued book that covers ground that’s too familiar to me, but that would be a great gift to the high school student thinking about going to art school or getting an art degree: at least that student wouldn’t be able to say, in 20 years, “No one warned me.” The number of people, even highly talent and driven people, who make it, is tiny. The famous artists who say “Don’t give up on your dreams” are quoted in admiring profiles; the unfamous artists who can’t pay their rent or child support aren’t quoted in admiring profiles because those profiles don’t exist.

The basic problem with most of the information arts (books, TV, music—everything from pre-social media) is that, now, everything is available. Everyone is competing with everyone: that’s been truer for books than for embodied music or TV or movies, for most of the histories of each medium, but, online, almost every book, TV show, movie, or song ever recorded can be accessed instantaneously. When I write a novel, I’m still competing, in some sense, with Fitzgerald or Carlos Ruiz Zafón or millions of others. TV used to need to fit in a 24-hour day (with only a small slice of that day “prime time”) and movies used to occur only in theaters or on a physical medium. Now, TV and movies are Netflix, and a few other companies. That’s not counting the vast expansion of user-generated media. What’s the artist to do? Being rich is one way. Striking it rich is another, albeit rare. “Marry a rich spouse” is not a good life plan, although I guess it’s nice for those to whom it happens; attempting to engineer it seems to have many costs. Finding a sinecure at a university or other media company was more plausible pre-2009. If you notice the improbability of all these solutions, well, know that Deresiewicz is likely aware of the improbability too.

Some problems have no answers, and an industry’s secular decline is often unanswerable. Advertising revenue will not return to newspapers or local TV. Revenue revenue is unlikely to return to the book or music or movie industries (although music does sell everything in the world except music). TV is doing better than might be expected but that makes it merely a slightly less brutal industry than it used to be. The phrase “learn to code” never appears in the book and yet hovers over it, the invisible angel of the subject matter. The healthcare and tech sectors seem to be infinitely expanding: they’re where the money is. Marc Andreessen said recently:

[Noah Smith]: If you could give some advice — career advice, or otherwise — to a smart 23-year-old American today, what would it be?

[Andreessen]: Don’t follow your passion. Seriously. Don’t follow your passion. Your passion is likely more dumb and useless than anything else. Your passion should be your hobby, not your work. Do it in your spare time.

Instead, at work, seek to contribute. Find the hottest, most vibrant part of the economy you can and figure out how you can contribute best and most. Make yourself of value to the people around you, to your customers and coworkers, and try to increase that value every day.

It can sometimes feel that all the exciting things have already happened, that the frontier is closed, that we’re at the end of technological history and there’s nothing left to do but maintain what already exists. This is just a failure of imagination. In fact, the opposite is true. We’re surrounding by rotting incumbents that will all need to be replaced by new technologies. Let’s get on it.

Good advice. Where is the frontier? It may not be in most of the pre-social-media arts (this is an observation, not a statement of approval).

* Writers & Lovers by Lily King: A well-executed novel, but I’ve read too many novels about writers, although this one warns regarding what being a “writer” is often like: “My loans for college and grad school all went into default when I was in Spain, and when I came back I learned that the penalties, fees, and collection costs had nearly doubled the original amount I owed.” Another character meets “a Milton scholar with excellent posture and a trust fund.” The trust fund is silently behind more grad students than is commonly realized (you’ll notice congruence between The Death of the Artist and themes in Writers & Lovers). The protagonist’s lassitude means she “didn’t mean to move back to Massachusetts, I just had no other plan.” She expresses her “bewilderment at why [a couple getting married] would participate in a hollow, misogynistic ritual that will only end in misery,” showing an incredible lack of imaginative range and insight for someone who is supposed to be a writer.

* In Search of Mycotopia by Doug Bierend: Sounds promising, yet there is a lot of “conversations about social justice” posturing, and statements like “Low-cost mushroom farms can be set up within a matter of weeks, in a wide variety of environments, leading many to see fungi as potential allies in struggles for food security and medicinal sovereignty.” “Food security” compared to what, when? “Medicinal sovereignty” compared to what, when? A fascinating topic marred by such things, to the point that I gave up early. There’s a better book somewhere inside this one.

Links: On heat pumps, the wolf, and robot poetry (all separate topics), and more!

* The need for heat pumps and other non-methane-gas energy technologies.

* How bad government policy fuels the infant formula shortage.

* “Casting out the wolf in our midst.” Long, poetic, concerning violence and deep history, and possibly not wholly right but of great interest anyway. Not politically correct, either. I’m subscribing to Razib’s RSS feed.

* Why people can’t stop adding “lol” to texts.

* Robots are writing poetry, and many people can’t tell the difference.

* “The ACLU has lost its way:” something so obvious I’m tempted not to link it—but I also used to be a member.

* On Bayraktar drones and the man behind them. New Yorker, seems thorough.

* “The Ghost Writer’s Mistress: New York psychoanalyst and novelist Arlene Heyman recalls her youthful relationship with Bernard Malamud.” Am surprised to see this.

* Until Feb. 2022, many of democracy’s critics seemed to be gaining traction; since then, we’ve been reminded of democracy’s virtues, among them the ability to peacefully transfer power and remove insane rulers. Autocracies don’t have these features and consequently are prone to the kinds of extreme negative outcomes that generally don’t occur in democracies. Being able to correct mistakes is important.

* The mysterious disappearance of revolutionary mathematician Alexander Grothendieck.

* How to quit intensive, or helicopter, parenting.

* Some writing advice.

Freddie deBoer on writing, in “If You Absolutely Must”

Freddie deBoer has a book, or more realistically booklet (it’s free, too), called If You Absolutely Must, and, while it’s about writing, it’s also about the world; like many interesting books, the nominal topic is a jumping off point for, if not everything, then for many things, and he takes his own advice by being eccentric and obsessed. He recommends writers be serious and notes that “Immense damage has been done to the public perception of many causes beloved by the social justice set by that set’s dogged insistence on associating those causes with totally frivolous ideas. When a writer says ‘I’m going to connect the trauma of segregation to the semiotics of breakfast cereal,’ it doesn’t make people expand their thinking on the scope of racism. It makes the writer ridiculous and the issue seem trivial.” Probably you weren’t expecting probing commentary on the “social justice” set in a book about writing, or at least I wasn’t, and yet there it is—an effective, accurate critique. DeBoer says: “If you want to stand out, try being serious.” That’s a specific form of the advice, “Don’t automatically do what everyone else is doing.” If many persons writing spend “life in a self-defensive crouch,” do the opposite: doing what everyone else does is common. What’s rare and what’s common? Figure out the latter and use it to try and do the former.

DeBoer’s advice is: “you have to be difficult. You have to be weird. I think being unclassifiable and difficult and fractious are desirable qualities for a writer in and of themselves.” He’s probably right, for the kind of writing he’s doing, and the kind of writer he’s talking to. But, don’t try to be that type of writer, or, likely, any type of “writer” in the sense of someone who makes his or her primary income from writing for the general public: it’s too glamorous, and the supply and demand are way out of balance. If You Absolutely Must is an appropriate title, because you shouldn’t try to primarily be a writer, any more than today it makes sense trying to make adult amounts of money as a photographer. Both occupations coalesced in the before-times, and the border of those before-times is hard to define precisely but occurs somewhere in the 2009 – 2015 period. I’m going to call it “2014” somewhat arbitrarily, when the smartphone and social media world is not merely born but has matured into the dominant want people access, produce, and think through information. The journalism-publishing world that existed throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st was in decline throughout the ’00s but went terminal after the Great Recession, as did the literary world. Twitter and similar replaced it; that may be good, bad, neutral, or orthogonal, but it seems true, and is linked to the way “the financial picture in this world [of writing for publications] is significantly worse than it was even 10 years ago.”

The number of words available to a person, particularly on a daily basis, used to be limited, and you had to have a printing press to get words from the writer to the reader. I’ve read numerous writers describe how hard they worked, in their youth, to access books; William Gibson stands out in this respect, but there are many others. Now, the number of words, images, moving images, and combinations of those things is, from the ability of an individual to process that media, infinite. Attention, instead, is finite: that’s the bottleneck, and we’re slowly seeing adaptation to that reality. Companies and famous persons are learning that the legacy media might best be ignored, rather than engaged with; instead, “The whole concept of giving free content, quotes, interviews to legacy media corporations is obsolete,” and the job of companies and famous persons is to build their own channel. Whatever you’re talking about, that’s what you’re bringing attention to, and most of us are still poor at directing our own attention to things that matter, rather than things that don’t.

Point is, almost all writing institutions, the assumptions underlying those institutions, and so on, were set up before the smartphone-social-media era. Most of the people teaching writing were born and came up in the previous era, and even those who weren’t, still likely haven’t entirely imbibed the new world, and I include myself at least partially, and maybe entirely, in this. We went from a world of relative scarcity to a world of information abundance, and we’re still dealing with those effects. I’ve run into a couple of people paying apparently good money for masters degrees in journalism, which is a level of financial insanity and time wasting that I can just barely comprehend. Those masters degrees shouldn’t exist, and whoever’s in them hasn’t gotten the message.

If you’re trying to make adult amounts of money primarily as a writer today, you’re competing with people who have family money quietly backing them, and with people who have achieved financial independence in the tech industry. This is one of the most interesting bodies of work published in the last 20 years. You are also facing up against people like deBoer, who “write pathologically; that is, I write so much that it has become a detriment to my life, and the amount of writing I’m doing is frequently inversely correlated with my overall health. I have tracked how much I write in a given week fairly obsessively for about 9 years now. Since I lost my job last June I have been averaging a bit more than 35,000 words a week.” “Pathologically” is an apt word here: “involving, caused by, or of the nature of a physical or mental disease,” although I don’t love the word “disease” and prefer the ancient Greek notion of obsession arising almost from outside the self, or from divine inspiration: closer to Julian Jaynes, further from modern medicalization. Whatever the mental model one likes—I’ll take muses inserting metaphoric Neuralink into the brain and piping in messages—being obsessed is here, if not a virtue, then a condition of many of those who pursue this mode of writing, often at the expense of much else in their lives.

Still, DeBoer says that “If you’re a consumer of writing, you’re facing a paucity of real choice, and the choices that are before you are all likely quite unappealing. People seek out writers on the margins because they’re tired of pieces telling them that Valentine’s heart candies are rape culture.” I’m not sure all consumers of writing face a paucity of real choice: I’ve been in libraries, I’ve read books not published in the last four years; right now I’m a quarter through Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. There are around 230 websites in my RSS feed, none of which routinely tell me that “Valentine’s heart candies are rape culture.” So, finding that kind of writing is a choice, more than it’s forced and foisted on a reader. For many years I subscribed to or read the New York Times‘s Sunday edition, in paper, but I quit a while ago, and in doing so, I exercised the “real choice” to not support the sort of thing deBoer is talking about here. That some number of readers are making that choice to read about the Valentine’s heart candies thing, even if they somehow feel they aren’t making a choice, might be another avenue of exploration. From what I understand, there are also sources out deifying a certain man who inherited his father’s fortune and who is a former reality TV show host; I don’t read those either.

Writing fiction isn’t deBoer’s main interest here, but it’s been one of my interests: writing fiction, never an easy route to paying the bills, doesn’t work any more. As a hobby, sure. I’ve been annoying friends and acquittances by asking, “How many books did you read in the last year?” Usually this is greeted with some suspicion or surprise. Why am I being ambushed? Then there are qualifications: “I’ve been really busy,” “It’s hard to find time to read,” “I used to read a lot.” I say I’m not judging them—this is true, I will emphasize—and am looking for an integer answer. Most often it’s something like one or two, followed by declamations of plans to Read More In the Future. A good and noble sentiment, like starting that diet. Then I ask, “How many of the people you know read more than a book or two a year?” Usually there’s some thinking, and rattling off of one or two names, followed by silence, as the person thinks through the people they know. “So, out of the few hundred people you might know well enough to know, Jack and Mary are the two people you know who read somewhat regularly?” They nod. “And that is why the publishing industry works poorly,” I say. In the before-times, anyone interested in a world greater than what’s available around them and on network TV had to read, most often books, which isn’t true any more and, barring some kind of catastrophe, probably won’t be true again.

This isn’t a lament or whining about the kids these days, a genre that’s been tired for centuries if not millennia: it’s an observation of how culture and behavior change. Calculus is the study of change, and most writers are on some level also describing change. The economic institutions that used to support writers aren’t there any more, or exist only in skeletal form (good luck getting that MFA teaching gig). There are new ones (Patreon, self-publishing, Substack), and deBoer is orienting readers towards new ones. If they must. Don’t must. Do something else. Learn to write, as a secondary skill.

DeBoer isn’t writing to complain: he says: “the average level of pure prose chops – the ability to express yourself with clarity, concision, and style – is very high today, and better than it ever has been in the 20 years that I’ve been reading nonfiction.” I’m not sure if he’s right. It’s possible that the average level of pure prose chops among writers is higher, while the level among the general population might be lower. I can’t tell. Among students, I don’t detect a lot of change, although I also don’t know how I’d measure that, amid so many other changes. I find my own reading habits drifting away from books and towards longer articles: a Kindle combined with Instapaper are the key technologies here (it may also be that there are diminishing marginal returns to reading more fiction, at some point). It used to be that a lot of general nonfiction books had 10,000 or 20,000 words of material expanded to 50,000, in order to fill a book-sized pagecount. Now it seems that many articles remain articles. I read deBoer’s book The Cult of Smart, about which he says:

My first book, The Cult of Smart, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2020. It sold more than 98% of the books published that year! But [it] still has only sold about 6,000 copies to date (late January 2022). That’s both [sic] not very good from the standpoint of my trying to sell another book.

According to The New York Times, 98% of books published in 2020 sold less than 5,000 copies.

The Cult of Smart is good and interesting, and it lines up with my own teaching experiences, far better than I wish it to. You should read it. It’s a success—well above what most writers achieve—and he makes only $75,000 from it? That’s success? And DeBoer has spent a huge amount of time writing, relentlessly, on the Internet. More and more, I find myself thinking, “I’m too bourgeois for this.”

Golden Hill — Francis Spufford

Golden Hill might be the most amazing novel I’ve read since Lonesome Dove: after a string of duds I’m pleased to find a novel so cleverly written and plotted. The latter point matters: every time Golden Hill seems to be too pleased with its own reproduction of eighteenth-century language, a shocking turn reminds one of the stakes, and that the novel is not primarily an exercise in language mimicry (though it is that too, and pleasingly). Laura Miller’s review induced me to it, though the review doesn’t and maybe can’t give a good sense of just how delightful the book is. Most of us who aren’t seeking tenure won’t care how much it relates to 18th Century antecedents or 20th Century recreations of those antecedents; we care if the book is any good and gives pleasure, and it does. The machinations of money and money transfer drive the plot: has the first great novel that turns on Bitcoin or Ethereum been written, yet? Long before digital coinage, Mr. Smith shows in New York, in 1746, and says little of himself, but he presents a bill for cash. The counting-house man, Mr. Lovell, wants to know, as does the reader, “What is this thing? And who are you?” Smith says, “What it seems to be. What I seem to be. A paper worth a thousand pounds; and a traveler who owns it.” The dialogue on the pages that follow is a witty duel, and Lovell reminds Smith that “Commerce is trust, sir. Commerce is need and need together, sir.” Can Smith and Lovell trust each other? And why? The trust is not only commercial but romantic and sexual as well: Lovell has a pair of daughters, who are intrigued by this curious man, who is rich—or is he? If he is attempting to steal money, what else might he attempt to steal?

The sentences satisfy, and the style is winkingly old, with many clauses strung together: “As a mason must build a wall one brick at a time, though the finished wall be smooth and sheer, so in individual pieces did Mr. Smith’s consciousness return to him, the next day, as he lay in the truckle bed of Mrs. Lee’s gable-end bedroom, and assembled the world again.” Or: “Mr. Lovell, to whom few things retained the force of novelty, and who misliked extremely the sensation when they did, as if firm ground underfoot had been replaced on the instant by a scrabbling fall in vacuo—was, at the moment the door opened on Broad Way, hesitating in his parlour.” We learn much about Mr. Lovell, there, and why he may be unusually suspicious of Smith, whose novelty continues through the novel. He is busy watching others, but he “failed to perceive, as he reflected and considered, that others were meanwhile reflecting and considering upon him.” His perspective seems stable at first, but he is often surprised, as his own assumptions about others prove wrong. First impressions are often dashed, as are second-, third-, and fourth impressions. The best impression of the novel may be not the first time through but the second, when what seem to be minor, though depressing, details, like Smith noticing “a coffle of shuffling black men in irons underscoring the street music with a dismal clank.”

Still: antecedents. Golden Hill reminds me of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, though Golden Hill is blessedly shorter. The Sot-Weed Factor is amazing, but too many plot turns leaves one reeling and discombobulated, like an excess of drink; as with many things is life, some is good and too much is not better, and by the midpoint of The Sot-Weed Factor a yearning for resolution sets in, and tedium overcomes investment. Like Golden Hill, it decides to situate, as best it can, the reader in the mind of a man from centuries ago. There is much happening in Golden Hill’s many metaphors. Septimus tells Smith, “the ships come and go again, and the most part of the traffic of souls passes straight through. They walk up from the slips to the streets and are gone; the continent devours them. New-York is but a gullet. Few stay.” “A gullet:” a piece of the digestive track, and few of us wish to be subjected to digestion. The New World was brutal, then. Death everywhere, and, horribly, “we have no theatre” in New York. Naturally, a play is eventually got up, and plays into the rest of the book, which is braided tightly together, the early parts reappearing in the later.

The way Golden Hill speaks of today’s dilemmas garbed in the past is interesting, but maybe most interesting is the way that it, like The Name of the Rose, is a text composed of other texts, and made the better for it. The hook, though, remains the plot: it is in motion, with the plays within plays within plays, and political theater and theater theater are much the same—as they are today and likely will be tomorrow. Each time I felt sure-footed reading Godlen Hill, something shifted, and left me off balance, in a way that’s hard to describe easily felt as a reader. I didn’t foresee the ending, though it seems obvious in retrospect: a bit ridiculous, and with some unlikely elements, but it fits. “Where do you get your ideas?” is among the least good questions that can be asked, and yet this novel combines elements so unexpectedly that I’d like to ask its author about them.

The effect of zoning restrictions on the life of the artist

Zena Hitz’s book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life delivers what it promises: a description of the beauty, importance, and pleasure of learning and doing for their own sake: “If human beings flourish from their inner core rather than in the realm of impact and results, then the inner work of learning is fundamental to human happiness, as far from pointless wheel spinning as are the forms of tenderness we owe our children or grandchildren.” David Perrell just interviewed Hitz, and she observes what many of us have felt: that the zoning laws that impede housing development cost us spiritually, not just in terms of dollars:

I spent a semester a couple of years ago in South Bend Indiana. That’s where I actually wrote the book. And I was astonished at what a difference it made to be in a place where the real estate was relatively cheap, for how people lived.

So for instance, I think there was this couple, they ran a nonprofit jazz club and got pianos out of the landfill and redid them and gave them to schools. Now, again, that’s not the kind of life you can lead… And they lived off of donations, as far as I knew, maybe they had some income from one place or another.

You can’t live that life on the Coasts. You’re always scrambling for your rent or your mortgage or whatever it is. The cost of housing is so high that it crushes people’s imaginations, people’s ways of thinking about their lives. And ironically, in places… I mean, in California, it breaks my heart because I’ve been out here for a little while, visiting family, and it’s so beautiful. There’s so much contemplation to be done in California.

The idea of living out here and wasting all your time making money so you can pay your mortgage is horrifying. You’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world, take a walk and think about things. So I think that’s really true. I think we don’t think enough about how really concrete this all is. If your real estate is too expensive, you’re not going to live as good a life. And I think that should change the way that we live, but how that’s going to work out in the long-term, I’m not really sure.

That’s a long blockquote, but it’s germane to the larger point. Having spent time in L.A. and New York, the difference between those places and lower-cost places is palpable: virtually everyone, except perhaps the few with inherited wealth, feels, correctly, they need to hustle to make it. And we’ve deliberately voted for societies in which that’s the default, by making the cost of housing so high through supply restrictions—and it is supply restrictions driving costs: see the research cited in this piece, for example, for more on that subject. But the debates about easing zoning rarely talk about the real improvements to human life that such policies can bring.

Hitz also says:

So the United States, for instance, very wealthy in the 1960s you look at what people’s lives were like in say, my parents’ generation, that’s the baby boomers basically. And it didn’t cost anything to live in LA, you could have a part-time job in a coffee shop and live in LA or San Francisco, and have plenty of time to read and do what you wanted. And that’s just not a reality anymore the economic situation has changed dramatically.

I’d love to have more time to read and do what I want. And I have some: I don’t want to pretend I don’t. But housing costs have dominated a lot of my existence. In the 1950s, when building new housing was largely legal, rents for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan were about $530 a month. Since COVID struck, rates have fallen, but they still appear to be about $3,000 per month, or about 5.5x what they were in the ’50s. The life of the mind is hard to live on the coasts, although many programmers also have brilliant minds whose tendencies are well-rewarded.

Hitz’s book touches the same themes as her Perrell interview:

San Francisco in the 1970s was a strange place for many famous reasons, but its basic commitment to leisure is clear to me only now that we have passed into a far less leisurely age. Reading and thinking for their own sake went along with outings to the stony beaches and dark mountain forests of Northern California, without a clear object or specialized skills or expensive equipment. (2)

I’ve been part of this change: I’d prefer to spend fewer hours working as a grant writing consultant and more hours writing novels: but one of those activities pays far better than the other, so it gets the majority of my time. I’m symptomatic of my generation: rents and student loans have squeezed my life in a particular direction.

We’ve legislated ourselves into working relentlessly to support the assets of landowners. This is insane, stated this way, and yet it’s how the political system has evolved. Parking minimums lead everyone to need expensive cars, because buildings are so spread out that biking becomes impractical (places like Phoenix, or L.A.’s Inland Empire, are the apotheosis of such policies). Maybe we should reconsider both, and consider what life could be like if we’d prioritize lowering costs, rather than forever working to inflate asset prices and have to buy and maintain cars.

One slight caveat to Hitz’s generalizations: I do think a lot of people, including tech people and the philosophers who do tech, read and think for their own sake. “For their own sake” or “for their own sake” also conceal much: true uselessness seems rare. It’s difficult to predict what will be “useful.” My favorite example of this is Tolkien: inventing imaginary languages and mythologies didn’t seem terribly “useful” relative to his work as a philologist and professor. But those useless activities turned out to be essential to writing one of the great imaginative works of all time. “Useful” is hard to predict.

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