The Elephant in the Brain – Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler

The book is here and you should read it, although I think most people don’t actually want to know its contents. Most of us, I suspect, prefer to lie to ourselves and each other. Consider some of the evidence Hanson and Simler present:

Why do patients spend so much on medical care? To get healthier: That’s their one and only goal, right?

Maybe not. Consider some of the puzzling data points Robin discovered. To start with, people in developed countries consumer way too much medicine—doctor visits, drugs, diagnostic tests, and so forth—well beyond what’s useful for staying healthy. Large randomized studies, for example, find that people given free healthcare consume a lot more medicine (relative to the unsubsidized control group), yet don’t end up noticeably healthier.

So why doesn’t anyone know about this? I think we don’t want to know. For that reason, I’m not sure this book will be popular. Most people write, and maybe think, based on slogans: we see this all the time, everywhere, online.* I doubt that the fact that people over-consume free healthcare will have any effect at all on most people, but arguing that healthcare is a basic human right will—that activates people’s caring moral foundation. This book is likely to be read by weirdos who may not have much effect on the rest of society.

The first page of chapter four has one of the great footnotes of all time.

Let me pull one section that amuses me; I occasionally make an argument that friends think is harmlessly eccentric at best and outright offensive at worst: TV and movies are better than live theater because their range of possible expression is so much greater. Good video uses a range of scenes, actors, and sounds; it isn’t inhibited by the limitations of the stage. Most people I’ve said this to have said that I miss the point (maybe they’re right) and that live theater is beautiful for its own sake. Usually I’m just looked at like I’m weird (again, the lookers may be right).

Enter Hanson and Simler:

Artists routinely sacrifice expressive power and manufacturing precision in order to make something more “impressive” as a fitness display.

One place we find this sacrifice is in the performing arts. For example, by almost any any measure of technical control, film exceeds live theater. Film directors can fuss endlessly over lighting, set design, and camera angles […] And the results are frequently sublime, which is one reason film has become the most popular dramatic and comedic medium of our time. And yet consumers continue to relish live performances, shelling out even for back-row seats at many times the price of a movie ticket. Why? In part, because performing live is a handicap. With such little margin for error, the results are that much more impressive. A similar trade-off arises for musicians (e.g., lip syncing is anathema) and standup comics, and for the improve versus sketch-comedy troupes. A live performance, or even more so an improvised one, won’t be as technically perfect as a prerecorded one, but it succeeds by putting the artists’ talents on full display.

To be fair, too, in the case of music and standup, the artists are often trying out material and experimenting with audience reaction, before turning the final result into a video or similar product. In some cases, like improv, the audience becomes part of the product. We’re trying to be impressive, and the harder it is to be impressive, the more one is impressed.

But consciously saying, “I’m an artist to increase my reproductive fitness” is not impressive and no one says it. Hanson and Simler offer some mechanisms:

We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives—we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people. And in order to throw them off the trail, our brains often keep ‘us,’ our conscious minds, in the dark. The less we know of our own ugly motives, the easier it is to hide them from others.

Self-deception is therefore strategic, a ploy our brains use to look good while behaving badly.

It’s interesting too, in light of their chapter on art, to think about what counts as art. Writing a novel? Yes. Painting a picture? Yes. Writing or designing an operating system? Not much, and not to most people. “Writing an operating system” may have occurred too recently in our evolutionary history to make doing so an attractive sexual display. But if we know we’re making art as a mating display should we then take that knowledge and direct our time and resources into other fields?

It’s a question that should be more seriously considered. And I write this as someone who has written novels and is working on one now.

One short question we might want to ask ourselves in many endeavors is, “Am I doing this to be maximally effective at the thing I am doing, or am I doing this thing to signal some other trait or achieve some other goal?”

Hanson’s previous book is The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, which is very interesting for the right person—of whom there are not many, including me. It applies economic analysis to a world in which human brains can be emulated can thus intelligence is almost freed from pesky material constraints like birth, senescence, and death. As a book it’s a bit like science fiction without a story. Post-singularity SF often works poorly to baseline humans because humans are bad at conceiving what non-human intelligence or consciousness might be like. The Age of Em is very good at what it is, but it’s notable that almost no one tries to write in its genre.

Here is a review of Elephant in an unexpected venue. Others may be found. I have not found any good rebuttals of it; it may be a book easier to ignore than rebut. I’m going to re-read it. It’s not the kind of book one absorbs the first time.


* “Most people write, and maybe think, based on slogans” may itself be a slogan: I’m not immune!

Who is Michael Ovitz?

Who is Michael Ovitz? has a straightforward answer, as presented in the book: Michael Ovitz is a guy who does deals and works on self-improvement and what you see is what you get. People who like him perceive him as effective and people who dislike him perceive him as an asshole and it’s possible that both groups are right. A person’s “strengths” and a person’s “weaknesses” are often the same, just perceived or framed differently.

Ovitz founded the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and the book’s key sentences may be, “We were lucky to work in a golden age of commercial film. People went to the local multiplex three times a month, piracy had yet to explode, and cable was in its infancy. With so many movies being made, and with our increasing share of the talent, by the early 1980s, CAA was poised for an explosive run.” But you won’t find these sentences in the opening sections of Who is Michael Ovitz?. Ovitz, and CAA generally, hit the timing perfectly: it is unlikely that agents matter as much today, or even that movies and TV matter as much today, relative to the digital platforms that increasingly deliver them and a relentless stream of commentary on them.

Almost every major success is the result of both luck and skill, and I’m not trying to denigrate the latter, but an Ovitz-like career in Hollywood is probably not very possible today. It might be possible at, say, Netflix—which may generate the most interesting memoirs in ten or twenty years.

The unsaid is often very interesting:

[W]hen we launched CAA, I had started a private project (one that took me ten years) of watching every film that had won one of the five big-category Oscars. I discovered why Gone with the Wind had passed the test of time and How Green Was My Valley hadn’t; I learned the relationship between vision and craft. At the same time, I was boning up on the deal structure of movies and on which actors and directors had currency. Film had its own language, and I needed to be bilingual.

You, like me, may wonder: okay, then tell us why some movies last and others don’t. That’s perhaps one of the most valuable things people involved in narrative arts can know. Maybe Ovitz can’t communicate it—or maybe, more likely, there is no secret. I’m reminded of people who think they can beat the stock market. Yes, a very small number of them seem to be able to, like Renaissance Capital. The overwhelming majority of people who think they can, however, are wrong. It’s also possible that Ovitz is more making markets than buying or selling in them, as his description of Rain Man‘s journey shows. But I wonder how many movies had paths like Rain Man‘s and failed.

Hollywood as a space of mass, consensual delusion is useful here. What is “currency,” if not a kind of consensual delusion? Maybe Ovitz “learned the relationship between vision and craft,” or maybe he’s bought into the delusion. Overall, however, I may just have read too much in behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology to buy a lot of the argument in the book. Kahneman, Tversky, Ariely, many others: put them together and a lot of the stories we tell ourselves don’t seem to fit together so well.

I’d be curious to see an Ovitz book or essay collection on critical analyses of movies, perhaps in the Camille Paglia line. Show us what you see in the movies!

Ovitz, as portrayed in Who is Michael Ovitz?, just works harder and longer than other people, and he works to read more, learn more, and understand more. Even things that most people would call “hobbies,” like his interest in art, here feed into his faculties as an agent. He may be an effective manager, or he may be the kind of person who manages and leads by example. An agent is a kind of consultant, and I’m a consultant, and this is congruent with my own experience: “You have to risk alienating your clients. When you tell someone the truth, all they can do is get upset—they can’t call you an idiot.” The truth often hurts, and it helps to try to learn how to phrase the truth as kindly as possible. But the sting will remain.

There are few interesting sentences in the book.

Where I’m Reading From — Tim Parks

Engagement with art, whether it is such a painting, or the interrelatedness of characters and environment in a novel, or the interplay of motifs in music, had the effect of countering what Bateson saw as our dangerous yearning to arrive at a crude understanding of the world and then intervene.

If that’s true, we ought to be thinking more about complex art and less about our “crude understanding” of how the world works; alas, Twitter and Facebook seem to push us towards crude and unusually incorrect understanding and away from real complexity. The quote is from Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books, a charming book full of similarly quotable and stimulating lines. It even stirs a very vague desire in me to read Thomas Hardy, despite many previous attempts, all ending in failure.

Little in the book is completely new but much of it is well-stated. Consider another claim, which I can’t decide to be true or false:

Identity is largely a question of the pattern of our responses when presented with a new situation, a new book. Certainly the idea of impartiality is a chimera. To be impartial about narrative would be to come from nowhere, to be no one.

If that is true, and it may be, perhaps we should learn from literature and Paul Graham to keep our identity small, so as to minimize the “pattern of our responses” and maximize our ability to see the true and/or new.

“The Wheel of Time” as an adult

In middle school I read the first six or eight Robert Jordan Wheel of Time books; I’ve mentioned that before, but the other day I saw someone reading one of the books in a coffee shop and that inspired me to download some. From the opening pages they are badly written; we find of one character, “with his thick chest and broad face, he was a pillar of reality in that morning, like a stone in the middle of a drifting dream.” What is a “pillar of reality?” As opposed to a “pillar of fantasy?” Does reality typically have pillars? In dreams, stones can drift as much as they want. In isolation this kind of thing happens (not every sentence in a given book is to every person’s taste), but things like it recur again and again. Perhaps they were written too fast, or maybe the writer’s attention was elsewhere. But for very inexperienced readers, as I was, that doesn’t matter: everything is novel.

The novels are very Tolkien-esque, except worse. The novel concerns a quest to defeat “The Dark One,” but The Dark One seems like a bad deal. I mean, his nickname is the Lord of Lies. Yet various people in the Wheel of Time world are eager to sign up to serve him. Why would anyone make a deal with him? People try not to do business with people they don’t trust, and that just concerns money—not the soul itself. Truly evil people don’t announce they’re evil; they call themselves good. In Tolkien, Sauron is at least depicted as once having been fair, and being able to use his powers to daunt and seduce the men who haven’t been exposed to Elvish influence. Tolkien thought through a lot of subtle details that are easily missed in a first pass but picked up later on.

Perhaps the Dark One’s dealmaking skill is a metaphor for life under communist regimes, which are highly duplicitous and not very pleasant, but, if one’s government was part of the Soviet Union, that was part of the deal. Many people who ought to have known better were convinced socialism was a good idea. They may have sold their souls, in essence.

The Jordan view of sexuality is… curious. And very adolescent; as a work that might appeal to 12- or 13-year olds, it makes sense. As a work that appeals to adults, it does not. Many of the characters are very attractive and very attracted to one another, and yet none act on it, or only act on it after months or years of courtship that leads to marriage. This seems improbable. Most adults attempt to fulfill months- or years-long mutual attractions somewhat faster than that. The Wheel of Time‘s sexual world sounds a lot like middle school behavior but not much like adult behavior. A fantasy novel like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is much more reality-grounded in this domain, despite featuring far younger protagonists. As an adult I look at Jordan’s Wikipedia page and am unsurprised to find this: “He described himself as a ‘High Church’ Episcopalian and received communion more than once a week.”

Like a lot of thrillers, something happens in almost every chapter of every book (the early ones, anyway). A sudden attack. A reversal of fortune. The introduction of a new character. But, as with a lot of thrillers, the “something” often doesn’t make much sense. Why are the bad guys so ineffective? Why do they try the same sort of attacks, over and over again, which keep failing? Why do Dark friends not get a better name? Could they hire a branding consultant? Thrillers work if you don’t think too much about them—something I realized after reading Persuader, a novel that’s wildly plausible despite its absurdities. Sometimes I wonder if I could become a thriller writer through a deck of cards with plot points like “sudden betrayal,” “bad guy goes good,” “unexpected fight,” etc. on them.

And the attacks are mostly the same: the same Orc-like creatures suddenly appear, as if from nowhere, and execute the same attacks that fail in the same ways. They’re like video-game monsters. If the Dark One is so brilliant, perhaps he ought to learn new tactics? Or perhaps that’s the curse of a 14-novel series: there are only so many variations on a theme.

It feels like Jordan had a bunch of dice when he was writing. Roll a 2? New attack from Trollocs. Four? New magical items. Double sixes? Dark friends. Someone like Philip Pullman or Carlos Ruiz Zafon has a very different, more organic feel, as well as more bounded worlds that may ultimately be more satisfying worlds. The endless size of The Wheel of Time means flatter characters, more repetition, and the exploration of fewer ideas.

Even as a kid, I gave up on the series. But I wonder about what adults see in it. Many people are of course comforted by and susceptible to simple good-vs-evil stories. When one becomes popular, like The Wheel of Time, pointing to it as being popular because it’s a good-vs-evil story isn’t enough. Maybe it’s popular because it’s simple along so many dimensions. The sentences are simple. The motivations are simple. The plot is less simple on its surface but fairly simple beneath. The good guys win at the end (or appear to: so say Internet summarizers). The Wheel of Time world of motivation is fairly simple. In a complex world, simple has appeal.

The chief protagonist is named Rand al’Thor, and the description of him working magic is notable and concerns what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call “Flow” or what might otherwise be called total concentration, which the channelers must use: “Tam had taught him the Void as an aid to archery, to be one with the bow, the arrow, the target. He made himself one with those imagined black wires.” One reading of Wheel might be about the value of total concentration, although that’s a funny lesson in books that don’t demand total concentration and if anything don’t reward it. But for the reader, especially today in an environment of digital distraction, admiring total concentration may be useful.

The Great Good Place — Roy Oldenburg

The Great Good Place is often dated but still interesting, and it’s highly congruent with Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression; Hari argues that one reason so many of us are anxious and depressed is that we’re spatially disconnected from other humans, and Oldenburg explains how that came to be—and how the physical space we inhabit affects us. Online life is a very poor substitute for in-person life, it seems, and articles like “Teenagers are growing more anxious and depressed” appear routinely. Friends who teach school say kids seem less able to handle their own lives and make independent decisions than the used to. While some of this may be “kids these days” grousing of the typical kind, at least some data indicates otherwise, and it may be that smartphones are bad for many reasons, like deleterious effects on relationships (an essay I wrote in 2012)—yet few of us will give them up or even significantly restrict usage. I have a smartphone too and annoy friends by being disconnected from it. Expected response times for texts seems overly low to me, but that seems to be the way the culture is moving. We’ve let phones replace places, and that’s not a good trade-off.

Our biggest barriers to good human space were and are legal and regulatory:

The preferred and ubiquitous mode of urban development is hostile to both walking and talking. In walking, people become part of their terrain; they become custodians of their neighborhoods. In talking, people get to know one another; they find and create their common interests and realize the collective abilities essential to community and democracy.

We take wealth and burn it through hellacious commutes: “The purchase of the even larger home on the even larger lot in the even more lifeless neighborhood is not so much a matter of joining community as retreating from it.” There are solutions, but they’re grasped tentatively and only with tremendous, pointless resistance. We can do better and choose not to.

Some challenges have gotten worse. Oldenburg anticipates the noise plague in today’s bars and restaurants:

Whatever interrupts conversation’s lively flow is ruinous to a third place, be it a bore, a horde of barbaric college students, or mechanical or electronic gadgetry. Most common among these is the noise that passes for music, though it must be understood that when conversation is to be savored, even Mozart is noise if played too loudly.

Vox says restaurant noise levels are climbing; excess noise seems to kill conviviality. Shouldn’t restaurants have figured this out? Or is Oldenburg, like me, just too far outside the mainstream for his view to matter? What should we infer from it is, rather than from what I want to be? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that I pick restaurants and bars based on noise, or the lack thereof.

To me, the most interesting chapter concerned German beer garden versus Irish taverns. In the late nineteenth century, there were two major models for what might now be called bars: German beer gardens that served low-alcohol beer (usually around 3%) and Irish taverns that served potent whiskey. The former catered to families and whole communities while the latter catered to men alone:

Yet it was the Irish model that eventually prevailed. America adapted itself only to the German national beverage; it kept the beer and dropped most of the amenities with which the Germans had surrounded it. The nation never seemed able to allow the concept of a good tavern, and people who cannot envisage good taverns are doomed to have lesser ones.

German beer gardens are probably the better, pro-social model, but they didn’t prevail, and I’m not entirely sure we know why, although Prohibition seems a major culprit.

Another section on the French cafe describes a largely solved problem: Starbucks, along with innumerable specialty coffee shops, solved it. What was a problem when The Great Good Place was published has become a business. Parking and zoning are still serious problems, but a dearth of coffee shops is not.

Third places are overly-idealized in this book (one could write a counter-book about why they’re bad), but it remains an interesting book with a useful set of concepts.

Giving and receiving books

Tyler Cowen writes, “Why you should hesitate to give books as gifts and instead just throw them out,” which is a fine post, but I’d note that many people are cost-constrained when it comes to books, and many used books now end up on Amazon, where they must be specifically sought out. And I love to give friends books (and receive books), but the following rules for giving books must be obeyed:

1. Zero expectation. The sender must not expect the receiver to read or even consider the book. Books should only be given, never returned, particularly in the age of Amazon. Amazon has made book scarcity a thing of the past. It is even possible to rapidly scan books, using the right equipment, which may be relatively inexpensive. The majority of books I give or send are probably never read, and that’s fine with me.

2. Despite “zero expectation,” the sender must think the book will interest the receiver or be at least as good as the median book the receiver might otherwise read.

3. This is my own idiosyncrasy, but I very rarely throw out books, though I will donate unwanted ones in batches. Someone with different inclinations and hourly rates might automate the process of selling older books on Amazon. The net take from selling a book for even $10 or $12 on Amazon is like $4 – $6—not worth it for me.

4. I like writing in books and like it when my friends do. Receiving a book my friend has annotated is like getting the pleasure of the book and the pleasure of conversation.

5. “Zero expectation” also means “zero expectation” in terms of time. I mail books in batches whenever there are enough and it’s convenient for me. It may be months after I finish a book, and that’s okay. I have a stack sitting around right now, waiting to go out.

6. I like it when publishers send me books! But they often send emails first asking if I’ll promise a review, etc. My stock reply is always the same: Send the book, but I promise nothing.

7. When I was younger I thought I’d be rich when I have the money to buy all the books I can read. Now I have to limit the number of physical books I have due to space and practicality constraints. Large numbers of physical books are not compatible with high levels of mobility. This is very annoying but also true. Bad city zoning makes this problem worse by artificially increasing the price per square foot most people pay for housing in a given locale. Would we have a better media if writers had more space for books and consequently read more?

“How good is the very best next book that you haven’t read but maybe are on the verge of picking up? So many choices in life hinge on that neglected variable.” I say my problem today is finding the best book, which I no longer do so well on my own; if the five best readers I know would send me more books, I would be very happy, even if only one works for me.

It’s striking for me how many people with nothing to say get on social media to say it, relative to simply reading more or learning more. We have all these communication media and too little to fill them with, in my view. It could be that I’m guilty of that right now.

A good rule is, “Would you buy this friend a beer or coffee?” If yes, why not a book? I’d like to see book-giving become more of a social norm, like getting a round of drinks.

The Rub of Time — Martin Amis

Language is imprecise. Push words too far and they fall apart. This is annoying, for obvious reasons, but also interesting, for artistic ones, and Amis does “a great deal of polishing” in these pieces, “trying to make myself clearer, less ambiguous, and more precise.” And sometimes, I think, imprecise or allusive in interesting ways. As a writer he also confronts the way words also contain a lot of historical residue. Amis mentions Northrop Frye, “a literary philosopher-king to whom I owe fealty.” Fealty: a curious word associated with the Middle Ages and a set of social-economic circumstances that don’t exist in Western Europe or the United States anymore. I’m sure Amis knows it’s a curious word and one that does strange work, here. A lot of Amis words do strange work and that’s part of the reason we like him.

To me, if you’ve not read nonfiction Amis, you’re best off starting with The War Against Cliché, which changed the direction and tenor of my own work. My affection for War may be a historical accident: right work, right time, right mind for a major collision. But it may be that good, and it offers some context for The Rub of Time. The essay that most stands out to me may be the one on Larkin: suddenly, I want to read him, and that’s a great effect of a great essay. “No: Larkin is not a poet’s poet. He is of course a people’s poet, which is what he would have wanted. But he is also, definingly, a novelist’s poet. It is the novelists who revere him.” I’d never thought so. Yet now I do.

Amis gets humor: this will make his own work age well, I think, particularly in an age when momentary political rage too often replaces humor. The humorous Amis is not readily quotable, though, because he’s too contextual. On Twitter, rage seems more common than comedy, when in life the opposite seems true. The smartest people I know seem much fonder of comedy than outrage. And the replacement by outrage of comedy in contemporary universities seems one of their problems, and yet one that no one is doing anything to address. Comedy pierces conventional pieties, of the sort that seem very popular on campus.

Some essays are, in my view, wildly skippable—like the one on a Republican National Convention, or the Trump one. Both the RNC and Trump are fact-free zones; to the extent either generates what might be termed “ideas,” those ideas are too unmoored from something like reality to be worth considering. The best one can hope for regarding the current incarnation of the Republican party is resounding defeat in 2018 and 2020, which leads to a reformation. Then again, I would’ve hoped for the same in 2014 and 2016, by which point the madness in the party had manifested itself, and it didn’t happen. A million intellectually sophisticated essays have done near zero to affect voting outcomes. Which is disheartening to someone who likes writing and reading such essays: if an essay falls in a forest, and no one reads it, does it make a sound?

And some Amis essays are just dated. The porn industry moves fast, and “In Pornoland” is useful historically and to someone interested in the history of the industry, but given that it was published in 2000, it feels its age. The first four paragraphs are hilarious, though, and I won’t quote them so as to not spoil the effect.

Amis is a noticer in his fiction and a noticer in his nonfiction: it’s fun to see the expert doing his thing. He’s done the reading, like most people haven’t. He’s got the context for the reading. He writes that, “Accusing novelists of egotism is like deploring the tendency of champion boxers to turn violent.” He also acknowledges when things have changed. He wrote a long piece on the actor John Travolta, but the postscript notes that “As it turned out, Travolta’s resurgence lacked staying power.” Lacking staying power, however, “is not to be compared with the death of Jett Travolta, in 2009 (a seizure, related to his autism). Jett was 16.” That’s how the piece ends, now: with perspetive, which can sometimes be absent in writing about celebrities.

Amis makes me want to be a better writer. I hope he does the same for you.

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