What great writing looks like: “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”

In Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Rhodes quotes nuclear physicist Rudolf Peierls as saying that “[Traitor and spy Klaus Fuchs] was courteous and even-tempered. He was rather silent, unless one asked him a question, when he would give a full and articulate answer; for this Genia called ‘Penny-in-the-slot.'” That’s on page 57.

On page 175, Rhodes describes the famous Trinity atomic bomb test at Alamagordo, New Mexico, and quotes I. I. Rabi, another physicist, at length. Then Rhodes writes, “Fuchs was there to see the new thing he had caused to proliferate, the new control, but no one put a penny in his slot, so he left no record of how the unique experience affected him.” “No one put a penny in his slot:” the phrase does a lot of deft work in that sentence, pointing to the seeming incuriosity of everyone around Fuchs; to Fuchs’s character itself; to the way he responds rather than initiating (despite him working on atomic weapon initiator design). Rhodes takes what could have been an evocative-but-throwaway line and reconfigures it, connecting the two sections of the book through unusual but suddenly gorgeous language.

Another point about this pairing: it can’t really be generalized to a rule. Few if any writing books advise good writers to call back to an evocative description a hundred pages later, and to do so with an unexpected twist. Rhodes does it. He hits the high note here.

The book itself is about history, technology, politics, human motivation, human character, institutions, industrial organization, and many other topics. He writes, for example, about what made communism attractive to western communists, despite the fact that it doesn’t work. He writes, “Communism in any case was intensely fashionable at English universities between the World Wars.” It seems strange that anyone could have been attracted to Communism; as Stalin’s Great Terror unfolds through the 1930s, it becomes even stranger. Then again, socialism is having a strange vogue today, among people who seem not to quite understand what it entails (one definition, from Apple’s included Oxford American Diction: “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”) It’s possible of course for a “community” to own a company today, as with coops, or for individuals to own companies; they just tend to be outcompeted by publicly-owned companies, which ought to tell us something useful.

Still, Communism as a topic remains of interest not so much because of the fact that it fails, but because it could inspire people to betray their own, functional countries in favor of a dystopian hellscape like Soviet Russia. What makes a person do that? What does the motivation of a person doing that tell us about people as a whole, personality as a whole? What makes people choose and advocate for the clearly inferior choice? These are questions without final answers, which makes them interesting.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe — Chris Taylor

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe isn’t bad but the writer relies overmuch on cliche: “James’s wartime story was enough to make my jaw hit the floor when I met him” or “I must have seen that Star Wars poster a million times.” I kept taking my pen to the book, as there is a better one waiting to unlocked from this one. But the middle section, especially about the creative process that went into Star Wars, is very interesting and even redeeming; the book feels rushed to press, maybe to hit a deadline or because the writer needed the advance money, which is too bad: I’m reminded of Thomas Ricks’ description of the Churchill and Orwell rewrites. Had How Star Wars received the same it might have been a great examination of where art comes from.

Instead, it’s okay, and you have to wade through some tedious chapters. One wishes Taylor had had more time. He loses the war against cliché. He writes of “a genre that liked to recycle plots.” Arguably all plots are recycled, at an appropriate level of abstraction. Famously, few of Shakespeare’s plots are his own. We get many statements about plot like every story being about “A stranger comes to town or someone leave town.”

Some of the best writing comes from others:

Normally, when this most private man [Lucas] goes into public at a press-attended gathering, he wears the face best described by Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, who compared Lucas to a small-town banker: “impeccably polite and implacably distanced, as though fearing you might ask an inappropriate question or request a loan.”

Odd, though, that “editor in chief” isn’t “editor-in-chief,” right?

The close reading of the original script, versus the shooting script, begins on page 111 and continues from there. It’s an impressive section that’s too long to quote, and it’s impressive because of Taylor’s close reading of everything wrong in the original that goes right in the later versions. Lucas’s then-wife, Marcia, played a critical role in the process. Lawrence Kasdan worked on the second two movies. Lucas alone would have created a disaster; he’s like raw iron that needs to be alloyed to create steel. Marcia Lucas and Kasdan helped unlock the good version within; the three “prequel” movies released after the original three were so bad in part because Lucas accepted almost no outside influence and had the money to do whatever he wanted. “Infinite resources” turned out to be a drawback rather than a virtue for him. The parallels between the writing of this book and the making of the movie are notable.

The real question is unanswered, and unanswerable: why did George Lucas do it, and not thousands or millions of others? Why do so many people attempt and fail to do what he did? We don’t find out; likely, we can’t find out.

Here is an article, better written than the book, that covers some of the information. If you deeply like Star Wars or are deeply interested in creative processes (I’d count myself among the latter), this book is for you. Those casually interested in either should read elsewhere.

Steve Levine’s “The Powerhouse” and the Chevy Volt

The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War describes how we got to today’s electric cars, and it does so by following the vicissitudes of Argonne National Labs, which played a key role in battery development, as well as many of the scientists and players who help develop batteries. Much of the narrative structure comes from GM’s quest to build the Chevy Volt, a car that is amazing and widely underappreciated, because the conditions and assumptions that led to its development have changed.

In the late ’00s and early ’10s, almost no one foresaw the rise of fracking, which has put a lid on oil prices. If fracking hadn’t come along when it did, oil would probably be between $100 and $200 a barrel today, and GM wouldn’t be able to build enough Volts. GM’s management would look like geniuses. Instead, as has been widely reported, GM is closing a bunch of plants, likely including the one that makes Volts. People are short-sighted and, when gas prices fall, we buy bigger cars.

The Volt is neither as cheap as a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) car nor as interesting as an electric. It appears that most people want a pure electric or a conventional ICE car, and hybrids like the Volt are stuck in between. Most people don’t give a damn about climate change or Saudi and Russian repression, at least as measured by their behaviors when it comes to buying cars (You might argue that this is bad—I would—but, at least in terms of mass behavior, it’s true). Today, articles like, “Why Oil Prices Took Such a Tumble, and What Comes Next” are common:

It was only at the start of October that analysts were wondering if oil would soon cost $100 a barrel. Then a trap door opened and oil prices have been in a rapid descent since, losing nearly a third of their value in about eight weeks.

The spread of electric vehicles is also going to cap oil price rises. As prices rise, more people will shift towards electrics. But people who rag on the Volt don’t understand why it was green-lit in the first place, and they should read The Powerhouse. Aside from being an account of the Volt, The Powerhouse is about the way science and engineering actually get done. Those fields are rarely about single individuals and often about groups, companies, universities, and the interactions among the individuals that compose the larger structures. To be sure, individuals are important (John Goodenough is a battery hero, and there are many others named in the book), but we rarely succeed alone.

The Powerhouse has flaws, as a book. Its timeline jumps around, from chapter to chapter, at times. Most of its chapters are 800 – 2,000 words, a sign that many originated as blog posts or news stories, and their integration isn’t ideal. Levine is a working journalist and so may have had less time than he would have liked to complete the book. The acknowledgements page starts, “When I began to consider a book on batteries, the reception from friends and advisers was all but unanimous: don’t do it.” I’m glad he wrote the book and will recommend it, despite its firm place in a particular time and its structural challenges. Levine created a coherent story out of many disparate pieces, and that alone is admirable.

The Coddling of the American Mind — Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

Apart from its intellectual content and institutional structure descriptions, The Coddling of the American Mind makes being a contemporary college student in some schools sound like a terrible experience:

Life in a call-out culture requires constant vigilance, fear, and self-censorship. Many in the audience may feel sympathy for the person being shamed but are afraid to speak up, yielding the false impression that the audience is unanimous in its condemnation.

Who would want to live this way? It sounds exhausting and tedious. If we’ve built exhausting and tedious ways to live into the college experience, perhaps we ought to stop doing that. I also find it strange that, in virtually every generation, free speech and free thought have to be re-litigated. The rationale behind opposing free speech and thought changes, but the opposition remains.

Coddling is congruent with this conversation between Claire Lehmann and Tyler Cowen, where Lehmann describes Australian universities:

COWEN: With respect to political correctness, how is it that Australian universities are different?

LEHMANN: I think the fact that they’re public makes a big difference because students are not paying vast sums to go to university in the first place, so students have less power.

If you’re a student, and you make a complaint against a professor in an Australian university, the university’s just going to shrug its shoulders, and you’ll be sort of walked out of the room. Students have much less power to make complaints and have their grievances heard. That’s one factor.

Another factor is, we don’t have this hothouse environment where students go and live on campus and have their social life collapsed into their university life.

Most students in Australia live at home with their parents or move into a share house and then travel to university, but they don’t live on campus. So there isn’t this compression where your entire life is the campus environment. That’s another factor.

Overall, I suspect the American university environment as a total institution where students live, study, and play might be a better one in some essential ways: it may foster more entrepreneurship, due to students being physically proximate to one another. American universities have a much greater history of alumni involvement (and donations), donations likely being tied into the sense of affinity with the university generated by living on campus.

But Haidt and Lukianoff are pointing to some of the potential costs: when everything happens on campus, no one gets a break from “call-out culture” or accusations of being “offensive.” I think I would laugh at this sort of thing if I were an undergrad today, or choose bigger schools (the authors use an example from Smith College) that are more normal and less homogenous and neurotic. Bigger schools have more diverse student bodies and fewer students with the time and energy to relentlessly surveil one another. The authors describe how “Reports from around the country are remarkably similar; students at many colleges today are walking on eggshells, afraid of saying the wrong thing, liking the wrong post, or coming to the defense of someone who they know to be innocent, out of fear they themselves will be called out by a mob on social media.”

Professors, especially in humanities departments, seem to be helping to create this atmosphere by embracing “micro aggressions,” “intersectionality,” and similar doctrines of fragility. Perhaps professors ought to stop doing that, too. I wonder too if or when students will stop wanting to attend schools like Smith, where the “Us vs them” worldview prevails.

School itself may be becoming more boring: “Many professors say they now teach and speak more cautiously, because one slip or simple misunderstanding could lead to vilification and even threats from any number of sources.” And, in an age of ubiquitous cameras, it’s easy to take something out of context. Matthew Reed, who has long maintained a blog called “Dean Dad,” has written about how he would adopt certain political perspectives in class (Marxist, fascist, authoritarian, libertarian, etc.) in an attempt to get students to understand what some of those ideologies entail and what their advocates might say. So he’d say things he doesn’t believe in order to get students to think. But that strategy is prone to the camera-and-splice practice. It’s a tension I feel, too: in class I often raise ideas or reading to encourage thinking or offer pushback against apparent groupthink. Universities are supposed to exist to help students (and people more generally) think independently; while courtesy is important, at what point does “caution” become tedium, or censorship?

Schools encourage fragility in other ways:

“Always trust your feelings,” said Misoponos, and that dictum hay sound wise and familiar. You’ve heard versions of it from a variety of sappy novels and pop psychology gurus. But the second Great Untruth—the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning—is a direct contradiction of much ancient wisdom. [. . .] Sages in many societies have converged on the insight that feelings are always compelling, but not always reliable.

More important than ancient sages, modern psychologists and behavioral economists have found and argued the same. Feelings of fear, uncertainty, and doubt are strangely encouraged: “Administrators often acted in ways that gave the impression that students were in constant danger and in need of protection from a variety of risks and discomforts.” How odd: 18- and 19-year-olds in the military face risks and discomforts like, you know, being shot. Maybe the issue is that our society has too little risk, or risk that is invisible (this is your occasional reminder that about 30,000 people die in car crashes every year, and hundreds of thousands more are mangled, yet we do little to alleviate the car-centric world).

Umberto Eco says, “Art is an escape from personal emotion, as both Joyce and Eliot had taught me.” Yet we often treat personal emotion as the final arbiter and decider of things. “Personal emotion” is very close the word “feelings.” We should be wary of trusting those feelings; art enables to escape from our own feelings into someone else’s conception of the world, if we allow it to. The study of art in many universities seemingly discourages this. Perhaps we ought to read more Eco.

I wonder if Coddling is going to end up being one of those important books no one reads.

It is also interesting to read Coddling in close proximity to Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Perhaps we need less iPhone and more magic mushrooms. I’d actually like to hear a conversation among Pollan, Haidt, and Lukianoff. The other day I was telling a friend about How to Change Your Mind, and he said that not only had he tried psychedelics in high school, but his experience cured or alleviated his stutter and helped him find his way in the world. The plural of anecdote is not data, but it’s hard to imagine safety culture approving of psychedelic experiences (despite their safety, which Pollan describes in detail).

In The Lord of the Rings when Aragorn and his companions believe that Gandalf has perished in Moria; Gimli says that “Gandalf chose to come himself, and he was the first to be lost… his foresight failed him.” Aragorn replies, “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others.” And neither is life: it is not founded on foreknowledge of safety. Adventure is necessary to become a whole person. Yet childhood and even universities are today increasingly obsessed with safety, to the detriment of the development of children and students. In my experience, military veterans returning to college are among the most intersting and diligent students. We seem to have forgotten Gandalf’s lessons. One advantage in reading old books may be some of the forgotten cultural assumptions beneath them; in The Lord of the Rings risk is necessary for reward, and the quality of a life is not dependent on the elimination of challenge.

Here’s a good critical review.

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 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.

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