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.

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.

Adventures in the Screen Trade — William Goldman

I’ve cited Adventures before, and it seems to have aged 25 years since 2011. Still as a historical work, it’s of interest—like the way movies started as YouTube, shifted to what we’d call “movies” today, and maybe are shifting back towards YouTube:

By the year 1910, there were over nine thousand theatres in operation across the country.

Movies, of course, were shorter then. D.W. Griffith, in one five-year stretch, directed over five hundred ‘movies.’ Not only were they of less duration, they were also a good deal more simplistic than what we are used to today; one early hit consisted in its entirety of nothing but a horse eating hay. (The filmmaker who created the horse movie followed up with another smash—some footage of a pillow fight between his two daughters.)

Sound familiar? Animals eating, children being cute, no real story—it’s YouTube. YouTube gives us a distribution mechanism that takes us back towards the start of the film era. Had there not been laws and mores against it, one could imagine a good deal of pornography being shot and shown then: another topic of great interest today, albeit not directly on YouTube.

Goldman’s notion of “stars” may be changing too: the entitled behavior he describes seems to be going away, because today no one, or almost no one, goes to see a move just to see a particular actor. When Goldman wrote, narrative visual entertainment was limited to a small number of TV stations and movies. That was it. Today, narrative visual entertainment is effectively limitless. How people watch has changed, and that in turn has changed the industry.

Everyone has a take on Los Angeles; Goldman is not an exception.

But my particular crazies are not why I find writing so difficult. It’s more like this: Everything’s so goddamn nice out there. Sure, they bitch about their smog, but unless you’re a Hawaiian born and bred, the weather is terrific. And so many of the basic necessities of life are made so easy for you: The markets are often open twenty-four hours a day, nobody snarls at you in the stores when you’re trying to buy something. It’s all just . . . swell.

Is it still so swell? Some of those advantages have changed: I perceive Southern Californians as nice, but in a superficial way. The East Coast probably has 24-hour markets now—as many as California’s. Paul Graham even lists the California attitude as an advantage for startups:

What makes the Bay Area superior is the attitude of the people. I notice that when I come home to Boston. The first thing I see when I walk out of the airline terminal is the fat, grumpy guy in charge of the taxi line. I brace myself for rudeness: remember, you’re back on the East Coast now.

The atmosphere varies from city to city, and fragile organisms like startups are exceedingly sensitive to such variation. If it hadn’t already been hijacked as a new euphemism for liberal, the word to describe the atmosphere in the Bay Area would be “progressive.” People there are trying to build the future. Boston has MIT and Harvard, but it also has a lot of truculent, unionized employees like the police who recently held the Democratic National Convention for ransom, and a lot of people trying to be Thurston Howell. Two sides of an obsolete coin.

Today, though, California is less nice: cruel zoning and Prop 13 have made living there far more expensive than it was in Goldman’s day. Back then, maybe it was too nice. Now it’s slammed by traffic and the cost of housing is astronomical. The only people who can afford to live there are the rich and desperate to succeed. Maybe that makes the state better for startups (empirically, this seems to be true so far), but I wonder if the high cost of living, along with tighter profit margins, will eventually drive the movie talent cluster out.

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