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.

Novels that turn on scientific or technical breakthroughs

Spoilers ahead.

Andy Weir’s novel Artemis and Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder are different in many ways, but apart from being excellent they both share an unusual point: their plots are driven by technological breakthroughs. In Artemis, the breakthrough is a zero attenuation fiber optic cable; the acronym ZAFO appears early in the novel and remains opaque until about halfway through. The “Artemis” of the title refers to a near-future moon base that is in economic trouble: there is little economic reason for humans to inhabit the moon apart from tourism, which is insufficient to sustain the base. The novel posits, however, that a technical breakthrough could lead to a massive new industry. The moon base’s administrator says:

Just imagine what a revelation that was for O Palácio [a Brazilian crime syndicate or mafia group]. All of a sudden, their insignificant money-laundering company was poised to corner an emerging billion-dollar industry. From that point on, they were all in. But Artemis is very far away from Brazil, and they had only one enforcer on site, thank God.

This passage is characteristic of the novel in another way: it’s not very attentive to language. Perhaps the character speaking would say “All of a sudden,” instead of the correct “All of the sudden.” Artemis has a lot of the bad language habits that MFA programs, whatever their flaws, tend to help writers avoid or ameliorate.

In State of Wonder, Marina Singh goes deep into the Amazon jungle to find her former supervisor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is continuing her own mentor’s research into a tribal group where the women have extended fertility. At the same time, Swenson is seeking an anti-malaria drug that may stem from the same source.

I’m trying to think of other novels that have a technical breakthrough at their core. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is one (the data haven at the end likely qualifies as a technical breakthrough). Yet I can think of few others. If you know any, please leave pointers in the comments. Perhaps more novelists should be thinking about how technological or scientific breakthroughs might power the plots of novels. Alternately, perhaps more novels do this than I realize, and I don’t have a good sense of other, similar novels that have been published.

Ian McEwan’s Solar is another one.

I can’t recall any 18th or 19th century novels that turn on technical breakthroughs.

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.

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