Briefly noted: The Three Languages of Politics, Maigret at Picratt’s, The Ditch

* The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides (Arnold Kling): Like Kling I “would like to see political discussion conducted with less tribal animosity and instead with more mutual respect and reasoned deliberation.” But I don’t expect to see it in the near future, though I am hopeful for the medium to far future. And I’d also ask the author about him seeing “more mutual respect and reasoned deliberation” in political discourse—as compared to what? Or when? Deliberation seems better than it was in, say, 1850 – 1865, and problems today, though severe, still seem considerably less severe than they were in the 1930s. The Soviet Union did not go for “less tribal animosity” throughout the Cold War, although the Soviet nemesis may have reduced some local tribal animosity.

Still, Kling writes that “This book can help you recognize when someone is making a political argument that is divisive and serves no constructive purpose.” Which is most of the time; identifying such things is good and I approve, but I also suspect not very many people who really need this book will read it, and that politics is to most people and voters a team sport first, and an information problem or network second, or twentieth.

Something about politics may also bring out the worst in many of us: I’ve also noticed an uptick in weak comments about politically-related writing on this blog—those comments are much more frequent than in writing about books or other subjects. When I delete them, the authors sometime reappear for more invective (which is also deleted). We need tribal identities over, under, or beyond political identities; I read somewhere that political matters are not enough to base an identity on, which seems true and underrated. Ross Douthat has also said that, if you don’t like the religious right, you’re really not going to like the non-religious right, and so far that seems surprisingly correct to me.

* The Ditch (Herman Koch); can’t figure out what’s special about this writer, but maybe translation is the issue—or Europhilia among reviewers. I’m looking for representative, evocative sentences and finding none. Koch gets lots of notice but I’m not seeing what the reviewers seem to see. Maybe you know?

* Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Mark Harris) is strangely boring, and no man would wish it to be longer than it is. Culminates in Academy Awards minutia, somehow. Reminiscent in some ways of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor. But if you have a keen interest in movies and the movie business of the 1960s, this is your book.

* The Ideas That Made America (Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen ) sounds promising, but don’t be fooled: you don’t get many of them, and you get too much of the obvious, like “The movement of ideas rarely respects national borders.” No shit? Why would anyone (outside of academia) think otherwise? To be fair, she does later say that intellectual exchanges between the U.S. north and south were rare, but then why not just say that in one sentence, instead of many more than it requires? There is some detail about how slavery was justified in the south, but to call that thinking “bare rationalization” is an understatement.

* Maigret at Picratt’s is another of the Maigret novels, though “novella” is probably more accurate, and one that often feels strangely contemporary. Being a party animal and aging are not very compatible, which is obvious and yet not stated as such often. Today, continual references to police bicycles stand out. Of one early murder victim we find, “Heads turned as she passed. You sensed she came from a different world, the world of the night, and there was something almost indecent about her in the harsh light of a winter’s day.” People differ; Maigret wishes to know all. The French look to Americans for guidance (“Apparently it’s what they do in America in the burlesques”), just as the Americans look back across the Atlantic for the same. “You know how it is” occurs in dialogue at least once, and “I understand” several times. Do we all seek understanding? If so, why is it so hard to find?

Briefly noted: Fleishman is in Trouble, Empty Planet, The Uninhabitable Earth

* Fleishman is in Trouble (Taffy Brodesser-Akner): It’s like Martha McPhee’s Dear Money, but with more sex and bad behavior and a pathetic protagonist. I laughed at times, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it adds up to much. Both books are set in NYC and one unstated lesson might be, “Don’t live in NYC,” as the city’s wealthy have terrible values around money and mimetic contagion is rife, uncontrolled, and unrecognized by the people in its grip. No one has read Girard (a Christian; could some religious practices help with partial inoculation against excessive inquisitiveness?). Extremely wealthy people constantly envy even more extremely ridiculously wealthy people; maybe one could read this as a Staussian and argue that both novels are deliberately critical of their settings, but I don’t really see it.

Consider: “Again I’ll say it: Life is a process in which you collect people and prune them when they stop working for you. The only exception to that rule is the friends you make in college.” There is some truth to the notion of pruning people who you’re no longer compatible with—I’m sure we’ve all done it—but this also makes people sound expendable, and like the moment someone “stops working for you,” it’s time for them to go. That’s a pretty utilitarian view of friends—and the observation is coming from someone who has utilitarian leanings. Some of its truths are universal, though, like, “People who say they like jazz are lying.”

A lot of these people have too much money and are simultaneously too focused on money: a point I’ll return to in a future post that started as an email rant to a friend. One character, wealthy and successful, argues at the novel’s end that everything “sucks.” Sucks—compared to what? One reading could be that humans are discontented strivers; another reading could find that none of these people have any perspective.

Evolutionary biology is the unnamed shadow lurking beneath many characters’s experiences, though I still prefer the “Don’t live in NYC” reading. The best character is Wilson’s Disease.

* Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline (Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson). This is a book that stolidly does what it promises and for that reason it will be of interest to some of you. “Demography is destiny,” they say, and, if that’s true, we might all be fucked. Many Western social welfare systems were put into place when populations were booming and implicitly assume they’ll continue to boom; one of the dysfunctions in the present-day United States and Europe comes from the way the old are sucking resources from the too-few young, and the young aren’t bothering to vote against the sucking. Empty Planet is also a book that’s designed to be cited as either prophetic or a cautionary tale about forward projection, with the latter well-represented by books like Paul Ehrlich’s, one of the most famously wrong people of all time.

Articles like, “Can China recover from its disastrous one-child policy?” are becoming more prominent, and they’re congruent with Empty Planet. The book is written intelligently but style is not its strong point.

* The Uninhabitable Earth (David Wallace-Wells). An excellent book and it too does what it says—I already buy its premise, though. The point remains that essentially no one (or a number that is statistically distinguishable from “no one”) is changing their behavior in response to books like this. Which is pretty depressing; what should we infer from it? Even the superficially liberal people who lives in cities and say they care about the environment won’t stop getting on planes; basically, everyone who is busy recycling wine bottles doesn’t stop to think about how “per passenger a typical economy-class New York to Los Angeles round trip produces about 715 kg (1574 lb) of CO2 (but is equivalent to 1,917 kg (4,230 lb) of CO2 when the high altitude ‘climatic forcing’ effect is taken into account).” There are some personal things we can do, beyond the obvious ones around transit and food, like sign up for Climeworks subscriptions, but it doesn’t seem like we’re running, en masse, to do this.

We’re 40 years from the Charney Report, which accurately forecasted global warming and accurately predicted its link to CO2, and we’re still dithering, at best. We can’t say we’ve not been warned. We’ve just collectively chosen not to act.

* Then It Fell Apart by Moby (the musician), is like a non-fiction Michel Houellbecq novel; as with virtually all of Houellebecq’s characters, Moby grows up in an affectless, dysfunctional home. In Moby’s case, his mom has a rotating cast of boyfriends and is too dysfunctional to maintain employment; Moby says he “grew up in the middle of hippie chaos” that scarred him emotionally. His childhood is so bad that he doesn’t mind being a charity case among his friends’s parents “so long as I got to spend time in warm houses with carpets.” Or when his “mom’s friends didn’t seem to have jobs, although they complained sometimes about not getting enough money from their parents back in Connecticut.” Getting a job, showing up on time, and all those bourgeois values look really good in this book. Bourgeois values live, because what’s the alternative? Squalor? Kids with lives like Moby’s? I have a post about Hollywood’s Eve on deck, and that’s another book that’s implicitly critical of people who don’t keep an eye on their offspring.

Coverage of this book has been sadly focused on the least-interesting aspects of celebrity gossip.

* Three Women (Lisa Taddeo). I found it kind of boring. One of the characters is boring and lacks self-efficacy (she needs Stoic philosophy and a stronger sense of personal autonomy); another is not doing anything wrong (if you fail to maintain your vegetable patch, don’t be surprised when someone else volunteers to); and the third and most interesting should have been the focus of Three Women. I’m looking for representative quotes and not finding any—which tells you something. If you’re tempted to read Three Women based on other reviews, try the collected works of Esther Perel instead. Toni Bentley calls it: “The result of Taddeo’s investigation, however, is not a book about the vast terra infirma of female desire, but, rather, an excruciating exposé of the ongoing epidemic of female fragility and neediness in the romantic arena — a product of our insecurity, ignorance and zero self-regard.”

Briefly noted: Delta-V, Permission, and The Stand

* Delta-V by Daniel Suarez is an SF novel with an SF novel’s typical poor writing. The second chapter begins with the scene: “The United States Senate Appropriations Subcommittee…” is in Washington DC. Two paragraphs later, “Three US senators sat…” Well, yes: would they be Mexican senators? Or Knesset members? Can’t we assume they’re US senators? Clumsy writing on almost every page made me give up, like “That meant eighteen people were definitely going into space on Joyce’s dime. Tighe hoped to be one of those people.” Suarez doesn’t need “of those people.” These basic errors are representative, not cherry-picked. Don’t be fooled, as the interesting premise can’t be sustained into a good novel because of consistently low prose quality.

There are some good moments; in one scene, on the first asteroid to be mined, two characters discuss creating metal parts via chemical vapor deposition (CVD):

“It’s existed since Ludwig Mond invented it back in 1890.”
“I’ve honestly never heard of it.”
“Back on Earth it’s less toxic to just use a blast furnace. Up here in space, though, CVD is going to be critical for precision manufacturing.”
[…] “It’s like alchemy.”
“No, it’s better than alchemy—it’s science.”

A fine point too rarely encountered, and a high end to the chapter.

* Permission by Saskia Vogel, an okay book but its timeline seems somewhat random and muddled to me. Too many novels are in the improbable reaches of the movie/TV glamor industries; people substitute “hope” for wages in those industries, with results that are often not good. In this novel, a dominatrix conveniently moves next door to a woman who becomes interested in her. Rather than what you may be thinking, more of the novel is like this: “Everything inside me, ocean. I inhaled with both my nose and mouth, greedy for air, feeling my lungs expand. My body was mostly water, but only mostly, still” than like this: “I was wearing a semi-sheer basque with a matching thong. He buried his face in my cleavage,” but there is some of both—like life, one could argue.

You have to be okay with the one-sentence paragraphs:

Only her.
Only this.
Only now.

So deep, man, right? Pass the joint. I didn’t regret reading it but am not sure it’ll stick with me, or most people. You could say that Nine and a Half Weeks got there first and is still colonizing this territory.

* I read Stephen King’s The Stand when I was 11 or 12, and it holds up better than Robert Jordan but not as well as I’d like: it has moments—a rural cop describes how his wife “neatens” the cells, for instance, the word being wholly appropriate—but it has some howlers in it too, like the doctor who says:

They are the symptoms of the common cold, of influenza, of pneumonia. We can cure all of those things, Nick. Unless the patient is very young or very old, or perhaps already weakened by a previous illness, antibiotics will knock them out.

Colds and influenzas are viruses, not bacteria, and antibiotics don’t affect them. If anyone had a cure for the common cold, they’d be a billionaire. It’s conceivable that we could today have a vaccine for the common cold, but the regulatory structure put in place by the FDA doesn’t favor it.

Still, the paranoid style in it is depressingly modern (look for all the mentions of not just government failure but active malice), although in the novel the paranoia and distrust are correct. It could be contrasted with the movie Contagion in “Bureaucratic Heroism,” a great essay with an unlikely title. Today, it feels like a product of disillusionment from the Vietnam war. But excess skepticism may be as bad or almost as bad as excess trust.

It’s also still scary, when the prose doesn’t interfere with the fear.

Recent books: The Earth Below, A Mind at Play, An Economist Walks Into a Brothel

* The Earth Below by Katy Barnett, a dystopian novel that seems promising but has way too much “My heart was racing and sweat poured down my face” and “for a moment his eyes lit up with an unalloyed smile” kinds of sentences. There isn’t much novel in the language of this novel, though “Then, like a drop of black ink diffusing through water, a dark thought spread across my mind” is impressive. Problem is, The Earth Below loses the war against cliché. I’d read the next one Barnett writes; The Earth Below shows promise.

* A Mind at Play by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, an okay biography of Claude Shannon, a guy whose accomplishments happen almost entirely in the mind, leaving us not much of interest in his life itself. If you’re deeply interested in information theory and its history, this is probably good. If you’re looking for a good yarn, less so. The lives of brilliant intellectuals often don’t lend themselves to interesting biographies.

* An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk by Allison Schrager. It sounds entertaining and is entertaining; there is a bit of the Gladwellian strategy or formula of story leads to research leads to conclusion, so if you’re tired of that structure you may not like this book so much. I wonder how many people are like this woman: “Before starting at the brothel, Starr lived a double life: marketing executive by day and exotic dancer on the site. Or it might be more accurate to say she was a high-paid exotic dancer ‘on the conference circuit’ who had a corporate job on the side.” There is also an implicit warning about academia, as Schrager describes her dissertation: “I shut myself away in the library and spent the better part of my twenties isolated, trying to solve that single math problem. Five years later, when I actually solved it, I expected something wonderful to happen; instead, everything fell apart. My relationship with my adviser deteriorated, and the sudden death of a close friend left me emotionally shattered. My worse enemy, however, was my ambivalence.” This would be an interesting book to read next to Lonesome Dove. Have you read Lonesome Dove? I saw copies of it many times before I did and wish I’d read it sooner.

* The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve by Steve Stewart-Williams. This is more evolutionary biology; if you’ve already read a lot of it, you don’t need this one. The highs are high, though:

In many ways, the world today is a primate paradise. Compared to any other period in human history, we’ve got lower infant mortality rates, longer lifespans, less violence, greater wealth, and more opportunities to pursue the goals that suit us. We should be over the moon… but we’re not. Most of us are reasonably happy, sure. But we’re hardly ecstatic, and some of us are simply miserable. As Geoffrey Miller observes, the world has never been better, and yet many people have to take special medications to avoid suicidal despair. Now obviously, life has never been a picnic. However, some aspects of the modern world may be misaligned with human nature in ways that produce novel psychological problems – problems that, like breast cancer and endometriosis, are largely diseases of modernity.

or

We’re carnivores that sympathize with our food. We’re biological mechanisms designed to pass on our genes, but which fritter away our time playing games and weaving a web of fantasy around ourselves. We’re clusters of chemical reactions that contemplate deep truths about the nature of reality. And we’re little pieces of the Earth that can get outside our mother planet and venture to other worlds.

I found myself skimming a lot of familiar material.


As always if you know what I should read, let me know.

Is there an actual Facebook crisis, or media narrative about Facebook crisis?

Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis” just appeared in the New York Times, but the “crisis” seems imaginary: is there an actual crisis, outside the media narrative? Has Facebook seen a fall in monthly, weekly, or daily active users? That data would support a crisis narrative, but the best the article can do is, “its pell-mell growth has slowed.” Slowing growth makes sense for a company with two billion people using it; all companies eventually reach market saturation.

To me, the story reads a lot like a media narrative that has very little to do with users’s actual lives; I’ve been reading variations on “Why Facebook sucks” and “Why Facebook is doomed” for a very long time. It’s like “Why this is the year of Linux on the desktop,” but for media companies.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m barely a Facebook user and I agree with much of the criticism. You can argue that Facebook is bad for reasons x, y, z, and I will likely agree—but what I do, individually and anecdotally, is less significant than what users do and want to do. “Revealed preferences” matter: every time someone uses Facebook, that person shows they like Facebook more than not—and find it valuable more than not.

Aggregate those decisions together, and we see that there is no crisis. Facebook continues to grow; if their growth is slowing, it is because virtually everyone with an Internet connection is already on Facebook. I personally think people should read more books and spend less time on Facebook, but I’m a literary boffin type person who would also say the same of television. Lots of literary boffin type persons have had the same view of TV since TV came out—you should read more books and watch less TV—but, in the data, people didn’t watch less TV until quite recently, when Facebook started to replace TV.

So why is the media so vociferously anti-Facebook right now? The conventional media sources, including the NYT, don’t want to confront their own role in the 2016 election—the relentless focus on Clinton’s email server was insane. What should have been a footnote, at best, instead saw nearly wall-to-wall coverage. We don’t want to acknowledge that most people’s epistemological skill is low. Why look at ourselves, when we have this handy scapegoat right… over… there?

Facebook is a Girardian scapegoat for a media ecosystem that is unable or unwilling to consider its own role in the 2016 fiasco. With any media story, there are at least two stories: the story itself and the decision behind working on and publishing and positioning that particular story. The second story is very seldom discussed by journalists and media companies themselves, but it’s an important issue in itself.

In a tweet, Kara Swisher wrote that Zuckerberg is “unkillable, unfireable and untouchable.” I disagree: users can fire him whenever they want. Swisher had a good retort: “Remember aol.” Still, large, mature markets behave differently than small, immature markets: in 1900, there were many car companies. By 1950, only a few were left. Market size and market age both matter. Facebook reportedly has two billion users, a substantial fraction of the entire human population. It has survived Google+ and its users have demonstrated that they love wasting spending time online. Maybe current Facebook users will find an alternate way to spend/waste time online (again, I’m not personally a big Facebook user), but if they do, I don’t think it’ll be because of the 5000th media scare story about Facebook.

So far, I’ve read zero media stories that cite Rene Girard and the scapegoating mechanism: I don’t think the media understands itself right now.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay — Elena Ferrante

By now everyone who follows the book-o-sphere has read Ferrante, whose books are very hard to excerpt: there is something weird and hypnotic about the way they roll on, through characters’ lives, in ways that seem banal in the moment by moment but add up to something. They just keep going and though they should be boring they somehow aren’t. Laura Miller says that, “The real heart of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is the economic striving that drives their heroine throughout her life,” which may explain why they are boring when they are boring: at times they are too close to New York Times editorials about supposed income inequality. In the time and place Ferrante writes about economic striving was probably much harder than it is today, and Italy has long been an economic basket case relative to other first-world countries, but one still senses lurking editorializing beneath the story, and it’s hard for me at least to believe that anyone was crazy enough to believe those who identify with communism, which has been definitively shown to fail.

Yet those long sections end and move back into the specific and personal (“it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth”). Elena, the protagonist, is pleased at one point that “I had married a respectable man.” But “respectable” to her transmutes to “predictable” and thus boring: is that the way of most relationships today?* One wonders: every strength has a weakness and the sameness of “respectable” is dull to her and, she feels, dulls her. Respectable is a word that connotes a person’s character in the eyes of an imagined community, rather than the eye and mind of a single individual. To the community respect may be valuable. To Elena it becomes a drag. She needs to re-start the relationship process, which is charted in so many novels (one favorite is On Love).

In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’s world of broken relationships, it is hard to perceive why anyone marries at all. Perhaps they do it because they feel they should. Perhaps they do it for the struggle that is (mostly) lost. Ecstacy plus time means fermentation into misery. Where does one go from here? To the next cycle.

Boredom incites riots and deaths and breakups. It is the characteristic modern feeling, which is why Houellebecq is so popular. He gets boredom like no one else. In the first three books, at least, Elena never understands herself. Critics have praised the depth of Ferrante’s characterization. I perceive the opposite: most of the characters, except perhaps gangster Michele Solara, are all surface and no depths. They don’t perceive themselves. Maybe none of us does. Maybe that is our curse, which is to consciousness’s curse.

The book feels very nineteenth century in its scope, and that’s a good thing. I keep looking for “representative” quotes and finding none. Certain words, like “felt” and “feel,” recur so many times that there are good essays to be written about them, just like the idea of being “respectable” mentioned earlier. The books need a book of entire response to do them justice; even the essays I’ve read pull a single strand and, in doing so, ignore the rest of the world.


As Elena says: “I was unhappy. I lay in bed, discontent with my situation as a mother, a married woman, the whole future debased by the repetition of domestic rituals in the kitchen, in the marriage bed.”

Briefly noted: Nexus – Ramez Naam

Read Nexus for the plot rather than the sentences; I’m looking for an evocative sentence to quote by way of example and not finding any, while banal sentences are everywhere. In this world, Nexus is a drug or treatment or process (the “right” word doesn’t exist) can link people’s minds directly together, allowing people to experience what another person experiences—or to invade and control another person’s mind. The protagonist is a grad student who figures out the next technical step in the Nexus process.

One could say that the Nexus drug / treatment will radically increase empathy, with unexpected or unforeseen results. In-group empathy seems to have been important to the evolution of human cooperation, so artificially further increasing empathy could have unpredictable outcomes, just like no one foresaw Facebook as being a central part of the Internet experience for most people. Making empathy radically common could decrease some kinds of violence. But it can also leave people susceptible to predation. But as one character observes, “If Nexus 5 ever gets out, it’ll spread like wildfire. Permanent integration means a user only ever needs to procure a single dose for a lifetime effect. You can’t fight that on the supply side.” He’s right about the supply side, as we’ve seen from the supposed “war on drugs,” and he’s right that people will likely want a drug that leads to unbelievable euphoria, sex, and knowledge—but note too that the character resorts to cliché: “it’ll spread like wildfire.” Do things spread in some other fashion? Can we fine something better here?

No:

Kim and William furiously hit keys [. . .]

Sam took her time in replying. “I’m human, Kade”.

Does a person take time “in replying” or “to reply?” And is just saying “paused” easier? These kinds of language infelicities can be called minor but when they recur throughout the novel they become major.

Still, properly read, Nexus may be about the dangers of dual-use technology: “They’d built Nexus OS to give people new freedoms, new ways to connect, new ways to learn. Not to use it as a tool for control or assassination.” The Internet was arguably invented in part for new ways to connect and learn, and now it’s used for virtue signaling, character assassination, and petty rivalry blown up to the world stage. Things have not gone as I once imagined they would. I used to be an Internet utopian. No more. Yet maybe Nexus would be different, though Nexus also raises the essential philosophical question: “What is real?” If another person can reach into your mind and rearrange it, what stops them from planting whatever memories or preferences they want? What, in this scenario, makes an individual an individual? “Nothing” seems to be the answer to that last question.

In Nexus, as you can likely tell from what I’ve written so far, the ideas seem more important than the words expressing them, which may say something about the underlying work. The book seems destined for TV, where the quality of its sentences won’t matter. I’m not unhappy to have read the book, but if you’ve not read Blindsight and like SF, start there. Still, I’ll read the next Naam novel after the Nexus trilogy.

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