The Second Avenue Subway, opening day

We have entirely too few epic engineering projects; to finally get to ride one is fun! Today the Second Avenue Subway, a century in the making, opened:

second avenue subway

The subway stops don’t feel like typical subway stops because they lack the grime that usually marks them in the same way cold marks the winter solstice.

second avenue subway 2

The active part of this round of subway construction began in 2007; while the subway should’ve opened years ago, it is nice to see it open at all. One gets a sense of the sublime from epic engineering works, and, as Zero to One argues, we’ve collectively lost faith in our ability to build big things and tackle serious problems. The new subway is evidence to the contrary.

Still, one hopes the next phase of the line goes better. Matt Yglesias explains some of this phase’s problems in “NYC’s brand new subway is the most expensive in the world — that’s a problem: The tragedy of the Second Avenue Subway.” On a per-mile basis the Second Avenue Subway is the by far the most expensive subway in the world, and it’s by far more expensive than similar projects in crowded first-world cities like London, Paris, and Tokyo. We’re not getting much bang-for-the-buck and that needs to change.

New York has so far been “Slow to Embrace Approach That Streamlines Building Projects.” Management and labor have been eagerly lining each other’s pockets. That’s particularly unfortunate because the infrastructure is desperately needed and has been desperately needed for decades if not longer.

Second Avenue Subway 3

To be sure, the stations are much more functional than most others, and their mezzanine levels impress. One wishes, however, for fewer mezzanines and more total stations.

Second Avenue Subway selfie art

As you can see above, someone thought through the selfie-friendly art that lines the stations.

Today is still a historic occasion and one does not so often get the chance to participate directly and obviously in history. It may be churlish to note this, but my train spent five to ten minutes waiting due to “train traffic ahead of us” between 63rd Street and 72nd Street. Some things may be new but others are too familiar.

Vote for Clinton or Johnson for president:

If polls are to be believed the presidential race was much closer than it should have been; they are widening now, but their previous narrowness is a travesty because Trump is unfit to be president. There are longer explanations as to why Trump is such a calamity and so unfit for office, like “SSC Endorses Clinton, Johnson, Or Stein” or many others, but perhaps the best thing I’ve read on Trump is “The question of what Donald Trump ‘really believes’ has no answer” (it came out before this weekend’s fiasco and I started this post before this weekend’s fiasco—I wish I’d posted this sooner). The “really believes” article is too detailed to be excerpted effectively but here is one key part:

When he utters words, his primary intent is not to say something, to describe a set of facts in the world; his primary intent is to do something, i.e., to position himself in a social hierarchy. This essential distinction explains why Trump has so flummoxed the media and its fact-checkers; it’s as though they are critiquing the color choices of someone who is colorblind.

Most of us are simultaneously trying to say something about the state of the world and trying to raise our place in it (or raise the place of our allies or lower the place of someone else). Particularly fact-based enterprises like science and engineering are notoriously averse to strongly positional-based enterprises like marketing and sales, where belief matters more than truth (or where belief is true, which is not true in engineering: It is not enough to believe that your bridge will remain standing). But Trump takes the basic way virtually all people signal their status to such an extreme that his speech and, it seems, mind are totally devoid of content altogether.

The number of people who would ordinarily be politically silent but who cannot be silent in the face of ineptness combined with cruelty is large. LeBron James endorses Clinton. Mathematician Terry Tao writes, “It ought to be common knowledge that Donald Trump is not fit for the presidency of the United States of America” (he’s right: it ought to be).

I’m not famous but will note that you should vote for Clinton or Johnson. This is not like any presidential election I’ve been alive for. The risks are real and the difference between Clinton and Trump is not one of policy. It is one of basic competence.

The situation is so bad that The Atlantic’s editors have endorsed Clinton—only the third time in the history of the magazine that it has endorsed a candidate for president (the other two were Lincoln and LBJ):

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has no record of public service and no qualifications for public office. His affect is that of an infomercial huckster; he traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself. He is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.

The reviewIn ‘Hitler,’ an Ascent From ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue” is only superficially writing about Germany from 1931 – 45. It is really a commentary on Trump, like notes about how “Hitler as a politician … rose to power through demagoguery, showmanship and nativist appeals to the masses.” That’s part of Trump’s appeal. Or it was part of Trump’s appeal. One hopes that appeal is fading. The distressing thing is watching people fall for it (or did until recently), or view Trump as a way to express other grievances.

We collectively must not be willfully blind and the United States is better than Trump.

It is impossible to be even slightly skilled at close reading and not perceive Trump’s many weaknesses as a speaker, thinker, or human. If nothing else this election may be a test of the United States’ education level and the quality of its educational system. In all the other elections I’ve lived through, major politicians have had strengths and weaknesses, but none have been outright demagogues or dangerous to the fabric of democracy itself. This election is different and that’s why I’m writing this. America is better than this.

I hope to never again endorse political candidates, but when the structure and stability of the country itself is at risk it is a mistake not to say something, somewhere, publicly. Writing this post is itself depressing.

I’ve been writing for money

A couple readers have asked where I’ve been lately. The short answer is, “Writing for money.” So much writing-for-money that it crowds out other writing. I’m still reading—to me, reading and writing are always intimately connected—but all the excess words and attention have been going into proposals, and occasionally other projects, rather than to posts here. Hence the links posts: I’m still reading, something, and passing on the best stuff.

A friend and I have also been discussing the state of reading books in an age of distraction, and I’ve definitely noticed that a Kindle, Instapaper, and the many long-form sites out there are a killer confluence of technologies. At the margin I read much more long-form nonfiction than I used and fewer books than I used to. To be sure, I still read books and write them, but a book needs to be of higher quality than it once did if it’s to compete with the good, low-cost alternatives.

There are still many books that surpass this threshold. Insides Jokes and Seveneves come to mind.  There are numerous others. The best books still reward re-reading in a way few articles do. The best books bring a sensibility and depth to a topic in a way few articles do. The trick is finding those books, which seems as hard as it’s ever been.

I never thought I’d vote for Hillary Clinton, yet here I am:

I never thought I’d vote for Hillary Clinton, and I really never thought I’d be excited to do so, but here I am, voting for her today: It turns out that she’s by far the sanest choice in an insane landscape. Most political commentary is really about signalling (including people who say, “most political commentary is really about signalling,” since they’re making a point and trying to signal their intelligence). Still, to understand why I vote for sanity, consider Jonathan Rauch’s argument in “Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy” and “Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders’s Plans.” The former explains that it turns out some level of cash handouts actually make politics function much better.

Many of you may remember the fight over “earmarks” from the 2000s—that is, whether Congresspeople should be able to allocate cash for specific purposes in their districts. I thought eliminating earmarks would be a good idea. Turns out I was wrong: Eliminating earmarks means that it is much harder for party leaders to keep their members in line.

As a result, we get more and more moves towards ideological purity, at the expense of, you know, making the country run. Congress has broken down in the last decade or so in part because party leaders can’t discipline their followers by taking away money that should go to members’ districts. The Tea Party, and, on the left, Bernie Sanders, can become more prominent because of that issue.

I’m not the first person to notice this—”How to fix what ails Congress: bring back earmarks” is one good account—but it is a serious problem that has caused particular dysfunction among Republicans, who appear ready to nominate people who are manifestly unqualified for being a big-city mayor, let alone president.

Ideological purity turns out to be very bad. Jonathan Haidt’s “The top 10 reasons American politics are so broken” (and “The Ten Causes of America’s Political Dysfunction“), along with the paper he links to, “Why the Center Does Not Hold: The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America,” explains why.

The papers I’ve been citing also explain why it turns out that Obama has been a much better president than most people, including me, realized, or thought in advance. He’s an incrementalist, a negotiator, a thinker, and a realist—all traits that are not selected for amid political polarization. Clinton is too.

Trump and Sanders espouse opposing policies (to the extent Trump espouses any policies), but both are alike in that they are “outsiders” who want to tear down existing systems; they are both temperamentally similar in that they don’t want to work within existing systems. Both are poor traits in leaders and figureheads. We want evolutionaries, not revolutionaries.

It may simply be that, as Matt Yglesias argues, “American democracy is doomed.” I hope not, but the bout of insanity on right and left does not auger well.

I haven’t dealt much with the specifics of Sanders policies apart from the second link in this post because the short version of the critique is, “There’s no way to pay for all this stuff.” Or even a small amount of this stuff. Alvin Chang observes, probably correctly, that “Most Bernie Sanders supporters aren’t willing to pay for his revolution.” If you ask most people if they want more services, handouts, and stuff, they say yes. If you ask most people if they want lower taxes, they say yes. Stated in those terms, you can see the problem.

If you want to understand that people don’t want to pay higher taxes, look at where they’re moving. The major population growth metros are in Texas. Phoenix and Atlanta do really well too. People are moving to lower-cost states, and that should tell us something important about revealed preferences. Hell, I just voted in the New York primary, and I’d like to move to Austin or Nashville, chiefly for cost-of-living reasons.

As for Sanders and banks, the bigger issue than “big banks” is the “shadow” banking system, which I don’t fully understand, but I do understand well enough to know that Sanders is wildly focused on the wrong things.

Still, the last two paragraphs probably don’t matter because the vast majority of Sanders voters aren’t looking at policies; they’re looking at mood and feelings, and I doubt that 1 in 20 people who start this post will have gotten this far, because it’s wonkish, detailed, and not heavily mood affiliated. Out of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of politics, the “How” is often most important and least discussed.

“First, do no harm” is a good political rule, but it’s also kinda boring. I rarely write about politics because most of the time most politics in the U.S. are about incremental changes, about which I have some opinions, but those opinions aren’t important, and they’re as poorly thought out as the political opinions you see on Facebook. In the last couple presidential cycles, I’ve had opinions and voted accordingly, but the major party candidates have mostly been kinda okay. In 2012, Romney would’ve done some things differently from Obama, but I don’t think he would’ve been a total disaster.

This cycle is scary because at least two candidates would likely be total disasters. Yet people keep voting for those candidates and posting mood affiliated comments on them and so forth.

Praise, criticism, and hypocrisy around people you know

I got some pushback on two recent posts, in which I said “Bess Stillman is the best med school essay writer there is” and that Mate is good but that I’m not an unbiased observer. The basic thrust of the pushback is that I shouldn’t talk about books or services or people I have a direct connection to. But I don’t think it’s true: Dr. Stillman is the best person in her genre I’ve ever seen, and Mate is the book that young straight guys (and probably some older straight guys) need to read. It’s possible to praise those works without compromising intellectual integrity, and indeed if I thought either of their works weren’t good I’d be silent. Silence is often tact; I’m sure some people I know dislike or feel neutral towards Asking Anna or The Hook, and for the most part they’ve said nothing. But approval matters too, and Dr. Stillman’s admission consulting and Mate are worth your attention; attention is the scarcest commodity in the modern information economy and I don’t want to waste mine or yours.*

We live in an information-rich and insight-poor environment. Much of the writing masquerading as insight isn’t, really, and I want to imagine that I’m ever-so-slightly changing the ratio of information to insight. That happens not only around books or ideas I write about, but also about books or ideas or services by people I know—and there is still a key difference between people who I know in real life and people I don’t. For as long as humans are humans personal interactions will matter. That’s why I only do book interviews in person: there’s a different energy there that unlocks ideas not unlocked via written interviews. I’m not saying one medium is better than the other—they’re different—but I am saying the outcomes tend to be different in ways hard to define but easy to feel and notice.

Within this context, it’s possible to be silent when something is not worth attention and loud when something is. If you’re writing bad things about your significant other in a public space, you should really reconsider who you are married to, dating, or sleeping with. Actually, the person you are married to, dating, or sleeping with ought really to reconsider you. The place to offer (suitable delicately phrased) criticism is in private, not on the public Internet.

I of course am not the first person to discuss these matters and I won’t be the last. They’re matters tact, money, and interest, which never go out of style and are always a challenge for every era, and arguably moreso for ours. Authenticity is a bogus concept and yet it’s everywhere (and its bogosity makes it attractive to marketers and other people with shit to sell). I like to think I’m disinclined towards bullshit, in the Frankfurt sense, while still being able to speak to books, works, products, and services that I know through personal connections. So I include disclaimers about potential conflicts of interest where they’re relevant and otherwise try to say things that are true and interesting. The world has an eternal shortage of statements that are true and interesting.

* That’s also one reason why I no longer write negative reviews of books or other materials that are bad in uninteresting ways.

My next novel, THE HOOK, is out today

The HookMy latest novel, The Hook, is out today as a paperback and Kindle book. It’s even available on the iTunes Bookstore for the masochists among you. The Hook is fun and cheap and you should definitely read it. Here’s the dust-jacket description:

Scott Sole might be a teacher, but outside of school hours he likes to think he lives in the adult world. That’s why he indulges his sometime-girlfriend’s request to install an adjustable length hook in his apartment wall—of the sort appropriate for hanging people, not paintings. The project goes so well that, at her urging, he writes a blog post about it. Nobody cares about Scott’s blog—until three students find the post and think they can use it for their own purposes.

Each has a motive: Stacy wants to find out if there’s any truth in the whispers that Scott and her older sister had an affair during her sister’s senior year; Arianna thinks she can use it to weasel out of a semester-long writing assignment; and Sheldon wants a way onto the school newspaper to pad his college application. At the same time, one of Scott’s former students returns to his classroom as a student-teacher with a crush on her supervisor. But as accusations fly regarding the blog post, his students, and the rest of Scott’s less-than-perfect life, Scott discovers that once rumors begin, they’re as hard to stop as dirty pictures on the Internet. They might not just cost him his job, but his freedom. It turns out that a good hook can keep you reading, hold up a kinky girlfriend, and hang your career all at the same time.

My last novel, Asking Anna came out on January 17, 2014. In the last year I’ve quit some things and started others; written about a quarter of my next (likely) novel; read a lot; almost died; and wrote down too many ideas to execute in the next twenty years. But the Asking Anna announcement post is similar to this one, and everything I wrote then is still true:

I’ve been writing fiction with what I’d call a reasonably high level of seriousness since I was 19; I’d rather not do the math on how long ago that was, but let’s call it more than a decade. It took me four to six false starts to get to the first complete novel (as described in slightly more detail here) and another two completed novels to finish one that someone else might actually want to read. Asking Anna came a couple novels after that.

What else? Other writers warned me about bad reviews. They were right that I’d get them, but they were wrong about my reaction: I mostly view bad reviews as entertainment. This “review” may be the best in that respect: “This is surely one of the worst books I have ever read.the author envisions himself as being cerebral by using vocabulary that does not even have any place in the story.” I’m not sure how anyone would envision the author of a novel envisioning himself just through reading the novel in question, but life on the wilds of the Internet entails some pretty confusing commentary.

I’d also like to thank everyone reading this who bought a copy of Asking Anna, and everyone who has bought or is going to buy a copy of The Hook. Books exist to be read. It’s because of your support of Asking Anna that I’ve been able to bring out The Hook. If you’ve gotten this far, let me suggest that you stop by Goodreads and leave comments there.

Why bother observing inconsistencies?

A friend noticed that I tend to say things like this: “The number of people who are genuinely interested in this kind of social policy minutia is probably small, as the popular support for programs like UPK shows” and he asked: why bother if no one cares?

In some existential sense one could ask why anyone bothers doing anything. More specific to this case, I write to find out what I think—I’m not alone in this—and writing solely for yourself has a pointless, masturbatory quality. I also write the kinds of things I like to read, and to understand the world better. Not everyone is interested in that but I am and presumably many readers of this blog are.

Most ideas also have histories, and most beliefs about subjects outside of science don’t advance linearly.* They’re subject to fashion. So one way to determine current fault lines in social (and legal) thinking is to look at what other people in other places and other times have thought.

Take this example: In Sexual Personae Camille Paglia says that the Marquis de Sade’s work “demonstrates the relativism of sexual and criminal codes.” His major works were done more than 200 years ago. Is it not strange that the same points are made, over and over again, through the generations? One reading of this could be that posts like mine are useless: little changes, despite writers like me. Another could be that the optimist hopes tomorrow will be better, for some value of better, than today despite evidence to the contrary.

In Western society criminal codes are designed above all to regulate three things: violence, sex, and property. The relations among the three could be said to be the primary driver of life and hence literature. One could derive a general principle from lots of specific examples.

Virtually everything “big” starts small. This is true of startups, other businesses, novels, countries, and life itself (via evolution). In general it’s better to start with the specific and move towards the general. The more specific the better in most cases. While it is true that most people don’t especially care about hypocrisy, some do, and observing how a society or individual responds to hypocrisy or is hypocritical can be tremendously revealing. Some people don’t care about revelation, and that’s okay. My reasons for writing this blog and thinking about and observing things are similar to the ones Paul Graham enumerates:

I do it, first of all, for the same reason I did look under rocks as a kid: plain curiosity. And I’m especially curious about anything that’s forbidden. Let me see and decide for myself.

Second, I do it because I don’t like the idea of being mistaken. If, like other eras, we believe things that will later seem ridiculous, I want to know what they are so that I, at least, can avoid believing them.

Third, I do it because it’s good for the brain. To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to.

I tend not to get in too much “trouble” because I’m not well known enough to generate intense scrutiny or hate mail or misreadings. People misreading Graham are legion and frequently, unintentionally, hilarious. I don’t have nearly as many, but I still like to think I’m making a difference, however small, at the margins.

* This could be an argument for being in fields that unambiguously advance: at least you know when you’re right, as opposed to being merely morally fashionable.

Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part III

This is the conclusion to a series; the first part is here. The second is here.

An interview between me and Tucker Max about how I used to suck with women and now I’m okay just went up on his Mating Grounds podcast. You should go listen or read the transcript. This essay grew out of my notes for that podcast.

Context and environment

Surroundings matter enormously in many contexts, and dating is a major one. Enough people who are dating form a dating market, and you should see this podcast and its transcript for details about markets. It can be important to change contexts if the current context is bad. Particularly bad contexts for straight guys include the military, engineering schools, rural areas, and Silicon Valley. My high school context was very bad and my college context very good. The ratio of men to women in a given situation has more short-term impact on success or failure than almost any other variable.

Let me tell another story to illustrate this. My fiancée went to Arizona State University for undergrad and she says that at ASU she didn’t like the pretty one, which is baffling to me. Maybe she felt that way presumably because a lot of the culture there revolves around sorority girls, bleached blond hair, and so forth. Nonetheless that she feels she got little attention seems insane to me.

Still, now we’re in New York City, and other guys hit on her all the time; she might be in the right cultural environment for her temperament. There are lots of attractive people in New York, but there’s a much stronger intellectual, change-the-world vibe than there is in Arizona (or L.A.).

The above paragraphs remind me of another point that’s applicable when you, the guy reading this, starts to get successful: If you’re going to be with a high-status, attractive woman, other guys are going to hit on her. If she responds to that in a really positive way you have a problem. But it’s going to happen. If you’re in a relationship you’ll find other women hitting on you too, albeit usually in a less obvious and less overt way. In high school and college, a lot of the smartest guys have exit options ready to go in the event they leave their relationship or their girlfriend leaves them; girls like guys with options and like guys who other girls have approved.

It’s also possible to check on girls in a relationship in a reasonable way. For example, we were part of a group in Arizona, and one guy was my fiancée’s colleague, and he eventually moved away. A couple years later they were chatting on Facebook, and he was like, “Are you still with Jake?” She said yes, and he replied, “Well, that’s too bad. If you break up, call me.” Which is a way you hit on someone without being a giant asshole about it. She told me about it and I was like, “Well, that’s fair.” People do break up for various reasons.

This illustrates another point: if you’re with a woman who wants to leave, she’s going to leave, either cleanly and reasonably or in a foot-dragging, poisonous way. You can’t force a person to stay. Desirable people are always in short supply. Learning to live with loss is part of learning to live with success.

To return to market issues, I don’t think I would’ve thrived at ASU or the University of Arizona as an undergrad: the bro-ish frat types seem to be optimized for those schools, and I wasn’t either one. I didn’t aspire to go to them. If you’re like I was in high school, you shouldn’t either, regardless of whether your friends are a fratty, party-down types. I did reasonably really well with women in college because I was a) athletic by the standards of my school, b) had learned a lot through painful trial and error in high school, and c) my school was about 60% female and 40% male. That meant there were always single girls around who were looking for guys. Friends who went to engineering schools had the opposite experience, since those schools were 60 – 70% male; some would have been better served romantically by majoring in engineering at big public schools.

If you’re in high school you’ll likely find it difficult or impossible to dramatically change your environment in the short term. There aren’t good solutions for you. Sorry. I don’t believe in telling comforting lies, however, and I do believe that some problems don’t have real or good solutions. I wish I’d admitted so earlier.


* The way a girl who says no will sometimes say yes if you find another girl. If one girl says no, move on. It is at best extremely difficult and more likely impossible to change someone’s initial response. To the extent it can be done, it can be done through rivalry.

* It is very hard, if not impossible, to fix most broken people. Don’t try. If you get with a girl who has very serious mental health problems, or makes very bad choices, let her be someone else’s problems. You don’t need to fix the world, and broken people can be dangerous. If you’re a straight guy you’re presumably not too worried about dating guys who are fundamentally broken, but women with serious mental issues can be really bad.

If you identify someone like this, let her go. If you’re inexperienced you might be bad at identifying this kind of person, but if you do, keep your distance. Move on. Don’t return their emails, texts, and phone calls.

* I’ve gone through very promiscuous phases and very monogamous phases, and this is probably typical of a lot of college / urban young people who aren’t participating in some religious sub-culture and who are paying attention to sex and dating.

* Most of the world’s major religions discourage sex for reasons that probably made sense in say the year 1,000 but may or may not make sense anymore. Decide for yourself whether a set of rules and principles for running a society in the year 1,000 make sense in a modern, urbanized, industrialized society.

* I’d emphasize this: “a shockingly large amount of human social life, or like intellectual life, or other life boils down to trying to prove that you’re not a moron and trying to test to see if other people are.” The sooner you learn to do this, the better.

* So much of life consists of defaults. Understanding and in some circumstances getting away from those defaults is vital. The Internet can actually help enormously in this regard by making a lot of information much more available—for those willing to seek it.

* Schools like prestige because it makes the schools look good; parents like prestige for similar reasons, and because they want their children to be economically independent. But prestige isn’t necessarily that good or important for average people. Success in school isn’t essential to success with women. Prestige as conceived by schools and parents isn’t necessary or often  even helpful for success with women, and it may be counterproductive. In the long term we’re all dead and there is no absolute definition for prestige.

* What people say and what people do are often vastly different. What they do counts ten times as much as what they say. Take note of people whose behaviors habitually don’t match their words. With women, if she wants to be with you but does anything else except be with you, she doesn’t want to be with you. In this and many life domains, it should be HELL YES or no.

* When someone says no, take it gracefully and move on. “No” is permission and encouragement to do other things.

* You will very rarely if ever truly know another human being, and another human being will rarely if ever truly know you. Accept it and be ready to be surprised.

* People who don’t read usually don’t know much (or they know a lot about a single, narrow area that’s usually related to their work). A good book distills years or decades of experience, insight, and knowledge into a single volume that can be read over a couple of hours. Consider that when you’re allocating your time.

Not the best

In most domains I’m not the best. You don’t have to be the “best” either. I’m not the best athlete, I’m (probably) not the best intellectual (depending on one’s definition), I don’t make the most money, I don’t have the coolest job, I’m not the most outgoing, I’m not the best conversationalist, I don’t have the best sense of humor. But in all of these domains I’m above average and by now I’ve been above average for a long time, and that’s a huge advantage over guys who don’t even try. Success in any domain starts with trying.

But trying can be scary because it comes with it the possibility of failure. It took me a long time to embrace failure as a part of the process that leads to success. The link in the preceding sentence goes to Megan McArdle’s book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing ell is the Key to Success. In it she writes of the “deep, soul-crushing periods of misery following stupid mistakes that kept me awake until the small hours of the morning in a fog of anxiety and regret.” But while that was obviously horrible:

It was only later—much later—that I saw the wreckage of my previous hopes become the foundation for something bigger and better.

Writers in particular are terrible procrastinators because they were good at English in school. They know on some level that no actual piece of writing is as good as it seems in their heads. The trick in becoming a productive writer is to either have tons of deadlines or to realize that an actualized piece of writing is always better than a perfect piece of writing that only exists in the head. And “Falling short: seven writers reflect on failure” is a great piece in which seven writers reflect on failure. Success also rarely comes from not failing, since not failing implies not trying; success comes from failing, learning, and then trying again. In the real world there are no no-lose propositions.

In most domains, even the ones I’m now “good” at, I’ve failed in some respect, and I’m still not the best. But that’s okay. For most guys, being the absolute best at a thing is overrated compared to being above average in a range of domains. During my initial interview with Tucker I related the story of Scott Adams, who has said he’s not the best artist and he’s not the funniest guy but he combines both effectively in Dilbert (he also discusses the role of failure in his own life). Combining disparate skills is still underrated. Steven Berlin Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From is good on this subject.

Most guys don’t have to be the best athlete or musician. They should, however, be better than other guys, and the amount of effort it takes to be “better” is often much smaller than anticipated (and also depends on the comparison group). I’m not and never have been the best athlete, but by now I’m probably better than 80% of other guys simply because I care enough to run and lift. This is a huge, key advantage, because women do evaluate men based on physicality, especially in short-term situations; arguably women can afford to be choosier than men in short-term situations because women are warier of those situations.

Anyway, as I said earlier, this essay was supposed to be a couple notes but it turned into more, in part because I suffer from logorrhea and in part because most of the content in this essay is already drifting around in my head.

See also “The appeal of ‘pickup’ or ‘game’ or ‘The Redpill’ is a failure of education and socialization” (note: “Feminism didn’t come from nowhere. Neither has pickup.”) and “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?

Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part II

This is the second part in a series; The first part is here.

An interview between me and Tucker Max about how I used to suck with women and now I’m okay just went up on his Mating Grounds podcast. You should go listen or read the transcript. This essay grew out of my notes for that podcast.


I did some online dating years ago, primarily in Seattle and a little bit in Tucson, and some of the girls I got to know showed me their message streams. Some messages were disgusting or outright idiotic, but most they were boring and poorly thought out: “Hey.” “How are you?” “Your profile is interesting.” Pretty girls get dozens of them every week. Hell, even average girls do. I was thinking, “If I were a girl, I’d get turned off by all this crap too.”

Most of the girls I talked to—even the ones who just wanted to get laid—were in fact tired of all that crap. They got so many low-quality messages, or messages from guys who’d copied and pasted an initially clever come-on but couldn’t follow-up. Those women wanted something a little different. They were bored, which is a point I’ll come back to later. Dating for women is different in important ways than dating for men, and I wish I’d understood that sooner.

Reading those messages also explained why I was doing fairly well, since I was deliberately trying to say something non-obvious and ideally slightly lascivious without being gross. That class of message stood out. Being tall and in shape obviously helped too. My photos were pretty good. I didn’t spend much time playing games, and if women didn’t want to meet quickly I would stop messaging them (which would often lead those who were reluctant to meet for whatever reason to want to meet).

The girls from the Internet taught me something else useful too: some said they liked online dating because it let them meet guys without their bitchy, judgmental, hypocritical friends around (they didn’t use those words, but that’s what they meant). Without the chorus of shame squawking in their ears, real desires emerge. The real upholders of the sexual double standard are actually women, not men.

Somewhere along the way I realized that lots of women are lonely and looking for connection, and that loosened me up as far as approaching women and asking them out. I’ve asked out women on the street, in buses (if you’re a guy on the prowl you should love public transportation), in grocery lines, on running trails. Usually the conversation starts with something observational, then moves to whatever is going on that day or week. If you have nothing going on, get something going on and get talking about it. Energetic people are on average more attractive than sluggards.

I’m still not inured to rejection—is anyone?—but if a girl on the street says no, it doesn’t matter. Move on. She’ll forget, and perhaps I’ll make some other girl’s day, and she’ll go home and tell her friends that a cute stranger was hitting on her.

This isn’t something I experienced directly, but a friend’s recent adventures helped teach me too. She’s posted to a well-known amateur porn site (without her face in the shots). On this site she gets a lot of responses from viewers, and she’s shown them to my fiancée and me. They’re voluminous, amazingly bad, and unintentionally hilarious. Hundreds of guys write to her, almost all of them saying some variation on “You’re so hot” or “I want to fuck you.” And these guys have no idea where she lives.

The messages were pathetic, and when we were reading them my fiancée said something like, “This is what all women have to deal with.” In that moment so much became clear to me. I knew that, intellectually, but seeing the really low-value, unsuccessful messages from guys on the Internet reinforced that point. It’s such a waste of time to send those messages. They’re more a fantasy projection that a real attempt to meet women, but every minute or second they spend sending “Ur so hot show me ur butthole” is a minute or second they’re not doing something useful. If I were a woman I couldn’t imagine looking for quality men on amateur porn sites. Yet these are doing so, and the way they’re doing it is all wrong, and yet they persist in doing it the wrong way.

And our friend is not the primary motivator for them. She’s reasonably attractive but not incredibly spectacular—most guys and girls who have a taste for other girls would be happy to date her. But you won’t see her on a Victoria’s Secret runway. she’s getting this kind of response, which is a distillation and intensification of what many women experience otherwise. In real life most guys won’t go up to women and say “show me ur butthole” for good reason; online, with the cloak of pseudonymity, they’re willing to. In real life, guys would probably like to say that, but they can’t or don’t.

On a separate subject, reading Norah Vincent’s book Self-Made Man taught me about the lack of empathy women have for men. So did stories told by women about gross and very insistent guys, or nasty comments from parents and other girls. Reading “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis,” since it showed how fear and loathing around sexual behaviors get inculcated in women from an early age.

Looks count

Looks and style matter, and like many nerds (and especially nerds growing up in nerd-infested places like Seattle) I wanted to believe they didn’t. But people make snap judgments for reasons that I now realize are quite good: we communicate a huge amount of information based on what we wear, how we hold ourselves, and so forth. For both men and women wearing clothes that fit matters. Women learn this almost immediately; it took me until I was 25 to figure it out.

Still, when I was 14 or 15 I started lifting and running consistently relatively early, and that was a definitive advantage that continues to be an advantage—not only in dating but in long-term relationships. If you’re old enough to know people who’ve been in long-term relationships, you’ll have seen the pattern in which one or both parties in a long-term relationship let themselves go, which usually coincides taking their partner for granted. That’s probably a mistake at any time or place, but it’s really a mistake in contemporary American society, since in this society and culture the rigors of the dating market never really end. That may be a bad thing but it is a thing. You can’t let yourself go, both for your partner’s sake and because you never know when you’re going to be involuntarily dumped back into the market.

Younger people probably shouldn’t be focused on very long-term relationships because they change so much. I didn’t have a somewhat stable, developed personality until I was 24 or so. People evolve through their lives but that evolution is particularly rapid and pronounced from puberty well into the 20s. If you’re 20, chances are you won’t be dating the same person for five years. Understand that you’re going to be on the market a lot, and it’s difficult or impossible to hide from market tests.

Guys who pay attention to their posture, to what they wear, and to their workouts are in the game. Guys who don’t probably aren’t. That doesn’t mean guys have to become obsessed with these issues—I never have been—but it does mean being aware of them and taking care to do them right.

The last part is here.

Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part I

An interview between me and Tucker Max about how I used to suck with women and now I’m okay just went up on his Mating Grounds podcast. You should go listen or read the transcript. Then again, when I told my fiancée that I used to suck with women and now I’m okay, she said, “Wait, when did that happen?”, so know that at least one knowledgeable person thinks I’m advertising falsely.

Let’s take this paragraph to wait for you to listen to the podcast and come back.

When Tucker asked if I wanted to be on the podcast, I thought I should say no, primarily because my child-adolescent-adult trajectory hits the broad bounds of normal. But a lot of the guys listening to the podcast are 13 – 22 and having struggles similar to mine. I began imagining what I would tell my earlier self and what I think I’ve learned. The answer turned out to be “quite a bit” (though most of the following is likely to be obvious to older guys who have their lives together).

This started as notes, eventually morphed into paragraphs, and then by accident I had an essay. Call it a hazard of the writing life. I really meant it to be shorter.

Growing up

Last month my Dad said, correctly, that I was a pretty weird kid. When your parents say you’re weird, you know it’s true. I don’t entirely know now why I was weird from ages 10 – 14 or so and I still don’t know why I chose a lot of non-functional behaviors, like obsessively playing video games and Magic Cards. I had an exacting, precise, nerdish disposition, but that alone doesn’t explain why I was such an anti-social loser. Computer games can to some extent substitute for the real world and for that reason they can be dangerous. For me computer games were a real-world substitute. Anything that makes you avoid the real world, broadly defined, for long periods of time is not good.

Eventually and with much effort I grew out of that phase, and despite the unpleasantness at the time I did learn some useful, actionable things. Like: choose hobbies that increase your overall attractiveness. Such hobbies are very rarely video games. Almost no girl says, “I want a level 50 wizard” or “I want a guy who gets home from school and watches five hours of TV.” Girls want the guy who makes the TV or the music, or who is an athlete, or who has some other status markers that matter to both men and to women.

In high school and college, sports and music are probably the biggest, most prominent, and most important actionable things (choose “action” wherever possible) that attract women. If you have the choice between playing the latest video game or playing your guitar, choose guitar. If you have a Friday night in which you can play video games, alone or with your video-game fanatic friends, like you always do, or go do almost anything else, choose “anything else.” It took me shockingly long to realize this. Try to make “anything else” happen.

(My fiancée was listening to the Podcast and heard me describe playing Starcraft on Korean servers, and she said, “How many hours did you spend playing?” The answer is… depressing. During that period I built almost no useful skills.)

Let me emphasize that choosing “actionable” things matters. To some extent, thoughts and beliefs that do nothing to change actions don’t matter. So if you’re reading this and thinking, “I suck” or “I suck with women” or whatever, that may be interesting, but the only really interesting thing is the steps you can take right now to make things better. For me, quitting video games was in and of itself a huge boost. I’d argue that quitting video games is going to be good for almost any guy.

Certain domains simply don’t interest most women or interest them very little. As noted, video games are one. Sports, as a spectator activity are another. Few women want to know about the travails of the Knicks, or how the ’92 NBA Championships. Guys who watch four hours of sports a day are, all else being equal, handicapping themselves.

I’m not saying you should never play video games or watch sports—plenty of successful guys do—but if they must be done they should be done in measured ways. As a teenager I was for whatever reason incapable of playing video games in a measured way. They became a substitute, rather than a complement, to the real world, and that is a problem.

Some valuable domains that still don’t in and of themselves interest women much. I’ve never heard women discuss among themselves Unix systems programming, or for that matter any kind of programming. Few women hunt live animals or express deep interest in car minutia. It is possible to attract women as a second-order effect by doing these things—tech millionaires probably do okay if they’re famous, and domain mastery can be sexy in the right circumstances—but they’re not as good as being an athlete, or a musician, or a comedian, or better still an athletic musician who does some comedy too.

What else? I wish I’d learned when I was younger how to relax. Talk to people. Try to have fun. Simple stuff that comes naturally to many but didn’t come naturally for me. I wish I’d understood that almost everyone has the same problems and feelings I was, but they weren’t expressing those feelings. That includes all the embarrassing experiences and sensations. I wish I’d realized that funny stories often follow a simple formula: they are embarrassment + time. Reading, and especially reading fiction, helped teach me these things.

These comments now sound insanely simple, but for whatever reason I was really bad at interacting with people, and I terrified of social judgment. But that judgment isn’t actually all that important, and most people will respect effort more than no effort at all.

I was really afraid of girls when I was an early-ish teenager, for reasons not obvious to me anymore. It’s really hard to debug the mind of the 13-year-old you used to be. I don’t think it was totally logical. Maybe it was evolutionary. Maybe it was my own psychology at the time. I had a disproportionate fear of negative consequences. Maybe I was scared of being isolated than I already felt. I hadn’t realized that in many if not most domains, any individual can choose to be in the game or out of the game, and I chose to be out of the game.

Change came slowly. At some point too I began thinking about most of the magazines that women read and the shows they watch, and they’re all about relationships, all the time. The vast majority of women are intensely interested in men and attracting men. Seems obvious in hindsight, but it’s useful to state explicitly. The metrics they use to evaluate men are similar to but subtly different than the ones men use to evaluate women. So many attractive women are insecure about their bodies, and they make themselves more insecure by looking at all these Photoshopped models. It’s crazy. In some ways women have more unreasonable standards for themselves than men do for them!

I also had almost no positive role models for dealing with women. I didn’t have older cousins or brothers or whatever, and I wasn’t easily mentored (this is one reason why I think Mate, the book Tucker and Geoff Miller are writing, is so important). My ideas about women came from Disney movies or pop culture or fantasy novels, none of which are terribly accurate or do a good job representing real women (in advertising everyone is ready to fall into bed all the time, or buying the right jeans makes you sleep with someone).

In fantasy novels of the sort I read, to put it politely, the psychology of the female characters did not (and does not now) map well onto actual women. To put it less politely, these novels idiotically portrayed women as either highly virtuous prizes to be won by male heroes or villains or as evil sluts. This generalization includes fantasy novels written by women.

In life, of course, the vast majority of women are neither and dislike being treated as highly virtuous prizes or as evil sluts. I don’t even like using the word “slut” for reasons articulated well by Mark Liberman; the word “projects bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don’t endorse.” I’ve also realized that most sexual shaming occurs from women to women, rather than from men to women, and most man to woman sexual shaming occurs because the former can’t get the latter and retreats to social attacks as compensation.

Teachers or other adult figures didn’t help much either, and being a teenager can be very isolating in American society because one only has equally ignorant peers for information. Teachers have strong incentives not to be level with students. If teachers tell students important truths about social relations or male-female relationships, parents will go ballistic. As kids begin discovering essential truths they often feel “the world [is] corrupt from end to end,” but we then propagate the cycle with our own children. Even today, in 2015, it seems radical to ask, as this article does, “What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?” Instead, we collectively leave each generation to rediscover everything for themselves. Then we get made when someone like Neil Strauss writes a book like The Game, which, while not a perfect work, is still a net improvement for average guys who know nothing, like I once did.

For me getting hobbies helped. I noticed that guys who were more successful with women did a lot of stuff, with “stuff” being defined broadly. Hobbies meant running and working out. They meant getting jobs. They meant writing for the newspaper. They meant reading. Reading is essential, and when I moved on from fantasy I mostly read literary fiction and interesting nonfiction. Both helped me develop more empathy and understand what other people feel, even if most people won’t admit those feelings to anyone but their closest friends. Fiction is often a forum that paradoxically offers greater honesty that nonfiction.

Recognizing that other people were doing the sorts of things I wanted to be doing helped. What were they doing that made them successful, and what was I doing that made me unsuccessful? I began asking those kinds of questions and fishing for answers, which took a long time to come to fruition. Have you ever been in a situation in which the obvious losers of a group call the obvious winners of a group losers in order to make themselves feel better? Me too. Except that I was among the losers, and I wanted to not be.

Clearly some guys do much better with women than others, and it’s not a bad idea to figure out what those guys are doing. The same is true of women: I’ve met women who are great at flirting, who are great at making guys feel like a million bucks, and who are pragmatic about the guys around them. They do great. I’m thinking of one girl in particular who I was friends with in high school, who consistently had boyfriends and fuckbuddies and so forth because she was fantastic at making guys feel great about themselves. She smiled at guys she liked, laughed a lot, made plans to meet (and didn’t flake), and so forth. She not surprisingly batted way out of her league and had a spectacular sex life for someone her age.


No single book from that period stands out as definitive, but in college I discovered evolutionary biology, which was tremendous. Evolutionary biology gets unfairly maligned in various forums, and the pop version of it sometimes get fairly maligned in others, but reading it suddenly made a lot of previously inexplicable behaviors explicable. Why do girls say they hate dating assholes yet keep dating assholes? Why are “nice” guys so often unsuccessful (the scare quotes around “nice” are key). Why do so many people say various things and then act contrary to the things they say? Why is Saturday night behavior so often regretted Sunday morning?

I wouldn’t argue that evolutionary biology has all the answers about every facet of human behavior, and I would argue that people diverge widely along many axes, but I will argue that evolutionary biology describes the way average human male and female reproductive incentives differ and how that gives rise to most of the observable conflict one sees on average between the sexes. I’d also argue that understanding evolutionary biology is one way of consciously overcoming whatever ingrained behavior might be primarily genetic; if you want to act contrary to what you think the default path might be, it helps to understand the default path and how it came to be. Where did I start? I don’t remember. Miller’s book The Mating Mind found its way to me early. So did The Evolution of Desire. Both are excellent places to start.

There are also a reasonable number of people—though they’ve got to be a small percentage, for obvious reasons—for whom understanding sex and dating simply isn’t a priority, and if you’re one of those people, I don’t know why you’re reading this essay. Those people presumably go find other productive things to do.

Most of what I began to do in high school is in the podcast. I mentioned getting a job (briefly at an Old Navy, then at a YMCA, and later in college as a lifeguard, which I should’ve started in high school). I started doing simple stuff like… talking to people, and saying yes to events, and so on. For someone who was pathologically unhappy from ages 10 – 14, that was a big step.

There wasn’t a definitive, epiphanic moment for me. Progress was slow, and had I somehow known what I know now it would’ve been much faster. But I did notice that when I was a teenager—and really for my entire life—I’ve heard people confidently state stuff that is totally wrong. In high school heard all these guys bragging about all this stuff that at the time I couldn’t judge, really, but that I now know to be at best wrong and at worst incomplete.

Let’s take one example: You’ve guys confidently pronounce, “Women just want money” (Tucker and Miller did a whole podcast on the subject.) But I know plenty of guys who do really well with lots of great women yet don’t have a lot of money. Some have none at all. Musicians are a classic example: Many have no money and tons of groupies. For most guys, having “enough” money helps, but the amount a guy has to have to hit the gold digger set is astonishingly high—so high that it’s probably not worth pursuing if your goal in a modern Western country is to maximize your success, defined however you’d define it, with women.

Consider one literary example of too much money focus: Matt from Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me. The novel is about a cheer team ruled by a top mean girl, but the team is roiled when a young coach shows up (this sounds like a teen novel, but it’s not: the rivalry leads to murder, affairs, and to real-world issues rather than “young-adult,” literature-world issues). Matt, the coach’s sad sack husband, barely appears in the novel because he works all the time.

His wife cheats on for many reasons, but boredom is a prominent one. Matt’s “child” might not even be is. This is how Matt appears to the novel’s protagonist and to his wife: “He’s working. He never, ever stops.” Or: “He is always on his cell phone and he always looks tired.” Or: “He works very hard, and he’s not interesting at all.” Among many contemporary women boredom is the greatest enemy.

Most have “enough” money, and even those who don’t are often bored by their low-skill service-sector jobs or by their schooling and would rather choose fun, exciting, louche guys over stable boring guys. That may be a fault of the women themselves—now more than ever a propensity to boredom is really a character fault in those lacking curiosity—but it’s still pervasive enough to merit mentioning.

A guy can’t cure every woman’s boredom. Nor should he try. I’ve tried without much success. In the process I did learn that I’m the wrong guy for a lot of girls—if you don’t like books or talking about ideas, or if you want to go out four nights a week, I’m the wrong guy for you. But I am really, really the right guy for some girls. Those same girls find a lot of guys annoying, shallow, or boring. I’ve met girls at book readings, where the baseline crowd is 40+. A girl in her 20s stands out, like I did as a guy at the same age. But we gravitated to each other because the kinds of people who show up at book readings are very different from most people.

I won’t call Dare Me a great novel. But its unusual voice makes it more honest than most novels that might loosely define its genre. It does have a less varnished understanding of how many women feel than most novels. Much narrative art is designed to flatter its readers’ and watchers’ existing prejudices and self-conceptions. Finding art that challenges prejudices and self-concepts is harder (have you noticed how I keep saying and implying that the hard things are worth doing?). Matt has an important lesson for guys: he misallocates resources because he assumes that coach just wants more money.

She doesn’t: she wants attention, she wants sex, she wants to feel desired—she wants the things most women want. Money is great, and more is obviously better than less, but in most situations most guys don’t need that much money. They need to be able to buy drinks and event tickets and pay rent. They need enough cash to have clothes that fit, and that amount is arguably lower than it ever has been thanks to “fast fashion.” Advertising has wrongly convinced guys that material goods get the girl. That’s not true. Guys don’t need enough money for luxury cars or exotic vacations or flying first class or the many other things that guys imagine will get them laid. That’s one of many important points Miller makes in Spent.

The amount of money needed to play the money game is absurd. The money game demands hundreds of thousands of dollars a year—or having a million dollars or more. For most guys, the jobs and businesses that yield so much cash also consume way too much time and energy. Unless you love the work for its own sake—if you get your jollies from building website backends or financial accounting, do it—playing the money game is a waste of time.

I’m not entirely sure where the association with money and romantic success comes from; perhaps it’s from art, or from the fact that guys who are ridiculously, absurdly wealthy can use their money to attract women, but even then they’re a) probably not having the highest quality relationships and b) again, that domain is blocked for most guys most of the time. By definition we can’t all be in the top 5%. The key is understanding when being in the top 5% or top 1% matters and when being average or above average is sufficient.

Most women also aren’t gold diggers and don’t like being treated as such. The number of actual gold diggers is small, but, as with sociopaths or bipolar people, they can be quite costly if they’re not recognized rapid. A significant number of women will also be turned off by guys who transparently want to buy them.

You’re better off focusing on knowledge and activities that don’t require tons of money. In addition, the more you as a guy reading this interact with women, the better off you’ll be. You’ll start to empathize with women, and that will help. I’ve had a couple experiences that really helped me in that regard.

Part II is here.

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