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.

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