Conversations with Friends — Sally Rooney

You may have been fooled by the New Yorker profile of Sally Rooney, as I was, but don’t be: Conversations with Friends is boring—there’s nothing horribly wrong with it but little right with it either. There is some juvenile BS on almost every page; if you haven’t read the books listed here quit this review now and go pick up some of. It’s hard to find representative sentences in Conversations because they’re all representative, and flat: “He never usually trailed off his sentences this way. He started to feel agitated. I said again I didn’t mean to be distant with him. I didn’t understand what he was trying to say and I was afraid of what it might have been.” We get pages and pages like this. Also: “never usually?” Or, “I felt his body then, his heat and complex weight.” Complex weight? As opposed to simple weight?

The book is about a girl’s affair with a married man, and she kinda sorta tries polyamory lite, but without thinking much about it or having any social or community structure for it. Conversations a “kinda sorta” sort of book, which is why it’s so unsatisfying. The sentences are short and it’s easy to skip sentences, paragraphs, pages, without losing anything. Still, Conversations gives hope to unpublished writers, because if it can get published and pushed, you might be able to too.

I want the protagonist to get a job on a fishing boat, or building rockets for SpaceX, or working in an emergency room, or doing anything, anywhere, apart from interning for literary agents and spending too much time listening to professors or living in libraries. There is a world beyond university humanities departments, thankfully, but it is opaque to Frances and her friends. Conversations are fine, but conversations among people with no goals, no dreams, and no purpose lead one to wonder why they aren’t short stories.

Not every book needs to challenge and this one doesn’t. It’s the literary equivalent of an anodyne meal at a “new American” restaurant that does the same thing thousands of similar establishments do. It won’t offend or wow anyone. If this is the “millennial novel,” we have nothing to fear but our own emptiness, and the social media we use to try and stuff the emptiness into some shape. But you could do worse; I read to the end but am also trying not to do the classic bad critic move of generalizing from specific individuals to much larger groups. If I were to do that, I would draw much different sociological or demographic conclusions than have others I’ve read. So much art really is read as simply confirming our priors.

Links: Wealth tax failures, information flow, genius and obsession, bad romance, and more!

* “France Tried Soaking the Rich. It Didn’t Go Well.” Try to focus on substance and effectiveness of proposals, not how they make you feel or what signals you think they might communicate.

* Defecting Chinese spy offers information trove to Australian government.

* Paul Graham’s bus ticket theory of genius.

* Psilocybin for Major Depression Granted Breakthrough Therapy by FDA

* U.S. Tech Companies Prop Up China’s Vast Surveillance Network.

* Bad romance, a long and well-reported piece on the bizarreness of the National Inquirer.

* How single men and women are making politics more extreme.

* “Indiana Wesleyan Student Kicked Out of Honors College for Questioning Cultural Appropriation: Bias incident reports, safety concerns, and harassment charges, all because of a slightly trollish Facebook post.” Remember when universities were about debating ideas? You probably do remember my post about journalists and academics as modern-day clerics, persecuting modern-day heresy.

* “System76 Will Begin Shipping 2 Linux Laptops With Coreboot-Based Open Source Firmware.” It is striking how many people make noise about privacy and freedom online versus how many take concrete, simple steps to improve those things.

* “
Why Are College Students So Afraid of Me?
Because adults at places like Bucknell and Holy Cross have convinced them they are oppressed.”

* Popcorn’s multi-sensory appeal.

* U.S. birth rate falls for 4th year in a row: “A final tally of babies born in the U.S. last year confirms that the birth rate fell again in 2018, reaching the lowest level in more than three decades.” It’s hard to see this as a sign of optimism. We need to decrease housing costs by building a lot more housing, yet we’re not doing that.

* China’s growing threat to academic freedom.

* Napoleon Chagnon Is Dead: What academe’s shameful treatment of him tells us about truth and ethics now.

* How real chocolate gets farmed and made. Most chocolate that’s heavily marketed is bad.

* “Our Planet May Be Barreling Toward a Tipping Point.” In the meantime, we can’t even execute climate-friendly strategies like removing urban height limits and parking minimums, or building low-emission nuclear power plants.

* The bottleneck in US higher ed.

* Jeff Sypeck on the vogue for political rigidity in “young adult” novels, among other topics, including cultural change over time. Being into comic books used to be seen as weird and undesirable, for example?

Links: The refragmentation, the ideas underlying politics, Firefox and freedom, and more!

* Firefox’s Fight for the Future of the Web. If you want the web to be open and free, you should choose Firefox.

* Roth/Updike, in case you want to hear more about the topic; both of them have under-plotted books, and the lack of plot makes their work less interesting. I’ve read lots by both, but little sticks. I kept wanting them to get to a point, but the point never arrived. Both are best in shorter works, where lack of plot drags less.

* Interstellar space even weirder than expected, NASA probe reveals.

* “Lotto lout Michael Carroll reveals working as £10-an-hour coalman.” Entertaining.

* “Far From Boring: Meet the Most Interesting Tunnel Boring Machines.”

* “Cities Worldwide Are Reimagining Their Relationship With Cars.” Too expensive, too inefficient, and too polluting.

* Blogs were and are better than “social” media sites.

* The end of babies. Ignore the dumb stuff about capitalism that ignores the role of land-use policies in pushing people against children; parts of the linked essay are painful but there is good material in it. See Bryan Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, too.

* Peter Thiel: The End of the Computer Age? Familiar subject for Thiel readers.

* “Why We’re All Wired for ‘Constructive Conspiracism’.” A useful link when your friends talk about conspiracy theories.

* “How America Ends.” Not hysterical and not the usual. Relatedly, “Why social media makes it seem like everything is going haywire.”

* “The Refragmentation.” I have never seen this important idea expressed in anything like this way, anywhere.

Have journalists and academics become modern-day clerics?

This guy was wrongly and somewhat insanely accused of sexual impropriety by two neo-puritans; stories about individual injustice can be interesting, but this one seems like an embodiment of a larger trend, and, although the story is long and some of the author’s assumptions are dubious, I think there’s a different, conceivably better, takeaway than the one implied: don’t go into academia (at least the humanities) or journalism. Both fields are fiercely, insanely combative for very small amounts of money; because the money is so bad, many people get or stay in them for non-monetary ideological reasons, almost the way priests, pastors, or other religious figures used to choose low incomes and high purpose (or “purpose” if we’re feeling cynical). Not only that, but clerics often know the answer to the question before the question has even been asked, and they don’t need free inquiry because the answers are already available—attributes that are very bad, yet seem to be increasingly common, in journalism and academia.

Obviously journalism and academia have never been great fields for getting rich, but the business model for both has fallen apart in the last 20 years. The people willing to tolerate the low pay and awful conditions must have other motives (a few are independently wealthy) to go into them. I’m not arguing that other motives have never existed, but today you’d have to be absurdly committed to those other motives. That there are new secular religions is not an observation original to me, but once I heard that idea a lot of other strange-seeming things about modern culture clicked into place. Low pay, low status, and low prestige occupations must do something for the people who go into them.

Once an individual enters the highly mimetic and extremely ideological space, he becomes a good target for destruction—and makes a good scapegoat for anyone who is not getting the money or recognition they think they deserve. Or for anyone who is simply angry or feels ill-used. The people who are robust or anti-fragile stay out of this space.

Meanwhile, less ideological and much wealthier professions may not have been, or be, immune from the cultural psychosis in a few media and academic fields, but they’re much less susceptible to mimetic contagions and ripping-downs. The people in them have greater incomes and resources. They have a greater sense of doing something in the world that is not primarily intellectual, and thus probably not primarily mimetic and ideological.

There’s a personal dimension to these observations, because I was attracted to both journalism and academia, but the former has shed at least half its jobs over the last two decades and the latter became untenable post-2008. I’ve enough interaction with both fields to get the cultural tenor of them, and smart people largely choose more lucrative and less crazy industries. Like many people attracted to journalism, I read books like All the President’s Men in high school and wanted to model Woodward and Bernstein. But almost no reporters today are like Woodward and Bernstein. They’re more likely to be writing Buzzfeed clickbait, and nothing generates more clicks than outrage. Smart people interested in journalism can do a minimal amount of research and realize that the field is oversubscribed and should be avoided.

When I hear students say they’re majoring in journalism, I look at them cockeyed, regardless of gender; there’s fierce competition coupled with few rewards. The journalism industry has evolved to take advantage of youthful idealism, much like fashion, publishing, film, and a few other industries. Perhaps that is why these industries attract so many writers to insider satires: the gap between idealistic expectation and cynical reality is very wide.

Even if thousands of people read this and follow its advice, thousands more persons will keep attempting to claw their way into journalism or academia. It is an unwise move. We have people like David Graeber buying into the innuendo and career attack culture. Smart people look at this and do something else, something where a random smear is less likely to cost an entire career.

We’re in the midst of a new-puritan revival and yet large parts of the media ecosystem are ignoring this idea, often because they’re part of it.

It is grimly funny to have read the first story linked next to a piece that quotes Solzhenitsyn: “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. . . . it is in the nature of a human being to seek a justification for his actions.” Ideology is back, and destruction is easier the construction. Our cultural immune system seems to have failed to figure this out, yet. Short-form social media like Facebook and Twitter arguably encourage black and white thinking, because there’s not enough space to develop nuance. There is enough space, however, to say that the bad guy is right over there, and we should go attack that bad guy for whatever thought crimes or wrongthink they may have committed.

Ideally, academics and journalists come to a given situation or set of facts and don’t know the answer in advance. In an ideal world, they try to figure out what’s true and why. “Ideal” is repeated twice because, historically, departures from the ideal is common, but having ideological neutrality and an investigatory posture is preferable to knowing the answer in advance and judging people based on demographic characteristics and prearranged prejudices, yet those traits seem to have seeped into the academic and journalistic cultures.

Combine this with present-day youth culture that equates feelings with facts and felt harm with real harm, and you get a pretty toxic stew—”toxic” being a favorite word of the new clerics. See further, America’s New Sex Bureaucracy. If you feel it’s wrong, it must be wrong, and probably illegal; if you feel it’s right, it must be right, and therefore desirable. This kind of thinking has generated some backlash, but not enough to save some of the demographic undesirables who wander into the kill zone of journalism or academia. Meanwhile, loneliness seems to be more acute than ever, and we’re stuck wondering why.

Links: Diamonds are too much forever for the diamond industry, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Ted Gioia conversation, and more

* Conversation with Ted Gioia; I share the Steven Pinker view, however.

* Things about Phoebe Waller-Bridge. There is not too much of the usual PC stuff, though a little bit appears.

* Age of Invention: Rise of the Mathematicians.

* “Here’s the weird thing about a post-Christian Christendom.” That’s WEIRD as in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. We’re quite different than most people have been, ever, and we’re not properly appreciating it, or how differently we’ve been acculturated.

* “How the Insufferably Woke Help Trump: Democrats are insulting and condescending to the swing-state voters they need the most.” More of the obvious, yet here we are.

* Christianity has some aspects that are good that we don’t give it credit for. And, if you take the Christianity out of the American political right, you might be left with something closer to authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism, both of which are much worse than Christianity. By the way, I didn’t see this development coming either, and almost no one did.

* “Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.” Also seems obvious, though it’s nice to hear a high-status person say it.

* Apple engages in planned obsolescence. Apple also just released a 16″ Macbook Pro, for those of you in the market for such things, and it has a functional keyboard again.

* “Welcome to Culture War 2.0: The Great Realignment.” It’s ill news when too few people are willing to stand up to rationality, free inquiry, and intellectual diversity.

* “Scientists Didn’t Think Climate Change Would Happen So Fast. Now we’re facing consequences once viewed as fringe scenarios.” And the collective response is still to shrug and ignore.

* “Sometimes, Straussians hide truths in plain sight. When they do, they’re concealed in unpopular characters, such as devils, beggars, and buffoons. Pseudonymous Twitter accounts are the new Straussian philosophers, but with one important twist. Instead of sharing their names and hiding the truth, today’s Straussians hide their names, but share the truth.”

* “Government Must Have Reasonable Suspicion of Digital Contraband Before Searching Electronic Devices at the U.S. Border.”

* How California Became America’s Housing Market Nightmare.

* Diamonds keep getting cheaper.

Links: Breaking deadlock, the cultural critic’s death, how do we know what we know, and more!

* Why we should embrace nuclear power.

* “An online tool that can break political deadlock.” Seems optimistic to me and I think most people screaming online like political hatred and rancor. Most normal people don’t do a lot of Twitter or political Facebook. I tend to like people more, the less I see of them on Facebook, and for that reason I want to stay away from Facebook.

* “The death of the great cultural critic.” I also observe that many great cultural critics were caught up with grad schools in various ways that now seem pretty implausible.

* The oil age is ending. Unless that oil ends up being used in spacecraft instead.

* “Another possibility is that all the board seats and face-to-face contact are mostly worthless and that private shareholders think they are better at long-term evaluations than public shareholders, but they are wrong.” A point similar to Thinking, Fast and Slow, as well as Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler. We’re great at fooling ourselves and fooling ourselves often feels good too.

* The global population crash. Overpopulation isn’t a problem; underpopulation is.

* The SpaceX Starship is a very big deal. And so is Starlink.

* Alarming loss of insects and spiders. And we’re indifferent to it.

* “New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed.” The conclusion is unexpected and also extremely plausible.

* The new invisible competitors, from 2007 yet still germane.

* “The Key to Electric Cars Is Batteries. Chinese Firm CATL Dominates the Industry.” Our response? To shrug.

* “The rot at the heart of American democracy: A political scientist explains the biggest threats to America’s political stability.” Many voters seem not to care.

* Two form of despair, in case you haven’t yet read enough academia quit-lit. I have, but I thought I’d pass this along for those of you who still like the genre. This one has some unusual religious infusion.

* “Those People We Tried to Cancel? They’re All Hanging Out Together.” Entertaining, but also a depressing statement about media and education culture.

* Pay attention to what people are not talking about. And you’re probably better at doing that than the average person (if you’re reading this), but could you be better? I could be.

* Amazingly boring article on the rise and fall of Booth Tarkington. Apparently he cannot be made interesting.

Links: Airbnb and culture, where do we draw the line?, money in politics, and more!

* “How Airbnb is silently changing Himalayan villages.” A deep and beautiful meditation on markets, incentives, and more. I’m subscribing to the site.

* “Every Child Can Become a Lover of Books.” The series starts with a note on how “In the next five years, most of America’s most experienced teachers will retire. The Baby Boomers are leaving behind a nation of more novice educators. In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. Less than three decades later, that number had fallen to just three years leading a classroom.” But the word “zoning” never appears; in many cities and first-tier suburbs, outrageous land-use laws drive up the cost of housing and make it impractical for teachers to live a normal financial existence. There are undoubtedly many reasons teachers leave, but the financial climate is one, and it’s one we can’t easily buy our way out of—but we sure can reform land-use laws.

* “A Million People Are Jailed at China’s Gulags. I Managed to Escape. Here’s What Really Goes on Inside. Rape, torture and human experiments. Sayragul Sauytbay offers firsthand testimony from a Xinjiang ‘reeducation’ camp.” And this gets little media coverage.

* “The Nazi Party: IBM & ‘Death’s Calculator.’” Given recent news, how many companies do you suppose are asking themselves, “What’s my limit?”

* “Apple’s new Catalina operating system won’t run old versions of Word.” We have been thinking about migrating off Macs at some point; Windows seems to be better than it used to be, and Windows laptops were almost universally terrible ten years ago. Today, the Dell XPS line and Microsoft’s Surfaces both look really nice. Many of the “Just works” aspects of OS X (or, today, MacOS) seem to have declined or disappeared.

* A long piece on Facebook and its dilemmas, that conveniently forgets the role of the media in the 2016 election (remember those thousands of “Clinton email” stories?).

* “I Almost Flipped a Deep Red District. Here’s What I Learned.” We still live in a center-right country, but almost the entire media infrastructure in concentrated in New York and LA—two of the left-most metros in the entire country.

* Inside the collapse of Dyson’s electric car dream. Making cars is really hard.

* “Even the Chinese find it difficult to manufacture in the United States.” I’d add a “Maybe” tag to this one.

* Is there not really much “money in politics,” contrary to what’s often, and thoughtlessly, asserted?

* “Why don’t rich people stop working?” And do what instead? The quality of the thinking here isn’t very high but the question is interesting. Besides, what’s the best way to change the world today? It’s probably not journalism and the media, and that idea helps explain why we have the media we do.

* “Harold Bloom warned America that the literary culture that sustained him was in the process of being sacrificed on the altar of social justice.” And that project has pretty much been completed.

* Why the novel matters. The crux:

It disregards what we would like to say, and be, and appear to be. Tolstoy complained that with Anna Karenina, he sat down to write a condemnatory tale about a woman incapable of self-restraint but that she herself would not permit it. She demanded the more difficult, socially unacceptable and errantly human truth about herself be heard instead. Luckily Tolstoy’s talent proved equal to the challenge and knew he had to follow where she led.

This is why the novel matters, why it always has and why, in dark times, it matters more than in cheerier ones. By its nature the novel cannot be a rush of lights and pictures and noise.

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? If so few people read novels, do they “matter” in a larger, global,

* Boeing is now a finance-guy culture, not an engineering culture, and that’s the root cause for the 737 MAX failures.

* Weak arguments for why we need English majors. “Need” is doing a lot of work here, and I’m not sure how good that data on mid-careerist is.

* We Need to Dream Bigger Than Bike Lanes.

* “‘Watership Down’ and the Crisis of Liberalism.”

* “Meghan Daum’s merciless take on modern feminism, woke-ness and cancel culture.” Looks a little boring to me, and better cited than read, but some of you may like it.

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