Links: Real-life rules, active learning, Germans and nudity, group novels, and more!

* “Why It’s So Hard for Young People to Date Offline.” Where there is a shortage, there is an opportunity.

* Active learning works, but students don’t like it. Matches my anecdotal experiences in teaching.

* “Camille Paglia: A Feminist Capitalist Professor Under Fire .”

* Literary prizes, sales, and popularity, somewhat quantified.

* “When Did College Turn So Cruel?

* Germans like nudity. Nudism nudity.

* Can you write a novel as a group? I don’t see why not. This is also not related to the group issues in the link immediately above.

* Bicycles can help save the planet and improve our cities.

* “‘Father Is Surgeon,’ ‘1 Mil Pledge’: The Role of Money in USC Admissions: Emails in college admissions cheating scandal show the role donations played in decisions to accept students.” This one has a lot of comeuppance and schadenfreude. One lawyer “in the admissions-cheating scheme has argued that parents donated to USC as part of a standard admissions practice that was actively encouraged by USC.” Seems really plausible to me: the whole thing reads a bit like the mafia being pissed off that amateurs are elbowing into its turf, or a branch of government elbowing into the mafia’s turf. There’s just so much comedy in this story. Remember the link about how did (some parts of) the college system become so cruel? This is part of the story, and it’s a story about the behavior of the schools themselves.

* Walter Mosley on quitting the writers room. Has one of the great all-time lines in it.

* “How ancient poetry can revitalise our erotic imaginations.” Maybe.

* Edward Luttwak from 1994: “Why Fascism is the Wave of the Future.” Had I read this ten years ago I would have found it absurd. No longer.

* Room with a viewer: How TV became president. Most of the blame on Facebook and other Internet platforms seems misguided, relative to the importance of plain old TV.

Links: Satellite internet, epistemology many ways, the penny-book business, Houellebecq, and more!

* Satellite Internet companies could save consumers $30 billion per year. Seems optimistic, as terrestrial companies will have to drop their prices, but competition is always welcomed.

* “The Info War of All Against All.” The re-litigating of epistemology is an interesting effect of the Internet.

* “The Provocations of Camille Paglia,” which is an overview of her work.

* “Secret Memos Show the Government Has Been Lying About Backpage.” You can trust the government.

* A penny for your books. From 2015 and still charming.

* Please add RSS support to your site, if it’s not got it already. There is much bleating online about privacy, platform diversity, etc., and little action towards improvement. This is a concrete action step that can be taken.

* “Michel Houellebecq, France’s Master Of ‘Materialist Horror’.” A better title than it sounds. I’m reading Rene Girard and keep thinking of Houellebecq.

* “How to review a novel.” Some fine points, but over time I’ve come to appreciate the reviews that are intelligent, but also personal and idiosyncratic. Many reviews manage to do the one or the other.

* A history of the “political” novel. Most sad but accurate is the second half of the essay, which discusses how the novel’s loss of centrality to the culture also means politicians (correctly) don’t feel they need to respond to novels. I have been annoying my literary friends by pointing out that decades of Philip Roth’s humanist and often political novels have brought us to McConnell-Trump—although this point would have scanned differently in 2011.

* Why housing is so expensive, from an unusual source.

* “What Happens When You Don’t Pay a Hospital Bill.” It’s astounding to me that we don’t better and further regulate hospital biling practices.

* Flight Shame: The Climate Hazards of Air Travel.

* “‘The Great Scattering’: How Identity Panic Took Root in the Void Once Occupied by Family Life.”

* Progress Studies, Some Initial Thoughts.

* Is Life Worth Living After 75? Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel Doctor Says No.

* The long-forgotten history of how carmakers invented jaywalking, and in the process stole the streets from humans.

Links: The summer of grammar, keep your politics/religion to yourself, epistemology many ways, and more!

* The long hot summer of grammar. My kind of summar. Summer, I meant; the spelling may be weak, but the grammar goes on.

* Woman spends tens of thousands of dollars getting an MFA: “I’m Emptying My Bank Account to Go to Columbia.” It would be a decent idea to teach financial literacy in school, including the “follow the money” principle.

* Google Doesn’t Want Staff Debating Politics at Work Anymore. Personally, I can’t imagine why.

* How the great truth dawned. On Russians, literature, religion, and other ideas of interest. Probably can’t be digested in a single reading, and that’s a positive.

* Analyzing Trinitite: A (Radioactive) Piece of Nuclear History.

* “Misinformation Has Created a New World Disorder: Our willingness to share content without thinking is exploited to spread disinformation.”

* “Bureaucrats Put the Squeeze on College Newspapers: The corporatization of higher education has rendered a once-indispensable part of student life irrelevant, right when it’s needed the most.”

* The neo-puritan revival. A weird trend to my thinking.

* Perhaps related to the link immediately above, “‘Luxury beliefs’ are the latest status symbol for rich Americans

* The info war of all against all.

* “ Standing Up to the Moral Outrage Industry: What we can learn from how Yale handled Sarah Braasch and the ‘napping while black’ incident.” I’d also note that there’s usually something amiss with someone who is a 44-year-old graduate student.

* “Software was eating the world — now landlords are eating everything.” We can more easily change laws than develop technology that doesn’t yet exist, however.

* The long game of research.It’s easy to forget how hard knowing things really is, especially in the immediate gratification attention economy.

The Seventh Function of Language — Laurent Binet

The Seventh Function of Language is wildly funny, at least for the specialist group of humanities academics and those steeped in humanities academic nonsense of the last 30 – 40 years. For everyone else, it may be like reading a prolonged in-joke. Virtually every field has its jokes that require particular background to get (I’ve heard many doctors tell stories whose punchline is something like, “And then the PCDH level hit 50, followed by an ADL of 200!” Laughter all around, except for me). In the novel, Roland Barthes doesn’t die from a typical car crash in 1980; instead, he is murdered. But by who, and why?

A hardboiled French detective (or “Superintendent,” which is France’s equivalent) must team up with a humanities lecturer to find out, because in the world of The Seventh Function it’s apparent that a link exists between Barthes’s work and his murder. They don’t exactly have a Holmes and Watson relationship, as neither Bayard (the superintendent) or Herzog (the lecturer) make brilliant leaps of deduction; rather, both complement each other, each alternating between bumbling and brilliance. Readers of The Name of the Rose will recognize both the detective/side-kick motif as well as the way a murder is linked to the intellectual work being done by the deceased. In most crime fiction—as, apparently, in most crime—the motives are small and often paltry, if not outright pathetic: theft, revenge, jealousy, sex. “Money and/or sex” pretty much summarizes why people kill (and perhaps why many people live). That sets up the novel’s idea, in which someone is killed for an idea.

The novel’s central, unstated joke is that, in the real world, no one would bother killing over literary theory because literary theory is so wildly unimportant (“Bayard gets the gist: Roland Barthes’s language is gibberish. But in that case why waste your time reading him?”). At Barthes’s funeral, Bayard thinks:

To get anywhere in this investigation, he knows that he has to understand what he’s searching for. What did Barthes possess of such value that someone not only stole it from him but they wanted to kill him for it too?

The real world answer is “nothing.” He, like other French intellectuals, has nothing worth killing over. And if you have nothing conceivably worth killing over, are your ideas of any value? The answer could plausibly be “yes,” but in the case of Barthes and others it is still “no.” And the money question structures a lot of relations: Bayard thinks of Foucault, “Does this guy earn more than he does?”

Semiotics permeates:

Many is an interpreting machine and, with a little imagination, he sees signs everywhere: in the color of his wife’s coat, in the stripe on the door of his car, in the eating habits of the people next door, in France’s monthly unemployment figures, in the banana-like taste of Beaujolais nouveau (for it always tastes either like banana or, less often, raspberry. Why? No one knows, but there must be an explanation, and it is semiological.)…

There are also various amusing authorial intrusions and one could say the usual things about them. The downside of The Seventh Function is that its underlying thrust is similar to the numerous other academic novels out there; if you’ve read a couple, you’ve read them all. The upsides are considerable, however, among them the comedy of allusion and the gap between immediate, venal human behavior and the olympian ideas enclosed in books produced by often-silly humans. If the idea stated in the book and the author’s behavior don’t match, what lesson should we take from that mismatch?

Links: Childhood’s nature, life science progress, the culture of culture, the comedy of WeWork, and more!

* “We Have Ruined Childhood: For youngsters these days, an hour of free play is like a drop of water in the desert. Of course they’re miserable.” Freedom itself is weirdly out of fashion today, it seems.

* “How Life Sciences Actually Work.” Much more interesting, detailed, and important than you think from the headline.

* Once Upon a Time…Film Critics Became Joyless—A Review. This is me on Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.

* Sources of sex appeal that have some basis in the literature, although I would want to carefully check the methodology and reproducibility of all those studies before drawing any real conclusions.

* Land of the free, on the history of American nudism. Not prurient, if that is important to you.

* WeWork appears to be a comically bad business, as a potential investment.

* “American cities need to phase out cars.” More of the obvious.

* Why is Joe Rogan so popular? Better than a lot of the commentary on the subject, but still missing important pieces.

* Seattle rents drop as housing supply substantially rises.

* “The answer to ‘Will you mentor me?’ is no.” See also me on these subjects. Stephen Wolfram also has thoughts.

* How the Daguerreotype Started a Victorian Black Market for Pornography in London.

* How ancient poetry can revitalise our erotic imaginations.

* Even Columbia can’t get its English PhDs gigs.

Links: How to put more money in people’s pockets, on reading, beauty in books, and more!

* Reforming Land Use Regulations. This is one way to put more money in your pocket.

* “Evidence increases for reading on paper instead of screens.” This is not the final word, but it may sway those of you who are debating whether you should ban screens from class, or whether you should hold class in person or online.

* Can small-scale nuclear fusion reactors work?

* Megan McArdle on the absurdities of “affirmative consent.”

* “Survey: Americans have more confidence in Amazon than government or press.” Observation: delivering packages and web services is difficult but also conceptually simpler than epistemology, and arguably the press is delivering epistemology, even though no one says as much. As for government, expectations seem unreasonably high, but, also, we need to work much harder at figuring out why infrastructure is so damn expensive. If most cities could reliably build subways at Nordic costs we’d all love “the government,” or at least local government.

* Re: the above, see also Tyler Cowen’s Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.

* How ‘safety first’ ethos is destabilizing US society.

* O Oberlin, My Oberlin. On the recent scandal. See also Big Business and that article about trust in Amazon from a few links above.

* The population bust.

* “The battle cry of the politically homeless: Anyone moderate with a brain and anything to lose has largely gone silent.”

* “Are Health Administrators To Blame?“, for either high health care costs or high education costs? Doesn’t look like it, though that’s a popular narrative, for obvious reasons. And there are lots of unsourced, attractive-looking graphs on the Internet that blame administrators.

* “In praise of pretty books.” Agreed, and the Thor Power Tools decision is why we have so few pretty books today. As I understand the situation, prior to Thor, publishers could print up a bunch of books and take some kind of depreciation deduction as they sat around in warehouses. Now, publishers apparently can’t do that, so publishers are strongly incented to sell everything they can in a given year. Consequently, cheap books become more attractive.

* Is line editing a lost art? No.

Trick Mirror — Jia Tolentino

I read one of the essays in a magazine, but the book as a whole is dubious. Take the introduction: she writes that she wrote the book “between the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2018” which was, she says, “a stretch of time when daily experience seemed both like a stopped elevator and an endless state-fair ride, when many of us regularly found ourselves thinking that everything had gotten as bad as we could possibly imagine, after which, of course, things got worse.” “As bad as we could possibly imagine?” That’s a real deficit of imagination, then. As bad as things were during the Cuban Missile Crisis? As during the Able Archer exercise, which the Soviet Union almost took as preparation for nuclear war? As bad as even the Great Recession in 2009? Has Tolentino and “many of us” read Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment now?

Tolentino writes that one of her essays is “about ‘optimization,’ and the rise of athleisure as late-capitalist fetishwaear.” First, athleisure is not, to my knowledge, associated at all with fetish sexual practices (I could be wrong on that but didn’t see any citations or experiences to the contrary in the essay). Second, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen “late capitalism” intelligently defined, or that I’ve ever read a sentence that was improved by including the phrase. How do we know we’re in late capitalism? Is it possible we’re experiencing early capitalism? She later writes that our world is “utterly consumed by capitalism.” What’s that mean? What’s the alternative? We’ve seen examples of the state directing all or almost all economic activity (the Soviet Union, Venezuela), and the result is not good.

It’s also neither clear nor evident that “capitalism” is the best way to analyze many of the Internet platforms. To the extent capitalism involves monetary exchange, I don’t pay Twitter and Twitter doesn’t pay me; same with Facebook or Google. If I’m a business, advertising, I might. And if you don’t like the social media advertising business models, you can also host your own blog. That almost no one does, tells us something, but it’s something Tolentino doesn’t want to get to.

There are assertions like “Mass media always determines the shape of politics and culture.” Really? “Mass media?” Why not technology? Or why don’t politics and culture shape mass media? What way does the causal arrow run?

A while ago, “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now” appeared:

As Arts & Letters Daily puts it, “When did campy misandry become contemporary shorthand for communicating one’s feminist bona fides?” A favorite line: “Having a relationship is a lot like writing: To be good at it, you have to be interested in other people and believe you have something interesting to offer them in return. Many people who pursue either do so poorly because they are actually interested only in themselves.”

You can apply a lot of “Nice for What’s?” analysis to Trick Mirror, but with “the Internet” (exalted and degraded, parent and child, god and satan) standing in for men. Trick Mirror is a very well done version of the Brooklyn hipster writer worldview. Whether that worldview is correct, I will leave to readers.

It’s always been hard to make it in the arts. In some ways, the Internet makes it harder (the supply of writing, video, and photo is way up); in some ways, it makes it easier (it’s possible to become visible in a way that wasn’t in 1980). Today, writing is an incredible secondary skill but a harder primary skill: I see that in Seliger + Associates, where the blog is now a primary marketing mechanism. I also see it in the way every third English major I knew tried to make it as a freelance writer after college. Excess supply relative to demand has predictable effects on prices.

As a reader, the Internet is great: cheap books in the world’s largest used bookstore (finding ones really worth reading is the hard part). Niche interest books are written and made available like they couldn’t be before.

Many people take to the Internet to complain about the Internet. We can choose to live predominantly offline. What should we infer from the fact that many of us, including, it seems, Tolentino, choose not to?

As is too common, the author needs to read more evolutionary biology. Who are women competing for? Why? How does women’s intrasex competition tend to work? Then do the same with men. Many of the answers are out there, but they’re rarely discussed in MFA and English programs. Trick Mirror is a book partially about unexamined assumptions that nonetheless seems to import an awful lot of unexamined assumptions of its own. It’s got a better book lurking inside it, and that’s why it’s frustrating. A bad book is easy to dismiss and a good book is easy to love.

Almost all the reviews I’ve read have been too dutiful and too fawning. Over time it’s become apparent that many book reviews are written for insiders and by insiders, so the exceptions stand out.

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