The Great Good Place — Roy Oldenburg

The Great Good Place is often dated but still interesting, and it’s highly congruent with Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression; Hari argues that one reason so many of us are anxious and depressed is that we’re spatially disconnected from other humans, and Oldenburg explains how that came to be—and how the physical space we inhabit affects us. Online life is a very poor substitute for in-person life, it seems, and articles like “Teenagers are growing more anxious and depressed” appear routinely. Friends who teach school say kids seem less able to handle their own lives and make independent decisions than the used to. While some of this may be “kids these days” grousing of the typical kind, at least some data indicates otherwise, and it may be that smartphones are bad for many reasons, like deleterious effects on relationships (an essay I wrote in 2012)—yet few of us will give them up or even significantly restrict usage. I have a smartphone too and annoy friends by being disconnected from it. Expected response times for texts seems overly low to me, but that seems to be the way the culture is moving. We’ve let phones replace places, and that’s not a good trade-off.

Our biggest barriers to good human space were and are legal and regulatory:

The preferred and ubiquitous mode of urban development is hostile to both walking and talking. In walking, people become part of their terrain; they become custodians of their neighborhoods. In talking, people get to know one another; they find and create their common interests and realize the collective abilities essential to community and democracy.

We take wealth and burn it through hellacious commutes: “The purchase of the even larger home on the even larger lot in the even more lifeless neighborhood is not so much a matter of joining community as retreating from it.” There are solutions, but they’re grasped tentatively and only with tremendous, pointless resistance. We can do better and choose not to.

Some challenges have gotten worse. Oldenburg anticipates the noise plague in today’s bars and restaurants:

Whatever interrupts conversation’s lively flow is ruinous to a third place, be it a bore, a horde of barbaric college students, or mechanical or electronic gadgetry. Most common among these is the noise that passes for music, though it must be understood that when conversation is to be savored, even Mozart is noise if played too loudly.

Vox says restaurant noise levels are climbing; excess noise seems to kill conviviality. Shouldn’t restaurants have figured this out? Or is Oldenburg, like me, just too far outside the mainstream for his view to matter? What should we infer from it is, rather than from what I want to be? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that I pick restaurants and bars based on noise, or the lack thereof.

To me, the most interesting chapter concerned German beer garden versus Irish taverns. In the late nineteenth century, there were two major models for what might now be called bars: German beer gardens that served low-alcohol beer (usually around 3%) and Irish taverns that served potent whiskey. The former catered to families and whole communities while the latter catered to men alone:

Yet it was the Irish model that eventually prevailed. America adapted itself only to the German national beverage; it kept the beer and dropped most of the amenities with which the Germans had surrounded it. The nation never seemed able to allow the concept of a good tavern, and people who cannot envisage good taverns are doomed to have lesser ones.

German beer gardens are probably the better, pro-social model, but they didn’t prevail, and I’m not entirely sure we know why, although Prohibition seems a major culprit.

Another section on the French cafe describes a largely solved problem: Starbucks, along with innumerable specialty coffee shops, solved it. What was a problem when The Great Good Place was published has become a business. Parking and zoning are still serious problems, but a dearth of coffee shops is not.

Third places are overly-idealized in this book (one could write a counter-book about why they’re bad), but it remains an interesting book with a useful set of concepts.

Links: Dutch cycling culture, the problems in academia, the delightful Claire Lehmann, mushrooms, and more!

* How the Dutch created a casual biking culture. My favorite story in a while.

* The self-defeat of academia. “Own goal” works here too.

* Conversation between Tyler Cowen and Clair Lehmann of Quillette. Appropriately, the link immediately above is to a Quillette essay.

* America’s student debt machine.

* Reflections from Kunming, an unglobalized part of the world.

* “My Affair With the Intellectual Dark Web,” a bad title for a surprisingly humane and interesting piece.

* Why It Can Happen Here: We’re very close to becoming another Poland or Hungary. And almost no one seems worried.

* Teens cutting back on social media? A big “maybe” here.

* What Follows the End of History? Identity Politics.

* “Talk to Your Kids About Porn: Many teens will be exposed to it anyway—often unintentionally—and they need the guidance of their parents to process what they’ve seen.” In the Atlantic. Not a cultural shift I expect to see, but I guess you never know.

* Air pollution causes ‘huge’ reduction in intelligence: study. If true, this is another argument in favor of electric cars, fast.

* “In an efficient market, why would profit-focused companies employ a bunch of people who by their own admission aren’t doing anything valuable?” Link. One possible answer: the market is actually consuming and producing a lot of signaling. Maybe less signaling than profit, but still a lot, except no one wants to admit as much. And signaling is not measurable.

* Livin’ Thing: An Oral History of ‘Boogie Nights.’

* Bending to the law of supply and demand, some colleges are dropping their prices.

* Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History: The political scientist argues that the desire of identity groups for recognition is a key threat to liberalism.

* “His $109K Heart Attack Bill Is Now Down To $332 After NPR Told His Story.” Maybe we should be working harder towards price transparency in healthcare?

* Loneliness is pervasive and rising, particularly among the young. Get off your phones.

* Social media mobs. Sounds unpleasant!

* Electric Vehicles’ Day Will Come, and It Might Come Suddenly.

* How the politics of envy (or ‘income inequality’) work in the broadest sense.”

Giving and receiving books

Tyler Cowen writes, “Why you should hesitate to give books as gifts and instead just throw them out,” which is a fine post, but I’d note that many people are cost-constrained when it comes to books, and many used books now end up on Amazon, where they must be specifically sought out. And I love to give friends books (and receive books), but the following rules for giving books must be obeyed:

1. Zero expectation. The sender must not expect the receiver to read or even consider the book. Books should only be given, never returned, particularly in the age of Amazon. Amazon has made book scarcity a thing of the past. It is even possible to rapidly scan books, using the right equipment, which may be relatively inexpensive. The majority of books I give or send are probably never read, and that’s fine with me.

2. Despite “zero expectation,” the sender must think the book will interest the receiver or be at least as good as the median book the receiver might otherwise read.

3. This is my own idiosyncrasy, but I very rarely throw out books, though I will donate unwanted ones in batches. Someone with different inclinations and hourly rates might automate the process of selling older books on Amazon. The net take from selling a book for even $10 or $12 on Amazon is like $4 – $6—not worth it for me.

4. I like writing in books and like it when my friends do. Receiving a book my friend has annotated is like getting the pleasure of the book and the pleasure of conversation.

5. “Zero expectation” also means “zero expectation” in terms of time. I mail books in batches whenever there are enough and it’s convenient for me. It may be months after I finish a book, and that’s okay. I have a stack sitting around right now, waiting to go out.

6. I like it when publishers send me books! But they often send emails first asking if I’ll promise a review, etc. My stock reply is always the same: Send the book, but I promise nothing.

7. When I was younger I thought I’d be rich when I have the money to buy all the books I can read. Now I have to limit the number of physical books I have due to space and practicality constraints. Large numbers of physical books are not compatible with high levels of mobility. This is very annoying but also true. Bad city zoning makes this problem worse by artificially increasing the price per square foot most people pay for housing in a given locale. Would we have a better media if writers had more space for books and consequently read more?

“How good is the very best next book that you haven’t read but maybe are on the verge of picking up? So many choices in life hinge on that neglected variable.” I say my problem today is finding the best book, which I no longer do so well on my own; if the five best readers I know would send me more books, I would be very happy, even if only one works for me.

It’s striking for me how many people with nothing to say get on social media to say it, relative to simply reading more or learning more. We have all these communication media and too little to fill them with, in my view. It could be that I’m guilty of that right now.

A good rule is, “Would you buy this friend a beer or coffee?” If yes, why not a book? I’d like to see book-giving become more of a social norm, like getting a round of drinks.

Links: Poetry and career, Palahniuk interviewed, Naipaul, real art, and more

* Reading fiction helps your career, but reading poetry helps more?

* Joe Rogan interviews Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk; usually Rogan is not to my taste, but The same forces Palahniuk describes in publishing are also at work in academia. If you’re wondering why so much of contemporary academia is so boring and sterile, that’s part of it.

* Imagine a world without mandatory college diplomas. Related: “The Student Debt Problem Is Worse Than We Imagined.” Schools have no skin in the game; should we be surprised?

* “Marine scientist predicts ‘a planetary catastrophe.’

* Memories of V. S. Naipaul.

* “Venezuela’s great socialist experiment has brought a country to its knees.” The current vogue for socialism in some quarters, where people ought to know better, is strange.

* “Never Cook at Home: Trust me, I know it’s a drag.” A completely charming article and of course wrong. You should read it!

* Real art is bound to cause offense. I hope so!

* “America Has Fallen Out of Love With the Sedan.” You know all those articles about how bad global warming is getting? This is an article that basically says, “Americans don’t care.”

* “The Nuclear Power Plant of the Future May Be Floating Near Russia.”

* “The Humanities Face a Crisis—of Confidence.” Not the best article on this subject, but it’s okay.

* ‘We Are All Accumulating Mountains of Things.’

* “The Shakespeare Requirement” Is a Sad-Professor Satire That Burns with Moral Anger. I have read too many academic novels to be interested in them anymore, but this one is probably fine.

* Early Work by Andrew Martin Mixes Lust With the Directionless of Youth.

* “GlobalFoundries Stops All 7nm Chip Development.” Non-technical people are likely to skip right past this one, but it has profound implications for the future: GlobalFoundries is one of the largest chip makers in the world, and if it can’t do 7 nanometer, it’s possible that the others can’t, or can’t effectively, either. For the last ~50 years, integrated circuit design has been a huge bright spot in the economic and technological picture—and underappreciated by most people.

* Why the Left Is So Afraid of Jordan Peterson. Much better than you think based on the title.

* People Are Bad at Being Productive in a Limited Time.

* Baylor University used “mole” to aid communications department during sexual assault crisis? This story is crazy enough to be unbelievable in fiction. I read it and think, “Maybe universities should go back to focusing on teaching and research?”

The Rub of Time — Martin Amis

Language is imprecise. Push words too far and they fall apart. This is annoying, for obvious reasons, but also interesting, for artistic ones, and Amis does “a great deal of polishing” in these pieces, “trying to make myself clearer, less ambiguous, and more precise.” And sometimes, I think, imprecise or allusive in interesting ways. As a writer he also confronts the way words also contain a lot of historical residue. Amis mentions Northrop Frye, “a literary philosopher-king to whom I owe fealty.” Fealty: a curious word associated with the Middle Ages and a set of social-economic circumstances that don’t exist in Western Europe or the United States anymore. I’m sure Amis knows it’s a curious word and one that does strange work, here. A lot of Amis words do strange work and that’s part of the reason we like him.

To me, if you’ve not read nonfiction Amis, you’re best off starting with The War Against Cliché, which changed the direction and tenor of my own work. My affection for War may be a historical accident: right work, right time, right mind for a major collision. But it may be that good, and it offers some context for The Rub of Time. The essay that most stands out to me may be the one on Larkin: suddenly, I want to read him, and that’s a great effect of a great essay. “No: Larkin is not a poet’s poet. He is of course a people’s poet, which is what he would have wanted. But he is also, definingly, a novelist’s poet. It is the novelists who revere him.” I’d never thought so. Yet now I do.

Amis gets humor: this will make his own work age well, I think, particularly in an age when momentary political rage too often replaces humor. The humorous Amis is not readily quotable, though, because he’s too contextual. On Twitter, rage seems more common than comedy, when in life the opposite seems true. The smartest people I know seem much fonder of comedy than outrage. And the replacement by outrage of comedy in contemporary universities seems one of their problems, and yet one that no one is doing anything to address. Comedy pierces conventional pieties, of the sort that seem very popular on campus.

Some essays are, in my view, wildly skippable—like the one on a Republican National Convention, or the Trump one. Both the RNC and Trump are fact-free zones; to the extent either generates what might be termed “ideas,” those ideas are too unmoored from something like reality to be worth considering. The best one can hope for regarding the current incarnation of the Republican party is resounding defeat in 2018 and 2020, which leads to a reformation. Then again, I would’ve hoped for the same in 2014 and 2016, by which point the madness in the party had manifested itself, and it didn’t happen. A million intellectually sophisticated essays have done near zero to affect voting outcomes. Which is disheartening to someone who likes writing and reading such essays: if an essay falls in a forest, and no one reads it, does it make a sound?

And some Amis essays are just dated. The porn industry moves fast, and “In Pornoland” is useful historically and to someone interested in the history of the industry, but given that it was published in 2000, it feels its age. The first four paragraphs are hilarious, though, and I won’t quote them so as to not spoil the effect.

Amis is a noticer in his fiction and a noticer in his nonfiction: it’s fun to see the expert doing his thing. He’s done the reading, like most people haven’t. He’s got the context for the reading. He writes that, “Accusing novelists of egotism is like deploring the tendency of champion boxers to turn violent.” He also acknowledges when things have changed. He wrote a long piece on the actor John Travolta, but the postscript notes that “As it turned out, Travolta’s resurgence lacked staying power.” Lacking staying power, however, “is not to be compared with the death of Jett Travolta, in 2009 (a seizure, related to his autism). Jett was 16.” That’s how the piece ends, now: with perspetive, which can sometimes be absent in writing about celebrities.

Amis makes me want to be a better writer. I hope he does the same for you.

Links: Climate, obesity, Kondo, le Carré, the world, and more!

* How ICE went rogue: Inside America’s unfolding immigration crisis. A horrible story that will require national reckoning.

* Climate Report: Not Good. Maybe we should do something about it?

* Beyond fiction: Scott Aaronson’s arrest.

* “The Toll of America’s Obesity.”

* Electric scooters will work in NYC. This is obvious, but it’s also amazing to see the small-c conservative NYT editorial board figure it out. Also, “The Real E-Scooters Story Is Much More Boring Than Media Coverage Suggests.”

* “The Origin Story of Marie Kondo’s Decluttering Empire.” I would guess Kondo is overrated by her adherents and underrated by most people.

* Rich Absentee Landlords Make a Killing from California’s Prop 13. This is congruent with a Grant Writing Confidential post I wrote, “L.A. digs a hole more slowly than economics fills it back in: The Proposition HHH Facilities Program RFP,” which will be of general interest to many of you.

* “How Bill Browder Became Russia’s Most Wanted Man,” an insane story reminiscent of John le Carré but published in The New Yorker.

* “Yes, Another Science Blog: Dear Academia, I loved you, but I’m leaving you. This relationship is hurting me.” From 2014 but characteristic of the genre.

* Shockingly, a sociology professor and gender studies person is embroiled in controversy. Who would have thought? I know it’s depressing to see all these pieces about why it’s a wise idea to stay out of academia, but people keep going into the meat grinder.

* “The Modern Automobile Must Die: If we want to solve climate change, there’s no other option.” More of the obvious, but here it is.

* Identity politics weaken democracy and we should do a lot less of them. Focus on ideas, not the speaker’s demographics.

* “Can We Talk About Toxic Femininity?” Not my view, but it’s telling how little we hear this phrase.

* Massachusetts gives workers new protections against noncompete clauses. Good. Every state should.

* “What Does Knee Surgery Cost? Few Know, and That’s a Problem.” We need price transparency now.

* “Companies dropping college degree as hiring requirement.” Good news if true, but this could easily be a bogus trend story.

What Santa Barbara says

Among Paul Graham’s many interesting observations is:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message

Since reading that I’ve been more attentive to what a city says. I was just in Santa Barbara, which is beautiful but also shockingly boring and sterile. Virtually nothing has changed in it since the 1970s; sometime around then, the city used zoning to freeze its built environment. Today, Santa Barbara feels more like an artifact than a living place. Intellectually and technologically, it’s a dead city. It’s very beautiful, and its message seems to be: you should be rich, beautiful, and relaxed. But the first item and third are at odds. Few buildings are more than two stories. No wonder hotel rooms are crazy expensive.

I didn’t spend much time in San Francisco, but the most immediately apparent thing to me is just how many cars, car lanes, drivers, and parking exist there. For years, I’ve been reading about the city’s environmental pronouncements and commitments. The lived experienced on the ground, however, is one of traffic, cars, and the smell of exhaust. Some parts of the city, like the new transit center, are shockingly beautiful. But the cars on the ground contrast so much with the rhetoric on the Internet. I recently heard the term “performative environmentalism,” and it applies to SF.

Once you’ve ridden a Bird scooter, as I did in L.A., any city without scooters feels deficient, like a city without sidewalks would. If we turned 10% of public parking spaces to scooter and bike parking spaces, we’d see a lot more people out of cars. Oddly, a lot of the rhetoric around Bird scooters concerns where they’re parking, but they weigh like 20 pounds and are maybe six inches by four feet. Seemingly no one considers the many astounding photos of dockless vehicles that currently litter our streets. Perhaps we ought to think more about the rules that apply to the one new things versus the rules that apply to the old thing.

California has an odd Red Queen effect going on, where half of the state is trying to draw people in (weather, tech, economic fecundity) while the other half tries to kick people out (zoning, Prop 13 (it’s crazier than you realize), inadequate mass-transit, traffic). New York has some similar challenges, but it feels more immediately vibrant than Santa Barbara, and similarly vibrant to LA. But without the Bird scooters. Yet. California and New York both feel post-artist, and I mean that in a bad way. We ought to be trying to build cities where everyone can live; sadly, we’re doing the opposite right now. Maybe, as the percentage of renters increases, we’ll see voters behave in ways congruent with their interests, just as homevoters have.

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