Briefly noted: Fleishman is in Trouble, Empty Planet, The Uninhabitable Earth

* Fleishman is in Trouble (Taffy Brodesser-Akner): It’s like Martha McPhee’s Dear Money, but with more sex and bad behavior and a pathetic protagonist. I laughed at times, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it adds up to much. Both books are set in NYC and one unstated lesson might be, “Don’t live in NYC,” as the city’s wealthy have terrible values around money and mimetic contagion is rife, uncontrolled, and unrecognized by the people in its grip. No one has read Girard (a Christian; could some religious practices help with partial inoculation against excessive inquisitiveness?). Extremely wealthy people constantly envy even more extremely ridiculously wealthy people; maybe one could read this as a Staussian and argue that both novels are deliberately critical of their settings, but I don’t really see it.

Consider: “Again I’ll say it: Life is a process in which you collect people and prune them when they stop working for you. The only exception to that rule is the friends you make in college.” There is some truth to the notion of pruning people who you’re no longer compatible with—I’m sure we’ve all done it—but this also makes people sound expendable, and like the moment someone “stops working for you,” it’s time for them to go. That’s a pretty utilitarian view of friends—and the observation is coming from someone who has utilitarian leanings. Some of its truths are universal, though, like, “People who say they like jazz are lying.”

A lot of these people have too much money and are simultaneously too focused on money: a point I’ll return to in a future post that started as an email rant to a friend. One character, wealthy and successful, argues at the novel’s end that everything “sucks.” Sucks—compared to what? One reading could be that humans are discontented strivers; another reading could find that none of these people have any perspective.

Evolutionary biology is the unnamed shadow lurking beneath many characters’s experiences, though I still prefer the “Don’t live in NYC” reading. The best character is Wilson’s Disease.

* Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline (Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson). This is a book that stolidly does what it promises and for that reason it will be of interest to some of you. “Demography is destiny,” they say, and, if that’s true, we might all be fucked. Many Western social welfare systems were put into place when populations were booming and implicitly assume they’ll continue to boom; one of the dysfunctions in the present-day United States and Europe comes from the way the old are sucking resources from the too-few young, and the young aren’t bothering to vote against the sucking. Empty Planet is also a book that’s designed to be cited as either prophetic or a cautionary tale about forward projection, with the latter well-represented by books like Paul Ehrlich’s, one of the most famously wrong people of all time.

Articles like, “Can China recover from its disastrous one-child policy?” are becoming more prominent, and they’re congruent with Empty Planet. The book is written intelligently but style is not its strong point.

* The Uninhabitable Earth (David Wallace-Wells). An excellent book and it too does what it says—I already buy its premise, though. The point remains that essentially no one (or a number that is statistically distinguishable from “no one”) is changing their behavior in response to books like this. Which is pretty depressing; what should we infer from it? Even the superficially liberal people who lives in cities and say they care about the environment won’t stop getting on planes; basically, everyone who is busy recycling wine bottles doesn’t stop to think about how “per passenger a typical economy-class New York to Los Angeles round trip produces about 715 kg (1574 lb) of CO2 (but is equivalent to 1,917 kg (4,230 lb) of CO2 when the high altitude ‘climatic forcing’ effect is taken into account).” There are some personal things we can do, beyond the obvious ones around transit and food, like sign up for Climeworks subscriptions, but it doesn’t seem like we’re running, en masse, to do this.

We’re 40 years from the Charney Report, which accurately forecasted global warming and accurately predicted its link to CO2, and we’re still dithering, at best. We can’t say we’ve not been warned. We’ve just collectively chosen not to act.

* Then It Fell Apart by Moby (the musician), is like a non-fiction Michel Houellbecq novel; as with virtually all of Houellebecq’s characters, Moby grows up in an affectless, dysfunctional home. In Moby’s case, his mom has a rotating cast of boyfriends and is too dysfunctional to maintain employment; Moby says he “grew up in the middle of hippie chaos” that scarred him emotionally. His childhood is so bad that he doesn’t mind being a charity case among his friends’s parents “so long as I got to spend time in warm houses with carpets.” Or when his “mom’s friends didn’t seem to have jobs, although they complained sometimes about not getting enough money from their parents back in Connecticut.” Getting a job, showing up on time, and all those bourgeois values look really good in this book. Bourgeois values live, because what’s the alternative? Squalor? Kids with lives like Moby’s? I have a post about Hollywood’s Eve on deck, and that’s another book that’s implicitly critical of people who don’t keep an eye on their offspring.

Coverage of this book has been sadly focused on the least-interesting aspects of celebrity gossip.

* Three Women (Lisa Taddeo). I found it kind of boring. One of the characters is boring and lacks self-efficacy (she needs Stoic philosophy and a stronger sense of personal autonomy); another is not doing anything wrong (if you fail to maintain your vegetable patch, don’t be surprised when someone else volunteers to); and the third and most interesting should have been the focus of Three Women. I’m looking for representative quotes and not finding any—which tells you something. If you’re tempted to read Three Women based on other reviews, try the collected works of Esther Perel instead. Toni Bentley calls it: “The result of Taddeo’s investigation, however, is not a book about the vast terra infirma of female desire, but, rather, an excruciating exposé of the ongoing epidemic of female fragility and neediness in the romantic arena — a product of our insecurity, ignorance and zero self-regard.”

Links: The power of the angry, DuckDuckGo and privacy, the erosion of freedom, and more!

* “What Conservatives Get Wrong about the Campus Wars.” “Teapot tempests” would be better than “wars,” but this is congruent with “Ninety-five percent of people are fine—but it’s that last five percent.” Something about the nature of the Internet has enabled and empowered a smallish number of crazy people, sometimes for good reasons (startups) and sometimes for not-good ones.

* “DuckDuckGo, a Feisty Google Adversary, Tests How Much People Care About Privacy.” The answer is, “Not very much.” Switching search engines to DDG is one of the simplest, lowest-cost things a given person can do to improve their online privacy and basically no one does it. What should we infer from that?

* “ICE Is Dangerously Inaccurate: Even American citizens are not immune from immigration raids.”

Davino Watson is a U.S. citizen who was 23 years old when ICE held him for more than three years. A New Yorker, he was eventually dropped off in Alabama with no explanation and no money. After he was released, Mr. Watson filed a complaint and a court awarded him compensation in 2016. The next year, an appeals court decided the statute of limitations for that complaint had expired while he was still in ICE custody.

Then there was Peter Sean Brown, who was born in Philadelphia and lived in the Florida Keys. ICE faxed a request to Florida authorities to hold him. He was in jail for weeks. Guadalupe Plascencia, a naturalized citizen, won a $55,000 settlement after ICE wrongfully detained her. Ada Morales and Sergio Carrillo earned their citizenship decades before they were detained. The list goes on.

I would say this is unbelievable, but who we decide to vote for is unbelievable; the consequences are ones we’re living with now.

* “China’s rising tech scene threatens U.S. brain drain as sea turtles return home.” Almost no one is talking about this aspect of immigration policy and the cultural climate, but we should.

* “Harvard Study: ‘Gender Wage Gap’ Explained Entirely by Work Choices of Men and Women.” Not the last word on this issue, certainly, but also not something that’s likely to be popular in certain circles.

* “The High Price of Multitasking.” Obvious yet still underrated.

* Our present age of amnesia. Or is this just a “kids these days” argument?

* “Border officers are arrested 5 times more often than other US law enforcement.” As stated on Twitter: “The border is a place where sadistic people can join the security forces in order to abuse people in a legal gray zone. This needs to stop.”

* The Financial Calamity That Is the Teaching Profession. This is also a story about the way zoning has raised the cost of living for just about everyone.

* Neal Stephenson converses with Tyler Cowen.

* Oregon vowed not to become California — and passed sweeping housing crisis legislation.

* Josh Harris, the author of a wildly popular manifesto on abstinence before marriage, is separating from his wife. Sure, this is a kind of basic (and low) blow about hypocrisy, but it’s also the kind of “how did that thing turn out?” journalism that we could use more of.

* “Returning Due Process to Campus.” It’s interesting that the abandonment of long-understood legal principles has had just the outcomes that those principles are supposed to prevent.

The State of Affairs — Esther Perel

The State of Affairs is another book that, like Mating in Captivity, touches topics of wide interest that almost no one wants to address directly. Perel says, “Few events so encompass the breadth of human drama” as the one she’s writing about, and, while that may be overstated, she’s not wrong in her trust. She also says, “my goal is to introduce a more productive conversation about the topic,” and the “productive” being an interesting choice here: What is being produced? What efficiency is being brought to the problem or product space? She says too, that she wants to “ultimately strengthen all relationships by making them more honest and resilient.” Do most people want honesty? I used to think so and am now less sure. Many more of us may want to want honesty than truly want honesty.

That said, Perel also says, “Because I meet with partners alone as well as together, I have been afforded an unusual window into the experience of the unfaithful partner.” The “unusual window” is the view she affords us, somewhat voyeuristically. We used to have to rely primarily on novels and gossip for the view into the unusual window, but now we have Perel, standing at the side with a laser pointer and a stick, telling us about the flora and fauna inside. She nicely sidesteps what she calls the “for or against?” question and moves into a large number of questions about framing, motivation, and stories. As she says, “Catastrophe has a way of propelling us into the essences of things.” She hits a lot of essences. She also acknowledges what a lot of non-novel-readers might easily forget: “We are walking contradictions.” Some theories of consciousness hold that consciousness arose to mediate contradictory impulses. If so, we’ve been struggling with the results ever since.

Perel is with opinions, though. She’s not a total relativist, describing without opining. She finds that the “best friend” model of romance and modern relationships is often stifling, unworkable, and historically unlikely. Throughout most of history, spouses and lovers didn’t even need to be friends; they needed to produce children, inherit property, continue their culture—that kind of thing. Today, she says, many of us make one person play every single role in our lives, or try to—usually without total success. I think she’d agree with many of the ideas in Lost Connections. We’re collectively suffering from loneliness and degraded social connections, and when we try to get our spouse, partner, or lover to make up for those losses, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. She says, “Every day in my office I meet consumers of the modern ideology of marriage. They bought the product, got it home, and found that it was missing a few pieces.” “Consumers:” that’s pretty close to the questions about “productivity” she mentions in the introduction, and that I mention in the first paragraph. I read in Nassim Taleb an interesting idea (it may not be original to him) that went something like this: Communism for the immediate family, socialism for the extended family, market economies for the larger community, and outright capitalism for the polity at large. I think his point is that different kinds of structures apply at different scales. Perel’s point may be that a consumer-first, hedonism-first, and satisfy-me mindset may not apply very well to small-scale relationships. “Not apply very well” is probably an understatement: those mindsets may poison small-scale relationships. But we never think about them. Why not? Why does almost no one except Perel talk about this?

If there’s something I want more of from the book, it’s evolutionary psychology and biology. They make an appearance—”Evolutionary psychologists recognize the universality of jealousy in all societies. They post that it must be an innate feeling, genetically programmed, ‘an exquisitely tailored adaptive mechanism that served the interests of our ancestors well and likely continues to serve our interests today.'”

This is a good New Yorker discussion of the book. And here is another piece, in Tablet. If you want to go back further, consider Tony Tanner’s Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression, a book I admire—but it came out in 1979 and discusses works from considerably earlier, so it, like so much writing produced by humanists, is missing evolutionary biology.

We still have no idea what’s really going on, and maybe we never will, because technology is moving faster than human norms, human social structures, and human legal structures. That mismatch may be the driving force behind a lot of weird social stuff we don’t really understand. The State of Affairs pulls us out of the day-to-day and pushes us towards what lies beneath. Most of us don’t want to go there and don’t want to understand, but if you do want to understand read it. There are lots of stories and not a lot of data; if that’s going to bother you, there are lots of nice other choices in adjacent genres that will feed you what appears to be good data (though turning data into truth is always tricky at best).

Also, if you ever get a chance to hear Perel live, do it. I did she’s one of these magnetic public speakers who’s also quick-witted (much more so than the audience members asking her questions that just standard political talking points—if you do this, you may be unhappy with the result).

Links: The fear, the basic house, the hard-but-popular college course, and more!

* Iran to begin enriching Uranium again. Some of you may recall my 2016 post, “Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse,” which is relevant here.

* “Want a basic house? Prepare for a bidding war.” Businesses have begun noticing that, if individuals can reap supernormal returns by artificially restricting the supply of housing via zoning, then businesses can do the same by buying the same asset, then renting it, and waiting for increasing demand to raise its underlying value. As we all know, however, Oregon is doing something concrete about this dynamic by reforming zoning.

* Why can’t NYC control its construction costs? It also can’t do even very simple things like through-running commuter rail, which Paris started doing in the ’80s and London in the ’90s.

* “A Remarkably Hard College Course Proves Remarkably Popular.”

* “The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity: Support for Trump comes at a high cost for Christian witness.” This is something I’ve wondered about: few of us are fully internally consistent and all of us can be hypocrites at time, but the scale and apparentness of this one strikes me as odd, even by the standards of someone who’s read The Elephant in the Brain.

* “Progressive Boomers Are Making It Impossible For Cities To Fix The Housing Crisis: Residents of wealthy neighborhoods are taking extreme measures to block much-needed housing and transportation projects.” Not far from what you’ve been reading here for years, but the news is getting out there.

* “Rep. Justin Amash quits the Republic party for principled reasons.” See also the link about evangelical Christian support for Trump.

* “The Gangs of Kalorama,” on the private school and college madness. A piece that reinforces Bryan Caplan’s book The Cast Against Education.

* “US FBI, ICE using state driver’s license photos for facial-recognition searches.” Privacy? Anyone? Privacy? Anyone who is worried about Google or Facebook ought to be 10x as worried about this.

* “Live carbon neutral with Wren: Offset your carbon footprint through a monthly subscription.”

* “Americans Shocked to Find Their Rights Literally Vanish at U.S. Airports.” Yet for some reason we keep vanishing for this, too.

* “Americans Shouldn’t Have to Drive, but the Law Insists on It: The automobile took over because the legal system helped squeeze out the alternatives.” The number of people who die by the car is shocking, yet no one seems to give a damn.

* “Breaching a ‘carbon threshold’ could lead to mass extinction.” Perhaps we ought to not do that?

* The slow death of Hollywood. Did you know that “[Netflix] now routinely ends shows after their second season, even when they’re still popular?” Me neither. Or how much Hollywood has consolidated since the ’90s? I’m still annoyed, by the way, that The Larry Sanders Show isn’t available on Blu-ray, and the DVD version doesn’t look good.

Links: Death by vehicle, when it’s desirable to quit, Judith Krantz, and more!

* “It’s OK to quit your Ph.D.” Notice the publication, too.

* Why some climate scientists are saying no to flying.

* “How Chipmaker AMD Gave China the ‘Keys to the Kingdom:’ The company revived its fortunes through the deal, and sparked a national-security battle.” And for an amount of money that is, relative to the size of the companies and economies involved, quite small.

* Why US cities aren’t using more electric buses. We ought to.

* The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet?

* “Judith Krantz, Whose Tales of Sex and Shopping Sold Millions, Dies at 91.” An amusing obituary throughout. Is it possible that some popular novelists are willing to go places self-consciously “literary” novelists are not?

* Why aren’t cities running lots of electric buses yet? Considering their advantages in terms of noise and point pollution, these relatively minor challenges ought to be overcome.

* Why the soft machine (cargo bikes) will come to dominate urban transit. One can hope.

* “California and Texas have different visions for America’s future.” There are also some curious facts underneath the political rhetoric produced in each state.

* “The blunder that could cost the U.S. the new space race:” excluding scientists and engineers based on place of birth. The 20th Century was the American Century for many reasons, one underrated one being that Europe and Asia spent much of the century murdering or exporting their best people, to the U.S.’s benefit. It seems that no politicians and few voters know or remember this fact.

* Why Are U.S. Drivers Killing So Many Pedestrians? “If anything else—a disease, terrorists, gun-wielding crazies—killed as many Americans as cars do, we’d regard it as a national emergency.”

Links: The accidental criminals, the criminalizing of basic commerce, the American shoe, electric flight, and more!

* “How to Become a Federal Criminal.” It’s incredibly easy to do and you and I have likely done it.

* “Inside Backpage.com’s Vicious Battle With the Feds.” The lack of interest in this country in many forms of freedom is notable, and this article could be related to the one immediately above.

* “Democracy Is Not Coming to China Anytime Soon.” We’ll see what China’s first major recession in decades brings, though.

* The End of the Age of Paternity Secrets.

* “Why The American Shoe Disappeared And Why It’s So Hard To Bring It Back.”

* Why the age of electric flight is finally upon us.

* “I’m a Journalist but I Didn’t Fully Realize the Terrible Power of U.S. Border Officials Until They Violated My Rights and Privacy.” And somewhat bizarrely, we keep voting for this?

* In 2000, Paul Krugman pointed out that rent control is bad. It’s still bad today; if you want to subsidize housing, the optimal way to do it is to build a whole lot of it, then give vouchers to the people who you want to subsidize. Local voters don’t like either: owners of existing housing want to limit the supply of it, and they don’t want to pay taxes to provide vouchers. Rent control is popular because it can be an immediate benefit to some existing renters, but the costs are enormous and bourn by the future. Mortgaging the future is a popular Baby Boomer pasttime, but it’d be nice to stop doing that.

* “Two-thirds of American employees regret their college degrees?” And: “About 75% of humanities majors said they regretted their college education?”

* “The Wild Ride at Babe.Net.” A lot could be said here about truth and reality that is not said; I am not going to say it either, for fear of the usual backlash.

* “The Boomers Ruined Everything.” Much better than the title implies and deals with the zoning problems that are immiserating millions.

* Peter Watts video on SF, climate, and other things. Also, Climeworks has started paid CO2 removal.

City of Girls — Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls is Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, and it’s well-summarized by its protagonist’s comment on a play: “To my mind, there was never anything better than those simple, enthusiastic revues. They made me happy. They were designed to make people happy without making the audience work too hard to understand what was going on.” If you want a fun story about being young in the 1940 – 1960 area, with lots of sporting that doesn’t involve a foot-, basket-, soccer-, or ping-pong ball, this is that book. Had someone less famous written it, it likely wouldn’t have been noticed, but that’s not the case, so it has been, or is being, noticed. There’s some weak prose and many interesting moments, and the beginning effectively and rightly tells you not to work too hard, only for you to realize by the end that you’ve been deceived. It tells you not to work too hard and to have fun instead frequently: “People will tell you not to waste your youth having too much fun, but they’re wrong. Youth is an irreplaceable treasure, and the only respectable thing to do with irreplaceable treasure is to waste it,” lest you forget. And it lulls you. I was lulled. In a lot of books, characters focused on frivolous and intense pleasures get a comeuppance; in this one, they just have a good time, a bit like Funny Girl.

There’s a lot of great dialogue, which I can be a sucker for:

“Isn’t it your theater, Peg?”
“Technically, yes. But I can’t do anything without Olive, Billy. You know that. She’s essential.”
“Essential but bothersome.”
“Yes, but you are only one of those things. I need Olive. I don’t need you. That’s always been the difference between you.”

Almost no character says what they mean and means what they say, delightfully. Yet early comedy moves into later pathos, and this is a paragraph, from the end of the novel, expressing ideas we see expressed too infrequently in the Internet, social media age:

In that moment, I felt overcome by a sense of mercy—not only for Frank, but also for that younger version of myself. I even felt mercy for Walter, with all his pride and condemnation. How humiliated Walter must have felt by me, and how dreadful it must have been for him to feel exposed like that in front of someone he considered a subordinate—and Walter considered everyone a subordinate. How angry he must have been, to have to clean up my mess in the middle of the night. Then my mercy swelled…

It seems there are many stories passed around online that could do with a little bit of mercy and understanding—thoughts and emotions hard to fit into a Tweet. Twitter is low-context medium, novels are full of context, and life has the most context of all, if we can notice it.

The playhouse where most of the novel occurs is like a startup: “I had nobody to report to and nothing was expected of me. If I wanted to help out with costumes, I could, but I was given no formal job.” Except in a startup, every duty is expected of everyone, but the lack of formality is because without constant effort, nothing happens. There are things I didn’t know exist—what exactly are “doeskin trousers?” The eye for fashion is novel to me. It’s not a type of leather, as I’d assumed: “It is similar to duvetyn, but lighter; usually softer and less densely napped than melton.” That clears things right up.

Most of all, City of Girls is about what it means to be a child versus an adult—an idea I missed the first time through. The adults pay for their fun with personal responsibility; the kids don’t, or don’t quite, and learn to deal with responsibility for frivolity and pleasure. Vivian is a kind of early Karley Sciortino, without some aspects of sex-positive modern culture to fall back on.

The book is humane: it doesn’t feel political and almost none are purely types; the absence of outright villains and heroes refreshes. The characters’s many weaknesses are not signs of evil, but signs of humanity. Weaknesses don’t cancel a person’s existence, particularly because weaknesses are often the flipsides of strengths. On some level these points are obvious, yet we seem to forget them easily, particularly but not exclusively on the Internet.


A so-so interview with Gilbert.

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