Links: The dangers of media gigs, possible evidence of literature’s death, progress studies, and more!

* The dangers of high status, low wage jobs.

* “Has Fuccboi killed literature?” That “six figures” is enough to result in this level of petty sniping and envy is itself hilarious: what an average 24-year-old computer science makes—and the ones working for the Facebooks and Googles of the world make far more. The last paragraph of the essay is excellent and should in particular be read. It reminds me of the joke, sometimes attributed to Henry Kissinger, about academia: “The competition is so fierce because the stakes are so small.” I do appreciate the direct quotes from the book: I was tempted to order a copy until I came across them. My view is closer to that of “The death of literary culture,” and I see Fuccboi as a symptom more than a cause. In another universe it probably could have been interesting, in a way like Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney was in the ’80s.

* “To make progress, we need to study it: The progress studies movement asks a big question — and warns against taking the future for granted.” Ezra Klein favors looking forward, not backwards. “Stasis” versus “progress” might be a vital feature of American ideologies that’s somehow not getting adequately foregrounded.

* “The American Empire Has Alzheimer’s.”

* “Context is that which is scarce.” As the world complexifies and attention spans seem to shorten, we’ll probably see context remain scarce. Opinions, though, are everywhere. The wrong points are often foregrounded, and even if those are in some sense “true,” they’re often not important.

* “Women’s Tears Win in the Marketplace of Ideas.” Unpalatable ideas that could be true and that only Substack seems to host.

* Is it even worth working on free and open source software anymore?

* “How China ghosted Hollywood.” Depressing but important: virtually every movie and TV show made today is made by people deathly afraid of offending the Chinese government. Notice: “A-listers will lecture the American public on any topic that comes to mind — recall Robert De Niro’s splenetic interventions during the Trump era — except China.”

* No, the woke revolution isn’t over. Sobering, detailed, and plausible.

* Is being online turning us all into cranks?

A tiny sign of the decline in trust and the social contract?

Something happened that’s never happened to me, or more accurately us, before: a client filed a credit card chargeback after we’d fulfilled our obligations to the client. The most interesting part of the chargeback experience isn’t that someone filed a chargeback—after two decades, it was bound to occur sooner or later—but what a manager at the credit card processing company said is surprising: according to her, in the last six months, she’s seen a huge jump in number of merchants receiving their first chargebacks, ever. Many are small businesses, like us, and have never had a chargeback. The manager said she’s been much busier dealing with people like us, who are novices to this problem. She’s with one of the largest credit card processors (known as “merchant processors” in the credit card world) and thus positioned to know what’s happening in the company and, likely, industry as a whole. She volunteered that information during the course of the conversation, too, in the tone of someone who’s had this conversation before.

One hears that the number of people behaving badly on airplanes is rising. One sees the videos of people doing organized smash-and-grabs in California, one sees journalist Andy Ngo beaten by a mob in Portland, and one sees claims about the rise in crime more generally (albeit from low rates, and far below the rates of the ’70s or ’80s), and one has to wonder whether these are fleeting epiphenomenon, or something else. Does the possible rise in chargebacks track the distrust in institutions more generally? I’ve not seen any systematic data on the subject. A few brief searches don’t show any obvious public data following this metric, though if anyone has or knows of such data, please leave a link in the comments.

Links: Funding basic research, and the nature of personality

* “The Karikó problem: Lessons for funding basic research.” Katalin Karikó should, for her own self-preservation, probably have quit the university-industrial science system, but she didn’t. How many people who could’ve had impacts as transformative as hers, have quit, which is the “smart” thing to do from an individual perspective? How many looked at the madness of academia and went into adtech at Facebook or Google instead? How many look at the real estate prices caused by zoning and realized they had to make a lot of money, not university levels of money?

* “A Song of Shapes and Words.” On the “wordcel” and “shape rotator” distinction. Humorous, mostly, and more interesting than most “personality” talk.

* “Natural gas appliances emit much more methane than realized.” Switching to convection stoves is likely important and useful.

* Mergers are bad and are creating anti-competitive, crony-capitalism markets. We should block more of them, particularly but not exclusively among hospitals and hospital systems. The Boeing 737-Max fiasco emerges in part from merger disasters.

* A New Industrialist roundup: on the work towards real-world progress in terms of atoms, not just bits. Things can and should be better.

* The Rule of Midwits: subtler and deeper than you might think.

* “Why Germany Behaves the Way It Does.” Maybe. Hypocrisy is the norm, but even by normal standards Germany’s behavior is

* The iPhone 13 camera, which has impressed me.

Links: The big news, not the small news

* Modern’s HIV vaccine begins human trials. The really, really important news, much more important than whatever Congress is doing this week.

* Pop music can’t escape the 80s?

* “Why is Ukraine such an economic failure?” Something I’ve also wondered about, though don’t expect complete answers here.

* “No, the Revolution Isn’t Over: None of the fundamental drivers of ‘Wokeness’ have relented.” Again, maybe? Scott Alexander thinks it might, too. But it’s also well embedded in law and institutions.

* “An ad plugin was stealing revenue for a year and I didn’t even notice.” An amazing story.

* How the U.S. can improve on its strengths, relative to authoritarian governments. Not everything argued is correct or contextually accurate, and the given title is inflammatory, but the ideas are sound and important.

* Progress is a policy choice. Also: the new industrialist roundup, on what might be changing discourse around building lots of stuff.

* On the University of Austin; “Despite the furor, Mr. Kanelos says that support for UATX has been ‘phenomenal.’ Over 4,000 professors from other institutions have asked to teach at the university, he says, and thousands of students have expressed interest.” It may be that the University of Austin offers an opportunity for preference falsification reversal: many professors are not hard woke and dislike the growth of university bureaucracy, but feel they must go along with both to keep their jobs.

* Thoughts on “Post Liberalism:” a remarkable essay, hard to except, but largely about what happens when we stop doing things for ourselves and start assuming others will do things for us.

* In defense of Michel Foucault: not my view but an interesting and plausible one. I think he’s sufficiently random-seeming, at least in English, that he can be made to seem to mean almost anything.

* “People don’t work as much as you think.” Consistent with my observations.

Most people don’t read carefully or for comprehension

Dan Luu has a great Twitter thread about “how few bits of information it’s possible to reliably convey to a large number of people. When I was at MS, I remember initially being surprised at how unnuanced their communication was, but it really makes sense in hindsight” and he also says that he’s “noticed this problem with my blog as well. E.g., I have some posts saying BigCo $ is better than startup $ for p50 and maybe even p90 outcomes and that you should work at startups for reasons other than pay. People often read those posts as ‘you shouldn’t work at startups’.” In other words, many people are poor readers, although “hurried” or “inattentive” might be kinder word choices. His experiences, though, are congruent with mine: I’ve taught English to non-elite college students, off and on, since 2008; when I first started, I’d run classes by saying things like, “What do you all think of the reading? Any comments or questions?” I’d get some meandering responses, and maybe generate a discussion, but I often felt like the students were doing random free association, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out why.

After a semester or two I began changing what I was doing. An essay like Neal Stephenson’s “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” is a good demonstration of why, and it’s on my mind because I taught it to students recently (you should probably read “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” first, because, if you don’t, the next three paragraphs won’t make a lot of sense—and you’re the kind of person who does the reading, right?). Instead of opening by asking “What do you think?”, I began class by asking, “What is the main point of ‘Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out?’” Inevitably, not all students would have done the reading, but, among those who had, almost none ever have, or give, good answers. Many get stuck on the distinction between “geeking out” and “vegging out,” even though that’s a subsidiary point. Some students haven’t seen or dislike Star Wars, and talk about their dislike, even though that’s not germane to understanding the essay.

Stephenson says at least three times that Star Wars functions a metaphor: once in the third paragraph, once in the second-to-last paragraph—although that technically compares the Jedi to scientists, rather than Star Wars as a whole to society—and again at the end (“If the ‘Star Wars’ movies are remembered a century from now, it’ll be because they are such exact parables for this state of affairs”). Most students don’t know what a “parable” is, which also means I wind up asking what they should do if they come across a word they don’t know. It’s also not like the essay is long or using numerous complex words: it’s only about 1,300 words and it’s about pop culture, not some abstract topic.

The first few times I taught “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” this way, I wondered if I was getting unrepresentative samples, but I’ve done it many times since and have consistently gotten the same results. I think most high-school students, to the extent they’re being taught to read effectively at all, are being taught to skim a work for keywords and then vomit up an emotional reaction (I assign free-form, pass-fail student journals, and most take this form). Very few students seem to be taught close reading, although when I was still in grad school, I had a cluster of students who all had had the same junior or senior year high school teacher, and that teacher had drilled all of them in close reading and essay writing—and they were all proficient. She seemed to be the exception, not the rule, and I meant to send her a letter thanking her but never did. Teaching “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” usually takes somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, in order to go through it and look at how the essay is constructed, how the sentence “What gives?” functions as a turning point in it, and other related topics. I tell students at the end of the process that we’ve not talked about whether they like “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” or not; the goal is to understand it first, and evaluate it later. Understanding before judgment: Internet culture encourages precisely opposite values, as I’m sure we’ve all seen in social media like Twitter itself.

At the end of class, I ask again, “What is the main point?” and get much better answers. I’ll sometimes do the same thing with other argumentative essays, and often the initial answers aren’t great. I posit that most students aren’t being taught close reading in high school, and part of that theory comes from me asking them, individually, what their high school English classes were like. Many report “we watched a lot of movies” or “nothing.” Sure, a few students will have taken “nothing” from excellent classes and instructors, but the answers are too uncomfortably common, especially from diligent-seeming students, for me to not see the pattern. In high school, few students seem to have looked closely at the language of a given work and how language choices are used to construct a story or argument. To my mind, and in my experience, doing that is a prerequisite for being a proficient writer, including on topics related to “social justice.”

It’s not just “turn On, Tune In, Veg Out;” when I assign Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” I’ll get strange responses from students about how it’s so totally true that these days the English language is being used poorly. After enough of those kinds of responses, I began to open class by asking students to take 20 or 30 seconds to write down when “Politics” was written. In case you think this is a trick question, “1946” is displayed in huge font at the start of the version I’m using, and it’s repeated again at the very end. In the text itself, Orwell cites a Communist pamphlet, and he mentions the “Soviet press,” and such choices should be clues that it’s not contemporary. Nonetheless, if a third of a given class gets in the right ballpark—pretty much anything between “1930s” and “1950s” is adequate enough for these purposes—that’s good, which implies two-thirds of a given class hasn’t done the reading or hasn’t retained what I’d call an elemental idea from the reading. Students routinely guess “2010s” or “2000s.”

Right after college I taught the LSAT for two years, and the LSAT is largely a test of reading comprehension. I worked for an independent guy named Steven Klein, who’d started his company in the late ‘80s or early ’90s, before Kaplan and Princeton Review became test-prep behemoths. He and his business partner, Sandy, would marvel at the students who had 3.8, 3.9, sometimes 4.0 GPAs in fields like sociology, communication, English, or “Law, Society, and Justice” but who couldn’t seem to understand even simple prose passages. The students would get frustrated too: they were college grads or near college grads, who were used to being told they were great. The LSAT experience made me a sympathetic reader of the book Paying for the Party, or Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Has Crippled Undergraduate Education, both of which describe how most colleges and universities have evolved vast party tracks that require minimal skill development and mental acuity, but reliably deliver high grades. I think of those books when I read about the massive, $1 trillion and growing amount of outstanding student loan debt. Many college and university students would be better served with apprenticeships and vocational education, but as a society we’ve spent 40, if not more, years disparaging such paths and exalting “college.” Articles like “41% of Recent Grads Work in Jobs Not Requiring a Degree” are common. We have many bartenders and airline stewards and stewardesses and baristas who’ve obtained expensive degrees: I’m not opposed to any of those professions and respect all of them, but a four-year degree is a very expensive way of winding up in them.

The LSAT is a standardized test, and many schools still like standardized tests because those tests aren’t changed by how rich or connected or otherwise privileged a person is. Some Ivy-League and effectively-Ivy-League schools are doing away with the SAT, in the name of “diversity,” but that usually means they’re trying to give themselves even more discretion in “holistic” admissions, which tends to mean rich kids, with a smattering of diversity admits for political cover. “Race Quotas and Class Privilege at Harvard: Meme Wars: Who gets in, and why?” is one take on this topic, although numerous others can be found. The students who had gotten weak degrees and high GPAs were flummoxed by the LSAT; when they asked what they could do to improve their reading skills, Steven and Sandy often told them, “Read more, and read more sophisticated works. The Atlantic, The New Yorker [this was a while ago], better books, and do it daily.” I’d sometimes see their faces fall at the notion of having to read more: they were hoping to learn “One Weird Trick For Improving Your Reading Skills. You Won’t Guess What It Is!” When I’ve taught undergrads, they often want to know if there’s a way to get extra credit, and I tell them to do the reading thoroughly and write great essays, because I will grade based on improvement. This seems particularly important because many haven’t been taught close reading or sentence construction. I also see the disappointment in their faces and body language, because they think I’m going to tell them the secret, and instead I tell them there is no real secret, just execution and practice. A lot of school consists of jumping through somewhat ridiculous, but well-defined, hoops, and then being rewarded for it at the end, but real learning is much stranger and more tenuous than that. Sarah Constantin argues that “Humans Who Are Not Concentrating Are Not General Intelligences,” which is consistent with my experiences.

Many, if not most, English and writing professors also seem strangely uninterested in teaching writing or close reading. I get peculiar looks when I talk about the importance of either with other people teaching writing or English; one woman at a school I taught at in New York told me that social justice is the only appropriate theme for freshman writing courses. I know what she meant, and grunted noncommittally; I didn’t really reply to her at the time, although I was thinking: “Isn’t developing high levels of skill and proficiency the ultimate form of social justice?”

This is a long-winded way of saying that poor reading comprehension may be closer to the norm than the exception, and that may also be why, as Dan observed, very few bits of information trickle down from the C suites in big companies to the line workers (“I’ve seen quite a few people in upper management attempt to convey a mixed/nuanced message since my time at MS and I have yet to observe a case of this working in a major org at a large company (I have seen this work at a startup, but that’s a very different environment)”). I’d imagine the opposite is also true: if you’re a line worker, or lower-level management, it’s probably difficult or impossible to tell the C suite people about something you think important. Startups can disrupt big companies when a few people at the startup realize something important is happening, but the decision makers and the BigCo don’t.

I’ve also learned, regarding teaching, a message similar to what the MS VPs had learned: not much goes through, and repetition is key. One time, my sister watched me teach and said after, “You repeat yourself a lot.” I told her she was right, but that I’d learned to do so. Teachers and professors repeating themselves endlessly made me crazy when I was in school, but now I understand why they do it. I’ll routinely say “Do [stuff] for Thursday. Any questions?” and have someone immediately say: “What should we do for Thursday?” There’s a funny scene in the movie Zoolander in which the David Duchovny character explains to the Ben Stiller character how male models are being used to conduct political assassinations. He goes through his explanation, and then Zoolander goes: “But why male models?” The David Duchovny character replies: “Are you stupid? I just explained exactly that to you.” Derek Zoolander is a deliberately stupid character, but I think inattention is probably the most relevant explanation in the real world. Big tech companies like Microsoft probably have very few stupid people in them. Most students aren’t stupid, but I think many haven’t been effectively challenged or trained. It’s also harder for the instructor to teach close reading than it is to have meandering discussions about how a given work, which has probably been at best skimmed, makes students feel. I’ve written on “What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.” There’s a phrase that floats around higher education about a rueful compact between students and teachers: “They pretend to learn, and we pretend to teach.” Students, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know, really like to get good grades. I of course grade with scrupulous honesty and integrity 100% of the time, just like everyone else, but I have heard rumors that there’s temptation to give students what they want and collect positive evaluations, which are often used for hiring and tenure purposes.

Politicians appear to have learned the same thing about repetition and the limits of the channel: the more successful ones appear to develop a simple message, and often a simple phrase (“Hope and change,” to name a recent one: you can probably think of others) and repeat it endlessly, leaving the implementation details to staff, assuming the politician in question is elected.

When Paul Graham confronts readers mis-reading his work, he’ll often ask, “Can you point to a specific sentence where I state what you say I state?” It appears almost none do. Even otherwise sophisticated people will attribute views to him that he doesn’t hold and hasn’t stated, based on the mood his essay creates. In Jan. 2016, for example, he wrote “Economic Inequality: The Short Version” because he saw “some very adventurous interpretations” of the original. In April 2007, he wrote “Microsoft is Dead: The Cliffs Notes” because many interpreted his metaphor as being literal. I often teach a few of his essays, most notably “What You’ll Wish You’d Known,” and some students will report that he’s “arrogant” or “pretentious.” Maybe he is: I’ll ask a version of the question Graham does: “Can you cite a sentence that you find arrogant or pretentious?” Usually the answer is “no.” I tell students they could write an essay arguing that he is, using specific textual evidence, but that never happens.

I’ve told bits and pieces of this essay to friends in conversation, and they sometimes urge me to try and make a difference by making an effort to improve college teaching. I appreciate their encouragement, but I don’t run any writing or English departments and have a full-time job that occupies most of my time and attention. I like teaching, but teaching represents well under 10% of my total income, tenure-track jobs in humanities fields haven’t really existed since 2009, and adjunct gigs offer marginal pay. To really encourage better classroom teaching, schools would need to pay more and set up teaching systems for improving classroom teaching. The goal of the system is to propagate and perpetuate the system, not to disturb it in ways that would require more money or commitment. Pretending excellence is much easier than excellence. I’m okay with doing a bit of teaching on the side, because it’s fun and different from the kind of computer work I usually do, but I’m under no illusions that I’m capable of changing the system in any large-scale way. The writing I’ve done over the years about colleges and college teaching appears to have had an impact on the larger system that’s indistinguishable from zero.

Links: The nature of schools, the story of mRNA vaccines, amphetamine information, and more!

* “School Closures Were a Catastrophic Error. Progressives Still Haven’t Reckoned With It. Sometimes you need to own up to an error so it’s not repeated.” Of course, people don’t do things they “need” to do, or reckon with things they “need” to reckon with, all the time. The venue for this one is surprising.

* The beautiful story of mRNA vaccines.

* “The annihilation of Michel Houellebecq.” On his latest, and perhaps last, novel: it sounds skippable to me, something I’ve said I’ve nothing else in his body of work except The Possibility of an Island.

* “Know Your Amphetamines!” Though it doesn’t discuss modafinil, however.

* “The YIMBYs are starting to win a few: Slowly but surely, progressives are realizing that they need to build, build, build.” Better late than never, but this would’ve been a useful realization ten or twenty years ago.

* Intel’s woes, and whether it can get out of them. If one dates its woes to the era of turning down building iPhone chips, it’s nearing two decades of ineptness. If one merely restricts its woes to falling behind TSMC, its woes can be dated to a more recent, but still years ago, period.

* “The rise of the literary noble savage.” The more interesting literary essays are appearing un UnHerd, it would seem, which means you should subscribe.

* “Terry Teachout and the Last of the Conservative Critics.” As in temperament, more than politics. Genuinely conservative politics seem dead in the United States, right now.

* “High medical bill in the ER leaves family reeling.” That all costs still aren’t posted online, in advance, is a travesty.

* The death of intimacy?

Links: Identity politics, the weird love of “old” housing units, tools for thought, and more!

* “Hollywood’s New Rules: The old boys club is dead. But a new one—with its own litmus tests and landmines—is rapidly replacing it. ‘This is all going to end in a giant class-action lawsuit.'” One wonders how this intersects with what seems to be Hollywood’s creative desert, and Hollywood’s obsession with sequels.

* “Stop Fetishizing Old Homes: New construction is better on nearly every conceivable measure.” Seems obvious, and prices reflect these preferences.

* It appears that international relations people have expected war over Ukraine for decades. I had no idea. Apparently no one in Europe did, either, or they, and Germany in particular, would have built out nuclear energy infrastructure, rather than relying on Russian gas.

* Julian Barnes on Penelope Fitzgerald.

* The Last Psychiatrist writes his book that’s nominally about porn. The book itself is a mess, unfortunately, to my eye and it seems to many others’ eyes.

* “America’s Top “Environmental” Groups Have Lost the Plot on Climate Change.” Seems obvious: we could have dramatically improved our emissions profile 40 years ago with nuclear, but we didn’t, and at the time the Sierra Club and many other “environmental” groups opposed nuclear power and opposed building denser housing—leading us to where we are today. The ability of organizations to fail to pursue effective strategy for their stated ends is notable.

* Against Identity Politics.

* “ ‘It’s ugly out there’: Rail thefts leave tracks littered with pilfered packages.” It seems L.A. and perhaps other cities are having to re-learn why we have basic law enforcement.

* “China looks to the Western classics.” Does interest in classics demonstrate a country or culture on the upswing? Does disinterest show the opposite? Or is neither correct?

* “How can we develop transformative tools for thought?

Freddie deBoer on writing, in “If You Absolutely Must”

Freddie deBoer has a book, or more realistically booklet (it’s free, too), called If You Absolutely Must, and, while it’s about writing, it’s also about the world; like many interesting books, the nominal topic is a jumping off point for, if not everything, then for many things, and he takes his own advice by being eccentric and obsessed. He recommends writers be serious and notes that “Immense damage has been done to the public perception of many causes beloved by the social justice set by that set’s dogged insistence on associating those causes with totally frivolous ideas. When a writer says ‘I’m going to connect the trauma of segregation to the semiotics of breakfast cereal,’ it doesn’t make people expand their thinking on the scope of racism. It makes the writer ridiculous and the issue seem trivial.” Probably you weren’t expecting probing commentary on the “social justice” set in a book about writing, or at least I wasn’t, and yet there it is—an effective, accurate critique. DeBoer says: “If you want to stand out, try being serious.” That’s a specific form of the advice, “Don’t automatically do what everyone else is doing.” If many persons writing spend “life in a self-defensive crouch,” do the opposite: doing what everyone else does is common. What’s rare and what’s common? Figure out the latter and use it to try and do the former.

DeBoer’s advice is: “you have to be difficult. You have to be weird. I think being unclassifiable and difficult and fractious are desirable qualities for a writer in and of themselves.” He’s probably right, for the kind of writing he’s doing, and the kind of writer he’s talking to. But, don’t try to be that type of writer, or, likely, any type of “writer” in the sense of someone who makes his or her primary income from writing for the general public: it’s too glamorous, and the supply and demand are way out of balance. If You Absolutely Must is an appropriate title, because you shouldn’t try to primarily be a writer, any more than today it makes sense trying to make adult amounts of money as a photographer. Both occupations coalesced in the before-times, and the border of those before-times is hard to define precisely but occurs somewhere in the 2009 – 2015 period. I’m going to call it “2014” somewhat arbitrarily, when the smartphone and social media world is not merely born but has matured into the dominant want people access, produce, and think through information. The journalism-publishing world that existed throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st was in decline throughout the ’00s but went terminal after the Great Recession, as did the literary world. Twitter and similar replaced it; that may be good, bad, neutral, or orthogonal, but it seems true, and is linked to the way “the financial picture in this world [of writing for publications] is significantly worse than it was even 10 years ago.”

The number of words available to a person, particularly on a daily basis, used to be limited, and you had to have a printing press to get words from the writer to the reader. I’ve read numerous writers describe how hard they worked, in their youth, to access books; William Gibson stands out in this respect, but there are many others. Now, the number of words, images, moving images, and combinations of those things is, from the ability of an individual to process that media, infinite. Attention, instead, is finite: that’s the bottleneck, and we’re slowly seeing adaptation to that reality. Companies and famous persons are learning that the legacy media might best be ignored, rather than engaged with; instead, “The whole concept of giving free content, quotes, interviews to legacy media corporations is obsolete,” and the job of companies and famous persons is to build their own channel. Whatever you’re talking about, that’s what you’re bringing attention to, and most of us are still poor at directing our own attention to things that matter, rather than things that don’t.

Point is, almost all writing institutions, the assumptions underlying those institutions, and so on, were set up before the smartphone-social-media era. Most of the people teaching writing were born and came up in the previous era, and even those who weren’t, still likely haven’t entirely imbibed the new world, and I include myself at least partially, and maybe entirely, in this. We went from a world of relative scarcity to a world of information abundance, and we’re still dealing with those effects. I’ve run into a couple of people paying apparently good money for masters degrees in journalism, which is a level of financial insanity and time wasting that I can just barely comprehend. Those masters degrees shouldn’t exist, and whoever’s in them hasn’t gotten the message.

If you’re trying to make adult amounts of money primarily as a writer today, you’re competing with people who have family money quietly backing them, and with people who have achieved financial independence in the tech industry. This is one of the most interesting bodies of work published in the last 20 years. You are also facing up against people like deBoer, who “write pathologically; that is, I write so much that it has become a detriment to my life, and the amount of writing I’m doing is frequently inversely correlated with my overall health. I have tracked how much I write in a given week fairly obsessively for about 9 years now. Since I lost my job last June I have been averaging a bit more than 35,000 words a week.” “Pathologically” is an apt word here: “involving, caused by, or of the nature of a physical or mental disease,” although I don’t love the word “disease” and prefer the ancient Greek notion of obsession arising almost from outside the self, or from divine inspiration: closer to Julian Jaynes, further from modern medicalization. Whatever the mental model one likes—I’ll take muses inserting metaphoric Neuralink into the brain and piping in messages—being obsessed is here, if not a virtue, then a condition of many of those who pursue this mode of writing, often at the expense of much else in their lives.

Still, DeBoer says that “If you’re a consumer of writing, you’re facing a paucity of real choice, and the choices that are before you are all likely quite unappealing. People seek out writers on the margins because they’re tired of pieces telling them that Valentine’s heart candies are rape culture.” I’m not sure all consumers of writing face a paucity of real choice: I’ve been in libraries, I’ve read books not published in the last four years; right now I’m a quarter through Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. There are around 230 websites in my RSS feed, none of which routinely tell me that “Valentine’s heart candies are rape culture.” So, finding that kind of writing is a choice, more than it’s forced and foisted on a reader. For many years I subscribed to or read the New York Times‘s Sunday edition, in paper, but I quit a while ago, and in doing so, I exercised the “real choice” to not support the sort of thing deBoer is talking about here. That some number of readers are making that choice to read about the Valentine’s heart candies thing, even if they somehow feel they aren’t making a choice, might be another avenue of exploration. From what I understand, there are also sources out deifying a certain man who inherited his father’s fortune and who is a former reality TV show host; I don’t read those either.

Writing fiction isn’t deBoer’s main interest here, but it’s been one of my interests: writing fiction, never an easy route to paying the bills, doesn’t work any more. As a hobby, sure. I’ve been annoying friends and acquittances by asking, “How many books did you read in the last year?” Usually this is greeted with some suspicion or surprise. Why am I being ambushed? Then there are qualifications: “I’ve been really busy,” “It’s hard to find time to read,” “I used to read a lot.” I say I’m not judging them—this is true, I will emphasize—and am looking for an integer answer. Most often it’s something like one or two, followed by declamations of plans to Read More In the Future. A good and noble sentiment, like starting that diet. Then I ask, “How many of the people you know read more than a book or two a year?” Usually there’s some thinking, and rattling off of one or two names, followed by silence, as the person thinks through the people they know. “So, out of the few hundred people you might know well enough to know, Jack and Mary are the two people you know who read somewhat regularly?” They nod. “And that is why the publishing industry works poorly,” I say. In the before-times, anyone interested in a world greater than what’s available around them and on network TV had to read, most often books, which isn’t true any more and, barring some kind of catastrophe, probably won’t be true again.

This isn’t a lament or whining about the kids these days, a genre that’s been tired for centuries if not millennia: it’s an observation of how culture and behavior change. Calculus is the study of change, and most writers are on some level also describing change. The economic institutions that used to support writers aren’t there any more, or exist only in skeletal form (good luck getting that MFA teaching gig). There are new ones (Patreon, self-publishing, Substack), and deBoer is orienting readers towards new ones. If they must. Don’t must. Do something else. Learn to write, as a secondary skill.

DeBoer isn’t writing to complain: he says: “the average level of pure prose chops – the ability to express yourself with clarity, concision, and style – is very high today, and better than it ever has been in the 20 years that I’ve been reading nonfiction.” I’m not sure if he’s right. It’s possible that the average level of pure prose chops among writers is higher, while the level among the general population might be lower. I can’t tell. Among students, I don’t detect a lot of change, although I also don’t know how I’d measure that, amid so many other changes. I find my own reading habits drifting away from books and towards longer articles: a Kindle combined with Instapaper are the key technologies here (it may also be that there are diminishing marginal returns to reading more fiction, at some point). It used to be that a lot of general nonfiction books had 10,000 or 20,000 words of material expanded to 50,000, in order to fill a book-sized pagecount. Now it seems that many articles remain articles. I read deBoer’s book The Cult of Smart, about which he says:

My first book, The Cult of Smart, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2020. It sold more than 98% of the books published that year! But [it] still has only sold about 6,000 copies to date (late January 2022). That’s both [sic] not very good from the standpoint of my trying to sell another book.

According to The New York Times, 98% of books published in 2020 sold less than 5,000 copies.

The Cult of Smart is good and interesting, and it lines up with my own teaching experiences, far better than I wish it to. You should read it. It’s a success—well above what most writers achieve—and he makes only $75,000 from it? That’s success? And DeBoer has spent a huge amount of time writing, relentlessly, on the Internet. More and more, I find myself thinking, “I’m too bourgeois for this.”

Links Building dynamism and abundance, and avoiding stagnation

* Building American Dynamism, which is the most important in this batch—but also an idea that’s linked to in the next link.

* On the need for abundance. The “abundance agenda” has been needed for at least 20 years, and it’s great to see someone pitching it. A later link in this set speaks to youth conformity culture, and part of the conformity may be driven by material scarcity:

That the young would always be against authority once seemed a truism, but things have changed. In Western democracies, the political economy has become unrecognisable. For three decades after 1945, unemployment in advanced European economies remained low. Odd jobs for the young were plentiful, and the knowledge economy barely existed. If you worked for a few hours in a shop or warehouse, who cared what you did at night or what your opinions were? Today, by contrast, a worker in the knowledge economy – a consultant or a media executive – is hired and rewarded for certain habits and dispositions that are effectively indistinguishable from political opinions. Imagine a recommendation letter that started: “John has an excellent command of Marxist dialectics and what is more he embodies it in praxis and feeling…”

Your opinions may also be too easily found online: perhaps you should speak of them under your real name, particularly if you feel the tare of heresy.

* “The Dirty Work of Cleaning Online Reputations.” Lots of interesting game theory here.

* “Naturally Selective: Female Orgasm and Female Sexual Selection.” Textual and from Quillette.

* Why the nuclear industry is stagnant. One of these important things that’s somehow not “news,” while random political wrangling is.

* “Youth culture was once rebellious. But in today’s digital world, conformity rules.” Consistent with my own anecdotal sense.

* “The Gender Gap Is Taking Us to Unexpected Places.” Surprising to see something this heretical, given the venue.

* “If Einstein Had The Internet: An Interview With Balaji Srinivasan.”

* “Buy things, not experiences.” This one had me at “Baumol’s Cost Disease” in particular.

* Replace waiters with QR codes.

* “The Reactionary Trap: It’s not just a right-wing phenomenon. Thinkers on the left, beware.” Consistent with my reading; I also followed James Lindsay for a while, and then stopped, for the same reasons the writer cites (“Looking through Lindsay’s Twitter history is like watching a train coming off its tracks”). Unfortunately, measured and reasoned essays rarely seem to be widely cited, Tweeted, and linked to, while unhinged lunacy gets the opposite—although I have to wonder: is there such a thing as “hinged” lunacy?

Links: MagnaCut steel, the sociology of art, the history of art, UFOs, and more!

* Long review of MagnaCut, a stainless steel that appears to have very desirable properties for knives. I cook a lot and thus quality knives are of high interest to me.

* “Against shock,” and I’ve noticed this: “And then—this is my contention—somewhere towards the 1960s the culture simply ran out of ways to shock.” In the ’90s and ’00s, I think that, in some circles, it was still cool to be denounced by Christians or Christian groups; today, that’s faded, a new racial piety has settled over the world that once celebrated offending people—but only the right people. In “Disenchantment and Dogma,” William Deresiewicz writes that “we pour our unsatisfied religious longings into an ever-shifting array of crypto-religious enthusiasms: movements, cults, conspiracy theories, New Age quackery, fandom—now, disastrously, politics” and that “into that vacuum, has lately stepped the ideology of ‘social justice,’ with all the certainties and all the furies of a new religion on the march.” Maybe the religious impulse will always be with us. In terms of art and shock, it may be also that the culture of narcissism that artists used to specialize in, became the general culture: “So, in other words, a dead-end—artists simply repeating passed-down wisdom about their expected social role as risqué exhibitionists.” If much of the culture is composed of risqué exhibitionists, that’s not a way for artists to stand apart. So what is?

* “Where’s today’s Beethoven?” An attempt at comparing past and present art and achievement, among many other things. I subscribe to the idea that many art forms have a “big bang” of achievement in which relatively early practitioners get 80% of the way “there,” barring technological achievements. That caveat is important: to most people, movies before the time period they grew up are unwatachable due to poor sound and image quality, for example. You, reader, may not be most people.

* UFOs above the Channel Islands. Also mentions Kelly Johnson, the Skunkworks pioneer, and his encounter with UFOs.

* On Sinclair Lewis, proclaimed by the headline as “The Novelist Who Saw Middle America as It Really Was.” I don’t find his novels readable today, apart from historical interest, and prefer this essay to them.

* “Dangerous humid heat extremes occurring decades before expected.”

* Moxie’s first impressions of web3. Subtle, surprising.

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