Links: Yet more on the humanities, what makes an author read, vertical farming, some unusual points, and more!

* “The Humanities as We Know Them Are Doomed. Now What?” I’d add a lot of “purportedly” to this title and article. There is also oddly little discussion of how the humanities have damned themselves, or ourselves, through the pursuit of advocacy and absurdity rather than truth or knowledge. This comic does more to explain the situation than many books.

* “Donald Trump and norms: Resistance needs substance.” Lots of context here, context that is lost in the typical discussion—especially on Twitter.

* “Through the Looking Glass at Concordia University,” which bolsters the first link: “Universities are in a state of crisis, but this crisis did not emerge overnight. It required an hospitable environment to take root. Some journalists and professors have dismissed the phenomenon as a form of moral panic, invented by right-wing provocateurs.”

* “Scholarly publishing is broken. Here’s how to fix it.”

* “Why commuting by public transport makes most people happier,” at least when the subways work.

* “A feminist makes a documentary about Men’s Rights Activists,” not the sort of thing one typically reads.

* He’s One of Brazil’s Greatest Writers. Why Isn’t Machado de Assis More Widely Read?

* “The Tunnel That Could Break New York.” I offer this for its own sake but also because it’s a sign of bad news in civic government; the U.S. better maintenance and more infrastructure, but it simultaneously needs to get costs under control and in line with other developed world countries. If costs are reasonable, voters will get on board. If not, they often won’t. The U.S. may also be suffering from the curse of “good enough.”

* Book culture in New York City.

* “Why capitalism won’t survive without socialism” is a bad title for a good interview with Eric Weinstein; he speaks of institutions with “embedded growth hypotheses” in them, and how those institutions have become dysfunctional over time:

Let’s say, for example, that I have a growing law firm in which there are five associates at any given time supporting every partner, and those associates hope to become partners so that they can hire five associates in turn. That formula of hierarchical labor works well while the law firm is growing, but as soon as the law firm hits steady state, each partner can really only have one associate, who must wait many years before becoming partner for that partner to retire. That economic model doesn’t work, because the long hours and decreased pay that one is willing to accept at an entry-level position is predicated on taking over a higher-lever position in short order. That’s repeated with professors and their graduate students. It’s often repeated in military hierarchies.

Academia suffers similarly.

* “Is Vertical Farming the Future of Your Salad?

* “On Toxic Femininity;” not at all my favorite phrase, but it’s revealing how little one hears it used.

* The Entire History of Steel.

* “Scientists assessed the options for growing nuclear power. They are grim.” Very bad news.

* The very rarely discussed dark side of Airbnb.

* The great Apple keyboard coverup. Good news: the new Apple laptop keyboards are likely resistant to the problems that have plagued models from the last two years. Bad news: models from the last two years are still prone to failure.

* American cities are drowning in car storage.

* “To Recruit Students, Colleges Turn to Corporate-Marketing Playbook.” Profs in humanities departments are probably aghast and impotent.

* Hoity lawyer prefers sexting to lawyering, although that is not the headline; still, I wonder what this tells us about the law and lawyers.

* “How Hospital Administrators Hide the Umbrella.”

* “If you haven’t read @devonzuegel’s post on North American vs Japanese zoning it will help you understand why Tokyo can be dense, highly populated, and cheap, and the US never seems to manage that.”

* How Helsinki Arrived at the Future of Urban Travel First.

Kolyma Stories — Varlam Shalamov

Tyler Cowen praises them, justifiably, and links to a good review of them, albeit one that’s somewhat difficult to access. Despite that praise, though, I sense that I’ve read “enough” stories, both fiction and nonfiction, about the gulag experience and the madness of totalitarianism; after The Gulag Archipelago and Darkness at Noon and others, do I need another?

If you’ve not read about this period and these systems, go ahead and get a copy and trust the praise. The stories are brilliantly realized, and yet I feel like a little reading about the gulag goes a long way, and my feelings about gulags are unlikely to change much.* So this is probably a book for some of you, and it’s extremely good for a book of its kind, and I hope it is not a timely book (even as China rounds up and forcibly encamps members of at least one ethnic minority—you saw that in the news, right?).

Still, as with reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers or similar books, it can be useful to remember just how rich we really are in the modern United States. In the day-to-day, that’s easily forgotten; it’s also easy to forget how adapted we are to a particular environment. Do you know how to salt-cure meat? Especially from a freshly shot bear? Me neither. Yet a group of prisoners does just that. I could look up a how-to on the Internet, but if you stuck me in a prison camp tomorrow, I’d have to learn from others or suffer or die.

The prose has been described as straightforward, but I am not always so sure:

Time spent under interrogation in pretrial prison slips from your memory, leaving no noticeable sharp traces. For anyone who is detained there, the prison and its encounters and people are not the main thing. The main thing is what all your mental, spiritual, and nervous energy is spent on in prison—that is, the battle with your interrogator.

“Leaving no noticeable sharp traces” makes you wonder: does it leave noticeable but not sharp traces? Or noticeable dull traces? And that “anyone:” with it, the narrator attempts to speak for everyone, and maybe he does. It’s another of the moments when the stories oscillate between the universal and specific.

Yet, as I said, there are many, many passages I call relentlessly grim:

Those who’d been badly beaten under interrogation and whose souls had been reduced to dust by a thousand interrogations, while their bodies were wrecked and exhausted by unbearably heavy work, prisoners with sentences of twenty-five years plus five years’ deprivation of rights, sentences that were unsurvivable, which you could not hope to come out of alive…. All these people were trembling, yelling, and cursing Fedorenko, because they were afraid of catching leprosy.

The sentence keeps going, perhaps in imitation of the prison lengths, until its sudden end. Perhaps it isn’t relentlessly grim, as that last clause may be a bit of humor, however dark.

The details are good:

He was, of course, a cardsharp, for an honest game among thieves is a game of deception; you have the right to watch and catch out your partner, and you have to be just as good as he is at cheating and at holding on to your dubious winnings.

And here, again, the microcosm of the cheating game reflects the macrocosm of the cheating legal and political systems. Those systems have changed since Stalin’s day, but Russia’s legal system remains a tool of the Putin apparatus. There are no apparent mass murders—but the mass repression remains.

Which raises another point, at least in my mind: for the last two hundred or more years, the smartest thing a Russian person could do is leave Russia. Certainly that’s true over the past hundred years. It was true in 1918 and remains true today. The amazing thing is that Russia still has 140 million people living in it. That may be testimony to the power of the human spirit and body to suffer, as well as the difficulty of emigration.

In the introductory essay, the translator writes that “Shalamov disapproved of novels as elaborate structures that falsified their material.” Yet that is precisely what I like about them! Novels need to be structured by plot; if they are not, they tend to be boring. Kolyma is disconnected in most ways, which may be truer but can also, at least in my view, be numbing. Which, again, may be appropriate to the material.

Next up is The Seventh Function of Language, which looks supremely entertaining and unrealistic, based on this review. Like Kolyma, it features people behaving meanly to each other.


* I’m opposed.

Links: MacBook Pro woes, suburbs, the dark net, the puzzle around you, and more!

* “Apple Engineers Its Own Downfall with the Macbook Pro Keyboard.” I had a 12″ Macbook and returned it: the trackpad is absurdly large and, at that time, the keyboard problems were rumored more than proven.

* “Inside a Heist of American Chip Designs, as China Bids for Tech Power.”

* “The myth of revealed preference for suburbs.” Makes sense: if it’s illegal to build the housing people want to live in, they’ll have to live somewhere else.

* “A secret network of women is working outside the law and the medical establishment to provide safe, cheap home abortions.” Probably not that secret if it’s being written about publicly and widely linked online, no?

* “1896: Immigration and The Atlantic;” when it comes to immigration, the dates and specific examples change, but the basic arguments don’t.

* “California Will Be Fourth State to Sue Navient Over Student Loans.” My first impulse is to say, “Good,” but more reflections makes me hesitate; the student loan business exists because of us and fuels the growing costs of college, which in turn fuels the student loan business. We’ve set up this perfidious flywheel and have decided not to dismantle it. Strangely, too, no one or almost no one has tried to set up an academically rigorous, low-cost college. Virtually all colleges except community colleges are following or attempting to follow the Harvard model (tenure, academic “prestige” through “research,” etc.). Maybe it’s time to do something different?

* Andrew Sullivan on why we should say yes to drugs. Not just the usual.

* Grow the puzzle around you, by Jessica Livingston of Founders at Work.

* Review of the Purism 13″ laptop. Given some of Apple’s recent foibles, as noted above, alternatives to the MacBook Pro are important.

* “Can Andy Byford Save the Subways?” Many beautiful details in this story.

Life: There is clearly a universal eligibility to be rational and literate

“There is clearly a universal eligibility to be rational and literate. Sometimes snobbery is forced upon you. So let’s have a period of exaggerated respect for reason; and let’s look down on people who use language without respecting it. Liars and hypocrites and demagogues, of course, but also their fellow travelers in verbal cynicism, inertia, and sloth.”

—Martin Amis, The Rub of Time, a beautiful sentiment, especially the idea of rationality and literacy being universally available but not, as we can see, universally adopted. I want to start citing that one when I hear people denigrate standards. To join the clerisy you need no special degrees and there are no gatekeepers; you only need books, and time, and your mind.

How I remember what I read and connect it to what else I’ve read

Robert Heaton has a post, “How to read,” that describes how he annotates books he reads, then produces a “writeup” of them afterwards. He then makes flashcards of them, using Anki, a spaced-repetition flashcard program.

This Twitter thread has more suggestions. I do something similar to Heaton, except that I don’t use Anki but do copy annotated quotes to Devonthink Pro. It’s an amazing program you’ve seen appear before, but only if you’ve been reading a very long time. I use it, basically, as Steven Berlin Johnson describes here and here. But when I finish a new book, I’ll check the “see also” pane of Devonthink Pro to see what else the program dredges up.

For example, right now I’m re-reading William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. Because it’s a re-read, I’m trying to decide if I should keep the book (I have too many) or donate it or give it away. I’m reading the section about L.A., and I found that, in my previous read, I’d connected it to something Paul Graham had written. Here’s the passage in its entirety:

“But my particular crazies are not why I find writing so difficult. It’s more like this: Everything’s so goddamn nice out there. Sure, they bitch about their smog, but unless you’re a Hawaiian born and bred, the weather is terrific. And so many of the basic necessities of life are made so easy for you: The markets are often open twenty-four hours a day, nobody snarls at you in the stores when you’re trying to buy something. It’s all just . . . swell.” (77)

This makes working in California harder, but also more pleasant. And some of those advantages have changed: I perceive Southern Californians as nice, but in a superficial way. The East Coast probably has 24-hour markets now.

Paul Graham even lists the California attitude as an advantage for startups:

“What makes the Bay Area superior is the attitude of the people. I notice that when I come home to Boston. The first thing I see when I walk out of the airline terminal is the fat, grumpy guy in charge of the taxi line. I brace myself for rudeness: remember, you’re back on the East Coast now.

The atmosphere varies from city to city, and fragile organisms like startups are exceedingly sensitive to such variation. If it hadn’t already been hijacked as a new euphemism for liberal, the word to describe the atmosphere in the Bay Area would be “progressive.” People there are trying to build the future. Boston has MIT and Harvard, but it also has a lot of truculent, unionized employees like the police who recently held the Democratic National Convention for ransom, and a lot of people trying to be Thurston Howell. Two sides of an obsolete coin.” : http://www.paulgraham.com/bubble.html

So I was too lazy to include a proper citation of Graham’s essay, but the basic ideas are there. Now I look at the “see-also” panel:

Often this yields nothing. But there is a link to this CNN piece, from 2011:

Part of the issue is that the nice things about California are becoming less nice as the state gets more crowded. It used to be the suburban dream to move to Orange County, amid the orchards and farms. With almost all the farmland gone, parts of this one-magical county, home to Disneyland, start to seem usual and urban.

I’d completely forgotten about reading it, of course. But it fits nicely with the overall theme.

The next link concerns hallucinogens (I don’t see obvious relevance), and the next is about experimental evolution (could be relevant, depending on what I’m writing or thinking about). Another concerns the “euphemism treadmill:”

But as millions of time-share owners can attest, there is no substitute for a clear “no.” My generation has spent decades trying to make things sound less unpleasant by coining new words to replace the older, harsh-sounding ones. The result of this “euphemism treadmill,” as Steven Pinker has dubbed it, is not that everyone moves to a new, higher plane, free of the old unpleasantness; it’s that the new word takes on all the disagreeable connotations of the old one, and then people start looking for a new euphemism.

“Water closet” becomes “toilet” (originally a term for any body care, as in “toilet kit”), which becomes “bathroom”, which becomes “rest room,” which becomes “lavatory.” “Garbage collection” turns into “sanitation,” which turns into “environmental services.”

Again, I’m not sure it’s relevant to anything I might write in the next couple days—but it could be. It could also fit some grant proposals I’m working on.

For me, there’s a pure memory component to reading, just as there is for Heaton. But having Devonthink Pro connect the pieces is the real secret sauce.

(Not very secret sauce, since Devonthink Pro has existed for a decade and a half, if not longer, but no one else seems to know about or use it.)

Links: Reading, drugs, civility, The Deuce, the schools, and more!

* “Why We Don’t Read, Revisited,” on the American Time Use Survey and related topics. Ill news along many dimensions. See also “Reading, anyone?

* “The Quant King, the Drug Hunter, and the Quest to Unlock New Cures.”

* “‘Don’t burn the flag’ and 11 more rules for free speech.” “You have the right to do things you still shouldn’t do” is the takeaway here.

* “Sex workers vs. the Internet,” presumably SFW, and there is a novel or two in here. Also like SFW, “Pornhub is opening a futuristic, interactive art show.” Given the state of modern art, or “art,” I’d guess this to be better than the (low) average.

* “The War on Tesla, Musk, and the Fight for the Future.”

* “Florida, Full of Dread;” I ordered the book based on this review.

* “Microsoft Employees Up in Arms Over Cloud Contract With ICE.” And how could they not be?

* “‘As a human being, I can’t do that’: Worker at migrant holding facility quits over family separations.” A rare episode of apparent humanity in this despicable episode.

* “Why Women Don’t Code;” certainly not the final answer.

* “How The Deuce Turned Its Lens on a Female Porn Auteur;” it’s in Vanity Fair and so probably SFW.

* Why schools are inept at dealing with bullies—or deal with them poorly. If you guess that lawsuits have a role in this story, you are correct.

* “The trouble with Johnny Depp.” By now you’ve likely read the article, but, if not, here it is.

* “The Legacy of Interview Magazine and a Trip to 1988.”

* How to stop the decline of public transport in rich countries.

* Wendelstein 7-X achieves world record for plasma containment.

* Why alternate vehicles like bikes and scooters will conquer the city.

* Barents Sea seems to have crossed a climate tipping point.

Thoughts on an encounter with Rene Girard

That encounter is through a couple of his books but mostly Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World; in grad school I started Deceit, Desire, and the Novel a couple times but could never get past some of the more ridiculous assertions in it (more on that later). Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of Rene Girard is the impetus for the latest bout of reading, and I find the biography more satisfying than the primary reading: it softens and contextualizes the kind of claims that make me quit a book. But it’s still suitably inscrutable and koanic as to be interesting: “For Girard, however, literature is more than a record of historical truth; it is the archive of self-knowledge.” Which is great! But I’m not entirely sure what it means or if it’s true—which is descriptive, not critical.

He is an intellectual: “I once asked Girard what the biggest events of his life were. Oh, he assured me immediately, they were all events in his head. His thoughts were what mattered.” Haven isn’t fully convinced, maybe rightly, but I’m attracted to that idea—that it’s about the mind more than the environment. Girard’s method is also unusual, among social scientists, at least:

He studied human behavior as reflected in the greatest works of literature, and found in them a recurring analytical observation of the serious consequences of mimetic behavior. This discovery opened his eyes to the hidden dynamic of group violence.

Is literature the right place to look? To me, literature is the exceptional, bizarre, and unusual; the usual is too boring to include. I wonder if Girard is suffering from selection bias. (Haven does find a fun quote from Milan Kundera: “The art of the novel is anthropology.” Is the same true of film?)

Anyway, when I read Girard, I usually have the same problem I do with most philosophers: there are some interesting passages but too many ridiculous claims that make me close the book and go read someone else. Or I think too much about what’s true. Consider this, with Chris Blattman:

The only reason I’m aware of the René Girard worldview is because I glanced at the “What should I ask Chris Blattman?” questions. [laughs] I saw that name, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t know who that is.” My 10 minutes of investigation suggests that I find nothing about this idea resonates with my personal experience in particular wars.

So maybe “the greatest works of literature” are not a great guide to the real world or analyzing it. And I say this as someone who reads all the time. The great works may be more time-, technology-, class-, and culture-dependent than many of us literary types want to admit.

That said, when Girard’s ideas get in the head, one starts to see them in many places. I listened to Jon Ronson’s podcast / Audible series “The Butterfly Effect,” which is “sort of about porn, but it’s about a lot of other things. It’s sad, funny, moving and totally unlike some other nonfiction stories about porn – because it isn’t judgmental or salacious.” And that got me connecting. In Girard’s cycle of scapegoating and social cohesion, it may be that porn stars are the best examples of a modern group that are hated, loved, sacrificed—and reborn. They provide a service or set of works that are widely consumed but also widely reviled. People oscillate among extreme feelings regarding them. Most of polite society disparages what they do, even as they have a broad, though largely ignored, impact. The highly regulated, highly PR-driven healthcare, education, and government sectors largely revile people who do or make porn, but that’s in part because of a vague but pervasive social feeling about what is “appropriate.” Should we look first at what people do and want, then look at what is “appropriate?” Or should we try to imagine what’s appropriate? If we do that, we may be entering the separation and scapegoating cycle Girard posits.

That being said, to get to the point of connection, you may have to wade. Things Hidden, for example, as with most “philosophy,” is at least twice as long as it needs to be and half as clear, if that. I would’ve liked more footnotes and a style closer to Cowen or Thiel than to a style like academic philosophy. Long-time readers know that I have a certain fascination with and derision for philosophy (see here or here or here) for examples. Philosophy often seems to be a search for broad, generalizable rules that in my view don’t exist or rarely exist; I’d rather start with situations and dilemmas and attempt to reason from there, which may be why I like novels. Indeed, rather than start this essay from first principles I began from an encounter with a book and then reasoned forward.

Overall, very interesting, though Girard’s life was not, particularly. He lived in and for ideas, as near as one can tell, which is fine; my life is probably pretty boring, viewed from the outside. If exciting is World War II, boring and well-fed is pretty good. There are many problems today, and those problems are worth remembering, but many of us don’t think historically and forget what yesterday was really like.

Maybe this says something bad about me, but I feel like I’ve read enough Girard without reading much Girard.

Still, this post is too negative. There are many things to admire, like this, from Haven:

Girard told me that our judicial system is the modern antidote to the mob, with its cycles of accusation and vengeance, its contagious fears and ritual denunciations—and on the whole it works. It has an authority to impose a final punishment of its own—vengeance stops at the courtroom.

The judicial system is, to use a Kahneman term, very system 2—that is, it is slow, deliberate, and often not our first choice. We’d rather make instant heuristic decisions, then allow our internal press secretary to justify those decisions. The judicial system may attempt to short-circuit that fast and unconscious process.

There are also amusing moments in Evolution of Desire that reveal historical change, as when we find this, about the University of Indiana just after World War II: “While the expenses of a sorority were normally beyond the reach of a fatherless student, the local chapters were eager to bolster their academic reputation, so she was recruited to Delta Gamma.” “Academic reputation” does not appear to be a key factor in current college fraternities or sororities.

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