Links: Entitlement, Ferguson, blogs, reading, war

* “The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect,” especially worth reading for teachers and students, though it is excellent throughout. This especially resonates:

The world of grad students two decades later is a lot different. Nearly all the students have smartphones, which they bring to class. Nearly all of them spend more time staring at screens than at books.

And the students I encounter seem to value reading less and less. I remember one especially galling workshop that I taught a few years ago, in which I asked the participants to read a single story, “Guests of the Nation” by Frank O’Connor. Hardly any of them bothered. They didn’t seem to understand—they were too entitled to understand—that the production of great literature requires a deep engagement with great literature. In fact, they were more likely to talk about a movie or TV show, or what they just posted on Facebook, than the last great book they read.

When I go into coffeeshops computers and phones outnumber books at least 10:1. That is worth contemplating for anyone who writes or aspires to write books. In many ways writing is more important than ever—in an email yesterday I said that books may be the (financial) wagging the cultural dog—but people are arguably getting paid either less or differently for it.

women with cell phone in coffee shop-1829* “How we’d cover Ferguson if it happened in another country.”

* Blogs will outlast the various “Social Media” companies.

* Housing policy is the biggest thing “blue states” are screwing up.

* “The Great Unread: Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust?” What is the role of the reader, and how will a given society evolve? To most 19th C writers, coming secularization probably wasn’t totally obvious. What are 21st Century writers underestimating?

The other reality of reading is that an infinite number of books can be read at a given moment. Even dedicated readers rarely read more than 100 books a year.

* Fundamentalists are not traditionalists.

* We cannot really understand the horror of the Eastern front in World War II.

The Death of the Novel and Ryan Holiday’s “Trust Me, I’m Lying”

“As Chris Hedges, the philosopher and journalist, wrote, ‘In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle this frustration.’

As a manipulator, I certainly encourage and fuel this age. So do the content creators.” (67-8)

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Trust Me LyingI have read a million essays, most dumb, about the Death of the Novel or the Death of Literature; “Anxiety of influence: how Facebook and Twitter are reshaping the novel” is one recent specimen, though there will no doubt be others: the topic seems as attractive to the essay writing set as cat pictures and porn are to Internet users. Yet the quoted passage from Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator resonates more than most samples in the genre. Reality is complicated and the best novels, and narrative art generally, strives to capture that reality. Does a novel make a cultural sound if no one is there to read it?

“In an age of images and entertainment” it might also be useful to recall the Stephenson quote posted a few days ago:

Literate people used to spend a lot of time reading books, but during the Internet years those have begun to seem more and more like a distinct minority: a large and relatively well-off minority, to be sure, but one that simply doesn’t register in the electronic media, as vampires are invisible to mirrors. [. . .] Books, though, and the thoughts that go through the heads of their readers, are too long and complex to work on the screen—but it a talk show, a PowerPoint presentation, or a webpage. Booksih people sense this. [. . .]

If bookishness were just a niche pastime, like stamp collecting or waveboarding, none of this would really matter. But it’s more than that. It is the collective memory and accumulated wisdom of our species.

Not all hobbies are created equal. I wonder too if bookishness makes one less susceptible to the media manipulations Holiday describes in Trust Me, I’m Lying. “Less susceptible” is of course not the same as “immune.” Nonetheless, I would take from the book several lessons:

1. Beware the cheap, faux outrage that is seemingly everywhere online.

2. Realize that people are still herd animals—a point Holiday makes—and that while this is often adaptive (if everyone is literally running in one direction, there’s probably a reason) it has many drawbacks. Intellectually and economically it is often not good to be part of the herd.

3. Most people don’t separate news and entertainment, though few think explicitly about this point. Whatever larger cultural structures might have existed to enforce this separation at one point are if not gone altogether then mostly gone, and Trust Me, I’m Lying is a eulogy of sorts.

4. The environment in which we evolved for tens of thousands of years or more is very different from the one in which we live now; though that’s an obvious point, the many ways in which now and then are different still surprise me. Consider:

the public is misinformed about a situation that we desperately need to solve. But heartbreaking sadness does not spread well. Through the selective mechanism of what spreads—and gets traffic and pageviews—we get suppression not by omission but by transmission.

5. Trust Me, I’m Lying raises my estimation of academia, at least slightly.

What success looks like: A link from Dave Winer of Scripting News

I’ve been reading Dave Winer’s blog Scripting News since long before I’d heard the word “blog.” Scripting News been covered in Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters and countless other profiles as one of the early examples of a blog. Imagine my delight when:

Yes, that’s a link my post on the sad and stupid demise of Flip at the hands of Cisco. I wouldn’t call Winer’s Retweet “a dream come true” or any other phrase that should be reserved for acts of extreme achievement or copulation (which can sometimes be an extreme achievement), but it’s certainly gratifying—like getting e-mails or comments from writers and critics I admire.

Now I only need a link from Marginal Revolution and my blogging life will be, if not complete, then at least substantially more satisfying than it might be otherwise.

I've been writing academic

For the last couple weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time on my (second) publishable paper, this one on the contrasting temperaments in Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. They share many superficial characteristics: both tell the stories of decadent Americans in Europe shortly after World Wars; both feature protagonists who do not have major or pressing financial responsibilities; both feature a period of time in Paris punctuated by a trip to Spain that ends up back in Paris; both include characters lacking specific, tangible objectives that propel their travels. Thirty years after The Sun Also Rises, The Dud Avocado continues the tradition of having Americans wander through Europe, but the attitude it takes is predominantly comic, in contrast to the tragic temperament its predecessors shows.

I think it’s an interesting paper—but authors are inclined to think as fondly of their papers as parents are of their children—but writing it sucks up most of the time I’d otherwise use to blog. Blogging and academic writing are usually complements, not substitutes, but in this case the increasing price of blogging relative to paper writing makes me do less of it.

For now.

On blogging altruistically or narcissistically and why Facebook is simply easier

The New York Times has an article light on data and big on conjecture claiming “Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter.” A sample: “Former bloggers said they were too busy to write lengthy posts and were uninspired by a lack of readers.” This Hacker News comment describes the blogging situation well:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Most of the great blogs that I visit are all done altruistically. They are well maintained, post useful information, and very rarely waste my time. They also require a huge amount of effort on the part of the blogger because they really have to do work to gather and present interesting and useful information for their readers.

What a lot of the press has referred to as blogging is “narcissistic.” Instead of coming up with interesting information and vetting it for their readers they mostly just spew whatever thoughts they had that day onto the page. It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort, but the signal to noise ratio is also very low.

It’s really hard to write stuff that will be interesting to people who don’t know you and have no real connection to you. I know because I’ve been writing The Story’s Story for three years and change. Over that time, it became obvious that producing at least one meaningful post a week is difficult. If writing in such a way that other people actually want to read your work weren’t so difficult, we wouldn’t have nearly as many professional writers as we do.

If your goal is mostly to bask in the relative adulation of others, you can probably do it more efficiently (and narcissistically) via Facebook. Look at the large number of girls who post bikini or MySpace shots and wait for the comments to roll in (note: they are doing this rationally). If your goal is mostly to communicate something substantive, you’re going to find that it’s not five or ten times harder than posting a 140-character message on FB or Twitter—it’s 50 or 100 times harder. Twitter is easier than “A list of N things” and “A list of N things” is easier than a blog post and a blog post is easier than an essay.

People who want to be real writers (or filmmakers or whatever) in the sense that people with no current relationship of any kind will find their work useful will probably still blog or use other equivalents. But most of those who think they want to be real writers will probably find out precisely how hard it is to come up with useful and interesting stuff regularly. Then they’ll quit, and the people who remain will be the ones who have the energy and skill to keep it up and write things people want to read.

I’m not against Twitter, but a while ago I posted this: “What can be said in 140 characters is either trivial or abridged; in the first case it would be better not to say it at all, and in the second case it would be better to give it the space it deserves.” The first part of that sentence can fit on Twitter, but the second part clarifies and reinforces the first.

Furthermore, real life can get in the way of substantive posts. At the moment, I’m recovering from the reading for my M.A. oral exam, which was Friday (I passed). As a result, I haven’t written a lot of deep, detailed posts about books over the last month. I haven’t written that many in general this year because the thing that used to primarily be my hobby—writing about books—has now been professionalized in the form of graduate school. So the energy that used to go into those posts is now more often going into my papers. Writing academic articles “counts” towards my career and toward eventually getting people to pay me money. Writing blog posts doesn’t. I don’t think the two are pure complements or pure substitutes, and I doubt I will ever stop writing a blog altogether because blogs are an excellent for ideas too short or underdeveloped for an article but still worth developing.

Plus, did I mention that good posts are hard to write? I think so, but I’ll mention it again here because I don’t think most people really appreciate that. Perhaps it’s best they don’t: if they did, they’d probably be less inclined to start a blog in the first place. The people who keep it up and keep doing it well have a mysterious habit of finding ways to get paid for it, either by writing books of their own or by finding an organizational umbrella (think of Megan McArdle or Matt Yglesias).

The number of people out there who have the inner drive to keep writing in the absence of external gratification is probably relatively small. I’ve made tens of dollars from “The Story’s Story.” The number of groupies who’ve flocked to me as a result of writing this blog is not notably large. Perhaps not surprisingly, most people will gravitate towards something easier, and I don’t think I’m writing this solely to raise my own status or show people how hard core or nice I am. I think I’m mostly writing it because it’s true.

Hedgehog in the Blog

My friend Elena just started Hedgehog in the Blog, with an early post about libraries. So far it looks good, except for the tiny font. This is partially the fault of WordPress, which seems enamored of very attractive, modernist designs that are hard to read (I’m guilty of the same sin, but not to the same degree).

I like Elena’s explanation of the blog’s name:

I named this blog after the 1975 Soviet animated film Hedgehog in the Fog. In it a little hedgehog on his way to bear cub’s house, where the two get together to drink warm tea and eat raspberry jam, finds himself in a thick fog. He encounters frightening creatures, but also helpful and kind ones amidst silence, darkness, and enchanting stars. He is frightened, but his curiosity keeps him exploring the unknown.

Trolls, comments, and Slashdot: Thoughts on the response to Avatar

The vast majority of the comments attached to “Thoughts on James Cameron’s Avatar and Neal Stephenson’s ‘Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out’” are terrible. They tend toward mindless invective and avoid careful scrutiny of what I actually wrote; they’re quite different from the comments this blog normally gets, which is largely because I submitted the Avatar post to Slashdot, home of the trolls. One friend noted the vitriol and in an e-mail said, “Okay, the Slashdot link explains the overall tone of the comments your “Avatar” post is attracting.”

Part of the reason the comments are so bad is the hit and run nature of comments, especially on larger sites. If you have something substantial to say, and particularly if you regularly have something substantial to say, you tend to get a blog of your own. I wrote about this phenomenon in “Commenting on comments:”

In “Comment is King,” Virginia Heffernan writes in the New York Times, “What commenters don’t do is provide a sustained or inventive analysis of Applebaum’s work. In fact, critics hardly seem to connect one column to the next.” She notes that comments are often vitriolic and ignorant, which will hardly surprise those used to reading large, public forums.”

Furthermore, it’s easier and demands less thought to post hit and run comments than it is to really engage an argument. I deleted the worst offenders and sent e-mails to their authors with a pointer to Paul Graham’s How To Disagree; none responded, except for one guy who didn’t understand the point I was trying to make even after three e-mails, when I gave up (“never argue with fools because from a distance people can’t tell who is who”). The hope is that by consciously cultivating better comments and by not responding to random insults, the whole discussion might improve.

(Paul Graham has given the subject a lot of thought too: he even wrote an essay about trolls. As he says, “The core users of News.YC are mostly refugees from other sites that were overrun by trolls.”)

Not every comment I got one was terrible—this one, from a person named “Dutch Uncle,” was probably the best argued of the lot, and it mostly avoided ad hominem attacks. It, however, was very much the exception.

Most comments tended to deal in generalities and not to cite specific parts of my argument. In this respect, they have the same problems I see in freshmen papers, which often want to make generalizations and abstractions without the concrete base necessary. This happens so often that I’ve actually begun a keeping a list of all the things freshmen have told me are “human nature,” with a special eye toward placing contradictory elements next to each other, and in class I now ceaselessly emphasize specifics in arguments.

Since I’ve see this disease before, I’ve already thought about it, and I think the generalization problem is linked to the problem of close reading, which is a really hard skill to develop and one I didn’t develop in earnest till I was around 22 or 23. Even then it was only with a tremendous amount of effort and practice on my part. Close reading demands that you consider every aspect of a writer’s argument, that you pay attention to their word choices and their sentences, and that you don’t attribute to them opinions they don’t necessarily hold. Francine Prose wrote a whole book on the subject called Reading Like a Writer, but the book is a paradox: in order to develop the close reading skills she demonstrates, you have to be able to closely read her book in the first place, which is hard without good teaching.

Mentioning Francine Prose brings up one other common point I saw in the comments: few pointed to sources or ideas outside themselves, and allusions were rare. In the best writing I see, such elements are common. That isn’t to say every time you post a comment, you should cite four peer-reviewed sources and a couple of blog posts, but ideas are often stronger when they show evidence of learning and synthesis from others. In my Avatar post, I brought together Greg Egan, a New Yorker article, Alain de Botton citing Wilhelm Worringer, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the Neal Stephenson essay, and Star Trek. Now, my argument about Avatar could still be totally wrong, like an essay with hundred citations, but at the very least other writers’ thoughts usually show that more thought has gone into an essay, or a comment. Almost every article in every newspaper and magazine piece worth reading cites at least half a dozen and often many more sources: quotes, other articles, journals, books, and more. That’s part of what make The Atlantic and The New Yorker so worth reading.

Citations area common because things that are really worth arguing about require incredible background knowledge to say anything intelligent. The big response I’ve had to many of the comments, especially the deleted ones, are suggestions to read more: read How Fiction Works, The Art of Criticism, and Reading Like a Writer, then post your angry Internet screeds after you’ve thought more about what you’re arguing. These kinds of pleas probably fall on the proverbially deaf ears, but at least with this post now I have somewhere to point bad commenters in the future.

I think one reason I find Slashdot conversations much less interesting than I did as a teenager isn’t because the nature of the site has changed, but because I’ve learned enough to have learned how hard it is to really know about something. Now I’m often more engaged by pure information and less often in invective and pure opinion, especially when that opinion isn’t backed up by much. The information/opinion binary is of course false, especially because the kind of information one presents often leaves pointers to one’s opinion, but it’s nonetheless useful to consider when you’re posting on Internet forums—or writing anywhere.

Incidentally, one reason I like reading Hacker News so much is that the site consciously tries to cultivate smarter, deeper conversation, much as I wish to; it’s trying to meld technical and cultural forces into a system that rewards and encourages high-content comments of the sort I mostly didn’t get regarding Avatar. I submitted the Avatar post to Hacker News before Slashdot, and the first, relatively good comment came from a Hacker News reader.

The problem of trolls is also very old, and probably goes back to the Internet’s beginnings—hence the need for a word like “troll,” with a definition in the Jargon File. As a result, I’m probably not going to change much by writing this, and to judge from my e-mail correspondent, trying to do so via e-mails and blog posts is mostly hopeless. But a part of me is an optimist who thinks or hopes change is possible and that by having a meta conversation about the nature of trolling, one can avoid the behavior in general, at least on a small scale. At Slashdot or Reddit scales, however, the hope fades, and one simply experiences the tragedy of the commons.

EDIT: Robin Hanson has an interesting alternate, but not mutually incompatible, theory in Why Comments Snark:

Comments disagree more than responding posts because post, but not comment, authors must attract readers. Post authors expect that reader experiences of a post will influence whether those readers come back for future posts. In contrast, comment authors less expect reader experience to influence future comment readership; folks read blog posts more because of the post author than who they expect to author comments there.

Late September links: Little to do with books, much to do with life

* The best I’ve read concerning “overrated” novels, courtesy of the Little Professor.

* The humanities are in the same state financial markets were in before they crashed. Assessing the growing mountain of toxic intellectual debt, Philip Gerrans considers going short on some overvalued research.

Except that I’m not sure his analogy works, since “intellectual debt” doesn’t have to be “repaid,” doesn’t hurt anyone, and might point the way forward regarding ideas in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious at the time such “debt” is being produced/acquired.

* What kinds of inequalities bother people, and what kind do not?

* In Conniptions from me on urban economics, Tyler Cowen lists his opinions on urban issues, which I essentially agree with save for number 3, which I know nothing about:

1. I would not have brought the U.S. down the path of water subsidies, many of which are pro-suburban. (Admitted they are not always easy to repeal.)

2. I think pollution externalities should be priced in Pigouvian fashion; this would penalize many suburban developments.

3. I oppose the widening of Route 7 at Tysons Corner and I expect a disaster from the current plans.

4. I favor school choice and charter schools, which would make many U.S. cities livable again for couples with children.

5. I would price many roads for congestion, although as Bryan points out this could either help or hurt cars as a mode of transport.

6. I would allow U.S. cities to become much taller, thereby accommodating more residents. I would weaken many urban building codes in the interests of a greener America.

7. I much preferred the time when I lived near a gas station and a 7-11.

* Laws have become too vague and the concept of intent has disappeared. Notice in particular this problematic line: “Prosecutors identify defendants to go after instead of finding a law that was broken and figuring out who did it.” If the theory is that everyone is a criminal if you look hard enough, something very serious has gone amiss in our notions of justice.

* A chat with blogger Penelope Trunk:

Ben: You blog about sex a lot. Why?

Penelope: I think about it all the time. So it comes into my head a lot when I’m writing blog posts. I sort of wonder why it doesn’t come into more peoples’ heads when they are writing blog posts.

Ben: People censor themselves.

Penelope: Yeah. Well. I censor myself too. I guess it’s just we each have different types of self-censoring….

Ben: Alain de Botton has an interesting point on this. He says the professionalization of writing — novelists who write fiction full time — has made it so much fiction is disconnected from life as it’s experienced by most people.

Penelope: Totally agree. And the French have this problem more than any other culture.

* I wasn’t going to write about Dan Brown till I found this hilarious discussion of his expert style. One day I hope to be as great a writer.

* Dvorak keyboard devotees and their battle with smartphones.

* Population growth drives innovation?

* Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic makes the pitch for print. I subscribe to The Atlantic and recommend that others do as well.

* America can’t be the world’s tech leader without immigration reforms.

* The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives has died.

* Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias on education, in a post I almost completely agree with.

* Wow: from I was an Ambassador and Taken Hostage by Militants:

I learned a lot from my time as ambassador and Marine. Paperwork means stuff to people: really important stuff. Thinking you have to solve every problem on your own is an additional problem to your other problems: one that makes all the others worse. No matter how much you love something, it’s not going to make a square peg fit into a round hole. What people experience in the service has to do with the type of work they do and the unit they are in. Hidden assumptions hurt. A lot….

This “bad experience” changed a passive, wait-for-life-to-happen person into and active, go-make-it-happen person.

(Emphasis added.)

I wish I’d realized the power of paperwork earlier, or how important documentation is in a modern, complex, and bureaucratic society.

* Two kinds of libertarians.

What I like in this essay is also an acknowledgement of its limitations (the “cartoon” version of libertarian), but also the acknowledgment that those limitations are useful in describing broader phenomenon.

* The value of a college education.

Why and How to Write a Blog: Questions on Hacker News

A recent discussion on Hacker News asked, in effect, what makes a good blog, which in turn asks the question, “why write a blog?” There’s no perfect answer; as Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters indicates, people write for practically as many reasons as there are people: prestige, boredom, ego, whatever.

That being said, the best blogs focus on specific niches but often use those niches to explore the wider world. For example, Marginal Revolution is nominally an economics blog, but it also discusses foreign travel, ethnic cuisine, books, and more. The blogs I contribute to try to follow the same general principle: the one you’re reading now focuses on books (this focus can be very broad: some of my posts about keyboard reviews, for example, get a lot of traffic) and Grant Writing Confidential discusses grant writing. The latter in particular has a purpose beyond random musings: it’s there to show people how to write proposals and that we know how.

If you’re thinking about writing a blog, read Penelope Trunk’s comments, which are invaluable if not always accurate. In addition, I wrote a post called “You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells You” that got slashdotted and ought to dissuade you from the idea you’re going to make money directly at it, at least in the short term. But if you’re looking for a means of expression and you want to write primarily because you want to write, then just roll with it.

“Without a purpose for writing, though, I don’t see how to even try writing a blog. Any suggestions?”

As others have said, don’t write a blog if you don’t have a purpose. Your purpose should come from something you care about deeply enough to know something about that you’d like to transmit to others: in my case, that means books, chiefly, but also grant writing. For many HN readers, it probably means programming. Remember too that the deep knowledge/writing/transmission process isn’t linear, but recursive: I’ve probably learned more about books by trying to sort my ideas about them out in a logical, rational way than I would if I just read a lot (this, incidentally, is why good schools require you to write a lot: writing forces you to embellish the ideas you do have and often to come up with ideas you didn’t have previously). Sometimes you don’t need a purpose in advance: you’ll find one as you start writing.

It’s been said by various writers and scholars (see, for example, Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel or Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel) that the novel is the genre that consumes all other genres—that is to say, it can contain elements of epic poems, Romance, poetry, history, philosophy, and more. By the same token, blogging is the genre that can subsume any other genre if you want it to, because blogging is more a form than a way of presenting content, and over the past 10 years we’ve hardly touched on what is possible.

Just don’t write about your cat. That’s the only rule. There are enough blogs about people’s cats.

See also Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters.

Commenting on comments

In “Comment is King,” Virginia Heffernan writes in the New York Times, “What commenters don’t do is provide a sustained or inventive analysis of Applebaum’s work. In fact, critics hardly seem to connect one column to the next.” She notes that comments are often vitriolic and ignorant, which will hardly surprise those used to reading large, public forums.”

She’s right. But part of the issue is that newspapers seem to encourage hit-and-run commenting because of their sheer size and, because of their attempt to be universal, also often hit the lowest common denominator. The latter is also one reason why Hacker News has a vastly better signal-to-noise ratio than, say,

In addition, think about this: if you’re going to incisively, laboriously, and knowledgeably comment on someone’s post or column, you’re probably better off getting your own blog and linking to the person’s post, thus developing a following of your own. It’s not really worth spending forty five minutes or an hour on an extensive critique that’s not likely to be read or remember by many people as a comment. When it becomes part of an ongoing narrative, however, it becomes more meaningful and important to the person who is writing.

That’s not to say comments have no place in blogs or newspapers, and I always read the comments on The Story’s Story and Grant Writing Confidential with care and attention. But I also understand the incentives against careful commenting and for trolling. Furthermore, in a typical comments section, it’s hard to tell who is a lunatic, who is worth listening to, who has background on the subject, and so forth. “Comment in King” now has five pages of comments attached, and I don’t feel like wading through them. With a single blog, however, I can relatively easily evaluate a handful of posts and decide if the rest are worth reading. Therefore I’m more likely to invest in a blog post replying to a story than I am a comment on that story.

You might notice that I’m not responding to Heffernan’s article in the comments section of the New York Times—but I might post a link to this response. Or maybe I’ll send her an e-mail. Heffernan might want to hear from me.

As a tangential point, comments that cite books or substantive articles are almost always better than blue-sky comments; maybe encouraging people to cite their sources would improve online discourse.

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