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, Digg.com.

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.

Oops, perhaps, and several points on The Logic of Life

* Carrie Frye quotes Neil Gaiman, who writes: “I think that rule number one for book reviewers should probably be Don’t Spend The First Paragraph Slagging Off The Genre.” I try not to but occasionally do, as with The Logic of Life. But maybe Gaiman and Frye are only carving out their rule for fiction, as with nonfiction it seems more appropriate to survey existing work to ascertain whether an author is merely duplicating what already exists. I’m also on the record agreeing with the gist of what they say.

* Two readers wrote to ask in effect why, if I didn’t like the idea behind The Logic of Life, I bought and read it. Several answers:

1) I haven’t read all the econ-for-dummies books I listed and so thought I would still benefit from another one.

2) I didn’t realize the problems with The Logic of Life until after I read it, at which point they became more apparent.

3) Tim Harford was visiting Seattle, and I wanted to have the background for his discussion before he arrived.

4) Some of the chapters are also helpful professionally because some topics Harford discusses are perennials in grant writing.

Without number three, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Number four is probably just a post-purchase justification.

* A friend who edited my post on Logic of Life said apropos of it, “Your beginnings are always very abstruse and hard to follow.” Really?

If I accept the premise that they’re harder-than-some-kind-of-average to follow, I would say that it’s because they often set up important context for what’s to follow. I’ll be more cognizant of this, especially because I began keeping a list a while ago of things reviewers often do that can annoy me. Number one, was, naturally:

1) Reviewing the author’s preceding ouevre before getting to whatever the reviewer is supposed to be reviewing or discussing the genre/similar books more generally. I did it in my discussion of Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers. This is essentially what Frye and and Gaiman were discussing.

2) Developing grand theories: I found myself writing about what makes a good history book when I really wanted to deal with The Pursuit of Glory.

3) Tangentially discuss a book while instead focusing on political or social commentary. This essentially describes The New York Review of Books, to the extent they still write about book, as opposed to galleries, political essays, movies, the universe, pornography, navel gazing etc. And yes, I’m a subscriber.

I’m sure other patterns exist, and I might start pointing out examples as I see them. All three have happened in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, I’m sure.

* Overall, the issue of context for reviews makes me think about why trusted criticism and publishing gatekeepers are so important: you’re more likely to read a book or review about a subject if you have a preexisting indicators that you aren’t wasting your time and that someone has vetted whatever you’re reading. This could be generalized to the chicken-and-egg problem of blogs more generally: you don’t have credibility until you have enough fame to generate credibility.

What's that about technophobic English professors?

* I graduated from Clark University in the not-too-distant past, though back then we read by candlelight and there was no department blog. The blog issue being resolved—as the preceding link demonstrates—also helps kill what a common enough conception that a poster at Rate Your Students summarized:

Unfortunately, the business world stereotypes English profs as probably the least useful among all academics: tweed-clad, bookish anachronisms who, if they’re interesting at all, drive 1960’s English sports cars (but can’t find the gas cap) and make witty chit-chat at parties (but are flummoxed by modern fads like telephones, ball-point pens, and air travel).

Not at Clark! But witty chit-chat is still vogue. Whether this former student’s blog is a testament to the department or a mark of shame has yet to be decided.

* In other news, The New York Times published “Eureka! It Really Takes Years of Hard Work,” about the nature of sudden realizations and creativity:

Epiphany has little to do with either creativity or innovation. Instead, innovation is a slow process of accretion, building small insight upon interesting fact upon tried-and-true process. Just as an oyster wraps layer upon layer of nacre atop an offending piece of sand, ultimately yielding a pearl, innovation percolates within hard work over time.

The same is true of literature and criticism: the great novel always comes after long reading and effort, and the great insight about the great novel doesn’t usually come from the first reading, even if the germ of it can.

* Finally, in still other New York Times news, an essay discussesyet again—the supposed divide between highbrow / lowbrow literature. My dream? That one day we can just discuss what’s good and bad, rather than what section of Barnes & Noble a book appears in.

What’s that about technophobic English professors?

* I graduated from Clark University in the not-too-distant past, though back then we read by candlelight and there was no department blog. The blog issue being resolved—as the preceding link demonstrates—also helps kill what a common enough conception that a poster at Rate Your Students summarized:

Unfortunately, the business world stereotypes English profs as probably the least useful among all academics: tweed-clad, bookish anachronisms who, if they’re interesting at all, drive 1960’s English sports cars (but can’t find the gas cap) and make witty chit-chat at parties (but are flummoxed by modern fads like telephones, ball-point pens, and air travel).

Not at Clark! But witty chit-chat is still vogue. Whether this former student’s blog is a testament to the department or a mark of shame has yet to be decided.

* In other news, The New York Times published “Eureka! It Really Takes Years of Hard Work,” about the nature of sudden realizations and creativity:

Epiphany has little to do with either creativity or innovation. Instead, innovation is a slow process of accretion, building small insight upon interesting fact upon tried-and-true process. Just as an oyster wraps layer upon layer of nacre atop an offending piece of sand, ultimately yielding a pearl, innovation percolates within hard work over time.

The same is true of literature and criticism: the great novel always comes after long reading and effort, and the great insight about the great novel doesn’t usually come from the first reading, even if the germ of it can.

* Finally, in still other New York Times news, an essay discussesyet again—the supposed divide between highbrow / lowbrow literature. My dream? That one day we can just discuss what’s good and bad, rather than what section of Barnes & Noble a book appears in.

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