Briefly noted: “Honor Thy Father,” “After the Ivory Tower Falls,” and “2034”

* Honor Thy Father by Gay Talese: The takeaway may still be “the mafia is bad and so is crime.” Rising in the mafia is hard for many reasons, one being that a criminal needs only to screw up once to be convicted, while the police and prosecutors can screw up many times and still in some sense come out ahead. Honor Thy Father was published in 1971, and it covers an even earlier era; by 1971, a sense of elegy and things passing or being better in the old days already pervades the mafia story. The Sopranos comes out in 1999 and hits the same themes. Maybe all mafia stories have to concern a mythic past: few are set in whenever the mafia’s heyday—perhaps the 19th Century—may have been. The mafia reality is too tawdry for anything but the good days to have been in the past.

There’s much talk about inheritance—”among the inheritors [of the old-world, Italian mafia and mafia practices] were such men as Frank Labruzzo and Bill Bonanno, who now, in the mid-1960s, in an age of space and rockets, were fighting in a feudal war.” “A feudal war,” but with pistols and other firearms: the future may have been there, but it wasn’t evenly distributed. One day, will people be fighting feudal wars in space? Little about engineering or engineers appears in Honor Thy Father: the most important work of the 1930 to 1970 period was happening in California, at Intel and similar companies, though this wasn’t universally recognized at the time—which may make us: where is the most-important, least-recognized work happening today?

Other descriptions in Honor Thy Father remind us of cultural and other chanage; Bonanno “conveyed to his children his disapproval of tattletales. If they saw their brothers, sisters, or cousins doing something wrong, he had said, it was improper for them to go talebearing to adults, adding that nobody had respect for a stool pigeon, not even those who gained by such information.” Many modern institutions are obsessed with “talebearing” and encourage stool-pigeoning (if you’ll forgive the verbing of nouns). Many of the crimes aren’t crimes: the numbers racket is now the lotto (“If the lawmakers would legitimize numbers betting it would hurt business because it would deprive customers of that satisfactory sense of having beaten the system”), and loan sharking has been subsumed by the payday loan industry. Prostitution is still formally illegal but has moved online, where it’s sufficiently out of sight and to be out of mind.

Monotony, boredom, loneliness: these words recur. Whatever glamor one might infer in the mob life, it’s absent in Bonanno’s life, apart I guess from the glamor of high stakes: most of us aren’t shot if we do our jobs poorly, which is good for quality of life but bad for dramatic tension. Most of us can recover from most mistakes, and a “cutthroat industry” is a metaphor.

* After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It by Will Bunch: If there’s a message to After the Ivory Tower Falls, it’s “conditions change.” What makes sense in one set of conditions, won’t in another: college made sense for most people between 1945 and the 1990s. By the 2000s, growing costs started to change the appeal to the marginal student; Bunch’s tone may also stem from him being a journalist, a field that’s shed about half of its jobs since 2000, and declining fields feel very different from growing ones. I know, because I’ve foolishly pursued work in some declining fields, while other friends work for tech companies.

Much of the “everyone must go to college” mantra comes from slight of hand: college graduates earn more than non-graduates; that means college caused the earnings jump. Stated so bluntly, anyone familiar with how correlation is not causation sees the problem: trying to get everyone to go to college winds up weakening the value of the college-degree signal, and, at the same time, most schools are strongly incentivized by the student-loan program to get as many students in their doors as possible. Prices rise, but schools that sell low-value degrees have no feedback mechanism discouraging them from that behavior—a key point in Paying for the Party (which isn’t cited).

Baumol’s Cost Disease isn’t cited by Bunch either, or Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which identifies Baumol’s Cost Disease as a main cause of rising costs. So what do we get? A lot of mood affiliation. In Bunch’s telling, nonprofit colleges bear surprisingly little responsibility for their own predatory behavior. Consider this example: “When faith in the American way of college began to wane after years of runaway tuition, Wall Street smelled blood in the water.” Okay, we have a metaphor around “faith” in the first part of the sentence, but then we have a metaphor around a shark attack in the second? Why would waning “faith” lead to the smell of “blood in the water?” The confusing imagery is part of After the Ivory Tower Falls‘ general confusion; it tends to conflate things that should be separate and separate things that should be conflated. The book speaks to the race for entering exclusionary schools, and yet there’s almost nothing about the most expensive cost for the vast majority of households—housing itself. Without looking at the rising cost of housing over the last 50 years, the rising sense of precarity and competitiveness doesn’t make sense. The cost of living feels higher than it used to be because it is higher than it used to be; Bunch’s grandmother could move to California at a time when exclusionary zoning hadn’t made California unaffordable to most people. We used to have abundance; now we have legally-mandated scarcity, and perhaps that should change. The champions of “diversity” in highly exclusionary schools and enclaves are so unintentionally comedic because of how vigorously they speak about diversity while supporting policies that cause and ensure the exact opposite, while never noticing the contradiction. One form of comedy is saying one thing while doing another.

We see data like “Nearly 40 percent of full-time undergraduates who enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year accumulated some debt but did not have a degree after six years, said Mark Huelsman, the director of policy and advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University.” While schools like Purdue hold down costs and increase value, many others don’t. College is a huge financial and life danger, in a way that it wasn’t in the middle of the 20th Century, but Bunch doesn’t want to foreground the way colleges have contributed.

Some students do really well: those who major in technical subjects like computer science or engineering, especially at state schools with relatively low tuition. Many others don’t; even in expensive, exclusionary schools, it’s not obvious that the payoff is worthwhile, compared to less-expensive schools, particularly for non-geniuses; if you’re doing math 55 at Harvard, great. If you’re doing sociology, is it great? Those graduates will probably be fine, albeit at high tuition costs.

More could be said, but why bother? There is a better book in After the Ivory Tower Falls, but mood affiliation and too little data stops it from appearing.

* 2034: A Novel of the Next World War: Not terribly well written; on the first page, for example, we follow captain Sarah Hunt, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 21: “On a recent sleepless night, she had studied her logbooks and totaled up all the days she had spent traversing the deep ocean, out of sight of land. It added up to nearly nine years. Her memory darted back and forth across those long years, to her watch-standing days as an ensign…” “[O]ut of sight of land” should be removed—”the deep ocean” implies it—and “those long years” should be removed too, since they’re also implied. Expect more of the same, though the plot is interesting: events in the South China Sea and Strait of Hormuz lead to war between the U.S. and China. Spoilers ahead, but the plot deals with the Chinese magically being able to blind U.S. electronic warfare systems—no plausible mechanism for this capability is proposed, unless I missed it, which is possible—and then the U.S. has to resort to older aircraft and systems that aren’t so electronic. This romantic anachronism is like dreaming of a cavalry charge succeeding in World War I. India is the eventual kingmaker; the word “victor” can’t really apply to anyone in a large war, though if there is one, it’s India. As with Tom Clancy novels, the book celebrates diversity in that anyone on the U.S. side can contribute to fighting the CCP.

2034 would make a promising movie—all those visuals of flight decks and missiles—but China now controls Hollywood, so the book will remain the book, unless Peter Thiel wants to fund it. He’s probably not a Story’s Story reader, although you never know.

Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It — M. Nolan Gray

Arbitrary Lines is a very good book, and one whose subject shouldn’t discourage you; as the author admits: “At surface level, zoning is an impossibly boring topic, even by the terms of public policy debate.” The boredom is part of the point, though: because it’s boring, most people don’t get fired up about change. The tedium is protective to the status quo, and the tedium means that “seemingly innocuous zoning rules” have come to control “virtually every facet of American life.” As a result, we’re “systematically moving from high productivity cities to low-productivity cities, in no small part because these are the only places where zoning allows housing to be built.” I’m a tiny part of this massive migration: I moved from New York City to Arizona because New York builds less new housing per capita than almost any other major city, outside of California. The per-square-foot cost of my place in Arizona, in an area that is what passes for urban, is under half that of New York. I’d have liked to stay in New York but not at the literal cost of staying there.


Gray points to the ’70s as a turning point—something I wondered about too: “As a result of the further tightening of zoning restrictions beginning in the 1970s, median housing prices have dramatically outpaced median incomes in many parts of the country over the past half century.” Solutions like “move to the farthest exurbs” don’t work well because they increase car commuting and traffic congestion, with commuting being awful for quality-of-life. In many cities, there is effectively no more exurban fringe: New York and L.A. are out of space within practice reach of their centers. Nominal “environmentalists” who attempt to seal their neighborhoods from new housing units are particularly comedic: they say they’re worried about the environment, while supporting housing policies that are terrible for the environment and foment car commuting. All of us are hypocritical to some extent, but this is well beyond normal, everyday hypocrisy.

Gray goes through zoning’s history: starting in the 1910s and moving onwards. He notes that “Cities such as Providence, Cleveland, and Los Angles grew by a startling 50 percent or more between 1890 and 1920. This in turn triggered a boom in apartment construction, as demand for housing ballooned.” “Ballooned” is a funny word here, given that one can imagine the housing stock as cartoon balloons being inflated. But it’s also useful to conceive of what a dynamic society looks like: a dynamic allows the freedom for landowners to build new housing, without a huge number of veto players stopping them. Outside of the relatively unregulated tech industry—which is where the frontier has moved—we’re a complacent society, not a dynamic one, and housing is one of the places this is clearest (though drug development and the stranglehold imposed by the FDA is another).

In much discourse today, the “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) contingent argues that things are changing “too fast,” whatever that may mean. NIMBYs who claim to be redressing historical racial grievances seem to miss that they’re willing to rapidly adopt new moral or social ideas, while being unwilling to countenance changes in the physical environment that really matter and might embody those moral or social ideas. They’re saying one thing, but not connecting those statements to each other. Much early zoning was about exclusion—Berkeley, California “introduced the first single-family zoning district in the United States,” and Gray reports that “Charles Henry Cheney, a key framer of Berkeley’s 1916 zoning ordinance” worried that “undesirable industries” would bring in “negroes and Orientals.” Today, Berkeley’s rhetoric favors racial harmony and integration, while Berkeley’s median housing price is $1.7 million. Almost no one seems to see the gap between the stated goals. The rationale for modern zoning is different from the original rationale, but the outcome is similar.

Gray worked, and maybe works, in urban planning, so he has stories about its absurdities. There’s a 30,000 foot view of how things work, and there’s an on-the-ground-view, and he’s done both. I appreciate the combination: having worked for decades in grant writing, I see things about the world of nonprofits and public agencies that most people don’t. Like zoning, few are interested in how many nonprofits and public agencies are funded and truly operate. The knowledge is out there, mostly ignored, except by the wonks who can find one another online.

The middle sections of Arbitrary Lines, about how restricting housing supply raises prices, will be familiar to regular readers, or to anyone familiar with basic economics (which excludes a large number of people who think other factors are somehow at play—though we see the supply-restriction story in the data). I’m tempted to quote extensively, but this is a solid “man does not bite dog” story: what one would expect to happen, has happened, helping to lower aggregate wealth and make life harder for millions of people. Gray also has a picture of yard signs, one saying “All are welcome” and another “opposing zoning liberalization in Austin.” There are fun study citations, like that “the typical resident of Vermont—renowned for its commitment to environmentalist causes—consumes three and a half times as much gasoline per year as the typical resident of New York City.” Most people follow their feelings, not data, and so we get the results we get. Still, the affordability crisis has gotten bad enough that we’re starting to see policy responses, and books like Arbitrary Lines should help inform the kinds of staffers who write and encourage legislation.

What can be done? I approve of efforts to enforce change at the state level and hope they succeed, though I wonder if it’s going to take technological innovation to see substantial improvements. Self-driving cars will lower the cost of current zoning, because true self-driving cars would allow us to reallocate most of the vast amount of urban, developed space reserved for parking into something else. The car allowed the exclusionary suburbs of the post-war era to bloom, and the self-driving car may remove the mania for mandating the over-provision of parking spaces. The High Cost of Free Parking is a great, surprising book about a subject that seems as boring as zoning, and yet one that also affects almost every aspect of how we live—including our health.

If this essay seems like too much a summary of the book, that’s because the book is thorough and comprehensive, and apart from some anecdotes I have too little to add. “Zoning” may be invisible, but its results are visible all around us. We pay supernormal amounts to live in areas built before zoning strangled our ability to create functional cities. Human flourishing would increase if Gray’s ideas became widely adopted. Inertia and complacency stand in the way. We can live better, if we choose to.

Briefly noted: The Death of the Artist, Writers & Lovers, In Search of Mycotopia

* The Science of Making Friends: Perhaps the most useful element of this book isn’t so much in the book itself, but the idea that making friends is 1. a skill that 2. can be practiced and 3. ultimately improved. Taking something that is “intuitive” for most people, and seen as something you’ve either somehow “got” or “don’t” and breaking it into discrete steps has value. The forward notes that “Dr. Liz Laugeson has devoted her career to studying the behaviors that lead to social failure and finding ways to teach alternate ways of acting.” The framing is not ideal for many people—it’s targeting teens or young adults with autism, and their parents—but the basic material is valuable.

I wonder if the rise of smartphones and many hours per day of screen time increases the need for education on “how to interact with people,” since there may be less organic, in-person interaction happening. There are delicate balances to be achieved, too: being too quiet is “weird” but being “hyperverbose, talking incessantly with little notice of the interests of others” is too. We’ve all been around people who appear to take “very little notice of their conversational partner.” What makes those people not realize what they’re doing?

The Science of Making Friends is often too basic—would anyone disagree that “Arguments and disagreements are relatively common among teenagers and young adults?” Aren’t arguments and disagreements common among adults and the elderly, too? Many olds are plenty spicy, with the “don’t-give-a-damn-attitude” that often comes with minimal concern about certain kinds and classes of romantic opportunities. Speaking of, there are some very important but missing ideas in The Science of Making Friends, like the way much conversation is about status (who’s up, who’s down, how can the speaker move up, and so forth) and sex (which is hard to separate from status). Take those out, and what do most people’s conversations consist of? The number of Vaclav Smil fans is small. People love gossip and aren’t nearly as fond of data.

The sections about online socializing are hilariously out of date and bordering on counterproductive. But the ability to attempt to notice what successful people do, and then do that, remains useful.

I wonder what a high school class about “the art and science of social life” would look like; if I were a high school teacher, I might try to find out. The high school curriculum seems peculiarly ossified, perhaps by state and federal mandates, but is there room to try new things?

* The Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicz: A well-written, well-argued book that covers ground that’s too familiar to me, but that would be a great gift to the high school student thinking about going to art school or getting an art degree: at least that student wouldn’t be able to say, in 20 years, “No one warned me.” The number of people, even highly talent and driven people, who make it, is tiny. The famous artists who say “Don’t give up on your dreams” are quoted in admiring profiles; the unfamous artists who can’t pay their rent or child support aren’t quoted in admiring profiles because those profiles don’t exist.

The basic problem with most of the information arts (books, TV, music—everything from pre-social media) is that, now, everything is available. Everyone is competing with everyone: that’s been truer for books than for embodied music or TV or movies, for most of the histories of each medium, but, online, almost every book, TV show, movie, or song ever recorded can be accessed instantaneously. When I write a novel, I’m still competing, in some sense, with Fitzgerald or Carlos Ruiz Zafón or millions of others. TV used to need to fit in a 24-hour day (with only a small slice of that day “prime time”) and movies used to occur only in theaters or on a physical medium. Now, TV and movies are Netflix, and a few other companies. That’s not counting the vast expansion of user-generated media. What’s the artist to do? Being rich is one way. Striking it rich is another, albeit rare. “Marry a rich spouse” is not a good life plan, although I guess it’s nice for those to whom it happens; attempting to engineer it seems to have many costs. Finding a sinecure at a university or other media company was more plausible pre-2009. If you notice the improbability of all these solutions, well, know that Deresiewicz is likely aware of the improbability too.

Some problems have no answers, and an industry’s secular decline is often unanswerable. Advertising revenue will not return to newspapers or local TV. Revenue revenue is unlikely to return to the book or music or movie industries (although music does sell everything in the world except music). TV is doing better than might be expected but that makes it merely a slightly less brutal industry than it used to be. The phrase “learn to code” never appears in the book and yet hovers over it, the invisible angel of the subject matter. The healthcare and tech sectors seem to be infinitely expanding: they’re where the money is. Marc Andreessen said recently:

[Noah Smith]: If you could give some advice — career advice, or otherwise — to a smart 23-year-old American today, what would it be?

[Andreessen]: Don’t follow your passion. Seriously. Don’t follow your passion. Your passion is likely more dumb and useless than anything else. Your passion should be your hobby, not your work. Do it in your spare time.

Instead, at work, seek to contribute. Find the hottest, most vibrant part of the economy you can and figure out how you can contribute best and most. Make yourself of value to the people around you, to your customers and coworkers, and try to increase that value every day.

It can sometimes feel that all the exciting things have already happened, that the frontier is closed, that we’re at the end of technological history and there’s nothing left to do but maintain what already exists. This is just a failure of imagination. In fact, the opposite is true. We’re surrounding by rotting incumbents that will all need to be replaced by new technologies. Let’s get on it.

Good advice. Where is the frontier? It may not be in most of the pre-social-media arts (this is an observation, not a statement of approval).

* Writers & Lovers by Lily King: A well-executed novel, but I’ve read too many novels about writers, although this one warns regarding what being a “writer” is often like: “My loans for college and grad school all went into default when I was in Spain, and when I came back I learned that the penalties, fees, and collection costs had nearly doubled the original amount I owed.” Another character meets “a Milton scholar with excellent posture and a trust fund.” The trust fund is silently behind more grad students than is commonly realized (you’ll notice congruence between The Death of the Artist and themes in Writers & Lovers). The protagonist’s lassitude means she “didn’t mean to move back to Massachusetts, I just had no other plan.” She expresses her “bewilderment at why [a couple getting married] would participate in a hollow, misogynistic ritual that will only end in misery,” showing an incredible lack of imaginative range and insight for someone who is supposed to be a writer.

* In Search of Mycotopia by Doug Bierend: Sounds promising, yet there is a lot of “conversations about social justice” posturing, and statements like “Low-cost mushroom farms can be set up within a matter of weeks, in a wide variety of environments, leading many to see fungi as potential allies in struggles for food security and medicinal sovereignty.” “Food security” compared to what, when? “Medicinal sovereignty” compared to what, when? A fascinating topic marred by such things, to the point that I gave up early. There’s a better book somewhere inside this one.

The effect of zoning restrictions on the life of the artist

Zena Hitz’s book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life delivers what it promises: a description of the beauty, importance, and pleasure of learning and doing for their own sake: “If human beings flourish from their inner core rather than in the realm of impact and results, then the inner work of learning is fundamental to human happiness, as far from pointless wheel spinning as are the forms of tenderness we owe our children or grandchildren.” David Perrell just interviewed Hitz, and she observes what many of us have felt: that the zoning laws that impede housing development cost us spiritually, not just in terms of dollars:

I spent a semester a couple of years ago in South Bend Indiana. That’s where I actually wrote the book. And I was astonished at what a difference it made to be in a place where the real estate was relatively cheap, for how people lived.

So for instance, I think there was this couple, they ran a nonprofit jazz club and got pianos out of the landfill and redid them and gave them to schools. Now, again, that’s not the kind of life you can lead… And they lived off of donations, as far as I knew, maybe they had some income from one place or another.

You can’t live that life on the Coasts. You’re always scrambling for your rent or your mortgage or whatever it is. The cost of housing is so high that it crushes people’s imaginations, people’s ways of thinking about their lives. And ironically, in places… I mean, in California, it breaks my heart because I’ve been out here for a little while, visiting family, and it’s so beautiful. There’s so much contemplation to be done in California.

The idea of living out here and wasting all your time making money so you can pay your mortgage is horrifying. You’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world, take a walk and think about things. So I think that’s really true. I think we don’t think enough about how really concrete this all is. If your real estate is too expensive, you’re not going to live as good a life. And I think that should change the way that we live, but how that’s going to work out in the long-term, I’m not really sure.

That’s a long blockquote, but it’s germane to the larger point. Having spent time in L.A. and New York, the difference between those places and lower-cost places is palpable: virtually everyone, except perhaps the few with inherited wealth, feels, correctly, they need to hustle to make it. And we’ve deliberately voted for societies in which that’s the default, by making the cost of housing so high through supply restrictions—and it is supply restrictions driving costs: see the research cited in this piece, for example, for more on that subject. But the debates about easing zoning rarely talk about the real improvements to human life that such policies can bring.

Hitz also says:

So the United States, for instance, very wealthy in the 1960s you look at what people’s lives were like in say, my parents’ generation, that’s the baby boomers basically. And it didn’t cost anything to live in LA, you could have a part-time job in a coffee shop and live in LA or San Francisco, and have plenty of time to read and do what you wanted. And that’s just not a reality anymore the economic situation has changed dramatically.

I’d love to have more time to read and do what I want. And I have some: I don’t want to pretend I don’t. But housing costs have dominated a lot of my existence. In the 1950s, when building new housing was largely legal, rents for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan were about $530 a month. Since COVID struck, rates have fallen, but they still appear to be about $3,000 per month, or about 5.5x what they were in the ’50s. The life of the mind is hard to live on the coasts, although many programmers also have brilliant minds whose tendencies are well-rewarded.

Hitz’s book touches the same themes as her Perrell interview:

San Francisco in the 1970s was a strange place for many famous reasons, but its basic commitment to leisure is clear to me only now that we have passed into a far less leisurely age. Reading and thinking for their own sake went along with outings to the stony beaches and dark mountain forests of Northern California, without a clear object or specialized skills or expensive equipment. (2)

I’ve been part of this change: I’d prefer to spend fewer hours working as a grant writing consultant and more hours writing novels: but one of those activities pays far better than the other, so it gets the majority of my time. I’m symptomatic of my generation: rents and student loans have squeezed my life in a particular direction.

We’ve legislated ourselves into working relentlessly to support the assets of landowners. This is insane, stated this way, and yet it’s how the political system has evolved. Parking minimums lead everyone to need expensive cars, because buildings are so spread out that biking becomes impractical (places like Phoenix, or L.A.’s Inland Empire, are the apotheosis of such policies). Maybe we should reconsider both, and consider what life could be like if we’d prioritize lowering costs, rather than forever working to inflate asset prices and have to buy and maintain cars.

One slight caveat to Hitz’s generalizations: I do think a lot of people, including tech people and the philosophers who do tech, read and think for their own sake. “For their own sake” or “for their own sake” also conceal much: true uselessness seems rare. It’s difficult to predict what will be “useful.” My favorite example of this is Tolkien: inventing imaginary languages and mythologies didn’t seem terribly “useful” relative to his work as a philologist and professor. But those useless activities turned out to be essential to writing one of the great imaginative works of all time. “Useful” is hard to predict.

Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past — J Storrs Hall

Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past tries to answer the question in its title, and the short answer proposed is some combination of “centralized funding streams” “bureaucratic inertia,” “cultural malaise and indifference” and “regulation.” In his own words, Hall says that “cultural reaction and regulatory ossification have combined to dam up the normal flow of experimentation in high power technology.” Are these the right, complete answers, though? The most-right answer seems to be “flying is hard, consumes a lot of energy, and has catastrophic outcomes when done wrong:” humans are bad enough at driving in two dimensions, and Hall describes flying’s challenges. The normal flow of experimentation may have been dammed up, but it may be dammed up against fundamental problems. Despite this uncertainty, Hall asks the right questions, which too few people are asking, and he stimulates a lot of thought. For that reason he should be read: yet, with almost every field he cites, I wonder what an expert would say. He takes optimistic science fiction seriously and looks at it as inspiration.

We’re supposed to have flying cars, clean nuclear power, and so on. Instead, since the ’70s, we’ve seen many positive trends flatline, as Hall writes:

We are used to prices going up because of inflation, but there are some things—typically the most important things—whose costs keep stubbornly going up in real terms, i.e. even adjusted for inflation. Housing costs twice as much, on average. Primary education costs three times as much as in the 60s, and children are not learning more. Until the Seventies, health care costs and longevity in the US grew at about the same rates as in comparable developed countries; since then longevity has grown more slowly and costs have grown much faster. Medical care now costs six times as much as in the 60s: in 1960, the average worker worked ten days to pay for his health insurance; today, 60 days

This is a scandal but it’s not consistent front-page news. We should be massively debating what to do about it and how to end the relentless cost inflation, but many people can’t even get the diagnosis vaguely right, and anti-market bias is common. Hall’s work is consistent with, and cites, The Great Stagnation, as well as Peter Thiel (both of whom are cited). As a society, we’ve seen the costs of healthcare, education, infrastructure, and housing, balloon. We’re not much committed, as a society, to trying to fix those issues. Maybe we’re too wealthy to bother.

Hall says that “within a decade or two [. . . .] We will begin to make machines that can make ‘absolutely anything,’ in the sense that a printer can print any page or a 3-D printer can make any shape in its plastic, but in a wide range of engineering materials and with atomic precision.” One hopes so. The optimism is refreshing, but why, beyond bureaucracy and inertia, if the claims about what could be are true, are the miraculous things Storrs sees possible in aviation and other fields not currently true.

Hall is least convincing when discussing why we shouldn’t worry about greenhouse gas emissions; he correctly identifies some incorrect previous climate predictions but ignores the fact that some incorrect predictions were made does not mean that all future predictions are incorrect. We also have good data on previous global mass extinction events, and five of the six are linked to rapidly changing carbon levels. Paul Ehrlich was notoriously wrong in The Population Bomb, yes, but we do face real challenges that must be addressed technologically; it’s true that many “environmentalist” groups are hypocritical at best and counterproductive at worse, but that also doesn’t mean we aren’t facing real and severe problems related to carbon and methane emissions.

I’m not a fatalist in this respect and you shouldn’t be either: we need to develop negative emissions technologies (which is why Climeworks subscriptions, for example, are important). Hall also makes overbroad claims like “Cars, trucks, and highways were clearly one of the major causes of the postwar boom.” Were they “one of the major causes?” Or was the truly major cause the large-scale destruction of most of the rest of the industrial world, coupled with large swaths of the world being controlled by communists? The link between “Cars, trucks, and highways” and “the postwar boom” is not clear, and we can’t re-run history to find out whether this causal link exists. There are many such assertions. Hall critiques some bovine aspects of modern culture and cultural malaise, but he may be showing his own acculturation: people who were born before the extreme costs of traffic and air pollution (see, for example, “Air Pollution Reduces IQ, a Lot“) were loved and still love cars; those who were born after, don’t.

Infrastructure costs, though, whether for highways or subways, have outpaced inflation for decades, meaning that we can’t seem to collectively build either. I’d prefer subways, but the political and legal world inhibits either.

Regardless of one’s position on cars and highways, something, or somethings, happened in the ’70s, and we’ve not recovered from that period. Maybe we’re recovering now (it’s notoriously hard to judge the present). Hall is describing the technological and cultural problems that became apparent in the ’70s, but are their roots primarily in culture, primarily in science, primarily in institutions, or in all of the above?

Some of Hall’s techno-cultural comments have unexpected resonance:

Perhaps the most enduring and popular champion of the “world of tomorrow” throughout the actual postwar period was the avuncular Walt Disney, with offerings ranging from Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom to his planned Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, i.e. EPCOT. Fittingly, after his death the Disney company built EPCOT as a kind of permanent World’s Fair.

Today, Disney is notable for its relentlessly supplicating behavior towards the world’s largest totalitarian government (yesterday’s post covers this subject as well); as Sonny Bunch said in Disney’s Bob Iger shouldn’t be ambassador to China. No Hollywood executive should be,” Iger and Disney have spent decades kowtowing to China, to the point that, “Under [Iger’s] watch, the company’s Marvel division recast a Tibetan character from the Doctor Strange movies as a Celtic woman.” Consider Disney’s silence on Uighur genocide:

Disney executives had thought that the original “Mulan” would please both the Chinese government and Chinese filmgoers. But because Disney had distributed “Kundun” (1997), a film glorifying the Dalai Lama, Beijing restricted the studio’s ability to work in China. Disney spent the next several years trying to get back into the party’s good graces. “We made a stupid mistake in releasing ‘Kundun,’” the then-CEO of Disney Michael Eisner told Premier Zhu Rongji in October 1998. “Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.”

Disney makes many films and other products about the ability of plucky rebels to overcome large empires: but when it comes to its real-world behavior, Disney is on the side of the massive, super coercive empire. Who knew that Walt Disney’s “world of tomorrow” would include what can be described, at its most charitable, as ignoring totalitarianism and genocide?

Where Is My Flying Car? could, and should, be tightened by a careful editor, and it’s organized strangely, with discussions of the flying car, for example, interrupted and then returned to—but the conclusion that many of our problems are fundamentally caused by a failure to invest intelligently in fundamental technologies and a failure to get out of our own way may be unattractive to the dominant discourse in publishing. Someone famous like Peter Thiel can get away with such a book, while someone less famous can’t.

The phrase “Perhaps the most” occurs twelve times in the book, and “the bottom line” occurs more than twenty. Too many quotes adorn the start of every chapter (“Heinlein” is mentioned more than two dozen times—but not as often as the word “obvious”). The editing is not great, but, while I don’t know the book’s publication history, perhaps being unpalatable to commercial publishing houses is consistent with the book’s thesis. Publishing houses increasingly specialize in “woke” or “social justice” issues: not in envisioning what a brighter future might be like, or how to get from here to there. For that, we have to turn on self-publishing on Amazon, where the editing is worse but the ideas more vital. If you know other self-published books I should be reading, please let me know.

Roots of Progress has a good review of and essay on Where Is My Flying Car? I read “Aviation Outsider Boom Builds Supersonic Jet for Transatlantic Flight” after I’d finished the first draft of this essay, and Boom’s supersonic airplane is the sort of thing that, conceivably, we should have had earlier—but we don’t, to the detriment of all of us. Faster travel around the globe would not just be a boom but a boon, and the kind of boon consistent with Hall’s vision.

Briefly noted: The Precipice, Lost and Wanted, Hidden Valley Road

* The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity: A very good book about what it claims to be about, namely, whether we’re going to escape the present moment’s extinction possibilities (nuclear weapons, pandemics, and climate change are all possible extinction vectors—the book was published before COVID) and move into a future where energy is ubiquitous and clean, consciousness is understood and readily emulated, and humans or post-human consciousnesses can live in space. We seem to be on the verge of technologies that will dramatically increase human robustness, if we can avoid screwing things up in the next couple decades. How often do you read books that really cover the long view?

Ord says, “safeguarding humanity’s future is the defining challenge of our time.” Yet I don’t recall ever hearing a politician say as much—can you? Halfway through, Ord reiterates: “We need a public conversation about the longterm future of humanity: the breathtaking scale of what we can achieve, and the risks that threaten all of this, all of us.” In some ways, one would think coronavirus might inspire this conversation, but it seemingly hasn’t.

The book is printed on strangely crappy paper, for a work about eternity.

* Lost and Wanted: A Novel, by Nell Freudenberger. Great premise but the opening pages had too much standard politically correct stuff, which makes it boring. Some good essays have been written about it, but they omit what I just foregrounded. Maybe I should have persevered. The boring standard politically correct stuff feels like reading a nineteenth century novel and getting slammed with a bunch of Catholics-vs-protestants, or why religion is essential for a healthy society: a bunch of irrelevant, extraneous, and distracting material. The 200 or so novels from the nineteenth that normal people might still read today mostly eschew this kind of thing.

* Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker: The story of the Galvin family; parents Don and Mimi had 12 kids between 1945 and 1965 on what was an essentially middle-class salary. If everything had gone perfectly, maybe they could have pulled that feat off, but many things did not: “Six of the Galvin boys took ill at a time when so little was understood about schizophrenia.” Not only was little understood, but Freudians still had some stature within psychiatry, and, insanely, people denying the biological aspects of mental illness held many positions of power. In some ways we get a story of the history of the bent mind: “In the beginning—before anyone turned the study of mental illness into a science and called it psychiatry—being insane was a sickness of the soul, a perversion worthy of prison or banishment or exorcism. Judaism and Christianity interpreted the soul as something distinct from the body—an essence of one’s self that could be spoken to by the Lord, or possessed by the devil.”

Things have improved in many ways, but we’re still closer to “a sickness of the soul” than many of us would like to be. A few years ago, a psychiatrist could legitimately ask, “Does Psychiatry Need Science?” Or, to take another review, “Can psychiatry be a science?” We’re still a bit wobbly on the answers. Kind of like we’re a bit wobbly on why, deeply, Don and Mimi have so many kids; Catholicism is one answer, but 12? Don and Mimi needed access to contraception: many of their boys would still have developed schizophrenia, obviously, but the amount of attention available had to have been stretched, particularly because Don and Mimi couldn’t readily draw on family or community resources due to distance and fear. Denial played a role, too: “Nothing may have been more important to Mimi than a flawless Thanksgiving.” A flawless Thanksgiving stems from real, positive family relationships. Take those away and Thanksgiving will always be the stuff of New Yorker short stories.

The book’s second half is more compelling than its first, and, like a lot of stories, part of it is about accepting what we can change and what we can’t: “From her family, Lindsay could see how we all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable.” Mimi’s drive for a flawless Thanksgiving is one such attempt to build the bubble. The reality of their situation, however, is much stronger than the bubble fantasy.

The big downside to Hidden Valley Road: it’s an incredible story, but you won’t learn much; I started by being against schizophrenia, as well as the various other very bad things that occur, and I came out against them too. I’m curious about the history of developing alternate drugs to treat schizophrenia, and the extent to which different mental disorders bleed into one another: we get some information about this, but that’s where my attention was drawn.

Briefly noted: Inadvertent, Normal People, and Un-wifeable

* Inadvertent (Why I Write), by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Lots of subtle ideas in this one, and those ideas have been stated before, but they’re stated well here: “Literature is not primarily a place for truths, it is the space where truths play out. For the answer to the question —that I write because I am going to die – to have the intended effect, for it to strike one as truth, a space must first be created in which it can be said. That is what writing is: creating a space in which something can be said.” I’m not sure about the run-on in the first sentence, but the idea that literature not being about “truths” (plural), but about being “the space where truths play out” seems accurate: once you get away from the hard truths of math and physics, and get into the squishy contingent truths of jostling human societies, there isn’t “a” truth—there are a bunch of them, many rivalrous with one another, and part of art is the wrangling of those truths.

Finnegans Wake and Mallarmé are mentioned on one page (63), Game of Thrones (64) the next. Why does he keep watching? For emotional ideas, yes, but, also, “What we seek in art is meaning.” Are we seeking that in social media, too? Is Twitter art? Why or why not? The problem with talking about art is that it generates infinitely more talk about art. Or maybe that’s a solution. This book has lots of truths, or, if they’re not truths, idea-generating statements.

* Normal People, by Sally Rooney: It’s a much better book than the first one, Conversations with Friends

There’s much about social power in the novel—”If she wanted, she could make a big show of saying hello to Connell in school. See you this afternoon, she could say, in front of everyone. Undoubtedly it would put him in an awkward position, which is the kind of thing she usually seems to enjoy. But she has never done it,” but most of that social power goes unused. If the protagonists could care less about what other people, who they don’t care about, think of them, they’d get on quite well, but there’d also not be a novel. The bits observing adolescence are sharp, like “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away.” “Real life” gets mentioned four times. “Weird” gets used 32 times: there’s nothing worse in modern upwardly mobile life than being “weird,” it seems. I found myself drifting back to thoughts of Peter Thiel’s book Zero To One, where he speculates that part of the reason successful startup founders often are on or seem to be on the autism spectrum is because that enables them to ignore what other people think and pursue novel ideas other people make fun of. Learning to ignore other people might be a very useful skill in a massive, globally connected world where one can come into contacted with ignorant strangers constantly—including the ignorant strangers at school.

Normal People‘s climax—this is not giving anything substantial away—involves Connell getting into an MFA program, no doubt expensive, in New York. It’s like watching the student loan monster, holding a knife, creep up on the protagonist in a Stephen King: Connell is going to end up being 30, with a bunch of degrees but no assets or marketable skills, like many thousands of other “bright” people of his age and class. Somehow, I think this climax is supposed to be a triumph, rather than a tragedy. No one seems to understand that accumulating pricey degrees in one’s 20s is not necessarily a thing to aspire to. It was, maybe, 30 or 40 years ago, but the world has changed.

I read another novel, The Glass House, in which student loans are among the villains, and the student loans that plague so many people of my generation mirror the ponzi scheme propelling and perpetrated by Jonathan Alkaitis. That’s a more realistic depiction of the academic system. In The Glass House, Alkaitis’s job is fraud and Vincent’s job is sex work, although being a trophy wife is never quite described as such. They’re both good novels, but Normal People feels like a fairy tale—not because of love’s triumph, or maybe adulthood’s triumph but because of institutional arrangements, while The Glass House feels grittily real; student loans and attitudes towards schools are the key differentiators.

At the end of Normal People, Marianne is brushing the knots from her hair, but really she’s trying to brush the knots out of her life—which is probably impossible, but worth attempting.

* Un-wifeable by Mandy Stadtmiller: Being at the edges of the celebrity economy sounds really unpleasant—even being in the center doesn’t sound real pleasant. Lots of celebrities have said and written as much, but somehow it sinks in more here, when we’re seeing the sort of person who writes the pointlessly mean celebrity takedowns. The persons doing the takedowns have something poisonous in their own lives and souls, naturally, and Un-wifeable is, among other things, a chronicle of the poison. I have my problems, but next to Stadtmiller’s stories they seem minor.

Some of the lessons are obvious, like “getting drunk is also often bad, particularly around strangers who don’t wish you well.” And not only for Stadtmiller: “How many times have I said cruel things—including to my ex-husband—that I may not even remember because I was in a rage blackout? I need to turn everything around. I cannot continue this cycle of victimization.” One admirable part of this memoir is that Stadtmiller doesn’t primarily cast herself as a victim, which she could have; the temptation was probably there, but she resisted.

New York has no glamor in Un-wifeable, unless perhaps you recognize the various celebrities named. Stadtmiller finishes her decade or so in the city with tons of credit card debt and no family, although she doesn’t seem to want the former and does seem to want the latter. I don’t understand how Stadtmiller drinks as much as she does and writes, though, to be fair I don’t understand how Fitzgerald or Hemingway did either. Drinking and writing are incompatible for me.

A lot of Stadtmiller’s stories are about the downsides of no boundaries. People, and especially children, need boundaries and connections. Stadtmiller lacks the former and that impedes the latter. Her parents are unconventional, to the point that they’ve “studied at the Esalen Institute, birthplace of the human potential movement,” like characters in a Houellebecq novel. Did you read “A Bellow From France” carefully? Have you read Houellebecq? Stadtmiller is a female Houellebecq character, except that instead of giving up and shrugging, she still cares and is struggling against herself (“The column affords me the perfect way to superficially seek love while never exploring the more difficult questions about what true love for oneself and others really takes.”) As a culture, I don’t think we want to explore “the more difficult questions.” I don’t, mostly.

One takeaway might be, “Don’t move to New York if marriage and family are important to you.” Obviously people in New York get married and have families, but the city is not geared for that, and Stadtmiller is pushing against the hardest gear to get herself uphill. Ideally one chooses to do a hard thing the easiest one way can, rather than attempting to do a hard thing made harder by environment.

Briefly noted: The Three Languages of Politics, Maigret at Picratt’s, The Ditch

* The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides (Arnold Kling): Like Kling I “would like to see political discussion conducted with less tribal animosity and instead with more mutual respect and reasoned deliberation.” But I don’t expect to see it in the near future, though I am hopeful for the medium to far future. And I’d also ask the author about him seeing “more mutual respect and reasoned deliberation” in political discourse—as compared to what? Or when? Deliberation seems better than it was in, say, 1850 – 1865, and problems today, though severe, still seem considerably less severe than they were in the 1930s. The Soviet Union did not go for “less tribal animosity” throughout the Cold War, although the Soviet nemesis may have reduced some local tribal animosity.

Still, Kling writes that “This book can help you recognize when someone is making a political argument that is divisive and serves no constructive purpose.” Which is most of the time; identifying such things is good and I approve, but I also suspect not very many people who really need this book will read it, and that politics is to most people and voters a team sport first, and an information problem or network second, or twentieth.

Something about politics may also bring out the worst in many of us: I’ve also noticed an uptick in weak comments about politically-related writing on this blog—those comments are much more frequent than in writing about books or other subjects. When I delete them, the authors sometime reappear for more invective (which is also deleted). We need tribal identities over, under, or beyond political identities; I read somewhere that political matters are not enough to base an identity on, which seems true and underrated. Ross Douthat has also said that, if you don’t like the religious right, you’re really not going to like the non-religious right, and so far that seems surprisingly correct to me.

* The Ditch (Herman Koch); can’t figure out what’s special about this writer, but maybe translation is the issue—or Europhilia among reviewers. I’m looking for representative, evocative sentences and finding none. Koch gets lots of notice but I’m not seeing what the reviewers seem to see. Maybe you know?

* Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Mark Harris) is strangely boring, and no man would wish it to be longer than it is. Culminates in Academy Awards minutia, somehow. Reminiscent in some ways of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor. But if you have a keen interest in movies and the movie business of the 1960s, this is your book.

* The Ideas That Made America (Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen ) sounds promising, but don’t be fooled: you don’t get many of them, and you get too much of the obvious, like “The movement of ideas rarely respects national borders.” No shit? Why would anyone (outside of academia) think otherwise? To be fair, she does later say that intellectual exchanges between the U.S. north and south were rare, but then why not just say that in one sentence, instead of many more than it requires? There is some detail about how slavery was justified in the south, but to call that thinking “bare rationalization” is an understatement.

* Maigret at Picratt’s is another of the Maigret novels, though “novella” is probably more accurate, and one that often feels strangely contemporary. Being a party animal and aging are not very compatible, which is obvious and yet not stated as such often. Today, continual references to police bicycles stand out. Of one early murder victim we find, “Heads turned as she passed. You sensed she came from a different world, the world of the night, and there was something almost indecent about her in the harsh light of a winter’s day.” People differ; Maigret wishes to know all. The French look to Americans for guidance (“Apparently it’s what they do in America in the burlesques”), just as the Americans look back across the Atlantic for the same. “You know how it is” occurs in dialogue at least once, and “I understand” several times. Do we all seek understanding? If so, why is it so hard to find?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Briefly noted: Delta-V, Permission, and The Stand

* Delta-V by Daniel Suarez is an SF novel with an SF novel’s typical poor writing. The second chapter begins with the scene: “The United States Senate Appropriations Subcommittee…” is in Washington DC. Two paragraphs later, “Three US senators sat…” Well, yes: would they be Mexican senators? Or Knesset members? Can’t we assume they’re US senators? Clumsy writing on almost every page made me give up, like “That meant eighteen people were definitely going into space on Joyce’s dime. Tighe hoped to be one of those people.” Suarez doesn’t need “of those people.” These basic errors are representative, not cherry-picked. Don’t be fooled, as the interesting premise can’t be sustained into a good novel because of consistently low prose quality.

There are some good moments; in one scene, on the first asteroid to be mined, two characters discuss creating metal parts via chemical vapor deposition (CVD):

“It’s existed since Ludwig Mond invented it back in 1890.”
“I’ve honestly never heard of it.”
“Back on Earth it’s less toxic to just use a blast furnace. Up here in space, though, CVD is going to be critical for precision manufacturing.”
[…] “It’s like alchemy.”
“No, it’s better than alchemy—it’s science.”

A fine point too rarely encountered, and a high end to the chapter.

* Permission by Saskia Vogel, an okay book but its timeline seems somewhat random and muddled to me. Too many novels are in the improbable reaches of the movie/TV glamor industries; people substitute “hope” for wages in those industries, with results that are often not good. In this novel, a dominatrix conveniently moves next door to a woman who becomes interested in her. Rather than what you may be thinking, more of the novel is like this: “Everything inside me, ocean. I inhaled with both my nose and mouth, greedy for air, feeling my lungs expand. My body was mostly water, but only mostly, still” than like this: “I was wearing a semi-sheer basque with a matching thong. He buried his face in my cleavage,” but there is some of both—like life, one could argue.

You have to be okay with the one-sentence paragraphs:

Only her.
Only this.
Only now.

So deep, man, right? Pass the joint. I didn’t regret reading it but am not sure it’ll stick with me, or most people. You could say that Nine and a Half Weeks got there first and is still colonizing this territory.

* I read Stephen King’s The Stand when I was 11 or 12, and it holds up better than Robert Jordan but not as well as I’d like: it has moments—a rural cop describes how his wife “neatens” the cells, for instance, the word being wholly appropriate—but it has some howlers in it too, like the doctor who says:

They are the symptoms of the common cold, of influenza, of pneumonia. We can cure all of those things, Nick. Unless the patient is very young or very old, or perhaps already weakened by a previous illness, antibiotics will knock them out.

Colds and influenzas are viruses, not bacteria, and antibiotics don’t affect them. If anyone had a cure for the common cold, they’d be a billionaire. It’s conceivable that we could today have a vaccine for the common cold, but the regulatory structure put in place by the FDA doesn’t favor it.

Still, the paranoid style in it is depressingly modern (look for all the mentions of not just government failure but active malice), although in the novel the paranoia and distrust are correct. It could be contrasted with the movie Contagion in “Bureaucratic Heroism,” a great essay with an unlikely title. Today, it feels like a product of disillusionment from the Vietnam war. But excess skepticism may be as bad or almost as bad as excess trust.

It’s also still scary, when the prose doesn’t interfere with the fear.

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