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.

Recent books: The Earth Below, A Mind at Play, An Economist Walks Into a Brothel

* The Earth Below by Katy Barnett, a dystopian novel that seems promising but has way too much “My heart was racing and sweat poured down my face” and “for a moment his eyes lit up with an unalloyed smile” kinds of sentences. There isn’t much novel in the language of this novel, though “Then, like a drop of black ink diffusing through water, a dark thought spread across my mind” is impressive. Problem is, The Earth Below loses the war against cliché. I’d read the next one Barnett writes; The Earth Below shows promise.

* A Mind at Play by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, an okay biography of Claude Shannon, a guy whose accomplishments happen almost entirely in the mind, leaving us not much of interest in his life itself. If you’re deeply interested in information theory and its history, this is probably good. If you’re looking for a good yarn, less so. The lives of brilliant intellectuals often don’t lend themselves to interesting biographies.

* An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk by Allison Schrager. It sounds entertaining and is entertaining; there is a bit of the Gladwellian strategy or formula of story leads to research leads to conclusion, so if you’re tired of that structure you may not like this book so much. I wonder how many people are like this woman: “Before starting at the brothel, Starr lived a double life: marketing executive by day and exotic dancer on the site. Or it might be more accurate to say she was a high-paid exotic dancer ‘on the conference circuit’ who had a corporate job on the side.” There is also an implicit warning about academia, as Schrager describes her dissertation: “I shut myself away in the library and spent the better part of my twenties isolated, trying to solve that single math problem. Five years later, when I actually solved it, I expected something wonderful to happen; instead, everything fell apart. My relationship with my adviser deteriorated, and the sudden death of a close friend left me emotionally shattered. My worse enemy, however, was my ambivalence.” This would be an interesting book to read next to Lonesome Dove. Have you read Lonesome Dove? I saw copies of it many times before I did and wish I’d read it sooner.

* The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve by Steve Stewart-Williams. This is more evolutionary biology; if you’ve already read a lot of it, you don’t need this one. The highs are high, though:

In many ways, the world today is a primate paradise. Compared to any other period in human history, we’ve got lower infant mortality rates, longer lifespans, less violence, greater wealth, and more opportunities to pursue the goals that suit us. We should be over the moon… but we’re not. Most of us are reasonably happy, sure. But we’re hardly ecstatic, and some of us are simply miserable. As Geoffrey Miller observes, the world has never been better, and yet many people have to take special medications to avoid suicidal despair. Now obviously, life has never been a picnic. However, some aspects of the modern world may be misaligned with human nature in ways that produce novel psychological problems – problems that, like breast cancer and endometriosis, are largely diseases of modernity.


We’re carnivores that sympathize with our food. We’re biological mechanisms designed to pass on our genes, but which fritter away our time playing games and weaving a web of fantasy around ourselves. We’re clusters of chemical reactions that contemplate deep truths about the nature of reality. And we’re little pieces of the Earth that can get outside our mother planet and venture to other worlds.

I found myself skimming a lot of familiar material.

As always if you know what I should read, let me know.

Good books I read this year

I like “good books I read” as opposed to “books published in 2018,” because if they’re worth reading, they’re probably worth reading regardless of when they happened to be published.

* The Coddling of the American Mind; it’s about some of what’s wrong with American universities, and a lot of what’s wrong with modern parenting, and many other topics besides. A deeper read may reveal that it’s about how to live a good life, like so many books.

* Golden Hill: A Story of Old New York. A hilarious, witty, depressing, and amazing novel that is just the right length and astonishing in its language and plot. I didn’t see the final twist coming, although some friends claim they did. I like the idea of a public repository of “predictions” halfway through a book, as opposed to saying after finishing, “I knew what was going to happen.” Did you? Really?

* Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression. A book congruent with Coddling and, again, about the many bad decisions we’ve made as individuals and societies concerning meaning, connection, growth, and development. Many of us, likely including me, mis-prioritize our time and effort.

* Skin in the Game. Asymmetries in risk profiles affect so many domains; in addition, talk is cheap. Ignore most of what people say and pay attention to what people do. Many of our most fucked-up institutions (schools, hospitals/medical care) have too little or inadequate skin in the game.

* Junkyard Planet. A charming, unexpected book about where our things come from and where they go.

* The Case Against Education. Most of education is about signaling. Once you realize that, many puzzling aspects of the school situation become clearer. Why are so many schools crushingly mediocre, if not outright bad? Why is it not actually important that they get better? Why does every college major take four years? Why do we measure seat time, not learning? Why have so many reforms failed?

* Slutever, the book, a book that some of you will dislike, but also a book that more of you will like than will admit in public. Don’t worry, you can tell Amazon that you plan to read it—Amazon won’t tell. Personally, I like the slightly lurid, throwback-to-the-pulps cover, but if you don’t, there’s a Kindle version you can hide.

* Kingdom of the Wicked: Book One: Rules, which I didn’t technically read this year but I will include it, because you should read it.

* Artemis, about a plausible moon-colony scenario.

* Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, about a story that is much more interesting than headlines may have led you to believe. It also humanizes many of the figures behind the headlines. “Reality has a lot of detail,” as many of us infovore-types can forget.

* The Seventh Function of Language, a novel meant most for those of you who have spent time in the academic loonybin. If you’re not familiar with the silliness of humanities academia, you likely won’t enjoy it as much. If you have, you’ll likely love it.

* The Black Prince, a novel where all of Iris Murdoch’s preoccupations come together successfully. Push through the first 75 pages. Many of her other novels feel tedious and indulgent to me, but not this one.

* The Lord of the Rings, a novel I re-read periodically and always discover something new.

* The State of Affairs, Esther Perel’s book about infidelity, relationships, and many other topics. This may also be a salient time of year to read the book. As far as I can tell, no one else is doing the kind of work she is doing on and in this topic.

What should I read in 2019? Or tomorrow?

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