Is literature dead?

Is Literature Dead? The question can be seen as “more of the same,” and I’ll answer no: plenty of people, myself included, still find most video-based material boring. It’s not sufficiently information-dense and represents human interiority and thought poorly. A reasonable number of people in their teens or 20s who feel the same way, despite growing up in iGen. Fewer, maybe, than in previous generations, but still some and still enough to matter.

Literature has probably always been a minority pursuit, and it has been for as long as I’ve been alive and cognizant. It’ll continue being a minority pursuit—but I don’t think it will go away, in part for aesthetic reasons and in part for practical ones. Reading fiction is still a powerful tool for understanding other people, their drives, their uncertainties, their strengths—all vital components of organizations and organizational structures. TV and movies can replace some fraction of that but not all of it, and it’s notable how often video mediums launch from literary ones, like a parasite consuming its host.

That said, the marginal value of literature may have shrunk because there’s a lot of good written material in non-literature form—more articles, more essays, more easily available and read. All that nonfiction means that literature, while still valuable, has more competition. I’ve also wondered if the returns to reading fiction diminish at some point: after the thousandth novel, does each one after stop being as meaningful? Do you see “enough” of the human drama? If you’ve seen 92%, does getting to 92.5% mean anything? I phrase this as a question, not an answer, deliberately.

The biggest problem in my view is that a lot of literature is just not that good. Competition for time and attention is greater than it was even 20 or 30 years ago. Literature needs to recognize that and strive to be better: better written, better plotted, better thought-out, and too often it does not achieve those things. The fault is not all with Instagram-addled persons. I still find readers in the most unlikely of places. They—we—will likely keep showing up there.

The college bribery scandal vs. Lambda School

Many of you have seen the news, but, while the bribery scandal is sucking up all the attention in the media, Lambda School is offering a $2,000/month living stipend to some students and Western Governors University is continuing to quietly grow. The Lambda School story is a useful juxtaposition with the college-bribery scandal. Tyler Cowen has a good piece on the bribery scandal (although to me the scandal looks pretty much like business-as-usual among colleges, which are wrapped up in mimetic rivalry, rather than a scandal as such, unless the definition of a scandal is “when someone accidentally tells the truth”):

Many wealthy Americans perceive higher education to be an ethics-free, law-free zone where the only restraint on your behavior is whatever you can get away with.

This may be an overly cynical take, but to what extent do universities act like ethics-free, law-free zones? They accept students (and their student loan payments) who are unlikely to matriculate; they have no skin in the game regarding student loans; insiders understand the “paying for the party” phenomenon, while outsiders don’t; too frequently, universities don’t seem to defend free speech or inquiry. In short, many universities are exploiting information asymmetries between them and their students and those students’s parents—especially the weakest and worst-informed students. Discrimination against Asians in admissions is common at some schools and is another open secret, albeit less secret than it once was. When you realize what colleges are doing to students and their families, why is it a surprise when students and their families reciprocate?

To be sure, this is not true of all universities, not all the time, not all parts of all universities, so maybe I am just too close to the sausage factory. But I see a whole lot of bad behavior, even when most of the individual actors are well-meaning. Colleges have evolved in a curious set of directions, and no one attempting to design a system from scratch would choose what we have now. That is not a reason to imagine some kind of perfect world, but it is worth asking how we might evolve out of the current system, despite the many barriers to doing so. We’re also not seeing employers search for alternate credentialing sources, at least from what I can ascertain.

See also “I Was a College Admissions Officer. This Is What I Saw.” In a social media age, why are we not seeing more of these pieces? (EDIT: Maybe we are? This is another one, scalding and also congruent with my experiences.) Overall, I think colleges are really, really good at marketing, and arguably marketing is their core competency. A really good marketer, however, can convince you that marketing is not their core competency.

The elite case against big product “x” (today it’s Facebook)

For most of my life I’ve been reading well-structured, well-supported, well-written, and well-cited pieces arguing for why and how people should not do extremely popular thing x, where x can change based on the person making the argument. Often the argument is quite good but doesn’t create mass behavior change on the ground. I often agree with the argument, but whether I agree with it or not is less relevant than whether the majority of the population changes its behavior in measurable ways (for truly popular products and services, they don’t). Today, the x is Facebook.

Based on past examples of “the elite case against ‘x,'” I predict that today’s NYT and BBC articles do very little to change real-world, measurable behavior around Facebook and social media. To the extent people move away from Facebook, it will be toward some other Facebook property like Instagram or toward some other system that still has broadly similar properties, like Discord, Snapchat, etc. Today’s case against Facebook, or social media more generally, reminds me of the elite case against:

* TV. TV rots your brain and is worse than reading books. It destroys high culture and is merely a vehicle for advertising. Sophisticated pleasures are better than reality TV and the other “trash” on TV.” Yet TV remains popular. Even in 2017, “Watching TV was the leisure activity that occupied the most time (2.8 hours per day). And 2.8 hours per day is lower than the “four hours per day” time I’ve seen quoted elsewhere. Today, though, most people, even cultural elites, don’t even bother arguing against TV.

* Fast food, especially McDonald’s, Taco Bell, etc. It’s filled with sugar and, rather than being called “food,” it should probably be called, “an edible food-like substance.” There is also an elite case against factory farming and animal torture, which pretty much all fast food suppliers do. Yet McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and similar companies remain massive. Michael Pollan has done good work articulating the elite case against fast food.

* Oil companies. Oil use has led us to more than 400ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. We’re on the way to cooking ourselves. Yet the market response to hybrid vehicles has been to ignore them. Almost no one walks or bikes to work. Again, I would argue that more people should do these things, but what I think people should do, and what people do, are quite different. We like to attack oil companies instead of the consumer behavior that supports oil companies.

Oddly, I see the elite case against car companies and airplane companies much less frequently than I do against oil companies.

* Tobacco. It gives you lung cancer and smoking cigarettes isn’t even that good. While it appears that smoking rates have been declining for decades, 15.5% of adults still smoke. Taxation may be doing more to drive people away from tobacco than asserting the number and ways that tobacco is bad.

* Video games. They’re a way to evade the real world and perform activities that feel like fitness-enhancing activities but are actually just mental masturbation, but without the physical limits imposed by actual masturbation. They simulate the social world in a way that makes us more isolated and frustrated than ever before.

What other examples am I missing?

Today, we have the elite case against social media. It may be accurate. It’s generated good books, like Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Social media has generated lots of op-eds and parenting guides. Some individuals have announced publicly that they’re deleting their Facebook or Instagram page, yet Facebook is a public company and keeps reporting massive levels of use and engagement.

It turns out that what people want to do, is quite different from what The New York Times thinks people should do.

The most despicable sentences I’ve read recently

In November, NASA announced it would be conducting a “cultural assessment study” of SpaceX and Boeing to ensure the companies were meeting NASA’s requirements of “adherence to a drug-free environment.” The Washington Post reported that officials had indicated “the review was prompted by the recent behavior of SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk.”

From this piece. Boeing is good at hewing to bureaucratic edicts issued by bureaucratic organizations but is bad at recovering rocket stages and decreasing the price of space launch. SpaceX is great at, you know, putting shit into space, which is what both companies are putatively supposed to be doing. For Boeing, compliance with infinite rules and regulations takes precedence over lowering the cost of space access.

The quoted paragraph reminds me of Peter Thiel’s point in Zero to One: as HP floundered, it was still really good at “following the rules,” but really terrible at building products people want. Senior administrators were adepts at process but novices at results. Many people who are good at results do not care for excessive process.

Perhaps we should focus less on virtue signaling and demographics, and more on results. I suspect the NASA of the 1960s was not terribly interested in its employees’s private lives, but it was very interested in putting a man on the moon. Today, NASA seems unable to do the latter but very good at the former.

We need fewer bureaucrats and bureaucratic barriers and more people with a piratical gleam in their eye trying new things. Elon Musk has that piratical gleam and that is part of what makes him a hero, despite his flaws (which are real). Online, it is easy to tear people down (The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium describes how the Internet enables nihilism and tearing people down while doing too little real building of new things—comprehensive post this important book will be forthcoming). It costs a billion dollars a mile to build new urban rail in the United States, since contractors must specialize in placating politicians, employing too many people at too high waves (“In his exposé, Rosenthal talked about labor problems: severe overstaffing, with some workers doing jobs that are no longer necessary, and wages well into six figures”), and dealing with lawsuits rather than specializing in building shit quickly. We need to find our way to a new, better equilibrium that de-emphasizes drug testing for harmless substances and emphasizes getting the thing done.

Giving and receiving books

Tyler Cowen writes, “Why you should hesitate to give books as gifts and instead just throw them out,” which is a fine post, but I’d note that many people are cost-constrained when it comes to books, and many used books now end up on Amazon, where they must be specifically sought out. And I love to give friends books (and receive books), but the following rules for giving books must be obeyed:

1. Zero expectation. The sender must not expect the receiver to read or even consider the book. Books should only be given, never returned, particularly in the age of Amazon. Amazon has made book scarcity a thing of the past. It is even possible to rapidly scan books, using the right equipment, which may be relatively inexpensive. The majority of books I give or send are probably never read, and that’s fine with me.

2. Despite “zero expectation,” the sender must think the book will interest the receiver or be at least as good as the median book the receiver might otherwise read.

3. This is my own idiosyncrasy, but I very rarely throw out books, though I will donate unwanted ones in batches. Someone with different inclinations and hourly rates might automate the process of selling older books on Amazon. The net take from selling a book for even $10 or $12 on Amazon is like $4 – $6—not worth it for me.

4. I like writing in books and like it when my friends do. Receiving a book my friend has annotated is like getting the pleasure of the book and the pleasure of conversation.

5. “Zero expectation” also means “zero expectation” in terms of time. I mail books in batches whenever there are enough and it’s convenient for me. It may be months after I finish a book, and that’s okay. I have a stack sitting around right now, waiting to go out.

6. I like it when publishers send me books! But they often send emails first asking if I’ll promise a review, etc. My stock reply is always the same: Send the book, but I promise nothing.

7. When I was younger I thought I’d be rich when I have the money to buy all the books I can read. Now I have to limit the number of physical books I have due to space and practicality constraints. Large numbers of physical books are not compatible with high levels of mobility. This is very annoying but also true. Bad city zoning makes this problem worse by artificially increasing the price per square foot most people pay for housing in a given locale. Would we have a better media if writers had more space for books and consequently read more?

“How good is the very best next book that you haven’t read but maybe are on the verge of picking up? So many choices in life hinge on that neglected variable.” I say my problem today is finding the best book, which I no longer do so well on my own; if the five best readers I know would send me more books, I would be very happy, even if only one works for me.

It’s striking for me how many people with nothing to say get on social media to say it, relative to simply reading more or learning more. We have all these communication media and too little to fill them with, in my view. It could be that I’m guilty of that right now.

A good rule is, “Would you buy this friend a beer or coffee?” If yes, why not a book? I’d like to see book-giving become more of a social norm, like getting a round of drinks.

Skin in the Game – Nassim Taleb

Skin in the Game is congruent with Tom Ricks’ book The Generals. Almost all generals and high-ranking officers in the U.S. military are now exempt from real risk, as Ricks argues—they are exempt even the risk of being fired or reassigned for simple incompetence (or being ill-suited to a role). Almost all enlisted men and junior officers, however, are heavily exposed to real risk, like being killed. That risk asymmetry should give pause to someone contemplating joining. The risk profile for generals prior to the Korean war, while not as a great as the risk profile for regular soldiers, was more reasonable than it is today. Military contractors are arguably the greatest beneficiary of the military today. If more people knew (and acted like they knew) this, we might see changes.

In Skin in the Game Taleb has many, many unusual examples, many of them good; he reads more like an old-fashioned philosopher (that is: one who wants to be read, heard, and understood, as opposed to one who wants tenure), and I mean that as a compliment. One of his rules is, “No person in a transaction should have certainty about the outcomes while the other one has uncertainty.” I wonder how this rule could be applied to colleges, especially under a student-loan system, in which the college is certain to be paid by the student, the student’s family, or the student’s bank (which is really to say, the bank’s student), while the student may see a variable return on investment—especially if the student is ill-equipped in the first place. Colleges may be selling credentials more than skills. But almost no one thinks about those things in advance.

Skin in the Game will, like Antifragile, frustrate you if you demand that every single sentence be true and useful. Some of Taleb’s micro-examples are bad, like his thing against GMOs:

In my war with the Monsanto machine, the advocates of genetically modified organisms (transgenics) kept countering me with benefit analyses (which were often bogus and doctored up), not tail risk analyses for repeated exposures

This view is incoherent because virtually every food eaten today has been “genetically modified,” inefficiently, through selective breeding. If you wish to learn just how hard this is, see The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. Transgenics speed the process. See this sad tale, and the links, for one researcher in the field who is giving up due to widespread opposition. He points out that, over and over again, transgenic have been shown to be safe.

Taleb is right that there are tail risks to transgenics… but that’s also theoretically true of traditional cross-breeding, and it’s also true of not engaging in transgenics. The alternative to high-efficiency transgenics is environmental degradation and, in many places, starvation. That’s pretty bad, and there’s a serious, usually unstated, environmental trade-off between signaling environmental caring and opposite transgenics (nuclear energy is the same).

Despite incorrect micro-examples, Skin in the Game is great and you should read it. It is less uneven than Antifragile. It’s also an excellent book to re-read (don’t expect to get everything the first time through) because Taleb gives so many examples and is overflowing with ideas.

Like: “If your private life conflicts with your intellectual opinion, it cancels your intellectual ideas, not your private life.” Something easily and frequently forgotten, or never considered in the first place. Look at what people do, not what they say. One of the many charming parts of Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy is the apparently wide gap between what many philosophers wrote and how they appeared to live. Maybe the truest philosophers don’t write but do.

Or consider:

the highest form of virtue is unpopular. This does not mean that virtue is inherently unpopular, or correlates with unpopularity, only that unpopular acts signal some risk taking and genuine behavior.

A very Peter Thiel point: he asks what popular view is wrong and what unpopular views a given person holds.

Or consider:

The only definition of rationality that I’ve found that is practically, empirically, and mathematically rigorous is the following: what is rational is that which allows for survival.

This may be true, but most of us in the West now survive, unless we do something truly stupid, dangerous, or brave. So our wealth and comfort may enable us to be irrational, because we’re much less likely to pay the ultimate penalty than we once were. Darwin Awards aside, we mostly make it. We can worry more about terrorism than the much more immediate and likely specter of death in the form of the car, which kills far more people every year in the United States than terrorism.

To his credit, though, Taleb does write:

The Chernoff bound can be explained as follows. The probability that the number of people who drown in their bathtubs in the United States doubles next year [. . .] is one per several trillions lifetimes of the universe. This cannot be said about the doubling of the number of people killed by terrorism over the same period.

He’s right that the number who could be killed by terrorism is massive, especially given the risk of nuclear and biological weapons. But the disproportionate focus on terrorism takes too much attention from risks that seem mundane, like getting into cars. Everyone expects to get into car crashes. Perhaps we should be thinking more seriously about that. Too bad almost no one is.

“University presidents: We’ve been blindsided.” Er, no.

University presidents: We’ve been blindsided” is an amazing article—if the narrative it presents is true. It’s amazing because people have been complaining about political correctness and nothing-means-anything postmodernism since at least the early ’90s, yet the problems with reality and identity politics seem to have intensified in the Internet age. University presidents haven’t been blindsided, and some of the problems in universities aren’t directly their fault—but perhaps their biggest failure, with some notable exceptions (like the University of Chicago), is not standing up for free speech.

I don’t see how it’s impossible to see this coming; the right’s attack on academia has its roots in the kind of scorn and disdain I write about in “The right really was coming after college next.” As I say there, I’ve been hearing enormous, overly broad slams against the right for as long as I’ve been involved in higher education. That sort of thing has gone basically unchecked for I-don’t-know how long. It’s surprising not to expect a backlash, eventually, and institutions that don’t police themselves eventually get policed or at least attacked from the outside.

(Since such observations tend to generate calls of “partisanship,” I’ll again note that I’m not on the right and am worried about intellectual honesty.)

There is this:

“It’s not enough anymore to just say, ‘trust us,'” Yale President Peter Salovey said. “There is an attempt to build a narrative of colleges and universities as out of touch and not politically diverse, and I think … we have a responsibility to counter that — both in actions and in how we present ourselves.”

That’s because universities are not politically diverse. At all. Heterodox Academy has been writing about this since it was founded. Political monocultures may in turn encourage freedom of speech restrictions, especially against the other guy, who isn’t even around to make a case. For example, some of you may have been following the Wilifred Laurier University brouhaha (if not, “Why Wilfrid Laurier University’s president apologized to Lindsay Shepherd” is an okay place to start, though the school is in Canada, not the United States). Shepherd’s department wrote a reply, “An open letter from members of the Communication Studies Department, Wilfrid Laurier University” that says, “Public debates about freedom of expression, while valuable, can have a silencing effect on the free speech of other members of the public.” In other words, academics who are supposed to support free speech and disinterested inquiry don’t. And they get to decide what counts as free speech.

If academics don’t support free speech, they’re just another interest group, subject to the same social and political forces that all interest groups are subject to. I don’t think the department that somehow thought this letter to be a good idea realizes as much.

The idea that “trust us” is good enough doesn’t seem to be good enough anymore. In the U.S., the last decade of anti-free-speech and left-wing activism on campus has brought us a Congress that is in some ways more retrograde than any since… I’m not sure when. Maybe the ’90s. Maybe earlier. Yet the response on campus has been to shrug and worry about pronouns.

Rather than “touting their positive impacts on their communities to local civic groups, lawmakers and alumni,” universities need to re-commit to free speech, open and disinterested inquiry, and not prima facie opposing an entire, large political group. Sure, “Some presidents said they blame themselves for failing to communicate the good they do for society — educating young people, finding cures for diseases and often acting as major job creators.” But, again, universities exist to learn what’s true, as best one can, and then explain why it’s true.

Then there’s this:

But there was also an element of defensiveness. Many argue the backlash they’ve faced is part of a larger societal rethinking of major institutions, and that they’re victims of a political cynicism that isn’t necessarily related to their actions. University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce, for one, compared public attitudes toward universities with distrust of Congress, the legal system, the voting system and the presidency.

While universities do a lot right, they (or some of their members) also engaging in dangerous epistemic nihilism that’s contrary to their missions. And people are catching onto that. Every time one sees a fracas like the one at Evergreen College, universities as a whole lose a little of their prestige. And the response of many administrators hasn’t been good.

Meanwhile, the incredible Title IX stories don’t help (or see Laura Kipnis’s story). One can argue that these are isolated cases. But are they? With each story, and the inept institutional response to it, universities look worse and so do their presidents. University presidents aren’t reaffirming the principles of free speech and disinterested research, and they’re letting bureaucrats create preposterous and absurd tribunals. Then they’re saying they’ve been blindsided! A better question might be, “How can you not see a reckoning in advance?”

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