Links: The dating / casual sex “apocalypse,” Scandimania!, photography, technology, cameras, and more

* “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,'” and, already, the first rebuttal. The lack of the words “revealed preferences” in the first article is revealing about the writer’s priors. I read “Dating Apocalypse” as comedy.

* Stop the Scandimania: Nordic nations aren’t the utopias they’re made out to be.

* Interview with Stephen Wolfram on AI and the future, interesting throughout, note especially this:

One of the things I was realizing recently—one of the bad scenarios, for me, looked at from my current parochial point of view—is maybe the future of humanity is people playing video games all the time and living in virtual worlds. One of the things that I then realized, as a sobering thought: looked at from 200 years ago, much of what we do today would look like playing video games, as in, it’s a thing whose end, whose goal, is something almost intrinsic to the thing itself, and it doesn’t seem related to—it’s like, why would somebody care about that? It seems like a thing which is just taking time and putting in effort; proving mathematical theorems, why would people care about that? Why would people care to use endless social media apps, and so on, and why would people care to play Angry Birds?

* Similar to the above: “The Next Wave,” on the end of Moore’s Law, its implications for science and everyone, and much more. The most important recent link I’ve posted, though admittedly not as funny as the “Dating Apocalypse” link.

* “The Suicide of the Liberal Arts;” maybe, though I’ve never found The Iliad compelling.

* That’s Not Funny! Today’s college students can’t seem to take a joke.

* “Sony a7R II: A Brief Review,” though this camera is far too expensive for normal people. Normal people are better served by Sony’s a6000. Whoever names and markets cameras should be fired: everything about the naming conventions is a confusing hodgepodge.

* “The age of loneliness is killing us;” overly polemical in my view and yet I see the trends described in my own life and my family’s life.

Humor as an antidote to frustration, from Christopher Hitchens

I think of Christopher Hitchens more along the lines of Katha Pollitt, who “want[s] to complicate the picture even at the risk of seeming churlish.” And she does. Still, Hitchens was sometimes spectacularly right, as in this introduction to Arguably: Essays:

The people who must never have power are the humorless. To impossible certainties of rectitude they ally tedium and uniformity. Since an essential element in the American idea is its variety, I have tried to celebrate things that are amusing for their own sake, or ridiculous but revealing, or simply of intrinsic interest. All of the above might apply to the subject of my little essay on the art and science of the blowjob, for example [….]

Be almost as wary of the humorless as you are of the people who pride themselves on humor.

Rereading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity

There are two really remarkable things about High Fidelity: how funny it is and how well constructed it is, especially given that the subject matter (romantic entanglements and existential dilemmas for the aging man and relationship) could easily be a plotless mess.

A novel about extended adolescence (or extended adolescence in general) can become vague, wishy-washy, and meandering. I’m trolling for specific examples of constructedness, but most aren’t as good out of context as they are in context as they are in it. Still, the novel moves: it starts with Rob’s “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order,” proceeds through them, brings him back to the cause of his most recent breakup, propels him forward to his most recent hook-up, and then moves through scenes involving a funeral, a dinner party, a move-out, and a real party, each of which feels developed and connected to each other. There’s a strong sense of Rob moving, and him both acting and being acted upon that’s so often absent in similar novels, like Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man, or Kate Christensen’s Trouble, all of which ramble and drift and make you long for the cohesiveness you don’t realize you’re missing until you see something like High Fidelity, or Elmore Leonard’s caper novels, or Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.

Not that jokes are everything, but High Fidelity is filled with them, and the tremendous humor gives poignance to moments of seriousness, especially when those moments are tinged with existential fear about the future and one’s social position:

You need as much ballast as possible to stop you from floating away; you need people around you, things going on, otherwise life is like some film where the money ran out, and there are no sets, or locations, or supporting actors, and it’s just one bloke on his own staring into the camera with nothing to do and nobody to speak to, and who’d believe in this character then?

(Not to worry: in the next paragraph, a woman asks “Have you got any soul?” and the narrator thinks, “That depends […] some days yes, some days no.”)

Rob both rationalizes and sees himself as others might:

Me, I’m unmarried—at the moment as unmarried as it’s possible to be—and I’m the owner of a failing record shop. It seems to me that if you place music (and books, probably, and films, and plays, and anything that makes you feel) at the center of your being, then you can’t afford to sort out your love life, start to think of it of it the finished product. You’ve got to pick it up, keep it alive and in turmoil, you’ve got to pick at it and unravel it until it all comes apart and you’re compelled to start all over again […] Maybe Al Green is directly responsible for more than I ever realized.

He knows the argument is wrong and unlikely—art comes from the most unlikely places and conditions, much like the appreciation of art—yet he still half-believes it, just as we half-believe the joking things we say to ourselves to get through the day, or to convince ourselves of our value and self-worth. The alternative is often a depressing sense of how you look in others’ eyes, a kind of objectivity that might be a cure worse than the disease of being wrong. This doubleness of Rob’s view—he’s joking, but aware that he’s half-serious, which makes the joke funnier—is one of the novel’s great pleasures.

To return to the blockquote above, it should be obvious based on the plentitude bordering on plethora of novels about marriage in all its configurations (see: the collected work of Updike and Roth), one’s love life isn’t finished until one decides it is or one dies. Rob knows this: he warns against starting “to think of it as finished,” rather than knowing it is finished. And blaming your love life on listening to pop music is a cute pop psychology theory that’s hilariously wrong and yet plausible enough for us to appreciate it.

The novel’s humor and voice combined with its structure to give it meaning where so many not dissimilar set ups fail. The TV show Californication, though mildly entertaining, is basically about the difficulties of information hiding: Hank is a frequently blocked writer who derives pleasure from sleeping with various women, which he in turn has to conceal from various women because of the potential sexual and emotional side effects of revelation. But the show trades in a narrow range: who can Hank sleep with, and who matters enough to keep it from? If the show has a larger plot, it’s not evident: Hank’s relationship with his ex-wife, whose name I can’t remember because she isn’t that important to the show, oscillates in a narrow band between reconciliation and estrangement from which it cannot escape with eliminating the show’s potential for future seasons. Although the show isn’t pornography, its limits become steadily clearer over time.

One of the few disappointing things about High Fidelity isn’t the book itself— the other output of its author. Like Robert Penn Warren, Hornby seems to have only one really, really good book in him; I’ve at least started most of the rest of his work. Some books, like A Long Way Down, aren’t bad but aren’t compelling, and they don’t have that sense of drive and purpose High Fidelity. They’re like the story about a dream your friend wants to relay in exhaustive detail. The events in those other books are exhaustive even when they’re short, and they don’t have the pep and vigor of High Fidelity, which almost has too many short and wonderful asides to mention them all.

The end of High Fidelity trends toward sentimentality, but it’s saved by a continuing self-awareness that its concerns are silly. By making them serious while retaining its essential lightness, the novel works. And, the ending implies, life trends toward sentimentality: if you never indulge in any sort of authentic feeling, then you’re left alone and an agglomeration of preferences in music, books, or movies, dangling before a world that will, more likely than not, be mostly indifferent to your existence. But that’s an awfully heavy premise: I’d rather hear about Rob’s top five breakups and the linguistic implications of “I haven’t slept with him yet” as compared to “I haven’t seen Evil Dead 2 yet.”

Preview: Nick Hornby and High Fidelity

I’m working on a post about Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, a novel that continues to impress. Last time, I read it chiefly for pleasure, but this time I’m also trying to figure how and why it works so well; I think the first line of my post will be: “There are two really remarkable things about High Fidelity: how funny it is and how well constructed it is, especially given that the subject matter (romantic entanglements and existential dilemmas for the aging man and relationship) could easily be a plotless mess.”

More to follow, obviously.

Rereading Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem

Some novels grow in rereading while others shrink,* and Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, first discussed here, is among the former.** It’s wry and self-aware; after modestly painful cultural experiences at elite universities that perhaps consider themselves more elite than they actually are, Renee feels mentally inferior to peers and professors and responds with the body while still contemplating why, as a creature of thought, she is also so firmly a creature. This might sound as boring as the too-extensive academic philosophy papers on the subject. But instead of futile attempts at resolution, The Mind-Body Problem explores its general ridiculousness, both for the consciousness and the social structures in which the consciousness resides:

I had gotten used to thinking of myself as an intellectual. I had assumed that certain properties of mind and body were entailed by this description and had designed myself accordingly. It’s hard to discover you’ve constructed yourself on false premises.

She hasn’t, of course, and bad feedback from her environment (both scholastic and familial) combined with her own, Woody Allen-esque neuroticism that leads her to this conclusion. Besides, we know or would like to think we know that her conclusion is false because we are, after all, reading about her, and a smarter person is usually though not always more interesting to read about. That brings up the question of intellectuals and intelligence, which might not be fully overlapping categories.

One subtler observation: what distinguishes intellectuals from most people isn’t the size of their pomposity, but their ability to question assumptions (including their own) and perceive the world from different perspectives, while most people seem are stuck—frozen, really—in their own, unable to make impressive cognitive leaps into another’s imagination. They haven’t thawed sufficiently to mentally leap from person to person; this, I would argue, is the great cognitive change in Noam at the end of the novel, when he can or will no longer see the world from the perspective of math and instead tries to see it from the perspective of people. Renee, meanwhile, does so almost instinctively, and her assessments of herself and others are some of The Mind-Body Problem‘s funniest moments.

The Mind-Body Problem is like—or maybe just is—philosophy done really, really well in the sense that it can see the larger, abstract picture based on specific events and vice-versa, and it’s intelligible in seeing those events. Few novels or philosophy tracts have both sides, and most of those philosophy tracts have forgotten how to express themselves comprehensibly. (Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca has an excellent piece on this subject, which compares Orwell and Theodore Adorno.) The narrator’s skill is part of this effect, since Renee is aware of herself and aware of how ridiculous she is, much like the unnamed protagonist in Norman Rush’s Mating. Recursive self-awareness begets cerebral humor, especially dirty cerebral humor. What’s not to like? Renee is muddling through choices that aren’t appealing, and her compromises look less like betrayals of fundamental beliefs and more like adult compromises the closer she gets to them:

My first year [at the Princeton Philosophy department] had been disastrous, and my second, just beginning, gave every indication of being worse. In short, I was floundering, and thus quite prepared to follow the venerably old feminine tradition of being saved by marriage.

But she can still laugh about it. When Noam arrives at his epiphanies—though they feel contrived—we’re relieved, and he, like Renee, grows along with the novel. I could ask for little more.


* Robert Heinlein, I’m looking at you, and in particular Stranger in a Strange Land, a novel that, while still not bad, is too philosophically simplistic and, by the end, silly. Every person in the novel but Mike is completely flat, and Mike only avoids that fate by being a symbolic repository for the feelings of all the flat characters. Even then, he’s not fully developed. It is possible to a symbolic repository and developed—think of Ahab in Moby Dick—but Mike isn’t even close. Nonetheless, I still retain a great deal of fondness for Stranger in a Strange Land, and it’s still enormously fun even when you’re rolling your eyes. 

** Much like Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

Rereading Rebecca Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem

Some novels grow in rereading while others shrink,* and Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, first discussed here, is among the former.** It’s wry and self-aware; after modestly painful cultural experiences at elite universities that perhaps consider themselves more elite than they actually are, Renee feels mentally inferior to peers and professors and responds with the body while still contemplating why, as a creature of thought, she is also so firmly a creature. This might sound as boring as the too-extensive academic philosophy papers on the subject. But instead of futile attempts at resolution, The Mind-Body Problem explores its general ridiculousness, both for the consciousness and the social structures in which the consciousness resides:

I had gotten used to thinking of myself as an intellectual. I had assumed that certain properties of mind and body were entailed by this description and had designed myself accordingly. It’s hard to discover you’ve constructed yourself on false premises.

She hasn’t, of course, and bad feedback from her environment (both scholastic and familial) combined with her own, Woody Allen-esque neuroticism that leads her to this conclusion. Besides, we know or would like to think we know that her conclusion is false because we are, after all, reading about her, and a smarter person is usually though not always more interesting to read about. That brings up the question of intellectuals and intelligence, which might not be fully overlapping categories.

One subtler observation: what distinguishes intellectuals from most people isn’t the size of their pomposity, but their ability to question assumptions (including their own) and perceive the world from different perspectives, while most people seem are stuck—frozen, really—in their own, unable to make impressive cognitive leaps into another’s imagination. They haven’t thawed sufficiently to mentally leap from person to person; this, I would argue, is the great cognitive change in Noam at the end of the novel, when he can or will no longer see the world from the perspective of math and instead tries to see it from the perspective of people. Renee, meanwhile, does so almost instinctively, and her assessments of herself and others are some of The Mind-Body Problem‘s funniest moments.

The Mind-Body Problem is like—or maybe just is—philosophy done really, really well in the sense that it can see the larger, abstract picture based on specific events and vice-versa, and it’s intelligible in seeing those events. Few novels or philosophy tracts have both sides, and most of those philosophy tracts have forgotten how to express themselves comprehensibly. (Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca has an excellent piece on this subject, which compares Orwell and Theodore Adorno.) The narrator’s skill is part of this effect, since Renee is aware of herself and aware of how ridiculous she is, much like the unnamed protagonist in Norman Rush’s Mating. Recursive self-awareness begets cerebral humor, especially dirty cerebral humor. What’s not to like? Renee is muddling through choices that aren’t appealing, and her compromises look less like betrayals of fundamental beliefs and more like adult compromises the closer she gets to them:

My first year [at the Princeton Philosophy department] had been disastrous, and my second, just beginning, gave every indication of being worse. In short, I was floundering, and thus quite prepared to follow the venerably old feminine tradition of being saved by marriage.

But she can still laugh about it. When Noam arrives at his epiphanies—though they feel contrived—we’re relieved, and he, like Renee, grows along with the novel. I could ask for little more.


* Robert Heinlein, I’m looking at you, and in particular Stranger in a Strange Land, a novel that, while still not bad, is too philosophically simplistic and, by the end, silly. Every person in the novel but Mike is completely flat, and Mike only avoids that fate by being a symbolic repository for the feelings of all the flat characters. Even then, he’s not fully developed. It is possible to a symbolic repository and developed—think of Ahab in Moby Dick—but Mike isn’t even close. Nonetheless, I still retain a great deal of fondness for Stranger in a Strange Land, and it’s still enormously fun even when you’re rolling your eyes. 

** Much like Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

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