Links: The color of money, social justice nonsense, the shape of the city, and more!

* “When Bitcoin Grows Up,” which also covers what money is, what it might be, and the future of money.

* Parents Are Bankrupting Themselves to Look Adequate; or, more Theory of the Leisure Class. Or Max Weber. The drive to compete is hard to understate.

* “What the ‘Freedom’ of a Car Means to Me in a City Where Everyone Drives: Compared to the subway I was used to, driving in Seattle was freeing—but it was also lonely.”

* “The Tools of Campus Activists Are Being Turned Against Them,” which makes sense and is compatible with my argument in “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.”

* Obvious, but: “National HPV vaccination program would provide big benefits.” I have a jones for the good news that gets overlooked.

* “Trains in space,” a more interesting piece than you’re imagining.

* Fantastic news: SpaceX undercut ULA rocket launch pricing by 40 percent: U.S. Air Force.

* “Unnatural Selection: What will it take to save the world’s reefs and forests?

Links: Matthew Weiner, the book biz, fear, drunk consultants, adjuncts, “involuntary celibates,” and more

* A brilliant Paris Review interview with Mad Men screenwriter Matthew Weiner; recommended even for those who don’t like the show.

* “Can Authors Make Money Selling Books?” On some level the answer is obviously “yes,” but the industry’s economics aren’t especially well known.

* Deeply chilling sentences.

* Someone found this blog by searching for “drunk consultants.”

* “The Adjunct Revolt;” the day we see colleges unable to find adjuncts to hire is the day we’ll see improved wages and working conditions. Why do posts like this get published without any reference to “supply” and “demand?”

* “How Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future: The literary genre isn’t meant to predict the future, but implausible ideas that fire inventors’ imaginations often, amazingly, come true.”

* Elizabeth Bear on knowledge in pre-modern society; I ordered the first book.

* “Confessions of a Reformed InCel [“Involuntary Celibate”];” reading this is brutal.

How I learned about assertiveness and reality from being a consultant

Like many people with such businesses, some friends with a design consulting business say they’re getting jerked around by potential clients. While they’re worried about offending potential clients and don’t want to lose the business, they also don’t like being plied for free samples and they don’t like long conversations that aren’t likely to go anywhere. In the course of talking to them, I realized that they’re discovering that the lessons they’ve taken from school and every day life are wrong or at least not optimal. So I described my own experiences as a consultant and how that taught me about reality and money.

A lot of us—including me—are told from an early age to be polite, take turns, be considerate of other people’s feelings, etc. This is good advice in many but not all circumstances. Among friends you do  want to take turns and reciprocate interests and be warm to other people who are warm. That’s how you build lasting friendship networks. In the business / consultant worlds, however, being overly polite and considerate often leads other people to take advantage of you. Consultants need one very important skill: they need to figure out who is going to give them money and who isn’t. They need to do so relatively quickly. Clients often press to get as much free stuff—often in the form of time and opinions that should cost hundreds of dollars an hour—as they can. They lose nothing by dallying and often gain stuff. Consultants need to learn the killer instinct necessary to know when to stop and say “send me a contract and check or don’t call me until you want to.” Almost all successful consultant learn how to do this and learn when to say no.

(c) Victor WeFoto.com

(c) Victor WeFoto.com

“Talk is cheap” is a cliché for a reason: it doesn’t mean anything. Any talk that’s not a billable hour should be leading, rapidly, to a billable hour. At some point—a point sooner than most novices realize—it’s time to pay or go away. Money talks and isn’t cheap: I’ve been on numerous calls about “collaborations” and what not, when the real thing happens is through subcontracts. I learned to end vapid conversations about “collaboration” that don’t go anyway. Show me the money, or it doesn’t exist.

Someone who wants to hire you knows relatively quickly whether they want to hire you. Anything other than “yes” means “no.” “Maybe” means no. “Later” means no. That’s a hard thing for many of us to accept. My parents founded Seliger + Associates 20 years ago and they learned, the hard way, about how potential clients dangle work that never arrives and waste a lot of valuable time and energy. That means consultants have to get to “no.”

Getting to “no” is actually quite useful and a big improvement over a nebulous maybe. Attention is often your most valuable resource. Don’t let it dissipate over weak leads.

Drawing a clear line can actually turn some “maybes” in “yeses.” Clients will respect you more if you eventually stop negotiating, talking, or communicating unless they pay.

Because of the issues described in the paragraphs above, anyone experienced learns when to stop talking and say “money or nothing.” That means continuing to flirt without cash in hand is also a signal of being inexperienced. The line between being brusque and being direct is thin but when it doubt err on the side of directness rather than meekness.

Directness can actually be a kind of politeness. “Professional courtesy” has an adjective before “courtesy” because it’s different from regular courtesy. Professional courtesy indicates that there’s a different way of being courteous than the conventional way, and one aspect of professional courtesy is there to avoid time wasting people.

That being said, it can be worth exploring new ventures even when those new ventures aren’t immediately remunerative. But money and contracts separate exploration from reality.

These lessons aren’t only applicable to consultant. They apply to almost any form of business and for that matter in dating: if she says “I like you but not in that way,” she means no. I think men tend to learn this faster then women do, in part  because men usually conduct the initial approach to women for dating and sex. There are of course exceptions to this, but as a general principle it holds.[1]

(c) looking4poetry

(c) looking4poetry

My friends are women, and from what I’ve observed guys in their teens have to learn to approach women and risk rejection if they’re going to get anywhere, and a lot of women wait for guys to approach them.

Consequently, guys who want to get anywhere have to get used to rejection in a way a lot of women don’t, and that socialization is probably part of the reason why women like Sheryl Sandberg write books like Lean In. Men figure out relatively early that they have to lean in—or suffer. Like a lot of guys I spent time suffering. I also learned, however, that with women too anything other than “yes” means “no” and that I should move on quickly. Sticking around to beg and plead only worsens the situation.

Disengagement is underrated. In many endeavors one important ingredient in success is fire and motion.


[1] See Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller’s book Mate for a long description of how and why men tend to initially approach women (giving men the choice of who to approach), women tend to accept or decline sex (giving women the choice of saying yes or no) and men tend to accept or reject long-term relationships (giving men the choice of say yes or no to becoming “official” or “married” or otherwise socially sanctioned).

You may think these principles are bogus or unfair, which is fine, and if you want to change society itself, I wish you luck, but you should at least know they exist. Even among my female friends who identify as hard-core feminists, very rarely will make the initial approach to men in a sex / dating context.

We all have value systems, even if dollars aren’t their main currency

In Robert Skidelsky’s Econtalk interview, he mentions that we get restless if we have nothing to do, and there’s a certain amount of insatiability that appears built into the human condition. He’s referencing money, but it made me realize something: academics and intellectuals are restless and insatiable too, but they don’t use conventional currency: they use citation counts and perceived intellectual influence. They aren’t (mostly) acquisitively forward-looking, but they are interested in writing more and more, in order to have a greater and greater reputation.

Skidelsky’s most recent book is How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, and in it he evidently discusses the idea of material good saturation, which is, I suspect, a topic that’s going to become more and more interesting over the course of my life. Most of us, as he points out and he points out that Keynes pointed out, reach a point of diminishing returns when it comes to goods and many other things: having a working car is very valuable to many of us, but having a $100,000 car is less so. Having a computer is very valuable, but having the latest model is less so. But we’re still working quite hard for goods that might not be valuable enough.

I leave it to the reader’s imagination to apply how the previous paragraph might be applied to academics or intellectuals, for whom it seems there is never enough respect go around.

Skidelsky’s point about work is especially interesting to me because I’m a person who has been working, so to speak, to make the kind of “work” that I do fun—at which point it’s not really onerous. I wonder if that kind of move is the future of work. We also get a certain amount of satisfaction from doing a thing well, and perhaps that will drive us, collectively, even in the face of not needing to do certain things to the extent that we need to do them now.

Links: The time for novels, technology in universities, programming and writing, academia, and more

* Zoe Williams: No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis? When our daily news is apocalyptic, it’s irresponsible to read made-up stories. It’s time to start reading the serious stuff instead. Fortunately, people have been castigating fiction for as long as there has been fiction in any meaningful sense of the word.

* University of Virginia President Teresa “Sullivan has an ambitious plan to retool introductory courses as ‘hybrids,’ replacing much of the human labor with technology and freeing professors to focus on higher-level classes. Her initiative would go further than most elite universities have dared in replacing human instructors with software.” Having both listened to my students talk about what intro-level courses are like at the University of Arizona and having experienced the distinctly not useful aspects of many of the intro-level courses at Clark University, I can’t see a huge problem with trying these ideas: at the moment, such courses appear to largely be a way of collecting tuition, rather than imparting real knowledge. Many of my students say intro math and science courses at the U of A are so bad that the students prefer taking them at community colleges, if possible, and the intro humanities courses are often “taught” in lecture halls with hundreds or more than a thousand students nominally taking them at once.

(Hat tip Marginal Revolution.)

* “The Frisson of Friction: An undergraduate tries a challenging introductory programming course.” I find this especially poignant, given what I do: “Last I checked, there are just over 100 users of my [Chrome] extension. This is far fewer than the number of people using the most popular extension (AdBlock, with 1,626,216 users at that point), but also far more than the number of people who usually read my papers (my TF, 1).”

* Margaret Atwood answers questions on Reddit.

* On Leaving Academia. Notice too the discussion on Hacker News, including perverse publication incentives.

* Sexual harassment is not like employee theft. Notice this: “There’s a trade-off between preventing unwanted advances and preventing wanted advances – and there’s no reason to choose a corner solution. Treating harassment complaints as seriously as employee theft complaints is simply bad for business. You might make a few puritan workers happy, but what about everybody else?”

I found this, from Tim Parks’s “Does Money Make Us Write Better?“, interesting:

When they are starting out writers rarely make anything at all for what they do. I wrote seven novels over a period of six years before one was accepted for publication. Rejected by some twenty publishers that seventh eventually earned me an advance of £1,000 for world rights. Evidently, I wasn’t working for money. What then? Pleasure? I don’t think so; I remember I was on the point of giving up when that book was accepted. I’d had enough. However much I enjoyed trying to get the world into words, the rejections were disheartening; and the writing habit was keeping me from a “proper” career elsewhere.

John Barth and William Goldman almost quit too. How many others have? I don’t want to be one of them. And I bet I can make more than £1,000, though I don’t know how long ago Parks began writing: adjusted for inflation, £1,000 might be a lot of money.

* Charter schools raise educational standards for vulnerable children.

Even nuns work towards status: an example from Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology

In recent years Evangeline had been assigned to work in the St. Rose library as assistant to her prayer partner, Sister Philomena. It was an unglamorous position to be sure, not at all as high-profile as working in the Mission Office or assisting in Recruitment, and it had none of the rewards of charity work. As if to emphasize the lowly nature of the position, Evangeline’s office was located in the most decrepit part of the convent, a drafty section of the first floor down the hall from the library itself, with leaky pipes and Civil War-era windows, a combination that led to dampness, mold, and an abundance of head colds each winter.

That’s from page nine of Angelology (which isn’t very good overall). Even nuns have hierarchies, which might not involve money, but they nonetheless involve what the organization is designed to optimize—in this case, conspicuous charitability. But Evangeline doesn’t have that option: she has an “unglamorous position” that she appears to know is unglamorous, and the position doesn’t even have “the rewards of charity work,” which presumably include the recognition on the part of those being helped that you are helping them, or, if those being helped feel resentful or ashamed, the sense that one is able to rise above the circumstances. But books aren’t people and can’t provide the recognition that people can.

And the office itself is “located in the most decrepit part of the convent,” yet Evangeline doesn’t gain recognition from other nuns for the hardship that entails—including “dampness” and “mold,” although the “abundance of head colds” is a mistake on the part of either Evangeline, through free indirect speech, or Trussoni, since colds come from viruses, not from temperature drops. Still, the overall effect of privation without the recognition that would make up for the privation is apparent, as is the fact that money isn’t the primary mover of status in the nuns’ economy or society: it’s something else, something more vital to the organization’s purpose.

Even nuns work towards status: an example from Danielle Trussoni's Angelology

In recent years Evangeline had been assigned to work in the St. Rose library as assistant to her prayer partner, Sister Philomena. It was an unglamorous position to be sure, not at all as high-profile as working in the Mission Office or assisting in Recruitment, and it had none of the rewards of charity work. As if to emphasize the lowly nature of the position, Evangeline’s office was located in the most decrepit part of the convent, a drafty section of the first floor down the hall from the library itself, with leaky pipes and Civil War-era windows, a combination that led to dampness, mold, and an abundance of head colds each winter.

That’s from page nine of Angelology (which isn’t very good overall). Even nuns have hierarchies, which might not involve money, but they nonetheless involve what the organization is designed to optimize—in this case, conspicuous charitability. But Evangeline doesn’t have that option: she has an “unglamorous position” that she appears to know is unglamorous, and the position doesn’t even have “the rewards of charity work,” which presumably include the recognition on the part of those being helped that you are helping them, or, if those being helped feel resentful or ashamed, the sense that one is able to rise above the circumstances. But books aren’t people and can’t provide the recognition that people can.

And the office itself is “located in the most decrepit part of the convent,” yet Evangeline doesn’t gain recognition from other nuns for the hardship that entails—including “dampness” and “mold,” although the “abundance of head colds” is a mistake on the part of either Evangeline, through free indirect speech, or Trussoni, since colds come from viruses, not from temperature drops. Still, the overall effect of privation without the recognition that would make up for the privation is apparent, as is the fact that money isn’t the primary mover of status in the nuns’ economy or society: it’s something else, something more vital to the organization’s purpose.

The Secret Currency of Love — Hilary Black

A Time magazine interview called “The Truth About Women, Money and Relationships” with Hilary Black, the editor of The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships inspired me to buy the deceptively titled book, which has little if any truth in it and no useful financial advice save that it’s not a bad idea to play defensively with one’s cash, lest it come to affect other aspects of one’s life. As Terry Teachout recently quoted from Dickens’ David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Black solicited essays about money from a bunch of women and published the results, which are less than the sum of their parts. The confessional tone man adopt often seems forced, as one’s partner might after having paid for an hour or two of time, and the reductive nature of the problems—am I selling out? If so, should I? And why is it so nice to sell out?—grates by halfway through; you’re better off reading the interview and skipping the book, thus avoiding the trap I fell into. Black says, “One thing I noticed over the many years I worked at More was that although people often wrote about divorce and Botox and sex, they didn’t really talk about money in a way that was as profound or exploratory.” That’s still true. To read profound and exploratory discussions about money, try Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. Or, hell, try Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Martin Amis’ Money, which tell you more about the issue through fiction than The Secret Currency of Love does through superficial fact.

The openings of two essays might help convey the genteel banality, which smother, like wrapper over an eggroll, the insight that genuinely exists in sections of The Secret Currency of Love:

I didn’t have a regular cleaning lady until I was thirty-seven years old. I would have loved to be free of the daily drudgery of sweeping, dusting, and the Saturday scrubbing of the toilet, but paying another person to clean up my mess felt wrong. Overindulgent. Spoiled. Excessively first world.

(Ah, the joys of wealth: worrying about how one’s wealth functions on a symbolic level more than on a practical level. Is the overly examined life really worth living?)

Some women wake up at forty-five and realize they forgot to have children. I realized I forgot to make money.
I’ve never given much though to personal finance. Truth be told, it hasn’t been a serious problem: I’m grateful I’ve never had to worry about having enough or finding a place to sleep. Nor has money ever been a major goal, accomplishment, or dirty secret: I did not get an M.B.A. or go public with a company, and I don’t worry about having to hide my wealth for fear of attracting the wrong friends.

Another woman opens with a generic-seeming description of a playdate for a son at a new school, only to find that the friend’s family is loaded to the point of Google-level wealth. And it’s hard to care about another fish out of water story, or another story about the tortures of picking between money and love. Although each essay is well-written in a way that lets the seams show, many authors tell tales of financial deprivation by way of their profession, since writers are not as a rule remunerated highly. Consequently, I begin to suspect a sample bias problem: writers are, tautologically, better at writing than most people; the editor needs writers to fill a book about money; therefore, the nature of the people who offer their services affects the content even more than usual. Writers are often conflicted about commerce and thus are more likely to feel the schism when others would simply take the money—or not. And many of the contributors have absorbed the idea that writing in an unheated garret is romantic and that money is corrupting, which makes their relationships to money more tortured that those relationships perhaps need to be.

This essay’s tone is critical, and perhaps overly so, since The Secret Currency of Love is nonetheless instructive in showing that many people, even the wannabe bohemians, have more uncertainty about how income shapes us than they might admit under other circumstances. It would be nice to have enough money to live above it, like someone who has taken their company public or someone who has inherited enough not worry, but even that is fraught with intellectual and perhaps corrupting peril.

There are clever bits, which come chiefly at the beginning, when the repetitiveness of the problems suffered hasn’t yet drawn one’s attention to where the next essay starts rather than where this one is going, as when Abby Ellin writes:

In other words, I live life on my own terms.
The only problem with this lifestyle is that “freedom” is generally just another word for “nothing left to deposit.”

In which case, are you really free? I get the sense that one is paging Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own. More recently than Woolf, Philip Greenspun dealt with the same issue in his unfair but still fascinating essay “Women in Science:”

In the personal domain, young people are very different from old people. If you interview old people and ask “What are the greatest sources of satisfaction and happiness in your life?” almost always the answer “my children” comes back. At the age when people are choosing careers, the idea of having children is often unappealing and certainly few have the idea that one should choose a “kid-friendly” career. Old people, on average, also have higher income requirements than young people. A youngster is happy to backpack around the globe, stay in youth hostels for $20 per night, and sleep in a tent. Most oldsters become devoted to their creature comforts and get cranky in anything less than $200 per night private hotel room. Young people don’t mind one $400 per month room in a dingy 4BR apartment shared with three or four other young people; most oldsters need their own apartment or house (edging up towards $1 million in America’s nicer neighborhoods).

The long blockquote might seem irrelevant, but because of the age of the contributors to The Secret Currency of Love, I suspect that their choices in career and other terms have come to seem less sagacious in retrospect than they were at the time such choices were made. Hence the fear of penury, the desire for a family, and the fact that, as Greenspun says elsewhere, “Any resource that is scarce, such as real estate, is snapped up by society’s economic winners.” Writers are seldom among that group.

Alas: I suspect that reading Greenspun’s essay along with a regular dose of The Atlantic would be more instructive and insightful regarding money, as well as innumerable other subjects,than The Secret Currency of Love. Don’t be fooled by an alluring topic—underneath its cosmetic marketing, the book is fundamentally shallow.

Barney’s Version — Mordecai Richler

Barney’s Version isn’t always clear or pretty, whether he’s portraying himself, his friends, his quasi-loves—whether Barney genuinely loved anyone aside from himself is uncertain, with claims otherwise of dubious merit—and his enemies. These categories blend into one another with alarming and realistic regularity. The novel is also seriously fun rather than funnily serious, in the tradition of excessive, bombastic, narcissistic personalities too eccentric for politics but otherwise cut out for that field, like the narrators of Martin Amis’ Money and many of Saul Bellow’s novels, but most notable Seize the Day and Herzog.

Social impropriety binds those characters together and is abundant in Barney’s Version. In a rare moment, Barney Charnofsky is “Bingeing on respectability, I was not determined to prove to Clara’s ghost that I could play the nice middle-class Jewish boy better than she had ever dreamed.” He fails, and trying to prove anything to a ghost is ridiculous, but I love the inversion of the typical mode of bingeing as negative, recalling Richard Feynman’s comment, “So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility […] It’s made me a very happy man ever since.”

One character says to Barney, “Now will you please be quiet and stop making an exhibition of yourself.” He doesn’t, of course, since he’s spent his entire life making an exhibition of himself, perhaps explaining the irritation verging on envy that he feels toward a successful acquittance. Barney says of him, “But, after all these years as a flunk, my old friend and latter-day nemesis has acquired a small but vociferous following, CanLit apparatchiks to the fore.” I wonder what he would think of me becoming such an apparatchik by way of coming to Barney’s Version through the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, Eh?. Nonetheless, publicity, however minor, on my part gives Barney more of a chance to make an exhibit of himself.

He doesn’t do so in a simple manner, either. Chapter four begins by saying, “What follows appears to be yet another digression.” The whole novel is a digression—this post mimics its structure—which makes a certain amount of sense because most people’s entire lives are one long digression, or a series of them, and the narrative cohesion usually given to them by biography and the like is more an effort to impose order on chaos, like selecting a line to fit to a series of data points regardless of whether the line has any meaning.* For such a novel to work, it must nonetheless tell a story with some kind of beginning, middle, and end, even if those elements aren’t in their usual order, and Barney’s Version succeeds as a novel despite and because of its narrator’s protestations.

We’re also not sure when to trust Barney, especially because a would-be editor keeps inserting footnotes. Elsewhere, Miriam, the perhaps love of Barney’s life, says “I believe you,” when Barney denies killing his somewhat friend who might’ve slept with his second wife and might’ve been set-up to do so by Barney himself as a way of getting Barney a divorce (got all that?). He says, ” ‘I’ll be out of here in a week,’ […] hoping that saying it aloud would render it true.” Many of his hopes are improbably rendered true, and his belief in his own belief is somewhat perplexing. As for Miriam, believing a liar might also not be a great idea, but then Miriam might not know Barney’s a liar, or she merely expressing optimism to a man she doubts. It’s not clear what. A lot of Barney’s Version is humorously unclear. In other words, you get a lot of narrative play and epistemological complexity among your laughs. If there’s a better way to get said fiber, I’m not sure of it, and I like mine with sugar much more than vinegar. Life, after all, is pretty funny, and seeing that reflected in books is a relief. Mild offense sometimes blends into hilarious social commentary, as when lawyers are “[…] perhaps mollified because parents of the accused had promised to endow a chair of visible-minority social studies at the college.” That could be a line from Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. Later, we find in Barney’s Version:

I don’t hold with shamans, witch doctors, or psychiatrists. Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or even Dickens understood more about the human condition than ever occurred to any of you.

Usually the third in that opening series isn’t placed with the other two, but the structure is an effective way to express Barney’s low opinion of someone trying to help him. Fortunately, the psychiatrist doesn’t take much offense, as Barney has low opinions of many people, places, and professions, as well as, at times, himself. He also demonstrates obvious allusions in a novel filled with them, some subtle and some not, and his ability to go from hockey to Shakespeare and back impresses. Speaking of hockey, at one point a long-winded girlfriend causes him to start reading about sport in lieu of her, a feeling I remember well, as when I found myself in such a similar low-signal-to-noise-ratio circumstance, the New Yorker was my outlet of preference, causing a roommate to remark once, “I could tell you were on the phone with her because normally I hear you talking.”

I’m tempted to go on about Barney’s Version—there’s a murder plot, an unreliably unreliable narrator, jokes from fading memory, an intrusive editor, family squabbles, drinking problems/solutions, none of which have been fully discussed in this sketch of a sketch—and the more I consider it, the more I realize its easily missed depth and the more I’m inclined to recommend it, given its paradoxical ability to be both light and heavy at the same time, like a character who’s finally reconciled The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Barney’s Version has the magic of a novel that wiggles out of description with such finesse that I barely realize what’s happened, and I’m not reading about the world, but Barney’s version of it.


* Alain de Botton’s fabulous Kiss & Tell is the most successful mockery of biography I’ve read. It also comes with the sanction of the American lit apparatchiks, who put it on my senior year AP English test.

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