Steve Levine’s “The Powerhouse” and the Chevy Volt

The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War describes how we got to today’s electric cars, and it does so by following the vicissitudes of Argonne National Labs, which played a key role in battery development, as well as many of the scientists and players who help develop batteries. Much of the narrative structure comes from GM’s quest to build the Chevy Volt, a car that is amazing and widely underappreciated, because the conditions and assumptions that led to its development have changed.

In the late ’00s and early ’10s, almost no one foresaw the rise of fracking, which has put a lid on oil prices. If fracking hadn’t come along when it did, oil would probably be between $100 and $200 a barrel today, and GM wouldn’t be able to build enough Volts. GM’s management would look like geniuses. Instead, as has been widely reported, GM is closing a bunch of plants, likely including the one that makes Volts. People are short-sighted and, when gas prices fall, we buy bigger cars.

The Volt is neither as cheap as a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) car nor as interesting as an electric. It appears that most people want a pure electric or a conventional ICE car, and hybrids like the Volt are stuck in between. Most people don’t give a damn about climate change or Saudi and Russian repression, at least as measured by their behaviors when it comes to buying cars (You might argue that this is bad—I would—but, at least in terms of mass behavior, it’s true). Today, articles like, “Why Oil Prices Took Such a Tumble, and What Comes Next” are common:

It was only at the start of October that analysts were wondering if oil would soon cost $100 a barrel. Then a trap door opened and oil prices have been in a rapid descent since, losing nearly a third of their value in about eight weeks.

The spread of electric vehicles is also going to cap oil price rises. As prices rise, more people will shift towards electrics. But people who rag on the Volt don’t understand why it was green-lit in the first place, and they should read The Powerhouse. Aside from being an account of the Volt, The Powerhouse is about the way science and engineering actually get done. Those fields are rarely about single individuals and often about groups, companies, universities, and the interactions among the individuals that compose the larger structures. To be sure, individuals are important (John Goodenough is a battery hero, and there are many others named in the book), but we rarely succeed alone.

The Powerhouse has flaws, as a book. Its timeline jumps around, from chapter to chapter, at times. Most of its chapters are 800 – 2,000 words, a sign that many originated as blog posts or news stories, and their integration isn’t ideal. Levine is a working journalist and so may have had less time than he would have liked to complete the book. The acknowledgements page starts, “When I began to consider a book on batteries, the reception from friends and advisers was all but unanimous: don’t do it.” I’m glad he wrote the book and will recommend it, despite its firm place in a particular time and its structural challenges. Levine created a coherent story out of many disparate pieces, and that alone is admirable.

Where I’m Reading From — Tim Parks

Engagement with art, whether it is such a painting, or the interrelatedness of characters and environment in a novel, or the interplay of motifs in music, had the effect of countering what Bateson saw as our dangerous yearning to arrive at a crude understanding of the world and then intervene.

If that’s true, we ought to be thinking more about complex art and less about our “crude understanding” of how the world works; alas, Twitter and Facebook seem to push us towards crude and unusually incorrect understanding and away from real complexity. The quote is from Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books, a charming book full of similarly quotable and stimulating lines. It even stirs a very vague desire in me to read Thomas Hardy, despite many previous attempts, all ending in failure.

Little in the book is completely new but much of it is well-stated. Consider another claim, which I can’t decide to be true or false:

Identity is largely a question of the pattern of our responses when presented with a new situation, a new book. Certainly the idea of impartiality is a chimera. To be impartial about narrative would be to come from nowhere, to be no one.

If that is true, and it may be, perhaps we should learn from literature and Paul Graham to keep our identity small, so as to minimize the “pattern of our responses” and maximize our ability to see the true and/or new.

The Great Good Place — Roy Oldenburg

The Great Good Place is often dated but still interesting, and it’s highly congruent with Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression; Hari argues that one reason so many of us are anxious and depressed is that we’re spatially disconnected from other humans, and Oldenburg explains how that came to be—and how the physical space we inhabit affects us. Online life is a very poor substitute for in-person life, it seems, and articles like “Teenagers are growing more anxious and depressed” appear routinely. Friends who teach school say kids seem less able to handle their own lives and make independent decisions than the used to. While some of this may be “kids these days” grousing of the typical kind, at least some data indicates otherwise, and it may be that smartphones are bad for many reasons, like deleterious effects on relationships (an essay I wrote in 2012)—yet few of us will give them up or even significantly restrict usage. I have a smartphone too and annoy friends by being disconnected from it. Expected response times for texts seems overly low to me, but that seems to be the way the culture is moving. We’ve let phones replace places, and that’s not a good trade-off.

Our biggest barriers to good human space were and are legal and regulatory:

The preferred and ubiquitous mode of urban development is hostile to both walking and talking. In walking, people become part of their terrain; they become custodians of their neighborhoods. In talking, people get to know one another; they find and create their common interests and realize the collective abilities essential to community and democracy.

We take wealth and burn it through hellacious commutes: “The purchase of the even larger home on the even larger lot in the even more lifeless neighborhood is not so much a matter of joining community as retreating from it.” There are solutions, but they’re grasped tentatively and only with tremendous, pointless resistance. We can do better and choose not to.

Some challenges have gotten worse. Oldenburg anticipates the noise plague in today’s bars and restaurants:

Whatever interrupts conversation’s lively flow is ruinous to a third place, be it a bore, a horde of barbaric college students, or mechanical or electronic gadgetry. Most common among these is the noise that passes for music, though it must be understood that when conversation is to be savored, even Mozart is noise if played too loudly.

Vox says restaurant noise levels are climbing; excess noise seems to kill conviviality. Shouldn’t restaurants have figured this out? Or is Oldenburg, like me, just too far outside the mainstream for his view to matter? What should we infer from it is, rather than from what I want to be? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that I pick restaurants and bars based on noise, or the lack thereof.

To me, the most interesting chapter concerned German beer garden versus Irish taverns. In the late nineteenth century, there were two major models for what might now be called bars: German beer gardens that served low-alcohol beer (usually around 3%) and Irish taverns that served potent whiskey. The former catered to families and whole communities while the latter catered to men alone:

Yet it was the Irish model that eventually prevailed. America adapted itself only to the German national beverage; it kept the beer and dropped most of the amenities with which the Germans had surrounded it. The nation never seemed able to allow the concept of a good tavern, and people who cannot envisage good taverns are doomed to have lesser ones.

German beer gardens are probably the better, pro-social model, but they didn’t prevail, and I’m not entirely sure we know why, although Prohibition seems a major culprit.

Another section on the French cafe describes a largely solved problem: Starbucks, along with innumerable specialty coffee shops, solved it. What was a problem when The Great Good Place was published has become a business. Parking and zoning are still serious problems, but a dearth of coffee shops is not.

Third places are overly-idealized in this book (one could write a counter-book about why they’re bad), but it remains an interesting book with a useful set of concepts.

The Rub of Time — Martin Amis

Language is imprecise. Push words too far and they fall apart. This is annoying, for obvious reasons, but also interesting, for artistic ones, and Amis does “a great deal of polishing” in these pieces, “trying to make myself clearer, less ambiguous, and more precise.” And sometimes, I think, imprecise or allusive in interesting ways. As a writer he also confronts the way words also contain a lot of historical residue. Amis mentions Northrop Frye, “a literary philosopher-king to whom I owe fealty.” Fealty: a curious word associated with the Middle Ages and a set of social-economic circumstances that don’t exist in Western Europe or the United States anymore. I’m sure Amis knows it’s a curious word and one that does strange work, here. A lot of Amis words do strange work and that’s part of the reason we like him.

To me, if you’ve not read nonfiction Amis, you’re best off starting with The War Against Cliché, which changed the direction and tenor of my own work. My affection for War may be a historical accident: right work, right time, right mind for a major collision. But it may be that good, and it offers some context for The Rub of Time. The essay that most stands out to me may be the one on Larkin: suddenly, I want to read him, and that’s a great effect of a great essay. “No: Larkin is not a poet’s poet. He is of course a people’s poet, which is what he would have wanted. But he is also, definingly, a novelist’s poet. It is the novelists who revere him.” I’d never thought so. Yet now I do.

Amis gets humor: this will make his own work age well, I think, particularly in an age when momentary political rage too often replaces humor. The humorous Amis is not readily quotable, though, because he’s too contextual. On Twitter, rage seems more common than comedy, when in life the opposite seems true. The smartest people I know seem much fonder of comedy than outrage. And the replacement by outrage of comedy in contemporary universities seems one of their problems, and yet one that no one is doing anything to address. Comedy pierces conventional pieties, of the sort that seem very popular on campus.

Some essays are, in my view, wildly skippable—like the one on a Republican National Convention, or the Trump one. Both the RNC and Trump are fact-free zones; to the extent either generates what might be termed “ideas,” those ideas are too unmoored from something like reality to be worth considering. The best one can hope for regarding the current incarnation of the Republican party is resounding defeat in 2018 and 2020, which leads to a reformation. Then again, I would’ve hoped for the same in 2014 and 2016, by which point the madness in the party had manifested itself, and it didn’t happen. A million intellectually sophisticated essays have done near zero to affect voting outcomes. Which is disheartening to someone who likes writing and reading such essays: if an essay falls in a forest, and no one reads it, does it make a sound?

And some Amis essays are just dated. The porn industry moves fast, and “In Pornoland” is useful historically and to someone interested in the history of the industry, but given that it was published in 2000, it feels its age. The first four paragraphs are hilarious, though, and I won’t quote them so as to not spoil the effect.

Amis is a noticer in his fiction and a noticer in his nonfiction: it’s fun to see the expert doing his thing. He’s done the reading, like most people haven’t. He’s got the context for the reading. He writes that, “Accusing novelists of egotism is like deploring the tendency of champion boxers to turn violent.” He also acknowledges when things have changed. He wrote a long piece on the actor John Travolta, but the postscript notes that “As it turned out, Travolta’s resurgence lacked staying power.” Lacking staying power, however, “is not to be compared with the death of Jett Travolta, in 2009 (a seizure, related to his autism). Jett was 16.” That’s how the piece ends, now: with perspetive, which can sometimes be absent in writing about celebrities.

Amis makes me want to be a better writer. I hope he does the same for you.

Slutever — Karley Sciortino

This passage is representative of Slutever: Dispatches from a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World:

My first attempt at nonmonogamy was while I was living in London, soon after my relationship with Sam ended. I was twenty-three, and fell really hard for this beardy Scottish musician. He lived in Glasgow but came to London a couple times a month with his band. I met him while high on ecstasy at a squat rave, obviously.

“Obviously;” where else does one meet a beardy Scottish musician? I say it’s representative because of the odd, jangly alliteration, “was while I was,” which sounds not quite right, especially due to the repeat of the word “was;” the unneeded comma in the second sentence; and obviously that “obviously” at the end. But I still laughed, and laughter is probably the best test for a book like this. It’s easy to condemn the frequent use of “honestly,” “whatever,” and “obviously,” but try not to do that. Yes, you will read “shout out to Hester Prynne, OG high priestess of slut-shaming.” The jokes redeem the book and the language is part of the joke. People in coffee shops looked at me not just because of the book’s eye-catching cover but because I was laughing.

You will find paragraphs with incongruous markers stacked up against each other:

When I arrived at Colette and Dan’s beautiful hilltop home on a Saturday morning in the spring of 2016, Dan answered the door wearing silk pajama pants. “Colette’s in the orgy room, meditating,” he said with a smile. They’d hired a rent-a-shaman to come up from Mexico that afternoon, to dose a handful of their friends with a psychoactive toad venom containing the powerful hallucinogen 5-MeO-DMT, known to induce divine revelation or, in Colette’s words, “ego death.” (Think Ayahuasca but without the puking.)

Who hasn’t rented a shaman from Mexico for the afternoon? But this kind of repeated incongruity is what makes the memoir-manifesto novel—more novel than many superficially high-status novels. And despite the admiration for hallucinogens and their uses, Sciortino also makes fun of Burning Man, which is, I hear, ground zero for doing such things, or doing such things in large groups of collaborators.

Sciortino writes, “Like, my goal isn’t to be good or normal or accepted. My goal is to be free. (And maybe also to troll society a bit in the process, for good measure).” Yet I wonder what freedom is; I used to think I knew and now I’m not so sure.

Slutever is not for all of you who may be reading this, but it is for some of you, and probably for more of you than you’d admit in a public setting.

Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy — Mark Regnerus

Cheap Sex is more useful, interesting, and informative than many books on the same or adjacent topics, and it pairs nicely with Date-onomics. The books can be read as differing reactions to similar social phenomenon on the ground, with the latter having a more left-wing tilt that nonetheless describes how people should pragmatically react to current conditions, while the former has a more right-wing tilt that nonetheless describes how these conditions came to be. We live in an age in which everyone is outraged or offended by something; when you find something that outrages or offends you, leave a note in the comments. You may find that cathartic.

Although neither book makes this point, I think they’re part of the continuing social reaction to the Industrial Revolution. “What,” you might be thinking, “does the Industrial Revolution have to do with contemporary books on love, marriage, and dating?” Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most societies were (relatively) stable most of the time, at least for the duration of a human life; the technological and social conditions one’s parents faced were likely the same an individual would face and the same that individual’s children would face. Cultural and technological change was of course real for much of human history, but it was also relatively slow, allowing people to acclimate to it over generations instead of years or decades.

Since the Industrial Revolution, though, we’ve seen technologies that radically and repeatedly reshape the technological and social worlds. This leads to periodic moral panics, especially but not exclusively around sexuality and religion, in part because we never get a chance to get used to new technologies.

(It’s hard to think of a single book that summarizes the Industrial Revolution; Joel Mokyr has some, Deidre McCloskey has others).

Today, we’re still grappling with the reshaping of society due to pretty reliable contraception. In some ways we’ve had pretty reliable contraception for a very long time (since the ’60s), but in the view of human history, or even human history since the 1750s, we’ve had it a very short time. We’ve spent pretty much the entirety of human evolution without pretty reliable contraception, and that’s shaped our minds, our bodies, our societies, and our practices. And it’s still reshaping all of those things, without most of us stopping to think about what it all means to look at these things in the course of a very wide and long history.

That’s part of what Regnerus is doing. The present moment is the product of a whole lot of past, most of which most of us don’t think about most of the time. But a lot of our current conflicts come from past conflicts that we don’t fully understand. And he’s pointing to that history, when he writes in subheaders about “The transformation of intimacy.” Or when he writes about the “obsession of romance among many, and yet stability seems increasingly elusive.” At the same time, “the ramifications of cheaper sex are just beginning to unfold on a panoramic scale.”

No wonder people are confused. For most of human history, cultural notions around sexuality have been pretty stable. Now they’re incredibly unstable and we’re all making things up as we go along and responding to technologies that have unpredictable consequences.

Regnerus may not be right about many of his conclusions, but he is thinking differently and also not stupidly, which is valuable in and of itself.

I’m also not sure how much you can trust the book’s conclusions, as many are drawn from “nationally representative survey data” as well as “in-person interviews,” the problem being that people notoriously lie in surveys, especially about sensitive subjects, and the same biases occur in in-person interviews. Those weaknesses are part of the reason why books like A Billion Wicked Thoughts, Dataclysm, and Everybody Lies are so interesting: rather than relying on the surveys in which everybody lies, they look at revealed preferences in the form of data from the Internet (and online dating itself).

Cheap Sex itself is written competently but not beautifully. You will not stop to admire individual sentences, and that’s why I’ve not quoted much from it so far. Read it for the knowledge, not the prose. Like many academic books (this one is published by Oxford) it has its share of “You don’t say?” statements, like, “When it comes to relational happiness, then, sexual frequency is neither necessary nor sufficient, but it is certainly a net positive for most.” “A net positive:” really? I’m shocked! I would never have guessed.

But it also has its moments of humor, as when an interviewee discusses at length his own romantic dilemmas and then Regnerus writes, “After we turned off the microphone at the end of the interview, Brent asked if we though the and Betsy should break up. (We declined to respond).”

There are also moments I’m still mulling and don’t yet understand:

Meant to be a “haven in a heartless world,” as the late social critic Christopher Lasch described it, marriage is fast becoming a contest, another tenuous social arena in competition with the economic marketplace (for our limited time and energy) and the remarriage market (for second chances and variety).

A “haven in a heartless world:” Regnerus implies here and elsewhere in the book that maybe there isn’t such a place. I’m not arguing that he’s right. But I don’t see a compelling reason he isn’t.

iGen — Jean M. Twenge: The kids aren’t all right?

It’s somewhat hard for me to love iGen because it fits the overall genre of “the kids are going to hell,” even if the author is savvy to that very problem and disavows it in the intro. I’m also now just old enough to no longer be part of the kids but not so old that I’ve forgotten all those “Oh my god the teens!” stories that described me as a teenager and college student.

In grad school, one of my professors had a book that assembled early reactions to the novel, which from the late 18th Century until close to the 20th Century was seen as depraved, a waste of time, a waste of talent, and morally corrupting. In other words, an activity that we now perceive as pretty high status was then seen as very low status, which often caused young men to be lazy and dissolute and young women to be morally impure. Corruption was clear and it came from words.

Oddly, in some ways those early criticisms were right, just too early: as a society we have largely secularized, and, although I wouldn’t lay all or even most of the reason why on the novel as a genre, it likely played a role by more freely disseminating information and letting people think for themselves, rather than having the clergy do all the thinking and information dissemination from the pulpit. When you let people think and read for themselves, many of them become less enamored of tedious religious works and the fellows who interpret those religious works to mean that giving to the church is good and sex is bad—very, very bad.

Today the smartphone is the great bugaboo of the age and we’ve not figured out how it ought to be integrated into society. Among my own peer group it’s now somewhat common to have phone-free parties, the better to be in the moment and avoid incriminating next-morning evidence, but it’s still common to lay a phone face-up on a table over coffee or drinks. But smartphone cultural practices haven’t really firmed up and smartphones have apparently taken over the lives of the Youth. The skeptical word “apparently” probably isn’t needed in the preceding sentence, because Twenge has lots of data demonstrating it.

One of the many admirable things about the book is how data-driven it is. Data, plus mostly avoiding the “The kids are going to hell” stuff, makes the book wildly readable and interesting. Still, not everyone is convinced; here’s one writer’s context and here’s another’s, arguing that smartphones aren’t actually destroying a generation.

The strange thing to me about constant smartphone life is that it seems so boring. Maybe from the inside it’s better. It’s all communication and little if any content underneath that communication. So much chatter and so little to say. Boredom as a theme runs through the book:

More and more teens are leaving high school never having had a paying job, driven a car by themselves, gone out on a date, had sex, or tried alcohol.

Sounds like a boring life. But it may also be a cheap one. Smartphone use may have deleterious effects but it’s also pretty cheap; once you have the phone and the data, marginal use is nearly free. So cost-effectiveness may drive smartphone obsession too, although Twenge doesn’t say it explicitly. Still, at some point I think even teenagers should get exhausted with relentless texting about nothing and want to go do things in the real world. Everyone feels left out but no one does anything about it.

Still, leading a boring life is not unique to this generation, although it’s wasting time online instead of wasting it on TV. For many decades, the average American watched four to five hours of TV a night—a terrible waste, it seems to me, especially given how much space was dedicated to commercials, but that’s what people did and what many people continue to do. If you have a choice of wasting time via TV or smartphone, smartphone seems like a marginal win.

Most likely, I think, teenagers are wasting most of their time, like most teenagers of most developed countries of most of the last hundred or so years, and will probably quit it when they have to pay their own rent.

Yet knowledge of smartphone problems seems also to widespread:

iGen’ers are addicted to their phones, and they know it. Many also know it’s not entirely a good thing. It’s clear that most teens (and adults) would be better off if they spent less time with screens. “Social media is destroying our lives,” one teen told Nancy Jo Sales in her book American Girls. “So why don’t you go off it?” Sales asked. “Because then we would have no life,” the girl said.

That seems unlikely, but logic is tough and most people’s revealed preferences show phone love. Apparently the data show that iGen is “at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011.” I wonder if something has really changed, or if something has changed regarding the self-reporting that people do. Perhaps it’s now more socially acceptable to report depression, in surveys or to doctors and others.

We get similar data later in the book: “Nevertheless, the case highlights a nationwide problem: the often inadequate resources for mental health assistance on campus.” If mental health assistance is inadequate today, when was it adequate? Why? What’s changed? And are we looking historically and cross culturally? In 1942 – 45, American men of college age were mostly fighting the Nazis and Japanese and probably also had inadequate mental health resources. Today, Kurdish teenagers fight ISIS. Because someone has a worse problem than you do doesn’t invalidate the problem, but there’s a startling lack of context to assertions like these; if the problem is the phone, turn off the phone.

This generation is supposed to be more inclusive by some measures, which I can believe, but I doubt it’s more inclusive overall; instead I suspect it’s going to be as exclusive as any generation, just based on different criteria. What those criteria are I can’t say, but I’m sure they’ll be there.

I’ve chatted a lot with a friend who grew up in the center of Gen X, and he remembers a generation that, according to the media, was filled with druggie dropouts who totally lack ambition. Those same people are now in the middle of their lives and seem to be fine, with reasonably normal distributions, and most of them seem to do what most people end up doing: getting a job and having kids. The dropouts of the late 80s and early 90s are the dads and moms of today.

One interesting thing for readers of this blog: it seems that iGen teens are “less likely to read than teens of previous eras:”

In the late 1970s, the clear majority of teens read a book or magazine nearly every day, but by 2015, only 16% did. In other words, three times as many Boomers as iGen’ers read a book or magazine every day.

You can quibble with that particular metric but Twenge presents others. Moreover:

Perhaps this move away from print is innocuous, especially if teens are still keeping up their academic skills. But they are not: SAT scores have slid since the mid-2000s, especially in writing (a 13-point decline since 2006) and critical reading (a 13-point decline since 2005).

This is echoed by 2007 article “Twilight of the Books.” One fast trick I use in assessing student writing skills is simple: I ask students to write their favorite book on an index card and why that book is a favorite. Answers tend to correlate to reading and writing skills.

Still, when I was in high school I liked to read and was mostly looked at as a weirdo for enjoying reading. In college I read Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man during a summer when I was a lifeguard, and the other lifeguards thought it weird that I’d laugh because of a book. So while the data may point to a decline in reading, I’m not sure that the overall social situation has changed too much.

Mostly, I wonder what will happen to iGen’ers as they age. The empty-headed seem to have a harder and harder time the older they get and the more the structures that define high school and college fall away. But that too may have been true for a long time: people who try new things and continually learn and grow tend to have better lives than those who don’t.

Recommendations like this: “I believe textbooks also need to stop covering so many topics in so much detail” seem unlikely to help people develop personalities or reading skills. That is a real quote, by the way: it’s on page 308. Twenge qualifies it in the rest of the paragraph, but the real world remains complex and trying to simplify it for the militantly ignorant will not help them or human understanding of the world. Ignorance is a condition we ought to aspire to cure, not perpetuate.

Still, I have seen arguments like this one since forever:

When I’ve polled my students about how they’d prefer to spend class time, most have said they are fine with lectures as long as they convey information that is helpful to doing well on exams. They like discussion but don’t want it to take too much time away from learning the material they’ll be tested on.

Lectures have always been terrible ways of conveying information; they were just technologically expedient for much of human history, and jettisoning them will lose little. Still, when students are very much focused on exam or paper grades, I often like to ask: What’s the point of doing well on the paper? Usually the answer is “to do well in class,” and so on, but if one extends far enough outward the more interesting answers start to pop up.

Bottom line is that the book is interesting but ought to be read skeptically. Overall I’m happy to have read it and read the whole thing carefully, which isn’t so common. It’s fun to imagine how this book will appear 50 years from now, when someone being born today might write about it. I imagine a historian or social critic who analyzes it as a document of its times, when those times and the processes immediately roiling the present have passed. Most of the books about the horrors of the generations that came of age in the 60s or 70s now look at least a little hysterical. From the vantage of 50 years later, I suspect this generation will look like it turned out okay too.

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