Briefly noted: The Devil’s Candy, Maigret and the Old People, Fantastic Fungi

* I was looking for a book and not finding any to satisfaction, so I grabbed The Devil’s Candy, which is still great, and it’s also refreshingly devoid of PC nonsense. It’s the story of the making of Bonfire of the Vanities, the movie, which details how no single decision is bad, exactly, yet the accretion of good-seeming-at-the-time decisions leads to a bad movie. It’s got lots of droll humor, like a visit to the American Film Institute’s (AFI) annual tribute dinner, where “Occasionally the bold experimenters honored there [by the AFI members] were in the odd position of accepting praise from the very people who had ruined their careers, the studio executives who pretended to admire daring films but didn’t want to finance them.” Today, cameras are digital, but little seems to have changed. Hollywood is supine to China and Netflix exists, but the basic story shape remains.

* The Dutch House by Ann Patchett; this book is almost relentlessly boring, yet I kept reading for some reason. It’s more family saga, blah blah blah, lots of feelings, I guess. The sort of book that explains why murder stories are so popular; one years for darkness, intrigue, a knife in the back, shocking and horrible family secrets (what is the real relationship between Maeve and the narrator?), but all we get is dribs and drabs of things.

* Fantastic Fungi, edited by Paul Stamets: Think of it as a collection of mushroom photography, though it has many short essays too. Speaking of forest ecology and the relationship of mushrooms and mycelium, one contributor says, “Mushrooms are literally ‘the tip of the iceberg.'” That’s not true: mushrooms are figuratively the tip of the iceberg. Stamets writes, “We’re going down a slippery slope. As we deforest the planet and cut down old-growth forests, we accelerate carbon loss…” Forests in the United States are actually growing, and the same is true of Europe. So we’re not universally cutting down forests; that’s a huge problem in Brazil, but the U.S. and Europe are heading in a net positive direction. Another contributor says, “Nature has kept us alive since the beginning of human life.” Sort of: you could also say “nature” has been trying to kill us since the beginning of human life and just hasn’t succeeded yet (nature also gives us uranium, which we can use to kill ourselves en masse). Another writer says, “every decision comes down to the bottom line because the world is run by economists and accountants.” More accurately, the world is run by consumers and voters. Someone cites Bolt Threads’s efforts to create “leather” from mushrooms, but the company seems to have begun putting out press releases in 2016 and no products seem to be on the market today. I could go on. There is too much sleight-of-mind in Fantastic Fungi.

I’ve not seen the film.

* Maigret and the Old People by Georges Simenon: A fine Maigret. As usual, characters claim things like, “I know hardly anything,” and then turn out to know things. Maybe a lot of detective fiction is appealing because everyday people turn out to be essential in a way that is not felt in a lot of everyday life. The old people of the title turn out to be decrepit titled European “nobility,” and one does not have to stretch far to see the book poking at the absurdity of hereditary titles.

Why are so many movies awful?

The short answer: they’re ruled by marketing, not by art, feeling, or emotion, to the extent that those characteristics can’t be captured by marketing.

The longer answer comes from Tad Friend’s article in the January 19 2009 issue of The New Yorker, “The Cobra: Inside a movie marketer’s playbook,” which describes how movies get made. Today, the answer is nearly identical to the question of how movies get marketed. My favorite quote is a little less than midway through:

” ‘Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates,’ one studio’s president of production says. ‘So at green-light meetings it’s a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross. No one is saying, “This director was born to make this movie.” ‘ “

“Pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates:” it’s a great metaphor that conveys precisely how much vast corporations care about art as well as the relative power of those existing within studios. Creativity isn’t dead, even in major studios’ presidents of production, but neither is cynicism, as the article shows in too many places to enumerate. “Cynical” might be too light a word—if Julie Salamon’s ‘The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood is somewhat cynical, then nothing except perhaps nihilism describes the Hollywood marketer’s mind as portrayed by Friend.

Read the whole article for more: it never comes out and baldly states what’s obvious, as I have. This blog only occasionally strays into territory dealing with movies; this analysis of Cloverfield is my only extended treatment of one, although this post discusses movie versions of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that the movies I tend to pay the most attention to are based off books; according to Friend’s article, such movies are “‘pre-awareness’ titles: movies like ‘Spider-Man’ whose stories the audience already knew from another medium […]” like virtually all that have made extraordinary amounts of money in the last decade. Movies also tend to raise a book’s profile enough to encourage me to read it when I otherwise wouldn’t; the movie version of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is an example of this.

I suppose the same question regarding why so many are so bad could be applied to books too, but books are often less obvious: critics seem to have (slightly) more power, and the sheer number of books makes the bad ones easier to ignore. Call it strength in diversity. Movies are noisier, and because there are fewer of them, each one collects more attention. But because they cost so much to make, they become a numbers game; I care vastly more about aesthetic worth than opening weekends. But, at least as shown in this article, Hollywood cares about those numbers.

It shows in their product.

EDIT: Wynton Marsalis, by way of Alex Ross:


At the root of our current national dilemmas is an accepted lack of integrity. We are assaulted on all sides by corruption of such magnitude that it’s hard to fathom. Almost everything and everyone seems to be for sale. Value is assessed solely in terms of dollars. Quality is sacrificed to commerce and truthful communication is supplanted by marketing.

In addition, see my comments on Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood for more on how the way movies are made affects the movies that are made.

The Best Software Writing — Joel Spolsky

Well-written, insightful books on subjects I know nothing about often impart some lasting and surprising ideas. The biggest problem is finding them, since you don’t know they’re well-written or insightful till it’s too late. Pleasant surprises have abounded recently, one being The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood. Another comes from Joel Spolsky, who writes a popular blog on software called Joel on Software and edited The Best Software Writing I. In an industry where books age date so fast as to be almost pointless, like the hardware that runs software, one astonishing aspect is how The Best Software Writing, published in 2005 and composed of many essays written earlier, is still relevant and fascinating—and will probably be so for a long time yet.

Take Danah Boyd’s “Autistic Social Software,” which, like most of The Best Software Writing, explains how computers and people interact. It was published around 2004, which represented a societal turning point not widely recognized at the time, as virtually everyone my age hopped on what we now call “social networking sites.”* She observes that those sites weren’t very good because they’re not focused on users, even drawing a not entirely apt analogy similar to the one I made Science Fiction, literature, and the haters:

While many science fiction writers try to convey the nuances of human behavior, their emphasis is on the storyline, and they often convey the social issues around a technology as it affects that story. Building universal assumptions based on the limited scenarios set forth by sci-fi is problematic; doing so fails to capture the rich diversity of human behavior.

Her comments about science fiction are accurate regarding much, but not all of it, just like her comments about the focus of programmers on computers and their limitations, forcing us to adapt to them rather than vice-versa. The market has a knack for giving people what they want, however, and that focus is changing over time as iterative generations of software improve and people move to sites that work better. Boyd says, “[…] there is a value in understanding social life and figuring out how to interact with people on shared terms.” Right: and those who figure out what that means will be rewarded. I’m reminded of a programmer friend whose e-mail signature says “Computers aren’t the future; people are,” and I suspect he would approve of the lessons in this essay and larger book.

That’s a single example of how you take offline phenomenon—how people congregate—and apply it to an online context. Other essays reverse that dynamic. Clay Shirky’s “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy” explains how online groups form and break apart in much the same fashion as offline groups. You could look at this in terms of clubs, families, countries or jobs, all of which have similar cohesive and destructive forces assailing them over different time periods. One thing the military has going for it is hundreds of years of experience in taking people and forcing them to work together toward a common goal. Many sports accomplish the same thing. But in both cases, the tasks—destroying things and killing people, moving a ball down a field—are narrow and well-defined compared to the wide-open field of artistic creation. Granted, both the military and sports have their wider, macro possibilities—what do we destroy and who do we kill and why? (this question is more often known as politics), or what rules should the game have and why?—but they’re not intrinsically undefined like software, or other forms of intellectual endeavor (Paul Graham wrote about this in Great Hackers.) The incentives are easier to get right. In software, like life, they’re not. Compensation becomes harder to get right when goals are less easily defined, which is a major subject in one essay and subsidiary in others. I wrote about it as applied to grant writing, using Spolsky as a launching pad, and if more people realized what he’s already discovered, we might not waste so much effort trying to reinvent the wheel or invent futile algorithms for what is inherently a tricky subject.

The Best Software Writing is, yes, about software, but it’s about more, including the future. Those interested in seeing it, and the inside of the most transformative industry of recent times, would do well to read it. It contains more thought than Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?, a New York Times article published yesterday (read it, or the rest of the paragraph won’t make much sense). Why hasn’t the reporter figured done enough background research? I wish I could say. It contrasts with Shirky’s other article, “User as Group,” which demonstrates much of what’s right about the new mediums without questioning the medium’s utility—something that the New York Times article utterly misses. Furthermore, on the individual level, the individual is going to suffer the pain of insufficient literacy or numeracy in the form of inferior jobs and a less intense life. Many seem happy to make such trade-offs, and we go on telling them to eat their Wheaties. If they don’t, they won’t be able to write at the level of skill and detail in The Best Software Writing, which would make the world a poorer place, but those involved don’t seem to care as a group. Oh well. What harm not reading Spolsky or Fred Brooks will harm the individual, but it will also cause splash damage to others who have to work with them. To the extent reading online ameliorates those problems, as Shirky implies, we’ve made improvements. He, Spolsky, and Brooks who write about programming only to the extent you’re unwilling to see programming as a metaphor.

The major fear articles like “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” express, I suspect, is that many people are getting along without books and stories. On a societal basis, this probably isn’t a good thing, since democracies depend on educated citizens with historical knowledge—but on a personal level, if you’re a mid-level account manager at some large company, how much does your familiarity with Tolstoy and Norman Rush really help or hurt you? On the other hand, if you want to be at the top of virtually any field, you need to read and understand the world. In software, that means books like The Best Software Writing, which, though it consists almost entirely of pieces that originally appeared online, is a physical, dead-tree book that I liked reading on paper far more than I would’ve on the screen, where I already spend entirely too much of my face time. I want what I find convenient, as do most people, and many of the essays point toward defining what that means. It’s got more about how fulfill human desires than most books, fiction or nonfiction. Volume II of The Best Software Writing might never appear. Given the strength of the first, I wish it would.

* I hope future readers find this strange phrase an anachronism showing how primitive we are, because it’s ugly and imprecise. If a phrase must be one, it at least shouldn’t be the other.

Mid-July links

* More Wood here, by way of a few blogs. See my last post here. Find How Fiction Works here.

* I’d love to think that reading helps one become less socially awkward, as argued here. Repeat after me: correlation is not causation. But the article gives an example of how readers of a New Yorker story did better on social reasoning tests than those given a random essay, and this research complements that done on fiction and empathy.

As for the original claim, I will say that, speaking from experience, if reading helps one become less socially awkward, it certainly took a long time for the effect to kick in around these parts.

* I’d forgotten about The Literary Book of Economics: Including Readings from Literature and Drama on Economic Concepts, Issues, and Themes, but it complements the econ-for-dummies books I like and gives numerous examples of the intersection of economics and literature, since the two express one another more often than many of their respective practitioners think.

* Maybe I was too quick to dismiss the possible value of film as an agent of social change. This link courtesy of Freakonomics. Besides, in my post on The Devil’s Candy, I went into an extended rhapsody about Friday Night Lights, so perhaps I should be wary of too much bashing, despite Twilight of the Books.

(Before I concede too much, however, I’ll ask for the the paper detailing people’s tendency to protest the government thanks to T.V., or how T.V. is a medium easily monopolized by the powerful, as in Russia.)

* Speaking of film, this time combined with politics, Frank Rich in The New York Times has a great column that further explains why it’s hard for me to get ideologically attached to political parties in the U.S. or excited about politics:

You have to wonder what these same kids make of the political show their parents watch on TV at home. The fierce urgency of now that drives “Wall-E” and its yearning for change is absent in both the Barack Obama and McCain campaigns these days.

* You might notice that links having little if anything to do with books go at the bottom of link posts, today isn’t an exception. Clive Crook writes about education and immigration idiocy. Fortunately, this is an issue both parties can be wrong about, further explaining why I find it impossible to affiliate with either.

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