Work and video games

I was reading “Escape to Another World” (highly recommended) and this part made me realize something:

How could society ever value time spent at games as it does time spent on “real” pursuits, on holidays with families or working in the back garden, to say nothing of time on the job? Yet it is possible that just as past generations did not simply normalise the ideal of time off but imbued it with virtue – barbecuing in the garden on weekends or piling the family into the car for a holiday – future generations might make hours spent each day on games something of an institution.

I think part of the challenge is that, historically, many of us pursue hobbies and other activities that are also related to craftsmanship. The world of full of people who, in their spare time, rebuild bikes or cars, or sew quilts, or bind books, or write open-source software, or pursue other kinds of hobbies that have virtues beyond the pleasure of the hobby itself (I am thinking of a book like Shop Class as Soul Craft, though if I recall correctly the idea of craftsmanship as a virtue of its own goes back to Plato). A friend of mine, for example, started up pottery classes; while she enjoys the process, she also gets bowls and mugs out of it. Video games seem have few or none of those secondary effects.

To be sure, a lot of playing video games has likely replaced watching TV, and watching TV has none of those salutary effects either. Still, one has to wonder if video games are also usurping more active forms of activity that also build other kinds of skills (as well as useful objects).

I say this as someone who wasted a fantastic amount of time on video games from ages 12 – 15 or so. Those are years I should’ve been building real skills and abilities (or even having real fun), and instead I spent a lot of them slaying imaginary monsters as a way of avoiding the real world. I can’t imagine being an adult and spending all that time on video games. We can never get back the time we waste, and wasted time compounds—as does invested time.

In my own life, the hobby time I’ve spent reading feeds directly into my professional life. The hobby time I spent working on newspapers in high school and college does too. Many people won’t have so direct a connection—but many do, and will.

To be sure, lots of people play recreational video games that don’t interfere with the rest of their lives. Playing video games as a way of consciously wasting time is fine, but when wasting time becomes a primary activity instead of a secondary or tertiary one it becomes a problem over time. It’s possible to waste a single day mucking around or playing a game or whatever—I have and chances are very high that so have you—but the pervasiveness of them seems new, as Avent writes.

It’s probably better to be the person writing the games than playing the games (and writing them can at times take on some game-like qualities). When you’re otherwise stuck, build skills. No one wants skills in video game playing, but lots of people want other skills that aren’t being built by battling digital orcs. The realest worry may be that many people who start the video game spiral won’t be able to get out.

The more you do it the better you get: Why Americans might not work less

In “Why Do Americans Work So Much?“, Rebecca Rosen poses some answers to the question in the title, most notably, “American inequality means that the gains of increasing productivity are not widely shared. In other words, most Americans are too poor to work less.” I’m not convinced this is true; one problem we have involves the difficulty or illegality of building and selling relatively inexpensive housing in high-demand areas (see here and here for two discussions, and please don’t leave a comment unless you’ve read both links thoroughly). Some of what looks like financial “inequality” is actually people paying a shit ton of money for housing in New York, Seattle, L.A., and similar places, rather than living in cheaper places like Houston or Phoenix. Homeowners who vote in those areas vote to keep housing prices high by strangling supply.

Plus, I’d add that, per “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?“, financial inequality isn’t the only kind, though for some reason it’s gotten an overwhelming amount of play in the press over the last ten years. I’ve seen people speculate that financial inequality is fun to attack because money can easily be taken from someone at the point of a gun and given to someone else, while other forms of inequality like beauty or a playful disposition can’t be taken so easily.

Still, there’s one other important factor that may be unexplored: Demanding and remunerative cognitive jobs may not be easy to partition. That is, one person doing a cognitively demanding job 40 hours per week is way more efficient than two people doing the same job for 20 hours a week. And that same person may be even more efficient working 50 or 60 hours a week.

Let me explain. With some classic manufacturing tasks—let’s imagine a very simple one, like turning an hex key—you can do x turns per hour times y hours. With many high-value jobs, and even ambiguously defined median-value jobs, that isn’t true. In my not-tremendous-but-not-zero experience in coding, having one person stuff as much of the code base—that is, the problem space—into their head as possible makes the work better. The person learns a lot about edge cases and keeps larger parts of the codebase in their mind. The cost of attempting to explain the code base to another person is much higher than keeping it all in one’s head.

Among professors, the ones who’ve read the most and written the most usually exponentially better than those who have read 75% and written 75% as much. They’re 5x as valuable, not 33% more valuable.

One sees similar patterns recur across cognitively demanding fields. Once a person has put in the 10,000 hours necessary to master that field, each additional hour is highly valuable, and, even better, the problem domain is better understood. That’s part of the reason law firms charge so much for top lawyers. Those top lawyers have skills that can only be developed through extensive, extreme practice.

I see this effect in grant writing: we don’t split proposal tasks because doing so vastly increases the communication overhead. I’m much more efficient in writing an entire proposal than two or three people could be each writing parts. We’ve rescued numerous doomed proposals from organizations that attempted this approach and failed.

Many of you have probably heard about unfinished and perhaps unfinishable projects (often initiated by government). Here’s a list of famous failed software projects. Some of those projects simply become so massive that latency and bandwidth between the workers in the project overwhelm the doing of actual work. The project becomes all management and no substance. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, we’ve seen many grant proposals fail because of too many writers and no real captain. At least with proposals, the final work product is sufficiently simple that a single person can write an entire narrative. In software, thousands of people or more may contribute to a project (depending on where you draw the line, hundreds of thousands may contribute: does anyone who has worked on the compiler or version control system or integrated development environment (IDE) count?).

Put these trends together and you get people working more because the costs of splitting up tasks are so much higher. If you put five junior lawyers on a project, they may come up with a worse answer or set of answers than a single senior lawyer who has the problem space in his head. The same thing could conceivably be true in software as well. The costs of interconnection are real. This will increase inequality because top people are so valuable while simultaneously meaning that a person can’t earn x% of the income through x% of the work. A person must do 100% or not compete at all.

This is also consistent with changes in financial remuneration, which the original author considers. It’s also consistent with Paul Graham’s observations in “The Refragmentation.”

Finally, there may also be signaling issues. Here is one Robin Hanson post on related concerns. At some point, Hanson described working for Lockheed before he did his Ph.D., and if I recall correctly he tried to work fewer hours for commensurately lower pay, and that did not go over well. Maybe Lockheed was cognizant of the task-splitting costs I note above, or maybe they were more concerned with what Hanson was communicating about his devotion to the job, or what example he’d set to the others.

So earning may not be scalable. It may be binary. We may not be “working” less because we’re poor. We may be working less because the nature of many tasks and occupations are binary: You win big by working big hours or don’t work much at all.

EDIT: See also “You Don’t Need More Free Time,” which argues that we may not need more free time, but rather the right free time—when our friends are free. I also wonder if too much “free” time is also enervating in its own way.

A world without work might be totally awesome, and we have models for it, but getting there might be hard

Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work: For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?” is fascinating and you should read it. But I’d like to discuss one small part, when Thompson writes: “When I asked Hunnicutt what sort of modern community most resembles his ideal of a post-work society, he admitted, ‘I’m not sure that such a place exists.'”

I can imagine such a place: A university. At one time, most professors made enough money to meet their basic material needs without making extravagant amounts of money (there were and are some superstar exceptions). Today, a fair number of professors still make enough money to meet their basic material needs, though proportionally fewer than, say, 30 years ago. Still, universities have always depended on peer effects for reputation; they’ve tended to convince smart people to do a lot of meaningful activities that are disconnected from immediate and often long-term remuneration. Many professors appear to have self-directed lives that they themselves structure. The average person with free time doesn’t explore build-it-yourself DNA or write about the beauty of Proust or do many of the other things professors  do—the average person watches TV—but perhaps norms will change over time.

I don’t want to overstate the similarity between a potential low-work future and contemporary tenured professors—many professors find grading to be mind numbing, and not everyone handles self-direction and motivation well—but they are similar enough to be notable. In a world of basic incomes and (relative) economic plenty, we may get more people writing blogs, making art, and playing sports or other games. People may spend more time in gyms and less time in chairs.

The open-source software software community as it currently exists tends to intersect with large companies, but there are fringes of it with a strongly non-commercial or academic ethos. Richard Stallman has worked for MIT for decades and has written enormous amounts of important open-source code; the primary PGP maintainer made almost no money until recently, though he could almost certainly make tons of cash working for big tech company. Many people who make money in tech are closer to artists than is commonly supposed. Reading Hacker News and the better precincts in Reddit will introduce you to other open-source zealots, some of whom mostly blow hot air but others of whom act and think like artists rather than businessmen.

Many programmers say publicly that they consider programming to be so much fun that they’re amazed at the tremendous sums they can earn doing it. A small but literate part of the sex worker community says something similar: like most people they enjoy sex, and like most people they enjoy money, and combining the two is great for them. They may not enjoy every act with every client but the more attractive and attentive clients are pretty good. One could imagine an activity that is currently (sometimes) paid and sometimes free being used to occupy more time. I’ve met many people who dance and make their money putting on and teaching dances. If they had a guaranteed annual income they’d probably dance all the time and be very pleased doing that.

Already many professions have turned into hobbies, as I wrote in 2013; most actors and musicians are essentially hobbyists as well, at least in the revenue sense. Photographers are in a similar situation, as are many fiction writers. Poets haven’t been commercial for decades, to the extent they ever were (they weren’t when the Metaphysicals were writing, but that didn’t stop Herbert or Donne). Today many of my favorite activities aren’t remunerative, and while I won’t list them here many are probably similar to yours, and chances are good that some of yours aren’t remunerative either. Maybe our favorite activities are only as pleasurable as they are by contrast with less desirable activities. Maybe they aren’t. Consider for a moment your own peak, most pleasurable and intense experiences. Did they happen at work? If you worked less, would you have more?

In short, though, models for non-commercial but meaningful lives do (somewhat) exist. Again, they may not suit everyone, but one can see a potential future already here but unevenly distributed.

A lot of white-collar office work has a large make-work component, and there’s certainly plenty of literature on how boring it can be. If people really, really worked in the office they could probably do much of their “work” in a tiny amount of the allotted time. Much of that time is signaling conformity, diligence, and so forth, and, as Tim Ferris points out in The Four-Hour Work Week, people who work smarter can probably work less. To use myself as an example, I think of myself as productive but even I read Hacker News and Reddit more often than I should.

Some people already do what appears to me to be work-like jobs. People who don’t like writing would consider this blog to be “work,” while I consider it (mostly) play, albeit of an intensely intellectual sort. It already looks to me like many moderators on Reddit and similar sites have left the world of “hobby” and entered the world of “work.” The border is porous and always has been, but I see many people moving from the one to the other. (As Thompson observes, prior the late 19th or early 20th Century the idea of unemployment was itself nonsensical because pretty much anyone could find something productive to do.) Wikipedia is another site that has adverse effects in that respect, and I can’t figure out why many disinterested people would edit the site (my edits have always been self-motivated, though I prefer not to state more here).

One can imagine a low-work future being very good, but getting from the present to that future is going to be rocky at best, and I can’t foresee it happening for decades. There are too many old people and children to care for, too many goods that need to be delivered, too much physical infrastructure that needs fixing, and in general too much boring work that no one will do without being paid. Our whole society will have to be re-structured and that is not likely to be easy; in reality, too, there has never been a sustained period of quiet “normalcy” in American history. Upheaval is normal, and the U.S. has an advantage in that rewriting cultural DNA is part of our DNA. That being said, it’s useful to wonder what might be, and one can see the shape of things to come if we see radically falling prices for many material goods.


There’s one other fascinating quote that doesn’t fit into my essay but I want to emphasize anyway:

Decades from now, perhaps the 20th century will strike future historians as an aberration, with its religious devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity, its attenuations of family in service to job opportunity, its conflation of income with self-worth. The post-work society I’ve described holds a warped mirror up to today’s economy, but in many ways it reflects the forgotten norms of the mid-19th century—the artisan middle class, the primacy of local communities, and the unfamiliarity with widespread joblessness.

What makes a person special: Name of the Rose edition

“But there is no precise rule: it depends on the individuals, on the circumstances. This holds true also for the secular lords. Sometimes the city magistrates encourage the heretics to translate the Gospel into the vernacular: the vernacular by now is the language of the cities, Latin the language of Rome and the monasteries. And sometimes the magistrates support the Waldensians, because they declare that all, men and women, lowly and mighty, can teach and preach, and the worker who is a disciple after ten days hunts for another whose teacher he can become.”
“And so they eliminate the distinction that makes clerics irreplaceable!”

That’s from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and we can see a similar situation happening now among many professional, privileged, and credentialed classes: with the Internet, the cost of being able to “teach and preach” goes down; anyone motivated can learn, or start to learn almost anything, and anyone inclined to teach can start writing or videoing on whatever topic they believe themselves to be an expert in. The key of course is motivation, which is in scant supply now and probably always will be.

Whether the existing power structures want to encourage self-learning, like many of the “secular lords” and “city magistrates,” or want to preserve existing institutions, depends on the person speaking and their aims. But “the distinction that makes clerics irreplaceable” is similar to the one that makes professors or other professional teachers irreplaceable. It’s a distinction that’s less important than the knowledge and skill underlying the distinction. Some with the distinction are not very good at their jobs and some without distinction are incredibly skilled. Those lines are blurring. Blurring slowly, to be sure. The language of knowledge is spreading. The issue of credentialing remains, but the number of jobs in which work product is a better examination than formal credentials is probably growing.

Does the average software startup want a famous degree, or an extensive Github repository? Right now I’m sifting through freelance fiction editors, and I’ve asked zero of them where they got their degrees or if they have any. I’m very interested in their sample edits and other novels they’ve edited. Clients almost never ask Seliger + Associates about formal degrees—they want to know if we can get the job done.

In writing this post, I am also conforming to the second of Umberto Eco’s “three ways” of reading The Name of the Rose:

The first category of readers will be taken by the plot and the coupes de scene, and will accept even the long bookish discussions and the philosophical dialogues, because it will sense that the signs, the traces and the revelatory symptoms are nesting precisely in those inattentive pages. The second category will be impassioned by the debate of ideas, and will attempt to establish connections (which the author refuses to authorize) with the present. The third will realize that this text is a textile of other texts, a ‘whodunnit’ of quotations, a book built of books.

Eco published this novel in 1980, around the dawn of the personal computer age and long before the consumer Internet. Whatever connections existed in the 1970s between The Name of the Rose and that era—the ones Eco presumably had in mind, whatever his view of authorization—are not the ones I most notice. That the novel’s correspondences can grow and change with decades make it so powerful and deep. Few works of art transcend their immediate context. This one does. It deals with the eternities much more than the news, though the author has demonstrated in essays his interest in the daily news.

If someone had told me before I read The Name of the Rose that a novel set in 1327 and utterly enmeshed in the recondite politics of Christianity would be one of my favorite novels, I would’ve scoffed. Religion as a subject is of little interest to me, except in meta sense. But sufficiently great novels transcend their context, even as they adapt the language, rhetoric, and world of their context. As Eco’s third category of reader indicates, the novel is composed of many other novels, books, articles, and speech. He has, it seems, 800 years of literary history composted into a single work. Few novels do, and fewer still do so in a novel with an actual plot.

Rework — Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Rework is the rare book that could and even should be longer than it is: Fried and Hansson even say, “Writers eliminate good pages to make a great book. We cut this book in half between the next-to-last and final drafts. From 57,000 words to about 27,000 words. Trust us, it’s better for it.” I do trust them, but they may have lost some of the fun stories that might give the book more texture. They’re overfond of assertion without demonstration. But so what? The book as a whole is still worth reading. It’ll take an hour or two to get through the whole thing, which is peppered with little moments like, “You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole” or “Don’t sit around and wait for someone else to make the change you want to see. And don’t think it takes a huge team to make that difference today.”

ReworkIn other words: do it now, whatever the “it” happens to be. Waiting is your worst enemy, doing your best friend, and anything that stops you from doing something should be ignored or overcome. Friedman and Hansson are speaking of business, but they’re also speaking of art, science, and almost everything good in this world. They say, “What you do is what matters, not what you think or say or plan.” This is equally true of writing, but a lot of would-be writers seem to like the idea of writing more than the actual writing itself. I often offer this challenge to people who say they want to or wish they could write a novel:

1) Turn off your Internet access and cell phone.

2) Write chapter one over three days (or so; the actual timeframe doesn’t matter, as long as it’s short); continue if you want to.

3) Send me the result. I’ll read it and send it back.

So far, I think one person has taken that challenge, and I never got chapter two. I interpret this as meaning that most people who say they want to write a novel (or write anything else, or learn the guitar, or get laid, or lose weight, or start cooking, or any number of other skilled endeavors) don’t actually want to, because if they did, they would start today. If you shoot for, say, 500 words a day, you’ll have a pile of around 80,000 in six months, leaving some room for missed days, editing, and so forth.

If you shoot for 1,000 words a day, you’ll have it in three months.

This, however, is only the start, which I didn’t realize when I was nearer to the start than I am now. But if you’re not putting in the seat time, writing, you’re not going to do anything and all your intentions aren’t going to matter. Fried and Hansson are pointing this out in the context of business, where it’s equally valid, and there are probably an equal number of people saying, “I should start a business” and “I should write.” Most of them are probably better off not acting on their impulses. But if they do, why not start?

They’re giving you permission you don’t need to be given, but they’re doing it in a way that feels fun. They elevate fun to a cardinal virtue, and they want to get rid of things that aren’t fun or don’t add value to people’s lives. At one point, for instance, they say:

The business world is littered with dead documents that do nothing but waste people’s time. Reports no one reads, diagrams no one looks at, and specs that never resemble the final product. These things take forever to make but only seconds to forget.

Who would want to stand up and proudly proclaim that they write “dead documents?” In this framing, no one. But sometimes a guy with a document that says why thing x is better than thing y wins. Sometimes dead documents serve important signaling functions. That’s the thing about Rework: read it, but don’t assume it’s always right.

Over the last two months I’ve been on a binge of business or quasi business books: Rework, Anything You Want, How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, all of them good in their own way, and all of them subtly contradicting each other in various ways.

If Steve Jobs had written a book about business the Apple way, he’d probably contradict all of them. Yet the writer of each book is successful in their own field. If my Dad and I wrote “Doing Business the Seliger + Associates way,” we’d probably say some things that are similar to what Hansson and Fried say but some things that are very different because of the peculiarities of our field. Every business situation is slightly different. What works in one field may not work in another.

The meta lesson may be that no two successes are exactly alike, and that, while you should read these books, you should also realize that you might use pieces of them but you’re unlikely to use all of them. They’re all to be subjected to interrogation, not venerated.

I can say, however, that each of the books above inspires in its own way, and sometimes inspiration has an importance that goes beyond the immediate truth value of a piece.

Sign me up for the Anglo-American team:

From Adam Gopnik’s “Facing History: Why We Love Camus,” sadly hidden behind a paywall:

Olivier Todd, the author of the standard biography in French, suggests that Camus might have benefitted by knowing more about his anti-totalitarian Anglo-American contemporaries, Popper and Orwell among them. Yet in truth the big question Camus asked was never the Anglo-American liberal one: How can we make the world a little bit better tomorrow. It was the grander French one: Why not kill yourself tonight? That the answers come to much the same thing in the end—easy does it; tomorrow may be a bit better than today; and, after all, you have to have a little faith in people—doesn’t diminish the glamour that clings to the man who turned the question over and looked at it, elegantly, upside down

I’d never thought about the issue of meaning quite like this, but I’m definitely on the Popper-Orwell team, the one that asks about making the world “a little bit better tomorrow,” or at least finding something meaningful to do today that might lead to the better world tomorrow. The “grander French” question used to hold more attraction, when I was younger and stupider; now it just looks pointless. If there’s no reason to live, there’s also no reason to die. That’s the essential point Todd Andrews realizes in John Barth’s novel The Floating Opera, and it’s the sort of profundity that seems utterly obvious in retrospect. I’d add one other point: if life is meaningless, you can append any meaning you want, and making things little bit better tomorrow is a pretty choice (you could also say that you’re trying to conduct a marginal revolution that takes small steps toward improvement).

People who find ways to make life meaningful and find ways to be more than just a consumer are, in my view, the ones who win big these days, when we don’t just have meaning handed to us. Instead, we have to try harder to find it. I like the Anglo-American answer, as given by Gopnik’s reading of Camus, but that might just be my own latent Anglo-American culture.

We lack perspective: notes from Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Yet our world of abundance, with seas of wine and alps of bread, has hardly turned out to be the ebullient place dreamt of by our ancestors in the famine-stricken years of the Middle Ages. The brightest minds spend their working lives simplifying or accelerating functions of unreasonable banality. Engineers write theses on the velocities of scanning machines and consultants devote their careers to implementing minor economies in the movements of shelf-stackers and forklift operators. The alcohol-inspired fights that break out in market towns on Saturday evenings are predictable symptoms of fury at our incarceration. They are a reminder of the price we pay for our daily submission at the altars of prudence and order – and of the rage that silently accumulates beneath a uniquely law-abiding and compliant surface.

1) A lot of engineers like their jobs and look at them as solving a series of puzzles: “theses on the velocities of scanning machines” are only as banal as you make them. In addition, even if you do find them banal, if you can make a faster scanning machine and sell it for a lot of money, you may not care when you retire to paint water colors for the rest of your life.

2) Fights say more about the dumb fighters than about the human condition.

3) Humans might simply never be, as a group, overtly happy in whatever conditions we experience; realizing this might release us from unreasonable expectations. A cultural fixation on happiness might paradoxically prevent us from experiencing what we think or imagine we most want or desire.

4) Related to three, people who leave work to drink on the weekends are probably intentionally looking for fights: I doubt the behavior can be blamed solely on alcohol. Many people seem to undergo a two-step process: they consciously drink so they can unconsciously act out in the ways they’d actually like to. My question is simple: why not just go to step two and be intellectually honest with ourselves?

5) Stumbling on Happiness discusses how and why we feel unhappy when we compare ourselves to others. Most of us don’t compare ourselves to people in the “Middle Ages;” we compare ourselves to our wives’ sisters’ husbands, to paraphrase that famous aphorism (switch gender roles as appropriate to you, the reader, and your gender / sexual orientation).

6) We submit “at the altars of prudence and order” because the alternative is often worse. That being said, I think Western society underestimates the power and importance of trance, ecstasy, transcendence, atë—all things that, denied and repressed, seem to manifest themselves in unusual ways (see The Secret History for more on this. Still, if the alternative to prudence and order is chaos, no iPhone, longer commutes, and living a dicey part of town, prudence and order sound pretty good—as does self-imposed “incarceration.”

7) The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is, like much of de Botton’s work, nicely balanced between readability and intellectual engagement, reasoned and learned without being pedantic. These are harder notes to strike than may be obvious at first.

We lack perspective: notes from Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Yet our world of abundance, with seas of wine and alps of bread, has hardly turned out to be the ebullient place dreamt of by our ancestors in the famine-stricken years of the Middle Ages. The brightest minds spend their working lives simplifying or accelerating functions of unreasonable banality. Engineers write theses on the velocities of scanning machines and consultants devote their careers to implementing minor economies in the movements of shelf-stackers and forklift operators. The alcohol-inspired fights that break out in market towns on Saturday evenings are predictable symptoms of fury at our incarceration. They are a reminder of the price we pay for our daily submission at the altars of prudence and order – and of the rage that silently accumulates beneath a uniquely law-abiding and compliant surface.

1) A lot of engineers like their jobs and look at them as solving a series of puzzles: “theses on the velocities of scanning machines” are only as banal as you make them. In addition, even if you do find them banal, if you can make a faster scanning machine and sell it for a lot of money, you may not care when you retire to paint water colors for the rest of your life.

2) Fights say more about the dumb fighters than about the human condition.

3) Humans might simply never be, as a group, overtly happy in whatever conditions we experience; realizing this might release us from unreasonable expectations. A cultural fixation on happiness might paradoxically prevent us from experiencing what we think or imagine we most want or desire.

4) Related to three, people who leave work to drink on the weekends are probably intentionally looking for fights: I doubt the behavior can be blamed solely on alcohol. Many people seem to undergo a two-step process: they consciously drink so they can unconsciously act out in the ways they’d actually like to. My question is simple: why not just go to step two and be intellectually honest with ourselves?

5) Stumbling on Happiness discusses how and why we feel unhappy when we compare ourselves to others. Most of us don’t compare ourselves to people in the “Middle Ages;” we compare ourselves to our wives’ sisters’ husbands, to paraphrase that famous aphorism (switch gender roles as appropriate to you, the reader, and your gender / sexual orientation).

6) We submit “at the altars of prudence and order” because the alternative is often worse. That being said, I think Western society underestimates the power and importance of trance, ecstasy, transcendence, atë—all things that, denied and repressed, seem to manifest themselves in unusual ways (see The Secret History for more on this. Still, if the alternative to prudence and order is chaos, no iPhone, longer commutes, and living a dicey part of town, prudence and order sound pretty good—as does self-imposed “incarceration.”

7) The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is, like much of de Botton’s work, nicely balanced between readability and intellectual engagement, reasoned and learned without being pedantic. These are harder notes to strike than may be obvious at first.

Snapshot of the new workplace and the symbolic content of Karen Owen’s “horizontal academics”

Penelope Trunk’s “Snapshot of the new workplace: Karen Owen’s PowerPoint” is one of the very few insightful posts about “An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics.” For those of you who haven’t been caught in the media blizzard, Karen Owen turned her sex life at Duke into a PowerPoint narrative. As Trunk says, “She has bullet points, charts, and graphs. How can you not admire a woman who can graph her sex life?”

Trunk is writing about the changing workplace, but the significance of this media event goes beyond that. I mentioned the story to a literary female friend and said that agents had started calling Owen. My friend read the PowerPoint and said that she couldn’t see where agents would go , and I replied that it didn’t matter: Owen is a hilarious (and unusually clear) writer. It’s harder to develop voice than any other trait; if you have voice, structure, plotting, and the like can follow, if the writer wants them bad enough. Owen might.

Notice too Owens’ command of genre: she combines PowerPoint (typically boring), a bloggy style (think Belle de Jour: The Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl) and narrative (which most PowerPoint presentations lack) to make something that defies expectation: PowerPoint is usually stodgy and bad; blogs are nice, but Bell de Jour doesn’t use graphs (to my knowledge); and the Owen’s subject (sex) is of near universal interest, especially when it violates conventional norms, which still exist enough for Owen to capture attention.

Of course, it’s easy to argue that this affair of the moment is trivial, and in the long term it certainly is. But the incident is also emblematic of larger changes. Karen Owen’s story isn’t only interesting because she’s a good writer or because she engages the questions of genre: it’s interesting because it marks an intersection or fault point between ways of living and codes of morality. Despite the sexual revolution, parents still engage in daughter guardian, per the 2008 Perilloux, Fleischman, and Buss journal article I’ve cited before, “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis: Parental Influence on, and Emotional Reactions to, Offspring’s Mating Behavior” (Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 217-233). They use strategies to restrict girls’ sexuality more than boys’, which probably contributes to the kinds of gender standards we see as adults.

Parents—who, by now, almost all came of age after the sexual revolution—still nonetheless attempt to shape the behavior of their offspring along more “traditional” lines than they might have wanted their own shaped. And that’s probably true beyond the sexual domain—consider what Paul Graham says in “Why To Not Not Start a Startup:”

… parents tend to be more conservative for their kids than they would be for themselves. This is actually a rational response to their situation. Parents end up sharing more of their kids’ ill fortune than good fortune. Most parents don’t mind this; it’s part of the job; but it does tend to make them excessively conservative. And erring on the side of conservatism is still erring. In almost everything, reward is proportionate to risk. So by protecting their kids from risk, parents are, without realizing it, also protecting them from rewards. If they saw that, they’d want you to take more risks.

“Parents tend to be more conservative for their kids” because parents will probably experience the ups more than the downs. Karen Owen presumably enjoyed her sex life (based on her description) and enjoyed writing her PowerPoint. Her parents probably derived near-zero pleasure from the former and a lot of grief from the latter, since she’s probably hiding out at home. For the rest of their lives, her parents will be hearing—”Karen Owen? Name rings a bell. Was she on TV for something?” and variations on that. Unless they’re unusually snarky, they’ll probably find it difficult to deal with queries about their offspring’s supposed failings.

Parents become “excessively conservative” for their children relative to themselves, and in protecting kids from the risks of sex, they also work to protect kids from its rewards. The same is probably true of work (as Graham says) and of expression: had Owen’s parents known about their daughter’s PowerPoint, they probably would’ve discouraged her from making it. But The same creative impulse that drove Owen to write her PowerPoint might also drive her in the working world, and that’s what Trunk wants to highlight.

I don’t see any route around these fundamental preference differences between parents and children. A lot of teenagers are, from what everyone has observed in popular culture, outraged at their parents’ seemingly cruel, capricious, and arbitrary rules. But those rules often have reasons behind them, as Perilloux, Fleischman, and Buss point out in the context of sex and Graham points out in the context of career, and when one looks at the cost-benefit analyses parents make, one begins to understand why parent-child conflicts exist: the two have different risk-reward profiles.

Parent-Offspring Conflict over Mating: The Case of Mating Age“, another article from Evolutionary Psychology says that:

Parents and offspring have asymmetrical preferences with respect to mate choice. So far, several areas of disagreement have been identified, including beauty, family background, and sexual strategies. This article proposes that mating age constitutes another area of conflict, as parents desire their children to initiate mating at a different age than the offspring desire it for themselves.

Conflicts are built into the family relationship system and are not incidental to it. This is not especially new; in his famous 1974 paper, “Parent-Offspring Conflict,” Robert Trivers discusses the problem and its implication from the perspective of biology. But realizing that this is a feature, not a bug, was new to me when I started reading more about evolutionary psychology three years ago.

One can re-read many of the various complaints about “youth these days” as ones chiefly about how preferences change as people age: younger people want fun, sex, and freedom; older people with children want their children to successfully reproduce and pass on their genes and culture, but what “successfully reproduce” means is different for younger people than older people. That conflict can sometimes be read along generational lines even when it’s more about preferences of the child versus preferences of the parent. In that light, “The New Dating Game: Back to the New Paleolithic Age” is less about what’s inherently good or bad and more about how time preferences function and how people are afraid of change, especially if they fear that change will hurt their economic or reproductive success.

Still, the social world is changing, and a concrete manifestation of abstract change can often become a major topic because it is really a symbolic repository for large-scale fears, hopes, desires, and conflict. Penelope Trunk says that the Karen Owen incident—notice the fear-mongering phrase I use because I can’t think of a better one—is about changes in the workplace and workplace power dynamics.

And this isn’t the first time female sexuality, writing disseminated online, and the workplace have come together: Heather Armstrong got fired for writing in her blog, Dooce, and the term “Dooced” now means to be fired for something one has written online. That she also sometimes wrote about religion and sex probably didn’t help, but they probably also widened her audience, and people like talking about religion because religious practices often function as control and regulation for sexual ones. Anna Davies addresses similar issues in I’m done writing about my sex life: It was a great way for a young woman like me to get published. But the cost of sharing sordid tales became too high. It got her published because people like reading about it—and it’s got Owen “published,” too, although perhaps not in the manner and forum she would prefer.

In his book Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters, Scott Rosenberg calls the chapter on Heather Armstrong “The Perils of Keeping it Real.” Karen Owen is now being forced to navigate the same perils, and I don’t think it a coincidence that female writers face greater perils than men. Then again, Rosenberg points out that a man named Cameron Barrett might be the first person to lose his job over a blog or proto-blog post, since he “was fired […] in 1997 when colleagues found a mildly off-color piece of short fiction he’d posted to his personal website.” The issue of “mildly off-color” material arises in other circumstances, and Rosenberg cites

[…] Ellen Simonetti, a flight attendant who got sacked by Delta Airlines in 2004, apparently because she’d posted photos of herself in uniform revealing a bit too much leg (though nothing that would put a PG rating at risk). There was senatorial aide Jessica Cutler, whose salacious tales of Capitol Hill liaisons gained notoriety for her anonymous blog, Washingtonienne, but cost her her job once Wonkette named her.

Regarding the blog world, Rosenberg says that “[…] there was plainly something about blogging itself that made it hazardous to employment. Perhaps it lulled people into thinking that words in a post had a uniquely protected status and could be cordoned off from the rest of existence.” But one could remove “blogging” and put “the Internet” in place of it, or one could just acknowledge that it can be harder to maintain separate, authentic selves in a world where the reproduction of data is nearly frictionless for a large proportion of the population. The forward button can put your PowerPoint anywhere and everywhere, assuming people want to read it, and social norms haven’t caught up to that.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the plot revolves around nude pictures of the sexually avaricious Sternwood daughters and whether those pictures will be revealed publicly. Today, we’re moving toward a world in which so many people have already given nude pictures to friends or lovers that real social punishment is becoming increasingly untenable. But those norms aren’t changing so fast that someone like Karen Owen can’t be caught up in the shift. Trunk says that “The rules are all different” and that “[Owen] illustrates why men are afraid of twentysomething women.” She’s right, and it’s probably unfortunate that Owen has unwittingly found herself the catalyst for those shifts. With a blogger, or a writer like Anna Davies, one knows in advance that the act of writing puts one’s self in the public. Owen didn’t consciously realize that the act of writing and e-mailing her PowerPoint could do the same, unwittingly.

In a way, we’re all academics now, in that we’re all judged (and might be fired) for what we’ve written. There’s a flipside to that, however: we might find jobs because of how our writing demonstrates expertise. Karen Owen has probably made some jobs harder to acquire (it’s difficult to imagine her getting past the Google screen of your average high school principal if she wants to be a teacher), but she’s probably also opened up others: hence the calls from editors and agents if she wants to be some kind of writer. If I had a new media company of some kind, I’d be trying to find Karen Owen’s number. Sure, my last sentence sets me up for dirty jokes, but, more importantly, it shows how work and life are changing.

When dialog works: Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind

I’m rereading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, which gets better with each repetition; the first time I got lost in the plot and was more annoyed by the occasional cliche than I am now. Now the cliches seem more like cheek and a nod back at pulpy origins. This bit of dialog reminds me about a lot of what works in the novel, especially the over-wrought language of Fermín, the older rascal who takes to advising the young and overly proper Daniel:

‘People who have no life always have to stick their nose in the life of others,’ said Fermín. ‘What were we talking about?’
‘About my lack of guts.’
‘Right. A textbook case. Trust you me, young man. Go after your girl. Life flies by, especially the bit that’s worth living. You heard what the priest said. Like a flash.’
‘She’s not my girl.’
‘Well, then, make her yours before someone else takes her, especially the little tin soldier.’
‘You talk as if Bea were a trophy.’
‘No, as if she were a blessing,’ Fermín corrected. ‘Look, Daniel. Destiny is usually just around the corner. Like a thief, a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.’

I love the second line, and the first spoken by Daniel, whose acknowledgment that they’re discussing “my lack of guts” implicitly admits that Fermín is already right, and Daniel knows it, but he still needs to be talked into doing something about it. He’s too passive—and knows that, too—but is also so passive that he doesn’t really know how to stop being passive. He can only offer objections when he should be as direct about Bea as he is about solving the mystery of Julian Carax, which is the plot’s primary strands and one that interweaves with the others.

That said, the passage isn’t perfect, and “trust you me” is probably a translator’s error. But I didn’t notice it as I read: only caught it as I began writing this. The novel is sufficiently involving to make one forgive minor sins. “Trust you me” could also be Fermín’s character: he’s stuff with half-believed folk wisdom (“Life flies by, especially the bit that’s worth living”), and only half believing it that lets such wisdom be funny—and, strangely, truer than it would be from someone delivering ridiculous lines like “Destiny is usually just around the corner” straight. Fermín also does imply that Bea is an object (which is objectionable; how many of us want to be “a trophy?”), but he doesn’t believe it: that half-belief lets him get away with it. We love his cheek, his pretend expertise (Daniel is “A textbook case,” as if textbooks are written about smitten adolescents, rather than novels), and it’s sustained throughout the novel.

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