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July 11, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Links: Look at the text, unintended consequences, rap and poetry, sexting hysteria, LeBron James (?)

* “The writer’s first job is to describe. No matter what you’re writing, you’re a reporter first.” Also: “look at the text.” Very few people do that last sentence, ever, and the problem is especially pernicious on the Internet.

* The law of unintended consequences.

* “Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More—But They Call It Rap.” I would generalize “rap” to “music.” This essay is also compatible with the vision in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

* “Saying goodbye to God: Haredim apostates: When young ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel choose to break with their faith, they must learn how to function in an alien world.”

* “Why movie theaters should be more like rock concerts,” which may be my favorite Vox piece so far; overall it seems like TheAtlantic.com in that the average quality is low but the occasional gem makes it worth a place in the RSS feed. At some point I’m going to write an extended post about the role of concerts as ecstatic dance. This link can be read as related to the one immediately above.

* “Hysteria Over Sexting Reaches Peak Absurdity.”

* Unsurprisingly, “Authors Can’t Make Ends Meet,” which is a simple issue of supply and demand, regardless of what other factors may be at play.

* Seattle begins boring its next light rail tunnel.

* Normally I don’t find sports articles of any interest or value but will make an exception for “Just Undo It: The LeBron James Profile That Nike Killed.” Have I just been successfully marketed to?

July 5, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Briefly Noted: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, and the meaning of the thriller

Francophone Hit, American Letdown” inspired me to read The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, but “Francophone Hit” describes the book’s sentence-by-sentence weaknesses well:

The dialogue barely surpasses lorem ipsum in its specificity: “Do you have any change?” “No.” “Keep it, then.” “Thank you, writer.” “I’m not a writer anymore.” And life advice from an alleged literary genius takes the form of shampoo-bottle nonsense: “Rain never hurt anyone. If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.”

Let me add to that list: towards the beginning of the book, Marcus’s first novel is an incredible sales success; he says that “Even the harshest critics on the East Coast all agreed: young Marcus Goldman was destined to become one of our great writers.” I don’t think I’ve read any critic, ever, who announces that a writer is “destined” to become great, because no one is destined to do anything. The vagueness of “East Coast” critics—who are these people, exactly?—is symptomatic of a vagueness infecting the entire novel, as if the narrator has learned to speak through advertising platitudes and brand names: “New Writer! More Popular and Absorbent Than the Competition!” There are occasional bursts of cleverness (“I bought a new laptop, in the hope that it would come pre-loaded with good ideas”), but they are rare. More often we find that “I treated myself to a five-star hotel in Miami.” Which hotel? What makes a “five-star” hotel? Little of the novel rings true to life, and it also doesn’t ring true to an alternate reality constructed from artifice in the fashion of someone like Carlos Ruiz Zafón. For writers, both Marcus and Harry Quebert seem incredibly uninterested in the work of other writers.

There are shades of Gillian Flynn but the comparison does not flatter Dicker; anyone tempted to read Harry Quebert should start with Gone Girl and work backwards through Flynn first.

What made Harry Quebert popular in Europe? I don’t know, though the mystery of why some works become popular and others don’t continues to fascinate me. It isn’t the literary quality of a book: bestseller lists are filled, seemingly indiscriminately, with a mixture of books so horribly written that they’re unreadable to me, along with some books so good that I recommend them to everyone. Being poorly written, or at least not well written, isn’t a barrier.

The real answer to “Who killed Lola Kellergan?” is “Who cares?” Most thrillers are not thrilling and most mysteries are not mysterious; they’re simply boringly written, as if the authors have not read thousands of other books before and lack the will, interest, or ability to try something new and/or beautiful. Literary fiction, whatever its characteristic generic flaws, generally tries to do something linguistically different, and few readers or critics of lit fic consider a specific example successful unless it does something fresh with the language.

The books that do something different—like Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. I’m not a person who sniffs at fiction because of the tags marketers choose. Every book is begun with the greatest hope. Few fulfill it. Dicker shows promise and may eventually write something great, but it will probably come at the expense of an obsession with greatness as a concept.

July 5, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Life: Self-aggrandizement edition

“‘What rules the world is ideas,’ Kristol once wrote, ‘because ideas define the way reality is perceived.’”

—Quoted in “Can the G.O.P. Be a Party of Ideas?” This is sort of true, but, alternately, idea producers and disseminators may want this to be true because it flatters them and raises their own status.

Kristol’s view is plausible but I remain unconvinced.

June 30, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Links: IPOs and life, feminism and its discontents, The Harry Quebert Affair, Murder, and More

* “The IPO is dying. Marc Andreessen explains why” is about much more than its headline implies, and there are too many good excerpts to pick one. Highly recommended.

* “Feminism and Its Discontents;” see also my earlier post on the subject.

* “Francophone Hit, American Letdown:” on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. I’m curious enough to get a copy.

* “A SWAT team blew a hole in my 2-year-old son:” “Every morning, I have to face the reality that my son is fighting for his life. It’s not clear whether he’ll live or die. All of this to find a small amount of drugs?” Call this part of the unmeasured cost of drug prohibition.

* “The American Dream is Every Man’s Nightmare” (maybe).

* “Intelligent life is just getting started,” from biologist Nathan Taylor.

* Announcements of the novel’s death from 1902 to the present.

* “How Denver Is Becoming the Most Advanced Transit City in the West.”

* “America’s Public Sector Union Dilemma: There is much less competition in the public sector than the private sector, and that has made all the difference.” The part about low labor mobility is especially striking.

June 29, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Life: The artists and the analysist edition

“One advantage of thinking about psychoanalysis as an art, instead of a science, is that you don’t have to believe in progress.”

—Adam Philips, “The Art of Nonfiction No. 7” in The Paris Review. Compare to “Politics repeats itself while science and art make it new.”

June 26, 2014 / Jake Seliger

The appeal of “pickup” or “game” or “The Redpill” is a failure of education and socialization

Since posting “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?” and “Men are where women were 30 years ago?” I’ve gotten into a couple discussions about why Neil Strauss’s The Game is popular and why adjacent subjects like “pickup” and the “Redpill” have picked up steam too. One friend wrote, “It’s so tedious to see how resentful men get—a subject much in the news lately because of the Santa Barbara shooting…”

That’s somewhat true, but underlying, longer-term trends are worth examining. The world is more complex than it used to be in many respects, and that includes sex and dating. Up until relatively recently—probably the late 60s / early 70s—it was probably common for most guys to marry a local girl, maybe straight out of high school, and marry a girl whose parents the guy probably knows and her parents probably know the guy’s. Parents, families, and religious authorities probably had a strong effect on what their children did, and a lot of men and women probably married as virgins. The dating script was relatively easy to follow and relatively many people paired up relatively early. In the 60s an explosion of divorces began, and that complicated matters in ways that are still being sorting out.

Today there are more hookups for a longer period of time and fewer universal scripts that everyone follows, or is supposed to be following. Instead, one sees a proliferation of possibilities, from the adventurous player—which is not solely a male role—to early marriage (though those early marriages tend to end in divorce) Dating “inequality” has probably increased, since the top guys are certainly having a lot more sex than the median or bottom guys. To some extent that dynamic has probably always been true, but now “top” could mean dozens of partners at a relatively early age, and the numerical top is more readily available to guys who want it. In the old regime it was probably possible for almost everyone to find a significant other of some sort (and I think families had more sway and say). Now that may be harder, especially for guys towards the bottom who don’t want to realize that if they’re towards the bottom the women they’re likely to attract are likely to be around the same place.

I’ve also noticed an elegiac sense that a weirdly large number of the “pickup artists” or “Red Pill” (sometimes it’s used as two words, sometimes as one) or “manosphere” guys have about the past, and how back then it was relatively easy to find, date, and marry a woman. Much of this is probably mythological, and I don’t think most of them would be happy marrying at 20 or 24 and having two or three kids by 28 or 29.

These stereotypes are no doubt riddled with holes—see further the oeuvre of John Updike—but they probably hold up reasonably well in terms of examining broad trends. Today almost no one gets married straight out of high school. Routine moves from city to city are normal, and each move often rips someone from the social networks that provide romantic connections. Families play a smaller and smaller role. If you don’t have the infrastructure of school, how do you meet lots of new people? Jobs are one possibility but looking for romantic prospects at work has obvious pitfalls. Online dating is another, but people who can’t effectively date offline often aren’t any better on (and are often worse).

Technology matters too. Technologies take a long time—decades, at least—to really reach fruition and for their ripples to be felt throughout societies and cultures. Virtually all big ideas start small.* That’s an important lesson from Where Good Ideas Come From, The Great Stagnation, The Enlightened Economy, and similar books about technological, economic, and social history. A suite of interrelated technologies around birth control (like hormonal birth control itself, better forms of it, and easy condom distribution and acquisition) are still playing out. Same with antibiotics and vaccines against STIs. VOX offers one way to think about this in “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation.” It begins:

The last one hundred years have witnessed a revolution in sexual behaviour. In 1900, only 6% of US women would have engaged in premarital sex by the age of 19, compared to 75% today . . . Public acceptance of premarital sex has reacted with a lag.

Culture is still catching up. Pickup, game, and the Redpill are part of that, and they are responses from guys frustrated by the way their own efforts fail while some of their peers’s efforts succeed. A lot of women appear less interested in an okay guy with an okay job and an okay but not that exciting or fun life, relative to guys with a different set of qualities. Men invest in what they think women want and women invest in what they think men want, and relative wants have changed over time.

Pickup artists and those who read them are responding to a cultural milieu in which most guys get terrible socialization regarding dating and women. At the same time guys see a smallish number of extraordinarily successful guys (though they often don’t see the value behind the extraordinarily successful guys). What are those successful guys doing? How? Why? Pickup artists, whatever their flaws, are trying to answer that question, sometimes more successfully and sometimes less. They’re also trying to answer that question and related questions in a concrete way, which most people, including their detractors, aren’t. I wrote about that issue in a review of Clarisse Thorn’s Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser:

feminism does very little to describe, let alone evaluate, how micro, day-to-day interactions are structured. Pickup artists, or whatever one may want to call guys who are consciously building their skills at going out and getting women, are describing the specific comments, conversations, styles, and venues women respond to. The pickup artists are saying, “This is how you approach a woman in a bar, this is how you strike up a conversation at the grocery store, and so forth.” In other words, they’re looking at how people actually go about the business of getting laid. Their work is often very detailed, and the overall thrust is toward the effectiveness of getting laid rather than how male-female interactions work in theory. Feminism, in Thorn’s view, appears to be silent, or mostly silent, on the day-to-day interactions.

Who else is doing that? Almost no one. As with virtually any other topic, one can muddle along through trial and error (and mostly error) or one can try to systematically learn about it and apply that learning to the problem domain, along with the learning others have done. That’s what the pickup people are doing, or trying to do.

To be sure, the worst of the group if just trying to sell shit, and sell as much of it as possible to fools. The best of the group is saying things that almost no one else is saying. They also say it’s hard. Look at “Krauser:”

The PUA cartel saw you coming and will sell you magic pills and 3 Secrets To Make Her Wet as long as your credit card is below it’s limit. If you’re looking to score something for nothing, you’ll end up with nothing. Daygame is hard. Very very hard.

He calls out the “hack mentality” in the same post. Caricature is easy, but the guys who are really paying attention aren’t easily caricatured.

Though it isn’t out yet, Tucker Max, Geoffrey Miller, and Nils Parker are writing Mate: The Young Man’s Guide To Sex And Dating, which is, among other things, a description of modern dating and a description of why so many guys do it so badly for so long. Confusion reigns, and the book promises to be the sort of fun-but-comprehensive read that can be given to unhappy, puzzled guys who understand something is wrong but don’t know how to fix it.

One strategy in response to new social circumstances is to figure out what you should do to be reasonably successful and what you can do to make yourself more appealing. This is not a male-only question: virtually every issue of Cosmo is about how to attract men, retain men, and deal with female friends and rivals. Another is to blame women, or withdraw from dating, or kill innocents because of your own frustration. If you think half the population isn’t into you, the problem is with you, not the population. There’s an important similarity to business here: If you start a business and no one wants to buy your products or services, you can blame the market or you can realize that you’re not doing what people want.

It’s easier to blame women than it is to make real changes, and there is a tendency among some of the self-proclaimed “Redpill”-types to do that. Paul Graham notes that the real secret to making wealth is to “Make something people want.” In dating the real secret (which isn’t a secret) is to be a person who people like. How to do that can be a whole book’s worth of material.

Blame is easy and improvement is hard. Short guys do have it harder than tall guys—but so what? Go ask a fat girl, or a flat-chested one, how much fun dating is for her, compared to her slenderer or better-endowed competitors. Honesty in those conversations is probably rare, but it is out there: usually in late-night conversations after a couple drinks.

I don’t hate “pickup artists” as a group, though I dislike the term and wish there was something better. Many of the things critics say are accurate. But criticizing without recognizing the impetus for the development in the first place is attacking the plant while ignoring the roots. This post, like so many of the posts I write, is looking at or attempting to look at the root.

Feminism didn’t come from nowhere. Neither had pickup.


* Which is not to say that all small ideas will automatically become big. Most don’t. But ideas, technologies, practices, and cultures spread much more slowly than is sometimes assumed, especially among the rah-rah tech press.

June 20, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Links: Reading, photos, teaching, life

* Inadvertently depressing, though it does raise the relative status of photographers: “Photos are the killer content type on mobile. Quick to consume like text, but easier to produce on a phone.”

* “The Moral Inversion of Economic Thinking,” or, why economics offends through counterintuitive facts and principles.

* “Putting Teacher Tenure In Context,” which has revised my opinions.

* “Reading: The Struggle” (maybe).

* Is tax evasion the key to understanding nonsensical-seeming data about first-world indebtedness?

* Someone found this blog by searching for “nurses making love.” I don’t know either.

* “When Literature Was Dangerous.”

* “Teaching college is no longer a middle-class job, and everyone paying tuition should care.

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