My Struggle: Book 2 by Karl Knausgaard

I completed the next 800 pages of the Karl Knausgaard My Struggle odyssey. Book 2 — “A Man in Love” — is said to be the best of the six volumes. I ate it up. So intimate. So raw. So many insights. This book focused on falling in love, having kids, and the balancing of work and family. Also, death: frequently death.

Not everyone should commit to reading a 3,600 page six-volume novel about a Norwegian writer who’s writing a 3,600 page novel. (To borrow a phrase from Leland de la Durantaye.) There’s a ridiculous amount of detail stuffed into the stories, but it’s all centered on one man, so it’s easier to keep track of than your typical 1000+ page beastly novel. And fortunately, the man has a pretty interesting inner life.

My Kindle highlights below. All bolding mine. Here were my highlights from book one.


People who don’t have children seldom understand what it involves, no matter how mature and intelligent they might otherwise be, at least that was how it was with me before I had children myself.

She was blond, had high cheekbones and narrow eyes, a long, slim body, and she knew how to dress, but she was much too pleased with herself, too self-centered for me to find her attractive. I have no problem with uninteresting or unoriginal people – they may have other, more important attributes, such as warmth, consideration, friendliness, a sense of humor, or talents such as being able to make a conversation flow to generate an atmosphere of ease around them, or the ability to make a family function – but I feel almost physically ill in the presence of boring people who consider themselves especially interesting and who blow their own trumpets.

I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them.

This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own.

What would it have been like to live in a world where everything was made from the power of your hands, the wind, or the water? What would it have been like to live in a world where the American Indians still lived their lives in peace? Where that life was an actual possibility? Where Africa was unconquered? Where darkness came with the sunset and light with the sunrise? Where there were too few humans and their tools were too rudimentary to have any effect on animal stocks, let alone wipe them out? Where you could not travel from one place to another without exerting yourself, and a comfortable life was something only the rich could afford, where the sea was full of whales, the forests full of bears and wolves, and there were still countries that were so alien no adventure story could do them justice, such as China, to which a voyage not only took several months and was the prerogative of only a tiny minority of sailors and traders, but was also fraught with danger. Admittedly, that world was rough and wretched, filthy and ravaged with sickness, drunken and ignorant, full of pain, low life expectancy and rampant superstition, but it produced the greatest writer, Shakespeare, the greatest painter, Rembrandt, the greatest scientist, Newton, all still unsurpassed in their fields, and how can it be that this period achieved this wealth? Was it because death was closer and life was starker as a result? Who knows?

Be that as it may, we can’t go back in time, everything we undertake is irrevocable, and if we look back what we see is not life but death. And whoever believes that the conditions and character of the times are responsible for our maladjustment is either suffering from delusions of grandeur or is simply stupid, and lacks self-knowledge on both accounts.

This state lasted for six months, for six months I was truly happy, truly at home in this world and in myself before slowly it began to lose its luster, and once more the world moved out of my reach.

Yet I wanted to have more of what came in its wake because public attention is a drug, the need it satisfies is artificial, but once you have had a taste of it you want more.

What had once been normal topics you didn’t talk about much, namely children, were now placed at the forefront of existence and cultivated with a frenzy that ought to make everyone raise their eyebrows, for what could be the meaning of this? In the midst of this lunacy there was me trundling my child around like one of the many fathers who had evidently put fatherhood before all else.

The slight disdain I felt for men pushing strollers was, to put it mildly, a double-edged sword as for the most part I had one in front of me when I saw them.

I swayed from side to side with Vanja in my arms, thinking that this must be what hell was like, gentle and nice and full of mothers you didn’t know from Eve, with their babies.

Now I had an hour to myself. It was the sole condition I had made before taking over responsibility for Vanja during the daytime, that I would have an hour on my own in the afternoon, and even though Linda considered it unfair since she’d never had an hour to herself like that, she agreed. The reason she’d never had an hour, I assumed, was that she hadn’t thought of it. And the reason she hadn’t thought of it was, I also assumed, that she would rather be with us than alone.

But the whole point for me of living in a big city was that I could be completely alone in it while still surrounded by people on all sides. All with faces I had never seen before! The unceasing stream of new faces.

One’s self-image not only encompasses the person you are but also the person you wanted to be, could be or once had been. For the self-image there was no difference between the actual and the hypothetical. It incorporated all ages, all feelings, all drives.

As a result I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me. The way I was seen changed, as if at the stroke of a magic wand, the instant I laid my hands on the stroller. I had always eyed the women I walked past the way men always have, actually a mysterious act because it couldn’t lead to anything except a returned gaze, and if I did see a really beautiful woman I might even turn around to watch her, discreetly of course, but…

Before Dostoyevsky, the ideal, even the Christian ideal, was always pure and strong, it was part of heaven, unattainable for almost everyone. The flesh was weak, the mind frail, but the ideal was unbending. The ideal was about aspiring, enduring, fighting the fight. In Dostoyevsky’s books everything is human, or rather, the human world is everything, including the ideals, which are turned on their heads: now they can be achieved if you give up, lose your grip, fill yourself with non-will rather than will. Humility and self-effacement, those are the ideals in Dostoyevsky’s foremost novels, and inasmuch as they are never realized within the framework of the story line, therein lies his greatness, because this is precisely a result of his own humility and self-effacement as a writer.

Why should we do one thing rather than another when there was no goal anyway, nor any direction in life, apart from to huddle together, live, and then die?

Death makes life meaningless because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because its presence makes the little we have of it indispensable, every moment precious.

Or as Jünger writes: “Little by little all areas are brought under this single common denominator, even one with its residence as far from causality as the dream.” In our century even our dreams are alike, even dreams are things we sell. Undifferentiated, which is just another way of saying indifferent. That is where our night is.

However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader. It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe.

…it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover.

Feeling cold to the depths of my soul, I walked down the corridor.

What did I want? I didn’t know. I was lying on a sofa just outside Stockholm, knowing not a soul, and everything in me was chaos and unrest. The uncertainty penetrated to my core, through to that which defined who I was.

“Attending a poetry reading is like being in a hospital,” he said as we left the next station. “Full of neuroses.”

Then I met Linda and the sun rose. I can’t find a better way to express it. The sun rose in my life. At first, as dawn breaking on the horizon, almost as if to say, this is where you have to look. Then came the first rays of sunshine, everything became clearer, lighter, more alive, and I became happier and happier, and then it hung in the sky of my life and shone and shone and shone.

But Arve, it seemed to me on that day, was a truly open person, as well as being curious and constantly striving to understand what he saw. But there was no ulterior motive about his openness, it was not a damned psychologist’s openness, nor was there any ulterior motive about the curiosity.

I was married, we were fine, soon we would be buying a flat together. Then I came here and wanted to wreck everything? I did. I wandered beneath the sun-dappled shade from the trees, surrounded by the warm fragrances of the forest, thinking that I was in the middle of my life. Not life as an age, not halfway along life’s path, but in the middle of my existence. My heart trembled.

She eyed me with obvious scorn. Pancakes are for children, she said. We’re not having a children’s party. Okay, I said, let’s call them crêpes then. Is that good enough for you? She turned her back on me.

If she was angry her presence was all that existed in me. It was like having an enormous dog in the room growling and I had to take care of it.

“I’m very sorry. Terribly sorry. But it was what you said that hit me so hard. Before I met you I hadn’t even dared imagine that I might have children one day. I didn’t dare. Even when I fell in love with you I didn’t. And then you said what you said. It was you who brought up the subject, do you remember? The very first morning. I want to have children with you. And I was so happy. I was so utterly, insanely happy. Just the fact that there was a possibility. It was you who gave me that possibility. And then … yesterday … Well, it was like you were withdrawing the possibility. You said perhaps we should put off having children.

The next day we moved my things, that is to say all my books, which had now grown to number twenty-five hundred titles, a fact which Anders and Geir, who were helping me with the move, cursed from the bottom of their hearts as we shifted…

And it is never easy to confront life-changing news, especially when you are deeply embroiled in the everyday and the banal, which we always are. They absorb almost everything, make almost everything small, apart from the few events that are so immense they lay waste to all the everyday trivia around you. Big news is like that and it is not possible to live inside it.

One evening I got so angry at her that I threw a glass at the stove with all my might. Strangely enough, it didn’t break. Typical, I thought afterward, I couldn’t even perform the classic act of smashing a glass during a fight.

When she became pregnant everything changed, now there was a horizon beyond the one the two of us formed, something greater than us, and it was there the whole time, in my thoughts and hers. Her unease may have been great, but even in its midst there was always a wholeness and security in her. Everything would fall into place, it would be fine, I knew it would.

The problem, if you can call it a problem, was that it was impossible to dislike him. He could talk to anyone, which is a rare gift, and he was generous, which you noticed as soon as you met him. And he was always happy. He was the person who stood up at parties and thanked the hosts for the spread or congratulated them on whatever occasion it was or did whatever was required, and he had a kind word for everyone, however much or little they had in common with him.

She was so angry that she screamed, actually screamed on the phone. I just held it away from my ear and kept writing. She said she would leave me. Go, I said. I don’t care, I have to write. And it was true. She would have to go if that was what she wanted. She said, I will. You’ll never see us again. Fine, I said. I wrote twenty pages a day. I didn’t see any letters or words, any sentences or shapes, just countryside and people, and Linda phoned and screamed, said I was a fairweather father, said I was a

Sweden hasn’t had a war on its soil since the seventeenth century and how often did it cross my mind that someone ought to invade Sweden, bomb its buildings, starve the country, shoot down its men, rape its women, and then have some faraway country, Chile or Bolivia, for example, embrace its refugees with kindness, tell them they love Scandinavia, and dump them in a ghetto outside one of the cities there. Just to see what they would say.

It was easy to protect yourself against music when you were prepared or just had it on as background, because it was simple, undemanding, and sentimental, but when I was not prepared, like now, or was really listening, it hit home with me. My feelings soared and before I knew what was happening my eyes were moist. It was only then that I realized how little I normally felt, how numb I had become. When I was eighteen I was full of such feelings all the time, the world seemed more intense and that was why I wanted to write, it was the sole reason, I wanted to touch something that music touched. The human voice’s lament and sorrow, joy and delight, I wanted to evoke everything the world had bestowed upon us. How could I forget that?

And if there had been any limits before they had certainly been removed now that a grandchild had come into the world. She worshipped Vanja and would do anything, absolutely anything for her.

One of the consequences of living here, I mused, as I banged the container lids shut and unlocked the door to have a cigarette outside, was that I simply said less. I had just stopped almost all the small talk, chatting with assistants in shops, waiters in cafés, conductors on trains, and strangers in chance encounters. This was one of the best parts about returning to Norway: the ease of dealing with people I didn’t know returned and my shoulders dropped.

Since I also wrote I ought to have been able to relate to her work, but the craft side was so prominent in writing a screenplay, where it was about all manner of ebbs and flows of tension, character development, plots and subplots, intros and turning points, I assumed I would have little to contribute in that respect and never mobilized more than polite interest.

She radiated a business-like manner that went well with Fredrik’s more flippant and child-like character. They had one child and were expecting another. Unlike us, they had everything under control, there was order in the home, they went out with their child and organized interesting activities. After we had been to theirs, or they had been to ours, that was often what Linda and I discussed: how on earth what appeared to be so simple for them could be so utterly beyond our capability.

But there was always a piece missing, it was always as though we were standing on opposite sides of a small chasm, the conversation was always tentative, we never really found the right tone. But the few times we did it was to everyone’s relief and pleasure. Much of the reason it did not really work was me: my great expanses of silence and the slight discomfort that came over me when I did say something.

From there it was a swift jump to pregnancies in general and then to births. I chimed in with something or other, added a snippet here and there, and otherwise listened in silence for the main part. Births are an intimate and sensitive topic of conversation for women, there is a lot of covert prestige and as a man the only possible option is to keep well away. To refrain from expressing an opinion.

The clouds in the sky to the east had a gentle golden hue, as though lit from the inside by the sun that was behind them.

Vidar drove as many older men did, hunched over the wheel, as though the few extra centimeters closer to the windshield were decisive for good vision.

The light beneath the sky was losing its luster. The approaching darkness was unevenly distributed across the landscape, the already dark areas were sucking it in more and more greedily, such as the trees at the edge of the forest, the trunks and branches were completely black now. The weak February light faded without a fight, without resistance, not even a last flicker could it rouse, just a slow, imperceptible decline until everything was darkness and night.

What was going through her head? Oh, I knew. She was all alone with Vanja during the day, from when I went to my office until I returned, she felt lonely, and she had been looking forward so much to these two weeks. Some quiet days with her little family gathered around her, that was what she had been looking forward to. I, for my part, never looked forward to anything except the moment the office door closed behind me and I was alone and able to write.

We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drink and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and the fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that it was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence, for in fact how small and trivial was the world we allowed ourselves to be lulled by? Yes, of course, the dramas we saw were magnificent, the images we internalized sublime and sometimes also apocalyptic, but be honest, slaves, what part did we play in them? None. But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows, and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestiges of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limbs and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend, or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.

He radiated naïveté, but not as though from inexperience, quite the contrary, he gave every impression of having experienced a great deal, it was more as if all the experiences were there but he hadn’t drawn the consequences, as though they had left him unaffected, so to speak.

I had only met her a couple of times, but to me she seemed to have many sides, there was a wealth of nuance in her personality, and you intuited a psychological depth, with no apparent signs of neuroticism, the constant companion of sensitivity of course, at least not obtrusively.

Not that I think she is innocent, necessarily, but she gives that impression. Innocence of this kind is typical of you. Purity and innocence don’t interest me. However, it’s very clear in you. You’re a deeply moral and a deeply innocent person. What is innocence? It is that which has not been touched by the world, that which has not been destroyed, it is like water into which a stone has never been thrown. It’s not that you don’t have lusts, that you don’t have desire, for you do, it’s just that you conserve innocence. Your insanely huge longing for beauty comes in here as well. It wasn’t by chance that you chose to write about angels. That’s the purest of the pure. You can’t get purer than that.” … Others search and search, and when they find a nugget, they sell it to acquire life, splendor, music, dance, enjoyment, luxury, or at least a bit of pussy, right, throw themselves at a woman just to forget they exist for an hour or two. What you lust for is innocence and this is an impossible equation.

What is a saintly life? Suffering, sacrifice, and death. Who the hell would want a great inner life if they don’t have any outer life? People only think of what introversion can give them in terms of external life and success. What is the modern view of a prayer? There is only one kind of prayer for modern people and that is as an expression of desire. You don’t pray unless there is something you want.

I shook my head. “There’s no safer place for secrets than in you,” he said. “You forget everything. Your brain’s like Swiss cheese without the cheese.

Then Cecilia came into the office wanting to chat. We went for lunch together. She had been out last night with her partner and his friend. She had flirted with the friend all evening, she said, and her partner had been livid when they got home, of course.” “How long have they been together?” “Six years.” “Was she thinking of leaving him?” “No, not at all. On the contrary, she wants children with him.” “So why the flirting?” I asked. Geir looked at me. “She wants to have her cake and eat it, too, obviously.” “What did you say to her? I assume she went to you for advice?” “I said she should deny it. Deny everything. She hadn’t been flirting, she’d just been friendly. Say no, no, no. And then don’t be so stupid next time, wait for an opportunity to offer itself and go about it calmly and collectedly. I don’t blame her for doing what she did. I blame her for being inconsiderate. She hurt him. That was uncalled for.”

However, there are many ways to be trapped; there are many ways of not being free. You have to remember that you’ve had everything you wanted. You’ve had your revenge on those you targeted. You have status. People sit waiting for what you do and wave palm leaves as soon as you show your face. You can write an article about something that interests you and it will be in print in the newspaper of your choice a few days later. People phone and want you to go here, there, and everywhere. Newspapers ask you for a comment on all sorts of matters. Your books will be published in Germany and England. Do you understand the freedom there is in that? Do you understand what has opened in your life? You talk about a longing to let go and fall. If I let go I would be standing in the same place. I’m standing right at the bottom. No one’s interested in what I write. No one’s interested in what I think. … Whenever I enter a room full of people I have to make myself interesting. I don’t preexist, like you, I don’t have a name, I have to create everything from scratch every time. I’m sitting at the bottom of a hole in the ground and shouting through a megaphone. It doesn’t matter what I say, no one is listening.

The last thing you want to hear when you’re in the darkness of depression is the babbling of some happy jerk.

As always after long interviews I felt empty, drained like a ditch. As always, it felt as though I had betrayed myself. Merely by sitting there I had gone along with the premise, which was that the two books I had written were good and important, and that I, the writer, was an unusual and interesting person. That was the starting point for the conversation: everything I said was important. If I didn’t say anything important, well, then I was just hiding it. Because it obviously had to be somewhere! So when I told stories about my childhood, for example, some perfectly normal, ordinary story everyone had experienced, it was important because it was me who said it. It said something about me, the writer of two good and important books. And I not only went along with this view, which formed the basis for the conversation, but did it with great enthusiasm. I sat there jabbering away like a parrot in the zoo. All while knowing the reality of the situation.

If I have learned one thing over these years that seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following: Don’t believe you are anybody. Do not fucking believe you are somebody. Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit. Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit. So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then, at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work, and know that you’re not worth a shit. This, more or less, was what I had learned. This was the sum of all my experience.

Relationships were there to eradicate individuality, to fetter freedom and suppress that which was pushing through.

How can you sit there receiving applause when you know that what you have done is not good enough? I had one opportunity. I had to cut all my ties with the flattering, thoroughly corrupt world of culture where everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be.

wanted the maximum amount of time for myself, with the fewest disturbances possible. I wanted Linda, who was already at home looking after Heidi, to take care of everything that concerned Vanja so that I could work. She didn’t want to. Or perhaps she did, but she couldn’t cope. All our conflicts and arguments were in some form or other about this, the dynamics. If I couldn’t write because of her and her demands, I would leave her, it was as simple as that. And somewhere she knew.

The way I took my revenge was to give her everything she wanted, that is, I took care of the children, I cleaned the floors, I washed the clothes, I did the food shopping, I cooked, and I earned all the money so that she had nothing tangible to complain about, as far as I and my role in the family were concerned. The only thing I didn’t give her, and it was the only thing she wanted, was my love. That was how I took my revenge. … Oh, how I gloated when I caught her in the trap and could stand there agreeing to all her demands! After the eruption, which was inevitable, after we had gone to bed, she would often cry and want to be comforted. That gave me an opportunity to extract further revenge, because I wouldn’t comply.

I knew John was asleep. But the ones in the back, had they also nodded off? I turned to look over my shoulder. Yes, indeed. Three girls lay there with mouths agape and eyes closed. Happiness exploded inside me. It lasted for one second, two seconds, maybe three. Then came the shadow that always followed, this happiness’s dark train.

… reinforced by a happiness that was so strong I remembered it twenty-five years later. But this happiness hadn’t had a shadow, it had been pure, undiluted, unadulterated. Then life lay at my feet. Anything could happen. Anything was possible. It wasn’t like that any longer. A lot had happened, and what had happened laid the groundwork for what could happen. Not only were the opportunities fewer, the emotions I experienced were weaker. Life was less intense. And I knew I was halfway, perhaps more than halfway. When John was as old as I was now I would be eighty. And with one foot in the grave, if not both feet. In ten years I would be fifty. In twenty, sixty.

Why, when I’m on board a plane or in a car imagining it’s going to crash, why do I think that’s not so bad? That it doesn’t matter? That I might just as well die as live? For this is what I think more often than not. Indifference is one of the seven deadly sins, actually the greatest of them all, because it is the only one that sins against life.

Bob Wright’s Why Buddhism is True

One of the delights of the past couple years has been becoming friends with Robert (Bob) Wright. For a long time and from afar, I’ve been stimulated by his writing and thinking. When I discovered that his next effort involved Buddhism, meditation, and evolutionary psychology, I jumped at the opportunity to be an ally/collaborator/thought partner. I’ve learned a lot.

Over the past couple years, in various MeaningofLife.TV episodes, essays, blog posts, tweets, his Coursera course, and elsewhere, Bob has been sharing bits and pieces of how he thinks about the connection between ev psych — which he originally popularized in The Moral Animal — and Buddhism .

Now, in his new book — hot off the presses! — he presents the full argument in one coherent volume. It is titled Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. It’s a fantastic book that speaks directly to a secular reader. He makes the argument that the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition — that we fail to see the world clearly and this causes us to suffer — is consistent with how you’d expect natural selection to “design” a human brain with the singular goal of genetic proliferation. Buddhism’s prescription for what to do if you wish to see the world more clearly, become happier, and be a more morally upstanding human being (the trifecta!) makes a great deal of sense, in Bob’s view. And in his experience, by attending several meditation retreats and maintaining a daily practice, there are some practical steps one can take to move closer to these truths in one’s own life.

Here’s a photo of a discussion I co-hosted over the weekend for Bob about his book. More to come on all these topics…

Book Notes: The Undoing Project

Michael Lewis is one of the highest paid writers in the world, and virtually every piece of writing I read of his is a reminder as to why. His latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, is a stellar story about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s pathbreaking research in psychology.

So many popular modern ideas about psychology and cognitive bias and happiness came from Kahneman and Tversky. So many phrases and heuristics and frameworks I have cited without knowing the researchers who first discovered them, who coined them, who explained them: these two!

The book is also a fascinating psychological profile of a partnership between two brilliant men. Lewis refers to it as a non-sexual love story, with all the corresponding ups and downs.

My highlights below — bold font is my own.


Later, when basketball scouts came to him looking for jobs, the trait he looked for was some awareness that they were seeking answers to questions with no certain answers—that they were inherently fallible. “I always ask them, ‘Who did you miss?’” he said. Which future superstar had they written off, or which future bust had they…

He had a diffidence about him—an understanding of how hard it is to know anything for sure. The closest he came to certainty was in his approach to making decisions. He never simply went with his first thought. He suggested a new definition of the nerd: a person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it.

“Knowledge is literally prediction,” said Morey. “Knowledge is anything that increases your ability to predict the outcome. Literally everything you do you’re trying to predict the right thing. Most people just do it subconsciously.”

Soon Morey noticed something else: A scout watching a player tended to form a near-instant impression, around which all other data tended to organize itself. “Confirmation bias,” he’d heard this called. The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see.

In some strange way people, at least when they were judging other people, saw what they expected to see and were slow to see what they hadn’t seen before. How bad was the problem? When Jeremy Lin’s coach at the New York Knicks finally put him in the game—because everyone else was injured—and allowed him to light up Madison Square Garden, the Knicks were preparing to release Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin had already decided that if he was released he’d simply quit basketball altogether. That’s how bad the problem was: that a very good NBA player would never have been given a serious chance to play in the NBA, simply because the minds of experts had concluded he did not belong. How many other Jeremy Lins were out there?

“His defining emotion is doubt,” said one of his former students. “And it’s very useful. Because it makes him go deeper and deeper and deeper.”

And that’s pretty much what Danny Kahneman remembered, or chose to remember, when asked about his childhood. From the age of seven he had been told to trust no one, and he’d obliged.

Presented with two lines of equal length, the eye is tricked into seeing one as being longer than the other. Even after you prove to people, with a ruler, that the lines are identical, the illusion persists: They’ll insist that one line still looks longer than the other. If perception had the power to overwhelm reality in such a simple case, how much power might it have in a more complicated one?

The University of Michigan psychologist Dick Nisbett, after he’d met Amos, designed a one-line intelligence test: The sooner you figure out that Amos is smarter than you are, the smarter you are.

Shore asked him how he had become a psychologist. “It’s hard to know how people select a course in life,” Amos said. “The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are. Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet. Who we marry may depend on who happens to be around at the right time of life. On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic. That I became a psychologist is probably not very revealing. What kind of psychologist I am may reflect deep traits.”

The reigning theories in psychology of how people made judgments about similarity all had one thing in common: They were based on physical distance.

People thought Tel Aviv was like New York but that New York was not like Tel Aviv.

People thought that the number 103 was sort of like the number 100, but that 100 wasn’t like 103. People thought a toy train was a lot like a real train but that a real train was not like a toy train.

“The directionality and asymmetry of similarity relations are particularly noticeable in similes and metaphors,” Amos wrote. “We say ‘Turks fight like tigers’ and not ‘tigers fight like Turks.’

“It is generally assumed that classifications are determined by similarities among the objects,” wrote Amos, before offering up an opposing view: that “the similarity of objects is modified by the manner in which they are classified.

A banana and an apple seem more similar than they otherwise would because we’ve agreed to call them both fruit. Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes. If you want to weaken some stereotype, eliminate the classification.

What Europeans often said about Americans—how wildly informal and improvisational they were—was, to her, even more true of Israelis.

Danny was then helping the Israeli Air Force to train fighter pilots. He’d noticed that the instructors believed that, in teaching men to fly jets, criticism was more useful than praise. They’d explained to Danny that he only needed to see what happened after they praised a pilot for having performed especially well, or criticized him for performing especially badly. The pilot who was praised always performed worse the next time out, and the pilot who was criticized always performed better. Danny watched for a bit and then explained to them what was actually going on: The pilot who was praised because he had flown exceptionally well, like the pilot who was chastised after he had flown exceptionally badly, simply were regressing to the mean. They’d have tended to perform better (or worse) even if the teacher had said nothing at all. An illusion of the mind tricked teachers—and probably many others—into thinking that their words were less effective when they gave pleasure than when they gave pain. Statistics wasn’t just boring numbers; it contained ideas that allowed you to glimpse deep truths about human life. “Because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean,” Danny later wrote,

The only way to understand a mechanism such as the eye, he thought, was by studying the mistakes that it made. Error wasn’t merely instructive; it was the key that might unlock the deep nature of the mechanism. “How do you understand memory?” he asked. “You don’t study memory. You study forgetting.”

Anne Treisman was on a flying visit to Harvard, where the demand to hear what she had to say was so great that her talk had to be moved to a big public lecture hall off campus. Danny left the talk filled with new enthusiasm. He asked to be deputized to look after Treisman and her traveling party—which included her mother, her husband, and their two small children. He gave them a tour of Harvard. “He was very eager to impress,” said Treisman, “and so I let myself be impressed.” It would be years before Danny and Anne left their marriages and married each other, but it took no time at all for Danny to engage Treisman’s ideas.

In very large populations, the law of large numbers did indeed guarantee this result. If you flipped a coin a thousand times, you were more likely to end up with heads or tails roughly half the time than if you flipped it ten times. For some reason human beings did not see it that way. “People’s intuitions about random sampling appear to satisfy the law of small numbers, which asserts that the law of large numbers applies to small numbers as well,” Danny and Amos wrote.

An old friend of Amos’s would later recall, “Amos would say, ‘People are not so complicated. Relationships between people are complicated.’ And then he would pause, and say: ‘Except for Danny.’”

For instance, in families with six children, the birth order B G B B B B was about as likely as G B G B B G. But Israeli kids—like pretty much everyone else on the planet, it would emerge—naturally seemed to believe that G B G B B G was a more likely birth sequence. Why? “The sequence with five boys and one girl fails to reflect the proportion of boys and girls in the population,” they explained. It was less representative. What is more, if you asked the same Israeli kids to choose the more likely birth order in families with six children—B B B G G G or G B B G B G—they overwhelmingly opted for the latter. But the two birth orders are equally likely.

Amos liked to say that if you are asked to do anything—go to a party, give a speech, lift a finger—you should never answer right away, even if you are sure that you want to do it. Wait a day, Amos said, and you’ll be amazed how many of those invitations you would have accepted yesterday you’ll refuse after you have had a day to think it over. A corollary to his rule for dealing with demands upon his time was his approach to situations from which he wished to extract himself…who finds himself stuck at some boring meeting or cocktail party often finds it difficult to invent an excuse to flee. Amos’s rule, whenever he wanted to leave any gathering, was to just get up and leave. Just start walking and you’ll be surprised how creative you will become and how fast you’ll find the words for your excuse, he said.

It confirmed Biederman’s sense that “most advances in science come not from eureka moments but from ‘hmmm, that’s funny.’”

Across North America, more people died every year as a result of preventable accidents in hospitals than died in car crashes—which was saying something.

Bad things even happened to people when they pressed hospital elevator buttons. Redelmeier had actually co-written an article about that: “Elevator Buttons as Unrecognized Sources of Bacterial Colonization in Hospitals.” For one of his studies, he had swabbed 120 elevator buttons and 96 toilet seats at three big Toronto hospitals and produced evidence that the elevator buttons were far more likely to infect you with some disease.

Whenever a patient recovered, for instance, the doctor typically attributed the recovery to the treatment he had prescribed, without any solid evidence that the treatment was responsible. Just because the patient is better after I treated him doesn’t mean he got better because I treated him, Redelmeier thought. “So many diseases are self-limiting,” he said. “They will cure themselves. People who are in distress seek care. When they seek care, physicians feel the need to do something. You put leeches on; the condition improves. And that can propel a lifetime of leeches. A lifetime of overprescribing antibiotics. A lifetime of giving tonsillectomies to people with ear infections. You try it and they get better the next day and it is so compelling. You go to see a psychiatrist and your depression improves—you are convinced of the efficacy of psychiatry.”

By the end of Redelmeier’s medical training, seven years later, researchers had shown that heart attack patients whose arrhythmia was suppressed died more often than the ones whose condition went untreated. No one explained why doctors, for years, had opted for a treatment that systematically killed patients—though proponents of evidence-based medicine were beginning to look to the work of Kahneman and Tversky for possible explanations.

Surgery was more likely to extend your life, but, unlike radiation, it came with the small risk of instant death. When you told people that they had a 90 percent chance of surviving surgery, 82 percent of patients opted for surgery. But when you told them that they had a 10 percent chance of dying from the surgery—which was of course just a different way of putting the same odds—only 54 percent chose the surgery.

The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours. It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.

A man whom no one would ever have described as happy was setting out, to the wonder of those who knew him, to discover the rules of happiness.

An hour after the procedure, the researchers entered the recovery room and asked the patients to rate their experience. Those who had been given the less unhappy ending remembered less pain than did the patients who had not. More interestingly, they proved more likely to return for another colonoscopy when the time came. Human beings who had never imagined that they might prefer more pain to less could nearly all be fooled into doing so. As Redelmeier put it, “Last impressions can be lasting impressions.”

People did not seek to avoid other emotions with the same energy they sought to avoid regret. When they made decisions, people did not seek to maximize utility. They sought to minimize regret.

Why didn’t people regret Israel’s inaction? Amos and Danny had a thought: People regretted what they had done, and what they wished they hadn’t done, far more than what they had not done and perhaps should have.

They spent more than a year working and reworking the same basic idea: In order to explain the paradoxes that expected utility could not explain, and create a better theory to predict behavior, you had to inject psychology into the theory.

“Happy species endowed with infinite appreciation of pleasures and low sensitivity to pain would probably not survive the evolutionary battle,” they wrote.

The two problems were identical, but, in the first case, when the choice was framed as a gain, the subjects elected to save 200 people for sure (which meant that 400 people would die for sure, though the subjects weren’t thinking of it that way). In the second case, with the choice framed as a loss, they did the reverse, and ran the risk that they’d kill everyone. People did not choose between things. They chose between descriptions of things.

By 1976, purely for marketing purposes, they changed their title to “Prospect Theory.” “The idea was to give the theory a completely distinct name that would have no associations whatsoever,” said Danny. “When you say ‘prospect theory,’ no one knows what you’re talking about. We thought: Who knows? It may turn out to be influential. And if it is we don’t want it to be confused with anything else.”

Then he came straight out with his own feelings about Amos getting the lion’s share of the glory for work they had done together. “I am very much in his shadow in a way that is not representative of our interaction,” he said. “It induces a certain strain. There is envy! It’s just disturbing. I hate the feeling of envy. . . . I am maybe saying too much now.”

It was those constraints that Danny set out to investigate. He wanted to understand better what he was now calling “counterfactual emotions,” or the feelings that spurred people’s minds to spin alternative realities in order to avoid the pain of the emotion. Regret was the most obvious counterfactual emotion, but frustration and envy shared regret’s essential trait. “The emotions of unrealized possibility,” Danny called them, in a letter to Amos.

Toward the end of his thinking on the subject, he summed up a lot in a single sentence: “Reality is a cloud of possibility, not a point.”

What Danny needed was for Amos to continue to see him and his ideas uncritically, as he had when they were alone together in a room. If that involved some misperception on Amos’s part—some exaggeration of the earthly status of Danny’s ideas—well, then, Amos should continue to misperceive. After all, what is a marriage if not an agreement to distort one’s perception of another, in relation to everyone else? “I wanted something from him, not from the world,” said Danny.

But because he was Danny, he made a rule about his fantasy life: He never fantasized about something that might happen. He established this private rule for his imagination once he realized that, after he had fantasized about something that might actually happen, he lost his drive to make it happen. His fantasies were so vivid that “it was as if you actually had it,” and if you actually had it, why would you bother to work hard to get…

Book Notes: My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard

“It’s not everyday you get sent a masterpiece to review.” So began one glowing review of My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard.

I just finished Book One and enjoyed it very much. For this book to work for you as a reader, you have to be all-in on absorbing the minutia of Knausgaard life. I was. I enjoyed the endless micro-details, and the occasional thought-bombs — or longer meditations — on life, parenting, relationships, death. There are moving passages on fatherhood and his struggle to balance having a family with his professional ambitions as a writer. He writes compellingly about his craving for his own father’s approval — and the damage his alcoholic father wrought on his own emotional stability.

There are countless reviews online of a book that has become beloved by so many in Scandinavia and in the States. Here’s one summary of the “movement” that is the My Struggle series. My Kindle highlights are below.


For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run toward the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain.

While my days were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. “Family” was one such term, “career” another.

Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty.

The only thing that does not age in a face is the eyes. They are no less bright the day we die as the day we are born.

[When his kid stuck out her tongue.]  There has never been so much future in my life as at that time, never so much joy

For, while previously I saw time as a stretch of terrain that had to be covered, with the future as a distant prospect, hopefully a bright one, and never boring at any rate, now it is interwoven with our life here and in a totally different way. Were I to portray this with a visual image it would have to be that of a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides.

As I write, I am filled with tenderness for her. But this is on paper. In reality, when it really counts, and she is standing there in front of me, so early in the morning that the streets outside are still and not a sound can be heard in the house, she, raring to start a new day, I, summoning the will to get to my feet, putting on yesterday’s clothes and following her into the kitchen, where the promised blueberry-flavored milk and the sugar-free muesli await her, it is not tenderness I feel, and if she goes beyond my limits, such as when she pesters and pesters me for a film, or tries to get into the room where John is sleeping, in short, every time she refuses to take no for an answer but drags things out ad infinitum, it is not uncommon for my irritation to mutate into anger, and when I then speak harshly to her, and her tears flow, and she bows her head and slinks off with slumped shoulders, I feel it serves her right. Not until the evening when they are asleep and I am sitting wondering what I am really doing is there any room for the insight that she is only two years old. But by then I am on the outside looking in. Inside, I don’t have a chance. Inside, it is a question of getting through the morning, the three hours of diapers that have to be changed, clothes that have to be put on, breakfast that has to be served, faces that have to be washed, hair that has to be combed and pinned up, teeth that have to be brushed, squabbles that have to be nipped in the bud, slaps that have to be averted, rompers and boots that have to be wriggled into, before I, with the collapsible double stroller in one hand and nudging the two small girls forward with the other, step into the elevator, which as often as not resounds to the noise of shoving and shouting on its descent, and into the hall, where I ease them into the stroller, put on their hats and mittens and emerge onto the street already crowded with people heading for work and deliver them to the nursery ten minutes later, whereupon I have the next five hours for writing until the mandatory routines for the children resume. I have always had a great need for solitude. I require huge swathes of loneliness and when I do not have it, which has been the case for the last five years, my frustration can sometimes become almost panicked, or aggressive.

Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I … do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children in the play areas, bring them home, undress them, bathe them, look after them until it is bedtime, tuck them in, hang some clothes to dry, fold others, and put them away, tidy up, wipe tables, chairs, and cupboards.

Looking back on this, I find it striking how she, scarcely two years old, could have such an effect on our lives. Because she did, for a while that was all that mattered. Of course, that says nothing about her, but everything about us. Both Linda and I live on the brink of chaos, or with the feeling of chaos, everything can fall apart at any moment and we have to force ourselves to come to terms with the demands of a life with small children.

And at least as corrosive is the awareness that I am dealing with children. That it is children who are dragging me down. There is something deeply shameful about this. In such situations I am probably as far from the person I aspire to be as possible. I didn’t have the faintest notion about any of this before I had children. I thought then that everything would be fine so long as I was kind to them. And that is actually more or less how it is, but nothing I had previously experienced warned me about the invasion into your life that having children entails. The immense intimacy you have with them, the way in which your own temperament and mood are, so to speak, woven into theirs, such that your own worst sides are no longer something you can keep to yourself, hidden, but seem to take shape outside you, and are then hurled back.

If Heidi sleeps in the car we go to a café with Vanja, who loves the moments she has alone with us and sits there with her lemonade asking us about everything under the sun: Is the sky fixed? Can anything stop autumn coming? Do monkeys have skeletons? Even if the feeling of happiness this gives me is not exactly a whirlwind but closer to satisfaction or serenity, it is happiness all the same. Perhaps even, at certain moments, joy.

And isn’t that enough? Isn’t it enough? Yes, if joy had been the goal it would have been enough. But joy is not my goal, never has been, what good is joy to me? The family is not my goal either. If it had been, and I could have devoted all my energy to it, we would have had a fantastic time, of that I am sure.

I do everything I have to do for the family; that is my duty. The only thing I have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and to burn up the longing generated by this in writing. Where this ideal has come from I have no idea, and as I now see it before me, in black and white, it almost seems perverse: why duty before happiness? The question of happiness is banal, but the question that follows is not, the question of meaning. When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfill a whole life. Not mine, at any rate. Soon I will be forty, and when I’m forty, it won’t be long before I’m fifty. And when I’m fifty, it won’t be long before I’m sixty. And when I’m sixty, it won’t be long before I’m seventy. And that will be that. My epitaph might read: Here lies a man who grinned and bore it. And in the end he perished for it.

Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.

Until now, I thought, observing the crowds circulating in the concourse below. In twenty-five years a third of them would be dead, in fifty years two-thirds, in a hundred all of them. And what would they leave behind, what had their lives been worth? Gaping jaws, empty eye sockets, somewhere beneath the earth. 

…after the previous year’s success I was suffering from child hubris, I didn’t need to learn all the lines, everything would be fine, I had thought, but standing there, affected I suppose by my father’s presence, I could barely remember a line, and our teacher prompted me all the way through a long play about a town of which I was supposed to be the mayor. In the car on the way home he said he had never been so embarrassed in his life and he would never attend any of my end-of-term shows again. That was a promise he kept. Nor did he go to any of the countless soccer matches I played in as I was growing up, he was never one of the parents who drove to away games, never one of the parents who watched home matches, and I didn’t react to that either, I didn’t even consider it unusual, for that was the way he was, my father, and many other fathers like him, this was the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, when being a father had a different and, at least on a practical level, a less comprehensive significance than today.

Feelings are like water, they always adapt to their surroundings. Not even the worst grief leaves traces; when it feels so overwhelming and lasts for such a long time, it is not because the feelings have set, they can’t do that, they stand still, the way water in a forest mere stands still.

He had been enthusiastic and warm, but there had also been a sharpness about him, it didn’t surface often, but when it did I had considered it evil. He

The days from which these incidents are drawn were countless, the bonds they created between us indestructible. The fact that he could be more malicious to me than anyone else changed nothing, it was part and parcel of it, and in the context we lived, the hatred I felt for him was no more than a brook is to an ocean, a lamp to the night.

He had told me often that Dad had totally crushed his self-esteem on a number of occasions, humiliated him as only Dad could, and that had colored periods of his life when he felt he was incapable of doing anything and was worthless. Then there were other periods when everything went well, when there were no hitches, no nagging doubts. From the outside, all you saw was the latter.

“Thank you,” I said, gathering the items and leaving. The desire to sleep with her, which manifested itself more as a kind of physical openness and gentleness than lust’s more usual form, which of course is rougher, more acute, a kind of contraction of the senses, lasted all the way back to the house, but it was not in complete control because grief lay all around it, with its hazy, gray sky, which I suspected could overwhelm me again at any moment.

But then the tiredness hit me. Suddenly all I wanted to do was sleep. Suddenly I could barely lift my arms. The thought of having to undress was unbearable, so I lay back in bed with all my clothes on and descended into the soft, inner light. Every tiny movement I made, even the stirring of my little finger, tickled my stomach, and when I fell asleep the very next second it was with a smile on my face.

“It’s a bit like buying wine in a restaurant,” I said. “If you’re not a connoisseur, I mean. If you’ve got a lot of money you take the second-most expensive. If you haven’t, you take the second-cheapest. Never the most expensive, nor the cheapest. That’s probably the way it is with coffins as well.”

…as tears flowed down my cheeks without cease, for Dad, who had grown up here, he was dead. Or perhaps that was not why I was crying, perhaps it was for quite different reasons, perhaps it was all the grief and misery I had accumulated over the last fifteen years that had now been released.

Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.

Book Review: The Intel Trinity

Steve Jobs, in a 1994 interview, said that once you discover that everything around you that we call “life” — rules, expectations, institutions, buildings, companies, theories, and so on — were made by people no smarter than you, everything changes. Because when you realize that most of what seems permanent and “the way things have always been” was, at one point, the proactive creation of a fallible human being, then you learn that if you poke at life you can actually change it. From then on, you take a much broader view of life’s possibilities.

It’s a powerful point that I agree with, except for the notion that the institutions and companies and norms and countries around us were built by people “no smarter than you.” In fact, the Founding Fathers of America were probably smarter than you or me. Same with Steve Jobs. Not all of us is smart enough or persistent enough to leave an enduring impact. But it’s true most of us are smarter than we know.

In any case, if you apply Jobs’ comment to Silicon Valley, it resonates. It’s uncommon to step back and ponder who created the norms and culture of modern tech entrepreneurship that we take for granted today. I locate the answer in (at least) two companies. HP, where Dave and Bill pioneered the idea of flexible work hours, employees owning equity in companies, casual attire, non-hierarchal decision making, and so much of the “west coast” aesthetic that is central to modern Silicon Valley identity. When HP introduced these policies, they were considered bold and groundbreaking. And then Intel, which, by growing from an idea to the world’s most important company, set a standard for execution that became the high water mark for other startups that aspired to global scale.

Intel also was one of the first companies to raise modern venture capital. How often do we stop and think about the original investors who decided to invest real money in a high risk, low liquidity tech company, and the entrepreneur who thought to sell equity in his company in exchange for enough risk capital to shoot for the stars?

I recently read Mike Malone’s The Intel Trinity, a wonderful guide to the history of Intel and the famous troika of Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove. These guys created Silicon Valley. The Intel Trinity explains the story of Intel well, and the tremendously intense and sometimes volatile relationship between them. Those of us too young to have lived through the rise of Intel are an especially relevant audience for this book, as is anyone who does not understand the historical meaning or importance of Moore’s Law. While there are a couple chapters in the book about Andy Grove’s personal history, for more color on that — his unbelievable personal life story as an immigrant from Hungary — I’d recommend Grove’s memoir Swimming Across.

Book Short: The Complacent Class by Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen’s latest book — The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream — follows up The Great Stagnation and Average is Over as the third in a trilogy about what’s gone wrong in America that has caused, in Tyler’s summation, wages to stagnate, infrastructure to decay, entrepreneurship to slow, and in general a large swath of Americans to fall behind in the modern economy.

Lengthier reviews already published elsewhere, so I’ll offer just three impressions of this provocative book written by a good friend.

First, reading it was reminder number 6,238 that I live in an exceptionally privileged life. I’m doing fine and almost everyone I know is doing just fine. The economy around me is booming. I travel almost exclusively to parts of the world where everyone is doing fine. That I find myself in this position is due almost entirely to luck and good fortune; what responsibilities I and my fellow lottery winners have to those handed a harder set of cards is one of the most important moral questions I grapple with.

Second, the habits of mind and action that Tyler says contribute to the complacency of so many Americans are the same habits we write about in The Start-up of You — except we extoll the positive version of them, of course! Tyler talks about risk aversion; we talk about how to take intelligent risk. If you want solutions, at the individual level, to some of the diagnoses in The Complacent Class…then read The Start-up of You!

Third, there’s an ambiguity in language on the topic of entrepreneurship that pops up in this book and other books and articles that study economic data. Tyler cites data — and points to this 538 piece summarizing the data — showing that fewer people are starting companies. Even the tech sector has fewer startups today! Entrepreneurship is slowing down, it seems? Well, maybe. Venture capital is pouring into startups. If there were fewer and fewer companies being started, why is there more and more venture capital being invested in startups? I think the issue here is the definition of “startup” and “high tech.” High level economic data tend to look at “new business formation” to draw conclusions about “entrepreneurship” and they define “startup” as any sort of new venture. Even “high tech” is broader than the specific niche that Silicon Valley is famous for and that venture capital chases: software and hardware startups financed and run in such a way as to one day achieve massive scale. This sort of entrepreneurship — the sort parodied on HBO’s Silicon Valley, glorified on Shark Tank, and written about in the popular press — is thriving, even if, in general, fewer Americans are starting “new businesses.” Of course, this doesn’t detract from the broader point that a lot of Americans are facing stagnant careers and a lot of once-stable industries are no longer reliable sources of prosperity.

Anyway, Marginal Revolution, Tyler’s blog, has long been a must-read. And don’t miss his podcast, which is still fairly new but really hitting its stride…

What I’ve Been Reading

Two very long books.

1. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I really enjoyed working my way through this novel. If you’re new to Murakami, I wouldn’t start with this one. It’s dauntingly long (almost 1,000 pages), and I could see some readers getting lost — if you aren’t ready for it — amid the strangeness and sadness that permeate many scenes in the book. But if you’re in the right headspace, the hyper detailed descriptions, the plot, and strange sci-fi “weather” cast over Tokyo make a memorable reading experience.

Here’s just one quote that gives a sense of the vibe: “Once you pass a certain age, life is just a continuous process of losing one thing after another. One after another, things you value slip out of your hands the way a comb loses teeth. People you love fade away one after another. That sort of thing.”

2. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon

This is another brick of a book but of a very different sort: non-fiction, organized into focused chapters, each on some element of a non-ordinary life experience and how parents and families adapt. There are chapters on deafness, dwarfism, transgender, homosexuality, prodigies, autism, and others. If you’re a parent of a child who falls into any of these categories, it’s a a must-read. I’m not, but I still found myself learning a ton about the life experience of those with certain types of disabilities. In many chapters there’s a spotlight given to the push and pull of advocacy groups, politicians, educators, and others who try to standardize a point of view on whether parents should buy cochlear implants for their deaf child, for example, or a 5 year old boy who tells his parents he wants to become a girl.

Solomon inclines to telling anecdotes over statistics, because “numbers imply trends and anecdotes imply chaos.” There’s a lot of messiness in the real family experiences profiled here. Internal debate. Changes of heart. I’m in awe at how Solomon shares stories about the families he spoke to. Genuine compassion and yet steel eyed honesty. He manages to assert his own opinion on topics where there’s true debate, but without simplifying the matter or selling short the diversity of views.

Book Short: The Checklist Manifesto

Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto is a wonderfully engaging summation of how the world has become so complex, and how to use checklists — yes, a simple to-do checklist — to manage the complexity that underlies modern professions.

The surgery room is the primary setting for the book’s examples, Gawande’s own vocation of course, but there are also useful stories from the worlds of building construction, aviation, and Wall Street trading.

Here’s Derek Sivers’ detailed summary of the book.

 

Book Review: But What If We’re Wrong?

klostermanChuck Klosterman wrote one of the most stimulating books that I read in 2016: But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. There are countless interesting observations on science and pop culture and sports and history. By contemplating which assumptions of today might be disproven in the future, or which authors of note today might be forgotten in the future and which no-name writers might become famous after their death, he unearths novel theories about familiar topics. Why did Herman Melville become renowned by future generations but not his own? Which theories of science are we totally convinced are true today but may well be proven false by future generations of physicists? Which TV show made in 2016 will be referenced by historians in 2080 when they try to explain what life was like in 2016?

My favorite paragraphs are pasted below, with the bold font mine.

Thanks to Russ Roberts for recommending this via his Econtalk conversation with Chuck.


When you ask smart people if they believe there are major ideas currently accepted by the culture at large that will eventually be proven false, they will say, “Well, of course. There must be. That phenomenon has been experienced by every generation who’s ever lived.”

Aristotle had argued more than a thousand years prior: He believed all objects craved their “natural place,” and that this place was the geocentric center of the universe, and that the geocentric center of the universe was Earth. In other words, Aristotle believed that a dropped rock fell to the earth because rocks belonged on earth and wanted to be there.

For the next thirty years, nothing about the reception of [Moby Dick] changes. But then World War I happens, and—somehow, and for reasons that can’t be totally explained—modernists living in postwar America start to view literature through a different lens. There is a Melville revival. The concept of what a novel is supposed to accomplish shifts in his direction and amplifies with each passing generation…

I suspect most conventionally intelligent people are naïve realists, and I think it might be the defining intellectual quality of this era. The straightforward definition of naïve realism doesn’t seem that outlandish: It’s a theory that suggests the world is exactly as it appears.

Any time you talk to police (or lawyers, or journalists) about any kind of inherently unsolvable mystery, you will inevitably find yourself confronted with the concept of Occam’s Razor: the philosophical argument that the best hypothesis is the one involving the lowest number of assumptions.

The reason something becomes retrospectively significant in a far-flung future is detached from the reason it was significant at the time of its creation—and that’s almost always due to a recalibration of social ideologies that future generations will accept as normative.

The arc of Lethem’s larger contention boils down to two points. The first is that no one is really remembered over the long haul, beyond a few totemic figures—Joyce, Shakespeare, Homer—and that these figures serve as placeholders for the muddled generalization of greatness (“Time is a motherfucker and it’s coming for all of us,” Lethem notes).

The reason shadow histories remained in the shadows lay in the centralization of information: If an idea wasn’t discussed on one of three major networks or on the pages of a major daily newspaper or national magazine, it was almost impossible for that idea to gain traction with anyone who wasn’t consciously searching for alternative perspectives. That era is now over. There is no centralized information, so every idea has the same potential for distribution and acceptance.

Competing modes of discourse no longer “compete.” They coexist.

Take, for example, the plight of Native Americans. What American subculture has suffered more irrevocably? Prior to Columbus’s landing in the New World, the Native American population approached one hundred million. Now it’s a little over three million, two-thirds of whom are relegated to fifty delineated reservations on mostly undesirable land. Still, that equates to roughly 1 percent of the total US population. Yet Native Americans are essentially voiceless, even in conversations that specifically decry the lack of minority representation. Who is the most prominent Native American media figure or politician? Sherman Alexie? Louise Erdrich? Tom Cole or Markwayne Mullin, both of whom are from the same state? Who, for that matter, is the most famous Native American athlete, or rapper, or reality star? Maybe Sam Bradford? Maybe Sacheen Littlefeather, who’s been virtually invisible since the seventies? When the Academy Awards committee next announces the nominations for Best Picture, how many complaints will focus on the lack of films reflecting the Native American experience? Outside the anguish expressed over the use of the term “Redskin” by the Washington football franchise, it’s hard to find conversation about the biases facing Native Americans; outside the TV show Fargo, you almost never see it reflected in the popular culture. Everyone concedes it exists, but it’s not a popular prejudice (at least not among the mostly white liberals who drive these conversations). Their marginalization is ignored, thus creating a fertile factory for the kind of brilliant outsider who won’t be recognized until that artist is dead and gone. So this is one possibility—a Navajo Kafka.

 Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country: “I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.”

…the myth of universal timeliness. There is a misguided belief—often promoted by creative writing programs—that producing fiction excessively tied to technology or popular culture cheapens the work and detracts from its value over time. If, for example, you create a plot twist that hinges on the use of an iPad, that story will (allegedly) become irrelevant once iPads are replaced by a new form of technology. If a character in your story is obsessed with watching Cheers reruns, the meaning of that obsession will (supposedly) evaporate once Cheers disappears from syndication. If your late-nineties novel is consumed with Monica Lewinsky, the rest of the story (purportedly) devolves into period piece. The goal, according to advocates of this philosophy, is to build a narrative that has no irretraceable connection to the temporary world. But that’s idiotic, for at least two reasons. The first is that it’s impossible to generate deep verisimilitude without specificity. The second is that if you hide the temporary world and the work somehow does beat the odds and become timeless, the temporary world you hid will become the only thing anyone cares about

But I’ve been a paid critic for enough years to know my profession regularly overrates many, many things by automatically classifying them as potentially underrated. The two terms have become nonsensically interchangeable.

The nonfiction wing of this level houses elemental tacticians like Robert Caro; someone like William T. Vollmann straddles both lines, fortified by his sublime recklessness. Even the lesser books from these writers are historically important, because—once you’re defined as great—failures become biographically instructive. 

The third tier houses commercial writers who dependably publish major or minor bestsellers and whose success or failure is generally viewed as a reflection of how much (or how little) those books sell. These individuals are occasionally viewed as “great at writing,” but rarely as great writers. They are envied and discounted at the same time. They are what I call “vocally unrated”: A large amount of critical thought is directed toward explaining how these types of novels are not worth thinking about.

Now, if the world were logical, certain predictions could be made about what bricks from that pyramid will have the greatest likelihood of remaining intact after centuries of erosion. Devoid of all other information, a betting man would have to select a level-one writer like Roth, just as any betting man would take the Yankees if forced to wager on who will win the World Series one hundred seasons from now. If you don’t know what the weather will be like tomorrow, assume it will be pretty much the same as today. But this would require an astonishing cultural stasis. It would not simply mean that the way we presently consume and consider Roth will be the way Roth is consumed and considered forevermore; it would mean that the manner in which we value and assess all novels will remain unchanged. It also means Roth must survive his inevitable post-life reevaluation by the first generation of academics who weren’t born until he was already gone, a scenario where there will be no room for advancement and plenty of room for diminishing perceptions (no future contrarian can provocatively claim, “Roth is actually better than everyone thought at the time,” because—at the time—everyone accepted that he was viewed as remarkable). He is the safest bet, but still not a safe bet. Which is why I find myself fixated on the third and sixth tiers of my imaginary triangle: “the unrated.” As specific examples, they all face immeasurable odds. But as a class, they share certain perverse advantages.

Normal consumers declare rock to be dead whenever they personally stop listening to it (or at least to new iterations of it), which typically happens about two years after they graduate from college.

The Beatles were the first major band to write their own songs, thus making songwriting a prerequisite for credibility; they also released tracks that unintentionally spawned entire subgenres of rock, such as heavy metal (“Helter Skelter”), psychedelia (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), and country rock (“I’ll Cry Instead”).

Do I think the Beatles will be remembered in three hundred years? Yes. I believe the Beatles will be the Sousa of Rock (alongside Michael Jackson, the Sousa of Pop22). If this were a book of predictions, that’s the prediction I’d make. But this is not a book about being right. This is a book about being wrong, and my faith in wrongness is greater than my faith in the Beatles’ unassailability. What I think will happen is probably not what’s going to happen. So I will consider what might happen instead.

Since rock, pop, and rap are so closely tied to youth culture, there’s an undying belief that young people are the only ones who can really know what’s good. It’s the only major art form where the opinion of a random fourteen-year-old is considered more relevant than the analysis of a sixty-four-year-old scholar. (This is why it’s so common to see aging music writers championing new acts that will later seem comically overrated—once they hit a certain age, pop critics feel an obligation to question their own taste.)

Take architecture: Here we have a creative process of immense functional consequence. It’s the backbone of the urban world we inhabit, and it’s an art form most people vaguely understand—an architect is a person who designs a structure on paper, and that design emerges as the structure itself. Architects fuse aesthetics with physics and sociology. And there is a deep consensus over who did this best, at least among non-architects: If we walked down the street of any American city and asked people to name the greatest architect of the twentieth century, most would say Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, if someone provided a different answer, we’d have to assume we’ve stumbled across an actual working architect, an architectural historian, or a personal friend of Frank Gehry. Of course, most individuals in those subsets would cite Wright, too. But in order for someone to argue in favor of any architect except Wright (or even to be in a position to name three other plausible candidates), that person would almost need to be an expert in architecture. Normal humans don’t possess enough information to nominate alternative possibilities. And what emerges from that social condition is an insane kind of logic: Frank Lloyd Wright is indisputably the greatest architect of the twentieth century, and the only people who’d potentially disagree with that assertion are those who legitimately understand the question. History is defined by people who don’t really understand what they are defining.

I don’t believe all art is the same. I wouldn’t be a critic if I did. Subjective distinctions can be made, and those distinctions are worth quibbling about. The juice of life is derived from arguments that don’t seem obvious. But I don’t believe subjective distinctions about quality transcend to anything close to objective truth—and every time somebody tries to prove otherwise, the results are inevitably galvanized by whatever it is they get wrong.

To matter forever, you need to matter to those who don’t care. And if that strikes you as sad, be sad.

But maybe it takes an idiot to pose this non-idiotic question: How do we know we’re not currently living in our own version of the year 1599? According to Tyson, we have not reinvented our understanding of scientific reality since the seventeenth century. Our beliefs have been relatively secure for roughly four hundred years. That’s a long time—except in the context of science. In science, four hundred years is a grain in the hourglass.

One of Greene’s high-profile signatures is his support for the concept of “the multiverse.” Now, what follows will be an oversimplification—but here’s what that connotes: Generally, we work from the assumption that there is one universe, and that our galaxy is a component of this one singular universe that emerged from the Big Bang. But the multiverse notion suggests there are infinite (or at least numerous) universes beyond our own, existing as alternative realities. Imagine an endless roll of bubble wrap; our universe (and everything in it) would be one tiny bubble, and all the other bubbles would be other universes that are equally vast. In his book The Hidden Reality, Greene maps out nine types of parallel universes within this hypothetical system.

“In physics, when we say we know something, it’s very simple,” Tyson reiterates. “Can we predict the outcome? If we can predict the outcome, we’re good to go, and we’re on to the next problem. There are philosophers who care about the understanding of why that was the outcome. Isaac Newton [essentially] said, ‘I have an equation that says why the moon is in orbit. I have no fucking idea how the Earth talks to the moon. It’s empty space—there’s no hand reaching out.’

Galileo famously refused to chill and published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems as soon as he possibly could, mocking all those who believed (or claimed to believe) that the Earth was the center of the universe. The pope, predictably, was not stoked to hear this. But the Vatican still didn’t execute Galileo; he merely spent the rest of his life under house arrest (where he was still allowed to write books about physics) and lived to be seventy-seven.

What Bostrom is asserting is that there are three possibilities about the future, one of which must be true. The first possibility is that the human race becomes extinct before reaching the stage where such a high-level simulation could be built. The second possibility is that humans do reach that stage, but for whatever reason—legality, ethics, or simple disinterest—no one ever tries to simulate the complete experience of civilization. The third possibility is that we are living in a simulation right now. Why? Because if it’s possible to create this level of computer simulation (and if it’s legally and socially acceptable to do so), there won’t just be one simulation. There will be an almost limitless number of competing simulations, all of which would be disconnected from each other. A computer program could be created that does nothing except generate new simulations, all day long, for a thousand consecutive years. And once those various simulated societies reach technological maturity, they would (assumedly) start creating simulations of their own—simulations inside of simulations.

The term “conspiracy theory” has an irrevocable public relations problem. Technically, it’s just an expository description for a certain class of unproven scenario. But the problem is that it can’t be self-applied without immediately obliterating whatever it’s allegedly describing. You can say, “I suspect a conspiracy,” and you can say, “I have a theory.” But you can’t say, “I have a conspiracy theory.” Because if you do, it will be assumed that even you don’t entirely believe the conspiracy you’re theorizing about.

But it still must be asked: Discounting those events that occurred within your own lifetime, what do you know about human history that was not communicated to you by someone else? This is a question with only one possible answer.

This, it seems, has become the standard way to compartmentalize a collective, fantastical phenomenon: Dreaming is just something semi-interesting that happens when our mind is at rest—and when it happens in someone else’s mind (and that person insists on describing it to us at breakfast), it isn’t interesting at all.

[On the Buzzfeed blue vs. gold dress viral phenom.] The next day, countless pundits tried to explain why this had transpired. None of their explanations were particularly convincing. Most were rooted in the idea that this happened because we were all looking at a photo of a dress, as opposed to the dress itself. But that only shifts the debate, without really changing it—why, exactly, would two people see the same photograph in two completely different ways?

Adams is the author of On the Genealogy of Color. He believes the topic of color is the most concrete way to consider the question of how much—or how little—our experience with reality is shared with the experience of other people. It’s an unwieldy subject that straddles both philosophy and science. On one hand, it’s a physics argument about the essential role light plays in our perception of color; at the same time, it’s a semantic argument over how color is linguistically described differently by different people. There’s also a historical component: Up until the discovery of color blindness in the seventeenth century, it was assumed that everyone saw everything the same way (and it took another two hundred years before we realized how much person-to-person variation there is). What really changed four hundred years ago was due (once again) to the work of Newton and Descartes, this time in the field of optics. Instead of things appearing “red” simply because of their intrinsic “redness” (which is what Aristotle believed), Newton and Descartes realized it has to do with an object’s relationship to light.

On the same day I spoke with Linklater about dreams, there was a story in The New York Times about a violent incident that had occurred a few days prior in Manhattan. A man had attacked a female police officer with a hammer and was shot by the policewoman’s partner. This shooting occurred at ten a.m., on the street, in the vicinity of Penn Station. Now, one assumes seeing a maniac swinging a hammer at a cop’s skull before being shot in broad daylight would be the kind of moment that sticks in a person’s mind. Yet the Times story explained how at least two of the eyewitness accounts of this event ended up being wrong. Linklater was fascinated by this: “False memories, received memories, how we fill in the blanks of conjecture, the way the brain fills in those spaces with something that is technically incorrect—all of these errors allow us to make sense of the world, and are somehow accepted enough to be admissible in a court of law. They are accepted enough to put someone in prison.” And this, remember, was a violent incident that had happened only hours before. The witnesses were describing something that had happened that same day, and they had no incentive to lie.

How much of history is classified as true simply because it can’t be sufficiently proven false?

All of which demands a predictable question: What significant historical event is most likely wrong? And not because of things we know that contradict it, but because of the way wrongness works.

When D. T. Max published his posthumous biography of David Foster Wallace, it was depressing to discover that many of the most memorable, electrifying anecdotes from Wallace’s nonfiction were total fabrications.

In Ken Burns’s documentary series The Civil War, the most fascinating glimpses of the conflict come from personal letters written by soldiers and mailed to their families. When these letters are read aloud, they almost make me cry. I robotically consume those epistles as personal distillations of historical fact. There is not one moment of The Civil War that feels false. But why is that? Why do I assume the things Confederate soldiers wrote to their wives might not be wildly exaggerated, or inaccurate, or straight-up untruths?

I doubt the current structure of television will exist in two hundred fifty years, or even in twenty-five. People will still want cheap escapism, and something will certainly satisfy that desire (in the same way television does now). But whatever that something is won’t be anything like the television of today. It might be immersive and virtual (like a Star Trekian holodeck) or it might be mobile and open-sourced (like a universal YouTube, lodged inside our retinas). But it absolutely won’t be small groups of people, sitting together in the living room, staring at a two-dimensional thirty-one-inch rectangle for thirty consecutive minutes, consuming linear content packaged by a cable company.

[To understand a given era through a TV show.] We’d want a TV show that provided the most realistic portrait of the society that created it, without the self-aware baggage embedded in any overt attempt at doing so. In this hypothetical scenario, the most accurate depiction of ancient Egypt would come from a fictional product that achieved this goal accidentally, without even trying. Because that’s the way it always is, with everything. True naturalism can only be a product of the unconscious. So apply this philosophy to ourselves, and

To attack True Detective or Lost or Twin Peaks as “unrealistic” is a willful misinterpretation of the intent. We don’t need television to accurately depict literal life, because life can literally be found by stepping outside.

If anyone on a TV show employed the stilted, posh, mid-Atlantic accent of stage actors, it would instantly seem preposterous; outside a few notable exceptions, the goal of televised conversation is fashionable naturalism. But vocal delivery is only a fraction of this equation. There’s also the issue of word choice: It took decades for screenwriters to realize that no adults have ever walked into a tavern and said, “I’ll have a beer,” without noting what specific brand of beer they wanted 

But when a show’s internal rules are good, the viewer is convinced that they’re seeing something close to life. When the rom-com series Catastrophe debuted on Amazon, a close friend tried to explain why the program seemed unusually true to him. “This is the first show I can ever remember,” he said, “where the characters laugh at each other’s jokes in a non-obnoxious way.” This seemingly simple idea was, in fact, pretty novel—prior to Catastrophe, individuals on sitcoms constantly made hilarious remarks that no one seemed to notice were hilarious. For decades, this was an unspoken, internal rule: No one laughs at anything. So seeing characters laugh naturally at things that were plainly funny was a new level of realness. The way a TV show is photographed and staged (this is point number three) are industrial attributes that take advantage of viewers’ preexisting familiarity with the medium: When a fictional drama is filmed like a news documentary, audiences unconsciously absorb the action as extra-authentic (a scene shot from a single mobile perspective, like most of Friday Night Lights, always feels closer to reality than scenes captured with three stationary cameras, like most of How I Met Your Mother).

What is the realest fake thing we’ve ever made on purpose? 

Nothing on TV looks faker than failed attempts at realism. A show like The Bachelor is instantly recognized (by pretty much everyone, including its intended audience) as a prefab version of how such events might theoretically play out in a distant actuality. No television show has ever had a more paradoxical title than MTV’s The Real World, which proved to be the paradoxical foundation of its success.

Roseanne was the most accidentally realistic TV show there ever was…By the standards of TV, both of these people were wildly overweight. Yet what made Roseanne atypical was how rarely those weight issues were discussed. Roseanne was the first American TV show comfortable with the statistical reality that most Americans are fat. And it placed these fat people in a messy house, with most of the key interpersonal conversations happening in the kitchen or the garage or the laundry room. These fat people had three non-gorgeous kids, and the kids complained constantly, and two of them were weird and one never smiled.

The less incendiary take on football’s future suggests that it will continue, but in a different shape. It becomes a regional sport, primarily confined to places where football is ingrained in the day-to-day culture (Florida, Texas, etc.). Its fanbase resembles that of contemporary boxing—rich people watching poor people play a game they would never play themselves.

A few months after being hired as head football coach at the University of Michigan, Jim Harbaugh was profiled on the HBO magazine show Real Sports. It was a wildly entertaining segment, heavily slanted toward the intellection that Harbaugh is a lunatic. One of the last things Harbaugh said in the interview was this: “I love football. Love it. Love it. I think it’s the last bastion of hope for toughness in America in men, in males.”

“But look what happened to boxing,” people will say (and these people sometimes include me). “Boxing was the biggest sport in America during the 1920s, and now it exists on the fringes of society. It was just too brutal.” Yet when Floyd Mayweather fought Manny Pacquiao in May of 2015, the fight grossed $400 million, and the main complaint from spectators was that the fight was not brutal enough. Because it operates on a much smaller scale, boxing is—inside its own crooked version of reality—flourishing. It doesn’t seem like it, because the average person doesn’t care. But boxing doesn’t need average people. It’s not really a sport anymore. It’s a mildly perverse masculine novelty, and that’s enough to keep it relevant.

Midway through the episode, the show’s producers try to mathematically verify if youth participation in football is decreasing as much as we suspect. It is. But the specificity of that stat is deceiving: It turns out youth participation is down for all major sports—football, basketball, baseball, and even soccer (the so-called sport of the future). Around the same time, The Wall Street Journal ran a similar story with similar statistics: For all kids between six and eighteen (boys and girls alike), overall participation in team sports was down 4 percent.

But sometimes the reactionaries are right. It’s wholly possible that the nature of electronic gaming has instilled an expectation of success in young people that makes physical sports less desirable. There’s also the possibility that video games are more inclusive, that they give the child more control, and that they’re simply easier for kids who lack natural physical gifts. All of which point to an incontestable conclusion: Compared to traditional athletics, video game culture is much closer to the (allegedly) enlightened world we (supposedly) want to inhabit.

The gap for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl was even greater—the human attendance was under 18,000 while the TV audience approached 1.5 million. This prompted USA Today to examine the bizarre possibility of future bowl games being played inside gigantic television studios, devoid of crowds.

What makes the United States so interesting and (arguably) “exceptional” is that it’s a superpower that did not happen accidentally. It did not evolve out of a preexisting system that had been the only system its founders could ever remember; it was planned and strategized from scratch, and it was built to last. Just about everyone agrees the founding fathers did a remarkably good job, considering the impossibility of the goal.

This logic leads to a strange question: If and when the United States does ultimately collapse, will that breakdown be a consequence of the Constitution itself? If it can be reasonably argued that it’s impossible to create a document that can withstand the evolution of any society for five hundred or a thousand or five thousand years, doesn’t that mean present-day America’s pathological adherence to the document we happened to inherit will eventually wreck everything?

Wexler notes a few constitutional weaknesses, some hypothetical and dramatic (e.g., what if the obstacles created to make it difficult for a president to declare war allow an enemy to annihilate us with nuclear weapons while we debate the danger) and some that may have outlived their logical practicality without any significant downside (e.g., California and Rhode Island having equal representation in the Senate, regardless of population).

But I would traditionally counter that Washington’s One Big Thing mattered more, and it actually involved something he didn’t do: He declined the opportunity to become king, thus making the office of president more important than any person who would ever hold it. This, as it turns out, never really happened. There is no evidence that Washington was ever given the chance to become king, and—considering how much he and his peers despised the mere possibility of tyranny—it’s hard to imagine this offer was ever on the table.

Washington’s kingship denial falls into the category of a “utility myth”—a story that supports whatever political position the storyteller happens to hold, since no one disagrees with the myth’s core message (i.e., that there are no problems with the design of our government, even if that design allows certain people to miss the point).

…Every strength is a weakness, if given enough time.

Back in the landlocked eighties, Dave Barry offhandedly wrote something pretty insightful about the nature of revisionism. He noted how—as a fifth-grader—he was told that the cause of the Civil War was slavery. Upon entering high school, he was told that the cause was not slavery, but economic factors. At college, he learned that it was not economic factors but acculturalized regionalism. But if Barry had gone to graduate school, the answer to what caused the Civil War would (once again) be slavery.

Much of the staid lionization of Citizen Kane revolves around structural techniques that had never been done before 1941. It is, somewhat famously, the first major movie where the ceilings of rooms are visible to the audience. This might seem like an insignificant detail, but—because no one prior to Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland had figured out a reasonable way to get ceilings into the frame—there’s an intangible, organic realism to Citizen Kane that advances it beyond its time period. Those visible ceilings are a meaningful modernization that twenty-first-century audiences barely notice.

There’s growing evidence that the octopus is far more intelligent than most people ever imagined, partially because most people always assumed they were gross, delicious morons.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books and more books.

gold1. Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper. An incredibly engaging journalistic introduction to Bitcoin and blockchain, with cinematic storytelling about the people who pioneered the technology over the past 15 years. The book is about a year old and since then, Bitcoin has struggled, though I suspect many of the characters in this book — and the experts in real life — remain bullish on cryptocurrencies in the long run. Excellent for those learning the fundamentals of bitcoin and bitcoin history.

2. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I made the mistake of starting this sci-fi thriller at 11pm one night in bed. I was up till 1am. It’s a classic page turner set against the backdrop of the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is a real thing and which is super interesting to contemplate. (There is a universe right now where Donald Trump is not the current president-elect, for example.)

3. Lightning Rods by Helen Dewitt. I definitely would not admit to being entertained by this entertaining novel. Definitely not.

4. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions by Martha Nussbaum. I’m a Nussbaum fan and the early chapters here contained provocative reflections on the power of emotions. How an emotion like fear of death manifests in so many aspects of our thought stream. Ultimately this was too dense for me to make it all the way through, but I’m glad I read as far as I did.