Category Archives: Books

Nate Silver, Malcolm Gladwell and the Future of Journalism

Originally published on The Huffington Post 

 

I didn’t realize that Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise was one of the best books I read last year until about three weeks after I finished it. Why am I still thinking about this book? I would think, riding the bus, going over one of his examples in my head for the twelfth time.

It’s not that I’m so into baseball, or politics, or stock prices, or that I want to get better at predicting them. It’s that Silver’s book is an argument, and a challenge, for how I read stories in the future — and how I write them.

Silver’s core point is this:

Our predictions may be more prone to failure in the era of Big Data. As there is an exponential amount of available information, there is likewise an exponential increase in the number of hypotheses to investigate. For instance, the U.S. government now publishes data on about 45,000 economic statistics. If you want to test for a relationship between all combinations of two pairs of these statistics — is there a causal relationship between the bank prime loan rate and the unemployment rate in Alabama? — that gives you literally one billion hypotheses to test.

But the number of meaningful relationships in the data — those that speak to causality rather than correlation and testify to how the world really works — is orders of magnitude smaller. Nor is it likely to be increasing at nearly so fast a rate as the information itself; there isn’t any more truth in the world that there was before the Internet or the printing press. Most of the data is just noise, as most of the universe is filled with empty space.

This is not just a problem for Big Data. We’re not just surrounded by more quantitative information, more numbers, than ever before. We’re also surrounded by qualitative data too. From Longreads to UpWorthy, we’re have access to more stories, more characters, more anecdotes, more illustrations and examples than ever before. But just as more numbers don’t inherently produce more truth, more stories don’t inherently provide more lessons necessitating them.

Silver’s book reminded me of one of the worst books I read last year, Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

In his most talked-about chapter, Gladwell profiles superlawyer David Boies, the dude who represented Gore against Bush at the Supreme Court, gay marriage against the Mormons in California.

Boies is dyslexic. It takes him hours to read a legal brief, and he foundered in odd jobs until his mid-20s, when he went to NYU Law School, then worked his way up through government and law firms to become a legal goliath.

Boies’s dyslexia, as Gladwell tells it, is a ‘desirable difficulty’. Being bad at reading volumes of case law made Boies focus on being good at listening and arguing, skills other lawyers neglected. Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, also at the top of his field, also dyslexic, became a great negotiator to compensate for his difficulty reading. Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn grew up dyslexic and found that it made him an outsider, gave him the skill of presenting a persona. He used that skill to blag his way into his first job in finance.

“You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child,” Gladwell ominously concludes, “Or would you?” You can almost hear the music cue: Bum bum BUMMMM.

If all this sounds a bit too easy, that’s because it is. When Gladwell’s book came out, critics (most prominently Christopher F. Chablis in the Wall Street Journal) pointed out that dyslexia is, rather obviously, not a magic formula for success, decidedly not something you would give to your child if you had the choice.

Gladwell says “an extraordinarily high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic.” A dyslexia researcher points out that this claim is based on a survey of 102 entrepreneurs and 37 corporate managers (out of 2,000 people contacted) and that it wasn’t even designed to detect dyslexia, only dyslexia-like traits such as difficulty with spelling.

Gladwell admits that dyslexics are over-represented in the prison population; Chablis, like a high school English teacher, says ‘develop this further’: It’s kinda sorta a major counterpoint to your argument. Gladwell points to a study where people did better on an intelligence test when it was in hard-to-read font (Lesson: difficulty makes you concentrate harder). Chablis says this test was on just 40 people, all Princeton students, and hasn’t been replicated on a larger scale.

The perennial critique of Gladwell is that his conclusions do not offer any new insights, only reformulations of what we already know. This seems unfair. As Silver says, there is only so much truth in the world, only so many insights to be pointed out and illustrated. Most people go their whole lives without coming up with a profound insight into anything. Gladwell can hardly be faulted for pointing out and reformulating the insights we already know.

The more generous critique of David and Goliath is, why didn’t Gladwell tell us all this himself? Why is his chapter, his book, written with this false certitude, these capitalized lessons? Boies’s story would be no less interesting, no less well-told, if it was juxtaposed with the story of one of those dyslexic prisoners. I might have actually enjoyed that chapter more if it was fortified with the contradictions and arguments in the academic literature, with bright orange caveats highlighting the places where Boies’s story is not typical, not indicative of something larger. Lay it on me, Gladwell, I can handle it.

Gladwell is a talented writer, a diligent researcher and interviewer, a monster intellect. If anyone could present the contradictions and paradoxes of the idea of ‘desirable difficulty,’ it’s him. Gladwell is too smart, too curious, too skeptical, to genuinely believe that parents should be giving their kids dyslexia because it is a surefire way to end up a Hollywood produces or a finance CEO.

Hedging against the challenge of ‘more information, same amount of truth,’ says Silver, requires giving predictions and conclusions with confidence intervals. We’re not certain that this hurricane will make landfall in Tampa, but there’s a 60 percent chance. Obama is not a surefire bet to beat Romney, but he has more plausible paths to victory. These statements don’t remove certainty, but they reduce it.

Gladwell’s cardinal sin, to me, is not crediting his readers with enough intelligence to disclose his confidence intervals. Does he really think that the ‘desirable difficulty’ of dyslexia explains 100 percent of Boies’s success? Probably not. If Gladwell is making the argument that dyslexia explains 5 percent of his success, or 20 percent, why not just tell us? It’s as if Gladwell is trying to avoid the unfair criticism of his work — these insights are profound, I swear! — and in doing so steps right into the more compelling criticism. There’s nothing highbrow hates more than middlebrow, and nothing says middlebrow like massaging complicated phenomena into chicken soups for the soul.

In 2012, when Jonah Lehrer was caught fabricating quotes and misrepresenting scientific findings in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Ta-Nehisi Coates, (one of the best working practitioners of journalistic uncertainty — I mean that in a good way) wrote:

Great long-form journalism comes from the author’s irrepressible need to answer a question. Fictional long-form journalism comes from the writer’s irrepressible need to be hailed as an oracle. In the former fabulism isn’t just wrong because it cheats the reader, it’s wrong because it cheats the writer. Manufactured evidence tends not to satiate an aching curiosity. But it does wonders for those most interested in oraculism.

I’m not implying that Gladwell fabricated anything. His sense of curiosity is palpable in everything he writes, and a major component of what makes his best work so interesting.

But Silver’s book is a justified, albeit indirect, criticism of Gladwell’s approach. Silver is arguing for more curiosity and less certitude, not just for people who predict events, but for those who explain them afterwards.

Ultimately, the fault may be ours. Gladwell is under pressure from publishers, from readers, to write books of big ideas, to deliver conclusions, to expand stories into insights that make us feel like we are reaching them ourselves. Book buyers and magazine readers may not tolerate an investigation into adversity, or creativity, or decision-making that finds them too complicated for capitalized lessons, one that concludes there is nothing to conclude.

But maybe that is changing. In the same way Silver has changed what we expect from political forecasts, maybe next generation’s Malcolm Gladwell will be someone who dips into subjects, guides us through contradictory evidence and leaves us with no certitude, with more questions than when we arrived. I’m ready to read that kind of journalism. I hope someone out there is ready to write it.

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Will I be pretty, will I be rich?

The program for the destruction of severely handicapped and mentally ill Germans, [...] set up two years before the Final Solution: Here, the patients, selected within the framework of a legal process, were welcomed in a building by professional nurses, who registered them and undressed them; doctors examined them and led them into a sealed room; a worker administered the gas’ others cleaned up; a policeman wrote up the death certificate.

Questioned after the war, each one of those people said: What, me, guilty? The nurse didn’t kill anyone, she only undressed and calmed the patients, ordinary tasks in her profession. The doctor didn’t kill anyone, either, he merely confirmed a diagnosis according to criteria established by higher authorities. The worker who opened the gas spigot, the man closest to the actual act of murder in both time and space, was fulfilling a technical function under the supervision of his superiors and doctors.

The workers who cleaned out the room were performing a necessary sanitary job — and a highly repugnant one at that. The policeman was following his procedure, which is to record each death and certify that it has taken place without any violation of the laws in force. So who is guilty?

[...] Once again, let us be clear: I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I am guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did. With less zeal, perhaps, but perhaps also with less despair.

That’s from Jonathan Littell’s ‘The Kindly Ones‘.

Reading the novel’s first few pages (all of the above appears before, like, page 10. This book is Not. Fucking. Around.), I keep wondering if the post-WWII generation is the first in history to live with this understanding, that they might have acted monstrously if they were born in different circumstances.

I don’t know how previous generations and civilizations looked upon their history, but I doubt it was with as much guilt and apology as we do. From colonialism to slavery to segregation to 1980s shoulderpads, everything I’ve learned about history combines to form a sort of collective cringe.

I wonder if this began with the struggle to teach Nazism to the people who had survived it, fought against it, participated in it. When I learned about Hitler’s Germany, it was always with an acknowledgement that it could have been me on either end of the rifle or the gas chamber. I was asked to empathize not only with the victims, but with the perpetrators, in a way I wasn’t with other historical episodes.

Maybe it’s because the history is so proximate. Maybe it’s because the people committing the crimes, and dying of them, look like our friends, dress like our grandparents, write and talk like our movies. Maybe it’s because a whole society was at fault. Maybe you learn about the moral capsize of an entire civilization, and you just naturally put yourself inside it. 

I have no idea if this is genuinely new to the time or place in which I grew up. I don’t know if French schoolchildren in the early 1900s were asked to imagine themselves committing atrocities during the Napoleonic wars. I don’t know if Spanish kids were told that it might have been them branding apostates during the Inquisition.

But I’m glad to be reading Littell, I’m glad we look at our histories this way. Honesty beats triumphalism, I hope. I wonder how it changes the way we think. I don’t know if it makes us guilty, but I certainly hope it makes us careful.

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White People Suck, 1866 Edition

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So last week I randomly came across Douglas A. Blackmon’s ‘Slavery By Another Name’ in a used bookstore in London for like a buck. I had never heard of it, but the cover told me it won the Pulitzer Prize, so I bought it and I’ve been reading it in NYC this week.

It’s basically the story of what happened in the American South in the hundred years between the abolishment of slavery and the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.

I’m probably a bad American and human for admitting this, but I never really learned what happened after slavery ended. I don’t mean politically or morally but, like, logistically. On Monday you were a slave. On Tuesday you weren’t. This obviously changes in a profound way your fundamental civic dignity and economic opportunity, but there’s just as much it doesn’t.

You still live in the same house, you still have the same family, you still have (or don’t have) the same education and skills. Some of your challenges have lifted, but others have appeared.

Blackmon’s book is the best account (OK, the only account) I’ve read that describes what this transition was like for the former slaves and former enslavers who lived it.

Human slaves had been freed many times before—from the Israelites, to the Romans, to Africans in the vast British Empire as recently as 1834. But no society in human history had attempted to instantly transform a vast and entrenched slave class into immediate full and equal citizenship. The cost of educating freed slaves and their children came to seem unbearably enormous, even to their purported friends.

Their expectations of compensation radically altered the economics of southern agriculture. And even among the most ardent abolitionists, few white Americans in any region were truly prepared to accept black men and women, with their seemingly inexplicable dialects, mannerisms, and supposedly narrow skills, as true social equals.

According to Blackmon, Southern lawmakers, business leaders and elites did everything in their power to slow down the advancement of African Americans. From restricting voting rights to defunding schools to prohibiting labor mobility, the economies and societies of the south removed every material benefit of living in a democracy. Northern whites, viewing this through the frosted window of newspaper coverage, decided that now that blacks were free, illiteracy and poverty were their fault. Why couldn’t they just try harder?

The subtitle of Blackmon’s book is ‘The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War To World War II’, and it mostly deals with the systematic forced labor systems established by the southern states:

By 1900, the South’s judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites […]

The records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than 100,000 and perhaps more than twice that figure. Instead of evidence showing black crime waves, the original records of county jails indicated thousands of arrests for inconsequential violations of laws specifically written to intimidate blacks—changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity—or loud talk—with white women.

Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges of arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime.

Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South—operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial framers. These bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations.

According to Blackmon, every single southern state practiced this form of slavery: Arrest black people on fake charges (‘vagrancy’, ‘inebriation’, etc.), coerce them into pleading guilty, levy a fine and fictitious administrative fees, rent them to a private company, force them to work to pay off their debts.

What’s so chilling about this now is how embedded it was in the politics and economies of Southern cities. The sheriffs actively arrested blacks on trumped-up charges. Judges actively leveed these fake fees and fines. Companies actively sought out ‘convict’ labor. Administrators all the way from mayors to governors passed laws promoting this model of labor supply.

As a black person caught in this cycle—sentenced to hard labor for years, subjected to brutal, sometimes fatal, beatings if you tried to escape—there was no higher authority you could appeal to, no institution or individual who was fighting to free you. Blacks were so systematically disenfranchised, and whites so condescendingly uninterested, no one even launched an investigation into this system for decades.

The message was clear, and shared almost universally among whites: Whatever happens to black men in strictly the result of their own choices. Those choices ultimately were to submit quietly to the emerging new order or be crushed by it.

[This] further underscored how far southern whites could extend their ability to reconcile the obvious and extraordinary abuses of blacks occurring around them with their rhetorical insistence that African Americans were entirely free, content and unmolested. Never before in American history had so large a portion of the populace adopted such explicitly false and calculated propaganda. Many southern whites actually came to believe claims that black schools were equally funded, black train cars were equally appointed, and that black citizens were equally defended by the courts—as preposterous as those claims obviously were.

I had to sort of stop reading at this page and take a little break.

Blackmon’s book makes me wonder what lies we tell ourselves now, what propaganda we swallow today that will make our grandkids cringe. It makes me wish I knew more, agued more, listened more. But mostly, it makes me wish this wasn’t the first book about this I’ve ever read. Next time I grow up, I’m gonna pay more attention.

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‘What It Takes’ and the Weirdness of Politicians

Last weekend Richard Ben Cramer died. Here’s an excerpt from his seminal 1992 book, What It Takes, describing a ‘light’ weekend in the life of Senator Bob Dole:

The Senate was winding up its tem for the fall, and Dole wouldn’t get away till Saturday morning—just in time for a flight to Akron, a press conference and a fund-raising breakfast for two Congressional candidates, then a speech to a rally in the airport; then a quick flight to Sandusky, O., for a press conference and another speech at a luncheon rally; then a flight to Cleveland for a rally speech and a joint press conference on behalf of four GOP hopefuls; then a flight to Findlay, O., for another press conference and a mix-and-mingle for Congressman Oxley; then a flight to Cincinnati for a press conference with gubernatorial candidate James Rhodes at the home of former Senator Taft; then an hour-and-a-half flight east to Monmouth, New Jersey, followed by a twenty-minute drive to a Hilton, where Dole was scheduled to get in about midnight for his Saturday night’s sleep.

Sunday he’d start with a twenty-five-minute ride to a country club in Manalatan Township to do a press conference and a speech at a buffet breakfast; then another drive, another flight, this time to Jamestown, New York, near Buffalo, for a joint news conference with a House candidate; and a drive to another country club for the candidate’s funder-brunch, where Dole would make a few more brief remarks; then another drive to another speech, this to a Chautauqua County veterans’ group, a photo op with members of the Country Veterans Council and the dedication of a bridge in honor of the nation’s veterans; than another flight to State College, Pennsylvania, for a speech to five hundred Penn State students, and another press conference with a Congressman, Bill Clinger, and another drive to another hotel for another speech at a fundraiser, and then another drive and a wheels-up for Washington, National Airport, where the Lincoln Town Car would be waiting in the dark to take him back to the Watergate—unless he decided to stop at the office to get ready for the Senate Monday.

Cramer’s book is totally great (as in large, but also as in awesome), and confirmed my lifelong impression that being a successful politician basically requires you to be a sociopath-caliber extrovert.

Bob Dole was sixty-five when he was living this schedule. The only way to do this, to keep this up, is if you genuinely get energized by constant handshakes, nonstop chit-chat, giving the same old smile to different new people every waking moment. Cramer writes with a deep admiration of these guys, how they keep a million names in their heads, how they can recite legislation by rote, how they can tell the perfect back-slapping joke with the perfect handshake timing. But I read it with a kind of dread. Is this who we’ve outsourced the running of our country to?

But that’s probably just me failing to relate to people who are different than me. Cramer’s book is a powerful reminder of the greatness, the weakness, the weirdness of the people who run our country. And by writing it, he might have achieved greatness himself.

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John Steinbeck on Seattle and the Problem With American Cities

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Here’s another excerpt from Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley‘:

Next day I walked in the old port of Seattle, where the fish and crabs and shrimps lay beautifully on white beds of shaved ice and where the washed and shining vegetables were arranged in pictures. I drank clam juice and ate the sharp crab cocktails at stands along the waterfront. It was not much changed—a little more run-down and dingy than it was twenty years ago.

And here a generality concerning the growth of American cities, seemingly true of all of them I know. When a city begins to grow and spread outward, from the edges, the center which was once its glory is in a sense abandoned to time. Then the buildings grow dark and a kind of decay sets in; poorer people move in as the rents fall, and small fringe businesses take the place of once flowering establishments. The district is still too good to tear down and too outmoded to be desirable. Besides, all the energy has flowed out to the new developments, to the semi-rural supermarkets, the outdoor movies, new houses with wide laws and stucco schools where children are confirmed in their illiteracy.

The old port with narrow streets and cobbled surfaces, smoke-grimed, goes into a period of desolation inhabited at night by the vague ruins of men, the lotus eaters who struggle daily toward unconsciousness by way of raw alcohol. Nearly every city I know has such a dying mother of violence and despair where at night the brightness of the street lamps is sucked away and policemen walk in pairs. And then one day perhaps the city returns and rips out the sore and builds a monument to its past.

How did he do all this on a typewriter?!

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This is either the best or the worst first paragraph I’ve ever read

Patrick O’Brien — Clarissa Oakes

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The First Page of Don Delillo’s ‘Cosmopolis’

When I used to work at the Seattle Times, I hung out a bit with the book reviews editor. I asked her once how she decided among the dozens of books she received every week, which ones to review.

‘Read the first page,’ she said. ‘If you want to keep reading, do.’

This has given me a weird compulsion to read first pages of novels whenever I’m in bookstores. Yesterday I spent about an hour in Foyles in London doing this, and the best one I found was Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis:

Hella wanna read the whole thing now!

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Book Publishers Can Prevent the Next Jonah Lehrer

From New York Magazine’s writeup of Jonah Lehrer’s rise (blogger, writer, TED talker) and fall (fabulist, fraud, quote-maker-upper), and what it means for journalism:

Then it got so much worse. Four excruciating months later, Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just his own stories but at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out. His publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will soon conclude a fact-check of his three books, the last of which, Imagine, was recalled from bookstores—a great expense for a company that, like all publishing houses, can’t afford to fact-check most books in the first place. In the meantime, he’s been completely ostracized. It’s unclear if he’ll ever write for a living again.

Lehrer was the poster boy of the recent rise of ‘academia lite’ publishing, where journalists aggregate and retell a body of scientific knowledge for a popular audience. For better (Daniel Kahneman) or worse (David Brooks), readers need narratives, publishers need content, academics need publicity, these aren’t going anywhere.

The process of fact-checking these books has come under scrutiny lately, and Lehrer is just the most recent case of a journalist misinterpreting (deliberately, accidentally, who cares) the results of academic studies to fit their own manufactured narrative.

My understanding of the publishing industry is that publishers lose money on basically 99 percent of the books they publish every year, and get into the black on just a few blockbusters. Publishers say they can’t fact-check all the books they print. I’m not all that sympathetic to this (‘it would be super hard’ is rarely a convincing defense for a multinational corporation), but more books rather than fewer is a good thing, and the reality is that publishers aren’t gonna put a New Yorker-style confirmation apparatus in place overnight.

I feel like a first step toward more accuracy in publishing is for authors to be much more accountable to their sources. Lehrer is basically accused of coming up with a conclusion first, then arranging his quotes and sources to confirm it. From what I know from my (brief) experience as an actual journalist, this is pretty standard practice. You hear about a story, you read a bit, you write it up, and you leave spaces with tags like quote from Yankees fan goes here or need Census data for this paragraph to fill in later. Good journalists will, obviously, change the story if their facts contradict their conclusions, but the actual methodology is fairly widespread.

The problem with this approach is that it conceives of sources as Mad Libs generators. You need a quote from someone, you call them up, you get them to talk til they say something that will fill the hole, you hang up. In journalism school you’re told a million times that sources aren’t allowed to see the final story before it’s published, and don’t get to amend their quotes.

This maybe makes sense for political journalism, where sources have an incentive to make themselves look good. If you’re interviewing them about some aspect of their job performance as a public official, they might try to spin you in a particular way if they know what you’re writing. Fine.

But science journalism is different. In the kinds of books and articles Lehrer was writing, his sources’ incentives were aligned with his own. Scientists want their work to reach a mass audience, and for articles to portray their results accurately.

I mean, check this out:

If Lehrer was misusing science, why didn’t more scientists speak up? When I reached out to them, a couple did complain to me, but many responded with shrugs. They didn’t expect anything better. Mark Beeman, who questioned that “needle in the haystack” quote, was fairly typical: Lehrer’s simplifications were “nothing that hasn’t happened to me in many other newspaper stories.”

Maybe book publishers can’t independently verify every single fact in every single book. But they can certainly call five or ten of their authors’ main sources, show them some chapters, and ask them if their work is being fairly represented. If Lehrer knew that his work would be shown to people he interviewed and the authors of studies he cited, he would have  been much less likely to distort their findings.

Yes, this approach has problems. Maybe the sources are dicks, and they don’t want a journalist broadcasting their results. Maybe they’re crazy-academic, and they don’t want their work published unless it’s drowning in jargon and caveats.

But maybe they’re not. Maybe they want to help make sure their work is fairly represented. Maybe they want to contribute additional information that could clarify it.

Either way, I fail to see how contacting an author’s sources—and being transparent with readers about it—would be worse than the current model, in which sources are interviewed and then discarded, and play no instrumental role in how their words and their work is represented. Sources shouldn’t necessarily have the right to approve everything that’s written about their work, but they should at least be consulted.

Authors and journalists that see true stories and correct information, rather than dazzling writing, as their primary constituents, should be arguing for this themselves.

Ultimately, I think Lehrer’s real sin was not believing in his own skill as a writer. If his work had focused on how there isn’t a simple explanation for complex phenomena, how much we don’t know about intuition, how evidence doesn’t clarify the world around us, he might still have ended up famous. And maybe, he could even have ended up right.

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If 10,000 Hours of Practice Makes You More Creative, What Does 20,000 Do?

The idea that talent isn’t inborn, that you have to practice something constantly and deliberately for 10,000 hours before you master it, makes intuitive sense. It’s especially appealing for the arts. Mozart wasn’t a prodigy, the theory goes, he just crammed in 10,000 hours of practice before his 19th birthday. Nearly every filmmaker, artist and writer talks about having a passion for their medium astonishingly early in life (M. Night Shyamalan and PT Anderson, for example, were both making  movies when they were still eating peanut butter out of the jar).

Again, this makes sense. The arts have technical and craft-like aspects, and you gotta master the tools before you use them to make something that’s never existed before.

But I’m interested in what happens after you’ve done your 10,000 hours, and you keep practicing. Why do artists peak and decline?

I can see how physical or technical skills (sports, surgery) would continue to develop until they are hindered by the body’s decreasing ability to put them to use. Michael Jordan may have decades more skill than LeBron James, but the 49-year-old body simply won’t collaborate with the brain the same way as a 27-year-old’s will.

But creativity is different. You don’t need physical skill to be a writer, painter, composer or singer. So why do so many of our best examples of the 10,000 hour rule show such marked decline in the quality of their output as they get older?

Last week I read a couple reviews of Tom Wolfe’s new book, ‘Back to Blood’:

Wolfe isn’t interested in ordinary life. Ordinary life is complex, contradictory, prismatic. Wolfe’s characters are never contradictory, because they have only one big emotion, and it is lust—for sex, money, power, status. His own prose is monotonous in the same way. It confuses the depiction of strength with the energy of verisimilitude.

Wolfe is 81, and an absolute skyscraper in the world of journalism. He invented, or at least perfected, the art of longform feature reporting, and every month GQ and Vanity Fair print ripples of his voice and perspective. Yet as he’s gotten older,  his output has (OK, arguably) become repetitive and extravagant, less a man examining the world around him than a man staring at his own infinite reflection in a bathroom mirror.

This week I’ve also been listening to Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ basically on repeat, since it just got rereleased. It’s self-evidently the best thing ever, and Simon has (again, arguably) never made anything that holds up so well since.

Across the creative spectrum, artists generally produce works of decreasing interest as they get older. From Bob Dylan to Clint Eastwood to Claude Monet, artistic output tends to peak—sometimes early, sometimes late—then steadily decline. It’s as if, like an aging body, an aging brain no longer has the strength to throw as many spears through the fog.

I wonder if creativity, perhaps distinctly from sports or technical skills, is a kind of multiplication. It only manifests when talent breeds with inspiration, desire for risk, engagement with the outside world. Maybe it’s not the talent that diminishes, but the appetite for novelty.

Or maybe it doesn’t diminish at all. Maybe Tom Wolfe and Paul Simon are actually producing better and better work, they’re just becoming increasingly nuanced and complex as their talent develops, and are no longer embraced by the ‘tl;dr’ heathen mainstream. Their best years weren’t a creative peak so much as an extended overlap with the tastes and desires of the masses, and now they’ve diverged.

Or maybe—I hate this option—aging simply wears out the mind as profoundly as it does the body. The brain becomes so unmalleable as it ages that it can’t make intellectual jump shots anymore. Tom Wolfe today is unable to write a great novel just like Sandy Koufax is unable to pitch a no-hitter. The brain and the body are both exhausted, just one is more visible than the other.

Or maybe I’m full of shit! And thousands of works have come screaming forth from their creators’ autumnal decades, I just haven’t noticed. Maybe Mozart and Cobain and Hendrix, had they lived, would have produced peak after peak, their talent aging like Italian cheese.

Like all broad human phenomena, though, I’m firstly interested in how it applies to me. I don’t think I’ve done anything for 10,000 hours, much less 20,000. I’d better get started! As my body begins its earthward descent, I want to make sure I reach a few highs in case it takes my brain with it.

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Why I’m Glad I Don’t Live in a Community

Last year I was listening to a podcast about Middle Ages England, and the teacher said the most insightful thing I’ve ever downloaded for free:

The very word “community” carries a great deal of warmth. [...] Community always seems to be just out of reach, something that belongs to a generation or two ago; just over the hill; in decline or under threat. It’s sort of the before of which we are the after; tantalizing, warm, the attractive feature of a world we have lost.

We don’t notice it, but this false nostalgia, this utopian elsewhere, is baked into the very word ‘community’. Even now, ‘community’ is always something we talk about in the past tense, something that exists in other countries and cities. Like the old Oscar Levant quote, it’s not something we experience, it’s something we remember.

I remembered this excerpt because this week I’m reading Sudhir Venkatesh’s ‘Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor‘.

Venkatesh spent more than five years living in South Chicago studying the income and expenditure of the people who live there. He interviews business owners, prostitutes, bums, gang members, hairstylists, cops, drug dealers, everyone who’s trying to earn a buck–or cheat, steal or scam one.

Here’s three moms he met:

Bird earns her living as a prostitute, plying her trade along Maquis Park’s main thoroughfare as well as on busy downtown streets. Eunice works in the formal economy, cleaning offices at minimum wage, and supplements her income by selling homemade soul food to the local lunchtime crowd. Marlene has various off-the-books jobs in the service sector; she earns most of her underground money as a $9 per hour nanny for a white family in the neighboring upper-class university district.

Each of these women works 50-70 hours a week. Their formal or semi-formal employment is supplemented by using their cars as ad hoc taxicabs, renting space in their homes to family and friends, helping out at church or school functions, whatever they can find. Like most residents Venkatesh profiles, they straddle the formal and informal sectors, and rely almost exclusively on personal ties (the local pastor, cousins, neighbors) to find work.

This is obviously fascinating for like 200 reasons, but one of the main ones is how much the ghetto economy of early-2000s urban America resembles that of small-town medieval England. Hear me out.

First, it’s profoundly informal. No one is reporting their income, and even people who are formally employed have major and minor off-the-books supplements. The local store owners, for example, rent out their shops after hours to gambling parties, and pay local homeless people a few bucks to stand watch for robberies or clean up at closing time.

Second, the government and public services are a no-show. Just like the centuries before state consolidation, Ventakesh’s residents can’t rely on transportation, law enforcement, garbage collection or, in some cases, clean drinking water and reliable electricity. Into this vacuum rush drug dealers, neighborhood associations and entrepreneurs, selling services that modern middle-class people get for free.

Third, everyone is all up in each other’s business. Like a small town, the every resident of this South Chicago neighborhood knows all others by name, including how they’re getting paid (fixing cars, cleaning houses, robbing drug dealers), what resources they have (house, car, skills), and how they are connected to other residents (sleeping with, working for, shooting at).

Fourth, problems get solved through personal relations, not impartial laws or outside mediation. Here’s a remarkable section about how residents negotiated with a drug dealer over access to the local park:

Marlene and her neighbors would no longer publicly chastise the prostitutes and scare away their customers, and they ended their phone calls to the police. For the summer, Big Cat [the drug dealer] agreed to limit his drug trafficking to late-night hours, and the pimp would move his sex workers into the abandoned buildings farthest away from the park. Big Cat also agreed to residents in Marlene’s block selling their own underground goods in the park; they would have priority over any other trader, and they would receive protection from the gang for the same price that others paid.

What I can’t help noticing is that the characteristics above are what people talk about when they lament the ‘communities’ we’ve lost: Everyone knows their neighbors! They work together to solve common problems! They engage in local issues!

To which I say: Communities fucking suck. I’m glad I don’t live in one. If I hear my neighbors playing music through the walls, I report it to the landlord (or, if they’re playing Conor Oberst, the European Court of Human Rights) and the problem is addressed without affecting my income, my safety or any of my personal relationships. If I want a job, I apply for one. I don’t have to do a favor for a family member, or give a cut to the preacher down the street.

The ‘communities’ we’ve lost were only close-knit and personal because there was no other option. You couldn’t rely on impartial administrators to purify your water or drive your buses or punish your mugger, so you did it all informally. This is understandable, and admirable, and maybe even worth missing. But it’s not an effective way to run a country. Just because you know your neighbors doesn’t mean you like them.

In ‘The Origins of Political Order’, Francis Fukuyama argues that the most successful societies are those that reject cronyism and apply objective standards to leaders and civil servants. One of the reasons China rose so quickly 1,000 years ago was that it systematized its bureaucracy. One of the reasons India stagnated was that it didn’t.

It’s hard not to romanticize small towns and close-knit communities. People working, living and relating to each other so closely is rare in modern life, and perhaps we’ve lost something for it. But on a society-wide scale, progress doesn’t happen because of communities, but in spite of them.

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