Some good things, May/June 2022

Books

In the last couple months I read two of the best books I’ve read in a long time: The Dream Machine, on the very early history of Silicon Valley, and Regenesis, on the agricultural future we need to build. Both highly recommended. I also wrote a list of my five favourite books on Silicon Valley for The Economist, you can read that here.

TV

I finally started For All Mankind and it’s as good as everyone says it is.

Restaurants

40 Maltby Street continues to fire on all cylinders. In Cornwall, I had an unbelievably good strawberry and honeycomb dessert at North Street Kitchen, great spider crab croquettes at Pintxo and a phenomenal tartine at Coombeshead Farm. But the highlight of the last month was my trip to Queens Night Market in New York, which somehow managed to exceed my very high expectations. Nansense‘s chapli kebab smash burger was revelatory.

Theatre

The Father and the Assassin was very good, and revived my interest in India/Pakistan history. Ivo’s Age of Rage was also good, but the weakest of his “epic” trilogy. Hans Kesting was great, as ever, but it was very interesting to watch Édouard Louis play himself in Who Killed My Father — I think he probably did a better job than Kesting. The buzziest thing I saw was That Is Not Who I Am, which was very good, but didn’t deliver on the weird gimmick it’s framed as.

Art

The Guggenheim’s Vasily Kandinsky exhibition is great; a rare example of an artist who got better with age. But the best thing I’ve seen in ages was Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain: the art is great by itself, but her intellectual curiosity means it’s even better when you read the accompanying descriptions. Highly recommended.

Cultural philanthropy: Influencing the culture to improve the world

Disclosure: I personally know some of the people discussed in this article.

When you decide to use your money to do good, you’re presented with a plethora of options. You might purchase malaria nets, or give direct cash transfers to the world’s poorest. You could fund research on AI safety, or lobby for new climate change policies. Or you could walk down the street and give some money to a homeless person in your community.

But there is another kind of philanthropy—one that is much less common, but growing in importance. It’s based on the idea that the culture we live in influences the decisions of everyday people, entrepreneurs and policymakers. Recognising that influence, this kind of philanthropy wants to change that culture.

I’m going to call this “cultural philanthropy”. It is very distinct from other forms of supporting culture, e.g. building a new wing at the Met or paying for stage-hands’ balaclavas at the Royal Opera House (no, seriously). That kind of philanthropy is done out of a general love for the arts (and, often, a desire for status). “Cultural philanthropy”, as I use the phrase, is specifically defined by a clear theory of change: the idea is to use culture to disseminate ideas that will go on to change the world.

Stripe and its founders, the Collison brothers, are two prominent examples of cultural philanthropists. Stripe Press, a publishing division of the payments giant, produces books, articles, podcasts and films with a view to improving the world. Whether exploring why technological development has stalled or advocating for better heat systems, Stripe Press is laser-focused on diagnosing the world’s problems and offering solutions. Neither Stripe nor the Collisons will directly make money from this (though they do hope that by increasing “the GDP of the internet”, Stripe will be able to take a cut). The primary motivation is altruistic. The hope, it seems, is that distributing these ideas might make people think about things differently, encouraging them to make better decisions, which will in turn put humanity on a better path.

Sam Bankman-Fried, a crypto billionaire and effective altruist, is another advocate for cultural philanthropy. His FTX Future Fund is explicit about it: its website claims that “books and media are enormously important for exploring ideas, shaping the culture, and focusing society’s attention on specific issues.” Unlike the Collisons, who are doing much of this culture-changing-work in-house, SBF takes a more distributed approach: he’s funding a $500,000 blogging prize for “effective ideas”. This is similar to some of the work Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, two other effective altruists, fund through Open Philanthropy, their foundation. Open Philanthropy has recently given grants to YouTubers promoting effective altruist ideas. And while it appears to be picking up steam, cultural philanthropy isn’t entirely new: the Rockefeller Foundation’s previous support for Future Perfect and the Gates Foundation’s support for The Guardian are older examples (though still quite recent!).

You might draw parallels between this and the billionaires who philanthropically own news outlets, such as Jeff Bezos with The Washington Post, Marc Benioff with Time and Laurene Powell Jobs with The Atlantic. But this is different. For one, those organisations are still run somewhat like a business—profit is not an afterthought. More importantly, Bezos, Benioff and Powell Jobs all seem interested in the idea of journalism in and of itself, as being key to a healthy democracy. They are less interested in the specific ideas those publications disseminate, and they don’t have nearly as much editorial control over them.1

Nor is it quite like the Murdochian approach to media. Rupert Murdoch’s outlets are certainly no stranger to advocacy, but I don’t think they promote those ideas because he wants the world to be a certain way. He instead chases audiences, profit and power for its own sake. (The Sun switching from supporting the Tories to Labour and back again is a good example of this, as is his reluctance to back Trump at the beginning of his 2016 campaign. Murdoch just wants to back winners.)

If there is an analog to the Collison-SBF-Moskovitz approach, it is billionaire funding of think tanks. In both cases, the hope is to spread valuable ideas. But rather than doing all the work in house and taking a narrow focus on who might receive the ideas, the new approach takes a more bottom-up approach, finding ideas where they might arise, and hoping they take root in the culture.2 (It is not a coincidence, I think, that two of the people leading Stripe Press’s Works In Progress are former think-tankers; nor that the Collisons, SBF and Open Philanthropy all also fund the new Institute For Progress think tank).

The strategy has a plausible, if uncertain, theory of change. Matthew Yglesias summed it up quite well while discussing Future, a much-hyped online publication from Andreessen Horowitz:

“I think to make pro-tech, pro-markets, pro-innovation sustainable, you need a public culture that reflects those values. That means publications that propound them.”

Like many of the philanthropists funding this work, I have a pro-tech, pro-markets and pro-innovation worldview—which means I view this sort of cultural philanthropy as something that could be really good for the world. But, as with all things, views differ. Reasonable people might dislike the views of SBF, Moskovitz and the Collisons. And some people funding similar projects have very different views: most notably Peter Thiel, who promotes views I find repellent (and, in the case of René Girard’s mimetic theory, just plain weird). And while I believe most of these people—including Thiel!—have good intentions and genuinely want to make the world better, that will not always be the case. It is entirely plausible that people will masquerade as cultural philanthropists while actually spreading ideas that serve only their interests.

That isn’t necessarily a problem: people ought to be allowed to back whatever ideas they want. But we need to emphasise transparency. As money pours into cultural philanthropy, certain ideas will gain traction that otherwise wouldn’t have. Yet without transparency, the average person—even the average lawmaker—might not know that the only reason they’re suddenly hearing about a certain policy is because a couple of Silicon Valley billionaires wanted it to be heard. And if they did know that, maybe they’d think about it a bit more critically. While this problem is important, it is by no means a dealbreaker. Something as simple as clear, prominent disclosures on the bottom of each philanthropically-funded article would help, I think—as would clear statements from the philanthropists on what they are doing, and why they’re doing it.3

But transparency aside, I am broadly optimistic about the potential of cultural philanthropy. As FTX notes, culture plays a key role in how both the ruling class and the masses understand the world, and subtly shifting it in a more positive direction could have significant gains. A world in which “cheems mindset” is common parlance and serious consideration is given to the benefits of frontier technologies like artificial wombs strikes me as a very appealing one. The cultural philanthropists might help us get there.

Footnotes

1. Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition fits in this category, too: if his stated motivations are true, he is buying the platform because he thinks it is crucial to a modern democracy, rather than because he wants to promote any specific ideas. (There is some evidence, though, that he is in fact buying it to promote more right-wing ideas, which would push it in the direction of cultural philanthropy.)

2. When I talk about the “culture”, I don’t necessarily mean popular culture. All of these philanthropists seem particularly concerned with shaping, for lack of a better term, “elite” culture—policymakers, entrepreneurs and journalists who are in a position to have a potentially large impact. But they don’t limit themselves to targeting these people, and there’s an understanding that getting mass adoption of these ideas would help things along (it’s just much harder).

3. The Blogging Prize complicates things, because people are writing with the hope of receiving funding, rather than receiving funding before writing. I also have a suspicion that some people are going to write and publish takes they don’t fully believe, purely in the hope of winning the prize. Given the prominence of the prize and the people backing/paying attention to it, this could have a fairly large distorting effect on the “marketplace of ideas”, as it were. A potential solution might be for the Prize to require all entrants to put e.g. “This blog is an entrant for the Blogging Prize, funded by the FTX Future Fund” on each post, though that’s a little crude and a pain to enforce.

My review of “Whole Earth” and “We Are As Gods”

I reviewed the new biography and documentary about Stewart Brand. The best part of both is where they dive into the tension between Brand’s techno-utopianism and environmentalism (even though I tend to side with Brand that the two can and should co-exist).

You can read the whole thing at The Economist, here’s an excerpt:

Mr Brand’s technophilia helped shape Silicon Valley. But it drove a wedge between him and his ecologically minded friends. He had always been an outlier, enjoying Ayn Rand’s libertarian books at university. His fascination with humans settling in space—he financed the subject’s first major conference in 1974—widened the divide. In 2009 Mr Brand distanced himself from his fellow environmentalists, advocating for genetically modified organisms and nuclear power. As for the eco-warriors, he labelled them “irrational, anti-scientific and very harmful”. In response George Monbiot, an activist, suggested that Mr Brand was a spokesperson for the fossil-fuel industry. The criticism echoed Mr Kesey’s remark decades earlier: “Stewart recognises power. And cleaves to it.” 


More good things (books, films, restaurants)

Books

The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton — I’ll write more on this soon, but it is a very good, wide-ranging and surprisingly poetic book.

Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand by John Markoff — will also have more on this soon, but if you’re interested in Brand (and you should be), this is worth reading.

From Satori to Silicon Valley by Theodore Roszak — a short and very readable overview of the links between Silicon Valley and the ’60s counterculture.

Various Batman graphic novels — Year One was the highlight for me, though The Dark Knight Returns and Hush are good too. Neither are as good as The Long Halloween, Arkham Asylum or The Killing Joke, though. I also read The Black Mirror and The Court of Owls, neither of which impressed me very much.

Films

That comic binge was brought on by anticipation for The Batman, which was much better than I expected. It’s probably my favourite Batman film, though The Dark Knight is arguably a better film in and of itself. (I also watched a few animated films, and would recommend both Under the Red Hood and Mask of the Phantasm if you liked The Batman.)

We Are As Gods is a very good documentary about Stewart Brand, and by extension about the ’60s, de-extinction, and techno-utopianism.

I also watched Dune for the fourth time, this time at home, which confirmed my suspicions that it derives a lot of its power from the big screen (particularly IMAX). Still good, though.

Restaurants

Bake Street has started doing biryani on Sundays, and if the first batch was anything to go by this is now one of London’s best meals. Everything else there is still fantastic too, obviously. I’m very excited that Feroz is opening a new outlet in the promising-looking Arcade Food Hall.

Towpath reopened the other week, and a sunny lunch of taramasalata, carrot-top fritters and peas was pretty much perfect.

A lunch at Dosa Express was particularly memorable for the snacks — pani puri, samosa chaat, dhai vada. The dosas were good too, particularly the crispy rava ones.

The Black Axe Mangal x St John meal kit was worth it just for the t-shirt; the excellent food was the icing on the cake.

Music

I’ve been listening to a lot of Acid Arab, Michael Giacchino’s The Batman soundtrack, Floating Points’ new single, and Music from Saharan Cellphones.

fabric at the Opera was a very clever and fun event, which I hope they do a lot more of. Rival Consoles and Frank Wiedemann stole the show.

Some recommended things from the last month

Book: Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino. This is one of the best food books I’ve read. It’s both very poetic and information-dense: I suspect I am significantly more pro-capitalism than the author and I view the Green Revolution as an unambiguously good thing, but Saladino’s writing does make me mourn the diversity we’ve lost and want to help save it as best I can. (Happily, doing so involves buying delicious ingredients.)

Film: Dune in 1.43:1 IMAX. I’d already seen this twice in cinemas, including once in 1.9:1 IMAX. Watching it in full IMAX (at London’s Science Museum) was still breathtaking — the extra height makes a huge difference in conveying the scale of the world. Showings are few and far between but I highly recommend trying to find one.

Restaurant: Brat x Climpson’s Arch. Beautiful tomatoes and cod’s roe on toast; divine burnt cheesecake.

Play: A Number at the Old Vic. More plays should be this short and more actors should be this good.

What made Xerox PARC so successful?

One of the best books I read last year was Michael Hiltzik’s Dealers of Lightning. It’s about Xerox PARC, the incredibly influential, yet still mostly unknown, research division of Xerox. PARC developed some of personal computing’s most important technologies: Ethernet and modern GUIs are its best-known inventions, but there are dozens of other examples. PARC was also a very important talent incubator — Adobe and Pixar were founded by its alumni, while other employees went on to influential roles at Apple and Microsoft.

While reading, I tried to figure out what made PARC so successful, with an eye to how that success could be replicated today. Here’s what struck me as particularly important.

Contents

  1. Timing
  2. Exposure to outside ideas
  3. Network building
  4. Limited bureaucracy
  5. A social environment
  6. Why didn’t it work?
  7. Meta Reality Labs: the modern PARC?

All quotes are from the book and attributable to Hiltzik, unless otherwise specified.

Timing

PARC was founded in 1969, and I’m not sure it could have been founded at any other time. The late ’60s were “a buyer’s market for high-caliber research talent”: the vast expense of the Vietnam War had cut into government budgets, and a recession “[exerted] the same effect on corporate research”. That meant Xerox didn’t have to fight particularly hard to hire talented people.

Computing was also at “a historic inflection point”, making big leaps forward relatively easy to come by. A 2010s version of PARC might have had equally talented researchers producing equally excellent research, but the research wouldn’t be as revolutionary simply because the easy, game-changing problems had already been solved. (Patrick Collison talks about this a bit here — we’re mostly confronting “wicked problems” these days.)

“Historic inflection points” also attract brilliant people. Take Butler Lampson, who decided to abandon physics for computer science. “He found the task of advancing a science that history’s greatest intellects had been mining for 300 years fundamentally uninteresting. Especially when a brand-new field beckoned in which every new discovery represented a terrific leap forward in human enlightenment.”

Smart people like new things, both for the intellectual challenge and for the increased ease of fame and fortune. So you’ll often find brilliant people working on new, exciting fields where there’s a lot of opportunity for rapid progress — and because those fields attract brilliant people, the progress is indeed rapid. Tyler Cowen and Ezra Klein have noted that an awful lot of smart people are attracted to crypto right now; perhaps that’s a modern example of this kind of talent clustering.

Exposure to outside ideas

Serendipity was behind a lot of PARC’s success. It seems people would regularly hear about ideas by chance — at a conference, at a party, from an invited speaker — and decide to work on them as a result. As David Thornburg said, “we were physically adjacent to Stanford University, so there were visitors dropping in and out of the lab all the time.” This was intentional. Bert Sutherland, who managed one of PARC’s labs, had a policy “to keep [the lab’s] atmosphere enriched via continual contact with the outside world.” Learning what’s going on elsewhere can spark new ideas — and introduce you to potential solutions you’d never have come up with yourself.

PARC was also an important source of inspiration for other organisations, most famously Apple. Steve Jobs and a few other engineers toured PARC, which supposedly inspired many of the key features of Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh. According to Hiltzik, the story’s been warped over the years and Apple didn’t exactly pilfer PARC’s ideas. But the visit was still important: for Bill Atkinson, an Apple engineer, “seeing the overlapping windows on the Alto screen was … more a confidence-builder than a solution to his quandary.” In Atkinson’s words, “knowing it could be done empowered me to invent a way it could be done.”

Network building

While at ARPA, Bob Taylor — who went on to found PARC — realised that research was all about talent. “He would visit his grant recipients several times a year, but not solely to hear the researchers’ obligatory progress reports. He was engaged in something more like community outreach, developing new teams, nurturing up-and-coming young researchers, cultivating an entire new generation of virtuosi.” He also organised conferences, bringing researchers together in an attempt to forge connections (and expose them to new ideas).

This worked, both in encouraging research and in helping Taylor recruit. Because of the years he spent building a network, Taylor knew — and was trusted by — practically everyone. That made PARC a hub for many of the world’s most talented people.

Limited bureaucracy

PARC’s leaders hated bureaucracy, and employees had plenty of freedom to go off and pursue ideas. Its founders’ “experience had taught them that the only way to get the best research was to hire the best researchers they could find and leave them unburdened by directives, instructions, or deadlines.”

Some senior PARC leaders came from ARPA, which appears to have inspired this lack of bureaucracy. ARPA was rare among government agencies, in that it didn’t overburden staff with paperwork. Bob Taylor, founder of PARC and director of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office, said he “had no formal proposals for the ARPANET”, one of the most important projects in human history. Here’s the book’s account of the meeting that greenlit ARPANET:

“After listening politely for a short time, Herzfeld interrupted Taylor’s rambling presentation … All he had was a question. ‘How much money do you need to get it off the ground?’ ‘I’d say about a million dollars or so, just to start getting organized.’ ‘You’ve got it,’ Herzfeld said. ‘That,’ Taylor remembered years later of the meeting at which the Internet was born, ‘was literally a twenty-minute conversation.'”

This lack of bureaucracy only worked because PARC’s managers were humble. The whole idea of a manager “approving” a project in some way implies that the manager knows more than the researcher what’s worthwhile — which, if you’re hiring the world’s best researchers, probably isn’t true. Instead, managers at PARC seem to have often just trusted researchers, accepting that they were smarter than their bosses. PARC manager Harold Hall, who said “I had developed and honed the skill of making myself useful to people whose intellectual gifts dwarfed my own”, epitomised this humility.

A social environment

PARC wasn’t just a workplace. It was a community of people that spent most of their life together. “There were family picnics and a softball team”, a “volleyball net for daily lunchtime matches”, and regular tennis matches, bike-rides and communal meals — all of which served as venues to talk about work while doing something other than work.

Alan Kay, whose lab was “socially … PARC’s most cohesive unit”, was a firm believer in the importance of these events. “He believed strongly that a lab’s success depended on a shared vision,” and spending so much time with other people helps to create that vision.

The sections of the book on in-person socialising significantly changed my views on remote work, and I’m now much less certain that revolutionary work can be done remotely. At the very least, it seems that regular team retreats are a necessity.

Why didn’t it work?

PARC was immensely innovative, but you could argue that it was ultimately a failure. You don’t own a Xerox laptop or use a Xerox phone, after all. Hiltzik offers many reasons for why Xerox failed to commercialise most of PARC’s technology, but one in particular sticks out.

In the ’70s, Xerox’s business was essentially based on microtransactions. They loaned copiers to businesses, and each time a customer copied a page, a meter on the machine “clicked” and Xerox was paid a small fee. Xerox’s salespeople’s commissions came from those fees.

This incentive model would not easily translate to computers: how do you charge customers for each ‘use’ of a computer? And without a per-use fee, there was no obvious revenue stream for the salespeople’s commissions. “To sell computers, Xerox would not only have to build a new kind of machine, but also a new system of compensating and motivating its more than 100,000 sales executives.” That proved difficult.

Not all of PARC’s problems can be blamed on its parent company, though. There were plenty of internal issues too. PARC founder Jack Goldman, for instance, “had little conception of the economics of product development.”

Perhaps more importantly, as PARC aged it developed a sort of sclerosis. Bob Taylor, seemingly out of misplaced confidence, ignored his colleagues’ advice that important things were happening at the Homebrew Computer Club and at Apple. “That’s not going to happen, because we have the smartest people here. I believe if you have the smartest people, you’ll end up ahead,” he reportedly said. Yet it turned out that some very smart people worked elsewhere, and they ended up leapfrogging PARC.

Meta Reality Labs: the modern PARC?

Writing in 1999, Hiltzik offered an explanation for why nothing like PARC existed anymore. One reason was the first thing we looked at: timing. “The science of computing is no longer at the historic inflection point it occupied at the start of the 1970s,” Hiltzik wrote.

That was certainly true in 1999. But today might be different. Most technologists seem fairly sure that we’re on the cusp of a new computing platform. It might not be called the metaverse and it might not be delivered through smartglasses, but the odds are good that we’ll soon be living in a hybrid and omnipresent digital world. This impending shift is much bigger than the PC-to-smartphone one, because it requires entirely new UX paradigms. Countless clunky demos show that we’re a long way from figuring out what those paradigms are.

Yet people are trying to figure it out — most notably, the people at Meta Reality Labs. Its researchers are working on new interaction mechanisms (haptic gloves and brain-computer interfaces), new operating systems, new manufacturing techniques, and all sorts of stuff I won’t even pretend to understand. This research is broad, experimental, and potentially revolutionary, much like PARC’s. In fact, Reality Labs may be the 21st century’s PARC.

The parallels aren’t perfect: for one thing, Reality Labs’ work is more obviously tied to Meta’s goals than PARC’s was to Xerox’s. But I’m not the only one to draw the link between the two. In an interview last year, Reality Labs head Michael Abrash said “[Doug] Engelbart and Xerox PARC are the only time that fundamentally the way we interact with the digital world has ever changed … AR glasses are going to require that to happen.” The next few years will show if, like PARC, Reality Labs can change the world — and if Meta, unlike Xerox, will be able to capitalise on it.

For its part, PARC still exists, albeit in a very different form. And its influence on humanity may not be over: PARC researchers are involved in the Marine Cloud Brightening Project, an effort to explore whether we can use geoengineering to help fight climate change.

You can buy Dealers of Lightning here; I highly recommend reading it.

Best books I read in 2021

I read 32 books this year; these are some of my favourites.

Blueprint, Robert Plomin

Genetics is the most important factor shaping who we are. It explains more of the psychological differences between us than everything else put together.

This book, along with Freddie de Boer’s The Cult of Smart (which I’ve yet to finish) and reviews of Kathryn Paige Harden’s The Genetic Lottery (which I’ve yet to start), has changed my philosophy more than anything I’ve read in years. I’m now increasingly convinced that any society built around “meritocracy” is unjust as intelligence is mostly genetic (and therefore mostly luck). Accepting this has in turn led me to think our entire society needs to be restructured, and made me more left-wing than I have been before. It’s also made me think that private school is probably a scam.

Dealers of Lightning, Michael Hiltzik

I had developed and honed the skill of making myself useful to people whose intellectual gifts dwarfed my own.

Harold Hall

An incredibly insightful look at Xerox PARC, one of the most important organisations in human history. It doesn’t directly explain why PARC achieved the things it did, but a careful reading of the book helps you identify factors that probably contributed. More than anything, this made me reconsider my views of remote work being a panacea — employees being in the same place and socialising after work seems like a key part of PARC’s success. 

Essays/Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

In a tropical landscape one’s eye takes in everything except the human beings.

George Orwell, Marrakech

Restaurants which are distinctively English and which also sell good food are very hard to find.

George Orwell, In Defence of English Cooking

I had awakened the pew-renter who sleeps in every English workman. Though he had been famished along with the others, he at once saw reasons why the food should have been thrown away rather than given to the tramps … These here tramps are too lazy to work, that’s all that’s wrong with them. You don’t want to go encouraging of them. They’re scum.’  … It was interesting to see the subtle way in which he disassociated himself from ‘these here tramps’.

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

Orwell is probably my favourite writer, and I tend to prefer his non-fiction. The “Essays” collection is full of gems, much of it (particularly “Notes on Nationalism” and “Writers and Leviathan”) still relevant to today. Down and Out, meanwhile, is a depressing yet humorous exploration of poverty — and particularly insightful when it comes to what poverty does to people’s sense of self-worth.

First, Catch, Thom Eagle

There is a theory, expounded in the book The Devil’s Cup, that coffee, as it replaced beer, cider or wine as the everyday drink of choice for the population of Europe, was largely responsible for the lifting of the fog of superstition and the sudden fashionability of clear, rational thought, which goes by the general name of the Enlightenment.

Possibly the best “cookbook” ever written. It doesn’t have any recipes, really, just very clever and beautifully written musings on food and people.

Exhalation/Stories of Your Life, Ted Chiang

Every story in both these collections is smart, interesting, and well-written. The best sci-fi encourages you to think about the real world in different ways; Chiang consistently achieves this.

Conversations With Friends, Sally Rooney

My ego had always been an issue. I knew that intellectual attainment was morally neutral at best, but when bad things happened to me I made myself feel better by thinking about how smart I was.

For me, this is the only of Rooney’s books with relatable characters. I read this just before reading Beautiful World, Where Are You; I was very disappointed by the latter.

Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell

‘Our friend Eno talks about “The Scenius”,’ says Elf. ‘The genius of the scene. Art’s made by artists, but artists are enabled by a scene – non-artistic factors. Buyers, sellers, materials, patrons, technology, places to mingle and swap ideas. You see the fruits of scenius in Medici Florence.

Everything David Mitchell writes is good, this is particularly good. It gets the blend of sci-fi and realism right, and is genuinely touching in a way his other books aren’t. And it makes you long for the “scenius” of 1960s’ Soho.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov

It’s Galaxywide. It’s a worship of the past. It’s a deterioration — a stagnation!

A very fun sci-fi book. The second and third are also good, though less so.

Honourable mentions: The Netanyahus; Kitchen Confidential; The Anomaly; Dune; The Doll’s Alphabet; Slaughterhouse Five; Piranesi.

Waste of time and money: Mercifully, none.

“The rise and fall of rationality in language”

A new paper analysing English and Spanish books finds that “the use of words associated with rationality, such as ‘determine’ and ‘conclusion,’ rose systematically after 1850, while words related to human experience such as “feel” and ‘believe’ declined”. But “this pattern reversed in the 1980s, and this change accelerated around 2007, when across languages, the frequency of fact-related words dropped while emotion-laden language surged”. The change is found in both fiction and nonfiction.

The authors have a good explanation for the 1850-1980 change (“rapid developments in science and technology and their socioeconomic benefits drove a rise in status of the scientific approach”); I’m less convinced by their 1980-present explanations (“the late 1980s witnessed the start of the internet”, “there could be a connection to tensions arising from neoliberal policies which were defended on rational arguments”, “2007 was also roughly the start of a near-universal global surge of social media”).

(Via Literary Saloon)

2007 Kindle pessimism

I’ll admit to not yet having seen a Kindle, but I think it is not the wave of the future and not the next iPod. The key feature of the iPod is the use of software to organize your music collection, not just the portability … Maybe Kindle is good for voracious readers who take long trips, and don’t want to buy books along the way, but can you build a market on that?

That is from Tyler Cowen, upon the Kindle’s release in 2007. Was he right? In some ways obviously not. Amazon very much did build a market around the Kindle. I think Tyler missed a few things.

1. The economic effect of the Kindle. Ebooks are so much cheaper than normal books that in some ways a Kindle becomes a cost saving device. That is even more true for the small minority of people who lack moral scruples around piracy.

2. The transformative nature of more-portable books. The combination of weight, thickness and being able to use it one-handed means a Kindle is much more usable than a book in a wide variety of situations (public transport being the primary one). As the features continued to improve, this became more true — having a waterproof book I can read in the pool/bath is genuinely revolutionary for me, though I have never seen anyone else reading one in a pool. Having multiple books on one device also allows a freedom of choice — you can carry a library around with you and decide what’s right for the moment, rather than being confined to whatever you packed that morning.

3. The link between Amazon’s store and the Kindle made it almost inevitable that the Kindle would dominate the e-reader market. In this respect it is similar to the iPod: other MP3 players/e-readers existed, but making it easy to buy MP3s/e-books and transfer them to your device made the iPod/Kindle more popular than the competition.

4. The Kindle’s instant gratification. With paper books, the absolute shortest time between deciding I want a book and starting to read it is 30 minutes, and I’m lucky to live near a largeish book store. For more obscure books I have to wait a couple of days for the book to ship. With a Kindle, I can start reading a book within 30 seconds of wanting it. Removing the friction of waiting is a large contributor to the Kindle’s popularity.

But in other ways Tyler was right. Overall, the Kindle has not been as transformative as the iPod. The iPod reshaped the act of listening to music — you can draw a clean line from its invention to the popularity of streaming services and the “death” of the album. And while there is a Kindle subscription service, as far as I can tell it’s not very popular. Instead, the Kindle has become a popular way to consume a pre-existing format in a pre-existing way: it’s not done much to change the act of “reading”.

Maybe that’s changing now, with the advent of services like Readwise and PKM tools like Roam — Kindles can encourage much more “active” reading than physical books thanks to the easily-synced highlights. But as we have seen, making predictions is risky, so I shan’t make one.

A list of very good book shops

Mast Books, East Village, NYC. Diverse selection of new/used books on art, design, philosophy etc. Gorgeous layout and excellent music choices too.

Palais de Tokyo Bookshop, 16eme, Paris. Huge selection of art books, many of which are discounted. The museum’s often got good exhibitions as well.

Foyles, Soho, London. The best of London’s big bookstores for browsing — very spacious, lots of seating, and tons of light.

The Strand, Union Square, NYC. Indoors is way too cramped and overwhelming, but if you patiently search the discounted sidewalk shelves you will always find a few gems (and get an interesting sense of people’s reading tastes).

McNally Jackson, Nolita, NYC. Big but not overwhelming, good lighting, expansive selection and curation that encourages serendipity. The Downtown Brooklyn location is good, too.

Popular places I don’t particularly like: Books Are Magic; London Review Bookshop; Shakespeare & Co. Paris (though the NYC one is okay).