Dynamist Blog

Another Carnival

"What about home schooling? You know, it's not just for scary religious people anymore."
--Buffy Summers

And it now has its own blogging Carnival, with the second edition up here. They're looking for submissions for Carnival number three.

Carnival of the Future

A new Carnival of the Future is up.

Speaking of "the future," check out Wayne Curtis's fun Atlantic piece on the Las Vegas monorail: "When I read that Las Vegas had opened a new monorail system last year to whisk travelers up and down the Strip, my first thought was, Of course: all cities of the future have monorails. My second thought was, When can I ride it?"

The Pap-ist Threat

Some years ago, an editor asked me how he could give his children an appreciation for the English language. He wanted them to write well. Since he's an evangelical Christian, I told him he should teach them Psalms from the King James translation of the Bible. My mother did that with me as a child, and it gave me an early sense of metaphor and rhythm. It taught me to appreciate, and understand, complex, beautiful English.

My friend didn't like my suggestion. After all, nobody reads the KJV anymore. Forget poetry (not to mention sensitivity to the underlying Hebrew), today's suburban Christianity is all about accessibility. It's been dumbed down.

Now I'm not a Christian, let alone an evangelical. If megachurches want to play bad-to-mediocre rock instead of great hymns, that's their business. But the spread of Christian pap does have spillovers, not the least of which is that devout Christian faith no longer brings with it a deep familiarity with what's actually in the Bible, as opposed to a few verses from the preacher's PowerPoint. Unless the person is over a certain age, Biblical literacy, when you do find it, rarely means acquaintance with great English. Forget theological or philosophical sophistication. I'd settle for the ability to comprehend complex sentences.

Throughout American history, Christian (largely Protestant) devotion has stretched people's minds and given them reason to think, if only within a closed system of belief. Religious practice has taught people to read, write, and speak. The rhythms and rhetoric of the Bible have given America its greatest political rhetoric, from Abraham Lincoln's to Martin Luther King's. Today's Christianity produces...George W. Bush.

Megachurch Christianity may hone organizational and business skills, but it isn't teaching believers to think about abstractions or communicate in higher than "everyday" language. No wonder megachurches combine their up-to-date media with fundamentalist doctrine. It fits well on PowerPoint--no paragraphs required. Leaving aside the validity of what they preach, today's most successful evangelicals are spreading pap.

While I'm ranting about the pap-ist threat, I should put in a few words about the mega-bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life. If anyone still used the phrase "begs the question" correctly, I would apply it here. While I'm sure the book inspires some people to more-fulfilling lives, Rick Warren's treatise is offensive in its audacious dodging of even the most sophomoric philosophical questions. (What about Hitler? Ted Bundy?) Just leafing through a few pages in Borders, I lost brain cells. Then I got mad. What a fraud, however honestly intended. Warren is amazingly featured (along with Al "Worst Speaker in the World" Gore) at this year's elite TED conference.

On a related note, John Lanius recently blogged on what his wife calls "Contemporary Christian Porn," and other forms of popular but debased evangelism.

Yes, all of the above could be considered an extended criticism of market-based competition. In the U.S., after all, religion is the freest market. But I'm not against the system; I'm all for it. As institutional responses to modern life, I find megachurches fascinating and productive. (I even had nice things to say about their architecture, which, while purely functional, is more interesting than its low-church Baptist predecessors.) But the most successful product is not necessarily the best on all dimensions--or on the ones I care about. And criticism is also part of the system.

Good Books

Bloggers have become the favorite whipping boys of everyone who stands for Culture The Way It Was Meant to Be. In his year-end reflections the DMN's book critic Jerome Weeks lobbed such an ignorant attack that I was actually surprised: "No wonder blogospheroids still crow over the book's imminent demise — as if in revenge for ever having to read one."

Weeks is a grouchy guy--I'd be grouchy too if I had to be a book critic in Dallas--but this is the silliest attack on bloggers yet. Bloggers love books. Bloggers promote books. Bloggers write books. The InstaKing of bloggers is about to publish a book, An Army of Davids, that wouldn't even exist without blogging. Nope, blogging is Revenge of the Nerds, and nerds read books. They just may not read the same books that Jerome Weeks does.

As you may have noticed, I haven't been blogging much lately. But I have read a bunch of interesting books, all worth sharing. Since the first of the year, I've read:

The Elusive Search for Growth by William Easterly, which combines a lucid intellectual history of the economics of growth with a sometimes heart-breaking account of how development policy has failed again and again, mostly by ignoring basic economic principles. Bono really needs to read it.

An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks. My next book project will likely be an exploration of heterogeneity, working title Nobody's Normal, and Sacks tells stories of people on the extremes of human difference--to the point that they sometimes seem, even to themselves, like alien intelligences (hence the title of his book). He deserves his reputation as both a great writer and a humane scientist-physician.

Mindsight by Colin McGinn. I picked up McGinn's newer book The Power of Movies in December and, after reading it, realized that to understand glamour as an imaginative process, I need to delve a bit into the nature of imagination. I'm less interested than McGinn in parsing the differences between percepts and images, but I find his writing provocative and accessible. Plus he provides good bibliographies. I'm now rereading The Power of Movies.

"Hard America" on the Runway

I'm a fan of Bravo's Project Runway. In each episode, aspiring fashion designers complete a challenge, from concept to execution, sometimes solo and some in teams. Like Junkyard Wars, it's a rare spot on TV where you can see creative people solving problems. And, like the folks on Junkyard Wars, the designers demonstrate not just creativity under pressure but excellent manual skills. They typically have a day or two to design, buy materials for, drape and create patterns for, cut, and sew a dress. (At my best, three decades ago, I might have been able to complete the buying, cutting, and sewing parts in the time allotted.) Of course, like all good reality shows, it also has strong characters, artificially generated tension, and occasional surprises.

Project Runway exemplifies something I've noticed in covering design professions over the past few years: Design of all sorts, from the most engineering-oriented to the most "frivolous," is a redoubt of what Michael Barone calls "hard America". When Heidi Klum gathers a half dozen designers on the runway and tells them, "You represent the best and the worst," she isn't worrying about their feelings, or even their character, but about their work. Try talking like that to an English major or MBA student and watch your teaching ratings plummet.

As in life, however, the judgments aren't based only on one-dimensional notions of creativity or merit. What the client wants matters. Getting along with other designers matters (at least in some cases). Sometimes people survive a round just by being less bad, because they take fewer risks, than the competition. The process is basically fair, but the outcome doesn't always seem right--not a bad model for real life.

Here's the Amazon page for Michael Barone's book, Hard America, Soft America. The always superfantastic Manolo blogs regularly on Project Runway, with an archive here. I completely agree with his assessment of the latest challenge.

Design Flaw


Eugene Volokh and Nick Gillespie blogged about "my" Starbucks cup back in November, but before I had a chance to see one myself, the season of the Red Cup descended on Starbucks. But the white cups are back, and I finally found one of mine. I had a little trouble, since when you actually look at a Starbucks cup it looks like this:


Starbucks went to a lot of trouble to solicit quotes from dozens of people. It designed and printed all these special cups. All the while forgetting that their cups come with a big brown cover right where the quotes go. Oops.

UPDATE: Just in case you might get the wrong idea from Dan Drezner, I didn't get paid for my Starbucks quote. Before I submitted it, however, they did send me a gift card for either $10 or $15 (I forget). I rarely drink Starbucks products--I live on Diet Coke--but it did cover some frappucinos for Professor Postrel.

The Warm Little Boy vs. The Cold Little Boy

Along with the setup, here's one of my favorite passages from Thomas Schelling's essay, "The Intimate Contest for Self-Control":

People behave sometimes as if they had two selves, one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, one who yearns to improve himself by reading Adam Smith on self-command (in The Theory of Moral Sentiments) and another who would rather watch an old movie on television. The two are in continual contest for control.

As a boy I saw a movie about Admiral Byrd's Antarctic expedition and was impressed that as a boy he had gone outdoors in shirtsleeves to toughen himself against the cold. I resolved to go to bed at night with one blanket too few. That decision to go to bed minus one blanket was made by a warm boy. Another boy awoke cold in the night, too cold to retrieve the blanket, cursing the boy who had removed the blanket and resolving to restore it tomorrow. But the next bedtime it was the warm boy again, dreaming of Antarctica, who got to make the decision. And he always did it again.

Aside from its personal charms, this passage is great because it isn't clear which little boy we should root for. Is it good self-discipline or foolish fantasy to leave off the blanket?

Flaunt It or Enjoy It?

Among other interesting articles, The Economist's year-end double issue includes this piece, asking how the superrich show off when luxury becomes a mass good. Is conspicuous consumptions out-of-date? I'm quoted, but the best line comes from H.L. Mencken, responding to the status-obsessed Thorstein Veblen: "Do I prefer kissing a pretty girl to kissing a charwoman because even a janitor may kiss a charwoman--or because the pretty girl looks better, smells better and kisses better?"

Get a Wife

Paul Graham offers valuable thoughts on productive procrastination:

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I'd argue, is good procrastination.

That's the "absent-minded professor," who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he's going while he's thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it's hard at work in another.

That's the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They're type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

What's "small stuff?" Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. It's hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there's a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out: shaving, doing your laundry, cleaning the house, writing thank-you notes--anything that might be called an errand.

Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.

Read the whole thing (via Marginal Revolution).

Graham's point cuts against the zeitgeist. In today's NYT, David Brooks argues that, at least for those not blessed with a Y chromosome, errands are what matters most. His paean to domesticity as the highest and best use of women's time, and maybe even men's, does not conclude with an announcement that he's quitting the Times and PBS to spend more time with driving the kids around. (For those who hate Times Select, the column is on p. 8 of Week in Review.)

Taken together, these arguments address several old questions: Why, as Sir Francis Bacon asked, is it that the most important contributors to human progress have often been childless? Why did the rise of the 18th-century city, with its coffeehouses and abundance of servants, promote science, philosophy, and literature? And, of course, why have relatively few women made enduring contributions to fields that require single-minded devotion?

Quite simply: Somebody's got to do the errands of life. You can either do them yourself, hire someone to do them, or get a wife. Historically, the last has been the most common option.

Let me be clear: I do not believe there is One Best Way to live. I do not believe that the gracious life created by attending to small chores (including, but not only, those necessary to raise children) is inferior to one devoted to more focused pursuits. What I believe, and what you'll almost never see suggested by an establishment pundit, is that different people are suited to different sorts of lives and that both strategies have their downsides and their risks. (I wrote about one aspect of this topic--the politicization of parenthood--here.)

My New Year's resolution: Fewer errands, less sleep (I sleep a lot), more reading, more writing. Still to be determined: Is blogging an errand? For me at least, I suspect so. But perhaps I can find a way to manage it.

Happy New Year

I wish you all a wonderful 2006.

To help you keep those resolutions, take a look at my latest NYT column, which applies to New Year's resolutions some insights from Thomas Schelling's fascinating and important work on "self-command." I highly recommend his book Choice and Consequence. (Amazon is offering a discount for buying C&C along with Schelling's better-known The Strategy of Conflict.)

Back in 1992, Professor Postrel and his colleague Dick Rumelt published an article arguing that the problem of self-command helps explain why people voluntarily submit themselves to organizational hierarchy (even when capital investment is not an issue) rather than simply trading in markets. The full article isn't online, but a shorter version is here.

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