Monthly Archives: May 2012

Paul Fussell in memoriam

Paul Fussell, curmudgeon par excellence, died yesterday at 88, according to The New York Times. He was one of my favorite authors ever since I giggled my way through Class: A Guide to the American Status System around 1987, combining insightful analysis with sharp humor and, when serious, righteous and exceptionally well formulated anger.

Of his serious books, I would particularly recommend The Great War and Modern Memory, a literary analysis of how war was described before and after the first world war, for which he won the National Book Award. He wrote similar works about the second world war, as well as an analysis of American travel literature, but it is this one that stands out, the perfect companion to Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. His autobiography, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic is very interesting – here is a video interview where he talks about it. Of his more essayistic and humorous work, Class: A Guide to the American Status System still stands out as a superb mockery of an academic treatise lightly hiding very sharp observations of the American not-so-hidden status system. It was written in 1983, but holds up well over time – one of those books that irrevocably introduced an ironic view of America you just can’t (and won’t want to) shake.

Fussell apparently was not an easy man to live with, but this seems to have yielded some literature as well: His first wife Betty wrote her own scathing autobiography My Kitchen Wars and his son, less scathingly, the cult tome Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, both of which are highly readable as well.

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The solution to American unemployment…

(Flash thought as I am listening to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee talk about Race Against the Machine at the MIT Center for Digital Business research conference – an excellent event, by the way.)

The core issue identified in Race Against the Machine is that technology improves faster than humans. Consequently, a rising number of people get automated out of a job. Previously, that has not been a long-term problem, because new industries have sprung up to hire. Now, however, the new industries hire very few people (haven’t checked the facts, but someone said that Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon collectively have about 100,000 employees, which is the job growth needed per month to keep up with population growth in the US workforce.)

So – we need to find new areas where we can hire lots of people, to do jobs that, at least as of now cannot be automated.

Here is my tongue-in-cheek solution:

1. The US has a rising (or, perhaps, expanding) obesity problem.

2. Obesity is expensive, since obese people disproportionately consume health care.

3. Take all the unemployed, sort them into a) thin and b) thick.

4. Hire group a) to be personal coaches to group b).

5. Pay for it with the savings in health costs.

Great, job done. Now for some real work…

(On a serious note, first-line health care is probably an area that could consume a lot of workers. On the other hand, it will also experience many job losses – health care is vastly inefficient in the US now, primarily because it is so cumbersome to administrate and pay for.)

Update 5/24: I was wrong – personalized weight loss coaching is now available as an app.

Keep it simple, stupid–and elegant.

In Pursuit of EleganceIn Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing by Matthew May
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A nice (I suppose you could say elegant) little book about why less often is more. Anecdotal, well-written, with at least some examples I found very interesting (the “shared space”, rule-free concept of traffic regulation exemplified in the Laweiplein crossing for example, as well as the Nigerian clay pot vegetable coolers,) some I found rather repetitious (the iPhone’s elegant simplicity) and others done better elsewhere (Christopher Alexander’s pattern language approach to architecture.)

Much to like, some to admire, and the book is summed up in the four elements of elegance: Symmetry, seduction, subtraction and sustainability. A nice little read, recommended.

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Quote for the day (Jaron Lanier edition)

“Separation anxiety is assuaged by constant connection. Young people announce every detail of their lives on services like Twitter not to show off, but to avoid the closed door at bedtime, the empty room, the screaming vacuum of an isolated mind.”

“On any given day, one might hear of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to a start-up company named Ublibudly or MeTickly. [..] At these companies one finds rooms full of MIT PhD engineers not seeking cancer cures or sources of safe drinking water for the underdeveloped world but schemes to send little digital pictures of teddy bears and dragons between adult members of social networks. At the end of the road of the pursuit of technological sophistication appears to lie a playhouse in which humankind regresses to nursery school.”

— Jaron Lanier (2010). You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, ch. 14

Update May 9: I was going to review this book, and then Jon Battelle goes off and writes a review I completely agree with – though I would like to add that the book is also delightful for its creativity with language and sheer eclecticism.