Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Books (page 2 of 16)

How to ‘Win Bigly’? Have no shame

Until about two years ago I knew Scott Adams only as the Dilbert guy. But once he started accurately predicting Donald Trump’s unconventional political path using the lenses of persuasion and hypnotism, gaining critics along the way but scoring on predictions over and over when most everyone else was aghast at Trump’s successes, I figured his new book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter was worth the read.

Turns out it was worth it, if only for an understanding of some of the concepts undergirding the chaos that Trump inspires. He calls Trump a “Master Persuader” using “weapons-grade” techniques to flummox opponents and win admirers. Whether it’s his constant Twitter attacks—”It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic,” says Adams—or his bombastic hyperbole about The Wall—being intentionally inaccurate but “directionally” true will win supporters and fluster opponents—Adams detects and explains what he sees as the method behind the madness. (The “Persuasion Tips” peppered throughout the book are applicable far beyond politics.)

He repeatedly claims his interest in this subject stems not from his politics but from his lifelong interest in persuasion techniques. (His other chief interest? Scott Adams.) It seems true to an extent, but Adams loses some of that nonpartisan credibility by the end of the book when he’s openly cheering for a Trump win.

Despite his compelling arguments, I knew there was another key element to the Trump story. I couldn’t pinpoint it until I recalled a passage from Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about Max Mosley, a race car driver and son of a prominent British Nazi who was outed by a tabloid for his seemingly Nazi-themed sex party. Ronson’s book is about the people whose lives were upended when their behavior went viral. But Mosley survived his scandal relatively unscathed. Why?

Like me, [Mosley had] been thinking a lot about what it was about him that had helped him to stave off even the most modest public shaming. And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”

A-ha, I thought. That’s it: no shame. That’s the key to Trump not only surviving scandal after scandal, but surviving all the way to the presidency. A normal politician running for president probably wouldn’t have lasted long after insulting John McCain’s war record or calling Mexican immigrants rapists. But he thrived.

(This also explains the vociferous #Resistance to all things Trump. He doesn’t conform to the commonly held assumptions about political behavior, so like a new viral strain or zombie he just refuses to (politically) die. That makes him particularly vexing and infuriating as an opponent.)

Adams basically confirms this shame theory: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.” No wonder he understands Trump so well! Beyond their persuasion prowess, both men are rich New Yorkers with robust egos but no inner filters. Such a skill set helped build the Trump brand in the business world, and it’s now reshaping politics, the presidency, and the world.

Though reliving the 2016 election through this book won’t sound fun for most people, I recommend it. Adams has written a kind of Rosetta Stone for a less examined aspect of The Trumpening, and I think that’s very valuable and illuminating regardless of your political beliefs.

Notes & Quotes

  • Political commentators without business experience were at a disadvantage when trying to interpret Trump
  • Encourages readers to remain skeptical of his book
  • Trump’s hyperbole “weapons-grade persuasion”: i.e. large opening offer
  • Trump matches emotional state and priorities of supporters
  • Not factually true but emotionally and directionally true
  • Campaign policies are “more persuasion than policy”
  • “When Trump’s critics accused him of laziness, ignorance, and cruel intentions, I saw a skilled persuader who knew what mattered and what didn’t.”
  • Adams has a similar “talent stack” as Trump: hypnotist, New Yorker, rich, doesn’t feel shame: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.”
  • “Intentional wrongness” paired with something that’s “directionally accurate”, like Trump’s Wall, is powerful persuasion
  • Errors suck up attention and energy
  • Persuasion tip #4: “The things that you think about the most will irrationally rise in importance in your mind.”
  • “A good general rule is that people are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts.”
  • Persuasion tip #8: “People are more influenced by the direction of things than the current state of things.”
  • Trump is actually thick-skinned, having endured a lifetime of criticism
  • Trump’s constant counterattacking is good persuasion: “It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic.”
  • A good response to someone’s poor action or words: “Is that the person you want to be?” Higher-Ground Maneuver
  • Says “Fairness is an argument for idiots and children.” [WTF?]
  • Trump’s slogans, branding, nicknames were successful because they were “sticky”, simple, and unusual for politics

Media of the Moment

An ongoing series on books, movies & more I’ve encountered recently:

Nurtured By Love by Shinichi Suzuki. Great little book on how to cultivate talent, specifically in children and music but also for anyone in anything.

On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. Enjoyed the adventure of this winding, informative book on the nature of trails of all kinds. Like an erudite sequel to A Walk in the Woods.

The Million Dollar Duck. A documentary that follows 6 artists who enter their drawings into the apparently popular and lucrative annual Federal Duck Stamp design contest. Surprisingly dramatic.

Persepolis. Loved this graphic novel’s high-contrast black and white illustration style. Perfect mix of a girl’s light and funny memoir with the high drama of the Iranian revolution.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. It’s fun to watch Jim Carrey go full Method for Man on the Moon now, from a distance, but it looked like a nightmare for everyone else at the time. The Truman Show remains Carrey’s apex.

High Society. Great sick-day movie: Grace Kelly (in her final role) with a lot to do, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra quippin’ and singin’ around a mansion, plus a superfluous but lovely Louis Armstrong performance, in a funny and charming Philadelphia Story/Casablanca rehash that gives everyone a chance to shine. Hard to believe Kelly was only 26 when she retired from acting.

Phantom Thread. I realized pretty quickly this was a dark comedy, which helped me enjoy it in the moment. But not as much as everyone else seems to enjoy it. Pretty sure I was the only one laughing in my screening.

Ingrid Goes West. Taylor’s beefcake, possibly sociopathic bro holding valuable information hostage is the perfect metaphor for Silicon Valley right now, as is this movie overall.

Moonstruck. Can confirm that the conventional wisdom about this movie—”Nicholas Cage and Cher together in a rom-dramedy that strangely works well”—is correct.

Desire lines in dictatorships

I’m in the midst of Robert Moor’s fascinating On Trails: An Exploration, and he mentions desire lines. Defined as paths “created as a consequence of erosion caused by human or animal traffic,” they are usually a shortcut through grass that’s a more direct line between two points.

“They can be found in the parks of every major city on earth,” Moor writes, including those of repressive authoritarian regimes, where dictatorial architects despise them as “geographic graffiti” because they belie the “authoritarian failure to predict our needs our desires.” Efforts to remove or impede desire lines are almost always fruitless: “Wise designers sculpt with desire, not against it.”

Once you realize what a desire path is, you’ll see them everywhere. I love discovering terminology for everyday phenomena that I didn’t realize actually had a name. Here are a few more I like:

Slip lane: The diagonal lane at an intersection that allows you to turn right at an intersection without entering it.

Rumble bars (aka drunk bumps, growlers, drift lines): The slotted lines on highway shoulders that cause your tires to rumble when you drive over them.

Road verge (aka curb lawn, devil strip, easement, parkway, and many more): the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road.

They are specific but simply worded, almost onomatopoeic in how they describe common but often invisible design. Can’t wait to add more to this list. Any suggestions?

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era

Got Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era as an unexpected Christmas gift from my dad. Given our shared appreciation for and history in the Northwoods of Wisconsin (though not in lumberjacking or songcatching unfortunately), this was a delightful read. It’s partly a reprint of Franz Rickaby’s 1926 collection Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy and partly essays about Rickaby himself, folk songs of the lumberjack era in the late 19th and early 20th century Upper Midwest, and the tradition of capturing that folklore. Over 60 songs are included, with introductory notes, full lyrics, and even music notations.

The editors’ sources and bibliography were fun to explore for related books and albums of regional folk songs. Favorites include Northwoods Songs and Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946. (I’m also eager to track down Finnish American Songs and Tunes, from Mines, Lumber Camps, and Workers’ Halls and, just for kicks, the albums Down Home Dairyland by James Leary and A Finnish American Christmas by Koivun Kaiku.)

What was really fun to read was Rickaby’s original introductory text. People don’t write like this anymore:

Meanwhile, the shanty-boy came into his own. Up and down and across the country he roamed—here today, there tomorrow; chopping, skidding, rolling, hauling, driving great logs that the snarling saws might be fed. The free life called him, the thunder of falling majesties intoxicated him. Amid this stately presence, along these avenues of “endless upward reaches,” he rudely trampled the whiteness of the earth. His axe bit deep as it shouted, and his saw-blade sang in the brittle air. The soft aroma of the woods at peace sharpened to an acrid redolence, acute, insistent—the cry of wounded pine. The great crests trembled, tottered, and thundered to the earth in a blinding swirl of needles and snow-dust, and the sun and sky at last looked in. The conqueror shouted as the proud tops came crashing down, though the places made vacant and bare meant nothing to him. Long hours of hard labor, simple fare, and primitive accommodations hardened him; the constant presence of danger rendered him resourceful, self-reliant, agile. It was as if the physical strength and bold vitality, the regal aloofness of the fallen giants, flowed in full tide into him and he thus came to know neither weariness nor fear. Neither Life nor Death was his master. He loved, hated, worked, played, earned, spent, fought, and sang—and even in his singing was a law unto himself.

And yet, Rickaby acknowledges the excesses of the Lumberjack Era:

The lumber industry still moves on. In the East, the North, the South, and the far West the trees still fall; for men must still have lumber, even more than ever. But it is now a cold and calculated process, with careful emphasis on selection, salvage, and by-product. The riot of wasteful harvest is no more: the unexpected vision of impending want, of imminent ugly barrenness, has quenched the thrill of destruction. The nation, having allowed the candle to be burned at both ends, tardily awakes to the necessity of conservation, a sort of cold gray “morning after.” Such a morning has its good and holy uses; but whatever forms of exultation may finally come of it, it must be noted that song is not one of its immediate possessions.

He marks the turn of the century, once the lumber business was industrialized along with everything else, as the turning point for lumberjack songs as well:

It was evident that some grim chance was taking place, killing the song in the hearts of workers, not only in the forests, but abroad in the world as well. Instead of singing, they read or talked or plotted; or if they did sing, the song was no longer of themselves. The complexion of the shanty crews changed. Where once had been the free-moving wit, the clear ringing voice of the Irishman, the Scotsman, the French-Canadian, there appeared in greater numbers the stolid Indian, the quiet, slow-moving, more purposeful Scandinavian.

Rickaby identifies three traits most common to “bona-fide singers of shanty-song”:

  1. “Intense application to the matter at hand”, meaning they were very focused on singing, sometimes even closing their eyes;
  2. A willingness to sing;
  3. A habit of dropping to a speaking voice on the last words of a song, sometimes “talking” the entire last line to indicate the song is finished.

Besides those commonalities, every rendition of every song could be slightly different depending on who sang it and how he made it his own. I look forward to trying to make some of these old folk songs my own too.

Man’s Search for Responsibility

Finally got around to reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. In one part he talks about a hypothetical “Statue of Responsibility”:

Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

Clever, I thought when I read it. But when I was researching Frankl after reading the book, I learned the Statue of Responsibility is (becoming) a real thing:

I like how it flips Liberty’s arm motif. There isn’t a permanent site for it yet, but I hope it comes together.

Some other quotes from the book I enjoyed:

  • “For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
  • “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”
  • “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
  • Prisoners looking at sunset: “How beautiful the world could be.”
  • “Self-actualization is possible only possible as a side effect of self-transcendence.”

Favorite Books of 2017

Goodreads tells me I read one less book this year than last. Though always tempted to read ever more and more, I’ve become less concerned about hitting arbitrary reading quotas, so I’m able to better enjoy the books I do read. Here are the 2017 books I enjoyed the most, with links to reviews I wrote when I read them:

  1. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (review)

  2. Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler (review)

  3. High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic by Glenn Frankel

  4. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

  5. The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World by Damon Krukowski (review)

  6. Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks (review)

  7. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs (review)

  8. Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings by Josh Larsen (review)

  9. The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel (review)

  10. The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse (review)


Honorable mentions:

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries by Anders Rydell (review)

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier by Theodore Catton

Tipsy temperance titles

Here’s a Christmas gift idea for the alcoholics in your life:

Working at a museum archives dedicated to the temperance and prohibition movements means I see books, pamphlets, posters, and other promotional/educational material like this all the time. I could put together an entire exhibit of temperance titles that are a) trying to be funny and hip in the youth pastor kind of way, or b) actually funny like this one.

Hear Ye! Listening to ‘The New Analog’

new-analog

“Noise has value.”

So goes the thesis statement of The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, a wonderful new book by musician Damon Krukowski. He reckons with how digital media has changed how we consume music and what we’ve come to expect from it. New technologies have begat new ways of listening, but to get to that newness, music has been stripped of its context and surrounding “noise” and turned (for a profit) into pure “signal” over a disembodied digital stream.

In theory this would be ideal; noise is usually considered a bad thing, and boosting signal above it separates the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff, etc. But what happens when everything becomes signal? What happens when we cede the authority to determine what ought to be signal to Spotify’s mysterious algorithms and the rigid perfectionism of digital recording equipment?

Krukowski illuminates what we lose when we ignore or eliminate noise. It’s not only the small things— incidental studio sounds captured alongside the recorded music and how smartphones flatten the richness of our voices—but bigger ones too: how we’ve come to occupy space “simultaneously but not together”, and how streaming encourages “ahistorical listening.”

This isn’t a fusty screed against newfangled media. Krukowski avoids nostalgia as he straddles the analog/digital divide, opting for clear-headed rumination on “aspects of the analog that persist—that must persist—that we need persist—in the digital era.” These aspects involve early 20th century player pianos, Sinatra’s microphone technique, the “loudness wars”, and Napster, among other topics I learned a lot about.

The book overlaps a lot with Krukowski’s podcast miniseries Ways of Hearing, though I’m not sure which informed the other more. Ironically, despite its inability to convey sound, I thought the book was better at explaining the concepts and aural phenomena of analog that Krukowski dives into. With the relentless iterations of new media keeping us ever focused on the present and future, it’s more important than ever for thoughtful critics like Krukowski and Nicholas Carr and Alan Jacobs to help promote intentional thinking and challenge our modern assumptions.

Studs Terkel’s ‘Working’

I picked up a copy of Studs Terkels’ Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, a sort of oral history of life and work in and around 1970s Chicago. I’ve kept it on my nightstand and slowly chipped away at it when I was between other books. It’s quite long and I’m not even halfway through, but it has some interesting pull quotes from a variety of subjects, like:

A copy chief at an ad agency:

“We’re all vice presidents,” laughs the copy chief. “Clients like to deal with vice presidents. Also, it’s a cheap thing to give somebody. Vice presidents get fired with great energy and alacrity.” …

“You become what you behold.”

A steelworker:

“Everybody should have something to point to.” …

“Automation? Depends on how it’s applied. It frightens me if it puts me out on the street. It doesn’t frighten me if it shortens my work week.” …

“You can be a fanatic if you had the time. The whole thing is time. That is, I think, one reason rich kids tend to be fanatic about politics: they have time. Time, that’s the important thing.”

And Terkel:

The science of medicine has increased our life expectancy; the science of the business frowns upon the elderly. …

It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.

These are not yet automata.

‘Working toward the truth’ in “How to Think”

There goes Alan Jacobs being right again:

it would be better for all concerned if we were content to say that our political opponents are merely wrong. But that’s unlikely to happen, at least widely, because once you say someone is wrong you commit yourself to explaining why he’s wrong — to the world of argument and evidence — and that makes work for you. Plus, you forego the immense pleasures of moral superiority and righteous indignation. So speculation about our enemies’ motives will continue to be a major feature of our political life, which will have the same practical consequences as Old Man Yells at Cloud.

9780451499608

This is something I wrestle with, especially after reading Jacobs’ excellent new book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World At OddsRighteous indignation and moral superiority—the chief renewable energy source of cable news and Twitter—make for an intoxicating but lethal combo. They don’t negate the ability to think and explain reasonably, but they can easily overpower the desire to, and turn the tendency to emote first and think later into a destructive habit.

Jacobs is one of my favorite cultural and political thinkers. Clear headed, fair minded, intellectually rigorous and generous, his insights in this short book and on his blog are encouraging and timely: how to examine biases, how to reckon with cultural “others”, and how to engage in the hard labor of “working toward the truth” with a generosity of spirit and strength of character.

That last point is important. Lacking generosity and strength of character not only make us bad thinkers, but bad people. There’s a reason the book isn’t called How to Be Right:

When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears. And that is a great price to pay for supposed “victory” in debate.

It’s especially difficult to engage with political opponents who are terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad thinkers. But the sooner we all realize how wrong we can be, and how good and healthy that realization is, the sooner we can become better thinkers and break the vicious cycle our unhealthy human tendencies trap us in.

Another thinker I highly respect is Andrew Sullivan, erstwhile blogger at The Dish and now weekly columnist. His latest tackles the danger of the “right side of history” fallacy:

No party, no cause, no struggle, however worthy, is ever free from evil. No earthly cause is entirely good. And to believe with absolute certainty that you are on “the right side of history,” or on the right side of a battle between “good and evil,” is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry. It flatters yourself. And it will lead you inevitably to lose your moral bearings because soon, you will find yourself doing and justifying things that are evil solely because they advance the cause of the “good.”

Current events are bearing this out. Idolatry is one of the easier sins to commit because anything can be made into an idol, and we live in a culture that’s particular fertile ground for doing so.

Who are some current writers and thinkers you respect, and why?

Older posts Newer posts

© 2018 Chad Comello

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑