CategoryBooks

White Noise

This year I re-read my favorite novel — White Noise by Don Delillo. It’s one of the very few novels I’ve read more than once, and I think this was my third or fourth time through. I won’t recommend it to you, because, and for good reason, there are very few other people who enjoy this novel as much as I do. Most people hate it.

However, I’d like to write a bit about why I like the novel so much and what it means to me — the novel is “about” the white-noise in our society. The signals we get from our culture that don’t actually mean anything. Delillo continually goes back to the symbol of a grocery store, a place in our culture that’s both indispensable and dense with the white-noise of advertising and branding so much that it fully saturates the senses.

My favorite part of the novel, the part that has always stuck with me, happens fairly early in the book, and I think it encapsulates best what the book is “about.” Two of the main characters go on a sight-seeing trip to visit the Most Photographed Barn in America. This idea, of visiting the most photographed barn in America, a real Borgesian brain-twister, has always helped me to think about the relationship between the culture we live in and our relationship to it.

For me, this metaphor cranks up the cognitive dissonance feedback loop to a pitch that actually offers clarity — we create the culture through our participation in it, not individually, but collectively. By going to photograph the barn, we maintain its status as the Most Photographed Barn in America. Without us, it’s just a regular barn, and without our collective belief in its importance, there’s nothing to see.

Many years ago I had a phone call with a friend where she told me about her disappointment in visiting Machu Pichu — “it’s just some old ruins”, she told me. “Like, it’s cool to see something so old, but also, I’m not sure why everyone talks about it so much.” And of course, she’s write — the ruins of Machu Pichu, if you strip them of their historical and cultural context, aren’t actually that much to see (of course all ruins are this way — I’m not singling out Machu Pichu in particular)

It’s only through meditating on the passing of time, and our place in history, and how we might be standing on the same spot that another human being was standing on a thousand years ago, and how civilizations, no matter how powerful, may crumble and yield nothing but a pile of less-than-impressive rocks that we can begin to appreciate the power of Machu Pichu, and why so many people find going there such an awe-inspiring experience.

It’s not about the ruins, most people don’t even look that closely at the ruins. The ruins aren’t why you go — you go to participate in the collective cultural experience, both the experience of being a part of the club of people who have been to Machu Pichu, as well as to contemplate the grander truths about history and time and gods and man and how being an individual in the universe feels just so /small/. That the ruins are there to spur us onto these thoughts is nice, but not at all why we go to Machu Pichu.

The key plot point in the book, if it can be called that, is the “airborne toxic event” resulting from an industrial chemical spill that generates an enormous black cloud of toxic chemicals which drives everyone in the town to a joint evacuation center and exposes the main character to an uncertain-but-possibly-lethal dose of “Nyodene Derivative”. Delillo’s depiction of the people’s response to the airborne toxic event is what spurred me to re-read this novel during the times of coronavirus.

Disconcertingly, Delillo anticipates a lot of our collective (and my personal) response to the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, in this reading, what jumped out at me was our collective longing to believe that someone is in charge and handling the situation. In times of crisis, we’ll do pretty much whatever someone in a uniform directs us to do, and we’ll tell ourselves stories in order to believe that the people in charge both know what they’re doing and have our best interests at heart.

For whatever reason, this novel resonates with me in a way that I have a lot of trouble explaining to other people. The fear of death, the longing to both be a part of the collective culture and also rebel against it and assert one’s individuality.

If you do read it, definitely let me know what you think — also if you get a third of the way through the book and you’re not into it, definitely stop reading. It doesn’t get any better.

Book Notes: Against the Grain

This year I read both Seeing Like a State and Against the Grain, two books by anthropologist James C. Scott.

Seeing Like a State showed how governments systematize and abstract information about a populace in order to make it visible, measurable, and above-all administrative — in particular, Scott talks a lot about how that process of abstraction necessarily loses important on-the-ground information and that this explains why top-down state-mandated agricultural programs tend to fail: because the state just doesn’t have (and really, can’t have) sufficiently detailed information to be able to make the sorts of expertise-driven location-specific decisions that agriculturalists have to make every day in order to maximize their yields. If you’re going to read one of the two books, I’d probably recommend Seeing Like a State over Against the Grain

Against the Grain provides a study of early states and how they developed (e.g., in Mesopotamia) and Scott makes a few really interesting assertions that I had never thought about. The over-arching thesis is that, in contrast to the way these states are generally portrayed in the history books, these early states were actually incredibly fragile — our historical focus on these states has generally been because … those are the ruins we have to study. For most of history the majority of the human population lived outside of the control of formal states, and our focus on studying the ruins of high-powered states probably leaves out the experience of how the majority of humanity lived.

Historians often refer to the inter-state periods after a collapse as “dark ages”, and Scott make the compelling point that while those times may be dark to us, from an archaeological-record point of view, to the people living in those times the ages were probably anything but dark. In fact, the collapse of the state probably meaningfully improved the lives of those citizens who no longer had an overbearing tax man to pay and an easier time feeding and caring for their family. (In general, ancient hunters and gathers were much healthier than their sedentary counterparts.) In fact, the epic poem the Odyssey dates back to just one of these “dark ages” before it was eventually written down when a new state was formed that invented a written alphabet.

Below I’ve copied in some of my notes on key take-aways and some quotes from the book:


Notes

  • Sedentism predated early states
  • Early states were incredibly fragile, generally.
    • Sedentary farming is more susceptible to crop-loss leading to famine
    • New diseases were able to catch hold in city centers
  • Early states were brutal — they tended to be generally bad for the health and wellbeing
    • Slavery was always a huge and lasting part of maintaining the early state
  • Nomadism and pastoralism were the norm until /very/ recently — Up until 400 years ago 1/3 of the world’s population was still non-sedentary.
  • Transportation by water was incredibly important — without the ability to ship wood (in particular) over long distances via a body of water, new states could never get off the ground
  • Writing was not invented as a means of communication or passing along culture — it was /invented/ for administrative purposes — generally keeping track of grain stores or warehouse administration. Only later was writing co-opted for cultural purposes
  • The “dark ages” that followed the collapse of states are only dark from *our* perspective
    • Without states, we don’t have ruins (at least not those made of stone) and so modern day anthropologists can’t get much insight into what was happening. But that /doesn’t/ mean that /nothing/ was happening.
    • The Odyssey (the pre-writing oral version) is dated to the “dark ages” of Greece — it may be the case that the so-called “dark ages” of ancient cultures were actually /more/ culturally productive to the extent that the people weren’t suffering under the yolk of an oppressive state intent on confiscating their farming surplus to fund the building of stone palaces and temples
  •  Population management was hugely important to early states (for the tax base, generally) and, because life outside of the state was often better than life inside of the state (higher caloric intake, longer lives, etc) the state had to invest a lot of time in trying to keep its citizens from fleeing. They did this with:
    • walls built to keep people in, not just to keep barbarians out
    • culture and religion attempting to “other” those who lived outside of the state
  • “Barbarians” can be thought of as the yang to the early states’ yin — the barbarian “states” don’t actually seem that different from the early “true states” if you squint a bit:

The early agrarian states and the barbarian polities had broadly similar aims; both sought to dominate the grain-and-manpower core with its surplus. The Mongols, among other raiding nomads, compared the agrarian population to ra’aya, “herds.”38 Both sought to dominate the trade that was within reach. Both were slaving and raiding states in which the major booty of war and the major commodity in trade were human beings. In this respect they were competing protection rackets.


Highlighted Quotes:

The first states in the Mesopotamian alluvium pop up no earlier than about 6,000 years ago, several millennia after the first evidence of agriculture and sedentism in the region.

 

Yet there is massive evidence of determined resistance by mobile peoples everywhere to permanent settlement, even under relatively favorable circumstances. Pastoralists and hunting-and-gathering populations have fought against permanent settlement, associating it, often correctly, with disease and state control.

 

Compounding this institutional bias is the archaeological tradition, until quite recently, of excavation and analysis of major historical ruins. Thus if you built, monumentally, in stone and left your debris conveniently in a single place, you were likely to be “discovered” and to dominate the pages of ancient history. If, on the other hand, you built with wood, bamboo, or reeds, you were much less likely to appear in the archaeological record. And if you were hunter-gatherers or nomads, however numerous, spreading your biodegradable trash thinly across the landscape, you were likely to vanish entirely from the archaeological record.

 

One is reminded in this context of Owen Lattimore’s admonition that the great walls of China were built as much to keep Chinese taxpayers in as to keep the barbarians out. Variable as it is over time and hard as it is to quantify, bondage appears to have been a condition of the ancient state’s survival. Early states surely did not invent the institution of slavery, but they did codify and organize it as a state project.

 

Civilizations should never be confused with the states that they typically outlast, nor should we unreflectively prefer larger units of political order to smaller units.

 

 On paper, at least, it was even more ambitious. Neither in China nor in Mesopotamia was writing originally devised as a means of representing speech.

 

The process of secondary primitivism, or what might be called “going over to the barbarians,” is far more common than any of the standard civilizational narratives allow for. It is particularly pronounced at times of state breakdown or interregna marked by war, epidemics, and environmental deterioration. In such circumstances, far from being seen as regrettable backsliding and privation, it may well have been experienced as a marked improvement in safety, nutrition, and social order. Becoming a barbarian was often a bid to improve one’s lot.

Books: Dreamland

So I finally read the book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic and just as everyone had said: it’s very, very good. The book tells two stories in parallel: the first is the tale of the development and marketing of Oxycontin by the now-disgraced pharmaceutical giant Purdue and the second is the story of how a relatively unsophisticated (or at least loosely-organized) group of Mexicans from the small state of Nayarit brought black-tar heroin to the United States and spread it through small predominantly white towns across the entire country.

One good way to measure how much I like a non-fiction book is by the number of highlights I record — in Dreamland I recorded a very substantial 72 highlights which is on the high-end even for me. The book does hit at the sweet-spot of some of my interests — the decline of white middle America, the malfeasance of pharmaceutical executives, and the linking of Mexican and American economies, cultures, and futures via the drug trade.

I take particular interest in the malfeasance of pharmaceutical company executives as a result of having seen it up-close. At the beginning of my career, I was a consultant econometrician and I worked primarily doing paid-research at the behest of pharmaceutical giants. In fact, the last client I worked for (with causality!) was Purdue pharmaceuticals and I left that business just absolutely disgusted with how pharmaceuticals pay for the research that they want and then use that research to convince doctors to prescribe their products. This book actually did a really good job of laying out how dubious “published research” can be used to convince an entire country’s doctors to throw out what they had learned in medical school and begin prescribing highly-addictive narcotics to legions of patients.


As I did in my summary of Evicted, below I’ll include some of the most poignant excerpts from the book and some of the key takeaways that I had.

On the scale of the success of Purdue Pharmaceutical selling legal narcotics

The scale of the success of Arthur Sackler’s Purdue Pharmaceuticals is really mindblowing. The world has really never seen a business that made so much pure profit. They did this by selling addictive narcotics, which they marketed heavily — both to consumers and to doctors.

Valium became the pharmaceutical industry’s first hundred-million-dollar drug, and then its first billion-dollar drug. By the midseventies Valium was found indeed to be addictive and a street trade grew up around it. Hoffman-La Roche was accused of not warning of the drug’s addictive potential.

 

In 1995, 35,000 Americans were pharmaceutical sales reps. Ten years later, a record 110,000 people—Sackler’s progeny all—were traveling the country selling legal drugs in America.

 

In 1996, Purdue paid one million dollars in bonuses tied to Oxy sales, and forty million dollars in bonuses five years later.

On how the Xalisco Boys brought a new model of drug-dealing to the US

Last year I read this really thought-provoking history of Domino’s Pizza that laid out how Dominos’ developed a product that came to completely dominate the market for pizza in the united states over the course of a few decades. That product is not pizza: that product is hot food delivered as conveniently as possibleThe pizza didn’t even have to be very good, and for years it really wasn’t! Dominos wasn’t selling pizza, it was selling convenience.

The black-tar heroin sellers from Nayarit brought the same innovation to heroin sales in the United States. They brought a safe, simple, and convenient delivery model to addicts in the united states

The Xalisco traffickers’ innovation was literally a delivery mechanism as well. Guys from Xalisco had figured out that what white people—especially middle-class white kids—want most is service, convenience. They didn’t want to go to skid row or some seedy dope house to buy their drugs. Now they didn’t need to. The guys from Xalisco would deliver it to them.

In addition to the innovations around convenience, the black-tar traffickers avoided many of the problems that plagued other heroin operations at the time — large, violent organizations that operate out of a central location both called attention to themselves and were easy to break up and take down via standard police investigations. By using large mobile fleets of dealers never holding more than a few grams worth of heroin at a time, the black-tar dealers were able to deal under-the-rader and avoid long jail sentences.

Ask to buy a large quantity of dope, the informant said, and they’ll shut down their phones. You’ll never hear from them again. That really startled the informant. He knew of no other Mexican trafficking group that preferred to sell tiny quantities.

He nixed Philadelphia, too. It had a huge heroin market, but it was run by the Mafia and street gangs. He didn’t even consider New York or Baltimore. It was crazy to think that a bunch of Mexican farm boys could break in there. Why would they want to? The country was full of towns like Columbus—wealthy places with growing numbers of addicts and no competition. So the contours of the Xalisco heroin nation took shape, based largely on the territory the Man carved out by avoiding the biggest cities where heroin markets were already controlled, and by following the OxyContin.

As camouflage, these Mexican heroin guys used just-in-time supplying, like any global corporation, to ensure they had only tiny quantities in their cars or apartments. This, too, was sophistication Baldessare didn’t see in the heroin underworld.

Finally, because many of these dealers both knew each other from back home in Mexico and planned on permanently returning there after earning enough money (i.e., they never planned to set up a permanent operation in the United States) the drug dealing model was copied and spread across the US by enterprising black-tar entrepreneurs. Because of their aversion to violence, the proliferation of independent heroin shops drove the price of black-tar down and encouraged the dealers to fan out across the country in order to set up their own shops in virgin territory.

These drivers knew each other, and would stop to chat or meet for lunch. Even as they competed and drove down each other’s prices, they did so in peace. They went out of their way to avoid attention. It helped that the drivers had no investment in how much they sold, and that they didn’t use. There was no incentive for them to cut their dope. They didn’t make any more money if they cut it than if they sold it as it came. They were employees, guys on a salary, with their costs covered and a stipend of several hundred dollars a week. The last thing they wanted was violence.

On using “published research” as pharmaceutical advertising

Purdue Pharmaceuticals marketed Oxycontin in a way never before seen (and hopefully in a way we’ll never see again). One of their strategies for marketing Oxycontin was by flying primary-care physicians out to “conferences” (which also met the requirements for ongoing professional training) at nice-weather resorts where pain experts reviewed the latest research on Narcotics. Of course, those pain experts were doctors paid by Purdue.

They cited research that was either out of date, poorly performed, or just completely misinterpreted in order to make their case that opioids like Oxycontin were non-addictive and safe to prescribe.

It’s important to note how devious this can be — most general practice doctors have neither the time nor the inclination to spend their precious free time reading tedious journal articles. If articles did come out saying that narcotics like Oxycontin were addictive, they didn’t get the same kind of publication and advertising muscle that any research (often funded by Purdue!) would get. Even if 10 times as many articles are published show that opioids are addictive if the articles that show the opposite get 100 times the exposure via marketing and conference discussions, which ones do you think will reach more doctors?

That “less than 1 percent” statistic stuck. But a crucial point was lost: Jick’s database consisted of hospitalized patients from years when opiates were strictly controlled in hospitals and given in tiny doses to those suffering the most acute pain, all overseen by doctors. These were not chronic-pain patients going home with bottles of pain pills.

But only in 2010 did the NEJM put all its archives online; before that, the archives only went back to 1993. To actually look up Porter and Jick, to discover that it was a one-paragraph letter to the editor, and not a scientific study, required going to a medical school library and digging up the actual issue, which took time most doctors didn’t have.

All you need is one guy to say what he was saying. The others guys who are sounding a warning about these drugs don’t get funded. They get a journal article, not a megaphone.”

It’s important to remember that this doesn’t just happen with opioids — this is an old trick in the pharmaceutical marketing handbook. Pharmaceutical companies will sponsor enough research to flood the world with journal articles supporting their point of view, and then those articles will get cited by other articles (which might not note the conflict of interest) — through sheer volume of research, the pharmaceutical companies can obtain a large share-of-voice in the market even with less-compelling evidence.

One last fun tidbit

In 1853, meanwhile, an Edinburgh doctor named Alexander Wood invented the hypodermic needle, a delivery system superior to both eating the pills and the then-popular anal suppositories. Needles allowed more accurate dosing. Wood and other doctors also believed needles would literally remove the patient’s appetite for the drug, which no longer had to be eaten. This proved incorrect. Wood’s wife became the first recorded overdose death from an injected opiate.

Book Review: Evicted by Matthew Desomond

I’m taking advantage of the quarantine to get caught up on a lot of my long-overdue reading and this week I finished Evicted by Matthew Desmond and it was incredible (it won a Pulitzer, so it’s not like I’m the first person to say that).

The book does an incredible job of blending ethnographic study with policy analysis in a way that brings the actual problems that actual poor people face to light. None of the characters are lovable — they’re all deeply flawed in various ways. From the landlord wringing money out of her impoverished tenants and constantly complaining about it, to the tenants themselves who use drugs, and get into fights, and often seem to make decisions at odds with their best interests.

However, all of the people who appear in the book are very real, and even if you don’t love them, you can surely empathize with them. Desmond does a very good job of illuminating the catch-22s and double-binds these people are put into — if you’re poor and living in an urban center, there really are no good options. All it takes is one emergency to fall behind on rent, get evicted, lose your house, and then everything else just falls apart.

Below I’ve included some of my notes and key quotes form the book highlighting how bad policies force poor people to untenable situations:


Landlords are frequently extracting more than 60% of their renter’s incomes, leaving very little leftover to put food on the table, save money, or handle emergencies. Our public assistance does very little for the majority of poor renters

Most poor people in America were like Arleen: they did not live in public housing or apartments subsidized by vouchers. Three in four families who qualified for assistance received nothing.

The apartments that impoverished people rent aren’t actually much cheaper than apartments in nicer parts of town and they are way, way shittier — because it’s so difficult to find any landlord who will rent to you if you have a criminal record or a past eviction, landlords who are willing to rent to you can charge a premium

Landlords were allowed to rent units with property code violations, and even units that did not meet “basic habitability requirements,” as long as they were up front about the problems.

The economics of the rental market in inner-city slums are fascinating. Because property values are so low, landlords can buy up lots of cheap properties and rent them out at enormous profit. They use the court system and the police to evict tenants and extract ludicrous amounts of rent for sub-standard housing stock.

The same thing that made homeownership a bad investment in poor, black neighborhoods—depressed property values—made landlording there a potentially lucrative one. Property values for similar homes were double or triple in white, middle-class sections of the city; but rents in those neighborhoods were not.

Wealthy renters can use their rent as leverage against their landlord to make sure broken things in an apartment get fixed — however if you’re poor and you’re behind on your rent, that leverage goes away.

  • If you are even $100 behind on your rent and you call your landlord to fix a busted pipe, they can tell you they won’t fix it until you’re caught up on rent (while you can’t use your sync.
  • If you call the housing inspector, your landlord can evict you immediately for being behind on your rent

Tenants able to pay their rent in full each month could take advantage of legal protections designed to keep their housing safe and decent. Not only could they summon a building inspector without fear of eviction, but they also had the right to withhold rent until certain repairs were made. But when tenants fell behind, these protections dissolved. Tenants in arrears were barred from withholding or escrowing rent; and they tempted eviction if they filed a report with a building inspector. It was not that low-income renters didn’t know their rights. They just knew those rights would cost them.

Laws regarding “nuisance” tenants, designed to encourage landlords to evict trouble-makers who might be harming the neighborhood, have the unfortunate effect of discouraging women from calling the police on their domestic abusers. Because if the police are called, say, three times to do the same address within a certain period of time the tenant can be evicted, women who are being battered by their domestic partners are forced to endure it for fear of being evicted if they call for help.

What the chief failed to realize, or failed to reveal, was that his department’s own rules presented battered women with a devil’s bargain: keep quiet and face abuse or call the police and face eviction.

Surprising no one, our social safety net is failing these people. What you come to realize in the book is that eviction is caused not by bad behavior per se, but it is the necessary result of being poor in the city — if you’re a poor renter in the inner city it’s almost inevitable that you’ll be evicted at least once in your lifetime (or at the very least you’ll know people close to you who are).

Unfortunately, because our policies treat evictions as a reason not to qualify for public housing assistance, we deny the people most in need of assistance the ability to get it.

When I ran the numbers, I was shocked to discover that 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters experienced at least one forced move—formal or informal eviction, landlord foreclosure, or building condemnation—in the two years prior to being surveyed. The survey also showed that nearly

Often, evicted families also lose the opportunity to benefit from public housing because Housing Authorities count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications. And so people who have the greatest need for housing assistance—the rent-burdened and evicted—are systematically denied it. This—the loss of your possessions, job, home,

Overall this was a really eye-opening book. I had had a vague sense that all of these problems were real, important, and oppressive, but Desmond’s style really brings them to life in a powerful way. I will not forget it soon.

Distancia de Rescate / Fever Dream

I just finished Distancia de Rescate (Fever Dream) by Samantha Schweblin and, after a bit of a slow start, I really, really loved it. The reviews call it a “horror” novel, which it is, I suppose, but in a very different way than any horror novel I’m familiar with. I was afraid that it would be something like a pulpy Stephen King novel — something that keeps you up at night but doesn’t provide a whole ton of literary engagement (pretty much the opposite of what I’m generally looking for).

What I got really blew me away — once I got about 1/3 of the way into the novel (it’s very short!) I couldn’t put it down and finished the back two thirds in one sitting.

The novel follows the story of a mother and a young daughter who go for a vacation in a small farming town in rural Argentina (presumably). Very strange things start to happen and the story is told from the perspective of the mother after the events occurred as she is struggling to remember and understand what happened.

The horror builds slowly, and Schweblin uses the device of the retrospective “fever dream” brilliantly to keep the reader in the dark as much as the narrator even as she’s recounting events from the past. Her interlocutor, David, is also just the right amount of creepy and ominous to keep the story moving and the reader vaguely apprehensive.

** Spoilers start here **


 

Besides the technical craft of the novel (which is very, very good) I was really floored by the way that the author made use of toxic pesticides as the specter that torments the character — I had never thought of this before, but toxic pollution really does have many of the characteristics of what make for a terrifying monster in a work of horror:

  • You can’t see it
  • You don’t know when it’s close or far away
  • You can’t protect yourself with any normal methods (bullets, knives, running away)
  • Because they can’t see it, other people won’t heed your warnings until it’s too late

Schweblin makes the fear and the damage caused by toxic pollution visceral and terrifying — I had always thought of pollution as being generally “very bad” but not something I spent much time thinking about — as with any good work of fiction, Fever Dreams makes the unseen and unseeable feel real, oppressive, and truly terrifying.

Most compelling to me is how Schweblin shows us different characters with differing abilities or desires to believe in what is happening — from Carla, who prefers to believe that her son is possessed rather than poisoned to the nurse in the emergency medical center who seems to be on the payroll of the industrial agriculture company that props up the town, these characters blindness to and complicity with the toxins that are killing their town and their children only adds to the horror — however, unlike in a Stephen King novel, this horror feels incredibly real and surely a reflection of the real world today, not a horrifying imaginary world that we can take comfort in not living in.

Schweblin shows us a nightmare, and then reminds us that the nightmare is real and the characters are real and we aren’t doing anything about it.