January 20, 2003

The Lady Vanishes and Other Oddities of Nature, Charles Sheffield

Ah, delicious. Tidy techie short stories, believable dialogue, and a couple of hard yanks on the heartstrings.

Posted by clew at 04:52 AM

The Last Lone Inventor, Evan I. Schwartz

In 1928 one John Logie Baird got a human eyeball to use as part of his experimental television scanner. Apparently it worked when the eye was fresh, but failed by the second day. First thought: City of Lost Children. Second thought: why assume that the eye needed to be human?

Most of this is a morality tale about the end of private invention, and the invention of television propaganda. Philo T. Farnsworth, the actual¹ inventor of television, was hobbled at every turn by RCA and its self-aggrandizing director Sarnoff. Sarnoff told many tales about his importance that weren't true, but had the broadcasting stations when the dust settled, after which it was his tales that were heard. Sarnoff managed this with FUD and lawsuits and RCA money; RCA stock made heaps of money for private investors in the 1920s, after RCA was created by government fiat and IP-arrogation in wartime. RCA, like other big companies at the time, was developing the process of work-for-hire invention.

That is to say, the invention of television shares its themes with plenty of other battles for control of ideas, from Disney vs. Eldred to open-source vs. Microsoft to Carlyle vs. Marx.

Farnsworth learned invention mostly from Hugo Gernsback magazines and from the machinery on an Idaho farm, and was backed in various ways by plenty of the people he met, who were soon convinced that he might indeed be really on to something. (Machinery that a kid can fix is a great accelerator of technology. I worry about injection-molded parts driven by screen-printed circuitboards: they don't take minor tinkering well. When the molders and printers are common, bliss will it be to be alive.) His life should have been a boring had-an-idea-built-it-throve story, like Mauve; but RCA thwarted it.

The saddest thing wasn't even that Farnsworth got so little of the money despite being so far in advance of other inventors. The saddest thing was that he believed television would lead to truth and mutual understanding, and then to peace: but the first public broadcast he ever saw was Sarnoff's PR coup claiming television for RCA.

¹See comment for another inventor. Either way, RCA is out.

Posted by clew at 04:27 AM

January 18, 2003

Lust Over Pendle, A.J. Hall

We are all lying n the mud, but some of us are looking at the stars; Lust Over Pendle is slashy fanfic and stands on its own.

Gentle readers as much as five minutes farther behind the times than I am may need to know that fanfic is amateur fiction written as extensions to and with the characters of a more famous, probably professional, work. There's a lot of it, for television shows and movies and comics and books and probably the more vivid commercials; most of it is awful. The general idea produced the Metamorphoses, and there are lot of pastiches in the juvenilia of subsequently respectable authors, so it isn't new.

Slash gets its name from the Virgule: it adds a love-relationship between some characters, e.g. Yorick/Hamlet. Usually it's a homoerotic love-relationship, and most of them are sexually explicit. I have worried for some time why there were so many straight women busily writing homoerotic fiction, not because I am against homoeroticism or inventive reuse of cultural materials, but because one grown practitioner told me - a while ago, on a defunct website - that they had to write romances between male characters, because they couldn't possibly add enough to the female characters to make them credibly interesting. Now, that's clearly not true in general, because we've had decades of re-envisionings of various myths with more vim in the women - low culture or high; Modesty Blaise to The Robber Bride; I should mention the Heroides to be fair. (Maybe that's low culture to medium. Since, for a while, terribly high fiction hasn't expected the characters to actually do anything but talk, women have not been at the same disadvantage in it: consider The Golden Bowl.) I have been wondering why anyone would say it was true in a fiction universe as pliable as Star Trek or Harry Potter. Maybe it's a cover for the reading woman's version of the watching man's enthusiasm for lesbian porn scenes. Possibly there' s a de/marg(anil)ization of the gaze and subjectivity, or it could just be a efficient way to get the sexually uninteresting characters offstage. Most of it's too drecky for me to care.

I read Lust Over Pendle because Kate Nepveu recommended it as a comedy of manners, and hey, it is one: of the Avengers era rather than that of Lady Windermere's Fan, with a '20s English country detective air and some Buffy. This surprised me the more because it's an extension to the Harry Potter books. (I've only read the first Potter book, some time ago, didn't much like it, & haven't seen the movie, but I understood the plot despite an admirable lack of expository dump.) One great advance on the originals, to my taste, is that Hall sets the book in the character's (just) adulthood; it also has active and opinionated women, including older wiser & definitively experienced ones; and the central relationship is credible but not the whole of the plot.

Posted by clew at 08:56 AM

January 16, 2003

The Blue Last, Martha Grimes

A thorough Richard Jury novel. The series bit-characters are beginning to seem mechanical to me, but the mystery is so well done that I can't think of anything to say about it that wouldn't be a spoiler.

Because it's a Jury novel, his finding the solution does not advance the cause of human happiness in any clear way. I should look up the philosophy of pragmatism.

Posted by clew at 08:12 PM

January 15, 2003

Consumer Society in American History: A Reader, Lawrence B. Glickman, ed.

This isn't the collection on the subject I was looking for; that one is edited by Goodwin, Ackerman and Kiron and I remember it as having a lot more numbers, being economic history. This owes enough allegiance to "cult stud" history to have an essay by Baudrillard in it; and that essay crystallized my opinion of cult stud, which is that it repeatedly fails to meet its repeated promise because it would usually be better done as a novel. Baudrillard's arguments can be convincing, but - like a good worldbuilding novel, whether SF or roman fleuve - they are not logically supported and usually cannot be so. As someone said of something else, they are not substantiative enough to be wrong. However,
Work, leisure, nature, and culture, all previously dispersed, separate, and more or less irreducible activities that produced anxiety and complexity in our real life, and in our "anarchic and archaic" cities, have finally become mixed, massaged, climate controlled, and domesticated into the simple activity of perpetual shopping.
needs some disprovability to be science, but would be a fine lead-in to Cory Doctorow's novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

Interesting subjects in Consumer Society : total debunking, with numbers, of the stereotype of "man earns/woman consumes" starting in the late 1800s when it became fashionable. The sole excuse, and it's flimsy, for the error is that male consumption was mostly done in all-male environs; men's clubs of all degrees of permanence and swank took up a lot of money and provided a lot of glamour and stuff. (Ballrooms, fancy dishes, costumes with dyed feathers and silk sashes, fur coats, sports-watching clothes.) The essay on the history and politics of Hot Rod magazine was good too; hotrodding started in the 20s - it seems ot me that some real inventions were probably made by amateurs that early, but the essay doesn't say - and the magazine supported what is clearly a hacker culture. The best reason to work on one's machine is the reward for skilled effort, and the unity if human and machine; doing it for a living is both a goal and a risk, since it makes one's work less pure; the magazine is balanced between defending the culture from the suspicious mainstream, and trying to provide older, wiser advice to the young hotheads who might be justifying mainstream suspicions.

Posted by clew at 10:07 PM

January 14, 2003

Clever Victorian women

John Marchmont's Legacy, Mary Elizabeth Braddon
The Clever Woman of the Family, Charlotte Yonge

Braddon's book is tremendous fun because she has a really wonderful villainess. One of the great pleasures I get from Victorian and Edwardian novels is a particular degree of character development, comfortably between playing out the social 'station to which God was pleased to call' a character, and playing out the completely internal but equally deterministic torments of the psychological worldviews after Freud. Trollope's Cousin Henry makes me perfectly happy in this regard.

John Marchmont's legacy doesn't directly affect Olivia, a woman fit for greatness but consigned to a tiny life. By the time something interesting happens, she's cripplingly cramped by having tried to be good in a way she wasn't good at, but she remains so balanced between her worse instincts and her better intentions that she's a lot more interesting than either the romantic leads or the undiluted villain. Also, she gets a lot of riproaring purple prose:

When this girl and I are equals - when she, like me, stands alone upon a barren rock, far out amid the waste of waters, with not one memory to hold her to the past, with not one hope to lure her onward to the future, with nothing but the black sky above and the black waters around -- then we may grow fond of each other.

The rest of the plot is inheritance-and-true-love melodrama, not totally unlike East Lynne, though not quite as sensationalist.

The Clever Woman of the Family has a much more realistic plot, but recognizes some of the same difficulties for intelligent Victorian women too well-brought-up to do anything with their talents. Yonge expects that a successful upbringing will always put a stronger male mind in charge of the flailing female one, but the novel doesn't seem to believe that this is likely or easy. Not Middlemarch, but not just polemic.

Posted by clew at 06:52 AM

January 12, 2003

Olives, Mort Rosenblum

Olive trees get so old that a whole book could be written about the history that has walked over one set of roots, but this book, while respectfully mentioning the great age of trees and traditions, is really a world-around survey of olive cultivation and fashion. Cultivation is as hard as agriculture generally is, fashion complex: old olive-crushing technology has serious snob appeal.

Politics come into it, too: export conglomerates and controls, label scandals, the difficulty of fitting seasonal work into citified schedules, inheritance that preposterously divides the ownership of groves, and war. Olive trees used to be good things to have around in a siege, as they are said to sometimes grow back from their enormous roots even after being burned down. Tractors and dynamite undo them, though.

Although olives grow well enough on several continents, it seems that Tunisia is the most natural place Rosenblum found them growing; enormous ancient trees on unirrigated, dry, marginal land, outproducing French trees. The oil is good enough to fill Italian blends, and the Tunisians have a clever and low-tech way of picking the olives.

The recipe for olive-onion-mint soda bread is pretty good, although the enormous quantity of onions makes the dough a bit slimy while kneading.

One annoying publisher's failure: no index. Nor are the recipes that begin each chapter named in the table of contents.

Posted by clew at 04:35 AM

Randomness, Deborah J. Bennett

This is a pretty little gift book on an important and counterintuitive idea, but I don't think it will quite teach anyone anything useful. Most of it concerns the history of the mathematics of randomness, and not enough sets or works exercises for the reader, or gives examples of how misunderstanding randomness misleads us.

Posted by clew at 04:33 AM

The Fat Man In History, Peter Carey

Grim little collection of stories with just-off-stage violence;
reminded me of The Lottery more than once.

The publisher categorizes it as "Fiction/Literature", cautious praise, mentioning nothing of its near-SF plotlines. Too respectable to be SF; how'd he pull that off so young? Without even being called "magic realism"?

Posted by clew at 04:33 AM

January 10, 2003

Life On the Line, Solange De Santis

This is a much better exploration of class and snobbery than Snobbery, although that is scarcely what it's about. De Santis was a successful journalist and the child of white-collar parents, but was so curious about what it would be like to work in a factory that she went to work at a doomed GM truck-assembly plant for more than a year. Life... is pretty close to just describing what that was like, although, since social and economic issues have a lot to do with plant-closings, she does describe some of those.

Mostly it was godawful hard painful work, among people who were often kind to each other and often interesting but mostly tired. De Santis' motives and results are a little like those from an essay on extreme sports or mountain climbing; it was really hard, and she did it anyway, and now she's tougher. Like good essays on mountain-climbing, she's nervous of what the people doing it with less choice will think of her - porters on the mountain, immigrants from the Balkans or Prince Edward Island in the factory. At the beginning, she keeps her mouth shut and they think she's trying. She doesn't have to pretend to be less literate than she is; one of the points she makes without belaboring it is that all sorts of people wind up on the line. As the plant closes, she's more open about why she's there, and is not apparently disliked for it. Maybe she didn't notice, or didn't mention, but it seems plausible that her coworkers both liked her well enough and were pleased to think that a book would be published describing their lives.

She's a business journalist; some of her throwaway comments contrast things she notices about the factory to abstract beliefs held by pro-unionists and pro-unfettered-marketists alike. By her description, the union is an imperfect and sometimes unpleasant power; but it also seemed to be a reasonable belief of autoworkers that almost all the physical and legal protections the company offered them had been won through the union, which explains why the union can get away with flaws. I would really like De Santis to research fixes to this stalemate, and others that are accused of driving decently-paid uneducated labor out of North America, and write a book on what she thinks about those.

Posted by clew at 09:59 PM

Snobbery: The American Version, Joseph Epstein

Snobbery is both mean-spirited and poor-spirited. In being mean-spirited, it fails to be the Olympian-laughter view of follies public and personal that kindly writers manage - Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon on furniture fetishes - although I think this is what Epstein consciously meant to write, and he does pay the idea lip-service.

Olympian detachment is harder than wholehearted attachment to one's particular follies, and I was more expecting an accurate view from Epstein's vantage, whatever that turned out to be; most books on snobbery do this, of course, and it's sometimes insightful and sometimes informative and sometimes entertaining, like the cultural sections of the Economist. Some people defend their particular snobberies well enough to be convincingly educational, although the more convincing they are the less it seems like snobbery; Knuth's Literate Programming is borderline for me, so I can see it both ways. (Easier when the judgment is aimed at works, not directly at people.) But - possibly hamstrung by its desire to be Olympian - this Snobbery waffles between admiring the things it admires and defending the less-stylish perfectly pleasant achievement Epstein actually lives with. Sometimes he emits a little spurt of vitriol at the more-fashionable - Haryard, Yale, and Princeton as one overrated mass; all of San Francisco; dieting. I didn't think he was very funny about any of them, though. It's normally difficult not to make pretensions funny - all you have to do is describe them clearly enough to lay the pretense bare - but he doesn't describe much, certainly nothing more recent than Paul Fussell's Class, which was mostly descriptive and a bit vituperative, or Bad, which reversed the proportions. Epstein doesn't seem to know much about anything less than thirty years old (he must be at least in his sixties), and makes claims about the immunity of science and technology to snobbery that are unintentionally quite funny: "computer-made entrepreneurs -- seem uninterested in qualifying: ... social prestige in any form thus far known holds ... little magic for them."

Where he sticks to his autobiography, the book is better because it does know something, so the analysis and vitriol are honest. The best description is of what it was like to be Jewish as Jews broke into the WASP power structure; this is also where he puts a bit of vitriol of surprising nastiness. The one piece of anti-Semitism he describes most clearly had no evidence, as he also says - he was afraid a WASP tennis-player was going to be rude to him, and the tennis-player wasn't - and yet he identifies this man, almost certainly dead and unable to defend himself, by city and name. Tacky. He could have been perfectly clear about how real the intimidation felt without tarring someone.

If you feel like seeing the anthill of the moment laid bare, read Kurt Anderson's Turn of the Century instead. Anderson was nearer the fashion centers of New York, and did a fair job of describing the oddities of Silicon Valley and Redmond. I don't think he always deduced correctly what the unfamiliar status symbols meant to their users, but it seemed like a fair try. Snobbery would probably be useful if you want to know what impresses the humanities departments at the U. of Chicago or Northwestern, but anything by Allan Bloom would probably do better.

Posted by clew at 09:17 PM

January 03, 2003

Appetite for Murder, Cecille Lamalle

Why are murder mysteries with recipes such a successful genre? Appetite for Murder is an okay light mystery, bludgeonings, comedy, social commentary and caricatures and all, but really any proximity to death by bludgeoning makes me that much less interested in ramekins of chicken.

Recipes turn up in series 'cozy' mysteries, making them 'culinary cozies'. They're awfully long on desserts, though some are tea cozies. Spenser doesn't give recipes that I recall, but Robert B. Parker goes on enough about his cooking to out Spenser as a crypto-cozy. Ha! We knew it, drippy romance, spoiled pet and all.

Wimsey justifies murder-mystery-writing to Harriet as a vision of a world in which justice is done in the end. Doing justice isn't easy in their world; they have moral debates and nervous breakdowns and marital grief over it. (When are Strong Poison and Gaudy Night going to be republished with recipes?) The cozies make it a bit too easy, which is to our discredit, if we no longer imagine achieving anything hard, or maybe to our credit, if we're imagining common or domestic virtues as natural allies to Justice with her book, blindfold and sword.

I haven't established whether the recipes are generally any good.

Posted by clew at 09:17 AM

The Trial of Queen Caroline, Roger Fulford

I think it's been explained to me why the Anglican church finds it unacceptable for the King or Queen of England to be divorced, but the logic will not stick in my head. From outside that church and country, "divorced" seems perfectly traditional and much preferable to "beheaded, died". Many things look different from the inside.

Di-worshippers should consider the trial of Queen Caroline, wife of George IV, who was a total lout as a husband but took exception to Caroline's traveling Europe and the Holy Land with a bunch of third-rate nobility and one, mmm, probably negotiable young man. The case against Caroline is awfully familiar by modern Di (and Clinton) watcher standards; witnesses remember nothing, or more than is plausible; stains on the bedlinen, unlikely gifts, restroom arrangements, and "what anyone would assume" are dragged into the record; Caroline's infidelity would have counted as treason, except that her young man was neither an English subject nor on English soil. Popular opinion swung from one party to the other. In the end, the Bill of Pains and Penalties against her was neither rejected nor passed - it was shelved - leaving it as an embarrassment to everyone.

Posted by clew at 08:32 AM

Wealth and democracy, Kevin Phillips

Several related books, I thought, that mostly coalesce into one rising argument. One is a lists-and-anecdotes history of who the richest people in the United States have been since the Revolution and where their money came from. (In approximate order of waves of wealth: privateering, military procurement, railroads, oil, manufacturing, finance, tech.) Another is a discussion of the politics around this: being on the right or wrong side of a war can make or lose a fortune, obviously, but you can also make a fortune by having the connections to reap most of a government giveaway: letters of marque, land grants, monetary policy, military procurement. Every so often there's a wave of political objection, e.g. the Populists and Progressives.

The last book is a comparison of the economic histories of the Spanish, Dutch, British & US empires, arguing that the last two were already doomed in the period of their greatest wealth. In both cases their economies had mostly converted to pure finance, hollowing out the industry and common weal within the nation and leaving it vulnerable to shock. Phillips certainly implies that the US is already in that stage. He has some lovely contemporaneous quotes identifying the beginnings of each nation's rise, e.g. from Charles Wilson's Holland and Britain

the Dutch technician was to the 17th century what the Scottish engineer was to the 19th century...to be found wherever profitable occupation offered and...wherever government or private enterprise was in need of technical or managerial skill.
American engineers were that after WWI; right now I'd say India has the baton, or China.

The main argument of the book is an indictment of current US politics for having been captured by the small interest group of people who have enormous amounts of money. The history, US and elsewhere, shows how such capture has played out before; his analysis of the last 20 years of US fiscal politics suggests that it's playing us now.

Posted by clew at 08:13 AM
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