August 31, 2004

A Calculating People, Patricia Cline Cohen

Subtitle: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America

The spread of numeracy is reasonably interesting if you're interested in economic history, or in how skills travel between "rote skills" and trade schools, and "knowledge" and liberal schooling. Reckoning was a practical, even embarrassingly practical, skill for hundreds of years of the rise of commerce; the first colonialists weren't especially numerate, since the Puritans believed in theological studies instead, and the tobacco planters were above such petty things. (I overstate.)

Some people found argument by number irresistible as soon as it was imaginable, though; for instance, the Virginia Company got into a long brangle over how many of its colonists had died, and of what. Also, of course, the rise of the organized state and of mercantilism paid for surveying, muster-lists, etc. Reckoning became a strength of the state. Around this time the rhetorical claim that women couldn't do arithmetic was swept under the rug in the interest of hiring math teachers out of a cheap labor supply.

My favorite chapter is on the Census of 1840, though, and most of that is about an error in the census, probably exacerbated by difficult form design, which followed a decade of brangling in the courts and had results that probably lasted through Jim Crow.

The most controversial "finding" was that the black population of the North appeared to be beset with epidemic rates of insanity, which suggested to some that "science," as revealed by tables of figures, had proved freedom to be detrimental to blacks.

By 1840 physicists had learned that you can't carry out chains of calculations on bad data and get good results; but most number-enthusiasts apparently started with the belief that a number, however arrived at, had more credibility than words. Sir William Petty, for instance, was more precise than accurate.

What was measured by the 1840 census was already skewed by interest. The age groups for blacks and whites were different, possibly to preclude comparing mortality. Insanity was to be measured to judge outlay for the support of dependents, employment was measured in more categories than the 1820 census had needed, the president wanted to know about military pensioners, education and literacy took up another several columns.

Each schedule contained seventy-four columns, with headings in microscopic type printed across the tops of two pages.

It would be only mildly interesting if a complex form had produced randomly untrustworthy data; but this one probably invited a particular error. Because the error was pleasant to racists, it became a popular claim even though it was inconsistent with the rest of the data in the same census, and was often explicitly disprovable.

So Jarvis checked for internal consistency and was mortified to find that many of the towns reported to harbor insane blacks in fact had no black population at all! A study of the printed statistics of other northern states turned up the same pattern...
...individual assistant marshals had indeed entered digits in the columns for "insane and idiot" blacks in families where there were no blacks.

This Jarvis, who was a member of both the American Statistical Association and of the Massachusetts Medical Society, worked out with his colleagues that it was common in the North for "insane or idiot" white family members to be listed in the column for black family members. The Census had already gone through a conflict, or even scandal, over who had the right to print it; and the printer Weaver made an excellent front for the political interest, i.e. John C. Calhoun, who wanted to use the results. Much I'm-rubber-you're-glue was printed, and I would guess that most of the country was already tired of the whole issue. Jarvis got no traction.

Cohen consulted the manuscript returns on microfilm, and has a theory as to why the error was systematic:

Suppose, then, that a certain number of senile whites were considered idiots in the common parlance but not insane; suppose that some fraction of them were entered in the column for insane and idiot blacks merely because the word "idiot" was not prominent in the section for whites, while the word "colored" was not prominent in the section for blacks. It stands to reason, then, that a series of ratios comparing insane blacks to the total black population would exhibit an interesting gradient from North to South and from East to West, because there was an excess of elderly people in the East and a deficiency of black people—the denominator of the ratio—in the North. In regions with large black populations, such as the South, the small numbers of errors recording senile whites would fade into insignificance.

Parallells to ballot design and climate data crunching are an exercise for the reader.

Genealogists use census data, so if you're willing to pay a modest sum, you can buy online access to images (of the microfilms of?) the census returns. Where the data is available as a database, I haven't found the categories relevant to this error listed at all. It looks as though many large libraries have the censuses in microfilm, at least the local censuses; but I admit I'm probably not going to hunt down an actual image of an inconsistent return, having failed to find one online.

ISBN: 0226112845

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The Wild Numbers, Philibert Schogt

This is an academic midlife crisis novel and it isn't about adultery. It isn't even about literary theory. It's sort of about math, though not so much that that should scare anybody off. It's short. It's good.

Even short, it's remarkably immune to the telltale compression of the pages. The plot has many reverses but doesn't signal whether it's going to converge or diverge. Still, the story concerns ambition, madness, despair, and social competiton, with supporting rôles for father-son relationships, love, and the impossibility of human communication.

I can't find a translator's name in the Plume edition.

ISBN: 0452282470

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August 25, 2004

The Beekeeper's Pupil, Sara George

M. Huber was a founder of the scientific observation of bees; he was blind; his was lucky in his servant Francis Burnens, who, wrote Huber, was comprehending them as well as I, and [...] was born with the talents of an observer.

George's book adds no scandal or class war, in writing what might have been Burnen's diary. It's very orderly. The observations of the bees inspire mild reflections on human society, no more. It's a little like an Andrea Barrett or A. S. Byatt novel about Enlightement science, but their characters usually come to more painful ends. Neither the subject nor the reader gets "cruel delight" in this.

This isn't the only recent fiction on Huber; there's at least one poem cycle, Blind Huber.

ISBN: 074270414

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August 23, 2004

The Teenage Liberation Handbook, Grace Llewellyn

This is not a fair review because life is too short to finish this book. I expected to agree with the argument when I started, but it nearly makes me want to change my own opinion to avoid Llewellyn's company.

The argument purports to be that schooling is so bad for most people that teenagers who hate it should plan their own education outside high-school. Good so far. The support slides into deeply unappetizing territory with the opening parable, when she invents horrible "schoolpeople" who love to be zombies. This strawman caricature suggests weak argument, but worse, it undercuts one of the putative beliefs of the book, which is that we all have different tastes and know what's good for us.

The other thing that should have tipped me off to contradictions deep in this particular branch of the movement is their enormous fondness for citing the number of homeschooled kids who go on to Harvard. This is not the cry of the free spirit. This is the cry of the gentry frustrated by having to spend time and taxes with everyone else. I had a lengthy consideration of exactly when it's fair to call people taking their wealth in time instead of cash income 'gentry'—anecdotally, look you, I am one of those people, and it's delightful even if it means darning your socks. But I don't even have to make that argument. From School Figures, pp. 267-268:

Homeschooling familiesPublic school families
white (1998)94%63%
SAHM not working for pay76.9%30%
Parents w/post-secondary education88%<50%
Certified teacher as parent19.7% of mothers, 7.1% of fathers<3% of US labor force
1997 median family income$52k$43,545 (families with children)
4th grade kids watch more than 4 hrs. TV/day1.7%38.5%

What leaps out of this at me is that the homeschooling families earn more money for (usually) half the labor. It would be surprising if children of successful parents, often taught by certified teachers in a kid/teacher ratio better than 4/1, didn't do spectacularly well. Behold the gentry reproducing itself; not prima facie immoral, but not something the rest of the country ought to be impressed by.

Some of that data may not be as economically telling as it looks; for instance, being a certified teacher doesn't always mean having the human capital of a college education to spend on your own family. The difference in watching TV could be a relevant difference in mores or interests, not just the lack of affordable daycare or safe playgrounds.

To finish up with my annoyance at Llewellyn; her argument is based on a belief in, indeed veneration of, the untrammeled instincts of adolescence that's somewhere between Rousseau and a John Hughes film, so of course she wants adolescents to be extra-untrammeled. But the current freedom from 'real work' is largely a product of Depression-era compromise; it wouldn't make any sense to someone in a system more explicitly tied to trades and professions. It makes even less sense against translatio studii or any of the sciences or arts of which Ars longa, vita brevis. Again, to be fair, I know she has sections on starting your real life's work instead of hanging around in school; but (objection 1) that's not the core of her argument and (objection 2) nor is it even what schools are really bad at supporting, given that you know what you want to do and have a mentor, which she has to assume for the unschooled.

I was miserable enough in high school that I don't want to defend the current system, but I don't think Llewellyn's approach fixes much. The lucky run away and commend themselves, everyone else welters. There has to be a better approach.

Other reading, e.g. The Future of School Choice, suggest varied possibilities. Smaller schools are usually better, for one thing, public or not. The early data from the Milwaukee voucher system looked pretty inclusive, e.g. racial composition and school lunch eligibility in the voucher schools was about the same as that in the schools their students left. Scores in the public schools also went up; they were facing competition, but also Milwaukee cut it so that funding per student in the public schools also went up; also they were slightly less crowded afterward (I think).

There's a lot of behavioral economics suggesting that kids and their families will be much happier with schools they choose even if there's no more than cosmetic difference between the choices to start; and that feeling happiness and loyalty will lead to better school outcomes, all else equal. Hard to sift, though I think it has to be another argument for smaller schools; small enough and there are choices even without busing, even in entirely public system.

The recent flap over charter schools is relevant, too; smaller schools with more group cohesion are also going to be less predictable and occasionally dig themselves into holes, because free of oversight, or by reinforcing their own errors; any experience with groups of humans has examples.

ISBN: 0962959103 (The Teenage Liberation Handbook)

ISBN: 0817939520 (The Future of School Choice)

ISBN: 0817928227 (School Figures)

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August 22, 2004

Cold as Ice, Charles Sheffield

Sheffield is often called a Golden Age author, meaning one like Arthur C. Clarke, but I was here reminded of a Connie Willis character describing Golden Age mysteries, and Wilkie Collins to boot: the real crime wasn't what everyone thought it was, the real crime happened years ago and hardly anyone noticed.

Sheffield's plot is like that, and also has serious conflict between incompatible goods (and their reasonably-likeable proponents), which is as much characterological subtlety as one is supposed to expect from a Golden Age author. Sheffield elsewhere has had much more subtle characterization. I think he might have been avoiding a singularity problem: some of his characters might not think like us at all, at all, and with too much introspection that might have been either obvious or unbelievable.

It's a little like the plot of The Moonstone, in that way.

Dark As Day is said to be a sequel, I wonder if it deals with the 'everything changed' problem. Wilhelmina Baird surprised me a lot when she stepped up to it; her first three novels are increasingly sweeping space-opera, ending in deus ex machina; the fourth, not exactly a sequel, is different in construction and style; heady, nearly unhinged; a shot at reflecting a material difference as great as that between, say, Gower's Confessio Amantis and Mina Loy. Okay, on reflection, Baird doesn't make as big a change as that, but few SF writers make a larger one. Some New Wave novelists do, but over the course of their own stylistic development, not directly in the service of a story.

ISBN: 0812511638

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Something from the Oven, Laura Shapiro

Subtitle: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America

There are plenty of books on the collision of advertising, technology, and mass production with changing labor arrangements and feminism and changing taste. The two strengths of this particular one are, first, its attention to how advertising led the shift to modernized, not-from-scratch cooking habits; second, some entertaining and relevant biographical details about popular cooks of the 20th century.

The strength of the biographies comes from the paradox of being a 'great chef' in the Mass Age. James Beard, for instance, comes off much worse than I would have thought, for decrying popular taste and mass production while working for the producers. Some less-lasting cooks ruined their food but saved their intellectual honor by trying to find decent food in the redoubling pile of goo.

The story starts right after WWII, because the new technology needed a use to pay off:

What the industry had to do was persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.

This wasn't easy, because most of the food tasted awful and wasn't all that much cheaper than fresh; as Peter Wimsey learns in Murder Must Advertise, you don't have to advertise butter; you only have to advertise margarine. It can't have helped the advertisers of the day that food labs were producing dehydrated sherry and breaded lima-bean-sticks; Pompayne is a far more natural sell.

The history of processed food is thus a little like the history of The Zipper, which neither worked well when invented nor met a need. The zipper was sold on its modernism while it was still being developed; only much later were zippers so much better than rows of buttons that new garment design could happen. Frozen food needed lots of things to happen. Non-farm families needed to get freezers. The food needed to taste better and get cheaper. Women needed to be persuaded that they were just as good and loving if they served defrosted food; since the postwar period was also rife with expostulation that women needed to leave paid work because a woman's touch was vital to the home, and at the same time it took most of a decade for even the US economy to really get going and support consumerism, this was a bit of a rough start.

There's a lot of argument that the consumerist habits of modern America are supported by feminism, more specifically by women's increased earnings and decreased time for thrift; but the ad frenzy is older than The Female Eunuch. I can't remember how much I've read arguing that consumerism accidentally pushed women out of the traditional directly productive rôle in the house and into middleman-heavy paid employment, to support consumption.

I've veered from Shapiro's actual book. The next section to catch my imagination was on the fashion for "glorifying" goshawful, canned-soup-casserole type recipes in the '50s. This seems to have done well partly because advertisers pushed it, partly because it was the least effort that felt like "home-making", and maybe because the 1950s are more responsible for the death of skill than I had previously thought.

The oddest figure is Poppy Cannon, who was a gourmand and acquaintance of James Beard, but a much more openhearted ally of the food industry. Shapiro defends her:

At the center of Beard's culinary life was a glorious heap of fresh ingredients—the meats, fish, vegetables, and herbs that needed only his talented hands to release their goodness. At the center of Poppy Cannon's culinary life was an American housewife, and she just got home from work.

Both half right, I think.

Cannon's prose was awful, and her food sounds worse; her most popular book was The Can-Opener Cookbook. She was ambitious and successful overall, though; she expected and achieved a home and a career and romance. The last was her long, long attachment and moderately-illegal-then marriage to Walter White, a famous civil rights activist.

Cannon knew Alice B. Toklas, and Gertrude Stein's rapture over a Mixmaster. Toklas in turn was the avant-garde for Julia Child. Child wouldn't have written her astounding book if she hadn't been shut out of the male ranks of Parisian cookery; without her systematic and gentle ordering of techniques, characteristic of people who learn cooking late or painfully (Isabella Beeton; Irma Rombauer), the American backlash against bland processed food would have happened differently, and later.

ISBN: 0670871540

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The Zenith Angle, Bruce Sterling

Awfully tired, for a Sterling novel. Sterling's past form on adulation of youth doesn't leave him much room for world-weariness, but a novel written after 9/11 and after the Net-stocks crash had to have some, and it warps the fabric.

I was surprised that the best writing was like weak Neal Stephenson, specifically, the flat-affect no-subjectivity-here juxtaposition of quotidian details; when good, an irreversible change in perspective; when weak, like clumsy product placement in a movie. I don't remember that as a Sterling technique. I remember his making up lots of new weird details and world-building with those. Now I don't know if I want to reread the Sterling novels I liked; what if they all seem to be leading to this one?

I was more surprised, or maybe dismayed, that the main character becomes so outright evil in the course of the novel and I'm not sure he recognizes it, or even that the narration does. I can't tell if his having beaten up another agent, thus glorifying his nerd-dom by the standards of a high-school bully, is supposed to distract us (or him) from noticing that he's destroyed his scientist wife's life work and lied to her about it and is set to use her next job as cover. Appeasing high-school critics by violating both scientific and marital mores is a stupid tradeoff.

Maybe in a lit'ry way this reflects the death of moral judgements, or absolutes, etc, in modern geopolitics. I didn't really get that out of the book, not that it's anything I'm eager to find.

ISBN: 0345460618

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August 21, 2004

earwig

I thought it was funny that every English-speaking small kid apparently knows that earwigs will crawl into your ear and nest in your brain. (How about other languages?) I was astonished to find that the name is from the Old English for "ear-wriggle", and that the OED quotes Sax. Leechd., from ca. 1000 AD (as far as HTML entities will take us):

Wiþ earwicgan, genim þæt micle greate windel streaw twyecge...ceop on þæt eare he bið of sona.

which sounds to me like advice from the ancients on what we should do about earwig attacks. I wish I knew what it meant. The OED does also offer a later translation of Pliny, which says that if you spit into an earwig-infested ear, the earwig will come forth 'anon'; and The English Physitian suggests dropping in hemp-juice.

I did find a very helpful page on Old English on the Web. Note that making usable fonts would have been much harder if not for the similarity to living Icelandic. Old English fonts make the quote look even better, although I don't know if I've ruined the spelling: Old English earwig advice

My six-year-old self would have been cheered by so potent a charm against the pest.

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August 17, 2004

Hex Strategy, Cameron Browne

Subtitle: Making the Right Connections

The game Hex, which can be explained in a paragraph and played on (say) bathroom tiles, is quite hard despite being perfectly deterministic; like Go. (Not that I can beat the Java applet version; maybe after I read the book, which is mostly about strategy with a lot of alternate versions of the game, including Hex on a torus.)

John Nash was one of the two simultaneous inventors, so in English the game was called "Nash" for a while except when played on those bathroom tiles, when it was called "John".

Odd that two people should have come up with such a simple game at once. (The other is Piet Hein.) Browne points out that it has a little to do with the four-color problem, too, in a metaphorical, simplifying way. It's more directly descended from game versions of maintaining or destroying network (circuit) connectivity.

ISBN: 1568811179

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August 08, 2004

Death of an Effendi, Michael Pearce

This is a little like The Last Kashmiri Rose in that the detective is an outsider several times over, in a setting very exotic to me. In this case, Egypt in the early twentieth century; the 'tec is a Welshman, so an outsider to the English, but also head of the Khedive's Secret Police.


Some of the incidental interest is in the comfortably distant troubles of empires and nations trying to disentangle themselves. Also, Kropotkin is important (offstage); and the prose is brisk and funny:

'Has anyone seen [the crocodiles]?'

'Well, Strabo reports—' began McPhee.

'Strabo? Is he one of your men?'

McPhee looked at him, astonished. 'Strabo died two thousand years ago,' he said.

'Surely you have more up-to-date information?' said the official.

Also delightful: there are another ten novels about this character, recently republished in the US.

ISBN: 1590580664

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A Presumption of Death, Jill Paton Walsh & Dorothy L. Sayers

This isn't as much like the original Sayers mysteries as Thrones, Dominations was. One might think that the smaller amount of Sayers' material in it would explain that, but it's also less like the original Sayers mysteries than A Piece of Justice, which is Walsh's alone.

The murder mystery part isn't very hard; the historical moral dilemma that complicates it is more interesting. The characters aren't as torn by impossible duties as they were earlier in the series, or as torn as in Walsh's A Desert in Bohemia. It really falls down in the writing, though, with few ringing sentences; this is not helped by a terrible job of editing or copyediting, which left surely-accidental clunkers to break the stream.

ISBN: 031299138X

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Trading Up, Michael Silverstein, Neil Fiske

I cannot for the life of me think why I put this on hold at the library; it's not in my database of To-Read, and I doubt it was referred to by anything else I read recently. On the other hand, how convenient, a serendipitous view into marketing thought, which I don't normally read. I found it disingenuously creepy, but I can't tell if it's honest disingenuity or artifice.

The 'new American luxury' is, as I understand it, to spend extravagantly on some types of goods while making do with mass-market functionality in others. I am surprised that this is thought new; I thought it was long-held knowledge that, for instance, luxury lipstick has a bigger market than luxury soap, partly because lipstick is used in public. It may be that what this book is really about is selling soap as though it were lipstick. Victoria's Secret is one of their favorite examples; since I've never found their goods very good, and this book says they have much higher profit margins than department stores do for similar goods, I became pretty suspicious that the idea was to sell mediocre goods with fancy branding to people who couldn't really afford it.

The evidence adduced to explain the new habits of consumption included some very depressing stuff, e.g. that income for the top quintile in the US is up ~70% in real terms in the last 30 years, considerably better than the income of the bottom four-fifths; the cheery rhetoric is that 'everyone' can buy luxury goods in their favorite category, but their studies refer to households with income of more than $50k annually, often more than $75k. It does matter whether luxury spending depends on 'everyone' or the $75k crowds; and then it further matters how much of it is supported by consumer credit.

The less suspicious explanations include women's different spending patterns, now that women mostly work and don't have time to be as thrifty as our grandmothers were; and that every efficiency improvement in production makes bare survival cheaper, leaving more income for fashion. I certainly agree that both are largely true and partly beneficial, although we don't account for all the costs in either case.

I completely fail to see why the 'new luxury' is more democratic than the 'old luxury', unless Prada is cheaper than Gucci was, which I kind of doubt. I don't think it's true that 'real' designers working for mass-market producers is new; I vaguely remember it happening in the '70s, and I read that it did in the '30s, especially in England. I'm a little dubious that Michael Graves laundry baskets are going to be a net benefit for the body politic, since they can go painfully out of fashion, which a laundry-basket that has no fashion can't do. I don't know how we'd match the fashion cycle of goods to their natural useful lifespan, so's to not induce extra trash; well, actually, of course I know: if everyone is thrifty and doesn't throw away their perfectly good laughably outdated stuff, cycles of style will either slow down or become shallower. Not the marketing ideal, either one.

I was somewhat entertained that a book on the 'new American luxury' kept referring to European food and craftsmanship, and European engineering of both design and production, as luxuries Americans can now democratically provide to everyone (in $50k/annum households). The three explanations that come immediately to mind are that the richer parts of Europe are still supporting 35-hour workweeks and serious recycling laws, so they've built some traditional thrift into their economy that we haven't protected at all; that the mass market in Europe lives on US-designed temporary stuff made in the developing world (but for anything more long-term than a shirt that didn't look true to me: Swedish-designed semitemporary stuff made everywhere, maybe); or that it's a habitual tic of marketers.

The last chapter is on luxury and philosophy, consumption and guilt, as mutual drivers of production; and production as a driver of social conditions; not very deep, but not a cheese metaphor.

ISBN: 1591840139

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The Vatican to Vegas, Norman M. Klein

Subtitle: The History of Special Effects

Even with time to read this I doubt I'd know whether it's a brilliant angle on image and power, or a well-elaborated coffeehouse theory. The first section is "Scripted Spaces and the Illusion of Power, 1550-1780", and with alterations to the dates that could stand for the whole book. It's all about the geometry of masque design being used to direct the masses through a pageant that distracts us from the conditions of power. This is now obvious when looking at Baroque constructions; it's obvious but we pretend it's unimportant looking at Vegas versions of the rest of the world; there may be quotidian, and more powerful, structures in any daily life. Klein also draws examples from movies, especially SF; shopping-mall cities (Jerde); and software designs, especially of space, including social space, including social space taken abstractly and built by cell networks and phone etiquette.

Since it's largely concerned with special effects as an attack on democracy, an attack focussed on public space, there's a final bit on post-9/11 politics.

The language is maybe overheated, a bit theory-inflected, but the fever fits the subject and I think he might even consider lit-crit jargon as a virtual reality of its own. There are certainly enough examples that I could skim over the theory language.

And, finally, he may have an actual argument about why dirigibles are bubbling up in the SF&F subconscious. Someday I will go back and read that argument properly.

ISBN: 1565848039

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