May 30, 2005

The Decipherment of Linear B, John Chadwick

Chadwick is compact, eulogistic, and informative; this is a great bit of expository writing without being only expository writing.

The plain story is how Chadwick and Michael Ventris deciphered the written language of ancient Crete and Mycenae, partly by the logician's approach they practiced as codebreakers and mapmakers in WWII but partly by realizing that the spoken language might have been a form of Greek.

Chadwick doesn't explain why many Educated Men of his day were so surprised, even displeased, to find this precursor to Greek. The emotion that made sense all through was how sad he was to decipher these tablets, unread for thousands of years, and find them the prosaic arrangements for the failed defense of a civilization. Ventris died young too.

Chadwick, John. The Decipherment of Linear B. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.

Posted by clew at 04:28 PM

May 24, 2005

Rebuilding a Legacy: The Story of the Starbucks Center Building, Heather Macintosh

Starbucks has its main offices in a building that used to be Sears' Seattle distribution center. There were intervening decades of dispirited abandonment and tentative rental, so as tales of heroic real-estate development corporations go, Nitze-Stagen's is not totally implausible. And, as this sort of book goes, Macintosh does a good job of not just writing corporate hagiography.

I want to remember two things: one, that the Sears towers were built to hide the water-tanks needed for the newfangled fire sprinklers. The buildings seem generally to have been very practical and not unasthetic like that; concrete pillars set to allow decent light into the workspaces, for instance. There was a train siding running right through the building, too, because Sears' business was intermodal. (I guess the US didn't import enough finished goods to warrant an integral dock, back then.)

The odd thing is this assertion:

In Seattle, many of the industrial district's old warehouse buildings that would have been eagerly adapted to loft spaces in the 1980s and 1990s had been demolished in the 1930s in favor of smaller, wood-frame structures. (p. 44)

We had a district of concrete warehouses and knocked them down in the Depression to build (mostly two-story, giant pole-barn) wood structures? Why on earth? It's hard to imagine that the wood buildings ever had lower running costs, even. What did I miss?

Dewey: 725.35028 M1892R

ISBN: 09762369057500

Posted by clew at 11:34 PM

Marque and Reprisal, Elizabeth Moon

When is space opera like Emma? When I suspect it of being an experiment in an unlikable heroine. I hope, accordingly, that Moon will not give in to the McCaffrey Disease and try to convince us that all the flaws in the heroine are justified, Poor Baby.

My hopes are not high. The heroine repeatedly enjoys killing people who are trying to kill her, and she wonders if this makes her sane or not sane. Those aren't convincing as her sole categories, because she was purportedly raised in an anti-killing religion. Given that, she should be wondering also about, say, right/wrong or good/evil.

The other thing that still just completely fails to convince me is that the background universe makes any sense at all. It's all based on armed mercantilism, except when it's convenient for Moon to throw in stuff that we're used to that works because we have larger legal principles (and structures and enforcers). The gooniest case was when two sets of complete strangers, on a not-very-friendly planet foreign to both of them, can carry out negotiations about third parties because the 3rd parties are "bonded and certified". What! No! Back to Civilization and Capitalism vol. III! You would at least have to specify who they're bonded and certified by... and for; there are definitely people in her universe who don't consider each other possible contractual parties.

But there are violent EVAs and mines and rubberbands, for those in the mood for that sort of thing. And the heroine is consistently what she is, e.g. the closing paragraphs.

ISBN: 0345447581

Posted by clew at 11:19 PM

May 22, 2005

How Women Saved the City, Daphne Spain

A dozen threads of US history cross here, and Spain keeps them competently aligned. I'd enjoy a book of more reckless assertions as to what caused what, but this careful one would have to be written anyway.

Threads: the Woman Question; good government; architecture; volunteerism, especially the US strain; racism, ditto; immigration; urbanization; de-urbanization; religion; urban planning. Dear me, that's only ten threads, but the Woman Question here is wound up of at least three.

The city saved women while women saved the city. In the late nineteenth century, US habits were fracturing. More and more women had jobs and educations; work flooding into the city off the farm; the cities were jammed with immigrants. The world barely knew how to build for such dense crowds of people. City governments were weak or laissez-faire or outright corrupt; they weren't always trying to build physical infrastructure, let alone the social service network that would keep immigrants and refugees from remaining an immiserated class. Some of the movement was of black citizens, out of the rural South, and the immiserated classes were played against each other.

These fractures aligned and into them women drove a lever that shifted the whole mass. Many respectable young women had to support themselves, and arrangements for their living in the city had to be made. Also, women were going to work, including well-off women who did not work for pay: as Dr. Harriet Clisby wrote,

women who wanted to escape the "immense imprisonment of life which was stifling them" (p. 187).

Some of them avoided direct competition with men by doing the work men left undone. Finally, in a brilliant ideological feint, they combined these two things by phrasing the whole project of making cities livable as housekeeping and mothering. Many a leaflet accepted, sweetly, that women had their proper sphere; but made clear that the sphere was considerably larger than one family home. The home could not be kept safe and clean until the city was safe and clean.

If that argument didn't take, there were theological ones:

Settlement workers... were among the first to identify it [urban poverty] as a systemic problem rather than a personal failing. ...the Social Gospel defined poverty as a public issue warranting institutional reform... Thus the Social Gospel strongly justified women's work outside the home. (p. 63)

The YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the NAACP all grew in this era and worked on these problems. The YMCA of course built huge, complicated domiciles in the cities, which were homes to many poorish working women and must have been fascinating work for the women running them. I love the floorplans; the Cleveland YMCA headquarters had an interior gymnasium with a running track, as well as a library, classrooms for millinery and bookkeeping and more, and of course bedrooms offices dining-hall and chapel.

And in other places there were precedents; the last clean, well-drained Cities Beautiful had been Roman. I hadn't previously thought about the logical association of classical style with public, everyday, mens sana in corpore sano construction, but I should have, even if they didn't combine baths and libraries:

New York City's [public] baths were huge, with one hundred showers (and fewer tubs). They were modeled on Roman public baths with classical pilasters, columns, arches, and cornices. (p. 132)

The settlement houses didn't survive in their own names, largely because so many of their functions were absorbed into city government (and subsequently run by professionalized men). The settlements were houses for college women living in some of the tougher poor neighborhoods, with the intent of improving the lot of the neighborhoods by living among them and sharing knowledge, rather than going among them and granting bounty. (Certainly some of this knowledge was useful-connection knowledge, e.g. how to shame the city into collecting street trash.) The most famous of these was Hull House; Jane Addams' Twenty Years at Hull House is at Project Gutenberg. Hull House itself is mostly gone. Spain has some rather trenchant comments on how many of these practical donation-funded buildings were destroyed as unimportant, despite having been 'firsts' of many kinds - often the first public libraries or baths, for instance, only later supplanted by Carnegie or city edifices that spent some of their money on famous architects. She calls the humbler works 'vernacular architecture', referring to John Brinckerhoff Jackson's 'vernacular space', always shared.

The women's clubs are less famous now, but I think they were more accepted then. A hundred years ago many nice respectable quiet wives and mothers were also clubwomen, that is, member's of women's clubs, and some of them may have played bridge all day but some of them built refuges for unwed mothers. Spain's book doesn't talk about them much; it seems to me that they intentionally fluttered under the radar and looked harmless at all times. Seattlites might remember that the Harvard Exit movie house is in a building originally built for a women's club; surviving members are occasionally interviewed, and they usually come off as not feminists but precursors of feminists.

Clubwomen might have been more likely to talk about the City Beautiful than to agitate for labor rights, for instance, but in doing so they served as infiltrators rather than shock troops. It wasn't all cornices; that City needed to start with paving the streets. (Somewhere in here is a contemporaneous remark assuming that the mess of overhead wires will, of course, be buried as city development catches up with technological change. Oops; we haven't gotten there yet.) Urban planning became a feminine concern because the lack of air and water was unclean and unhealthy, the lack of schools unfitting, the lack of playgrounds unwise. No-one needed playgrounds when rich children lived in parks and farms and poor ones worked; city parks and playgrounds had to be retrofitted into corners. They were ambitiously designed, with sandboxes and educational vegetable gardens. They were also segregated by race and often by gender, and not separate-but-equal.

The failure of these various movements to attack racism is depressing. The Salvation Army might have done the most of the white-founded groups; it was originally English. Various branches of groups that theoretically worked for all poor people refused to work for blacks, and the ideology of sweet womanhood didn't stretch to cover it. The schools and colleges built by black women are all the more heroic, and there were decent exceptions, but it's a repeated failure of principle elsewhere. There's an awfully familiar ring to some of it, the seemingly irreducible residuum of underpaid, necessary, labor in the reproduction of labor. Nannie Helen Burroughs, who was not willing to save only the 'talented tenth',

advocated the unionization of domestics because "the women voters will be keen to see that laws are passed that will give eight hours a day to women in other industries, but they will oppose any movement that will, in the end, prevent them from keeping their cooks and house servants in the kitchen twelve or fifteen hours a day." (p. 164)

On the other hand, the Social Gospel was reliably willing to stand up with organized labor and worker's rights, as they were then being developed; and there were scientists and utopians reducing the required effort. Some had read Edward Bellamy, and were probably planning neighborhood cafeterias (how old is deli?); others built the Rumford Kitchen with the science of Home Ec.

The June 2005 Heifer International newsletter, World Ark, that arrived as I was reading this has a review of How to Change the World, by David Bornstein, which is apparently about the rise of nonprofit entrepreneurial

"citizen sector" and the tremendous growth of nonprofits that are tackling social problems that government or business have failed to solve or even address. (p. 25)

After a volume on the comprehensive invention of social-goods institutions a hundred years ago, this didn't sound all that new, but the big change is that the ideology then was female Virtue, Religion, and Cleanliness; and now the ideology is Entrepreneurship. The substances overlap constantly, since they're attacking similar problems, but the metaphors are tremendously different. It's probable that there are insoluble contradictions in the new hopeful ideology, too, but I expect there's a generation of work to be extracted from it first.

ISBN: 0816635315

Posted by clew at 11:20 PM

May 02, 2005

Lords of Grass and Thunder, Curt Benjamin

This is a good thick book and promises sequels the same. That isn't my only requirement in an escapist fantasy novel, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Next requirement met: lots happens. Humor! Pathos! Battles! Seductions good and bad! Spirit quests! Third requirement: worldbuilding: in this case, done by picking up Mongol society of the Golden Horde era and transplanting it to its more-and-better-besides world; real magic, two suns, several moons. Exotic societies that the Greeks described far to their east are exotic societies far to the west; nice touch.

I think there could have been more attention paid to material existence, especially of the common people, especially of all the work it takes to have such enormous horse herds ready to ride. On the other hand, the best food anyone eats is mutton-fat, and one of the risks of riding is getting trapped under a fallen horse, so the details convinced me even if they weren't filled in.

What does fill in many and many pages, and I liked a lot, is parallel scenes in the adventures of all the minor characters. This avoids the token-collecting feeling that bad versions of the Heroic Quest so often provide ("Tius-dag, loyal retainer of demented ruler, one secret, one shiny button, check, g'bye"). It also fills out what I thought was the moral problem of the novel: how an absolute ruler with power held by the somewhat-violent election of his underlings balances doing honor to those underlings, but not empowering them enough to make them rivals, or thwarting them enough to make them rivals. Most of the good and bad decisions in this story turn on that problem.

There are also demons and a frog princess. The prince is buffeted by events, but he seems to have had a lengthy previous series to recover from.

The failing of the whole is the writing. At best, it's flatly descriptive. This is okay when lots happens. There are too many contemporary turns of phrase, especially 'thing' for any complicated emotional shock. Finally, the proofreading is abysmal, with terrible typos and unmatched double-quotation marks.

ISBN: 0756401976

Posted by clew at 10:00 PM

May 01, 2005

Tatting Patterns, Julia E. Sanders

I don't know if the real author is even known; this is a reprint of a 1915 book (The Priscilla Tatting Book No. 2.)

So this drops from the apogee of real, painstaking, handicraft - the end of the world of unspeakably bored rich women and unspeakably underpaid poor ones - and it was not selling itself with the claim that the designs were easy. I think this is excellent, as easy fine craft designs are usually hideous adaptations of designs that might have looked good in a rougher medium.

On the other hand, this really isn't written for someone learning to tat. There are photographs of all the projects, with many closeups, and I found the directions clear, but they aren't complete algorithms: you do need to look at the pictures and think about what you're doing.

I did finish one collar, one of the simple patterns; my work is wobbly but it's wearable.

pentagon collar

The really glorious collar, not this one, is a sort of basketwork with ferns growing out of it, which looks particularly hard to adapt on the fly. This could be tricky. Either my neck is not the expected 1915 size, which is possible, or I got my gauge wrong in the work I did, which is probable, or I'm not willing to wear my collars as tight as they did then, which is pretty much a dead cert.

Detail for other enthusiasts; the pentagons round the edge are done in slightly heavier thread than the fagoting filling in the crescents, and they're also done in needle tatting, which makes them denser than the original pattern had.

ISBN: 0486235548

Posted by clew at 09:49 PM

Hetty, Charles Slack

Subtitle: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon

There probably is a great psychological drama in Hetty Green's life. She's famous for making an extraordinary amount of money as a Robber Baron, and for being an ill-dressed and peculiar miser. Her marriage was odd. Her parenting was very odd. She probably did love her family, but her miserliness was cruel to them.

She was also a woman of rock-ribbed New England manners, so she didn't leave a lot of personal information. Slack is sticking to biography, not 'novelization', so there's a fair amount of perhapsing and hypothesis. I don't find this satisfying. There might be a great adventure story left in the financial records of her swashbuckling empire, but Slack only adumbrates, he doesn't lead us through it.

ISBN: 006054256X

Posted by clew at 09:24 PM

St. Dale, Sharyn McCrumb

There was a kerfuffle in a corner of blogland a while ago over whether Achilles is a hero. (Not whether he was a hero; and originally it was over whether Che Guevara is or was a hero; but Achilles is conveniently apolitical.) Brad DeLong hosted a lot of this and has at least one linkfest on it.

I thought much of the confusion was due to a modern, maybe specifically USian, oddity: that we have combined our ideas of 'hero' and 'saint' and we expect people's behavior to be equally combined. Possibly we got this from 'virtue', which has meant both 'strength' and 'goodness'.

McCrumb's novel follows a pilgrimage that visits NASCAR tracks up and down the East to lay wreaths in honor of Dale Earnhardt. It's supposed, I think, to make us more sympathetic to the many fans of stock car racing who grieved for his death as though he were a martyr. Certainly there are several wine-and-cheese characters who Learn to Understand.

There are also several uses of the word 'sympathetic', and understanding doesn't align with all of them. What I thought McCrumb showed me was that a lot of the veneration of Earnhardt comes from a confusion of virtue and strength; the latter was more clearly associated with Earnhardt than the former. The main virtue ascribed to him is instead a strength, that he never quit being as aggressive as he was at the beginning. This last will be deeply attractive to people who have to knuckle under a lot, but when it gets down to increasing your own son's chance of fiery death, I'm pretty sure it's heroism but not virtue. Cf. Rustum and Sohrab; but that wasn't done knowingly.

I think, not with respect to this novel particularly, that the confusion of strength and virtue is very useful and is therefore not examined very closely. The circle of thoughts looks like, Achilles is great; therefore Achilles is admirable; therefore Achilles is good; therefore anything Achilles does to continue winning is justified. At the end of this there are no bounds put on strength. Achilles himself never went so far towards wrong.

ISBN: 075820776X

Posted by clew at 08:48 PM

Author, Author, David Lodge

There's humor and pathos in Henry James' life, largely because his personality seems to, like his writing, close itself against any accusation of humor or insult of pathos. Lodge should be able to draw it out, not necessarily by writing like James. Lodge has instead produced a biography that takes more pains than liberties. The first hundred pages are dull.

James embarrasses himself professionally &c. in the second half, which is a bit perkier but I only leafed through it.

ISBN: 0670033499

Posted by clew at 08:39 PM
« April 2005 | Main | June 2005 »