August 01, 2010

Reinventing Collapse, Dmitri Orlov

You could read Orlov's blog if you'd rather; it contains much (all?) of this book and more besides; but the book form is a succinct, logically laid out, concisely illustrated argument. This should be enjoyed even if you disagree with his conclusion.

Loosely, Orlov says that the US can't maintain dominance any more than the USSR could, but that the people of the ex-USSR were able to survive its collapse because it had actually collapsed slowly long ago, giving them time to adapt. Those of us in the US, he thinks, are too dependent on the many effective parts of our techno-hegemony to survive its inevitable overshoot and failure. Also, we're too acculturated to optimism to prepare for troubles that are already here. It would be a jeremeiad, but it's as much in sorrow and astonishment as in anger.

The descriptions of how the Soviet Union worked, and then didn't, are interesting even if you want to skip the comparisons to the US:

In the Soviet Union, very little could be obtained for money. [...] It was important that everyone [among friends] had some, not that one had more than the others. With the arrival of market economics, this cultural trait disappeared, but it persisted long enough to help people survive the transition.
Most people in the United States cannot survive very long without an income. This may sound curious to some people in the US: how can anyone, anywhere survive without an income? Well, in post-collapse Russia, if you didn't pay rent or utilities (because no one else was paying them either), and if you grew or gathered a bit of your own food, and you had some friends and relatives to help you out, then an income was not a prerequisite for survival.

That makes Perfect Rigor, Masha Gessen's biography of Grigori Perelman, more understandable. His whole mathematical world had traded worldly reward for the freedom to tell their truths, and Perelman, having found one of the great proofs, was uninterested in fame and disgusted at the thought of monetary reward.

Find in a Library: Reinventing Collapse

Perfect Rigor

So wrote clew.

June 28, 2010

The Story of the Soil, Cyril G. Hopkins

I'm interested in several of the sub-themes of this book, but the story as a whole was almost unreadably dull. I will summarize, in case someone else can be saved the trouble of reading the whole thing.

Overt story: young man armed with the new soil science checks out olf tired farmland while looking for a cheap farm to put back into good heart. Meets farmers' daughter, courts her, carries her off to be a farmwife.

By line count, most of the book must be the hero reciting tables of soil nutrient content and plant nutrient use... table after table after table of values measured east of the Mississippi. He is mostly speaking to a family of Southern farmers (Virginia?), who are suffering genteel poverty not just because of the waw, but because their land has 'worn out', as it does. The hero explains the need for additional nitrogen, and the inadequacy of merely recycling animal manures, and the use of clover; and winds up worrying about the long-term national need to maintain stocks of phosphorus. All of this startles me as evidence that we've known for yonks, since much much earlier than any of our conservation laws, that we were running agriculture on a literally unsustainable basis; and even why; but it's always the next generation's problem.

The other half of the plot is the rapprochement of the North and the South, mostly by admiring Southern women and vilifying or pitying blacks. I think the race descriptions are trying to be as generous to blacks as they can without losing a white Southern audience, but they're pretty awful all the same.

Project Gutenberg: The Story of the Soil

So wrote clew.

September 27, 2009

Tournament of Shadows, Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac

"The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia"; from the 1830s to the moving present. I can't begin to summarize this, as it's an enormous thick book which is, itself, nearly a summary.

It's entertaining, as anything with the First Afghan War and the 1857 Mutiny, Madame Blavatsky and Younghusband and 'Kim' Philby ought to be. It has rhythm, derived from the repetitions and revenges of Central Asian politics. It's still, exhaustingly, relevant.

Find in a Library: Tournament of Shadows

So wrote clew.

August 27, 2009

Radical Equations, Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb,, Jr.

The introduction argues that mathematical illiteracy is the current equivalent of the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960s. The next several chapters are a narrative of the Civil Rights struggle, by one who was there and remembers people who were murdered for it, just to make clear how serious an analogy he's making. The end and heart of the book are a thick, much-quoting description of the development and principles of the Algebra Project. This last not only teaches more kids more math faster than most schools, certainly poor schools with minority students, manage; but it does so by getting them to love math, to play with it, to demand more algebra classes -- sometimes to demand that the uninterested teachers just get out of their way. The students have to care, and then the teachers, and then the administrators (some of whom clearly saw this as yet another insurrection).

It sounds enviable, and raises test scores, and may be teachable (more by Each one teach one than by professional seminars). It sounds exhausting and exhilarating. It also doesn't seem to be growing very quickly, if I understand their website correctly; I hope that's only places they are currently teaching new people, not all schools using the system. The NSF and a fair cut of professional mathematicians support them.

And it rises out of formal philosophy as well as lived philosophy -- Moses wrote his doctoral thesis on "the history and insights of W. V. O. Quine's philosophy and math, and one of Quine's insights turned out to be of direct relevance and importance to the teaching of school mathematics." That would be the 'regimentation of ordinary discourse', or, getting from the idea of quantity to the idea of vector (on the T; truly, the importance of public transportation is hard to exaggerate) to algebra.

Find in a Library: Radical Equations

So wrote clew.

January 24, 2009

Marinship at War, Charles Wollenberg

Subtitle: Shipbuilding and Social Change in Wartime Sausalito

The Bay Area had a fair number of shipyards before WWII, but the buildout during WWII was amazing -- expansions in Oakland and Hunters Point, and new yards entirely at Richmond (Kaiser) and Sausalito (Bechtel).

The Sausalito yards required blowing the small-farm hills into the inshore to make all that lovely flat land -- that began less than two months after the government asked for a bid. Rail, power, deep-water dredging, were all brought in as fast; the first ship launched in less than six months. This yard built its ships by line production, with flying squads of especially skilled workers, and Liberty ships and tankers roared out of it.

Workers had to be brought in too; the factories wouldn't have kept running without female and black workers. A lot of shipbuilding is skilled work, so was unionized, and the federal government spent a lot of the war negotiating and litigating some of the unions into accepting black workers. The compromise position of the Boilermakers Local 6, for instance, was that black workers would have to join and pay dues to an auxiliary, but would not be full members. Some unions -- maybe the ones in less skilled fields? -- already had black and Asian members.

I don't remember anything about the women being in the union, or not, and can't find it on reskimming. There is a black woman in headscarf and welder's helmet smiling through a raw porthole; 'it was Hitler "that got us out of the kitchen."', says the caption.

Now, one of these things is not like the others: Richmond, Oakland, Hunters Point, Sausalito. The whole Bay Area apparently got a lot of its black population during the late war, but left them last-hired first-fired, and since Oakland at least was already a rough town one can see how all the displacement and unemployment was hard to absorb. But at least Oakland had been a city to start with; Sausalito barely was.

The wartime housing at Marin City had tiny houses and terrible drainage, but some self-government, some of which was staunchly integrationist; but the war wasn't over before Sausalito and Marin City got into a fight over school-board representation, which eventually led to Marin City being appended to Sausalito as public housing, not it seems very happily.

One happy inheritance is the enormous building for the US Army Corps of Engineers Bay Model, an enormous actual model -- fresh and salt water in recognizable channels -- of the Bay and the Delta and some other bits, with clever hydrological tricks to get the scaling to come out right. The tours are a heap of nerdy fun; also, if I remember correctly, the model was vital in thwarting a megalomaniac plan to dam Suisun entirely to, I dunno, freshen up the Delta. Something.

Find in a Library: Marinship at War

So wrote clew.

January 22, 2009

The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein

Very Late Victorian Holocausts, q.v. (in Amartya Sen's review, or related to the Great Hedge of India).

The literal connection to shock therapy is grimly elegant; and if you become too sad to read the whole book through, do try the Conclusion, "Shock Wears Off".

Find in a Library: Shock Doctrine

Find in a Library: Late Victorian Holocausts

So wrote clew.

January 18, 2009

Fares Please!, John Anderson Miller

"A Popular History of Trolleys, Streetcars, Buses, Elevateds, and Subways"

Pretty much an anorak take on the subject; lots of details of how successive transit vehicles were built (lots of excellent illustrations), some details of economic and legal development, and a general assumption that history is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. The copyrights are 1941 and 1960, but 1960 was probably a renewal; the final chapter "Transit in the Modern Age" has nothing later than 1941.

Here's a detail for Seattle and Portland, or anywhere else that had more snow than plows this winter, and disagreement over whether that was dreadful planning:

Nobody had ever thought of removing snow from the public streets until the horse-car came along. Then it had to be done so that the wheels would stay on the rails. This, however, interfered with sleighing. In Boston, the Mayor and Aldermen solved the problem by forbidding the street-railway companies to clear the tracks at all so long as sleighing was good. The companies could operate passenger sleighs, they said, and charge the same fare as on the cars, but the snow had to remain on the tracks until it melted away of its own accord.

Find in a Library: Fares Please!

So wrote clew.

September 07, 2008

Bitter Melon, Jeff Gillenkirk, James Motlow, intro. by Sucheng Chan

Locke is a rural Chinatown, maybe the only one surviving in the U.S. I don't think it's much architecturally; three blocks of frame houses built for floods, an enormous vegetable garden, and some levees. Bitter Melon is about the history seen in the surviving Chinese residents, and combines some old photographs with current ones and with transcripts of their reminiscences.

The town is unusual because U.S. discrimination against Chinese residents was so vicious for so long, forbidding them basic legal and economic rights and also the right to naturalize at all. Chinese communities were violently driven out of locales all over the West through the late 1800s (and probably later, but that's what I have a map of). For that matter, the Chinese were forbidden to naturalize or to own land as aliens throughout the West until 1952.

But, back to rural Locke; if driven out of most towns, and also the agricultural muscle of early California, where did the Chinese go? Most of them seem to have lived in field houses of large farms, or have been sharecroppers; Locke was unusual because it was a town run by the inhabitants and for regional Chinese workers, but it was on Locke land and the inhabitants didn't own it (until 2004!!). Which makes me think about various utopian and dystopian schemes, I must say; the river street was mostly run by and for the houses of gambling and prostitution, and then there were two blocks of houses, and then the community gardens, which are clearly managed to the inch so must have been surveyed and willed on.

The second most interesting thing, after the political wrongs done to the Chinese, is the view the survivors have of the rest of the country. Now, this is a delicate and nuanced thing; it's not as simple as the legal history, it's the impressions more or less tactfully conveyed by people with wildly different temperaments and histories. It's a good book to read on a hot afternoon when you miss your grandparents and can put up with some meandering in their memory. There's an interestingly contradictory line of comments about American blacks; that they were worse treated than the Chinese were, but some of the Chinese still dislike them, though certainly not all, and that whole civil rights noise was very un-Chinese... but admirable. The line on Mexican-Americans is a lot more straightforward, that despite more protective laws they are now what the Chinese were ninety years ago. And, although Locke was overwhelmingly in support of the Kuomintang, one resident remarks that the Chinese were treated horribly in the States until the U.S. was intimidated by Mao; you get the impression that someone who mightn't naturally approve of Mao had evidence that his ruthlessness was required, in this troubled world.

Third, I wanted more about the gardens; more than half the town by area, after all. These are vegetable gardens run by people who survived sharecropping, on the Delta soils of Yolo County which were rich to start with, and with a gardening tradition that wastes nothing. It's mildly famous that the Delta islands are losing topsoil at a measurable rate every year, as it blows away, decays away, and is stripped for turf. I would very much like to know if the Locke garden is shallower than it ever was. In the one photograph, it looks as convex and fluffy as the best feather bed.

Find in a Library: Bitter Melon

So wrote clew.

September 14, 2007

Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage, William Rathje & Cullen Murphy

Good subject, trash in the US: and a good hook, the Garbage Project, Rathje's combination of (zero-day) archaeology and (zero-distance) anthropology. I think it got too popped up, though, too reduced to bite-sized anecdotes, and is aging poorly. (Rathje's writing online has more pith.)

Both Fat of the Land and Waste and Want are better books on the history of waste in the U.S. Both have stronger narrative and are willing to go into more systematic detail about less "pop" topics.

I'd like more of the anthropology.

Find in a Library: Rubbish!

So wrote clew.

August 08, 2007

The UnDutchables, Colin White and Laurie Boucke

This has gone into enough editions that I can believe it is popular in the Netherlands. I can't believe it's popular anywhere else, except among very dated English Europhobes, and I'm surprised it should be popular in the Netherlands either. It's not just that I find it unfunny, and not useful in explaining the national peculiarities of the Dutch; it's that so little of it is specific. Entire chapters could be pulled from your lower-grade email forwarding list and renamed to describe the annoying little quirks of anywhere. (The one on driving is especially inane, but complaints that clothing shops play loud music and you might have your wallet stolen at a street market are also typical.)

If it is, in fact, popular in the Netherlands, I can only assume that it has the charms that the bad email does, shared with newspaper horoscopes; plenty of people like being talked about, even insultingly and by rote.

Perhaps I want some good Dutch novels. I very much liked the country, in my one short visit; I liked the sense of design, cultural and physical, that allowed seemingly disparate things to trot along side by side. Some of this is the necessity of crowding, of course, but it didn't feel like -- for instance -- Japan. I can't say what it did feel like, except that I didn't think knowledge of the formal rules would explain the society to me. A novel about the formation of some important aspect of the current Dutch way might help; or one about not fitting in even though brought up Dutch; or I suppose one about moving there as an adult. Any recommendations? Or do I stick with Simon Schama?

Find in a Library: The UnDutchables

So wrote clew.

June 19, 2007

The Mojave, David Darlington

Darlington tells stories, over and over, of people coming to the desert for noninterference, and then interfering with each other. Often the interference is through intermediaries, as with all the argument over what's been most, or least excusably, or finally insupportably, damaging to the wildlife in the deserts.

There's some natural and geographic history, but most of the history is human.

Find in a Library: The Mojave

So wrote clew.

August 26, 2005

Axel's Castle, Edmund Wilson

Well, how embarrassing. I think I thought about some of Wilson's analysis of Symbolist literature, but I only remember the parts that agreed with suspicions I already had. Principally I'm comforted that The Remembrance of Things Past wasn't going to get less depressing than Swann's Way and that all the people were in fact self-defeating in more or less morally unpleasant ways. I'll happily forgo the technical skill of Proust's dying world; if I want to be in it I'd rather visit, say, the jolly brothers Goncourt.

And second recognition; T. S. Eliot goes all high-church & his verse turns into iffy Yeats.

The chapter on Gertrude Stein is unusually convincing in its argument that she's unreadable but fundamentally important, like the Velvet Underground I suppose; and the one on James Joyce is fun because it was written during Finnegans Wake's original serialized publication. Wilson is not so overcome by Joyce's method. There are publications devoted to Joyce and hypertext, though there seems to be no hypertext of FW or U; famously the surviving holder of copyright is "a Joyce not a Joycean", so there probably won't be, either. Pity.

Axel of the eponymous Castle sounds a totally unreadable pile and madly seductive to the touchy young: like The Fountainhead or The Flame of Araby. Castles! Cryptonomicon-sized piles of gold! gorgeous young Rosicrucian aristocrats who fall in love while trying to kill each other, only Axel persuades her to an immediate joint suicide because even for them no life could be as good as their fantasies... It's really just as well I didn't come across this at fourteen. To my surprise, Axel isn't online; not on Project Gutenberg, not at the Online Books Page. There are hard copies, some in what sound like lovely nineteenth-c. editions, what with Symbolists enjoying the decorative arts. The author Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (count de, etc.), is all biographized and everything.

There's a nice bit about the importance of sleep to the Symbolists, both as a naturally Symbolist realm and a suitably lethargic revolt against the demands of the modern world. It might cross Rosicrucianism, too; The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance mentioned that some esoteric adepts regarded sleep as a mystic art, one with which they could see or do what they could not waking.

With that in mind, I was dubious of Wilson's closing paragraph, which is largely a defense of the Symbolists' dreaming retreat into "things that are dying—the whole belle-lettristic tradition of Renaissance culture perhaps, compelled to specialize more and more, more and more driven in on itself, as industrialism and democratic education have come to press it closer and closer&mdash" Well, but the whole tradition includes the parts that did and the parts that didn't have science and democracy as their descendants. Not that there's a clear line between those parts, any more than The Metaphysical Club could lay out distinct parentage for modern political alliances. I get massively annoyed by accounts that assume the only 'real' or interesting part of the past was the part most like us (e.g., The System of the World) and on nearly the same principle am annoyed by accounts that assume that the only 'good' or interesting part of the past is the part we've given up.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

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

So wrote clew.

December 28, 2004

Fast-Talking Dames, Maria DiBattista

I know why one would want to write a worshipful little-sister book about the wisecracking characters in the classic screwball movies. I think the content and tone of this one are at odds, though. A random sample of the prose:

Garbo's sublime imposture of Soviet enthusiasm seems inspired by this Bergsonian perception linking rigidity of thought with inelasticity of demeanor.

That isn't even an uninteresting thought in context (Ninotchka). The 'seems' is unfortunate, since it's not an unusual thought either.

But none of the screwball heroines would have been so cautious or so slow. I can't write a paragraph in wisecracks either, and my conclusion is that prose is the wrong format for this whole book: it should have a whole lot of film clips attached with reasoning. Even better, it would have clips of parallel scenes in 1950s or modern movies to demonstrate what was different about the great age. Pity that the copyright system currently makes that unlikely.

The other wrong note in the prose is that the content is unquestioningly optimistic about the meaning, the intent, the effect of the wisecracking heroines. This includes a Lubitsch film, and who could reasonably get unambiguous optimism out of that? There is a little mention of the stock foolish-new-bride joke to take the heroine down a peg at the end. I like the literary connection DiBattista makes between romantic comedies and the health of society in companionate marriages, but she covers movies with as much difference as A Winter's Tale to Much Ado About Nothing, and even the latter has no wisecracks from Beatrice in the final speeches.

ISBN: 0300088159

December 19, 2004

Off Ramp, Hank Steuver

Subtitle: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere

This is not poetry or philosophy of the edge city, or the strip mall, or the cul-de-sac, but Steuver makes a game try at representing all three as a environment of sufficient age and complexity to develop poetry or philosophy. I don't know that he shows the Elsewhere would want any it doesn't get from TV. I am presumably missing the heartfelt meaning in his TV and pop-song references.

Most of the essays are medium-close biography of representative people; an engaged couple, a low-cost funeral director, an unlikely candidate for the California governorship.

ISBN: 0805075739

December 16, 2004

Soft City, Jonathan Raban

...the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity. For better or worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed, like a position on a map fixed by triangulation.

A large argument! nor a provable one. Most of the book is much more specific, though, usually a precise account of the social changes afflicting the poor and grimy London neighborhoods Raban lived in as a young freelance writer in the 1970s. I should think it was nearly unreadable for a couple of decades while it was just out of date; it is aging back into interest. For the US, at least, some of the interest comes from the image of London as a city permanently decaying and being renewed block by block (fashion and mortgage rules between them froze the renewal for a couple of decades in the States). Raban's general descriptions probably fit New York a decade later and smaller cities now.

Bits I liked: several sections analyzing the minimalist, anxious style of white-paint, open-floorplan gentrifiers. A little of what Raban assumes matches a history of Victorian London:

This style is a strategy of urban disengagement; it is a deliberate renunciation of almost every possibility afforded by the city. [...] (Significantly, London is unique amongst capital cities in that its middle class regard it as a right to live in a whole house and not in an apartment.)

Raban goes on to say that his gentrifiers are buying not just real-estate but the idea and practicality of neighborliness; "Community is becoming an increasingly expensive commodity". I wonder how that played out over thirty years. Community doesn't seem like a commodity that would stay bought.

There are many sections on surface, and style, and style communities and signals, and even on what kind of shopping is neccessary to maintain style; part of the argument is that the size and motion of cities requires them. Raban manages to discuss all this with very few brand-names or shop names, and only loose descriptions, which is probably why it's still readable; but I think the descriptions are specific enough that someone who was an adult in the '70s would know what he was talking about. (White-painted Moroccan birdcages were stylish? Ouch.) The birdcage chapter also summarizes Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, which categorized the street masses by their occupations and access to materials; but Raban divides his contemporaries by what they buy. I am never much impressed by claims that consumer identity has explanatory power; sumptuary laws date back at least to ancient Rome, so consumer identity can't be new and thus doesn't automatically explain whatever new thing is under discussion; but it may be that sumptuary laws and consumer identity are an urban phenomenon. (That would make David Brooks urban; a laughable concept from my vantage, or a cheerful one if it means urbanity is really winning, or a depressing one if only the shallowest parts of urbanity are winning. On the other hand, Mayhew evidently divided all people into the Settled and the Wanderers, and explained urbanites rich and poor as being Wanderers, and nearly subhuman to boot; no side of this argument is new.)

Of course, I like his description of Moroccan birdcages as the use of culch in fashion, or possibly the use of fashion to keep the culch-pile well churned.

Raban only leaves London twice in this book; once while visiting Cambridge, where he is surprised by the isolationist attitudes (and tax policy) of each district of Boston; and horrified by its effects in, for instance, Roxbury, which (I guess) wouldn't have fallen so far in London, because London recognized itself as a city and connected all its parts. After all Raban's outsiderness and observation, after his praise of London's contingency and privacy, after his despair in his youth not fitting into villages and small towns that weren't playing at conformity, Roxbury moves him to a moral opinion, phrased with remarkable lack of vanity: "More than anything else, I would like, sometime, to be a capable citizen."

We live in cities badly; we have built them up in culpable innocence and now fret helplessly in a synthetic wilderness of our own construction. We need—more urgently than architectural utopias, ingenious traffic disposal systems, or ecological programmes—to comprehend the nature of citizenship, to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom.

ISBN: 1860461077

November 20, 2004

Jacquard's Web, James Essinger

Bruce Sterling divides technology into string and glue, doesn't he? String is older. Information technology was first a child of string (some children were lost).

Most people who care already know that the Jacquard loom used punch cards to store the amazingly complex patterns of fashionable brocade and damask cloth; Essinger can only stretch that out into a few chapters, mostly related to the economic importance of cloth, because not a lot is known about Jacquard's life and what is mostly comes before his inventing. The rest of the book is about the currently-more-interesting descent of computing, of which Jacquard's looms were parents twice: once to part of Babbage's machines, d.s.p., again to telegraphic paper tape, most fruitfully to Hollerith's punchcards. Hollerith was related to a weaver/industrialist who used Jacquard looms.

Quite a lot of this book is devoted to the history of I.B.M., descended mostly from Hollerith's company but also some others, including one that made cheese-slicers... Remington Rand is a more suitable example, since it was a powerful maker of typewriters partly from its experience in making sewing-machines, which required speed, precision and enough reliability to run without a dedicated maintenance team. It's not actually very surprising that clothing should have several times impelled a technological leap. It's a tempting use of capital, since so much money is spent on it at all times, and the standards are high; really good handwork is still better at some things than what machines can do. If the next industrial revolution is 'mass customization', it will probably start in clothes again. I hope so, because it's an offense to aesthetics that so many people have so many clothes that don't really fit.

I wonder if Hollerith's cards were the first time data lived naturally in a database. It's an error-inviting pain to fill out even a two-dimensional table by hand, let alone a deeper one.

It's a pity that information never went from cloth back into the machines; I imagine it as long-term storage: punch the cards until the design is right, weave a reference sample, and when the cards wear out unweave the sample through a machine that generates cards from cloth: then save the first weaving from those cards as the new reference. This wouldn't be a good idea, since punching more cards from cards is easy.

I also wonder where Jacquard got the idea for punched cards. (Or where one Falcon, who built the first but worse punchcard loom got it, if Jacquard got the idea from Falcon.) I have a Theory, actually; bobbin-lace patterns. Bobbin-lace was as expensive and slow to make as brocade, and the patterns changed with fashion much faster than one person could make up a suit of lace. Complicated patterns require pinholes punched into stiff card, which give a skilled lacemaker enough direction to make up the pattern. Middlemen made up many many cards corresponding to small pieces of a fashionable pattern and handed them out to lacemakers as they picked up the finished pieces from the last pattern. It would have been important that the patterns lined up well to be invisibly sewn together, although the threads did not weave from one piece into the next. I think there must have been a lot of these cards around, especially in a town as devoted to luxury clothing as Lyons was. It's still a big intellectual jump to switch from a human feeling with a pin to know where thread-crossing should go, to a machine that always crosses in the same places feeling a card to decide whether a crossing should happen; but it would explain why sheaves of punched cards 'looked like' information storage.

Online glossaries give 'lace cards' as a synonym for punchcards, but they also sometimes suggest that that only refers to a card with all possible holes punched out, giving it a resemblance to simple lace. On the other hand, that resemblance would provide an easy false etymology.

I can't find an online picture of how the early automatic lacemaking machines work, although Nottingham has a promising history of mostly-Nottingham lace machine inventions; the Jacquard idea came in after decades of improving knitting-frames to approximate the action of lace-twisting.

ISBN: 0192805770

September 16, 2004

A Pound of Paper, John Baxter

Subtitle: Confessions of a Book Addict

Baxter's book addiction is undeniable, but is also completely unlike my own, although our reading overlaps. Baxter has been a collector, private and professional; he cares about the provenance of particular copies, which should be as untouched as possible, unless they're inscribed by some perverse celebrity, to raise the value. His perfect book is in some way unique and untouched, which as far as I'm concerned makes it no more a book than is the inside of someone's head. I would find his view much more annoying if it wasn't clear that he does really read (other copies) of the books he collects; and also that he recognizes this collectors' taste as perverse. He eventually decides that he can't be a 'collector of' someone he hopes to talk to even as a reader, let alone a colleague of sorts; so he sells his Graham Greene collection in a lump.

So; the book collecting with a lot of money in it has something in common with celebrity-memorabilia collecting, and something in common with antiquing for the money. No-one's going to suddenly mass-produce Poe manuscripts, which improves their investment value. I guess that partly explains why book-collecting became a rockstar, movie-star business in the 1960s and 1970s—according to Baxter, who doesn't say what proportion of rockstar income the trade took up.

Baxter's first connection to books and publishing was through science-fiction fandom in Australia in the 1950s, but he's worked all over the English-speaking world. He name-drops like an excellent schmoozer, and I should think that the pursuit of insiderdom has lots in common with collecting.

His claim that librarians never read books is, in my experience, untrue, and smacks a little of commercial distaste; library copies aren't any good for a bookrunner, though a copy unread by its rockstar owner is.

I was disappointed by his reaction to bookselling on the Internet. I can see why he doesn't like alibris, which bought used-book shops up wholesale; they're hard to compete against, and they don't themselves provide the knowledge some bookshop owners do. He spends too much time making fun of subliterate descriptions of books on eBay; he was happy to see the fools selling at car-boot sales, why not online? (Because you don't have to be cool and obsessive to buy online, just obsessive?) But it's oddly blinkered, or outright slanted, not to mention the universal-shopfront system that abebooks provides, which lets one search the databases of independent booksellers, who use the descriptions they already used to the trade; and purchases are usually made from the bookseller, not the intermediary. I should think this inconveniences Baxter, since he made a living by being an intermediary, but he seems intellectually honest enough that I was really curious how he'd describe it. Instead, silence.

I can't imagine that books reproduced as electronic files appeal to him at all, given his fascination with particular physical copies. Down some nearby trouserleg of time, a different Baxter is passionately devoted to Project Gutenberg, which relieves the trauma of his book-deprived Australian upbringing in a SFnal way. In this universe, he is so happy to live in the apartment above Sylvia Beach's, to lug groceries up the very carpet-runner that Hemingway threw up on, that I finished his autobiography with some charitable feeling. His next chapter was lists of important works, of modern or detective literature, many old enough to be out of copyright and therefore suitable hunting for a book-scanner too.

ISBN: 0312317255

September 02, 2004

The Cute and the Cool, Gary Cross

Cross picks three contradictions out of the twentieth century structure of life, family, and childrearing, and pretty neatly shows how they reinforce each other. When technology pushed productive work out of the home, the home was represented as a sacred place, free of the unpleasantnesses of work. Women got to be the Angel in the House, and children even more so: children were angels still shining from heaven. Consumerism and advertising were rising at the same time, and they found steady profit in selling to the sense of 'childlike wonder', the untrained, therefore innocent, therefore all-deserving desire of the very young. Adults who are supposed to divide their lives between unpleasant work and the goblin-market joys of consumerism are, first, easy marks for buying their children 'real joy', and second, eager to coddle their own 'inner children', who were never as happy as the ads say they deserved to have been.

One of the problems this papers over is that childish innocence has two strong meanings; not just the 'wondrous innocence' that should get what it wants, but 'sheltered innocence' that needs to be protected. These are incompatible views, and they call out political divides between adults who have different sticking-points about what children absolutely have to be protected from. But "for the children" is a nearly untouchable political argument, the only claim strong enough to counter the ideology of the free market. Therefore it gets used more than it could support even if it weren't weakened by incommensurable beliefs regarding children's 'true natures'.

And finally, since children grow up and don't want to be tiny rois faineants forever, children turn wide-eyed cute into eyebrow-raised cool, which their parents experience as a betrayal. Great for the marketers, though, as it gives them a whole new segment.

All the above is my summary of Cross' argument, which is laid out with a lot more historical example. The evolutions of Christmas, of candy advertising, and especially of Halloween considerably strengthen his points. Halloween went from unpleasant but undangerous mumming, to cute kids and their candy, to a marker of fear; Cross points out that it is at least a little strange that parents would feel safer taking their children to the mall for trick-or-treating than letting them visit their neighbors. Little could be more telling about the decline of community trust than this. Finally, Halloween is becoming a grown-up party with drink and naughty costumes, the squares' Mardi Gras.

I don't think Cross and I share many political viewpoints, but he seemed grudgingly fair when describing 'my' side's views.

ISBN: 0195156668

Bringing Down the House, Ben Mezrich

Subtitle: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions

How depressing the gambling world is; breaks up marriages and friendships, relies on bribery drunkenness and threats, generates nothing.

I didn't like Mezrich's prose, either. It assumes that everyone finds the Vegas high-roller style both seductive and dangerously vulgar; it invites us to leer and sneer at once. 'Everyone' is narrow, since the perspective is so clearly from a decent Boston neighborhood and university. The view from this apex is blinkered: part Chinese—you could see it in his eyes, narrow drops of oil beneath a ridged brow, p. 13; He looked like he owned at least one pickup truck., p. 166. Unfortunately, his writing wasn't even accidentally descriptive of his own world.

However, the closing essay by Kevin Lewis, one of the MIT students who pulled tremendous profits out of blackjack over three years' work, is fine. It is entirely about the general principles of card-counting; it presents the one equation it uses in clear, accurate prose; it spends a page on subtleties of application. With such a grasp of analysis and explication, it isn't surprising that Lewis navigated Vegas better than Mezrich did.

ISBN: 0743225708

August 22, 2004

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

July 25, 2004

The Fun of It, Lilian Ross, ed.

A New Yorker would probably recognize more of the faded fashions from these eighty years' worth of The New Yorker essays. Anyone might recognize many; Hirschfeld, crosswords, domain-name squatting. Readers will find familiar authors either displaying their style in small, or polishing it into near transparency. I thought the most transparent essays the best ones. They're so short, and on such slight subjects, that there's no room for posturing or even overt personality from the author. Posturing fades into archness or incomprehensibility.

Reading the book straight through is like watching an old movie on the walls of Plato's cave. Enormous events of the twentieth century pass without direct mention. The essayist is looking at a polished spot on the wall of the cave; we peer over the essayist's shoulder, with a little light of future knowledge. Wars and revolutions explode outside the cave and the glare is at the edges of our vision.

The earliest Talk of the Town essays were published under the pseudonym "Van Bibber III", a reference to Richard Harding Davis' urbane character.

ISBN: 0375736493

July 14, 2004

Cruel Delight, James A Steintrager

Subtitle: enlightenment culture and the inhuman

Nice work on a nasty subject, the conflation of pity, power, reason, and science with cruelty in the Enlightenment. It doesn't just remind one that science, medicine especially, developed with cruelty, but makes an argument that the delight in cruelty was more of the scientific impulse than one would like to think. I only skimmed it, as (one) I really ought to be working on a dozen other things, and (two) it draws lots of its evidence from Hogarth and de Sade. I accordingly noticed mostly the surgery & sex parts, which jump out because of the illustrations. I didn't do any justice to the arguments from the Scottish Enlightenment, which had most of the claims for kindness and sympathy as natural states; from Adam Smith, among others.

I did notice, among a dozen more things I want to read, a reference to a novel Melmoth the Wanderer by one Charles Maturin, which has a shipwreck in it; I want to read that and look for Patrick O'Brian's Maturin's slightly creepy scientific detachment.

Slightly later in the day, again distracted from those dozen things, I was drawn into Love at Goon Park; also about slightly creepy scientific detachment with results that were probably a boon to human suffering. Goon Park is the nickname of the psych lab where Harry Harlow did the paradigm-shattering experiments with wire-mother monkeys, and many follow-up experiments; all showing with great clarity that affection, even a pale simulacrum of affection, is as necessary for primate development as food.

The first experiment showed that baby macaques preferred a terry-cloth 'mother' to an equally warm wireframe 'mother', even if the latter had the milk. Follow-ons demonstrated that affection and socialization are needed for monkey development. This overturned a congeries of accepted theories, among them that babies had no particular attachment to their parents except as a source of food, that maternal affection led to needy stupidity, etc etc. The three amazing things in the summary of the experiments and the theories they overthrew are, first, that anyone could have had such cruel beliefs about humans or monkeys; second, that monkeys at least can develop well-enough given the least, barest, pathetic simulacrum of care - terrycloth is almost enough by itself; third and most relevant to Cruel Delight, that anyone who had the insight to start these experiments could be cruel enough to do them. Some of it was good old clinical detachment, some the knowledge that only controlled experiments would convince experts to stop prescribing cruelty in real life, and some was probably related to his own deep and repeated unhappiness. How would that heart weigh against a feather?

ISBN: 0253343674 (Cruel Delight)
ISBN: 0738202789 (Love at Goon Park)

June 14, 2004

My Life in Orange, Tim Guest

I lived in Portland, Oregon, just after the Bhagwan Shree Ragneesh's commune fell apart, and Oregon was still shivering at the combination of happy, creepy, creepily happy, and outright exploitative behavior rumored to have flourished in Antelope. No single view of the whole thing is either established or dispelled by Guest's autobiography of a childhood spent in various Ragneeshi communes. Clearly his parents were well-meaning but too caught up in their own lives. Many of the people and some of the systems in the communes were loving and caretaking, but there was always a threatening, cruel-ecstatic vein in the practice. The cruelty and games and venality expanded until the whole endeavor collapsed, to the advantage of a tiny few and the amazed sorrow of some.

Guest is a little bit distant in the whole narration; clearly he was a weird outsider little kid even in a nest of outsiders, and maybe he's maintained that his whole life. He reports that at least one child died in a Ragneeshi commune, and more were damaged, but it's also believable when he says that he's met fellow kids who had very different experiences and still remember it fondly.

Guest was there because of odd parents; his mother was way too eager to find connection, possibly related to a family so traditional that they threatened to kill her for getting pregnant out of wedlock; and his father seems awfully disconnected, possibly connected to a personality that went off to Silicon Valley and became a successful programmer in the 1980s.

The strangely almost-happy ending is that Guest's mother is well-married to someone she met in the commune, who was a good parent to Guest. They used psychological knowledge they'd learned there to apologize to Guest, and repair the three of them as a family. The parents are still happiest when wandering; Guest roots.

ISBN: 1862076324

January 27, 2004

The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole -- a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the read object to allow of affection, laughter and argument.


From "On Not Knowing Greek", which bothers the daughter-of-an-educated-man: The French, the Italians, the Americans, who derive physically from so different a stock, pause, as we pause in reading Homer, to make sure that they are laughing in the right place [in Wycherly], and the pause is fatal. Huh.

An essay on how nobody reads Joseph Addison, even in the Spectator, which moved me enough to look up the link.

Lots of mentions of women writers; the plain letter-writing Paston, Maria Edgeworth and her portentous bore of an energetic, inventing father; Eleanor Ormerod, a self-taught entomologist of a very practical turn; and then the increasing numbers of respected woman novelists. She dismembers a ladylike biography of Mary Russell Mitford by Miss Hill, who limited herself too much when choosing a subject:

...the stock of female characters who lend themselves to biographic treatment by their own sex is, for one reason or another, running short. For instance, little is known of Sappho, and that little is not wholly to her credit. Lady Jane Grey has merit, but is undeniably obscure. Of George Sand, the more we know the less we approve. George Eliot was led into evil ways which not all her philosophy can excuse. The Brontës, however highly we rate their genius, lacked that indefinable something which marks the lady; Harriet Martineau was an atheist; Mrs. Browning was a married woman...

That's all Woolf's supposition of how Hill eliminated possibilities.

Looks like Woolf isn't in the public domain in the U.S., although some of these essays were clearly written before 1923.

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925.

January 19, 2004

Divergent Paths, Annette Bernhardt, Martina Morris, Mark S. Handcock, Marc A. Scott

Biographies of wealth or struggle are irrefutable signposts in the national economy. As particularity gives them vividness, though, it makes them less plausible as grounds for economic policy. Single measures - GDP, unemployment, 10-year Treasury returns - are vivid to few of us and anyway are each explained in contradictory fashions.

Divergent Paths has grasped two masses of employment history data and statistically compared them. They don't intersperse quoted or composite biographies. The measure they seek, of economic mobility through U.S. employment, doesn't lend itself to a single number. But the results are vivid anyway and are worse than I had feared. This book argues strongly that most (white, male) U.S. workers are worse off in absolute and relative mobility than their peers were twenty years ago; and that the changes are due to systemic habits in business practice that will not reverse without organization, and even trust, between competing firms and interests.

Fortunately they cite a few regions in which these reverses might be happening. Otherwise I would be too dispirited to summaraize the book at all.

The method is clear: they compare two nationally representative samples of white young men, starting between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one. Each cohort was interviewed annually (almost) about their education and employment for fifteen years. This should give an outline of how these men settled into their life careers, if any. One survey started in 1966, the other in 1979.

The bulk of the book is analysis of the two masses of data. As a non-statistician, I found the frequent graphs and tables effective summaries. The prose was rarely jargonful; it more often laid a path of common terms to the streambank of technicalities.¹¹ One can leap over the flood to the path on the other side.

To summarize the results even more than the authors do: Jobs, especially low-wage jobs, have become less stable; and each interruption in employment is now more damaging to future wages than it was for the first cohort. This makes a vicious circle. Education doesn't improve a worker's chances much until it's a full four-year degree, and even then a surprising proportion of graduates are stuck.¹ A few occupations - "finance, insurance, and real estate", and some "professional services" - made gains; the top decile held steady, although it's more white-collar than it used to be; the rest of the distribution is lumping towards the bottom.

Some of the usual explanations for this split and slump are described as not consonant with the data. Lack of technical skill isn't it, as the best-rewarded occupations aren't technical, and engineering wages went down by 1.5%, CS graduates' wages up by 3% (p. 183). [T]he number of contingent workers is nowhere near large enough to produce the trends that we have documented in this book... Temporary work, then, is best considered as the tip of the iceberg, just one symptom of a wide variety of restructured work and production arrangements. (p. 188) I can't find a summary reference to shifts in employment between nations; they do mention that population shift within the States led to higher rates of job instability, perhaps reflecting the lower rates of unionization in the South. (p. 86)

One obvious explanation is the increase in service sector jobs instead of mass-production jobs, partly because the latter were unionized. (In 1981, 21.8% of the top final wage decile was blue-collar; now, 8.8% is (p. 145). Some of this is expectable because the total proportion of blue-collar jobs is lower.) However, deindustrialization has not been the main force driving the stagnation and growing inequality in wages, though it has played a role... industrial shifts have played virtually no part in the doubling of workers in the bottom decile of the old wage distribution. It is not so much compositional shifts that are at work here as changes in the pay structure within industries. (p. 158)

The other explanation, obvious in hindsight, is that firms are much more segmented internally than they used to be. The worst jobs are often intentionally deskilled, and then subcontracted. Unfortunately these used to be entry-level jobs that had natural learning curves, so firm and employee benefited by stable employment, and natural meritocratic paths for advancement. But one cannot work one's way up from a call center in Kansas to a headquarters in New York the way one could work one's way up from the mailroom in a single building. Less so, when the call center is run by a separate business whose sole profit model is providing cheap generic phone service. (Does the Zuboff federation have a career path?)

This kind of deskilling and segmentation is a "low road" response to risk and complexity. Some industries - banks are mentioned - have apparently had both "low road" and "high road" approaches; the latter increases all employees' skills, opportunity, responsibility and pay and has been competitive with the low road (p. 182). This takes, I interpolate, more trust between the different parts of the company, and I suspect it requires different management skills - different philosophy, even. Another difficulty with reduced internal promotion is that employers do less training, but return to individual education is riskier, plausibly leading to less total investment in worker training than the whole economy (let alone individual workers) needs.²

What to Do about this is the eighth chapter; something I hadn't heard of, which combines many sensible-seeming approaches, is the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, which involves unions, plants and colleges to provide good employees and provide them with good jobs. The unionization of Las Vegas hotels is also promising. They point out that benefits - unemployment, health insurance, pensions - are usually tied to the old model of stable employment; if the country is going to be fluid and competitive, the benefits need to be portable.

One nagging possible partial explanation hasn't left me. The cohorts being compared are white men because the data on everyone else's work was bad or ignored, in 1966. Besides, the social changes allowing others into better jobs should be enormous, very hard to distinguish from labor-market changes in their opportunities. All right so far; but of course nonwhite men, and many women, started work in 1966, and were shunted to the jobs that were unreliable, and poorly paid, and didn't become careers. If the country actually has about the same job distribution now that it did then (maybe the service jobs are more often paid than they were, and less often allotted to women), but the competition for the good jobs is no longer reserved for white men (p. 57), then white men as a class should fairly be worse off. Their experiences will have been shuffled all the way through the deck of possibilities, not cushioned from the bottom by the unsurveyed unfortunates. The few much-better-off white men in the recent cohort might be floating on a 'glass ceiling' supported by a more meritocratic, and therefore more profitable, hiring regime lower down. --Even if true, this wouldn't be admirable: better to improve all work to the old standards of decency. And the supposition might not be tractable at all without data we never gathered, and even if it were tractable, it might be another book of as much length. I'd like a rough guess as to how big such an effect ought to be, given what we do know.

The only other complaint I have is that the index isn't very full; it doesn't have more heads than would be secondary heads in a good table of contents.

¹¹ Of which my favorite is the phrase, robust to this, and other, specifications of unobserved heterogeneity. (p. 73)

¹ And "the fraction of college graduates has declined" (p. 140), which surprises me.

²Dsquared, now at Crooked Timber, has said some interesting things about changes in money action representing shifts of risk from one group to another, but I can't find those things or his search function.

The best steel jobs of a few decades ago seem to have shoved off their risk of paying pensions to the state.

ISBN: 0-87154-150-5

January 12, 2004

Seattle and the Demons of Ambition, Fred Moody

Subtitle: A Love Story

The sweet naivete, boom, and disillusionment of "old" and "new" Seattle are the stage for the fiscal naivete, recklessness, and resignation of the author, an old Seattlite. He was poor but honest, an alternative journalist, until he was finally swept up in the dream of riches - alas, just late enough to lose almost everything. Likewise, he follows the career of one unworldly but technically adept sculptor in granite and radioactivity; and a bunch of would-be-worldly programmers, most of whom lose vast heaps of money; and Bill Gates, of course.

These are combined because, to Moody's eye, Seattle's innocence was lost to the money of the tech boom. We had innocence? Needleless seamstresses and Boeing's Star Wars money *ever* had innocence? I wonder. There's a lot of dirty Seattle history as well as the claim of a 'lost age' of consensual politics. I actually thought of the WTO protests, with which Moody opens the book, as a sign of innocence; the chamber of commerce, or whatever, thought it would be a feather in the city cap - the protesters thought protest might change things. Innocents all.

I was somewhat amused by Moody's move in the late '70s, early '80s to Bainbridge Island to get away from the uncool, gentrifying changes in Seattle. I'm amused because my family moved there at about the same time, when I was a kid, and B.I. was in my experience much more status-conscious and social-climbing than most of Seattle was a decade later.¹

I add this scrap of my personal psychological history, because Seattle... is full of Moody's. He's all about the self-defeating, polite, work-to-live ethos of Seattle, with a restrained but identifiable undertone of "But in the 60s...". I think it's very odd that he didn't notice for years (decades?) that this is an inheritance from Asian settlers, as well as Scandinavian ones. When the consensual politics is consensual, it's great, although it isn't quick. When the work-to-live principle leaves room for what people actually do - ski, build wooden boats, cook, commit more socially recognized arts - also delightful. Moody's mockery and despair at the unimaginative, expensive city efforts to be "world class" by building copies of anything big that other cities have has all my sympathy. I still live in the city itself, so am domestically affronted by the rotten-borough sports stadiums, to start with.

But he loses my sympathy, nearly my comprehension, by a fixed and inexplicable failure to see that technocracy has also been a long Seattle inheritance - mining, Boeing, aluminum - and that many technologists are as purely moved by the passion for what they're doing as more abstract artists are. His unworldly artists are victims; his unworldly programmers are comic children. How he could write this way after several immersive histories of Seattle tech endeavors, I don't know. I'll have to read them.

A friend of mine, when I expostulated on this, said it was obvious most techies are just in it for the money and hate the actual work; he adduced the career of a friend of his.² It's a sloppy argument, analagous to my dismissing all "art" because I know people who are "artists" out of a desire to be cool and shocking and free of petty social constraints of decency. ¹¹

On the other hand, I can understand being too annoyed to admit that the numerate and logical get joy in what they do and money to boot. To be fair to Moody, he sees the joy in Bill Gates and in some of the people at the HIT Lab. He just finds it hard to see in anyone (except Gates) who's practical at managing money; I think that's a bit of "But in the 60's..." leftover. He says it better than that:

... I felt it myself: an unpalatable, unendurable mix of horror, envy, disgust, and prurience.

Was that a good state of soul to look for startup work in? No. He overreached, he fell, he sat through the Slough of Despond at And afterwards he started working for the Metro bus authority, which he describes as thoughtful, civic and determined; and observes Gates giving away money to mend market failures the rest of the country won't conceptually admit. There's still some old Seattle here.

It would be interesting to compare Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and Vancouver B.C. for their reactions to wealth, bust, and social shock.

ISBN: 0-312-30421-8

¹ I asked my mother how she saw it as an adult; she said that it probably had had hippie cred until right about when we moved there - my parents weren't looking for status fights - but not necessarily more than Fremont or Ballard or South Park, even at the time. I can see Moody's belief as one in good faith, then, although I don't think it's very perceptive. Or maybe these things are particularly bad for teenagers, although I know my parents experienced them too.

²This makes me slightly ill, as I don't expect this to produce technology that's very good for people. When the coders are weirdos who love what they're doing, they can someday convert us to the same weird love; but how is someone who hates it to begin with to know that it doesn't have to hate us back?

¹¹It's an eternal battle, the attempt to substitute wealth for coolth, or v.v., or either for virtue.

January 01, 2004

Handmade, Drew & Louise Langsner

The cover bills the book as "old world recipes, hospitality, barns & farmhouses..." (much more); this is partly true, but it's equally striking as a slice of 1970s half-measures.

The authors left the US and toured Greece and Turkey, Yugoslavia and Switzerland, on a motorcycle in 1971 & 1972; they had no plan but to get in touch with a highly developed attunement of humankind and nature. They brought back pictures and recipes; they considered settling as mostly-subsistence farmers in Northern Europe, but didn't.

It's not as annoying a book as some of these are, largely because it's not idiotically romantic. They point out that the stone walls that charm them in Greece are horribly vulnerable to the frequent earthquakes, for instance. They notice that goat-culture around the Mediterranean is a final and destructive stage - goats browse practically anything to death, and nearly all the wood and soil is therefore gone, but because the wood and soil are gone goats are about the only way left for agriculture to support people.¹ (This is, I deduce, why Heifer International teaches people to bring their animals prunings instead of letting the animals browse - more work, but safer in the long run.) They're wonderfully full of the ineffable joy of simple pleasures, which I am hardly against, but am a little suspicious of in tourists. (They were hardy tourists, but not up to finishing an apprenticeship as a white cooper, for instance. Began it, though.)

What they liked that I admire, and am glad they photographed, is the brilliant handmade work of people who are very nearly self-sufficient. A good stercorary is a worthy thing. The canny use of light, irregular wood to brace Mediterranean roofs is a great art; so is the Lapp and Norwegian and Swiss use of enormous quantities of enormous timbers to build complex buildings that last for centuries against snowfall, avalanches, and bears.

Clever ideas from the last: a bow-tie-shaped floorboard running the length of the house to handle seasonal compression; logging only in winter, when the freeze and the snow cover protect the delicate alpine topsoil - otherwise dragging logs gives one runnels in the soil, which tend to compound themselves even in less challenging climates.

The Turkish drop-spindle is, they report, easier than the Greek for the beginner to use, and when full it slips apart and comes out of an already-wound ball of yarn.

¹Which came first?

ISBN: 0-517-514206

November 29, 2003

The Guardian Columns 1998-2000, Julie Burchill

I don't know how much of this was enjoyable because British commentary culture is different from US commentary culture. is our mischievous desire to see the rich and powerful debagged for the hell of it that makes British society so much less craven, so much more irreverent than that of others across various ponds.

First thing I liked: no mimsy mouth. Burchill actively mocks practically everyone in terms that would alarm several of the extremes of US social style. It seems to me that she really does mock people only for what they have chosen to do with their good luck, not for what they've managed to do with their bad luck, which goes beyond the trope of "only for actions under their control". Leaves plenty to mock, too.

Another oddity is that she's a fat, happy, randy, working-class ex-drug-addled punk-partygoer. In her summary, No university, no proper job, just straight from school to being rude for a living. At least she's clear that most of the strengths of journalism are, in fact, rudenesses.

Sample use of this history:

Like his friend Bowie...[John] Peel advocated ceaseless shagging and substance abuse as the road to the palace of wisdom. ... I don't blame Peel, Bowie and Douglas for changing their minds. But I do blame them for rubbing our collective noses in the fact that the rich and famous can walk on the wild side and still return to the domestic fold when it suits them, whereas the young and poor need only stray off the straight and narrow once to be trapped in a cul-de-sac of sorrow.

The essays were tight enough that I didn't mind reading them all together as a book, which is unusual. Most of them have a one-sentence summary about three-quarters through, lots of which I marked to quote, but it might be better to summarize her positions in case you want to go agree or argue with them yourself. Something like: French misogynistic, therefore disgusting. Sports fans too often likewise. Fashion a cush job. Enjoying sex when you're young and beautiful is A-OK, and so is enjoying it when you're not. Aggression is under-regarded as a creative force. Everyone needs both work and love to be happy, and these should include money and sex as corollaries. I have had and contnue to have an enormous amount of fun. My parents were wonderful, as is the working class in general.

A representative online essay lays out her opinions as a fat feminist, disagreeing with rather a lot of the others. Here's a calm, measured counterargument to a Burchill defense of cocaine, and a much more damning dissection of Burchill's importance as either a journalist or a feminist. And, O Fates, a fax flamewar between Burchill and Camille Paglia. Paglia in general is almost equally abrasive, but Burchill gets it on points for attacking more sacred cows. (via)

ISBN: 0-75284-380-X

November 04, 2003

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Not as funny as Bryson's other books, e.g. Neither Here Nor There, but it had funny bits in his patented gormless-adventure style. I was a bit distracted all through by the mildness of his response to the environmental damage he decries; Jeremiads would have been out of character, but surely he could have summoned more mockery to the cause.

ISBN: 0-385-40816-1

October 09, 2003

A Fortune-Teller Told Me, Tiziano Terzani

There's a book by Pico Iyer that missed its mark - wanted to make a virtue, a nation or clan or creed, of travelling all the time, and tried too hard to be poetic and visionary about it. Terzani certainly travels all the time, and seems to slide between the beliefs of one place and the next with more ease than I'd manage. But Terzani also has a family home he keeps going back to, and settles into houses in several cities in between.

The hook, for a modern travel tale, is double and sharp; he was long ago told by a fortune-teller to avoid air travel in 1993, and - maybe just because it would make a good book - he didn't fly for that year (an extended year, to allow for Fate's unknown choice of calendar). But he's a foreign correspondent, so he had to travel all the time anyway: but he did it by train and slow boat, and saw things he wouldn't have otherwise. It's not a journey I expect to make or would be good at... I liked Vikram Seth's From Heaven Lake, too.

Terzani also kept going to fortune-tellers, with only enough bare possibility of belief that it doesn't seem actually rude. As he points out, more and more as he visits more and more of them, their predictions and warnings tend to make sense for their particular locales. The people who recommend the local seers are also compare-and-contrast exercises in their attitudes towards doing so. And the best fortuneteller is always somewhere exotic; Bangkok if you're in LA, but in Prague if you're in Bangkok.

ISBN: 0-609-80958-X

September 10, 2003

Derailed, Joseph Vranich

A summary of how badly Amtrak has failed the interests of passenger rail; some plausible reasons why; and a slightly outdated argument for its piecemeal privatization. Vranich has worked for Amtrak, likes trains generally, is a high-speed-train proponent.

Amtrak hasn't worked for anyone, doesn't like its customers, and is a proponent of redefining 'high speed trains' to get Amtrak more funding. I summarize, but even though I really like riding trains, riding Amtrak hasn't given me reason to distrust Vranich's tables of damning data.

Vranich's proposed solution is all about privatization, and looks a little scruffier now than it did in 1997 when this was published. As he wrote, Japan's railways had had wildly profitable privatizations in the '80s but were suffering as Japan's depression took hold; likewise for some examples about airline profitability as private ventures - which are a bit less convincing after the post-boom's airline closings, national airline subsidies, bailouts. Also, Britain's privatized rail isn't a gonfalon of glory for the process. So I would worry that the very good results reported during the economic booms depended on the booms.

A much more interesting argument, which Vranich adumbrates but does not, I think, ever say, is that train travel is now valuable because of cities. (He's so Northeast-Sprawl-centric that he may think it goes without saying. Even there, surely there's been some change in the popularity of train lines as the urban centers they were built with decay and regrow?) The death and tortured sort-of strangled-by-Amtrak-and-highway-authorities rebirth of rail in the States lines up very well with the death and rebirth of our cities.

The romantic view, and Amtrak in some unhealthy combination of romance, dog-in-the-manger, and Congressional pork, think of 'real' trains as long-distance trains. Japan and Europe have their glorious high-speed trains, which can compete with air travel. At, oh, an hour of plane flight, merely fast trains are competitive. (With longer security checkthroughs on planes, trains get another little edge.) But what makes a medium-distance train trip competitive with air between Seattle and either Portland or Vancouver, BC is not the shorter lines, or the roomier seating, but that I live in the city in Seattle - and am usually visiting the city itself at either end - and the trains pick me up and drop me off where I want to be. The airports are all to heck and gone; Portland's is convenient because they -- built a train.

Train travel also depends on the trains being even vaguely on time: Vranich's book explains that the long-haul train that goes all the way to California is under Amtrak's control, which is why it's almost-but-not-quite-dependably late; the BC-Seattle-Portland one is as much as possible a state endeavor, and is much nicer and more reliable, except when the long-hauler comes through and bollixes it up.

When the cities are really both ends of most travel, e.g. BostonNewYorkPhiladelphia, also increasing parts of California, commuter rail comes into its own, and obviously nothing carries as many people - thinking about London and New York reminds one that the subway and the elevator were equally needed to achieve those densities. There's something of a balance between the annoying non-privacy on the train, and the ability to do something other than drive. I like transit because I can't think about anything deeply while driving, not without becoming a total danger to myself, others, street trees. So driving is lost time, where the bus and walking aren't. The lagniappe that may finally get lots of people onto commuter rail is, as Brad DeLong remarked, WiFi access.

The routing problems are still hard, where two systems have to share rails or switchpoints. One of the oddities of Britain's privatization, it seemed to me, was to break the system into regional carriers - and then claim they were supposed to compete with each other, as though a trip from City A to City B could substitute for a trip between other cities. As with air travel, the interesting specialties are more likely to be between really different kinds of travel; private varnish scenic cruises, executive express commuter trains, seasonal car-carrying trains to and from snowy regions. All of these are likely to share some tracks with each other and with the freight trains.

Any train-ignorant computer nerd at this point is thinking, "Okay, packet switching protocol, collision algorithms - I guess we need collision avoidance algorithms - Shannon, innit? Model me something with competing trains over common lines, and tell me how to isolate the variables they're really bidding for - speed, reliability, ability to run really long trains. Cool problem." The freight companies have clearly solved some of it w.r.t. covering repsonsibility and costs for the tracks themselves - as the brownout over the Northeast showed this summer, that can be a hard problem in deregulating.

Nothing so specific in Vranich's book. I must go look.

ISBN: 0-312-17182-X

August 23, 2003

Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis

Subtitle: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster

Los Angeles, as I understand the argument of this book, is profoundly invested - both psychologically and economically - in its image as a bucolic idyll, as someplace where Nature is so kindly that people can be relaxed and free. No-one familiar with Freud, or nineteenth-century Christian theology, or the dullness of stories in which 'nothing happens' would be surprised that this investment led to an opposite fascination with LA as the victim of fictional disasters. Davis argues that urban planning and politics have actually increased the number and damage of disasters, especially in the poor regions, but also in some expensive ones.

I don't think the evidence that LA is especially popular for disaster fiction was very compelling - there is a great list of disaster novels and movies set there, but of course London and New York and Tokyo have plenty of their own. Does LA have more, proportionately, than its importance as a city warrants? And anyhow, it's probably the easiest place for LA-local filmmakers to set their B-movies. Are there Bollywood disaster flicks, and where are they set? On the other hand, it doesn't really matter if LA has an unusual quantity of them; he only needed to convince me that the Eden/Apocalypse cognitive dissonance is unusually strong in LA. Since I find it unusually strong about LA even among people who haven't lived there, that's plausible.

The fury at stupid waste - building in ways that invite repeated disasters, and wailing in surprise when they reoccur - was more convincing, esp. a nearly-funny summary of the apparent refusal of locals to believe that they get tornadoes, no matter how many houses the last "waterspout" destroyed. Worse planning shoves all the risks into the poor neighborhoods and funnels all the rescue money into the rich ones; the treatment of fire risks in Malibu was the most startling thing there.

I was most impressed with the enjambment of subjects. Many of his subjects are enormously different in tone: tables of historical data, citizens quoted on their sense of the normal, catchy pictures from lowbrow movies, statistics about pest control, dense geological maps. Davis doesn't repeat himself, didn't write several basically independent sub-books, and maintains an even pace of argument throughout.

ISBN: 0-8-50-5106-6

April 09, 2003

American Arts and Crafts Textiles, Ayres, Hansen, McPherson, McPherson

Mostly a coffee-table book with pictures of pillows, curtains from preserved Arts and Crafts houses, designs published by embroidery companies and art magazines. Few of the pictures are big and flat-aspect enough to use directly as patterns.

The text is gently informative on many heads: development form Victorian mores, relation to settlement houses, invention of new flosses and dyes, how to use & launder old textiles.

I think it's a pity there aren't more clothes represented; there are many contemporaneous illustrations of Arts and Crafts clothing, but they are awfully romantic and it's hard for me to guess what people actually wore. It isn't surprising that fewer dresses have survived than dresser-cloths, but it's a pity the survivors aren't shown on mannequins; they're kind of shapeless, and I wonder whether they were drapey and Pre-Raphaelite or boxy and proto-modernist.

ISBN: 0-8109-0434-9

So wrote clew.

April 06, 2003

Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks

Subtitle: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.

A cheering and melancholy book. Well balanced; hard to summarize.

Sacks' family was large and thoroughly scientific - both parents doctors, and many many aunts uncles and cousins were scientists, inventors, chemists, mathematicians, all over the world. His immediate family lived in London in a big Edwardian house, which they seem to have kept full of people: four siblings; the home-surgery needs of his parents; an aunt who lived with them; and many relatives who stayed for a while between peregrinations, of widely varying ages and styles and obsessions. Good thing the house had all those rooms closed off from each other (now horribly unfashionable) to allow inhabitants their peculiarities without getting up each others' noses. Well, some of Oliver's chem experiments got up everyone's noses, but with anough ventilation they weren't lethal.

But this house was in London and Oliver was six when the Blitz began; he was sent away to a hastily invented and unusually cruel boarding school. Four years later, when the school was disbanded, he came back somewhat detached from people but deeply attached to chemistry and numbers. The child's-eye narration of learning chem by recapitulating its history is the bulk of the book.

His much more reticent mentions of the pains of a war childhood, and of not studying what one's parents hope, are clear but secondary. Other issues; Englishness and internationalism, before and after the war, more or less affected by the Sacks' being Jewish. Neighborhoods, different attitudes towards child & material safety, the sensuous appreciation of an intellectual subject.

I want a spinthariscope.

ISBN: 0-375-40448-1

So wrote clew.

January 20, 2003

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.

So wrote clew.

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.

So wrote clew.

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.

So wrote clew.

December 02, 2002

Escaping the bad side of town

The Pact, Drs. Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt, with Lisa Frazier Page

Reaching Up for Manhood, Geoffrey Canada

Two books written by black men who grew up in bad circumstances and escaped. Canada has a faint air of bluster or swagger in his writing, not distracting, but an unusual counterpoint to his discussions of feelings and social engineering. The three doctors use plenty of slang, and have equally grim anecdotes, but mostly come across as really sweet.

Problem with Texas-style access to education, of letting the top 10% of each school into the desirable universities: thoe from the worst schools will be terrifically behind in all sorts of knowledge; the authors of The Pact manage to sound only exasperated about getting through premed and med school surrounded by children and friends of doctors, who understood a lot more of the system.

So wrote clew.

November 07, 2002

The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, Thomas Hine

Hine describes American teen-age as a twentieth-century invention designed, more or less intentionally, to keep teenagers out of the serious labor market while grooming them as a consumer market. The details are interesting either if you're thinking about current problems of development, and what social systems have worked or failed to work, or if you want some background for old fiction. Good bits are the demographics of the US during the Revolution (half the population under sixteen, most of them working adult jobs as soon as they were strong enough) through Lowell mill girlhoods, Flaming Youth, Depression-era laws keeping teenagers out of work - driving them into delinquency or the unprepared high schools, and effectively forcing the age-segregated youth culture we think of as 'teenagerhood' today. He doesn't think our policy of refusing self-determination based on age is a very good one, especially when the legal system is swinging towards treating juvenile crimes like adult ones.

Also has a popularizing but not trendy sense of humor and a helpful, though not scholarly, bibliography.

So wrote clew.

October 24, 2002

21 Dog Years, Mike Daisey

This means, I think, to indict Amazon for suckering workers into Giving Their All. However, Daisey's early self seems so eager to be suckered, and so bad at his various jobs, that he isn't much of a test case - a very minor flimflam artist could have pulled him in and only a very successful company could have absorbed someone so puzzled by their work. Amazon may have been trying to be sneaky, but they seem to have been about as subtle as Nigerian money-transfer scams. Of course, some of those still work.

What'a best is his description of how he wanted to be fooled, which is extra embarrassing in someone who started as an outraged slacker outsider artist. It isn't just a special case of the fiscal hope that overtook everyone. Just as the worst cynic is said to be a disappointed idealist, the childlike trust of a hopeful cynic outdoes normal optimism. I wish I had sold him a bridge.

Of course, he wins in the end, as it gave him material with the irresistible hook of large amounts of money and equal amounts of schadenfreude. What more could he have wanted? Princess Diana?

So wrote clew.

September 06, 2002

Lost in Japan

Too Late for the Festival, Rhiannon Paine

Fear & Trembling, Amélie Nothomb

Paine worked for a few years in Japan without having planned to; friends at HP Japan offered her a job as a technical writer. Maybe that's why she isn't embittered by having totally failed to fit into or even reliably figure out Japan or the Japanese. She barely learned the language, found out about various social taboos after having broken them frequently, and - more than once - describes something compelling that she stumbled across by accident.

Nothomb's book is autobiographical fiction. It's wonderfully short. The literary purity of having hardly any plot, but a lot of emotional reaction, is perfectly comfortable at novella-length; a lazy dinner could probably include the telling, and might. What plot there is is Failure to Adapt to an unfair corporate structure, despite speaking the language fluently. She wanted to be accepted, thought she knew how, & failed because of it; completely unlike Paine's accidental friendships.

So wrote clew.

September 02, 2002

London War Notes, Mollie Panter-Downes

Every other week, from September 3, 1939 to May 12, 1945, The New Yorker published a report from Panter-Downes in London. Especially in hindsight, these are startlingly balanced, wry, and calm; not just about the raining death and dearth of allies, but about the petty irritations and larger moral questions.

So wrote clew.

August 25, 2002

No Voice from the Hall, John Harris

Harris has spent years wandering into abandoned grand English country houses, often as they were being demolished. He began in 1946 and was seriously pursuing them - in his teens, funded by odd jobs and the dole, hitchhiking - for fifteen years. He's now an architectural historian and curator, and has apparently done much to protect country houses in England. This wasn't logrolling a career; he doesn't seem to be related to anyone who could have owned a manor; he did have an upholsterer uncle who worked in them.

The number he repeats in almost every chapter is that in 1955 a country house was coming down every two-and-a-half days. Lots of reasons; land wealth hadn't been reliable wealth since the 1870s, and the combined effects of two world wars - death duties in WWI, casual destruction when the buildings were requisitioned during WWII, and (this is my interpolation) there was an enormous disinterest in old stuff during the 1950s and 1960s, even among the few remaining owners who could afford to maintain the places.

What seems such a waste, looking at a photo of high, arched, coffered ceilings over a floor covered with broken wall-moldings and sofa stuffing, is not that the original owners couldn't afford it any more - as families go, the English rural rich seem to have had a good long run - but that all the original work to make the places was wasted. Firewood can't be the right use of a Grinling Gibbons carving; even during the war, it's hard to believe that its sale price as architectural salvage wouldn't have brought a little more coal over from the States. (But maybe there wasn't any spare shipping tonnage, and besides, bored scared troops barracked in a ballroom are very likely not thinking that far ahead. Nor could they provide provenance.)

Apparently he's all in favor of turning these buildings into flats or retirement homes or anything that will keep enough of them up to leave historical evidence. I bet the plumbing arrangements are deeply creative.

So wrote clew.

August 21, 2002

Lillian Gilbreth

Belles on their Toes, Gilbreth & Carey

The Home-Maker and her Job, Lillian Gilbreth

I ran across Belles... randomly, read it for the whimsical descriptions of the social strains between 1924 - when flappers were still shocking in most of the country - and the '50s; realized that it's the sequel to the much more famous Cheaper by the Dozen and a sidelight on the much more interesting life of Lillian Gilbreth.

Gilbreth had, in this order, a doctorate in psychology (I think), twelve children, eleven surviving, and a career in industrial psychology, design, and efficiency after her husband died in 1924. Belles... is written by two of her children and remembers a wonderful - though not easy - childhood. They were fairly poor after their father died, and Gilbreth was faced with keeping his consulting business - despite being a woman - while being a single mother of eleven. Habits of industrial efficiency, somewhat modified by her more psychological or affectionate nature, not only reduced the considerable expenses of her family but brought the children in as help, inventive and responsible help, not just expenses. Belles... makes it sound wonderful.

Some of Gilbreth's work, especially her first work, was on improving efficiency in the home. (Not the house: the home; is that an industrialist or a psychologist speaking?) She seems to have invented the 'work triangle' now understood by every simple kitchen design, on the grounds that walking far between every useful thing in the kitchen is exhausting. Her actual house must have been a big old place designed for a mass of servants, as well as children, and her redesign of the kitchen apparently worked, except that the one remaining jack-of-all-trades and bad cook hated change and insisted on putting it back as it had been. I'll probably never know if he was just cantankerous or whether there was some other efficiency that Gilbreth's redesign removed. Nor does she show wire models of movement diagrams, much less the seventeen-symbol chart with matching colors (violet hash for 'assemble', light violet H for 'disassemble', etc., for her own kitchen or any identified action. This book really couldn't have taught a homemaker to use industrial techniques on her housework, although the various timetable and reminder cards would have been useful - are likely the ancestors of daytimers and PDAs.

Since technology and feminism together made it imaginable that women could work for money without condemning their children to chilblains, rats, and food poisoning, there has been a constant, nittering, fifth column of women who make it their profession to tell other women to devote their every last erg to unpaid housework; Martha Stewart and Cheryl Mendelson, for instance. Much of their popularity and power comes from a near-solution to one of the open questions of feminism: of 'women's work', what is really useful (and, if useful, why unpaid?) and what is busywork (however glorified as sacrifice on altars of domesticity)?* Calling homemaking a science - and, for almost all women, an unprofessional and unpaid one - gives it lip service as feminism without demanding any money or time it didn't get before.

So I rummaged one of Gilbreth's early books out of deep storage at the public library; The Home-Maker and her Job, published in 1927 and chockablock with the '20s faith in psychology and progress. My judgement is still open; I quite like her definition of the goal of home life as 'happiness minutes', for everyone, and she defends the right to leisure, creativity, and usefulness of everyone. Some things that must have been shibboleths of 'good housekeeping' in her day (white covers on the beds & couches) come in for frequent questioning, on the grounds that almost everyone would rather be able to put their feet up without extra laundry than see a white coverlet. That's a sign of both reason and principle: grim modernizers assume that no-one should have a white coverlet: Gilbreth repeatedly reminds her reader to consider the actual costs and pleasures of everything in her house, and arrange it properly for their joint happiness, however peculiar.

All in all, Gilbreth is pretty traditional and apologetic in her calls for change - men & boys can like cooking, and shouldn't be prevented, but 'This book makes no appeal for "kitchen husbands" or "kitchen sons" or anything that the words imply.' It was 1927, though, so she may have been more radical than she sounds now.

There are a few things described as successes in her book that were embarassments to her children; when she lectured in one of their schools, she described the inefficiency of searching out a matching shirt-button, if you can move the collar button down to the gap & replace it with any button of the right size (since the collar button is covered with a tie - she's talking to grade-schoolers, and they're wearing ties). Her book describes all the students examining their own buttons and each other's, and seeing the justice of her arguments. Her children's book remembers the other students attempting to expose the Gilbreth boys' collar-buttons to mockery. The children also remember hiding this from their mother for a while, for fear that her feelings would be hurt.

* And, of course, who gets to decide, from a starting point in which the experience of the genders was so different that their honest preferences, democratically expressed, need not have much in common?

So wrote clew.

The Ghost of the Executed Engineer, Loren R. Graham

Loren is a historian of Soviet science & technology at MIT, and winds up this (short) book not only with specifics on how incredibly stupid and destructive the huge projects of the USSR could be, but how much hope for change was burned up in them, leading directly - though slowly - to the collapse of the regime. Palchinsky was a mining engineer; he was moved to socialism by the suffering of the coal miners in the Don Basin; 88 years later the coal miners in the Don Basin stood up in the first big strike in Soviet Russia. They weren't much better off than they had been under the tsars, and both revolutionary and patriotic fervor had finally been frozen out.

Any history of the Soviet Union's engineering projects would necessarily be depressing. Even if some of its works turned out to have been sensible, they would be clogged by the failure of the enterprise as a whole. Most of them - including the most famous, enormous, pre-WWII ones, which impressed the West - turn out to have been far too expensive in human and ecological destruction, and not even to have produced as much as they could have had they been better-planned.

What raises this to the level of classical tragedy* is the ghost of the engineer. Peter Palchinsky, or Petr Pal'chinskii, as you choose to transliterate - not only had a deeper understanding of the pure engineering issues (e.g., don't build a canal that will run too shallow for the draft of your barges) but was a courageous socialist, who had been so horrified by conditions in tsarist Russia that he had argued at some risk against that regime. He was exiled to Siberia in 1906 and 1907; escaped; spent four years as a successful industrial consultant in Western Europe; had a shaky but loving marriage of comrades to a feminist.

Nor was Palchinsky's socialism at odds with his engineering. He didn't think of production as an end in itself; with human happiness, rather, as the end, he could recommend smaller locally-adapted industry over the enormous, centralized, monuments to ego that advertise themselves as triumphs of engineering. Most constantly, he assumed that the productivity of a system would be damaged by maltreating the workers in it: once because the misery of the workers counts as a cost, many times over because miserable workers probably can't, and eventually won't, work efficiently or hard.

Stalin preferred monuments to his ego and had Palchinsky convicted without trial and shot in 1928. Stalin was worried by organizations of engineers proposing technocracy- this was happening around the industrialized world at the time, although Hoover's election in 1928 isn't much evidence of conspiracy. (See also Layton's The Revolt of the Engineers.)

If Palchinsky has a legacy, it's probably a sidewise one in Western Europe, where Fukuyama's Trust describes an ideal, sometimes achieved, of continuity of interest and skill between workers and management. Lenin promoted the Taylorizing ideas of US production, in which workers are deskilled into replaceable and frequently replaced cogs; Palchinsky, as a socialist and an engineer, argued that justice and efficiency would be the same when educated workers profited by their own efficiency.

*except for the unity of time and place, etc., etc.

So wrote clew.

May 09, 2002

Savage Beauty, Milford

A biography of Edna St Vincent Millay. It's a personal history, and Vincent left plenty of scandalous or sad material, but I am grateful that Milford thinks the poetry is most important (inserts whole poems when discussing them-v. convenient!) I am left curious abt historical changes in poetry during Millay's career, either because of her or in despite.
So wrote clew.

The Chastening, Blustein

Despite belief in an narrowly avoided global economic disaster, the biggest change suggested is IMF-sanctioned slowdowns on money leavinq shaky economies. It seems petty, given the size of the problem the book implies we nearly had. Some discussions of moral hazard, social justice.
So wrote clew.

Philistines at the Hedgerow

"Rich people want control & don't want to give it to each other." Well, that's not surprising.
So wrote clew.