July 31, 2010

Cheek by Jowl, Ursula K. LeGuin

A book that falsifies animal behavior as a mask for the indulgence of fantasies of morally regressive human behavior is not, to my mind, a book to give any child, or any adult either.

LeGuin of Watership Down, but true of so many books, especially ones with wolf-shapes in them.

Evidently the original Bambi was deer-centered and subtle.

While the cover says that these are essays on fantasy, a great many of them are equally about stories about animals, or humans' relations with animals; the genre has changed immensely as our real daily relations with them have shrunk.

Find in a Library: Cheek by Jowl

So wrote clew.

January 16, 2010

Mountain Meditations, L. Lind-Af-Hageby

I did not think this book was mostly about mountains; it was mostly about how everyone else who says they like mountains like them in the wrong way. Artists are too detached, and climbers are too hearty and instrumentalist, and the people who actually live in them usually don't appreciate them properly. This seemed like a poor temperament to consider 'some subjects of the day and the war', so I didn't go on.

Project Gutenberg file#29277, Mountain Meditations

So wrote clew.

March 01, 2009

Unitarianism defended, Anonymous

The language with which anonymous disputants complain of misprisions has declined sadly. From 1839:

To persevere, against all remonstrance, in the repetition of a misstatement injurious to an opponent, and to do this so coolly as to use almost his own words in imputing to him the very opposite of what he has said, is at least a convenient, if not an honourable nor yet a formidable policy.

I was proofing Unitarianism defended because it is my default to work on the oldest unfinished project -- a default I flee from, often, because they're almost always dull political tracts with foreign inclusions in non-Latin-1 alphabets. On the other hand, one does get these constants of human nature in their prolix forms.

The particular argument is over what our theological reaction to the incomprehensible should be, and both sides use the unsounded sea as a figure for the incomprehensible; the author is angry that `his' metaphor has been interpreted in a different way. As one to whom theology is like Star Trek physics, I take this as evidence that metaphors are only useful in explaining things to people who don't actually disagree with you to start with.

Two pages later there is huffy accusation that Unitarians are being compared to Mahometans, bar bar misleading attribution bar bar outdated source. Really nothing changes:

"nothing new under the sun," of this description, for our modern days. Hildebrand himself, yes, GREGORY THE SEVENTH, like our poor selves, was suspected of a leaning to "Islamism,"...

Completely by the by: When proofing, as when reading modern PDFs in Skim or so forth, I often spend time fiddling the zoom and side-scrolling until only the actual text block is displayed. Am I the only person who bothers? Would 'Fit to non-background-color' be that much harder than 'Fit to page size'? (For Distributed Proofreading scans of foxed, marked-up books it might be, but even there it would work *sometimes*.)

So wrote clew.

December 05, 2008

Shelley and science

Mind from its object differs most in this:
Evil from good; misery from happiness;
The baser from the nobler; the impure
And frail, from what is clear and must endure.
If you divide suffering and dross, you may 
Diminish till it is consumed away;
If you divide pleasure and love and thought,
Each part exceeds the whole; and we know not 
How much, while any yet remains unshared,
Of pleasure may be gained, of sorrow spared:
This truth is that deep well, whence sages draw
The unenvied light of hope; the eternal law
By which those live, to whom this world of life
Is as a garden ravaged, and whose strife
Tills for the promise of a later birth
The wilderness of this Elysian earth. 
      -- Shelley, Epipsychidion

Or, as a New York Times article summarizes it, "How happy you are may depend on how happy your friendsí friendsí friends are, even if you donít know them at all." One of the dissenters in that article argues that happiness is "the epitome of an individualistic state" -- well, that was someone from the University of Chicago, which (on the whole) is devoted to things more envied than is the 'light of hope'. A bit passť of them, though.

Nation, Terry Pratchett's latest, is on Shelley's side.

So wrote clew.

November 18, 2004

Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton

I parted ways with this book when Botton suggested that peasants used to feel comfortable about their status, and aristocrats uneasy, because the Church comforted peasants and the aristocrats knew they hadn't earned their place.The Church mixes its messages on the subject, and aristocrats were very proud of not having earned their place; that was the whole point. I believe there's experimental evidence that treating people with the markers of high status will induce most of the hormonal (neurotransmitter? I should look this up) turbocharging we get when we fight our way to high status, which suggests that the curlèd darlings were soaked in self-regard like babas are in rum.

I do see that the possibility of earning one's place has added a new stress, but that's no excuse for whitewashing the old ones.

Other than that, it's a nice trot through changes of attitudes towards just desert, with special attention paid to props for battered status: religion, duelling, Bohemianism.

I have looked through the index of Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy for any reference to Boethius or his excellent The Consolation of Philosophy, and not only is it not in the index, but Amazon's search-inside says Boethius isn't even mentioned in the text. Fie. Read the original, with or without the Latin.

There's an oddity in Boethius that I think should come up more often in discussions of how technology affects our world-views. He wrote,

[plants] all, as is so well known, are like regular machines not merely for lasting a time, but for reproducing themselves for ever, a nd that by their own kinds.

That seems quite surprising to me; "so well known"? Combined with "like...machines...for reproducing themselves"? Unless The Book of Ash were right, Boethius saw no self-reproducing machines; and if everyone thought of plants as like machines, only spectacularly better, then they had startlingly plastic understandings of technology.

ISBN: 0375420835

October 13, 2004

Politeness, Richard J. Watts

This isn't really a book review; other work has swamped me, so I'm returning Politeness to the library and leaving myself this placeholder.

But I did run across something that should be extra entertaining for female, Japanese-speaking, algorithmically minded persons, who are richly represented among my few known readers. This is George and Robin Lakoff's work on pragmatic, polite, linguistic competence, which Watts represents in a nice clear tree diagram:

Pragmatic Competence (PC)

  • Rules of politeness
    • Be clear
      • Quantity; be exactly as informative as required
      • Quality; only say what you believe to be true
      • Relevance; be relevant
      • Manner; be perspicuous, not ambiguous, succinct, not obscure.
    • Be polite
      • Don't impose
      • Give options
      • Make the other feel good - be friendly

It's so nice to see the layout of the rules we pretend to be following, in English-speaking computer companies, anyhow. Since the rules can't all be followed in a conversation with an antagonist, it's like living in a city with laws against having dust on your shoes: if the powers want to hassle you, they're guaranteed an excuse.

Obviously being Relevant and Truthful often collides with Don't Impose, especially in a civic world of colliding interests; then one might turn to George Lakoff's recent work on framing political differences, or Robin Tolmach Lakoff's The Language War.

ISBN: 0521794064

August 23, 2004

The Teenage Liberation Handbook, Grace Llewellyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISBN: 0962959103 (The Teenage Liberation Handbook)

ISBN: 0817939520 (The Future of School Choice)

ISBN: 0817928227 (School Figures)

March 04, 2003

It's Only Too Late if you Don't Start Now, Sher

The main burden is a sociobioFreudian one, that we are driven by the terrors of infancy until we're eight, and by mating drives from twelve to forty, and that midlife crises are not caused by the view forward into the abyss of death, but by the hollowness of the view backward across our driven youth. She improves on sociobioFreudianism in a stroke by cheerfully announcing that once our reproductive capacity starts to fade, the hormonal imperatives fade with it and we become freely human and can live according to reason or the higher passions.

The book was longer than its argument, helped out with quotes from clients-and-assorted-reading. (At least one quote is from an airline magazine, and another is X-as-quoted-in-pop-Y, and a third has Nelson Mandela using the word "fabulous" of people, which doesn't sound probable to me but what do I know.) She also has many free-associate-on-paper exercises, which I didn't do.

Her descriptions of what one might like to do in one's second life are stereotypically Balsamic Dreams retire-to-a-vineyard, in most cases, but she does defend a lot of just hanging out, gives examples of work that rewards worldly altruism with happiness, & tries to deflate the more imaginary or commercial idylls. I was surprised that she didn't mention moral imperatives much in deciding what true dream would define a life's work; contrarily, at least a chapter is devoted to detaching people from unnecessary obligations. I think a guideline as to how to decide which obligations really are necessary to you would have fit well into the rest of the self-inquiries, and would have balanced out the vineyards.

ISBN: 0-385-31505-8

So wrote clew.

December 02, 2002

The Puzzle Instinct, Marcel Danesi

I came nowhere near finishing this. I knew I wouldn't by page 17.

On page 15, he quotes Fibonacci's description of fecund rabbits in a cage. Two pages later- the two pages are a repetitive explanation of how the numbers of rabbits grow - he says

"Reification" is the term used by philosophers to refer to serendipitous actual manifestations of something that was originally conceived as an abstraction or as a figment of mind.
Why would this solution to a simple puzzle reveal patterns in the real world? There is, to my knowledge, no definitive answer to this question; nor, probably, can there ever be one.
But this wasn't conceived as a figment of mind; it's a perfectly realistic question. has this man never met a rabbit? had he no gerbils as a child? Was he so desperate to use the word 'reification'?

After some more clumsy explanations of simple mathematics, followed by what I think were equally clumsy arguments about the ineffability of the human mind and its puzzling, I gave up.

So wrote clew.

June 01, 2002

Junk English, Ken Smith

Mockery is a thin meal, even when one mocks the deserving. Junk English has typography like Fowler's Modern English Usage, but lacks the confidence, or was not given the room, to describe solid as well as junk English. A whole book (though short) of examples of terrible usage is a nauseating diet. Some of the cute names for classes of bad use are too cute to be useful; "People Reduction", to point out that we now read of consumers instead of people.

Some of them are funny, though: "Lack of Will", for advertising's not-actually-claims. (This is a joke about the idion as well as the meaning, unlike "People Reduction".)

If I regard this book as a extra-cranky appendix to Fowler it's a much better book. It does have some corrections to its terrible examples, and besides, it's not fair to expect anything else to be Fowler.

It could be the right book to leave suggestively around the office copier. The cover is bright orange and practically anyone might leaf through it while fiddling with a paperclip. I wonder what perpetrators of terrible prose think while they're writing it - would they recognize their errors?

So wrote clew.