August 31, 2014

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, August 2014

George Scialabba, What Are Intellectuals Good For? Essays and Reviews and The Modern Predicament
When I was trying to teach myself how to be a critic (or at least how to write criticism), one of my models was this "George Scialabba" character, who kept writing superb reviews of excellent books in all sorts of magazines, but didn't seem to have any books of his own. These two volumes are collections of his "essays and reviews", pretty much as originally written. Each piece in them is more or less self-contained, which leads to a certain amount of repetition across essays, but not too much. The two leading themes are Scialabba's left-libertarian politics, and the "modern predicament" of a tension between desires to be rational and enlightened, and rooted and traditional --- what Yi-fu Tuan nicely called "cosmos and hearth". (I don't think he has ever written on Tuan, which would be interesting.) There are few firm conclusions here, but there are, as always, lessons in both information and unobtrusive elegance.
Disclaimer: Scialabba and I have both been associated with Crooked Timber, and he was good enough to send me a copy of The Modern Predicament.
Jiang Rong (i.e., Lu Jiamin), Wolf Totem
Environmentalist fiction, about the destruction of nomadism and indeed of the inner Mongolian steppe by Han expansion during the Cultural Revolution. (It seems to be at least somewhat autobiographical.) On the one side, it's pretty heavy handed, and stylistically even a bit awkward. I could believe that many subtleties did not survive translation, but unless the translator was a complete butcher, much of the dialogue is just stilted, as-you-know-Wei info-dumping. There is also a lot of Noble Savage primitivism, and I at least find a little of this goes a long way. Against that, there is a real story here, told with real feeling for its characters and its subject matter, and finely-honed observations. (Or at least --- since after all, what do I know of inner Mongolia in the 1960s? --- it gives every appearance to me of these virtues.) After the first few chapters, I think absolutely nothing in the plot surprised me, but I still wanted to see it all unfold.
I can't remember where I saw this recommended, but I'm glad I followed whomever's advice.
Scott Lynch, The Republic of Thieves
Mind candy fantasy, sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas under Red Skies. Despite the long delay in the writing, it reads just like them.
Kameron Hurley, God's War
Mind candy science fiction, full of betrayal, brutality, biotechnology based on beetles, bad decisions, and a singularly bloody-minded heroine.
The outstanding opening line — "Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert" — to me recalls the openings of both The Gunslinger, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Whether or not this double resonance was deliberate, it seems fitting. (And I can only too easily imagine Nyx saying "We can't stop here, this is bat country".)
Chelsea Cain, One Kick
Mind candy thriller, unrelated to her long-running mystery series. (There is the commonality that in both, the heroine has appallingly self-destructive taste in men.)
M. Night Shyamalan, I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America's Education Gap
Via Kevin Drum. Shyamalan has (I think) done a decent job of trying to honestly summarize the actual research on what does and doesn't work in education, and come up with some recommendations which don't amount to "make teachers miserable and turn schooling into a cash cow for corrupt contractors". He gives more credence to econometric studies about the impact of teachers than I would without detailed technical examination (cf.), but it's hard for anyone who isn't a statistician or econometrician to do so, so fair enough.
Shyamalan's starting point is that American public education does fine by our middle- and upper- class kids; it's the poor kids we fail. What drags us down in international comparisons is that we have so very many children growing up in poverty, and especially in concentrated poverty. If one accepts that, changing the schools seems like an odd response; the natural strategy would be to do something about poverty, and let the schools take care of themselves. Shyamalan is admirably up front that he's writing about education reform because he despairs of doing anything directly about poverty. He may be right.
Tony Cliff, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant
Unusually delightful comic-book mind candy. The first few chapters are free online. A sequel is promised, and I await it eagerly. (See also Cliff's charming self-parody.) — Sequel.
Oliver Morton, Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet
Full review: Of Heliophagy. Shorter me: I cannot remember the last time I read a popular science book with such enjoyment, or learned so much from it.
Richard R. Nelson, The Moon and the Ghetto: An Essay on Public Policy Analysis
Nominally, Nelson's starting point here is the then-frequent question of why, if we can put people on the moon, we can't do anything about the ghetto. He uses this as a launching point to examine what he sees as the three leading traditions of public policy analysis then on offer: the cost-benefit school in thrall to economics; the organizational perspectives coming from sociology and political science; and the research-and-development tradition that aims to solving problems by focused technological research. All three are, on quite sensible grounds, found wanting. The cost-benefit school has a clear normative structure which often seems compelling --- who would want fewer benefits at higher costs? But, outside of very limited areas, it totally founders on the issue of determining what the costs and benefits really are, and of who pays the costs and who receives the benefits. (While Nelson doesn't go far into this, the Kaldor-Hicks idea that one can evade this by looking at whether the winners could compensate the losers was worth exploring but ultimately fails badly, as Steve Randy Waldman has recently recounted at length.) The organizational analysts don't have good causal models of what consequences will follow from changes in how some area of policy concern is organized, and lack any sort of definite normative theory to set up against cost-benefit analysis. (In this, as in much else, conviction can be more persuasive than sanity.) R&D is great, but there are very few areas of public policy concern where it's really hard to argue that what we're lacking is technological know-how.
These chapters are followed by two which look now very much like period pieces: one is about the difficulties of subsidizing child-care, and the other about public support for developing super-sonic passenger jets, and liquid metal fast breeder reactors. The more enduring lessons here are that there are lots of ways of organizing economic activity, and shaping it to public ends, which go beyond the simple "profit-driven markets will take care of it" / "the government has to do it" alternatives. (Actually, a lot of the issues he raises about how hard it would be for parents to know whether day-care centers are doing a good job would seem to be ones which the Internet could help alleviate...)
The work ends with a preview of the evolutionary economics Nelson and Winter put forward in their now-classic book. This is capped by an exhortation, in thinking about public policy, to think about the sources of variation, the selective environment, and how to take advantage of novelty and variation. This all seems sensible, but if I were someone who had to craft or analyze public policy, it's not very clear about what I should do.
I do not think it is an accident that Nelson never gets around to explaining why we could send people to the Moon, but not do anything about the ghetto.
Not totally unrelated: a plea to "put whitey back on the moon".
Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas
I picked up the Culture series with later books, and never got back to the beginning. This is everything space opera ought to be.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Commit a Social Science; Biology; Philosophy; The Progressive Forces; The Commonwealth of Letters; The Dismal Science

Posted at August 31, 2014 23:59 | permanent link

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