Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, August 2014
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
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
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.
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
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
- 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
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.
Cliff, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant
- Unusually delightful comic-book mind candy. The first few chapters
are free online. A sequel
and I await it eagerly. (See also
self-parody.) — Sequel.
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
- The work ends with a preview of the evolutionary economics Nelson and
Winter put forward in
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
- 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;
The Progressive Forces;
The Commonwealth of Letters;
The Dismal Science
Posted at August 31, 2014 23:59 | permanent link