April 30, 2018

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, April 2018

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste. I also have no qualifications to opine on the history of Renaissance astrology.

Laura Lippman, Sunburn
Noir mystery, set in the archaic past of 1995. Every single viewpoint character is deceiving everyone they interact with, and in a few cases themselves, and there is quite a bit of Lippman mis-leading the reader as well. I nonetheless found myself rooting very hard for the protagonists, despite their tendency to eat everyone around them alive. This might be the best novel Lippman's ever written, which is saying a lot.
Susan Wolfe, Escape Velocity
Mind candy mystery, in which the daughter of an Arkansas con-man makes her way, mostly legitimately, into a job in a flailing Silicon Valley company, in search of a better life for her and her teenage sister, and proceeds to find scope for her "special talents". The novel succeeds in three big ways: its presents poverty amid crazy wealth unsparingly but matter-of-factly; it doesn't drink any of the Silicon Valley kool-aid; and it makes you want to see the heroine succeed, despite her increasingly criminal acts --- and leaves you in no doubt that those are criminal and reprehensible acts. Its big failing, to my mind, is that it's really not savage enough about the specific craziness and pomposity of the Valley; a few local references aside, this could be a satire of just about any corporation anywhere in the US. Considering Wolfe's evident gifts as a writer, this seems like a lost opportunity, but perhaps there will be a sequel.
Martha Wells, All Systems Red
Mind candy science fiction. The novelty here is this nice but straight-forward story being narrated by a self-named "Murderbot", which has hacked itself to be able to ignore human commands, but just wants to be left alone to watch its "serials". This is an amusing twist, and it's a fun novella with a dry sense of humor, but I fail to grasp why so many people are so rapturous about it. Still, since I think Wells has been under-rated for decades, I'm not sad to see her get some recognition!
Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris, My Boyfriend Is a Bear
Comic book mind candy: the title is meant literally. Fundamentally, it's yet another avatar of the ancient tale of the lost Magic/Animal Husband (Aarne-Thompson index number 425A), done this time as a very sweet romance. Any attempt to read it as an allegory for our contemporary controversies about non-traditional forms of sex will, I think, dissolve into incoherence (which doesn't mean that they won't be attempted, or even that such allegories weren't intended by the authors).
Not via Jeet Heer, remarkably enough.
Anthony Grafton, Cardano's Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer
On one level, this is a readable exposition of how Cardano worked and thought as a practicing astrologer, including extensive background on the sophisticated and ancient astrological tradition he came out of, with some glances at how that connected to his practice as a medical doctor and a mathematician (though there's less about the latter than I would have liked). My fellow Eisensteinians will be especially intrigued by the way one of Cardano's signature projects, assembling and publishing a large collection of supposedly-reliable "genitures" of well-known figures (i.e., horoscopes cast for the purported time of birth, with all relevant planets and stars properly accounted for and interpreted) was in part about bringing information which had circulated in manuscript form among social networks into public print.
On another level, this book is Grafton subtly, or not-so-subtly, insinuating that the quantitative social sciences are no better than Cardano's quantitative astrology.
Cardano's theories were not so obviously superior to rival ones as he would have liked. Accordingly, he buttressed them with replies to potential objections. To the argument that a given star should affect not a single city or state but everyone living anywhere on the parallel over which it passed perpendicularly, for example, Cardano replied with qualifications. The star would have such effects only if it had reach that position on the data when the city or state in question was founded, at noon, and in conjunction with the sun. What technical arguments could not achieve, the language of somber threat and mystification might. Cardano gave his readers not only clear, easily applied rules of prediction which anyone could easily grasp and use, but also rules of interpretation as rich in predictive force and slippery in practical application as any master of astrology could hope to provide:
In every geniture there is a best position, which controls all good fortune, and a worst one, which controls all misfortune. The best place is the tenth house, or the first one, or a luminary, if there is joined with these fortune, or a propitious ray, or that of the other luminary, or a fortunate star, so that the good fortune is doubled. Thus the place of misfortune is misfortune multiplied twice.
Anyone who could grasp the method laid out here --- and work out exactly which planetary and stellar positions must be taken into account in applying it --- obviously had access to a powerful tool for determining the effects of a given configuration of the planets unequivocally.

Equally obviously --- or so it seems now --- no one could hope to use rules like these as rigorously as one could apply Cardano's instructions for determining the time at night or the position of Venus. The doctrine itself was complex: the multiple possible ways of applying it ensured that the results could turn out as seemed best, in a given situation, to the astrologer. [pp. 63--64]

As so often, Cardano's astrology lends itself to parody when seen in retrospect. Like good economists, the ancient author [Ptolemy] and his modern annotator [Cardano] explain in chorus why their discipline matters to humanity even though it cannot, and supposedly does not try to, predict specific outcomes with absolute certainty. Much of Cardano's practical advice --- like the suggestion that one travel in as large a group as possible, since if most of the passengers on any given ship are not foredestined to die in a wreck, the danger is lessened --- has all the precision and intelligence of a modern discount broker's newsletter. [p. 143]
The contrast between Cardano's practices [in mathematical and observational astronomy] and normal ones [of astrologers] was sharp. Most astrologers used their tables as social scientists sometimes apply software packages: they treated these paper devices as black boxes, understanding little or nothing of the principles on which they rested and having little or no ability to compensate for their defects. Their nasty remarks about their competitors rarely rested on a demonstrated mastery of astronomical materials and methods. [p. 61]
Cardano... never saw his own experiences of the autonomy of politics and the power of change [sic; read "chance"?] as reasons for rejecting astrology, either in the political or in the personal sphere. Though he sometimes explained particular events in terms that denied belief in occult influences, he consistently resorted to astrology, as a practice, a well-used set of tools, worn and polished by the use of decades. Even though some of his late comments sugges that he had less faith in astrology than in medicine, he still used it... to organize his last substantial work, his autobiography. Cardano's ability to wield other, radically different tools at the same time should occasion little surprise. Many scholars nowadays use computers to write and fax machines to submit the conference papers in which they unmask all of modern science as a social product, a game like any other. Though they hold that the laws of fluid dynamics are only one way, no more valid than many others, of describing the motion of air over wings, they take airplane trips to participate in the self-congratulatory discussions that ensue. Compared to the sterile credulity of the modern arts of analysis. Cardano's arts of prediction look bright, warm, and solid enough to explain their appeal to the wide range of intelligent readers they attracted and informed. [p. 176]
Grafton does not bother himself with refuting astrology, though he does mention some of the sound arguments against it which were already familiar in Cardano's time. Here is one which particularly struck me:
Nicole Oresme observed [in the 14th century] that it took millennia for celestial phenomena to recur even once; some never did. The astrologers, who had been working for only the few thousand years since Noah's Flood, could not possibly have derived their rules for interpreting the effects of conjunctions and oppositions from observation. They simply had not had enough time. [p. 51]
I highlight this one because it applies, mutatis mutandis, to the macroeconomists.
Mary Louise Kelly, Anonymous Sources
Mind-candy thriller, nuclear terrorism foiled by Intrepid Lady Reporter sub-flavor. Kelly gets extra points for making the ILR a very un-apologetic person who has done some very un-nice things, but is still sympathetic. It's not as good as her second novel, The Bullet (where I now realize the ILR has a brief cameo), but still fun.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Writing for Antiquity

Posted at April 30, 2018 23:59 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth