March 31, 2021

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, March 2021

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the sociology of radio and the music industry, or on movies.

(I didn't finish a lot of books this month, since I'm not counting re-reading bits and pieces of arcane tomes on golem-making as needed for my own shambling creation.)

K. C. Constantine, Sunshine Enemies
Mind candy from 1990: the nth in a series of mystery novels set in the fictional western Pennsylvania town of Rockford, PA, somewhere in the environs of Pittsburgh — what I've heard called the yinzerlands. It's a good mystery novel, but what really sets it apart is the dialogue. Constantine has an incredible ear for the way locals of that generation spoke, and turns it into riveting dialogue. The depiction of the life-ways of these communities also feels authentic, but that's harder for me to judge. Strongly recommended if you like well-written detective novels, or are interested in fiction set around here.
Gabriel Rossman, Climbing the Charts: What Radio Airplay Tells Us about the Diffusion of Innovation
This is a short sociological treatise about, primarily, how songs become hits on commercial American radio, or fail to do so. It's well written (not just "well written for sociology"), and has a number of very interesting points to make about topics like the diffusion of innovation, corruption, the role of genres in popular culture, and more besides. The points which most interest me are the diffusion ones.
Rossman's starting point is to look at curves of cumulative adoption over time --- how many radio stations have, by a given date, ever played such-and-such a song? His main methodological tool is to distinguish between two types of adoption curves. One is the classic elongated-S curve, looking roughly like $\frac{e^{t\lambda}}{1+e^{t\lambda}}$, which one would expect to be produced by contagion, whether mediated by a network or by some more mean-field-ish process (like a best-seller list). The other ideal type of curve is "concave", indicating a constant probability of adoption per unit time, so looking like $1-e^{-t\lambda}$. The latter he interprets as indicating some shared external forcing. Most songs which become hits follow the latter pattern (though he has illuminating things to say about the exceptional endogenous hits). The obvious question is the identity of the external force. Rossman makes a compelling case that this is, in fact, the record companies, and not (e.g.) radio station chains; on this basis he goes in to an examination of the history and theory of payola. (Basically: radio "moves product" for the record companies, so you don't want to be the only record company which is not bribing radio stations to play your music.) He also has a less compelling but still fairly persuasive analysis showing that radio stations don't really decide what to play by imitating other radio stations (at least for one "format" of radio station, during one time period). I could go on --- Rossman packs a lot into only ~200 pages --- but forbear.
The central distinction here, between curves due to external forcing and curves due to endogenous contagion, is one that's persuasive in context, but isn't necessarily either airtight or generalizable. That promotional efforts by a record company would translate into a constant hazard for adoption seems plausible enough, but one could imagine a record company whose promotional efforts start small, ramp up rapidly when one song or another takes off, and which tapers when it becomes clear that the pool of new adoptees is almost exhausted, imitating a logistic, "endogenous" diffusion curve. (It doesn't seem like good business strategy, and I take Rossman's word for it that that's not, in fact, how record promotion works.) My efforts to come up with a "just so" story in which contagion produces a constant hazard are less convincing even to me, but I only gave five minutes to the effort. Returning to my perpetual hobbyhorse of the difficulty of establishing social contagion, I would say that this is an example of using subject-matter knowledge (i.e., actual science) to rule out alternatives, which couldn't be done on purely statistical grounds.
Recommended if you have any interest in the diffusion of innovations, or in social contagion. (Probably good if you're interested in the sociology of music, too.) Finally finished, 8 years (!) after I started it, because of reading a more recent paper by the author.
Fukushima 50
Pandora's Promise
Quo Vadis, Aida?
Hotel Rwanda
Watchers of the Sky
Human Flow
The Rest
This is what happens when you live with a historian writing a chapter about 1980--2020... Chernobyl is very well done; some scenes which I thought were imitations of Soviet science fiction movies were in fact imitations of archival footage. Fukushima is a much lower level of art, but still decent. (There is a whole essay to be written about the role of America in that movie, which I am utterly incompetent to do.) Quo Vadis, Aida? is almost unbearably sad. Hotel Rwanda is somehow more purely horrifying than sad. Watchers of the Sky was comparatively optimistic, but having a sincere and committed campaigner against genocide as our UN ambassador did less to improve things than one might wish. Human Flow is the most beautiful movie of the lot. The Rest is fine on its own terms, but diminished by the comparison to the previous movie (not as visually striking, not as thematically wide-ranging, and with too little of Ai Weiwei in the role of the planet's eccentric cat-guy uncle).
Pandora's Power calls for special comment. I am, by temperament and training, receptive to nuclear power having more of a role than many on the left want it to. But this movie, if anything, pushed me away from that position, purely by reaction. The people it chose to showcase as advocates were, for the most part, completely unqualified, both in their earlier opposition and in their later advocacy. Shellenberger in fact seems like someone whose only real principle is attracting attention by outraging liberal piety, a well-trodden path. (Perhaps he's a lovely person and the movie showed him in an bad light.)
Turning from personalities to substance, the arguments here are just tissue thin. If the problem with solar and wind power is intermittency, the obvious solutions are (1) storage, (2) non-intermittent renewable power sources (like hydro power), and (3) a limited role for natural gas or other fossil fuels. (Humanity's carbon budget is not zero.) To listen to the movie, you'd think all of this was impossible, rather than well-studied. (Yes, there are technical challenges, but that'd lead to a serious comparison of alternatives, which the movie avoids at all costs.) Claims that Chernobyl was responsible for millions of deaths are absurd, and anti-nuclear campaigners who repeat them discredit themselves. But it's also absurd to claim that Chernobyl killed basically nobody. (Why oh why might Soviet successor states want to minimize the consequences, it is a mystery, and why might the UN and WHO fail to challenge even obviously falsified official figures, who can say? A village priest squatting in the exclusion zone insists none of his flock gets sick, obviously he's telling the truth.) Concerns about the safe disposal of waste for hundreds to tens of thousands of years, and about nuclear proliferation (particularly with the breeder reactors favored by the move-makers) are dismissed remarkably glibly. (ObRecOfAnInfinitelyBetterMovie: Containment.) That there's a correlation between a country's energy usage and its average lifespan is perfectly true, but that's because countries which use a lot of energy are also ones with sanitation, adequate food, etc., etc. (Obviously it takes energy to provide these goods.) In any case the argument isn't about whether to use lots of energy (*), but how to supply it. I can't tell whether the poverty-porn shots of children in third world slums arise from a clumsy-but-sincere concern for the kids' well-being, from a calculation that "why do you hate brown kids?" is an easy way to morally blackmail the intended audience, or from a feeling that this'd be an amusing way to own the libs.
The only thing which gives me any pause about saying the movie is unmitigated dreck is that Stewart Brand and Richard Rhodes, who I otherwise find to be thoughtful and serious authors from whom I've learned much, agreed to participate. But by the end this had the effect of lowering them a bit in my estimation, which is sad.
After watching, I found this review, which seems very fair, because the movie is, in fact, very bad.
*: Of course there are people who wish humanity would plunge back to pre-industrial levels of energy usage, motivated by some combination of nostalgia for the idiocy of rural life and mis-guided Malthusianism. They are few in number and, thankfully, completely without influence, which will continue to be the case. (Any country where they might, incredibly, manage to impose their views would quickly be stomped by rivals whose madmen in authority were not quite that crazy, assuming their own people didn't do it first.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Continuing Crises; Commit a Social Science; Networks; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Heard About Pittsburgh PA

Posted at March 31, 2021 23:59 | permanent link

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