May 31, 2022

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, May 2022

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the archaeology of the Southwest, the pre-history of diversity training, or trends in American economic inequality.

Walter Jon Williams, Metropolitan and City on Fire
These are two novels Williams wrote in the '90s about intrigue and machinations in a world-spanning city, where the geomantic forces generated by covering the planet in concrete, metal and plastic are carefully harvested and metered, and our heroine longs to smash it all. They're some of the best stuff Williams has ever done, which is saying a lot. Strictly speaking, they are fantasy, even "urban fantasy", but very much in the manner of well-thought-through science fiction.
As a character, Aiah has something in common with Williams's Caroline Sula and even (when it comes to learning to lie and manipulate) Dagmar Shaw, but she is her own, vivid and plausible, person.
I last read these in 1999; I re-read them because Williams recently said that the long, long delayed third volume will finally happen. I am very eager. §
John Kantner, Ancient Puebloan Southwest
This is a well-written, semi-popular account of the archaeology of the American Southwest, focusing on the period from the rise of Chaco Canyon to the early years of Spanish rule. The writing is mostly smooth and expository (*), and I learned a lot of fascinating-to-me details from it. Kantner does do the usual archaeologist thing of making very confident-sounding assertions about social organization which he must know are far more conjectural than he makes them sound. (**) But this is par for the archaeological course. If you have a non-expert interest in the subject, and can handle the lack of a definite article in the title, this is a worthwhile book. I would read a second edition. §
*: Though inconsistently so; he explains "inference", but not "dendrochronology" or "palynological". --- On a different plane, Kantner persistently writes "inequity" (an evaluative, qualitative judgment) when he should write "inequality" (a descriptive and quantitative comparison). Unless, that is, he regards every inequality as inequitable, which is his right but not something to be just assumed... ^
**: To paraphrase, he does things like assert that a division of such-and-such a community into "moieties" can be inferred from the construction of a wall dividing a building in two. Or, again, there are assertions that a one community couldn't have politically dominated another because the latter kept making pots in its old way. This sort of thing just shows a failure of imagination. (I used to part-own a house that had been built for one large family around 1900, and later split with a wall down the middle. While Pittsburgh has some peculiarities it does not divide duplex residents into two endogamous groups, so that I am expected to regard all North-Halfers as some kind of kin.) It also, I think, betrays a failure to check this sort of inference against cases where much more is known about society and politics from written records. ^
Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution (2001)
This is, obviously (?), a work of cultural criticism, but it's done with the tools of a serious historian who is trying to excavate where things like diversity training came from, and why they both emerged when and where they did, and how they survived that initial context. To oversimplify and exaggerate: the late 1960s/early 1970s were a weird time, when plenty of people on the fringes of psychology felt entitled to make stuff up because it sounded good and vibed with their politics, with very little reality-testing. Add the "triumph of the therapeutic" and of self-esteem, plus corporate concerns to ward off liability by claiming to do something (however ineffective), plus the continuing attraction of racialist thinking under another guise (*), and we get a mess.
There are, equally obviously, some political and ethical commitments animating this book, but they are transparent, and honestly ones I have a lot of sympathy for, even if I suspect she and I would often disagree on concrete policies. I would pay very good money to read Lasch-Quinn writing seriously about 2020; unfortunately this is not the kind of work which can be done that quickly, and anyway she seems to have moved on to other topics. §
*: Lasch-Quinn does not use phrases like "reinscribing an essentialized racial binary", but they would actually fit her argument.
Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
A collection of journalistic essays. The formula each time is Kolbert visiting some place --- an electrified anti-invasive fish barrier on the reverse-flowing Chicago river, the mouth of the Mississippi, a cave in the Nevada desert where a unique native fish species is being quixotically maintained, the Great Barrier Reef, a carbon-sequestration site in Iceland --- where she can see (as the saying went) "the Earth as transformed by human action", and talk to the workers. Often enough, the reason these efforts are necessary are dealing with side-effects of earlier efforts at control, which Kolbert presents as ironic but unavoidable; we've gone too far down this path to turn back now. (Though she doesn't say so, we'd gone too far when Gilgamesh was king in Uruk.) Stewart Brand is quoted, aptly; so is John McPhee's classic The Control of Nature.
Speaking of McPhee: this is one of the most New Yorker-y books I've ever read. It has all the characteristic virtues: easy prose, lively (but not startling) intelligence, an eye for detail expressed through original (but not outlandish) metaphors, judiciously-chosen historical anecedotes, sympathetic if amused pen-portraits of interesting characters; you come away feeling like you've understood something, without having been taxed. I realize my description may sound a bit barbed, because it is. On the one hand, I want to acknowledge how hard such writing is to pull off --- being scholarly and exhaustive actually takes much less effort and skill --- and record my admiration, indeed my envy. But on the other hand, the reader puts the book down feeling like they've understood something, without necessarily having done so. On the topics where I know enough to think I could judge (mostly having to do with climatology), Kolbert seems accurate, which increases my confidence in the rest of her work. But somehow I was more conscious of the art, and more suspicious of its effects, than I normally am.
This was the first book by Kolbert I've read; I will certainly read more. §
Gino C. Segrè and John D. Stack, Unearthing Fermi's Geophysics
This is a perfectly nice little introduction to geophysics, suitable for third- or fourth- year physics majors. (That is, you are expected to have forgotten undergraduate classical mechanics, thermo, and E& M; fluid and continuum mechanics are introduced here as needed.) The hook here is that this is based on the notes for such a course which Fermi taught, and which Segrè discovered in the archives. Of course it has been vastly fleshed out (the authors reproduce selected pages from Fermi's notes, and "telegraphic" hardly does it justice), and there are a few places where it's been brought up to date, primarily by comparing Fermi's numerical figures with modern measurements. There is thus no discussion of continental drift or of climate change, to name just two important topics. Still, I enjoyed the gimmick, and it's a nice introduction to interesting and important topics in physics. I would imagine that it would suffer, in terms of classroom use or even serious self-study, from lacking exercises. (It would be very interesting to see Fermi's idea of good homework problems!) §
Rebecca M. Blank, Changing Inequality
This is essentially a huge exercise in comparing the American Community Survey's economic statistics in 1979 with those in 2007. The headline is that households at (almost) every level had substantially higher incomes in 2007 than in 1979, even after making all kinds of allowances for changes in the cost of living (*). There was also vastly more inequality, particularly but not only towards the top.
The thing which makes this book more interesting than that sounds is the way Blank does very careful comparisons --- she calls them "simulations" --- why try to tease out the factors which have contributed to these shifts (**). Thus she tries to work out how much of the changes in typical incomes and in measures of inequality can be explained by changes in family structure, by changes in labor-force participation, by changes in income by education level, etc., leaving other factors at their 1979 values. Thus she can give answers to questions like "How much richer-but-unequal would we be just from our being more educated, if salaries and marriage patterns still looks like 1979?" Or, rather, she can give reasonable but still conjectural answers to such questions; any sort of counterfactual assertion rests on untestable hypotheses.
To summarize, much of the increase in typical household incomes comes from increased female labor-force participation. Some of the increase inequality is related; it comes from the increased tendency of highly educated men to be married to highly educated women who also work in well-paid jobs. But lots of the increasing inequality, which takes the form of higher household incomes increasing much faster than those at the median (or even the 80th percentile...) can't be explained in these ways. These findings in turn let Blank say some sensible things about how different policies might reduce inequality. (One finding, at first startling, is that bringing every poor household up to the poverty line would actually do very little to reduce inequality by any of the usual metrics.)
This isn't a scintillating read, but it's serious, sober and (as we used to say) reality-based. I read it in part as fodder for my inequality class, and I am seriously considering having The Kids do (simplified) versions of Blank's comparisons. If you have a serious concern with economic inequality, or social change in America since the 1970s, this is very worth reading. §
*: One important limitation to this conclusion, which Blank duly acknowledges, comes with this data. Because the ACS doesn't track households from one year to another, it doesn't let us saying anything about the stability or security of income. In particular, it doesn't let us say whether a household at the median in 1979 could be more confident of staying at the median than their counterparts in 2007. There is evidence that incomes fluctuate more now than they used to, which, if you believe standard economic theory, would reduce the value of any given level of income. ^
**: Mathematically, I think what she does amounts to a piece-wise constant approximation of Handcock and Morris's "relative distribution" method, which was also invented for studying shifts in inequality. But I haven't ground through the algebra and there might be subtle differences. ^
A. M. Stuart, Singapore Sapphire, Revenge in Rubies, Evil in Emerald
Mind-candy historical mysteries, set in Singapore, mostly among just-barely-genteel Britishers, in the years immediately before World War I. Enjoyable period color, though family tradition requires me to make dark aside about British imperialism as I read. §

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Inequality; The Dismal Science; Writing for Antiquity; Commit a Social Science; The Progressive Forces; Teaching: Statistics of Inequality and Discrimination; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Tales of Our Ancestors; Physics; The Great Transformation; Biology

Posted at May 31, 2022 23:59 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth