Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, October 2022
conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine
on public administration, political philosophy, social
epistemology, or the aims and methods of sociology. Also, most of my reading
this month was done at odd hours and/or while bottle-feeding a baby, so I'm
less reliable and more cranky than usual.
- T. Kingfisher, What Moves the Dead
- Mind candy: a re-telling of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" as (is
this really a spoiler?) parasite-porn horror. Amusing, and pleasingly creepy.
- Jeffrey L. Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky, Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland: Or, Why It's Amazing That Federal Programs Work at All, This Being a Saga of the Economic Development Administration as Told by Two Sympathetic Observers Who Seek to Build Morals on a Foundation of Ruined Hopes
- I realize this is some sort of classic of the public policy /
administration literature, so I am very late to this party, but
it's really good. One way to expound this --- not Pressman and
Wildavsky's, except once in passing early on --- is by an analogy with computer
programming. When legislators (or dictators or executives, whatever) proclaim
a policy, they state objectives and resources, and provide a sort of sketch of
how they think the resources should be used to achieve the objectives. This is
like getting requirements for a program and maybe some vague pseudo-code. The
job of the programmer is then to implement, to actually come up with a
program that runs. In the course of doing so one may discover all sorts of
things about the original specification which will often call for it to be
revised. If multiple programmers need to implement different parts of the
specification, they will have to coordinate somehow, and may find this hard.
If the program has to rely on other programs, let alone on other systems, well,
good luck coordinating.
- (Link is to the 3rd edition of 1984, which is in print, though I read the
2nd of 1979, and haven't had a chance to compare the two.)
- Nathan Ballingrud, Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell
- Horror mind candy; all six stories (the last two are really novellas) share
a common mythology. Usually-reliable sources had praised Ballingrud's work, so
when I ran across a cheap copy I picked this up. I understand the praise,
because these are skillfully written (with an exception I will get to below),
but I didn't love it, for some mostly-me reasons:
So: some real merits, but I will not be seeking out more.
- While many of the props are Lovecraftian
English cannibal cults), the underlying metaphysics is much more
--- "Hell" is meant very literally, and human laws and interests and emotions
have great significance (if not necessarily validity) in Ballingrud's
cosmos-at-large. As I
before, I have standards for my cosmic horror, and the merely Satanic does
not cut it.
- I think it's fair to say that basically every human emotion is depicted as
a snare of Hell, love very much included. In some moods I could go along for
such a ride, especially if it were presented with a lot more satirical humor,
but as this went on I merely found it unpleasant.
- Ballingrud's endings here are generally abrupt and weak. ("Skullpocket"
is a notable exception.)
- Olúfémi O. Táíwò, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else)
- (Note: The e in "Olúfémi" should also have a dot accent underneath, but every way I've tried to generate this makes my antiquated blogging software produce gibberish...)
- I picked this up because I'd liked
of the essays it was was based on, but wished
Táíwò would elaborate on the argument. (I also had
hopes of using it in the inequality class.) I was,
however, disappointed. The book is no clearer than the essays about key
concepts, such as "elite", "elite capture", "rooms", and what
non-elite-captured institutions would look like. It's a short book, but there
are many historical anecdotes, which are all overly-intricate. (Some of them
are inspiring, but the details simply aren't relevant.) Abstruse
philosophy-of-language ideas about conversational "common ground" are invoked
to explain phenomena which a few pages later are also explained as mere
fear-of-the-consequences, without any recognition of the tension. (There is a
big difference between actually creating false consciousness, and merely
intimidating people into saying things they don't believe.) It was a mistake
to expand the essay to this length, at least in this way.
- Now, there is a core idea here which I find persuasive, namely that those
with existing advantages will tend to use those advantages to play a
disproportionate, even dominating role in
any situation, undertaking or movement and to steer it to their
advantage, unless pretty severely checked by strong, and enforced,
That's Jo Freeman's
"tyranny of structurelessness" (cited by Táíwò), as well
Michel's "iron law of oligarchy" (not cited). So far, so convincing.
- But let me push a little. Unless one imagines that everyone in a
movement is equally influential, it's mathematically necessary that the most
influential members, the elite, are disproportionately influential.
the Lorenz curve of influence.) I admit this pretends that "influence" is
a one-dimensional numerical variable, but that'll be true of all sorts of
proxies for influence, like time other members of the movement spend attending
to you. At what point does this disproportionate influence tip over into
"elite capture"? If this is a matter of degrees rather than thresholds, how
ought one trade off the bad of elite capture against other desiderata, like
actually getting anything done? (Imagine every member of a movement of even
1,000 people speaking for just a minute on a
being listened to.)
- These are, of course, very old questions of democratic theory. Liberalism
least evolved some
answers, by now boringly familiar: leadership through formal representation,
accountability of representatives to members through regular elections,
competition between rival factions of would-be leaders, etc. --- in short, the
threat of members throwing the bums out will keep the would-be bums in line.
These have their own issues (throwing the bums out can be
action problem, which must be preceded
cognition), but, at least here, Táíwò doesn't seem to
even dismiss the liberal-democratic stand-bys as inadequate, not
suited to progressive movements, or what-have-you.
- I realize this all amounts to wishing Táíwò had
written a different book, but I do.
- (On the question of "identity politics", which
actually gets comparatively little space in the book, I can't help boggling at
a line Táíwò quotes from
Barbara Smith, one of
the founders of
River Collective, explaining why they needed to introduce a new kind of
politics in the late 1970s: "We, as black women, we actually had a right to
create political priorities and agendas and actions and solutions based in our
experiences". The reason I boggle is that was a well-developed
political theory in the 1970s which stood solidly behind groups organizing
politically to articulate and advance agendas based on their common interests,
values and ascriptive identities, including allying with other groups likewise
pursuing their agendas. That theory was good old fashioned American
interest-group pluralism. If the leading advocates of pluralism lacked the
imagination to apply it to black women (or black lesbians, or...), that wasn't
a fault in the theory. To be fair, leftist political theory
at the time was coming from a place where the only legitimate group to advocate
for itself was the organized working class...)
- T. Kingfisher, The Twisted Ones
- Arthur Machen, The House of Souls
- Mind candy, seasonal. The Kingfisher novel begins with a middle-aged
person traveling from Pittsburgh to North Carolina to clear out a relative's
house and storage unit, a scenario I instantly identified with, and from there
builds the strangeness and tension very satisfyingly. It's the first Kingfisher I've read, but it certainly won't be the last.
- The Twisted Ones is avowedly based on Machen's short story
"The White People", collected in House of Souls, so I finally read
Machen. (I previously knew of him just as one of Lovecraft's influences, but,
well, there were many, of varying quality.) There's a lot of genuinely good
creepy stuff in here, but it's also often hard to tell whether, when Machen
mentions nameless abominations, he's talking about genuinely indescribable
cosmic horrors, or just being prudish about sex.
- Spoiler-y inter-textual commentary for The Twisted Ones: I strongly suspect that some aspects of the visit of our hero to the city of the white people are homages to Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness: both feature series of murals depicting the history of the city as its population dwindles over the ages, and the city is ultimately taken over by servitors
of the original inhabitants, shoggoths for Lovecraft, and von Neumann-esque self-reproducing magical automata for Kingfisher.
- Cailin O'Connor and James Owen Weatherall, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread
- Popular social science. The hook here is explaining what the hell has gone
wrong with our politics / culture / thoughts in general over the last decade or
so. What O'Connor and Weatherall actually do is explain, clearly but
carefully, a range of models of social learning and social influence, intended
to model how the social organization of a scientific community helps, or
hinders, that community's pursuit of truth. (They tend to be Bayesians, and so
presume that the truth is always an available option, rather than something
that needs to be actually discovered; but
I have a thing about this.) In
later chapters, they consider how these social processes can be manipulated or
subverted by interested parties, especially industrial propagandists. (The
last part draws on Oreskes and Conway's great Merchants of
Doubt, which I will review Any Year Now). Because of the authors'
institutional affiliations, this counts as philosophy of science, but you could
equally well see it as theoretical sociology (*). This is all skillfully done.
- The last chapter gestures at applying the models to explain why our
contemporary information environment is so awful, especially online. I say
"gestures" because they don't really try to establish any very serious results
here. I don't think they ever even try to document that, in aggregate, people
are more mis-informed now than in, say, 1980 or 1960. As I've said
before, I have a strong suspicion that the difference isn't
the quantity of craziness, but its condensation into blobs
of shared insanity. (The proverbial "tin-foil hat brigade" has indeed
become a brigade.) If that's true, models of network learning would
be a natural candidate to explain the development...
- While I have gone on at some length about the last chapter, I am inclined
to cut it a lot of slack as mere marketing. Two philosophers writing a
non-technical account of social learning in networks, even a very clear and
engaging account, might lead to a few course adoptions. (I myself would
be very happy to use those chapters in a class on social learning
cognition, following their verbal explanations with the technicalities.)
Claiming to explain "the misinformation age" will move a lot more copies, which
I can't begrudge them. And the phenomena they describe are probably
part of the story...
- *: I'd say "sociological theory", but that name is pre-empted by a sort of
hazing ritual, in which newcomers are initiated into the tribe by means of
textual ancestor worship, and the relative strength of different tribal
segments is reflected in exactly which ancestors get worshiped.
- Daniel Rigney, The Matthew Effect: How Advantage Begets Further Advantage
- This is mostly a rather pedestrian review of literature on sources of
cumulative advantage in science, the economy, aspects of democratic politics,
and education. There are places where the book is clearly trying to be popular
social science, but it just doesn't have the spark, or the clear lines of
argument. The one exception is actually the first chapter, on
how Robert Merton
introduced the term "Matthew Effect", and how it fitted into his larger
programs in the sociology of science and general sociology.
- I'll keep this around to mine for references, but even those will be
- John H. Goldthorpe, Sociology as a Population Science
- On the advice of readers, I have spun off my remarks into
review (and expanded them to 800-odd
Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur;
The Progressive Forces;
Teaching: Statistics of Inequality and Discrimination;
Scientifiction and Fantastica;
Commit a Social Science;
The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts;
Actually, "Dr. Internet" Is the Name of the Monsters' Creator
Posted at October 31, 2022 23:59 | permanent link