I was really tempted to give this five stars. Can I really blame Chandler for including the misogynistic and homophobic that was undoubtedly an accuraI was really tempted to give this five stars. Can I really blame Chandler for including the misogynistic and homophobic that was undoubtedly an accurate portrayal of the brutish and nasty world of Philip Marlowe?
I'm afraid I can. I don't think anyone has ever written this kind of fiction better, and it is certainly hard to imagine someone shoehorning an enlightened attitude into the confines here, but it is what I wish for. Choosing to write the book in the first person certainly didn't make that task any easier.
Still, that fifth star tempts me. Chandler writes so perfectly, consistently finding the right phrase, and the right word, to economically and beautifully capture the nasty world our dark knight struggles against, with wit and a hard head.
I'm a little dismayed I didn't learn about this a long time ago, when I was discovering some of the classic texts (e.g., The Lonely Crowd or The OrgI'm a little dismayed I didn't learn about this a long time ago, when I was discovering some of the classic texts (e.g., The Lonely Crowd or The Organization Man .)
❝“Politics and Vision,” subtitled “Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought,” appeared at a time when American political science was under the sway of the behavioralist revolution, which emphasized the quantitative analysis of data rather than political ideas as a way to explain political behavior.
Professor Wolin, then teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, galvanized the profession by gathering key political philosophers, beginning with the Greeks, in a grand debate on democracy and examining their ideas not as historical artifacts, but as a way to criticize current political structures.
“The book revitalized political theory by making its history relevant to an analysis of the present,” Nicholas Xenos, a student of Professor Wolin’s and a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote in an email. “It challenged the behavioralists, for whom history was increasingly irrelevant. It also provided a way to criticize the present using the concepts and vocabulary that since antiquity had sustained concern for what he called ‘the possibilities of collectivity, common action and shared purposes.’ ”
In 1985, the American Political Science Association honored the book with the Benjamin E. Lippincott Award in recognition of its lasting impact. It was reissued in expanded form in 2004.❞
It appears to be quite appropriate to study today....more
From the study guide questions (!): “Book reviewers have called Flavia a rougher, tougher Hermione Granger; Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison as a child; aFrom the study guide questions (!): “Book reviewers have called Flavia a rougher, tougher Hermione Granger; Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison as a child; a combination of Eloise and Sherlock Holmes; and Harriet the Spy by way of Agatha Christie, with a dash of Lemony Snicket and the Addams Family.”
Yeah, about that. A seriously charming eleven year old girl....more
At the superficial level, this is a very enjoyable story of "Two Society Girls in the West" —specifically, two restless twenty-something women bored wAt the superficial level, this is a very enjoyable story of "Two Society Girls in the West" — specifically, two restless twenty-something women bored with the idea of the future that is expected of them, and drifting through mild adventures (and flirting with dreaded spinsterhood) until this quite astonishing opportunity arises: be schoolteachers (sans any training) at the frontier deep in the Rocky Mountains.
It isn't really the frontier — this was more than twenty years after 1893, when the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the frontier had been closed ➚. But this was a community far enough off the beaten path that few services were available, and so it feels pretty close to the era Laura Ingalls, even though the nearest train depot, and it's connections to the rest of the world, are less than a day away.
The author is the Executive Editor of the New Yorker, and writes wonderfully. True, she writes in the labyrinthian style of the New Yorker's long-form journalism, with its seemingly endless recursive digressions. If you really want a linear narrative, with a constant view of the destination always in sight, then this book (and the New Yorker) probably isn't for you. If you think side trips into subsidiary topics are fine, as long as they are entertaining and at least tangentially relevant to the story, then you'll enjoy the ride.
Since our heroines are thrown into the job of teaching, folks in that profession will get an extra kick out of this, sympathizing and identifying with their crises and thrills.
But that isn't all there is to this. I'm a little embarrassed for Dorothy Wickenden, since she doesn't appear to realize that she's written a book that reinforces a mythos of America that is untrue as well as ideologically problematic.
I was forcefully reminded of this when I happened to read the New Yorker essay (yes, the New Yorker again), Out of Bethlehem: The radicalization of Joan Didion. The second half of that essay relates how Joan Didion became increasingly aware of they mythology of the American Self.
This is the legend of the pioneers in covered wagons who trekked across the Rockies and settled the state, the men and women who made the desert bloom—Didion’s ancestors. It’s a story about independence, self-reliance, and loyalty to the group. Growing up, Didion had been taught that for the generations that followed the challenge was to keep those virtues alive.
The fly in that balm is that California’s settlement had been heavily subsidized by the U.S. Government, which in this respect is the agent of commerce. Does that sound cynical? Are you aware that Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” was published the same year as the Declaration of Independence, and that the United States republic suckled the ethos of capitalism from the same teat it acquired an obsession with liberty?
The story in this book is more intimate than the grand scale of California, but it is similar. The Arcadian locale of the western slope of the Colorado mountains was inaccessible to development until the U.S. government granted the wishes of those who would become the railroad barons. Yes, it was beneficial to the country, but some had power, and received outsized benefits.
From the New Yorker essay:
Everyone else was a pawn in the game, living in a fantasy of hardy individualism and cheering on economic growth that benefitted only a few. Social stability was a mirage. It lasted only as long as the going was good for business.
This is the way the story ends in Elkhead, Colorado, too. Once the coal turned out to be inadequate to sustain the interest of the capitalists, the place returned to the wilderness it had originally been. The intrepid homesteaders weren’t adequate to keep the community alive without that lifeline.
There is a second, lesser meta-narrative as well. The two women represent a class that no longer exists. When I was growing up, there existed a group of people that later became known as the Rockefeller Republicans. Wikipedia defines the term a bit differently than I remember it, so I’ll switch to “benevolent plutocrats”. This was the paternalistic class that saw it as part of their duty — a duty that came with privilege — to try to make the world a better place for those with less. They were often insufferably arrogant, and easily strayed into social Darwinism, but it was that sense of responsibility that those two young women felt when they set off to be schoolteachers. Read the tale, and it is clear they weren’t condescending elitists, but warm and caring people who worked to achieve the idealism that was rooted in a kind of noblesse oblige.
Those people appear to be gone. Why? What changed in American culture that gave the wealthy permission to cease caring in this singular way?
Nothing Daunted serves as a reminder at how seductive the mythologies of the United States are. The idea of that a person with stalwart discipline can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become a “self-made man” is embedded deeply in the fantasy that prevents the United States from facing up to the complex creature that it has become. And along with that, it is also an enjoyable tale of youthful adventure....more
If you’re curious about how scientists actually study climate change, David Archer is an excellent go-to guy. Every year brings new developments, so a book isn’t the best resource for up-to-date understanding of all of the details of what is known about what is happening, but a book is a good way of learning how the science gets done.
This book, The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth's Climate instead delves into climate science across the vast spans of geological time. In this short book, you’ll learn that what our generations do (or, more precisely, don’t do) will change the climate for hundreds of thousands of years.
The science really is the point, though. We can’t predict what humanity will be going through in another hundred years, much less after thousands or tens of thousands, so the presentation of all of these details is to enlarge our understanding of the magnitude of what we are doing, in the hope that we’ll change our ways as soon as possible.
Although this is a book about science, you won’t be tasked with dealing with the nitty-gritty. There isn’t a single equation, for example, and the endnotes are to guide further reading, so even those aren’t laden with impenetrable jargon.
In most of the analysis, all the reader has to do is concentrate a bit. There are a lot of phenomena that are examined, since the way science double-checks itself is for people in disparate fields to see if they come to similar conclusions, and “disparate fields” goes from oceanography, plant paleobiology, geologic chemistry and many more.
The toughest for most people will probably be in understanding how isotopes are used. I’m pretty science savvy, but it was still engrossing to learn how isotopes are central to some of these analyses.
I’ll try to boil down my favorite narrative:
• An isotope is an atom — an elementary particle — the contains a different number of neutrons than the standard variation of the element. Since neutrons aren’t charged, this affects the element’s chemistry only in subtle ways.
• One key isotope is that of oxygen, because it can start off in H₂O, and have subsequent effects seen in CaCO₃ and CO₂. “Normal” oxygen has eight neutrons, and since it also has eight protons, it is known as O-16. The heavier O-17 (one extra neutron) and O-18 (two extra neutrons) isotopes are also stable.
• The extra neutron(s) also makes any water containing the heavier isotope heavier, which has the critical result that it evaporates with a little more difficulty than “normal” water (see the Wikipedia article on “kinetic fractionation”).
• This is crucial: because it evaporates less, seaborne clouds will have fewer of the heavier isotopes, while the remaining seawater has relatively more.
• Since the precipitation that falls on the land comes from these clouds, it is isotopically lighter. Which means snow is, too, and so are glaciers, and those huge ice packs during ice ages.
• The amount of the planet’s water that is stuck in ice form on land is therefore directly correlated with the varying ratio of oxygen isotopes left in the ocean. Woo-hoo!
• That (slightly isotopically heavier) oxygen is taken up by the billions and billions of microscopic sea creatures (the Foraminifera) that create shells, commonly out of CaCO₃.
• As those microorganisms die, their shells remain and accumulate. When the layer of sediment they accumulate in is compressed into rock over geologic time, we end up with limestone, such as the stuff the pyramids in Egypt are made out of. But for our purposes —
• When scientist dig up core samples of the sediments deep in the ocean, they can analyze the variation in the isotopic ratio of oxygen, and thus determine the varying amount of ice that was present elsewhere, on land.
This is one of the multiple ways that we can gaze back into the distant past and determine what the climate used to be like. The results of different methods can be compared to make sure they are being used properly. For example, ice cores have been cut out of the antarctic which go back 800,000 years (there are places where ice may have been accumulating for 1.5 million years). The amount of carbon dioxide in the air bubbles found embedded in those cores is cross-checked with other factors, including various isotopic measurement.
Progress continues: fairly recently, ancient graffiti in a Chinese cave recorded the impact of droughts more than 500 years ago, including dates which correlate with Chinese historical records. That same cave provided minerals, which steadily accumulate in stalactites or stalagmites, etc., which show a change in oxygen isotopes consistent with other climate models.
Isotopic analysis is only one of the many “proxies” that are used to gauge climate history. Tree rings have been dated back almost 14,000 years; evolutionary changes in the pores on leaves (stomata), which relate to the concentration of carbon dioxide and humidity, are examined in the fossil record.
Scientists compete to build computerized models of the climate which incorporate those factors they’re guessing are most important, and which work over different time and geographic scales. A model which uses one set of data from history and is able to accurately predict what changes were taking place in another area is doing well. When two models which use different input datasets yield predictions that are consistent with one another, that’s also a good sign.
But Archer notes many times in the book that models still can’t account for nearly enough for us know what is happening to our satisfaction. It is important to point out that this doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t happening — the question is how fast, and how bad, and what changes will take place where. For example, the current drought in California is still largely believed to be just a normal variation in weather, similar to other droughts in memory. But climatologists are increasingly worried that the “drought” isn’t weather, but climate, and is an early sign of California’s “new normal”.
This isn’t the correct book for information about recent discoveries in climate modeling — books aren’t the right medium for that. But if your reading diet (or podcast listening!) includes enough science, you’ll spot the steady accumulation of data. For example, “a newly discovered strain of bacteria found in Arctic permafrost harvests methane from the air — meaning it could help mitigate the effects of warming” is good news I learned from Scientific American here, but “tree growth lags below normal for several years following droughts, a detail about carbon sequestration that climate models currently overlook”, from here, which is bad both for the climate and for California’s forests in the current drought.
Even readers that are barely aware of what an isotope is will probably be able to keep up. This is especially true since a quick trip to Wikipedia or a Google query can help you brush up on the toughest stuff, although I found most of my complimentary online research was driven by voracious curiosity.
At one point I wanted to remind myself of the details of the surprising Larsen B Ice Shelf collapse in 2002 (which had been stable for maybe 12000 years). That then led me to examine the current status of the Ross Ice Shelf, and then the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, at which point I found myself looking up the differences between “ice shelfs” and “ice sheets”, for example, and then back to the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, and then finally to the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Personally, I think the relatively near-term climate effects of agriculture will be so devastating that it might cause an economic collapse leading to the collapse of our global civilization. If it doesn’t, then maybe this reminder of what the longer-term threat will be (p. 138):
Yeah, the amount of carbon dioxide and methane we’re pumping into our atmosphere could easily mean that eventually the sea levels will be fifty meters higher. It’ll [probably] take a long, long time for all that ice to melt; hundreds of years, or maybe over a thousand. Still: this is what we’re doing to our home.
Curiously, while our addition of large amounts of carbon will be catastrophic for many species on our planet, and seriously detrimental to future humans’ ability to thrive on a biologically impoverished planet, it might stave off the return of an ice age, which normally would start closing in after another few tens of thousands of years. Given that our planet happily functions in both ice ages and ice-free ages, that probably doesn’t matter except to us.
If you understood this stuff the to the same depth as the scientists, you wouldn’t need to read books like this. The point is to read enough that you are comfortable with how the science works, that there aren’t glaring omissions, and build your faith that the scientific enterprise actually does provide reliable guidance for us when we try to solve difficult policy questions. It’s also just a drop-dead fascinating lesson....more
At some point I heard that Cory Doctorow's short story, The Man Who Sold the Moon had won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, a pretty significant pAt some point I heard that Cory Doctorow's short story, The Man Who Sold the Moon had won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, a pretty significant prize. What I don't remember is why I thought that meant it was worth tracking down (I don't make a point of hunting down most award-winning fiction), but I'm glad I did.
Of the four stories which I actually read within this fat tome, it was the one that made it worthwhile.
Now, I wanna say: the reason I'm abandoning this book is simply lack of time. Many of the other short stories might be quite worthwhile, so I don't want to dissuade anyone else from reading the collection.
But just in case you only want to read Doctorow's story, he's a bit peculiar in that he makes it available for free on his website, boingboing. Read it here; it's very good. Curiously, that's also the name of a book by old-school scifi author Robert Heinlein in which he expounds on his libertarian politics (it isn't particularly good story). Any connection other than the name escapes me, although I probably read Heinlein's story only once, three decades or more ago.
The rest of this is what I started when I expected to read the whole book. It's mildly critical of the preface and first story, both by Neal Stephenson, questioning whether the whole book was going to be like his pieces. Good news: apparently not.
This is a collection of “stories and visions for a better future”, so as I make my way through it, I expect to be updating this.
But to begin:
The preface and the first story are written by Neal Stephenson, a white American male just a few months younger than I am. Reading both of those pieces left me somewhat disappointed with him, frankly.
First, the preface, titled “Innovation Starvation”. Stephenson relates how he feels let down that the United States no longer appears to be the creative engine of thrilling new technologies that he fondly recalls from his youth. The now cliched narrative arc from NASA’s Gemini missions and moon landing to the retirement of the Space Shuttle is emblematic. What galvanized him into engaging with this was the oil spill of the Deepwater Horizon in 2010 — the people of the United States had been told almost forty years before, in the first oil crisis, that petroleum was politically problematic, yet we’d done very little about it (other than to fight wars and subsidized nations in the middle east).
The goal of the book is to provide conceptual templates to future innovators, the same way the writers of the Golden Age of science fiction had mesmerized and energized the generation of scientists and engineers behind NASA.
The story he writes, Atmosphæ Incognita, is about the engineering of a twenty-kilometer tall building. It is a good story, similar to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 in its focus on the technology. It felt like something written in the 1950s, though (well before the actual mission of Apollo 13 in 1970). The first-person narrator is a lesbian, true, but that doesn’t really seem to matter. In one way, that’s great. Letting people just be themselves is quite post-modern. But that also means that the only element that hinted at being interesting was set aside, and so the entire story ends up being rather bland. Yeah, the technology is interesting, and the failure of some of the technology lends some interest, but no enticing drama.
Which brings me to why I’m mildly disappointed in Stephenson. I thought he would be clever enough to understand that technology isn’t going to save the United States, and that we can’t invent our way out of our malaise. Well, yeah, sure: some fascinating new toys might distract us from the adult problems we’re confronting, and might even boost the economy enough to mitigate some of them, but that isn’t much.
The problems we’re facing are cultural and sociological, and don’t have simple solutions — we really don’t know whether they have solution at all (if you think you know of a solution, then you just need to take a step backwards and recognize that you didn’t see that it is entangled within an even larger problem).
I’ll have to see whether the other stories largely rest on similar false illusions....more
This is a fun homage to Shakespeare. The fool from Lear is the titular hero of the story, which is based loosely on Lear, with MacBeth's witches throwThis is a fun homage to Shakespeare. The fool from Lear is the titular hero of the story, which is based loosely on Lear, with MacBeth's witches thrown in to provide a different narrative thrust and a few elements of deus ex machina.
Warning: plenty profane. I suspect that if Shakespeare were writing today, he'd be totally on board, though (although he'd probably be working in the medium of cable TV).
It can't get five stars, because there's no iambic pentameter, and it doesn't get four stars, because the author makes things a little too convenient for himself at times — but, as I said, it's fun; don't expect anything profound....more
It was a kick. Predictably reminiscent of early Tom Clancy, before he corrupted his technowar thrillers with his naive variation of libertarian politics.
I especially enjoyed how the North Shore Mujahadeen subverted the traditional role the U.S. plays in a conflict, and the exploration of the morality of Dirty Hands in guerilla strategy.
There was a little too much U.S.A.-rah-rah, however, with quite a bit of obvious cultural stereotypes.
Oh, and few spoilers: (view spoiler)[A key vulnerability that cripples the U.S. at the beginning is that the microchips sourced from low-bidders came from China, who had compromised the designs. The key phrase was “Each antenna was microscopic, hidden inside a one-millimeter square and activated only by a specific frequency of an incoming missile.”
I'm not an expert, but I do know technology relatively well.
First, circuits looks like cityscapes from a few thousand feet up, and a one-millimeter square would be about as obvious as a football stadium surrounded by parking lots. Security agencies have been studying aerial photographs since forever (you might recall that U-2 aerial photography revealed the distinctive pattern of Soviet missile installations).
I know that there are companies that specialize in back-engineering chips (a college friend worked at one) that shave off the plastic around the silicon chip until they can get images of the circuitry. It seems pretty damn obvious that the U.S. military would use these two very reliable abilities to inspect a representative sample of the chips going into weapon systems.
Second, even if the antennas got into the chip, a one-millimeter antenna is going to be pretty wimpy. A bluetooth antenna is 6mm across its largest dimension. Something that small will only respond to incredibly high frequencies (I think), which are easy to shield. Sure, an incoming missile could be dumping huge amounts of energy into broadcasting a signal, I guess — but it still seems really fishy.
Third, even if the antennas got into the chip, asserting that the associated firmware could also get onto the chip is implausible. Microprocessors typically don't have software on-chip; they get it from RAM and ROM elsewhere in the system. There would have to be dedicated circuitry listening to that antenna, doing signal processing, detecting when a valid signal had been received, and then subverting the rest of the system's behavior — all without ever doing real field-testing. It might not seem like much, but I'm pretty sure the idea is laughable.
Similarly, there's a Security-Badge RFID hack that disrupts the U.S. military offices at the beginning. RFIDs chips are absurdly simple: they use an antenna to receive power, which provides enough energy to do some fairly minimal processing, and then broadcasts a signal at a much, much lower power level.
But here, the RFID chips are sophisticated enough to be doing wardriving, looking for weak wifi signals once inside the building, and then sustaining a connection long enough to upload pretty sophisticated hostile software. Uh, no: the kinds of electronics detection equipment used would never be fooled that something that complex is a security badge, no matter how much it tries to look like one. And since it's going to need a moderately power battery onboard (the power received by an upstream RFID query isn't going to be anywhere near enough) it's going to be very, very obvious. (hide spoiler)]
All in all, a great technowar thriller. If you like that kinda stuff, read it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more