Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Review of A People's History of American Empire by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, and Paul Buhle

A People's History of American Empire is a graphic adaptation of parts of Howard Zinn's more canonical A People's History of the United States, itself a controversial book, dubbed as anywhwere between demonically revisionist or brutally accurate depending on your prejudices . American Empire isn't the version I'd rather be reading, but I picked it up after reading a favorable comment on another blog, and typically, anything that's bookmarked on my Amazon shopping cart is only a six-pack away from ending up on my credit card. Zinn takes an overt anti-imperial tone here to which I'm sympathetic, and I was worried about the temptation to read it uncritically, especially a graphic version that's necessarily light on context. As it is, I've been squandering many of my thoughts on the official patriotic lies lately, and my next couple of book reviews , as well as an upcoming post or two, are doomed to the topic. Hopefully I won't alienate the last of my readers as I sit on my pasty ass and get all radicalized.

I guess I can start with the medium. The book is a graphic novel (or rather, in the style of one), adapted from sections of A People's History of the United States and Zinn's own autobiography. The historian gets top billing, but the actual text and art are by Mike Konopacki, who has been doing cartoons for labor publications for years. (Paul Buhle lists himself as the editor.) A couple of Konopacki's collages were affecting (one was gut-wrenching), and historical photographs were integrated cleverly into the pen and ink stuff--I particularly liked the segues between photographs and cartoon version of the historical actors, really made you appreciate the guy's eye--but that said, Konopacki clearly takes his inspiration more from cartooning than he does from comic art, and doesn't always make the best compromises to get the book into narrative form. There's something about his dynamics of moving from panel to panel that's a little bit too sprightly, using too many of them maybe, that makes the thinned content feel even thinner. His somewhat bulbous human forms feel more at home in various newspaper sections than in a graphic novel, and his facial renderings get that vibe too, where the victims of empire are in a constant state of honest sadness or righteous anger, and the perpetrators range in expression from self-righteous contempt to paunch-patting superiority, lacking only mustaches to twirl. Konopacki was much more effective when he deviated from the linear strip form, and turned his pen to more realistic representations and cleverer page spreads. I wish he did so more.

A People's History of American Empire takes us through a short tour of the imperial project, raising a stark and necessary reminder that the U.S. has been hungry for conquest nearly from the get-go. Zinn begins with the final stages of the subjugation of the Sioux (letting a sad-eyed Black Elk speak), the last nail in the artifice of our internal dominion. He gives slavery and our Mexican campaign a quick and ignoble mention, and proceeds to the disgusting lowpoints of the adventures in the Phillipines and in Cuba, of the labor movement, and of the first world war, painting a picture of a collaboration between industry and the government that generates or protects profits at the expense of lives. With the opportunity to intervene in Cuba's revolution against Spain for the right reasons, we declined, but as the sugar industry felt threatened, we are told, it gained critical importance. I find many of Zinn's interpretations difficult to refute, but on the other hand, I am doubtful that helping those serious Cuban peasants for their own good would have been any better, or any different, than doing it for protecting industry. His economic version of empire is an interesting and almost refreshing viewpoint in some cases though, especially when more recent history is concerned. For example, did the U.S. violently hasten Japan's surrender in 1945 so that they'd surrender to us instead of the Soviets? So that we'd guarantee an economic advantage? The privatization of military services is a fact that's become blatant over the last couple of conflicts, and it's depressing enough to imagine a hand in Middle Eastern resources as a motivator for war, doing it to gain exclusive contracts to slop swill and wash uniforms is even more depressing.

Given this sort of thesis, it makes sense for the authors to include the labor movement in the story of American conquest. Zinn's autobiographical sections are a little more sketchy in their level of relevance, but experiences in the war, and experience with the quantification of the alleged virtue of "hard work" manage to weave in what depth there is in the book. (Fair enough. I'm warped by the life stories around me too.) I felt he went too far to describe youth rebellion as a real movement against the subjugation of peoples (it never seems to stick as they grow up), and while I can dig the disrespect for authority, his lionization of zoot suit rioters is as filthy with nostalgia as anything the boomers produced twenty years later. To put it another way, I saw Kevin Bacon kicking his heels a dozen times in my day, and while I accept the final injunction to live well, I'm still not convinced by the power of the dance. Maybe you need to have a draft hanging over your head to really appreciate it.

If you look back on British colonial history, say, it's not hard to pick apart the root drivers: it was a money maker, at first kept breathing under government approval, and then government protection, and then finally absorption of business interests by the state. Missionary zeal for the betterment of backwards peoples may have been red meat to the masses by design or by apology, and relief of demographic pressures for the homeland (too many people with not enough to do) had its importance at different points in history too. I've read similar economic models advanced (by astute amateurs) for the Roman empire, and certainly I'd map similar mechanisms of conquest for the other European colonial powers. When the naked lust for dominion is thrown around, it's generally reserved for the evaluation of ancient empires, or those pursued by our mortal enemies, but it's not as if Americans are made of different genetic stuff. Probably it's well that I'm reading a cartoon book to support my own casual view of history, but enhancement of money and power are usually safe bets for motive, and they give Occam a closer shave than the litany of "existential threats," that in the case of our own empire anyway, have proven either vastly overblown or, perhaps, orthogonal to the underlying point. And here's why we need a guy like Howard Zinn: America, as a world power, is as hungry and as ugly as any other, and someone has to give it scholarly weight. I may balk at the insinuation that it's uniquely horrible, but what the hell, it doesn't need to be.

LATE UPDATE: From the posting on BTC News, Phil Ball replies:
You say "...but the actual text and art are by Mike Konopacki..."

This is not true.

This book was written by David Wagner. It was brought to life by Paul Buhle and inspired by Howard Zinn, and illustrated by Mike Konopacki.

But the writing, scripting, much of the original research and the organizational structure are the product of Wagner’s amazingly productive mind.

That he is not credited with writing the book when in fact he wrote the book is the result of childish squabbling and tantrums on the part of Konopacki; ‘credit me, and not Wagner, with writing the book or I won’t finish my drawings.’

And he won, simple as that.

But he did not write the book, and it should be a source of embarrassment and shame to all involved with this work that not only is credit not given where credit is due, it is purposefully given where it is not due.

I know.
I was there.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review of Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Player Piano rounds out a pair of reviews of books (along with The Space Merchants) that plot out American dystopias from the viewpoint of 1952. They are critiques of the American capitalist myth from square in its heyday, using the time-honored role of science fiction to pick apart the flaws of the present day. In Vonnegut's near future, automation has removed the need for human labor in manufacturing, leaving people at large with nothing much to do, nothing much to be proud of. Vonnegut has claimed that he got the idea from watching, on his return from the war, an automated milling machine at work and extrapolating some logical conclusions. The operator's added value had vanished, he realized, leaving only the management and design as the only useful human elements in the production chain. In a plot outline he says he cribbed from Brave New World, Vonnegut pulls the reader from the upper-eschelon management class to the world of the moron and the savage, where a revolution may be brewing. It's a fun ride, not short on the biting truths and heartbreaking wit you expect from Vonnegut.

And arguably, this is how manufacturing went down in the half century that followed Player Piano. The American shift from an industrial economy rides on the fact that the manufacturing staff could be automated out of existence, leaving behind underemployed engineers and a management in love with its own culture. A competitive skill set that developed overseas also rocked the boat, but the development of better tools has, by and large, obviated the need for bodies for rote machine tasks, and devalued the skilled hands that used to command better pay and more prestige. Vonnegut imagined lengthy and pointless higher education to absorb the non-demand for workers, and a segregated society of haves and have-nots based on incompletely-measured intellectual ability, or on nepotism that's pretending to be merit. Competing with slaves, a character proclaims, makes workers slaves too. He meant machines, and perhaps that's half right.

A lot of the black humor comes out at the expense of managers and engineers. (As an engineer, I'll greedily accept half of this bias, and cautiously consider the other half.) The most amusing part of the story takes the protagonist, one Paul Proteus, upstate to a management retreat, where he's stuffed with corporate platitudes, as vacuous 50 years ago as today, at a summercamp full of grown men, complete with sports, singalongs, and fake Indian legends. (And yeah, that's "grown men." Vonnegut picks up on his country's culture of managerial sexism, which in America may have actually moved past the 1950s vision, but the satire of the unruly boys club is still uncomfortably resonant. Even if they took down the sign, there's still the same treehouse.) Even with all the high-status knowledge workers, the economy still runs itself, and even the gifted just move along with it.

It's not a polemic against progress, more a statement about the inevitability of it. The faux naturalasm of the managers' retreat is perhaps telling, and Vonnegut similarly flirts with a throwback lifestyle--Proteus is charmed with the idea of farm life, of working with his hands--and rejects it. It's not lost on the reader that "we might need the bakery," and the flush toilets (and the medicine, education, wine, public order, roads, and the fresh water system). The Indian theme gets pulled out at the end again, as the revolting holdouts against automation at last get the stage. The rebellion is as doomed, unavoidable, and as pointlessly noble as anything the Native Americans did to turn the tide against the Europeans, and history, it keeps rolling. The knowledge economy is on the brink of the cliff too. So it goes.

Vonnegut's automation is of a quaint, clockwork kind, driven by tape reels and punch cards and vacuum tubes, displayed by blinking lights, a real old-fashioned future, but it's wrong to over-emphasize technical accuracy in a novel like this. The big picture is really the point, and anyway, the details are kind of charming. Unseen data handling is used to predict citizen preference, and to plot a life of moderately satisfying consumption, even as the rage of the unfulfilled boils just under the surface. I wondered about all of this dissatisfaction, and I think it's a spot where Vonnegut fell short in a more substantive way. The proles seemed to be kept in line by some sort of institutional depression, with minor make-work duties, and some dreary social functions (endless parades, sports) as moribund in their way as a summer camp for grownups. I think there needed to be a better mechanism to make them feel indebted to the system, or maybe the psychology needed to be less subtle. With that many people unhappy and, more importantly, bored, the shit would surely have hit the fan years before. There's no equivalent service economy to take a passionate hold, and the street economy is unenthused.

[I spent a few real-life years in "Ilium," NY (and many more years in places like it), during its decidedly post-industrial period. If Vonnegut failed to represent the decay of the non-University sectors, maybe I'm a little more sensitive to it than normal. His city is fictional, and the geography of the region isn't quite right either, but I had a good time mapping real Troy onto pretend Ilium just the same. It helps that I never had a good map in the first place (no car for most of the time), and it amused me to put his landmarks in the circle around the university, ranging from the bar districts near the bridge, to some of the outer residences up on the hill. Good times.]

Reading Kurt Vonnegut is a different experience from remembering him. I always take home the pith, the non-sequiturs, the bitter observations, the concision. Opening a new one, I am surprised to catch him transparently writing, going through the usual efforts of developing character and plot just like any other author, with mere competence. Player Piano is his first full novel, but I think I just tend to forget his humanism is developed by conventional means too. I don't even think this novel was the best social critique of its day, but the tough fatalism and the piercing, honest wit are what make Vonnegut noteworthy, what gives his novels a timelessness that transcends classification.

Major Key Chord Progressions and Fingerings for Mandolin

This isn't a normal blog post, but a placeholder to "publish" something that might be useful for other people learning to play the mandolin.

[Update: This post seems to get a lot of search hits: I'll add that I find the "chord families" probably the most useful, and am much too lazy to practice lengthy chord progressions I'll rarely use, although I still do sometimes. Also note that there are a couple errors in the charts--took forever to get all the dots aligned. Finally, if you're a relative beginner looking for someone to pick around with in the MA area, feel free to follow the email link.]

I have put together some tables for chord progressions, chord families, and suggested fingerings for the instrument. The tables were inspired by some of the drills suggested in Music Theory for Modern Mandolin by Thomas P. Ohmsen, and put together in a format that I find particularly useful.

The first table just lists some common chord progressions in each of the twelve major keys, written in a manner convenient for practicing. I didn't include all the variations of course. (The bottom part (II-V-I) of a circle of fifths progression can be expanded by including columns to the left, one at a time.) I listed them as triads only because it was easier to write, and I actually try to practice both the triad and 7th degree voicings.

For the second table, I borrowed the idea of using chord families from Niles Hokkanen in his handy short book, Pocket Guide to Mandolin Chords (it fits in your case!), and I have used the concept to assemble a somewhat complete table, using labels I'm comfortable with. In the fingering diagrams, the root note is bolded, and the positions are consistent within the column. The actual chords can be moved up and down the neck easily, keeping track of the root notes for each family.

The third table shows the best fingerings I've worked out so far for the major-key chord progressions, all at roughly the same distance along the neck, and in some cases, they're the ones that flow really naturally into one another. Positions are consistent relative to one another across the rows. Some alternate shapes are also suggested (but I only wrote one set of fingerings for each progression).

I am a regrettably slow learner with this stuff, and sometimes find that one voicing over another will sound better in context, especially when playing by myself (which I normally do). Sort of thing that will come out with practice I imagine, and these exercises are meant to build up that foundation. Have fun with them, hypothetical readers, and if it was helpful, feel free to drop a comment or to cite it. (If you hate it, hey, it was free.)

(Click tables for a closeup.)

  • the II chord for "7th 1" should be moved down a fret.
  • I drew the "G chop" (of all things) without a fret between positions on the E and the A string.
  • On the chord families, the "Gm" is wrong--the lowest fret should be moved down one (pinky touching the "G," duh.)
Table 1. Common Major-Key Chord Progressions

Table 2. Chord Families

Table 3. Suggested Mando Fingerings for Major-Key Chord Progressions

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Several More Thoughts: On The Road Ed.

[EDIT AND UPDATE: I have been shown a copy of the paper, and Larrick and Soll, referenced below, have conducted a serious study evaluating people's perceptions in making economic choices, rather more than the glib suggestions I made in an earlier draft of this post. As well, they received no external funding for the research.]

Among my many sins, I live my life as a dirty hypocrite of an exurban commuter. I get up earlier than I have to in order to turn eight hours into nine and a half by way of the Subaru, all so I can sink my extra cash into landscaping. (If I lived in the urban center, I'd probably have sunk it into questionable private schools instead, or maybe not) The ironic part is that I actually work in another suburb, and this distant shithole is still as close as I can afford to live, if I want to shack up my kids decently. I'm stuck with this fool's bargain for at least another couple years (at which point my suburban home will in all likelihood become unsellable). Thank god I got that PhD.

With an extra workday vaporized on the highway every week, at least I have some time to think (although not too deeply or I'll end up in a ditch). Unsurprisingly, a lot of that shallow reverie goes to politics and music. The rest goes to thinking, again unsurprisingly, about the reviled act of driving. I didn't quite have five.

1. Gonna write me up...
Everybody has seen this stupid graph by now, that shows automobile gas mileage as a function of speed, and topping out at a miserly 60 mph or so, it conveniently highlights the "don't speed" mantra of the obnoxious do-gooders of the world. I'm happy with the economic responsibility, but find the paternalistic safety business to be antithetical, and it's in my interest to disown this graph. What kind of vehicle are we talking about here? What engine? What conditions (on a treadmill)? In short, why the hell don't they design cars so that the fuel economy peaks at speeds people actually want to drive. And for that matter, even if Yuppie McDouchebag in his Magnum ought to be driving that souped-up hearse (I mean really, look at the ugly bastard) at 60, I, in my conscientious little econo-rocket, want to be exempted.

To make a car go, you need to overcome the forces arrayed against it, which in the case of the automobile include the rolling resistance, the air resistance, and the inefficiencies of the engine. The first two items both increase with velocity, and since I know dick-all about rolling resistance, and suspect there's little to be done about it, I want to concentrate on the airflow, which is significant. The drag force increases with the square of velocity (twice as fast means four times as much force to overcome), and the amount of power required to compensate it varies with v3 (and it needs eight times as much juice to do it). Now, you can engineer the proportionality constant, such that you're only squaring and cubing smallish numbers at highway speeds (and more on that in a minute), and this keeps many aeronautical engineers gainfully employed even today, but still, this dependence, the shape of the curve, is the unavoidable obstacle to automotive physics, at least for vehicles of the accustomed shape.

To help consider what it would take to make a car cruise at 70 mph and still be near its peak mileage efficiency, I constructed a handy, and necessarily qualitative, plot. The black line is the source of my complaint, the data from the previous figure inverted, because I want my scale to be energy (or as I'm now reading it, power integrated over some standard trip, which ends up equivalent to gallons per mile) instead of mpg. The total energy required to move the car will be what's needed to power the wheels, as well as to overcome the air resistance (shown by the red curve, and labeled as described above; it is proportional to the cube of the velocity; adding the rolling resistance will steepen this curve). In the limit of a perfectly efficient motor, these resistances are the only thing I'll need to compensate for, and my operating curve would be the same as the red line. The black curve becomes inefficient at low speeds because of the designs used in real-world vehicles. Engineers have no doubt played millions of games with gearing and combustion design and so forth to get a pretty decent gpm over a pretty wide stretch, but if I want that to extend out to span 70 mph, I still need to add more power overall (all of us know this from occasionally driving better cars, or pushing our own). Considering that my goal here is to use less fuel, finding a hotter 70 is kind of pointless. You still have to overcome that extra drag as you speed up, which takes more energy.

Experiments with my Subaru have verified all this, by the way, and to my regret. I suppose that the first step to meet growing global fuel prices will be the return of the shitbox compact, cars that feel like you're flying even when you're only going 50.

2. When a blunt object meets an irresistible force.
You may have noticed my careful qualifier "of this shape." That proportionality constant on the drag, at least the part of it we can change, is called the drag area (CdA), the product of the dimensionless drag coefficient and the area of the vehicles front-facing outline.

The graph at the right is a plot of the drag coefficient vs. Reynolds number (basically a dimensionless velocity). For auto travel, the Reynolds number is about 5x106 (the extreme right of the plot). At this point, the drag coefficient is pretty constant, and remains so even as you keep speeding up. (Again, this is just the proportionality constant, the force still increases as you speed up, always.) This corresponds to the presence of a turbulent boundary layer, the air is moving randomly near the surface of the vehicle and doing a good job of shifting momentum around. At low speeds (low Reynolds numbers), the drag coefficient increases. Here, the boundary layer is laminar (flows smoothly over the surface), and skin friction matters a lot more. Interestingly, there is a minimum in the drag coefficient, for most shapes, at Reynolds numbers of about 3x105, which corresponds to a normal car moving at about 6 mph. This minimum varies with shape a little though, and you can also make an object appear faster (in this dimensionless sort of analysis) by making it smaller. It's hard to imagine tweaking the "effective" speed by a factor of ten, but if you could design for that sweet spot...that would be pretty cool. (Studying transitional flow is hard, by the way.)

I had a professor once that argued in office hours that if a typical racehorse could go just a little bit faster, it'd break through that transitional flow wall, and dominate the track. (He hated me, he hated all of us.)

3. Always with the tradeoff.
Hey, did you like the way I inverted mpg up there to get a more useful measure of my car's performance? When you're counting your pennies, it's more useful to consider how much it costs getting from one place to another, the measure of which is gallons (proportional to dollars) per mile, and not the usual mpg. It's something to consider when comparing mileage improvements too. Economically, an increase in gas mileage from 10 to 20 mpg (0.1 down to 0.05 gpm, a savings of 0.05 gpm) is a lot more significant than an improvement from 40 to 50 mpg (0.025 to 0.02, a savings of 0.005 gpm), which, I guess, is good to know. It sounds like the sort of interesting but not earth-shattering observation that's good fodder for newspaper or magazine columns, but two authors have have taken it a little further. (Since you probably don't have a subscription to Science either, where their article appears, you can read here how Larrick and Soll tackle "the mpg illusion.") These two just got published in a premiere journal for what looks like a unit conversion, but it's more a psychological study and a policy question about how people underestimate the cost of car ownership. The price of a car for a few more high-end mpgs is a cost loser over the vehicle's lifetime, and a better consumer choice, and better policy choice, is to improve mileage of lower-performing vehicles. For American policy, I'll add, it suggests we'd be better off mandating minimum mileage standards rather than average ones.

4. I don't want a pickle, I just want...a ZAP!
Back to aerodynamics, it should be noted that the more obvious way to decrease the drag area is (duh) to decrease the area. This is one reason motorcycles get far better mileage than cars (decreasing weight helps a lot too). Bikes mean you don't have to stop for traffic jams, either.

But if you're a maniac like me, the combination of two wheels and 60 miles per hour is a death sentence, and even normal people prefer not to trek around on one of these guys in the winter, when it's raining, etc. One obvious solution to a less painful commute is to drive vehicles which trade off the lightness, speed, and economy of a motorcycle with the relative safety of an automobile. Lightweight one-person vehicles could take us pretty far in dealing with an oil crunch, and let poor bastards like me keep on with their miserable suburban existences. I'm thinking a motorcycle with a roof and a radio here--and a rollbar. We've done the Escort already, and the need to pretend the thing was a real car remains unclear. I say fuck the hatchback, the back seat no one could occupy anyway, the spare, the passenger side, and two of the four soda-straw cylinders, and get me from here to there at cost.

As of yesterday, all idle googling revealed to me on this front was Toyota's glorified Segway--an obvious death trap under the conditions I'd really need a car for (that is, too far to bike), and some similarly misguided efforts that looked like terrestrial jet-skis. But it turns out that I can no longer call myself prescient and wise: these are scheduled for next year, one-seaters, and they look absolutely badass.

Damn. I want one too.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Merchants to the Left of Me...

Kurt Vonnegut, whose work isn't called science fiction only by whims of marketing, hasn't always had nice things to say about the genre, likening it to a forgotten file drawer or a private lodge in one interview, and in another , takes a perhaps more charitable route, acknowledging that he came to the genre by writing the stories he wanted to write, and not from imitating the pulps. I get where he's coming from but still it looks a little like a bigoted argument, allowing examples that he personally likes to be excepted from the stereotyped canon. But since it's Kurt Vonnegut, I'm willing to cut him some slack. For one thing, I had no experience with sci-fi (pronounced "skiffy," as a distinction) magazines as a kid either, and from what I've read, a lot of at has been forgotten for a reason. (But that was true of all the pulps). For another thing, I agree that you can still spot the cult of the space-hero in some fans and writers, and a lot of serious aficionados positively get an inferiority complex regarding the sf marketing ghetto that has limited some excellent literature to a narrow, badly regarded market. (I hope Kurt Vonnegut is thankful to his publishers.)

I love science fiction, and I prefer a broad definition of it. One of the things about sf, compared to other written genres, is that working your way around real-world constraints is expected, and any events or settings can be reimagined to suit the story, or to suit the point, and the best work in the genre uses speculative situations to pick apart the human animal, to conduct experiments in plot and character under a wider range of conditions than the actual world is known to offer. I don't want to understate the element of pure curiosity that science fiction is also built on, or the enduring lure of the adventure story, but I can still shoehorn those things into my viewpoint of a literary laboratory, the usual hypothesis being, "it would be interesting to live in a world where…" Of course, this sort of freedom seems like it could invite tendentiousness, and sometimes it does. It's easier to "prove" your crackpot philosophy when you can control how the world works, but even there, it can be undertaken more or less honestly, more or less well.

I can also forgive Vonnegut when I read stuff like this 'Political History of SF'*, which asserted that the heart and soul of the genre occupies some libertarian/authoritarian axis, and has in either case a right-wing spirit, a sort of violent American optimism, expecting change yes, but presuming that sticking to the current path is going to end up great. The pulp sensibility is pretty forthright. To get a feel of just why that's obnoxious, it's worthwhile to consider the history of sf, which goes back almost as far as you want it to. When you're speculating, it takes some contemporary points of reference to create a society, and consciously or not, the choice of what aspects to accept and reject, and at what consequence, is a social critique. It's hard to write well if you don't understand what people are like (or are not like) now. Looking back, Mary Shelly and H. G. Wells were working in this style. They were intentionally using technology to demonstrate their philosophical and political points. You could (and I would) go back even further to include the old Utopias (by Swift, Rabelais, More, etc.), and let's not forget, for that matter, the innumerable divine parables that waned and waxed with civilizations and tribes for as long as people have been speaking. You may not want to call those fiction, but the innumerable stories of magic beings were crafted to keep the political order. It's a similar animal: what happens at a higher level that helps us understand who we are today?

In early twentieth-century America, the pulp markets spent a few decades filling the cheap imagination of an increasingly disconnected and industrialized society, and the copy of those days was more interested in the clever, swashbuckling heirs of John Carter and Phileas Fogg than on the aftermath of Hank Morgan's or Henry Jekyll's bitter realizations. If the sf pulps had a political philosophy, it was the sort of stuff that got teenage boys going: can-do pluck, manly resolve, and American cleverness, the exact synthesis of the detective and western crap that was also being published at that time. When John W. Campbell took over Astounding in 1937, he began a campaign to expand both literary and scientific quality, but he didn't leave the adventurer mindset behind. He had a huge influence in his day, and yes, he grabbed up Robert Heinlein, who did, by all means, often write a higher grade of rugged individualism. But the general problem with the libertarian philosophy when it's expressed in the genre is that it overstates the individual's capability, and often overstates his influence over society. The usual problem with the military, or, God forbid, the feudal fantasies in space or time, was that the social utility of command hierarchies was seriously overvalued.

As the 'Political History' article describes, one of the earlier stands against the dictatorial Campbell style, was by a group of fans and writers called the Futurians, which included writers such as Isaac Asimov, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Judith Merril and Frederik Pohl. Mostly they were left-wing, and a few of them (including Pohl and Merril) were declared Communists. (I don't think any of the joiners held the faith through Stalin. Pohl was allegedly excommunicated from the Young Communist League because he failed the ideological purity test--they disapproved of his escapist writing.) Their mission as a literary society was to bring the social experimentation of sf to a higher level of seriousness. Pohl was successful. He was probably Galaxy magazine's most famous editor, and the publication styled itself as a more thoughtful and socially aware brand. The gadgetry and the spirit took second place, or tried to. Vonnegut had at least two stories published in Galaxy. Other writers did fine too.

I picked up The Space Merchants, written by Pohl and Kornbluth, a few weeks ago, following up on my suspicion that the American skill of consuming ourselves to death was spotted much earlier than is normally credited. I stand by it. Mom and Dad are bullshitting you when they tell you that in their day, everybody was debt-conscious and responsible. They spent it all on gewgaws and mortgages too. They were the first generation that could.

The Space Merchants is a monumental piss-take on American consumer culture, and the authors get some major props for writing it in 1952. Half of what was meant as outrageous satire in that year looks like documentary today, and what remains still looks like an all-too probable future. The plot follows the fall and the redemption of advertising executive Mitch Courtenay, who trips through a future culture of overwhelming pollution, depleted resources, and overpopulation. Pohl and Kornbluth get beaucoups bonus points for all the stuff they got right, including addictive products (and obsfuscatory marketing), the "philosophical problem" of political representation by voting per person vs. per dollar, marketing to neuroses (and creating them), outsourcing actual production to India and leaving the American export product as superior marketing (and the bottomless consumption), government services made inefficient through privatization, smearing political opponents as hippies and conservationists, horrifying synthetic food, paid insurance that doesn't insure, a government run by lobbyists, and, of course, reverence for the power of the CEO. In one of the funnier bits, Courtenay is thrust into a revolting job in food production--the life of a typical consumer--and his servitude is ensured as he trades off debt for a slightly less indecent life, and to satisfy his corporate-ensured cravings. There's also an element of contention between Mitch and his wife, who are both serious professionals (a physician and an advertiser), as they balance their lives as domestic partners and as successful individuals, which is probably it's least controversial prophesy (really, would this have happened to my grandparents?). The Space Merchants does what satire does best: it spots the bullshit with laser accuracy, and makes fun of it. It's a great book.

It's a horrible title, though ("Merchant of Venus," at least?). It comes out of Courtenay's big sell--a hard sell to consumers to convince them to relieve overpopulation by colonizing an unlivable hell-hole one planet closer to the sun--the obvious science fictional element. The style doesn't come off adventure-tale, but it's still a booze-and-cigarettes vintage of prose that I associate with short stories from those days. The plot zips along pretty well, a couple nights of enjoyable bedtime reading, and while I don't like to put too undue merit on self-described serious literature, if Pohl's and Kornbluth's prose were a little more timeless (and if not for the vagaries of marketing), The Space Merchants would be put up on the shelves and discussed by students along with Orwell and Huxley. Maybe it will be yet.

Brave New World (1932) was written in the worst of science fiction's pulp phase, and though it's been presented otherwise, it's sf by any reasonable definition. When science fiction is doing a good job at social experimentation, it chips away at the assumptions underlying the public truths, and if it's manipulating them, it does so consciously. Mainstream stuff evolved out of the right wing models soon enough (and Vonnegut was right--it was just a function of time). As for that 'Political History' dude, it takes some balls to rank Greg Bear and David Brin (two authors I could never get into--loved Greg Benford's Cosm though) as more "pure" than Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. LeGuin. (And for that matter, The Space Merchants is about as Marxist as Animal Farm is capitalist--don't confuse a critique with a prescription.) Much like in the nineteenth century, there's a lot today that could be labeled science fiction, and doesn't end up on the shelves. Claiming the mantle of the right wing is absurd. In my paltry library, I have Ken MacLeod making a case for Socialism by taking production--and capital--out of the equation entirely. Ursula LeGuin has sucked gender conflict out of a society, and examined the results under a sensitive microscope, and Stanislaw Lem has imagined an advanced space age under a moribund eastern European bureaucracy, a dated sort of realism. It turns out I've read most of the dreaded selections on the Socialist sf list and often preferred them. SF as a social critique hasn't gone away. Even as ole Kurt was bitching about it in the sixties and seventies, science fiction was breaking out in depth and style (and if it was still busy congratulating itself, well then). These days you can throw a dart at the bookshelves, and find brilliant stuff of any political orientation. Thank God.

*That link via this place. Read my retarded comment.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

How I spent my vacation (and my rebate)

Much as I like to eat well, I don't like to consider myself a foodie. Part of that is just budget: getting that powerful culinary mojo is unattainable under my family's surprisingly modest circumstances (we continue to piss it away on college, after all these years), and the last damn thing I need is to develop a taste for truffles. As it is, the edjumucational wine extravaganzas we've taken on every year or so have left me, in their aftermath, skulking broken-hearted through the aisles of the local booze emporium, leaving face-prints on the glass cabinets that secure the French and Tuscan table vintages, sifting disconsolately through the mass-market exports and the unlimited bottles of oak-a-rrific California varietals. It's not that you can't get decent wine for under fifteen bucks a bottle--and just because it's common or local doesn't mean it sucks either--it's just that it's hard to find the bargains, and discovering exactly what you like takes a lot of sampling and research. Rewarding work perhaps, but doubly time consuming when you're on a budget, and even then, pricey enough.

Another reason that I'm a non-foodie foodie is that I think the foreign and the exotic can be over-emphasized amongst the movementarians. That is, some cuisine is popular precisely because we lowly hoi polloi can't get us none. Spending top American dollar to import European or Asian peasant ingredients, celebrated fresh in their own neighborhoods, strikes me as a particularly quixotic, and the obvious antidote, American local cuisine that doesn't suck, is a fucking embarrassment in most of the country. Top-notch fresh produce, or at least a tradition of it, is the purview of the wealthy, while the poor people choke down Twinkies and McNuggets. There are exceptions, mind you: peasant (and slave!) food has filtered up through the American south, and it's awesome. The natural foods movements of my parents' generation kept some awareness of actual produce growing among the dirty hippie types. But this nation of imports hasn't, by and large, been here long enough to establish a real culinary tradition of its own, and we have a habit of discarding the old ones, or putting them in a sweetened box. More importantly, we have heavily invested, subsidized, and mechanized food production in order to keep the crappier stuff cheap, and it's gotten to the point that trying to use your food better* takes cost and effort to learn, not at all unlike drinking wine well.

But there are places you can go, even in these benighted lands. In a rare confluence of events that included a restaurant shut-down, an anniversary, several summer vacations, a suggested destination, and a bribe from the federal government, my wife and I finally went out, after all these years. We took our mandatory loan and diverted it from its intended target--the heating oil company--and spent it on a vacation across the Sound. I've never been enamoured by Long Island. It's nice enough, but from the suburbs to the Hamptons, my experiences always saw too much money chasing not enough class. But if you live in the Northeast, you can do worse than to take your Champagne appetite to the North Fork. It's wine country over there, and farm country, and the locals have been working their brand long enough (the oldest vines were planted 30 years ago or so) that it's got some decent product. We spent two days driving up and down the strip, ducking into tasting rooms built by the two or three dozen local wineries, and eating fine meals that were almost worth the expense. As an aspring wine culture, the North Fork has its corresponding food movement going on, and the chefs all advertise ingredients grown just down the street. There are some big and impressive wine shops, but the best ones, more often than not, with the tastier wines, were smaller (my favorite). Random folks (not tourists) would filter in and out and have intelligent conversations about the product. Appropriately enough, there's a great cheese shop in the area too, another habit I should be careful about cultivating. Mostly the wineries grow your Bordeaux style grapes, but mixed together according to the Long Island tastes: a little heavier on the Cabernet Franc than elsewhere, and if the wines didn't taste quite French, I have a lot of posthumous (Keifus lives for a day) scribbles telling me they didn't really taste American either (caveat: I'd inevitably forget to take notes until four or five tasting sets in, after my palate went to total shit).

The economy of the North Fork is evidently supplying living wages, because, after all, people manage to live there, but it ain't cheap. Even knowing where to eat and shop, I can't imagine you're getting by if your family doesn't run the place (or commute, or considerately inhert it). We got into the occasional conversation with a local--the knowledgable kid at the cheese shop, the bus-girl, the wine pourer--and while obviously underpaid, they were usually into the whole culture. Some of them were taking the financial hit to follow their love, and I totally envy them for that. I can better understand how Alexander Payne caught the dynamics between the visitors and the residents in California wine country in Sideways. The tourists fantasize a better life of poverty in the name of good living. And from the viewpoint of the normals, a genuinely appreciative tourist is probably interesting. I saw a lot of annoying visiting retards (of course), and I flatter myself to think that my wife and I were better than the usual ugly Americans as we went through our comically awful cold-readings of flavor and aroma, but tried to take the experience for all it was. Call it the opposite of the story of the rest of my life.

Andrea Immer, in Great Wine Made Simple, includes an anecdote from Tuscany wherein customers brought their cherished ancient (at least as old as I am) Brunello Di Montalcinos** to be lovingly re-corked, such are they worth the wait. My wife's chef (and no, that doesn't help my resistance to foodie-ism one bit) recently returned from Italy on his honeymoon, glowingly describing the backyard garden culture. The restaurant salads were really local there, and everyone slavered over the perfect tomato, cheese, rabbit, whatever. Tiny pockets of the U.S. aspire to that, but regrettably the rest of the country has its head up its industrialized agricultural ass. One of the pourers we talked to, some 22-year-old kid, described how she spent a year in Italy, verifying chef Steve's picture of the idyllic, appreciative populace. For my own poverty years, I was living below alarmingly fecund rednecks, and nursing my professional ambitions with cheap-ass beer. I wouldn't say I've wasted my life, not at 22, but still.

Of course, Europe isn't that different from any wine country. Visiting Italy gets you to the ruins, to the tourist traps, but that experience is ultimately pretty lame. You don't learn a culture by just dropping by, and the appreciation (of both the good and bad aspects) only comes from living it for awhile. My wife and I left the North Fork happy, but more impoverished, and less fulfilled, than I care to admit.

The yearly oil contract politely arrived within days of our return, and it doubled last year's bill, which was about twice the increase we expected. After some serious sweating, I found an out: I've got nearly six years of unused vacation time, and I cashed a chunk of it out.

So to sum up, I accepted the federal tax break and took a couple days to get pleasingly drunk, and then pissed away my remaining time off so that I could heat my house. Is there anything more American?

I want better.

UPDATE: Mr. Riley's take on this is brilliant. Required reading.

* Really one of my best posts. Don't be shy to follow the link.

** I haven't been able to get enough of the Tuscan wines since the Italian experiment, and the Brunello knocked the socks off all the rest of 'em. Not exactly the ten bucks a bottle variety. Only one of the dozens of wineries we visited on the North Fork grew Sangiovese grapes--something about microclimates--and it was a tasty basic Chianti. Even there, I wish I bought a bottle or several.