Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Confidence Racket

No matter how complex the story, however brilliant the invention or well-played the situational ethics, every confidence scam always comes down to that same perpetual nut to crack, the razor-thin line between a fool and his money, that transitional point where on one side there's a fistful of cash in my hands, and on the other side, in someone else's. Up to that critical point, the act must go on to its tension-filled climax, the con artist has to keep a straight face to that last second, maximize the urgency, the sincerity, thank-you-thank-you-good-sir-what-a-blessing-mom-can-have-that-operation-now, a-a-a-a-and now it's his. Sucker. If there's no more to gain, the grifter can turn around and run here. If he's stumbled on a particularly lucrative mark, he'll walk away calmly, smiling, keeping up his oscar performance in the hopes of repeat business. It's what separates the con men from the con boys, I suppose.

The art of acting and invention that's esssential to the con is what keeps a warm place in our hearts for those criminals. Or at least for the movie versions--I don't imagine those bastards stalking the internet from their Nigerian redouts to be such a bunch of lovable scamps. I advocate a healthy suspicioun for anyone trying to sell you anything, but if it gets confusing, you can always try to evaluate a transaction by looking at the process flow sheet. A nasty scam will show money input from me, and nothing tangible coming back out to me. A better one will promise some sort of return, but it might be out of whack, and highly conditional on my good feelings. At some point in the scamminess continuum, the line is eventually crossed into legitimate business, where the returns are based on telling enough of the truth: real products are exchanged, or investments are based on actuarial data, or on roughly sound economics. In the real world, we don't usually get to evaluate a single enormous transaction with this yardstick, but still, it can be useful to draw a big box around the system of them and look at the ins and outs for groups of parties, which will be true regardless of the insane things churning around inside.

Look, I don't know what to make of the bailout, and maybe the blogosphere doesn't need yet another half-informed voice. There's an asset bubble under there that even I can see, and letting it get bigger, still, more, just can't be wise. It seems like reducing liquidity, at least in terms of real estate and consumer spending, is a necessary condition of healing the basic long-term problem of this nation consuming more than it produces. Less borrowing is ultimately the cure, in other words.

On the other hand, the idea of credit screeching to a halt is a deadly serious one, if it happens. I wish I could convince myself it's just a reductio ad absurdum argument, but who can tell when everybody is panicking, the LIBOR is shooting up, and smarter people than me are scared shitless? (I just read a post about how farmers typically use credit to pay for harvesting their crops. Good god.)

So I can see taking action to the extent it's necessary to keep that functioning-credit part of the system alive. I may even be convinced that a patch that keeps the existing crazy system capitalized is a good idea, provided steps are taken to assure those new funds aren't also over-leveraged and the thing blown up further. (I guess I haven't sunk to an IOZ-ian desire to watch the thing disintigrate just yet. Dissolution has as big a problem with the "how" as does, what the hell, any other ethos.) Paulson, if I understand it correctly, wants to assure this short-term credit flows by injecting money into the system to lend, assuming it's a crisis of Depression-era proportions (and not everyone agrees with that), by buying the suddenly-obvious bad loan obligations. The counterproposal that just failed in the House did so much as to dangle a little oversight and a hint of justice onto the basic package. Two alternate ideas I've seen (of many) are: (1) the Federal Reserve temporarily takes over the operations of the banks, to preserve the system of payments (which allegedly will eliminate freezing of credit by panic); (2) capital is supplied to banks by taxpayers purchasing ownership shares of the banks (rather than their shitty debt obligations). There have been a few more, probably more than a few, but I don't remember them. None are happy fixes. One supposes we taxpayers might even be better served if we offered to buy up the threatened properties themselves (at a price referenced to historic baseline growth) and hold them against inevitable population growth. As it is, under the conditions of urgency, given the history our administration has had with threats and promises, my con-job reflexes have been twitching like mad. I keep looking for the point where the money's changing hands, and to whom. Seven hundred billion is an investment in confidence, right?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Review of Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Here's an interesting scrap of personal trivia to throw to my multitudes of adoring fans: I'm pretty sure that Watchmen counts as my first voluntary book review. Back in the eighties, I got into comics for about as long as my best friend could afford to buy bales of them every month, which amounted to a span of a couple years in high school. When I was sixteen years old, he sent Watchmen along with me on a three-week trip to Spain, and I read it, and commented. I spent some time yesterday looking for what I wrote, but it wasn't in that diary, and so I think it must have gone into a letter sent back to old R.D.. The gist of my back-then review was that Watchmen really put the "graphic" in graphic novel, and even though years of desensitization still hasn't quite managed to erase that impression, I must have also missed a lot of the depth then. (I wasn't a very mature teenager, you see, not any more than I am a very mature thirtysomething, but at least I now have the ravages of youth safely behind me.) I caught the movie trailer recently, and damned if one of the images presented wasn't a beautifully rendered copy of one of the frames in the comic that I barely remembered. Was my memory accurate? (This time it was.) Does my impression stand? (Yes and no.) Should I go out and watch the flick? (Maybe.)

Watchmen, if I understand correctly, was intended to make the most of the medium, to show off the sort of story that a graphic novel is uniquely suited to tell. It pretty clearly borrowed techniques from film, especially this business of transitioning between scenes using a constant image, or at times splicing twin sequences together, switching back and forth between analogous settings while keeping the narrative constant. Moore (writer) and Gibbons (artist) mix these effects smoothly in print, and if the cinemtographers follow the existing storyboards, those borrowed tricks are going to look pretty classy back on the screen. The panoramic shots, and Gibbons could have added even more of these, will translate well, and the camera will also love the too-much violence and the sex. Often, Moore uses a textual trick similar that's similar to the visual one, and maps dialogue or action on top of exposition and prose, letting the two synchronous narratives unconsciously inform one another. This is a thing indiginous to the comic medium, which naturally puts text in boxes as commentary, and I'm impressed with the degree it was pulled off here. There are some parts where it has to be text. The elements of the story written in short graffiti and newspaper headlines can get their way on screen I guess, and Rorschach's journal entries (set against silent action) can be voiced over, but there are a few places, those involving the Tales of the Black Freighter (a text story spliced into the comic) and Doctor Manhattan's soliloquy on his perception of time (wherein he experiences all the moments of his life at once) that are going to get murdered, which is too bad.

He borrowed from pure text media too, but the prose sections, mostly spaced in between the chapters, although informative, tended to be a chore to read. The interludes are creatively formatted to support the recent narrative, and the less formal versions bordered on entertaining, but he veered purple at the drop of a hat. That his fictional comic book writer could go on to become an accomplished novelist defied belief. The dialog is unremarkable, but adequate (at least if you're comfortable with the genre's liberal use of bold and italics in the speech balloons).

Gibbons' art is decently done, and it's well laid out. I didn't much like the way that the thing was inked though: too damn many purples and oranges, filled too solidly into too large areas. And it might be a matter of technology is all--I'm used to the three-color newsprint format from my couple years of fandom--the one with all the dots--and I think that cheap texture actually allowed greater depth to show up in the coloring than this solid magazine style. The contrast of the printing techniques is made clear within the story. Black Freighter is a comic within the comic, and it's colored in that old newsprint style, and (if you ignore the subject matter) is easier on the eyes. Even when I used read these things regularly, I was always more impressed with the great pencil-and-ink work, and preferred the few books that left it black and white--the color always seems to cheapen the art underneath.

Of course Watchmen tackles the other thing that's only ever been done well in comics, the obvious one: men in masks and spandex that fight crime. There's been a spate of superhero "realism" done this decade, but here is the only case I've found that adequately addresses the underlying question of, even in a alternate world where circumstances better favored vigilante justice, what kind of nutbar would try to intimidate people with guns while dressed up in a Halloween costume. 90% of the heros in Watchmen are perfectly normal people dressed in tights...looking like world-class dorks and sporting cheesy nicknames. There are a range of motivations for the goofy vigilantism: altruism, publicity, lawlessness, government mandate, god complex, but all of these characters have the deluded/perverted/naive streak that's necessary to dress like a clown for a fight. And no one keeps up with it forever: if they're sufficiently warped (and actually effective), then their internal demons grow to maturity; if they're more decent sorts, they quit and get on with their lives like normal people.

There's a large cast of characters, and they're generally well done. Only one is really super, almost unlimitedly so, and he has been transformed so thoroughly beyond humanity that he gradually loses his connection to life, even while the (un)balance of world power centers around his existence. The alternate world of 1985, with energy independence but the looming threat of nuclear war, is thoroughly developed and convincing, and enough bit characters are filtered in and out to make you believe there's a context for all of this. Dr. Manhattan's atomic creation is the big pseudo-science mulligan that you can allow in something like this, and I consider it bad form to pull out another pair of silly tricks (cloning and ESP) at 11:58 to support the conclusion.

The plot that gets us there moves around Rorschach (and here's the exception to the superhero look: a great costume, a mask that's like a disturbing pshche test mood ring) who's investigating what looks to be the serial murder of former costumed crime fighters. He's a great character--a right-wing animal, simple but crafty, violent, difficult, unlovable, inflexible--and the authors get you to sympathize with him, deeply so by the end. All of these heroes are on the creepy side of moral purity, and Rorschach's investigation leads to the most capable of the normals, polymath genius Ozymandias, the man who's convinced himself that the world needs to be remade by his design and may be uniquely talented to pull it off. They're monsters, all of them, compromising lives for their version of the greater good. The wrong people win here--even though they believe otherwise, even though it's outwardly presented otherwise--and if their victory looks appealing on the face of it, the purpose of the whole graphic novel is to wrap it in ten clever layers of ambiguity. It's the story's biggest success.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Buy my virginity!

Hi, I'm Keifus and I'm a virgin. No, really! I am completely unaware of any internet traditions. But given the hard economic times of today, I think my virginity is a small price to pay for getting a chance in life. I'm willing to go on line for highest bidder.

You may wonder why I'm willing to do such a thing--isn't virginity a sacred trust? will I give it up to just anyone?--but I can assure you that I have thought this through carefully, and I'm sure that I've come to the correct decision, with all of the legally verifiable consent. (It's kind of embarrassing that I had to take lie detector tests and had to prove that my student accounts were idle for all those years, but you can find all that boring stuff in the documentation below.) I had planned to save going online until I got my first real job, where I would waste time in a cubicle surfing the net just like everyone else, but in this day and age, with the peer pressure and all the marketing on tv, it's really difficult to wait that long. I am taking my decision very seriously. I plan to use the money to pay for a communications degree and eventually become a middle manager somewhere.

I've heard all about it from my friends. You may wonder if I'm only "technically" a virgin, "how far did he really go?" you may ask, and the most I ever did was receive a text message from my best friend one time, and even though it was really tempting, but I didn't open it. You can read about that in the legal documentation as well, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't even count as rounding first base.

You may wonder how it is you are reading this, too. Well, my sister is a total blog-whore (whatever that means!), and she is helping me out by posting this online for me. When you reply to this message, it will go through her manager. I don't understand how the bidding process works, but they tell me I'm getting a fair percentage, and I totally trust them. They're awesome.

You may wonder what's in it for you. I am really anxious to learn about the internet, but I'm not nervous, and I'm not shy! I am sure that once you deflower me, I could perform like an experienced user, and you'd be the first to show me how. I have a lot of really attractive qualifications:

  • I have at least five really close friends. I am totally concerned about their luck, and even though I don't email them (yet), I know that I'd share all the coolest deals and vital alerts with them if I did. What else are friends for?
  • I also looove kittens and funny pictures. Does the internet have those things? I'd email my minimum of five friends those too! And you know what would be even better? If babies could dance. Oh man, I wish I could see something like that.
  • I have always been interested in investment opportunities in Africa. And meeting royalty? Oh wow, how cool is that?!
  • Oh what are the odds I could have won the lottery, but no one ever told me? I'd pay anything to find out.
  • I have my credit card numbers and social security number all memorized. My sister says I might need them, and I'm sure that anybody who's smart enough to meet the standards of operating online is totally reputable.
  • I think solitaire is pretty fun, but those cards are so annoying! I wish there was an easier way.
  • Even though I'm not shy, I do have an occasional problem with my, um, "penal colony", if you know what I mean. I'd buy anything--anything!--to ensure that I could make her love me for hours.
  • I am very concerned about my credit rating, the balance on my bank account, the status of my credit cards, and how to invest my money. I wish there was a way to get my credit report without paying any money! If there was someone that could help me keep track of all that stuff.
  • I like to think of myself as a conflict solver. There's nothing I like more than getting in the middle of an argument and listening patiently to all sides of it. I wonder if the internet has any long-standing arguments I could join in on. I sure hope so.
  • I don't have any idea who to vote for. My sister says that there is a lot of advocacy online, and I know if anyone could give me an honest, well-thought-out argument, I'm sure it's someone who really cares about his party.
  • I'm fascinated by the way my friends talk. I've spoken the words w00t and lol, but I'm still not really 100% sure what mean. Some online thing, my sister says, and I'm dying to find out. And anyway, I'm not a very good typist (no practice), and a shorter way would be really helpful.
  • I'm very confused about religion, and I'm worried about my soul. I wonder if there are any warnings about it that could help me with my concerns.
  • I'm sick and tired of paying top dollar at the pornography store. I wish there was an easier, more discreet way to get my hands on perverted videos and images.
  • My sister says blog whoring is really hard. I need at least five tips to get my posts read by more people.
  • I like bright shiny things! I don't know what a "link" is, or how to "click" one, but oh man, I'd follow that sort of thing anywhere. Maybe it could even run programs on my computer for me!

So as you can see, I'm don't know anything about the internet, but I really want to learn, and only you can show me the way. Please follow the link below to contribute your donation, and we'll announce the winner on the first of the month. Don't forget to sign the waiver!

I can't wait to meet you. I'm just tingling with the online buzz!

So good luck, and don't forget to bid early and often. It'll be fun, and you'll helping someone in need.



Friday, September 19, 2008

Blogger's acting funny

Usually, it takes a couple rounds of editing to get the typos and brain-farts out of a given post, and I've gotten in the habit of posting them, then editing out what stoopid I can retroactively find.

With the last two, I've only been able to access old saved versions of them when I hit the edit button. There's only the outlines I wrote a couple days ago, not the stuff I spent a furious hour scribbling. You're looking at first drafts down there, and those tend to be even worse than my second drafts. Sorry.


My political philosophy, such as it is, hasn't been filtered through the loyalty of any party machine, and based more on a set of ideas, eventually worked out based on a few basic principles (Golden rule stuff, mostly, respect for personal space, a decision on which few social tasks and risks are best dealt with collectively, awareness of physical conservation laws), and a gradual (thanks to an overabundance of inadequate data and worse reporting) observation on how things might be reduced effectively to practice, such as it does the least harm getting there given that people are pretty nasty when they get to empower themselves. I've been mildly surprised to find this makes me more or less a leftist, in those instances where it doesn't make me a flaming, but suspiciously sedentary, radical.

It's not a shock to discover that neither party satisfies my ideas well, certainly not in practice, and even if I'm better informed thanks to endless dicking around on the internet, the mindset's still typical voter. My decision to vote third party, to do so in a solidly locked electoral state, is a lazy act of defiance, but a fairly uncontroversial one. You'd think. Fucked if I didn't wander into a lecture on it yesterday though, in a place where I usually visit to avoid such humorlessness. I'll happily vote for individual Democrats when they show signs of doing anything I want, but I'll be damned if there's been any meaningful environmental legislation passed since the Clean Air Act, if the insurance nationalizing bastards will ever develop a universal health care program, if a cogent energy policy appears this side of the oil crunch, or if the party will oppose a war for any reason whatsoever. If you want to blame it on a new breed, fine, let's keel-haul Nancy Pelosi, but voting for a blue dog isn't going to prevent the blue dogs pulling the party to the right. (Whatever that means. Sometimes when they pull right, they balance the budget, which is something the right is unable to do.)

Dad asks me why he shouldn't vote for a Republican president. If you aren't much the target of their noxious social views, and aren't too inquisitive about them, you can get away without noticing the bigotry. If you're a policy Republican, you go in for "fiscal responsibility," "personal responsibility," and "mature foreign policy." Those are fine nouns, modified by sensible adjectives, but the reason you shouldn't vote for America's right-wing party is that those descriptions are complete bullshit. They're pure Newspeak. Fiscal responsibility means profligate defense spending and cutting capital gains; mature foreign policy means blowing shit up first and explaining later; personal responsibility means an expensive and frequently immoral prosecutorial policy, legal sheltering of corporations from the individuals they've fucked over, de-nationalizing industries and handing the contracts to buddies, fellating PhRMA, and shitcanning those programs that actually give the hard-luck cases a shot at playing the economic game at all.

I can't support a Democrat whose antiwar platform is just as mythical as fiscal conservatism. I'll give Barryo some lukewarm credit for an inadequate and scattershot energy plan, but Jesus, these guys market the American way of life as shamelessly as any of them, and you can't squeeze an acknowledgement of unsustainable military, economic or land-use models out of a damn one of them, not in a way that actually informs policy. Just like the Republicans, they won't do those things because it's not in their business interests.

So anyway, based on their stunning inadequacy, made particularly obvious since 2006, I'm meekly registering a protest vote. I for one welcome our kooky, rainbow overlords.

I apologize for the political screed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Review of A Bridge of Years, by Robert Charles Wilson

There's a lot to be said for doing something consistently well. Robert Charles Wilson may not have developed the stylistic innovation that it takes to be a Notable Writer (which is a little unfair when you consider the innovations he takes in the background and the setting, but that's why science fiction is a ghetto), but he routinely pulls off three feats that are too rarely encountered, and he makes them look easy: he keeps his characters interesting, his ideas consistent, and best of all, he can juxtapose human nature against the vastness of a weird universe, and find the beauty in that. Gets me every time. (I should probably stop buying his books used and make sure he gets a buck.)

In the novel, these bridges of years are navigable (but not controllable) passages through time, probably engineered by some far-future beings, and utilized by other beings, historians from some less-far-future societies, for the study of "early" civilizations. These archaeologists quietly and carefully recruit contemporaries for maintenance of the passages and to supply them with present-day data. Nervous about paradox, they don't interfere much, and aren't much involved in the actual novel. The characters are from several timelines, not too distant in years. They have some different personal technology though, and Wilson also plays around with a couple fictional generations of cybernetic enhancements, from a digital watch to highly integrated (but still removable) performance-enhancing battlefield armor, to a complete menagerie of beneficial insect- and germ-like life-supporting machinery, to something hardly glimpsed, for which any remaining organic component at all is unclear. He has a lot of fun exploring the details of these augmentations (probably because it's easier to make believable), but even if my description sounds questionable, and despite what you might guess from the cover, he's not whacking off over some imaginary technical doohickies. What I really like about Robert Charles Wilson is that he's all about using these clever ideas and gadgets to tell a good story.

That story entwines major characters from four nearby timelines: a protagonist (Tom Winter) from 1989 who stumbles onto the passage; a woman (Joyce) from about thirty years before, whom he meets at the other end; a military deserter (Billy) from about 75 years ahead; and the man (Ben) from a century and a half out, who's supposed to be keeping an eye on things, but has been incapacitated by the fleeing soldier. Wilson does a good job with developing each one's credulity, and keeping their actions in line with their character, even if it chokes off a lot of bizarre what-if speculations about monkeying with causality. They have believable mixes of fear and curiosity, and you can buy the character of someone who'd want to go back and stay. Tom is at a low personal point, has had fears of an ecological future drilled into him by his wife (who left him), and a quiet cabin is only his first escape. The soldier is hiding in the past too, a monster, a scary one. His armor manipulates his biochemistry past the point of sociopathy, and if he's sort of simple and needy without it, he's also got some stubborn quirk of character that makes him resist it in the first place. It's modeled straightforwardly on a drug addiction, and it's not too noble a fight, but here's the inner struggle that's missing in Lucius Shepard's soldier from last time around, some believable inner workings that make him act the way he does, under and through the artificial stimuli. Billy, of all the characters, earns a touching moment of grace in the epilogue.

The sixties sequences were entertaining. It was fun watching a science fiction author play around with what are (by now) period archetypes of Greenwich Village bohemians. Tom's status as an outsider (more than his future knowledge) lets the author poke at these people a little, and reduce them to human scale about as fast as Tom inevitably has to do. The character didn't expect to find love in that time (didn't quite expect real people) but it happened, and the the inescabable existence of their fates--and his own fate, however unknown--depress many of the characters who think about it. The consequences of Tom and Joyce's cross-decades relationship are ultimately unsatisfying, but they still have the literary conceit of being the right ones.

Time travel stories are older than people realize: the rules are very much like the old tales when prophecy was inviolable. You get to play some of the same clever and satisfying tricks, and I've read a lot more good time travel stories than bad ones. If an author uses time machines to play with cause and effect, he's got only a few choices: (1) that the shape of time is fixed, and anything you do on your jaunt to the past has already factored into your future (call this the Bill and Ted version), or (2) the future is changeable from whatever point of view of the time traveler (Back to the Future version). In between, you can still find some working room. A good compromise, informed, sort of, by chaos theory, is that even though a lot of local effects can be changed, the basic structure of history is still circumscribed by some known pattern, and the time traveler can mess around a little without dismantling the fabric of the universe. Another compromise, taking a mighty handwave toward quantum mechanics, suggests that many possible worlds simultaneously exist, and, perhaps, the others don't even disappear when one is examined. (In fact the general shape of observed space-time may be some optimum probabilistic condition where the universe remains unraveled.) From a storytelling perspective, I don't know if it's better to take a stand on this or not: people need the illusion of time for the story to unfold, and its hard to avoid the passage of subjective time (although some fine nonlinear plots are out there). I don't think that Wilson avoided the consequences, but he didn't waste the story on them. A good, solid effort.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Review of Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard is an author I've been meaning to read more for years now. It's not just the great name (wolf guarding the sheep--thanks Mom), but the occasional short story I found of his would always catch some levels eloquence, depth, sensitivity to visual cues, and a certain honest sentimentality about the human experience, a lot of the right buttons to push for a reader like me. And to be fair, Life During Wartime isn't a total disappointment in those respects, it just seemed to lose its way in the overall telling. It's well-written on the micro level, and in parts, but it fails to meet more mundane criteria of long fiction: I didn't believe the characters, I didn't buy the premise, and the plot held nothing together. I'll still keep an eye out for this author.

The first disappointment isn't even Shepard's fault, but the blurb writer's and whatever anonymous creatures crawled out of the Amazon.com jungle to describe the thing. For my purposes, this was meant to be the third book to riff on an anti-imperialism theme, the consequences of an unjust American war on the soldiers and the unlucky people living in the field, and the summaries (as well as the author's worldview) led me to expect as much. But this book was no Viet Nam transplanted into Central America, even in the rare parts of the novel where life during wartime was featured. Yes, it's in a jungle, and yes, the army is a feckless murdering behemoth, and there are drugs too, and a little cold war language is thrown around by the grunts, but it hardly feels a critique of that conflict, or of any particular conflict. There was little analysis of U.S. foreign policy in general, the veneer of which has gotten even more tired and frail in Shepard's universe than in ours.

The basis of this war is something other than politics and money. It's a slow letdown to incrementally learn that the strings are all inexpertly pulled by an unlikely cabal of magical Panamanian families, whose internal struggles radiate onto the landscape of world affairs without the slightest evidence of influence, with no apparent relation to any known conduit of power. I could believe in the context of the novel that these families had hijacked the local war effort because, well, those mechanisms are shown, but these folks certainly don't make convincing political or corporate demiurges on the larger stage. The hero, a soldier named David Mingolla, never notices that he doesn't leave the supervision of the families at any point in the book (even his favorite rock band is under their influence, in a particularly annoying twist), but to the reader, it only makes the setting feel more artificial. It might have made sense under the circumstances to show this as the ascension of a cabal, not as the apogee of a quasi-mythical conflict that spans continents and generations.

The magic is a brand of ESP that is brought about by rare drugs (native to the country, and discovered by these warring families long ago), and the protagonist, David Mignolla is a gifted prodigy. When he's introduced, he's unaware of any of this, and the drug-induced powers, distributed to soldiers to varying degrees, are presented as a sort of hallucinogenic battlefield horror-show mixed in with a heady dose of magic realism. The first hundred pages of Life During Wartime are engaging, filled with images of creepy deaths, possession, and supersition. The magic realism is a perfect fit to a jungle war--there are no shortages of ghosts after all, and, as Shepard keeps mentioning, the light sure is funny under the trees--and it worked in seamlessly with technology and drugs and conducting life on the verge of panic. He should have stuck with that. The supernatural elements are more compelling than the psychic mechanisms when they're explained, and after the fine opening, the novel goes through long boring sections of developing those technical powers in Mignolla, and in developing his romantic relationship with Debora, another psychic, with whom he's jumpstarted into love because they're hyperaware of their emotional resonance. Occasionally, Mignolla finds himself dropped into surreal chaos again, at which points the book picks back up.

Mingolla's background is art, and Shepard uses that to make a few clever connections. One of the quality scenes featured the work of a "war artist" who painted brilliant murals on buildings in battle zones and then blew them up; in another good one, Mingolla's in a poverty-stricken and psychedelic closed-in barrio and uses his background to pull out images that Goya or Bosch could have painted, and it's an effective tool. It's a flaw that Mingolla is really inconsistent about his eye. It's brought out when the author wants to make a point, but it doesn't inform his character. He's likewise selectively perceptive, and a selectively decent human being, both traits trotted around for the same authorial purpose as the art history. I get that Mingolla's sociopathic tendencies have been amped up by drugs and combat, but his core stays too protean to really, well, care about him. It's as if Debora and Mingolla and the unconvincing story about the families were used to string together a novella and a series of otherwise well-written, loosely related vignettes. If he put together the book that way, without imposing narrative structure on the damn thing, it would have been much better.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Dismal ...what now?

I'm sympathetic to old-school economists (not sympathetic enough to plow through extended stretches of their original tedium, but the ideas are fine enough), and I like to put them into much the same bin as the classical scientists, who managed, in many cases, to be clever enough to understand what affected what, even if they didn't always nail the relations down precisely. Some of it was amazingly brilliant: Michael Faraday, for example, famously used next to no math to deduce his many insights into electromagnetic phenomena. I've gabbed about this business of scientific rightness and detail before (most recently), and it helps to understand how the business of mapping the universe to mathematical space works: first comes the basic model, and if it's good, subsequent revision to detail gets piled on, and it gets as good as possible in that framework.

I caught this editorial by Robert Nadeau today. It's also funny to read a scientist science historian ragging on economists. Borrowing mathematical tools from other disciplines is time-honored and instructive (they're usually describing similar phenomena anyway), especially when someone else has done the challenging work of solution, and it's my running hypothesis that scientific study of all kinds has been heavily shaped by the solubility of certain math problems. Nadeau states that the nineteenth- and early twentieth century economists borrowed liberally from contemporary physical models in a way that had no basis in economic reality (according to the physicists), and nyah, the physics turned out to be wrong too, but I don't think any of that is very damning, so long as the resulting math can describe reality. It helps to have physically intuitive variables, of course, and measurable ones.

He goes on about the assumptions implicit in the neoclassical theories, which, he claims, basically ignore the effects of limited energy, real estate, biodiversity, clean air and water, etc. He's probably correct that this is a real failure of these economics, but that's still not really an indictment of the mathematical framework, and secondary relationships could presumably be worked into the set of governing equations. Amusing as it is, poking those sorts of assumptions doesn't really require a science background these days, just some basic observational skills. But if Nadeau didn't mockingly point out that the models were cribbed from falsified physics, he wouldn't have had an editorial in Scientific American.

I find it unlikely that study of economics has failed to grow in the past hundred years to include ecological effects. I recall the term "environmental economics" thrown about a couple of years ago, but never followed up on it. I don't know if it's a serious academic discipline yet, and even nerds are staring down brain-numbing texts all along the hallowed halls, the bigger problem is that environmental economics sure as shit doesn't inform policy in any comprehensive way, really more like these goofballs proposing eternal supply. An imperfect editorial by a long shot, but these people deserve to be picked on.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Hymns to Labor, Part Two

You can't really call mine a white collar family, but even though I sometimes throw menial roots around like a white rapper's street cred, I don't think you could rightfully put the kin in coveralls either. Management and administration are not in our blood, not for the most part, but we do tend to be professional types, with our brains generally operating in some close proximity to our hands: we're engineers, scientists, toolmakers, contractors, carpenters, accountants, electricians, teachers, and medical professionals, that sort of thing. Majestically, we span that divide of token neckware like a mountainous archipelago across the straits, just waiting to be torn asunder with, say, a Herculean political argument (or maybe a really strained metaphor). We get by on a lot of training, but without the perks or the power of the decision-makers, no ins to the old-boy's club beyond the generic whiteness.

As a budding nerd engineer, my experiences of labor unions were both vicarious and unsavory. When my wife used to work at the plant, the union was the reason she couldn't run experiments without the superfluous assistance of Labor. She couldn't turn a wrench, monkey with hardware, or truck chemicals around, as certain activities had been negotiated in the dark times, and engraved as sacred to union employees on the corporate stone tablets and stored behind grimy glass. Typically, the union was less than enthusiastic about carrying out their designated subtasks, especially for some pipsqueak girl engineer, and they were, by and large, a surly work-around. (If buckets of resin got illegally carried across the floor when no one was looking, don't tell anyone.) My friends who veered off into the hardcore manufacturing world had similar stories, although I can't tell you these days who stayed there. Labor wedged itself into my mind as a relic associated with heavy machinery, a living anachronism from the days when the U.S. used to make stuff.

Engineers aren't usually considered labor because we aren't usually hourly. Our jobs are instead defined by extended projects and long-term deadlines. So we get salaries instead of the clock, and even if it's easy for me to avoid (I write proposals all the time), a certain measure of devotion is expected too. For lots of people I know, engineering is as much a lifestyle as other full-time jobs can be, just devoid of the "overtime" that labor gets, as well as the "bonuses" that our bosses snag. Engineers aren't unionized, of course, not really invited to the club, and the ambitious career path for us geeks usually abandons the realm where anything useful is done to fretfully advance into the murky networks of managerial bonus-land. The points in my life where I've been suspicious of Labor were the ones where I and my loved ones were only a small and theoretical step ahead of union workers, discovering that all that advanced training and skill development gets you not so far up the ladder at all. I mean, how much does a dock worker or an auto assembler make? What the hell did I go to nerd school for? (And if it pisses me off that inventing chemistry is less well rewarded than schmoozing, I'll honestly admit I'd be a terrible butcher, mover, drywall hanger, or writer without years of effort, and my job pays more than any of those difficult, high-demand fields.)

I don't want to speak exclusively from personal experience in this post, but I do want to advance a generalization about personal experiences. Namely that you're most sensitive to what breaks the people closest to you are getting. Assumed is that privilege enjoyed by someone else will tend to be noticed by the non-privileged (and privilege enjoyed by yourself hardly noticed at all), and what's more, any small difference in status will be played up for resentment during the political season, subtly or ham-handedly, depending on who can get away with vilifying whom, because scaring up distrust of Others is both a more reliable vote-getter than crafting real policy and requires far less work. In terms of class struggle, all of us schmucks who land in between labor and manglement--uncool professionals, small business workers, shop owners, all those poor bastards in retail, probably you can call us the middle class for want of a better definition--are going to save their economic resentments for the advantages enjoyed by those most like them. Income distributions are shaped like a skewed bell curve, and since there are a lot more people on the lower end than on the upper, these small distinctions of advantage can be played up for a larger number total of votes. There are fewer people getting sensitized against the much more substantial gimmes afforded to the small class of heirs and the politically connected, and in the tally of numbers, the internecine friction is concentrated among the saps who actually work for a living. It's easier to get mad at the people you're stuffed into the kiddie pool with than it is to revolt against the ones that make the rules. It's how the democratic part of the system perpetuates itself.

When a narrow group of beneficiaries start making the rules for everyone, the results are predictable. I claim suspicion about the effectiveness of those dinosaur unions, but I'm certainly no fan of the Man, and outside of the old industries, I can't detect too much influence of organized labor these days. It's worth remembering that the nineteenth century labor movement rallied against real abuses by business and government, and gradually secured real gains. When I read about Wal-Mart's modern attempts to crush the organization of their abused labor force, I don't side with the company. And when I read about (and experience) wage stagnation while high-level executive pay skyrockets, I think with naïve fondness about the power of the unruly mob.

Are union bosses corrupt? Of course they are: the organization of power is such that it moves to promote the group in charge, but this isn't unique to labor, and our governors or our captains of industry have had the upper hand lately (and through most of history). So here's for labor in 2008, at least until it gets crooked, in which case fuck 'em. Whether the inevitable corruption of any organization is a function of scale, longevity, or just success is something I have mixed feelings about, but I'll save that redundant chunk of drear for another day. In the meantime, in honor of the most un-capitalist of American holidays, I'm going to fantasize that a more adversarial balance of domestic powers would somehow result in a greater fairness for the workers.