I am not a big one for year-end rememberances--a little of that sort of thing goes a long way--and yet 2011 seems to have been an odd one. Much as I hate to admit it, they do get their little marks. For sheer gusto and quality, 2007 was something of an apex, with better writing and better participation in that world. Most of what I proudly remember having said happened in that year. Belt-wise, 2004 was fat, and 2006 was thin for me (2010 was fattest of all, and 2011, thin again--I blame fad yo-yo dieting for everything), and the early 2000s were the most formative kid years, remembered for the sink into the quicksand of bright-eyed dependency, watching my body make the decision to start aging as a couple of new little humans sucked out my essence. 2005 was a terrible year of work, and 2011 witnessed an even deeper career low, with employment held by a thread, and saved by an eleventh-hour appeal. I got a new job, starting on the first Monday of next year, pulling it off about three seconds before the old one stopped paying me once and for all. 2011, in general, counts for a year of massive re-evaluation.
The good ole Fray, which accounts for nearly all of my readers and the majority of my real friends, gave up its last breath in this year and took down valued memories with it. Although it's something long since left behind, watching it go is a sort of writing milestone, a reminder that it's been hard to write to the world, to play music, to read this year, and I know the blog has suffered. Love in 2011 seemed more improbable, less deserved, and more deeply squandered than ever before. And it's funny too, because the bottom of 2010 was so abysmal that I worked my ass off to turn things around. Success, right? I took on all sorts of new directions... and I just don't know if any of them went anywhere. I am still a wreck, but I feel I'm a much different wreck. And I sort of miss those bright eyes of mine. In 2012, I'll be fucking forty.
Anyway, I sort of thought something should get penned for December. In the heady months of 2007, I was beating one post a week, but lately, I've just been so distracted. I have a couple book reviews pending, and I've been seriously considering embarrassing myself at poetry one more time, held back only by how bad the old ones were. I'll be around, but who knows in what capacity. Bigger and smaller seem equally possible.
Happy new year n shit.
Saturday, December 31, 2011
Monday, November 21, 2011
"[T]he contents of the Book had been crafted and refined over many centuries to be nonsensical, maddening, and pointless[...] It was a maze without an exit, an equation that after weeks of toil reduced to 2=3. Much harder to memorize and to answer questions about were writings that almost but did not quite make sense; that had internal logic, but only up to a point. Such things cropped up naturally in the mathic world from time to time—after all, not everyone had what it took to be a Saunt. [...] [I]f [these writings] were found to be the right kind of awful, [they were] made even more so, and folded into later and more wicked editions of the Book. To complete your sentence and be granted permission to walk out of your cell, you had to master them just as thoroughly as, say, a student of quantum mechanics must know group theory. The punishment lay in knowing that you were putting all of that effort into letting a kind of intellectual poison inflitrate your brain to its very roots."--from Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. [I am so loving this book so far.]
Oh, ain't I so smart and above it all. But then again, consider that I'm the guy who finds that following the bullshit narrative, even if it's just to complain about it, can still be more stimulating than the soul-crushing branch of science work where I landed myself. I mean, for god's sake, don't ask me anything about group theory.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Adam Davidson asks, Can Anyone Really Create Jobs? Now, normally I'd prefer to leave that sort of empty-headed both-sidesism right the hell alone, or at least to the better political writers out there, especially when it's, like, so two weeks ago, but sometimes when you actually make yourself pay attention to a minor irritation like that, next thing you know you've scratched your arm raw, and everywhere else feels itchy too. I note that (1) Adam Davidson is a known economics reporter, one of those ubiquitous NPR presences—presumably they pay him for this sort of thing, which is another fine reason not to send them your donations—and now here's a regular Times Magazine opinion gig wherein he professionally throws up his hands and fails to opine (when the thesis is "nope, can't do it" then remind me why I might consider reading subsequent entries); and (2) some otherwise smart Facebook friends recently congratulated themselves for "liking" this one, and venting out my polemical impulses where no one will actually read it is pretty much exactly why I have a blog. [All right, there's (3) this business of cleaning out my browser tabs while I find myself again able to focus on this sort of thing for awhile. Most of the other tabs are job postings awaiting replies, and this is a break from that. Maybe for fun, I'll try and guess how much government creation was involved in any of them.]
Read the article if you must, but this gist is Davidson observing that—or rather appealing to authority to discover that—neither the Chicago-school approach described as "do nothing" nor the Keynesian approach described as "spending a lot of money" (and only tax breaks or subsidies are feasible, he tells us) to "goad consumers into spending again" does anything. It takes him to the end of his first page to reach the point that the austerity moves of firing government employees in Britain did not improve private job growth, but did directly cause a bunch of losses when those people were suddenly let go. "Wait," you ask, "since the British government had, in fact, created all those government jobs, doesn't that mean that they can be created?" Yeah, well, don't ask me. I don't have a keen economic mind, either. You may further wonder about the simultaneous contentions that Americans can't do things people will pay them a living wage for but still need to indenture the hell out of themselves for more education to get such non-jobs.
Here's the thing. The U.S. currently already does invest a metric fuckton into job creation. It's not just the legions of deputy assistants and other bureaucrats that make up the government workforce. To point out the obvious, our military and defense contractors (including me, for a couple more weeks) are primo recipients of this, and it creates a need for high-dollar industries like lobbying, and low-dollar ones for things like food service and building maintenance pretty much by virtue of its existence. We have a huge program to hire research staff in various laboratories and through extensive grants. Given that the government is powerful enough that it can appropriate—or invent—money and just hire people to do stuff, there's no reason it has to be doing anything special. Commenters on Davidson's article (and on Facebook) note that the Roosevelt-era rural development programs are a bit outdated in modern times, but for fuck's sake, fix the rotten infrastructure, administer medical insurance, get some science on, or do all that teaching that Davidson is convinced we need. If we're doomed to a system big enough to waste so much enterprise on evilly blowing up our contrived enemies, is it too much to ask that it do something useful as well?
The other obvious rebuttal is that the market is a construct, and the government ostensibly has some power over its operating parameters. If the problem is that our delicate corporate persons can't possibly hire Americans at the rates they (the hirees) need to survive in this predatory economy, then the government has the putative power to make foreign (or immigrant) labor more expensive too. Raise some tarriffs, let the dollar fall, things like that.
The government isn't really interested in creating jobs though. The real problem—and let's just call it—is that the people who command the economy don't want to pay people to work, and furthermore don't want to pay the government to pay people to work.
All that's your standard liberal boilerplate, which has merit so far as it goes. As I face increasingly crappy job prospects of my own, I feel a growing urge to take it all a bit further. The above argument grants various assumptions that I don't at all feel like ceding at the moment. It takes as givens, for example, that money and debt are more or less real, as if they're system variables rather than some network of agreements and contracts that will tend to work out better for the people who have the better lawyers. If we turn once more to a black box way of thinking about the economy, then, again, the sum of all the things and services produced (and imported/exported) will get definitionally distributed among the people in it. To take an IOZan turn here, why the fuck does it have to be distributed according to "jobs" in the first place? I mean, sure, there's some ad hoc philosophical justification for this, amounting to a plausible intuition that we should get rewarded relative to our contribution, but hey, the Golden Rule's pretty intuitive too, and that individualist model becomes a little bit, you know, problematic, the second any one of us gets too old, sick, or dumb to contribute, or as technology-assisted productivity (as opposed to the more work/less pay kind) advances far enough down the Player Piano timeline to obviate so much ant labor.
Why the hell not just pass out what we make? There's no law of nature involved in this (and it's a bit horrifying to think that we're basing our economy on 18th and 19th century natural philosophy, which defies even anthropological evidence). It's our society, we can arrange it how the hell we want, right? Why does the idea of getting a benefit for not working blow our minds so much? Ed's got this right in that, well, it depends on what class of people we're talking about. If you already have cornered enough money, then getting more of it gets to be something of an entitlement. The truth is, distributing the economy according to jobs isn't just a somewhat arbitrary theoretical model, when it comes down to practice, it's already something of a polite fiction. Only some segments of the population are expected to work very hard for their money, which is a convenient story for the segments that don't. I mean, in a society where monster effort was what got things done, the guys who spend their days elbow-deep in toilet drains would be the ones raking in the gains.
Anyway, I also can't let myself neglect the point that both the Keynesians and the Chicagoland bullshitters suffer from alarming cornucopianism built right into their sets of axioms. I don't want to give him credit for this, but I suppose I agree with Davidson in that in the face of economic shrinkage forced by external pressures (you know, actual physics), the current economic will be that much more imperiled. Oh well, at least we invested for the future during the flush times.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
[Yet again, apologies for such infrequent posting. Strange days.]
More astute cultural observers than myself will note that On Stranger Tides shares its title with a recently-released theme-park-ride-based crapfest of a seafarin' movie, which (to paraphrase an internet commenter who I'd happily credit if I could ever find again) pretty much rolled tape while Ian McShane and Geoffrey Rush talked like pirates for two and a half hours, and still managed to suck. I don't know how I failed to pick up on the connection with the novel, because I did see the movie (who could resist the marketing pitch: "it's not nearly as embarrassingly awful as the last one!"), and have since convinced myself that I remember experiencing a shimmer of hope or sadness when "inspired by the novel by Tim Powers" rolled across the opening credits. In hindsight, it probably explains what a reprint of a 1987-vintage, not-his-best publication was doing featured in the bookstore aisle.
Good thing the book and movie had nothing whatsoever in common. It didn't even rise to the level of "based on." Well, it borrowed almost nothing. I guess Disney managed to appropriate themselves a catchy title with those rights, and to co-opt any competitors who might have otherwise been tempted to generate a screenplay about pirates, on the Caribbean, from something that was actually worth reading. And the book does have both Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth in it, but that's thankfully the extent of things.
That alone is a funny thing. If you were to pile variously unrelated local legends (Blackbeard, voodoo, and that elusive fountain) into a summertime concession draw, or into a television show, or into anything, you know, popular, then I'd consider it as axiomatically terrible as the latest uninspired vampire mashup to land in the "paranormal romance" section. [That's both unfair and sort of true. The whole fantasy genre has been simmering various familiar stews for generations now, and that doesn't mean it can't get pretty damn entertaining now and again. Like everything else, it's all a matter of how you manage to work it all in.] Tim Powers is generally good at mixing up the fantastic elements with contemporary life or historical events, and when you're doing these things, it really only comes down to how much finesse you can use to stitch up your secret histories, keeping consistency with recorded facts as well as with the story itself. Powers pulls it all together with an indiginous and slave-borne magic that manages to survive in a part of the world that's not yet gentrified it out of existence. (It's only a matter of time, of course.) He's done his research (and, as I thoroughly bored y'all with a few years ago, I can't not like Voodoo, it's just so unapolagetically freaky and ad hoc), and maybe even too much of it, unable to resist a thoroughly anachronistic quasi-scientific explanation here and there,* but it all weaves its way together quite attractively.
Much as it's appreciated, this story almost doesn't need that deeper consistency. Powers is mostly giving us an adventure yarn, complete with its share of duels, magic, cannonades, walking dead, romance, sardonic wit, betrayal, and nautical terms. As far as the story goes, it keeps the pages tearing right along, and he tops himself with dramatic entertainment and imaginative weirdness with each chapter. John Chandangac, a puppeteer off to Haiti to deal with some legal issues, finds himself conscripted (as Jack Shandy) into piracy, and, increasingly, into strange worlds of magic and obligatory derring-do. It comes complete with treacherous villains and a packaged love interest, with rescues and satisfying comeuppances clearly in store. Good stuff, and I'll happily recommend it for all that. Combining good writing and that thought-through depth, it's miles ahead of the sort of thing you'd expect from a pirate book that got the eye of Disney.
It's a good thing all that detail-level momentum keeps things rolling. Were I to pause very long, I might have wondered about what Jack Shandy's character was even supposed to be. Though he's got a score to settle, a father to avenge, and later gets a girl to fight for, he still seems more than a bit unmotivated and (realistically enough) ready to quit whenever the going gets very tough. He's not really a hapless sucker pushed around by events exactly (Powers sometimes writes characters are like this), but he also isn't quite convicted enough to make it as a plausible action hero. He starts off as completely bored by Beth Hurwood, the distressed damsel, and it's a little unclear to me how she manages to turn herself into a legitimate love interest by story's end. Shandy takes opportunities to slack off or betray people to save his ass, then, randomly, take some exception on noble principles. (Well, maybe that's all fitting a pirate.) He's such a blank slate that I was waiting for Powers to reveal that he'd been pushed along more than a little bit by some lurking Loas or bocors, given that mind control was well within that magical universe, but the closest thing we got placed Shandy as, merely, some kind of prophesied doom of Blackbeard, which isn't quite the same thing, and wasn't put out there very well either. Similarly, his training with puppets emerges for a couple plot events, but it's unclear how that made him more generally suited for piracy (how it produced the required physical constitution, for example), or contributed to his hardly-existent character. I'd argue that the plot shapes up unevenly too, and some characters are dealt with oddly (for example, Blackbeard had been built up as an intimidating and nearly supernatural bastard, and giving him a sympathetic point of view for three pages mid-story was a huge-ass mistake), or not enough, or dispatched before their time, only to let the long-telegraphed events finally emerge as a pretty significant anti-climax. It ends up a good book that with a few nips and trims could have been awesome. Ah well, it rips and roars enough that you'll hardly notice.
*Sorry to be so discursive, but this really interests me. The first one of these instances that I remember had the gang experience the magical fountain as a space palpably dead of possibility. The resident magician divulged an 18th-century version of quantum mechanics, explaining that the role of probabilities in subatomic nature had become fucked up in its vicinity. Now, you want to be careful about going too far when you import modern sensibilities into period literature (Powers probably went a little too far in manufacturing modern-minded characters too), and we've all seen those terrible movies where some classical villain's doomsday device looks suspciously like something out of 20th-century physics class. I don't think Powers handled this one much better you might get in a crappy skiffy flick.
Could he have done better? I mean, quantum mechanics has become essential to our understanding of nature, and the idea that the universe has aspects that can be described as probabilistic was a revolutionary advance in humanity's conception of things. Given that this is the understanding that Powers wants us readers to work with, could the character have better got there with the sort of book-learning, however abstruse, that was available in 1718? Or to look at it another way, could an open-minded seeker of secret knowledge found some other completely contemporary way to describe quantum reality if we can accept that he'd somehow been priveleged to the amazing secrets of the universe. I mean, in one sense, quantum is still just a description of the underlying reality, and while it's been made to be a reasonably accurate one, it's not not any less metaphorical than your standard selection of angels dancing on pinheads. With enough rigor, could a system of animating spirits be made as accurate as QM? Maybe I just want Ben Hurwood to use more convincing period language.
I should add that later in the book (too late in the book really), Powers tries this trick again trying to tie up the magic of iron into the story of the old and new worlds, and that second time it came out pitch perfect, and also funny. A character, now loopy with extreme age, observes that it's blood magic really, and celestial magic. Shandy is incredulous that anyone would think iron is in our blood. Exhaled from stars? That's crazy talk!
Friday, October 21, 2011
I've frequently been fascinated by the clarity of moral calculus that people engage in with respect to animals. Euthenasia of pets, for instance, is common when we owners come to the conclusion that they have lived a good enough life. People may get carried away, but it's usually a precise calculus what vet bills are worth what extension of beloved Fido's life. Our relationship to other species is complicated by the fact that we eat some of the more sentient ones, but this isn't generally hard to rationalize, on any number of levels, whether it's pure speciesism (they're just not as sentient as us, dammit, and it makes the whole consideration easier), preservation (cows might well be extinct by now if we didn't raise and kill them), paternalism (giving them as good a life as can be hoped for), or a certain fatalist appeal to the natural order (humans are, to some degree, predators and scavengers; prey animals tend to get eaten by animals like us). People can find good hay sown in that moral landscape, but by and large, the decision to kill animals can be sober and considered, but it's still an easy one . More than that, it's one we are more than happy to embrace.
It's almost pathological, how we jump at the opportunity for dignified bloodlust. I remember being about 11 years old, walking up the street to hang around with my friend Ron. There was important news! He came out and informed me of an impressive specimen he'd found just down the road a little, on the edge of the pasture. Push aside the tall grass , and yeah, sure enough there it was creeping along the rigging, a big, motherfucking garden spider, yellow stripes and hairy black legs. Ron looked carefully at me, and nodded portentiously. "We should kill it." (Why? Because it was guilty of being a big nasty spider. Grimly, we must face our fears.) I remember some misgivings of conscience, but I went right along in the quest for a big rock, and was entirely complicit in the deed.
I think I may have told this story before, but much more recently, a couple years ago, the neighbors called the cops about a skunk that was wandering around in the neighborhood. This is not entirely surprising, as our back yards are woodland-like, and wild animals emerge from time to time. The skunk had crossed the street when Johnny Law rolled in, and was by then slowly ambling along into the forest-esque square on the other side of the road. The policeman stepped out of his car and unholstered his pistol, taking careful aim from about ten or fifteen yards away. CRACK! Dead skunk. Now, I was in my living room watching this with my kids. I get that a skunk wandering so close to people might cause some concern (even if they were all indoors), but it's like the dumb beasts have ever figured out roads. I see the risk of the thing being rabid and attacking people not significantly outweighed by the risk of this chucklewit waving a gun around in a residential neighborhood and shooting my car or his foot. But there was a skunk. With a serious face, it had to be killed.
When it comes to mammals, we can also form clear conceptions of cruelty vs. necessary killing. People get upset about animal cruelty, as they have in this Ohio story (and I am pretty depressed about putting down a dozen friggin' Bengal tigers too), even if civilized murder is the necessary response to it (and in this case, the safety concern was much more immediate). I am not sure that the charge of cognitive dissonance is entirely fair when it comes to comparing the way we treat our food animals, automated feed lots and other modern horrors, to individual acts of cruelty, like this amateur zookeeper. I mean, among the people who care about this stuff even when it's not in the news, opposition to both forms is common. Likewise, people who do kill animals (hunters and farmers, say, or your enthusiastic foodies) I've noticed also tend to have their moral equations worked out consistently. I do think there's a pretty solid dissonance in the general public though, bemoaning the murder of tigers as they dig into their Big Macs, at least if my Facebook feed is any indication. If it's industrial cruelty, and hard to avoid in our lives as-lived, then it's invisible (and hell, I like a burger too). Specific acts of cruelty, though? Those are unconscionable. The parallel with war vs. murder is left as an exercise to the reader. Hell, it may be even worse on that level: people cry when random dogs get shot in movies.
Tuesday, October 04, 2011
[Full title: Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God]
Most of you have never met me in person, but rest assured, I am not, by any measure, one of the cool kids. I've been historically bemused by any social movement, and if there's any indication that the scene is years past its prime, then look for my enthusiastic presence. There you'll find me on the trailing edge of fandom, a day's detour from the concert, with only nine bucks in my pocket. "What's on your iPod, Keifus?" Same shit as last year, and it's no more interesting now. Although I have always had issues with rolling along the same general direction as everyone else, and I am not a big booster of authority, I'd rather heckle or dream than angrily defy it, and I'm certainly nothing like punk (even if, in theory, there may be punks like me).
So I've had a Bad Religion CD or two gathering dust for I'm not sure how many years, finding, as I mentioned a couple years back (that one time I did dare bare my playlist), that the music saddled an odd (and not exactly unappreciated) line between brilliance and trying way too fucking hard. Not long after that though, I picked up their Empire Strikes First album, and this time it did grow on me, to the point where I must have worn out the grooves on that CD. Not bad, considering it was already five or six years past its sell-by date, and these guys are even older than me. You're not supposed to pick up on punk in your mid-30s, right? Even the stuff made by emotionally and financially stable geezers. Empire perhaps picked up more coherent social messages than religious ones, which scratched a big itch I was developing, and it rides BR's usual themes of heady skepticism, empiricism, anger in the face of life's futility, and some mystery at the contrast between its depth and its smallness, which are tingles I've always had. More importantly for my enjoyment, I found it musically far more compelling than what had formerly occupied my playlist. They were writing more engaging (if not exactly unfamiliar) harmonies and arrangements, composing with some welcome dynamic range, and they dug up a kid drummer (named Wackerman!) who can really pound the things and very satisfyingly fill up the deeper parts of the acoustic space. (Disclosure: I have no clue the path they took between 1994 and 2004 to make that transition, and this is by no means a scholarly musicology. I'm nobody's goddamn fanboy.) This isn't the hardcore stuff that those couple of skateboarding kids in my high school were into; it's melodic and catchy. It sounds a little like Social Distortion with more composition, fun vocal harmonies, and a couple more chords. Throw in the lyrics and you have, in Empire anyway, something like the world's angriest and wordiest folk music (to hear Greg Graffin list his influences, I see now that that's no coincidence), and I am forced to conclude it's probably not cool, but I really like it anyway.
So what the hell, I went and bought the guy's book. Even here on the lower tiers of giftedness and drive, I'm sympathetically interested in those times that artistry and scholarship can find interesting ways to intersect. The book, however, is a mixed bag.
It's divided among memoir, life observation, and a scientific discussion, I think recreating, in a way, the bullshit sessions that passed the time and drove the lyrical content of the band all these years. The personal sections are arguably the most interesting. Graffin sets himself up, even as a high school misfit discovering punk while it was still real, man, as the world's most well-adjusted bad boy. (This describes his personal appearance pretty well, too. He reminds me a little of Matt Taibbi.) I can picture Mrs. Graffin clucking, not very far behind the scenes, that they're basically nice boys, and if some of them are a little wild, I know Greg's got his head in the right place, and at only 16 years old, he's already so successful. Graffin is wise enough to realize that he's lucky to have ended up with solid emotional grounding and alternate skill sets, and to be gifted without the addictive proclivities that were ruining some of his peers in those days. When the music track got too jaded, he managed to duck into an academic setting, and then back again, and today, he's somehow stabilized himself switching between teaching duties at Cornell, a popular music career, and a devoted family and community life. As a memoir, I thought that the conflict and interplay of these different drives was interesting, and could have used even more of it. It's a life not without its own small tragedies, but the dude's clearly got something figured out.
If the scientific content were presented in the style of a collegial bullshit session, I think I'd have been more down with it. Some of his takes are at least interesting (hell, I've been there often enough myself on some of them), and more than most people, I love stretching a metaphor, and letting empirical thought mingle with life wisdom, but you have to be a little careful about how seriously you take that sort of thing. There are some interesting speculations on how cultural evolution—human or animal behavior—may be a companion to genetic evolution, and patient readers of this-here blog may have noticed that I really love poking around this subject myself, but I think it's too much to say that animal behavior overrides genetics. I will agree with him (and I've been riding the theme a little lately in other conversations) that loving or even knowing people does require a well-placed element of faith, even for a naturalist.
The book's just not so deep. There's more to be said about the environment's role in evolution than he did in this little survey, and I'd have accepted as an answer that environment determines (a variety of possible) social behaviors, which feeds back to genetic selection, which feeds back again to the environment. I can't disagree that there's something a little more complicated going on in selection than mere adaptation, and I think it's cute to observe that "unnecessary" genetic selection (attractions to plumage, musicianship, or other things that don't produce a Darwinian concept of fitness*) can be a significant response to abundance instead of scarcity. As far as evolution being anarchic, well and good, and a popular vote against the whole "becoming man" thing is well placed, if not very novel, but it'd have been more interesting to read deeper thoughts about how the social context of evolutionary theory has affected the understanding itself (especially since one social context is being rather liberally extrapolated here). Why did eveolution get so radicalized in the public consciousness while other equally remarkable scientific revolutions sort of flew by? Well, it's touched on, but not much. Graffin comes off at his most scientifically interesting and competent in the role of a field biologist, and he's better in this book at interplaying evolutionary anecdotes with those from his life than he is in weaving together the shakier generalities, even if the effort sounds like it should be fun.
The big ideas are undermined by a scientific and philosophical outlook that comes off lightweight enough in the places I know pretty well to make me suspect the whole rest of it. I come off thinking that Graffin is a more enthusiastic biologist than a brilliant one. There's a piece, and I don't know if it's him or science writer Olson, that generalizes chemistry as mating puzzle shapes and the big bang as a giant cosmic fart of hydrogen atoms, which I found all sort of embarrassingly simplified. Nor do I think that a proper scientific philosophy demands that the universe be knowable, as suggested early on, and I tend to be more careful than to describe scientific (and if I accept the central metaphor, biological, social, or musical) creativity as embodied by big Eureka! moments, as I've blathered endlessly over the years. In the early stages of the book, he describes his religious views like the world's most patient internet atheist, and the science views are similarly pedantic but survey-ish. If he's taking it all down for the benefit of his intended audience (probably the college freshmen he also lectures to), then okay, I guess that's one thing, but for the guy who can put together some astute wordplay in his lyrics, using the biggest thesaurus in rock-n-roll, then I expected a lot more from the prose.
One thing I will take home is the use of "naturalist" as a worldview. Might be bad religion, but it refreshingly doesn't have to define itself against anything. It's good to base our understanding on what we can observe and deduce, and be open to the fact that the authorities, and we too, may damn well be wrong.
*Erratum: the idea of sexual selection did originate with Darwin. Oops.
Thursday, September 08, 2011
Full title: Blood Bones and Butter: The Inadvertant Education of a Reluctant Chef. Look, you know that the self-selected memoirs of anyone who has been lucky enough to find they've received an inadvertant education, and land a somewhat prestigious creative job are going to be just a little bit precious. I mean, who is even able to discover the things that really satisfy them, never mind make a successful (dual) career of them? It might be something you usually get from memoirs), but quite a lot of my investment here is puzzling out just how much I like and trust Gabrielle Hamilton. (I am struggling that I might having be a sexist reaction, but to be fair, I brought in similar suspicions about Anthony Bourdain's famous book, to which this one most easily compares, and while I find his self-deprecating sarcasm a slightly more palatable contrast to the underlying ego than her unremitting authenticity, the key difference between the two reads is that Hamilton is a much more personal and composed--that is, better--writer.) It's a hell of a story: a suddenly neglected kid in a 1970s suburbia that I can relate to, a teenage cokehead with a chip on her shoulder that I can't quite connect with, a talented serial dropout (at least she doesn't bullshit us that she's not also a writer), an itinerant American, a lucked-into career boost, a difficult marriage of convenience. It reads like so much self-mythologizing, but on the other hand, Hamilton's writing is very approachable, entertaining, and impeccable in the basic-but-elegant mode she's aiming for, and she doesn't offer any simple arcs for the development of her character. She is not unaware (nor is she apologetic) about the role she herself has played in the challenges she writes about, and she is thoughtful enough to keep turning around and questioning her instincts and understandings about her own story. It's the sort of honest exploration which really warms up this reader, and this sort of analysis was much appreciated. If I found myself occasionally annoyed to hear about some of the breaks, then the difficulties with people brought home a believable balance of both tragedy and a sort of privilege.
No, being left (possibly, arguably) alone for a summer as a thirteen-year-old, a big feature of the first third of her story, is no break, and it's hard not be taken aback by that one. On the other hand, let's not pretend that she's missing the chance to brag what a badass she was, and as she tells it, she (more than once) managed to push the resulting self-destruction just to the point of Reversible Damage, only to then get things together, not without the help of some timely benefactors. All that life experience, and considering the mean streets she roamed, few of the scars. When it comes to a cooking philosophy, she's turning the authenticity up to eleven as well. She takes on a book-jacket-worthy viewpoint of well-crafted simplicity, of real food, culled from an experience of growing up with it, from living poorly among it, of constantly falling back into the restaurant business, in environments ranging from deep integrity to the bullshit fads of the high-end catering world of the 1980s. Detouring a year of your life to work food service among the primitive farms in France, or living in a hut on tiny island in the Aegean will no doubt tune you in to real eating, genuine local character, close to the source, but from my lowly vantage, it's as unattainable as all the foo-foo technical cuisine that I also can't afford. You haven't had an egg until some wine-buzzed Frenchman with hay on his sweater yanks it warm from the nest and brings it to your door that morning, etc. Well, it is a wonderful inspiration, even if she often realizes the downsides too (not for dilettantes), but it's noted that it is one which sets me just as firmly among the have-nots.
And needless to say, it is probably with a conscious effort that she approaches writing with the same outlook, with a genuineness that she feels is missing from the joyless context-heavy anaysis that her finally-successful graduate education swam in. The fact that she's effective in writing with this earthy but artful style also makes me want to eat her food.
I've never realized how affirming it is to read a memoir from someone of your own generation (Hamilton is only a few years older than me). Long-time readers of this blog will understand the resonance I might feel of living through a transitional neighborhood, one caught in the moment between farmland and sprawl, with a soft spot for the few surviving geezers that kept the simpler life going for a bit longer than everyone else. I didn't want to live like that either, but on the other hand, I was pretty damn happy that my parents patronized the old folks as much as hers did. It's still interesting to me that American food chic has evolved, in a way, to a version of the source purity I remember, which, now that the lifestyle has all but disappeared, is considered a luxury, and I sort of wished Hamilton had somehow managed to fully Americanize her foodie inspirations (although maybe pulling from polyglot European country influences is Americanizing it). Of course my parents' friends didn't include legions of artists, and they didn't have theme parties, or Kerouac-style bashes with stream-cooled jug wine and mountains spit-roasted lamb either--even at nine years old, Hamilton is more authentic than you or I will ever be--but damn, I sure wish they did. I can see why the author would be driven to re-create that with her own family in her own life, and how she would be driven to write by the resistance she finds in everyone else. I mean, I don't think I needed the teen drug years, but that sort of missing adult experience is killing me too.
Thursday, September 01, 2011
As many of you know, I'm looking for a new job. While the Doomsday Clock ticks inexorably down on the current one, I've begun to desperately expand my range of options, and I ask, not for the first time, what if there were a way to somehow merge my expensively utilized labor and my time-wasting hobbies into one single well-regarded career? How awesome would that be? Well...
I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that, so far as careers go, writing is a lot like cooking. It's one of those things that lots of people think they can do well, whether or not they actually can, and it tends to garner some kind of amped-up mystique as a countercultural endeavor, you know, along the lines of, "yeah, I'm going to get the hell out of this place and live my dream of" (a) "opening a restaurant," or (b) "finally writing that novel." It's something that looks easy when you are not actually doing it. In reality, of course, things go differently, and the notoriously low success rate of new restuarants is re-learned in the usual hard way (or if making the food's your goal, then welcome to the factory version of prep, and also to an established career ladder that's got to look pretty vertiginous from down there by the dishwasher), or agents or editors give you an unwelcome bit of honesty about your great American epic, and even if you do manage to get in, then welcome to a world of unappealing effort-to-reward ratios and inadequate credit. As a career, professional writing is probably even more swamped with dreamers and hacks, given that there's no tradition in chefdom, so far as I know, of getting in the door by sending in unsolicitated of samples food. Although on the other hand, chefs appear to sometimes get laid, which has to be something of a draw.
[Oh hell, I've been here before, haven't I? The chef analogy is the product of my upcoming book review, and I'm only going to take it a little bit further here. Last time, it was a comparison to musicians. I think if we're going by nookie potential, then the order goes something like, rock star > live musician > chef > session artist > concert musician > line cook > novelist > journalist > ghost writer > scientist > blogger > bottle polisher > vagrant > me. Not that I'm bitter.]
Anyway, what's different about those posts and this one is that several years later, I'm looking at the idea a lot more seriously. The AAAS (publishers of Science magazine) has a series of blog posts on science writing and editorial careers, as do a few other sites, most of them garnered from gentler economic times, which is alarming enough it its own right. It might take different sorts of people to throw themselves into science writing than onto the fiction slushpile, but the tone of the advice sure sounds damn familiar, including the old nostrum of "if you can stop doing this, then you probably should." These posts paint a picture of a similar writing field, this one teeming with (other) hopeful refugees from the business and academic worlds, either unemployed or unfulfilled, and just as disrespected by the working writers. Much as I instinctively loathe the condescension of career advice columns, and much as I recognize the tendency of other narratively-inclined people to write things as their own personal Odyssey, reading those blog posts has been helpful, as it has given me some of the required language to put in my cover letter. [Adaptability to jargon may well be the most important science writing skill there is, and you know, you'd think that with ten years of doing this very thing, I would gone through this exercise a little more carefully before I started dashing off formal inquiries into the high-level positions.] Even among the current job listings I've trolled, a "science career off the bench" is reduced to something of a buzzword. Working scientists and engineers often need to be reassured that an alternate career is still an intellectually valid one (we have lots tied up in this conception of ourselves as the few truly indispensible members of society), but fuck it, I'm over that part. Writing about the good stuff still beats performing research on the uninspired stuff, and even though the confluence of science and English skills is less rare than popular prejudices suggest, doing both does at least access my fuller skill set.
I am merely competent at manipulating the physical elements. Usually, my bigger strength has been in manipulating the story about those things. Putting together a plausible narrative around what information I can gather at the last minute, or, better, to make a convincing argument in a field I just learned, is where I have occasionally shined. I say on my cover letter that I write maybe ten research proposals in a year, and on the order of twenty technical reports, which account for all of my real deadlines. Sometimes I mention blog posts and papers and patents too, and for some reason I fail to disclose the endless presentation slides. I think it's because I'm ashamed of all the time I spend with PowerPoint. So far as time management, seriousness, and meeting deadlines goes, that's the area where it's natural, and I don't worry a hell of a lot about that part of a potential job. If I do offer an advantage over all the other people who do this, it's that, unlike them, I'm a top-notch generalist and a congenital rationalizer. For your benefit, I'll leave off the play-by-play of how important it ends up being to understand and evaluate research in almost any field (I like to tell the editorial people that, and needed a little nudge that I should), but when you get down to it, verisimilitude is what I do.
I'm slowly gathering that one should be choosy about which sort of writing/editorial position to chase. A substantial pay cut looms for just about all of them, and if it provides other benefits, such as not being miserable, I may be okay with that. Here in Massachusetts, as usual, I'm set back by competition from the young college recruits facing a terrible job market, and the the biomedical industry that has taken over the local publishing sphere as well. The more legitimate writing jobs include, in approximately increasing order of appeal, writing manuals and regulations, ghostwriting your way through the terrible papers and reports of your more stereotypical technician, summarizing content for the for higher-ups or writing literature reviews the "real" scientists, and various flavors of journalism. A few of the advertisements seem to be data-entry sweatshops, and one place called an internal summarizer position a "research scientist" which really did manage to offend me. I'm really angling for a full-time university position where I can write or edit content (and maybe take the opportunity for some classes to improve my technical skill set too). There are a few of these out there, and they're my best hope just now.
Journalism, a lot like cooking, has taken a weird trip in this country from a trade into a profession, with arguable results. They like to peddle college degrees for what used to be job skills. The official outlets speak to credentialism, because after all, most of these folks have been credentialled themselves, and it counters other advice I've had about the skills needed in the field. Still, there are several science writing programs in the country (two of the best ones are in Massachusetts), which appear to provide an excellent sorting function. (The MIT one is run by one of the better Balloon Juice contributors, still blogrolled here.) I mean, I don't doubt that I'd learn better skills going into the program, and I'm mulling over the idea as a means to network, practice, and actually get a job, but again, I've already been doing this sort of thing professionally, if you accept my job description, for a decade or more now. Can I get in with my present resume? I guess I'll keep passing it around.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
In this book, Ha-Joon Chang makes a clear case, in easy language, for many of the things (23 of them) that are wrong with the official parables of market economies. There's something to be said about clarity of language, which I think reflects the clarity of his arguments, and Chang gets some partial credit for introducing a few jokes and quips too, which are not badly timed, and elevate the humor maybe all the way up to "wry," making him a laser wit among the legions of employed economists. The arguments as presented are probably worth your while even if you're already a heterodox-minded sort—sometimes it's a good thing to gesture pointedly at the obvious—although I would have personally preferred to read something like this ten years ago, when it could have been a startling challenge to the received wisdom rather than just echo of my own conclusions. I'm serious about the getting there: a lot of this stuff I've either outlined boringly in blog posts (for example, of course there's no such thing as a free market, and clearly the powerful always pick their winners) or else I've painfully tried to use for rhetorical flair (e.g., how can you decry central planning and love Wal Mart?). This is where I tend to fail you as a reviewer, because I'm more attracted to write about the things areas where my mental picture is less complete--or even where I outright disagree--than I am to tout the stuff that validates my own views. So go ahead and read the book for a supply of handily succinct retorts for the next time some troll lobs some free-market mumbo-jumbo at you. It's easy, and not very long. And I'll do my incomplete best to discuss it here.
Chang does what few free-market sorts of economists like to do, which is to pull out a bunch of data—and for that matter, data of a more basic and important kind, and not the stretched inferential reaches toward the trivial that certain pop contrarians (Christ, I reviewed that one way too charitably) prefer—and use it to point out the flamingly obvious counterexamples to free-market thinking, most of it from the past thirty or forty years, and demonstrate the points he's arguing. While judicious data-comparing is an interesting exercise and all, if you're making an economic argument, it's good of him to try and evaluate what actually matters. There's a *reason* that libertarians prefer to present everything as a counterintuitive thought experiment.
He makes these comparisons with as valid a scope as he can. For example, he compares growth during respective nation's own respective development phases, which may be separated by a century or two, and while this is not perfect, it's better than comparing, say, the U.S. in 2010 to Burkina Faso of the same year. When looking at major effects of free market policies, he compares the results before and after implementation (which is what confines his history to the last four decades), and between countries that did or did not implement them. From this, there evolves some general principles and observations: all large economies are (imperfectly) planned; manufacturing is still far more important than finance (and successful economies became that way by protecting and fostering industry); free-market economic policies have resulted in lower growth, higher instability, and greater inequality in the countries where they've been willingly adopted or forced; that separating managers and owners from negative economic impacts has been a disaster.
This isn't to say that Chang has got it all covered perfectly. In some cases, I see the faults as only matters of understated emphasis, a failure to really push his conclusions right through the wall. For example, like most people, Chang imagines a distinction between state and capital. He takes care to reduce the clarity of distinction, saying that governments do in fact guide industries, that capital really has a national character (although labor, he says, not so much), and that corporate planning isn't a special category from government planning, but look, if you're going to take a long historical view of this, especially if you're going to cite examples of what made countries like the U.S., Britain, or the Soviet Union developed in the first place (and how they did so differently than African, Asian, or South American nations in their own twentieth century growth steps), then it's relevant that these economies owe a lot of their wealth to conquest and exploitation as well as development. A great deal of their governmental planning activities went to support the horrible crony industries of the day, such as enslavement, theft of gold, abuse of immigrants, and colonialism. There was a little more involved than tariffs, subsidies, and putting the screws on immigration. When it comes to failures of investment, did the Soviet Union pick badly, and in the sense of its constituents, immorally, to develop its military and space program at the expense of other industries? Yeah, almost certainly it did. But how do we in the U.S. do with choosing our core companies above all else? That is, it ain't just our financial sector that's pushing people around and diverting from more wholesome ends. Now, I don't think any of the above is *inconsistent* with anything Chang writes, and he does go further than most to fuzz up the boundaries between economic and other human activity or motivations, but having raised these points, he could have taken them home.
My second criticism is that Chang ignores arguments of scale, and some of the basic challenges to measuring things by growth. [Why, it's another of my hobby horses he's somehow refusing to recognize! The nerve!] Using growth as an important variable of success tempts fallacies of large and small numbers, and can ignore some important external factors. If, say, Congo grew more rapidly in the 60s, or western Europe in the early 50s, then you might want to consider the starting points. (On the other hand, industrially awakened America and Asia are probably excellent comparison points.) Likewise, we can make the same point for contemporary America's condition, which sane people might expect to saturate and decline at some point thanks to fundamental issues with resource-intense growth models, or even just running out of markets to expand to, even without considering the drain of the financial bubbles. I mean, I agree with Chang about the negative effects of the financialization of the west and the IMFification of the third world, and again, his counterexamples are well-chosen, a few of the modern ones that didn't rely as much on a massive army to make them work (Chang is Korean, and in a good position to question what the fuck the bank nations are always talking about), but growth models also have inherent problems of their own.
Finally, the only other thing I wish that Chang had done differently was to modify the way he introduced his chapters. I'm fine with the division and structure of the book, but each "what they tell you" section, meant to evoke a common free market argument, is a way to invite problems. I think that most of them are presented in good faith, but they're still straw men. And they don't need to be: it would not have been difficult to precede these paragraphs with a real quote to pin the view on an actual right-wing or neoliberal luminary. Two hours picking through transcripts of Larry Kudlow, Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, etc. could have given him more than enough material.
And if they didn't fit into a general review, here are a few points that captured my interest enough to write down:
Monday, August 22, 2011
By the way, it would only be fair of me to note that the Christ of the gospels was a stand-up guy when it came to women. His brand of iconoclasm spread to physical contact with unclean (bleeding) women, to embarrassing his core disciples with the superior faith of females, to forgiveness for adulteresses, and when he explicitly invited a non-Jew to come and join the salvation party, it was a woman. Even if the executive committee is seen in the canon as a small fraternal clique, Jesus' language works out to include females in the broader realm of disciples (unless Wikipedia is lying to me). Jesus Christ, if we can compile a good novel character for him, had a habit of seeing women as real people, which thwarted the social conventions of the day, and is worth bringing up even in a modern context. One of the things I do like about Christianity is that its lead figure had such a wicked anti-authoritarian streak. He made smoke come out of the appropriate ears. That these revered parables and anecdotes evolved to somehow underlie all manner of brand new patriarchies in the next couple thousand years is probably not surprising, but this guy who's spewing the evils of long pants, wine, and general uppitiness is nonethelss doing it with unintended irony, and it's things like self-seriousness and humorlessness that can really garner up my enmity.
Okay, I realize that a lot of the justifications of official church misogyny come from some select quotations in Paul's letters. But really, Paul's kind of an irritating zealot anyway (although if I understand it correctly, Paul's "genuine" epistles predate most of the gospels). I am not clear just how few generations of telephone* it took to turn the subversive messages from the original sermons into the decades-later transcription of them and then to their adoption as the brand new unimpeachable authority. I wonder if it contributes a serious enough advancement of the understanding of humanity to count as a scientific revolution. The impact of Jesus' message shares some similarities of form.
You can cherry-pick messages from the holy books, and people have long sought to use them to validate their own purposes. I am being undoubtedly unfair to generalize Christians by that particular priest who is wielding God's love for a crusade that I see as less than holy (which is redundant). And while I agree that loud professions of belief can be something to watch out for, a handy bit of projection, or maybe justification for any number of more objective failings, on the other hand, I don't want to deny that the church draws in good people, and inspires them to do good things. It can be the bedrock to good families and communities.
Now in my opinion--and I know it's not really nice to keep saying this--holy writ is a terrible basis for society, morality and natural study, thanks to it's inadequate scope, committee-written passages, innumerable authors, varying contexts, presumed infallibility, and unverifiable mysticism, but twentieth century history suggests that you can pull this trick with any godless creed just as easily. You put the right amount of material in there, and you can take anything you want out, particularly the stuff you already wanted to have, and that's pretty much the point. Add a "holy" element and now nobody can disagree. There's enough variation in tone and message in the books to reinforce whatever bias or cherished cultural marker you want to take in, and those can be positive as easily as they can be negative. I might be able form up to a mighty nice message based on the parts I like, but I've mostly given up on trying to balance the other stuff in order to get to the more noble take-homes. I'm just not a very good follower.
And as a rule, I don't like the idea of guardians to power and knowledge, which is to say priests of any vernacular stripe. There's a point to ceding power to educators and administrators, for example, but really that's only justifiable only so far as you share an aim to accomplishing something (learning, effective organization). I have lived my life without ever annoying the authorities much, and you wouldn't peg me for a subversive: I'm lucky enough to look like everyone else, possess socially unobjectionable habits, generally fit in on the local level, and of course I'm cracker-white. But I don't, in fact, believe in the goodness of our social order, and think with some conviction that it's irrevocably fucked up in a number of critical ways. My growing opinion is that I need to fit in to it less. But mostly, on a basic level, I just resent the insinuation that I should look up to power for power's sake. When someone begins to justify himself with unassailable moral arguments that only he is entitled to use, then that's the motherfucker you need to watch out for. Jesus had that one right.
*Safe to say they called it something else back then. I believe there was an appropriate scene in The Life of Brian...
[edited somewhat for clarity]
Saturday, August 20, 2011
Apologies for the even-lighter-than-usual posting this month. It comes down to a competition with the ongoing job search, as well as other, less soul-killing, distractions which have all combined to siphon my already spotty inspiration to other outlets. I often think that if I wanted to attract more readers, I should fall back on recurring material, like the nooze, or amusing attempts to anthropomorphize my coworkers or something, or Daddy blogging, but those things don't really scratch the right itches, or at least they don't well enough to justify the extra effort, and worse, in a lot of those cases I'd feel like such a bastard for talking about people behind their backs. Hey, speaking of which...
Truth is, I'm breaking a couple of my rules with this anecdote. First, I'm putting an excerpt of personal conversation into the public space, which I try not to do, but to be fair, it's one of those things that I have every intention of developing into one of those entertaining stories to tell at parties and stuff, and I further aim to embellish the hell out of its original version. The other contraindicated item is talking about my marriage, but you know what? I'm proud of the old girl for this one, and I never find myself saying enough good things about her, so here's one.
Here's a vocabulary exercise, which most of you probably don't need. The word "pariah" is an artifact of the Indian caste system. That it got adopted into English suggests that there was a need for it, which is surprising to me, and frustrating with respect to this post. It's not like the west has any shortage of persecutorial social structures, and hell, maybe it says something that the Indians at least admitted it all to themselves. You'd particularly think that some Roman Catholic equivalent should be floating around out there (although a catholic pariah would be an oxymoron), but I had a hard time finding the pejorative for those people who manage to define themselves without a Church at all, it's as if it's something completely outside their worldview. Best I managed was "non-Catholic," which didn't really carry the same punch. Words like "outcast" or "excommunicant" assume prior membership, whereas pagans and witches are people who have competing beliefs, and that's wholly inappropriate here. Even a heathen would need to be someone who's content out on the primitive English scrublands. Who's the official non-participant of the Catholic church? Do the popelings even have a word for someone who just doesn't give a fuck? Let me know if you know the right designation. "Heretic" was the best I came up with, and it's at least a word I do like.
Well, in any case, my wife is one of those. I have recently learned that she has attained some kind of official antithetical status according to the self-nominated assembly of God. I couldn't be more proud.
D makes friends about as easily as I do, but as life has turned out, she was able to bond with another adult student when she went back to re-edjumication camp a few years ago. There, she found an organic chemist making a similar change in her life, a kindred soul to help gleefully blow the curve for the rest of the preplexed little go-getters. Would they have been credentialed enough to work in a medical lab with just the chemistry or the chemical engineering degree and mere years of experience? Well sure, but there's a big step of focusing yourself after a substantial time off, and classes helped them both get into their new groove. Things have worked out so that they're employed at the same place, and they're best buds of the sort I've sorely missed myself for the last 15 years or so. And good for them. It's not like everyone should be this miserable.
We've hung out a few times together family-style, and it hasn't quite gone smoothly. My previous opinion of P's husband was merely as a boringly quiet guy that it's impossible (especially for another quiet guy) to have a conversation with, but I've learned recently that there are deep convictions underlying his essential gormlessness. He is also something of True Believer, of a deeply conservative Catholic stripe, grimacing to digest a wealth of conservative views of women's roles, and, no doubt, every other sort of dyspeptic social convention that used to not fail to put a healthy fear of god into folks back in better centuries. The ironic part is that P, like my wife, has a pretty short delay between brain and mouth, and how she gets by with all this is something of a mystery to me. I think she saves up for the confessions.
Guiding this constant challenge of will is the P family priest, and kindly members of the flock as they are, they have the shepherd over for dinner once every so many weeks. Several months ago, my dear wife was in their area and without calling first, she showed up at her friend's door, during one of those formal and (I assume) joyless little affairs. My godless sweetie is unused to seeing holy men in full evangelical attire, but managed to not comment on the robes. In fact, she tells me, she showed uncharacteristic restraint even as she got whisked away, perhaps as impressed with the inherent dignity of a man who shows up dressed in his office. But she managed to make an impression just the same.
It's come back around. The priest, rather severely, does not approve this devious Sodomite that I married. It is enough for him that my wife always wears pants. And that she drinks wine, enticing P to do the same once a month. Most threatening of all, my darling doesn't give a thought whatsoever about "knowing her place" in the jealous hierarchy of souls. (If this guy knew what we did before we were decently married...) P suffers stern opprobrium from the priest that her "friends" (of which there is only one) are, literally, parading her straight down into the Pit of Fire. And from this end, I think it's a mark of achievement that my someone who consented to marry me is cool enough to have some creepy repressed narrowbrain in a dress actively preaching against her, evidently because she is an independent, confident, and relatively well-adjusted woman, without the fear of Hell in her. How many people get to claim that level of distinction?
I'm on record having a soft spot for Christians. Having known some exceptional ones in my time, I can find myself inclined to think well of them in general, or at least of certain sorts. I think that for all its failings, the good people that the faith manages to attract can sometimes make the whole enterprise look classy, which is probably true of any faith. But on the other hand, people like this priest are still out there, demanding subservience of half the population and then telling themselves that they make the world better though boundless love. Jesus Christ!
Tuesday, August 02, 2011
Monday, July 25, 2011
Apologies to whatever's left of my readers for this one. I'm contractually obligated by the anti-establishment (which is getting exactly what it paid for) to churn out an update of my general understanding of economics every few months. Call it part of an ongoing series if you want. More like, some stuff I read got the brain swirling around in its usual sorry circles, and now it needs to drain.
As someone who doesn't understand all of the fine details of economics so well, and is suspicious of them anyway, I often like to try to and look at them from a coarser level, from farther away, and see if it makes sense on that necessary approximation. I find this a rewarding exercise usually, and like any human being, I grow to believe that my comfortable way of looking at things is in fact the important one. Engineers have a habit of this sort of thing anyway, as I've blathered about in times past. Those subatomic details are distracting, and obviously this is why macroeconomics is different from microeconomics, and so far as I can glean (this is my sporadic recreational reading, god help me), addressing macroeconomics based on "microfoundations" is, a lot like resource economics, only a young field struggling against an increasingly inadequate paradigm. Better late than never, I guess.
[And it's fun to ask whether microfoundations are more like statistical thermodynamics, from which macro properties can be statistically derived, or more like quantum mechanics, in which they are consistent with macro properties, but produce negligible predictive value for problems of that scale. I never developed a good answer for that analogy, and I didn't like the handful of discussions I read, because it kept coming back to me that economics isn't fundamental enough to describe primate behavior, and is insufficient with respect to the physical laws it apes.]
I agree that the macroeconomy is necessarily a statistical average of all the busy-bee activity that can be called economic, and that there is feedback with macroeconomic policy and all, but this doesn't really cover enough ground. If we can look at the economy as a big black box, then "the economy" really is how we distribute what we collectively make the effort to produce or do. (This is definitionally true, which will only make the next fuckhead who talks about "redistribution" that much more irritating.) On some level, the redistribution is arbitrary, as is the level of effort (once we get past the point of keeping a critical fraction of us fed) we put in. In American capitalism, it's a great conceit that the divvying of effort and rewards is conducted according to some rules-based algorithms. These rules are a compromise between some pet philosophical justifications of ownership, baseline standards of living (that'd be the Socialism that crept in), and variously weighted assessments of the value of different types of contributions. People can get paid to do work or make stuff and people who own can manage the value of improving their property, or so the story goes.
I'm finding that black box viewpoint useful to help weed out the parts of the economy that are fake. The GDP, for instance, is somewhat real (even if it measures things in imaginary numbers), demarking the total amount of goods-n-services that are produced, more or less. In real life though, all this stuff is limited by resources – by population, energy, land and food (elementary stuff, I know, at least with respect to land, for which more patient students than me can describe how it turned into "capital"). Call it the first law: you can't get out more than you put in, and even if you quip about optimized non-zero-sum exchanges, you're still using many implicit assumptions about where the producion must come from. You're still only optimizing efficiency. Game theory does not obviate physics.
There are times when resources directly affect the volume of worldwide production. Oil shocks are, at a minimum, a common ad hoc reason thrown around to discuss disruptions. It's the conventional understanding of the stagnant 1970s economy, and I also remember it standing in as a cause of the 2008 recession, at least for a short time, until people finally started questioning the screwy financials. It's a running curiosity that a more fundamental connection isn't observed more routinely. Given its pretense as the only social science, economics has ironically done a very bad job of integrating that first law, as outlined in this entertaining excerpt. You can't assume stuff that doesn't exist (although I lose him when he dismisses the rebuttal that things are fine to a certain level of approximation—of course it's fine when the assumptions hold). If you like to think in terms of the second law (or if you pedantically want to call process dynamics, my preferred choice of technical metaphor, an analysis of the second law, as is done in this interesting article), then "production" is even better described as a dissipative process (which can have more or less stable dynamic states, mind you), that is, kinetics rather than equilibrium. Civilization is then a transient species, something that has happened in between turning carbon and sunlight into food into shit.
Although it is essential, count money among the things that are useful fabrications. Credit, even more so. In the macro world, I try to remember that money and credit is more of an indicator of the asset distribution than a driver. Money is really a mutual agreement to accept money as a medium of exchange, which definitely helps the process along. (This is true even of gold, which upon a time was useful for this role because it was durable and people liked it. But it's no more fundamentally valuable than other representative things, and since it's value represents a narrow slice of things people really value--notably you can't eat or burn it--it's probably less good.) I see debt as basically a bet on the short-term persistence of the status quo, the human reaction to gamble that things will soon regress back to the mean. When that's a reasonable bet, it facilitates activity, and when it's not, it does the opposite. Money and credit are super useful, but they are more like written laws than physical ones, and economists are more like lawyers than scientists. Which is fine, but consider that legal rules are also only followed in principle by the robotic force of algorithm, and given that we are really creating an economy on the basis of mutual agreements, and even through we specify the goal and the rules, it's also true that we try to constantly get around them.
American capitalism (at least as it is marketed) has a lot invested in the idea that the macroeconomy emerges from its microfoundations, but I keep coming back to the idea that it's a fundamentally flawed assumption. American capitalism has done a very shitty job, to my mind, of integrating the role of power, coercion, and security, which I think is safe to also classify as fundamental parts of our overall system of agreed-upon rules, but somehow economics gets away with dismissing to the arena of politics and sociology instead, unwisely imagining that some mutual agreements can be neatly separated from others. I would say that the rules instead evolve as a consequence of the status hierarchy, which exists at a more fundamental human level than "economics" does. And the powerful are (by definition) able to influence the rules (albeit without much collective intellect or finesse) until it reaches a distribution favorable to themselves. The iron rule of oligarchy gets it so much better, and is immensely more succinct.
Where the fake meets the real, then at least we can say it gets interesting. If the "real" economy is, although maybe fuzzily defined at the edges, the redistribution of all the stuff we produce, then it's worth noting where the idea of that distribution gets most deeply obfuscated. Dr. Leo Strauss (obvioulsy not the actual one) recently summed it up as well as anyone: we don't "make" nuthin but finance these days, a service that has managed to massively overvalue itself at the expense of every other service or product. (Doc Strauss also provided some awesome interviews with David Simon about The Wire, the guiding ethos of which, he says, is that human life is declining in value in the post-industrial age.) A bubble economy is a matter of pretending that we make more than we do, and that we can distribute more than we actually have. It works because the black box of American economy has some inputs and outputs into it. In comes goods and energy, and out goes what little extra we still produce. In and out also go complex systems of agreements and arguments on how we value it in paper, full of double negatives and hot air and backed by force. The world economy doesn't have inputs and outputs other than the heat balance, however, and if we consider stored resources, then it is in fact zero sum, according to the goddamn first law of thermodynamics.
We are propping up the value of the dollar (which contracts and verbage direct oil into this country more easily and help to let other people actually do the producing of things so long as we get to keep gambling), keeping up the value of real estate (which contracts keep people with more license to make that gamble), keeping our armies massive (enforcing all the wheeling and dealing), and keeps the level of inequality high as hell. I don't know, letting oil prices rise, un-developing arable land, bringing industry back to these shores, and letting the super-rich finally absorb a kick in the neck seems to be exactly what is necessary to bring the whole system into something resembling local reality, although it's likely to be painful for all of us, and I don't want that either. We can only impoverish everyone else for so long before we start going down with them (or until maybe we get weak enough and they get pissed enough).
If the current trend we are seeing in the world today is actual GDP shrinkage driven by first-law sorts of pressures, such as limits to oil and water, or even just bad bets on expansion, then expect that huge network of agreements to stretch and become rigid (that seems consistent with a serial bubble economy, increased indenture, and IMF-style forced austerity everywhere you look) in an effort to keep the head on top, and then falter in glorious financial collapse. It's a global behavior consistent with what you'd expect from shrinking fundamental resources, and that's worth pointing out (and it's also my suspicion), but it's inconclusive on its own. It also has happened sometimes in history when power concentrates too much in social and financial spheres and the loss is painful in the living memory of everyone else. Some collapses can be tied to extension beyond resource sustainability (Rome's slow decline probably fits this model), but others are just human behavior taken too far (more like the Great Depression maybe).
I don't really know where we are at now, but I'm not super optimistic about the future.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
A true confession: I blew this one tonight. We did it last weekend, and it was of those dishes that transcended at least two of my senses, but tonight...not so much. Part of the problem was just the peas. Peas are one of those things that are heavenly for about a week out of the year, after which they become fodder, and this week's peas are just not the same as last week's peas, and moreover, we did them no favors by making the dish two fucking days after they were bought and shelled. (Yes, that is in fact shame I feel—I was brought up better than this—but it may not be too late for my dear mom, who didn't even manage to plant the things until May, which is the main reason I am writing this down.) But even worse was knowing that I just munged up the balance of things.
I should point out that we basically copied a recipe we had in New York way back in May, at Eataly, and merely put the peas and mint on the outside instead of in the filling. I suppose in the city that never sleeps, you can get some quality legumes overnighted from a few states down if you have the culinary pull. We were stuck waiting until they came ready in north central Massachusetts, but fresher is always better anyway. Here in ____, we also have a tremendous Italian population, but evidently not an impressive Eatalian one, and after at least three remarkably craptastic ethnic restaurant adventures, we gave up on 'em almost a decade ago. And so we were completely and pleasantly surprised to have discovered a little old lady with a good pasta shop in town. We made the dish with a combination of her gnocchi and cheese-filled ravioli, which all I had to do was not screw up. Making me one for two, I guess. If you make this, go with the nicest fresh pasta you can make or get your hands on.
My wife tells me that we have had the combination of peas and mint before, and it's both natural and obvious, she says. To me, it seemed revelatory in May, and then even better eight days ago. The nuttiness (a food adjective I find annoying) of the brown butter pushes the sweet and aromatic, the vegetable and salt and toast together like a seventh predicts the tonic. When it's good, it's very very good. My advice, just don't fuck it up.
So salt your water, and boil your pasta, like you are supposed to. Don't overcook it. I have heard that gnocchi, if you go that way, can be a little sensitive, or something like that. Don't know where I got that idea. I did not find it critical to time the pasta (it finished a little before), and while I sure didn't rinse it, I removed it, and did not any of the water to make up the sauce. Just butter and cheese.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan, then raise the heat to medium-high and cook the butter until it foams and just starts to brown. Pull it off and reduce the heat. Add the peas and mint, and cover for a minute or two, not past "warm" on your cooling burner. Stir in the cheese and pepper. Then gently toss or fold the pasta. Garnish with a sprig of mint, if you're so motivated.
Friday, July 08, 2011
Nope, it's not a hiatus (so sorry about your position in the pool, bright), just going to try an experiment with all the book reviews. That's right, I'm going to try and monetize the motherfuckers. Ooo-ooh.
Although the number of regular readers here (and I love you all) is, um, not large, I have been following the Statcounter recently, and the poorly-named Keifus Writes! somehow gets about 75 search hits a day, most of them from people who are looking for book reviews. (People also look for mandolin fingerings and a chance to buy my virginity.) Some of these regularly come up in the top ten google hits, which is pretty surprising to me. So I'm going to start putting links to Amazon, in case I manage to convince anyone that they want to purchase those items.
If anyone reading this post wants to use one of those links as a portal to purchase your next big-screen TV, then I won't complain, but I'm not trying to make money off of my friends, and I encourage you, if you are so motivated, to go and patronize someone who needs the money more than I do. (And if the whole idea really bothers y'all, I'll just take out the ads.) I'm just thinking I might round up enough scratch from casual interlopers to purchase a new book once in a while. Worth a shot anyway.
Tuesday, July 05, 2011
It's always fun to review famous books that everyone has heard of. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle made the world familiar with muckraking journalism, and shocked the country into adopting somewhat improved food safety standards. President Roosevelt, we're told, was swayed by discovering, from passages of the book, what goes into embalmed meat and sausage. It seems safe to say that he didn't read the rest of it. The Jungle may deserve a review for the plot that no one talks about, of which only a small fraction is spent in the Chicago meat empire. It follows the first few years in the life of Jurgis Rudkus upon immigration to America from Lithuania. Sinclair takes us through a handy travelogue of institutionalized hardship, starting with extortion on the passage, through the subtle or overt systematic coercion and humiliation and pestilence that bedeviled the teeming ranks of unskilled labor in the meat industry in 1904. He'd originally centered it on the failed meat-packer's strike of that year, but the book takes Jurgis and his family through several other modes of contemporary employment (factory work, begging, prostitution, crime, vagrancy, politics), all born of, and failing, their good intentions to live as decently and independently as they can conceive.
It ends with an improvement on their conceptions, a veritable epiphany. The Jungle is a Socialist marketing pitch, a surprising survivor in the American canon. Poor Jurgis is slated to experience every version of the underside of the machine that Sinclair can think of to add, a sort of pilgrim's progress that is maybe not strict allegory, but runs at least as a series of representative anecdotes. (I am sure there's an appropriate literary term.)
I think that there is some real conflict with Sinclair the novelist and Sinclair the propagandist, to the detriment of both missions. The book opens with Jurgis' wedding, the only scene of joy and vitality before the ending, and once it ends, there is only a dismantling of the happiness that developed in that moment, with each new subtraction coming through like a shot in the gut. But there is only so much there to take apart, and when it's gone, we find that Sinclair still has half a book to go. Cool lefty types remark with regret that people remember the horrible abuses of the meat industry but neglect to take home what it did to reveal the anguish of working people, but it's not entirely the fault of the reader. Once Jurgis leaves Packingtown, once the last connection to his family goes under the mire in yet another tragedy, his story gets a whole lot less immediate, and any mystery we have invested in the happiness of these characters vanishes under the weight of obvious authorial intent. The student correctly sniffs out a lesson coming at this point, and grows bored. A novel is an excellent medium to convey an individual story, but this everyman thing loses its punch for needing to include, well, every man.
As writing goes, an occasional moments of satisfaction, however impoverished, could have gone far to accentuating the far larger negatives that Sinclair was after. The only positive outlet for Jurgis, the author lectures, was chasing the hazy phantoms of joy at the bottom of a bottle. Sinclair lectures a good deal, and while his appeals to human dignity are strong, his reversion to Christian-style morality (temperance, abstinance, moderation) are tedious. The introduction (written by Maura Spiegel, in the B&N cheapo edition) notes that the author did not describe his characters with a rich inner life, but instead went for a more observational style that was the fashion of some of his contemporaries. But this is no vivid little Chekhov-style tableau we're talking. There is no shortage of moralizing and psychological mechanics, they just happen to all come from the author instead of the characters. The editorializing doesn't go down much easier for the obvious distance that exists between the supercilious Sinclair and his earthy protagonist. The author has got every article of mild slang doubt-quoted, sniffs at every hint of debauchery, is affronted by black people, adds exclamations to every larger observation, and dear-readers us nearly to death. The climax is a speech, and the denouement is a goddamn lecture, in which we're reminded, sadly without irony, that like many another ethos, national Socialism offers a brilliant critique, but a provides a very sketchy prescription. The faith by which the world should fall into place under its influence seems rather quaint with a century's hindsight.
I like novels, and I don't mind polemics if the writing is good, but this combination felt a bit distasteful to me, even though Upton Sinclair is good enough to put satisfying thoughts and words and plots together. And I am sympathetic to his criticism (even if I lack his faith in a Socialist panacea), so it's not really the content that's the problem. If this thing were a satire—or showed any trace of humor whatever—then it could have carried a lot more weight with me. It may be just my own weird predilections.
[Edited slightly, with apologies to the English language.]
Among my many excuses for dragging my feet this month is that I was in a recent conversation that absorbed some of the "creative" energy that I usually bundle up and deposit in the blog, which is great and all, but it also happens to be none of your damn business. There was a book recommendation tangentially involved, however, and it leaves me in a funny place: my opinion of it had to be reported back privately, but what about my obligation to the book-review-reading community? What about my obligation to you, dear reader? How will some little MBA proto-sociopath cheat on his homework without services like mine? So I can't guarantee there won't be a sentence or two of crossover here in this longer-form dealie. Just on the off chance anyone's ever moved to read this.
Well, I liked the book, and I didn't expect to, although my skepticism was probably a function of the title and the intended audience. I have enjoyed reading about cognitive biases and how they govern our interactions in the past, and Bazerman took me some distance beyond what I already knew or figured out, and he was kind of enough to elaborate. In addition, filling the concepts out with the accepted vocabulary has since proven handy. Some of these biases, like the fallacy of small numbers ("fastest-growing" is a fine indicator of something unimportant), have been long-standing pet peeves of mine, while others, like the Dunning-Kruger effect, where incompetent people are the ones most likely to judge themselves as skillful and correct, were more like inchoate little complaints needing the help of some wise academician to identify and label. Things like "competitive escalation" I readily identified as true (he said half-seriously) because I've seen them in innumerable cartoon plots, while others, like these associative heuristics he warns against, are a little closer to my own areas of psychological susceptibility (in Mr. Downer's case here, intense negative feelings that get weighted too heavily in matters of self-judgment), and were not at all as fun to read, even if I did my best to keep an open mind about them. At least I was comforted that I don't share the thinking patterns of MBA students.
I do want to point out that some biases can be more rational than Bazerman lets on. People judge probabilities poorly, and we know it. While it's fine to assume accurate odds or trusted outcomes for the purposes of a word problem, I think the whole "X will earn 4% interest", or "Y has a 60% chance of failing" thing has, in real life, little chance of being true. The assumption of randomness is often false. The stock or housing market doesn't always grow over meaningful time periods (imagine, for one well-chosen example, that you were foolish enough to start saving in it ten or fifteen years ago) and inflationary discounting omits a lot of factors that actually matter in the cost of living. In real life, people often lie to their own advantage about statistics and odds, or assess them badly, or, of course, weigh them down with the offeror's own assortment of mental fuckups. To his credit, Bazerman gets into that a little in the decision-making chapters, but these remain tragically neat little story problems too, clearly and unrealistically mapped on an x-y axis.
The idea that people suffer from many cognitive biases that reinforce their positive illusions is a powerful one I think, and in my opinion, it goes farther than, say, the entire field of economics in explaining the shape of human society. [I keep entertaining a longer post about this, but every draft I write has come out with too much crackpot in it, and I am furthermore not completely sure where I stand on the larger details.] Maximizing your self-interest, or maximizing mutual interest, are things that go only so far, and there are all sorts of cognitive hiccups that must be served in the meantime. That is, any rational analysis of cognitive bias shouldn't exclude the observation that we tend to believe that we are more rational than we actually are. In the edition I have, Max Bazerman addresses some of these erroneous conceptions of fairness in the appropriate chapters, and does draw some broad pictures of, say, resource conservation on those terms (the usual tragedy of the commons, now with a new twist) and how it suffers. Even the rational strategies he outlines for negotiations (where sometimes there is mutual benefit to ceding power) appear that they could gradually produce inequality, and this does also get a brief and late mention in the short book, some time after I angrily scribbled my note.
I have a few other blurbs that I had noted as more useful or interesting to watch out for. Anyone want some insight to what makes me tick?