Monday, November 21, 2011

Why I Have Trouble Following the Narrative of Current Events

"[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

Can Anyone Create Jobs? I'll Have To Go With "Yes."

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

Review: On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers

[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!