Review: Gnomon

March 18th, 2018

Gnomon mashes up several genres – police procedural, technothriller, heist movie, historical fantasy, and a few others that are harder to name – into a sparkling oroboros of an SF masterwork.  That is a genre that often shines a light onto today’s society by turning a knob past 11.  Here, Nick Harkaway twists the knob of privacy and surveillance past the peg and we’re off to the races.

He does a nice job building a world that’s believable enough to spark ideas and arguments without distracting overly much from those ideas.  And the ideas and allusions start coming fast.  The magic is that those genres and allusions spotlight the ideas in addition to obfuscating them.  Ideological sounds ring out and randomly reverberate more deeply as Gnomon progresses.

Gnomon is rich with ideas inside and calls outside its universe; those ideas reverberate, rattle, and ultimately pervade the genres and entangled narratives that form it. Those narratives outline the ideas of self, democracy and representation, persuasion and coercion, and privacy.  The multi-genre, multi-narrative style shows how these ideas dance with and tussle against one another. By wrapping them in various forms of story and literature, Harkaway makes them elemental.

Now allusion and reverberation is all well and good, but if the story doesn’t engage people, it’s pointless.  Gnomon is pointed.  Each arc is propulsive on its own terms and spiced with the questions and tension of figuring out how it all connects to the others.

Hardaway’s Gnomon was one of the best things I’ve read in a long time both for thinking and for fun.

A must.

Review: The Doomsday Machine

March 17th, 2018

Daniel Ellsberg walks in controversy.  Specifically he’s an anti-war activist who has made a life’s work out of exposing the internal operations of the US government.  He’s the person who stole and published the Pentagon Papers, internal documents describing Vietnam War internal motivations and policies.  He believed that the government behaving hypocritically and risked his freedom to draw attention to those policies and actions.  Despite that playing out when I was a child, it’s still controversial.

Whatever you might think of him, Ellsberg is consistent. In Doomsday Machine he continues to speak out about what he believes are immoral government policies.  Doomsday Machine aims at US nuclear policy throughout his tenure in the government.  Unfortunately he doesn’t have the physical copies of the documents he cites, which means readers have to treat Doomsday as a memoir.  He does make some pretty serious accusations about how branches of the government and military are competitive when they should be cooperative.  He claims that military branches routinely misrepresented the intelligence they had about the USSR to the State Department and the President.

I’m making that sound more diplomatic that Ellsberg does.  I don’t have any idea what the truth of the matter was in the 1960’s and 70’s much less now.  Still, these stakes are high and as a call for transparency, I find it compelling.

There’s a second half of Doomsday that Ellsberg devotes to persuading readers that the concept of mutually assured destruction through nuclear war – or any such extermination system – is unsound.  He does a nice job of bringing that home, IMHO, and it’s certainly worth deep thoughts.  It is natural to mentally distance yourself from the destructive power that a doomsday machine entails, and Ellsberg reminds you that the plan is to kill as many people as possible.  People have to decide for oneself if there’s a benefit worth that price, but I think there’s real value in seeing the price clearly.

Doomsday is certainly a reflective surface.  Readers will see themselves as much as Ellsberg in it – know it or not – but as a nucleation site for these ideas, I think it’s worthwhile.


Review: The Rituals of Dinner

March 4th, 2018

Rituals of Dinner is the sort of charming book that feels like a palate cleanser between scholarly tomes.  That is just a facade, though.  Margaret Visser has crafted a soundly built exploration of our table manners that supports her elegant tableware.

That said, Rituals abides in an odd niche.  It’s scholarly, but not academic, informative but not authoritative, and traces the roots of ideas without being historical.  In addition, Visser does not pretend to be unbiased.  Her reasoned support for both the Emily Post and Miss Manners traditions warms this etiquette nerd’s heart.  It’s not an etiquette manual, either.

It is an informed depiction of the range of behavior at the table focused on but not limited to American and European traditions.  If you’ve ever wondered why knife etiquette involves where the weapon, er, utensil is pointed this is a book for you.  Visser has spent many hours in the library.

The erudition would fall flat under lesser writing.  She hits an impossible tone with perfect pitch. Digressions are just long enough and deep enough.  The main narrative moves along briskly.  Her organization lends itself to spending a few hours or a few minutes.

Strongly recommended.

Pro Tip: Only the People can change the Constitution (generally with the help of Congress)

March 4th, 2018

When a president or candidate claims to be a protector against or progenitor of changes to the Constitution, do not believe them.

The president’s role in repealing the Second Amendment or preventing its repeal is operationally zero.  The same is true of adding new amendments – e.g., the ERA.

The process is completely contained in Article V.  The tl;dr is: if two thirds of both houses propose an amendment (enough to override a veto, were one even possible, incidentally) and three fourths of the state legislatures or conventions therein approve it, the proposed amendment becomes part of the Constitution.  (There’s an alternative way to start the ball rolling, but the 3/4 approval by states always has to happen.)

The chief executive’s only input or output is the ability to shout from the Bully Pulpit. That’s it.

The judicial isn’t involved, either.  It’s just us.

So don’t vote based on that crap.

Review: Janesville

February 16th, 2018

Amy Goldstein has crafted quite a kaleidoscope in Janesville.

In 2008 GM closed the manufacturing plant that was the anchor of the city’s economy which had huge effects on everyone in the town.  Goldstein brings a journalist’s eye and compelling research to follow those waves and then ripples into 2016. The reporting is powerful and enlightening.

I have never lived through such a focused economic upheaval as an adult.  Elmira has certainly seen a steady economic contraction over my lifetime, but never the kind of hammer blow that Janesville did. I fancied that the result was the sort of economic crater from which the population just scattered, though I know that never happens.  Lives don’t move that suddenly.  Janesville gives a fantastic view of this from the ground to the Speaker of the House.

I thought about this a little more and I want to be a little more concrete about Goldstein’s multi-faceted portrayals.

Because Goldstein presents the lives of many folks who play different roles in how Janesville takes the blow, she presents the effects on both the people playing those roles and the institutions in action.  The federal government is far away and somewhat aloof; vague promises never become concrete and many efforts are misguided.  Worker retraining at the local community college is difficult to get funded and over the years its effects are a mixed blessing.  (Goldstein includes a compelling study on the efficacy of their retraining as an appendix, so data nerds (guilty) can compare her conclusions with theirs).

To be fair, neither the college facilities nor its funding structure was built to absorb demands like the ones this crisis presented. That is part of the larger point that Janesville is a small city that takes an enormous blow.  This plant was the majority employer for the city and it vanished over months.  Most of the civic structure was adapting to cope with the slow sort of decline my home town had, if they were planning for decline at all.  While the blast of trouble more clearly reveals the cracks in the people and the institutions, its magnitude almost certainly overwhelmed institutions and humans who could have adapted to smaller shocks.

In addition to showing one view of civic institutions in crisis, Janesville also illuminates larger societal trends in concrete terms.  After 8 years the reader can trace see the decline of union influence, increased income disparity, and shifts in social strata through the individual stories of those living it.

Goldstein’s tapestry is well crafted from strong threads that resolve into an enlightening picture.


I Only Listen To the Tides

February 11th, 2018

This post is an update to my 2017 post talking about the podcasts I like.  I have a couple more to recommend.

  • I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats: This has been a delight in so many ways.  Joe and John talk informally about how they create cool stuff.  One could say that these are recordings of Joseph Fink and John Darnielle in conversation about their creative process as artists. One of the reasons I’m digging this so much is that both viewpoints are true.  These are two guys and two erudite artists.  They bop between those two modes of discourse with remarkable ease and have lots of deep things to say in mundane ways and mundane things to say in deep ways.  And it’s all two guys talking in the basement.
    As a bonus,it turns out that I really like the album they’re using to frame their talks: All Hail West Texas. I expect I’ll like more Mountain Goats music as well.  I know I’ll be buying some.  They also get people to cover the songs and I’ve bought a couple of those, too.  So be warned that this podcast may make you spend money.
  • Tides Of History: As Ben Edlund said: from the other side of the Corpus Callosum, I’ve been enjoying this incredible deep dive into late antiquity and early modern history. I’ve tried to listen to Patrick Wyman’s earlier podcasts and found his presentation well intentioned, but too dull for me.  He’s a history professor, after all.  What kept me keeping tabs on him is that he had (IMHO) the right idea: make this stuff accessible to people by describing it better.  He’s made his presentation into something that’s beyond accessible and into enticing.  He hooks me by grounding his – extensive – scholarship in compelling framings of the time and important concepts of the present.  He’s also become much more savvy about using the medium, too – his sound design has markedly improved, for example and he lets his enthusiasm warm his episodes without overheating them.  There’s no need for you to care about that process.  If you like history at all, try couple episodes and join me as a fan.

Review: The Shallows

February 11th, 2018

The Shallows is the best kind of polemic: it’s one that gets the facts right and lets the reader get on to disputing the ideas.  And I do dispute the ideas even as I admire the presentation and research that Nicholas Carr has done.

The focus of Carr’s concerns is that today’s information economy is changing the way people approach and process information.  On its face that assertion is true, but Carr’s concern isn’t that people search Google instead of the card catalog; he’s concerned that these tools are changing the layout and function of people’s brains.  This sounds much more dire.  He implies that people are losing their ability to read and interpret long-form arguments and similar hallmarks of the humanist scholar. That has a certain alarmist feel about it, but the facts he marshals in its support are genuine.

His argument that tools change how we think at a biological level hinges on recent research into brain plasticity.  This is the observation that neurological connections rearrange themselves throughout human lifetimes, not just during early brain development. The most dramatic examples of this are people whose brains rearrange themselves after traumatic brain injury to restore or enhance existing brain function.  These are remarkable examples, and worth a look no matter what else you think of Carr’s arguments.  His exposition of these ideas implies that he expects arguments about the efficacy of the phenomenon.  He won’t get them from me.

We do disagree, though. The first point is a bit subtle.  He seems to hold a vaguely dualistic view of the brain and mind.  That is, he seems to believe that the mind is distinct from the brain and uses the brain to think with.  Under this view the various tools are damaging the house his self lives in.

I don’t believe that at all.  I think that the brain the entire manifestation of self and consciousness, modulo the fact that we don’t know how it works and there may be elements of consciousness that reside other places. But it’s all physical.  As a consequence, brain plasticity is unsurprising; every though or memory or impression modifies the organ in some way.  I am surprised by just how widespread the changes can be, but it doesn’t feel to me like modern tools are undermining my thinking equipment.  My interpretation is that the tools and I are adapting to one another.

Philosophical fine points aside, the second point on which we largely disagree is that he believes that the traditional scholarly modes of thought are under siege.  And that this is a loss to society.  Perhaps because I believe that my brain is meeting the tools halfway, this seems non-coercive to me.  I think people who use the information revolution’s tools can change how they use their brains.  I also think that this is neither a one-way street or an binary choice.  I’m comfortable finding a sweet spot here.

All of which is a lot of extra text that underscores the idea that this is a book worth reading, even though I disagree with its conclusions.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Enemies and Neighbors

February 3rd, 2018

I was hoping that Ian Black’s Enemies and Neighbors would enlighten me about the Israeli/Palestine conflict and give me some hope about the future. Well, I understand it better.

That’s not an indictment of Black’s work.  He’s done a fine job digging through more than 150 years of historical records to hear the voices of the people in the middle of this ongoing storm.  I believe everyone has biases when they look at the world and when they tell others what they think. Situations like this conflict bring out strong opinions and biases. As far as I can tell, injustices abound here and that angries up the blood.  Outsiders like me do want to find out what those injustices are, and less biased writing helps.

Fortunately Black does great service. He’s not without bias – of course – but he does cast a wide net for facts and presents them fairly even-handedly.  His biases are detectable if your antenna is up, but mostly he presents facts and evidence. He does come out and say that he believes that both major parties have completely incompatible stories of the conflict. Sad and sobering.

As with most quality education, it made me smarter bur not happier.

The work covers the situation well and as fairly as possible.  It’s important to understand. Strongly recommended.

Review: Terror of the Autumn Skies

January 27th, 2018

Fun fact: All pilots have a period of aviation that made us fall in love with the idea of flying, often before we ever have the opportunity to fly ourselves. For me, that’s World War I.  I’m going to find something cool about any WWI aviation book including Blaine Pardoe’s Terror of the Autumn Skies.  My bias aside, Pardoe’s subject, Frank Luke, is well worth knowing about.

Luke’s a remarkable character whose story I hadn’t heard.  His credentials are impeccable: briefly US Ace of Aces, multiply decorated including the Medal of Honor, and arguably America’s most accomplished balloon buster in WWI.  Luke was a larger-than-life character who anyone who has seen a popular film with fighter pilots in it will recognize.  He’s a westerner (Arizona) who shows up in his squadron boasting and irritating his flight mates.  Though he backs that up – on one occasion calling his shot on a distant observation balloon a la Babe Ruth – he frequently disobeys orders and is continually at odds with his commanding officer.  He forms a tight bond with a fellow outsider with a complementary personality who becomes his wingman.  His life of outlandish risk and selfless bravery ends in a hail of wartime bullets.

It’s a great story, and Pardoe’s research in telling it is exemplary.  He hunts down military records, personal letters, and contemporary news accounts and interprets them all well.  He makes a clear story of these fragments.

The writing is a little episodic and has spots where a bit more editing would help.  Overall, I’d call it solid if not inspiring.  Interested readers will find an interesting story here, though it may not draw outsiders in.


Review: Little Fires Everywhere

January 20th, 2018

For my money Celeste Ng is one of the most complete writers working today.  She always spins an interesting yarn that sucks you in.  She’s more than just a raconteur, though.  When I look at her work more broadly, the plot structure is clear and concise.  The key points are all balanced and adorned with just enough ornamentation for relief and contrast.  The sections, chapters, and paragraphs all serve the story.  And the whole story is built from charming – occasionally gorgeous – prose.

That narrative comprises themes and imagery amplified by repeating motifs. These school below the surface, reinforcing the ideas and emotions without distracting from them.  The themes Ng explores are complex and powerful enough that her multicultural and multifaceted views find plenty of traction.  She lights new ideas in those themes and points out the path to long standing takes.  She lays out a solid intellectual meal.

Her thematic exploration is literary and lively. Metaphor and imagination rule here.  Her precise prose leads readers through these oblique and attractive path to the underlying ideas without detracting from the literary scenery.  She is masterful in both her choices of images and her execution.

I worry that when I praise a writer like I’m an English teacher I turn potential readers away.  Fires is interesting and dramatic to read.  It’s fun.

Strongly recommended.