Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time — November 19, 2017

Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

A pocket watch made to look transparent. Behind it is the raging ocean. Book's title is in blue above the watch. Author's name is in greenish-yellow beneath it. 'Foreword by Neil Armstrong' is in blue beneath the author's name. There's a quote at the top of the cover from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

This is a delightful little gem for what it is. It’s the story of one man’s obsessive development of accurate timekeeping devices over decades, with the goal of properly measuring longitude from ships at sea. Recall that measuring latitude (position north/south) is relatively easy: find the north star and … um … do a bunch of things with it that I imagine mariners already know but I do not. Measuring longitude, on the other hand, requires accurately measuring time: leave London (for instance) with two clocks synchronized — one on shore and one on the boat. When you’re off at sea, register the moment when the sun is directly overhead; that’s noon. Your clock says that it’s 3pm back in London. So London is three hours ahead. So you’re 3/24ths of the way around the globe. The problem, then, reduces to accurately computing the time, in the presence of varying temperature, salt water, and rolling seas.

An alternative is to use detailed astronomical measurements. If you can discern patterns, say, in the relative movement of astronomical bodies — e.g., “on July 3rd at 8:35pm, the moon is 3 degrees from Venus in London, and every degree of longitude changes that relative position by a tenth of a degree” — you can write these down in astronomical tables, which sailors can carry with them around the globe. This method has obvious downsides, including mathematical complexity and the fact that clouds exist. It seems obvious, from this vantage point a couple hundred years on, that measuring time with a simple clock would solve both problems. At the time, though, decades of research had gone into the stargazing method of measuring longitude, and the British government’s longitude-measuring prize was granted by a committee that included men whose careers were based on the stargazing method. This is a conflict of interest, we’d say today.

The book is a nice 30,000-foot view of the varying approaches to measuring longitude, but it rarely dips below that altitude. We learn, for instance, that one of our hero clockmaker’s innovations was the bimetallic strip that lives on in modern thermostats. One of the metals expands when the ambient temperature rises; another of the metals contracts. The overall change in the metal is either zero, or consistent enough that its effects can be controlled in the rest of the device.

But what exactly is this strip doing? And how, fundamentally, does a clock work? I understand that there’s a spring somewhere. I understand that when you wind a clock, you build up tension in the spring, and that over time the tension is released into energy that drives the clock. And I understand that one of the fundamental pieces of a clock is responsible for controlling the orderly release of energy, so that the clock isn’t fast right after winding and slow hours later. How exactly does that piece of the device work?

What I would love is a book that starts with a very basic clock and works its way up. This would be the clockmaking equivalent of the Los Alamos Primer, say. (To make a very basic atomic bomb, take two subcritical masses of uranium and slap them together into one supercritical mass. To make a better atomic bomb, do rather more.) If this book I’m imagining took the technical apparatus and adjoined it to engrossing history and biography, it would start to look like the clockmaking equivalent of Richard Rhodes’s Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun — two of the three or four books that every human needs to read.

But that would be an altogether different book from Sobel’s, so I don’t fault her for this. If anything, her Longitude is an apéritif which wets the appetite for other, more technical books on timekeeping. Her bibliography, for instance, points to Landes’s Revolution in Time, which looks if nothing else like a great place to start.

A few quick recent reads — November 18, 2017

A few quick recent reads

  • Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

Red background. Black text overlaid on yellow ribbons. At the top of the page is an upside-down rooster's head, presumably separated forcibly from the body of the chicken.

Really exceptional candy, genus “chefs talk about how difficult it is to be a chef.” It sounds really, really difficult to be a chef. And Hamilton’s background is part of why I figure I’m not cut out to be a chef: my sense of the industry is that everyone is heavily tattooed, is used to routinely going to sleep at 3am, drinks a lot after work, does a lot of cocaine, and basically had to start as a dishwasher in their teens to get the right attitude.

Hamilton’s youth sounds atypical even within the world of the chef. Her parents divorced and more or less left their kids to raise themselves — in their crazy home in the woods — when Hamilton was 13. In the years preceding that, her French mother had taught her to cook like a civilized human rather than like an American child raised on hot dogs and Little Debbie Snack Cakes. They held fabulous parties in the woods, where they roasted pigs on a spit and fed hundreds of the Broadway people her father had met in his work designing scenery for the stage.

It’s rare for Blood, Bones, and Butter to descend into the standard tropes of the genre. And then the final section is a complete left turn even within the world of the book: it becomes clear that Hamilton is writing about the dissolution of her marriage. There can be no question, by the time you reach the end, that she is going to get divorced. No normal human being could tolerate the abuse she metes out onto her now-ex-husband. I suppose it’s just possible that their therapy has been so successful, and they’ve so learned the tricks of intra-couple honesty, that she can say all these things on the page without leaving any hurt feelings. The text itself argues against it: Hamilton is a self-described fiery fighter, which sounds like the opposite of her ex. And if I were her husband, I would have a hard time seeing, written down on the page,

he has never, incredibly, incomprehensibly, said anything important to me.

So yes, she’s divorced. You know it even without Googling for it; Googling confirms it.

  • Susan Landau, Listening In: Cybersecurity in an Insecure Age

The words 'Listening In, and the subtitle, are made to look like a sound wave emerging from a point source on the left side of the page. The background looks like grey bricks. So it's sort of a mashup of sound waves and graffiti on a brick wall.

Very solid work digging into both the details of privacy-enhancing technologies, and the details of how law enforcement conducts investigations in the presence of encryption. Landau’s thesis — with which I think nearly all security experts would agree — is that encryption helps the good guys just as much as it helps the bad guys. We want to keep Hillary Clinton’s emails secure so that the Russians can’t get into them; if widespread encryption means that the police have to do more work to get into the bad guys’ computers, that’s a tradeoff worth making. Landau goes into great and enjoyable detail on exactly how the police can still do their jobs.

One small critique: Landau uses widespread surveillance cameras (as in the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing) and pen-register data (which allow the police to see who called whom and when, if not what exactly what was said during the call) as evidence that the police don’t need access to encrypted communications. A natural response there is that civil libertarians, such as me, would prefer a society with fewer surveillance cameras and tighter control over pen-register data. If I were her editor, I would have asked her to argue the stronger case: could police still get what they wanted, even if civil libertarians got everything they wanted?

This is not an unanswerable objection. One underlying premise of Landau’s civil libertarianism is that the police don’t have a right to walk through your door easily. They have a right to walk through your door, given a warrant that’s been granted to them after they’ve demonstrated to a neutral magistrate that they have a good reason to walk through that door. On one side of the debate, we have police who insist that omnipresent strong encryption is creating a world of doors that can’t be opened no matter how hard we hit them with the battering ram. On the other side — Landau’s side — we have a lot of evidence that police still have many tools in their arsenal, and that police have been sounding the alarm about impossible-to-open doors for more than two decades. There’s still no reason to believe them; and besides: the benefits to our society from universal high-grade security are immense.

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Red background. Set on the background is a weathered sheet of paper. On the sheet of paper is written the title, subtitle, and author's name. I assume the piece of paper is supposed to look like an old-timey advertisement for a slave auction.

Worth reading if only as a study in how Coates’s thought evolved over the eight years of the Obama presidency. His career essentially began around 2008, when he was writing about Bill Cosby and the politics of black respectability; back then Cosby was barnstorming the country telling black men to clean up, take care of the children they fathered, and so forth. The Obamas were, in essence, the apotheosis of black-respectability politics; they were African-Americans’ best picture of themselves.

Eight years taught Coates that it doesn’t matter: black people have to be twice as good to get half the respect. White people cannot stomach the idea of a black man on top. Whiteness is defined, in Coates’s completely convincing telling, by white supremacy. Blackness is, by definition, inferior. And so we ended up with the first white-supremacist president, as white people recoiled against the thought of ever being beneath a black man.

In one of the stops on his book tour, when Ezra Klein interviewed him, Klein asks Coates when he would know that the age of white supremacy had ended; Coates’s response was that the black-white wealth gap would have to disappear. (ObBook, in queue: Black Wealth / White Wealth.) This flows somewhat naturally from Coates’s Case for Reparations, which is included within We Were Eight Years in Power. The argument in that essay, and within the collection, is wholly convincing and wholly dispiriting.

After reading Coates and hearing him speak, I always find myself desperate to ask what I can do. What am I doing, as a white man, that makes the problem of white supremacy worse? The nearest answer that’s ready to hand is that white people make the school system worse when they — wholly rationally — send their kids to private schools or move to wealthy suburbs, leaving urban school systems underfunded and filled with black students in poverty.

Which of course points out that the problem of white supremacy is systemic, not individual. I can make a hero (or a martyr, if you’d like) out of my kid by sending him to an underfunded public school, but those with the means can and do, largely, leave underperforming urban school systems if they have the choice. A collective-action problem does not have an individual solution. I can work my ass off to improve my neighborhood school, like gentrifiers tried to do in the 70s in Boston. Is that the solution? I don’t know. I always leave Coates’s books looking desperately for answers. His role isn’t to provide them. His role, like that of his hero James Baldwin (please go read this astonishing collection), is to stare honestly at the society he’s part of and methodically tear off Band-Aids.

Kindle books fall down when the book is even slightly non-basic — November 11, 2017

Kindle books fall down when the book is even slightly non-basic

I was a late adopter of Kindles. I love me some physical books, but eventually the ability to travel thousands of miles without lugging a stack of books — or even to download new books while sitting in a chair in the sky — became unanswerable.

I found Kindles distractingly hard to read until they started hyphenating their lines; until then you’d end up with enormous chunks of blank space on each line between words. (They recently added ragged-right margins as an option, which would have been another way to handle this problem. I don’t know why it took them so long to use a public-domain hyphenation algorithm, and why ragged-right margins took even longer, but whatever.)

Once we got over those hurdles, the reading was mostly great. It’s nice to be able to continue reading in bed, with the light off, after my wife has gone to sleep.

The trouble, for me, is that I read a lot of not-especially-popular and often long-out-of-print books. Sometimes Kindles pull their weight here: the Kindle edition of The Making of the English Working Class is actually very good. And it’s a good thing that it is, since I highlighted a ton of passages in it; the ability to search your highlights is one of the big advantages of Kindles.

Often, though, if a book was born in the pre-Kindle era, it feels as though the book has been hastily photocopied and OCRed, then only lightly copyedited, to make the transition to Kindle-land. Maybe they hope that crowdsourcing will solve this problem: I used to tap all the time on the “Report Content Error” link while selecting a block of text, and over time I’ve had to do that less; it does feel like the aggregate number of typos has gone down.

Sometimes when the book is born in the Kindle era, it still leaves something to be desired, and here we land on the footnote problem. I may be one of the few Kindle users who diligently reads most footnotes, and I’m certainly one of the few Kindle users who reads math books on the device. Hence I end up with this:
A bunch of equations, one of which has a footnote. When you tap on the footnote, you're given footnote text that stops at the first equation.
That’s from the Kindle version of Computer-Age Statistical Inference, which is a delightful book. It would be more delightful on Kindle if the mathematical footnotes (of which there are many) didn’t cut out at the first equation. As someone at the publisher’s office wrote when I asked the authors about this:

Our digital production people don’t believe the problem is with the files we supplied. Because the Kindle can’t handle MathML, we must supply complex math as images. From what we can tell […] the Kindle stops images from being rendered in the inline footnotes; they are being rendered with no problem in the main text, hence our confidence in the files we’ve supplied. Because readers can view the notes in place at the chapter ends, they’re not missing information; so although it’s not ideal, we don’t think this limitation makes the Kindle version unacceptable.

It’s not unacceptable, in the sense that the book is still readable (and is very, very good). But the footnotes aren’t useful if you can’t read them until the end of the chapter; by the time you’ve gotten that far, you’ve forgotten the context to the footnote that you want to read. Amazon was thankfully quite willing to refund me for the Kindle book; I went ahead and bought a paper copy instead.

Footnotes behave inconsistently in other ways. For instance, one very handy feature of the main body of Kindle books is that you can select text and get a definition from a built-in dictionary, or look the words up on the Wikipedia if the dictionary doesn’t have anything to say about it. That feature just doesn’t work in footnotes, for some reason. And sometimes (as with the Kindle edition of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France) the footnotes themselves contain footnotes (e.g., one of Burke’s own footnotes contains Latin, to which the editor attaches an English translation in a footnote of his own); the second layer of footnotes just doesn’t work.

All of this probably sounds really minor, and in some sense it is: I still certainly feel as though I got a lot out of Burke’s book. But for an e-reader that is ten years old almost to the day, it still feels like it’s aiming for the middle 80% of the audience. It feels ideal for books that, in the paper-based world, would be published by Bantam: cheap, flimsy, poorly printed on low-quality paper, with ink that bleeds, meant to be consumed quickly and then thrown away. It’s not meant to present books as works of art. It’s meant to present “just the facts.” After ten years, I would expect them to be attending to the finer points of book publishing, but I just don’t expect that they’ll ever get there. That’s clearly not their business model. Their business model (and here I’m just guessing) is to put very cheap e-readers in people’s pockets, then sell them e-books whose marginal cost is nearly zero and whose price averages around $10. The books are pure profit, so they have no problem virtually giving away the devices.

It’s getting to the point, though, where it feels to me like an insult to the author — literally a pain that I feel viscerally — to read a great work of literature on a Kindle. When Kishlansky writes that

Standard editions of key political texts are Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Writings, ed. J. P. Sommerville (1991); John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (2nd edn, 1967); and Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (1985).

, you can be sure that I’m going to look hard for and buy the Macpherson edition of Leviathan on paper, because I just can’t trust that it will have made its way to Kindle with all due care. Likewise with the great E.P. Thompson‘s Poverty of Theory. Likewise with Twelve Who Ruled.

Maybe it depends on the publisher? I see that Twelve Who Ruled is from Princeton University Press, with whom I’ve had very good experiences until now. I wish I didn’t have to think that hard about the reputation of each individual publisher; I wish any book that Amazon sold could be expected to be as good as any other, though perhaps that’s unreasonable. Even the world of physical academic books is getting rough: many years ago, when I read The Wealth of Networks on paper and found myself, by the end, scrawling my irritated all-caps annoyance in the margins at how bad the copyediting was, a friend pointed out that ‘especially [among] academic publishers, the author is actually now supposed to provide “camera-ready copy”, which is why you see so many modern math/physics/CS books that look like [LaTeX].’

If publishers put a little more work into it, they could make the footnote experience on a Kindle better than that on a physical book. In physical-book land, you write “ibid.” to indicate “the same thing as what I just wrote in the preceding footnote.” In e-book land, why do that? Why force your reader to jump back to a previous footnote, when doing so is harder than it would be in a paper book (where you’d just flip back a few pages)? Rather than writing “ibid.“, why not just include the full cite to the book you’re citing? You have effectively infinite space to play with, rather than the tight publishing constraints that physical books labor under. Likewise, you don’t need to write “A. Robertson (1984)”, which then requires your reader to go off to a bibliography to look up which Robinson you’re talking about; because you have infinite space, you can just directly link to Robinson and be done with it. If I were Amazon, I would go a step further and include a link that lets the reader buy the cited work with one tap. E-books open up lots of possibilities that publishers (and/or Amazon) just don’t exploit.

Maybe I just need to give it time. But it feels like real works of art still need to be appreciated on paper, if at all possible.

Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France: much better than the hype — November 9, 2017

Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France: much better than the hype

Just the author, the title, and the publisher (Hackett) on a boring grey background with white text The standard hype around this book, at least as I’ve consumed such hype, is that Burke is kind of the arch-conservative, ever on the lookout for ways to crush the rabble. After reading his Reflections on the Revolution in France, the worst I’m willing to say is that I need more information.

Burke was writing from the opposite side of the English Channel as the French Revolution was just warming up. The king’s head hadn’t yet been separated from the king’s body, but there were extremely alarming signs. From October 5 through 6 of 1789, the masses had force-marched the king from Versailles to Paris. The revolutionaries had seized church lands, and had constructed a new currency whose value derived from that of the seized lands. The French, it seemed, had begun an experiment in widespread social engineering (as we’d call it today) on the basis of what a few Enlightenment philosophers had taught. They had thrown out, at one go, much of what the French had learned about government over the previous centuries.

How was Burke supposed to perceive this? To my eye, the French Revolution seems to differ from English history in degree but not in type. A century and change before Burke wrote, the English had chopped off their king’s head and had spent time under the protectorship of Puritan extremists. They had been overtaken with, to my eye, anti-Catholic hysteria, which had led them to require that any future British monarch be protestant. This resulted in a German man taking the crown. That German man’s right to rule was so contested that the country had been under violent authoritarian censorship for a decade.

Maybe none of this was all that revolutionary or destructive, but of course that would have to be argued. Burke is not a fool, so he spends some time arguing that the British had not actually been all that revolutionary during the 17th century; much of Reflections is, in fact, an argument over the meaning of British history as much as it is over contemporary France. He’s at pains to argue throughout Reflections that French philosophical revolution is an entirely different beast than the (by stipulation) slow, methodical British method of revolution. Oddly, the American Revolution comes up not even once in Burke’s book. In any case, this part of the argument falls flat for me. I’m not convinced that there are so many differences between the British and French forms of revolution, or he looked the freshest example of revolution that was ready to hand (namely the American) square in the face.

If I were arguing, contra Burke, that the French Revolution had to happen as it did — that it couldn’t have happened in a slow, methodical way — I would want to have facts on hand about the French peasantry. The French king seemed like a lovely guy to Burke, but it certainly seems as though the Revolution was a people’s revolution. (Though I understand that there’s been some dispute about this over the last century or so. Perhaps it was a revolution of the bourgeois? I don’t know enough to adjudicate this dispute, which is my whole leitmotif here.) Was the French economy so backwards, and was medieval government so baked into the cake, that you couldn’t remove one piece without destroying the whole thing? This is a factual question, and I don’t know enough to weigh in. Burke certainly seems to think that there was nothing so badly rotten about French government that it couldn’t have been fixed in a piecemeal fashion. But then, his priors are pretty clearly anti-democratic to begin with, and it’s not clear to me that he had much of an idea of how the other 99% lived.

It seems likely that we care about Burke today because he’s been grafted into a story about the origins of conservatism. His ideas, as laid out in this book, fit nicely into a conservative hatred of social engineering, and specifically of the “unintended consequences” that conservatives like to wag their fingers at. Don’t sweep away all existing institutions en masse, says Burke; they encode more expertise than any of the particular philosophers who are tasked with rebuilding a republic from scratch. Institutions are greater than people, in other words, no matter the people. It wouldn’t be hard to align this with, say, Karl Popper, who advocates for continuous social experimentation at scales that make that scientific inference possible. As much as possible, change one variable (in your society), see what happens, revise your experiment, change, scale up, and continue. I see an even clearer connection with Joel Spolsky’s essay on the one mistake software developers should never, ever make, namely throwing out all their existing code and starting over from scratch. Your existing code, no matter how much you think it resembles spaghetti, encodes hard-won expertise from years of experimentation and of actually shipping software.

This all seems hard to object to. The idea that there’s a direct line of descent, however, connecting Burke to, say, National Review, is more far-fetched, and seems like opportunistic hindsight. J. G. A. Pocock’s excellent introduction to Burke’s book affirms as much.

If there’s any line of descent connecting them, it may be the thread that Corey Robin pulls on in The Reactionary Mind: that conservatism has always defined itself as the negation of something else, and in particular that it has always been about stopping the “lowest orders” from gaining power.

I’m willing to believe this about conservatism as it’s practiced today. In the specific case of Burke, I’d need more information. I don’t really believe that Burke opposed the French Revolution because he believed that the poor deserve to remain in their station, and that the hereditary monarchy should remain in power until the sun goes dark. The French Revolution feels like a genuine moral quandary. The British 17th century, also, feels like a genuine moral quandary. Neither of these things can be judged by how they eventually turned out, so it doesn’t much matter how I perceive the French or British revolutions two-hundred-plus years later. What matters, to my mind, is how an ordinary Frenchman would have — or should have — felt about it in 1789. And I need to read more before I can make up my mind on that.

Next up on the reading list: Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Somewhere further along in the list: Lefebvre, Twelve Who Ruled, and Carlyle’s thing which I could even begin to penetrate the last time I tried. The goal is to understand the world as Burke, Paine, and co. might have.

E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: the Origins of the Black Act — October 29, 2017

E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: the Origins of the Black Act

Men in knight attire with their dogs. Maybe they're law enforcement?
This is another magic trick by the author of the magisterial Making of the English Working Class. The book plays itself out to the reader as a little historical mystery: why did the English government care enough about the theft of deer to make it, in the early decades of the 1700s, a crime punishable by death?

The book opens with explorations of individual cases in minute detail, and in the hands of a lesser author this might be exhaustingly tedious. To his credit, Thompson is both too good an author to let this happen, and aware enough of what ordinary readers are like to understand that we might feel that way. The cases are dealt with briskly and dramatically; Thompson is an excellent storyteller. The stories are mined for as much ore as they’ll offer up, because the data on the Black Act are apparently sparse: early-18th-century England was heavily censored, seemingly in part as a way to enforce stability after the Hanoverian succession. So few people wanted to come out and say that the Black Act was impossibly Draconian.

The Act wanted to label those accused of ‘blacking’ (i.e., dressing up in disguise, painting their faces black, and hiding off in the woods at night) members of what we today would call ‘gangs’ or ‘terrorist cells’. If they were tarred as a group, and their actions were perceived as a criminal conspiracy, it was easier to throw the book at them. In this way the parallels to the modern ‘terrorist’ label are fairly striking. The “blacks” did, in fact, act as small groups in many cases: attacking a landlord’s house at night, firing into his windows, and stealing deer as a group. But they don’t seem to have been a widespread movement with any actual leadership, apart from a perhaps mythical figure named “King John”. Instead, they were sporadically organized deer thieves across a couple counties in England.

So why, again, were Walpole and others so concerned to suppress the blacks up to the point of sentencing them to death? In the second half of Whigs and Hunters, Thompson throws back the curtain on the era and on the story of the blacks. In his description, the first decades of the 1700s in England sound a lot like the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union: rapacious capitalists had rushed in and were siphoning off public funds into their private bank accounts. Georgian England, in particular, was in the middle of the enclosure movement, whereby land that had been owned in common since before the memory of man was now given over to the highest bidder. In the grand arc of history, maybe this was better in the long run, but in the meantime it was depriving peasants of their livelihoods.

On that score, Thompson’s book begins with a detailed exploration of what forests are used for. Again, just as in Making of the English Working Class, he pulls off this feat of being as richly detailed as necessary, while never taking his eye off the larger story. Today a forest seems like, basically, a nice place to spend a few contemplative hours where the air is nice. To early-18th-century England, it was a source of food in the form of deer, a source of heat in the form of wood, and the scene on which community life played out. Now, under George I, all this was being torn from beneath the people who’d lived there for centuries, all so that Walpole and his cronies could get wealthy at the public trough.

It’s Thompson’s great magic trick to acknowledge the scantiness of the data on the specific case of the blacks, while embedding that case within a broader history of the 1700s by which the blacks suddenly make perfect sense.

His peroration — which Jeet Heer mentioned thusly:

— is what led me to read this book. It’s a plea to recognize that the law isn’t, as a certain strain of Marxists would say, a mere fig leaf over ruling-class interest. While Walpole and others may have profited off the common wealth, and while they may have crafted laws that punished the lower classes, it’s important to note that they felt the need to do this through the vehicle of the law. Their power was not unbounded: there’s a difference between the unlimited power of the totalitarian and the limited power of a ruler within a society of laws. Thompson’s defense of the rule of law is timeless, beautiful, and in the context of the larger work, rather surprising.

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class — October 19, 2017

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class

A (presumably British) working man, photographed from the nose down, the image tinged red. The working man is carrying a lunch pail or something similar, and he wears a soiled apron.

This is really an extraordinary book, quite unlike anything I’ve read before. Normally my problem with books written by British historians — here I’m thinking of Hobsbawm and Gellner, both of whose books I recommend without hesitation — is that they meander seemingly at random around the topic. I’m probably wrong about this, and the problem is probably that they optimistically assume I know more than I do. In any case, usually when I read them I imagine an old, doddering, amiable professor standing at the front of the lecture hall, back turned to his class as he stares with some puzzlement at the blackboard silently for a few minutes, until eventually his disorganized eyebrows perk up and he declares loudly to the class, “Yes! Yes, we shall discuss the Napoleonic Wars” in a course about the Blitz.

Thompson’s book has some of that, but it is thoroughly under his control. Whenever he encounters an interesting historical bend in the road, he stops, lays the groundwork, examines that bend, and always returns promptly to the path he was on. The Making of the English Working Class is a monumental work of ornately carved detail and breathtaking scope all at once. It took me a good month to read it, and I’m so glad I did.

I learned a lot. First was probably this outline of the path Thompson planned to draw:

I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships. … class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.

This helps explain a subsequent observation:

Popular movements in London have often lacked the coherence and stamina which results from the involvement of an entire community in common occupational and social tensions.

That is, it’s much easier to form a class and set it against its antagonists when, for instance, you’re in Sheffield and your neighbors all specialize, as you do, in manufacturing cutlery, than when you’re in a heterogeneous metropolis like London.

But let’s start much earlier, before the Industrial Revolution was even a glimmer in James Hargreaves’s eye. Thompson begins coalescing the threads that eventually became the British working class at least a century earlier, with John Wesley’s creation of the Methodist church. The strictly organized hierarchy of the Methodist church, says Thompson, taught workers a thing or two about organizing groups of people, which they put to good use in the later labor movement. (Thompson mentions “Halévy’s famous thesis that Methodism prevented revolution in England in the 1790s.” I know not of this thesis, though looking in here for the word “Jacobinism” gives an intriguing taste.)

Mid-1700s radicalism centers on a British notion of the “free-born Englishman”, which I gather I’m supposed to know about, because I’m supposed to know about the English 17th century. Turns out I don’t know about the English 17th century, though I’m working on it. What I infer from reading Thompson is that English rhetoric of the 17th century sounds a lot like American rhetoric today: that anyone who wants to invent a new right had best pretend that he’s not inventing this right, but merely recovering it from the ancient rights of his ancestors.

And then the French Revolution came, and with it a new justification for the rights of man — embodied, on the English side of the Channel, in Thomas Paine, and specifically in his Rights Of Man. Thompson says that The Rights Of Man was a very big deal, “establish[ing] a new framework within which Radicalism was confined for nearly 100 years, as clear and as well defined as the constitutionalism which it replaced.”

It’s of course well known that radicalism on the Continent scared the dickens out of the English ruling class; if this isn’t well known to you, Corey Robin’s Reactionary Mind is a good treatment of the topic. I was not aware, though (clearly having forgotten my Robin), that Paine himself was so central to the formation of an entire way of thinking. I know as much about Paine as the next American schoolboy: I learned a sentence or two about him, then picked up another from the Hamilton soundtrack. Burke, and then Rights of Man, go on the queue.

Reading a book about the coming of the Industrial Revolution in Britain from the corrupted perspective of an early-21st-century American, steeped as I am in far too much classical economic dogma, I’m tempted to ask: despite the dislocations and the vile urban poverty, isn’t this better for everyone? After all, if filthy 19th-century London was so bad, then why did people choose to leave their villages for it? Certainly the villages must have been even worse, no? This observation, or something like it, must be in Glaeser. And it’s by no means an academic question: how you perceive the London slums will affect how you perceive, say, the favelas, or the Bangladesh factory collapse. I confess that the Glaeser approach to these problems has infected me.

Thompson’s response makes me feel stupid. Yes, the rural areas were even worse than London, but only because the rural areas were emptying out as people moved to the metropolis. That is, there came a point when enough people had emptied out the villages that there was no home to return to. This is a classic collective-action problem: maybe those who’d moved to London would have preferred to have moved back to the country, but by this point their collective behaviors had made that impossible. In general, it seems to be the case that “consider collective action” is a catch-all, completely correct, answer to most naïve libertarian economics.

We’re all so sullied by libertarian economics — well, I can’t speak for you, but I speak for myself — that we tend to view most economic dislocation through the eyes of this degraded libertarian calculus. Glaeser, for instance, repeatedly advocates helping poor people, not poor places. Were it up to Glaeser, I imagine we’d abandon Detroit, and that we would have abandoned New Orleans after Katrina. The humane response to Glaeser seems almost painfully innocent: places have meaning. A city isn’t just a collection of economic transactions bound together by a shopping district; it’s where generations of people lay down roots. The corrupt libertarian ideology seems to treat preservation of the basic social structure of a place as a needless sidebar to economic maximization. When I read Ruskin, I perceived him as hopelessly naïve, standing as he was on the other side of that chasm. On the contrary, it is I who was naïve; Ruskin was watching the destruction of the land and of his society, whereas I’m standing at a vantage point from which all the destruction has been smoothed away.

This historical empathy lets us view the Luddites more sympathetically:

the conventional picture of the Luddism of these years as a blind opposition to machinery as such becomes less and less tenable. What was at issue was the “freedom” of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade, whether by new machinery, by the factory-system, or by unrestricted competition, beating-down wages, undercutting his rivals, and undermining standards of craftsmanship.

In many ways Thompson’s book is a fleshing-out of Karl Polanyi. The story arc of Polanyi’s book is that every society which has undergone capitalist economic transformation has tried to do something to arrest that change. The point isn’t to stop economic liberalization, but rather to slow it down so that the social structure can keep up. Economics is an important sphere of human life, but it’s not the only such sphere. A good bit of Thompson’s book is expanding on this idea down to fine (and finely rendered) detail in the English context.

Thompson’s style in delivering this detail is to quote exhaustively from primary sources: from the pamphlets of proselytizers like Cobbett and from the petitions of angry assembled workingmen. The result is just overpoweringly persuasive. And then scattered throughout are his absolutely ice-cold daggers into the libertarian orthodoxy, as here when he demolishes the idea that libertarian “freedom” was a natural outcome of the market’s magical powers:

In the weavers’ history we have a paradigm case of the operation of a repressive and exploitive system upon a section of workers without trade union defences. Government not only intervened actively against their political organisations and trade unions; it also inflicted upon the weavers the negative dogma of the freedom of capital as intransigently as it was to do upon the victims of the Irish famine.

The Making of the English Working Class is what happens when a man’s moral outrage is channeled into icy, careful intellectual vengeance — for instance, this:

Finally, it is suggested, with tedious repetition, that the slums, the stinking rivers, the spoliation of nature, and the architectural horrors may all be forgiven because all happened so fast, so haphazardly, under intense population pressure, without premeditation and without prior experience. “It was ignorance rather than avarice that was often the cause of misery.” [citing Hartwell — SRSL] As a matter of fact, it was demonstrably both; and it is by no means evident that the one is a more amiable characteristic than the other. The argument is valid only up to a point — to the point in most great towns, in the 1830s or 1840s, when doctors and sanitary reformers, Benthamites and Chartists, fought repeated battles for improvement against the inertia of property-owners and the demagoguey of “cheap government” rate-payers. By this time the working people were virtually segregated in their stinking enclaves, and the middle-classes demonstrated their real opinions of the industrial towns by getting as far out of them as equestrian transport made convenient.

This same deeply moral man observes that “one writer [Salaman — SRSL] has surveyed the issue [of child labor] with that air of boredom appropriate to the capacious conscience of the Nuclear Age.”

Thompson’s book is an exquisite antidote to the bloodless economic morality that we’ve all become accustomed to. He takes his time mapping out an 18th- and early-19th-century English world that lies so far on the other side of an economic chasm that we’re mostly unaware that it was ever possible:

The classic exploitive relationship of the Industrial Revolution is depersonalised, in the sense that no lingering obligations of mutuality—of paternalism or deference, or of the interests of “the Trade”—are admitted. There is no whisper of the “just” price, or of a wage justified in relation to social or moral sanctions, as opposed to the operation of free market forces.

He takes enough time painting his portrait of pre-Industrial Revolution English life that it becomes just possible to feel historical empathy — to place ourselves in the shoes of those living in an economic and social system vastly different from our own. That historical empathy alone makes this book worth the price of admission.

To get from that side of the industrial chasm to this one, we had to cross over a point where people were fully aware of what they were destroying, and what they were to gain from the destruction. The very soul of man had to be reshaped, so that he viewed himself as an appendage of the machine:

“Our intention,” said one Assistant Commissioner, “is to make the workhouses as like prisons as possible”; and another, “our object … is to establish therein a discipline so severe and repulsive as to make them a terror to the poor and prevent them from entering”.

We left behind a world that operated at a humane tempo rather than a mechanical one:

A whole pattern of family and community life had grown up around the loom-shops; work did not prevent conversation or singing.

Questions about the benefits of economic “liberalization” do still nag at me, though, as when Thompson writes:

Between 1806 and 1817 the number of gig mills in Yorkshire was said to have increased from 5 to 72; the number of shears worked by machinery from 100 to 1,462; and out of 3,378 shearmen no less than 1,170 were out of work while 1,445 were only partly employed.

Their labour was replaced by that of unskilled men and juveniles.

(internal footnote omitted) What were the unskilled men doing before the Industrial Revolution began? Perhaps he answers this question somewhere within this magisterial volume, but I couldn’t find it. Even if the answer is “they were living on poor relief”, that doesn’t undermine Thompson’s (and Polanyi’s) thesis: there were real victims of the Industrial Revolution, and it will not do to hand-wave that an omelet requires breaking some eggs.

The arc of Thompson’s story runs from the intellectual foundations in Methodist 18th-century England, all the way through the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832. Along the way, the story drives relentlessly toward the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which is seemingly a pivotal moment in the English labor movement. Perhaps it’s similar to the Pullman strike? I’m afraid I know about as much about American labor history as about English labor history.

Thompson’s book is an astonishing entrée into the history. He places the reader’s mind and heart into that era; it must set the table perfectly for subsequent readings about the time — many of which I’ve queued up. I’d urge you to read it, both as important history and as the work of a historian in absolute control of his art.

Cédric Villani’s Birth of a Theorem is a very terrible book — October 9, 2017

Cédric Villani’s Birth of a Theorem is a very terrible book

Just going to be mercifully brief with this one. The notes at the end of the book say this:

No attempt has been made to expand upon, much less to explain, fine points of mathematical detail, many of which will be unfamiliar even to professional mathematicians.

They also say this:

Whatever else it may be, it is in no way, shape, or form a scientific treatise.

Yet anyone who opens the book will notice quite enormous equations, and proofs (or at least proof outlines) spanning multiple pages. He or she will also notice long transcripts of email exchanges containing — and this must be a first for any book not written by Leslie Lamport or Donald Knuth — lots of un-rendered TeX source code.

I don’t know who the intended audience for this book is. I don’t know who the intended audience for this book could be. Does anyone want to read emails with un-rendered TeX? Mathematical amateurs will get virtually nothing out of this book. Mathematical professionals, as mentioned in the note I quoted, will get very little out of this book. The book itself doesn’t even know who its audience is. It gives brief, mildly fun biographical sketches of brilliant mathematicians, which suggests that maybe the book is intended for non-professionals. But the volume is filled with so much dense mathematics that’s only professionals could read it. Complicated mathematical concepts are used, but then mostly explained many pages after they’re first mentioned.

The book is mostly an exercise for the author, who recently won a Fields Medal, to talk about how clever he is in the guise of just showing “a day in the life” of a professional mathematician. So on page 15, Villani grants us the favor of letting us listen to this conversation with his colleague:

“Violent relaxation, Cédric, is like Landau damping. Except that Landau damping is a perturbative regime and violent relaxation is a highly nonlinear regime.”

These sentences don’t make any sense to me. The author has done nothing to ensure that they’ll make sense to anyone apart from, I suppose, specialists within his particular corner of mathematics.

The book generally is supposed to show the thought process that led the author to prove something about Landau damping, whatever that might be. So it’s got diary entries, emails between him and his colleague, and scenes from the author’s life with his family (including recounting stories he tells his kids). So it feels like a bunch of hastily bolted together snippets that are supposed to form a book. If I had to guess, I would assume that his Fields Medal brought him a lot of press in France (which I’m told honors scholars much more than the United States does), and that his publishers decided to capitalize on it by throwing this out to the world as quickly as possible.

All the paper copies of this book should be pulped, and the hard drives on which the electronic copies exist should be subjected to strong magnets.