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.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened — October 5, 2017

Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened

Just the author's name and the title, basicallyI’ll keep this one relatively brief. I’ll avoid a lot of what you could get by listening to any number of great interviews with Clinton (e.g., Ezra Klein‘s, Longform‘s, or the New Yorker Radio Hour‘s).

Basically I divide the book into two types: there’s the rigorous analytical piece — on why exactly she lost the election, or on how misogyny and sexism work — and then there’s the homespun piece. The homespun piece is what you expect from most political memoirs: my mommy always taught me this, my Methodist faith taught me that, etc. I didn’t get terribly much out of the homespun piece … until I thought about it a bit more. Clearly there is something strong within Secretary Clinton that has kept her in the public eye for 20+ years despite being demonized by the Right at every turn. Is it so far-fetched to believe that, when things get bad — and they’ve been really, really bad for her quite often for decades — she falls back on a deep reserve of fundamental values? I’ve not been tested a millionth as much as Clinton has; I imagine that if I had been so tested, I would spend at least some of my time trying to understand how I’d pulled through. A lot of the answers I would come to would probably sound too clean-cut, but that’s because life is much messier lived forward and much clearer understood backward.

As for the other half of the book — the analytical piece — it alone justifies the price of admission. In 20 years, when we want to understand the madness of the 2016 election and the madness of the Trump presidency, the final 1/3 or so of What Happened will be a vital primary source.

Then there are the “please imagine” bits, like this:

I’ve written about this before but it’s worth saying again: one of the reasons he lost the Governor’s race in 1980 was because I still went by my maiden name. Let that sink in for a moment and please imagine how it felt.

Or this:

We’ve certainly had dark days in our marriage. You know all about them—and please consider for a moment what it would be like for the whole world to know about the worst moments in your relationship.

I did, repeatedly, stop and imagine the constant attack she’s been under for 20 years, and it was horrifying.

Without her going into very much detail about them at all, there are what appear to be changes of heart on policy since the election:

Targeted programs may be more efficient and progressive, and that’s why during the primaries I criticized Bernie’s “free college for all” plan as providing wasteful taxpayer-funded giveaways to rich kids. But it’s precisely because they don’t benefit everyone that targeted programs are so easily stigmatized and demagogued.

That sounds to me exactly right: push for universal programs. I would go further: push for universal programs that are free at point of service, funded by steeply progressive taxes.

Other parts, again echoing what you’d expect from a political memoir, are not believable — like this:

More than anyone else, it was Chelsea who helped me to see that my stance on same-sex marriage was incompatible with my values and the work I had done in the Senate and at the State Department to protect the rights of LGBT people. She impressed upon me that I had to endorse marriage equality if I was truly committed to equal human dignity, and as soon as I left the State Department, I did.

I have a very hard time believing that Clinton had some realization about the incompatibility of two of her principles, which led her — through the pure light of Reason alone, guided by her daughter’s steady hand — to support gay marriage. My cynical mind says that the story is simpler: for a time, the American public wasn’t behind gay marriage, and then it very quickly came to support it. I likewise don’t believe that Obama’s views “evolved”.

What’s strange about her treatment of this issue is that it’s not that hard to frame the cynical reasoning as correct. I can certainly believe that, had Clinton supported gay marriage, she would’ve lost some elections, or would’ve lost some votes in the Senate. You judge politicians, I should hope, by the overall direction of their policy accomplishments; to the extent that gay marriage held other issues back, there’s a fine argument for opposing gay marriage. I find it a little odd that she doesn’t address this policy thought process much at all in her book. Instead it’s what we heard during the campaign: I’ve fought for decades on this and that and the other thing — it’s a steady forward march, driven ever onward by my bedrock principles. Unless I skimmed too quickly, I didn’t catch any instances when Clinton was forced to compromise her bedrock principles in the service of a greater good.

That aside, What Happened is a very, very good book, worth reading if only for the pieces about misogyny and electoral nuts and bolts. It’ll make you sad all over again, and remind you — as though you needed reminding — of the crisis we’re still in.

Capsule book reviews, 2017-04-23 — April 23, 2017

Capsule book reviews, 2017-04-23

  • C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination

    Critique of sociology as it’s commonly practiced. On the one extreme (according to Mills) are those who dwell in the loftiest of abstractions; Talcott Parsons’s The Social System comes in here for particular scorn. Mills says that Parsons’s work is so committed to defining concepts, and getting definitions correct, that it can only focus on syntax rather than on semantics. That is, Parsons can tell us how words work together, but not how those words relate to the actual lived experience of real human beings. At the other end of the spectrum are those sociologists (Mills’s “abstracted empiricists”) who are excessively focused on the details of lived experience, such that they can tell us exactly what happens in, say, a specific Midwestern village. Without ever coming out and saying it, I think Mills’s critique of these excessively detailed sociologists is aimed at the Middletown studies.

    The proper study of a sociologist, says Mills, is the social system: the complex of psychological, economic, social, cultural, governmental, and (this last one Mills calls out for special attention) historical influences that impinge on the life of an individual human being living at a given time and place. Studying one small town, and then another small town, and then a third small town, and then pipe welders within a given city, and so forth, will not give a picture of the social system. The social system can only be understood by someone who appreciates both both the low-level (psychological) picture and the high-level (society-wide) one. This simultaneous understanding of, and empathetic living within, the two worlds is the sociological imagination.

    Much of the book feels like a mildly coded attack on specific sociologists, whom specialists within the field at the time of the book’s writing would have instantly decoded; 56 years later, it’s somewhat more difficult. Despite this encoding, the book’s directness — almost brashness — is refreshing — as when Mills notes that in the abstracted empiricists’ studies,

    the details are piled up with insufficient attention to form; indeed, often there is no form except that provided by typesetters and bookbinders. The details, no matter how numerous, do not convince us of anything worth having convictions about.

    or when he attacks Parsons and friends:

    What has happened in the fetishism of the Concept is that men have become stuck way up on a very high level of generalization, usually of a syntactical nature, and they cannot get down to fact.

    This directness has some value in what might otherwise be a dry recitation of petty academic squabbles. Mills argues convincingly that the disputes matter to real humans; his style especially calls this out.

    The 1960s come through as a faint rumbling in the background of Mills’s book. He angrily laments the industrialization and bureaucratization of sociology: the social sciences, he says, have become co-opted for use by governments, by militaries, and by corporate human-resources departments. That’s not how you understand a social system; it’s how you use science to more perfectly control human beings. And its effect on sociological practice is to turn sociologists themselves into cogs in a bureaucratic machine:

    explicitly coded methods, readily available to the technicians, are the major keys to success. In some of the founders [Weber, Durkheim, etc.], empirical techniques serve an imagination which, it is true, has often been curiously suppressed, but which one always feels to be there. When you talk with one of the founders you are always dealing with a mind. But once a young man has spent three or four years at this sort of thing, you cannot really talk to him about the problems of studying modern society. His position and career, his ambition and his very self-esteem, are based in large part upon this one perspective, this one vocabulary, this one set of techniques. In truth, he does not know anything else.

    I’ve read critiques of social science of this sort from other authors, though I can’t think of references at the moment. We’re (or at least I’m) inclined to think of the modern Ph.D. as the timeless way of things: you go to grad school, get assigned your little problem by your advisor, then solve your little problem, then spend the next 15 years of your career working on your little problem until you get tenure, at which point (the doctor dreams) you can work on whatever problem suits your fancy. It’s an argument like this by which my college mentor dissuaded me (whether he meant to or not — I think he was just being honest) from getting a Ph.D. You get sucked into one end of the bureaucratic machine and spat out the other. It’s the rare person (my mentor was one) who’s lucky enough to direct his own study; he’s one of the people of whom Mills would have said that “you are always dealing with a mind.”

    Mills’s final chapter — instructing up-and-coming sociologists on how to do meaningful work, and how to keep their minds active even while they’re getting churned through the machine — justifies the price of admission on its own. I found it deeply inspiring for anyone, not just sociologists, who’s afraid of going stagnant as he ages. While much of the book can feel like a flamethrower applied to the rest of the field, the last chapter is patient shepherding; it reveals Mills for what he is, namely a passionate, deeply humane researcher.

  • Pankaj Mishra, The Age of Anger: A History of the Present.

    We’ve lived before, says Mishra, in a world that feels chaotic and exhausted, as ours does today. The ISIS of yesteryear were the anarchists of the mid- to late-1800s. The global élites whom everyone loves to hate today were the capitalists of the industrializing world. Voltaire, whom the world remembers as the father of the Enlightenment, made a fortune and was happy to see the world run by merchants. There have always been two sides: on the one side, what today we might call the neoliberals or the technocrats, happy to tweak marginal tax rates here or grant the poor more or less health insurance there; on the other, those who believe that tribalism, community, blood, and fire are the real basis of society. There have always been anarchists happy to blow up the existing order; there have always been Mikhail Bakunins and Steve Bannons. There have always been Voltaires and Hillary Clintons.

    I hope I don’t sound like I’m coming down on either side here. On the one hand, books like Democracy for Realists convince me that the bulk of people are not moved by policy; they’re moved by the success of their team, their tribe, their party. They’re moved by war and by destruction. On the other hand, industrializing economies have been growing exponentially for centuries, and it should be our job to share this growth with the neediest members of our society; if expanding Social Security and improving the health of all Americans is the policy of a milquetoast technocrat, then count me as a milquetoast technocrat. The job of a humane politician in the 21st century is to channel this desire for blood and fire into socially desirable outcomes that help all Americans — to build up rather than to burn down.

    “We’ve been here before” is the lesson of Mishra’s painfully over-written book. “Go read yer Rousseau, yer Nietzsche, and your Voltaire” might be the secondary lesson. For all the ink this book spills, it doesn’t go much beyond “a pox on both your houses”: the anarchists are guilty of perverting Rousseau’s ideas into an ethic of destruction, while the heirs of Voltaire are the exponents of trickle-down economics who lack any empathy for the wretched of the earth. The only conclusion Mishra comes to is perhaps implicit: the last time we were in such a world, it only ended when World War I and then World War II detonated a large part of the world’s wealth. Maybe the only correct conclusion is that inequality needs a cleansing fire to wipe it out. That’s certainly the conclusion that Thomas Piketty, coming at the problem from a completely different different angle, arrives at. And maybe Mishra avoided the common problem of all books that diagnose a social ill, namely that the last chapter tries and fails to suggest solutions.

    Still, I think the right thing to do with this book is to skip it and mine the bibliography instead. Voters need more than the occasional tweak to the welfare state; they need to feel that they’re part of a community. And there will always be those whose only goal is to destroy that community. It’s the job of political leaders to harness these destructive impulses and direct them toward productive ends. What we need is political leadership, not the hopelessness that Mishra serves up.

Recent reads — April 1, 2017

Recent reads

I’ve been dreadfully behind on writing about books I’ve read, and there’s a danger that I’ll forget what they were about. So here’s a quick rundown:

  • The Sound Of A Wild Snail Eating. The author found herself struck down with a debilitating autoimmune disorder, which left her confined to bed for months and years. Rolling herself over in bed counted as the day’s big activity. In the midst of this, a friend brought her a snail to hang out in her flowerpot, or in a terrarium. The author spent her days watching the little guy up close: how his little proboscises sensed the world around him; his ability to carry large weights while stuck to the sides of walls; his slow digestion of any of her papers. Years later, she researched the biology of, and history of our perceptions of, snails, including (for reasons that she never really elaborates on) a great deal of 19th-century writing. Somehow the interleaving of “I am lying here staring at a snail” with “here’s what Victorians had to say about snails” was particularly delightful.

    There’s every temptation for this to turn into a cheesy sermon on living in the moment and smelling the flowers. Thankfully the author mostly avoids that temptation.

  • The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Fascinating, in-depth look at the birth of the settlements, from the Six-Day War through the Yom Kippur War, and onward through the postwar peace talks and to the conservative ascendancy over the Israeli Labor Party. It’s in many ways a story of politically conservative Orthodox Jews rebelling against the socialist Zionists who founded the country; conservative Jews forming settlements in the Occupied Territories becomes, to many young Israelis, what campus protest was to American students during the Vietnam War.

    Vietnam also plays a role in this story. Nixon lurks on the edge of the story, with Kissinger playing shuttle diplomat between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. Kissinger appears in town; every time he does, Nixon is getting more and more embroiled in Watergate. Eventually Nixon disappears, but Kissinger remains (under Ford).

    The fundamental conflict in the book is between the doves, who want to leave the Occupied Territories empty as a mere buffer between Israel and its neighbors; and those mostly religious people who believe that God himself decreed that Jews should occupy “The Whole Land”. (Presumably The Whole Land has a well-known boundary within today’s political map; I’m not sure what that boundary is.) The Arabs, for their part, didn’t help — e.g., with the Khartoum Declaration after the Six-Day War declaring that “the main principles by which the Arab States abide [are] no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it, and insistence on the rights of the Palestinian people in their own country.”

    The settlers’ main technique, which comes up again and again throughout Accidental Empires, is “creating facts”: establish settlements within the Occupied Territories, and fill them with people before anyone has time to write laws forbidding them. That, and just persistence: by the end of the book, settlers and soldiers have a routine that they’re obliged to act out. The settlers move in; the soldiers load the settlers onto buses and escort them out; the next week, or the next month, the settlers try again. Eventually they win: the settlements are an established fact.

  • Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen: delightful candy. A memoir and grammar guide by the long-time copyeditor at The New Yorker. Exactly the book for you if you’re both a compulsive copyeditor and a lover of The New Yorker. I happen to be both. Manages to not be needlessly fussy: the job of the copyeditor — apart from shoehorning the world’s finest writers into TNY’s house style (“reëlected” and such) — is to convey the underlying ideas as clearly as possible. This is why it’s both hilarious and completely correct when the author spends a fair amount of time discussing the appropriate hyphenation on “star-fucker”. It’s not a “star fucker”, since that could be confused with someone who is exceptional at having sex. The hairs can be split pretty finely, and there’s a lot of room for disagreement. Elaborating on the choices she makes, and the arguments she has with New Yorker staff on these topics, is a large part of the charm.

    Another large part of the charm is when she delves into The New Yorker’s storied history — in particular, the continuing reverberations of William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor for many decades. This is the “Mr. Shawn” of whom John McPhee wrote, in the introduction to his Oranges: “While mentioning a number of story possibilities to Mr. Shawn, I uttered the single word ‘oranges?’ … He answered right back. He always answered quickly. It seemed impossible to propose any subject to him that he had not thought about before you had. He kept his writers at the far ends of something like bicycle spokes — all separate, all somehow spinning together and apart, with him at the center — and when he turned down an idea he was usually protecting the interests of some writer whose name would never be mentioned. ‘No. I’m very sorry. No,’ he would say typically, his voice so light it fell like mist. ‘That subject is reserved in a general way for another writer.’ To my question about oranges, though, he said, ‘Yes. Oh my, yes.’

    Norris says that Mr. Shawn “was squeamish about fish hooks, wigs, twins, and midgets”, along with the usual “piss, shit, blood, and spit.” The pile of Shawn curiosities piles higher and higher: “Mark Singer once had a reference to Ex-Lax removed from a story about the dirty-tricks campaign for state senator of Roy Goodman, whose family money came from Ex-Lax.” Fast forward. We’re now in a era when David Remnick, the current editor-in-chief and much-beloved host of the New Yorker Radio Hour podcast, can have a competition with his colleagues on the magazine to see who can fit the most instances of the word “fuck” into an issue. (Remnick himself has a significant leg up, since he spent many years reporting from Russia and is fluent in Russian.)

    If you’re not already into The New Yorker, you really, really need to remedy that. I would recommend starting with most any book by John McPhee (Oranges, The Curve of Binding Energy, or Uncommon Carriers, say), or the collection of Anthony Lane’s movie and book reviews (Nobody’s Perfect), or Fierce Pajamas, the collection of New Yorker humor pieces from throughout its history. Or just grab a copy from a newsstand. Individual issues are some monstrously high price these days (above $7, I think), but that just says that you should subscribe; after reading just one or two issues you’ll want to.

  • Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. This is the story of a modern-day authoritarian régime, whose mechanism of control over the populace is less through a gun barrel and more through shrewd manipulation of the media. “This isn’t a country in transition”, says Pomerantsev, “but some sort of postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends.” The danger for the rest of us is that we thought Russia would be confined within its boundaries, but we were wrong: the Russian oligarchy and secret police is extending its tendrils ever outward, such that London now feels (according to Pomerantsev) like a suburb of Moscow. The book was published in 2014, so I’m sure the author has things to say about how far those tendrils extended during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

  • Masha Gessen, The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy. Gessen’s argument is that the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, can’t be understood without understanding the position of the North Caucasus (Dagestan and Chechnya specifically) within Russian society, and without framing the Tsarnaevs’ identity as predominantly that of displaced American immigrants. They should not be viewed, Gessen says, as “Muslims”. Their attachment to Islam was tentative at best. They were displaced immigrants, within a community of immigrants who were just barely holding on in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and whose North Caucasian norms were constantly butting up against those of the American community that surrounded them.

    Scaling out from the Tsarnaevs, there are also a lot of questions within this book about the history of the FBIs’ involvement in American terrorist activities. To quote Gessen: “When the FBI undercover agent or informant is the only purported link to a real terrorist group, supplies the motive, designs the plot and provides all the weapons, one has to question whether they are combatting terrorism or creating it.” She goes into more detail about this in her Longform-podcast interview about this book, which I would highly recommend. And if you’ve not already read the essays she’s written since Trump’s election — principally Autocracy: Rules for Survival — you need to. She has a distinctive, necessary, strong voice.

  • Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

    Mind candy. Parts of it had already percolated out into the broader society and thence into my brain, including Bourdain’s observation that anyone who orders steak well-done on a busy night in a restaurant will get a briquette that’s been deep-fried. Other, equally useful parts had not — for instance, when Bourdain notes that everyone hates brunch service, that it’s horrendously overpriced, and that all your best cooks will have worked the Saturday-night shift and will not be in to work on Sunday morning.

    There are other bits that I would have found useful back when I was a less-experienced cook — for instance, his advice on knives:

    Most of the professionals I know have for years been retiring their Wusthofs and replacing them with the lightweight, easy-to-sharpen and relatively inexpensive vanadium steel Global knives, a very good Japanese product which has — in addition to its many other fine qualities — the added attraction of looking really cool.

    I love my Global. I’m glad Anthony Bourdain says I’m right.

    Bourdain is fun for his “I’mma tell it like it is, and fuck you if you disagree” attitude. Not that I agree with him all the time — he hates vegetarians — but it’s just entertaining. Here he is on garlic:

    Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw-top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.

    A couple hundred mind-candy pages of this is entertaining.

  • Alexander Stille, The Sack of Rome: Media + Money + Celebrity = Power = Silvio Berlusconi

    I can’t imagine why I’d be reading a book containing quotes like this:

    Rather than asking themselves how Berlusconi had amassed his vast fortune in such a short time, many voters more or less took for granted that Berlusconi had done the kinds of things most other businessmen had done, but they did not necessarily see this as a problem. Since many voters assumed that most politicians were corrupt, they felt that a rich businessman might be less inclined to milk the system than a professional politician.
    […]
    Italians, voters and journalists alike, paid remarkably little attention to the problem of the conflicts of interest represented by such a major economic figure, particularly in the delicate area of the media, combining so much public and private power. Berlusconi insisted that he would resolve the problem shortly after the elections, and no one made a big issue out of it.
    […]
    Berlusconi understood that voters were more interested in personality than in programs, and that what he needed to do was to sell himself and the lifestyle he represented. His own story as self-made man and billionaire soccer club owner was more convincing and appealing than the explanations by economists of the left of the short-term sacrifices and long-term benefits involved in Italy’s joining Europe’s single currency.
    […]
    Over and over, he hammers away at points that are preposterously untrue—that his “enemies” enjoy a media monopoly and use it ruthlessly against him; that there is no conflict of interest between his private and public roles; that the many criminal investigations of him and his companies have turned up no evidence—and yet amplified and repeated by his newspapers and television stations, they gradually become common misperceptions that one hears coming out of the mouths of ordinary Italians who know few of the underlying facts.
    […]
    In his usual manner, Berlusconi at first denied that he had used the vulgarity, but when his comment was replayed on tape he insisted the left didn’t know how to take a joke.
    […]
    It is equally true that Romano Prodi and the center-left failed to give Italians strong positive reasons to vote for them. They seemed to think it was enough not to be Berlusconi.

    The book is from 2007.

  • Jennifer 8. Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. This book starts out feeling like — and its cover suggests that it will be — a trivial little thing about Chinese food. And it’s got some of that, which feels like it was mandated by an editor who didn’t think it would move product as it was. Fundamentally, though, it’s a book about the structure of the Chinese immigrant community in the United States, and the pipeline connecting the U.S. to Fujian Province. You should read it on that basis; some of the other bits — such as when she tries to find The Best Chinese Food In The World — feel like insignificant baubles.

  • Bradley Efron and Trevor Hastie, Computer Age Statistical Inference: Algorithms, Evidence, and Data Science. If you’re familiar with the field, these authors’ names are self-recommending: Efron for having invented the bootstrap, and Hastie for having written, inter alia, books on machine learning. CASI is half a survey of modern, computer-based techniques for analyzing data, and half an outline of the theory behind why those techniques work. We’re in an era when the techniques have outrun the theory, so we’re using a lot of machinery that seems to work, but for which we can’t provide mathematical guarantees. What brought us into this era, of course, was the computer, which suddenly allowed us to build models involving millions of parameters, trained on billions of data points. It’s an exciting time, but for people of a certain stripe it’s an uneasy time. CASI is a delightful introduction to both the classical methods (which by now have strong mathematical justifications, but didn’t necessarily have such justifications when they started being used), and the new world we’re in now. I used it as beach reading; it’s honestly that readable. Highly recommended.

  • James Mcbride, Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for the Real James Brown. A good book up to a point. It’s good to learn this much about James Brown, who appears to be a legitimately fascinating figure. During my lifetime, he was sort of a washed-up has-been with a well-publicized drug addiction. In Mcbride’s telling, Brown was a deeply generous man who let few people get close to him, and who fought for everything he had. If it were possible to strip the author out of the book, leaving behind almost a bare recitation of facts about Brown’s life, I’d be happier with it. The author is trying too hard, as when he writes, “You speak foul of the Redeemer Who Spilt His Blood in these parts and you’re liable to find yourself knocked upside the head hard enough to spend the rest of your life leaning like a flower a week after the rain.” The author dumped too much of this inauthentic noise over the top of Brown’s music. But Brown’s life and music are interesting enough to dig themselves out.

  • Mehrsa Baradaran, How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy. It is very expensive to be poor. The interest you pay to borrow money is higher. Around one in four American households is unbanked or underbanked. If you’re unbanked, your ability to function in the economy is crippled. After working, grippingly, through a history of American banking, to include savings-and-loans, credit unions, and Morris banks, Baradaran comes to recommend a system of postal banks — a “public option” for banking. It’s a simple, brilliant idea, and one that we need urgently.

    The author’s ability to research and write readable history is matched only by her controlled moral outrage, as when she contrasts our finger-wagging attitude toward the “irresponsible poor” with our unlimited bailouts for U.S. banks: “Perhaps we Americans will renounce our easy credit culture, call for structural change, go back to the gold standard, eliminate the national debt, or force the financial world to take on less debt, but until we do, it is sanctimonious to direct our collective aversion to debt at just one portion of the population.”

    And certain of her illustrative statistics pull the reader up short:

    the average unbanked family with an annual income of around $25,000 spends about $2,400 per year, almost 10 percent of its income, on financial transactions. This is more money than these families spend on food. [4] In 2012, the unbanked spent a total of $89 billion on financial transactions alone. [5] And these expenses can mean the difference between a family’s financial survival and its failure. For example, on average, families who filed for bankruptcy in 2012 were just $26 short per month on meeting their expenses.[6] Saving $2,400 per year, or $200 per month, could save many families from the devastation of bankruptcy.”

    (Citations in the original, albeit without the square brackets to mark them off, and without hyperlinks.) I felt more informed, more morally outraged, and more equipped with solutions after reading this book than I was when I began. I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.

  • Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim

    My friend Dan pointed me toward this delightful little thing. It’s in the vein of P.G. Wodehouse, if Wodehouse weren’t just raising his palms to the sky and lamenting these silly devils here on planet Earth. Amis is what you’d get if Wodehouse were engaged with the world, and enraged at it. This book is deeply funny, and surprisingly moving. (Amis’s One Fat Englishman, which I moved to after Lucky Jim, isn’t nearly as polished or as moving. I’ll let you know when I find the second Amis novel that you should move on to.)

  • Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen: A Novel

    You’re going along, reading the autobiographical novel of a woman who had a fucked-up upbringing and who may, possibly, be not-fucked-up in her 70s. It’s well-written as far as it goes, though it’s a couple hundred pages of the form “I woke up, ate Frosted Flakes doused in bourbon, forced out a poop with the aid of copious laxatives, and went to sleep”. And then … the last bit of the book happens. I won’t mention what happens, except to say that it’s borderline incoherent. And it’s borderline unbelievable within the world of the book, except inasmuch as the world of the book is already bleak and hellish. I can’t really recommend reading this novel. It doesn’t feel like an interesting enough stylistic innovation to justify the plot. The parts of the plot in which something happens feel like they were feverishly hacked together after the author realized she didn’t know how to end the book. And then, to justify the ending, she went back through the novel and introduced a periodically recurring theme of people’s “death masks”. That is, we’re given to understand that the narrator pays attention to the false faces that everyone presents to the world. I don’t think these death masks are useful, except as a way to justify some characters’ real personalities at the very end of the novel. The real personalities don’t, to my eye, match up at all with the model we’ve built of the characters throughout the story. “Well, that’s the sort of crazy shit that happens in this novel” is, up to a point, an answer, but it’s not satisfying to me. The end feels hastily bolted on, and it ruins the entire novel for me.

    I’ll ROT13 some spoilers here. They’re sexually graphic, because the novel is sexually graphic, so be forewarned.

    Fb ng gur raq bs gur obbx, Rvyrra’f sevraq Erorppn gheaf bhg gb or, orarngu gur cbyvfurq rkgrevbe, penml. Naq fur’f nyfb oyrnx va zhpu gur fnzr jnl gung gur erfg bs gur abiry vf oyrnx: Erorppn vf qvfuriryrq, naq fbzrubj raqf hc va gur cevfbare’f zbgure’f onguebor. Ubj gung unccraf vf abg pyrne.

    Rvyrra fgebatyl fhttrfgf gung fur qehttrq gur cevfbare’f zbgure, gura yrsg ure gb qvr bs pneoba-zbabkvqr vaunyngvba va ure pne. Gur pne’f pneoba-zbabkvqr ceboyrzf ner nabgure guernq gung yvatref guebhtubhg gur obbx, frrzvatyl bayl gb frg hc gung svany fprar. Gung’f svar, ohg V guvax gur nhgube guvaxf fur’f zber pyrire guna fur vf. Gurfr yvggyr ovgf guebja va urer naq gurer gb frg hc gur svany fprar qba’g srry yvxr n chccrgznfgre qrsgyl chyyvat fgevatf; gurl srry yvxr na njxjneq cngpu wbo.

    Nyfb, jul qvq fur pubbfr gb xvyy guvf jbzna? Jryy, orpnhfr gur jbzna’f pevzrf jrer fb zbafgebhf: fur nvqrq ure uhfonaq va encvat gurve fba sbe znal lrnef. (Fur qvqa’g encr uvz; fur tnir uvz n ynkngvir orsber ure uhfonaq jbhyq encr uvz, fb gung frk orgjrra ure naq ure uhfonaq jbhyq or yrff vawhevbhf gb ure.) Guvf, ntnva, srryf obygrq ba. Gur xvq vf vagebqhprq naq oneryl tvira n snpr; gura uvf zbgure vf vagebqhprq naq oneryl tvira n snpr; gura jr svaq gur zbgure gvrq hc va gur onfrzrag bs ure ubhfr juvyr jvyq-rlrq Erorppn — jubz jr xabj nf fjrrg, phgr, naq cbyvfurq hc gb guvf cbvag — vagreebtngrf ure. Guvf vf pbzcyrgryl bhg bs punenpgre sbe Erorppn, vapyhqvat ure cbhevat bhg jvar jvgu funeqf bs tynff va vg. Gung whfg frrzf rtertvbhf. Lrf, jr frr gung ure choyvp snpr vf zvyrf njnl sebz ure ernyyl vaare yvsr, ohg ernyyl? Funggrevat n jvar obggyr gb cbhe bhg n tynff? V thrff vs lbh srry yvxr znxvat gur cbvag va n pnevpngherq jnl, gura fher.

    Abar bs guvf obbx svgf jvgu nal bs gur erfg bs vg, rkprcg va n cnvashyyl negvsvpvny jnl.

  • Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings

    This is a wide-ranging book that I am going to need to think about for a long time before I really come to grips with it. Wiener was the founder of the discipline (and inventor of the term) cybernetics, which seeks to use analogies from the world of machines to understand the world of human beings. But that short-sells it; the OED goes a little broader, defining it thusly:

    The field of study concerned with communication and control systems in living organisms and machines.

    That’s accurate, but the scope is breathtaking. As Wiener lays it out, cybernetics includes the whole system by which information reaches an organism or a machine (we’ll just say “control system” to make it generic), the information is processed, and the control system performs some action on the basis of that information. There’s a lot to unpack there. For instance, the information could arrive at the organism with the known intent to deceive — as, for instance, when information flows in from a military adversary, and the control system has to decide how to react. In this way cybernetics encompasses game theory. Cybernetics is concerned, too, with the optimal flow of information itself — whence cybernetics encompasses information theory of the Shannon variety. Its applications include any system that exploits positive or negative feedback (concepts which were born in the cybernetic toolkit, as I understand it), so that the design of a robot that can reach its arm toward a glass of water, pick it up, and put it back down again is necessarily a cybernetic endeavor.

    Wiener often returns to an example that seemingly consumed him during World War II, when he was tasked with developing a self-governing anti-aircraft gun. This is a system that needs to predict, at the moment of firing, where the aircraft will be when the shell reaches it, which in turn requires a psychological and physical model of how the airplane pilot can maneuver his plane. The pilot’s behavior is constrained by the laws of physics and by, as I understand it, the slight problem that a too-aggressive evasive technique could cause the pilot to black out or the plane to rip apart. Having bounded, in some sense, the pilot’s set of choices, we now have to add in the complexity that the pilot knows what the anti-aircraft gun thinks, and the anti-aircraft gun knows that the pilot knows what the anti-aircraft gun thinks, and so on. Hence the design of an anti-aircraft gun is necessarily game-theoretic in the von Neumann-Morgenstern sense.

    The part that I’m going to have to reflect on is where Wiener essentially presents science, the law, and international relations as cybernetic problems of a sort. The difference between the adversary we face in science, and the ones we face in law and international relations, is that — to quote Einstein — “the lord God is subtle, but malicious he is not.” That is, science is interrogating a being that may be difficult to understand, but is not actively out to fool us. The rules of the game are there for us to discover, and will not change with our having discovered them, whereas international relations is a game in which our adversary is very often out to dupe us. Wiener labels the control problem in science as an ‘Augustinian’ problem, after his characterization of St. Augustine’s view of evil, and labels the adversarial control problem ‘Manichaean’.

    He finally moves on to note that, even if we have the means to solve any specific control problem, the larger question is whether we’ve correctly specified the goals of the control system. That is, even if we could design a self-governing machine that could, in some sense, solve international relations for us, we’d still need ethics. I need to understand why, even theoretically, the ethics problem is not also solvable by means of cybernetics. Wiener is an extremely smart man, and extremely erudite, and his book is extraordinarily vast in its scope, so I imagine he’s already thought of this and that it is I, the reader, who is the problem.

I have more to write about other books, but this is what I could rapidly get out the door. Apologies for the relative terseness. I’ve left out some books that require a more careful elaboration than I’m able to give at the moment. I’ll try to get to those presently.