Tuesday, 20 November 2018

At Home: A short history of private life by Bill Bryson

Over its 19 chapters At Home  explores every aspect of private life in Western societies.  It ranges widely in time and space, outlining what we know about the evolution of domestic life from the Neolithic onward.  Along the way it discusses everything from the origins of agriculture to the historical composition of paints to the vagaries of personal hygiene through the ages.

Each chapter uses a room in Bryson's English home as a jumping off point.  Some rooms provide obvious subjects.  "Kitchen" and "Dining Room" deal mostly with food and drink, nutrition, and social habits around consuming food.  Other chapters have a more tenuous connection with their titular room.  "Cellar" mostly deals with building materials, such as concrete, wood, and brick, while "The Passage" is mostly about the telephone, although it begins with a long introduction about the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the excesses of the Gilded Age. 

These kinds of digressions are highly typical, and key to the book's charm.  As At Home progresses you feel that you are being led a wandering path across the landscape of knowledge by a genial guide.  One paragraph leads to another and before you know it, you are learning about the 18th Century Kit Kat Club when you thought you were  here to discuss the concept of comfort, the idea of crop rotation,  the workforce of the Industrial Revolution, or English Country Houses, all of which are discussed in the first 4 pages of "The Drawing Room".

Given the book's scope, you are likely to encounter familiar faces (such as Thomas Edison) and familiar ideas (the discovery of the critical role of Vitamin C in preventing scurvy) as well as much less familiar ones (the idea that Edison's genius largely consisted in his mastery of systems, necessary to roll out electric lighting on a large scale, or the revelation that it was decades after John Snow demonstrated that cholera was spread by bad water before public health officials accepted that 'bad air' was not to blame).

But fundamentally, this is a comfortable book.  You will learn many new things, and unfamiliar perspectives on familiar things.  But you are unlikely to be faced with uncomfortable facts or to be really challenged.  Bryson spends 4 pages discussing tea, but no time at all informing you of the fundamental role of slavery in the transatlantic sugar trade.  He characterizes death duties as 'punishment' of large aristocratic landowners, without discussing the implacable economic and social forces that led to that taxation, and the unprecedentedly egalitarian and democratic society that this dilution of wealth fostered in the 20th Century.

Bryson is writing popular nonfiction for the reading class, which in his implicit understanding is at least upper-middle-class.

This is a warm, idiosyncratic, eclectic, and rambling view of British and American society.  Be prepared to google for pictures of the many grand buildings he mentions, and for more background on some of the many surprising facts he mentions in passing.  But don't expect analysis, and don't expect to be challenged.  At Home is a warm bath, not a cold shower.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Body Music by Julie Maroh


This is an amazing book. It's a series of vignettes about love, mostly romantic and sexual love, told in 'graphic novel' format. Most of the vignettes are unrelated, most of the characters are (relatively) young, and all of the vignettes take place in Montreal. There are vignettes showing post-first date anxiety, the revelation of true love, one night stands, spicing up a long term relationship, first meetings, post-fights.

What makes the book extraordinary are the drawings. They are so evocative. Faces twist with emotion, darkness lowers over wintry Montreal, anger rages silently across pages of panels, ghostly figures reconstruct memories.

"In the heat of the club. Saint Catherine Street East" is largely wordless. We see flashes of heated bodies as they dance. A single dancer in the crowd catches the undivided attention of a man at the bar. Perspective shifts: we watch the dancer circle close to the watcher on the dance floor. The dancer's face, torso, back, lips rivet the watcher's attention -- in sequence? We see the dancer as dynamic fragments surrounding the still watcher. Words finally appear as the two begin to interact, but it is through the drawings that their relationship has been created and evolves.

This book is not a comic. It's storytelling in pictures and words, with so much more said by the drawings than by the words.

"Are you my mother?" by Alison Bechdel is more typical of the graphic novels I've read in the past. In Bechdel's books the drawings emphasize and illustrate the words. It's relatively easy to re-imagine them as conventional written memoirs or as conventional narrative movies.

In Body Music drawings create character, atmosphere, and emotion. Words simply explain, clarify, or contradict.

Maroh's work is a more elusive, allusive beast.


Monday, 1 October 2018

Good News from Outer Space by John Kessel

I have limited patience for picking up random SF by random authors to see if I might enjoy it.  Life seems too short, despite how much time I waste in other ways.

So I was excited to discover a short book entitled something like "100 great science fiction novels" at McNalley Robinson about 10 years ago.  One of the books it recommended was Good News from Outer Space.  I picked up a copy.  However the book looked dystopian, so it languished unread.

In the meantime, I read Corrupting Dr. Nice based on a rave by Jo Walton in What Makes this Book So Great.

Corrupting Dr. Nice is a satire on modern society disguised as an entertaining time travel romp.  It features a hapless researcher (Dr. Nice) who is deceived by a inveterate female con artist who becomes his love interest.  There's also a troublesome pet dinosaur, because, after all, why wouldn't you add a pet dinosaur if your characters have free access to the Mesozoic Era? 

It was great, and it put John Kessel on my radar.  I bought a copy of The Moon and the Other almost as soon as it was released.

The Moon is a very different book from Dr. Nice.  One reviewer describes it as "a complex, but relevant story about politics, gender identity, and social conflict through a series of characters living on Earth’s inhabited Moon. A wonderful, complicated, and beautiful novel, it asks what responsibilities people have to the societies they inhabit." -- Andrew Liptak, The Verge.

Cool.  John Kessel doesn't write the same book twice.  This rare in the SF world, where art wars with the demands of making a living.

I was hooked.  So it was a little bit like Christmas when I suddenly realized that he had also written Good News from Outer Space, still sitting innocently unread on my shelf.

I dove in, and was, perhaps unsurprisingly, surprised. 

Good News from Outer Space might tell one of these two stories:

  1. In a near future, near-dystopic version of the United States, a tabloid journalist undergoes an illegal revival procedure after his death.  He lives -- but he cuts himself off from his wife and his best friend and becomes obsessed with an improbable conspiracy.  Invisible, intangible aliens are taking over the world!  He stalks his obsession across a disintegrating United States while the lives of those around him dissolve into chaos.
  2. Aliens want to take over our world, or at least the United States of America.  They have superior technology of course, but limited numbers.  How do they go about it?  Easy -- they impersonate select individuals to influence and disrupt human society.  For example, why not convince a prominent tele-evangelist that the Second Coming is imminent?  And that Jesus will arrive in a spaceship near Raleigh North Carolina at midnight of on New Year's Eve 2000?

Or maybe it doesn't. The tone and structure are reminiscent of somewhat hallucinatory books like Phillip K. Dick's Ubik or A Scanner Darkly. Maybe a bit too strongly reminiscent: Good News feels a lot like 1977.

I'm glad I didn't read this novel before I encountered Kessel's other work: despite this book's strikingly original ideas and skillful execution, Good News wouldn't have made me a fan.



Thursday, 9 August 2018

The Art of Bird Identification by Peter Dunne

A few years ago I took a 2 day raptor workshop with the author of the Peterson Field Guide to Raptors of North America.   Bill Clarke taught us the field marks for all of the raptors common to our area, including the field marks necessary to identify males, females, and juveniles of various ages.  He was dismissive of the idea of "holistic" bird identification:  what does it even mean to look at 'the whole bird'?  How does that help if you don't know all the small differences that distinguish different species?

Peter Dunne explains. 

Field marks are the details of bird plumage and structure that can be used to distinguish different species of birds.  They were originally derived from the study of "skins", the preserved stuffed remains of dead birds stored in collections like that held in UBC's Beatty Museum.  But not all field marks are easily seen in the field.  For example, why are ring-necked ducks called ring-necked ducks and not ring-billed ducks?  Why a "sharp-shinned" hawk? Apparently the answers to these questions are obvious to anyone who's studied a skin, although the names are puzzling to those of us who use binoculars. And are the field marks the first thing you see when you see a bird?  Actually, probably not.  The first things you probably notice are actually things that you may be taking for granted.  Where are you seeing the bird?  What habitat is it in?  What's the time of year?  What's the size and general shape of the bird?  What is it doing?  How is it acting?  These factors are the most obvious things you see when you are looking at a living bird in its natural environment, and are factors you can use to help identify birds. 

Dunne recommends becoming familiar with 'families' of birds first:  what are the characteristics of ducks as opposed to sparrows as opposed to herons?  See, even if you are not a birdwatcher you have some idea of what these bird families are like and how knowledge of a bird's environment, location, and general appearance can help you start the process of identifying a bird's species.

From there you need to spend as much time as possible observing the bird to gather additional clues as to who the bird is.  Only then is it time to consult a field guide to compare the bird's location, behaviour and yes, field marks with those outlined in the book to figure out just who you were looking at.

Dunne's book is a great introduction to the art of bird identification.  It has tips to help the rest of us develop the skills that are so automatic to experts like Bill Clark that he doesn't even recognize that he is using them.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I've tagged this book as "nonfiction" and "politics", although it's hard to imagine a more personal book.

In The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion writes about her husband's sudden death and her first year of grief. It's a multi-award winner.  It's a classic.  It has profound and universal things to say about grief and loss.

But what I want to talk about is simply this passage (from page 98 of the paperback edition):

"One thing I noticed during the course of those weeks at UCLA was that many people I knew, whether in New York or in California or in other places, shared a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful. They believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the telephone numbers they had at their fingertips, the right doctor, the major donor, the person who could facilitate a favor at State or Justice.  The management skills of these people was in fact prodigious. The power of the telephone numbers was in fact unmatched. I had myself for most of my life shared the same core belief in my ability to control events. If my mother was suddenly hospitalized in Tunis I could arrange for the American consul to bring her newspapers and get her on an Air France flight to meet my brother in Paris.  If Quintana was stranded in the Nice airport I could arrange with someone at British Airways to get her onto a BA flight to meet her cousin in London. Yet I had always at some level apprehended, because I was born fearful,  that some events in life would remain beyond my ability to control or manage them. Some events would just happen. This was one of those events. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

What does this paragraph say to you?

I know what Didion is trying to say.  In this situation, Didion's lifetime of experience dealing with crises was useless.  Death does not negotiate.

I can't argue with that conclusion.

But the paragraph contains a second message.

It seems to me that the passage states that Didion has finally encountered a situation where her wealth and privilege is useless.  But Didion doesn't seem aware of that message.  Her own privilege is invisible to her:  it doesn't occur to her that not everyone has phone numbers, and that even if they did, those phone numbers would be useless. I could call the American consul until my fingers were numb and it's unlikely they would take my call let alone help my mother.  I didn't go to the right schools.  I don't have the right connections.  I don't have enough money. Fundamentally, I chose the wrong parents and the wrong background.  I am not privileged in the way that Didion has always been privileged.

Even more striking is that Didion calls her privilege "a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful" or "management skills".  She seems to really believe that she and her friends adroitly deal with crises by using "skills".  That is, they have used talent, time, and determination to develop an ability that they can use to accomplish an end.  And while I admit that there is probably an element of skill involved in effectively leveraging your unearned privilege to best effect, calling this a "management skill" is both blind and insulting.  Does Didion think that those who don't have the phone number of a Vice President at British Airways lacks skills?  Does she think that someone who doesn't get invited to the same cocktail parties as ambassadors lacks initiative?  Ability?  A positive "habit of mind'? Does she have any idea that she and her friends have been "very successful" because of their privilege rather than their "skills"?

It seems unlikely.

In the end, Didion's message is essentially the same.  Life and death situations are beyond our control, no matter how much we try to control them.

But the message she didn't mean to convey left me saying an involuntary "good!". My resentment of her sense of privilege made Didion's feeling of helplessness gratifying. I resented her sense of privilege.  I resented her blindness.  I resented the distorted world view that made her see her privilege as earned -- that is, "the very successful have management skills" rather than the actuality of "the very privileged have connections that give them an unearned advantage over those born in different circumstances."

I shouldn't resent her so much.  After all, we all have unearned privilege of different kinds.  It's just that this particular kind of privilege bothers me more than most, because, of course, it's a kind of privilege that I don't share.  My kids can't get into a fully subscribed program because I happen to know the director.  My parents didn't go to university, so they couldn't talk to someone and get me a summer job in a lab.  I don't "know how things work" or know the right people and the right phone numbers.

Didion's privilege and her blindness to this privilege is visible to me in a way that my own privileges are not.

In some ways I am grateful for that paragraph, however infuriating I found it.  Those words are a reminder.  In understanding the world you can and must start from where you are and who you are.  But don't forget that your experience is not everyone's experience. You almost certainly also have privileges that you take for granted.  Try to see them.  Try not to forget them.




Monday, 9 July 2018

Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas PIketty

Pages: 571 
(655 if you read all of the footnotes)

I am very late to this party.  Capital caused a sensation in the English-speaking world when its translation was published in 2014.  Every second opinion piece or economics article or political piece that I read for months referenced Piketty.  A prolific-Facebook poster of my acquaintance became an academic fangirl. But at that time I knew that I'd have limited time and mental focus for reading anything complex, so after I looked at the length I concluded that I was unlikely to finish it.

I finally read Capital in March / early April of this year.  Yes, I know it's July.  No I didn't write this blog entry at that time.

I am late to this party in more ways than one.

However I did take a few notes about the book as I read it, so I am able share a few thoughts despite my always-hazy memory.

1.  Economists don't really understand economies.  They just don't have the data.  Detailed historical economic data exists only for a few countries, for a few factors, over a limited timespan.  Not to mention that the data for different places and for different eras is inconsistent.  So there is literally no way to prove general theories about how economies work.  You can draw well-founded conclusions only for certain phenomena, or for short term trends.

Fortunately for readers of Capital, data does exist about income and wealth distribution for a few countries (France and England) over a couple of hundred years, and for a number of other (mostly developed) countries for the 20th century.  This allows Piketty to draw some interesting conclusions.

2. Insofar as we can tell, the economy of the 20th century was far from typical.  The First and Second World Wars sent huge shock waves through world economies, and in particular European economies.  The government of Britain used taxation and deliberate inflation to pay for both wars,  decimating the inherited wealth of the aristocratic classes in the process.  Yes, all of those elegies for a lost way of life (Brideshead Revisited, Downton Abbey, etc.) do reflect a real change, and not just the onset of 'modernity'.

Prior to WWI, the wealthy could count on a fairly reliable return of 4% per annum on capital with basically no inflation.  After this, while technological change did reduce the return on capital on agricultural land, inflation and taxation meant that it was far more difficult to live on the gains from accumulated capital no matter how it was invested.

Don't be sad:  the result was a vast reduction in the economic importance of inherited wealth.  This gave rise to a healthy middle class,  widespread prosperity, and the ability of motivated individuals to join or exceed middle class status based on their own talent and effort.  In other words, these conditions created a perhaps historically unprecedented era of vastly reduced inequality that allowed most of us born in the 20th century to achieve a comfortable life.

To put this more quantitatively, prior to WWI the wealthiest 10 per cent of people owned 90% of all wealth in a wide variety of nations.  Afterwards, their share of the nation's overall wealth dropped to:
  • 70% in Britain
  • 55% in Sweden
  • 60% in France
  • 65% in the US
In other words, taxation helped level the playing field so that there was something left over for the rest of us.


3.  Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and their neo-liberal cronies were and are Bad People.  The 1980s were an inflection point in Western economies.  Before this, high growth and policies like progressive taxation lessened inequality.  Since then, inequality has increased dramatically.

We can't necessarily reproduce the high growth rates of the post-War era.  But government policies (such as inheritance taxes, progressive income taxes, or taxes on capital) can have a profound effect on how wealth is distributed in a nation.

Less inequality is a Good Thing.  It doesn't mean that virtue goes unrewarded.  Quite the contrary.  The only way that economic Virtue (thrift, industriousness, initiative, cleverness) can be rewarded is if those virtues lead to economic success.  Economic success requires that there be "something left over for the rest of us" -- which can only happen if the influence of inherited wealth is limited.

Wait a minute!  Am I talking about two different things now?  No, not at all.  How do that top 10% manage to accumulate 90% of all wealth in a nation  in the first place?  Simple: by starting with inherited wealth and then preserving or expanding that wealth over their lifetimes.   

How does that work?  Well since antiquity, in different types of economies, and in different technological eras, the return on capital seems to have averaged 4-5% annually.  This is far higher than the typical growth rate of most economies. For example, in the time period 1970-2010, the annual growth rate of Western economies has been between 1.6-2.0%.  This means that 'new money' is created at less than 2% per annum as the economy expands.  "Old money" (capital) increases at 4-5% on average.  So barring appropriate taxation, inherited wealth grows faster than new fortunes can be made.

Inherited wealth beats industry and initiative. It's just math.

There are exceptions and exceptional eras.  Growth in China since 2000 has sometimes reached stratospheric levels (above 10%).  Post-War growth in Europe was also larger than 4% -- but replacing the entire infrastructure of bombed out countries will do that for you.

In stable economies, capital derived from investing inherited wealth overwhelms capital created by economic growth every time. And redistributing the wealth of nations so that it is owned by a small fraction of its population is not good for most of us. [See The Spirit Level by R.G Wilkinson and K Pickett, which outlines the negative societal effects of inequality over a surprisingly large range of social indicators -- for rich and poor alike.]

4. What else does Piketty have to say?  Many many things.  The book is almost 600 pages long, after all.  He provides evidence for his assertions ranging from quotes from Balzac and Austen to detailed charts and graphs of various economic data.  He delves into details about the mechanics of inequality, including evidence that the largest fortunes tend to earn more than 4-5% on average, accelerating inequality in favour of the wealthiest 1% (or .1% or .01%). He even suggests a solution:  a global tax on capital.

I could write more, but I'll leave it there to prevent my review from becoming as intimidatingly long as Piketty's book.

Overall, Capital is surprisingly readable, and indisputably relevant. There's a reason Piketty took the intellectual world by storm in 2013/14.




Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

Leaving Berlin does some things very well.  Notably, it paints an indelible portrait of post-War Berlin 4 years after the defeat of the Nazis. The city is divided between the American, British, French, and Soviet zones.  The city is in ruins, the Berlin airlift is in progress, and the stunned survivors of the war are trying to navigate an uncertain and ever-shifting present.

We see Berlin through the eyes of the prominent novelist Alex Meier.  Alex is a German Jew who fled the Nazis before the war, and who is now returning to the East as an honoured guest to help build his homeland's socialist future.  But Meier is also a refugee again:  this time from the House Un-American Activities Committee.  When asked to name names he had a fit of temper and told them to go fuck themselves.  As a result, he was exiled from America and from his 10 year old American son.

In Berlin Alex encounters places and people that he knew before the war, but everything has changed.  The city is little more than piles of burnt rubble.  The younger brother of a socialist friend is now an ambitious East German apparatchik who is helping build what will become the Stasi.  One daughter of the man who saved him from the camps lives in West Berlin and is the self-justifying wife of a (former?) Nazi doctor. Her sister, his first love, is the mistress of a Soviet general in charge of slave labour camps. 

Everything is painfully familiar but painfully different, and Alex cannot bridge the gap.  He did not experience the war as they did, and can no longer truly understand the city or the people he left behind.

I think Leaving Berlin would have been a more interesting book if that summary of the book were  complete.  But Leaving Berlin is a thriller.  Alex is actually an American spy.   After his encounter with HUAC he was offered a deal by the CIA: if he gathers enough useful information in the East he may be allowed to return to America and be reunited with his son.

The tropes follow thick and fast:  Alex is, of course, also recruited as an East German informer almost as soon as he arrives, doubling the opportunities for intrigue.  No one is quite as they seem, Alex is quickly pulled between old and new loyalties, and soon Alex doesn't know where to turn or whom to trust.  The plot is driven by constant action.  Alex becomes embroiled in deception, murder, and betrayal the morning after his arrival, and transforms from a naive observer of events to a polished undercover operative over the course of  a single week.

Leaving Berlin is an effective thriller.  I raced to the end even though I'm not entirely sure that I followed all of the plot convolutions.

But Kanon did too good of a job evoking post-War Berlin and its inhabitants.  I wanted to spend more time with Bertolt Brecht, who, as Alex observes, is nostalgic not for pre-War Berlin, but for the 1920s.  I wanted to understand the idealism of the socialist returnees, and to see their struggles and compromises as their hope for a new society fades in the face of Soviet totalitarianism.  And I wanted the portrayal of the vindictive 'bad guy' Russians to be moderated by an understanding of how their attitudes towards Germans and Germany were formed by the 20 to 40 million Russian casualties of World War 2.

It's not entirely fair to critique a novel because it's not a different type of book.  Perhaps it's a tribute to the quality of Kanon's writing?  It left me wanting more from the novel than action and intrigue.