Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Book Review: Go Figure

Go Figure: Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know
Tom Standage (editor)

I dote upon useless information. Go Figure is a lovely compendium of . . . not trivia, exactly . . . oddments from the magazine The Economist. Many of these follow a standard four-paragraph format: setup, background, explanation, implications. Deep it is not; intriguing, however, it is. Perhaps you've never asked yourself "Why are there so few road deaths in Sweden, anyway?" or "How did India Pale Ale get so popular all of a sudden?" or "What's with the big cadaver shortage I keep hearing about?" or "Why does everyone in Korea seem to be from the Kim family?" Well, you should have. If you're not curious about stuff like this, you're reading the wrong blog.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Book Review: Spade and Archer

Spade and Archer
Joe Gores

A very good prequel to The Maltese Falcon, giving Sam Spade a backstory that makes him a little more likable than in the original. The Hammett-esque language is a pleasure to read, and the mystery (or mysteries, to be pedantic) are more involved than most of the imitators can manage. Recommended for noir fans of all stripes.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: Lawless Lands

Lawless Lands
Emily Lavin Leverett, Misty Massey, Margaret S. McGraw (editors)
Science fiction, fantasy, Western

Big disclaimer up front. One of my closest friends in the world has a story in this collection. Furthermore, I read and commented on an earlier draft thereof. There's no way I'm feeling impartial about that one; I think it's really good.

So let's talk about the collection as a whole. I don't like to damn it with faint praise, but it's decidedly a mixed bag. A number of the stories are all written from basically the same plot outline--several of them are near-clones of one another. There's a lot of dark fantasy/horror, which I personally don't find very interesting or imaginative; your mileage may vary.

There are some ups as well as some downs, I'm happy to say. Among these I'd single out:

  • Seanan McGuire's "Pixie Season," which offers a welcome relief from the general diet of gloom & doom & gritty & despair & earnest & more doom & more gloom.
  • Dave Benyon's "The Stranger in the Glass" doesn't, much, but it has a neat idea at its core.
  • Laura Ann Gilman's "Boots of Clay" has a more interesting cast of characters and a decidedly different kind of conflict.
I will say that Mr. B.S. Donovan--"Old B.S." to his friends--has undeniably achieved a different voice than any other story in Lawless Lands. I can't imagine that this will be his last sale.

P.S. In case you somehow managed to miss it, there's also this.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Book Review: Cattle Kingdom

Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West
Christopher Knowlton

Cattle Kingdom is a flat-out amazing read. Christopher Knowlton has written a book that switches almost seamlessly from the level of the individual cowboy--particularly E. C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott, whose memoirs I now have to read--to the ranch owners to the system as a whole. He does a great job at every level. Whether you want to know what it was really like to be a cowboy, or what drove the great cattle barons, or how the great cow towns flourished and faded, or what larger economic forces drove the whole thing, this is the book.

There are a few places where Knowlton wanders into asides, which could have been relegated to footnotes or appendices. Other than that, my only complaint about Cattle Kingdom is that, at 350-odd text pages, it's too short.

I have the impression that Cattle Kingdom hasn't gotten the attention or promotion it deserved. I heard about it by accident, on the radio, and I had some trouble finding it in the bookstore. That's a real shame. Read this one.

This is as good a time as any to remind everyone that Steve Hockensmith is resuming his "Holmes on the Range" series. The titular first book, in particular, is a great fictional depiction of exactly the milieu of Cattle Kingdom.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: The Winter Fortress

The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Atomic Bomb
Neal Bascomb

This is a well-known tale that suffers nothing in the retelling. Neal Bascomb doesn't revolutionize anything, but he's done a lot of research using the diaries and family members of the saboteurs, so his account has a pleasingly personal feel. Overall it reads, not in a bad way, like one of the better Alastair MacLean novels (complete with MacLean's trademarked Man Versus Nature! scenes). Plus--kudos to Bascomb!--the book has adequate mappage and a cast-of-characters list right up front.

The Winter Fortress would be an especially good read for someone who's not a history maven. I liked it too, but then again I have a high threshold for re-reads and recapitulations.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: Blackett's War

Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats
Stephen Budiansky
History, biography, mathematics

Round about page 100 of Blackett's War I started thinking: "This is great stuff, but it's all background. Where's the foreground?" It turns out that the whole book is like that. The facts are fascinating, the writing is excellent, the detail is good, and the math is accessible; it's just that the book reads as a collection of anecdotes rather than as a whole.

This is a case where a simple chronological organization doesn't necessarily work well. The eponymous Patrick Blackett sidles into and out of the story, never remaining on-stage for long. Other characters do similarly, as do a succession of political intrigues, military-technical debates, and side stories (including, naturally, the many-times-told Enigma tale). If I'd been editing this material, I might have advised a thematic approach. What Blackett and his colleagues accomplished is really interesting in its own right: the ideas, not the people, are arguably the main characters.

What makes those ideas so interesting is that, in many cases, the key insight was that someone had to ask the question. Once the question was asked, answering it didn't require a Bletchley Park--just basic math and statistics--and yet the answers were no less consequential than the work of the codebreakers. Do larger convoys require substantially more protection? (No.) Why is the line to clean mess kits so long? (Washing takes longer than rinsing; you need three wash tubs and one rinse tub, not two of each.) What's the right depth setting for an air-dropped depth charge? (Shallow. Once your target sub has reached 100' depth, it's also had time to turn, so it won't be where you're aiming anyway.) Should we use bombers to attack cities, or to attack submarines? (Submarines.)

That last one was an obvious fact, by the way, which was ignored. That's the other reason the idea content of Blackett's War needs to be promoted: the staggering arrogance, incompetence, and all-around stupidity of the military men whose job it was to win the war, but whose hobby was insisting that everything they already knew was correct and that being smart was bad. Sir Henry Tizard, for example, had a meeting with a senior naval officer who sniffily explained that it simply wasn't possible to put radar on warships, my dear fellow . . . because there was no space for another aerial on the mast.

The upshot, then, is that I was fully interested and engaged--but I'm not sure that a general reader would be. I'd recommend Blackett's War for readers who have an interest in the Battle of the Atlantic and/or mathematics and/or military stupidity. If you're expecting a character-driven biography, you may be disappointed.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Book Review: Avengers of the Moon

Avengers of the Moon: A Captain Future Novel
Allen Steele
Science fiction

An enjoyable retro-pulp adventure, but I think you have to have a deep fondness for the original--at least the general style and genre--to fully savor it. Steele updates the science, but he doesn't (much) update the writing conventions, and the result has a certain hokey quality. It reminded me of nothing so much as Isaac Asimov's "Lucky Starr" novels; if you're looking for books that a typical mid-teenage reader might like, Avengers of the Moon fits the bill.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book Review: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599
James Shapiro
History, literature, biography

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare is a very good book with a great introduction. In fact, the intro is so good it's worth quoting at length. Like this;
The commonplace that dramatists are best understood in relation to their time would go unquestioned if the writer in question were Euripides, Ibsen, or Beckett. But only recently has the tide begun to turn against a view of Shakespeare as a poet who transcends his age, who write, as Samuel Coleridge put it, "exactly as if of another planet."
And this:
Those committed to discovering the adult Shakespeare's personality in his formative experiences end up hunting for hints in the plays that they then read back into what little can be surmised . . . But the plays are not two-way mirrors: while Shakespeare perfectly renders what it feels like to be in love, betrayed, or crushingly disappointed, it doesn't necessarily follow . . . that he "must have loved unhappily like Romeo, and like Hamlet not have known for a time what to get on with next."
And a disclaimer which all such writers should engrave on their hearts:
 And as grounded as my claims are in what scholars have uncovered, a good deal of what I make of that information remains speculative. When writing about an age that predates newspapers and photographic evidence, plausibility, not certitude, is as close as one can come to what happened. Rather than awkwardly littering the pages that follow with one hedge after another--"perhaps," "maybe," "it's most likely," probably," or the most desperate of them all, "surely"--I'd like to offer one global qualification here. This is necessarily my reconstruction of what happened to Shakespeare in the course of this year, and when i do qualify a claim, it signals that the evidence is inconclusive or the argument highly speculative.

In the end James Shapiro can't--quite--live up to his promises. Multiplying weasel words creep past his guard--yes, even the despicable "surely". He indulges in the two-way-mirror fallacy: "Only someone who had seen the effects of crop failure could write so poignantly . . .", and "Only a writer who had partly believed in the possibility of heroism could have turned so sharply against it . . ." He sometimes bends facts to suit his purposes: the claim that by 1599 "only on Accession Day did knights still dress in otherwise rusting armor" would have startled the armored men who fought the English Civil War in the 1640s.

But AYitLoWS is still a really good book. Where it shines is in its mission statement: explaining to modern readers what Shakespeare would have had on his mind when he was writing plays, and what his audiences would have had on theirs while watching them. Some of these insights are small but telling: a reference in Henry V to "a beard of the General's cut" would have been understood as a reference to the distinctive square-cut beard of the Earl of Essex.
Others are large-scale and reflect on the plays' themes and meanings. I had had no idea, for example, that in the summer of 1599 England underwent an invasion scare due to (unfounded) rumors of a second Spanish Armada. Even the better-known facts are effectively marshaled: it is . . . ahem . . . surely true that an Englishman seeing Julius Caesar would have been reminded of the uncertainty concerning the succession to the aged, childless Queen Elizabeth (an uncertainty wherein the aforementioned Earl of Essex played a large part).

This is great stuff. A Year etc. is full of it. There's far more than I can summarize here, and it's genuinely enlightening. So James Shapiro gets a full pardon from me for falling off the wagon relative to his introduction. I'm sure he'll be relieved.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: Egyptomania

Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy
Ronald H. Fritze
History, sociology, archaeology

The very last sentence of Egyptomania is this:

Why Egypt is so attractive in popular culture remains something of a mystery, but its existence is undeniable.
That's on page 377. Three hundred seventy seven pages is an awful lot of book to write (or read) without reaching a conclusion. Egyptomania is, basically, a 1.5-inch-thick Wikipedia "In Popular Culture" section. There are paragraphs, sections, and one entire chapter that could have been deleted without much loss. If the book isn't quite a list of everything everyone ever said or wrote or filmed about Egypt, it's not for want of trying. 

As a compendium, Egyptomania is not without its charms. Fritze, although an academic, writes in good clear English rather than in High Academicese, and he displays an excellent sense of humor:
In the case of Isis Unveiled, the Masters provided precipitated pages of text The problem was that many of the precipitated pages had been copied from works by other writers without attribution. Someone had plagiarized and that person was either Blavatsky or one of those Masters. Since an ascended Master would never stoop to plagiarism, that leaves Madame Blavatsky.
But I have to wonder what its editor was doing. For one thing, Egyptomania has a raft of basic copy-editing errors, including serial abuse and neglect of the common North American semicolon. For another, some of the book's assertions should have been gently fact-checked out of existence, such as the frankly bizarre statement that The Hound of the Baskervilles "drew its inspiration from the curse of the 'Unlucky Mummy.'" For a third, there are some exceedingly abrupt logical breaks and grammatical solecisms. Look again, for example, at that closing sentence quoted above. Grammatically, the "it" in "its existence is undeniable" can only refer to Egypt itself. While Egypt's existence is indeed undeniable, I don't think that's what Fritze meant to say. 

Finally, there's a lot of repetition. Also, things get repeated a lot. Not only that, the same basic facts are reiterated over and over. Halfway down page 134 we learn that "Renaissance Rome was the one place in the Europe of that era where a visitor could see and study a large number of Egyptian monuments and artefacts." At the bottom of the same page, we find out that "Rome was the one place in Europe where people could see a large amount of Egyptian artefacts without having to travel to Egypt." It's not just individual factoids; whole paragraphs are rehashed--if not quite so blatantly--two or three times over. This was vexing in Istanbul; in Egyptomania it's completely out of control.

As a resource for scholars, Egyptomania is admirably thorough. As a book for general readers, it's in need of some serious editorial TLC. It's not an unenjoyable read on the tactical level; as a whole, though, it will appeal mainly to the sort of reader who likes reading catalogs.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Book Review: Making It

[WARNING: long and slightly polemical.]

Making It: Why Manufacturing Still Matters
Louis Uchitelle
Politics, sociology

At the center of Making It there is an extremely acute observation: there is no such thing as laissez-faire manufacturing. There's always some kind of governmental support. This was true two centuries ago, when Samuel Slater avoided a British ban on exporting the designs of spinning machinery by memorizing how it worked. It was true in the 19th century, when tariffs protected U.S. industry and land grants supported the railroads. It's true now, when cities offer massive tax incentives to lure corporations.

To have no policy is itself a policy. That's what the federal government does now. As a result, the existing subsidy system is an incoherent mess of states and localities, all competing against one another. When companies build plants by looking for the biggest windfall, the result is not to create new jobs; it's just to move jobs from one place to another. This being the case, why not try to have a rational policy that promotes the common good?

Making It documents this observation with a wealth of statistics and facts. It documents, as well, the damage that the decline in manufacturing employment has wreaked. Unfortunately, it doesn't do nearly as good a job in analyzing what it's documented. The book's logic is a semi-random stew of non-sequiturs, circular arguments, and absurd prescriptions--and prescriptions is the word: Louis Uchitelle seems to be enamored of the top-down, there-oughta-be-a-law, Five Year Plan approach. He ought to be thinking in terms of incentives, not mandates. Mandates don't work. Incentives do. (Not, admittedly, always as designed.)

For instance, consider this excerpt (emphasis added):
. . . in accepting the move to ATS [an outsourcing company], the mechanics lowered the odds that the two hundred or so assembly line workers they had left behind would have the leverage to organize a union and then bargain for higher wages and job security. While still on staff, the mechanics were in a position to support the assembly line workers by striking if the latter did, or by not striking but engaging in a work slowdown--dragging out repairs--if the company brought in outsiders to replace the assembly line workers. Without willing mechanics, a machinery breakdown can halt an assembly line in any factory and even shut it down. The Oplers [the company owners] understood this. "In our negotiations with ATS we specified that having skilled mechanics on all shifts and at all times was the reason for going with that company . . . We found that we could hold ATS to a higher standard than we were able to attain on our own."
Do you see the trick here? The bolded sentences are being deployed to imply that the company moved its mechanics to ATS specifically in order to weaken employees' ability to strike. But the speaker doesn't say that. He just says that outsourcing gave them better availability. This is an artfully arranged synthesis, meant to support Making It's propaganda goals. It's not logic.

Here's another one:
Harley-Davidson . . . publicly declared in 201 that it would move some factory operations from Milwaukee, where it is headquartered, to a lower-wage city such as Stillwater, Oklahoma, or Kansas City, Missouri, if its hourly workers in Milwaukee failed to accept certain concessions . . . In the end, the regulars . . . gave in and ratified the contract, fearful they might lose their jobs altogether if Harley-Davidson carried out its threat to relocate. The city's taxpayers, however, were given no say in the matter--no opportunity to bat down Harley's threat--although their taxes helped to subsidize the company's operation in Milwaukee . . . [their] taxes should have given them a right to amend Harley's plan, and even to veto it by withholding subsidies from the company.
Seriously? What does Louis Uchitelle imagine that the taxpayers could do? Pass a city ordinance forbidding Harley-Davidson from moving any jobs? Threaten to soak them with extra taxes on their Milwaukee operations? (That would go well, I'm sure.) Confiscate their HQ?

Those flaws are specific. Others are endemic. Making It repeatedly faults manufacturers for moving out of central cities, for instance, but its only proposed cure is this: ". . . government money . . . could have been used to keep manufacturers and distributors rooted in the cities by helping them pay for their operations." Except that, just a few pages earlier, a factory owner says flatly that even with these subsidies, "No, I would not move back. The biggest cost is attracting and training a workforce, and then once I've got three hundred people in place in St. Louis, someone's going to say, 'Let's organize a union'." In other words, the book is promoting a plan that by its own testimony wouldn't work.

Let's face reality: we're in a competitive, profit-driven economy, with every company in the world in the same race. The companies that don't make money go under. If Apple can't make a profit manufacturing cell phones, Apple will stop manufacturing cell phones. If Apple starts charging an extra $50 per phone to support a stateside factory, it will lose market share to their competitors that don't. If we could somehow mandate that every cell phone sold in the U.S. be made entirely in the U.S., then the U.S. will end up with overpriced, crappy cell phones, because every company on the planet will have a positive incentive to not sell their wares here.

(Aside: Louis Uchitelle depends a lot on argument by anecdote. Well, here's a counter-anecdote for him. My very own wife is a mechanical engineer who works in a factory. Her group is currently competing with a state-supported company in Italy, one with very much the kinds of policy supports that Uchitelle seems to prefer. Her outfit can't compete on price, because of the subsidies. Nonetheless, they're winning business from those competitors, because those competitors make lousy products.)

If Louis Uchitelle had gotten a tough-minded and thoughtful critique of his manuscript, Making It could have been a book with a lot of impact. Instead, it's a book that will appeal entirely who readers who already agree with its conclusions. Uchitelle is a reporter, and the reportage is excellent. The thinking is not.