Category Archives: reading

Dos Passos on Veblen

I’ve been re-reading John Dos Passos’ U.S.A., last read in about 1966 when I found it in the Peace Corps book box. Its portrayal of the early decades of the 20th century seems curiously relevant to the horrors unfolding in the early decades of the 21st, and I’ve been tempted to transcribe various passages in the blog but heretofore haven’t felt the absolute necessity that struck when I read this paragraph in the third volume, describing Thorstein Veblen:

At Carleton College young Veblen was considered a brilliant unsound eccentric; nobody could understand why a boy of such attainments wouldn’t settle down to the business of the day, which was to buttress property and profits with anything usable in the débris of Christian ethics and eighteenthcentury economics that cluttered the minds of collegeprofessors, and to reinforce the sacred, already shaky edifice with the new strong girderwork of science Herbert Spencer was throwing up for the benefit of the bosses.

People complained they never knew whether Veblen was joking or serious.

Only its mother could love it

Still chewing at the bones of this Poststructuralist carcass, and this morning I’m trying to puzzle through just why the stuff is so hard to read. It’s passages like this that stick in the craw:

Foucault sought to understand the discontinuities within Western European history by highlighting the differences between distinct contingently constituted epistemological situations. In studies influenced by Foucault, history is mapped in order to trace the borders of discursive formations for discontinuities of meaning… Foucault imagined differences in terms of discontinuities internal to a given culture’s history and as marking the interior structure of the subjectivities formed within that culture. (Peter Jackson “Mapping Poststructuralism’s Borders: The Case for Poststructural Area Studies” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 18:1 2003:49)

The bolded fragments must be meant to mean something, but I have to read them about six times before what that something might be starts to percolate through to my thinking brain, and even then I’m awash in alternate readings. How does anybody ever learn to read this stuff?

It is deconstruction’s positing of a single field of meaning upon which opposed dominant and marginalized binary categories are mutually defined that permits this approach to become linked with universalisms despite a professed interest in particularity. (Jackson 2003:54)

The mind quails, rebels, withers, and declares itself too goddam old and inflexible to get it.

Linking four texts

Cory Doctorow is one of those who gets (and puts) it so clearly:

The last 20 years of Internet policy have been dominated by the copyright war, but the war turns out only to have been a skirmish. The coming century will be dominated by war against the general purpose computer, and the stakes are the freedom, fortune and privacy of the entire human race.

The problem is twofold: first, there is no known general-purpose computer that can execute all the programs we can think of except the naughty ones; second, general-purpose computers have replaced every other device in our world. There are no airplanes, only computers that fly. There are no cars, only computers we sit in. There are no hearing aids, only computers we put in our ears. There are no 3D printers, only computers that drive peripherals. There are no radios, only computers with fast ADCs and DACs and phased-array antennas. Consequently anything you do to “secure” anything with a computer in it ends up undermining the capabilities and security of every other corner of modern human society.

And general purpose computers can cause harm — whether it’s printing out AR15 components, causing mid-air collisions, or snarling traffic. So the number of parties with legitimate grievances against computers are going to continue to multiply, as will the cries to regulate PCs.

The primary regulatory impulse is to use combinations of code-signing and other “trust” mechanisms to create computers that run programs that users can’t inspect or terminate, that run without users’ consent or knowledge, and that run even when users don’t want them to.

The upshot: a world of ubiquitous malware, where everything we do to make things better only makes it worse, where the tools of liberation become tools of oppression.

Our duty and challenge is to devise systems for mitigating the harm of general purpose computing without recourse to spyware, first to keep ourselves safe, and second to keep computers safe from the regulatory impulse.

(summary of his keynote at 28th Chaos Communication Congress)

The comments open various other cans, and are interesting to scan through to appreciate the great variety of geek perspectives.

Cory’s presentation shares time’n’space with some other recent reading, and it’s occurring to me that there are some potent interrelations, though they’re a bit on the latent side, and not immediately obvious.

I had occasion to try to read an article on GIS and postmodernism (Agnieszka Leszczynski’s “Poststructuralism and GIS: is there a ‘disconnect'”, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21:581-602 [2009]), which I found as impenetrable as most writing that references (privileges?) the Poststructural. As a part of my attempt to wrestle with its vocabulary, I converted the pdf to text, did some word counts, and produced a word cloud which does at least exemplify the problematic: words like ontic, epistemology and ontological make me squirm. Thus,

…theorists problematize the disembodiment of the conventional deployment of GIS… opposition to (empirical) ontological commitments is raised on the basis that the effects and objects of mapping and encoding practices ensconced within the technology are enabled by a contemptible epistemology systematically implicated in the networks of control that rationalize daily life…

gives me the jimjams. So I tried a Google Ngram for some of the most vexatious terms, and another for problematiz/se. These probably demonstrate little more than my age and remoteness from the academic fray.

A few days ago I was reconnected with a friend of 50+ years ago via a pointer to Matt Cartmill’s 1991 review of a book by Donna Haraway (see Miguel Centellas’ posting and Maggie Koerth-Baker’s too –Matt was a year ahead of me in high school, and one of those ‘smartest-person-I-ever-met’ people). I retrieved the whole review and read it gleefully, then sent it to a friend who read it not-gleefully, and so it goes…

So here I am, wondering if ‘ontic’ really ought to mean something to me, wondering if it’s even possible for me to grasp what the problem is that Leszczynski is writing about. So I somewhat idly try Google for ‘ontic’ and it’s bloody Wikipedia that gives me a way in:

“Ontic” describes what is there, as opposed to the nature or properties of that being.

…that is, as opposed to the linguistic acts that produce interpretations, readings, characterizations of “what is there”. OK, a good start.

Co-incidentally, I’ve been reading Adam Gopnik’s Winter: Five windows on the season, with on-and-off pleasure and this morning was brought up short by this passage, which seemed directly apposite to my wrangling with ‘ontic’:

I sometimes stop and wonder at the reality of the geological and biological world, that the things we see, though certainly existing, have none of the intense sequence, the personifications, the character we give them; without us they would just fall back into the world of nothing. I have a hard time expressing this, though it is one of the strongest emotions I know: this sense that somehow the entirety of the universe could have been made –was made– without purpose, that it is cold, spinning, unconscious, neither kind nor cruel, just following laws that are in the end not even laws, just regularities produced by the cycling of chances. A vast, empty room, with no one home…

I recall once when I got word that my best friend was dying and I happened to pass a paint store where all the shades of yellow were laid out and named, quite cleverly and precisely –lemon zest and buttercup and canary, each shade given a personality– and I thought, This is all a lie. The spectrum of light is as indifferent as the rest of the universe. “Buttercup” and “lemon zest” were not labels but just lies, hopeful names given to arbitrary swatches in a physical phenomenon of light, which is not only indifferent to our existence but without any kind of neat internal structure at all, with no more charm or colour than the indifferent hum of a radio on the wrong station. (pp.209-210)

And what is it that ties these disparate bits of text into a bouquet? I’m thinking that all of them operate in the realm of onomastics: they’re about the utterly (entirely, exclusively) human exercise of naming what surrounds us, so that the various things can be woven into the stories we tell. Good old Homo narrans, at it incessantly.

Doc’s at it again

Thanks to Doc Searls’ Weblog posting, I read How Luther Went Viral in The Economist, and then Doc’s very provocative Comment on the article. The triplet of writings casts more generally useful light upon the grand Events of 2011 (Arab Spring, Occupy this’n’that) than anything else I’ve encountered. It won’t take you 15 minutes to read those things, but I predict you’ll be thinking about their implications for the next few days… and perhaps bending the ears of others. And maybe you’ll be provoked to take a[nother] look at The Cluetrain Manifesto too. Thanks for all the fish, Doc!


John Lanchester’s review of Michael Lewis’s Boomerang in NYRB is worth a read today, as markets head south. A few trenchant quotes:

A writer making society-wide generalizations is picking up a big and very full bag by a single handle; in that position, it’s easy to end up writing about the handle, because it’s the thing on which you have a secure grip…

…“There was no credit boom in Germany,” an official told Lewis. “Real estate prices were completely flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. Because this behavior is totally unacceptable in Germany.”…

This one is ostensibly about Greece and Greek monetary delusions, but is uncomfortably relevant to contemporary American civic culture:

But the place does not behave as a collective…. It behaves as a collection of atomized particles, each of which has grown accustomed to pursuing its own interest at the expense of the common good. There’s no question that the government is resolved to at least try to re-create Greek civic life. The only question is: Can such a thing, once lost, ever be re-created?

And here’s another passage (the Envoi) with Goose over Grave frisson, in which one just might try substituting ‘politics’ for ‘economics’ and perhaps ‘truth’ for ‘money’:

The collective momentum of a culture is, for more or less everybody more or less all of the time, overwhelming. This is especially true for anything to do with economics. The evidence is clear: it is easy to mislead people about money, and easy to lead members of the public astray both individually and en masse, because when it comes to money, most of us, most of the time, don’t know what we’re doing. The corollary is also clear: the whole Western world misled itself over debt, and the road back from where we are goes only uphill.


An excellent book: Digital Rubbish: A natural history of electronics
Jennifer Gabrys
U. Michigan Press, 2011
publisher’s website
full text
A few bits to whet appetites for more:

Electronic waste, chemical contamination, failure, breakdown, obsolescence, and information overload are conditions that emerge as wayward effects of electronic materiality…
…The natural history method allows for an inquiry into electronics that does not focus on either technological progression or great inventors but, rather, considers the ways in which electronic technologies fail and decay… By focusing on the outmoded, it is further possible to resuscitate the political and imaginary registers that are so often forgotten in histories that rely on the persistent theme of progress….
…Superfund sites and museums of the electronics industry, shipping yards and electronics recycling facilities, computing archives, and electronics superstores and repair shops inform the content, texture, and structure of this study, which takes up natural history as much as a method as a theoretical point of inquiry…
…The chip, as unearthed from manufacturing residues and dredged up in discarded devices, is embedded in complex material and cultural arrangements. By untangling this fossil, I do not arrive at a more discrete description of this technology but, rather, scratch the surface of a device that—despite its apparent simplicity and ubiquity—is exceptionally dense and entangled…

Among Others

Jo Walton’s Among Others is an itch that won’t stay scratched since I finished reading it a couple of days ago. I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for some kinds of books, though I’m not sure I can define “some kinds” in any useful way, but I knows ’em when I feels ’em, and Among Others is definitely In The Club. Like friendship, In The Clubness isn’t necessarily transitive (i.e., you might or might not share my enthusiasms), but this book is worth the effort of trying to unpack what it is that I so enjoyed.

For one thing, it’s about books and reading. Indeed, it’s virtually a catalog of (mostly) 1970s scifi, with a few books that aren’t scifi at all, and some that are on the fantasy edge of scifi. The narrator (Morwenna Phelps Markova –it’s her journal that we read, covering Wednesday 5th September 1979 to Wednesday 20th February 1980) comments upon 128 books, many of which she reads during that less-than-6-months period [view list].

Most of the action takes place at a girls’ school in Shropshire, where Morwenna is in the Lower Fifth Form… already this is starting to sound preposterous, but hang on… Morwenna’s mother is a malign witch, implicated in the death of Morwenna’s twin sister Morganna. Magic is done, and not-done too. There are fairies, well beings who aren’t exactly fairies or elves or anything else you’ve ever met or perhaps even imagined… and there’s coming-of-age stuff, and dysfunctional family stuff, and bits of detail on Welsh topography and industrial history, and British boarding school mise en scène that makes Hogwarts seem particularly saccharine and vapid.

…but what the book is really about, it seems to me, is self-education via omnivorous reading and talking about reading and writing about reading, and it’s easy to accept that an especially bright 15-year-old could be as articulate as Morwenna is. The 1979-1980 time frame puts it outside the era in which personal computation steamrollered dead-tree media, and that’s worth thinking about in itself. It’s easy to forget that reading scifi was a major mode of geekery before video games and D&D arrived on the scene, and it’s interesting to consider what somebody who had in fact read all those books would know, and what view such a reader would have developed of humanity, of science, of the range of possibilities of social and cultural organization and of alternative possibilities. I think I’ve read about a quarter of the list, though I’m pretty hazy about some of the titles. Clearly Jo Walton has read them, and been intelligent aboout [ooooh Canadian spelling? or typo? you decide…] systematizing her evaluations as experienced via Morwenna.

I’ve harvested several reviews by bloggers, and picked out sentences that might encourage you to read the whole review:

…There were parts of the book which seemed so realistically personal that I felt awkward reading the passages…

we follow Mor, aged 15, as she voraciously read sf just as we did, and it gives her bursts of insight just as it did us. The sf she is reading is part of who she is, and who she is becoming, and it is so real it hurts.

…It is one of those books that you will read and find yourself wanting to underline passage after passage because of the way they speak to you…

…Not only is Among Others one of the most deep and thoughtful novels I’ve ever read, it was crafted in such a beautiful way that I will be thinking about it for a very long time…

…such a completely candid account of a teen girl’s intellectual growth. It’s rare to find a book that captures this process so well, probably due to our tendency to edit our memories as we grow and change and to attempt to harmonise them with the person we later became.

I have more to say, but haven’t quite figured how to cast it. Maybe I will once I see this in print…

From Charlie Stross

I confess a hazy understanding of genomics (well, it’s probably even more vaporous than ‘hazy’), but this from the author of Accelerando‘s recent list of things to feel good about makes me think I should try again to wrap the mind around the subject:

There’s been enormous progress in genomics; we’re now on the threshold of truly understanding how little we understand. While the anticipated firehose of genome-based treatments hasn’t materialized, we now know why it hasn’t materialized, and it’s possible to start filling in the gaps in the map. Turns out that sequencing the human genome was merely the start. (It’s not a blueprint; it’s not even an algorithm for generating a human being. Rather, it’s like a snapshot of the static data structures embedded in an executing process. Debug that.) My bet is that we’re going to have to wait another decade. Then things are going to start to get very strange in medicine.