The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

The long opening salvo of Pollan’s manifesto argues against nutritionism, the belief that the key to a good diet is simply to eat those compounds that are essential and to avoid those that are toxic. The argument is not completely unsound: for decades, we have been urged to eat some things and to fly from others on the basis of incomplete and contradictory evidence, and there’s good reason to think that there’s something unhealthy about the typical American diet. Pollan is a graceful writer as well, and so this section is written with surprising grace and ease.

But graceful and fluid pseudoscience is still pseudoscience, and at its core this argument retreats all the way back to premodern vitalism: there is some mystical wholeness about, well, whole foods that completes us, and if only we would give our twinkies and eat real food then we would be whole ourselves. Nutritionism is right; in the long run, foods are chemicals — stuff — and someday we’re going to understand what’s in it and what we really should eat.

We could stand to lose some weight, yes, and some of those chemical additives might come back to haunt us. But let’s be real: we’re usually talking about barely-perceptible statistical effects that, for any individual, are likely swamped by many other factors. Yes, that barbecued brisket has some carcinogenic nitrosoamines and saturated fats and cholesterol, and none of these are good for you. But if you’ve got an appointment to keep at midnight in some flaming town, or

On some scarred slope of battered hill
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear

then what’s the harm in having a nice sandwich?

The distinction Pollan makes between food and foodlike is handy. Pain perdu, made from brioche baked that morning and dressed with a reduction of fresh berries and cream, is food. Sara Lee is foodlike. Pollan thinks foodlike is Bad; I think it's just a little less trustworthy.

The concluding chapters avoid science and mysticism and launch into speculative prescription, and here Pollan’s insight and good sense win the day. He urges us to

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

and analyzes the implications of this sensible advice. Important, too, is Pollan’s recognition of how nutritionism has tangled our relationship with food, leading us to look at our food as a mixture of medicines that are Good For Us and toxins that Are Not. The implications of this failure are serious and seldom discussed. When Americans see a picture of chocolate cake, they think of guilt. The French think of celebration. This is the new American tragedy. And when eating is a necessary shame, we do it hastily and joylessly and alone. Eating together, and liking it, is more important that replacing butter with olive oil or buying free-range eggs.

September 17, 2008 (permalink)

Seduced by Moonlight
Laurell K. Hamilton

Third in Laurell Hamilton’s series of tales about Meredith Gentry, a sexy young lady from Los Angeles who happens to be a Faerie-American Princess. These books are silly — Linda calls them Faery Porn — but Hamilton has a fascinating mythos. Meredith spends a lot of time in bed with various preternaturally handsome demi-deities and supernatural forces, but underneath it all lies a world in which Thomas Jefferson signed a treaty that took in the wretched refuse of European faerie, vanquished in the first Great War, and gave them refuge near St. Louis. Less serious than American Gods, but if you can get past the (rather good if plentiful) sex, very much worth reading.

August 23, 2008 (permalink)

Sister Carrie
Theodore Dreiser

This perplexing and frustrating novel had great impact, exerting tremendous influence in literature and in politics. It is also a textbook example of what Gardner called frigid writing: Dreiser thinks his characters weak and unintelligent, and he doesn’t hesitate to share that opinion with the reader. Indeed, Dreiser sometimes emphasizes the characters’ shallowness by juxtaposing their very simple, realistic dialogue with overwritten exposition.

First published in 1900 (although Frank Doubleday, when he found his house had accepted the novel, first tried to back out and then buried the first printing), Sister Carrie labors under impossible constraints. Carrie, after all, is a very young and very pretty country girl who goes to the city, meets a fellow on a train, and within a few months is living in rooms for which the fellow is paying and wearing clothes he bought her. She’s introduced to acquaintances as his wife. There must be a romance here, but Dreiser can’t write about it; they must be sleeping together, but Dreiser cannot say so, and if he has the skill to hint, I can’t pick up the clues. But this is crucial: in the fact of Carrie’s choices, in her candid interest in material things and disinterest in the romantic trappings of sex, lie the American fascination with white slavery that was about to burst on the scene. Of course, the same mixture also gives us the flappers a decade later, and the final consensus (crackpots of the Republican Party accepted) that women do and should control their bodies to use as they think best.

And yet, there is something here that is excellent and true. Carrie’s story, a country girl struggling to find prosperity in the city, is familiar enough, but her lover Hurstwood is finely drawn, a prosperous Chicago manager who makes a big mistake and can never manage to recover. He’s a real man in a real job in a real industry, and we learn enough about his world to understand his disaster — and to see how his world is not ours, and also why it is.

August 22, 2008 (permalink)

I grabbed these short stories, on the reading stack for decades, because in some respects they must more closely reflect Hammett’s experience as a Pinkerton. A brilliant writer, Hammett had a fondness for plotting complex and brilliant novels; the short stories don’t offer scope for the plotting and so give us the experience of the young detective in California, straight up. The standout here is “The Farewell Murder”, which does a lovely early turn on the echoes of The Great War in the unimaginably remote lands on California farm country.

I’m pretty sure I read “The Girl With Silver Eyes” in scifi drag somewhere, but I can't quite place it.

August 11, 2008 (permalink)

Paladin of Souls
Lois McMaster Bujold

Winner of the Hugo and of the Nebula award, this fantasy leaves me in two minds. On the one hand, it’s a serious and thoughtful construction of a world in there really are Gods, and they really do care intensely about Their children even though the Gods cannot intervene very effectively in the world of matter. It’s attractive and interesting, but these gods are attractive and interesting by construction, in the same way as the handsome noble who Gets The Girl is attractive and interesting.

July 27, 2008 (permalink)

It's 2012. Scotland is independent. Gaming is big. And a band of orcs has just, impossibly, broken into the central bank of Avalon 4, a massively multiplayer role-playing game, nerfed the guards, and stolen the contents of the vault — which, if they were sold on eBay, would be worth €26 million.

Someone calls the cops, who send a baffled investigator. Someone else calls the VC's, who send a forensic accountant. The accountant wants a native guide, and hires an unemployed game designer. Together (more or less) they try to get to the bottom of a crime that turns out to be much bigger than the game.

July 18, 2008 (permalink)

An entertaining account of a famous Chicago brothel, the Everleigh Club, which flourished in the early twentieth century and which was ultimately closed by growing opposition to prostitution and concern over White Slavery. Abbot is chiefly concerned with the proprietors of the Everleigh, Ada and Minna Everleigh (born Simms), and their relations with their rivals, their employees, with Chicago's colorful political machinery.

The whole White Slavery question strikes us today as a strange mix of naïveté and hypocrisy, mixed with prudery and class friction. This is, pretty much, Abbott’s diagnosis, and because she has little real sympathy with the reformers, nearly half of her book is devoted to preachers and reformers she clearly views as colorless and dull. I think more could be done with this material.

  • Why, exactly, did white slaves feel enslaved? This was Chicago, not Corleone or Eiseshok; if you slept with your boyfriend in the village then maybe you'd be discovered and cast out, but Chicago could keep a secret. The White Slave agitation comes a mere ten years before the flappers.
  • Was there a White Slavery conspiracy at all? It seems to me that this was the birth of the notion of Organized Crime, of a great industrial trust that managed petty crime throughout the nation and, indeed, the world. To what extent was this real and accurate concept? Or was it a myth fostered by governments and lawyers and churches to extend their power?
  • It is interesting, for example, to look at the Everleigh sisters, with their managerial acumen, their fluency with all classes and ethnicities, and their deep disinterest in men, with Jane Addams and her colleagues. Hull House (800 S Halsted) was, after all, a short walk from the Everleigh at 2231 S Dearborn.

So, opportunities were missed here. But it’s still a hell of a good yarn.

July 18, 2008 (permalink)

Marketing That Matters
Chip Conley and Eric Friedenwald-Fishman

Peter Merholz told me I should read Conley, and he was not wrong. This interesting book explores marketing in socially-aware organizations. Conley runs a chain of small hotels that try to be great places to work, in an industry that is not known for its enlightened employment policies. I really like his Hotel Rex, and we’ve had Tinderbox weekends there several times; an aside in this volume explains what I like about the Rex and another aside explains what the plan for the Rex actually was. Eric Friedenwald-Fishman runs a socially responsible bank. How do these organizations use their social stance in their marketing — and how do they use their marketing materials to advance their cause?

Many of the recommendations here are familiar. Most, indeed, are common sense. Too much is made of success; like most business books, we assume that the bottom line justified (and is explained by) the practices we’re studying. There’s not much attention to thing that go wrong. (In my experience of business, things are always going wrong. Why do people in case studies never have that problem?)

July 15, 2008 (permalink)

Kathryn said this was a drop-everything book. Pat Murphy liked it. Kelly Link blurbed it. I didn’t like it quite that much, but don’t be fooled by the YA packaging: this is entertaining and important fiction about the near future, extrapolating Bushite homeland security toward its logical consequences.

The YA convention holds that a gang of multi-talented kids need to work together to save the world. Here, the gang is largely a formality: we have a hint of a gang, the plot formally calls for one, and there are editorial scars suggesting that the gang played a larger role in some other vision. But this is a thriller — the story of a kid who found himself leading The Resistance against the surveillance state.

This is an important theme for a thriller, not only because Resistance may be in all over our futures, but also because Doctorow captures exactly how gradually and naturally a teenage kid can be converted from a moderate troublemaker into a political force. Marcus and friends are ditching school — pursuing a live-action role-playing scavenger hunt — one day when the Bay Bridge is blown up. The kids are caught up in the security panic, detained, interrogated — and radicalized. Doctorow captures perfectly how the security people can convince themselves that they're doing a necessary job with necessary force — lives are at stake! — and suddenly we’re detaining suspects, subjecting them to stressful interrogation, running intrusive background checks, suborning them, and eventually somehow we’re torturing children.

July 14, 2008 (permalink)

This interesting manual addresses a business problem of the moment: how can you coax an organization to use a wiki? Mader is convinced that contemporary organizations frequently need wikis in order to facilitate necessary collaboration — that people often do badly through email what they could do effectively through wikis.

Mader is quick to dismiss CSCW tools and formal methods, preferring the lightweight informality of the unstructure wiki.

Status quo often becomes the norm when the tools available to people are difficult to use, highly structured and only meet a narrow set of needs, and don't elicit a positive emotional response from the people that use them. (p. xxxiii)

One might object, though, that the status quo is, by definition, the norm! The sentence, despite its prominence, is awkward; the first conjunction, acceptable on its own, is unhinged by the addition of the second "and". Could this be a general hazard of editing on wikis?

Wikipatterns shares a nearly universal weakness of contemporary business books: it assumes that its audience knows nothing about business. In chapter 1, the virtues of collaboration are introduced with the familiar anecdote of Toyoda Kiichiro's epiphanic vision, while visiting a Ford plant, of the Toyota Production System with its emphasis on collaborative teams and diffused responsibility. The story is told as if the reader hadn't heard it before, and didn't know that Toyota has gone on to become the world's largest automotive manufacturer. It's also told as if the the status of Labor and the anxieties of Management were, in 1950, pretty much interchangeable in Japan and in Detroit. And, finally, it's told as if decentralized responsibility, having reportedly worked at Toyota, was therefore clearly a Good Thing, that it would play no role in the collapse of so many once-great firms, from WorldComm to Bear Sterns, from American steel to the great US accounting firms, from TWA and Pan Am to DEC and Compaq. The weight of history might not bother the uncritical reader, and the assumption that current success indicates intelligence and virtue is endemic to American business books. I find both disconcerting.

Moving closer to wiki concerns, Mader assumes that fellow employees of an enterprise naturally share common goals and so will work toward the same end unless misled or thwarted by evil managers or ill-designed tools. This may sometimes be true, but to believe it universal is to ignore what we know of the workplace and what we know of people. When choosing vendors, can we neglect the possibility that Roger may have a job offer from vendor A in his back pocket, perhaps understood to be contingent on A getting the deal? That Ellen's brother-in-law stands to get a hefty commission if B gets the contract? That Sandy simply likes the sales rep for C? That Justin knows the VP will choose D, whatever the committee recommends, and so the VP will be grateful to whoever backed D? We all know these things happen; there is no sign of them here.

Darker questions that surround "knowledge management” are missed as well. Consider layoffs and benefits. John the delivery man has worked for us for 16 years. He has always been an adequate, but marginal, contributor. If he stays another two years, he will be entitled to a pension that will cost $N, where N is substantially more money than John is likely to earn for us in the next two, or twenty years. If he happens to leave the firm, or to be dismissed, before that date, he would receive no pension. Because John suffers from lung cancer, he is unlikely in any case to work for us for twenty more years — indeed, his illness (and ill humor, which we understand but which is not without its own adverse impact on the firm) will likely make him more marginal going forward than he is now. Today we are all collaborating on wiki pages about GroundsForTermination, PensionPolicy and GrievanceResolution. Do we indeed share common goals?

The “patterns” in WikiPatterns are actually tactics — managerial and social techniques in encourage workers to use a wiki — rather than patterns in the sense more common in computer science, structures and connections in the wiki. Understanding the structure of wikis (and indeed of constructive collaborative hypertexts of all sorts) remains a core WikiMystery.

Yet, despite these hesitations, doubts, and objections, this is a fine treatment of a common problem. How do you plant and grow a successful wiki? How can you attract supporters and defuse rivals? How can you detect weeds in your wiki, and how can you remove them without creating an EditWar or a WikiMeltdown? We have surprisingly little guidance to the contemporary workplace, and if Then We Came To The End brilliantly shows us the downside of the cycle, WikiPatterns gives us hope that spring can come again.

July 8, 2008 (permalink)

An intelligent and readable survey of Jane Addams' thought. Jane Addams created Hull House, the most famous and most successful settlement house and long the model for urban reform and renewal throughout the world. After World War II, though, critical details of Addams' thinking were lost, and social services came increasingly to be delivered to clients. Addams never thought of her neighbors as clients; they were friends, they were all invited to dinner, to tea, to whatever entertainment she happened to have arranged that evening. If Miss Addams happened to have a larger house than the neighbors, that was simply the same sort of chance that gave the Romano’s more boys than the Schwartz's downstairs, and so a little more spending money than nice old Mrs. O'Reilly who lost her husband to the fever in '96.

Elshtain teases out the philosophy, moral and theoretical, that underpins the Addams approach. She chooses not to look too closely at Addams personal relationships with her fellow residents at Hull House. I have some sympathy for Elshtain's belief that the private sex life of such a relentlessly public person is beside the point, but Elshtain drives this point home at the cost of largely ignoring the personalities of the other residents and indeed the specificity of the place. For Hull House was, literally, a house; I’d like to know more about the routines, the sounds and smells, about what people ate for dinner and with whom.

July 6, 2008 (permalink)

In 1941, a German factory manager named Klaus Felsen is forced to play poker with SS-Gruppenführer Lehrer. Felsen wins, and in Lehrer punishes the winner by forcing him into the SS where he runs an operation buying Portuguese tungsten.

In 1998, a teenage girl's body is found on a Lisbon beach, not far from Inspector Zé Coehlo’s house. The inspector finds no clothes and no clues. A strange new partner with no skills has been forced upon him by the inspector’s superiors.

These events, of course, are intimately related, and their inexorable and surprisingly-sensible unfolding makes this a delightful, unsentimental mystery with a superb sense of place and time. A friend suggested Wilson recently when I mentioned that I wanted to read something about Portugal, and I found that I’d purchased this book five or six years ago and somehow forgot to read it.

July 2, 2008 (permalink)

Can Arthur Upfield really be out of print?

Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is half Abo, half white-Australian, and has risen to be Australia’s top detective. Upfield writes well, and with a certain sensitivity: when Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie touched on race, what remains is a blemish, while Upfield says his piece well and dexterously. I think Upfield’s influence on Hillerman is very clear, for example; compare, for example, Man of Two Tribes with Hillerman’s Thief of Time. Another reminder in this surprisingly-fresh 1955 procedural proves instructive: at one point, our hero finds himself in a tight spot with a group of assorted murderers who, having been spared the gallows and served long terms in prison, are now on parole. They are led by a psychiatrist who was condemned as an abortion provider.

July 2, 2008 (permalink)