It’s notable that the techniques he discusses aren’t tied in any particular way to box office success—the movie Scott Pilgrim was hugely influenced by comic book style, and was a flop; 300 was too, and was a hit. Even though Morton recognizes that comic book readers are a small group, he retains the fan’s conviction that this is an audience that matters—he calls comic book fans “the main demographic for films based on comics,” even though even for Batman they’re tiny compared to the movie audience. But his emphasis on style is a good reminder that “collective intelligence and pleasure in a transmedia property need not be bound to narrative.”
David Greenberg, Republic of Spin: The modern presidency through the lens of P.R. Given that Greenberg concludes that spin can’t do much when the real facts are undeniable, the book feels incomplete, especially coming up on the election of 2016 where we seem to be in a post-fact world.
Linda Tirado, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America: This is a short, punchy book that expands on Tirado’s viral explanation for why poor people make poor choices. Short answers: they’re poor, so making “good” choices is unlikely to help a lot; they’re exhausted after punishing schedules and being expected to perform emotional and physical labor for employers who don’t respect them; there often isn’t much “choice” about it in the short or medium term, as when she can’t afford to have her teeth fixed, so she can’t get jobs that require public contact/performing a middle-class identity. Man, we are fucked up.
Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People: “Whiteness” has been a European obsession for centuries, including claims about how ancient Egyptians—at least the ruling castes—were white and fair-haired (they just wore wigs in pictures, the story went) and how modern Greeks weren’t really the Greeks of ancient times, whose proper descendants were some version of French, German, or English depending on the commitments of the proponent. In the US, this turns into a persistent contrast with blackness, though Painter also recounts the arguments for why the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews who immigrated weren’t really white, until they became so (most often in response to a new wave of immigrants who seemed even more different).
Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: O’Neil is a popular blogger who writes about the risks of big data applied to populations seeking credit, being evaluated for parole, seeking jobs, trying to get into college, being evaluated for effectiveness as teachers, and so on. The biggest takeaway from this short book, which is well worth reading, is that big data’s often fatal flaw is lack of feedback. Really effective models assist their users only if they neither over-include nor under-exclude, like Moneyball or 538’s models or even Google’s search engine. Which means that you follow up on people you predicted would succeed and people you predicted would fail, and if you missed their performance you try to update the model. But algorithms that deny people credit neither follow up on them nor leave their subsequent performance unaffected by the operation of the model—a person who can only get credit at 18% a month will predictably be more likely to default than someone who got 2%. Likewise, teacher evaluation algorithms don’t have independent measures to cross-check; a teacher fired for being ineffective doesn’t get fed back into the system if she leaves for another school system that doesn’t use the same metrics and then wins Teacher of the Year. Moreover, current models often take as predictors things that correlate with being poor and nonwhite, rather than treating those disparities as problems that need to be ameliorated by social and public policy.
Trade Marks and Brands: An Interdisciplinary Critique, eds. Lionel Bently, Jennifer Davis, and Jane C. Ginsburg: Essays and responses in history, economics, linguistics, psychology, sociology, marketing, anthropology, philosophy, and geography, addressing different aspects of trademarks. The economics chapter is a good overview of how “law and economics” as US law understands it has not so much to do with how modern economists think, and the history chapter is a good intro to the UK’s trademark history and how we got to our modern concepts of what trademarks are and are for. I also liked Celia Lury’s sociological commentary on trademarks as a way of fixing things—that is, of making them static and protecting against competition. As she points out, most new products launched in the US are extensions of existing brands; this kind of innovation actually discourages new entrants.
Giulia Enders, Gut: Short, punchily written tour of the third of the big human systems (the others being the heart and the brain), with a lot of poop. Some interesting information, such as the reasons that there are benefits from squatting to defecate, but not particularly enlightening otherwise.
Carol Anderson, White Rage: Really good concept and framing, but execution that will not be informative to anyone who’s read a reasonable amount on American history and race. Advances in racial equality, specifically for African-Americans, lead to backlashes attempting to recreate and reinforce racial hierarchy; that’s Reconstruction, that’s the Great Migration, that’s the Nixonian/Reaganite response to civil rights—each time making heavier use of the prison-industrial complex as an alternative—and that’s the alt-Right/Tea Party.
Jonathan Waldman, Rust: The Longest War: What could have been a really interesting look at the engineering challenges posed by rust is mostly wasted by enormous focus on the people involved in the fight against rust, who seem committed and good at their jobs but really not meriting that kind of attention, which one of them even says to Waldman. He should have listened.
Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Koch brothers have a plan, and it involves the creation of lots of different sources of conservative indoctrination, allowing them to serve their own political interests by giving to “charity” in the form of nonprofit policy shops and university centers committed to anti-regulatory postures. It’s a depressing story; Mayer finished the book before the big donation to GMU’s law school, which turns out to be exactly the kind of thing she’s talking about. Among other things, contrary to true academic freedom, the donor has the right to cut off the money if the donor doesn’t like who’s hired as the dean. Also, despite the claims about how big the donation was, it’s actually crony capitalism at its finest—the deal allowed them to rename the law school and claim to add a bunch of chaired professorships and scholarships, but by the ordinary rules for donations, the amount pledged would only have covered the professorships. When the money runs out, the taxpayers will have to pay for those new professors, but the donors still get the ideological influence and the tax credits. This is the kind of deal Mayer’s book exposes.
Belinda Jack, The Woman Reader: Eclectic history of women readers, mostly women who were also writers because they were the ones who tended to leave records. Women readers, Jack argues, have been inherently suspect because their minds are inner-directed, inaccessible to others; lone reading “is an inherently antisocial activity and the onus on women has been, and often remains, to be sociable and to facilitate easy human relations.” (I was sad that she didn’t discuss Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, though many earlier defenses of women’s reading and writing Jack covers involved them staying with comfortably domestic topics.) Tidbits: Margery Kempe had to feign illiteracy in the 14th/15th century in order to avoid condemnation, even as she dictated her visions. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tomb effigy, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:C
Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, eds. David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, & Greta A. Niu: Collection of mostly short pieces, as it says on the tin, from periods starting from the Russo-Japanese war and Looking Backward (1882) and going up to the Battlestar Galactica reboot and Dollhouse. Abigail De Kosnik compares The Mask of Fu Manchu, Son of Sinbad, and Star Wars: A New Hope, finding continuities and reworkings of Orientalist tropes to fit then-current anxieties. My favorite piece was Seo-Young Chu’s “I, Stereotype: Detained in the Uncanny Valley,” about the similarities between Orientalist stereotypes and the concept of the uncanny valley—more human than human is not quite human. Among other things, Chu points out that it’s probably not accidental that a couple of white actors who played Fu Manchu also played monsters: Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee.