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Nonfiction

Joy Lisi Rankin, A People’s History of Computing in the United States: A little clunky (tends to list, for example, every game you could play on Dartmouth’s early network), but an interesting counterpoint to a Silicon Valley-centric narrative of how computing developed in the US. Rankin traces a lost history of shared computing (dumb terminals linked over phone lines to a central computer) in a number of places, including Dartmouth and a bunch of high schools to which it linked as well as in Minnesota—the source of the famous Oregon Trail game. Bill Gates and several other people who show up in Silicon Valley histories first encountered computing through these noncommercial, non-personal computer systems, though that’s largely written out of the history. It’s interesting and somewhat sad to think about the road not taken—computing as a utility like power and telephone service. Though that might not have changed as much as we might (like to) think; Rankin regularly points out the gender and racial hierarchies assumed and reinforced by places like Dartmouth, which didn’t admit women at the time it developed its timesharing system.

Scott Stern, The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women: Starting in earnest around WWI, and lasting in some places through the 1970s, state and local governments—initially at the behest of the feds—followed the “American Plan” for controlling venereal disease. Rather than regulating prostitution (the French plan), the idea was to force people—which actually meant women—suspected of carrying STDs into examination and treatment, although this started before there were good ways of diagnosing or treating the main STDs. And prostitutes were to be presumed to carry STDs, though their clients were not; unsurprisingly, enforcement also disproportionately targeted African-Americans. Stern interweaves the broader narrative with the story of one young white woman, Nina McCall, who was grabbed off the street in Michigan and coerced into “treatment,” and who ultimately sued. Though she was unsuccessful, her case generated records that give insight into how these programs worked to terrorize and stigmatize women. One of Stern’s most cautionary points is that not only did these programs last a long time, they also generated legal precedents upholding them that have never been overturned.

Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World: Traces the uses of the two products from the early European encounters onward on both sides of the Atlantic. Both were associated with Mesoamerican religious rituals, but Europeans started to like them anyway and then adopted them while suppressing their religious use among indigenous peoples. Norton argues that, although the conventional wisdom is that Westerners adopted tobacco first as medicine and then only later as pleasure, the documentary evidence is to the contrary—they got in the habit, and then some scholars touted its medicinal effects. Meanwhile, when they started consuming chocolate, they drank it as Mesoamericans did, even adding the same or similar spices, and categorized it in the apothecary according to Mesoamerican principles (it was “cold,” not “hot,” as Western principles would have held)—even if those influences were never acknowledged. Chocolate also primed Westerners to adopt coffee and tea later.

Robert J. Shiller, Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events: A bit of a misdescription; less a “how” and more a “that.” Along with bitcoin and the gold standard, which he argues serve similar rhetorical functions as hard-to-understand systems with magical promises, he also argues that a lack of consumer confidence narrative can itself extend recessions, as people decide not to buy stuff because things aren’t going so well. Ok, I guess.

Rory Sutherland, Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life: Smug business book attuned to the irrationalities of others but not so much to the author’s own (the kind of guy who says “Donald Trump can solve many problems that the more rational Hillary Clinton simply wouldn’t have been able to address” because threatening to build a wall between the US and Mexico will work better than ordinary trade negotiations—“you may hate it, but it works”—sure, that looks like a good prediction). Also thinks that you should listen to immigration officers about immigration and street cops about crime over sociologists because they know reality; oddly enough he doesn’t also say that airline pilots should be designing airplane engines or farmers making climate policy and I think the examples are revealing. (Input into design, especially interface design, is one thing—what the policy should be is quite another.) What made me most contemptuous was the conclusion he drew from the following graph: he presented data that when 3 women and 1 man are in a finalist hiring pool, the likelihood of hiring a woman was 67%. When it was 2 women and 2 men, the chances were 50-50, and when it was 1 woman and 3 men, the chances were 0%. And the conclusion he drew was that it’s wrong to say people are biased against minorities—he apparently in all seriousness thought that this evidence showed a bias against “anyone in a minority of one.” Tell that to the dude with the much greater than random chance of being hired in his minority or the woman with the 0% chance in hers. If you celebrate irrationality, you may end up pretty stupidly irrational. So too with the claim “We know how to design physical objects to fit the shape of the human hand quite well”—tell that to women like Zeynep Tufceki struggling to make today’s huge smartphones work with on-average smaller hands; the gaps in our knowledge and attention are not evenly distributed. And he thinks “women are let off rather lightly” for spending so much time and money on grooming; “If men spent three trillion dollars a year on something totally irrational—building model train sets, say—they would be excoriated for it.” If you can live your life without considering the financial burden and the misogyny deployed against women for painting our faces (or not painting our faces), then maybe you aren’t as savvy as you think?

If you can stand it, some entertaining marketing anecdotes about irrational techniques that work (e.g., giving a donation envelope that’s open on the short end instead of the long one, making it look more appropriate for holding cash or checks). I learned that smoother shapes taste sweeter, affecting the appropriate shape of a chocolate bar. There was also advice for selling an environmentally superior detergent—people don’t think that concentrated formulas can be as effective, and they definitely think environmentally superior formulas work worse, so you might have to change the marketing to deemphasize the environment, or change the format from liquid to powder, or add intricacy—colored flecks “will make people believe it is more effective even if they do not know what role these flecks perform.” So too with mixtures of liquids, gels, and powders: they seem more effective per unit. So too with adding effort: If the product requires people to mix it with water first, or to mix two separate agreements, that restores our faith in its efficacy. He leans hard into the idea of costly signals as evolutionarily appealing—showing you can spend on advertising is thus the best form of advertising. And perhaps oddly, he agrees with progressive activists that behavior changes first, before attitudes, which change in response.

Sady Doyle, Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power: Feminist analysis of standard tropes—while not much was new, Doyle is an engaging writer and I didn’t know just how much people liked to blame Ed Gein’s mother for his serial killing. Also, when a woman wrote a book saying that maternal love wasn’t natural, but “uncertain, fragile and imperfect,” Bruno Bettelheim wrote a letter of protest to her editor because she shouldn’t have told the truth: “‘I am well familiar with the absence of any mothering instinct in many mothers,’ he wrote, but letting those mothers know they weren’t alone would ‘remove the feeling of guilt about rejecting their children which was the only thing that offered some protection for the child.’”

Fei-Hsien Wang, Pirates and Publishers: A Social History of Copyright in Modern China: Although this isn’t comparative (except for a bit with Japan), to a Western reader what’s most striking is how Chinese printers were, like London printers, the driving force behind copyright-like rights rather than authors. Indeed, Chinese printers were more explicit about protecting printers and printers’ blocks—ownership of the physical medium from which books were printed was often the foundation of claims, rather than authorship, which was especially important because many books were translated from Japanese or from European languages. Many claimants of banquan (literally “the right to printing blocks”)/copyright were unauthorized translators (or their printers).

Like London printers, they also attempted to achieve through guild regulation what they couldn’t get from the state, with mixed results. The guilds focused on unauthorized copying of printing blocks; anyone who possessed their own blocks, even of the same work, was generally allowed to use those. Wang argues against William Alford’s well-known argument that copyright was alien to Chinese legal thought and thus not integrated for a long time, though a lot of the story here is fairly consistent with Alford’s—publishers did assert property claims, but they were not successful for a long time (just as London publishers failed for a while). Wang emphasizes uncertainty and contestation rather than a clear progression, which seems fair. It was also interesting that printers sometimes tried to deploy trademark, rather than copyright, against pirates.

There were also “Chinese characteristics” to this story, such as the specific ideology that forced authors to downplay interest in remuneration in favor of contributions to state and society. When reform got rid of the old civil service examination procedure, it was a huge shock to the system and publishers rushed in to provide guides to the new knowledge, often badly translated and pieced together, replacing the earlier works that prospective government officials had studied. When they sought state-granted monopolies, then, printers emphasized the value of their specific works—leaving them vulnerable to criticism of their worth. As with English printing, copyright and licensing/censorship often went hand in hand; publishers used the Ministry of Education’s review as advertising for the quality of their textbooks, but also complained that the Ministry didn’t bother reviewing (and thus granting rights in) popular works of fiction.

Under Communist rule, things got much harder for authors, who were supposed to be regular laborers, but working under pay scales that didn’t reward laborious/intensive work, while popular writers could still become quite wealthy (until they were denounced for rightist sympathies). The Communists were also ambivalent about piracy; they’d encouraged and engaged in unauthorized copying to spread the ideological word.


Peter Watts, Peter Watts Is an Angry Sentient Tumor: Revenge Fantasies and Essays: A very lefty sf author writes about the world, including his pets (ah, the joys of loving a difficult cat) and the fact that we’ve pretty much guaranteed a climate apocalypse and very few people seem to have noticed. The best bit was his description of a spat he had with David Brin over whether individuals could respond to pervasive government surveillance with surveillance of their own: “Brin reminded us; our leaders are Alphas. Trying to ban government surveillance would be like poking a silverback gorilla with a stick. ‘But just maybe,’ he allowed, ‘they’ll let us look back.’ Dude, thought I, do you have the first fucking clue how silverbacks react to eye contact?” Which is a pretty good point about differential power.

comment count unavailable comments on DW | reply there. I have invites or you can use OpenID.

Tags: au: doyle, au: norton, au: rankin, au: shiller, au: stern, au: sutherland, au: wang, au: watts, nonfiction, reviews
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