Books Read in 2016

So in the end, I finished 45 books in 2016:

  1. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
  2. Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer
  3. The Planet Mappers by E. Everett Evans
  4. Adventures in Academic Cartography by Mark Monmonier
  5. Arguably: Selected Essays by Christopher Hitchens
  6. My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir by Chris Offutt
  7. Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner
  8. Persona by Genevieve Valentine
  9. China at the Center: Ricci and Verbiest World Maps edited by Natasha Reichle
  10. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
  11. Snakes of the Southeast (revised edition) by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas
  12. Wings of Sorrow and Bone by Beth Cato
  13. Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
  14. The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
  15. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
  16. Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen
  17. Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
  18. Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler
  19. Company Town by Madeline Ashby
  20. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
  21. The Usual Path to Publication edited by Shannon Page
  22. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
  23. The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
  24. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente
  25. The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne M. Valente
  26. Ventriloquism by Catherynne M. Valente
  27. Necessity by Jo Walton
  28. Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
  29. The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
  30. Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
  31. Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick
  32. Atlas Obscura by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton
  33. The Man Who Made Models by R. A. Lafferty
  34. Shoot the Moon by Nicolas Dupont-Bloch
  35. Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente
  36. Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling
  37. Updraft by Fran Wilde
  38. The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: The Biology of the Tyrant Dinosaurs by David Hone
  39. Invisible Planets edited by Ken Liu
  40. Bridging Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan
  41. The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe
  42. Treasures from the Map Room edited by Debbie Hall
  43. The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel
  44. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
  45. The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain

(Links are to my reviews.)

I like to track what and how much I read. It amuses me to crunch the numbers, but most of you will be bored stiff by what follows.

Continue reading “Books Read in 2016”

The Glass Universe

The Harvard computers, ca. 1890. Wikimedia Commons.
The Harvard Computers, ca. 1890. Wikimedia Commons.

On December 25 the American astronomer Vera Rubin, whose discovery that galaxies were rotating too fast given the mass of their constituent stars provided evidence for the theory of dark matter, died at the age of 88. Her obituaries note the challenges Rubin faced as a pioneering woman in an overwhelmingly male field: prevented from doing graduate work at Princeton, she got her Ph.D. at Georgetown in 1954; in 1965 she became the first woman allowed access to the Palomar Observatory. In the June 2016 issue of Astronomy, Sarah Scoles decried the fact that Rubin’s discovery was somehow insufficient for a Nobel Prize, which she will now never win.

the-glass-universeInasmuch as Rubin was a pioneer, she was not the first woman in astronomy, nor the first to obtain a Ph.D., nor the first to be responsible for a discovery that fundamentally reshapes our understanding of the cosmos — nor the first for whom recognition was unfairly delayed. Some of the women who came before her are the subject of Dava Sobel’s new book, The Glass Universe, coincidentally out this month from Viking.

From the 1880s to the 1980s, the Harvard College Observatory amassed a collection of half a million glass photographic plates of the night sky, and catalogued hundreds of thousands of stars’ luminosity and spectra. The work, along with some significant scientific discoveries, was largely done by a group of women known as the Harvard Computers. If you watched Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, you saw a bit of this in the eighth episode, “Sisters of the Sun,” which talked about the computers, especially Annie Jump Cannon, as well as Cecilia Payne, who used the computers’ data to redefine our understanding of the makeup of stars.

The Glass Universe charts the history of the group, from the bequest by Henry Draper’s widow, to Observatory director Edward Charles Pickering’s decision to hire women to do the work (less expensive), to the achievements and discoveries that followed. It’s not a scholarly work, though it’s assiduously researched, drawing on the correspondence of the principal figures. Nor is it an explicitly feminist analysis, or for that matter strictly focused on the women themselves, as the narrative takes the reader far and wide, to remote stations in Peru and South Africa. Sobel (whose previous work includes Longitude, the story of Harrison’s chronometers) provides context, and a whole history, to help us understand not only who these women were, but what they accomplished.

The sheer volume of data collected — Pickering agonized over losing the irreplaceable glass plates to fire — was the basis not only of the Bright Star Catalogue and the Henry Draper Catalogue (if you see a star identified by a number with an HD prefix, that’s where it came from), but of the discoveries that resulted from the mass of data collection, and the fact that the principals stayed at their work for decades, building up a wealth of experience and perspective at, frankly, graduate student pay rates.

It is a paradox of popular culture that while the women of the Observatory who made these discoveries received credit for their work — first in acknowledgements in Pickering’s own work, later as co-authors and authors in their own right, and in the honours they eventually received from their peers (though not, it must be said, from Harvard University itself) — their names have not penetrated the popular-science zeitgeist to the same extent as, say, Hubble’s, Lowell’s or Tombaugh’s. You might argue that stellar spectra are a more rarefied subject, but I’d counter that (a) we know who Hubble is, and his discoveries are a direct consequence of their work; and (b) I knew what their discoveries were, I just didn’t know who made them.

I knew, for example, about the system of stellar classification based on stellar spectra (“Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me” and all that), but I didn’t know that it was developed by Annie Jump Cannon — as a compromise between earlier systems devised by Williamina Fleming and Antonia Maury. Classifying stars was long, tedious, repetitive work — women’s work — but it was vital, and enduring.

I knew what a Cepheid variable was, and how the relationship between its pulsation and its luminosity allowed it to be used to calculate interstellar (and later intergalactic) distances; I didn’t know that this relationship had been discovered by Henrietta Swan Leavitt.  And it was Cecilia Payne (later Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin) who determined that Cannon’s spectral classes were a function of temperature, and that stars were mainly made up of hydrogen and helium. These are fundamentals of stellar astronomy, and these women were the ones who discovered them.

I’m trying to reconcile the hostility Rubin faced with the relatively warm reception given the women of the Harvard College Observatory. It’s possible that Rubin’s obituaries and Sobel’s book are each reporting a different side of the same coin: the story in both cases is incomplete. But the women of the Observatory were likely seen as exceptional, which is to say exceptions, and as such less of a threat to the profession. In any case, the field needed their work, their data and their discoveries, and was happy to have it. And in the end, the Harvard Computers, once referred to as “Pickering’s Harem,” managed to transcend what in science is called the “harem effect” — the hiring of large numbers of female subordinates at lower pay — to reshape our understanding of the stars.

See also NPR’s review of The Glass Universe and National Geographic’s interview with Dava Sobel.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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A Venomous Roundup

Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), Little Ray's Reptile Zoo, December 20, 2008.
Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo, December 20, 2008.

Some links on venom, rattlesnakes, and rattlesnake venom:

  1. In April, BBC Earth explored venom overkill — why are jellyfish, snake and other creatures far more venomous than they need to be, especially given the metabolic cost of producing venom? The answer is deceptively simple: “[t]here’s no such thing as absolute toxicity” — venom is tailored to specific prey that may have evolved resistance to it.
  2. Most North American rattlesnake venom lacks neurotoxins, but a recent study finds that their common ancestor did have the genetic ability to produce neurotoxic venom 22 million years ago. That ability has since been lost to specialization (see above): Western and Eastern Diamondbacks lost the ability to produce neurotoxins about six million years ago; Mojave Rattlesnakes, whose venom is neurotoxic, lost a myotoxin gene about four million years ago. [Science News]
  3. A 36-year study of a population of Timber Rattlesnakes in the Adirondacks found that female rattlesnakes waited, on average, until they were 10 years old before having their first litter, and that most had only one litter in their whole lives. This has serious conservation implications. [via]

Opposition in the Age of Gish Gallops

The Gish Gallop, named after creationist Duane Gish, is a rhetorical strategy of “drowning your opponent in a flood of individually weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort.” Donald Trump’s variant of the Gish Gallop substitutes weak arguments with scandals and outrage, any one of which would normally be a political career-ender. But because Trump generates as many outrages in a day as most politicians do in a year, his political career stays alive. How? Because he presents too many targets for his opponents to get any purchase against a single one, and they exhaust themselvesIt’s the political equivalent of a bed of nails, where the sheer number spreads the pressure out so that no single outrage can stab you and give you tetanus.

In Trump’s hands, this strategy — wearing out and outlasting any opposition by giving it too many targets — has been extremely effective. He’s been deploying it throughout the campaign and now the transition, and there’s no doubt his presidency will be the same.

So what can be done? I’m a historian, not an activist, but it seems to me that opposition to the Trump administration will need to be more focused and targeted if it is to have any chance of success. As Andrew MacDougall remarked, in a slightly different context: “One thing is certain: To howl indiscriminately is to play Trump’s game.” But I see too many people too invested in the howl.

Since his surprise election, the American Left has been going for desperate, Hail-Mary, silver bullet tactics: recounting and auditing the vote, petitioning the Electoral College. Each has been a species of denial, a prayer that we will all wake up from this imminent and oncoming nightmare. None have worked. And to be honest, none could have.

It’s not time for some game theory, it’s time for some Gene Sharp. He has literally written the book on nonviolent resistance to authoritarian regimes. Several books and pamphlets, actually: they’re available for download from his organization, the Albert Einstein Institution. You should read them. Not only are they full of methods for opposing an authoritarian regime, but they collectively hammer away at a single point. You have to have a strategy.

In opposing Trump, what are you trying to accomplish. Because “opposing Trump” is not an end in itself. Oppose Trump how; oppose Trump with what goal?

If, for example, your goal is to get Trump out of the presidency, you will have to come to terms with two facts:

  1. That because of the line of succession, everyone eligible to replace him is a Republican; and
  2. That the only people who can help you accomplish your goal are Republicans in Congress.

Disabuse yourself of any thoughts to the contrary. Don’t, for example, expect Democrats to sweep into power in the 2018 midterms under current conditions. Even in the event they retake the House, they will need 67 senators to remove a president from office, and there aren’t enough incumbent Republicans defending seats in 2018 to defeat in order to make up the difference. You need Republicans to stop Trump. (And don’t for a moment think he doesn’t know that. More on that in a moment.)

“But,” you might say, “Mike Pence is just as bad! Impeaching Trump and replacing him with Pence doesn’t solve anything — and in many ways Pence is worse than Trump!”

My response would be to gently and politely advise you to pull your head out of your ass. Pence is a socially conservative Republican who on several fronts could do far more damage than Trump because he’s more closely aligned with congressional Republicans — plus, he shows signs of having an attention span — but please get a grip. He’s not that good a politician, and would be far easier to defeat in 2020. Also, and here I’m speaking for the rest of the planet, he’s not as likely to get us all killed.

You will have to get comfortable with the idea of Pence (or another Republican) taking Trump’s place, or you’re really not that invested in getting rid of Trump. What you really are is upset that the Republicans are in power. I’m sorry to say that there’s nothing you can do about that right now. And your partisan revulsion for the other side is getting in the way of achieving your goal. So please, for the love of humanity, focus.

Besides, if the idea of relying on congressional Republicans to defeat Trump doesn’t sound like much fun, I assure you, being a congressional Republican will be even less fun over the next few years.

Jeet Heer observes that Democrats’ main political task will be to exploit the uncomfortable tensions between various GOP factions. Not only will this enable such few victories as will come, largely in the form of Republican swing votes in the Senate, but it’ll cause Trump to lose his shit in the general direction of congressional Republicans, which will be fun to watch and exacerbate those tensions and divisions even more. (Remember, disloyalty infuriates him: he’s always been nastier toward Republicans than Democrats.) There’s a force-multiplier effect to be had, here.

But those victories will be fewer than we’d like, because for the most part it will be difficult to pry congressional Republicans away from Trump because they’re terrified of the consequences of opposing him. They’ve been scared of their own base for years, having seen their colleagues primaried by the Tea Party for being insufficiently nuts; now they’re scared that Trump will use Twitter to unleash the flying monkeys.

At some point, I suspect he’ll have unleashed the flying monkeys often enough that his targets will have grown numb to it or are resigned to it, and they won’t be afraid of it any more. That too will be fun to watch.

Meanwhile, if congressional Republicans have reason to be afraid, so too does Trump, who will be guilty of impeachable offenses as soon as he’s sworn in. Congressional Republicans could remove him at any time they choose, stopped only by the political blowback they would face from their and Trump’s supporters. Which means that impeachment won’t even be on the table unless the cost of supporting him is greater than the cost of opposing him. (Slate’s Jim Newell argues that congressional Republicans will not care about Trump’s ethical breaches until Trump is already unpopular.)

Heer believes that Trump and the congressional Republicans will try to work out a modus vivendi to give each other’s worst tendencies political cover. But that modus vivendi will not long survive if Trump’s worst tendencies manifest themselves in congressional Republicans’ direction, as I fully expect them to (see flying monkeys, above).

So any opposition should have as its goal making that modus vivendi absolutely impossible. Make supporting the congressional Republican agenda politically unsustainable for Trump, and vice versa. Find every opportunity to divide the two sides. Make sure Trump never misses an opportunity to blast perfidious congressional Republicans.

This does not necessarily mean giving up the fight when congressional Republicans and Trump are in alignment. But don’t expect to win them. Recognize that some fights are strategic and long-term — you will lose them now, and those losses will hurt, but it’s vitally important that you (and the Republic) live to fight another day. In the meantime, be tactical: focus on dividing those Republicans and making their unholy alliance with Trump as difficult as possible.

At some point, the people who supported Trump are going to get thoroughly sick and tired of him. When that finally happens among the Republican base, when the deplorables and the economically anxious turn on him, when people start craving a normal presidency again, Republicans will have the political cover to turf him.

And then you can get back to the normal political work of defeating a Pence administration that, while no doubt far too conservative for those opposed to Trump, will be far less likely to get us all killed.

A Herpetological Roundup

Prairie Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus arnyi), Harding County, New Mexico. Photo by Andrew DuBois. CC Licence.
Prairie Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus arnyi), Harding County, New Mexico. Photo by Andrew DuBois. Creative Commons licence.

Five (relatively recent) things make a post:

  1. BBC Earth on snake fungal disease: “In a few species snake fungal disease is having a truly devastating impact. ‘The main species I look at is a rattlesnake called the eastern massasauga,’ says Allender. ‘They have a 92.5% mortality rate from the disease.’”
  2. Wildlife biologist Andrew DuBois takes great photos of wild North American reptiles and amphibians. See his Flickr and Instagram accounts. I’m fond of the garter snake shots, of course, but the species coverage in general is quite comprehensive. (Spadefoots! Ensatinas! Thread snakes!)
  3. On Quora I answered a rather dumb question: How would you defeat a large snake that decided to attack you? “The short version: I wouldn’t need to, and if I did need to, I wouldn’t be able to.” Read on for the long version.
  4. Maclean’s asks what’s killing the animals at Calgary Zoo — they’ve had a rash of sometimes-bizarre deaths, most recently seven penguins. But one stood out, at least to me: “one zookeeper resigned after starving a corn snake to death.” I have kept and raised dozens of corn snakes. They’re the easiest snake out there.  As I said on Twitter, “if a zoo can’t keep a CORN SNAKE alive — something 8-year-olds manage to do all the time — that’s a serious red flag.”
  5. Many snakes, including hognose snakes and European grass snakes, feign death as a defence mechanism. I didn’t know that indigo snakes did it too — at their size, I didn’t think they needed to.

Pirate Utopia

PrintBruce Sterling’s latest, Pirate Utopia (Tachyon, 2016) brings together several Sterling preoccupations: alternate histories, secret technologies, and liminal, out of the way places. This time the place is the city of Fiume (modern-day Rijeka, Croatia) at a complicated point in its history.

In September 1919, Italian irregulars led by the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio marched into the city to prevent it from being handed over to Yugoslavia in postwar peace talks. A year later the Italian Regency of Carnaro, an anarchic, corporatist, proto-fascist state was proclaimed. It would prove short-lived: D’Annunzio refused to recognize the Treaty of Rapallo, which established Fiume as a Free State, and his regime was expelled by Italian forces in December 1920. Fiume itself would be formally annexed by Italy in 1924.

When reading alternate history that is set in the more obscure corners of the past (see also: two thirds of Howard Waldrop’s oeuvre), it can be tricky to separate the obscure from the fictional. How do you know what’s changed when the factual is unfamiliar and the counterfactual is, shall we say, subtle? Everything mentioned in the previous paragraph is historical fact. Sterling’s changes, apart from the off-screen elimination of certain world-historical figures, are subtle, suggesting a future in which Carnaro might survive long past its historical sell-by date.

Sterling’s version of Fiume is a polyglot ramshackle town that has attracted all manner of pirates, insurrectionists and scoundrels from across Europe, most of whom turn out to be real. (And some of whom are bizarrely unexpected.) A key figure, and the story’s protagonist, is one of the few fictional characters in Pirate Utopia: Lorenzo Secondari, the Pirate Engineer of Carnaro. Secondari reminds me of another of Sterling’s characters, one with the same initials: Leggy Starlitz, the hustler of the late 20th century who appears in three stories and the novel Zeitgeist (Bantam, 2000). For all intents, with his mechanical ability, unflagging luck and tenuous grip on existence, Secondari is Starlitz, who by the way also happened to find himself in the world’s liminal places (the third Starlitz story, “The Littlest Jackal,” is how I first heard of the Åland Islands).

Sterling’s purpose in Pirate Utopia is to shed some light on a key if overlooked piece of European history: when Futurist artists in Fiume began creating the theories and symbols that would later form the core of Italian Fascism. In Sterling’s version, Futurism goes off in a different direction and just at that point the story — if it can be called that — ends abruptly. In an interview included in Pirate Utopia, Sterling defends his decision to do so:

I decided to cut it off with that moment, because it makes a statement about the nature, the appeal, of fascism. How lofty and spiritual it is, and how people come to agree with it, like they get hypnotized by the inhumanity of it, and the scope of it. Fascism does have the appeal of science fiction in some ways.

All the same, Sterling’s aesthetic decision leaves us with only the first act of a story that would inevitably have taken Secondari away from Fiume to where his ideas would have had a much greater, and almost certainly more murderous, impact. We can see where the narrative is headed, so we don’t feel quite as cheated as we might: we can fill in the blanks for ourselves. Still, those reading for story will be somewhat disappointed, and the book, which includes an introduction and three afterwords, plus interior illustrations by John Coulthart, may come across as a bit padded out and just a little too impressed with itself. Pirate Utopia is, in the end, a rather odd artifact in book shape. Somehow that seems appropriate.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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