(Roughly) Daily

“We’re long on high principles and short on simple human understanding”*…

Really, most science fiction is about economics. What makes most future visions interesting is not just the technical particulars of the cool new Stuff, but the social ramifications. Here are some of the sci-fi books that I thought dealt with important economic issues in the most insightful and interesting ways. I also chose only books that I think are well-written, with well-conceived characters, engaging plots, and skillful writing.

1. A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

In addition to being quite possibly the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read, Deepness is also a great meditation on public economics. When Vernor Vinge became famous in the 80s, he was a hard-core libertarian – his novel The Peace War, and its sequel short story “The Ungoverned”, are like a Real Business Cycle model come to life, with lone-wolf genius engineers teaming up with private police forces to bring down a fascist technocratic government made up of…university administrators. Ha. But by the 90s, Vinge’s views on government and markets had become markedly more nuanced – in the swashbuckling space opera A Fire Upon the Deep, we see private security forces failing miserably when faced with a powerful external threat (in fact, that book made me think of the “Tamerlane Principle“). Security, Vinge realizes, is a public good.

In Deepness, Vinge adds another public good: Research. The narrative of Deepness is split between a race of spider-people with roughly 20th-century technology, and a spacefaring guild of human merchants called the Qeng Ho. On the spider world, the protagonist is a brilliant scientist named Sherkaner Underhill, who is basically a Von Neumann or Feynman type. Sherkaner is the ultimate lone genius, but he ends up needing the government to fund his research. In space, meanwhile, the heroic merchant entrepreneur Pham Nuwen (who is a recurring protagonist in Vinge novels) struggles to decide whether he should turn his merchant fleet into an interstellar government. Governments, he finds, are good at producing really new scientific breakthroughs, but eventually they become unwieldy and stifle the economy and society, then collapse under their own institutional weight. The very very end of the book is – or at least, seemed to me to be – a metaphor for the Great Stagnation and the death (and future rebirth) of Big Science…

Seventeen other wonderful recommendations from the always-insightful economist and social/political analyst Noah Smith (@Noahpinion): “Science fiction novels for economists.” (Your correspondent has read many/most of them and enthusiastically seconds the suggestions.)

* Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky

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As we celebrate informative speculation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1949 that George Orwell published his masterpiece of dystopian speculative fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and introduced terms like “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “thoughtcrime,” “Newspeak,” and “Memory hole” into the vernacular.

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“Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”*…

For example…

The slang of 19th century scoundrels and vagabonds: browse it in full at invaluable Internet Archive, “Vocabulum; or, The Rogue’s Lexicon.”

* Carl Sandburg

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As we choose our words, we might send fashionable birthday greetings to George Bryan “Beau” Brummell; he was born on this date in 1778. An important figure in Regency England (a close pal of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV), he became the the arbiter of men’s fashion in London in the territories under its cultural sway. 

Brummell was remembered afterwards as the preeminent example of the dandy; a whole literature was founded upon his manner and witty sayings, e.g. “Fashions come and go; bad taste is timeless.”

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Written by LW

June 7, 2021 at 1:01 am

“There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told”*…

… and some that do:

Edgar A. Poe landed in Philadelphia in 1838. He had been raised among the elite of Richmond, Virginia, but in Philadelphia he was an impoverished outsider seeking recognition and stability as a professional writer. Strikingly, Poe’s first publication in Philadelphia—and the one that sold the most in his lifetime—was a scientific textbook…

Poe’s best-selling book during his lifetime was a guide to seashells, and The Conchologist’s First Book was good enough to elevate the entire field: the fascinating story in this excerpt from John Tresch’s The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science (available June 15).

* Edgar Allan Poe

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As we comb the beach, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that motorists lined up for the opening of America’s first drive-in theater, in Camden, NJ.

Park-In Theaters–the term “drive-in” came to be widely used only later–was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, a movie fan and a sales manager at his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products, in Camden. Reportedly inspired by his mother’s struggle to sit comfortably in traditional movie theater seats, Hollingshead came up with the idea of an open-air theater where patrons watched movies in the comfort of their own automobiles. He then experimented in the driveway of his own house with different projection and sound techniques, mounting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, pinning a screen to some trees, and placing a radio behind the screen for sound. He also tested ways to guard against rain and other inclement weather, and devised the ideal spacing arrangement for a number of cars so that all would have a view of the screen. [The first feature was a 1932 film, Wives Beware]

The young entrepreneur received a patent for the concept in May of 1933 and opened Park-In Theaters, Inc. less than a month later, with an initial investment of $30,000. Advertising it as entertainment for the whole family, Hollingshead charged 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person, with no group paying more than one dollar…

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[For a more contemporary photographic update on the phenomenon, see here.]

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“I suppose illustration tends to live in the streets, rather than in the hermetically sealed atmosphere of the museum, and consequently it has come to be taken less seriously”*…

But surely, it shouldn’t necessarily be so. Consider Tom Gauld (@tomgauld). He’s probably best known for his work for The New Yorker (e.g.) and The New York Times (e.g.); but he’s also an accomplished cartoonist. Your correspondent’s favorites are his on-going contributions to The Guardian Review (above and below)

… and The New Scientist

See more of his marvelous work at his site.

* master illustrator Quentin Blake.

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As we visualize it, we might send carefully limned birthday greetings to Richard McClure Scarry; he was born on this date in 1919. A children’s author and illustrator, he published over 300 books with total sales of over 100 million worldwide.

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Written by LW

June 5, 2021 at 1:01 am

“All roads lead to Rome”*…

Spanning one-ninth of the earth’s circumference across three continents, the Roman Empire ruled a quarter of humanity through complex networks of political power, military domination and economic exchange. These extensive connections were sustained by premodern transportation and communication technologies that relied on energy generated by human and animal bodies, winds, and currents.

Conventional maps that represent this world as it appears from space signally fail to capture the severe environmental constraints that governed the flows of people, goods and information. Cost, rather than distance, is the principal determinant of connectivity…

ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World reconstructs the time cost and financial expense associated with a wide range of different types of travel in antiquity. The model is based on a simplified version of the giant network of cities, roads, rivers and sea lanes that framed movement across the Roman Empire. It broadly reflects conditions around 200 CE but also covers a few sites and roads created in late antiquity…

For the first time, ORBIS allows us to express Roman communication costs in terms of both time and expense. By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers, and hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and coastal Atlantic, this interactive model reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity.

Taking account of seasonal variation and accommodating a wide range of modes and means of transport, ORBIS reveals the true shape of the Roman world and provides a unique resource for our understanding of premodern history.

Ancient transportation and travel: “ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.”

* The proverb “All roads lead to Rome” derives from medieval Latin. It was first recorded in writing in 1175 by Alain de Lille, a French theologian and poet, whose Liber Parabolarum renders it as ‘mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam’ (a thousand roads lead men forever to Rome)

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As we plot our paths, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Sylvan Goldman introduced the first shopping cart in his Humpty Dumpty grocery store in Oklahoma City.

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