Finished Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian, a short collection of essays by leftist historian Howard Zinn.
A few interesting essays, but they get a bit repetitive as he makes the same points again and again. However it was interesting to read up on the Ludlow Massacre which I'd never heard of.
Also, given that he's taught both law and history, it's notable that he doesn't regard constitutional rights as very important, pointing out that rights are only respected insofar as people have the power to see them enforced. There's a different version of the essay Second Thoughts on the First Amendment available, which makes that clearer.
Overall, interesting to dip into but not unmissable.
What I'm Reading 2
Planet of Slums by Mike Davis covers an important topic: the huge and increasing proportion of the world's population living in slums. Davis seems to have done a huge amount of library research on the subject: the book is extensively footnoted and comprehensively indexed.
Quite a lot of the information is useful and interesting: The book is structured by topic rather than city.
Interesting facts include the way urban slums have recently been growing even as the civic economy shrinks, suggesting people are "pushed" from the countryside rather than attracted by opportunities.
Rehousing schemes often fail because they don't attach importance to work: they're located too far from the jobs, or fail to provide space for home-working. When they are well-located, they're often colonized by the middle class who just displace the slum-dwellers elsewhere.
Some slums seem to be developing a bit like US exurbs. They're not satellites of a city, but part of a decentralized "peri-urban" sprawl.
Unfortunately for such an important topic, the book is seriously flawed.
Large parts of the book are attacks on Hernando de Soto's ideas for improving slums through property rights: giving slum-dwellers a legitimate title to the land they live on. However, I've read de Soto's book and found it much more convincing than Davis'. Davis' criticisms don't seem particularly convincing. He complains that the newly propertied slum-dwellers often rent out their property to other renting slum-dwellers who remain unpropertied. But surely it's better to help some slum-dwellers than no slum-dwellers, especially given that the problem seems so intractable.
His attacks seem inconsistent. Davis complains that de Sotoan ideas defuse rage and therefore reduce dissent: but if so it would seem that they can't be as utterly ineffective as he maintains. He complains about the insecurity of slum-dwellers, but legal ownership of their land gives them more security. He complains that once given property rights, slum-dwellers find themselves paying taxes, but this too seems like more of a feature than a bug.
Davis also fails to provide any positive suggestions for dealing with slums. He seems mildly approving of Cuba's housing programme in principle, but acknowledges its failure, which he attributes to a special economic crisis.
Davis also seems very cagey about being a Marxist. The book is littered with Marxist jargon like "surplus labour", but he never comes out and advocates forced land redistribution or a revolution. There are a few references to progressive taxation, but that's all. Presumably as an orthodox Marxist he believes revolution is the answer, but there's no mention of it here. The lack of positive suggestions seriously weakens the book.
Nor is the book's analysis of causes especially convincing. He attributes the growth of slums in particular to IMF debt-repayment policies in general. However slums are prevalent everywhere in the developing world: it's hard to see why Chinese slums are the IMF's fault.
The book is also somewhat badly written: lots of jargon, acronyms and parenthetical statements, and a tangled structure. The book is quite dry in its descriptions of slum life itself. There is a good deal of passion, but it's mostly a passionate hatred of his intellectual opponents: Hernando de Soto, NGOs, the world bank; that is, people attempting to solve the problem in ways he disapproves of.
Overall, if you're interested in this issue the book is worth a look for its wide and thorough round-up of facts and statistics. However, it's a bit of a wasted opportunity for such an important issue.
What I'm Reading 3
Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch. 1968 classic of New Wave science fiction, about a military camp experimenting on prisoners with intelligence-enhancement. I think I've read it before, or at least started it, but didn't remember much beyond a description of a chair.
It is a bit dated, not so much technologically as stylistically. It wears its erudition with the clanking heaviness of Marlowe's chains: ostentatiously dropping literary references and self-consciously experimenting with style.
However if you can overlook that, there's actually a pretty strong story behind it. The main character Louis Sacchetti is convincingly rendered: a self-indulgent poet who nevertheless has a moral core.
Worth reading if you can tolerate the period.
What I'm Watching
Saw Inglourious Basterds at the cinema. Might have been a better experience if I'd been in a better mood, or the cinema hadn't been too hot, but didn't like it much at all.
Tarantino definitely seems to have caught Stephen King Disease. Every scene is bloated to about twice the length it needs to be: tension is raised, raised, raised... then drains, drains, drains away. The single-bill release of Death Proof was much the same.
There are some stylish touches. If it was 90 minutes instead of 153 it might even have been a pretty good exploitation movie. Tarantino also seems to be trying to send some kind of message with the Nazis enthusiastically applauding their bloody movie in the same way as the audience is supposed to be applauding Basterds but it doesn't really come across.
Also, I disapprove of the way it's gratuitously offensive with its spelling.
Went to Hogstock. Ate loads of pig. It was good.
Random. PDF map of hottest Tube lines. Flappers' dictionary. Songs in code. 3000 year-old Irish butter barrel. Giant autopoem generated from rhyming tweets. Let's panic about babies! Astronaut media list PDF. US population distribution graph animated by year. Most shameful dice.
Socioconomics. Kaletsky reckons recovery will be slower in Europe and Japan. Why is passive voice used when describing the raping of women? Increasing transaction layers increases risk.
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