Since I’ve already wasted some of your precious neurons on my comic book preferences, here are some other things I’ve been into lately.
- Systems of Survivial (Jane Jacobs) : Polished this one off last week; the always intriguing Jacobs purports to identify two moral “syndromes,” corresponding to the arenas of commercial and “guardian” life — “guardian” here used in a more benign version of Plato’s sense to describe those who maintain the state. The elements of the syndromes are very different — commerce values honesty, trade, and innovation, while good guardians are expected to shun trade, be willing to deceive under certain circumstances, and hew to the rule of law. Because, she argues, these are really syndromes, intrusions of commercial virtues into guardian life (the “mutually benificial” trade of campaign contributions for political favors) or vice-versa (inflexibility in markets, or military loyalty to a bad firm) are toxic, producing what Jacobs calls “monstrous moral hybrids.” A more plausible version of some of Vilfredo Pareto’s idea about character “types,” and rather illuminating when one considers the recent spate of corporate scandals.
- “Coase’s Penguin” [PDF] (Yochai Benkler) : Only about a third of the way into this article, which will run in the winter Yale Law Journal. Benkler observes that the success of the Open Source model for software production flies in the face of conventional wisdom about commons problems, production incentives, and coordination in the absence of price signals. So he sets out to build a theory detailing the conditions under which open source production can be superior to firm- or market-based models. The core idea is that for some kinds of goods, as technology lowers communication and capital costs, human capital becomes the most salient production factor. For goods whose production is characterized by granular modularity — it can be broken up, and broken into many different sizes of pieces, potentially quite small — the traditional incentives problem becomes trivial (psychological or reputation benefits do the trick) if a large enough community can be engaged to work on small parts of the good. The coordination problem is handled (again, thanks to low communication costs) by a combination of redundancy, self-selection, and distributed peer review. Totally fascinating.
- Notes from the Underground (Fyodor Dostoevsky) : I actually named this blog with the nameless narrator of Dostoevsky’s king-of-all-rants in mind. But, to my shame, I’d never actually read the second section, the “Appropos of the Wet Snow” story. I’m still a bigger fan of the first part: before Robert Nozick died, he had been planning to co-teach a course on Dostoevsky which explored how philosophy is affected when ideas are presented in a literary form. I wonder what he would have made of the narrator’s anti-utilitarian argument, which bears a certain (distant on the surface, closer at the core) resemblance to Nozick’s own. The substitution of the “lounge” for the “underground,” by the way, was my way of replacing the self-imposed alienation of the narrator with an aesthetic that seemed more appropriate to my own style and temperament.
- The Mating Mind [Geoff Miller] : Just closing in on the end of this. Most of us think of selfish-gene driven evolution in terms of an obvious sort of advantage in survival and reproduction. We think much less about the effects of mate choice on evolution, and especially the potentially very potent feedback loop between certain traits (fitness indicators) and female selection. Imagine, for whatever reason, some females develop a preference for certain kinds of red markings. Those males are more successful in reproduction, and create offspring with both the markings and the preference. But now those with the most prominent markings are favored, and an escalating arms race soon ensues, quickly magnifying both traits. That’s not the whole story, of course, because we need to explain sexual preference too. Part of Miller’s thesis is that advanced cognitive abilities (clever use of lanugage, creativity, etc.) are good proxies for gene fitness, because complex organs like the brain implicate a relatively very large portion of the genome, making a well-functioning one an indicator of a low rate of (harmful) mutation. Organisms evolve to be attracted to such fitness indicators, because hitching a ride on high fitness genes is a good way to ensure that (half of) one’s own survive. This is one of those book’s that’s full of ideas which, like natural selection itself, are powerful, surprising, fecund, and transformative, yet seem so compelling once they’re explained that you wonder how you didn’t think of them before.
- Small Pieces Loosely Joined (David Weinberg) : Frankly the least of these books (and article), despite all the hype, but it’s still a cut above most of the other What the Internet Means books. There are a handful of desultory insights, and Weinberg does get my vote for best neologism (or anyway, redefinition) I’ve seen recently: “pineal,” meaning “having a physical and mental aspect” after Descartes’ weird belief that the body and soul came together in the pineal gland. His discussion of bits as “pineal” reminded me of sitting in logic class and apprehending for the first time how utterly weird it was that a series of purely syntactic transformations could preserve a semantic property — truth — in a suitably interpreted string of symbols.
- Ironically, I lost a copy of Lawrence Lessig‘s latest book, The Future of Ideas in Penn Station mere hours after buying it. This seems appropriate, since my carelessness returned his creation to the “commons” he’s so fond of — if only until the first interested party picks it up and reappropriates it. Idea consumption may be nonrival, but book consumption, alas, is not. Anyway, the beginning was interesting enough that I’ll probably buy it again. Though, on reflection, since the book’s price included the “license” for use of the book’s content, wouldn’t I be justified in downloading a copy, since I still own the license? Hey, Larry, how about sending me a Word file or something?
- The Soft Bulletin (The Flaming Lips) : A recommendation from Sep Dog and their live show this past weekend convinced me to pick up this album. Best enjoyed with a big fat pair of raver headphones.
- Either/Or (Elliot Smith) : Beck claims him as an influence, and you can kinda hear it, though you’re more likely to think of Jeff Buckley or Nick Drake. The one I’m immediately addicted to is Rose Parade, but I suspect this’ll be one of those albums (like many from Built to Spill) where as I listen again and again, I’ll be infatuated with a different song for a while, until almost all of them have been my “favorite” at one point or another.
- Lawrence Lessig thrashes the living christ out of copyright totalitarian Jack Valenti, parts one and two. I can’t help it, the debater in me still thrills to a good old fashioned rhetorical smackdown. Valenti’s smooth, and doesn’t get visibly flustered, but Lessig reams him like a jailhouse trick. Bonus amusement value: the Lessig techno remix.
- Mark Fiore‘s flash-animated political cartoons (mini-movies? whatever) are pretty damned funny. In light of recent controversy, I’m rather fond of The Corrections. (Courtesy of Amy)