Tag Archives: langewiesche

December linkdump

Noted with minimal comment:

  • Add to Ellie Kemper another former student making it in showbiz:  Damien Chazelle, who was actually in high school when I taught him number theory, had a feature in the Tribeca Film Festival.
  • Can William Langewiesche write a boring magazine feature?  If so, it is not this one about a Brazilian prison gang.  (Langewiesche previously on this blog.)
  • The Judybats are more thoroughly forgotten than they should be.  Frontman Jeff Heiskell, a decade after the last Judybats release (and fifteen years after the last Judybats release anyone heard)  sounds bitter about it.  If you like the fact that Heiskell says, in this interview, “My rectum draws up tight like a little antique button,” you will probably like their records.  Here’s the video for “Native Son.”  Look at these beautiful 1990s mid-South college town hepcats!
  • Yellow Ostrich was a band from Appleton and now is a band from Brooklyn like everyone else.  They put on a great show at the Gates of Heaven synagogue last spring, right before the move east.  Here’s the simple and compelling “Whale”:
  • People like to complain that today’s parents are too fond of giving kids names with novelty spellings.  But have you met a kid named Gregg lately?
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_Seeing Like a State_ and _The Outlaw Sea_

I just finished reading James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which I learned about via this long, but very worthwhile, Crooked Timber post. Scott argues that complex human practices can’t be well-regulated by a central authority applying rational principles. His case studies — collective farming in the Soviet Union, villagization in Tanzania, scientific forestry, the design of Brasilia, and so on — form a disheartening roll call of grand ambitions capsized and wrecked.

In Scott’s view, the only way these practices can be successfully regulated at all is by replacing them with alternative practices, which have the advantage of being easily understandable, quantifiable, and taxable by the state, but the disadvantage of being ruinously unproductive, and destructive of human capital. The usual result is a retreat to a kind of “fake regulation” where the original local practice carries on behind the bureaucratic curtain — what Scott calls a “dark twin” that simultaneously shores up and makes a joke of the official policy. The alternative is total collapse, as illustrated by efficacy of the work-to-rule strike:

In a work-to-rule action, employees begin doing their jobs by meticulously observing every one of the rules and regulations and performing only the duties stated in their job descriptions. The result, fully intended in this case, is that the work grinds to a halt, or at least to a snail’s pace. The workers achieve the practical effect of a walkout while remaining on the job and following their instructions to the letter.

What’s mostly missing from Scott’s book is a sense of hard choices. It’s easy to condemn arrogant agricultural planners who discard the peasants’ hard-won local knowledge about their crops, and draw up rectilinear blueprints for collective farms from offices a thousand miles away. But William Langewiesche’s The Outlaw Sea presents a more difficult picture, of a world economy dependent on very heavy cargoes moving very long distances on very old ships. Formally, the ships undergo frequent inspections and never sail unless judged seaworthy. In fact, driven by commercial necessity, ships go on sailing far into their decrepitude, changing names and registry when necessary, overseen by no one. Which means that a ship at sea that’s supposed to contain molasses might also be carrying heroin, or pirates, or a dirty bomb. Or it might just be carrying molasses, but be in such bad shape that it breaks up in the waves, spilling its expendable cargo and crew into the sea.

Scott would say that a more aggressive regulatory regime — if such were even possible — would be so inefficient as to kill world trade. And he’s probably right. But reading the stories in Langewiesche’s book, especially his exhaustively reported and thoroughly terrifying account of the 1994 sinking of the passenger ship Estonia, you see the downside, only occasionally mentioned by Scott, of letting local, flexible, unaccountable arrangements work everything out on their own.

Finally, Scott offers this remarkable fact about family names in the Phillippines, where prior to Spanish colonization surnames had not been used.

Each local official was to be given a supply of surnames
sufficient for his jurisdiction, ‘taking care that the distribution be made by letters [of the alphabet].’ In practice, each town was given a number of pages from the alphabetized catalogo, producing whole towns with surnames beginning with the same letter. In situations where there has been little in-migration in the past 150 years, the traces of this administrative exercise
are still perfectly visible across the landscape: ‘For example, in the Bikol region, the entire alphabet is laid out like a garland over the provinces of Albay, Sorsogon, and Catanduanes… Beginning with A at the provincial capital, the letters B and C mark the towns along the coast beyond Tabaco to Tiwi. We return and trace along the coast of Sorsogon the letters E to L; then starting down the Iraya Valley at Daraga with M, we stop with S to Polangui and Libon, and finish the alphabet with a quick tour around the island of Catanduanes.

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