Friday, October 21, 2011

Reading for a Friday

Today is Ursula Le Le Guin's birthday. Happy birthday, Ursula!

---It's therefore fitting that today's first link is to a description by Ryan Britt of a panel discussion, at the Center for Fiction, on the influence Ursula K. Le Guin has had on the sf/f field. The panel was moderated by David Hartwell and included N.k. Jemison, Michael Swanwick, Ellen Kushner, and John Wray. I was particularly interested to read...
In terms of her influence on the panel’s writing specifically, N.K Jemisin noted that Le Guin made a big impact on rediscovering her love of short stories. Jemisin cited “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a major revelation as the story caused so much “pain, because it’s intended to be a painful story.” Jemisin previously felt she didn’t need nor understand the medium of short fiction, but after some prodding from peers and reading the short fiction of Le Guin, she thinks totally differently.
...because it reminded me of how important Le Guin's short ficton was for me in the 1980s and how for a long while I firmly believed her short fiction superior to her novels. Eventually I decided, perhaps because the generally shared assumption that novels matter more than short fiction began to insidiously erode my conviction that the best short fiction is as powerful and affecting as the best novels, that perhaps I might be wrong. (Not that I'm not used to being alone in my critical judgments...)

---This is a bit old in internet terms, but in case you missed it: Vandana Singh's most recent column for Strange Horizons continues with the second part of her series on "Science, Emotions, and Culture."

Spread/Art Culture has a photo essay by Kisa Lala, "Visions of a Treeless World," that ranges from the Vikings' slash and burn razing of forests to Easter Island to current day Manhattan, offering striking art work along the way.

--In her essay The Balm of Sisterly Consolation: Thoughts on Northanger Abbey and The Mysteries of Udolpho, Abigail Nussbaum wrestles with Northanger Abbey and The Mysteries of Udolpho and finds the young Jane Austen reacting against the labeling problem women writers face now as well as then. Nussbaum notes:
It's a question that crops up again and again, whenever art by, for, or about women is discussed. You see it whenever chick-lit--the term, the publishing category, and the question of who gets classed into it--is discussed, and especially when an author of literary fiction--usually a female one--comments disparagingly on it. These discussions, if they acknowledge that chick-lit is rooted in some deeply problematic assumptions (and that it is equally problematic that women writing about the domestic, such as Austen herself, are assumed to be writing chick-lit, or at least less worthy work than male writers who write about it), will usually fail to admit that the perception of chick-lit as frivolous and shallow is rooted in misogyny, and vice versa. During the discussion of the dwindling ranks of women writing SF, there were several surprisingly negative responses from female bloggers, which were partially explained by their argument that women haven't been driven out of SF but have left it for fantasy and paranormal romance, and that the prioritization of SF is just the flipside of the tendency to discount these genres. But all is not well even within those fields: witness, on the one hand, Stina Leicht complaining about the expectation that a female fantasy writer must be writing paranormal romance, and on the other hand, M.K. Hobson's creation of a moniker for a female-oriented subset of steampunk which she dubs "bustlepunk." And then there's the fact that what is meant by literature for women is often literature for white, middle class, heterosexual, cisnormal women, as discussed in the comments to Kyra Smith's review of a romance novel at Ferretbrain.
---Over at the Nation, Ari Berman weighs in with How the Austerity Class Rules Washington:
In September the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a bipartisan deficit-hawk group based at the New America Foundation, held a high-profile symposium urging the Congressional “supercommittee” to “go big” and approve a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan over the next decade, which is well beyond its $1.2 trillion mandate. The hearing began with an alarming video of top policy-makers describing the national debt as “the most serious threat that this country has ever had” (Alan Simpson) and “a threat to the whole idea of self-government” (Mitch Daniels). If the debt continues to rise, predicted former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, there would be “strikes, riots, who knows what?” A looming fiscal crisis was portrayed as being just around the corner.

The event spotlighted a central paradox in American politics over the past two years: how, in the midst of a massive unemployment crisis—when it’s painfully obvious that not enough jobs are being created and the public overwhelmingly wants policy-makers to focus on creating them—did the deficit emerge as the most pressing issue in the country? And why, when the global evidence clearly indicates that austerity measures will raise unemployment and hinder, not accelerate, growth, do advocates of austerity retain such distinction today?

An explanation can be found in the prominence of an influential and aggressive austerity class—an allegedly centrist coalition of politicians, wonks and pundits who are considered indisputably wise custodians of US economic policy. These “very serious people,” as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wryly dubs them, have achieved what University of California, Berkeley, economist Brad DeLong calls “intellectual hegemony over the course of the debate in Washington, from 2009 until today.”
Berman names some names and takes notes of the deep pockets backing "these very serious people."

---A New Scientist article by Andy Coghln and Debora MacKenzie reports that
An analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.

The study's assumptions have attracted some criticism, but complex systems analysts contacted by New Scientist say it is a unique effort to untangle control in the global economy. Pushing the analysis further, they say, could help to identify ways of making global capitalism more stable.

The idea that a few bankers control a large chunk of the global economy might not seem like news to New York's Occupy Wall Street movement and protesters elsewhere (see photo). But the study, by a trio of complex systems theorists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, is the first to go beyond ideology to empirically identify such a network of power. It combines the mathematics long used to model natural systems with comprehensive corporate data to map ownership among the world's transnational corporations (TNCs).

"Reality is so complex, we must move away from dogma, whether it's conspiracy theories or free-market," says James Glattfelder. "Our analysis is reality-based."

Previous studies have found that a few TNCs own large chunks of the world's economy, but they included only a limited number of companies and omitted indirect ownerships, so could not say how this affected the global economy - whether it made it more or less stable, for instance.

The Zurich team can. From Orbis 2007, a database listing 37 million companies and investors worldwide, they pulled out all 43,060 TNCs and the share ownerships linking them. Then they constructed a model of which companies controlled others through shareholding networks, coupled with each company's operating revenues, to map the structure of economic power.
The image the article provides of interlocking ownerships is awesome. 1318 corporations make up the "core," but a "super-entity" of 147 owned 40% of the total wealth in the network.
John Driffill of the University of London, a macroeconomics expert, says the value of the analysis is not just to see if a small number of people controls the global economy, but rather its insights into economic stability.

Concentration of power is not good or bad in itself, says the Zurich team, but the core's tight interconnections could be. As the world learned in 2008, such networks are unstable. "If one [company] suffers distress," says Glattfelder, "this propagates."

"It's disconcerting to see how connected things really are," agrees George Sugihara of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, a complex systems expert who has advised Deutsche Bank.

Fascinating stuff. The study is to be published in PloS One.

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