Monday, October 31, 2016

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon ***

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon feels like LA Confidential updated to the early 1970s and written by Kurt Vonnegut, yielding an odd mixture of science fiction/fantasy and hard-boiled mystery about private investigator Doc Sportello.
It all began, apparently, some 3 billion years ago, on a planet in a binary star system quite a good distance from Earth. Doc's name was something like Xqq...
In the current time, Doc is simultaneously stoned and and an astute observer of the human condition.
"What I should only trust good people? man, good people get bought and sold every day. Might as well trust somebody evil once in a while, it makes no more or less sense. I mean I wouldn't give odds either way."
For a strange remembrance, reconstruction of the early 1970s, this might be the book for you.

Pynchon delivers on many levels with liberal doses of clever writing and obscure references to Los Angeles geography.
Back when Doc was still new in town, one day around sunset--the daily event, not the boulevard--he was in Santa Monica near the western end of Pico...
Two nerd notes:

The title is an obscure insurance term. Inherent Vice: An exclusion found in most property insurance policies eliminating coverage for loss caused by a quality in property that causes it to damage or destroy itself, which might be taken as a metaphor for Doc or LA or not.

The APRAnet plays a small role as a harbinger of 21st century Internet, but also as a harbinger of itself, as the novel is set at a time when the ARPAnet had maybe three dozen nodes.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Living in Ancient Greece by Don Nardo, ed. ****

History comes in two flavors: politics and daily life. Living in Ancient Greece by Don Nardo, ed is of the second type.While Pericles and Aristotle are mentioned in passing, the emphasis is on daily life with chapters on dress, food, education, crafts, and medicine.

It is full of interesting details, such that Greek pottery which is iconic of ancient Greece (500 BCE) traces it origin back to Crete 2,000 year earlier. One of the authors makes the interesting claim that that Euclid's volume on geometry (Elements) is distinguished because "no book except the Bible has enjoyed such a long subsequent reign."

While this book is a collection of excerpts from fourteen scholarly papers, it is short (around 130 pages) and accessible to intermediate, or advance upper elementary students, who might be reporting on ancient Greece, especially Athens.

One interesting aspect of Athenian law was that there were no lawyers. People needed to represent themselves. However, they could deliver a defense written by professionals. The happy benefit of this practice is that historians have access to transcripts of trials.

In an early experiment of "stand your ground" legislation, Athens allowed the husband to kill his wife's lover, but only if there was no other motivation, no monetary gain, and no other animosity.

Prior to killing his wife's lover, the husband reports during his trial that he said this:
It is not I who shall be killing you, but the law of the State, which you, in transgressing, have valued less highly than you own pleasure... Thus members of the jury, this man met the fate which the laws prescribe for wrong-doers of this kind.
This seems remarkably contemporary even though it happened almost 2,500 years ago.

In another contemporary echo, the original Hippocratic Oath prohibited abortion.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Because of Sex by Gillian Thomas *****

Because of Sex by Gillian Thomas opens with
"On February 8, 1964, an eighty-year-old segregationist congressman named Howard Smith ... changed the lives of American working women forever."
His proposal was to add the word sex after religion in four places in the Civil Rights Act. Though he had been a supporter of the ERA (Equal Right Amendment), his intent wasn't clear. Some though his purpose was to torpedo the Civil Rights Act. Regardless, his proposal passed as did the Act.

Thomas's book traces how fifty years and ten Supreme Court cases, have changed the workplace for women. So much has changed, that today it is hard to imagine the workplace 40 or 50 years ago.

Employment ads differentiated between Wanted Men and Wanted Women. Sexual harassment was not even a concept. Cases that were decided in the Supreme Court included a company that refused female applicants with preschool children, and another that required women to be surgically sterilized if they wished to keep their job.

This book is a combination of a legal thriller and civil rights history. Well written and fun to read. Highly recommended to anyone interested in woman's rights in the workplace, both the history and the future.

The Act allowed discrimination if there was a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ). Much of the legal wrangling concerned companies not hiring women and suggesting there was a BFOQ. This included many well paid jobs with law enforcement, in prisons, requiring lifting, etc. Usually under the guise of protecting women, they were refused employment. The general rule became that women could not be refused because of an assumption about all women. If someone was refused, the employers had to show that that women cold not perform the job.

If a qualification such as height and weight (that tended to disqualify women disproportionately) was put forth, there had to be hard data supporting it. This ploy rarely stood up in court.

It seems like the only BFOQ left is roles for actors, and even that may be problematic today.

How hard was this battle and how much has changed?
After all [in the late 1980s], the [U.S. Court of Appeals] noted, "sexual jokes, sexual conversations and girlie magazines" were always going to be part of the American workplace, and [the Civil Rights Act] was not meant to change that.
The book delivered a very positive story of the past, but ends with a depressing epilogue about how much of a struggle remains.