Periscope Depth

money on the dresser, drive a kompressor

Quicksilver: The first ninth of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. The publishers broke out each super-tome into three moderate paperbacks – more convenient for the commuting bachelor like myself. If you like Neal Stephenson, or peppery revisionist histories of the founding of the modern banking system, or sinister tales of intrigue between rival mathematicians, this book – and this series – are for you. Stephenson’s a big enough name in genre lit circles, however, that I think you already know by this point whether you should read him or not. So I won’t waste any more words on him, other than: I liked it, I wish Stephenson had a more courageous editor, I intend to keep reading.

Feed The Animals:

I’m like a person whose hands were kept numb, without sensation from the first moment of awareness – until one day the ability to feel is forced into them. [...] And I say, ‘Look! I have no hands!’ But the people all around me say, ‘What are hands?’

- Frank Herbert, Dune

Calling Girl Talk’s Feed The Animals a 53-minute mash-up doesn’t do justice to its rhythmic and creative complexity. I can’t properly explain to you the narrative beauty of mixing “Let Me Clear My Throat” with “Rubberband Man” and “Come On Eileen.” Or sampling together “Since U Been Gone,” NIN’s “Wish,” The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and “2 Legit To Quit.” Or … hell. Every twenty seconds brings a new revelation.

Every artist samples. What Gregg Gillis does demonstrates a breadth of cultural awareness that I’ve never seen before. It redefines the way you consider each of the songs he uses. It’s frankly astonishing.

Off The Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor: Sudhir Venkatesh is the overwhelmed econ student in Freakonomics who descends into Chicago’s ghettos and gets a first-hand look at the drug-trafficking life. Part of what he observes gets mentioned in that same book. Off The Books contains the rest.

What always bothered me about Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed is that she thrust herself into the world of the urban poor without availing herself of the social network that keeps them alive. Of course no one can survive on the wages that people below the poverty line make. That’s pure math. What she didn’t get – and what Venkatesh documents, through extensive interviews and personal experience – is that there’s an extensive web of favors, trades and deals that go on behind the scenes. It looks foreign to us, the privileged white observers, but it’s the way that all markets worked for the first ten thousand years of civilization. You deal with the folks you trust. You hustle to get a little extra. You cling to the edge of starvation.

This book’s clearly targeted at academics – a more stylish editor could cut it down to half its length and shelve it next to Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds or Gladwell’s latest bubblegum wad. But as a thorough documentation of the truly alien way that America’s poor live, it’s second to none. There’s a shadow economy in American cities, comprised of people who can’t go to the cops or deal with banks or even trust in contracts. Sometimes they trade legal goods illegally, like the man driving a gypsy cab, the mechanic repairing cars in an alley, or the woman selling soul food out of her own kitchen. Sometimes it’s illegal goods or services, like the woman who turns a few tricks a month to feed her kids or the man who’s a runner for the local crack dealers. It’s fascinating, humbling and frightening on every level.

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