Leonardo da Vinci

[Amazon Link]

I got this book on the recommendation of none other than Bill Gates, who put it on his "5 books worth reading this summer". (And—ha—I finished it yesterday, just a few hours before the Autumnal Equinox.) It's one of those rare occasions where the University Near Here library owns it and it hadn't been checked out until April 2019 by some book-hoarding faculty member.

(Don't get me started… oh, wait, I guess I did start. I'll stop now.)

The book is by Walter Isaacson, previously the author of books on Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein. Isaacson is a polished writer of popular non-fiction, and this reads smoothly. Another factor was my near-total ignorance of the details of Leonardo's life. ("He was… Italian, right?") So just about everything was new and interesting to me. The book is lavishly illustrated with color reproductions of a number of Leonardo's paintings, drawings, and excerpts from his notebooks. There's a lot of analysis and interpretation of Leonardo's works. (And, since I'm totally ignorant about such things, they may even be insightful and correct, what do I know?)

What struck me most was the confluence of factors that made Leonardo into the figure we know today. Okay, fine, he was blessed with a high raw intelligence. But other features of his personality played a vital role as well: his curiosity was turned up to eleven; his powers of patient observation were unmatched; he was an utter perfectionist. (One of the things I didn't know: Mona Lisa is, technically, an unfinished painting; Leonardo worked on it for years, and it was in his possession when he died.)

Leonardo was also gay, people of his time were well aware. Also illegitimate, and who knows what role these factors played in his life trajectory?

Also vital were the time and place: Renaissance Italy. Full of prosperous merchants and rulers who had nothing better to do with their wealth than to patronize artistic and engineering genius. Portraits needed painting, churches needed decorating, armies needed innovative weaponry, … Outside of that environment, Leonardo would have become what? A notary, like his dad?

Also interesting was Leonardo's interactions with other famous folk. He had some dealings with Michaelangelo–they didn't get along. He spent some time in the employ of the notorious Cesare Borgia, a very nasty guy, but that didn't seem to scruple him much. While there, he hung around with Machiavelli, too.

Bottom line: interesting and readable. Somewhat distracting was Isaacson's occasional comparisons of Leonardo with Steve Jobs. (Page 353: "Innovation requires a reality distortion field." Really? I guess, maybe, I wouldn't know.)

The Sixth Idea

[Amazon Link]

I continue (on my dear sister's recommendation) in my consumption of the "Monkeewrench" series. The "P. J. Tracy" name stands for a mother/daughter writing team; unfortunately the mom passed away back in 2016, but (apparently) the series will continue with the daughter writing solo.

Although the series is called "Monkeewrench" after the software/hacking company that played a major role in the first book, the fine detectives of the Minneapolis Police Department, Magozzi and Rolseth have really taken over the spotlight in the later books. Monkeewrench's main purpose here is to provide a love interest for Magozzi (Grace) and technological dei ex machina as necessary to move the plot along.

Ah, the plot. It revolves around a decades-old evil US government organization, its origins in the development of the H-bomb, devoted to keeping the lid on a majorly innovative secret weapon: a method to generate destructive electromagnetic pulses at will, knocking out an enemy's electrical infrastructure. And "keeping the lid on" involves murdering anyone who just might be on the verge of blabbing, or finding out, about this. Rough stuff!

This isn't really a spoiler; you get the gist of if in the first few dozen pages.

Unfortunately, the book is below average for the series. It seems heavily padded out to the (no doubt contractually obligated) 350 pages. The plot mover isn't particularly credible, sorry. I have negligible warm feelings toward Our Federal Government, but I'm pretty sure they're not capable of orchestrating this combination of evil ruthlessness and secrecy.

But (anyway) Evilorg.gov makes the fatal mistake of carrying out some homicides in Minneapolis, drawing the attention of our heroes. Dumb move on their part.

The authors seem to think our current nuclear arsenal doesn't contain H-bombs, by the way. Somebody should have checked that for them.

Podkayne of Mars

[Amazon Link]

Another book down on the Heinlein reading project, and (whoa) 32 to go. Podkayne of Mars came out in 1963, after Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, and it's another indication of how easily Heinlein could shift tone and topic even within the SF genre.

The first-person (usual) narrator, Podkayne, is neither a tough-as-nails space marine, nor an orphaned Terran raised by Martians. Poddy is an eight-year-old human girl, born and raised by humans on Mars.

Sorry, that's eight Martian years. As she takes pains to point out, you multiply by 1.8808 to get Earth years. By dubious political/legal maneuverings, she and her younger genius/sociopath brother Clark wangle a grand tour of the inhabited planets aboard the luxury spaceliner Tricorn, escorted by Great-uncle Tom.

Well, they get as far as Venus.

I found it pretty enjoyable, and if you're gonna gripe about Mr. Heinlein writing in the voice of a very precocious teenage girl… well, how would you know about how such a girl, raised on a future Mars, might think, act, and say? Hmph.

It's all fun and games until… whoa… about three-quarters of the way through the book, where the dangerous hints previously sprinkled throughout come to a head. The true point of Uncle Tom's journey to Earth is revealed, as are the murderous lengths to which his political opponents will go to thwart him.

Consumer note: I got the "original" version of the book in paperback (retail $0.95, but I got used, marked down to $0.50). Since then, Heinlein's original ending to the book has come to light and it's very different. He was pressured to change the ending at the very last minute; just one page, but a 180° shift in tone. I understand current editions have both endings in place. The book's Wikipedia page has the details, but avoid that if you're spoiler-adverse.

The Serpent of Venice

[Amazon Link]

This is a sequel to Fool, Christopher Moore's previous book with protagonist Pocket, the fool in Shakespeare's King Lear. A ribald tale that was, and this book continues in that vein.

Here, Moore mashes up two Shakespearian plays: Othello (a tragedy, or so I'm told) and The Merchant of Venice (allegedly a comedy). But it also brings in a Poe reference ("The Cask of Amontillado"). In fact, that's how the book gets its start: Pocket has been dispatched by his wife, Cordelia, to Venice in order to thwart yet another Crusade on the Holy Land. Unfortunately, Cordelia is also dispatched soon afterwards.

Pocket is grief-stricken. His habits of brutal (but R-rated funny) honesty, as well as his mission, anger some Venetians. And he is lured to a deep dank dungeon on the pretext of Amontillado-sampling. Not having read the Poe story, he is somewhat surprised to find himself being bricked up in a damp cell.

Surely he's doomed? Well, no. See the book title. Somehow he has a fearsome (but inexplicably sexual) monster on his side.

Moore turns some well-known Shakespearian characters around. Shylock is not particularly pleasant, but he's honestly angered by the injustice shown to Jews in medieval times. And Antonio isn't a nice guy, he's one of the plotters against Pocket.

Surprise non-fictional character shows up on page 214. Did not see him coming.

Capitalism Without Capital

The Rise of the Intangible Economy

[Amazon Link]

Tyler Cowen listed it as one of his best non-fiction books of 2017. Arnold Kling put it on his much shorter list. Those are high recommendations, and so I did that Interlibrary Loan thing with the University Near Here, and it showed up all the way from the University of Connecticut. And…

Well, it turns out those guys are economists, and I'm not. And the authors, Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, get really deep into the economic weeds. As a result, my enjoyment was limited. (But, caveat lector, Bill Gates, also not an economist, recommended it too. So don't necessarily take my word for it.)

The punchy title could have been less punchy. This is a book describing the increasing importance of intangible assets to businesses, and (hence) the overall economy. We're talking software, business methods, patents, designs, etc. As opposed to tangibles: trucks, buildings, blast furnaces, etc.

It should be clear that the intangibles are like capital. They cost money to acquire or develop, they (hopefully) are part of the mix by which the firm makes money. And yet they, in many cases are (literally) not accounted for as capital investments, which can mislead decision-makers both internal and external.

Haskel and Westlake ably list four factors in which intangibles differ from normal capital. In one of their (further) nods to punchy writing, they call them the four S's.

  1. Intangible assets are more likely to be scalable;
  2. their costs are more likely to be sunk;
  3. they are inclined to have spillovers;
  4. and they exhibit synergies with each other.

Dumbed down to my level: scalability means that once you acquire an intangible asset, you can often spread it around to the entire company at little additional cost. (You can't do that with trucks; if you need more trucks… you have to buy more trucks.)

Sunk costs: sometime assets don't work out. Tangible assets are relatively easy to dispose of on the market—someone will always buy your trucks if the price is right. But intangibles are often useless to anyone else, so you have to eat them.

Spillover refers to the difficulty of keeping your intangibles within the firm. Once you've demonstrated that something "works" to make money, people in other companies—your competitors!—will tend to notice and copy, "adapt", or (from your point of view, if not theirs) steal. Either gulp and accept this, or spend some money on lawyers.

Finally, synergies: the authors cite Matt Ridley's concept of innovation: "ideas having sex". Once the firm has a fertile breeding ground of intangibles, they can interact and combine in ways originally unexpected. (Apple, of course, is a prime example.)

All this has capital-I Implications. The inconsistent handling of intangibles vs. tangibles can cause the appearance of stagnation. They might contribute to growing inequality. A country's financial system might not handle them adequately, let alone efficiently. Infrastructure decisions can be misguided (roads and bridges vs. networks and servers). Management practices need adjustment. And government policies will almost certainly need to be dinked, although it's hard to know how to do that correctly. (Duh.)

So, it's good, very in depth. Much of it is accessible to the dilettante (me), but a lot I confess was skimmed over. I learned a lot, and one of the things I learned was: I wouldn't pass a test on the subject.

The Force

[Amazon Link]

I'm a Don Winslow fan. One of my reading "projects" has been to catch up reading his novels, and (yay) with this one I finally did it. Now waiting for something new from him.

This book is epic, a tad under 500 pages. It has laudatory blurbs from Steven King ("mesmerizing") and Lee Child ("best cop novel ever written"). Maybe. But it's not my cup of tea, may be yours.

So, no light sabers, although I wonder how many careless Star Wars fans picked it up by mistake. The Force in question is the NYPD, and it's a different bunch from what you'll see on the TV show Blue Bloods. Tom Selleck is not in evidence anywhere. The antihero protagonist is Denny Malone, police detective, and leader of the Manhattan North Special Task Force, a supercop unit charged with dealing with drugs, gangs, guns, etc. in Harlem.

"Antihero" might be putting it mildly. This sounds like a spoiler, but it's not: Denny executes a drug kingpin in cold blood, and his unit rips off $4 million and 20 kilos of high-quality heroin. Unfortunately, one of his cops dies grotesquely when a heroin bag bursts open and spills into his open wounds… yeesh.

That's on pages 15-16.

And that's part of the problem. Neither Denny, nor most in his cop-thug gang, are admirable in the slightest. If a substance can possibly be abused, they do so. They lie, cheat on their wives, behave corruptly as a matter of entitlement. And just about everyone else in the tale is equally corrupt, if not more so. The squad's only virtue is loyalty; but that turns out to be ephemeral as well.

Most of this book shows how things gradually fall apart for Denny and his crew, with an ever-mounting body count. Again a (slight) spoiler, the final line: "All Denny Malone ever wanted was to be was a good cop."

He did a piss-poor job of that.

Losing the Nobel Prize

A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science's Highest Honor

[Amazon Link]

Another book obtained via UNH Library ILL from Tufts. (Fortunately, there aren't a lot of summer readers at Tufts, I guess.) Thanks to all involved. I put the book on my get-at-library list thanks to this post by Philip Greenspun. (Recommended, including comments.)

It's really three books, intertwined: (1) a history of the Nobel Prize, and recommendations for reforms in the nomination and awarding process; (2) a history of astronomical and cosmological research and theorizing, from Galileo up to the present; (3) the author's autobiography, starting with how he got interested in the universe as a boy, detailing his research, and … well, you see the title.

Keating's writing style is punchy and poetic, occasionally very funny. (And often quite flowery, which too often misfires. It's as if he took writing lessons from Carl Sagan.)

The science Keating describes is accessible to the generally science-literate, at least for awhile. But once we get into the details of Keating's own research, a lot of details are glossed over: too much math. Essentially, Keating and his research team were looking for a certain kind of polarization pattern in the 2.7 °K microwave "cosmic background radiation" discovered back in the sixties, caused by primordial gravity waves. This would have confirmed the cosmic inflation hypothesis, meant to describe the post-Big Bang expansion of the universe. (And we're talking very early: between 10-36 and 10-32 seconds after the Bang.)

Keating's own story is interesting, and is a picture of the somewhat sad state of leading-edge physics research: hyper-competitiveness between research groups for funding and publishable results; inter-group backstabbing and politics. Is everyone as obsessed with getting the Nobel as Keating was? At that level, maybe! His odyssey takes him all over the world, most notably the South Pole, with his trusty microwave-sensitive telescope.

One sad note, of which I was not aware: Andrew Lange, a brilliant physicist who was universally liked, chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy at Caltech, comitted suicide in 2010, asphyxiating himself in a seedy motel room in Pasadena. (And I thought: I wonder if it's the same seedy motel I stayed in when I went back for class reunion? It's not as if there are that many seedy motels in Pasadena.) What does it say about the state of modern-day physics if it takes such a toll on people at its apex?

Keating's recommendations for Nobel reform are not as interesting as the other threads. But (yes) the current rules are archaic and don't reflect either Alfred Nobel's dying wishes or the realities of current-day research. And some people, especially women, have been arguably screwed over. If you'd like a taste of Keating's argument, check out his Wired article. True fact:

When in 1963 Maria Goeppert Mayer became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, a newspaper published the story under the headline, “San Diego Housewife Wins Nobel Prize.”

There is some sloppiness that probably could have been fixed with more diligent editing.

Page xvi: "I was reminded of a speech John F. Kennedy gave in 1959, when he said, "When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters—one represents danger and one represents opportunity."

Keating was born in 1971, so it's a little odd for him to be "reminded" of a 1959 speech. But let that go.

Kennedy said it, true enough, but a little checking shows it to be a bogus translation. Which kind of diminishes the point Keating's trying to make.

And then on page 42: "Clouds are made of tiny air molecules and much larger water molecules."

By kinetic diameter, an H2O molecule is about 265 picometers (pm) in diameter. "Air molecules" are almost all nitrogen molecules (N2) and oxygen molecules (O2). They're actually slightly bigger than H2O: (364 and 346 pm respectively).

What Keating probably meant to say: clouds are made of tiny air molecules and much larger water droplets. (And the following discussion is correct.)

A Stolen Season

[Amazon Link]

Another book down in my Steve Hamilton catchup reading project. This one from 2006. Mr. Hamilton's website says that I've got eight more to go, but by the time I get there, he'll probably have written more. Paradoxical, Captain Zeno!

This is the seventh book in his series with protagonist Alex McKnight: ex-baseball player, ex-cop, ex-private eye. As always, he just wants to take care of his cabin-rental business in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but events keep dragging him into a world of criminal violence.

Specifically, Alex and his buddies are coincidentally on hand to witness the crash of a big old boat into a defunct railroad bridge's pilings. This calls for a rescue, ably carried out, but the guys they rescue are obviously less than savory, and there's some discussion afterward: what happened to that big box we had on board with us?

Another complication: Alex's Canadian girlfriend, Natalie. Unlike most Canadian girlfriends, she's real. But after the events of the previous books, she wants to get back to her job, which is Canadian law enforcement. Which (in turn) requires her to go on a dangerous undercover mission in Toronto, attempting to sting a notorious gun-running gang.

Another Dickensian coincidence: the two plot threads are related. It's a funny old world. (Sounds like a spoiler, but it's mentioned on the back of my paperback.)

I admit that Mr. Hamilton presents a plot twist slightly over halfway through that I did not see coming. I did not think he was going to Go There.

Other than that, this is a step down in quality from the previous books in the series. Alex's first-person narration is mopier than usual; also, he insists on ticking off the names of the towns he drives through, the streets he drives by. Nobody cares about U. P. geography that much, Alex!

Shots Fired

Stories from Joe Pickett Country

[Amazon Link]

Another bit of progress in my effort to catch up with C. J. Box books. This one came out in 2014, so I'm almost there…

It's a collection of Box's short stories; the subtitle, "Stories from Joe Pickett Country" indicates that not all stories contain Box's most well-known hero. Four out of the ten stories do, but who's counting? Well, I suppose I just did.

Anyway, they're all small-to-medium-sized gems. Let's see:

  1. A story about a tyrannical ranch owner who, when things don't go his way, retaliates against his own employees. Joe implores him, futilely, to be reasonable; that plea doesn't work, but something else does.
  2. A story sorta based on the Springsteen song "Meeting Across the River", but set in Yellowstone instead of Jersey, with Eastern European punks instead of American punks.
  3. A story set in 1835 about two trappers snowbound in a cabin, one slowly being driven insane by the other
  4. A story about Nate Romanowski (with Joe in a cameo role) being pressured by a Saudi prince into providing falcons; that's a problem that Nate solves beautifully.
  5. A story about a fishing expedition in a drift boat that goes either (a) horribly wrong or (b) exactly as planned, depending on your point of view.
  6. A very neat story about a lawyer taken prisoner by a crazed "no-account workingman", based on a decades-old alleged screwing-over of his grandfather. Surprise ending!
  7. A story about Joe's investigation of a very grim scene: a pickup going into a lake in sub-zero weather, a victim who nearly escaped a frozen fate, but didn't.
  8. A story about American Indians hired by Paris Disneyland to provide atmosphere for their Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show (apparently a real thing); it turns out that French ladies are quite smitten with the, um, authenticity. But in one case, everything goes horribly wrong.
  9. A short short story about a young girl going fishin' with her grandpa. Twist ending!
  10. And a story about Joe's response to a "shots fired" report, seeming to implicate an old-time sheep rancher. He finds more than he bargained for.

I'm not much of a short-story reader, but these are great. You can't go wrong with Box.

Political Tribes

Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations

[Amazon Link]

Amy Chua (a lawprof at Yale) got a considerable amount of fame a few years back for writing Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her memoir of the tough-parenting ethos she imposed/blessed upon her daughters.

Professor Chua was also a supporting player (as mentor) in J. D. Vance's book about his upbringing and educational/professional odyssey, Hillbilly Elegy, which was one of the best books I read last year.

I wasn't that much interested in reading about her mothering techniques, but when I saw that Chua had written this book, my interest was piqued enough to put it on the "get" queue for the University Near Here library. (It wound up coming via ILL from Franklin Pierce University, over in Rindge.)

I wished I liked it better. There are two things going on the book, and they don't mesh together that well.

The first part discusses how (mostly) the United States has botched both its foreign policy and war-fighting strategies in the past by failing to appreciate the "tribal" strains and stresses in other lands. Examples: In Vietnam, we failed to recognize the ethnic hatred of the Vietnamese majority toward the Chinese minority that controlled much of the country's economic activity. In Afghanistan, we (and the Russians) treated the country as if it were a Cold War square to be captured, ignoring the tribal history and conflicts between various major and minor warlords. In Iraq, we minimized the Sunni/Shiite/Kurd rivalries, and assumed all sects could get along peacefully once Democracy was imposed. And in Venezuela, we underestimated the ethnic resentment of darker-skinned natives (who brought, to their eventual regret, Hugo Chávez to power) against the whiter elite.

These explications are fine, as far as they go. You can't have read Thomas Sowell as much as I have and not be aware of how much ethnic, racial, religious, and other cultural differences can drive trends, disparities, and policies. But Chua's arguments seem a little too tidy and perhaps more hindsightful that insightful.

Things go a little more off the rails when Chua turns her gaze to 21st-century America. She calls America a "super-group": an agglomeration of immigrant cultures, religions, races, and ethnicities that (at least until recently) were successfully merged into a chunky melting-pot of American identity. While still marred by racial oppression and religious bigotry, we're still arguably doing better at managing tribalism than any other country.

Or not. Chua has plenty of criticism of current events. She is, as far as I can tell, a moderate political liberal, so she lambastes the wackos and bigots on both sides, but asymmetrically toward the right. There are inexplicable diversions; yes, I've heard of the "Prosperity Gospel", but I'm not quite sure what the point of the discussion in the book is.

And Chua occasionally totally misfires. Her contempt seethes (for example) at my hero Kevin D. Williamson and his famous brutally honest look at lower-class white American communities. Chua doesn't use Williamson's name, and calls his article (incorrectly) an "op-ed". She quotes a few paragraphs, but she seems to think Williamson's awfulness is self-evident, commenting only that "it's hard to imagine [Williamson's] kind of language being applied to any other group." Yeah, fine, Professor; but was he accurate? Engage with the argument, instead of pointing with open-mouthed shock.