The Pale King

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This is (almost certainly) the last bit of fiction we'll see from David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide back in 2008. It is technically unfinished, re-assembled from a partial manuscript and an agglomeration of notes, disk files, and marginalia. His editor compressed all that into 540 published pages, and—I speak as a fan—it's still kind of a mess. But a pretty wonderful mess.

It's roughly centered around the Internal Revenue Service's Peoria office just off the "Self-Service Parkway", a beltway around the city. It is set in the mid-80's, and considers the various offbeat IRS employees, their histories and talents. One of the employees is "David Foster Wallace", who snagged his job there via pull from his parents, something to do after getting tossed out of his college due to a side business where less academically-inclined students outsourced their writing assignments to him.

All this (spoiler, sort of) is completely fictional, but told in such a way that I had to check reputable sources.

DFW's story with the IRS is unfortunately incomplete, but his initial day at work is described with painstaking detail. He is supposed to assume a lowly GS-9 position with the other dweebs, but gets bureaucratically mistaken for a different David F. Wallace, an important GS-13. This causes some minor misadventures, not least of which is a surprising interaction with a female employee.

There are plenty of other folks. Notable is Leonard Steyck: an early chapter describes his boyhood, where he is (literally) Christ-like in cheerfulness, charity towards others, turning the other cheek, etc. Naturally everyone despises Leonard, including his parents. And there's Claude Sylvanshine, who has a supernatural talent of becoming aware of minute details of people in the vicinity. While in a meeting, he discovers flaws in the mitochondrial DNA of one of his co-workers, due to her mother briefly taking thalidomide while she was gestating; he becomes aware of another's shoe size and total blood volume (but not his name).

I don't suppose it would be everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoyed it. I found it (at various points) hilarious, poignant, and insightful. But, all the while, a resigned sadness knowing that his voice is silenced by his own hand. (I wrote my thoughts on that last August.)

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How Not to Be Wrong

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You know how Amazon throws purchase suggestions at you based on your browsing history? This book showed up in one of my visits a few months back; I can't remember what triggered it. The title was memorable, certainly: How Not to be Wrong. What a magnet for someone who finds himself wrong much more often than he'd like! While hanging out in the University Near Here's Engineering, Math & Computer Science Library, I noticed it on the New Books shelf, and…

The author, Jordan Ellenberg, is a math prof at the University of Wisconsin. To a first approximation, the book is a reply to the perpetual whine of math students everywhere: When am I going to use this? (That's actually the title of the book's introduction.) It is an entertaining hodgepodge, showing how mathematical analysis (has been|can be) applied to real-world problems, but occasionally veering into more abstract realms as well. Along the way, Ellenberg also likes to tell anecdotes about historical and present-day mathematicians. (UNH's Tom Zhang is mentioned for proving the bounded gaps conjecture about the distribution of prime numbers.)

Did I say hodgepodge? Examples: how smart people at MIT gamed the Massachusetts Cash WinFall lottery; how "statistical significance" can be abused/misinterpreted in research; how "regression to the mean" works, and how it's been misunderstood; the strange mathematics of democratic voting when there's more than two choices; the fallacy of assumed linearity; digging causality out of correlation. And more.

Ellenberg has an easy style, and he's unafraid to crack wise.

"If you care at all about math, this is the kind of thing that makes you want to stab yourself in the hand with a fork."

"The extent to which you care about this distinction is a good measure of whether you would enjoy going to graduate school in analytic philosophy."

"Mathematics is a way not to be wrong, but it isn't a way not to be wrong about anything. (Sorry, no refunds!)"

"Are you there, God? It's me, Bayesian inference."

Not quite a chuckle per page, but almost. Ellenberg could be the Dave Barry of mathematicians.

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The Pity Party

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This latest book by William Voegeli comes highly recommended with back-cover blurbs by William Kristol, Randy Barnett, Harvey Mansfield and Power Line's Scott Johnson. Its amusing subtitle: "A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion". I was favorably impressed with Professor Voegeli's previous book Never Enough. And this one was easily snagged via the University Near Here's membership in the Boston Library Consortium; the smart folks at MIT sent it up here with alacrity.

I was not disappointed: the book is well-written and full of insight. Voegeli is not really mean-spirited, as his subtitle claims; this is an ironic preemptive defense against one of the charges that liberals would no doubt want to wield against him.

Since full-blown socialism has been discredited on pragmatic grounds for decades, "compassion" is the strongest reed on which progressives can hang their arguments in the present day. And they have done so.

Did I mention irony? Certainly there's a lot of it inherent when "compassionate" liberals deal with their conservative/libertarian critics: then they can be unmerciful, spiteful, hate-filled, vituperative… all in the name of "compassion". This is not, we are told, something on which "reasonable and decent people can disagree". The natural conclusion: you are evil or wilfully deranged, deserving of nothing but bile. It's a funny old world.

Liberal compassion is also weirdly unconcerned with whether the numerous programs, mandates, subsidies, and regulations justified on "compassionate" grounds actually work in accomplishing their stated goals. Why, it's almost as if such measures were undertaken primarily to make their advocates feel good about themselves! Example one is Head Start, which continues to gobble up about $8 billion of spending at the Federal level without any evidence that it's "better than nothing".

In addition to being unconcerned with efficacy, "compassion"-based arguments tend to be incoherent, detached from reality. Liberal compassion springs from the natural sympathy one feels for the nearby unfortunate, and turns it into a blunt-force demand for whatever blank check strikes their current fancy, whether it's billions for stem cell research (save Christopher Reeve!) or subsidized health insurance for the middle class. But (as Voegeli points out) those arguments can't be extended logically to their obvious conclusions. When you ask why we should care much more about the medically-uncovered Betsy Morgan in Schenectady, than the desperately poor Mpinga Bombuku in Kinshasha — sorry, no answer is forthcoming.

My favorite chapter: "How Liberal Compassion Leads to Bullshit". (Yeah, he went there.) Voegeli, like me, is a fan of Frankfurt's classic work On Bullshit, and he illustrates how liberal arguments on gun control, environmentalism, and "diversity" are prime exemplars. Laugh, if you can keep from crying.

I think Voegeli is entirely on-target. I would like to think that your typical liberal could take some valuable lessons away from reading this book, too. If they can keep their heads from exploding, that is.

Last Modified 2015-04-07 4:53 AM EDT
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The Girl With All the Gifts

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We gave this book to Pun Daughter for Christmas. It looked intriguing enough that I asked to borrow it once she was done reading it. The dust jacket featured glowing blurbs from Joss Whedon and io9. And it's good, albeit not quite what I expected. (I expected something like The Hunger Games. Nope, not quite.)

I will try to avoid spoilers here: Melanie is a smart kid in an unusual situation: she goes to school with her classmates, but that involves a couple of armed soldiers coming to get her in her cell. One holds a gun on her while the other puts her into a wheelchair with strong restraints on her arms, legs, and head.

Melanie likes school, though, especially her sympathetic teacher, Miss Justineau. One of the things she learns about is the Pandora myth, whence the title; you'll want to keep an eye on that.

It gradually becomes clear that all is not well in the world outside Melanie's prison. Her teachers drop hints about devastating events twenty years in the past, and it's clear that only a remnant of humanity is carrying on civilization. And Melanie is part of a research project that is humanity's last desperate hope to survive.

Unfortunately, "humanity" pretty much views Melanie as one of the eggs that might need to be broken to make that particular omelet.

The book turns out to be (again trying to avoid spoilers) part of a certain well-known genre, distinctive because there's a gloss of scientific mumbo-jumbo backing things up, something the genre often lacks. It's well-written; the author, M.R. (Mike) Carey had previously made his name mostly writing comic books. And (spoilers at the link) it's going to be a movie with Glenn Close.

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61 Hours

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Reacher's back, and continues in his dangerous habit of getting involved in massive, murderous conspiracies through pure chance and coincidence. It's as if God (in the person of author Lee Child) has it in for him.

In this outing, a lawyer in the service of a drug baron is driving erratically in a South Dakota snowstorm, just badly enough to cause a tourist bus filled with old people on a jaunt to Mount Rushmore to swerve off the highway.

Filled with old people, and also Reacher. Big mistake, lawyer.

The accident causes the bus passengers to be taken in by the decent citizens of Bolton, SD. Their town has recently been blessed with a massive nearby Federal high-security penitentiary. This provides local jobs, a steady traffic of sad people visiting prisoners, and (for some reason) a biker gang dealing high-quality crystal meth from a mysterious facility outside of town.

All this wangles Reacher into unravelling various mysteries and conspiracies, and also attempting to protect the life of a feisty old lady, who's promised to testify against one of the bikers who got nabbed. As always with Reacher: dry humor, sudden violence, lots of corpses.

Don't want to spoil anything, but the book has an unexpected ending, an unusual incentive to buy the next book in the series. Like, right now.

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Back to Blood

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Another Christmas gift from my generous family. Christmas 2013, unfortunately; it got stuck in my to-be-read pile. Doesn't matter, Tom Wolfe is timeless. It's fun to read an author who bumps up so severely against typography, pushing the envelope of 26 letters, a handful of punctuation symbols (for example, five colons are used to delimit a :::::character's inner thoughts::::), italics and (at one spot) superscripts and subscripts.

The one-line description: Mr. Wolfe does explores Miami, similar to his exploration of New York City in The Bonfire of the Vanities nearly 30 years ago. It's a pretty good fit: he doesn't bow to political correctness one bit in exploring the racial/ethnic/cultural stew down there. There are WASPs, Cubans, African-Americans, Haitians, Russians, etc. Variously involved in newspaper publishing, art forgery, law enforcement, politics, higher education, charity work, drug dealing, …

Our protagonist is Nestor Camacho, a likeable gung-ho cop. He has the unfortunate habit of exhibiting heroism and skill that only comes back to bite him in the ass. For example, in an early chapter, he rescues a Cuban refugee from a precarious perch at the top of a sailboat mast; unfortunately, the refugee didn't technically set foot on land before Nestor grabs him, so due to the US "wet foot/dry foot" policy, this makes him eligible for deportation back to Cuba. This makes Nestor a contemptible traitor to his Cuban-American community. Even his lovely girlfriend, Magdalena, decides it's time to See Other People. (But it turns out she's already seeing other people, specifically her boss, a shrink dedicated to relieving weathy porn addicts of their money.)

It's long, north of 700 pages, but an easy read. Full of sly insights, as when Nestor is exposed to the community of art aficionados:

These people treated art like a religion. The difference was that you could get away with joking about religion…

In short, fun stuff. Mr. Wolfe is 84 (as I type), so I don't know how many more books he's got in him, but I'll keep reading as long as he keeps writing.

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What If?

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A Christmas gift from my generous family. I took my time working through it, because too much wonderfulness in one sitting can lessen one's overall appreciation.

It is mostly a "greatest hits" collection of Randall Munroe's entries to his What If? site. Munroe is a dedicated scientific polymath, and a fun illustrator. (I suspect that he could draw people as more than stick figures if he wanted to, but that's his schtick.)

The questions, posed by his readers/fans, are (as admitted in the subtitle) absurd, but imaginative enough that answering them can illuminate real-world science.

  • If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?
  • How hard would a puck have to be shot to be able to knock the goalie himself backward into the net?
  • What if I took a swith in a typical spent nuclear fuel pool? Would I need to dive to actually experience a fatal amount of radiation? How long could I stay at the surface?

Perhaps indicating a tendency toward morbid thoughts (in Munroe or his question-submitters, probably both), a lot of the answers involve massive amounts of death and injury. (Q: What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent of the speed of light? A (summary): you don't want to be the batter, the pitcher, a teammate, a spectator, or really anywhere within miles. Full answer here.)

Only slightly marred by some typographic flubs, where a few math symbols that were (undoubtedly) present in the font Munroe used to compose the text just appear as annoying white rectangles in the book's font. Might be corrected in a later printing.

So it's great geeky fun, but also a tutorial on how someone with a scientific bent puzzles out answers to queries. That's a skill applicable to non-absurd what-ifs too. Highly recommended.

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Free Will

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A couple months ago, I read Free by Alfred Mele, who examined the philosophical "free will" controversy. Professor Mele was on the pro-free will side. At the time, I resolved to read someone on the anti-free will side, and here he is: Sam Harris, a relatively famous philosopher/neuroscientist.

It's a short book, with the main text coming in at 66 pages. Acknowledgments, notes, and the index add a couple dozen more. (Still, it's an actual book, and counts toward my yearly total.) I took my time going through it. I wanted to give it a fair shake.

But I was not won over.

Part of the problem was Harris's somewhat surprising sloppiness in language, right from the start. The book opens with a description of a 2007 horrific rape-murder in Cheshire, Connecticut committed by Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky. Harris then considers a thought experiment:

As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: […]

Wait a minute. That's not right.

What Harris is describing is a entire body swap (the only thing "atom for atom" can possibly mean), kind of a combination of a Star Trek-style transporter with a time machine. But if all the Harris-atoms are magically transported to 2007 Connecticut (while, say, the Komisarjevsky-atoms are transported elsewhere), the result is (simply) Sam Harris. He's incorrect to assert that "I would be him".

So Harris means something other than what he says here. He is not actually proposing an "atom for atom" swap. Instead he's imagining a different magic:

If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky's shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did.

From this we can deduce that, far from an "atom for atom" swap, Harris is imagining that nearly nothing is traded. The Komisarjevsky body and brain (with its memories) remains in 2007 Connecticut.

So it's not a Star Trek transporter at all. It's not even like the "Turnabout Intruder" episode of Star Trek where Kirk's personality was switched with that of the homicidal Janice Lester; in that case, Kirk's memories went into Lester's body and vice-versa. (Also: not like either version of Freaky Friday.)

So what does Harris imagine is being traded with Komisarjevsky in his thought experiment?

When Harris uses the personal pronoun "I" above, he is referring to "the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions" (page 7). This is the "I" he imagines is transplanted into the (otherwise intact) murderer's body.

And Harris's position is that this "I" is extremely powerless. It can't stop the 2007 horrors. It's like a toy boat, helplessly tossed on the vast ocean of thoughts, memories, desires, physiology that make up the remainder of our physical bodies, which generate actions that we only imagine are under our conscious control.

Harris relies heavily on the famous experiments of Benjamin Libet, which (he claims) support his assertions that "unconscious causes" in the brain are the true initiator of our volitional acts. Libert's EEG measurements showed telltale neurophysiological activity significantly before his subjects perceived corresponding conscious thoughts. (Interestingly enough, Libet himself was on the pro-free will side, and thought his experiments tended to confirm free will.)

Harris sets a high bar for "free will" (page 13):

Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.

Or… not. Isn't Harris making a too-convenient assertion here? Can't free will involve being aware of some (if not all) of the factors that determine my thoughts and actions? Can't free will mean I have incomplete control of some of those factors? This seems to me to be a pretty accurate description of reality, but as near as I can tell, Harris would prefer to refute his absolutist strawman.

A late chapter has gratuitous slams of conservatives. You see, they "often make a religious fetish of individualism". Which Sam is happy to excoriate them for, except the entire rest of the book is an argument that they have no free-will control over such beliefs.

There's more, of course, but this has already gone on too long.

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Out of Range

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Book number 5 in C.J. Box's series about Joe Pickett, a game warden working for the State of Wyoming. It helps to have read the previous ones. I can't say enough good things about the series.

In this one, Joe is tasked with filling in for the Jackson Hole game warden, Will Jensen. Joe had always looked up to Will, so it's very disturbing for him to learn that Will had gone crazy, taking his own life. Jackson Hole is also fast-paced, high-pressure, and very upscale compared to Joe's normal station. There's a meat-is-murder group not only trying to get hunting shut down in the area, but also opposed to a real estate mogul trying to establish a "pure meat" development. The developer is trying to railroad Joe's approval of his plans, and his comely wife seems to have an independent interest in Joe. Is she just a sucker for his game warden uniform?

But the overriding mystery is: what happened to Will? Is Joe in danger from the same nefarious forces? (Hint: yes, he is.)

Meanwhile back home, Joe's wife and kids are being harassed by anonymous phone calls. Joe's friend-with-a-mysterious-past, Nate, has pledged to look after Joe's family, but he has problems of his own: a guy from out of town is trying to track him down, and it's not to give him flowers.

Mr. Box does his usual fine job of describing the spectacular beauty and (sometimes) danger of the Wyoming countryside. Unlike many genre heroes, Box's Joe is quite human: he makes mistakes, he gets scared, he's a little slow on the uptake. He and his wife have believable strains on their marriage.

Sometimes I gripe about books getting padded out to contractually-obligated lengths. I didn't get that impression here, even at 384 (paperback) pages.

Last Modified 2015-03-12 6:39 PM EDT
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The Girl Who Cried Wolf

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After his trilogy of books about a dystopic United States under Islamic rule, Robert Ferrigno returns to his previous genre of hard-boiled crime fiction. Apparently only available as an e-book, it's an insanely great deal, $2.99, at Amazon.

The bad guys here are eco-terrorists, hoping to save the world by various foul deeds, like blowing up a development on the orange bluffs above South Laguna Beach. Collateral damage: one real estate agent and her Mercedes, crashing in flames onto the beach below.

The bad guys are various mixtures of evil, stupid, and crazy. Behind them is the secretive beauty, Chloe, who is playing her own game. Their next gig is a complex one, involving (a) the kidnapping of a show-biz lawyer, Remy, whose daddy just happens to be a tycoon; (b) the hijacking of a truckload of anhydrous ammonia.

Things go off the rails pretty quickly. Remy is not a docile victim; when she regains post-snatch consciousness, her first words to her captors are: "Get me a triple-espresso. Two sugars. And a bottle of Advil." And her boyfriend, Mack, is an ex-cop, a maverick who didn't play by the rules, etc. Just the sort of guy to track Remy down.

It's all sorta predictable, by the numbers thriller, but you get to wonder about how many of the characters will survive until the last page, and who will do who in.

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