The Guns of Avalon

[Amazon Link]

Consumer note: this post discusses the second book in Roger Zelazny's Amber series. Skip if you want to avoid spoilers for the first book, Nine Princes in Amber.

Which reminds me: I noticed that the back cover of this omnibus volume lists the first novel as Nine Princes of Amber. That's kind of a sloppy mistake for a publisher to make.

Anyway: when we left our hero, Corwin, he had just escaped from Amber's dungeon, vowing revenge upon his imprisoner/usurper/brother, Eric. That's the story here: Corwin's scheme is carried out with the help of his old ally from past conflicts, Ganelon. He encounters another brother, Benedict, who's distrustful, but agrees to keep Corwin safe from Eric's clutches, at least for a while. And there's the mysterious young Dara, who spins a story believable enough to convince Corwin she's just an impetuous youngster. Again: at least for awhile.

All this is set in the Amberian cosmology, which is: Amber is the only "real" world, all others, including our own Earth are merely shadows. Corwin and his kin have the knack of journeying between Amber and shadow worlds.

There's lots of room to quibble with this arrangement. We discover that the laws of physics differ enough between shadows to make (for example) gunpowder unworkable as a firearm explosive/propellant in Amber. (The source of the book's title.)

But you can only play that game so far before you make life itself impossible. How do you avoid accidentally bouncing into one of those life-hostile shadows?

Worse, it seems that there are an infinitude of shadows. How do you get to the precise one you're aiming for?

Maybe I missed something. Or maybe an explanation is forthcoming. I'll let you know if I find out.

The Boys in the Boat

Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

[Amazon Link]

This book was recommended to me by my ex-boss. It also appeared on the conservative Daily Signal's article "Here Are 21 Books You Should Read in 2017". And finally, one of Mrs. Salad's co-workers loaned me her copy, unbidden.

OK, I can take a hint.

I was dubious about the subject. Of all sports, competitive rowing appears at the bottom of my interest list, down there with rivals cross country, field hockey, and water polo. But the author, Daniel James Brown, made me care about it, at least for the duration of reading this book. Specifically, the eight-oar nine-man crew from the University of Washington that beat all American rivals and went to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. (The person you've heard most about in connection with that Olympics, Jesse Owens, barely gets mentioned here.)

Brown is convincing: there is really no other sport like this. To compete at a championship level requires an extraordinary amount of raw physical endurance coupled with meticulously precise oar placement and synchronization among the team members down to tiny fractions of a second. The boats themselves are marvels of nautical engineering, optimized down to a whisker, thanks to the absolute obsessive perfectionism of their master craftsman, George Yeoman Pocock.

Brown concentrates on just one of the team members, Joe Rantz; it's practically his biography. His tumultuous family life could well have sent him on the road to Nowheresville. Instead, he excelled at school, and got into the University of Washington. There, he just happened to sign up for crew, gaining team membership in a fiercely competitive field. And the rest is history, told with masterful skill and (even though we know the outcome) exciting suspense.

Brown also does a fine job placing Joe and the team into historical context. These are the days of the Depression, the Dust Bowl, the building of the Grand Coulee Dam (a summer job for Joe), and, oh yeah: Nazis. As noted in the subtitle: the 1936 Olympics was held in fully-Nazified Berlin. (Ironically, the pageantry and ceremony around the modern Olympics seems to originally have been a Nazi innovation, kind of like the VW Beetle.) The world was suckered, however briefly, by all the glamour ginned up for the events, as recorded by the master cinematographer, Leni Riefenstahl. Brown notes a number of (perhaps) sleazy maneuvers that might have tipped the race to the Germans. Nothing worked, our boys prevailed.

A couple of things I noticed in passing:

  • The massive Olympic Stadium was, by Hitlerian decree, made by hand as much as possible, even when machines could have done the job quicker. I was unaware that Hitler was such a believer in Keynesianism.

  • A side character at the Olympics is the British rower Ran Laurie, the father of actor Hugh Laurie. Ran won a gold medal in a different rowing event. But he was so modest about it that Hugh's first knowledge of it was when he came across the medal in his father's sock drawer.

Getting Risk Right

Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks

[Amazon Link]

Another pick obtained for me via the Interlibrary Loan folks at the University Near Here. Thanks, folks!

I've been interested for a while about the general topic of risk, and how it might best be regulated in a free society. I'm still in the weeds, but maybe if I keep reading…

The author, Geoffrey Kabat, is an epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; he's deep in the field of quantifying health risks. This book outlines the pitfalls and biases that researchers investigating causes of disease can fall prey to. And the realities of funding and publication pressures on researchers can, and does, incentivize a lot of bad, misleading, and unreproducible results. (For more on that topic, see the recent Wired article about John Arnold.) The discussion here is technical and valuable.

Kabat then turns to four recent case studies, two bad, two good. The bad: efforts to show that cell phone usage causes brain cancer, and the notion of "endocrine disruptors" in the environment. Both areas were sensationalized, and wasted a lot of funding that could have been spent on more productive areas.

The good: research into dangerous "Chinese herbal supplements" containing aristolochic acid; and how varieties of human papillomavirus (HPV) can result in various cancers, mostly cervical. These are heroic stories, as the scientists involved i-dotted and t-crossed their studies in order to tease out valid results, exposing disease processes that can take decades to actually kill you.

Kabat's prose is unfortunately wooden and to-be-sure mannered, and he's mind-numbingly diligent about dropping names and professional affiliations of the researchers he discusses. Fine, but that gets in the way of the narrative. (He's no Daniel Kahneman, sorry.) But, even given that, the book is a good discussion on how to do research right, and also wrong.

He (also unfortunately) doesn't get close to my main concern: once you've identified and quantified a risk, what's the proper policy response, especially given that people have widely varying tolerance for risky behaviors?

Also, a pet peeve: he refers to "socioeconomic inequality" (p. 179) when he almost certainly means "poverty".


[Amazon Link]

I came to this work via National Review's list of Ten Great Conservative Novels. Not that the book is without other plaudits: it won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, and probably some others out there too. And (it turns out) even Barack Obama is a huge fan of the author, Marilynne Robinson.

As it turns out, all the praise is justified. Uncomfortable as I am with agreeing with the ex-President.

The setup is not especially promising since my fiction tastes (you may have noticed) tend to run to crime thrillers and hard science fiction. The book is narrated by John Ames, a Congregational pastor in the small southwest Iowa town of Gilead; the setting is the mid-1950s. John has heart trouble that everyone knows will kill him soon, and he's decided to write a mini-memoir to his (then) seven-year-old son, in hopes that it will be read some decades in the future.

What develops is a series of revelations about John's Christian faith, and how that faith was manifested in his (pacifist) father and his (fierce abolitionist) grandfather. Recollections of his first wife and child, long dead, and the loneliness that resulted. The surprising blessing of his current wife and son. And his Presbyterian-minister best friend, Boughton, and his family.

That last relationship turns the memoir into something else, when Boughton's son, Jack, turns up in town after a long absence. Jack is a severe test to John's ideas of how a Christian should behave toward sinners.

I think I can safely say that after reading this book, you'll get to know more about John Ames than you might know about even your closest acquaintances. You might wind up knowing John better than you know yourself.

One personal note: one scene in the book mentions wading in the West Nishnabotna River. Whoa: that was the river that ran through the town where I lived as a young 'un, Oakland Iowa. This sent me to research, and it turns out Ms Robinson based fictional Gilead on Tabor Iowa, just down the road from Oakland, 40 miles or so. Funny!


[Amazon Link]

I'm slowly but surely catching up in Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, a project started back in 2009. I've given up my quibbles and tergiversations about Dickensian coincidences and convenient revelations; these books are great fun.

A chance glance at the personal (note title) ads in a castaway Army Times newspaper in Seattle causes Jack to get in touch with a supervisor from his aforementioned MP days. Jack is jetted off to North Carolina, where he's asked to participate in a desperate manhunt. A sniper has taken a shot at the French president. A miss, and Jack doesn't care about that too much anyway, but there are indications that the attempt was a warmup for another assassination in a few days.

Again, Jack asks, why me? Well, it turns out one of the prime suspects was a gifted sniper Jack outwitted and brought to justice during his MP days. And now he's out, looking for work. Aha! This time it's personal! Off to Paris.

Jack brings his usual powers of observation, deduction, and lethal violence to bear on the issue. He is assisted by a female sidekick named "Casey Nice"; also teams up with agents from England and Russia. But, as is the case with every character in a Reacher book: you have to be skeptical whether or not they can be trusted. Things are never as they seem at first, and you have to sort through the numerous red herrings to find… what? The real herrings? I guess.

One character notes the combination of Reacher's vagabond lifestyle and his detective skills, and dubs him "Sherlock Homeless". Heh! That's very accurate.

Born to Run

[Amazon Link]

True story: in my 1974 graduate dorm at the University Near Here, I was down with the flu. Miserable, unable to do anything, just lying in my tiny thin-mattressed bed listening to the Boston rock station WBCN on my stereo.

But then: on comes a song like nothing I'd heard before. A majestic symphony of drums, guitars, and saxophone. Incandescent lyrics of young love and desperate hopefulness. My heartrate spiked, and I truly believe all the illness was flushed from my body within the four and a half minutes song duration. After it was over, I arose from my bed, feeling fine.

The song was Born to Run. And I had been healed by a guy named Bruce Springsteen.

So I was kind of a natural reader of this book, and I got it as a Christmas gift. Not slim, at 500 pages of main text, and I took my time reading it.

Compared to the other celebrity memoirs I've read, this one falls in between "just the facts in chronological order" (e.g, Clapton) and a consciousness-stream of impressions and interactions (e.g., Dylan's Chronicles). Bruce is big on YELLING IN UPPERCASE sometimes with EXCLAMATION POINTS! And he often overwrites, lapsing into colorful and wacky prose about his artistic influences and opinions. Fine. But I'll also say: sometimes he is, to my ear, exactly on target: when he writes about his parents, or getting stuck in a mountain-pass blizzard while crossing the Rockies on his way to California. You are there with him.

I read these memoirs, I think, because I'm looking for some clue about the secrets of creative genius and talent. So far I've failed, and Bruce's book is not an exception. The common thread seems to be pretty pedestrian: work hard, learn from your musical heroes without copying them, keep your eyes on the prize, practice.

Oh yeah: you also might want to get a good accountant (so you don't get in trouble with the IRS) and have an honest lawyer check on those contracts your manager wants you to sign. Two things Bruce didn't do.

Bruce is relentlessly honest, while being nothing less than gracious to bandmates, family members, managers, etc., even when (maybe especially when) the underlying relationship was contentious. Even though his personal politics are annoyingly left-wing, his professional dealings with his bandmates are hard-nosed; you might call him a benevolent dictator, but the "benevolent" bit is kind of a stretch. (There's a telling and funny anecdote about how he responded to one of the E Streeters asking for a raise.)

One surprising anecdote: Bruce became buddies with fellow Garden Stater Frank Sinatra. Did not see that coming. In fact, he and wife Patti were invited to the Chairman's 80th birthday bash. And there: "Sometime after dinner, we find ourselves around the living room piano with Steve [Lawrence] and Eydie Gorme and Bob Dylan."

Kaboom. As the kids say, "mind = blown". I don't even think of those people living in the same universe.

Given his cheerful public persona, I was also surprised to learn about his psychological problems. He's been on anti-depressants for decades, and in therapy for even longer. I might be reading more into this than I should, but it seems that anti-depressants haven't been good to his creativity. To my ear, there are no recent Springsteen songs that have the spark of Born to Run, Rosalita, or Promised Land.

But that's a quibble. Because, once again: Bruce healed me.

Last Modified 2017-01-24 2:20 PM EST

The Comedians

Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy

[Amazon Link]

The Daily Signal said: "Here Are 21 Books You Should Read in 2017". This was one of 'em, and I said OK, I like comedy, and asked the University Near Here to obtain it via Interlibrary Loan.

It's written by a guy with the unlikely name of "Kliph Nesteroff", and he brings an amateur enthusiasm to his project, a "History of American Comedy". (But he doesn't go all the way back to 1776; for Kliph, history starts with vaudeville in the 1920's.)

Roughly chronological, the book moves on from vaudeville to increasingly modern venues: radio, nightclubs, early TV (primetime and late night), Vegas, comedy clubs, cable.

The book makes some efforts toward scholarliness: there's a "Notes" section at the end and an index. But overall, the tone and coverage is uneven. That's somewhat forgiveable, because there are a lot of interesting stories to tell, and Kliph tells a lot of them. People looking for insights or broad lessons will probably be disappointed. The history is, for better or worse, just a bunch of guys and gals struggling to make a living at making people laugh. As with other celebrities, there's a lot of sex, licit and illicit Substances, unprofessional behavior, and even criminality along the way.

Especially interesting was the tale of "Jack Roy", whose "persona was combative and unlikeable. It didn't matter how funny the material was—the audience despised him." So he quit comedy, went into the home improvement business, which involved criminal scams, which led to his racketeering arrest. So (after an implied plea bargain), he went back into show biz, using the name Rodney Dangerfield. Which, you may have heard, worked out better than his previous try.

Kliph's prose occasionally descends into blog-style commentary. For example, after relating Jack Paar's 1960 walkoff from The Tonight Show: "Talk about a drama queen." And all too often, we get sentence after sentence about how X was represented by Y, but moved on to Z, after being accused of stealing jokes from W, U, and T. Zzz.

Well, I pulled out one broad lesson, actually: The postwar nightclubs were mostly mob-controlled. Comics were basically OK with that—for one thing, it made their access to drugs easier. During the 50s and 60s anti-organized crime efforts shifted ownership to legitimate businessmen. But the comedians tended to prefer the mobsters—they were pretty genial and generous when they weren't engaged in their profession, while the businessfolk were less humorous, more oriented to the old bottom line.

I mentioned there's an index? Yeah, but it's kind of spotty. One of my first lookups: Jimmy Durante. Not there! Outrageous! But Durante does show up in the actual text.

Given the non-comprehensive index, it's difficult to say for sure that someone is not mentioned in the book. There's a lot of name-dropping, especially near the modern-day parts. But one comic apparently missing from the book is Steven Wright. Incomprehensible! And also outrageous!

Last Modified 2017-01-24 9:41 AM EST

Dead Run

[Amazon Link]

Number three in P. J. Tracy's Monkeewrench series, which my sister recommended. Summary: I didn't like it as much as the first two.

It's clear from Chapter One that something nasty is going on in the remote village of Four Corners, Wisconsin. A milk truck overturns because of careless driving on a bumpy road, and… hey, wait a minute, that's not milk at all!

Also, down the road a bit (sorry, my Wisconsin geography is weak), a kid diving to retrieve his beer in an abandoned quarry is startled to find… eek, corpses!

Into all this drops three women: Grace and Annie from the Monkeewrench software company, and Sharon, a cop from the first book, now an FBI agent. They're on their way to Green Bay, but have taken a detour to view an unspecified attraction. (Spoiler: this.) But their car breaks down, they need to walk for help, they witness brutal murders, they get chased by the same guys,…

It's an interesting departure from the first two books in the series, which were murder mysteries, a tad gimmicky, but that's OK. This one is more like Lee Child, a massive conspiracy threatening the lives of thousands. (But also gimmicky, because the pulse-pounding climax depends mightily on the sheer coincidence of genius hackers just happening to be in the area when needed.)

The writing style seems to have taken a turn for the worse here, too, with pointless floweriness cropping up throughout, when you just want to say "get on with it already." But I'll keep reading the series.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

[Amazon Link]

I'd had this 2011 book on my to-be-read list for years, but it kept going on "course reserve" lists at the University Near Here library. I finally broke down and ordered the Kindle version from Amazon. It's very good. The author, Daniel Kahneman, won the 2002 Nobel Economics Prize for his research into how humans make decisions, and that research, and more, is reported here. It is a wonderfully written and accessible book; it's clear that Kahneman really wants to tell you interesting stuff, and he wants you to understand it.

It's the kind of book that makes you think Big Thoughts. Like: Darwinists tell us, and they're probably right, that our brains are the product of eons of evolution; for nearly that entire time, that meant the basics: figuring out how to reproduce, get food, try to avoid becoming food, defend against the elements, etc. But somehow that brain, developed for brute survival, has in a relative eyeblink in time, allowed us to plumb the secrets of the universe, develop all sorts of gadgets, construct art, language, Major League Baseball …

How could that possibly have happened? It's enough to make one believe in Intelligent Design!

But, as Kahneman demonstrates convincingly, our "intelligence" is quirky enough to argue against that thesis too. If God designed our brains to act this way, He's open to a lot of criticism. They work OK, but not that OK.

Anyway: the book discusses (as you might guess from the title) two distinct modes of thinking. Kahneman nearly anthropomorphizes these modes, calling them "System 1" and "System 2". (He's careful to note that this is a shorthand for what's actually going on.)

System 1 is the fast thinker. It's responsible for most of the activities we carry out "without thinking" (although it is thinking). It is impulsive, liable to reach conclusions on the basis of incomplete information, therefore gullible, and does a decent job most of the time. Its operations are mostly subconscious.

But it's overmatched on any issue that requires deliberation, calculation, or other higher reasoning, for which it calls in "slow" System 2. Problem is, System 2 is—Kahneman's own word—lazy. (I think this implies that the brain areas involved in System 2 thought gobble up a lot more energy; evolution-wise, it makes sense to use System 2 only when absolutely needed.)

Now, if you're a researcher into how this all works, as Kahneman is, your methods involve mostly trickery: lead System 1 into error, see under what conditions System 2 is invoked, see when System 2 rolls over, goes back to sleep, tells System 1 to just deal with it already. It turns out to be absurdly easy to lead our brains into fallacy, bias, and irrational choices. Kahneman tells these tales with a lot of sly humor—which makes sense, because such mental errors seem to be the source of a lot of comedy as well. Some of Kahneman's humor is refreshingly self-deprecating; he's not shy about discussing the episodes in which he was led into fallacy.

He details a large variety of those biases and how they manifest themselves in everyday life. Another "big idea": most entrepreneurship and innovation is, strictly speaking, based in fallacious optimism about how things could turn out. Most entrepreneurs crash and burn, most innovations aren't necessary, many new businesses fail, etc. But the ones that do prevail, against the odds, drive economic prosperity.

So we may be rich, not in spite of our flawed mental processes, but because of our flawed mental processes. Hm.

Now it's not all wonderful. Kahneman veers into the political in his final chapters, arguing that Research Shows the untenability of the "Chicago School" economics as explicated by (say) fellow Nobelist Milton Friedman. Instead he seems to advocate "libertarian paternalism" like "Nudge" authors Sunstein and Thaler. I remain skeptical.

Last Modified 2017-01-08 8:24 AM EST

Shelley's Heart

[Amazon Link]

Another pick off National Review's 2010 Conservative Lit 101 list.

Charles McCarry wrote this back in 1995, and it's set in the early 21st Century USA. It's billed as a "thriller" right there on the front cover, but there's not much of the usual mayhem typical of the genre. Yes, there's a grisly murder on page 48, but it's pretty much forgotten until the climax about 500 pages (!) later. Other than that, it's conspiratorial skullduggery as a radical plot is afoot to seize the Presidency is afoot.

So it's a political thriller, reminiscent of good old Allen Drury, and the prime plot mover is the apparent theft of the recent Presidential election, accomplished by hacking of the computerized voting results in a few key states. The official loser decides to challenge the result on the eve of the Inauguration, throwing Washington into chaos. (Coincidence: I was reading this concurrently with the IRL headlines about recounts in states Hillary lost and dark allegations about "hacking".)

McCarry's other prognostications about our time are entertainingly off. Ganymede is being colonized! But when someone wants to slip computer information to a confidante, the preferred medium is … a diskette.

And one of the plot points is an alleged Presidential order to assassinate a loony Arab leader who's gotten hold of a couple of nukes. This is seen as a bad, unacceptable thing, grounds for impeachment. From the post-9/11 viewpoint, where a President can order a drone strike on an (admittedly nasty) American citizen without any legal niceties involved, and everyone goes ho-hum, that's a little dissonant.

I was a little bemused to discover the book was number 8 in the "Paul Christopher" series. Usually, I hate reading book N in a series when I haven't read books 1 .. N-1. It's OK, the book works fine as a standalone, although there are a lot of references to previous events which I imagine are described in the previous entries. Slight spoiler: Paul Christopher never actually shows up, but his daughter does.

Last Modified 2016-12-28 6:45 AM EST