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

The Servile Mind

How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life

[Amazon Link]

One of those "I wish I was smarter, to understand it better" books. But it's also one of those "I wish it was better" books. I believe I put this on the TBR pile a few years back, perhaps due to this National Review review. Or maybe this one at the Institute of Economic Affairs. The latter calls the book "clear and incisive". I disagree: I thought it was turgid, rambling, and a tad cranky. I'm willing to believe that I'm wrong, though. In any case, thanks be to the Interlibrary Loan folks at the library at the University Near Here for arranging a copy be shipped up from Boston U.

The author, Kenneth Minogue, died in 2013. This 2010 book was his last. (He was in his 80s, so perhaps I was uncharitable about deeming him cranky—once you hit 80, you're entitled to be as cranky as you want.)

Minogue's argument is not so much with "democracy" per se as implied by the book's subtitle. Instead it's a subtler argument about the Western democratic states falling into a "politico-moral" mindset. Governments have moved away from viewing themselves as protectors of individual freedoms, and toward implementing a moral crusade for social justice. At first glance, this is admirable: Minogue admits that the movement, in its opposition to poverty, bigotry, war, ignorance, and oppression, occupies the "moral high ground".

But the cost is high: when individuals under such states are enlisted in these crusades, their own personal projects are deprioritized. Shifts in language encourage individuals to take less responsibility for their own lives—why should you, when the state's project is to view you as (potential) oppressed victim in need of rescue? Hence, "democracy" becomes not a servant of the sovereign people, but the (hopefully benign) master of a servile collective.

I don't want to be overly critical: the book has valuable insights and pithy observations scattered throughout. (Longtime fans of National Review will welcome his discussion, around page 268, of Eric Voegelin's concept of "immanentizing the eschaton".)

But, on the other hand, Minogue's style can throw up speed bumps to understanding his argument. For example, around page 70, we have his description of Lockean rights: they "express a ludic conception of how people live". At which point I needed to hustle to the Google to find out what "ludic" meant. And as it turned out, the word didn't add that much to the discussion.

Illiberal Reformers

Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era

[Amazon Link]

A rare occurrence: the University Near Here actually owned a recent non-fiction title that I wanted to read. I didn't have to bug the Interlibrary Loan people. Good for them.

Published earlier this year, Illiberal Reformers is a scholarly critical look at the roots of the US Progressive movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. The author, Thomas Leonard, is a lecturer at the Department of Economics at Princeton. He covers much the same ground as Jonah Goldberg did in Liberal Fascism, but (as far as I can tell from the reviews at Amazon) to much greater mainstream respectability. (See Jonah's comments on that.)

Leonard acknowledges the "good work" accomplished by those early Progressives: workplace reforms, safer food, women's suffrage, trust-busting, etc.) We might differ, of course, on how much of that progress would have occurred anyway, as a result of increased prosperity.

But—and this is a huge but—these early reformers were also endowed with massive amounts of hubris about their abilities to reshape American society, and the American economy, more to their liking. They weren't socialists, by and large. But they were united in their arrogant contempt for laissez-faire free-market economics specifically, and individualism (generally); they simply knew that their conscious "reality-based" designs and plans would produce superior results. Why wait for Adam Smith's magic Invisible Hand to produce results when you can grab control of the state, and directly use its Visible Fist to get the superior outcomes you desire? Why not push people around in the name of the collective good-as-you-see-it.

This required, naturally, a national government endowing itself with vast new powers, damned be the Constitutional niceties. Woodrow Wilson is one of those damners, quoted as arguing that the Constitution and its government be viewed as a living thing, evolving via Darwinist processes, rather than the old constraining fuddy-duddy Newtonian rules envisioned by the Founders.

This alludes to another feature of the early Progressives: they were devotees of the junk science of the day. The poor understanding of evolution combined with unsophisticated economics resulted in "scientific" racism and an obsession with all things eugenic. This manifested itself in all sorts of nasty policies: racial segregation, stupid immigration restrictions, minimum wage laws designed to keep the "unfit" out of the workplace, etc. While the Progressive movement was fine with women getting to vote, they were largely opposed to their presence in the workplace: a functioning family had the father earning a "living wage", while the little lady stayed home, baked, and tended the kiddos.

Now: Progressivism was far from a uniform movement. For example, not all Progressives championed Prohibition—but a lot did. And Progressives were not the only racists in the American tent—but they were clearly on the wrong side, and their shimmering belief in their own moral rectitude makes it somehow unforgivable.

Leonard is obviously interested in promoting his thesis, but he does this effectively by quoting the Progressives' own self-incriminating words, with only a gloss of his own interpretations. Irony: Leonard teaches at current-day Princeton, but one of his main victims is a previous President of Princeton, the aforementioned Woodrow Wilson.

If I had one complaint about Leonard's approach, it's that he doesn't go far enough. It's to easy for modern Progressives to scoff: well, except for all that early eugenic stuff, our movement was just fine. I have high hopes for his future work, though: see, for example, his review of Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, taking on the paternalistic conceit of two modern Progressives.

Last Modified 2016-12-04 5:31 PM EST

Nine Princes in Amber

[Amazon Link]

I've recently finished up two reading projects (John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels). So what better to do than embark on another one: Roger Zelazny's Amber novels. The first five "Corwin Cycle" books were written between 1970 and 1978; I remember gobbling those up as they appeared as paperbacks. Zelazny followed up in 1985-1991 with five books in the "Merlin Cycle"; I don't remember how many of those I read. He passed away in 1995.

Sobering thought: given my age, and all the other stuff in my to-be-read lists, I may not finish this project. Call it hopeful optimism that I'm even starting.

This first book starts out normally enough: Corwin, our hero, awakens in a private hospital out of a drug-induced stupor. He has a nasty case of amnesia, all he can remember is being in a car accident. But his injuries seem to have healed remarkably well. After some violence and fast-talking, he escapes and heads to the home of the woman who apparently was responsible for keeping him sedated. Who turns out to be his double-dealing sister.

Corwin slowly gets up to speed on the true nature of his predicament: he's on "our" Earth, but that's only a shadow of the True Earth, which holds glorious Amber. And he's not some ordinary schmoe, but a prince. (There a number of other princes, for a total of … oh, I don't know, somewhere in the high single digits.) Also, princesses. All sons and daughters of Oberon, the long-missing King of Amber.

Corwin discovers that his exile on our Earth is a plot by brother Eric to grab Amber's throne. What follows is Corwin's efforts to return to Amber through the Shadows, thwart Eric, and sit on the throne himself.

This involves massive violence involving the inhabitants of various Shadow worlds. When you're a prince, these short-lived creatures—remember, you and I are examples—are pretty much cannon fodder whose lives are cheap when expended in a quest for power. (It's never clear exactly what's so damn cool about being in charge in Amber. It's just something princes think they're entitled to do.)

A fun read, and a neat ending though.

You Suck

[Amazon Link]

This book is a sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends, which I read back in 2011. Some sequels stand OK on their own, but (consumer note) I would recommend reading this series in order. Unless your memory for plot details is better than mine, I wouldn't recommend waiting over five years between reading the two, either.

At the end of the previous book, vampire Jody had "turned" her Renfield, young aspiring writer C. Thomas Flood, and as this book begins, he's pretty peeved about that. But that only lasts about three paragraphs, because being a vampire in San Francisco does have its advantages. But the logistical details are daunting. You need to keep track of sunrise times, lest you be burnt to a crisp. And there's the need to feed, which is problematic if you have scruples about killing people. Plus, your old buddies on the night shift at Safeway were useful allies in combatting Jody's old mentor, Elijah. But now you're perceived as part of the problem. Elijah (as it turns out) wasn't totally defeated in the previous book. And two corrupt cops are hovering around as well.

There are a few new characters: "Abby Normal" is a profane young teenage Goth, who gets recruited to assist. And there's also "Blue", a hooker imported from Vegas by the non-vampire Safeway workers, who have quickly blown their ill-begotten windfall from the previous book on her.

Moore is, as usual, hilarious and filthy, with a core of sweetness. I keep wondering if they'll ever manage to make a movie or TV series out of his books. Much of the humor is in his prose, though, so I'm not sure how well it would work.

The Golden Bough

A Study in Magic and Religion

[Amazon Link]

Sometimes enough time elapses between me (a) putting a book on the should-read list and (b) actually reading it, that I forget what the reason for (a) was. That's not the case here! National Review's Summer 2016 reading recommendations had this from rock star Kevin D. Williamson:

Consider neutralizing this ugly and stupid political season with a few beautiful and intelligent books about politics that aren’t exactly books about politics. The best book about politics that isn’t a book about politics is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and it contains within it everything you really need to know about presidential campaigns. The book explores the most ancient foundations of religious thought, and argues that the earliest religions were fertility cults organized around the person of a sacred king. When the crops failed or the rains didn’t come, it was concluded that the sacred king had somehow failed in his duties — that the gods were not satisfied — and he was ritually sacrificed. All their careers ended the same way, and yet the position was a coveted one. You may notice that Colonel Kurtz is reading The Golden Bough before the unfortunate events at the end of Apocalypse Now.

Good enough for me! Google tells me that Kevin has, over the years, recommended The Golden Bough again and again.

There are a number of options for the potential reader. The original two-volume work was published in 1890, but Fraser kept dinking with it. By 1915, it was 12 volumes. In addition, its history includes removal and restoration of material on Christianity, which was judged by many Victorians to be scandalous. See Wikipedia for details. I wound up with the 1994 abridgment ("It restores the material on Christianity purged in the first abridgement.") because if you've watched The Simpsons, you can't be offended by Fraser's mild sacreligiousity.

I didn't get off easy, though. Even the single-volume "abridgment" is north of 800 pages of main text, small type, narrow margins, and paragraphs that span multiple pages. So I took it slow, roughly 25 pages/day over 32 days. Still, it was a slog. Yes, you can pull Williamson's insight out of it. A book this long, you can pull just about any thesis out of it.

Essentially: Fraser looks for grand themes uniting the religions, rites, customs, festivals, etc., worldwide and throughout history. He finds those grand themes, but this involves relating—literally—hundreds of tales from mythology, history, and anthropology. The activities involved are (variously) elaborate, foolish, disgusting, gory, wasteful, and (most importantly) nearly always pointless in accomplishing anything of benefit to the participants. This gets a little mind-numbing at times: I lost track of how many times he relates the ritual of Aztec human sacrifice. (They always manage to rip out your heart, though.)

You can get a slight amount of amusement from the Victorian-era prose. Fraser is workmanlike in relating most historical details, but occasionally bursts into Bulwer-Lytton-style flowery descriptions of some idyllic scene when it strikes his fancy. He's also refreshingly non-PC: savages are "savages", primitives are "primitives". But also: bumpkins are "bumpkins", clod-hoppers are … well, you get the idea.

More importantly, there are little signals throughout that Fraser is straining to make the anthropological facts fit into his overall thesis. The book is rife with speculative phrases like "it is not unreasonable to assume that", "it is quite possible that", "seems to be best explained by the hypothesis that". That ain't a confidence-builder, Jimmy.

While out walking the dog, I amused myself by wondering how some future Fraser would describe the present day.

Early 21st century inhabitants of New England were obviously devoted to pagan celebrations on the eve of All Hallows' Day. As shown in the so-called "comic strips" and "television specials" of that era, children with unusually large heads would worship the "Great Pumpkin". In sympathy with this cult, a tradition of leaving pumpkins on one's doorstep was established; the gourds would be left on stoops for weeks afterward, to be consumed, bit by bit, by squirrels and raccoons. There can be little doubt these creatures were considered to be disciples of the Great Pumpkin himself.

But I'm glad I read it.

On Inequality

[Amazon Link]

I read Harry G. Frankfurt's delightfully-titled On Bullshit a number of years ago, so this title was self-recommending. As always, I'm extremely grateful to the University Near Here for allowing me to maintain my library privileges in retirement, and thanks to the Interlibrary Loan people who wangled a dead-trees copy up here from Rivier University down in Nashua.

It's a very slim volume, 89 pages of main text. And those pages are small, the margins are wide, and the type is normal-sized. But don't be fooled: Frankfurt is a Professor (Emeritus) of Philosophy at Princeton, and (as you would expect) his argument is carefully made and tightly argued. And, good news, it's easily accessible to anyone who (like me) can appreciate philosophical discussions at a "dilettante" level.

Frankfurt's main point: equality is not a fundamental moral good. Hence, inequality is not inherently objectionable. Arguments about inequality's dreadfulness are just about always actually about something else.

Specifically, economic inequality (whether based on wealth or income) isn't inherently bad. What's bad is that people don't have "enough" economic resources to live a decent and fulfilling life. That's demonstrably bad, Frankfurt argues, and is bad without reference to what resources other people might have.

There is a utilitarian argument against economic inequality based on the diminishing marginal utility of money: If you have merely $5, an extra $1 is a huge deal; if you have a million, that extra buck is near-negligible. Hence, utility is maximized when everyone has the same.

Frankfurt shows the holes in this argument deftly. Even assuming utilitarianism is valid (I don't think it is, by the way), the further assumptions about what money-utility looks like are false or unsupportable. (And, in any case, the specter of the Redistribution Police wandering the countryside with their Utility Meters, making sure everyone doesn't vary from equality… that's a little dystopian, right?)

Once Frankfurt disposes of economic inequality, he proceeds to take a buzzsaw to inequality by other measures: inequality of "rights", of "respect", of "consideration", of "concern", of …. In no case can "equality" be shown to be the fundamental issue. There's simply no reason to assign the same (say) "rights" to two totally different people with differing life histories, values, desires, etc. Only when we are considering generic "Person A" and "Person B" can we, kind of, argue that there's no reason to favor A over B, or vice versa. But that's working from ignorance; the actual primary moral value at work is impartiality, not "equality".

So, recommended.

Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom

[Amazon Link]

I can't quite remember how this got into my to-be-read list, probably this post by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. Thanks as always to the University Near Here Interlibrary Loan staff.

Jacob Levy is a PoliSci prof at McGill and posts at Bleeding Heart Libertarians (which I haven't read in the past, but will now start). Prof Levy admits up front that he's written here for his fellow scholars, so I have nobody to blame but myself.

Why do I say that? Here's why: my understanding of political philosophy is at the dilettante level. It has been there for decades, and I don't see the needle budging off that value anytime, sooner or later. Yet, I keep reading stuff, hoping that at least some of the material will stick. That sometimes gets me into trouble, as with reading Richard Epstein on matters legal. And it did here. I probably wouldn't pass a test on the material, Professor. But I swear, I looked at every page. Given that I may be displaying my ignorance in what follows…

The book discusses the role of "intermediate groups" in liberal polities: religious/ethnic/charitable organizations, universities, and the like. We tend to take "freedom of association" for granted among our rights, which includes, of course, the freedom to be a member, or not to be a member of such groups.

And the reverse is at least roughly true: those groups have a right to define themselves, which includes the right to restrict their membership to those they choose, and to remove members that fail to follow their rules.

And therein lies some conflict: such groups, even in the midst of liberal states, can have highly illiberal structures and policies. Could that be a problem? Levy plausibly argues so.

Also: the mere existence of such groups is in inherent tension with the state(s) in which they are embedded. The state likes to be in charge, and any outside powers and authorities represent a possible challenge to that.

Levy takes us on a historical tour of these conflicts, showing how the a range of political philosophers tackled this issue. It dates back to the rise of the modern state only a few centuries ago, when the statists of the day had to prevail over the existing political institutions in order to succeed. So there is (and has been) no arguing from fundamental principles possible here: everything's tied into actual historical events and how things played out in different countries, mostly in Europe.

Here's where I was especially weak. Levy namedrops names and movements, assuming you're as familiar with them as kids today are with the movements of Kanye, Taylor, and Beyonce. Jansenists? Let me check Wikipedia…

Does Levy have a solution? No, he does not. He convincingly argues that neither "pluralists" (roughly, advocates for strong, relatively unfettered intermediate groups), nor "rationalists" (advocating strong state control or prohibition of such groups) have correct arguments. Essentially: the struggle is unresolvable, involving incommensurable (but valid) human values, and the best course of action is to admit there are no "ideal" solutions that pop out of the dialectical mist.

Fine. I just recommend that my fellow amateurs might want to wait for Prof Levy's "… for Dummies" book.