So You've Been Publicly Shamed

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Reading Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test last month reminded me how much I enjoyed his writing, so I prevailed upon UNH's main library to borrow a copy of So You've Been Publicly Shamed from UNH-Manchester's stacks. It's pretty good.

Ronson examines the relatively recent phenomenon of people changing their behavior, losing their livelihood, or getting exiled from polite society due to negative attention, often ginned up via social media sites.

It begins when Ronson notices a spambot named "Jon Ronson" unleashed on Twitter, with his photo attached, babbling nonsensically about fictional gastronomic adventures. Ronson tracks this back to a couple of arrogant Internet wannabe-entrepreneurs who refuse to take down the bot when asked politely. Ronson organizes a mini-campaign of ridicule and abhorrence, which saves the day: the spambot is removed. Good news, right?

Well, in that instance perhaps. Ronson expands his investigation through various case studies: a journalist who gets caught making up quotes; the girl who made a stupid tweet about AIDS in Africa; the race-car executive whose fondness for sado-masochism was revealed; the girl (a different girl) who posted a Facebook photo mocking a "silence and respect" sign at Arlington National Cemetery; and more.

Details and results differ. To put it mildly. Ronson is somewhat bemused by his failure to find an overarching, universal, story. (Malcolm Gladwell would have.) Some shamees have their lives irretrievably altered; but some don't. Some handle it well, some don't. Sometimes the social outrage is well-earned, in some cases it's totally out of proportion to the offense.

That's OK. With Ronson, following him on his wide-eyed, open-minded journey is the reward.

Oddly enough: even though NJ's ex-Governor Jim McGreevey is profiled (he's now working in prison reform and ex-convict rehab), Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are absent. Too obvious? What brought this to mind was Lewinsky's most recent career move: public discussion of public shaming herself, giving a Vanity Fair interview in 2014 ("Shame and Survival"); a TED talk in 2015 ("The Price of Shame") And a Guardian interview just the other day (" Monica Lewinsky: ‘The shame sticks to you like tar’")

Oh, wait. The interviewer in that last link is Jon Ronson. Never mind.

Last Modified 2016-04-25 5:47 AM EDT

Come to Grief

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Back around 1998 or so, I put the then-current list of Dick Francis novels on my to-be-read list. I'd read many of them; I wanted to make sure I'd read them all. This one features Francis's ex-jockey turned investigator, Sid Halley.

It's kind of a mystery, although we know the perpetrator practically from page one: Sid has accused a famous, beloved TV personality—think a male, British Oprah—of a horrifying crime. This brings down torrents of scorn and abuse on Sid's head. Things aren't improved when the accused's mother commits suicide (also page one) and the accused's father assaults Sid outside his house (page three).

What's going on? The story catches us up via flashback: a family with a cancer-stricken daughter has hired Sid to discover the perpetrator of an atrocity committed against the daughter's beloved horse. Who could do such a thing? Sid finds out, to his eventual peril.

The book reminded me of how much I miss Dick Francis. Sid Halley is a wonderfully-drawn hero/narrator: decent, modest, somewhat self-doubting. But when it counts, his core character is "tungsten carbide" (as one of his antagonists observes). I saw him here as Brendan Coyle, the guy who played Bates on Downton Abbey—the character's right, but unfortunately Coyle's a little too chubby to be believable as an ex-jockey.

Hive Mind

How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own

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Another book snagged for me by the intrepid librarians at the University Near Here from Williams College via the Boston Library Consortium. I will miss this service when I retire in a few months.

This book by is by Garett Jones, an econ prof at George Mason University's Center for Study of Public Choice. I believe I put it on the to-be-read pile when I read a glowing review from Jones's GMU co-prof, Bryan Caplan. (Also see Caplan's followup post.) The book is short (168 pages of main text) and accessibly written; although the underlying thesis is heavily statistical, I don't think I saw a single R2 value; there are several scatterplots which imply important correlations.

The thesis is summed up pretty neatly by the book's subtitle. In short, it's good to be smart, but as far as your quality of life goes, it's better to be in close proximity to a lot of smart people. Why? The book delves into the ways high-IQ polities can (and to whatever extent research can verify) do lead to advantage. High-IQ people tend to be more patient, with longer time horizons; hence investment is favored over consumption. This also implies they can play out, in a game-theoretical sense, long-term strategies that result in positive-sum outcomes. In the political arena, smart voters are less likely to fall for fallacious arguments from ignorant and demagogic candidates… oh, hey, wait a minute here.

[Coincidentally, I noted this recent article: "Human intelligence is declining according to Stanford geneticist". Oh oh.]

It's all well and good to observe the relation between mass-IQ and mass well-being, but what does that imply for policy? Well, Jones makes much of the Flynn Effect, the notion that average IQ improved over recent history. (But see above.) Jones argues, plausibly, that whatever we can do to improve average IQ (short of, you know, the bad old eugenicist tactics) would be worth exploring: improved childhood nutrtion, alter immigration policies to favor the smarter, etc.

All in all, a decent read.

Last Modified 2016-04-25 5:56 AM EDT

I Am Pilgrim

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A thriller lent to me by my supervisor. It was written by Terry Hayes, a successful screenwriter (most notably, a couple of Mad Max movies). It's very long, north of 600 pages. But the pages kept turning, so…

The protagonist, "Pilgrim", is a retired American secret agent, skilled in investigatory techniques and nasty tactics. At the book's start, however, he is volunteering his talents for the NYPD, checking out an unusual murder scene in a sleazy Manhattan hotel: the perpetrator has used acid and other gruesome methods to obliterate the identity of the victim. And it develops that the murderer has checked out the book Pilgrim had written years before, written to help the good guys unravel lurid crimes, but in this case helping the evildoer commit a near-perfect homicide.

But that's not all. Meanwhile in the Middle East, a dedicated terrorist called the "Saracen" is unhatching a plot against America, one that he hopes will make 9/11 look like a fender-bender.

Hayes takes pains to give both Pilgrim and the Saracen rich back stories and full characters. There's also a fully-drawn supporting cast, both heroes and villains. (How else are you going to get over 600 pages?) My main quibble: unless I missed something, much of the plot turns on a coincidence so unlikely that Charles Dickens might have avoided it.

Taking a Stand

Reflections on Life, Liberty, and the Economy

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Put into the TBR queue based on some recommendation of which I've lost track. Obtained by UNH's stellar Dimond Library via the Boston Library Consortium from the O'Neill Library at Boston College. Thanks to all involved.

Robert Higgs is an economist (Austrian variety), specializing in economic history. His politics are strict libertarian anarchist. He is associated with the Independent Institute and contributes to their blog, The Beacon. This book organizes 99 blog posts he made over the span of six years. Most are short, each a few minutes reading.

The chapters are organized into six sections. The first, "Politics and the State", demonstrates Higgs' uncompromising contempt for the blood-soaked modern state. He has little patience with even advocates of small government, contending that even the classical-liberal state has no justifiable moral authority.

He's not wrong. But I kept wishing that he had engaged with the argument made in (for example) Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: historically, the rise of the modern state has been accompanied with a drastic decline in violence, coercion, and misery. Accident? Coincidence?

Similarly, Higgs' views on American economic history are depressing: a descent into Leviathan, with no prospect of recovery. (Capitalism is "dead as a dodo since 1914, if not longer.") Here, I wish he'd taken a longer and broader view. Certainly it's theoretically possible for economic liberty to improve; it's done so in the past, and (in some places), it's done so in the recent past. I wish, for example, that Higgs could have explicitly discussed the work of Deirdre McCloskey, another economic historian concerned with how liberty and prosperity evolve.

After the libertarian red meat, Higgs considers (mostly) recent American economic history, especially issues revolving around the recent Great Recession. He is of course critical of government's role in causing and prolonging the crisis. A key thesis is "regime uncertainty": especially in the age of Obama, American government has few restraints guarding against sudden expropriation. How can private entrepreneurs proceed with confidence if the next (inevitable) crisis kicks off a wave of legal plunder?

It would be easy to conclude that Higgs is uniformly dour and cranky. Not true! There's a section of obituaries (including ones for his parents) that show his generous and compassionate side. There are also three economic-themed parodies, based on, respectively, "Monster Mash", "American Pie", and Poe's "The Raven". Funny! (But then I am easily amused.)

As you might expect from a book constructed out of blog posts, things can be both disjointed and a tad repetitive. I found it was best to take things leisurely, reading only a few chapters per sitting.

Last Modified 2016-04-25 5:57 AM EDT


[Amazon Link]

I am not a huge fan of autobiographies, but for some reason I was curious about this one. I put it on my Christmas list, and Pun Daughter provided.

I have been a Clapton fan for an official Real Long Time. Could have been even longer: even though I was aware of Cream in high school, my musical tastes ran in different directions at that time. But in college, I was enraptured with Derek and the Dominos, and I've picked up his albums ever since.

I was also, more vaguely, aware of the trajectory of his personal life: his initially-unrewarded love for Pattie Harrison, George's wife, followed by their acrimonious marriage and eventual divorce; his battles with substance abuse; the loss of his son, Conor, in a horrible accident; his eventual transformation into a sober family man.

The book fleshes out that story with hideous detail, starting with his unconventional upbringing: his bio-mom decided not to be in the picture, so he was raised by grandma, who posed as his mother. He might have been on track to become a faceless graphic designer, but instead (page 22) he gets his first guitar. By page 46, he's in the Yardbirds. And on page 65, the graffitists are scrawling "Clapton is God" on train station walls. So, pretty close to overnight success. He doesn't mention, I'm pretty sure, any formal guitar training. He just learns by watching others, and trying to sound like the blues musicians he admires. Easy peasy!

From there on, Clapton's life is pretty much the "sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll" cliché; he's much more successful at the third than the first two. His relationship with Pattie is agonizing: an untold love for his best friend's wife, eventually winning her hand, and nearly immediately cheating on her, even impregnating other women, followed by a long and bitter dissolution of their marriage. Yeesh! I'm thinking: this story would make the worst romantic comedy ever.

Even worse is Clapton's abusive relationship with substances. After some dabbling, there's a quick descent into heroin. After he shakes that, there's booze. Finally, he gets away from that too. And he even manages to stop smoking (page 256). There are plenty stories of bad/pathetic behavior and close shaves with disaster. Now, when listening to him on the iPod, I tend to classify the music as coming from his Heroin Era, his Booze Period, or his Clean Time.

On page 243 he notes: "Bad choices were my specialty…" I think just about any reader paying the slightest bit of attention has to chuckle at that. "Eric, you finally noticed?"

So we're fortunate that he survived all that, and managed to make good-to-great music throughout. I have his next album pre-ordered on Amazon.

The Psychopath Test

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I got into reading Jon Ronson on a long-ago recommendation from Shawn Macomber. My takes on previous Ronson books are here and here. Both those are from 2006, which means it's been way too long since I read him. I was not disappointed: Ronson continues to be a wonderful and insightful writer.

His topic here is (generally speaking) various forms of mental disorder, which won't surprise readers of his previous work. How do we sort out people who are genuinely brain-broken from those who just have unconventional beliefs, or even delusional ones? On a more practical note, how do we find those likely to commit violence on others, and what do we do once we find them?

Although Ronson explores all sorts of oddness here—some of it hilarious—his concentration, implied by the title, is psychopathy. Especially the "test": Robert Hare's checklist of items that can be used to score people to see how psychopathetic they are.

Ronson is open-minded, self-deprecating, and pretty honest for a journalist. He develops relationships with his sources/targets, and displays an uncanny ability to get them to open up, even when it's glaringly obvious that they are kind of/extremely nuts.

If you have ever uttered the phrase "inmates running the asylum" as a metaphor, you'll probably be happy to read about the more-or-less real thing here. Scientologists play a role, and Ronson treats them as fairly as possible.

Ronson really doesn't have a thesis to prove, but I found myself a little more convinced that the psychiatric field contains a few good folks trying to do honest work, but also way too many loons, who misdiagnose, over-diagnose, and (above all) overmedicate. (I said the book was hilarious, but the penultimate chapter, "The Avoidable Death of Rebecca Riley", is totally sobering in this regard.)

The Evolution of Everything

How New Ideas Emerge

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There's a well-known saying popularized by Isaiah Berlin: "a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing". Thus distinguishing between thinkers whose worldview is dominated by a Big Ass Idea, and those who draw from more diverse sources.

Check out the title of Matt Ridley's recent book; which category does he fall into, do you think?

That's not to say that the book isn't fun, provocative, and usually insightful. It is! His overall theme is, on many occasions, just not convincingly or even plausibly applied.

All chapters are titled "The Evolution of X", where X is, respectively, the Universe, Morality, Life, Genes, Culture, the Economy, Technology, the Mind, Personality, Education, Population, Leadership, Government, Religion, Money, the Internet, and (epilogue) the Future. Each enthuses over emergent orders, bottom-up innovation, and unplanned combinations. Ridley optimistically views such development as generally progressive and beneficial. (Not "progressive" in the modern political sense, of course.) Such processes are not inevitably good, but that's the way to bet.

Since Ridley sees "evolution" in all these areas, he also usually detects the know-nothing forces of "creationism" in opposition. This is usually simpatico with my own views, so I didn't mind it that much. Especially in this political season, when it's hard not to be dismayed at the array of hucksters who promise to effortlessly "solve problems" by Intelligently Designing just the right array of taxes, regulations, mandates, subsidies, prohibitions,… (Even more dismaying: the gullibility of the voters who seem to be buying it.)

Ridley is less convincing in other areas. In the "Evolution of the Mind" chapter, he finds it necessary to debunk "the illusion of free will". I've always found such arguments to be self-refuting. He approvingly quotes the philosopher Sam Harris as a sage explicator; when I read Harris's book, I thought it was sloppy and unconvincing.

There's an interesting section where Ridley admits that he is "not a fan of patents and copyright laws." This makes sense: if progress results from "ideas having sex" in unpredictable and unplanned combinations, patents and copyrights are like condoms and morning-after pills, preventing beneficial offspring.

I note, however, that Ridley's book is copyrighted, and has the "no part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner" boilerplate up front. So we aren't in Ridley's ideal world yet.

Free Fire

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Another fine outing for C. J. Box's game warden hero, Joe Pickett. I am disappointed that I didn't notice Box's fine talent sooner. This is number 7 in his Pickett series, from 2007, and number 16 is coming out next month. The algorithm managing my to-be-read pile rules, though.

As the book opens, however, Joe has been shitcanned from his game warden job. He has honest work with his wife's mother's husband, but it's not really what he was born to do. A shot at getting back to it arrives by jet, in the person of the newly-elected maverick Wyoming governor. A nasty multiple murder has been committed in Yellowstone by a sleazy lawyer, and due to a big loophole in the jurisdictional hodgepodge and Constitutional rules, he has walked scot-free.

One of the victims wrote a mysterious letter to the Governor just prior to his demise. Joe is rehired to perform a secret, barely-official investigation to see if there's anything the National Park Service and the local law authorities missed. (Hint: yes, they did.) The Governor has noticed something about Joe: he's scrupulously honest, and has an uncanny knack for (discovering|blundering into) the dangerous truth.

Joe also has personal issues with Yellowstone dating back to his youth, and a subplot takes an unexpected and poignant turn. (Joe's wife and kids have relatively small roles here, compared to other books.)

Much of the book describes the natural (but dangerous) wonders of Yellowstone, and sent me scurrying to the Google to learn more about them.

Director's Cut

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I've been reading Roger L. Simon's Moses Wine novels since The Big Fix back in the 1970s. I'm glad to (finally) read his latest.

You could make the case I've been procrastinating: Amazon helpfully reminds me: "You purchased this item on February 5, 2010.". Yes, about 6 years ago. And it was written back in 2003. This is how up-to-date I am with my reading. Fortunately, my to-be-read pile never forgets, unless I want it to.

Moses has settled into domesticated Hollywood tranquility (and professional partnership) with his new wife Samantha. His connections with the film community land him a new gig: figuring out who is menacing the production of Prague Autumn, an "arty" film about the Holocaust and its echoes into the present day. And Moses jets off to—guess where—Prague, where the production is filming on location. Pretty soon, murder and kidnapping. Also some explosions. Unexpected events catapult Moses into an unexpected role.

We get a lot of information about the sausage-making involved in creating a movie and bringing it to the masses. Roger L. Simon is also involved in the film industry, so I assume he's leveraging some of his own experiences.

Moses has (sort of) followed Roger L. Simon's own political pilgrimage: from 70's radical to semi-moderate. (I don't think Moses has gone as far as Roger, who I think of as on "our side".)

Frankly, Moses seems outwitted and passive through most of the book; I usually prefer a different sort of private-eye protagonist. The book is also marred by sloppy proofreading. I noticed four mistakes, and I wasn't looking for them, so I assume there are more.