The Door Into Summer

[Amazon Link]

Continuing on the reread-Heinlein project. This one is a favorite. Short, and simple. Or, as simple as a time-travel tale can be.

First published in 1956, it opens in the far future of … 1970. The hero and narrator, Daniel Boone Davis, is a genius engineer/inventor, working in partnership with his trusted pal Miles, in love with their robotics company's secretary, Belle.

This turns out to be a mistake, as Miles and Belle successfully conspire to wrest control of the firm from him. And when he credibly threatens to raise a stink, they dispose of him neatly, by putting him in "cold sleep", until the unimaginably distant future of … the year 2000.

Awakening in 2000, Dan is flummoxed by the incredible advances. But when he tries to get back into his engineering profession, he can't help but notice that some bright boy has long since stolen the ideas that only existed in his head. What's going on?

Nobody's made this into a movie, unfortunately, but you'll notice its sci-fi DNA percolating into a lot of other time-travel yarns, like Back to the Future and Futurama.

An Economist Walks into a Brothel

And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk

[Amazon Link]

I put this book on my "get at library" list thanks to a Reason podcast interview with the author, Allison Schrager. And it came in via Interlibrary Loan from Trinity College (the one in Hartford, not Dublin).

It's a look at a topic I've been interested in for a while, risk. It mainly centers around financial risk—that's Allison's professional home base—but it occasionally slops over into risks of death or injury as well. The approach is suitable for a dabbler (like me), and Allison's writing style is jauntily accessible.

She describes what risk is, why some degree of risk is inevitable, how to maintain a rational attitude toward risk, and the various strategies people use to mitigate or avoid risk: diversification, hedging, insurance, etc. And (last but not least) the recognition of uncertainty; you can't, nearly by definition, prepare for the unpredictable. The best you can do is stay flexible and willing to adjust your strategies.

She discusses (but doesn't write down) the Black-Scholes formula for option pricing. A worked-through example would have been appreciated, but I can see that some readers closing the book, saying "I was told there would be no math."

All that could have been pretty dry, but Allison had the bright idea of illustrating her topics with real-life examples from high-risk fields. Exemplified by the book's title: she visited a (legal) cathouse in Nevada, and discusses the trade-offs involved in working in that relatively safe environment vs. freelancing in other situations.

Further chapters visit horse breeders, magicians, professional poker players, movie financiers, and more. (The chapter on horse breeding is actually more explicit than the one with the brothel.)

Good book.

The Social Media Upheaval

[Amazon Link]

I bought the Kindle version of this short book after listening to Nick Gillespie's podcast interview with the author, Instapundit and Blogfather Glenn Reynolds. Glenn's a good guy. So's Nick.

Let me come into it this way: one of the core principles of classical liberal democracy is that the populace is best served by a robust climate of free expression. The more the merrier! People can use their reasoning faculties to evaluate outside ideas, concepts, and values. And (generally) make decent decisions about political questions: the scope and powers of government, qualities they desire in their representatives, and the like.

But what if that is becoming less true? Glenn analogizes to the very earliest cities, which sprang up and subsequently self-destructed, because "we" didn't know how easily illnesses can spread in an urban environment.

Glenn argues that the current environment is exhibiting signs of increasing mental illness (or at least dysfunction): increased suicide rates, substance abuse, alienation, and general lack of bonhomie. (A theme echoed in recent books by Jonah Goldberg, Ben Sasse, Arthur C. Brooks, and many others.) He blames, primarily social media for this, specifically Twitter, Facebook, and Google. (I think he leaves Amazon out.)

As a result, we're headed for a sad crack-up of the foundations of American political life, probably presaging a future of authoritarianism and immiseration.

He could be right, of course. I'm not so sure.

His argument is not typically libertarian: use existing antitrust laws to break up those nasty companies. To his libertarian credit, he neatly debunks other regulatory solutions. I don't know whether a breakup would solve anything, though, and it seems like it would involve a lot of wealth destruction.

It's a very short book, and a very quick read. I got the Kindle version; Amazon claims the print version is 68 pages. I think the type must be large and the margins wide.

Misery Bay

[Amazon Link]

After a brief hiatus, Steve Hamilton returned to his Alex McKnight series in 2011 with this entry. Alex remains an ex-ballplayer, ex-cop, ex-PI… But wait a minute! As it turns out, he didn't actually let his private eye license expire. And so…

He's still morose, understandably so, about the events in the previous book. (He's usually morose, this just adds on.) But his sometime-nemesis, Police Chief Roy Maven, asks for a favor: would Alex please investigate the suicide of the son of Maven's friend and ex-partner from the Michigan State Police? It happened up in (see title) Misery Bay an actual place in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Which might be nice in mid-summer, or what passes for summer in the UP, but this is in the bleak midwinter, and it's cold, lonely, and … well, bleak.

Alex finds out some stuff, but things seem off. He can't put his finger on it. But when he returns to report back his findings, he discovers a grisly murder. Coincidence? I think not. And there's more on the way.

A good page-turner. Alex remains morose throughout, and (eventually) finds himself in deadly peril, but he does meet an attractive lady FBI agent. I'm betting she'll return in the next book. Which is on the way from Amazon.

Consumer note: I don't think the scene depicted on the cover has any counterpart in the book.

Badlands

[Amazon Link]

A non-Joe Pickett entry from C. J. Box. This is the third entry in his "Highway Quartet", a series of books … well, it's hard to find an overall plot or theme. Still, it's compulsively readable. This particular novel could make a good season of the TV series Fargo, if it were weirded up a bit.

The action centers on Cassie Dewell, the heroine of the previous book in the series (The Highway). Recovering from the horrors she experienced there, she's accepted a new job as chief investigator of a North Dakota town's police force. The town is in the middle of the Bakken Formation oil boom, which in the span of a few years turned it from a dying sleepy farmburg into a boom town. With attendant problems, like drugs and gangs.

Young Kyle Westergaard is the sad victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. (Thanks, substance-abusing mom!) He's not stupid, though. He witnesses a fatal car crash, caused by a run-in between two gangs; he takes posession of an ejected bag full of heroin, meth, and cash.

Needless to say, the bad guys want it back. But mom has a boyfriend who's looking to make a quick score from Kyle's interception. Before you can say what an idiot, there's a lot of ruthlessness, violence, gunplay, explosions, and torture. And very cold weather. A real page-turner, in other words.

(There's also some bridging material to link in the previous book and I assume the next book. Which is already on my bookshelf.)

Love Your Enemies

How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt

[Amazon Link]

The author, Arthur C. Brooks, reveals on page 2 that this book was spurred by a conversation he had at a meeting of "a large group of conservative activists in New Hampshire". Hey, they let inactivists in as well, and I was there!

Arthur's speech that day noted that conservatives traditionally lose to leftists when people are asked whether a politician "cares about the problems of people like me". His suggestion to conservatives: frame your proposals better. Fine, but: he was accosted afterward by a woman who thought he was being too nice to liberals: "They are stupid and evil."

Whoa. Political activists have never been especially nice to their opponents, but Arthur argues that things are getting worse, threatening the very fabric of America. We have (see the subtitle) a large and growing "culture of contempt", destroying relationships and hurting the country. And not only hurting the country, hurting the individuals feeling contempt. It ain't good for you, mentally, and probably not physically.

I admit to a continual guilty feeling while reading this book. Because for a few years now, I've described my primary emotion toward politicians as "contempt". With a caveat: Arthur defines "contempt" neatly as "anger mixed with disgust". That doesn't seem quite right in my case, as I tend not to get angry, at least not as angry as I used to.

But I have one of the primary symptoms of contempt Arthur mentions: eye-rolling. Man, sometimes it feels as if they're gonna roll right out of their sockets.

Well, enough about me. Arthur's ruminations on improving one's attitudes toward political opponents are wise, insightful, occasionally funny. He conveniently summarizes his recommendations at the end:

  1. Stand up to the man. Refuse to be used by the powerful. Pols know how the culture of contempt works, and are not shy about pressing their supporters' buttons to "fire them up". Don't play that game.
  2. Escape the bubble. Go where you're not invited, and say things people don't expect. This should be easy in pre-primary New Hampshire. But am I too lazy?
  3. Say no to contempt. Treat others with love and respect, even when it's difficult. Maybe especially when it's difficult.
  4. Disagree better. Be part of a healthy competition of ideas. I will try.
  5. Tune out. Disconnect more from the unproductive debates. I've mentioned my lefty Facebook friends from time to time. Sometimes I disagree in their threads. Resolution: when I feel that I'm repeating myself, I'm probably right. If I said something once, that's enough.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has political opinions and might want to discuss them.

Nothing Stays Buried

[Amazon Link]

The 2017 entry in P. J. Tracy's "Monkeewrench" series. P. J. Tracy was a mother-daughter writing team, but mom passed away. The daughter continues the series here without a glitch.

As always, there are two crime-fighting teams here: there's the Minneapolis Police Department detectives, concentrating on the able and likeable duo of Magozzi and Rolseth. And then there's "Monkeewrench", an elite team of super-hackers. An important link: Magozzi is sweet on chief-Monkewrencher Grace. To the extent that (in this book) she's pregant with his child.

But as far as crime goes: there's a serial killer on the loose in the Twin Cities, gruesomely preying upon young women jogging in parks after dark. Which understandably is occupying the cops.

But the Monkeewrench folks are taking their show on the road, responding to a southwest Minnesota farmer whose daughter has gone missing. Are these two investigations linked. (Spoiler: yah, you betcha.)

There's also a lion that provides an important clue. (Yes, I said: a lion. Honest.) And a very bad storm which leads to more gruesomeness.

The series is not my favorite, but it's pretty good.

Only to Sleep

[Amazon Link]

This is the third Philip Marlowe novel written entirely by someone other than Raymond Chandler. (First was 1991's Perchance to Dream by Robert B. Parker; second was 2014's The Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville writing as "Benjamin Black").

It's easy to be cynical about this: the Chandler estate wants to squeeze some bucks out of suckers who love Chandler's private eye and desperately want to know what he's been up to. Worked in my case!

The year is 1988, and Marlowe is an old man, living the expatriate life in Baja California. He's retired, but couple of insurance company guys show up on his doorstep. One of their customers, Donald Zinn, has (apparently) drowned further down Mexico way, and their payout is huge. Could Marlowe kind of check things out to see if they could, well, weasel out of their obligation?

Well, sure. Phil could use a break from retirement lassitude. Some things become immediately apparent: the beneficiary is the Zinn's knockout wife, and she's somewhat less than grief-stricken. Zinn was teetering on the edge of financial ruin. And his body was near-immediately cremated, after a cursory investigation and autopsy by obviously corrupt Mexican officials.

A promising setup, but even this short book (253 pages) seems plot-padded. The author, Lawrence Osborne, explains in his Author's Note that he considered Chandler's plots to be "bewilderingly dreamlike", and decided to emulate that. Unfortunately, this has Marlowe doing things that don't make a lot of sense, like walking into an obvious deadly set-up.

Also: people who expect Chandleresque prose ("It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”) will probably be disappointed. Instead, the prose seems (to me anyway) overly flowery. As if Marlowe, the narrator, got both more cynical and more grandiloquent in his seventies.


Last Modified 2019-05-19 9:52 AM EDT

Governing Least

A New England Libertarianism

[Amazon Link]

Note the subtitle. And yet, the University Near Here's Interlibrary Loan folks needed to obtain this book from Southeast Missouri State University. My geography is weak, but I'm pretty sure that's not New England. I'm grateful, but isn't it kind of ironic that it wasn't available from someplace… closer by?

The author, Dan Moller, is a philosophy prof at the University of Maryland (also: not in New England). In this book, he attempts to promote and defend a version of libertarianism that (unlike, say, Nozick) does not depend on assertions about the absolute moral rights of individuals.

Instead, Moller aims to show that our everyday, common-sense, views of morality look askance at "burden-shifting". (And the "New England" part of this is based on an imaginary thought experiment involving a wannabe welfare recipient pleading his case before his peers at an old-style town meeting. Also, Emerson and Thoreau are cited.) Moller notes (reasonably enough) that some burden-shifting might be necessary, but thresholds must be met; it's not anything-goes.

The beginning of the book was the roughest going for me, where Moller defends his take on civic morality. Unsurprising: this is an area where people have been trying and failing to resolve issues for millennia; there's a whole language (using terms like "deontic"). Things get easier once we're past that.

Moller lays out his thesis with a lot of insight and some wit. If you're interested at all in libertarian political philosophy, recommended.

Past Tense

[Amazon Link]

Another Jack Reacher book from Lee Child, and it's wonderful fun as usual.

Jack is on the Maine coast, looking to turn south for the winter. He decides to hitchhike across New Hampshire, and a quick series of events puts him at an intersection where he's forced to decide: toward Laconia, or Portsmouth? Hey, his deceased father grew up in Laconia! Or at least said he did. Why not check to see if the old family homestead is still around? Maybe some relatives?

Now, if you or I did that, we might uneventfully discover whatever facts that could be gleaned from local records. It's Reacher, though. So he rather rapidly runs afoul of a local junior thug menacing a young lady, which causes a retaliatory response from senior thugs from Boston. And (separately) he also irks the owners of an apple orchard. All this in addition to finding out some strange stories from his father's past.

And, in a separate thread, a couple of young adults from New Brunswick with a mysterious heavy suitcase are travelling down to New York in an aging Honda Civic on the verge of a total breakdown. So they have to stop, and take refuge in a local out-of-the-way motel. Which turns out to be a bad mistake, as things turn very creepy very quickly.

And eventually, Reacher shows up for them too. And we find out what's in the suitcase, but don't expect that revelation quickly.

Maybe more fun than usual for New Hampshire residents, most of whom (trust me) have no idea of the kind of nefarious activities going on in their state. Research note: the ghost town of "Ryantown" Reacher explores seems to be an Child invention, but it's a pretty good one. Reacher also visits the Laconia Public Library; based on Google Street View, there might be some license taken there as well, but not a lot.