Against Democracy

[Amazon Link]

Against Democracy? You might think this might be a very short book. Page one: Democracy has given us Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as major party nominees this year. Democracy sucks. Q.E.D., baby!

But Jason Brennan, a professor at Georgetown U, probably wanted to deliver a more scholarly takedown, and he has. It's difficult to avoid noting that, even though a lot of the book was probably written before 2016, it's hard to read it without finding current events illuminating and supporting his thesis.

Brennan is immune to the feel-goodness and bovine sacredness of the word "democracy". Let's ignore all that, he says, and ask the sober question: what does democracy have to recommend it? Not that much, he argues. As individuals, the democratic poltical power we wield is insignificant, but it does tend to "stultify and corrupt" us, turning us into "civic enemies" with excuses to despise our neighbors.

Worse, our votes are woefully outnumbered by the thoughtless and irresponsible. (The data is irrefutable.) What possible argument could there be allowing those masses to hold political sway over us? We wouldn't pick a random person from the phonebook to do our plumbing or to remove our appendix — why do we entertain the idea that they're entitled to have a say in national issues of peace, prosperity, and liberties?

Brennan's an entertaining and accessible writer, aiming (I think) at the bright-undergraduate level. I appreciated the Monty Python reference to the "women lying in ponds distributing swords" form of government. More seriously, he divides the populace into "Hobbits", "Hooligans", and "Vulcans". Hobbits are apathetic and ignorant about matters political. Hooligans are the "rabid sports fans of politics"; they are too interested, cheering on their side, unable or unwilling to consider alternatives. Finally, Vulcans are the holy grail of political participants, making their views dependent on evidence, self-aware of their own limitations and uncertainties. (But even Vulcans, I think, can have incompatible political visions and values.)

Brennan convincingly argues that Vulcans are nearly invisible and have at best minor influence.

The cliché is: democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others. Brennan feels the force of that argument, but asks us to consider various possible schemes of epistocratic government; granting a larger share of political powers to those who (in some manner) shown themselves more likely to exercise them responsibly.

One approach I wish Brennan would have considered more carefully: instead of restricting the political power of voters, approach things at the candidate side. A requirement for running would be to subject yourself to a battery of tests to measure your intelligence (maybe an IQ test); general knowledge and academic achievement (something like the SAT); maybe a quiz on current affairs (where's Aleppo?) or general civic knowledge; maybe specialized queries on economics or science.

You wouldn't disqualify anyone based on test scores, but you would publicize everyone's scores. Would voters pay attention? Maybe enough on the margin to improve results.

Never Go Back

[Amazon Link]

One more off the top of the Lee Child to-be-read subpile. By sheer coincidence, I read it near-simultaneously with the release of the new Tom Cruise movie based on the book. Given the reviews, I'll probably wait for the DVD.

About four books previous in the series, while dealing with nasty people in a South Dakota winter, Reacher needed some investigative assistance from his old MP unit, now based just outside Arlington Cemetery. This caused him to interact over the phone with Susan Turner, the new commander. She was helpful and funny; she also admired the dent in her desk Reacher had made years previous by slamming some jerk's head into it.

So, after the South Dakota events, Reacher decided to visit Susan; this wasn't easy, as his usual propensity for detecting and defusing massive criminal conspiracies kept delaying him. But in this book, he makes it! Only to find that Susan's been relieved of command due to accusations of bribery. Complicating things further, Reacher is accused of delivering an (eventually) fatal beating to an LA gang banger long ago.

And, oh yeah: also a paternity suit.

Needless to say, both Susan and Reacher are being framed by mysterious powerful forces that don't hesitate to ruin, or murder, people who might uncover their nefarious schemes. Name-clearing involves first breaking out of the Army's clutches, then a peril-filled road trip to find out the facts behind the paternity thing.

Unsurprisingly, a page-turner. Somewhat surprisingly (possible minor spoiler follows, mouse-select to reveal): I'm pretty sure Reacher doesn't actually kill any of his adversaries in this book. That might be a first in the series.

Light of the World

[Amazon Link]

I've finally "caught up" with James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels. (It's taken decades, but I did it!) Light of the World came out back in 2013; Mr. Burke's latest is in his other series concentrating on the Holland family. Which is also good, but I don't want to get involved.

(Not that there aren't connections: one of the primary characters here, Wyatt Dixon, is a crossover from Bitterroot, a Billy Bob Holland book. The connection isn't mentioned or even alluded to here.)

Anyway: the book finds Dave, wife Molly, and daughter Alafair up in Montana, taking a break from Louisiana seediness and violence. Also in tow is Dave's lifelong buddy Clete Purcel; soon to appear is Gretchen Horowitz, Clete's rediscovered daughter. (After a horrific childhood, and a brief career as a Mafia hitter, Gretchen has found a new career in making movies.) Danger soon infests this idyllic scene, as Alafair is nicked by an arrow while out for a jog. Whodunnit? But that's not all: a young Native American woman has gone missing, and she just happens to be the adopted daughter of an oil company scion.

And, in addition, the gruesome serial killer, Asa Surette is missing and presumed burnt up, as a result of a collision between a prison transport bus and an oil truck. But is he really dead? Signs point to no, and if he's alive, he has a serious animosity for Alafair, who interviewed him in prison.

As always, Mr. Burke's spectacular prose punches the reader in the face with descriptions of natural beauty, harrowing terror, and ongoing violence. And dialog: I sometimes wish I could talk like his characters. But I'm sure people up here in New Hampshire wouldn't take to it.

Live Bait

[Amazon Link]

Number two in the "Monkeewrench" series, recommended to me by my wise and perceptive sister. Set (mostly) in Minneapolis, the first book described how a bunch of software wizards (company name: Monkeewrench) got involved with a string of local murders, and their interaction with the nice Minnesota (and Wisconsin) cops trying to bring an end to the illegal carnage.

This one is more of a police procedural, with only one of the (surviving) Monkeewrench gang playing a small but vital role. After a relatively homicide-free Minneapolis winter, there's suddenly a rash of unusual murder victims: old folks living in upscale Uptown. The initial M.O.'s are various and confusing. But poor dead Morey Gilbert was widely regarded as a saint in his community, always offering kind words and gentle help to his acquaintances. He also has a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm, wonder if that could have anything to do with it? His wife seems to have known something like this might happen, why? His estranged son is a bitter drunk, hm, suspect?

Many characters have their own secrets. As with the first book, it strikes me as a tad contrived, but that's OK, because the writing is pretty close to page-turning first-rate.

The book itself was a little beat up, obtained from an Amazon reseller. Published at $7.50 suggested retail, It has a 25¢ sticker, looks like from a yard sale, and a ".50" sticker, looks like a used book store. And (finally) I paid $4.28 including shipping. Will it go on to further retail adventures? Who knows?

Last Modified 2016-10-10 11:21 AM EDT

The Secret of Our Success

How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

[Amazon Link]

Yet another Interlibrary Loan book, this one from Tufts. I believe I put it into my to-be-read list when I came across the author, Joseph Henrich, while reading Matt Ridley's The Evolution of Everything.

It's a fine "big idea" book, as you can tell from the subtitle. What unlikely process, asks Henrich, has brought the human species to dominate more terrestrial environments than any other land mammal? We aren't very strong, not very fast, and not that good at tree-climbing. Why weren't our ancestors all Tiger Chow millions of years ago?

Well, we're smart, you say. But Henrich argues convincingly that we aren't that smart either. His thought experiment: dump fifty humans and fifty capuchin monkeys into a central African jungle. ("To be kind we would allow the humans—but not the monkeys—to wear clothes.") Come back two years later and it's a safe bet that there will be a lot fewer surviving humans than monkeys. There are a couple of tragic real-world examples presented: groups of "civilized" humans accidentally finding themselves in an environment in which they rapidly die off, even in the midst of native populations that are doing just fine.

Instead, Henrich argues, we're uniquely well-suited to cultural evolution, the process by which knowledge and skills are transmitted from one generation to the next. In addition, good old genetic evolution co-evolves with the culture, to the extent that our species' hardware/firmware is optimized to handle cooked food, written language, throwing small, heavy objects with deadly accuracy (Craig Kimbrel excluded), run long distances, and the like.

It's a wide-ranging tale, and Henrich runs through his argument with clarity and occasional understated humor. As is typical with these sorts of books, a variety of research is cited from anthropology, psychology, economics, and related fields. Some of these results I'd heard before, most not.

As with most results of "dumb luck" evolution, the beneficiaries often don't understand "the secret of their success". I was able to impress my nutritionist wife with the mystery of why South American natives put wood ash (or burned seashells) into their corn dishes before serving. Why? The alkalinity of the ask makes the niacin in the corn available to the human digestive system.

When corn was introduced into "civilized" countries, this technique was discarded, since nobody knew why it was useful. The result: pellagra, caused by niacin deficiency. And (tragically) the cause of pellagra remained a mystery until the mid-20th century.

Also very mind-bending was Henrich's discussion of the brain's "firmware" for recognizing written language. We English-readers can look at (for example) "READ" and "read" and know within milliseconds: that's the same word, even though the letters don't look anything alike. Multiply that feat over myriad font shapes and sizes. How could that skill, developed only a few thousand years ago, be a result of sluggish Darwinian processes? Cultural evolution, baby!

And there's a lot more. As always: there are controversies, and Henrich is only giving his side. So maybe not the last word on this topic. Nevertheless, a fun and fascinating read.


[Amazon Link]

This is how out-of-control my to-be-read pile can get: I saw this book (written in 1999) recommended somewhere, but that source is lost in the mist of time. ('Twas probably in a "hardcore right-wing radical" publication or website, see below.) Sometime after that, I must have found it on a remainder table somewhere, because there's a "Retail $24.00/Our Price $5.00" sticker on the front. And, now, finally…

Don't let my procrastination mislead you, it's good. The author, José Latour, is sort of a Cuban Elmore Leonard. He was a dedicated functionary in the Communist bureaucracy for years, becoming a full-time writer in 1990. He then got in a spot of trouble for writing a book (The Fool) that fictionalized the actual corruption in Cuban government. This book, Outcast, was his first effort written in English, and he got it published outside Cuba. Eventually, "seking creative fiction and fearing dictatorial repression", José moved to Spain in 2002 and now lives in Canada.

This book's hero, Elliot Stiel, is a lowly English teacher in Havana. His professional life is constrained by the perception that he's politically unreliable. He's divorced, drinks too much, going through the motions, waiting for the undertaker to come.

Unexpectedly, he's offered a new life by an obviously well-to-do American who claims to have known Elliot's long-missing father. All he has to do is rendezvous with an offshore yacht, and … well, double-unexpectedly, Elliot finds himself the victim of murderous betrayal. But he makes it to Miami, and starts working on his plan for vengeance. This requires some quick moneymaking, which (in turn) involves immersion in Floridian low-to-medium level criminal activities. Eventually, the super-twisty plot works itself to a conclusion.

Latour's depiction of post-USSR Cuba is honest, and therefore bleak. Not that he's all that easy on America: Elliot's observations of relative abundance lead him to conclude that It's All About the Benjamins here in the USA. That unsubtle conclusion is easy to live with, because Latour keeps things moving and interesting.

Our Republican Constitution

Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People

[Amazon Link]

The good people at the Interlibrary Loan desk at the University Near Here waggled their magic wands and got this book all the way from the University of Wyoming in Larimie! That's far! And wouldn't it be nice if it were available from somewhere closer?

The author, Randy Barnett, is a law prof at Georgetown, and a longtime libertarian-leaning scholar of the US Constitution. His purpose here is to distinguish between two major conceptions of the Constitution: "Republican" and "Democratic". Guess which one he advocates? (Hint: see title.)

The Republican and Democratic Constitutions don't have any necessary connection to the same-named political parties. (Especially in 2016.) The contrast starts in the interpretation of first three words of the document: "We the People". The Republican Constitutionalist holds that this refers to people-as-individuals, that individuals are the referent here; the Democratic vision holds that it's, instead, the collective.

This difference leads (necessarily?) to the origin of basic rights: Republicans (following the language of the Declaration of Independence) view such rights to be "endowed by [our] Creator", or, in more agnostic language, inherent in the nature of humanity and the physical world. On the Democratic side, rights are granted by the state through (of course) the will of the aforementioned collective, which is held sovereign.

Barnett runs through our entire US history, showing how these Constitutional conceptions played out in Supreme Court cases over the years. The Democratic side has had some major victories, and may be seen to be currently ascendant (especially if Hillary wins and gets to replace a few Republican-appointed Justices).

He's particularly scathing on the concept of "judicial restraint", the notion that the courts should yield wide latitude to the elected branches of government. That's not so: the Framers intended the judiciary to be a major impartial check on the possible abuses inflicted by the executive and the legislature. There's every reason that they should use their full skepticism when reviewing the Constitutionality of (say) Obamacare. (And they failed in that.)

Barnett also demonstrates that "judicial restraint" is used mostly as an argument of convenience, not principle. When it stands in the way of (say) a progressive goal, the progressives don't hesitate to drop it.

What to do, then? Barnett leaves his answer in a very short conclusion. He would prefer that an Article V Consitutional Convention be called, to propose a raft of amendments to clarify and strenghen Federalism and the proper limited powers of government. This shows no sign of happening, but … maybe.

Barnett's discussion is lively and blessedly light on the arcana of Constitutional law. I think it would be comprehensible to anyone with a good background in American history. (If you want less comprehensible, there's always Richard Epstein; love him, but he can be impenetrable now and then.)

The Martian

[Amazon Link]

I saw The Martian (the movie) about a year ago. At the time, I wondered: why bring a botanist to Mars? and speculated that it might be answered in the book. And it was, right on page 12! Good for Andy Weir, the author, for clearing that up.

Every sentient being knows the basic plot, but anyway: through a disastrous combination of events, a lone member of the Ares 3 manned mission to Mars, Mark Watney (the botanist), gets left behind while the other crew members make an emergency return to Earth. Mark is more alone than any human being has ever been, and has only the remnants of the mission to help him survive.

There are numerous ways Mars can kill you, and Mark deals with most of them. They range from passive (running out of food, water, or air) to spectacular (explosive decompression, surprisingly treacherous terrain, …). Mark deals with these issues with a combination of humor, bravery, and amazing geeky resourcefulness.

One thing, though: you're exposed to a lot more radiation on Mars than we are on Earth. As near as I can tell, neither the book nor the movie mentioned this at all. But I could have missed it. It definitely falls into the "not much Mark can do about that" category.

Reading the book got me thinking about the general differences between books and movies based on those books. It's very rare (in my experience) that both are high quality, and The Martian is one of those rarities. (Another: Lord of the Rings.) I kept noticing differences: book-Mark (heh) deals with a few more disasters than does movie-Mark. And the book is littered with far more f-bombs than is the movie, understandable for the movie's PG-13 rating. (Annie Montrose, the NASA spokesperson played by Kristen Wiig in the movie, is particularly potty-mouthed in the book.)

Bottom line: the book is very good, and it doesn't matter much, enjoyment-wise, if you see the movie first.

Last Modified 2016-09-24 10:26 AM EDT

The Given Day

[Amazon Link]

I became a Dennis Lehane fan via his Kenzie/Gennaro private eye series, set in Boston. But recently he's turned his talents to writing novels more likely to be found outside the "Mystery" section at Barnes & Noble. Which is fine, I can follow him just about anywhere. Unless he decides to write about lady time-travelers or something.

No problem here, though. Lehane sets this novel in mostly in post-WWI Boston. (I assume he has access to a time machine. His prose has the kind of evocative detail that is otherwise inexplicable.) There's a mix-in of historical figures: e. g., Calvin Coolidge, Babe Ruth, John (later, more commonly, "J. Edgar") Hoover, and more. But the action follows mostly two fictional protagonists: white Danny Coughlin and African-American Luther Laurence. The novel plays out against real-life history, and you may have a dim idea of the nastiness involved: a flu epidemic, anarchist violence, a Boston police strike, a deadly molasses flood, and the Babe going to the Yankees.

Speaking of the Boston police, Danny is one, also the son of one. If you think you have a dysfunctional family, odds are Danny's got you beat. His misadventures are legion: a seemingly doomed romance with the domestic help, conflicts with his brothers, father, and (very nasty) godfather, undercover exploits in the anarchist/Bolshevik underground, his attempts to get decent wages and working conditions for his fellow policemen, … most of this accompanied by danger, violence, betrayal, and heartbreak.

Luther doesn't have an easy time of it either. There's the general problem of being a black guy in an openly racist environment. He also makes some bad decisions, which cause him, eventually, to be estranged from his pregnant wife.

This is the first novel in a series of (so far) three. I hope to get to them eventually; even though I don't care much for historical fiction, Lehane makes it work for me. Lehane's politics are relentlessly left-wing—one of his acknowledgments is to that Howard Zinn book—so I had to discount that a tad.

Life and Fate

[Amazon Link]

Once every few years, I take it into my fool head to read a big, ponderous, Russian novel. It's an eat-your-vegetables thing, a reaction to a self-induced guilt trip about having too much reading fun. So this book went on the to-be-read pile a few years back; it had been sitting on my shelves since 1987 or so.

Its pedigree is pretty good. The author, Vasily Grossman, was a combat correspondent during the Second World War, reporting on the battle for Stalingrad, the fall of Berlin, and the Nazi's Treblinka death camp. He submitted the manuscript of Life and Fate in 1960 to a USSR literary journal. He was rewarded with rejection, and a visit from the KGB, who confiscated all known copies of the manuscript, plus the carbon paper and typewriter ribbons used to type it up. Grossman died a few years later. Eventually, a copy of the manuscript found its way to the West.

I'm sure this oversimplifies things massively: it's War and Peace, set during WW2. There's a huge cast of characters, all going through the agony of (a) war; (b) Nazi oppression; and/or (c) Stalinist oppression. The Battle of Stalingrad is described in all its grisly detail. Grossman pulls no punches on any front; most notably, he's absolutely chilling in detailing the nasty degradation of living under a totalitarian regime, living in fear that some innocent remark or decent act might get you ostracized or imprisoned. Did Trotsky politely praise an essay you wrote years back? Oh oh.

[By sheer coincidence, this book shares a near-identical scenario with the Chinese sci-fi novel I read slightly before this, The Three-Body Problem. In both, a physicist finds himself in deep political trouble for holding to "counter-revolutionary" interpretations of relativity and quantum mechanics. Thank goodness we don't politicize science here in the US these days … oh, wait.]

All in all, an arduous 871-page slog, full of those three-foot long patronymic names. (E.g., Yevgenia "call me Zhenya" Nicolaevna Shaposhnikovna.) I can't say it was fun, but it was worthwhile.