Kickback

[Amazon Link]

The title is sometimes rendered as Robert B. Parker's Kickback. And, assuming you don't block ads (and you shouldn't do so here, because they are non-intrusive click-here-to-buy-at-Amazon pictures), you'll see the late Mr. Parker's name is the biggest thing on the cover, followed by the title, "A Spenser Novel" and (finally) the actual author, Ace Atkins, relegated to small type in the lower corner.

Oh, well. I loved Mr. Parker too. And I assume Mr. Atkins is getting paid well enough to shoulder this disrespectful indignity.

Spenser is coming off knee surgery, a side effect of a previous case. A mother arrives at his office with a tale of woe: her son made the grievous mistake of setting up a fake social media account lampooning his high school's principal, hinting at non-standard sexual proclivities. And for that, the kid has been shipped off to a juvenile facility out on a remote island in Boston Harbor.

An obvious injustice, and despite the fact that the kid's mom can't afford his normal rate, Spenser is soon on the case. The problem is the old mill city of "Blackburn", up north of Boston on the Merrimack River. (Sounds like Scenic Lowell.) It turns out to be a nest of corruption, where a couple of judges and the cops conspire to ship kids off to the island at the slightest excuse, ignoring most due-process protections. Why? Well, you probably noticed the title.

As before: I'm pretty sure most people wouldn't be able to detect the differences between a Spenser novel written by Mr. Parker and one by Mr. Atkins in a double-blind test. (I like to think I kind of can, but I wouldn't put a lot of money on it.)

Gripe: much is made of the corrupt interaction between Blackburn's judges, the cops, mobsters, and the owners of the (aieee!) for-profit juvenile facility the kids are being sent to. The usual cheap shots are taken, the profit motive being the root of all evil, etc. It's not as if there weren't sordid stories of misbehavior in Massachusetts government-run hoosegows.

Kind of neat is the appearance of a character unseen since 1973's The Godwulf Manuscript, Iris Milford, playing a critical role. (In a note to the odd things a long-running fiction series does to a timeline: she was "pushing thirty" back then, which would make her somewhere around seventy now. As Spenser says: "Let's not think about it. Math makes my head hurt.")


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The Conservatarian Manifesto

[Amazon Link]

I have dead-tree subscriptions to both Reason and National Review. I rarely read anything in either publication I outright disagree with. At worst, I might tend to quibble with an article's misplaced emphasis here or there. I sometimes wish I was as cool as the kids at Reason; other times, I don't think I would be respectable enough to fit in with the sages of National Review.

Which means I'm pretty much a receptive target for Charles C.W. Cooke's recent book, The Conservatarian Manifesto. His general idea: to put together an intellectually respectable whole out of the pieces of conservatism and libertarianism, one that might also translate into practical political success.

And he does a fine job, picking eminently defensible positions from Libertarian Column A and Conservative Column B. A brief overview:

  • First and foremost: a return to strict federalism, where appropriate political issues are fought out and decided locally. This is appealing both on practical and theoretical grounds.

  • Build alternative institutions to those currently dominated by the left.

  • It's also important to defend and advocate a strict originalist interpretation of the Constitution. No more "living" Constitutionalism. (Echoing Jonah Goldberg: "The only good constitution is a dead constitution.")

  • For a success story, see the history of "gun control".

  • For a failure (although perhaps success in the offing): the war on drugs. (Given Federalism, see above, this would no longer be a national issue in any case.)

  • Lumping together so-called "social issues" is incoherent. There's really no reason to demand or expect a person to sway the same way on abortion, gay marriage, and/or legal pot. (Cooke is, like me, anti-abortion, resigned to gay marriage without deeming those opposed to be bigots, and, see above, pro-drug legalization.)

  • Foreign policy and defense are obviously "Federal" issues. Cooke leans conservative on the former (general non-intervention policies are just asking for trouble), but sounds libertarian on the latter (becauseKM-face it—the DoD wastes piles of money.)

  • Immigration also causes a conservative lean: libertarians tend to be way too blasé and glib about the negative effects of large flows of low-skill immigrants.

Cooke is also an astute reader of the political scene; his analysis of where "compassionate conservatives", outright libertarians, and tea-partiers go wrong is on-target, I think.

A quibble, echoing a point made by Donald Devine at The Federalist: I'm old enough to remember the Frank Meyer days at National Review and his "fusionist" efforts, attempting to tie together the adherents of free markets (e.g., Rothbard) with the devotees of virtue and order (e.g., Russell Kirk). It's kind of weird that a writer for the current-day NR doesn't mention Meyer at all. (Since I have the book on Kindle, this was easy to check.)


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The End of College

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Another book provided through the excellent Interlibrary Loan facilities of the University Near Here, from UMass/Amherst. Sort of ironic in this situation, since the book predicts the imminent radical restructuring, if not demise, of these traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions.

The author, Kevin Carey, doesn't seem to be a radical bomb-thrower; as near as I can tell, his politics are mildly liberal, with articles and columns appearing in The New Republic, Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The American Prospect. But his critique of America's colleges and universities would be a comfortable fit in Reason, National Review, or The Weekly Standard.

Carey's brief history of American higher-ed indicates the problem: we have agglomerated three different major purposes (classical liberal arts education, professional training, and scholarly research) into what he calls the "hybrid" university.

"Hybrid" is probably the most polite term that could be applied; a more apt metaphor for an out-of-control monster assembled out of hubris and spare parts might be "Frankenschool".

Carey deftly notes that the current higher-ed system is incoherent, expensive, inflexible, and unsustainable. It is a procrustean bed, chopping up subject matters into semesters, credit hours, four-walled classrooms, and campuses. It takes little to no account of variance in students' talents, learning styles, or interests. The visible fist of government regulation and accreditation stifles experimentation and innovation. Non-academic fripperies are constructed in an effort to attract more paying students. (Carey's example: the University of Northern Arizona, with mediocre academics, but a shiny $100 million fitness center.) Education gets a back seat; studies show that the typical student doesn't learn much.

What will save the day, in Carey's view, is (1) the Internet and (2) new insights into cognitive psychology, combining into on-line course offerings that will be low-cost, effective, and far more nimble than the existing setup. Carey calls this "the University of Everywhere". No longer will an MIT/Harvard education be restricted to the handful of souls who manage to get through the admissions filter. Instead, you can get it for low or zero cost on the Web. (As with his critique of the status quo, Carey's enthusiasm for free-market innovation fits right in with my own conservative/libertarian sympathies.)

Carey is a very good (and occasionally very funny) writer, and he certainly did his research. He took an online introductory molecular biology course from MIT (could have been free, but he paid a few hundred bucks for MIT's certification of completion). He travelled all over the country to interview representatives of traditional schools as well as the disruptive people earnestly hoping to come up with "killer apps" for the education market.

Will Carey's vision come to pass? I have to say: I hope so, but remain skeptical. Carey himself discusses how every new technological breakthrough has been hailed as a revolutionary alternative to traditional schooling—going back to radio! And computers have been marketed as education saviors for decades; hey, anyone remember Plato? So who knows?

But if you're interested in the future of higher-ed, Carey's book is an easy and fun read, full of insightful observations and interesting possibilities. A website devoted to the book (with excerpts) is here. And you'll also want to check out libertarian scholar Bryan Caplan's critique ("Wrong but beautiful") here.


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The Casablanca Tango

[Amazon Link]

This is the third novel I've read from Mr. James Lileks. I thought the first one was pretty meh. The second one I liked better. But I thought The Casablanca Tango was excellent, easily one of the best mysteries I've read in a while.

The official page says the book is "An answer to the question 'what if Holmes and Watson were hard-boiled characters?'". I didn't read that until after I finished the book, but that's exactly the comparison that occurred to me while reading it.

Holmes and Watson are (respectively) newspaper reporter Harry Holman and his photographer, John Crosley (who narrates). It is set in 1947 Minneapolis, centering around a mass murder at a downtown dive, the Casablanca Bar. Who were the actual targets, who were the innocent bystanders? What's the meaning of the three vertical lines etched in blood on the beautiful blonde now with a hole in her heart?

Harry and John get enough leeway from their boss to carry on their own investigation, uncovering corruption, perversion, and other sordid behaviors.

Lileks fans know that the author is a human time machine, sliding up and down the fourth dimension with ease, especially knowledgeable about the Mill City and environs. The actual 1947 mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, has a cameo, as does the amazing Washburn Park Water Tower in Tangletown.

The style is first-person hard-boiled, very reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. I've read a lot of wannabe-Chandlers, and its the kind of style that's very easy to do poorly. I can't remember anyone succeeding better than Lileks.

I sometimes cast the movie in my head when reading books. Probably because I'd just watched a bit of I Wake Up Screaming on the local old-movie channel, I saw Laird Cregar playing Harry. About time he got a shot at playing a hero. Too bad he's been dead for 70 years.


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Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster)

[Amazon Link]

And the subtitle is: "Life Lessions and Other Ravings from Dave Barry". I fear the title/subtitle might imply more coherence to the book than it actually contains. But maybe they figured that "A Bunch of Stuff Dave Has Written Recently" might not sell as well. The title might prompt inattentive parents to buy this as a graduation gift, for example.

That would be preferable to Oh, The Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss, currently number one in a bunch of categories at Amazon. Really, folks, your graduate would prefer reading Dave to getting yet another copy of Oh, The Places You'll Go!

The essays here:

  1. The insecurity Dave feels about having his family's wimmenfolk meet David Beckham.

  2. An open letter to his daughter Sophie about learning to drive in Florida.

  3. A meditation about how the Greatest Generation compares to Dave's (Baby Boomer) generation in terms of maturity and fun-seeking.

  4. His trip to Brazil during the World Cup. (Dave has an unfathomable fondness for soccer.)

  5. A satire on the clueless hysteria of cable news networks.

  6. An essay on home improvement. (A topic Dave has been writing on for decades.)

  7. An irreverent review of Google Glass.

  8. Recounting a State Department-sponsored trip to Russia with co-author Ridley Pearson. (Spoiler: Dave is not a fan of Putin.)

  9. A touching and funny letter to his grandson on the occasion of his bris.

So it's kind of a hodgepodge. Longtime readers will know that Dave is primarily a humor writer and a keen observer of the (absurd) human condition, occasionally with more serious undernotes. Easy reading, but my advice is to space it out; Dave's like a fine wine whose subtleties can get lost if you binge.

List price for the hardcover is $26.95, but Amazon knocks that down to $19.76, and only $9.99 on Kindle. Or free, if (like me) you have a generous co-worker willing to lend you his copy.


Last Modified 2015-05-08 5:59 AM EDT
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The Pale King

[Amazon Link]

This is (almost certainly) the last bit of fiction we'll see from David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide back in 2008. It is technically unfinished, re-assembled from a partial manuscript and an agglomeration of notes, disk files, and marginalia. His editor compressed all that into 540 published pages, and—I speak as a fan—it's still kind of a mess. But a pretty wonderful mess.

It's roughly centered around the Internal Revenue Service's Peoria office just off the "Self-Service Parkway", a beltway around the city. It is set in the mid-80's, and considers the various offbeat IRS employees, their histories and talents. One of the employees is "David Foster Wallace", who snagged his job there via pull from his parents, something to do after getting tossed out of his college due to a side business where less academically-inclined students outsourced their writing assignments to him.

All this (spoiler, sort of) is completely fictional, but told in such a way that I had to check reputable sources.

DFW's story with the IRS is unfortunately incomplete, but his initial day at work is described with painstaking detail. He is supposed to assume a lowly GS-9 position with the other dweebs, but gets bureaucratically mistaken for a different David F. Wallace, an important GS-13. This causes some minor misadventures, not least of which is a surprising interaction with a female employee.

There are plenty of other folks. Notable is Leonard Steyck: an early chapter describes his boyhood, where he is (literally) Christ-like in cheerfulness, charity towards others, turning the other cheek, etc. Naturally everyone despises Leonard, including his parents. And there's Claude Sylvanshine, who has a supernatural talent of becoming aware of minute details of people in the vicinity. While in a meeting, he discovers flaws in the mitochondrial DNA of one of his co-workers, due to her mother briefly taking thalidomide while she was gestating; he becomes aware of another's shoe size and total blood volume (but not his name).

I don't suppose it would be everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoyed it. I found it (at various points) hilarious, poignant, and insightful. But, all the while, a resigned sadness knowing that his voice is silenced by his own hand. (I wrote my thoughts on that last August.)


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How Not to Be Wrong

[Amazon Link]

You know how Amazon throws purchase suggestions at you based on your browsing history? This book showed up in one of my visits a few months back; I can't remember what triggered it. The title was memorable, certainly: How Not to be Wrong. What a magnet for someone who finds himself wrong much more often than he'd like! While hanging out in the University Near Here's Engineering, Math & Computer Science Library, I noticed it on the New Books shelf, and…

The author, Jordan Ellenberg, is a math prof at the University of Wisconsin. To a first approximation, the book is a reply to the perpetual whine of math students everywhere: When am I going to use this? (That's actually the title of the book's introduction.) It is an entertaining hodgepodge, showing how mathematical analysis (has been|can be) applied to real-world problems, but occasionally veering into more abstract realms as well. Along the way, Ellenberg also likes to tell anecdotes about historical and present-day mathematicians. (UNH's Tom Zhang is mentioned for proving the bounded gaps conjecture about the distribution of prime numbers.)

Did I say hodgepodge? Examples: how smart people at MIT gamed the Massachusetts Cash WinFall lottery; how "statistical significance" can be abused/misinterpreted in research; how "regression to the mean" works, and how it's been misunderstood; the strange mathematics of democratic voting when there's more than two choices; the fallacy of assumed linearity; digging causality out of correlation. And more.

Ellenberg has an easy style, and he's unafraid to crack wise.

"If you care at all about math, this is the kind of thing that makes you want to stab yourself in the hand with a fork."

"The extent to which you care about this distinction is a good measure of whether you would enjoy going to graduate school in analytic philosophy."

"Mathematics is a way not to be wrong, but it isn't a way not to be wrong about anything. (Sorry, no refunds!)"

"Are you there, God? It's me, Bayesian inference."

Not quite a chuckle per page, but almost. Ellenberg could be the Dave Barry of mathematicians.


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The Pity Party

[Amazon Link]

This latest book by William Voegeli comes highly recommended with back-cover blurbs by William Kristol, Randy Barnett, Harvey Mansfield and Power Line's Scott Johnson. Its amusing subtitle: "A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion". I was favorably impressed with Professor Voegeli's previous book Never Enough. And this one was easily snagged via the University Near Here's membership in the Boston Library Consortium; the smart folks at MIT sent it up here with alacrity.

I was not disappointed: the book is well-written and full of insight. Voegeli is not really mean-spirited, as his subtitle claims; this is an ironic preemptive defense against one of the charges that liberals would no doubt want to wield against him.

Since full-blown socialism has been discredited on pragmatic grounds for decades, "compassion" is the strongest reed on which progressives can hang their arguments in the present day. And they have done so.

Did I mention irony? Certainly there's a lot of it inherent when "compassionate" liberals deal with their conservative/libertarian critics: then they can be unmerciful, spiteful, hate-filled, vituperative… all in the name of "compassion". This is not, we are told, something on which "reasonable and decent people can disagree". The natural conclusion: you are evil or wilfully deranged, deserving of nothing but bile. It's a funny old world.

Liberal compassion is also weirdly unconcerned with whether the numerous programs, mandates, subsidies, and regulations justified on "compassionate" grounds actually work in accomplishing their stated goals. Why, it's almost as if such measures were undertaken primarily to make their advocates feel good about themselves! Example one is Head Start, which continues to gobble up about $8 billion of spending at the Federal level without any evidence that it's "better than nothing".

In addition to being unconcerned with efficacy, "compassion"-based arguments tend to be incoherent, detached from reality. Liberal compassion springs from the natural sympathy one feels for the nearby unfortunate, and turns it into a blunt-force demand for whatever blank check strikes their current fancy, whether it's billions for stem cell research (save Christopher Reeve!) or subsidized health insurance for the middle class. But (as Voegeli points out) those arguments can't be extended logically to their obvious conclusions. When you ask why we should care much more about the medically-uncovered Betsy Morgan in Schenectady, than the desperately poor Mpinga Bombuku in Kinshasha — sorry, no answer is forthcoming.

My favorite chapter: "How Liberal Compassion Leads to Bullshit". (Yeah, he went there.) Voegeli, like me, is a fan of Frankfurt's classic work On Bullshit, and he illustrates how liberal arguments on gun control, environmentalism, and "diversity" are prime exemplars. Laugh, if you can keep from crying.

I think Voegeli is entirely on-target. I would like to think that your typical liberal could take some valuable lessons away from reading this book, too. If they can keep their heads from exploding, that is.


Last Modified 2015-04-07 4:53 AM EDT
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The Girl With All the Gifts

[Amazon Link]

We gave this book to Pun Daughter for Christmas. It looked intriguing enough that I asked to borrow it once she was done reading it. The dust jacket featured glowing blurbs from Joss Whedon and io9. And it's good, albeit not quite what I expected. (I expected something like The Hunger Games. Nope, not quite.)

I will try to avoid spoilers here: Melanie is a smart kid in an unusual situation: she goes to school with her classmates, but that involves a couple of armed soldiers coming to get her in her cell. One holds a gun on her while the other puts her into a wheelchair with strong restraints on her arms, legs, and head.

Melanie likes school, though, especially her sympathetic teacher, Miss Justineau. One of the things she learns about is the Pandora myth, whence the title; you'll want to keep an eye on that.

It gradually becomes clear that all is not well in the world outside Melanie's prison. Her teachers drop hints about devastating events twenty years in the past, and it's clear that only a remnant of humanity is carrying on civilization. And Melanie is part of a research project that is humanity's last desperate hope to survive.

Unfortunately, "humanity" pretty much views Melanie as one of the eggs that might need to be broken to make that particular omelet.

The book turns out to be (again trying to avoid spoilers) part of a certain well-known genre, distinctive because there's a gloss of scientific mumbo-jumbo backing things up, something the genre often lacks. It's well-written; the author, M.R. (Mike) Carey had previously made his name mostly writing comic books. And (spoilers at the link) it's going to be a movie with Glenn Close.


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61 Hours

[Amazon Link]

Reacher's back, and continues in his dangerous habit of getting involved in massive, murderous conspiracies through pure chance and coincidence. It's as if God (in the person of author Lee Child) has it in for him.

In this outing, a lawyer in the service of a drug baron is driving erratically in a South Dakota snowstorm, just badly enough to cause a tourist bus filled with old people on a jaunt to Mount Rushmore to swerve off the highway.

Filled with old people, and also Reacher. Big mistake, lawyer.

The accident causes the bus passengers to be taken in by the decent citizens of Bolton, SD. Their town has recently been blessed with a massive nearby Federal high-security penitentiary. This provides local jobs, a steady traffic of sad people visiting prisoners, and (for some reason) a biker gang dealing high-quality crystal meth from a mysterious facility outside of town.

All this wangles Reacher into unravelling various mysteries and conspiracies, and also attempting to protect the life of a feisty old lady, who's promised to testify against one of the bikers who got nabbed. As always with Reacher: dry humor, sudden violence, lots of corpses.

Don't want to spoil anything, but the book has an unexpected ending, an unusual incentive to buy the next book in the series. Like, right now.


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