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A small effort at Pun Salad multiculturalism, inspired by a plug earlier this year from certified Smart Fellow Tyler Cowen. Decoded is a 2002 novel by the celebrated Chinese novelist Mai Jia, and it was translated into English earlier this year. (When I say "celebrated", I mean: he's famous in China; this is the only book that's made it into English.)

Executive summary: it's interesting and charming at the beginning, but bogs down near the end. And at the end, I found myself saying: "OK, so what was that all about?" But I am not experienced in the reading of Serious Literature, so it could well be that much went over my head.

I was looking for either a tale of cryptography or international intrigue. Both, preferably. A Chinese Neal Stephenson! Wouldn't that be cool? But no.

It is the story of Rong Jinzhen, mathematical prodigy, who gets drafted into a Chinese intelligence unit dedicated to the making and breaking of military-level ciphers. The early (good) part of the book details his ancestry: colorful, mostly sad, tales of his relatives and acquaintances and how they came to guide his unlikely birth and upbringing.

Rong Jinzhen turns out to be a master codebreaker, solving the riddle of PURPLE, a cipher that (it turns out) was invented by his teacher and mentor, Liseiwicz, who got out of China and started working for Israel and "Country X". (Amusingly, most of his co-workers think that Rong Jinzhen is just goofing off until he delivers the broken code.) But after PURPLE, there is BLACK. And his anti-BLACK efforts threaten to send Rong Jinzhen over the edge of sanity.

As a devout despiser of Communism, I was unimpressed with the book's politics. Mai Jia is no Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He stays away from anything that might offend the regime. (There is a brief fictional example of the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution, which I guess is OK to do these days.)

Consumer note: this NYT review claims that Rong Jinzhen's mother was killed in childbirth by his "freakishly large head". That's incorrect; although Rong Jinzhen's mother does die in childbirth (page 24), the freakishly-large-head death is on page 14, and it's when Rong Jinzhen's grandmother gives birth to his father. So there, mainstream media.

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The Glass Rainbow

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Another fine Dave Robicheaux mystery from James Lee Burke.

After his Montana "vacation" in the previous book, Dave investigates a possible serial killer preying on young women in his Louisiana parish. He is intrigued by the story told by an prisoner held up in Mississippi, the brother of one of the victims; he's no prize, but he tells Dave that (unlike the other victims) his sister was no prostitute. And he points his accusatory finger at a local pimp/dealer that Dave has long despised.

Nothing is ever simple though. (It's a long book.) The pimp turns up dead, unfortunately after Dave's friend Clete Purcell has beaten him up and threatened him.

In addition, Dave's daughter Alafair has grown into a young woman; she's moved into the orbit of Kermit, the scion of a local rich family. (And in these books, rich families always have a corrupt and sordid history that leaks malevolently into the present.) Kermit has an ex-con associate who's become a literary success with his tales of his previous life. Dave is appalled, and this drives a heart-breaking wedge between him and Alafair.

For Robicheaux fans, the plot trajectory will not be surprising: Dave is witness to various horrors, Clete's outrageous behavior skates on the edge of self-destruction. What's different in this episode is Dave's increased sense of his own mortality, symbolized by his hallucination of an old river paddlewheel out on the bayou.

A throwaway line reveals that Dave is 70 years old in this book. (Close to the author's own age.) None of us is getting any younger, but I hope to see Dave in a few more yarns.

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The Valley of Fear

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Continuing my project of re-reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes yarns… This is billed as a novel, but it's pretty short, and (in fact) is actually two longish stories, connected by a thin thread. But that's OK.

The first story kicks off when Sherlock is warned, via a mysterious encrypted note, that the crime syndicate led by the villainous Moriarty has designs on one "Douglas", at Birlstone Manor. (So it's set pre-Reichenbach Falls.) Near-immediately after Holmes and Watson decode the note, a Scotland Yard inspector shows up with news of a grisly crime: Mr. Douglas of Birlstone Manor has taken a couple sawed-off shotgun blasts to the cranial region, and it's quite a mess.

So Holmes and Watson head off to Birlstone Manor, and are confronted with the usual set of clues, suspects behaving oddly, and clueless cops. But (hopefully not a spoiler) Holmes cracks the case theatrically.

The second (Sherlock-free) story is a 20-years-previous prequel, set in the mid-1870s in a Pennsylvania coal-mining valley. This is the titular "Valley of Fear", as it is controlled by a particularly nasty organized crime ring through murder, extortion, and terror. It's very much plus ça change territory: not too much different than Whitey Bulger in South Boston, a century later, or Boyd Crowder in Harlan County Kentucky, a few decades after that.

The most notable thing in the second half is the overwriting. I found myself thinking: if Edward Bulwer-Lytton were reading this before publication, he'd probably say "Gee, Art. Don't you think you need to tone this down a bit?" But it's good fun for a short read, and Doyle really does convey the grime and squalor of that time and place.

Last Modified 2014-07-14 6:45 AM EDT
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The Ringworld Throne

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Well, that was disappointing. Larry Niven and I have grown apart. It's hard to know who's more to blame. I'd like to think it's him.

The Ringworld Throne, written in 1996, is the third in the Ringworld series. Set after the events of number two, The Ringworld Engineers, it follows further adventures of Louis Wu, with his Kzin and Puppeteer co-explorers. In the previous book, the Ringworld was saved from running into its own star, but at what Wu thinks was a grievous loss of life. Hominids have also populated various ecological niches, evolving different appearances, intelligences, and survival strategies. (There's a Wikipedia page devoted to listing and describing them.) They engage in rishathra, hanky-panky between subspecies. And we follow some of them too.

Part of the problem: I'm pretty sure that I lost track of what exactly the plot was about while reading the book. Why are they doing this? What's the point? I had no idea. Could I maybe figure it out by backtracking and rereading? Probably. Maybe. Do I want to do that? No.

So I've removed the fourth Ringworld novel, Ringworld's Children from my to-be-read pile.

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The Outer Limits of Reason

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A very readable and interesting book by Brooklyn College professor Noson Yanofsky. Although his page pegs him in the "Department of Computer and Information Science" there, the book shows that he's pretty good in physics, math, and logic too. Some of the chapters are based on lecture notes from a course he gives. The book's subtitle is: "What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us". You might suspect that what's upcoming is mystical handwaving, but no. Professor Yanofsky's musings are all pretty well grounded in real science, so good on him.

I don't remember why this went on my virtual to-be-read pile, but I had to wait until it came off the course reserve list at the Physics Library of the University Near Here. Someone else has a high opinion of it as well.

The book is a series of semi-independent topics, and each can be read by a bright teenager with a decent grounding in science and math. (I remember getting introduced to some of these ideas as a seventh-grader by the 1946 book, One Two Three … Infinity by George Gamow.) It is (therefore) somewhat of a hodgepodge, but a very entertaining one, romping through a host of counter-intuitive, paradoxical, mind-boggling areas. A random sampling: the two-slit interference experiment; the Monty Hall problem; the Travelling Salesman problem; the Halting problem; Gödel's Proof; Cantor's different types of infinity; Russel's Set Paradox.

And more, much more. I kept imagining that Yanofsky might be the type of guy who would punctuate each amazing revelation with a wide-eyed challenge to the reader: "Did I just blow your mind?"

Then on page 175, I see: "There are ideas and concepts here that are counterintuitive and will blow your mind!" Yeah, he probably is that type of guy.

I was slightly disappointed to not see any discussion of my late friend Ken Appel's proof of the Four-Color Theorem, which (at the time) was only achievable through a considerable number of computerized operations, unachievable by a human mind in finite time. Is that cheating?

Also absent (unless I missed it) is my standard sophomore dorm-room topic: what cosmic truths are beyond the reach of humans because we're simply not smart enough to see them? Dogs are pretty smart, but there's never been one that could solve even the simplest quadratic equation. What are the limits to our intelligence, and how could we tell if we were bumping up against them? Could we tell if we were bumping up against them? (Can a dog "get" the fact that mathematics is out of his intellectual ballpark?)

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The Scarecrow

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Another excellent Michael Connelly crime novel. Connelly's usual protagonist, Harry Bosch, is absent, but gets indirectly mentioned here and there.

The primary hero is from a previous Connelly book, The Poet: reporter Jack McEvoy. Jack is working the crime beat for the LA Times as the book opens, but he's targeted in the latest flurry of downsizing. Does that mean a short book? No.

Jack decides to do One Last Big Story, triggered by a hectoring phone call from the grandmother of Alonzo, a teenage ghetto gangster currently in jail for a grisly murder. Initially, Jack's intention is to write about how a dysfunctional society and family structure turned a kid into a killer. But he notices something disturbing: the crime bears a beyond-coincidental similarity to a previous murder that Alonzo could not have perpetrated. Jack realizes that he's uncovered a serial killer who's also an expert in framing someone else for the deeds.

Jack turns to FBI profiling expert Rachel Walling for assistance, and they become a crack investigatory team, mostly flouting the rules and guidelines of their respective superiors.

Jack's tale is interspersed with chapters from the point of view of the murderer, Carver. (This is not a spoiler, it's revealed very early in the book.) He turns out to be a gifted hacker, working as a chief security officer for an Internet colocation firm. (He has a unique way of dealing with attempted breaches: planting child pornography on the attacker's machine.) He is as dangerously crafty as he is homicidally insane.

Connelly's dialogue is occasionally stilted, but who cares? He remains an expert at dragging this reader into the yarn.

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The Weed Agency

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It is somewhat bad news that my book-picking algorithm's randomness brought up Jim Geraghty's new book The Weed Agency immediately after I'd read Dave Barry's hilarious Insane City. Now (don't get me wrong) Mr. Geraghty's book is funny. But Dave is a tough act to follow, humor-wise.

Mr. Geraghty's book is also kind of sad for those of us who would prefer smaller and limited government. For it is a tale of a truly worthless money-down-the-rathole federal agency, established more or less on a whim by Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Congress in the 70s, the USDA's Agency of Invasive Species. While this entity does not exist in the real world, it is emblematic of a host of others that actually do.

We follow the Agency from 1981 until roughly the present day, as it navigates the budgetary waters to survive and even thrive. Its head, Adam Humphrey, is a gifted bureaucrat, employing an array of tools to guarantee the dollars keep coming. He knows which fear/flattery/ego-stroking buttons to push: for the 80's Reaganauts, he notes (without any real evidence) that the Commies might be readying a biological attack using invading weeds and/or critters; for Al Gore in the 90's, he makes the Global Warming connection. Later in the decade, for Newt Gingrich, a whizbang web-based red-tape-cutting Federal clearinghouse for all things Weedy is proposed. And worst of all, post-9/11, Humphrey tries to market his agency as fighting the menace of terrorist crop-dusters.

When an actual crisis occurs involving an invasive Mexican weed devastating southwest agriculture, the agency is seemingly caught with its pants down: its incompetence threatens its raison d'être. But, after a symbolic resignation, this fact is cynically used to (once again) increase the funding of the agency. Gee, that sounds "ripped from the headlines", doesn't it?

Humphrey and a number of other characters inside and outside the agency are, pretty much, set-up to illustrate Geraghty's thesis and historical events. So when one of the characters quits the agency to go to work for a dot-com in the late 90s… well, we pretty much know the broad outlines of what's gonna happen there.

Recommended, of course. You can read a tome on public choice theory, and you probably should, but this is more fun, and you'll get the basic idea.

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Insane City

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The latest novel from Dave Barry. Yes, of course it's funny. Laugh-out-loud funny in parts.

Seth, the hero, is Dave's Everyman. He's engaged to Tina, daughter of a billionaire. Seth wonders: what does she see in me? The answer is eventually revealed.

The Miami nuptials approach, and complications arise. A Haitian refugee is cast adrift by bandits off the Florida coast, with her young son and infant. Seth's entourage is devoted to getting him drunk and stupid; they succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Add in a number of other colorful characters: the groom's parents, who have developed an intense fondness for magic brownies; the bride's sister, also devoted to the weed; stripper LaDawne with her "agent" Wesley; Duane, who makes his living handling Blossom, a large albino python; Duane's friend Cyndi, famous for participating successfully in Hot Bod contests; and (last but not least) Trevor, a large, amorous orangutan disappointed with his captivity at Primate Encounter.

I could go on, because… there are a lot of characters.

The book is a little slow setting this all up, but eventually things take off, with ever-increasing levels of absurd hilarity. It reminded me very much of the classic movie What's Up Doc?, turned up to 11. (In fact, it's written like a movie, and I was casting roles as I went through.)

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The Bourgeois Virtues

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To get it out of the way: the recorded author of this book is "Deirdre N. McCloskey", but for the first 53 years of life was known as "Donald". Fine. My opinion about this sort of thing is pretty much the same as that of Kevin D. Williamson: Deirdre is not a woman. But I'll give Deirdre the respect owed for writing a fantastic book, and use the feminine pronoun here, as I imagine she might wish.

It really is a fine book on a topic one might not even have recognized as important: the role of ethics and virtues in philosophy generally, and (specifically) their role in economic development and business operations. (Subtitle: "Ethics for an Age of Commerce") 400-plus pages of that sort of thing could be awful, but Professor McCloskey makes things sparkle. (I've muttered before about USA-Todayese, a kind of breezy, semi-condescending prose that seems to be the norm in popular non-fiction. McCloskey's writing is the opposite of that: personal (addressing the reader as "you" throughout, and plenty of "I"s to do the addressing), very funny in spots, fearless and aggressive in argument. And not at all condescending: although it's accessible to the average schmoe who has a nodding familiarity with economics and moral philosophy, it's very much an advanced course in the latter area.

The overall thesis is simple enough, the Bourgeois virtues are the classical ones recognized in their nearly complete form by thinkers such as Aquinas and Adam Smith: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Courage, Love, Faith, and Hope. The first four are the "pagan" virtues, the latter three sacred. All are necessary and balance each other; neglecting any, or over-emphasizing any, leads to bad luck and trouble. Since McCloskey's training and professional emphasis is in economics, many of the arguments presented are economic ones, prosperity vs. privation. But it's clear that a virtuous society does not merely prosper, but is a better all-around place to live. The implied insult that has historically been attached to the word "bourgeois" is not just undeserved, it's perverse.

We were led off this correct path by the serious moral philosophers post-1848, who set out (with whatever motives) to come up with alternate theories of ethical behavior. The result has been bad, ranging from the awful up to horrible. Kant gets an especially withering analysis. I haven't seen Kant beaten up so badly since I read some Ayn Rand a few decades ago.

In addition, there's a Bacon takedown. I didn't expect that. (And nothing much at all about Edward Burke, which I find puzzling.)

I am not adequately conveying how much fun the book is to read. It is filled with brilliantly pithy examples from all of history, around the world. (It is also the second book I've read in the past few months to discuss the great movie Groundhog Day.) I've put McCloskey's second book in the series (Bourgeois Dignity) into my to-be-read pile; there are two more volumes projected but not published, and they'll go in there too.

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Savage Run

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After reading three C.J. Box novels, I know what I'm gonna get: a gripping story, well-told, diligent (albeit flawed) heroes, nasty villains, spectacular outdoors scenery. This is no exception.

It is the second book in his Joe Pickett series. It opens with a scenario worthy of Carl Hiaasen: a radical environmentalist (or eco-terrorist, depending on your POV) named Stewie Woods is out spiking trees in the Wyoming mountains with his airheaded wife of a few days. They come across another assault upon wilderness: a herd of grazing cows. Unfortunately, one is booby-trapped. It explodes and makes a mess of itself, Stewie, and his bride.

Joe Pickett is sent in to help with the investigation. The official conclusion is that Stewie blew himself up in a botched eco-vandalism stunt. Joe suspects differently, and (of course) he's not wrong. He quickly butts heads with an obnoxious rancher with deep political connections, which gets him into professional trouble. And (did I mention that Box is fond of Dickensian coincidence) Joe's wife, Marybeth, seems to be way more upset about Stewie than one might expect.

Minor spoiler alert: if you note the title of the book, and the accompanying explanation in the text, you'll see an important plot development coming pretty easily.

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