Under Tower Peak

[Amazon Link]

I was encouraged to pick up this book by a glowing review in the WSJ back in 2013. (Yes, it can take a while to get to items in my TBR pile.) Comparisons to Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and Jim Harrison were made. And I found it a pretty good read too. It is an auspicious debut novel for author Bart Paul.

The narrator and protagonist is Tommy Smith. He and his longtime buddy Lester work in the California mountain wilderness, wrangling horses and acting as guides for tourists who want to rough it in the outdoors. But on an expedition near a remote pass through the Sierras, Tommy and Lester happen upon a plane crash and the pilot's corpse. They remember news stories from months back about a missing billionaire, and reach the obviously correct conclusion: they found him.

Tommy wants to do the obviously correct thing: report the crash site and the body when they return to civilization. But Lester gets way too clever, grabbing the dead guy's Rolex and some loose cash. Tommy reluctantly refrains from doing the right thing. But things get worse: Lester and his girlfriend launch a crackpot scheme to grab some of the billionaire's family fortune in return for their knowledge.

Unfortunate choice, because (as it turns out) there are people who would just as soon keep the billionaire's death unrevealed. And if the only way to do that is to kill everyone who can say different? Okay, fine!

Tommy, just like Liam Neeson, has "certain skills" that might ensure survival. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse can't-trust-anyone thriller.

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The Shadow University

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Subtitle: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses. This book is © 1998, seventeen years ago as I type. (Yes, it took a very long time to get to the top of the to-be-read pile. Sue me.)

One author, Alan Charles Kors, is a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania; the other, Harvey Silverglate, is a Massachusetts lawyer. After this book came out, they founded FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, still going strong.

The book starts out with a particularly egregious example: 1993's persecution of Eden Jacobowitz, a student who yelled "Shut up, you water buffalo" out of his UPenn dorm window to a group of boisterous students below. Unfortunately for Eden, the targets of this shouted demand were mostly black females, who complained. Penn administrators demanded a disproportionate and unjust punishment. But unlike most students, Eden fought back. (Prof Kors was his advocate, to his good fortune.) Eventually, it became a national cause célèbre and Penn backed down.

Eden's case had a happy conclusion, but the drawn-out battle, wasteful, draining, and contentious as it was, was its own punishment. And, as Kors and Silverlate show, it was hardly an outlier.

One might expect universities, of all places, to be champions of free and unfettered discussion, due process for accused misbehavior, and tolerance for oddball, unpopular views. But, as Kors and Silverglate show with sometimes mind-numbing recitations of case after case, exactly the opposite is true. Mostly drawing from the 1980s and 1990s, they detail arbitrary penalties and unfair procedures, mostly aimed at the unfortunate minorities deemed to be politically incorrect. They are predictably and justifiably outraged.

The roots of this behavior, the book argues, lie in the 1960s, where are generation of deep thinkers learned Herbert Marcuse's Marxist philosophy, with special attention to his theory of repressive tolerance: the notion that fair treatment of all ideas only benefits capitalistic domination of the masses. Hence, some ideas should be "more equal than others", and there's nothing wrong with people holding "correct" views suppressing rival opinions.

Now, to be fair, only a small (but very vocal) fraction of today's university personnel are true Marcusean social justice warriors. But the strident oft find allies with the spineless. In this case, go-along-to-get-along administrators whose primary interest is in keeping controversy and contention (with its attendant bad publicity) to a minimum.

The results, over and over, are episodes that seem like they could spring from a novel co-written by Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Ayn Rand: secretive and power-drunk villains deploy their full arbitrary powers against (at best) minor infractions and offenses. As in Eden's case, the good guys usually prevail, but only after excruciating legal procedures and publicity.

There are a lot of New Hampshire roots in the book, going back to 1942's Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, based on an incident that happened just up the street in Rochester, which generated the regrettable "fighting words" limitation on First Amendment rights. There was also Wooley v. Maynard, the irony-inspired case of the free thinker who got in trouble for taping over the "Live Free or Die" motto on his license plates.

New Hampshire's university system is also (sadly) well-represented here, going back to the 1950s, the state's efforts to hassle then-professor Paul Sweezy about his (acknowledged) Marxist views and associates is discussed. In more modern times, there was UNH's efforts to discipline Professor J. Donald Silva for allegedly creating a “hostile and offensive environment” in his classroom with his (um) colorful analogies and examples. Up north at Plymouth State, Leroy Young, a graphic design professor was summarily canned after allegations of sexual harassment of his students. (I'm not sure how Young's suit against Plymouth and USNH turned out.)

[Well after the book came out, UNH showed that it hadn't learned much about free expression by evicting a student who posted a satirical flier in his dorm's elevator. UNH continues to have a red light rating from FIRE for its unconsitutionally overbroad policy on "sexual harassment".]

So: while you might expect a 17-year-old book on then-current events to be dated, it turns out (regrettably) not to be at all. The mentalities and procedures it describes are still in vogue in American higher ed, as any look at recent headlines shows. (See, for example: here; here; here, all easily-found stories from the past few weeks.) Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, or as President Eisenhower [never actually] said: things are more like they are today than they've ever been before.

A relatively new wrinkle is the Obama Administration's aggressive (and probably unconstitutional, but what's new) push to force schools and colleges to cut back on due process and free speech via an expansive interpretation of its authority granted by anti-discrimination statutes, like the famous Title IX. This book doesn't cover that, obviously, but it's easy to see how it could be the source for Volume II.

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Wild Horses

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From 1994, this is probably my second-favorite Dick Francis novel (after Proof).

The narrator, Thomas Lyon, is visiting a dying old friend, a blacksmith who he knew long ago during a brief jockey career. Delirious from drugs and pain, the blacksmith mistakes Thomas for a priest, and incoherently seems to confess to a past crime.

Thomas is an up-and-coming movie director, and he just happens to be in the area making a movie. It just happens to be based on a fictionalized version of past events: the young wife of a horse trainer was found hanged in a stable. Was it murder or suicide? To this day, nobody knows.

But someone's apparently worried that the movie might illuminate how that death occurred. People are threatened, nearly killed. Including, since he's the Dick Francis hero, Thomas. The production is also in peril because the screenwriter doesn't like the changes Thomas is making to his version of the story, and badmouths him to the press.

So Thomas faces daunting odds: how to bring in the movie on time and budget, true to his artistic vision, while at the same time unravelling the mystery of what happened decades ago. Also, while staying alive.

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Words and Rules

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I enjoy reading Steven Pinker's popular non-fiction (see here, here, here). This one I've had on my shelf for awhile; published in 1999, I picked up this UK edition on the $3.98 remainder table at Barnes & Noble a few years later. Finally percolated to the top of the cybernetic to-be-read pile.

Pinker's research area is broad: roughly, how language is processed and generated by the brain. (He's written elsewhere on even broader topics.) Here, he concentrates on how that process is illuminated by the study of irregular verbs and nouns. (Consider your average dictionary, packed with verbs; you might be surprised (as I was) to learn that only a couple of hundred of them are irregular. Seems like more.)

Pinker argues, based on his research, that "language comprises a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammar of creative rules." This is contentious, but Pinker does a good job defending it. Still, it's worth remembering that he's not a dispassionate observer.

As usual, Pinker tells his story with verve, clarity, and occasional humor. (He likes to illustrate points with relevant newspaper comic strips.) I laughed out loud at this, after he's described one of his research studies apparently carried out in a University-attached community:

We also wondered whether the effect might be a fussy affectation of pointy-headed, Volvo-driving, endive-nibbling, chablis-sipping young urban professionals.

Pinker does get down into his research weeds occasionally; I don't know how many readers will be interested in exactly how a subset of Hungarian irregular nouns get declined differently when they are used as proper names. But this is proceeded by a pretty good joke ("That fact, combined with the disproportionate number of Hungarian mathematicians and scientists, led one physicist to suggest that Hungarians are a advanced race of space aliens, but that theory is no longer widely believed.") Readers can pick and choose what to delve into and what to skim over.

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Mr. Sammler's Planet

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Back in 2010, Mr. Sammler's Planet was placed on the list of "Ten Great Conservative Novels" by National Review. Given my political leanings I was kind of surprised that I'd only read a couple of them (Advise and Consent—long ago—and Bonfire of the Vanities). So I put them on my (very large) to-be-read cyberpile.

I checked off Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome last November, and now I've finished Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow. Six more to go! But as you can see, I'm taking my sweet time about it.

Mr. Sammler's Planet won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1971. Bellow himself won the Nobel Prize in Literature just a few years later.

The novel is set in late-1960s New York City: crime-ridden, filthy, smelly. But those are only the outward symptoms of general social and moral rot. The protagonist, Artur Sammler, is an old man, and he's been through a lot. A Polish Jew, he spent some time in England in the orbit of the Bloomsbury Group, making the acquaintance of H.G. Wells, among others. From that civilized height, however, he picked a poor time to return to Poland. He and his wife were caught up in the Holocaust. Sammler is half-blinded by a Nazi rifle butt. He eventually crawls out from a mass grave, leaving his dead wife behind.

Sammler has a small network of acquaintances and surviving family, all dealing with the Big Apple in mostly unsatisfactory ways. Sammler himself finds himself dealing with a black pickpocket, who is reliably victimizing fellow riders on the Manhattan bus he and Sammler frequent. Even half-blind, Sammler's the only one noticing the crime. (He tries reporting to the cops, but in John Lindsay's NYC, they are uninterested.)

A lot of other things happen, some slapstick, some ludicrous. Mr. Sammler is bemused by it all, but comes to at least a temporary understanding with God at the end.

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Stephenson: automatic buy. Even though I don't read a lot of science fiction any more.

Here's sentence number one (so it's not really a spoiler): "The Moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason." Whoa.

This happens in the slightly-near future: near enough so that the International Space Station is still in operation, but far enough so that we've figured out how to grab an asteroid, and attach it to the ISS for futher study. That's extremely fortuitous, because the Moon's destruction turns out to be, like war, not healthy for children and other living things. Having a big rock around helps.

The book is neatly divided in three: the first part deals with mankind's realization that the World As We Know It is ending, and most normal pursuits become irrelevant. The entire planet's resources and efforts are devoted to ensuring the survival of at least a fragment of humanity. This is not without controversy and squabble. Warning: Certain people are not to be trusted.

Part two deals with the aftermath of the end of the world. The aforementioned squabbles continue, but they become even more deadly, as the spacefaring survivors can't even agree on their short-term survival strategy. Bickering leads to disaster and tragedy.

And then, part three: set 5,000 years in the future. (Just as a benchmark, 5,000 years ago, humanity was just getting around to building the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge.) Things have changed a lot (although I won't spoil the details). But millennia-old conflicts still have their echoes, and they play out in surprising ways.

I very much enjoyed the book. Stephenson is endlessly imaginative, and (I assume) his science is impeccably hard. Parts of the text could be assigned to advanced undergrad courses in Orbital Mechanics, Aerospace Engineering, or Reproductive Biology. As in his previous books, Stephenson's heroes are competent, resourceful, perhaps a little geeky, and brave. I was simply in awe of his talent, all the way through.

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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 (because—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.)

Last Modified 2015-06-09 6:04 AM EDT
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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

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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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