The Highway

[Amazon Link]

Continuing on my C.J. Box-reading project, this brings me up to 2013. I've come to expect decent page-turning thrillers from Mr. Box. But, truth be told, I was somewhat less enthused about plowing through this one; the subject matter was kind of off-putting. But that's me.

The book is a sorta-sequel to Back of Beyond which I read back in 2014. Returning characters are Cody Hoyt, an alcoholic cop; his upright son, Justin; the admirable teenage girl Gracie Sullivan and her slutty older sister Danielle.

Unfortunately, things aren't going well for Cody. As the book opens, he's planting evidence to implicate a drug dealer in a murder; unbeknownst to Cody, this is being witnessed by his current partner, Cassie Dewell. This is not the best way to further your law enforcement career, especially when your boss despises you anyway.

But at the same time, Gracie and Danielle are being stalked by a psychotic truck driver who's developed the persona of the "Lizard King". (Yes: he's a killer on the road, his brain squirming like a toad.) Will Danielle's irresponsible attitudes toward car maintenance and sex land them in deep peril? Well, of course. Will Cody head off to the rescue? Sure.

As indicated above, all the sordid details about the Lizard King's crime spree were a slight turn-off. But Box pulls something surprising mid-book that I totally didn't see coming. (I saw something coming; just not that.) No spoilers, but I'd go so far as to say that it flouts an unwritten rule of the crime/mystery/thriller genre. Box has the ability to pull such things off.

The Wizard and the Prophet

Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World

[Amazon Link]

After reading a couple of his history books (1491 and 1493), I decided author Charles C. Mann was a must read. It took awhile, but here's another one, covering much more recent history and associated controversies.

The "Wizard" is Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize winner, often dubbed the father of the "Green Revolution", the strides in agricultural production that (essentially) ended famine as a major world problem in the span of just a few decades. The "Prophet", on the other hand, is William Vogt: today he's obscure, but Mann makes the convincing case that he's the forefather of most of the threads of the modern environmental movement.

It's—really!—a fascinating story. Borlaug grew up in rural Iowa, about 75 miles east of where my own parents grew up, at about the same time. Vogt, on the other hand, grew up in then-rural Long Island, where he enjoyed observing the local flora and fauna. Both grew up to be scientists, each enduring massive hardships in painstaking research in foreign lands: Borlaug attempting to develop strains of wheat that could be grown in Mexico; Vogt attempting to discover what was going wrong with the (at the time) lucrative guano-producing islands off the coast of Peru.

Broadly speaking, though, Borlaug and Vogt are just standins for their general attitudes and approaches toward humanity and the environment. Painting with a very broad brush: The "prophets" tend to be pessimistic, look for (and usually find) doom around every corner; favor "soft" approaches to supplies of food, air, water, and energy; preach a lot about "limits" and "sustainability". "Wizards" are the flip side: optimistic, technocratic, always (and usually finding) scientific workarounds to obstacles, and look to centralized "hard" solutions to resource supplies.

Mann is an ideal reporter on this, for many reasons. He's a fantastic writer, who can (and does) make details of guano production and wheat cultivation riveting. He's also well-versed in technical issues. You won't want to miss his discussion of rubisco, (aka "Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase") the most important enzyme you've never heard of. It acts as a catalyst for photosynthesis, so, yeah, without it there would be no you and me. It evolved once, 3.5 billion years ago. The reaction it catalyzes is agonizingly slow; just slugging along at 2-3 per second. It's also (in Mann's word) inept; the reaction is "supposed" to use CO2, but rubisco often grabs onto O2 instead, which is useless, photosynthesis-wise.

And yet, nature hasn't produced anything better in 3.5 billion years. I can't decide whether this is a point for or against "intelligent design". Yes, rubisco is slow and stupid, but if it were any smarter or faster, … again, we wouldn't be here. We might have life, Jim, but not as we know it.

Mann only missteps once, as near as I can tell, on technical issues. when he discusses semiconductors (pp 284-285). Doping silicon with a scattering of other elements cause a surplus (or deficit) of free electrons, but Mann claims this causes the crystal to become negatively/positively charged. I don't think so. Quibble.

Mann is also good because he's relentlessly agnostic on the issues that bitterly divide Wizards and Prophets. (Specifically: "On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I think Vogt was correct. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I go for Borlaug. And on Sunday, I don't know.") He is relentlessly both fair to, and skeptical of, both sides, and that makes his insights all the more credible.

What Mann can't bring himself to say explicitly: the weight of the evidence so far swings the scales in favor of the Wizards. Time and again, he rattles off the failed predictions and disastrous policy positions of the Prophets. (E.g., Paul Ehrlich's "population bomb" that fizzled.) To be fair, the Wizards' record isn't spotless either. And both sides tend to be more than a little, um, pushy in implementing their policies. Both sides are enthusiastic top-down social engineers.

For folks interested in the University Near Here, Mann relates his discussion with UNH's Dennis Meadows, who was on the Limits to Growth team back in the day, a dedicated Prophet. Dennis got a little exasperated at Mann's queries. Heh. I remember that Dennis got a little exasperaated with me at times, on technical issues. No matter, I remember him fondly.

Revolt in 2100

[Amazon Link]

Continuing my trek through previously-read-but-dimly-remembered Robert Heinlein books. This one was eminently skippable, were it not for my borderline OCD about "doing it right".

It is a collection of three stories from Heinlein's "Future History" universe.

Have you ever wondered what Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale would have been like in Heinlein's hands? Wonder no longer, partner: "If This Goes On—" describes the USA in the grip of an oppressive, evil theocracy. The protagonist, John Lyle, is a minor soldier assigned to guard duty at the palace of the head dude, the Prophet. One night, he encounters Sister Judith, a Virgin designated to "service" the Prophet. It's love at first sight, of course. But Judith is shocked and aggrieved when she discovers what that "service" entails. And John, for his part, resolves to make sure Judith is rescued from her servitude. Which, essentially, means he has to shake off his loyalty to the theocracy, as well as his own puritanical beliefs, and sign up with the underground revolutionary movement looking to restore freedom. And (spoiler) he winds up playing a key role in the decisive battle.

"Coventry" is set post-Revolution, and the USA has been turned into a libertarian sorta-paradise. The only crime is physically harming someone—in which case you must either submit to psychological "readjustment", or go to Coventry, a walled-off area for people who'd rather not submit. David MacKinnon, in trouble for punching a guy in the nose, chooses the latter. MacKinnon is (initially) agressively stupid and petulant, totally unprepared for Coventry. Which, as will surprise no reader of political theory, isn't Anarchtopia, but has developed its own semi-thuggish governments, in conflict with themselves, but also looking to break out and wage war against the outside world.

And finally, there's "Misfit", a relatively short yarn about the early career of Andrew Jackson Libby. He's signed up with the "Cosmic Construction Corps", an outfit that performs dangerous feats of building space infrastructure. As it turns out, Libby is a math prodigy, able to perform detailed calculations quickly in his head. Heinlein, like the other SF writers of the era, totally missed the point that computers would make this sort of ability near-worthless. But in this story, it saves everybody's bacon a couple of times. Yay, Libby!

Ice Run

[Amazon Link]

Continuing my effort to catch up with the output of a pretty good writer, Steve Hamilton. This isn't quite as good as the previous entry in his series of novels featuring ex-ballplayer, ex-cop, ex-private eye Alex McKnight. But it's a page-turner, no doubt.

In the previous book, Alex met Canadian lady cop Natalie Reynaud. Sparks flew. And, despite the fact that Natalie seems rather reticent about her past and hesitant about taking on the relationship, they set up a Serious Date up in "Soo" (Sault Ste. Marie) Michigan. But they can't help but notice an old odd guy, wearing an old odd hat, behaving oddly. Like he knows something Alex and Natalie don't. And he leaves the hat, full of snow, at their hotel room door, with an odd note: "I know who you are!"

And then the old guy turns up oddly dead, frozen in a snowbank.

Alex can't help but try to figure out what's going on. He is surprised when his investigation meets with violent hostility. Not only surprised, but also hospitalized. And it becomes apparent that Natalie knows more than she's letting on. Eventually, we're in what I think of as Lew Archer land: today's crimes are the echoes of decades-old sins, coming back to bite the survivors in the ass.

Bite Me

A Love Story

[Amazon Link]

Another fine book by Christopher Moore. This is number three of a series; the first two were Bloodsucking Fiends (read back in 2011) and You Suck (read in 2016). As you almost certainly guessed from the titles (because I can tell you are a good guesser, reader), vampirism is involved.

I don't much care for vampire books, but it's Christopher Moore, and he does a great job of infusing the genre with humor, profanity, likeable and interesting heroes, nasty villains, and unexpected sweetness. As a consumer note: if you decide to tackle the series, I don't recommend taking a span of seven years to read them. Important plot details fade on that timescale.

Many surviving characters from the previous books are here: Tommy, the aspiring writer from the Midwest, now turned undead, and trapped inside a bronze statue. But he's trapped therein with the lovely Jody, also a vampire. Unfortunately, their help might be needed because there was another cliffhanger in the previous book: Chet, the huge shaved cat, was also vampirized, and he's busy vampirizing other cats, and they've taken to terrorizing the Streets of San Francisco. Initially removing street people, mostly the homeless and hookers, but on their way to eliminating everyone.

Also present is the delightful, R-rated, teenage goth, Allison Green. She calls herself Abby Normal, and she's thrown herself into the vampire thing with a passion. She desperately wants to be one. And (small spoiler) she gets her wish. But (another small spoiler) this turns out to be a very bad idea.

A lot of fun.

It's Dangerous to Believe

Religious Freedom and Its Enemies

[Amazon Link]

This relatively short book by Mary Eberstadt documents the efforts here in the US and elsewhere to delegitimize traditional Christian beliefs, to deny their believers an equal place in the public arena, and (what's more) to ostracize and exile those believers from positions of responsibility in private and public institutions.

Ms. Eberstadt explores a lot of case studies to support her views, most of which will be familiar to people following the news. There's Brendan Eich, forced out as Mozilla CEO when it was revealed that he backed the Proposition 8 ballot initiative against same-sex marriage. There's the Obama Administration's attempt to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide "contraception coverage" to their employees. There's the effort to compel Catholic Charities to offer adoption services to same-sex couples. Various efforts to restrict/ostracise religious home schooling. And more.

It's a tough life out there for a conservative Christian, in other words. Eberstadt's anecdotes are many and telling.

I think her argument is slightly off-center; there is some hostility to Christianity, but it drops off significantly for the "respectable" fraction of believers; you know, the ones who mix in a healthy dose of Progressivism and avoid saying much about sin when it comes to matters dealing with the naughty bits.

And (for example) James Damore found himself out of a sweet Google job, not because he was too religious, but because he dared to utter heresies against the Progressive social justice gospel of diversity and inclusion.

So I suspect that it's not Christianity per se that gets one in trouble; it's one's dissent from Progressive orthodoxy that brings out the witch hunt.

That said, after adjusting the target, Eberstadt makes a lot of sense that we need to bring back a modicum of respect into the argument, a willingness to deal with opinions that some might find wrong-headed, in order to (say) put babies into adoptive homes more efficaciously.


Last Modified 2018-04-28 7:03 AM EDT

10 Lb. Penalty

[Amazon Link]

About 20 years ago—this is before I started keeping track of such things—I realized that I'd read a lot of Dick Francis novels haphazardly. So, probably due to some undiagnosed OCD-like mental quirk, I made a list, in chronological order, of his novels up until that point in time, and resolved to read through them, one by one. This involved a bit of re-reading, but that's OK. (I think that was the genesis of my bookpicker system.)

And now I've finished that "little" project by re-reading 10 Lb. Penalty, published in 1997. Mr. Francis went on to write seven more books, some co-authored with his son Felix, but I caught those as they came out.

10 Lb. Penalty is a goodie. It has an unusually young Francis hero, Benedict Juliard, who's only 17 when the book opens. And it opens inauspiciously for him, as he's getting fired from his dream job with a horse trainer, wrongfully accused of drug abuse.

But that turns out to be a scam orchestrated by his father, George. George is standing for Parliament in England's "Hoopwestern" district. And he wants Benedict to help out, mainly to demonstrate to the voters that he has a family.

Unsurprisingly, since it's a Dick Francis novel, there are dark doings afoot. George stepped on a few feet to grab his party's nomination, and at least two of those feet aim to do him harm. Benedict, because he's a Dick Francis hero, turns out to be invaluable in detecting and thwarting these efforts.

In addition to the usual mix of danger and action, there's a lot of subtext here about father-son relationships, and the process of growing up, realizing that you might not be able to achieve your childhood goals, figuring out how to bounce back from that to have a good life anyway. Wise and moving.

The Elephant in the Brain

Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

[Amazon Link]

Why it seems only a few weeks back (because it was only a few weeks back) that we read Alan Jacobs' How to Think, in which he observed that books about thinking have a trait in common: "they're really depressing to read."

I don't find them depressing, but I get his point: such books concentrate on all the myriad ways our thinking can go seriously wrong.

Reader, beware: The Elephant in the Brain is one of those books. The authors, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, purport to report on why we act the way we do, specifically our motivations for our social behavior. Those motives are not as pure as they appear to be. Down deep, our brains are a product of millions of years of survival-of-the-fittest evolution, looking out for our own procreation and safety. But we've also evolved as a social animal, so our selfish motives are also channelled by the need to get along with others of our tribe. So we've adapted elaborate disguises for our motives, a network of deceptions that outwardly display as noble.

As an added feature, this often amounts to self-deception as well: we convince ourselves we're being nice and socially virtuous, ignoring the "elephant" of our baser instincts. Why? Because, as an evolutionary adaptive strategy, fooling ourselves makes it easier to fool others.

Their high-level picture (snipped from Amazon):

[The Elephant in the Brain]

They could have stolen a title from Harlan Ellison: Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled.

Hanson and Simler develop this thesis in (what I've come to think of as) the standard way: accumulating evidence from psychological research, animal studies, evolutionary theory. They then show how this model plays out in various specific aspects of life, devoting one chapter to each of: Body Languuage; Laughter; Conversation; Consumption; Art; Charity; Education; Medicine; Religion; and Politics.

The book is accessible, insightful, and fun to read. And made me a tad uncomfortable in trying to find out about my own "hidden" motives. (Yup, there I am: page 302. And probably other places I glossed over.) All in all, recommended to anyone interested in stuff like this.

And yet, I kept telling myself: Hanson and Simler are telling a plausible story, but they are not telling the whole story. The very existence of the book confirms that while we can and do engage in fallacious self-deception about our motivations, we don't always do so. What's typical? Who's better, who's best? How do we improve? How would we measure such improvement? (The book, to its credit, does make a nod toward these issues in its "Conclusion" chapter.)

But I keep coming back to Deirdre McCloskey's "Great Fact": the amazing relatively-overnight improvement in human standards of living after millennia of relative stagnation. That's another real "elephant" that needs explaining. I think Hanson and Simler could have had something insightful to say here, but don't.

Trumps of Doom

[Amazon Link]

This is number six in Roger Zelazny's ten-book series of novels revolving around the denizens of Amber and its associated realities. The first five books (published between 1970 and 1978) concerned Corwin's efforts to (first) rule and (then) save Amber, the "true" world. (The universe you and I know is a mere "shadow" of Amber, one of a great many. Sorry.) Zelazny began the second set of five books with this one, published in 1985.

In it, Corwin's son Merlin becomes the narrator. Corwin is MIA, variously reported to be dead or insane. Merlin is dwelling on Shadow Earth, a recently-graduated Computer Science student. His main problem being that every April 30, his birthday, someone tries to kill him. The perpetrator is unknown, as is the motive.

But this April 30, the victim is Merlin's ex-girlfriend Julie, who's been killed by a wolflike beast from a different shadow. Merlin sets off on a hunt to find out what's going on, which mainly reveals his cluelessness. But also his carelessness in developing "Ghostwheel", an automated gadget that flips through Shadow like Google flips through web pages. Which turns out to be pretty dangerous.

Lots of characters, all of whom lie about their motives and natures without compunction. A universe with a lot of made-up behavior and rules. I can tell I'm going to have a lot of trouble keeping things straight as I march through subsequent books.

The Courts of Chaos

[Amazon Link]

[Note: for some reason I appear to have spaced on posting this book report when I read the book back in February. Doing it belatedly, for completeness.]

Winding up the original Amber pentalogy with The Courts of Chaos. After the shocking and fantastic events of the first four books, the hero/narrator Corwin sets of on a perilous, probably futile, quest to save Amber from destruction by the forces set in motion by a rogue Amberite.

Not that it matters, but: I read these books when they first came out in my college/grad school days. On re-reading, I find it's more difficult to keep track of the characters.

Also: I note that there's an alleged TV series in the works. (That's from the summer of 2016 though, so I'm not holding my breath.)