61 Hours

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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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Back to Blood

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Another Christmas gift from my generous family. Christmas 2013, unfortunately; it got stuck in my to-be-read pile. Doesn't matter, Tom Wolfe is timeless. It's fun to read an author who bumps up so severely against typography, pushing the envelope of 26 letters, a handful of punctuation symbols (for example, five colons are used to delimit a :::::character's inner thoughts::::), italics and (at one spot) superscripts and subscripts.

The one-line description: Mr. Wolfe does explores Miami, similar to his exploration of New York City in The Bonfire of the Vanities nearly 30 years ago. It's a pretty good fit: he doesn't bow to political correctness one bit in exploring the racial/ethnic/cultural stew down there. There are WASPs, Cubans, African-Americans, Haitians, Russians, etc. Variously involved in newspaper publishing, art forgery, law enforcement, politics, higher education, charity work, drug dealing, …

Our protagonist is Nestor Camacho, a likeable gung-ho cop. He has the unfortunate habit of exhibiting heroism and skill that only comes back to bite him in the ass. For example, in an early chapter, he rescues a Cuban refugee from a precarious perch at the top of a sailboat mast; unfortunately, the refugee didn't technically set foot on land before Nestor grabs him, so due to the US "wet foot/dry foot" policy, this makes him eligible for deportation back to Cuba. This makes Nestor a contemptible traitor to his Cuban-American community. Even his lovely girlfriend, Magdalena, decides it's time to See Other People. (But it turns out she's already seeing other people, specifically her boss, a shrink dedicated to relieving weathy porn addicts of their money.)

It's long, north of 700 pages, but an easy read. Full of sly insights, as when Nestor is exposed to the community of art aficionados:

These people treated art like a religion. The difference was that you could get away with joking about religion…

In short, fun stuff. Mr. Wolfe is 84 (as I type), so I don't know how many more books he's got in him, but I'll keep reading as long as he keeps writing.

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What If?

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A Christmas gift from my generous family. I took my time working through it, because too much wonderfulness in one sitting can lessen one's overall appreciation.

It is mostly a "greatest hits" collection of Randall Munroe's entries to his What If? site. Munroe is a dedicated scientific polymath, and a fun illustrator. (I suspect that he could draw people as more than stick figures if he wanted to, but that's his schtick.)

The questions, posed by his readers/fans, are (as admitted in the subtitle) absurd, but imaginative enough that answering them can illuminate real-world science.

  • If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?
  • How hard would a puck have to be shot to be able to knock the goalie himself backward into the net?
  • What if I took a swith in a typical spent nuclear fuel pool? Would I need to dive to actually experience a fatal amount of radiation? How long could I stay at the surface?

Perhaps indicating a tendency toward morbid thoughts (in Munroe or his question-submitters, probably both), a lot of the answers involve massive amounts of death and injury. (Q: What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent of the speed of light? A (summary): you don't want to be the batter, the pitcher, a teammate, a spectator, or really anywhere within miles. Full answer here.)

Only slightly marred by some typographic flubs, where a few math symbols that were (undoubtedly) present in the font Munroe used to compose the text just appear as annoying white rectangles in the book's font. Might be corrected in a later printing.

So it's great geeky fun, but also a tutorial on how someone with a scientific bent puzzles out answers to queries. That's a skill applicable to non-absurd what-ifs too. Highly recommended.

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Free Will

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A couple months ago, I read Free by Alfred Mele, who examined the philosophical "free will" controversy. Professor Mele was on the pro-free will side. At the time, I resolved to read someone on the anti-free will side, and here he is: Sam Harris, a relatively famous philosopher/neuroscientist.

It's a short book, with the main text coming in at 66 pages. Acknowledgments, notes, and the index add a couple dozen more. (Still, it's an actual book, and counts toward my yearly total.) I took my time going through it. I wanted to give it a fair shake.

But I was not won over.

Part of the problem was Harris's somewhat surprising sloppiness in language, right from the start. The book opens with a description of a 2007 horrific rape-murder in Cheshire, Connecticut committed by Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky. Harris then considers a thought experiment:

As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: […]

Wait a minute. That's not right.

What Harris is describing is a entire body swap (the only thing "atom for atom" can possibly mean), kind of a combination of a Star Trek-style transporter with a time machine. But if all the Harris-atoms are magically transported to 2007 Connecticut (while, say, the Komisarjevsky-atoms are transported elsewhere), the result is (simply) Sam Harris. He's incorrect to assert that "I would be him".

So Harris means something other than what he says here. He is not actually proposing an "atom for atom" swap. Instead he's imagining a different magic:

If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky's shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did.

From this we can deduce that, far from an "atom for atom" swap, Harris is imagining that nearly nothing is traded. The Komisarjevsky body and brain (with its memories) remains in 2007 Connecticut.

So it's not a Star Trek transporter at all. It's not even like the "Turnabout Intruder" episode of Star Trek where Kirk's personality was switched with that of the homicidal Janice Lester; in that case, Kirk's memories went into Lester's body and vice-versa. (Also: not like either version of Freaky Friday.)

So what does Harris imagine is being traded with Komisarjevsky in his thought experiment?

When Harris uses the personal pronoun "I" above, he is referring to "the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions" (page 7). This is the "I" he imagines is transplanted into the (otherwise intact) murderer's body.

And Harris's position is that this "I" is extremely powerless. It can't stop the 2007 horrors. It's like a toy boat, helplessly tossed on the vast ocean of thoughts, memories, desires, physiology that make up the remainder of our physical bodies, which generate actions that we only imagine are under our conscious control.

Harris relies heavily on the famous experiments of Benjamin Libet, which (he claims) support his assertions that "unconscious causes" in the brain are the true initiator of our volitional acts. Libert's EEG measurements showed telltale neurophysiological activity significantly before his subjects perceived corresponding conscious thoughts. (Interestingly enough, Libet himself was on the pro-free will side, and thought his experiments tended to confirm free will.)

Harris sets a high bar for "free will" (page 13):

Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.

Or… not. Isn't Harris making a too-convenient assertion here? Can't free will involve being aware of some (if not all) of the factors that determine my thoughts and actions? Can't free will mean I have incomplete control of some of those factors? This seems to me to be a pretty accurate description of reality, but as near as I can tell, Harris would prefer to refute his absolutist strawman.

A late chapter has gratuitous slams of conservatives. You see, they "often make a religious fetish of individualism". Which Sam is happy to excoriate them for, except the entire rest of the book is an argument that they have no free-will control over such beliefs.

There's more, of course, but this has already gone on too long.

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Out of Range

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Book number 5 in C.J. Box's series about Joe Pickett, a game warden working for the State of Wyoming. It helps to have read the previous ones. I can't say enough good things about the series.

In this one, Joe is tasked with filling in for the Jackson Hole game warden, Will Jensen. Joe had always looked up to Will, so it's very disturbing for him to learn that Will had gone crazy, taking his own life. Jackson Hole is also fast-paced, high-pressure, and very upscale compared to Joe's normal station. There's a meat-is-murder group not only trying to get hunting shut down in the area, but also opposed to a real estate mogul trying to establish a "pure meat" development. The developer is trying to railroad Joe's approval of his plans, and his comely wife seems to have an independent interest in Joe. Is she just a sucker for his game warden uniform?

But the overriding mystery is: what happened to Will? Is Joe in danger from the same nefarious forces? (Hint: yes, he is.)

Meanwhile back home, Joe's wife and kids are being harassed by anonymous phone calls. Joe's friend-with-a-mysterious-past, Nate, has pledged to look after Joe's family, but he has problems of his own: a guy from out of town is trying to track him down, and it's not to give him flowers.

Mr. Box does his usual fine job of describing the spectacular beauty and (sometimes) danger of the Wyoming countryside. Unlike many genre heroes, Box's Joe is quite human: he makes mistakes, he gets scared, he's a little slow on the uptake. He and his wife have believable strains on their marriage.

Sometimes I gripe about books getting padded out to contractually-obligated lengths. I didn't get that impression here, even at 384 (paperback) pages.

Last Modified 2015-03-12 6:39 PM EDT
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The Girl Who Cried Wolf

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After his trilogy of books about a dystopic United States under Islamic rule, Robert Ferrigno returns to his previous genre of hard-boiled crime fiction. Apparently only available as an e-book, it's an insanely great deal, $2.99, at Amazon.

The bad guys here are eco-terrorists, hoping to save the world by various foul deeds, like blowing up a development on the orange bluffs above South Laguna Beach. Collateral damage: one real estate agent and her Mercedes, crashing in flames onto the beach below.

The bad guys are various mixtures of evil, stupid, and crazy. Behind them is the secretive beauty, Chloe, who is playing her own game. Their next gig is a complex one, involving (a) the kidnapping of a show-biz lawyer, Remy, whose daddy just happens to be a tycoon; (b) the hijacking of a truckload of anhydrous ammonia.

Things go off the rails pretty quickly. Remy is not a docile victim; when she regains post-snatch consciousness, her first words to her captors are: "Get me a triple-espresso. Two sugars. And a bottle of Advil." And her boyfriend, Mack, is an ex-cop, a maverick who didn't play by the rules, etc. Just the sort of guy to track Remy down.

It's all sorta predictable, by the numbers thriller, but you get to wonder about how many of the characters will survive until the last page, and who will do who in.

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The Last Colony

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I plunked this into by TBR pile … whoa … must have been back in 2008 or so, when I read the first novel in John Scalzi's trilogy, Old Man's War. I followed up by reading the second entry in 2009, The Ghost Brigades. And now, nearly six years later, I'm finally getting around to the third book in the (then-)trilogy, The Last Colony. This delay was due to the randomness in my book-selection algorithm and the depth of the particular sci-fi sub-pile.

So (bad news), the details of the first two books in the series had faded. Fortunately, this didn't matter too much, although I wouldn't recommend the delay to others.

Here, John Perry, the hero of Old Man's War, and Jane Sagan, the heroine from The Ghost Brigades, have married and adopted a teenage daughter Zoë (who has her own story). The previous books were heavy with mind-blowing levels of genetic engineering and consciousness transfer, and all three are a product/victims of those technologies. Talk about an untraditional family! They reside on the colonial planet of Huckleberry, where John is an administrative bureaucrat. A very peaceful existence, but things change when they are persuaded out of semi-retirement to establish a new colony, Roanoke.

Problems abound: earthlike planets in the reachable parts of the galaxy are rare, and hundreds of different species are willing to fight for them. Setting up on a new world is inherently risky. It doesn't help that the government that's sending John, Jane, and Zoë to the new world is lying through its teeth about everything involved: the risks, the opposition, its own motives, and the nature of the world itself. It doesn't take long before the risks develop into actual danger, not only for Roanoke, but for the entire human race.

But… (quibble) it takes awhile to get going. On page 110 or so, Zoë complains about how boring things are for her. I thought: you and me both, little girl. Things pick up shortly after that, but a lesser writer couldn't have brought this plot off at all.

Scalzi is a gifted writer, and the people who compare his storytelling technique to Heinlein's aren't wrong. I need to add at least one more book of his to the TBR pile: Redshirts, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

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The Seven Deadly Virtues

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So the title of the book is The Seven Deadly Virtues and there are seventeen chapters. Apparently nobody told editor Jonathan V. Last that there would be math. And I don't know why Owen Wilson is on the cover.

Those quibbles aside, it's pretty good! Mr. Last persuaded 17 other conservative writers to each pen an essay on (in all but one case) a single virtue. Why so many? Well, first there are the classic virtues noticed by Plato (I'll put Mr. Last's assigned writer next to each):

  • Temperance [Andrew Stiles]
  • Prudence [Andrew Ferguson]
  • Courage [Michael Graham]
  • Justice [Rob Long]

Christian theology adds three more…

  • Faith [Larry Miller]
  • Hope [David Burge, aka Iowahawk]
  • Charity [Mollie Hemingway]

And to pad things out, Last's writers also opine on "everyday" virtues:

  • Chastity [Matt Labash]
  • Simplicity [James Lileks]
  • Thrift [Joe Queenan]
  • Honesty [Rita Koganzon]
  • Fellowship [Christine Rosen]
  • Forbearance [Sonny Bunch]
  • Integrity [Jonah Goldberg]
  • Curiosity [Christopher Caldwell]
  • Perseverence [Christopher Buckley]

If you're counting, that's 16: add in Mr. Last's introduction, and P.J. O'Rourke's overview of the first two batches, "The Seven Deadly Virtues and the New York Times".

Famous folk, all except… I had never heard of Rita Koganzon. Her back-of-the-book-bio shows why: she's a mere grad student (albeit at Harvard) and her publications are in serious journals I don't read.

I'm a little surprised that Christopher Buckley made the cut, due to his 2008 endorsement of Obama and his subsequent separation from his dad's magazine, National Review. (This also led to a wicked and delightful Iowahawk parody, so I'm also a bit surprised that Buckley agreed to appear in the same book as the Hawk.)

The essays range (in my subjective opinion) from superb to good. And the humor content varies from (usually) high to (a couple cases) undetectable. Some writers seem to stray from their topic. For example, Mr. Lileks on "Simplicity" takes off on his (well-known, if you know about Mr. Lileks at all) habit of picking up ephemera. (He ties it back up by the end of the essay.)

An adapted version of Jonah Goldberg's contribution can be read here.

Consumer note: my generous family gave me the hardcover for Christmas, but it's a tad pricey ($20.57 at Amazon as I type). I would recommend the Kindle version at $9.99.

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Deep Shadow

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Number 17 in Randy Wayne White's "Doc Ford" series. If you look over at Amazon, you'll see that a number of readers were unimpressed, but I liked it quite a bit, sue me. The premise is ludicrous, but if I stopped reading books with ludicrous premises, I would eliminate a lot of items in my TBR pile. Which might be good, but I'd also have a lot less fun.

The story is that one of Doc's Dinkins Bay acquaintences, cantankerous Arlis Futch, thinks he has a lead on Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista's lost "treasure plane", which was rumored to contain vast riches looted from the Cuban treasury, and vanished on its way off the island in 1959: could it have crashed in a small inland Florida lake? Futch thinks it's likely enough to purchase the lake and the surrounding land. He enlists SCUBA-skilled Doc to go exploring, and they bring along Doc's hippie friend Tomlinson, and the Native American/juvenile delinquent introduced in the previous book, Will Chaser.

Multiple disasters strike: the lake is unexpectedly delicate, and a catastrophic underwater avalanche traps Tomlinson and Will with their dwindling air supply.

In addition, a couple of ex-cons, fresh off a robbery/murder/rape spree, just happen to encounter the lake at the same time. They are desperate and violent, but also greedy. So Doc has serious problems above-water as well.

Could it get worse? Yes it could: the area is legendary for harboring a great, mysterious beast. Much worse than your average Florida snakes, gators, and crocs. That legend turns out to true enough to menace both the good guys and bad.

It's too long, a very common malady among contractually-obligated popular novelists. But you'll learn a lot about Florida lake geology, so that's a plus. I'm very fond of the Will Chaser character, and I hope to see him again. Final quibble: I would have liked to see a map, because I got kind of lost relying solely on text descriptions of the complex geography.

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Punch Your Inner Hippie

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A Christmas gift from my generous family. Even though they probably are not in 100% agreement with Frank J. Fleming's thesis here. I read it slowly, and I suggest you do the same, because the mind can only take so much awesomeness in a short period.

I had read Frank's previous books: Obama: The Greatest President in the History of Everything and How to Fix Everything in America Forever. "Punch your inner hippie" was a cast-off bit of advice in the latter, but it was a grain of sand that grew into the pearl of wisdom discussed at length in this oyster, by which I mean book.

Your "inner hippie" is that little whiny voice in the back of your mind that keeps holding you back from your full potential. Like any hippie, it is stupid, probably with leftover damage from overconsumption of mind-altering substances, but nevertheless mistakes the random neuron firings from years ago in a 2am crowded, smelly dorm room for insightful wisdom. It is a lazy, shiftless leech that hangs out on your sofa while you're at work, watching MTV or MSNBC. It is easily gulled by nonsense, especially when accompanied by bad music and bright flashing lights.

So: Frank's good advice is to (metaphorically, of course) punch your inner hippie in its stupid face until it shuts up. And then you can set your course for your awesome goals.

Frank's path to self-help and punching is clearly described, and probably won't get you arrested, if you listen to advice of competent legal counsel at appropriate points. Also, adequate insurance is a must.

Each chapter contains a summary/FAQ at the end and study questions to test your mastery of the material. Example:

Think of times in your life when you've been a lazy, useless failure. Can you identify your inner hippie's influence in each of those times?

How does having a hippie inside you make you feel?

Did you answer that last question with an actual list of feelings? If you did, could you feel the influence of your inner hippie making you do something so asinine?

I note that Frank's publisher is Broadside Books, billed on the back cover as "An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers". Yes, they really, inexplicably, jam those three words together and italicize the last bit. Perhaps they think that's what the cool with-it kids do? That's kind of a hippie move right there.

But HarperCollinsPublishers is also the bunch that "erased" Israel from maps in its "Middle East Atlas" it sold in the area. That's a super-hippie move. I believe I saw a quote from a HarperCollins editor when that decision was made: "Whatever, man. It's your arbitrary reality, and who are we to harsh your mellow?" Or maybe I made that up.

But in any case, Frank should punch his publisher (once his royalties are safely collected) and get a new one.

Last Modified 2015-01-09 8:04 AM EST
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