Endangered

[Amazon Link]

Another fine outing for C. J. Box, with the latest exploits of Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett. Who goes through an unusual amount of hell here.

As the book opens, Joe is investigating the remains of Lek 64, a sage grouse colony that's been shotgun-slaughtered by persons unknown. A major distraction intervenes: Joe's wayward daughter April has been discovered nearly beaten to death on the side of a road.

Suspicion naturally falls on the rodeo cowboy with whom April had run off in the previous book. But (hm) an anonymous tip is called in, pointing the finger at a reclusive, heavily armed nutjob who doesn't recognize government authority, etc.

In the meantime, Joe's friend Nate Romanowski is in the hands of Federal law enforcement, and they have the bright idea to release him and use him as bait to entrap the at-large bad guy Nate betrayed in the previous book of the series. But Nate's only out for a brief time until he runs into big trouble.

Confession: I thought I saw the big plot twist well in advance. I was wrong. Author Box had me fooled.

Antarctica

[Amazon Link]

True story: I paid the full $24.95 list price for this book in August 1998 while on vacation in Bar Harbor. Maine. How do I remember that? Ah, because it's signed and dated by the author, Kim Stanley Robinson, his own self. I had happened to notice that a local bookstore was on his book tour stop, and popped in. (He's a pretty nice guy, at least I remember he seemed to be in 1998.)

I had previously read his famous trilogy Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, which gathered a bunch of awards, including two Hugos and one Nebula.

Unfortunately, Antarctica got zero awards. And (for no good reason) it's been sitting on my bookshelf, unread for over 20 years. That's why, readers, I implemented my book picking system, which at least gives such neglected tomes a chance at being read, eventually.

So enough prelude: Antarctica is a big book, clocking in at over 500 pages. And, at least for me, it should have been at best a 200 page book. Explanation One: I'm a Philistine, KSR is a professional writer, he wrote exactly the book he wanted to, and if I wasn't impressed, that's on me.

Explanation Two: he had a book contract that demanded 500 pages, and he larded up a decent plot with endless digressions and irrelevancies.

I don't know which explanation is more on target.

Anyway, there are three main characters: "X", a "General Field Assistant" working for the oppressive corporation that runs official Antarctic operations; Val, an Amazonian guide, responsible for shepherding adventure-seeking tourists on treks through the frigid landscape; and Wade, a researcher for a US Senator, on a fact-finding mission. Things kick off when X is the only human accompanying a robotic caravan of tractors delivering supplies to the interior; he is surprised when unseen pirates manage to grab one of the tractors.

A promising, intriguing beginning. But then… pretty much nothing happens for the next 200+ pages. Then there's (spoiler) an exciting, harrowing story of near-disaster triggered by a quirky avalanche and some ecological saboteurs. And there's a cool climax which caused me to think: "Ah. Blimpi ex machina!

And then nothing much interesting happens for the rest of the book. Eh.

The novel is set sometime in the future when the Ross Ice Shelf has melted away, thanks to Global Warming. This doesn't appear to be likely to happen anytime soon. KSR is also a "democratic socialist" and that, I'm afraid, is part of the reason I found this book tedious in many spots.

Network Propaganda

Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics

[Amazon Link]

Not sure why I got this from the University Near Here Library. Maybe some recommendation I read somewhere a few months back? Anyway, it's outside my usual non-fiction diet, which slants libertarian/conservative. Probably a good thing.

Consumer note: you can by the book at Amazon via the link at your right (as I type: $88.18 hardcover, $25.16 paperback, $11.11 Kindle) or you can apparently read the whole darn thing for free here.

The authors contend that, thanks to the Internet and its participants, we are in an "epistemic crisis", where voters are going to the polls "knowing" things that just aren't so. They blame primarily the right-wing media for pushing stories that are based on rumor and innuendo. Their primary examples: Pizzagate, the Seth Rich murder, Uranium One. (On the other hand, they're relatively dismissive of Russian influences via their Facebook ad buys.)

Their claims are based on exhaustive analysis of linking behaviors on Facebook and Twitter. They assign a central importance to Breitbart, Infowars, Gateway Pundit, and Zero Hedge, which (they say) played a major role at pushing fake news out to their readers. On the broadcast side, Fox News is claimed to be guilty of similar bad behavior.

Oh yes, there are also lefty sites. But (it's claimed) they aren't as bad. The attitudes toward truth are linked up with the standard "journalistic norms" exhibited by the respectable news outlets: the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, … basically anything not called "Fox News". Hence the information consumed by American left and right wings is "asymmetrical", with the right far more likely to believe delusional stuff.

And Politifact is not biased.

This goes on to influence their recommendations for reform: since the "problem" is on the right, the proposed solutions are predictably skewed too. Their only criticism of what we right-wing loons call the Mainstream Media: ah, they take that whole this-side-said/that-side-said model of fairness as flawed: How can that be fair when the right side lies all the time?

Obviously, I had a number of problems with the book's analyses. In no particular order:

  • Not that it matters, but this came up in my feed today from the Daily Wire: Reuters Admits They Sat On Bombshell Beto O'Rourke Story For 2 Years. This true story about O'Rourke's hacktivist past could have negatively impacted his chances in his race against Ted Cruz. Violation of journalistic norms? I'm afraid the authors of Network Propaganda would consider it, at best an aberration.

    Unfortunately, this is just today's example. The authors turn a deaf ear to what by now is substantive conservative/libertarian criticism of the MSM.

  • Which (in turn) means that they don't really understand the evolution of right-wing sites, many if not most of which were formed to fill a niche in the media ecosystem in response to MSM failings. "Asymmetry" shouldn't be surprising—it's exactly what you'd expect from essentially dissident media, voices that exist specifically in reaction and opposition to the dominant narrative.

  • Since we are all human beings suffering under the same cognitive biases, it would be surprising if the right wing was uniquely under the spell of fakery. You don't have to have a very long memory to recall the heyday of 9/11 Trutherism, in which a good-sized fraction of the populace were led to believe the WTC buildings were brought down by explosives secretly planted in the two buildings and/or that the government knew about the attacks ahead of time and consciously decided to let them happen.

    There are also the JFK assassination conspiracy theories: he wasn't shot by a Russia/Cuba-loving commie, but a shadowy cabal of right-wing plotters. (One variety of the theories even got a movie devoted to it, gathering eight Oscar nominations.)

    And also unconsidered is the oeuvre of Michael Moore, at least as truth-challenged as anything at Breitbart, but much more "respectable".

    The authors ignore this sort of lefty propaganda, with the implied excuse that it's conveniently outside the time window they concentrated on. I think the resulting "asymmetry" in their analysis is the book's biggest flaw.

  • I'm probably biased and maybe unrepresentative, but my personal experience with right-wing media differs strongly from what the authors picture. I had given up on Breitbart by early 2016. I don't watch Fox News much, never got into any of the wackiness at Infowars or Gateway Pundit. Zero Hedge was not a habit either (but it seems OK to me).

    The authors claim that their analysis shows that these sites are uniquely influential on the right. Uh, fine, but I'm not convinced.

There are other quibbles, but I've babbled long enough. Anyway, feel free to check it out for yourself. I feel virtuous for being "outside the bubble", having looked at a book that I disagree with so strongly.


Last Modified 2019-03-18 6:22 AM EDT

The Scarlet Pimpernel

[Amazon Link]

Before Iron Man, before Batman, before even Zorro, there was… the Scarlet Pimpernel! Seemingly a mild-mannered doofus, he covertly assumes an alternate identity to right wrongs, save the endangered, and to make his enemies look foolish.

Pun Son was assigned this book back in his school days, and left his copy hanging around when he got his own place. I knew (vaguely) the idea of the story, sounded appealing to my anti-French Revolution sentiments, so…

The general idea: in the midst of the Reign of Terror, the Pimpernel takes on the task of rescuing French aristocrats (men, women, children) from the bloodthirsty revolutionaries. He uses disguise, distraction, and deception. And this puts him in the crosshairs of the evil Chauvelin, who will stop at nothing to capture and kill him.

There were many surprising things about the book.

  • The writing is … um … ornate. Purple, verging on ultraviolet. In fact, it seems that the Baroness Orczy was trying, paragraph after paragraph, to win the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest. YMMV, but I found it to be kind of a hoot after a while.

  • The identity of the Scarlet Pimp is kept hidden from the reader (and the main character) for about the first 58% of the book. Big secret!

    Or (in my son's paperback copy) you can just read the big secret on the back cover. Spoiler alert necessary!

    But I'm kinda kidding. Any fan of the Batman/Zorro genre will have the Pimp identified well before the big reveal. Cherchez le fop!

  • But you notice I referred to the "main character" above? That turns out not to be the Scarlet Pimpernel, who actually appears on relatively few pages of the book. The main character is Marguerite St. Just, a dazzling, witty, charming beauty.

    Unfortunately for her, but fortunately for the plot, she's also kind of a ditz. So not just an inspiration for Batman/Zorro: the miscommunications and mixups between Marguerite and her hubby are no doubt the vitalizing force behind thousands of American sitcom episodes.

Fun read.

Them

Why We Hate Each Other--and How to Heal

[Amazon Link]

Ben Sasse is (you probably know) a US Senator from Nebraska. I speculate that, against his 99 colleagues, he is the brightest, funniest, best-read, and most insightful. I'm not sure who even comes close.

This book is his diagnosis of the social illnesses in the early 21st-century US. The litany is well-known, pretty much, but the book's subtitle ("Why We Hate Each Other") is an incomplete summary. At the root of things, Sasse claims, is loneliness: the increasing fraction of people who lack deep, thick roots into their communities. Various symptoms: people living alone, or far away from their extended families. Declining chuch attendance. Declining importance of civic organizations. Increasing urbanization. Lack of dependable long-term employment. And on, and on.

So nasty spats between political tribes are at best a secondary symptom of our underlying institutional decay. When the non-governmental institutions dry up, the only thing left is, for better or worse (and it's usually for worse) is politics. Choose a tribe, and go to no-holds-barred war with the infidels.

[Amazon Link]

A possibly-unfair observation: one of the more important books of the last few decades was The Future and Its Enemies by Virginia Postrel. At a number of spots, Sasse sounds like … one of the enemies.

Sasse has a number of recommendations, but they're aimed at the reader: wherever you live, join with good people doing good works. Take time for your family. Limit your tech time. (I think he recommends unfollowing your politics-obsessed social media buddies! That's something, hm, I could see doing myself.

Hey, he could be right, and the trends our country are mindlessly riding might take us right into the ditch. I would bet on us muddling through, as usual. Mainly because I remember the 1960s vividly—literally before Sasse was born—and the social fabric was in much worse shape then.

Sasse's prose is super-accessible; anyone at a middle-school level or above would have no problem whizzing through the book. I sometimes call this USA Today-ese: "We're eating more kale then ever before." That's not a slam, Sasse wants to appeal to the broadest audience.

So I had some problems with the book, but I recommend it to anyone concerned about the long term future of our culture. And I wish that somehow, magically, we could install a bunch of Sasse clones in our Federal, State, and local legislative bodies.

The Green Hills of Earth

[Amazon Link]

Another book down on the rereading-Heinlein project, this one a collection of ten short stories in his "Future History" timeline. Only a couple were originally published in science fiction magazines; the remainder were published in mainstream mags like the Saturday Evening Post.

Edition trivia: I reread the paperback I picked up a long time ago. How long ago? Well, the cover price is a cool 35¢. A used copy of this edition at Amazon will set you back at least $6.49 with shipping. (It seems the current in-print version lists for $7.99, but it's combined with The Menace from Earth.)

I can't recommend it, unless (like me) you're a slightly obsessive Heinlein completist. The stories:

"Delilah and the Space Rigger"
Workers on a space station under construction are flummoxed when an incoming worker turns out to be a dame! After much sexist snarling, it's realized that productivity has actually improved after her arrival. Get more dames up here! Also, a padre!
"Space Jockey"
A rocket pilot squabbles with the Mrs. about his demanding job, but (also) saves the day after an obstreperous brat in his ship's control room sends them wildly off course.
"The Long Watch"
There are nuclear weapons on the Moon, ostensibly for peacekeeping purposes. Unfortunately, a madman (think: Jack D. Ripper) takes over and proposes to nuke a few cities and establish a Terran military dictatorship. Fortunately, our self-sacrificing hero saves the day. (This is actually a pretty good yarn.)
"Gentlemen, Be Seated!"
Three guys in a damaged lunar tunnel which is slowly losing pressure. What to do? You assiduously (heh) use whatever patching material comes to hand.
"The Black Pits of Luna"
A family on a lunar tour with two young boys. Fine, but… oh oh, the younger, more impetuous one goes wandering off and nobody can find him! Except his older brother, who uses his knowledge of what the kid likes to do.
"It's Great to Be Back!"
A married couple is unhappy with their life on the Moon, and return to good old Earth. Then they realize that Earth is no great shakes either, and return to the Moon. (Sorry, I guess that was a spoiler. But that's really all that happens.)
"—We Also Walk Dogs"
A lucrative "solve every problem" company is confronted with a toughie, which merely involves the invention of a gravity-controlling device. Only problem: the guy who can do it is kind of a reclusive nut. (Just like all physicists, except more so.) How to persuade him? It turns out he has a weakness for…
"Ordeal in Space"
A former spaceman severely traumatized by a near-fatal spacewalk returns to earth. He is cured by rescuing a kitten. No, I am not making this up.
"The Green Hills of Earth"
The book's title track is the story of Rhysling, "blind singer of the spaceways". A warts-and-all mini-bio of the man. (I recommend the Wikipedia page that goes into detail on the story's origin and impact. Did you know that the Apollo 15 astronauts named a lunar crater "Rhysling"?)
"Logic of Empire"
Two friends argue about the labor system on Venus: is it slavery? After considerable amounts of drinking, one of the participants finds himself shanghaied … to Venus! And yep, if it's not slavery, it's a remarkable facsimile.

Mainly notable for a long paragraph near the end, which appears to be pseudo-Marxian claptrap about the inevitable appearance of slave labor in a colonial setting where the monetary system designed to mumble mumble mumble… Seems to be a leftover from his flirtation with Upton Sinclair-style "wage slavery" leftism.

All stories are notable for their detailed descriptions of imaginary technology. Heinlein was very much a show-the-rivets writer.

Secondhand Souls

[Amazon Link]

Chronology: This Christopher Moore book is a sequel to A Dirty Job which I read back in the summer of 2016.

Which is kind of a problem for me, sorry. There are quite a few characters, survivors from A Dirty Job, they pretty much pick things up from where they left off, and I'm supposed to remember who everyone is, their backstories, their situations?

Worse, it's set in a Christopher Moore universe, with a lot of supernatural goings-on involving death, souls, and various deities, mostly malign. This universe took an entire book to build, and I'm supposed to remember important details about that, too?

Well, I muddled through. Christopher Moore remains a profanely hilarious writer. But it wasn't as much fun as the first book. I recommend you read them closer together than 18 months.

Charlie, the hero from the past book, died at the end. But fortunately his soul was preserved in a small monster made of animal parts and deli meat. Which is good, because he's needed to fight a resurgent Force of Evil, a reincarnated ancient god who's planning on (um, somehow) using the ghosts of San Francisco's departed to establish his rule over the Earth. (Where's Jehovah when you need him, anyway? I can't help but think He'd make short work of this upstart.)

Charlie's seven-year-old daughter, Sophie is an issue as well. The Bad Guy has designs on her, the hellhounds that protected her in the previous book are seemingly AWOL, and her cute (albeit murderous) supernatural powers may be AWOL too. (She's still pretty foulmouthed for a seven-year-old, though.)

So circumstances dictate that Charlie's soul be incarnated into a new human body. Fortunately, there's a candidate, Mike, who's one of the perpetual painters of the Golden Gate Bridge. And Mike's become enraptured with one of the ghosts who's haunting the bridge, so…

Kind of a hoot, as expected with Moore. But, as noted, kind of a slog, too. It's not him, it's me.

How Language Began

The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention

[Amazon Link]

The author of How Language Began is Daniel L. Everett, the hero of what turned out to be the final book from the late Tom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech, which I read back in 2016. Everett's primary claim to fame is his demurral from the Noam Chomsky school of human language: that we have a "language organ" in our brains that provides us with the power to generate syntactical sentences.

Wait a minute, says Everett. His research into the language of the Pirahã, a primitive Amazonian tribe, didn't fit into the Chomskian paradigm at all. Language, according to Everett, isn't "built in", it's not in any sense a hardwired "instinct". (Thereby contradicting a Pun Salad fave, Steven Pinker.) Instead, it's an invention of the human mind, like (as I've said before) a pencil or Buick.

Everett contends that "we" have been conversing in at least rudimentary ways (but distinct from animal communication) since the days of Homo erectus. This involves, obviously, a lot of discussion/argument about what language, at root, actually is. But Everett's arguments are at least plausible to my untrained brain.

I didn't find the book uniformly interesting. Everett seems to belabor the obvious at certain points. His prose is occasionally clunky. (And the book doesn't seem well-edited. One symptom: a footnote on page 277 has a misplaced asterisk in the text, very confusing.)

And remember, this is a controversial topic, and we're only seeing Everett's side of the controversy here. Which is fine, but it just means that the interested lay reader (me) probably should remain skeptical of both sides until there's a scientific consensus.

But there's a lot of stuff I didn't know, or didn't adequately appreciate previously. One example: we know that we need big-enough brains to use language. But Everett notes that many other parts of the human organism are involved, all of which needed to be evolved "enough" to handle the desired communicative tasks. For example, we have a remarkably flexible sound-generation system in our mouths, throats, and lungs, something only a few other species boast. Not only can it make the necessary range of phonemes, but also construct widely various pitches and volumes. And it pairs up well with our sound-reception organs, which can detect the subtlest differences in incoming acoustic vibrations.

All thanks (allegedly) to the "dumb luck" of evolution. A lot of things had to go right in order for language to work; enough to make me seriously consider creationism again.

The Lock Artist

[Amazon Link]

I continue with my "Steve Hamilton Catch Up" reading project, this one from 2009. It is another standalone, a break from his series narrated by glum ex-cop Alex McKnight. And this one is pretty good, in fact it won the Edgar Award for "Best Novel".

Hamilton does a pretty good job of grabbing you from the get-go. In Chapter One we meet the narrator Michael, who's in the slammer for unspecified reasons. He is unable to speak, thanks to a traumatic episode in his past. (Details on that don't emerge until pages 253ff., but don't skip ahead, OK?) He pines for his true love, Amelia. He has uncanny artistic talent. But he also has an "unforgivable talent", which turns out to be absolute mastery of breaking into places that he's not supposed to get into. Locked doors, padlocks, safes, you name it.

From there, the story develops on two time tracks, alternating chapter by chapter. One follows how Michael got caught up in a life of crime, starting by falling in with a bad-jock crowd in high school. The other follows his career as a (more or less) professional "boxman", a freelance member of gangs looking to knock over targets that call for his expertise.

All the while, Michael remains a totally sympathetic character, poor choices and all. The book leaves room for a sequel, but so far Hamilton hasn't done that, and I kind of hope he doesn't. It's a pretty complete story as is.

Overcharged

Why Americans Pay Too Much for Health Care

[Amazon Link]

This book is published by Cato, and written by two lawprofs: David Hyman (from Georgetown) and Charles Silver (University of Texas). The Kindle version is a mere $1.99 at Amazon. Incredible deal. Downside: it's very, very long: print version is 592 pages. Although the last 20% or so of the book is devoted to footnotes.

My immediate take: It's a good remedy for people who are advocating "Medicare for All". After reading this, you'll be saying (if you weren't already): Are those people out of their freaking minds? Because Medicare is seriously broken, rife with waste, fraud, and abuse. Maybe we should fix it first, before extending its breakage to the entire populace?

Yes, Medicare is "popular". Which is why Democrats find "Medicare for All" to be a winning slogan. But the authors show why it's popular: it doesn't ask too many inconvenient questions before shelling out huge sums of cash. Its income is silently deducted away in people's paystubs. And politicians love it because they get to run it and take credit for keeping the goodies flowing. Of course, as New Hampshire's own Drew Cline points out: it's due to run out of money in a few years, and politicians are diligently ignoring that problem. (One guy who wasn't: Paul Ryan. For his troubles, now an ex-Congressman.)

But it's not just Medicare, pretty much the entire market for health care is dysfunctional. The authors recite one horror story after another, showing how terrible things are. Most of the problem is due to the nature of third-party payments, where consumers are insulated from normal market price signals. The system can corrupt even honest people, who can hardly be blamed for responding to the incentives it presents. (People do so with varying degrees of eagerness, of course.)

The authors also have a bone to pick with "Big Pharma", which uses all the tricks in the patent book to protect its fat profits. The stories here might have you nodding in agreement with Bernie Sanders. The authors have some ideas about reforming the patent system for life-saving drugs, which may work. (Unfortunately, a lot of pols seem to be in Big Pharma's pocket, and those that aren't seem to be more interested in using the industry as a whipping boy for their own political gain, not

The authors are (surprisingly) optimistic about the future; they have visions that an increasingly expensive and inefficient market will give rise to more and more "retail" medicine, more medical tourism, and cheap insurance against "catastrophic" medical costs.

That would be nice, but I'm less optimistic when nearly all the politicians and all the mainstream media have bought into the narrative that's brought us to the current dreadfulness.

Anyway: an interesting (albeit anger-provoking) read, and (as said) a very good deal via Kindle.