The Norm Chronicles

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Thought experiment:

Scenario A: Suppose your neighbor is manufacturing anthrax spores in his basement. There's no indication of evil intent, it seems to be just a hobby. He claims he's taking reasonable precautions. But you're uncertain: an accident or a robbery involving those spores could kill you or your loved ones. Is it a proper function of government to confiscate his spores?

Scenario B: Suppose your neighbor has a gun. There's no indication of evil intent, it seems to be just a hobby. He claims he's taking reasonable precautions. But you're uncertain: an accident or a robbery involving that gun could kill you or your loved ones. Is it a proper function of government to confiscate his weapon?

My guess is: most people, even most libertarians, would find government intervention OK in Scenario A, not in Scenario B.

But what's the difference? Could it simply be the perceived/actual level of risk involved? Is there some principled way to quantify that, to justify government actions that mitigate extreme Scenario-A levels of risk, while somehow stopping short of a totalitarian nanny state that disallows any Scenario B-style activity that might conceivably put innocent parties at risk, but probably won't?

I don't know. And (as a dilettante in libertarian political philosophy) I've been thinking about this sort of thing for a number of years without coming to a satisfactory conclusion. It all seems to revolve around the concept of risk, though.

One of my efforts at self-education was to pick up this book: The Norm Chronicles by Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter. Its subtitle: Stories and Numbers About Danger and Death. Seemingly very relevant to my lackadaisical intellectual quest!

Blastland and Spiegelhalter illustrate their story using fictional typical characters: there's the risk-averse Prudence; the thrill-and-pleasure-seeking, risk-be-damned Kevlin brothers (Kelvin, Kevin, and Kieran); and then there is Norm, who is completely (guess what) normal, all the way down to his weight and height, and seeks moderation in all things risky. (At one self-reflective point, he marvels at how paradoxically unusual his normality makes him.)

The book is a romp through the major categories of Things That Could Possibly Do You In: getting born, of course, but also giving birth; sex; crime; transportation; drugs, licit and illicit; your lifestyle; medical woes; etc. Wherever possible, the authors quantify: risky activities are measured in "micromorts", a one-in-a-million chance of death. (For example: serving in Afghanistan exposes one to a risk of 22 micromorts per day; World War II RAF bomber pilots experienced 25,000 micromorts per mission.) Chronic risks are measured in "microlives", about a half-hour in length. (Examples: each cigarette smoked will set you back about 0.5 microlives; being male instead of female will cut off about 4 microlives per day.)

And there are the big risks: climate change, earthquakes, and stuff falling from above (meteors, killer asteroids, unfortunate stowaways in airplane wheelwells …)

All these morbid facts and numbers are presented with enough wit and charm to make them (paradoxically) lively and interesting. Norm, Prudence, and the Kevlins become actually sympathetic characters in the narrative.

And it's funny. Try reading this without amusement:

[…] We know for sure that countless things—unlikely or not—will happen somewhere to someone, as they must. More than that, we know that they will often happen in strange and predictable patterns. Fatal falls from ladders among the approximately 21 million men in England and Wales in the five years to 2010 were uncannily consistent, numbering 42, 54, 56, 53, and 47. For all the chance particulars that apply to any individual among 21 million individuals, the numbers are amazingly, fiendishly stable—unlike the ladders. Some calculating God, painting fate by numbers up in the clouds, orders another splash of red: "Hey, you in the dungarees, we're short this month."

So: a fine book, wonderfully entertaining, and I learned a lot.

But did I get any illumination on the topic that drove me here, seeking some sort of objective, principled guidance on the proper regulation of risk in a free society?

No. If anything, the opposite. The authors just about convinced me that there is no bright line that can be drawn between risks that must be prohibited and risks for which laissez-faire is the proper policy. Some cases seem clear, but those in between will probably forever be a matter of unresolvable conflict between people with different values and attitudes. We could handwave about distinguishing between "rational concerns" and "irrational fears", but there's no infallible test, as near as I can tell, that will allow one to tell one from the other in all possible cases.

But I'll keep looking.

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The Sense of Style

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I like Steven Pinker's work quite a bit, so I picked this up despite the insufferably smug subtitle: "The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century".

On the other hand, for those of you who doubted I was a "thinking person": you will now have to admit it. Because I read this book. Ha!

Many of Pinker's trademarks are here: the sense that the chapters are slightly adapted from college lectures; a decent amount of humor, including amusing comic strips that illustrate the point he's making; a forthright honesty in presenting somewhat controversial notions. (He drives some folks crazy on this last bit; see below.)

Pinker is, by training and employment, "offically" a research psychologist. In fact, he's a wide-ranging scholar, willing to investigate and explicate whatever strikes his fancy. This book might seem to be a leap away from his usual science-related topics. But it's really not: he has enough applied linguistic creds to chair the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, which he's done since 2008.

So this book is a scientist's take on what makes writing good and bad. What sets it apart from classic style manuals like Strunk & White, et. al. is Pinker's willingness to get down into the technical linguistic weeds, and introduce the reader to syntax "trees", which modern linguists use to parse (or fail to parse) sentences into their component parts. (Which you do unconciously when you understand "The boy stood on the burning deck", and are flummoxed by "Stood boy deck the on burning the."). Pinker shows how some poorly-constructed sentences may be grammatical, but generate ugly trees.

But most of it is pretty straightforward advice to writers on how to avoid stuffiness, vagueness, opacity, and other bad things. Pinker is no pedant, peddling ill-conceived rules: go ahead and split that infinitive, friend, if it makes your sentence work.

On the other hand, he warns you away from usage that might be technically correct, but … well, here he is on "literally":

The "figuratively" sense is a common hyperbole, and it is rarely confusing in context. But it drive careful readers crazy. [pas: but not "literally" crazy.] Like other intensifiers it is usually superfluous, whereas the "actual fact" sense is indispensable and has no equivalent. And since the figurative use can evoke ludicrous imagery (e.g., The press has literally emasculated the president.), it screams, "I don't think about what my words mean."

See Nathan Heller in The New Yorker for a contrarian take on Pinker. (Interesting source, since E.B. White, of "Strunk & White" fame, was a New Yorker guy for so long.) Rebuttal here.

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The Stench of Honolulu

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If you were watching Saturday Night Live between 1991 and 1998, you probably noted the "Deep Thoughts" segments: brief absurdist jokes narrated by Phil Hartman, always identified as "by Jack Handey". Handey was, and is, a real person, and he wrote a book, and I bought it (heavily remaindered).

The book's first-person narrator is very much the "Deep Thoughts" guy. His real name is not revealed, because he decides to go by the nickname "Wrong Way Slurps". We learn a bit more about him: specifically, he's an extremely stupid, lazy sociopath. His friend Don invites him on a trip to Honolulu, a smelly tropical hellhole full of hostile natives, evil scientists, and scam artists. At least that's the way it appears to Slurps.

He and Don are sold a treasure map said to lead to the mythical "Golden Monkey". Since neither one is that sharp, they decide to head up Hawaii's "mighty Paloonga River" to rip off the fabled riches. Things don't work out exactly as planned.

Now: the book is essentially a bunch of absurdist one-liners linked together by an equally absurd plot. Even if you liked "Deep Thoughts", stringing them out into an entire book (albeit a short one) might not be your cup of tea. I chuckled all the way through, but I didn't try to read it all at once.

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Gone Tomorrow

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Number 13 in Lee Child's "Jack Reacher" series, and a very good one. As with most entries, you have to buy into the premise: Jack isn't looking for trouble, just traveling around the great USA, but keeps falling into the middle of incidents that start out seemingly small, but eventually are revealed to be the phenomena of an underlying evil plot.

In this case, Reacher is on a Manhattan subway around 2AM when he notices that one of his fellow riders is exhibiting most of the telltale signs of a suicide bomber: a heavy coat in summer (no doubt concealing a large amount of explosive); a fixed stare; lips continually mouthing something, perhaps a Muslim prayer; one hand concealed in a bag, perhaps a detonation switch.

Reacher confronts the passenger—that's the kind of guy he is—and immediately discovers that things are not what they seem; it's a different kind of desperate situation, and he's plunged into his usual milieu: in big trouble with the authorities, but able to find some allies; investigators that show him bogus identification; other investigators that don't think they need to show any identification at all; a missing witness; ties to a Senate candidate with a mysterious military past; an equally mysterious beautiful woman with an unsavory companion. And so on.

Even though the reader knows it's just one entry in the Jack Reacher series, and hence Reacher will make it out OK at the end, it's a tribute to Child's prowess as a writer that he's able to put him in deadly peril and make me wonder: is this the end for Reacher?

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Dead Silence

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If you look at the reviews on Amazon, you'll see that this book (number 16 in Randy Wayne White's "Doc Ford" series) gets an unusual number of negative reviews. My guess is that White confounded some reader expectations. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but my default setting when reading an entry in a long-running series is: let the author take the story where he wants.

The book is set in a slightly-alternate universe where Fidel Castro has finally kicked the bucket, a revolution has deposed the Communists in Cuba, and all is well, right? Wrong, because Castro's legacy includes piles of documents that illuminate past decades of horror and subversion. A plot is hatched to extract the documents from the clutches of the US government, involving the kidnapping of Senator Barbara Hayes-Sorrento.

Ford is on the scene, however. He manages to prevent Barbara's abduction, but the kidnappers settle for a 14-year-old Native American kid, Will Chaser, who is travelling with the Senator because he's won an essay contest.

Will Chaser is a handful. Think "The Ransom of Red Chief", except more violent. Will has a rich background of growing up on an Oklahoma reservation, getting shuttled off to a foster family in Minnesota, headed by a retired pro wrestler in a wheelchair. He's no angel, dealing weed to his classmates, and not averse to totally inappropriate relationships with his female teachers. (It turns out his winning essay was ghosted by one of his teachers.) We alternate between Will's desperate struggle to escape his captors and Doc's attempts to track him down.

Oh yeah: Doc also arranges for the demise of one of the more despicable villains from a previous book. He's in a spot of legal trouble for that. So there's a lot going on.

Minor annoyances: slipshod editing (example: on page 49, a character is described taking a "tone less differential"). And, even given my general inclination for letting an author tell a story in the way he wants, I found myself annoyed at a number of spots with the nonlinear narrative: even within a single chapter, White will start in one place, back up and describe what went on slightly before, then continue. For no good reason, as near as I can tell.

Last Modified 2014-11-12 6:54 PM EST
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The Thanatos Syndrome

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Back in 2010, National Review listed 10 post-1950 novels written by Americans deemed by the editors to be fine conservative novels. (List here.) I had read two (Advise and Consent and Bonfire of the Vanities.) So this shows how deep some of my to-be-read piles are: I finally got around to reading a third.

The Thanatos Syndrome is a 1987 novel by the late Walker Percy, his last. It is a sequel of sorts to Love in the Ruins, which was written in 1971. (I read that too, but back then, and I remember nearly nothing about it.) The protagonist is Dr. Thomas More, a Louisiana psychiatrist.

When the book opens, Tom, a once-famous brain researcher, has returned home from a stint in prison. He'd been selling large quantities of uppers and downers to truck-stop middlemen, who would resell to long-haul truckers. He's restarted his private practice, and notices unusual behavior in a number of his patients: they are (somewhat) mellowed out, but prone to unnatural responses. (Specifically: they become unable to recognize context switches. Tom asks a patient, out of the blue, where St. Louis is, and gets an ordinary, correct, response without notice of the conversation's discontinuity.) A priest has taken up occupying a local fire tower, and refuses to come down. And Tom's wife has become a surprising prodigy at contract bridge.

A little detective work finds nefarious forces at work: social engineers with only the "common good" at heart are injecting "sodium-24" into the water supply, which is causing the mental changes. (In real life, sodium-24 is highly radioactive with a 15-hour half-life, so this is pretty much a plot device.) The perpetrators tell themselves, and anyone who'll listen, that it's a public health measure, much like fluoridation. But Tom uncovers an underlying seam of animal-like behavior, perversion, and a genteel cult of death.

And, even amid all the sordidness, the book is also quite amusing in spots.

Percy, like James Lee Burke, describes the Louisiana bayous with painfully beautiful prose. (Almost so I want to go there; I keep telling myself: calm down, it's probably hot, muggy, and buggy, and you're not a fisherman.)

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Amazon points out that I bought this back in late 2011. They don't add, but could: You sure took your sweet time getting around to reading it. It's on the Kindle, and Amazon Knows All.

You'll note from the cover that the late Dick Francis's name is much bigger than that of the actual author, his son Felix. Dick died in 2010, and this is Felix's first solo effort. (They shared authorial billing on four books.)

I tend to be a sucker for these efforts to keep a beloved author's name alive. (Examples: Joe Gores doing Dashiell Hammett; Ace Atkins doing Robert B. Parker; Benjamin Black doing Raymond Chandler; Spider Robinson doing Robert A. Heinlein.) You can view it as a cold-blooded dollar grab from gullible fans, and I suppose there's something to that. But I have to admit: Felix Francis does a very good job here. If I didn't know better, I'd say: yup, this is Dick Francis.

As Francis novels tend to do, this starts off with a bang. A literal one, in this case: an unknown assassin guns down Herb Kovack at the racetrack as he's strolling to the stands with co-worker (and ex-jockey) Nick Foxton. Nick, the story's narrator, is naturally horrified. He and the late Herb have perfectly boring jobs as investment advisors in a respectable firm. What could possibly have been the motive?

Well, we find out eventually. Nick is caught up in the investigation, but can't provide much help to the cops, other than finding a vaguely threatening note in the deceased's coat pocket. He's nonplussed to discover that Herb's will has named him to be both beneficiary and executor, which leads him to uncover and delve into Herb's mysterious financial dealings. And a number of other things are going on: Nick's girlfriend is acting oddly secretive; there are indications that the firm's investment in a Bulgarian light bulb factory may not be on the up-and-up; a female trainer Nick used to work for is unexpectedly amorous; a jockey whose portfolio Nick manages suddenly demands an immediate cash-out, and soon afterward becomes involved in a nasty hit-and-run accident. Could any of these things be connected?

Bottom line: Felix is doing a fine job writing "Dick Francis" novels. Sympathetic and interesting heroes, twisty plots, inventive action. So I'll be reading some more.

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Trophy Hunt

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This fourth entry in the Joe Pickett series is another well-written page-turner. (Read mostly on the iPad Kindle app so maybe I should have said: "well-written screen-swipe gesturer".)

While fishing with his daughters, game warden Joe makes a grisly discovery: a dead moose, seemingly mutilated with extreme care and expertise. An atmosphere of dread hangs over the scene

Maybe it's aliens, and the Joe Pickett series is about to take a turn into 1930's style science fiction? Not really.

But the mutilated corpses continue to pile up, including a couple of humans, and that broadens the investigation beyond Joe's employer, Wyoming Game & Fish. Joe's old nemesis, the corrupt Sheriff Barnum, is brought in, as is the FBI agent from the previous book, who also dislikes Joe.

Joe has no special expertise in detective work, but he's dogged, diligent, and motivated. There are a lot of twists and a semi-ambiguous ending that flirts with semi-supernatural James Lee Burke-style explication.

C.J. Box (once again) brings Joe's family into the mix, and does a fine job of giving Joe's wife and daughters unique and interesting character traits. From the past entries in the series, we know that Box isn't shy about visiting danger and tragedy upon the Picketts. This makes reading Box an excercise in trepidation. We're pretty sure Joe's going to make it to the end, but who knows about anyone else?

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A Long Walk Up the Waterslide

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This is (so far) the penultimate book in Don Winslow's Neal Carey series. My take on the previous entries in the series: here, here, and here. They're all fine reading; although seemingly out of print, they're available and inexpensive for Kindle.

In this installment, Neal is living in Austin, Nevada with the local schoolmarm, with whom he became enraptured in the previous book. He's on a well-deserved hiatus from doing odd (but always dangerous) jobs for Friends of the Family, a mysterious Rhode Island bank that caters to its ultrarich clientele. Neal's mentor, the one-armed Joe Graham, appears with an (apparently) non-dangerous but extremely odd job: the family-oriented broadcasting empire of Jack Landis and wife Candy is threatened by the accusations of trashy bimbo Polly Paget. She claims that, after a sordid affair with Jack, she tried to break up with him and was raped. (Think: Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye, and Jessica Hahn.)

Landis's partner, who is a client of Friends, sees Polly as a lever to take control of the lucrative Landis empire. Only problem is that Polly's heavy New Jersey diction and her scrambled bimbo brain make her completely non-credible. So she's gone into hiding, and Neal's task is to be Henry Higgins: smooth off Polly's rough edges and get her ready for a media circus.

But there are a couple problems there too: the minor one is that a sleazy skin-mag publisher wants Polly to appear in his publication en déshabillé (as one of the characters puts it) and hires a has-been alcoholic detective to track her down. The major problem: mobster Joey Beans wants Polly dead (for initially unexplained reasons) and hires a mysterious assassin nicknamed "Overtime" to do the deed.

All these people find it ridiculously easy to track down Polly in Austin, and Neal's job suddenly gets a lot more complex and dangerous.

This is a much lighter entry in the series than its predecessors. Winslow shows that he can be the equal of Carl Hiaasen or the late Donald Westlake in the hard-boiled comic crime fiction sub-genre; it's laugh-out-loud, read-to-your-wife hilarious in spots.

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Bourgeois Dignity

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The subtitle is: "Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World". It is the second volume in Deirdre McCloskey's exploration of how the bourgeois mindset caused the miracle of prosperity that has lifted much of the world out of abject poverty, and can do the same for many more, if we let it. My report on the first volume in the series is here.

The emphasis here is on varying explanations for the "astonishing enrichment" that occurred in many countries in a relative historical eyeblink. (E.g. Norway, where incomes went from $3/day/person in 1800 to $137 in 2006—and way more today.) As the subtitle implies, McCloskey argues this economic miracle did not have economic causes. Explanations need to meet various challenges: why did the miracle occur here and here, and not there, or there? Why then, and not before, after, or never? And (most important, and often missed) why a hockey-stick increase in prosperity, and not a "mere" modest 2-4% increase per annum? Instead, McCloskey says, the root cause was a flip-flop of respect and encouragement for the commercial professsions and the ideas and values that undergird them.

It's a little funny that this needs to be explained at all: the historical facts are pretty well known. Everybody had their eyes open at the time. Yet the explanations often come with the baggage of ideology (you've heard of Karl Marx, perhaps?). And others resemble the methodology of the blind men exploring the elephant: author A finds semi-plausible cause B, and flogs it mercilessly for a couple of academic papers or perhaps a popular tome that might crack the best-seller list.

So: McCloskey does a pretty good job of shooting down multiple alternative explanataions. It's clear that this is an ongoing academic debate. (And, caveat lector, we are only getting her side of the story here.)

As I noted about the previous volume, McCloskey's style is at the opposite pole from much academic prose. I will plagiarize myself: it's personal (lots of "I"s and "you"s) very funny in spots, fearless and aggressive in argument. Not condescending at all.

I'm not (however) totally persuaded. I tend to the "just dumb luck" theory of economic prosperity: a synergistic combination of factors that nobody intentionally combined or designed, not even obvious in retrospect. Certainly McCloskey's "dignity" revolution is one of those factors; but maybe not the only one?

But I'm a dilettante in this field, so I'm probably wrong. Or maybe I missed or misunderstood the part where McCloskey discussed this. Ignore me.

I was also slightly disappointed by McCloskey's dismissal of Gregory Clark's argument that genetics might have some role in the human social behavior that underlies economic activity. Probably because I'd just read Nicholas Wade's recent book that treats that argument more fully and respectfully. McCloskey gets pretty rude, for example her gratuitous use of "Untermenschen" to caricature Clark's description of various nationalities. That's argumentum ad Hitlerum. Unworthy.

But whatever the details, the point remains: if you want a prosperous society (with all the attendant bells and whistles of peace, health, and opportunities for human flourishing), it's very important that the bourgeois virtues be honored, and the forces of innovation and trade be respected. What was done can be undone.

Virginia Postrel (of course) makes the explicit point better than I: the left wing political elite (including our President) thinks that it's deeply insightful to mock and deride business ("You didn't build that"). Also see Michelle Obama's unsage advice to avoid "corporate America" in your career plans. After reading McCloskey, those attitudes are, at best, a source of head-shaking despair about the future of our country.

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