The Cake and the Rain

A Memoir

[Amazon Link]

I have been a Jimmy Webb fanboy for about 50 years, ever since I noticed that those sweet Glen Campbell songs ("Wichita Lineman", "Galveston", …) and a lot of songs off the Johnny Rivers "Rewind" album, and … whoa, Richard Harris's "Macarthur Park" were all written by the same guy.

So over the years, I've bought his albums, I've bought albums from artists who recorded his songs (Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, even Michael Feinstein, etc.). I've seen him in concert three or four times (I lose track). At one of those concerts, I even got his signature on a poster off his "Archive" 5-CD set.

I used to be kind of bashful about this, but the hell with it. "I celebrate the guy's entire catalog."

Well, actually, that's not true. There are some clinkers. But every songwriter has those.

In his concerts, Jimmy is quite the engaging raconteur, telling yarns about his encounters with Sinatra, Richard Harris, the city of Galveston, etc. He also displays this talent in a lot of documentaries: I'll Be Me (about Glen Campbell); Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?), The Wrecking Crew, etc. You can kind of think of this memoir as an version of those anecdotes, much expanded and R-rated. The book only covers his early life, up to 1973 or so. A hint is dropped at the end that there may be another tome in the pipeline.

I've been reading numerous memoirs from artists I've enjoyed over the years. Mostly musicians: Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Donald Fagen, Willie Nelson, and more. Looking for insights into the creative process, but about the only common threads I can discern: (1) mild mental illness; (2) substance abuse, usually illicit and multiple; (3) violation of one or more of the seven deadly sins. Jimmy's no exception; in his case, the most noticeable sins are lust, gluttony, and pride. He loves the ladies, including those married to other people. There are hilarious/horrible tales of drug use, including an episode at the end of the book (co-starring Harry Nilsson and John Lennon) that nearly kills him. And his tales invariably seem to involve dangerous levels of irresponsibility, stupidity, and (often) wretched excess.

It's not all glibly sordid, however. Jimmy tells some genuinely moving stories about his mom and dad, and his passion for gliding.

As noted, I would have liked to read a little more about his creative process, but there's not a lot of insight here. There is (on the other hand) a lot about the mechanics of songwriting: what songs are offered to who, the logistics of putting together recordings or concerts, dealing with disappointing reviews/sales, and so on.

True fact: "Macarthur Park" was originally offered to The Association, and they turned it down! Surely the course of world history was altered, the planet wobbled in its orbit, and empires fell because of that decision.

Wonderland

How Play Made the Modern World

[Amazon Link]

Steven Johnson is a gifted writer of history, with a real knack for pulling together oddball yarns from various sources, making unexpected connections, and drawing surprising conclusions. I was inspired to read his latest book by a glowing review from Virginia Postrel in Reason.

Not that I'm a Steven Johnson fanboy. The last book I read by him was back in 2005 and I was less than impressed. But this one is better.

It is wide-ranging, but the overall theme is expressed by the subtitle: a lot of what we see around us today, the technological miracles, unimaginable prosperity, and ongoing breakneck innovation, has its roots not in sober and dismal business backrooms, but in "play": people not searching for better ways to deliver the essentials of food, clothing, and shelter, but instead coming up with entertainments, luxuries, fripperies, pleasures, and general fun.

Johnson devotes a chapter to a subtopic: fashion/shopping; music; spicy food; illusion; games; and various forms of "public space" (e.g., saloons and coffeehouses). In each he relates various examples of how the craving for enjoyment, rather than more serious topics, drove innovation, trade, and breathtaking social change.

A particularly telling anecdote from chapter one tells the story of how ingenious mechanisms to simulate human movement had their origins in current-day Iraq (which, in turn, had swiped a lot of their inspriration from the inventions of Ancient Greece). A thousand years later, this resulted in mechanical dolls (close to robots), one of which is a lady who is programmed to walk across a room. Years later, the inventor takes an eight-year-old boy up to his attic for the still-functional Walker.

And that boy was Charles Babbage.

Good story, and the book is packed with them. And play-inspired events interact in unexpected ways. Example: Combine (1) the field of probability, birthed by gamblers looking to gain an edge on their opponents and (2) the coffeehouse, a wildly popular "public space" caused by the unexpected pleasures of tasty drinkable caffeine. The result: the first modern insurance company, Lloyds of London, born out of the realization that you could make a business out of betting on the likelihood of ill fortune.

Not that it's perfect, there are a lot of blind spots. Johnson talks about the drives at the dawn of modern capitalism, but doesn't mention Deirdre McCloskey. There are nods toward the concepts of cultural evolution, but I've read a lot about that recently from Matt Ridley, Kevin Laland, and Joseph Henrich; I didn't notice any citations of them in Wonderland. His discussion of how "open spaces" (fueled by booze and, often, illicit sex) could have used a nod to Thaddeus Russell. Also MIA: Virginia Postrel. There's no excuse.

Little White Lies

[Amazon Link]

The title, according to Amazon, is technically Robert B. Parker's Little White Lies, but the implied attribution of such lies to the late Mr. Parker is "honoring" him entirely too much. The (understandable) little white lie here is that he had anything to do with writing the book, and that's on the publisher, not Mr. Parker.

A more honest book jacket would say

Another Attempt to Shake Money
Out of the Wallets of Fans of

Robert B.

Parker's

Spenser Novels

LITTLE WHITE LIES

BY ACE ATKINS

Hey, I'm not ashamed to admit: I am hooked. This is Ace Atkins' sixth Spenser-novel authorship, and it's fine. I just want to see what Spenser and his crowd are up to these days.

What he's up to this time: his sweetie-shrink Susan has sent over one of her patients, Connie Kelly, to see him. Connie's troubles extend beyond the psychological: her boyfriend, M. Brooks Welles, seems not only to be "a phony, a liar, and a two-timing, backstabbing, son of a bitch", but also a con man, making off with a cool $260,000 of Connie's savings.

Welles claims to have had an interesting, shadowy past: Harvard man recruited into the CIA, involved with all sorts of anti-terrorist, anti-Commie efforts. He's even a staple of right-wing TV news shows. And he seems to be involved with the local Massachusetts gun nuts hobbyists.

[I should point out that the politics in the book is mildly, simplistically, anti-conservative. Later on, there's even a phony church run by charlatans using Jesus as boob-bait. Tedious. I fast-forwarded through this.]

Hawk's here. Other characters from past books: Rachel Wallace, Tedy Sapp, Belson. No Quirk, I think he retired.

Finally, another consumer note: the unsubtle cover illustration might lead you to suspect that there's a money-laundering scheme underlying the plot. There is not. I swear, they must have had this illustration lying around and said: "What the hell, use it."

Darwin's Unfinished Symphony

How Culture Made the Human Mind

[Amazon Link]

Another book from a scientist reflecting back on a lifetime chasing answers to intriguing questions. It's pretty good.

The scientist in this case is Kevin Laland. He begins nicely, with the quoted poetic final paragraph from Darwin's The Origin of Species, where an "entangled bank" is contemplated, rife with plants, bugs, worms, singing birdies, etc. All this produced via the "war of nature", natural selection. Darwin, it's evident, took a bit of (justifiable) pride in describing how all that wonderousness could have come to be.

When Laland looks out his window, he sees the biological stuff too, but in addition sees all the artifacts of humanity that signify how different we are from the birdies and bugs: massive buildings, electric poles, hospitals, cars, the Internet, and Major League Baseball. Well, he doesn't see that last bit, he's British. But still… you have to ask the Darwinesque question: how did all that come about? He's spent a lifetime working on the answers. Which aren't all in yet, but there's been a lot of progress made toward them, and Laland and his research teams have done their part.

Laland major theme is the examination of how cultures evolve, often in concert with corresponding biological evolution. (Called, naturally enough, "coevolution".) Humans aren't the only species where that happens. There's a fascinating diversion into the social learning talents of the threespine stickleback, a fish that was shown to learn by observing the feeding behavior of its peers. (A closely related species, the ninespine stickleback, is relatively stupid at this task.)

Via a combination of good storytelling and rigorous science, Laland shows how humans took a number of traits present in the animal kingdom and more or less turned them up to eleven. In addition, humans were able to take advantage of teaching, which is relatively rare in other animals. And teaching is made much more efficacious when combined with our talent for language (completely absent in other animals).

My only quibble is that Laland seems to avoid what I think of as Deirdre McCloskey territory: he doesn't attempt to explain the hockey-stick increase in economic prosperity in a mere eyeblink of evolutionary time.

[He does, however, go into an area where I haven't seen others go: the evolution of artistic expression, concentrating on dance. Didn't see that coming.]

I seem to be reading in this area a lot. If you're interested, I can also recommend The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley and The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich.

The Black Box

[Amazon Link]

Slowly, oh so very slowly, catching up with Michael Connelly's novels. This one came out in November 2012, a mere 4.5 years ago! It's a Harry Bosch book, and Harry's in his usual fine form.

Twenty years previous, Harry was assigned to a near-hopeless task: investigate homicides committed in the midst of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. One was the murder of a female Danish journalist, found crumpled in an alley off Crenshaw Boulevard. What was she doing there? Was this random violence or was there a motive? While riot cops and National Guardsmen look on, Harry investigates, with partner J. Edgar, as best he can, before getting hustled along to the next victim. Eventually, the murder gets assigned to a special task force, which does its best with a hopeless case.

But present-day Harry works for the Open-Unsolved Unit. Fortuitous forensic advances allow analysis of the shell casing found at the scene, tracing it to other shootings in the years since. It's a thin, two-decade-old, reed to work with, but there's nobody better at working thin reeds than Harry. Unsurprisingly, Harry has to contend with reluctant witnesses and a new boss who despises Harry's loose-cannon ways.

Another page-turner, of course, with a slam-bang satisfying finish.

I think I've mentioned this before, but I've also been streaming the Amazon series Bosch. It's a tribute to Titus Welliver, who plays Harry, that I now "see" him when I read the books. The series really gets Harry right.

Zodiac

[Amazon Link]

This is early Neal Stephenson, his second novel after The Big U. He says on his website that it took "about a month" to write. It's set mostly in the Boston environs, and thanks to occasional Red Sox shoutouts, we can determine that it's set in the late 1980s, the era of Dwight Evans, Sam Horn, and Marty Barrett.

I enjoyed it, although it's not on the par with later work like Snow Crash, Cryptnomicon, and so on. To a certain extent, it's refreshing to know that, a few decades back, Stephenson was merely "pretty good" as opposed to "masterful."

The protagonist, Sangamon Taylor, is a self-described "granola James Bond", an eco-warrior working for a Greenpeace-like organization called GEE ("Group of Environmental Extremists"). He's kind of an asshole (and Stephenson, in his "Acknowledgments", avers that this is what he was going for). He has an unfortunate laughing gas habit, but his heart is in the right place.

Mostly his work involves publicizing, and semi-illegal vandalizing, of firms' criminal toxin-dumping. Plugging pipes that dump dioxins into rivers, for example. But he runs across something very nasty around Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor—you don't want to eat those lobsters, fellah. Before you can say "massive conspiracy", there's murderous gunplay (and boatplay) involving (maybe?) the Mafia, a presidential candidate, an evil corporation, mad scientists, Satan-worshipping fans of a metal band ("Pöyszen Böyzen"). A lot goes on.

Needs a map of (at least) Boston and Boston Harbor so the interested reader can follow Sangamon on his travels. As an occasional visitor, I was able to mostly keep track, but someone less familiar might get swamped in the geography.

The Undoing Project

A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

[Amazon Link]

A few months ago, I read the wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, describing the research that led to his Nobel (in economics). This book, by famous non-fiction author Michael Lewis is the "outside view" of Kahneman's remarkable life and research, and that of his longtime collaborator Aron Tversky. (Kahneman and Tversky are referred to as "Danny" and "Aron" throughout; I'll return the favor by calling Lewis "Mike" here.)

Things are especially compelling in the early going: Danny was born in Tel Aviv in 1934, but spent his early childhood in France. He was Jewish. Friend, you can do the math here: much of his early life was spent close to horrible death. Lewis relates this dark story with many odd and compelling details.

Aron's background was slightly less hectic: he was born, and stayed in what-was-to-become-Israel during WWII. But (here's a story), while training with the Israeli army in the mid-50s, Arib was present when another soldier fainted on top of a bangalore torpedo he had just armed to clear a barbed wire barrier. Against orders, Aron trotted over to the doomed soldier, dragged him away from the torpedo, and fell on top of him before the explosion. Amos got a lifetime supply of shrapnel embedded in his back. And a medal. And advice from Moshe Dayan: "You did a very stupid and brave thing and you won't get away with it again."

Aron died in 1996 of cancer. They don't award the Nobel to dead people, unfortunately.

Anyway: Mike is one of the best at telling these stories that combine personal stories with a lot of geeky detail, in this case psychology. I'd recommend reading this book, before or after Danny's.

What I noticed: Mike notes the career progress of Don Redelmeier, a Candadian doctor who wound up doing some work with Aron. One of Don's insights was spurred by a brain-dead helmetless motorcyclist who'd run into a tree: people were bad at judging risks, "even when their misjudgment might kill them." And there's a small advocacy of mandatory helmet laws.

This is kind of a bugaboo of mine, that misses an important point: people have wildly differing appetites for risk. I'm wary of people who pretend there's a "right" level for acceptable risk, and want to back that up with legislation.

Worse: Danny's two-pack-daily cigarette habit is mentioned, without similar comment. How risky was that? (Note: Danny's still alive and kicking at age 83.)

Chasing Midnight

[Amazon Link]

This is (according to Amazon) number 19 in the Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford series. And—sorry, Randy—I didn't care for it much. In which I seem to agree with a lot of Amazon reviewers, many of them claiming to have been (like me) longtime fans. The 1-star reviews are (as I type) the most common (27%) with only 24% giving it 5 stars.

Ah, well. I'll continue reading the series. Because that's the way I roll. There must be some name for this mental illness quirk, if you know it could you tell me? Maybe it's the sunk cost fallacy?

Anyway: Doc and Tomlinson find themselves on a Gulf Coast island, amidst a conclave of Beluga caviar moguls, environmental activists, and assorted hangers-on. They have odd names: "Odus", "Kahn", "Kazlov", "Umkeo". And (right from the get-go) things go poorly: the island's power is cut, communications with the outside world are jammed, and people start shooting. At Doc, of course. There's a lot of dodging, bobbing, and weaving. Dire threats are issued.

Part of the problem is that White continues a writing device that he's used in the past: start the book in the middle of action (presumably to grab your attention), then introduce the setting and the characters in flashbacks. This didn't work for me.

And I kept reading to the end, but I have to confess: I could barely tell the characters apart, could not figure out their motivations, and I didn't care about the caviar plot driver enough to make sense out of it,

The Death of Expertise

The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters

[Amazon Link]

Tom Nichols wrote this very readable and entertaining book on a depressing subject: why "expertise" has become increasingly disrespected in recent US history, and why that's problematic. His analysis is imperfect, but he writes with honesty and straightforwardness, and is (relatively) fearless about calling out the people responsible. (One exception: he recalls a working for a US Senator who threw him "out of his office in a fusillade of curses during a principled disagreement". The Senator is unnamed, but it doesn't take a lot of digging to discover: the late John Heinz.)

And best of all (from his Wikipedia page: "Nichols is an undefeated five-time Jeopardy! champion and one of that game's all-time top players." (Unfortunately, his run came in 1994 before they dinked the rules to allow contestants to play as long as they kept winning.)

Anyway, to the book: Nichols is (rightly) disturbed by the increasing levels of know-nothingism in the American populace. Specifically, he's put off by the aggressiveness demonstrated by the willfully ignorant. Caricature: "My opinion's as good as yours! even though you have a Ph.D. and years of experience in the field, I spent a few minutes with the Google and found these websites…"

The sources driving expertise-demise are named and shamed. Four big culprits:

  • The system of US higher education, which has become corrupted by a "customer is always right" mentality, concentration of "lazy river"-style entertaining fripperies for students at the expense of academics, grade inflation, and a dumbing-down of course content. As a result, a college degree (depending on the major, of course) has become devalued, but the students coming out of the process seem to be increasingly arrogant and entitled.

  • The Internet. It makes it easy to look up lies and errors, and (probably worse) social media sites make it easy to connect with the equally-deluded, and to establish an echo chamber/bubble in which people can remain cozily unchallenged in their delusions.

  • Journalists. They're unskeptical, biased, and often unqualified to sort out nonsense from fact. (It doesn't help that they're products of our higher education system — see above.) Like colleges, they cater to their customer base. What results is a "product" which has to be treated with huge amounts of skepticism.

  • Experts themselves. As Nichols shows in a late chapter, they can be wrong, and arrogant about it. Surprise: they're human beings too. And instead of being patient, tolerant, and unbiased, they can be … the opposite of those things. Understandably, the rest of us react poorly. Especially, when an "expert" is caught unpantsed, it tarnishes the whole group, and degrades the notion that experts should be (at least) recognized as more reliable sources of information and advice than Joe Schmoe.

I mentioned imperfections. Here are a couple:

Nichols has a (funny/depressing) rant about raw milk. He notes a CDC report that claimed "raw dairy products were 150 times more likely than pasteurized products to cause food-borne illness".

Now, I don't disagree with Nichols' main point: consumers should make food choices based on solid information. But the "150 times" factoid is pretty useless for determining that; it's just a scary big number. What might be important and useful to know is the absolute risk, not the relative risk.

Specifically: If the illness risk for pasteurized products is negligible, then 150 times that risk might also be negligible. And (I bet) that risk goes down a lot if you buy from a reputable source, and follow sensible food safety procedures.

And Nichols' factoid is absent of context. Even if he had reported the absolute risk for raw milk, how does it compare to the risk of food-borne illness from other sources? My gut (heh) feeling is from news reports of food recalls and hospitalizations: problems are entirely from produce and meat, nothing from dairy. Am I wrong? Maybe. But good luck finding out relevant facts from "expert" sources.

[Disclaimer: raw milk is legal in New Hampshire—live free or die, baby!—and I tried some once. I did not die.]

The second issue is Nichols' occasional overbroad brush. I was taken by this (page 111):

The deeper issue here is that the Internet is actually changing the way we read, the way we reason, even the way we think, and all for the worse.

I read that, and I thought: hey, someone talk Tom down from that ledge. His "we" is certainly overstated ("what do you mean 'we', white man?") and "all for the worse" is unsubstantiated and (almost certainly) false. And I bet he'd rewrite that if he had the chance.

Note: I was led to this book by this Noah Berlatsky review in Reason. I liked the book better than Berlatsky did, but that may be because I'm slightly more conservative than the average Reasonoid. Still, Berlatsky's critique is worth reading in conjunction with Nichols' book.

Snow Blind

[Amazon Link]

Number four in the sister-recommended Monkeewrench series. It's a page-turner!

The grabber here (after a couple of flashback prologues to be explained later) is the murder of two cross-country-skiing cops in a Minneapolis park. The lurid detail: they've been stood up and entombed in snowmen.

Meanwhile, a dangerous wife-abuser abducts his parole officer, and is off to a remote part of Minnesota, where his ex-wife has taken up residence in an unusual community of women. The local sheriff is a newly elected woman with minimal law enforcement experience. She lives on a remote and spooky farm, and … what do you know? … the abuser just happens to pick her farm in which to take shelter on his quest to mete out more abuse.

So, yes, it's a little contrived. By which I mean, a lot. And, despite the series name, the Monkeewrench gang doesn't play a big role here. But, as I said above. It's a page-turner, because the mother-daughter "P. J. Tracy" writing team is pretty good.