It's a Long Story

My Life

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Billed on the inside cover flap as "the definitive autobiography of Willie Nelson", which invites a derisive comment: as opposed to those other non-definitive autobiographies?

Well yes. A couple pages in, on the "also by Willie Nelson" page, there's Willie: An Autobiography, published back in 2000 or so (but still in print). Given his copious cannabis consumption, he might have forgotten he wrote that one. Or maybe he just needed to shake the money tree again.

On the back jacket, one of the blurbs says Willie is "one of those rare American icons that you're just not allowed to dislike". Certainly, he has a lot of positive qualities: he's a prodigious musical talent, and is eager to share his success in collaboration with other musicians. The most entertaining parts of the book are about his early life, where he's scrabbling to make a career out of songwriting and playing. Everybody knows that's a tough career path, and there are detours along the way into encyclopedia sales, disk jockeying, and farming, all over the US and occasionally in Canada. There are endless conflicts with The Suits, who never buy into Willie's artistic vision of the moment, and are inevitably proved wrong.

Willie's generous with his praise of his friends and fellow musicians, and he's also quick to quote their praise of him. A close second in praiseworthiness is marijuana, to which Willie attributes his long life. (He gave up on tobacco and booze decades ago.) Why, did you know that Thomas Jefferson used hemp paper to draft the Declaration of Independence? If you didn't know that, you must not know any potheads; I think every one of them has told me that at some point. (But, yeah, probably not. Mamas, don't let your babies believe musicians trying to be historians.)

Willie's also quite religious, with a "spiritual" version of Christianity, infused with lots of Khalil Gibran, Edgar Cayce, astrology, and the like. Conveniently, his religion never seems to prevent him from doing whatever he feels like doing at the time. (He has apparently settled down with his fourth wife; they've been married since 1991.)

The book touches lightly on his political activism: pot legalization (of course!), his Farm Aid concerts, and a general willingness to believe any fool thing uttered by a Democrat. The book doesn't mention his 9/11 Trutherism or his anti-GMO activism. Maybe that would seem to complicate the story of someone you're "not allowed to dislike." .


Hayek's Modern Family

Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions

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If you're like me, your instant reaction to the title might be: best sitcom spinoff ever! Alas, probably not to be, but it's fun imagining possible characters and amusing plotlines.

The author, Steven Horwitz, is an econ prof at St. Lawrence University; as you might guess from a more sober look at the title, he's of a classical liberal bent, and his task here is to look at the past and likely evolution of family, marriage, and childrearing from that perspective.

It's a task well worth undertaking, given the proclivity of both left and right to proclaim the correctness of their views on those matters, and willingness to enlist the power of the state to enforce those views.

On the other hand, libertarians (which I tend to use interchangeably with "classical liberals", sue me) tend to either ignore such issues (especially those involving kids), or are clearly fumble-brained about the best way to approach analysis of non-state social institutions. Horwitz's effort is a welcome remedy.

The book emphasizes, for the unconvinced, that the "ideal" family of one male breadwinner, life-married to one female housekeeper, raising N well-scrubbed children in a detached single-family dwelling was only "typical" for a brief period of American postwar history. And even then 'twasn't that typical, as irrevocable trends were transforming it. Attitudes about sex, love, equality of the sexes, divorce, longevity, the nature of parenthood, etc., all push and pull on the surfaces of the institutions. Add in economic incentives, the availability of government-backed programs, tax policy, … Well, probably too many to list here.

As appropriate for an introductory inquiry, Horwitz probably raises more questions than he answers, but he knows the right people to quote: Hayek, of course, but also Deirdre McCloskey, Randy Barnett, and others who'll be familiar to libertarian dilettantes. (There's also a detailed advocacy of raising "Free Range Kids", based on Lenore Skenazy's book of the same name.)

Horwitz's basic recommendation: dynamic social forces have always changed social institutions like the family, and those changes will continue for the foreseeable future. Predicting the exact nature of the transformations is impossible; attempts to prevent those changes via government coercion, regulation or subsidy will be at best counter-productive. It's best to wherever possible trust in individuals to make their own choices, and the "emerging order" will certainly be better than whatever the social engineers of left and right attempt to force into reality.

Now: all is not perfect. Horwitz quotes McCloskey, but unfortunately doesn't write like McCloskey. His prose is academic-clunky; sentences and paragraphs go on forever, in small type and narrow margins. So it was kind of a slog. Still recommended though, because it might make you smarter.


Slow Burn

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I've said it before: Ace Atkins does a miraculous job of maintaining Robert B. Parker's Spenser character. Right up front, Spenser quotes the first line of a Yeats poem to Henry Cimoli, off the top of his head.

Yes, I had to look it up to nail down the source. I'm not as literate as Spenser.

The first chapter introduces the bad guys: a trio of losers decides to start fires around Boston, their loose justification being that it will bring increased funding for the Boston Fire Department. But that's a thin disguise for their pyromania. Spenser is hired (pro bono) by a firefighter who lost three comrades in a church fire he suspects was set.

Spenser has, over the years, negotiated an uneasy truce with the city's old guard gangsters. But his investigation runs him headlong into a relatively new kingpin, Jackie DeMarco. DeMarco just wants Spenser dead, thanks very much. I'm not too worried about Spenser; are they going to kill off the series moneymaker? But I'm not too sure that some of his associates won't wind up as collateral damage. (No spoilers.)

Bottom line: a fine addition to the series. Mr. Atkins has settled into Robert B. Parker's shoes, doing Spenser right.


Monkeewrench

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When my sister was in town a few months back, she enthusiastically recommended the "Monkeewrench" series, written by "P. J. Tracy", the nom de plume of a mother-daughter writing team. I was a little dubious, because "Monkeewrench" came off a little too tea-and-cozyish, Jane Fletcherish, maybe there would be a cat detective or two, and… Well, my tastes run elsewhere.

First clue that I was wrong: an inside-the-cover blurb from the late Robert B. Parker: "Monkeewrench is funny and convincing. P. J. Tracy's taut storytelling makes me jealous." OK, that's good enough for me. As it turns out, there's a grim and gripping tale at the core of book, and it's fleshed out well with interesting and sympathetic characters.

It's set in Minneapolis and small-town Wisconsin. Cops in both locales are mystified by recent nasty clue-free homicides. Also involved is the titular "Monkeewrench" clan, a secretive, brilliant, close-knit group of software engineers. They are wildly successful at writing educational software, but have decided to branch into games, specifically "Serial Killer Detective", challenging the player to solve murders that—oh oh—are being re-enacted in Minneapolis meatspace.

It's a page turner, all right. As the book winds along, it begins to be more than a tad contrived, with events working out just so to provide the requisite pulse-pounding conclusion. But I enjoyed it none the less for that.


So You've Been Publicly Shamed

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Reading Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test last month reminded me how much I enjoyed his writing, so I prevailed upon UNH's main library to borrow a copy of So You've Been Publicly Shamed from UNH-Manchester's stacks. It's pretty good.

Ronson examines the relatively recent phenomenon of people changing their behavior, losing their livelihood, or getting exiled from polite society due to negative attention, often ginned up via social media sites.

It begins when Ronson notices a spambot named "Jon Ronson" unleashed on Twitter, with his photo attached, babbling nonsensically about fictional gastronomic adventures. Ronson tracks this back to a couple of arrogant Internet wannabe-entrepreneurs who refuse to take down the bot when asked politely. Ronson organizes a mini-campaign of ridicule and abhorrence, which saves the day: the spambot is removed. Good news, right?

Well, in that instance perhaps. Ronson expands his investigation through various case studies: a journalist who gets caught making up quotes; the girl who made a stupid tweet about AIDS in Africa; the race-car executive whose fondness for sado-masochism was revealed; the girl (a different girl) who posted a Facebook photo mocking a "silence and respect" sign at Arlington National Cemetery; and more.

Details and results differ. To put it mildly. Ronson is somewhat bemused by his failure to find an overarching, universal, story. (Malcolm Gladwell would have.) Some shamees have their lives irretrievably altered; but some don't. Some handle it well, some don't. Sometimes the social outrage is well-earned, in some cases it's totally out of proportion to the offense.

That's OK. With Ronson, following him on his wide-eyed, open-minded journey is the reward.

Oddly enough: even though NJ's ex-Governor Jim McGreevey is profiled (he's now working in prison reform and ex-convict rehab), Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are absent. Too obvious? What brought this to mind was Lewinsky's most recent career move: public discussion of public shaming herself, giving a Vanity Fair interview in 2014 ("Shame and Survival"); a TED talk in 2015 ("The Price of Shame") And a Guardian interview just the other day (" Monica Lewinsky: ‘The shame sticks to you like tar’")

Oh, wait. The interviewer in that last link is Jon Ronson. Never mind.


Last Modified 2016-04-25 5:47 AM EDT

Come to Grief

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Back around 1998 or so, I put the then-current list of Dick Francis novels on my to-be-read list. I'd read many of them; I wanted to make sure I'd read them all. This one features Francis's ex-jockey turned investigator, Sid Halley.

It's kind of a mystery, although we know the perpetrator practically from page one: Sid has accused a famous, beloved TV personality—think a male, British Oprah—of a horrifying crime. This brings down torrents of scorn and abuse on Sid's head. Things aren't improved when the accused's mother commits suicide (also page one) and the accused's father assaults Sid outside his house (page three).

What's going on? The story catches us up via flashback: a family with a cancer-stricken daughter has hired Sid to discover the perpetrator of an atrocity committed against the daughter's beloved horse. Who could do such a thing? Sid finds out, to his eventual peril.

The book reminded me of how much I miss Dick Francis. Sid Halley is a wonderfully-drawn hero/narrator: decent, modest, somewhat self-doubting. But when it counts, his core character is "tungsten carbide" (as one of his antagonists observes). I saw him here as Brendan Coyle, the guy who played Bates on Downton Abbey—the character's right, but unfortunately Coyle's a little too chubby to be believable as an ex-jockey.


Hive Mind

How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own

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Another book snagged for me by the intrepid librarians at the University Near Here from Williams College via the Boston Library Consortium. I will miss this service when I retire in a few months.

This book by is by Garett Jones, an econ prof at George Mason University's Center for Study of Public Choice. I believe I put it on the to-be-read pile when I read a glowing review from Jones's GMU co-prof, Bryan Caplan. (Also see Caplan's followup post.) The book is short (168 pages of main text) and accessibly written; although the underlying thesis is heavily statistical, I don't think I saw a single R2 value; there are several scatterplots which imply important correlations.

The thesis is summed up pretty neatly by the book's subtitle. In short, it's good to be smart, but as far as your quality of life goes, it's better to be in close proximity to a lot of smart people. Why? The book delves into the ways high-IQ polities can (and to whatever extent research can verify) do lead to advantage. High-IQ people tend to be more patient, with longer time horizons; hence investment is favored over consumption. This also implies they can play out, in a game-theoretical sense, long-term strategies that result in positive-sum outcomes. In the political arena, smart voters are less likely to fall for fallacious arguments from ignorant and demagogic candidates… oh, hey, wait a minute here.

[Coincidentally, I noted this recent article: "Human intelligence is declining according to Stanford geneticist". Oh oh.]

It's all well and good to observe the relation between mass-IQ and mass well-being, but what does that imply for policy? Well, Jones makes much of the Flynn Effect, the notion that average IQ improved over recent history. (But see above.) Jones argues, plausibly, that whatever we can do to improve average IQ (short of, you know, the bad old eugenicist tactics) would be worth exploring: improved childhood nutrtion, alter immigration policies to favor the smarter, etc.

All in all, a decent read.


Last Modified 2016-04-25 5:56 AM EDT

I Am Pilgrim

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A thriller lent to me by my supervisor. It was written by Terry Hayes, a successful screenwriter (most notably, a couple of Mad Max movies). It's very long, north of 600 pages. But the pages kept turning, so…

The protagonist, "Pilgrim", is a retired American secret agent, skilled in investigatory techniques and nasty tactics. At the book's start, however, he is volunteering his talents for the NYPD, checking out an unusual murder scene in a sleazy Manhattan hotel: the perpetrator has used acid and other gruesome methods to obliterate the identity of the victim. And it develops that the murderer has checked out the book Pilgrim had written years before, written to help the good guys unravel lurid crimes, but in this case helping the evildoer commit a near-perfect homicide.

But that's not all. Meanwhile in the Middle East, a dedicated terrorist called the "Saracen" is unhatching a plot against America, one that he hopes will make 9/11 look like a fender-bender.

Hayes takes pains to give both Pilgrim and the Saracen rich back stories and full characters. There's also a fully-drawn supporting cast, both heroes and villains. (How else are you going to get over 600 pages?) My main quibble: unless I missed something, much of the plot turns on a coincidence so unlikely that Charles Dickens might have avoided it.


Taking a Stand

Reflections on Life, Liberty, and the Economy

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Put into the TBR queue based on some recommendation of which I've lost track. Obtained by UNH's stellar Dimond Library via the Boston Library Consortium from the O'Neill Library at Boston College. Thanks to all involved.

Robert Higgs is an economist (Austrian variety), specializing in economic history. His politics are strict libertarian anarchist. He is associated with the Independent Institute and contributes to their blog, The Beacon. This book organizes 99 blog posts he made over the span of six years. Most are short, each a few minutes reading.

The chapters are organized into six sections. The first, "Politics and the State", demonstrates Higgs' uncompromising contempt for the blood-soaked modern state. He has little patience with even advocates of small government, contending that even the classical-liberal state has no justifiable moral authority.

He's not wrong. But I kept wishing that he had engaged with the argument made in (for example) Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: historically, the rise of the modern state has been accompanied with a drastic decline in violence, coercion, and misery. Accident? Coincidence?

Similarly, Higgs' views on American economic history are depressing: a descent into Leviathan, with no prospect of recovery. (Capitalism is "dead as a dodo since 1914, if not longer.") Here, I wish he'd taken a longer and broader view. Certainly it's theoretically possible for economic liberty to improve; it's done so in the past, and (in some places), it's done so in the recent past. I wish, for example, that Higgs could have explicitly discussed the work of Deirdre McCloskey, another economic historian concerned with how liberty and prosperity evolve.

After the libertarian red meat, Higgs considers (mostly) recent American economic history, especially issues revolving around the recent Great Recession. He is of course critical of government's role in causing and prolonging the crisis. A key thesis is "regime uncertainty": especially in the age of Obama, American government has few restraints guarding against sudden expropriation. How can private entrepreneurs proceed with confidence if the next (inevitable) crisis kicks off a wave of legal plunder?

It would be easy to conclude that Higgs is uniformly dour and cranky. Not true! There's a section of obituaries (including ones for his parents) that show his generous and compassionate side. There are also three economic-themed parodies, based on, respectively, "Monster Mash", "American Pie", and Poe's "The Raven". Funny! (But then I am easily amused.)

As you might expect from a book constructed out of blog posts, things can be both disjointed and a tad repetitive. I found it was best to take things leisurely, reading only a few chapters per sitting.


Last Modified 2016-04-25 5:57 AM EDT

Clapton

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I am not a huge fan of autobiographies, but for some reason I was curious about this one. I put it on my Christmas list, and Pun Daughter provided.

I have been a Clapton fan for an official Real Long Time. Could have been even longer: even though I was aware of Cream in high school, my musical tastes ran in different directions at that time. But in college, I was enraptured with Derek and the Dominos, and I've picked up his albums ever since.

I was also, more vaguely, aware of the trajectory of his personal life: his initially-unrewarded love for Pattie Harrison, George's wife, followed by their acrimonious marriage and eventual divorce; his battles with substance abuse; the loss of his son, Conor, in a horrible accident; his eventual transformation into a sober family man.

The book fleshes out that story with hideous detail, starting with his unconventional upbringing: his bio-mom decided not to be in the picture, so he was raised by grandma, who posed as his mother. He might have been on track to become a faceless graphic designer, but instead (page 22) he gets his first guitar. By page 46, he's in the Yardbirds. And on page 65, the graffitists are scrawling "Clapton is God" on train station walls. So, pretty close to overnight success. He doesn't mention, I'm pretty sure, any formal guitar training. He just learns by watching others, and trying to sound like the blues musicians he admires. Easy peasy!

From there on, Clapton's life is pretty much the "sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll" cliché; he's much more successful at the third than the first two. His relationship with Pattie is agonizing: an untold love for his best friend's wife, eventually winning her hand, and nearly immediately cheating on her, even impregnating other women, followed by a long and bitter dissolution of their marriage. Yeesh! I'm thinking: this story would make the worst romantic comedy ever.

Even worse is Clapton's abusive relationship with substances. After some dabbling, there's a quick descent into heroin. After he shakes that, there's booze. Finally, he gets away from that too. And he even manages to stop smoking (page 256). There are plenty stories of bad/pathetic behavior and close shaves with disaster. Now, when listening to him on the iPod, I tend to classify the music as coming from his Heroin Era, his Booze Period, or his Clean Time.

On page 243 he notes: "Bad choices were my specialty…" I think just about any reader paying the slightest bit of attention has to chuckle at that. "Eric, you finally noticed?"

So we're fortunate that he survived all that, and managed to make good-to-great music throughout. I have his next album pre-ordered on Amazon.