The Bookwoman's Last Fling

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I've been following John Dunning's mystery series about cop-turned-bookseller Cliff Janeway for a number of years. This one, which came out in 2006, looks as if it will be the last; his website says problems originating from a "large benign brain tumor" have prevented further books. Here's hoping he's having a good life otherwise.

Cliff has been called up to a remote ranch to evaluate the book collection of the late horse trainer H. R. Geiger. (Not to be confused with the disturbing artist H. R. Giger.) What Cliff finds is the remnants of an extremely dysfunctional family (and family business), with surviving offspring and employees squabbling over the estate, now in legal limbo.

The title's "bookwoman" is Candice, Geiger's lovely young wife who predeceased him by several years. When Janeway gets a chance to examine her collection, he discovers that a number of rare and valuable volumes have been snitched and replaced with crap. And (eventually) it develops that he's expected to determine whether Candice's death was due to foul play.

Janeway needs to untangle a Ross McDonald-like tangle of bad behavior going back decades. He goes undercover, doing horse-work with a trainer in order to plumb memories of Candice, H. R., and their relatives and associates. It all works out to an untidy conclusion.

I have to say: it was a long read, over 500 paperback pages. Could have easily trimmed 150-200 of them without loss to plot, character, or setting. But it's clear that Dunning loves the world of horse-racing just as much as his normal rare-book world. It's funny: there's more discussion of horse stuff here than there is in the typical Dick Francis novel, and Francis was supposed to be the horse guy.

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The author, Alfred Mele, is a philosopher based at Florida State; he specializes in the "free will" topic. As you can tell from the book's subtitle (Why Science Hasn't Disproved Free Will), he's decided to argue for the survival of the concept. (Which, he argues, is a choice he's freely made.)

It is a very slim book, under a hundred pages even counting References and Index sections. (It's an actual book, though, and I am counting it on the my list.) It is aimed (fortunately for me) at the layman, and the style is chatty and accessible.

So we have a philosopher at odds with "science", specifically recent research in neurophysiology, psychology, and sociology: it seems like the odds wouldn't be on his side. But (to my mind) he does a good job of arguing that all those experiments do not prove the non-existence of "free will". Instead, the anti-free willers (Mele argues) are setting the bar for what they consider to be "free will" absurdly high, all the better to debunk it. If we define "free will" reasonably well ("modestly"), it appears that the concept survives.

To be sure, a number of experiments show that we can (for example) fool ourselves about the timing of our choices; for example, a famous experiment's neural monitoring demonstrates that a subject's "decision" about when/whether to push a button can actually be made a few hundred milliseconds before the subject is conscious of the decision.

But, Mele argues, even if such observations apply to some types of "decisions", the experiments fail to show that they apply to all decisions. The human decisions where experiments seem to demonstrate "unfree" will are those based in mental processes we share with animals: instincts, reflexes, appetites, herd behavior, etc. Conscious, rational decisions are another story.

It has long seemed to me that arguments that free will is illusory are self-refuting: if you're summoning rational arguments and evidence to get me to change my mind on the matter, you're already kind of admitting that I have a choice to do so or not. So I'm on Mele's side.

I suppose to be fair, I need to read something on the other side. This book seems like the best bet. One reviewer says " Read it: you have no choice." We'll see.

Last Modified 2014-12-10 5:26 AM EST
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For Us, The Living

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Three-word review: it's not good.

This was Robert A. Heinlein's "first novel", written around 1939. He and his wife Ginny burned their copies of the manuscript shortly before his death. But one copy he loaned out to a would-be biographer was unearthed, and it made its way into publication in 2004.

Based on reviews, I was (obviously) in no hurry to read it. But it nagged at me: to have read every Heinlein novel except this one was too much of an imperfection to bear. So I picked up the paperback a few years ago, and it eventually got to the top of the to-be-read queue, and… well, it took a long time to read because I kept finding better things to do. As I said, it's not good.

There isn't much of a plot, but here's the idea: in 1939, Navy pilot Perry Nelson accidentally drives his car off a California seaside cliff, getting pretty smashed up on the rocky beach below. But (somehow) his conciousness gets transported to a different body the year 2086. He's rescued by the lovely Diana, who introduces him to this strange future world. After a few missteps, he finds a good niche and lives happily on from there.

There are seeds of Heinlein's future stories here: moving express sidewalks ("The Roads Must Roll"); Coventry, where incorrigable anti-social types are exiled; ubiquitous flying cars; the threat of Nehemiah Scudder's theocracy (he was victorious in Beyond This Horizon, defeated here); and so on.

It comes complete with an alternate history, one where FDR was beaten by Arthur H. Vandenberg in the 1940 Presidential election. (In actual fact, FDR stomped all over Wendell Willkie that year.) No World War II for the US, but Europe went dark for awhile. Gradually, the US transformed itself into (essentially) Utopia, a free, prosperous, socially liberated land where a lot of people are naked all the time, cheerfully inhaling vast clouds of tobacco smoke.

The details of the brave new world are tediously laid out in endless pedantic lectures that Perry endures cheerfully. (Me, not so much.) Everybody remarks on the backwardness of 1939 compared to the glorious present. After a while I heard these lectures in my head as being delivered in a high-pitched irritating nasality from bad 1930s movies. The key concept is a wacky socialist sub-ideology called Social Credit, which … well, I kind of skimmed over that part, but Heinlein's lecturers go on and on and on and on describing it, demonstrating its obvious superiority via a simulation game involving chess pieces, playing cards, and… yes, I skimmed over that too, muttering "When. Will. You. Shut. Up. About. This."

I shouldn't be too hard on Heinlein's technological predictions, of course. But: in his 2086, there's no Internet. Or computers. Or even lousy calculators: at one point Perry whips out a slide rule. (Kids who don't know what those were: click here.) If you need to get information from one place to another, you put it in a capsule and (shades of ex-Senator Ted Stevens) send it through a series of pneumatic tubes. And, although rocket ships are used for long-distance air travel, space exploration is just getting started.

And then there's sex, which is uninhibited and free from all those 1939-style taboos. The 2086 people just don't get Perry's hangups, especially when he falls in love with Diana, but can't abide it when her ex-flame shows up.

So, bottom line: a painful read, but at least I can say I've read 'em all. And I'm glad he kept at it.

Last Modified 2014-12-07 5:40 PM EST
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The Up Side of Down

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I've been reading Megan McArdle ever since she emerged from obscurity as "Jane Galt" on her "Live from the WTC" post-9/11 blog. So checking out her first book, The Up Side of Down, was an easy pick.

The book is (roughly) about failure. As the title implies, it's not all bad! Good news for those of us whose personal lives and professional careers have had a few jarring bumps along the way. (I might especially recommend the book to anyone in the midst of such a setback.)

Megan (I call her Megan) tells the anecdote that undergirds her philosophy of failure:

There is a famous story of a rich old man being interviewed by a young striver, who asks him for the secret of his success. “Good judgment,” says the magnate.

His eager young follower dutifully scribbles this down, then looks at him expectantly. “And how do you get good judgment?”

“Experience!” says our terse tycoon.

“And how do you get experience?”

“Bad judgment!”

It's funny because it's true.

The book is wide-ranging (some might say "rambling"), but there are all kinds of "shit happens" events that happen to people. There are mistakes, malfeasance, miscommunications, … None are much fun, but they oft contain the seeds of future success.

"Wide-ranging" might be an understatement: for example, there's an interesting section on bankruptcy. (No, I'm not kidding.) It turns out the USA's bankruptcy laws are very lenient compared to European countries; given our hardnosed reputation compared to the mushy socialists of Eurpe, that's kind of surprising. Megan argues this is a good thing: the important part of this particular mode of financial failure is that one can start afresh and do better the next time around.

Another chapter finds Megan investigating a response to a totally different brand of failure: Hawaii's Project HOPE is a probation setup for criminals who need to be weaned from the bad habits that brought them afoul of the law. Monitoring the offender is ongoing; infractions are dealt with promptly and without uncertainty—it's back to jail for at least a few days. This, Megan argues convincingly, is much more effective than the standard setup on the mainland. It's also cheaper, since (in the long term) recidivism is decreased.

This is standard investigative/advocacy journalism, but Megan is not reluctant to bring up examples from her own life: her rocky romances (again: not kidding); getting out of debt and getting back into it by buying a house; her professional setbacks (going from a Chicago MBA to Bloomberg journalist is not a typical career path). And even the story of her mother's dicey encounter with appendicitis; the diagnosis was botched, the hospital staff didn't always follow sterile practices, and so on. (I happened to read this part concurrently with reading about medical risks in The Norm Chronicles, so, yes, stay out of the hospital if you can. It's not the safest place to be.)

Megan's a fine journalist-style writer (although she never lapses into the dread USA Today-ease breeziness, thank goodness). I'll mention one quibble: on page 65, a paragraph begins:

Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign against a probably fictional "welfare queen" tapped into middle-class America's growing belief that […]

Two serious things wrong here:

  1. "Welfare queen"-in-quotes implies that's a term Reagan actually used at the time. He didn't, as near as anyone can tell. (He did use the term once in one of his post-campaign radio commentaries, as an example of what other people were calling her.)

  2. The person Reagan referred to wasn't fictional at all.

I blogged about the Reagan "welfare queen" mythology here.

Last Modified 2014-12-08 3:28 PM EST
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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.

Last Modified 2014-12-08 3:31 PM EST
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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.

Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:16 PM EST
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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.

Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:15 PM EST
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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?

Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:16 PM EST
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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 2014-12-10 12:16 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.)

Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:15 PM EST
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