Unwanted Advances

Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus

[Amazon Link]

Not that it matters, but Pun Salad was on-hand when the Obama Administration issued its famous/infamous Title IX "Dear Colleague" letter back in 2011, announced by VP Biden himself in the Memorial Union Building at the University Near Here. Looking back at what I wrote that day, I seem to have been mostly accurate ("aggrieved parties will have significantly more avenues to pursue their gripes"), but woefully blind at predicting what would come in the following years. This book by Laura Kipnis (a professor in the Department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University) is a handy, microscopic, look at the (predictable? regrettable? tragicomic? outrageous?) results as it played out at Northwestern and elswhere.

What's the best adjective to use to describe the process by which universities adjudicate and punish accusations of sexual misbehavior among their employees and students? Kafkaesque? Orwellian? McCarthyite? (Maybe "Kipnitian" will take hold.) Which historical trials offer the best parallels? Salem witches? Spanish Inquisition?

Professor Kipnis bills herself (on page one) as a "left-wing feminist", but defies that stereotype forming in your head by having a sense of humor (or it could be irony—as she says, also on page one, she likes irony). Whatever, she writes clearly and honestly about her observations, and there's very little ideology, other than her clear devotion to truth, rights, and justice. (That sounds corny. It's not meant to be.)

One of her primary observations: feminism used to be, and still claims to be, about female equality, that claims of delicate femininity needing special protections are bunkum. Yet, this feminism was "hijacked by melodrama" in higher ed; there, women are seen as helpless waifs in the sway of powerful males. Often they don't see themselves as victims until weeks, months, even years later! When it's been explained to them.

Kipnis tells the story of Philosophy prof Peter Ludlow, under fire from two accusers (both pseudonymous in the book). She was Ludlow's "faculty support person" at Northwestern's conclave. At first, she thought Ludlow probably was guilty, or at least guilty enough to be shitcanned; she came around to think that charges were unmerited. Yet, Ludlow resigned his position before Northwestern could fire him. Kipnis demolishes the charges against Ludlow in both cases; they were based on contestable (and sometimes changing) stories; they were often contradicted by the concurrent actions of the accusers. What Ludlow had was lousy judgment, in the sense of Algren's Third Rule of Life: "Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."

Kipnis had her own woes. She wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe". Which echoed a lot of themes in this book but—oops—caused Title IX complaints to be brought up against her. Chilling effect, you see. And (surprise, surprise) this very book has generated its own lawsuit, from the graduate student pseudonymed "Nola Hartley" therein. Here's hoping Professor Kipnis comes out alive and well on the other end.

Finally, I very much appreciated Professor Kipnis's reaction to being lectured on "confidentiality" and "conduct befitting a professor". It's about the same as I had when I (and other UNH employees) were "asked" by our superiors to sign a public document averring to “Never commit, condone, nor remain silent about violence against women.”

Professor Kipnis's response is one I didn't myself have the guts to make at the time: "Kiss my ass."

The Burning Room

[Amazon Link]

Yes, another masterful page-turner from Michael Connelly, chronicling the latest exploits of LAPD Detective Harry Bosch. Or, more accurately, then-latest. Two have come out since, and another is in the pipe for October of this year.

Harry is on the cold case detail ("Open-Unsolved Unit"), looking to solve long-past crimes. A victim of a seemingly-random shooting ten years back was slowly and agonizingly poisoned by the slug in his spine. Now he's died, and the bullet is pried out to reveal … a thread of new evidence!

Bosch has a new partner, too. Due to LAPD social-engineering politics, it's a young Hispanic woman, Lucia Soto, with no detecting experience. Bosch is skeptical, even more so when Lucia seems to have her own secret agenda. Never mind, it turns out that she is, to a first approximation, very Bosch-like in her interests and obsessions. Amusing bit: there's an unstated competition between Bosch and Soto as to who can get into the squad room first in the morning. Slight spoiler: It turns out this book has two cold cases, and Bosch and Soto cut some corners in order to work on both.

Another not-so-slight spoiler: the book ends with both cases "solved" but very little justice meted out. And there's kind of a cliffhanger as far as Harry's future detecting career goes. But: it's hardly a spoiler to know that there at least three more Bosch books after this, so it's safe to assume things work out somehow.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

[Amazon Link]

I've shied away from some of Neal Stephenson's later co-written works. But peeking at the first few pages at Barnes & Noble hooked me… so I went home and bought the book from Amazon. (No brainer: $35 list price vs. $21 at Amazon.) Mr. Stephenson's co-writer is Nicole Galland, and they make a mighty team.

Genre pigeon-holers will have a tough time. There's plenty of hard SF, time-travel implemented via ingenious gadgetry based on Schrödinger's famous box; but (oops) the gadgets only work with the cooperation of actual witches, which makes it kinda fantasy; and there's plenty of historical-fiction-style derring-do; and there's Tom Clancy-style military intrigue. And…

This is kind of neat: the primary protagonists, Melisande Stokes (newly-minted linguistics Ph.D. and Harvard instructor) and Tristan Lyons (DARPA guy) actually "meet cute". So, yes, there's kind of a strong romantic-comedy thread here too.

And also actual comedy. The whole book is pretty funny (you kind of have to ignore the wholesale slaughter at a suburban Boston Walmart, but…) and there are common outbreaks of hilarity.

And page 164 has a surprise I probably should have seen coming.

In short, highly recommended, especially for Stephenson fans and everyone else too.

One Nation Undecided

Clear Thinking about Five Hard Issues That Divide Us

[Amazon Link]

Can't say enough good things about this book. The author, Peter H. Schuck, is a Yale Law prof and a self-described "militant moderate". You might think: "Oh oh. Another mealy-mouthed 'no labels' tergiversator." You'd be wrong about that.

Instead, Prof Shuck speaks to his reader as a "serious well-educated voter". (Flattery will get you, if not everywhere, at least somewhere.) His method is to examine five "hard" issues confronting modern America: (1) poverty; (2) immigration; (3) campaign finance; (4) affirmative action; and (5) religious exemption from secular public policies. For each issue, he presents a dense array of facts. He considers arguments made on both (or, more accurately, all) sides. And he does so with scrupulous fairness, avoiding partisan spin or ideology-based conjecture. Or, in his own words: "reasoned, empirically informed, normatively open-minded analysis."

As you might expect from a Lawprof, the legal issues are carefully dissected and examined (especially on the last three issues). Prof Schuck does a fine job explaining such matters to the legal ignoramus lay reader.

Yes, he does, on occasion, reveal his own opinions on these issues. He does so in a tentative your-mileage-may-differ manner to which it's impossible to take offense.

If I had one quibble—it's actually more of a regret—it's that the book is so timely, a snapshot of where each of these issues stood at the time of writing, circa late 2016. But the facts surrounding these hard issues will undoubtedly evolve and shift. I found myself wishing that the book could (somehow) evolve and shift with them. But no, there it sits, in cold type on dead trees.

But the important thing is that Prof Schuck's method is all too rare. He's not looking for victory. Instead, he's looking for objective improvement: repairing obvious flaws via narrowing "the range of disagreement." Partisans consider compromise a dirty word; he does not. The book's final word:

The only alternative to compromise, after all, is some form of coercion that threatens the perceived legitimacy of the victors and leaves the defeated bitter, vengeful, and determined to undermine the victorious party and policy. Sound familiar?

Yes, it does.

Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca?

[Amazon Link]

Another book I bought a long time ago (c. 1996) and only now made it to the top of the to-be-read pile. I think I might have seen a good review somewhere. Although I might have noticed Wikipedia that it was nominated for the 1996 Anthony Award, Shamus Award for "Best First Novel" and the Dilys Award for "Best Novel". This was G. M. Ford's first novel, and the debut of his long-running private eye hero, Leo Waterman. (The series seems to be active, with the seventh book published last year.)

It is set in Seattle, and I suspect that a lot of Seattle mystery fans buy it for the local shout-outs, much as we New Englanders devour Spenser novels.

Leo is from a prominent, semi-reputable family, and he has contacts up and down the social ladder. In this case, he's hired by a mostly-retired hood to track down a wayward granddaughter. As it turns out, she's running with a gang of eco-terrorists, and they're acting secretively enough to spur Leo into looking deeper into their activities. Unfortunately, this involves him nearly getting killed when one of the group apparently gets incinerated by a different bunch of baddies. And one of the derelict Seattle street people Leo hires for surveillance purposes gets tortured and killed too. So that makes it personal.

It's a decent page turner, with occasional flashes of humor and absurd situations. I was disappointed slightly when the villains revealed at the end resort to purple mustache-twirling dialog. (Not that I'm saying they have mustaches. No spoilers here. But if they did have mustaches, they'd be twirled.)

Oh yeah, don't read the blurb on the Amazon page, it gives too much away.

Make Me

[Amazon Link]

Ah, another Reacher novel from Lee Child. Another relentless page-turner. (Ooops, Kindle version: make that screen-swiper.) And another literally unbelievable plot-driver: Reacher happens on yet another massive criminal conspiracy simply by getting off the train in a certain place, at a certain time.

Specifically, he's intrigued by the name of a small town: "Mother's Rest". Maybe a beloved parent passed away there? Or did a wagon train need to stop there for a few days while a new mom recovered from an unexpected delivery? Reacher resolves to find out!

Spoiler: he doesn't find out, not until the very end anyhow. What he does find is Michelle Chang, an ex-FBI agent, now private investigator, who's waiting for someone else to get off the train. Who doesn't. (And we as readers know he won't, because Chapter One describes the bad guys burying his body deep in a hog pen.)

As usual, what follows is a lot of intrigue, exceptional detective work, some violence, and the gradual unveiling of the big secret, which is truly sordid. Chang turns out to be more than a worthy sidekick. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. And since (I peeked) the next book in the series is a flashback, looks like I won't see it resolved for a while.

No Second Chance

[Amazon Link]

I've read a few Harlan Coben books in the past, but the most recent one was nearly twelve years ago. It's not that he's a terrible writer, he's pretty good. His website claims that his last ten consecutive novels all debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and who am I to doubt that? But it's like Steven King: I'm not sure I want to make that sort of commitment.

But this book, No Second Chance, was leant to me by a friend in return for me loaning her a Dennis Lehane book. (Which, ahem, hasn't been returned yet.) So I felt obligated to read it. And it's not bad, but again, nothing that tempts me to read Coben's entire oeuvre.

It opens with our protagonist, Dr. Marc Seidman, in the hospital, recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound. That's not the only bad news: his wife was fatally shot, and their six month old baby daughter, Tara, has vanished. That's some pretty intense stuff to go through.

Marc, obviously, has one goal: find out what happened to Tara and, if possible, get her back. Soon enough, there will be a ransom demand, with the usual boilerplate demands: no cops, come alone. Fortunately, his dead wife's daddy is rich. With the assistance of his good buddy and lawyer Lenny, he … notifies the cops, the ransom is taken, but no Tara. Marc goes deeper into despair, but life moves on.

But soon enough (but not very soon), there's another ransom demand. Marc is savvy enough this time to enlist an old flame, ex-FBI agent Rachel, in an effort to outwit the bad guys. But it becomes apparent that there's more going on, something totally sordid and unexpected.

It was a page turner, but felt contrived all the way through. A colorful character is brought in unexpectedly, which is fine, but it's not difficult to notice that the character's presence and nature is extremely convenient for the plot to resolve in the way it does.

Weaponized Lies

How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era

[Amazon Link]

I had my doubts about spending an Interlibrary Loan request on this book. With a title/subtitle combination like that, there was a possibility that it would be a partisan screed, perhaps the same old anti-Trump boilerplate, something on which I've already overdosed. (Not that the anti-Trump boilermakers aren't correct—he does indulge in fantastical untruths. It's just that—yeah, I got that already.)

But it turned out to be not that political. And I wasted my ILL pick for a different reason: it's overlong, repetitive, poorly organized, and unfocused. I'm sure the author, Daniel J. Levitin, is a nice guy, but this book is not good.

Underneath the attention-grabbing title (a previous edition had the more pedestrian title, A Field Guide to Lies), what the book tries to be is an introduction to the basic tools of critical thinking: how to recognize when you're being bamboozled, either intentionally or unintentionally. Or, perhaps more important: how not to bamboozle yourself. Those are worthy goals, and Levitin does uncover a number of useful tactics. In that, it's like an updated version of Darrell Huff's 1954 classic (and still in print) How to Lie With Statistics. Except there's stuff in here about how to lie without statistics as well.

I'm not sure about the audience Levitin intended for this book. I would think that about 95% of the material could be comprehended by high-schoolers with a little math background. He gets into Bayesian probability here and there, and that's a little more advanced. Anyway, I found myself confronted with page after page of The Obvious.

The book occasionally meanders into seemingly stream-of-consciousness irrelevancies. One detour was a little irritating: on page 93, Levitin goes off on IQ testing. "It is used to assess people's intelligence, as if intelligence was a single quantity, which it is not—it manifests itself in different forms, such as spatial intelligence, artistic intelligence, mathematical intelligence, and so forth. And IQ tests are known to be biased toward middle-class white people."

Levitin's claims are at best controversial, and shouldn't be presented as bare fact, especially in a text concerned with distinguishing fact from non-fact. The news about the "middle-class white" bias would come as news to anyone who knows that East Asians outscore whites on average IQ.

Sign of the Unicorn

[Amazon Link]

Number three in Roger Zelazny's Amber series, and things are getting complicated. Avoid reading further if you haven't read one and two.

Series protagonist Prince Corwin has taken over in Amber, and a saner person would realize that maybe he should have just kicked back and enjoyed a long and healthy life on Shadow Earth (where you and I live) instead. One of those nasty only-sorta-human beasts from the first book has invaded Amber and offed one of Corwin's brothers—fortunately, he has a number of others—and maybe tried to frame Corwin for the deed. It appears that Amber is slated for destruction by forces unknown, and some of the Amberites might be, intentionally or unintentionally, in on that scheme. Key players are missing. Nobody trusts anyone else.

So what we have in this book is a detective story, as Corwin works with his brothers and sisters to unwind the mysteries presented in the first two books. Can a missing brother be retrieved? (Yes, but that rescue is almost thwarted by violent treachery.) Will Corwin himself be in danger? (You bet, and his escape is narrow, and to an unexpected place.)

Do I understand what's going on? Not really. Fantasy is not really my thing, and it is very easy to get lost in the intricacies of familial double- and triple-crossing even in the absence of magical complications. Still, it's a page turner.

The Three Languages of Politics

Talking Across the Political Divides

[Amazon Link]

I quite enjoyed Arnold Kling's "re-introduction" book about economics, Specialization and Trade earlier this year. When I noticed this book was available in an updated version (and, better yet, e-book versions available for free), I was in. Like Specialization and Trade, it's short but powerful.

It's about the nature of political disagreement, which, when you come to think of it, is damned odd. We humans confront the same facts about reality, with more or less the same brains, and yet come to no agreement on the best course of collective action (or inaction). Or, specifically, our agreement is limited to the fellow members of our political "tribe". Our efforts at convincing different-thinkers are nearly always in vain. Each tribe is convinced of its own moral superiority.

It's all fun and games until someone brings a rifle to softball practice.

Kling considers the three major political tribes of American politics: Progressives, Conservatives, and Libertarians. He argues that, although they are ostensibly all speaking English, they're actually talking in mutually incomprehensible languages, starting from different "dominant heuristics". Your dominant heuristic governs how any particular situation or fact is perceived, measured against your one-dimensional scale (or, as Klein says, "axis") of political value.

Specifically, Libertarians measure along the coercion-liberty axis. Progressives measure along the oppressor-oppressed axis. Conservatives measure along the barbarism-civilization axis.

So (for example), the health care issue. Libertarians despise Obamacare because it reflects unacceptable coercion in its taxes, mandates, forced subsidies, and increased regulation. Conservatives hate it because it erodes the civilizational pillars of responsibility and prudence. Progressives think that it's great, since it helps an "oppressed" class, those not rich or fortunate enough to have insurance.

For this new edition, Kling analyzes the Trump phenomenon, something neither he nor just about anyone else saw coming a few years back. He speculates that Trumpkins might be speaking a fourth language, measuring their facts against a "bourgeois bohemian" ("bobo") axis. You're either a sophisticated bobo ("more comfortable in Prague than Peoria") or a salt-of-the-earth other-countries-suck American.

Not that I've thought about it much, but I think adding a fourth axis isn't that necessary. Trump appeals to the white working class in Progressive oppressor/oppressed language, urging that they see themselves as oppressed. At the same time, he appeals to the Conservative civilization/barbarism axis. Yes, this appeal falls on a lot of deaf ears in both camps. But it's still there.

As it happens, I was reading this book when there was a lot of discussion of Trump's "Western Civilization" speech in Warsaw. It was an unfiltered and (mostly) eloquent appeal to the Conservative civilization/barbarism axis, and (unsuprisingly, and correctly) the Conservatives unanimously cheered the speech. On his blog, Kling noticed this as well. As I said in a comment there: it's almost as if he assigned me homework.

Equally as predictable, Progressives reacted with shock and horror to the speech. The WaPo's Jonathan Capehart could hear nothing in the Western Civ defense except for (oppressor/oppressed) "white-nationalist dog whistles". The American Conservative's Rod Dreher catalogs a number of other Progressive reactions and concludes: "yes, they really do despise their civilization". You couldn't ask for a better demonstration of Kling's thesis.

As I said, it's a short book, but that's because Kling doesn't blather a lot. There's a lot of concentrated food for thought here. He urges us to at least try to understand (if not agree with) where our political opponents are coming from. One intriguing chapter is devoted to the "Ideological Turing Test": could you make an argument as if you were a member of an opposing tribe, in such a way that you could convince members of that tribe that you were "one of them"?