Rights Angles

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Back in the previous century, I bought, and read, a book plugged at Reason: Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community by Loren Lomasky, then at the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota. It was a strong defense/explication of the underpinnings of classical liberalism and (so-called) "natural" individual human rights. Lomasky's insight was was that humans are project pursuers as part of their core natures; when the state proposes to override such (presumably peaceful) pursuits in order that the individual serve instead some collective goal, it violates some of the person's moral space. Which is wrong.

I was convinced. But the world, unfortunately, was not. (Lomasky, by the way, does not love the term "classical liberalism", with its connotation of old ideas fixed in amber; he'd prefer a term that reflects something more dynamic. He has a point, but "classical liberalism" seems to be the best label we have.)

Anyway, Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community was back when Reason, and I, were more concerned with political philosophy. This 2016 book, Rights Angles, is a collection of fifteen scholarly papers Lomasky published between 1983 and 2011 on various topics in political philosophy, still circling around the core of classical liberalism. There's also a leadoff new essay with an overview of the current state of affairs. It will run you a cool $43.99 at Amazon; fortunately, the University Near Here Library got a copy.

Speaking from my vantage point (strictly a philosophical dilettante, and even that may be an overestimate): The essays are of varying degrees of difficulty, depending on one's familiarity with the field. I'd recommend at least a nodding acquaintance with the major works of John Rawls (A Theory of Justice) and Robert Nozick (Anarchy, State, and Utopia. But even then, some I just bounced off. (But, honest, Professor Lomasky, I looked at every page.)

I learned a word: optimific. No, you go look it up. I had to.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye

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A Harry Bosch novel with a large dose of Bosch's half-brother, Mickey Haller. As always, Michael Connelly grabs my attention and doesn't let go until the very last page. Can't say enough good things about him.

Here, Harry has obtained his private investigator license, so he's joining the ranks of Marlowe, Archer, Cole, and Millhone, going down the mean streets, the best man in his world, and a good enough man for any world. Even the book's title sounds one that Chandler might have used. And the initial premise recalls The Big Sleep: Bosch is summoned to the mansion of an aged tycoon! His gig is slightly different, though: the tycoon has a long-lost biological son, product of a late-1940's dalliance with a Mexican girl. Sensing his mortality, the tycoon now wishes to make things right, as best he can, by hiring Harry to locate the kid. And Harry is warned that people who would prefer that the heir not be found might resort to some nasty behavior to obstruct him.

That's one plot thread. In the other, Harry is volunteering his detective services to the city of San Fernando PD. San Fernando is a mere 2.37 square miles in area, completely surrounded by Los Angeles, mostly Hispanic population. Harry has linked together previously-unconnected rape cases to discover their common perpetrator, who the cops have dubbed the "Screen Cutter". The villain seems confident in his ability to perform his crime without getting caught. Which, of course, puts Harry's teeth on edge.

Technically, Harry's not supposed to use SFPD resources in his private investigation. Of course, he does anyway.

Forward the Foundation

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Here endeth a reading project I undertook back in 2004 (pre-blog!): reading all of Isaac Asimov's solo science-fiction novels. This involved a lot of re-reading, but that's OK. I had not previously read Forward the Foundation, though. Bottom line: it is surprisingly good.

I say "surprisingly" because I've never been a huge fan of Asimov's fiction style: which (back in 2005, and probably many times since) I've characterized as "advances the plot mainly via conversations between characters; very little 'action'." That's considerably less true here. And the conversations are less stilted.

This was Asimov's last novel, posthumously published in 1992. Appropriately, the structure is similar to 1950's Foundation: essentially, four novellas, each set years apart; the time covered is from the end of Prelude to Foundation to just before Foundation. The overarching theme is Seldon's struggle to develop his study of "psychohistory" into a tool that can be used mitigate the inevitable fall of the Galactic Empire, shortening the subsequent barbarous interregnum from 30 millennia to just one.

There was a lot of nostalgia for me. Remember, I read (and re-read) the original Foundation Trilogy when I was an easily-impressed youngster, as well as the Robot yarns. I'm not ashamed of my happiness at seeing old fictional friend R. Daneel Olivaw one last time. And I got a certain frisson from the passage where Seldon learns of an uninhabited "suitable world" at the edge of the galaxy, visited only by unmanned probes: "Those who sent out the probes named it Terminus, an archaic word meaning 'the end of the line'."

Amusing turnabout for fans who recall the Salvor Hardin quote from Foundation: "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." Oft tediously deployed by pacifists. Here, Seldon's bacon is saved numerous times by timely violence. Maybe an Asimovian attitude shift there.

This book is also notable for the pervasive grim theme of loss and mortality. Seldon says goodbye to a lot of characters here, and is very lonely at the end. I'm no shrink, but I guess Asimov knew he wasn't long for the world himself while he was writing the book (he contracted HIV

The Infidel and the Professor

David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought

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A surprisingly entertaining book about the relationship between David Hume (aka "the infidel") and Adam Smith (that would make him "the professor".) A much more interesting subject than I would have guessed.

Here's the basic math: Hume (1711-1776) met Smith (1723-1790) in 1746. They remained steadfast friends until Hume's death. It may sound like an odd-couple deal; Hume was a famed near-atheist religious skeptic; Smith was (at least perceived as) more devout. Hume was a conservative Tory, Smith a liberal Whig. Hume was an airy philosopher, Smith a hard-nosed economist.

The author, Dennis Rasmussen, corrects these and other misperceptions. What's not a misperception, however: Hume had a big, gregarious personality; Smith was more reserved, had odd habits, and tended to be absent-minded. Still, their relationship was a true bromance.

The book works not only as a story of a relationship between two Scotsmen, but also mini-biographies of both, and a picture of their times, especially about the philosophical/religious controversies. Making cameo appearances are Ben Franklin and Voltaire. A chapter is devoted to Hume's misadventures with Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Rousseau comes across as more of a lunatic than I had previously thought. James Boswell and Samuel Johnson come across as a couple of snotty prigs.

One major theme is Hume's death; it was widely speculated that, as a well-known religious skeptic, Hume might see the error of his ways as the end drew near. He did not; in fact, Smith wrote a letter chronicling Hume's cheerfulness and unrepentant irreligiousity to the end, and also detailing his opinion that Hume was one of the most ethical men he'd known.

Publication of this letter cause a lot of vituperation to be directed at Smith for conveying his accurate impressions. He wrote that he experienced "ten times more abuse" from that short letter than he had received for "the very violent attack" he had made against "the whole commercial system of Great Britain" (aka The Wealth of Nations).

One last point: Hume was funny, even to modern ears. Rasmussen's quotes bring a number of chuckles. One example: when asked whether he would extend his series of books on the history of England, Hume demurred: "Because I'm too old, too fat, too lazy, and too rich."

Force of Nature

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Another compulsive page turner from C.J. Box. It's not a guilty pleasure, but a proud one: Mr. Box is a very fine writer.

The book starts out with a humorous, but also gruesome, discovery: an inept fly fisherman (who got into the sport to meet girls, with no success) is casting in the Twelve Sleep River, when a seemingly abandoned drift boat floats down toward him. He manages to stop it, only to find three very dead bodies and a lot of blood.

We back up to discover the cause: Joe Pickett's friend, Nate Romanowski, acting in self-defense. We know from reading the previous book in the series (and I suggest that people read the series in order) that Nate has been hiding out from a shadowy group of assassins who want to kill him, and also just about anyone who knows him. Their lethal ruthlessness is demonstrated throughout.

Why? Well, we find out along the way, also with revelations about Nate's back story. (An Air Force Academy cadet? Hm, did not see that coming.)

This is billed on the cover as a "Joe Pickett Novel", and Joe's a major presence here, but I'm not sure that Nate's exploits don't get more pages. That's OK. Joe is torn three ways: between his loyalty to his friend, his desire to stay on the right side of the law, and the safety of his family. His course here is as perilous as Nate's, in its own way.

The Puppet Masters

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A stray mention in the late William H. Patterson's bio of Robert A. Heinlein caused me to put this oldie in my to-be-read pile. It's the alternative version. It's longer and has more risqué sexual references than the bowdlerized 1951 version. Which I probably last read over fifty years ago—I was a Heinlein obsessive in my youth.

It's a tale of alien invasion, as seen from the viewpoint of "Sam", a crack secret agent working for a shadowy federal department charged with putting out troublesome fires around the world. But their latest call to action is in rural Iowa, where a flying saucer is alleged to have landed. Previous agents sent in have gone silent, so the A-Team, containing the "Old Man" (Sam's boss) and "Mary" (va-va-voom, Sam's about-to-be love interest) fly in. They get to Iowa to find an obvious hoax: a "UFO" constructed from cheap sheet metal and aluminum-sprayed plastic.

But they also find some pretty disgusting aliens, gelatinous parasites that attach to host nervous systems and take over the host's actions. Ish! They barely escape with their lives.

The rest of the book deals with the country's efforts to deal with the invasion, a remarkably tricky task. It doesn't help when Sam is captured by the aliens, and … well, that's enough to say without further spoilers.

The version I got from Amazon (link o'er there) has an introduction by William H. Patterson, Jr. and a long afterword from Sarah A. Hoyt. Both note the strong undercurrent of individualism and freedom running through the book. Ms. Hoyt's words are especially personal and moving. I've always thought that Heinlein exerted a major push to get me where my views are today, and Ms. Hoyt obviously feels the same in her case.

A Foot in the River

Why Our Lives Change -- and the Limits of Evolution

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Another book in the "thought I would like it better than I did" category. (And after I persuaded the library at the University Near Here to purchase a copy, too!)

The author, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, is a British historian, now at Notre Dame. His broad subject here (as the subtitle hints) is cultural change, and his concern that the notion of "evolution" should not be applied to such changes.

At first his writing style seemed lively and picturesque. As the book wore on, I found it increasingly irritating, opinionated, and unfocused. So it goes.

It didn't help that I've been reading a lot about "cultural evolution" over the past few months, for example: Darwin's Unfinished Symphony by Kevin Laland; The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley; The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. They love using the E-word to describe cultural change. Ridley, for one, describes it as "ideas having sex", producing unexpected results that get selected/deselected in unpredictable ways.

You don't have to buy into this whole notion all the way, but it seems that these writers are onto something. In his dissent, Fernández-Armesto doesn't really engage with this idea, but instead quibbles that "evolution" is a misleading misnomer, with too many Darwinistic implications to be a useful metaphor. That's not a bad argument—nobody wants to misuse a metaphor, or mindlessly apply inapplicable biological lessons. But that's it. Fernández-Armesto mentions (for example) Kevin Laland in a couple of spots, but never seems to fully explore (or understand?) his findings or arguments.

Charles Murray comes in for scorn for The Bell Curve, which Fernández-Armesto describes unfairly. He's also unfairly dismissive of Herbie Spencer.

In a generally positive WSJ review of the book, J.R. McNeill notes that Fernández-Armesto is "striving too hard for effect"; one of his provocative points is that “cannibalism is typically—you might almost say peculiarly—human and cultural.” McNeill then rattles off numerous examples of non-human, not-cultural cannibalism in nature. Geez, if only a scientist had pre-reviewed the book before publication.

And Princess Diana—Felipe's not a fan! "She was, I thought, and think still, a morally abominable person, shallow, meretricious, promiscuous, selfish, exhibitionistic, and talentless." Yeah, but as near as I can remember, she avoided speaking ill of the dead.

Not that Fernández-Armesto's argument depends in any way on Di's alleged character flaws. He just wanted to let us know, a drive-by slagging.


Last Modified 2017-11-15 2:45 AM EST

The Feast of the Goat

[Amazon Link]

People who haunt the "Books" view on Pun Salad know that my fiction tastes tend toward the low-middlebrow. I'm even being self-charitable with that. But I came across a Jay Nordlinger column at NRO that raved about The Feast of the Goat by Nobel Prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa. With praise like this:

And let me tell you: I don’t know of a book that captures more precisely — more searchingly, more deeply, more perfectly — what a dictatorship is, and what a country in the thrall of a dictator is, than this novel, The Feast of the Goat. It is a masterpiece of thought, understanding, and writing.

OK, I can break down and read some highfalutin literature once in a great while. And, of course, Mr. Nordlinger is on-target. The book is only semi-fiction: many of the characters were real, and many of the described events actually happened. I'm nowhere near the expert Mr. Nordlinger is on dictatorships, but Llosa masterfully describes the terror, sycophancy, and horrific arbitrariness involved in despotism, whether in Russia, Germany, China, or some dinky half-island nation.

It's set in the Dominican Republic, and it's centered around the rule and demise of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, dictator and an all-around corrupt, vain, and murderous asshole. Through much of the book, three plot threads are intertwined.

In the first (entirely fictional), middle-aged Urania Cabral returns from her 35-year self-exile to see her decrepit father. She's now a successful globe-trotting World Bank executive, but she hasn't communicated with anyone on the island since leaving in 1961. Gradually, we learn her story.

The second thread follows Trujillo on the last day of his evil life. (Sorry, I guess that might be a spoiler.)

And finally, the anti-Trujillo plotters are followed, concentrating on the assassins waiting to ambush the dictator as his car travels a predictable path on a country highway. Lesson to would-be tyrants: don't be predictable. Lesson to would-be tyrannicides (also a slight spoiler): have a solid backup plan just in case one of your co-conspirators gets cold feet after the assassination.

The book jumps around in time, so you have to pay attention. Disconcertingly, flashbacks occur with no typographical clues whatsoever other than a paragraph break, so you really have to pay attention. A little disconcerting, but I got used to it. Sensitive readers might be triggered by graphic descriptions of torture, murder, and rape. These are meant to be revolting, and are.

Funny Money

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Another book I bought long ago (circa 2003, I think) for reasons I have long since forgotten. If it was award-nominated, I can't find any record of it. There's a glowing blurb on the front cover from Michael Connelly ("James Swain is the best new writer I have come across."), so that might have been it. I'm not typically seduced by blurbs, though.

Never mind the reasons, it was an enjoyable read. Not quite enough to dump James Swain's seventeen other novels onto my to-be-read pile, but a veritable page-turner.

It is the second book in Swain's "Tony Valentine" series. Tony is an ex-cop from Atlantic City, a recent widower, and runs a consulting service out of his Florida digs, specializing in figuring out how gambling casinos are being ripped off by their patrons and employees. He has a wayward son who keeps making bad choices.

I cast the movie after only reading a few pages: Gregory Jbara, the guy who plays Frank Reagan's assistant Garrett on the TV show Blue Bloods. Don't know why, but he just popped into my head and stayed there while I was reading.

Anyway, Tony's ex-partner gets killed (no spoiler, that's page 8) while he's on the phone with Tony. So: this time it's personal. It's apparently tied in with a casino being taken at blackjack by a gang of scruffy players of European descent. Along the way, Tony meets a beautiful lady professional wrestler, a mobster who's threatening Tony's son, a bunch of Atlantic City cops (clean and dirty), and the Governor of Florida. And many more.

It's a lot of fun, and there's a nice twisty revelation in the penultimate chapter that I seriously did not see coming.

Against the Grain

A Deep History of the Earliest States

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James C. Scott, a Yale PoliSci prof, writes here (I take it) a contrarian view of how the earliest "states" came into being. He brings a (basically) anarchist perspective to his analysis, which means that he's not buying the standard narrative that increasing numbers of people living under state control automatically implies "progress" toward "civilization".

In the following, you have to remember that I'm not even a worthy dilettante in this field. I may be offbase on a number of issues.

Apparently the mainstream view is that states were automatically brought about by the advent of sedentary agriculture of grain crops. Scott argues that such agriculture preceded the earliest states by centuries, if not millennia. So there must have been some other mechanism in play.

Scott is critical of early states, describing how they were dependent on coerced labor, taxation, and theft (but I repeat myself). They had a number of other non-obvious downsides: peoples' diets were less diverse, probably leading to suboptimal nutrition. Gathering lots of people into a relatively small area gave rise to all sorts of nasty disease; obviously, the sanitation systems appropriate for nomadic hunter/gatherers didn't scale well at higher population densities. And, tyrannies that they were, the earliest states were "planned" economies, where the planning all happened in the rulers' heads. Scientific socialism, without very much science, in other words. Shortages, gluts, thievery, and slacking-off must have been endemic.

So you would expect the early states to have been extremely fragile, apt to break down in response to shifts in climate, marauding bands of nomadic raiders, or simple emigration. Scott points out a couple times that the walls erected by early states may have been to keep people in, not just enemies out.

Also interesting: the early states invented writing, for how else are you going to keep track of taxes, inventories, and the like? OK, that does sound pretty civilized, even in service to oppression.

One thing that troubles me about Scott's argument: although he's pretty convincing that early states were founded on (and depended on) coercive violence, he doesn't seem to compare that to the levels of violence outside the state. Since I've read Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature, I thought such violence was pretty intense too. Scott doesn't seem to be a believer in the idyllic "noble savage", but it would have been nice to see an engagement with the view that the state improved things, violence-wise.

I requested this book from UNH Interlibrary Loan, but before it showed up, a review was published in the WSJ: I’m From Pharaoh and Here to Help. The reviewer, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, has a number of serious criticisms of Scott's work. So take it with a grain (heh) of salt. [I have Professor Fernández-Armesto's recent book on order from UNH, we'll see how that goes…]