To Say Nothing of the Dog

or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump At Last

[Amazon Link]

A pungent reminder of how deep my to-be-read stacks can get: Amazon tells me I purchased this item on June 21, 2000. Yes, nearly 20 years deep. (I kept putting other books ahead of it. Sorry, Connie.)

To Say Nothing of the Dog won the Hugo and Locus awards for Best (science fiction) novel, and was nominated for the Nebula. And this was in the pre-woke era of SF awards, so yeah, it's pretty good.

As an extra incentive, I was taken in by the dedication: which is a waving green flag that says "Read me, Paul":

To Robert A. Heinlein

Who, in Have Space Suit, Will Travel
first introduced me to Jerome K. Jerome's
Three Men in a Boat,
To Say Nothing of the Dog

And so I finally did. (And, like Connie, RAH's reference to Three Men in a Boat caused me to read that back in 2003. I was less taken with it than Connie was, but that's OK.)

Anyway: this book. In the near future, time-travel has been invented, but with a number of frustrating restrictions caused by the whimsical nature of the space-time continuum. Would-be travellers are prevented from transporting "significant" objects from the past back to their own time. And some "important" times in the past are impossible to reach. Otherwise, time travellers might assassinate Hitler, or prevent the assassinations of Lincoln or Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Nevertheless, bringing back objects that were destroyed in the past are OK. Travellers can rescue them. And the lady bankrolling the time-travel project has demanded that an artifact called the "Bishop's Bird Stump" be rescued from Coventry Cathedral in 1940; it's been missing since the Nazi air raid. (What, exactly, is a "Bishop's Bird Stump"? Well, we find out eventually. Rest assured, it's hideous.)

Disclaimer: I may not have these rules exactly right. (And there are many more, it seems.) This book is Connie's second set in this universe, and the first one might have gone into more tutorial detail.

The narrator, Ned Henry, sets about this task. In the majority of pages, his detective work sends him back to 1888 England, where he takes up with that era's delightfully complex social mores. A whole passel of characters are introduced, a bunch of complications encountered, and confusion reigns as to whether what Ned does will end up ensuring a Nazi victory in WWII, or (slightly worse) destroy the entire space-time continuum.

It's a lot of fun, albeit way long (493 pages in my paperback edition).


Last Modified 2020-02-14 6:49 AM EST

Frederick Douglass

Self-Made Man

[Amazon Link]

Hey, what better way to mark Black History Month (yes, they still call it that) than with Timothy Sandefur's biography of Frederic Douglass? It's short, 119 pages of text, and to the point. Published by the Cato Institute.

Why, you may ask, is it published by the Cato Institute? Well, the primary theme of the book is explicating Douglass's classical liberalism, his devotion to individualism and the U. S. Constitution.

But the biographical details are gripping enough too: Douglass was born a slave in 1818 Easton, Maryland, probably the result of the plantation's overseer's dalliance with his mother. Against all odds, he learned to read. And he grew to hate his enslaved status. As a young man, he escaped servitude by going north, winding up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, later moving up to Lynn. He became a preacher, an orator, and eventually an anti-slavery activist, initially under the wing of William Lloyd Garrison. But there was bit of friction between their anti-slavery ideologies, and eventually Douglass came out fully on his own.

Sandefur does a fine job of depicting Douglass's life, and the horror of slavery. Followed, after the Civil War, by Reconstruction and its ugly devolution into more oppression. For the full story, you'd probably want to go to this full Pulitzer-winning bio by David W. Blight. 913 pages, according to Amazon. Maybe next February.

The Sentence is Death

[Amazon Link]

This book, obtained from the Portsmouth Public Library, was on Tom Nolan's WSJ list of the Best Mystery Books of 2019. Three down, seven to go. The author, Anthony Horowitz, is a British writer mainly known for his television work (Foyle's War, some early episodes of Midsomer Murders, etc.) and juvenile fiction.

And the narrator in this book is named Anthony Horowitz, a writer working on Foyle's War, author of juvenile fiction… Oooh, that's kind of a neat trick! So it's not clear where the dividing line is between fiction and reality here. This book is the second entry in a series, but there's not a lot of reference to the previous book.

Anthony's writing talents are enlisted by ex-cop Daniel Hawthorne who has (in turn) been asked by the actual cops to help out on a murder investigation. Anthony is, to a first approximation, the Watson to Hawthorne's Sherlock. It is a mystery in the classic form: a lot of clues, a lot of possible suspects, a complex history that needs unravelling.

The (initial) victim is a divorce lawyer, bludgeoned with a bottle of expensive wine, then stabbed to death with the shattered bottle. Gory! But who's to blame? The lady poet screwed over (or was she?) in the lawyer's latest case? Or her ex-husband? Or does it have something to do with the lawyer's participation in a long-ago caving expedition which resulted in the accidental death of one of the spelunkers?

Complication: the unpleasant lady cop also assigned to the case despises Hawthorne, and attempts to blackmail Horowitz into disclosing what Hawthorne's uncovered, so that she can beat him to the solution.

There's also a complex relationship between Horowitz and Hawthorne; Hawthorne's not a particularly pleasant person, with a mysterious past of his own. Horowitz tries (not particularly successfully) to unwind some of that.

Bottom line: a good read. Now on to the next book in Nolan's list…

Snow Crash

[Amazon Link]

Continuing on reread-Stephenson project. This was his first "big" book; at his website he says it "changed my life." It appears on Time magazines list of the "100 best English-language novels published since 1923".

So, yeah, it's pretty good.

There are a lot of things going on. It's set in the near future, where America is more or less anarchic, the Federal government dwindled to a small office complex somewhere in the L. A. area, relegated to mostly writing software for nefarious purposes (uh, it turns out). The CIA is now the CIC, Central Intelligence Corporation, and it's taken over the Library of Congress, now simply the cyberspaced "Library", with a natural language, avatared AI librarian to assist you in finding out just about anything.

The main guy is (I am not making this up) Hiro Protagonist, a gifted coder, expert swordsman, and now … ace pizza deliveryman for the Mafia's pies, thanks to his bitchin' high-tech motorcycle. Only problem is: if you don't fulfill Uncle Enzo's 30-minute delivery promise, the repercussions are unpleasant. And one fateful night, a series of mishaps puts him and his bike into a swimming pool, wrecked, with only four minutes and 43 seconds left.

But he's unexpectedly saved when Y. T., a fifteen-going-on-thirty girl "Kourier" on a very high-tech skateboard takes over the delivery, saving him from Enzo's termination procedures.

After that harrowing experience, Hiro and Y. T. form a partnership of sorts. It turns out there's the previously-mentioned nefarious plot. It involves "Snow Crash", a virtual designer drug that does nasty things to programmer's minds. You don't snort it, shoot it, smoke it, or otherwise ingest it: all you have to do is see it on your computer screen, and it infects your brain like a computer virus, bricking your higher cognitive functions.

Man, I hate it when that happens.

There's much more, involving a virtual-reality version of sorta-Facebook (the code for which Hiro wrote long ago). A Heinleinesque discovery involving the Babel myth, ancient Sumerian linguistics, …

And, just sayin': if you read the book, pay close attention to Chapter 32, especially the end. Dog lovers will nod in understanding, and it makes the end of the book very poignant.

Why Liberalism Works

How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All

[Amazon Link]

After seeing Deirdre Nansen McCloskey's book quoted numerous times at Don Boudreaux's blog, Cafe Hayek, I finally wangled a copy through Interlibrary Loan at the University Near Here. It appears that nobody at Williams College was interested in reading it, more fools they.

It's a collection of 50 short chapters/essays/articles, which I decided to read at a rate of two per day. Many first appeared in magazines, lightly adapted and updated for the book. Many are independent, a few link together. (For example, a fifty-page review of Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century is sliced up into seven chapters.)

Deirdre's overall purpose here is to update and defend her thesis about the cause and nature of "The Great Enrichment", started in northwest Europe in the 18th century: it was due to a newfound and unique respect for the tools of the marketplace, bourgeois moral values, and individual liberty. Hence what most people call "free market capitalism" was born, and proceeded to make the parts of the world that adopted it very very prosperous.

I should mention that Deirdre doesn't really care for the term "capitalism". She patiently explains that "capital" always existed, roughly since horse-traders traded horses. She prefers terms like "trade-tested betterment" (for the process) and "innovism" (for the attitude). And of course "liberalism" for the overall philosophy.

Deirdre is funny and insightful, and her unique prose style is something you have to read to appreciate. In my case, she was pushing on an unlocked door; I don't know her approach works on people more skeptical to her ideas.

I should mention one sore spot, Chapter 45, titled "Liberalism is Good For Queers". That's almost certainly true, but Deirdre goes into the jihad she and associates mounted against J. Michael Bailey, a Northwestern U psych prof. Wikipedia's article on Bailey has an overall description of the hubbub. Don't want to get into it here, but it seems that Deirdre's actions toward Bailey were reprehensible. And here she goes full Orwell, when she deems the National Academy of Science's publication of Bailey's work to be a (G. W.) Bush Administration homophobic plot. And falls into that great trap of equating "hate speech" with "speech I hate":

That's censorship, the encouragement of hate speech and then hate action by government-funded entities.

Well, no. Sorry, Deirdre, your lapse into illiberalism here mars your otherwise fine book.

Great Society

A New History

[Amazon Link]

This is Amity Shlaes' big book about the social engineering schemes that Lyndon Baines Johnson sold as the "Great Society". The time scale she covers overlaps the LBJ administration, though: roughly 1960-1971. It's especially relevant in these days when socialism seems to be regaining respectability once again; Amity reports on what happened the last time that occurred.

Her method is to concentrate on (mostly) important non-Presidents during that time. To illustrate the cozy corporatism coming out of the 1950's, she looks at Lemuel Boulware, General Electric's man in charge of labor negotiations. Looking at the dawn of the "Great Society" programs, she focuses on Walter Reuther and Michael Harrington, two forthright socialists. During the Nixon era, it's Arthur Burns and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

And (oh yeah) she's kind of obsessed with Bonanza, the great TV show that ran on CBS from 1959 until 1973. It's like a metaphor. And the closing episode of the final chapter has Nixon going on Sunday night TV to announce the US was abandoning the gold standard, and imposing wage/price controls… preempting Bonanza.

There's a lot of stuff going on, and Amity does a fine job of digging out obscure (but important and telling) details. (She spends less time discussing the things we thought were so important back then.)

Amity bends over backwards to be fair to the social engineers, granting their good intentions, even to praise them when she thinks they've succeeded (mainly in enacting civil rights legislation). But you can't help but notice the mindset: an overall hubris that dumping money into "programs" at the Washington end would result in progressive nirvana at the other end. Instead countless pols, bureaucrats, activists, and organizers held their buckets out for the cash. The activists and organizers (of course, being of socialist bent) made it their priority use their resources to "change the system" — instead of, y'know, helping poor people to enter the system.

So, it's a good, interesting book. Marred by some silly errors. On page 304, discussing the woes of the auto industry, we learn "Ford had distained variety". On page 133, Walter Reuther warns LBJ that they must not "report" the errors made at the 1964 Democratic convention. (She meant "repeat"). And on page 104, she says a 1964 Harris Poll predicted that LBJ would carry the state of California "by 65 to 35 delegates" over either Nelson Rockefeller or Barry Goldwater. Delegates? I don't think so.

Your House Will Pay

[Amazon Link]

This book, obtained from the Portsmouth Public Library, was on Tom Nolan's WSJ list of the Best Mystery Books of 2019. Two down, eight to go.

But this isn't really much of a mystery (he whined).

Back in 1991, the Matthews are an African-American family living in LA, mostly happy, save for their occasional dipping into violence and crime. It's OK, though, justified by the cancellation of a showing of New Jack City in "white people territory", Westwood. But soon enough their world will be shattered by an altercation where the family's teenage daughter is shot and killed by a Korean lady shopkeeper. The verdict: involuntary manslaughter, no time served.

Jump forward to roughly present day, where the Korean lady, who's changed her name to Park and moved out of LA, gets shot herself, in a drive-by. This devastates her daughters, Grace and Miriam. Grace in particular, because she was previously unaware of what Mom did back in 1991.

The rest of the book alternates between the Matthews and the Parks. It's pretty clear that the present-day crime is connected to the distant past, but whodunit? Well, eventually we find out.

Writing is good, and (I assume) an honest, earnest, look at the tension in SoCal between Koreans and African-Americans.

Let It Burn

[Amazon Link]

Another book down in my Steve Hamilton catch-up project. This one's from 2013, and it's in his "Alex McKnight" series. Recent entries have strained credulity, as Alex has long wished to stop getting involved in the sorts of scrapes in which crime fiction deals; yet he keeps getting dragged back in to intrigue and danger.

Guess what? I found this one more believable!

Back in the day, Alex was a Detroit cop, and found himself involved in a gruesome murder. Thanks in part to his good cop skills, they nabbed a suspect, got a confession, and the city went on its slow pathway to hell, while Alex eventually retired to Michigan's scenic Upper Peninsula. But he gets a phone call from his old Sergeant (also now retired): the guy's getting out of jail.

This causes Alex to relate how the case went down back then, and (of course) there's a niggling little detail: they might have accused and convicted the wrong guy.

Kept me guessing (incorrectly) until the end. And a great page-turner.

Vicious Circle

[Amazon Link]

Continuing my project of catching up with my C. J. Box reading. This one's from 2017, so only three years behind!

Consumer note one: you can save a lot of money by waiting to buy. C. J. sells a lot of books, but they eventually wind up on the Barnes and Noble remainder table.

Consumer note two: this (#17 in the Joe Pickett series) should probably not be the first C. J. Box book you read. It depends heavily on events described in Endangered (#15 in the series).

Specifically, the surviving members of the Cates family are out for revenge here. The sociopathic Dallas has been released from the slammer after less than two years; he had a knack for avoiding evil deeds that could easily be proved.

And it seems he's got things working the same way here: having picked up some homicidal friends in the pen, they work to bedevil Joe Pickett and his family. Every decent person wants to see Dallas back behind bars. And one law enforcement official, not Joe, seems to want that a little too much. Which comes back to bite everyone in the ass.

Something Deeply Hidden

Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime

[Amazon Link]

When Virginia Postrel asked her Facebook followers for science writer recommendations, I immediately suggested Sean Carroll, Caltech research professor in physics. And that was when I was only part way through the second book I've ever read from him. He's a very good writer at the dilettante level (which is where I am these days, even though I was a physics major), writing with insight and wit.

Richard Feynman, in his day, famously said that he was confident that nobody really understood quantum mechanics. It's just weird. And it hasn't gotten any less weird since then. Part of the problem is that a key feature in QM's standard "Copenhagen" interpretation is kind of loosey-goosey: the act of observing a quantum state causes its Schrödinger wave function to "collapse" to some definite value. But unless that state is (somehow) measured, asking what it "really" is is nonsensical: it's in a superposition of its possible states. This gives rise to the good old half-dead Schrödinger cat, the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen "paradox", and other oddities. And there's a lot of handwaving about the nature of wave function collapse; when does it "really" happen, how long does it take, etc.

That doesn't sit well with some scientists, even though decades of experiments don't contradict it, and much modern technology relies on it being correct down to many decimal places. There have been alternate explanations offered. One of the most thought-provoking was offered by Hugh Everett back in the 1950s: quantum events spawn, literally, multiple universes, one for each possible outcome. That's the version of QM Carroll prefers and he explicates it well.

So, for example, Schrödinger's cat isn't half-dead. He's alive in one universe, dead in another. (Carroll, being a more humane physicist, dinks the experiment so the cat is asleep/awake instead of dead/alive.)

The book made me aware of the Universe Splitter©, an iPhone app you can get for a mere $1.99. Need to make a binary decision? Well, just fire up the app and…

Universe Splitter© will immediately contact a laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, and connect to a Quantis brand quantum device, which releases single photons into a partially-silvered mirror. Each photon will simultaneously bounce off the mirror and pass through it — but in separate universes.*

Good news: if you use the app to make all your decisions (and you can always break down complex decisions into binary ones), then there will be a universe out there where you've made all the right decisions!

And, unfortunately, there will also be a universe where you've made all the wrong ones.

Anyway, I've babbled enough. The book is a lot of fun, and Carroll goes into other areas as well, like (see subtitle) where time and space "come from". He argues that they may not be fundamental, but emergent properties of "something deeply hidden". Fine. His argument is (unfortunately) at the layman level, so there's a lot of handwaving over what in actuality is some pretty, very serious math. Still, the book is full of "did I just blow your mind?" arguments and descriptions.


Last Modified 2020-01-11 7:00 AM EST