I Am Pilgrim

[Amazon Link]

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

[Amazon Link]

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

The Phony Campaign

2016-03-27 Update

As last week, PredictWise says the following folks have a 2% or better shot of being Our Next President. Enjoy:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2016-03-20
"Donald Trump" phony 301,000 -162,000
"John Kasich" phony 189,000 -66,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 105,000 -62,000
"Ted Cruz" phony 81,300 +1,900
"Bernie Sanders" phony 60,800 -10,100

The ordering remains the same as last week. Why, it's almost as if nothing is happening!

  • At the New York Times, Ross Douthat asks the question: "Who is Ted Cruz?" The answer is one that a lot of NYT readers will find comforting: he's a big phony-face. Unlike other politicos (Douthat specifically names Rand Paul, Rubio, Sanders, Obama, and Goldwater) …

    With Cruz, though, even the most fervent peroration always feels like a debater’s patter, an advocate’s brief — compelling enough on the merits, but more of a command performance than a window into deep conviction.

    This doesn’t mean that Cruz’s conservatism isn’t sincere. But the fact that he seems so much like an actor hitting his marks fits with the story of how he became Mr. True Conservative Outsider in the first place. Basically, he spent years trying to make it in Washington on the insider’s track, and hit a wall because too many of the insiders didn’t like him — because his ambition was too naked, his climber’s zeal too palpable. So he deliberately switched factions, turning the establishment’s personal disdain into a political asset, and taking his Ivy League talents to the Tea Party instead.

    Cruz critiques often seem to boil down to "Hey, the guy just rubs me the wrong way." Since Cruz is the only major-party candidate left that I can stand, that's disappointing.

  • At the NR Corner, Mona Charen provides a brief retelling of this week's Trump/Cruz imbroglio over their wives. Her sympathies: "Defend Heidi Cruz":

    Is Trump the political genius that some have been hinting? Who else, without staff or experience, could rocket to the top of the polls and remain in that perch month after month despite everything? Maybe it’s genius, or maybe its shamelessness. The latter can be mistaken for the former. This week’s new slog in the mud demonstrates one of Trump’s techniques to perfection — he flings filth at an opponent and then invites the docile press to conclude that “both sides” are engaged in unseemly brawling. (This is usually John Kasich’s moment to shake his head sadly and remind voters that, golly gee,  he would never do such things.)

    If you're not a Trumpkin, Ms. Charen will convince you further that you are correct.

    If you are a Trumpkin… well, I'd suggest you read it, but all evidence says you're pretty immune to such appeals to reason and decency.

  • Campus kerfuffles continued among the fragile flowers of some student populations.

    • At Emory, various surfaces were chalked with pro-Trump messages. Even while reading the most student-sympathetic report I could find (Newsweek), I got the distinct impression that the author tried hard to keep a straight face while writing.

      The draft [of a complaint letter being written by "several student organizations"] says that those who wrote the chalk messages “attacked minority and marginalized communities at Emory, creating an environment in which many students no longer feel safe and welcome…. For some students, simply seeing the word ‘Trump’ plastered across campus brings to mind his many offensive quotes and hateful actions.”

      “I legitimately feared for my life,” a freshman who identifies as Latino told The Daily Beast. Another student told the publication, “Some of us were expecting shootings. We feared walking alone.”

      Scared. By chalk.

    • And out in sunny Pomona:

      Scripps College’s student president says she alerted campus police after “#trump2016” was found scrawled on a dorm room door, calling it “racist … violence,” according to an email she sent to the campus community, a copy of which was circulated Saturday on social media.

      A disproportionate response, to be sure. Also, I think I would take an even-money bet that, if the perpetrator is revealed, it will turn out to be yet another campus fake "hate crime".

  • But to Emory's credit, they do employ at least one sane professor, Paul H. Rubin, who wrote in the WSJ early last week on a too-neglected topic: The Zero-Sum Worlds of Trump and Sanders:

    Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-trade positions make him essentially a disciple of mercantilism—a protectionist economic theory refuted by Adam Smith in 1776. Bernie Sanders proudly calls himself a socialist and advocates vast increases in taxes and government power. The history of the past century, from the Soviet Union’s fall to the impending collapse of Venezuela, amply shows that a socialist economy isn’t only “rigged”—to borrow one of Mr. Sanders’s favorite words—it doesn’t work.

    Trump and Sanders are also alike in that their followers seem to be (sorry to repeat myself here) True Believers, in the Eric Hoffer sense.

  • Rolling Stone (in the person of 70-year-old publisher Jann Wenner) endorsed 68-year-old Hillary Clinton for President. To its credit, sort of, RS also published a rebuttal by 46-year-old Matt Taibbi headlined "Why Young People Are Right About Hillary Clinton". Taibbi is pro-Bernie, so being "right about Hillary" also implies being "a total left-wing idiot". But you can't help but agree with his naked-empress prose:

    Young people don't see the Sanders-Clinton race as a choice between idealism and incremental progress. The choice they see is between an honest politician, and one who is so profoundly a part of the problem that she can't even see it anymore.

    I'm old enough to remember the endless sappy "listen to the wisdom of the young people" mantras of the late-sixties. I was a young person then, and I thought it was stupid at the time. It hasn't gotten any better.

Wild Card

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Usually I prefer to watch movies the old-fashioned way: on DVD from Netflix. But, at loose ends one evening, I decided to scan through the Amazon Prime offerings, found this Jason Statham movie, and—hey, I like Jason—decided to check it out.

Surprise number one: screenplay by William Goldman. Mr. Goldman will turn 85 years young in August, and (let's check IMDB) his previous screenplay was in 2003 (Dreamcatcher, not well reviewed). It is based on his novel Heat, and this is the second movie version, the first being with Burt Reynolds in 1986.

If you need reminding about William Goldman's screenwriting skills, just check out the list at the above link.

Surprise number two: it's not mindless non-stop action. Statham plays Nick Wild, an actually interesting character. He scrapes by in Vegas, picking up (very) odd jobs here and there. He dreams of hitting a big (half-million dollar) jackpot and retiring to seaside bliss.

His primary task here: avenging the savage beating of a hooker by local hoodlums. And he's also babysitting a nebbish who wants to frequent the local casinos without getting robbed.

Never fear: there are a few scenes of action, and Statham's character is just tragically flawed enough to keep you guessing about the eventual outcome. It's not a fantastic movie, but good enough to watch if you don't have anything else in the queue.

The Phony Campaign

2016-03-20 Update

PredictWise dictates no lineup changes this week. All candidates see declining hit counts, and their rank remains unchanged. And America is still doomed as doomed can be.

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2016-03-13
"Donald Trump" phony 463,000 -84,000
"John Kasich" phony 255,000 -117,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 167,000 -67,000
"Ted Cruz" phony 79,400 -96,600
"Bernie Sanders" phony 70,900 -93,100

  • Have you ever wished someone would compile a list of some—let's say twenty—of the meanest things said about Donald Trump this election season? You may want to check out a site I am pretty sure I've never linked to before: Cosmopolitan and the article "The 20 Meanest Things Said About Donald Trump This Election Season". Example:

    "Donald Trump, a carnivorous plant watered with irradiated bat urine, has a slight polling problem with about half of the female voting public, who have a 'very unfavorable' view of him." —Anna Merlan Jezebel, March 2016

    What I learned from the list: Seth Meyers (number 13) no longer seems clever. Without good writers, he seems about as witty as Cher (number 19).

  • Leon Wolf at RedState is not a John Kasich fan, and brings evidence of phoniness to the table: "Fake Nice Guy John Kasich is a Jerk to a Cop for No Reason"

    One of the most nauseating and transparently fake things to come down the pike in a long time is John Kasich’s nice guy act. Kasich is one of the most notorious jerks in the history of Washington, DC, which is a town full of jerks. To paraphrase the Big Lebowski, that places him high on the list of jerks worldwide.

    Wolf provides 2008 police dashcam video of a stop of Kasich's car, together with Kasich misrepresenting the facts about the stop a few days later.

  • The Washington Free Beacon conveniently summarizes "Hillary Clinton's Four Days of Gaffes", complete with sad trombones:

    I forget: wasn't she once smart enough to think before speaking? Didn't she used to make an effort to maintain superficial credibility? In any case, any skills she may have had in that area seem to be gone.

Selma

[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Honest, I really wanted to like this more than I did. Salad family trivia: It was the only Best Picture Oscar nominee we hadn't seen from last year.

It starts out recreating a horrible moment in history: the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls, aged 11-14. And then a dramatization of Annie Lee Cooper's—Oprah!—failed attempt to register to vote at the Selma courthouse. (She successfully recites the preamble to the Constitution. She knows there are 67 county judges in Alabama. But—oops!—she can't name them. Sorry, Annie.)

Into this steps Martin Luther King Jr. and various less-famous activists from the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It's decided to use Selma as a symbol to pressure President Lyndon Johnson and the US Congress to pass Federal voting rights legislation. Over the period of a few months this gives rise to a massive violent confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in addition to the deaths of other protesters.

What's good: the main black actors do an uncanny job of recreating their characters. David Oyelowo as Dr. King and Carmen Ejogo are especially good. (In contrast, Tom Wilkinson and Eli Roth are never that convincing as LBJ and George Wallace, respectively.)

Not so good: the characters tend to sermonize at points when, in real life, they would be speaking more normally. And the movie takes pretty unexcusable liberties with actual events. It's important to get things right.

The Phony Campaign

2016-03-13 Update

PredictWise has dropped Marco Rubio below our (arbitrary) 2% inclusion criterion. So: Farewell, Marco. At least for now.

We observe negative readjustments overall for Google hit counts this week. Trump saw a big decrease, but not enough to knock him out of first place. (That would take a yuuge decrease.) Hill's decline dropped her into third place, putting Kasich in second. I would not have expected that.

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2016-03-06
"Donald Trump" phony 547,000 -1,543,000
"John Kasich" phony 372,000 -196,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 234,000 -459,000
"Ted Cruz" phony 176,000 -282,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 164,000 -135,000

Despite the decline in hit counts, there was more than enough phoniness on display this week.

You know what the Kids Today say:

That does not apply to politics.

  • For those who managed to tune out the past few decades, the Daily Beast brings "A Brief History of Donald Trump’s Get-Rich Schemes". The take-home point: as with many flim-flammers, his core idea is to make himself rich by promising, somehow, to make you rich.

    Throughout his decades-long business career, Donald Trump has launched a series of businesses that follow this model, with his presidential campaign being the latest. But in between founding phony universities and multi-level-marketing scams, Trump has also fallen victim to many of his own plainly stupid ideas.

    Key detail: suckers customers buying Trump Steaks off QVC later reviewed them as “extremely greasy” and “tasteless and mealy.” One can only imagine similar buyer's-remorse reviews for President Trump.

  • Speaking of Trump, Jonah Goldberg's G-File this week is long and ranty, and revolves around his dismay at the (relatively few) ordinarily-thoughtful pundits that can find anything nice to say about Trump.

    At times, I sometimes think I’m living in a weird remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If you’ve seen any of the umpteen versions, you know the pattern. Someone you know or love goes to sleep one night and appears the next day to be the exact same person you always knew.

    Except.

    Except they’re different, somehow. They talk funny. They don’t care about the same things they used to. It’s almost like they became Canadian overnight — seemingly normal, but off in some way. Even once-friendly dogs start barking at them. I live in constant fear that I will run into Kevin Williamson, Charlie Cooke, or Rich Lowry and they will start telling me that Donald Trump is a serious person because he’s tapping into this or he’s willing to say that. I imagine my dog suddenly barking at them uncontrollably. (I don’t worry about this with Ramesh because Vulcans are immune.)

    No matter how you feel about Trump—and by the way there seems to be no middle ground on him, does there?—I recommend you read the whole thing. So funny, but also so sad, because so true.

  • A little phony amusement at a Kasich campaign event in Illinois: "Bernie Sanders impersonator thanks John Kasich for staying classy".

    "This is not so much a question so much as it is a compliment. On behalf of all the American people, I want to thank you for bringing a little class to the Republican debates," the impersonator said in what sounded like a fake Brooklyn accent.

    I'm sure Kasich was pleased with the authenticity of this compliment, coming as it did from an impersonator with a fake accent.

  • I'm sure Kasich's also bemused to be running ahead of Hillary in phony hit counts. Her minions are trying their hardest to paint her as an innocent victim of the VWRC, for example:

    Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a senior member of 2016 Democrat presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s campaign, tried on Tuesday to blame her candidate’s pitiful image as an untrustworthy phony and hypocrite on the typical scapegoat: Fox News.

    Poor Governor Granholm. To find the real problem behind Hillary's issues with honesty, you don't need to look for conspiracies, and you don't have to wait very long for fresh examples.

    For example: while attacking Bernie Sanders' (lunatic) ideas on socializing health care:

    She said she has “a little chuckle to myself” when she thinks about the current debates over health care. “I don’t know,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Where was he when I was trying to get health care in ’93 and ’94?”

    It took the Sanders campaign about 3.4 nanoseconds to rebut:

    Let's recycle a quote from an eight-year-old Slate article from Christopher Hitchens, which examined her classic fabrication about her first-lady Balkan adventures.

    The punishment visited on Sen. Hillary Clinton for her flagrant, hysterical, repetitive, pathological lying about her visit to Bosnia should be much heavier than it has yet been and should be exacted for much more than just the lying itself. There are two kinds of deliberate and premeditated deceit, commonly known as suggestio falsi and suppressio veri. (Neither of them is covered by the additionally lying claim of having "misspoken.") The first involves what seems to be most obvious in the present case: the putting forward of a bogus or misleading account of events. But the second, and often the more serious, means that the liar in question has also attempted to bury or to obscure something that actually is true. Let us examine how Sen. Clinton has managed to commit both of these offenses to veracity and decency and how in doing so she has rivaled, if not indeed surpassed, the disbarred and perjured hack who is her husband and tutor.

    She's an astonishingly inept liar, even for a politician, her history of lies is long and unbroken. Even more astonishing, her supporters (mirror images of the Trump apologists) don't care.

Clapton

[Amazon Link]

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.

The Phony Campaign

2016-03-06 Update

The PredictWise punters had all but written off Kasich and Cruz, but they're back again this week, baby! With 3% and 5% probabilities, respectively, so don't break out the party hats and confetti quite yet. Still.

In our standings, the Donald ramps up his yuuuge lead:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2016-02-28
"Donald Trump" phony 2,090,000 +1,687,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 693,000 +477,000
"John Kasich" phony 568,000 ---
"Ted Cruz" phony 458,000 ---
"Marco Rubio" phony 380,000 +243,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 299,000 +118,000

So what's going on, phonies?

  • Obviously, Mitt Romney drove Trump's hit counts through the roof with his massively-hyped speech. For example:

    Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.

    Not bad, coming from a guy who always seems to be saying (in Jonah Goldberg's memorable characterization): What do I have to do to put you in this BMW today?

    But in Mitt's defense, the vibe I get from Trump is much more downscale: he's the guy at the weed-infested used car lot trying to push me into a Ford Fiesta with 100K miles on it.

  • Hillary won most Super Tuesday primary states, usually acknowledged to be driven by her African-American supporters. Her clever soundbite: voter anti-fraud measures being "a blast from the Jim Crow past."

    Cornel West, for one, ain't buying it:

    West said that Hillary’s references to Jim Crow policies are “her attempt to be fake and phony, and try to mobilize people who want her to vote.”

    West is a Sanders supporter, but he's right about this anyway.

  • Everyone "knows" that the mood of the American voter is alienated and irritated. But that seems to have been accompanied by extreme gullibility:

    An imitation New York Times article is making the rounds on social media, duping readers into believing Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has backed Bernie Sanders’s Democratic presidential campaign ahead of Super Tuesday.

    With respect to gullibility: "As of late Monday evening, the imitation story had 50,000 shares, 15,000 of them on Facebook, the Times added." Hypothesis: We're experiencing a secular version of the maxim Chesterton (never quite) said: "A man who won’t believe in God will believe in anything."

    The article was apparently constructed via Clone Zone, a site that "lets you create your own version of popular websites", mimicking their look-n-feel, while dropping in your own content. Invaluable for spoofs! (Also, criminal fraud! But I digress.)

The Psychopath Test

[Amazon Link]

I got into reading Jon Ronson on a long-ago recommendation from Shawn Macomber. My takes on previous Ronson books are here and here. Both those are from 2006, which means it's been way too long since I read him. I was not disappointed: Ronson continues to be a wonderful and insightful writer.

His topic here is (generally speaking) various forms of mental disorder, which won't surprise readers of his previous work. How do we sort out people who are genuinely brain-broken from those who just have unconventional beliefs, or even delusional ones? On a more practical note, how do we find those likely to commit violence on others, and what do we do once we find them?

Although Ronson explores all sorts of oddness here—some of it hilarious—his concentration, implied by the title, is psychopathy. Especially the "test": Robert Hare's checklist of items that can be used to score people to see how psychopathetic they are.

Ronson is open-minded, self-deprecating, and pretty honest for a journalist. He develops relationships with his sources/targets, and displays an uncanny ability to get them to open up, even when it's glaringly obvious that they are kind of/extremely nuts.

If you have ever uttered the phrase "inmates running the asylum" as a metaphor, you'll probably be happy to read about the more-or-less real thing here. Scientologists play a role, and Ronson treats them as fairly as possible.

Ronson really doesn't have a thesis to prove, but I found myself a little more convinced that the psychiatric field contains a few good folks trying to do honest work, but also way too many loons, who misdiagnose, over-diagnose, and (above all) overmedicate. (I said the book was hilarious, but the penultimate chapter, "The Avoidable Death of Rebecca Riley", is totally sobering in this regard.)