The Mark of the Assassin

[Amazon Link]

So back in 2017 I read The Unlikely Spy, a World War II thriller by Daniel Silva. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but was reluctant to commit to reading Silva's oeuvre. (Because once I start down that road, it's hard to stop.)

But I picked this, his second novel, at Portsmouth Public Library. See how it goes. Written in 1998, it's a globe-hopping tale of violence and intrigue, but mainly violence. The hero, Michael Osbourne, is a CIA employee whose career as a covert agent was terminated when a KGB assassin (we learn his code name is "October") brutally murders his girlfriend, implying his cover is seriously blown.

Years later, Michael's married and works as a staid analyst. But another murder comes to light bearing October's trademark (three bullets in the face), accompanied by a jetliner shot down by a Sidewinder fired from the waters off Long Island. So he's drawn back to the game, and finds himself finding out way too much about a nefarious plot involving … well, that would be telling. Let's just leave it at "nefarious".

Silva's a successful writer, but I didn't like the book much. Way too much unlikely dialogue, high amounts of coincidence, pointless descriptions. It's written from a tedious liberal perspective (no spoilers). And the ending is unsatisfying (slight spoiler) sequel-bait.

So I don't know if I'll continue with Silva. There are other books in the library.

Why Free Will Is Real

[Amazon Link]

If you've been paying attention to my reading history (and, don't worry, there's not the slightest reason why you should), one recurring topic is the controversy over whether "free will" exists. This latest book—you may have inferred from the title—is pro-existence. The author, Christian List, is professor of political science and philosophy at the London School of Economics.

With the typical philosopher's care, he dissects "free will" into three components:

  1. People are "intentional agents", whose intentions support actions;

  2. In relevant cases, people face multiple alternative actions, and each is a genuine possibility;

  3. And the resulting action is the result of appropriate mental states, reflecting the actual intention of the agent.

Anti-free willers object to at least one of these components. Respectively:

  1. There's no room in neurophysiology (let alone in the underlying physics) for "intention"—it's just atoms and their electrons flying around synapses, firing off hormone releases and causing muscle proteins to contract. I oversimplify, but no amount of further detail will get to "intention".

  2. The universe is essentially deterministic. You might think you have alternate choices, but that's an illusion; only one action will actually happen, governed by the biochemical processes described above.

    (But what about quantum uncertainty? Well, yeah: some of the dice-throwing wackiness described by the inherently probabalistic Copenhagen interpretation of nanoscopic processes might get manifested in macroscopic outcomes. But that coin-flipping doesn't put you in control.)

  3. The last objection is subtle: "you" might think "you" are in control of your actions, but in fact your consciousness is merely a helpless observer along for the ride. The famous "Libet experiments" are invoked: the ones that allegedly show that your body has already made its "decision" to do something milliseconds before you "think" you're deciding yourself.

List discusses each objection, hoping to refute each one. And to my mind, he's successful. He argues that "free will" is an emergent property of our complex nervous systems interacting with the rest of our body. It is no less "real" than (say) life itself, or consciousness. His argument is language-heavy, and (frankly) difficult for a dilettante like me to grok in fullness, but I think I got the high points.

But (for me) the knock-down argument for free will is one adapted from Caltech physicist Sean Carroll: tomorrow morning when you want to get dressed, go stand in front of your closet and try saying: "Well, I'll just stand here and let the atoms in my body do whatever they were deterministically going to do anyway." Wait as long as you need to before you're convinced that that the atoms in your body aren't gonna get that clothes-picking job done for you. Or go to work in your jammies. Your call.

URLs du Jour


[Amazon Link]

  • Via Slashdot, a report in the Verge: Trump calls for social media companies to ‘detect mass shooters before they strike’.

    After two recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Trump said his administration would ask social media companies to develop tools that could detect potential mass shooters.

    While delivering a speech on the recent violence, Trump said “we must do a better job of identifying and acting on early warning signs,” and he suggested social media companies could develop new ways of catching “red flags.”

    “I am directing the Department of Justice to work in partnership with local state and federal agencies, as well as social media companies, to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike,” Trump said in the speech.

    Well, I guess it's time to pick up a DVD of Minority Report. Who knew it would be so prescient?

    I am (sigh) old enough to remember the post-9/11 atmosphere, with the Patriot Act quickly penned in full "do something" response. Among other things, civil libertarians were clutching their pearls about government watchdogs being able to get access to library patron records.

    Yes, like that was the most worrisome infringement on the privacy of innocent people.

    Good times.

  • One of the more common "do something" responses to the latest horrors: expanded background checks. Often "universal". As if Klingons were a major threat.

    Anyway, Jeff Jacoby dares to be contrarian: No, expanded background checks wouldn't prevent mass shootings.

    In reality, the overwhelming majority of gun sales already require a background check. Anyone who buys a gun from a licensed dealer — whether in person or online, in a store or at a gun show — must be cleared by the FBI before the weapon is delivered. Every year the federal government conducts more than 25 million such background checks — more than 320 million since the system was put in place. The only time the requirement doesn't apply is when someone acquires a gun locally from a private individual, such as a friend or relative. That's the so-called "gun show loophole," which has nothing to do with gun shows and isn't a loophole, since it doesn't apply to anyone in the business of selling guns.

    Enacting "universal" background checks would mean forcing private citizens, people who aren't gun dealers, to go through the FBI before they can sell a gun to their next-door neighbor or their sister-in-law. That would impose a considerable burden on the personal affairs of private individuals. But would it "do something" about mass shootings?

    Nope. But in the midst of a moral panic, facts do not matter. Only "do something" rules.

  • At Reason, Christian Britschgi notes: Rep. Joaquin Castro’s Doxxing of Trump Donors in His District Has Flipped the Campaign Finance Discourse on Its Head. Rep Castro tweeted out a list of his deplorable constituents who had committed the sin of donating maximum bucks to Donald Trump's re-election effort.

    Transparency advocates argue that by allowing the public to see who donates how much to which campaign committees and ballot initiatives, voters can better understand the motivations and incentives of officeholders and the relationships between special interests and the government. The stated justification of campaign finance transparency, in other words, is not to publicly shame private individuals for their political preferences.

    And yet this isn't the first time that campaign contribution data has been used to punish private individuals for their political donations. Former Mozilla Firefox CEO Brendan Eich was forced to resign in 2014 after it was revealed that he gave $1,000 in support of a 2008 ballot initiative to ban gay marriage in California.

    The ability to punish people for supporting or opposing particular political campaigns is one reason a lot of libertarians oppose making political donations public.

    Because they foresaw that demagogic politicians would weaponize the information against their opponents. Duh.

  • At the Free Beacon, Alex Griswold notes the viral nature of a fake quote: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez OBLITERATES Teenagers, Fake Mitch McConnell Quote #slay. Some young Mitch supporters posed inappropriately with an AOC cutout; AOC objected; Mitch responded; and that response was paraphrased (inaccurately) by the Daily Beast as "boys will be boys".

    And—voilà!—that "boys will be boys" phrase was quickly transmogrified into something Mitch actually said. Alex's bottom line:

    So now "boys will be boys" is something like two or three times removed from the original source, namely the opinion of a single journalist at Newsweek's competitor. To a reader coming late to the story, "McConnell campaign's ‘boys will be boys' defense" is simply a fact, a fact they'll tweet and retweet and will take on a life of its own, etc. All thanks to journalists and politicians acting in bad faith at every step.

    Another example of why it's difficult to grant the MSM a smodgen of respect.

  • But let me immediately contradict myself, because this New York Times interactive interview asks you a few questions and then guesses your Political Party. It's very neat, and it was enoyable to see my answers swing the polarization arrows one way and the other.

    Oh yeah: they got me right, at least technically. And I murmured "in name only" as the final answer appeared.

  • And as long as I was visiting the NYT, the challenge offered here was irresistible: Can You Answer the Hardest Citizenship Test Questions?.

    And not to brag, but I got 10/10.

    OK, to brag.

  • And as I was blogging this morn, I was playing my new Bruce Springsteen album "Western Stars". (Got it for Father's Day—thanks, kids!)

    After a few decades of Bruce-fandom, I just gave up and declined to purchase his most recent studio albums. I gave up after "Devils & Dust". But the unmissible talking point about "Western Stars" was Bruce was explicitly naming Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb as his major influences in making it.

    Reader, I am a serious devotee of both those artists. So I had to see what was going on with "Western Stars".

    Bottom line: it's pretty good,

    But for most of the songs, I'm thinking: "Glen Campbell would have done this so much better" Sorry, Bruce. I know you did your best.