Since We Fell

[Amazon Link]

I've been a Dennis Lehane fan since I got hooked on his Kenzie/Gennaro private eye novels, set in seedy old Boston; he's moved away from those two to write more "serious" mainstream fare, including some movies. (Some good, some not.) But his books are automatically pushed into my to-read queue.

And in an epic tale of shopping, I picked up the Kindle version on sale for a mere $2.99. (It has since returned to $11.99.)

All that said, this is a darned odd book. It opens with "On a Tuesday in May, Rachel shot her husband dead." Promising!

But then we go back, way back, into Rachel's upbringing in a fatherless household, subject to a domineering mother. Mom is a famous self-help writer on relationships and marriage, even though she has no relationships and has eschewed marriage herself. She hides dad's identity from Rachel, which kind of messes Rachel up. Rachel goes through her life with bad relationships, some substance abuse, some mental illness. A promising career in broadcast journalism self-immolates after harrowing Haitian experiences. And then…

Well, once we're 63% of the way through the book, we're back at the point where she shoots her husband.

And then, I'm tempted to say, things get interesting, finally. Which is not fair, Lehane is an immensely gifted writer, and that first part is "interesting" in that sense. But what comes in the final third of the book is—and I don't want to spoil anything—totally different and unexpected.

All in all, a decent read. I keep wishing for Kenzie/Gennaro to come back, but I'll keep reading anything Lehane writes.

How Charts Lie

Getting Smarter about Visual Information

[Amazon Link]

I picked this off the new-book table at the Portsmouth Public Library on impulse. It's short. The author, Alberto Cairo, is "Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the School of Communication of the University of Miami." His blog is here.

I was slightly disappointed at (1) the basic level and (2) preachiness. There wasn't much in here that I didn't learn long ago, although the presentation is good, examples are fresh.

If you're looking for a good introduction for a bright high-schooler, this might do the trick.

Lost in Math

How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

[Amazon Link]

I picked this book up from the Portsmouth Public Library, spurred by an interesting Econtalk podcast with the author, Sabine Hossenfelder, earlier this year. She is a theoretical physicist, currently at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. She's German, but her English is very good; as near as I can tell, her writing is mainly in English.

The book is an interesting combination of philosophy and science, spurred mainly by the recent (and continuing) failure of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to detect new particles predicted by theories of "supersymmetry".

Famously, the LHC detected the Higgs Boson a few years back, and that was great, but the Higgs had long been predicted by the so-called "Standard Model". Supersymmetry, though, is (was?) an exciting new theory that was considered to be "beautiful". So beautiful, in fact, that some theoreticians felt it "had to be true".

Could it be that (see the subtitle) that physicists were led "astray" by mathematical beauty? Specifically, led into dropping billions of eurodollars onto a research facility that has come up with (again, so far) disappointing results? (That money could maybe have been directed at more fruitful research. It would have bought a lot of whiteboards and dry-erase markers.)

Sabine (I call her Sabine) explores notions of "beauty" in science. With a philosopher's care, she breaks it down into various components: simplicity, naturalness, elegance. These are not strictly defined, but they're described well. "Naturalness" is probably the weirdest concept: the notion that dimensionless ratios between theoretical parameters "should" be around 1. (Don't believe me? There's a Wikipedia page.)

Sabine travels the world and interviews/argues with a lot of other physicists. Her takes are personal, idiosyncratic, and often funny.

The book is aimed at a popular audience, hence shies away from delving into the actual physics. A lot of theories are described on the surface, but a lot of readers (including me, and I was a physics major long ago) will be left wondering: what's that mean? Unavoidable, I think.

I've mentioned this before, but my concern is that some aspects of the universe might be entirely too complex or subtle for human intelligence to comprehend. I have a very smart dog, but I don't expect him to be able to understand calculus. Or even something relatively simple, like the base-10 numbering system. Not only doesn't he understand it, he doesn't even understand that there's something to understand. How sure can we be that we're not in the same state?

I don't think Sabine mentions this issue in the book.

If you want to explore All Things Sabine, a good place to start is sabinehossenfelder.com, which has links to her blog, videos (including, I am not making this up, music videos), articles in various outlets, etc.

1920

The Year of the Six Presidents

[Amazon Link]

I got this book via UNH Interlibrary Loan (thanks, Wesleyan U!) because (back in July) Jonah Goldberg did a couple episodes of his Remnant podcast with the author, David Pietrusza. It sounded interesting, so…

And it turns out the book isn't exactly fresh: it's from 2007. But he's writing about 1920 and that era, and I suppose that subject hasn't changed much since 2007. As we're coming up on the centennial of that year:

Pietrusza's main topic is the 1920 presidential election, but it ranges wide beyond that, as it discusses the issues and personalities that made the year so memorable. The subtitle is "The Year of the Six Presidents", and they are:

  • Woodrow Wilson, the incumbent. Despite being enfeebled and ill, he entertained fantasies of running for a third term, despite his unpopularity in the country and in his own party. Nobody seemed to take him seriously on this.

  • Teddy Roosevelt. Very popular, despite having torpedoed his party's chances in 1912 by running on the "Progressive" ticket. Bad luck, though: he died of a blood clot in his lungs in 1919. (President Wilson's reaction to the report of TR's death was apparently ghoulish. Not a nice guy was Woody.)

  • Herbert Hoover. Very popular due to his feats in relieving famine abroad and at home. As with Eisenhower, it wasn't exactly clear what his politics were, even his party was nebulous. In 1920, though, his desire for the presidency was low, and he managed only 5.5 votes for the nomination on the first ballot at the GOP convention. (He went on to be Harding's Secretary of Commerce, and brought us dreadful regulation of the radio spectrum.)

  • Warren Harding, the eventual winner. He backed into the GOP nomination on the tenth ballot, mainly by being someone that nobody especially hated (unlike contenders Leonard Wood, Hiram Johnson, Frank Lowden, et. al.). As we know, Harding had an, um, colorful personal life. And there's a great story about his wife throwing a piano stool at his mistress.

  • Calvin Coolidge, nominated for veep, and assuming the presidency in 1923 on Harding's death. Probably the best one of the six, but that's me.

  • And Franklin D. Roosevelt, who the Democrats nominated to run on the doomed ticket with presidential nominee James M. Cox. Another "colorful" character, he was dynamic, charismatic, unfaithful, dishonest,… Pretty much the whole deal

Pietrusza has an eye for good anecdotes, and details the issues of the day: League of Nations, women's suffrage, suppression of dissent, Navy scandals in Newport RI and Portsmouth NH (!), Sacco and Vanzetti, etc. There was even a "birther"-style controversy, as Harding was alleged to have an African-American ancestor in his family tree somewhere.

Various kind of socialism were in vogue, and the adventures of Eugene V. Debs are chronicled. A big admirer of the newly-formed Soviet Union, he made Bernie Sanders look like Ronald Reagan! Well, not quite, but…

One quibble: the final section of the book contains a "whatever happened to" concerning the dramatis personae appearing in the text. There's an intriguing entry for Alexandra Carlisle Pfeiffer. Problem: if you want to know what she did, the index won't help you. (I can tell from her Wikipedia entry that she seconded the nomination of Calvin Coolidge for vice president at the GOP convention, but I'm not sure that's in the book.)

Two Kinds of Truth

[Amazon Link]

Tale of shopping: purchased in July of last year from "ThriftBooks - Blue Cloud" for a cool $5.98 (original price … much more than that). It turned out to be a rescue book from the Vineyard Haven Public Library. In good shape, those washashores are gentle readers. (Hey, for all I know, James Taylor might have read this very book before I did.)

Anyway: It's 2017 Connolly, which means I am only two years behind.

The plot threads in this book were also the basis for the most recent season of the Bosch series on Amazon Prime. There were some changes, most to adapt the details of the series' reality,

There are two major things going on: first, Harry Bosch is investigating the murder of father-and-son pharmacists in a tiny farmacia in the Hispanic section of San Fernando. It soon becomes apparent that the business was part of the oxycontin trade run by the mysterious "Santos". Harry goes undercover as a pill-popper to infiltrate the scheme that relies on fraud and coercion to funnel millions to the bad guys. Which puts him in major physical peril, I don't need to tell you.

Second, Harry gets the bad news that a thirty-year-old case where he put a murderer/rapist on death row is being re-opened. A deathbed confession from a different lowlife has been alleged. Reopening the evidence box seems to show exculpatory DNA on the victim's pajamas. And (worst of all) Harry is accused of planting a vital piece of physical evidence. If this conviction is overturned, Harry's reputation will be ruined, and it will cast Reasonable Doubt on the hundreds of bad guys he's put away since then.

The usual Connelly magic: the story hooks you and keeps those pages turning.

A bit of trivia: I said there were differences between the show and the book. Most are minor, as said, but there's one biggie on the show that might (as they say) Change Everything.

Off the Grid

[Amazon Link]

Continuing with my C. J. Box catchup reading mini-project. Purchased this hardcover off the Barnes & Noble remainder table in April 2018 for $6.98. Like new!

This is billed as a "Joe Pickett novel" on the cover, but Joe's friend Nate Romanowski starts things off when he's shanghaied by a couple shady Federal agents into investigating some mysterious goings on in Wyoming's Red Desert. Nate's an ideal investigator, because he's a falconer, and one of the people to check out is one too.

Things switch over to Joe, who has a hair-raising encounter with a rogue grizzly bear that's been tracked by a research team. Once that's over (or is it?), Joe's called upon by his protector/tormentor, outgoing Wyoming Governor Rulon, to … yup, investigate some mysterious goings on in Wyoming's Red Desert.

And then things switch over to Joe's college-student daughter, the capable, level-headed Sheridan. Her pothead roommate browbeats her into going camping with a bunch of activists in… you guessed it, Wyoming's Red Desert.

Before you can say "Dickensian coincidence", things get pretty violent pretty fast, and everyone winds up in mortal danger. It's a well-crafted page-turner. And (without spoilers) it appears C. J. has a cynically dark view of Our Federal Government. But see what you think.

Shall We Wake the President?

Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office

[Amazon Link]

I put this on my to-read list a few years back, for reasons I can no longer remember. But it was available at my new fave booksource, the Portsmouth Public Library, so…

Well, first: caveat lector. (I seem to be saying that a lot lately.) From the title, I assumed this would be mainly a history book. How James Madison handled the Year Without a Summer, for example. And even its Dewey Decimal Number (973.099) is clearly in the US History/Presidents class.

And there's some history, indeed. But it's mainly advice on how various sorts of disasters should be handled, based on key examples from the past, mostly the recent past. And not only handled by US Presidents, but also Joe and Jane Citizen. Past events are classified as handled pretty well (FDR and the Great Depression; Nixon and Hurricane Camille) or botched (Dubya and Katrina; LBJ and late-sixties riots).

Which is fine. Just unexpected. Maybe I should have read the reviews a little more carefully.

Another downside: the author, Tevi Troy, has a writing style I can only classify as "bureaucratic". It's like he's typing a very long ass-covering memo to his boss. (With an unstated bureaucratic premise: "If you don't follow this advice, woe betide you. When the shit goes down, I won't be blamed, I'll have a paper trail.")

After that, the book is mainly notable for detailing all the different ways natural and man-made disasters can strike. Natural: pandemics, climate, vulcanism, earthquake. Man-made: economic collapse; terrorism, including cyberterrorism and bioterrorism; civil unrest; attacks on the power grid. Egads.

And as far as advice goes, Troy gets pretty far down in the weeds. Like how to wash your hands effectively. (Hot water, plenty of soap, and keep at it long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice.)

What I didn't know: Woodrow Wilson was an even worse president than I thought. His sin here: not stopping US troop transports during the Spanish Flu pandemic, near the end of WWI, causing (Troy claims) a "great many" additional deaths. Troy also raises the possibility that Wilson's serious health issues when he traveled to Europe for treaty negotiations could have been caused by Spanish Flu, not the stroke more conventional historians blame. In any case, the negotiations were disastrous, a primary eventual cause of World War II, and Wilson's health issues were at the core of that. Sheesh.

The Political Spectrum

The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone

[Amazon Link]

I seem to remember that Thomas Winslow Hazlett used to be a prolific contributor to Reason. He still shows up now and then. But fond memories of well-crafted arguments led me to put this book on the Interlibrary Loan queue. And I was not disappointed: for a scholarly tome published by Yale University Press, his prose is still punchy, and he tackles this topic with appropriate amounts of humor and bite.

And the topic is (roughly) the regulatory mess the US Government has made of the vast radio spectrum. The invention of the technology using electromagnetic waves to send data between transmitters and receivers is barely over a century old. (Thanks, Guglielmo!) But it had the bad fortune to take off just as the modern regulatory state was also taking wing, and people really had a mistaken faith in the benevolent state allocating resources wisely.

The primary villain: Herbert Hoover, who was Silent Cal's Secretary of Commerce. He wangled the Radio Act of 1927, essentially putting the spectrum under control of what would eventually become the FCC. As Hazlett shows, spectrum problems could have been resolved by common law, based on property rights sensibly defined.

But noooo… instead we got oppressive and intrusive state regulation, with all the well-known associated problems: protection of incumbents against upstarts, rent-seeking, corruption, squelching of innovation, censorship, lowest-common-denominator programming, inefficiencies galore.

Hazlett details all that, and the ongoing two-steps-forward-one-or-more-steps-back reform process. A particular hero is Nobelist Ronald Coase who first propoosed free market reforms in a 1959 essay. It was that classic story: "first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”.

My only quibble: among all the flinging around of kHz, MHz, and GHz, the book really could have used some simple spectrum maps, showing the colonization of radio space over the past century. Analogous to those maps in US history books showing the westward spread.

A Slight Trick of the Mind

[Amazon Link]

A few years back I watched the movie Mr. Holmes with Ian McKellen as the detective. The movie was good enough to put the novel on which it was based into the read-someday list, and … here 'tis. It turns out the movie was a reasonably faithful adaptation.

Caveat Lector: the author, Mitch Cullin, writes literary fiction, and he's completely unconcerned with the standard conventions of genre. The mysteries here are pretty minor, don't involve actual crimes, and they are overwhelmed by issues of character. Things are pretty dark, and occasionally tragic. Three plot threads are intertwined:

  1. An aged Holmes in post-WW2 Sussex, tending his bees, with a developing relationship with Roger, the young son of his housekeeper. The relationship is as affectionate as possible, given Holmes' standoffish personality. But Sherlock is plagued with fading memory and increasing physical infirmities.
  2. That's set just after Holmes' return from postwar Japan, where he's gone to research the "prickly ash", a plant said to have benefits for said fading memory. His tour includes Hiroshima, on the mend from its recent encounter with nuclear fission. And he's accompanied by a gay Japanese host who's looking to discover what happened to his long-lost father.
  3. And there are flashbacks to a decades-old case of Sherlock's, where a suspicious husband wants to know what's going on with his increasingly estranged missus, and whether it has anything to do with the music lessons she's been taking from the mysterious Madame Schirmer on the haunting armonica.

A decent read, outside my usual fictional orbits.

Both Flesh and Not

[Amazon Link]

A posthumous book of essays and articles issued by the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.

This is a good book on which to invoke my standard disclaimer: these blog entries for the books I've read are not "book reviews". They're more like "book reports". I.e., I report my reaction to the book, and your mileage may definitely vary.

There are a couple of long (nay, seemingly interminable) essays of literary criticism. It's DFW, so I assume they are not insufferable pretentious crap. It's just that I was unable to distinguish them from insufferable pretentious crap. My bad. I only claim: I looked at every page.

But those two clunkers aside, this is a poignant reminder of the voice that was self-stilled back in 2008. Funny, smart, deeply insightful. (Yes, and also a victim of Bush Derangement Syndrome, as a couple of screedy passages reveal.)

A mark of a fine writer: DFW can get me hooked on writing about a subject I don't care one whit about, like professional tennis. Don't miss the footnotes, where he, for example, muses on Jimmy "Connors's compulsive on-court touching and adjustment of his testes within his jock, as if he needed to know just where they were at all times."

And he also managed to explicate (in "The Nature of the Fun") my own blogging attitude: you can be writing for your own enjoyment, and that's fun; but when you start to get noticed, that fun can transform itself into wanting to be liked. Being liked, well, that's fun too. But it's a different kind of fun, and it can turn you into a different kind of writer.

Damn, I miss him.