The Long Tomorrow

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I couldn't help but notice that this book is one of the elements in the clickbait listicle at Gizmodo: 10 Books You Pretend to Have Read (And Why You Should Really Read Them). I've now read six out of the ten.

But seeing that list was coincidence. I've owned this book since the mid 1970s (retail price $1.25 back then, nowadays the paperback will set you back $15.00 at Amazon). Reading Chandler's The Big Sleep back in February reminded me that the author, Leigh Brackett, was one of the screenwriters for the Bogie movie. And that also reminded me that she got a screenwriting credit for "The Empire Strikes Back". Now that's a career. But how about this book?

Originally published in 1955, it's a dystopian novel of sorts. It's set decades after a big old nuclear war that didn't quite put us back to the Stone Age, but squarely back in the 19th century. Cities are gone, and the USA has passed the Thirtieth Amendment, which forbids towns greater than 1000 people, or more than 200 buildings per square mile. The most advanced technology: some clunky steam engines. There's—literally—old time religion, a lot of various flavors of Mennonite.

What puts the "dys" in this dystopia: anything that might threaten to bring back the bad old days of near-armageddon is ruthlessly quashed, usually by lawless mob violence driven by fear.

Against this backdrop, young Len Coulter is feeling the stirrings of curiousity and rebellion. His cousin Esau is also chafing under societal constraints, but does something Len would never consider: stealing a gadget from the horsecart of the mysterious trader Ed Hostetter. And then swiping some pre-war textbooks. Pretty soon Len and Esau find themselves in hot holy water, and their yearnings cause them to bug out of their community in search of the fabled city of Bartorstown!

Which they eventually come to. But it's not what they expected.

A few pages in, I was wondering if this was published as a juvenile. (Heinlein was writing his juveniles in the 1950s, after all.) Then a few more pages in, I realized there was quite a bit of explicit violence; maybe a no-no for school library shelves. Then a surprising amount of, well, sex. Discreetly described, but still. Given what I've heard about school libraries, it might fit right in today.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 7:40 PM EDT

The Overstory

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

This book was on the New York Times Best Books Of The Last 125 Years list, as voted on by their readers. I turned that list (the ones I hadn't already read) into a reading project. And so… I was underwhelmed by this one. But now I only have five books to go!

But I can see why NYT readers might like it! It also won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. But so did Walter Duranty.

I went in knowing next to nothing about it, not even reading the dust cover flaps. This was a good move. The first section of the book, “Roots”, is wonderful: essentially eight short stories, presenting nine characters. The stories are variously horrible, hilarious, heartfelt, honest, heartbreaking, and that’s just the Hs. If only the rest of the book were like this. Instead, things take a turn toward the tedious, tendentious, tortuous,... Ah well.

I think this is the ecological version of War and Peace. And I say that never having read War and Peace.

Executive summary: It's about trees. Trees are good. Trees are our friends. And we're so mean to them.

So: a grownup version of The Giving Tree and The Lorax. (There are shout-outs to both these works along the way.) We follow those nine characters over the next few decades, and a host of others, as they get into eco-activism, branching into eco-protests, then to eco-vandalism, and … eventually worse. Not all the earnest folks in the book make it to the final pages.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 8:53 AM EDT

"You Are Not Expected to Understand This"

How 26 Lines of Code Changed the World

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

A fun book, a collection of essays about coding. One of my main duties in my old job at the University Near Here. The topics are super diverse. The book’s title is taken from an amusing comment in the context-switching code in Version 6 UNIX back in the mid-70s. People thought it was meant to imply the associated code was tricky, obscure, and somewhat incomprehensible. (We’ve all seen code like that.) But the actual purpose was different, it seems.

What was, arguably, the very first line of code? “The answer may surprise you.”

There are essays about the origins of email, computer gaming (Spacewar!), Internet Relay Chat, JPEG, web bugs, popup ads, search engines, the “Like” button. Bitcoin. Roomba. The encryption algorithm Your Federal Government tried to classify as a “munition” and (unsuccessfully) suppress. Famous bugs: Heartbleed, the Morris Worm, the doomed Mars Climate Orbiter. The VW code that caused their diesel cars to cheat on emissions testing. The demise of databases that demanded a strict gender binary.

Unfortunately there are a couple clunkers. The essay on the development of BASIC starts: “During the first half of 1964, two college-age White men, …” If you see that as a warning flag that what follows will be remarkably tedious, you're correct: the author constructs a clumsy framework of racial grievance over boring old history. Almost as bad is “The Police Beat Algorithm”, a tendentious description of an effort to direct law enforcement most heavily toward locales and people with unusually high levels of crime. Surprise, this had a “disparate impact” on communities of color. The author takes this as prima facie evidence of nefarious racism instead of an effort to minimize victimization. The author doesn’t point out that the victims in high-crime areas are also disproportionately “Black and brown”.

Overall, though, an interesting read.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 8:54 AM EDT

Burning Down the House

How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Every so often, I try to read outside my ideological comfort zone. This book, by Andrew Koppelman, counts.

Koppelman bills himself as a "pro-capitalist leftist". I'll put my cards on the table too: I'm a Schrödinger-catlike mixture of National Review-style conservatism and Reason-style libertarianism, about 65-35 weight on the libertarian side. (I subscribe to both magazines, and my disagreements with their articles and editorials are nearly always mild.)

My disagreements with Koppelman are somewhat less mild. But lets get to the good news first: he has studied the "big" libertarian thinkers and popularizers: Hayek, Nozick, Rand, Mises, Rothbard. Others are mentioned less thoroughly: Epstein, Friedman (Milton and David), Barnett, … And some not at all: Sowell, Machan, Murray,…) He also deals with pols and influencers: Reagan, Paul (Ron and Rand), Koch (Charles and David). While he's critical, sometimes very critical, thumbs up for (at least mostly) reading and understanding these folks' arguments and positions. He's most complimentary to Hayek (that's the man himself on the cover, looking out of that burning house on the cover). But his take is a bit weird.

In contrast, Koppelman's own position draws heavily on John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice arguments and their subsequent refinements are described less critically.

Let's be fair: Koppleman's is not a totally crazy position. He's a fan of the European social democracies, with their relatively free economies, strong civil liberties, but also big social "safety nets", financed by high rates of taxation.

He claims that libertarianism has pretty much taken over both political parties. The Democrats hold "Hayekian" (i.e., sensible, respectable) positions, the GOP "Rothbardian" (i.e., crazy, greedy, and stupid) ones. It comes as a huge shock to libertarians that they've actually been in control all this time.

I said above that I was mostly a Reason-style libertarian. You would think that a book purporting to examine the current state of libertarianism might pay more attention to the arguments and proposals carried in that magazine. But no, Reason is pretty much AWOL here; Koppelman prefers to take his shots at people who mostly have been dead for more than a couple decades.

Overall, the book was a constant irritant, even given the author’s occasional pro-capitalism nods. There are a lot of exceptions to that pro-capitalism stance that pile up over the chapters. Koppelman never met a crisis that failed to justify government intervention. Nary a social problem that doesn’t call for some combination of regulations, fines, mandates, bailouts, prohibitions, and subsidies. Covid? Koppelman's disappointed that things weren't more stringent; if only it weren't for those damn libertarians griping about everything. Climate change, of course, calls for serious clampdowns on emissions.

Despite his admiration for Hayek, he pooh-poohs the notion that we’re on the Road to Serfdom; we heeded Hayek’s warnings and now all is well! It’s as if he’s never read Crisis and Leviathan by Robert Higgs (another ignored author).

The book’s title refers to a Tennessee incident back in 2010, where a house burned to the ground despite the presence of the fire department from a nearby town. People in the area had the option of paying a yearly subscription fee for the department’s services, but the house’s owner “forgot” to do that. This is Koppelman’s lead-off example of a “corrupted variety” of libertarianism. (The fire department in question was government-owned, and was operating under the control of its democratically-elected town government, but never mind.)

On taxation, Koppelman, like most leftists, points to the fabled 1950s when the top marginal income tax rate was 90% and everything was great! QED! Not mentioned: Federal government receipts averaged 16.5% of GDP in the 1950s; in (for example) FY2022 they were 19.2% and rising. He likes Hayek, but I'm not sure he likes Chapter 20 of The Constitution of Liberty, "Taxation and Redistribution". He doesn't talk about it much.

It's disappointing that Koppelman doesn't deal with substantive criticisms of Rawls' Theory of Justice. See, for example, Michael Munger's lecture exercise where he puts his students behind an actual "veil of ignorance" and asks them to decide on redistribution strategy; his results are non-Rawlsian. Maybe not a total knock-down argument, but close.

I'd also recommend the symposium on Koppelman's book hosted at Jack Balkin's blog. Which includes responses from Koppelman to his critics there.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 7:42 PM EDT

The Night Shift

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I noticed author Alex Finlay last July when investigating Joyce Carol Oates' claim that "first novels by young white male writers" were being rejected unread by publishers. Due to whiteness and maleness. Controversial claim! My test was to look at a couple articles ("15 Best Debut Authors of 2021" from GoBookMart and "10 best debut novelists of 2021" from the Guardian) to discover they were pretty low on young white guys. Specifically, 20%.

Finlay appeared on GoBookMart's list on the strength of his novel Every Last Fear, deemed "a perfect spine chiller". Finlay's website has more raves. So I put that on my "Get At Library" list.

But in the meantime, his second novel, this one, appeared at Amazon, the Kindle version going (at the time) for a mere $2.99. I hit that "Buy Now" button so fast…

Sorry for the long-winded explanation. I don't know why I think other people would be interested in my haphazard methods of book-picking. On to the book:

On New Year's Eve 1999, the Blockbuster Video store in Linden NJ, is about to close up. Unfortunately, before that can happen, most of the staff are stabbed to death, leaving a sole survivor, Ella. A suspect is named (bad boy "Vince"), arrested, released for lack of evidence, and then vanishes, assumed to be on the lam.

Then, years later, another knife-based slaughter occurs in the Dairy Creamery, a late-night Linden ice cream store. Again, there's only one survivor, Jesse. Ella has become a therapist. And she's called in to help Jesse deal with her trauma.

Complications abound. Ella's a therapist, but she's overly fond of booze, pills, and sex with strangers. Jesse's an aspiring journalist, but she likes to live on the edge herself. And remember vanished Vince? Is he back, and up to his old mass-murdering tricks? Maybe, but since 1999, his brother Chris has escaped their abusive dad, gotten adopted, has become a public defense attorney, and gets assigned to defend the accused in the Dairy Creamery murders.

And then there's FBI agent Sarah Keller, who's eight months pregnant with twins, gets roped in on the investigation. She and her partner Atticus Singh have a marginal role: see if Vince could be the perpetrator of this new horror. They do not remain marginal.

And many more. It's a twisty plot, involving many characters, many murders, Dickensian coincidences in addition to the ones mentioned above. Finlay does a pretty good job of pulling all this off; it's a definite page-turner. (Or, on my new Kindle, a screen-poker.)

Last Modified 2023-05-30 5:50 AM EDT

Diamonds are Forever

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

The fourth James Bond novel, and it's a step up from Moonraker, so that's good. I don't recall reading it in my younger days. (I do remember watching the movie. It was pretty bad, a waste of Sean Connery.)

Bond gets away from dealing with Russians in this one; he's tasked by M to impersonate a small-time crook who was recruited to smuggle a small fortune in African diamonds into the US. His job is to uncover the participants in the smuggling ring, mostly the mysterious ringleader known only as A B C. He's assigned a handler, "Tiffany Case", who (no surprises here) eventually becomes Bond's love interest. (Kind of a joke name, but she's got an explanation for it.)

I'd say the book is 70% travelogue. I could gripe about that, but I found I didn't mind it that much; it's an interesting look at life in the late 1950s. The first leg of Bond's journey is a transatlantic hop on a BOAC "Stratocruiser", a double-decked prop-powered behemoth with sleeping berths. (Bond fails to wangle a berth, but he smokes up a storm to make up for it.) Then New York, a jaunt up to Saratoga Springs to bet on a fixed horserace, back to New York, then it's off to Vegas for blackjack (also fixed) and roulette. Then to "Spectreville", a ghost town in the Nevada desert. Then back to Britain, with Tiffany, on the RMS Queen Elizabeth. The sights along the way are lovingly described ("They flew over Barstow, the junction from which the single track of the Santa Fe strides off into the desert on its long run into the desert of the Colorado Plateau, skirting on their right the Calico Mountains, once the Borax centre of the world, and leaving far away to the left the bone-strewn wastes of Death Valley.") Also lovingly detailed: the food and drink consumed along the way. (E.g,, scrambled eggs, sausages, buttered rye toast, and Miller High Life at the "The Chicken in the Basket", a roadhouse on the way to Saratoga Springs.)

And yeah, there's eventually action and violence. Bond's survival becomes iffy at one point, but he's saved (spoiler!) by Tiffany.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 7:42 PM EDT


The Story of the Human Mind

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

The author, Paul Bloom, based this book off an "Introduction to Psychology" course he taught at Yale. (He's now mainly at the University of Toronto.) It shows, and in a good way: the text is accessible to the general reader, full of interesting anecdotes, funny asides, and colorful language. An easy read, and you nevertheless find yourself learning things.

He discusses some famed luminaries of the field in detail: Freud, Piaget, Skinner. But most of the book focuses on broad concepts, broken into clearly demarcated, stand-alone chapters: the materialist origins of thought and consciousness; language development; rationality (and irrationality); biases and racism; mental illness; the nature of happiness.

Bloom is a research psychologist, but he's straightforward about the troubles in his own field, and full of healthy skepticism. Thomas Szasz is discussed; Bloom disagrees with his radicalism, but respectfully. He looks at that pesky replication crisis. And, although Bloom's got evidence on his side that psychological therapy works—that lady telling you to "seek professional help" is actually giving you good advice—there's not been a lot of actual progress in that area for a long time. The most damning quote Bloom provides is from Thomas Insel, onetime director of the National Institute for Mental Health: after 13 years at NIMH, spending an estimated $20 billion on research, he admits not "moving the needle" on suicide, hospitalization, or patient recovery.

He's not refunding that money, however.

When Bloom discusses racial/gender differences, he's not that far off from Charles Murray, although not in any way that would cause Yale students to shriek. He notes that formally egalitarian societies can "max out" genetic potential: people can literally "be all they can be". But he doesn't go on to mention (as Murray does) that those racial/gender disparities still persist in the most egalitarian countries. So?

When discussing schizophrenia, Bloom rattles off the symptoms, including "disorganized speech" (the tendency to produce word salad) and "odd and inappropriate actions, such as inappropriate giggling". Gee, I didn't previously think Kamala Harris was schizophrenic, but now I'm open to the possibility. I'll keep my eyes open for other telltale signs.

And Bloom mentions an ongoing mystery: why we behave so darn oddly when seeing cute babies: the urge to pinch, squeeze, and nibble. Prof Bloom, that happens to me all the time. Why? When psychology solves that enigma, I'll be more comfortable calling it a science.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 7:42 PM EDT

The Christie Affair

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

This book made the WSJ's list of best mysteries for 2022. I don't always find the WSJ reviewer a reliable guide, but he was on target here.

I remembered, dimly, that famous mystery writer Agatha Christie went AWOL back in the 1920s, accompanied by a great deal of public speculation. She returned after a few days, but her whereabouts and activities during that period remained mysteriously unexplained. This book weaves a tale around that incident and, although it's been at least forty years since I read a Christie novel, I detected (heh) hints of her plotting style here.

The narrator is Nan O'Dea, and she's a self-admitted homewrecker. She has aimed herself at Agatha's husband, Archie; as the book opens, she's successfully convinced him to divorce Agatha. But it's pretty clear from Nan's narration that Archie is not only an unfaithful cad, he's also kind of a dimwit. Nan clearly has ulterior motives, but what are they? They are eventually revealed via horrific flashbacks to her unhappy youth in very Catholic Ireland.

Another layer to the mystery is added when Agatha vanishes. A frantic countrywide search ensues. A cop, Frank Chilton, is pulled out of retirement to help out with that; he becomes a major character in the narrative.

And a couple of poisoning deaths occur along the way. And Chilton needs to check those out too. (And he's a nice enough guy, but he's no Hercule Poirot.)

A final mystery for the reader: Nan is narrating events, but just how reliable a narrator is she? Especially when she's describing things she didn't actually witness? How much of this story is told through speculation, delusion, lies, and maybe a touch of insanity? No spoilers here, but it's something to keep your eye on.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 7:42 PM EDT

The True Believer

Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

At some point in my life, I acquired this slim, dog-eared, heavily underlined and student-annotated, spine-cracked paperback for (the sticker on the front cover says) 75¢—list price $1.95. (The Amazon link is to the in-print version: $10.99.) After decades of neglect, it's about time I read it.

I seem to remember that a number of courses I avoided taking in high school and college used it as a text. Well, I bet those courses would be pretty hard to find now. One of the first things I noticed was that the author, Eric Hoffer, was given to broad generalizations about entire classes of people, most of which (um) could be perceived as negative. You can't get away with that sort of thing these days.

Anyway, it was considered important back then, I kept seeing complimentary references to it, and I finally got around to reading it. As the subtitle indicates, Hoffer's book is a finely detailed analysis of the "nature of mass movements". Some of Hoffer's prime examples are Nazism in Germany; the Bolsheviks in Russia; the French Revolution; the rise of Christianity. There are a lot of moving parts, but the biggie for a "mass movement" are the masses, the foot soldiers, the true believers. Hoffer is not complimentary: they are motivated by resentment and a perception of their own inadequacies. They long for belonging, action, even self-sacrifice for a Cause, and they're not particular about the details. (Hoffer mentions that, historically, it's been pretty easy to turn (say) Nazi sympathizers into Communist sympathizers, and vice versa.)

Other components: leaders, "men of action", and "men of words". (Another reason this book might not be as popular in colleges now: as near as I can remember, there are no women present on Planet Hoffer. That wasn't a problem in my academic days, but now…) They all have important parts to play. Come to think of it, this might make a pretty good how-to book for aspiring revolutionary leaders.

(The book came out in 1951. Although there are a couple (negative) mentions of Chiang Kai-Shek, I didn't notice anything about Mao. That would have made a pretty interesting addition.)

One problem with the book: I don't think anyone—even an actual True Believer-is likely to recognize themselves here. But it's pretty easy to pick out descriptive passages and apply them to people we don't like. Section 90 rattles off some characteristics of a leader: "fanatical conviction that he is in posession of the one and only truth"; "faith in his destiny and luck"; "a capacity for passionate hatred"… are you thinking of any particular politician you know?

And it's full of fascinating trivia. Here's something I didn't know: the rise of Christianity happened primarily in large cities of the day. The words pagan and heathen derive from old words for "villagers" (pagani) and those inhabitants of the countryside (the heath).

Last Modified 2023-05-30 7:42 PM EDT

Radical Uncertainty

Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

This book explores the thorny nature of uncertainty, considering the related topics of risk, probability, predictability, etc.. The authors concentrate on economics (John Kay is, among other things, an econ prof at Oxford; Mervyn King was the Governor of the Bank of England) but their discussion is very wide-ranging, slopping over to other areas where our knowledge is less than perfectly complete. Which is, pretty much, everywhere.

Their discussion of probability is a fine example of how weird the concept can get. Physics folks know that (for example) an atom of carbon-14 will undergo beta decay sometime in the next 5700 years with probability 50%. And we've all heard about Schrödinger's kitty. But once you get beyond that, things get hairy. We also think of a coin-flip coming up heads as having probability ½; but that's only because we don't pay very much attention to the details of the coin's trajectory, which is (after all) deterministic, with no quantum funny business involved.

Things get a lot more fuzzy when we look at betting odds. As I type, the FiveThirtyEight website tells me the Boston Celtics have a 28% chance of winning the NBA finals; the Election Betting Odds nails down a 37.1% probability that Joe Biden will win the 2024 presidential election. What's that mean?

And finally, the discussion preceding Obama's 2011 decision to send the SEALs into Abbottabad to get Osama bin Laden is examined. One CIA advisor put the probability that Osama was present in the compound at 95%. "But others were less sure. Most placed their probability estimate at about 80%. Some were as low as 40% or even 30%."

If that sort of quantification strikes you as absurd, good. It gets stranger:

The President summed up the discussion. 'This is 50-50. Look guys, this is a flip of the coin. I can't base this decision on the notion that we have any greater certainty than that.' Obama did not mean that the probability that the man in the compound was bin Laden was 0.5; still less that he planned to decide by flipping a coin. His summary recognized that he had to make his decision without knowing whether the terrorist leader was in the compound or not. Obama would reflect on that discussion in a subsequent interview: 'In this situation, what you started getting was probabilities that disguised uncertainty as opposed to actually providing you with more useful information.

That gets pretty far afield from our Carbon-14 atom. Kay and King do a fine philosophical job of teasing out distinctions and confusions in the language surrounding uncertainty.

I winced a bit at the authors' mangled history of the early personal computer market (page 29), which implies that Apple's desktop GUI was present from the company's origin. But in other spots, Kay and King can get downright hilarious (in a staid British manner) in describing the efforts of firms and regulators as they try to quantify the unquantifiable. Their advice on how (better) to handle situations where you just don't know the inherently unknowable is (probably) good.

Last Modified 2023-05-31 4:57 AM EDT