Fair Warning

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Let me just say this about Michael Connelly. His prose is workmanlike; no danger of confusing him with (say) Tana French. His dialogue can be clunky. His characters only have enough depth to explain their actions.

But no other writer can get me turning pages like Connelly. What happens next? Tell me, Mike, I gotta know!

This is the third entry in Connelly's "Jack McAvoy" series. Jack, having helped catch serial killers "The Poet" and "The Scarecrow" is now put on the track of "The Shrike". Who is in the habit of picking up sexually adventuresome women in bars, having his way with them, then killing them via atlanto-occipital dislocation, a technique you've probably seen in some action movie. By sheer coincidence, one of his victims is a lady with whom Jack had a one night stand months previous. Which makes him a suspect, so the LAPD's non-finest come knocking. (Harry Bosch would have cleared this up faster.)

Jack's working for an online newspaper, FairWarning (which actually used to exist), a consumer watchdog. Homicide is not the paper's mission, but Jack is intrigued by the crime he's sort of connected to, and he brings his investigative skills back to life. He also ropes in ex-FBI "profiler" Rachel Walling. They uncover a sordid trail involving a shady DNA-analysis company, some pathetic misogynists, and a truly devious murderer.

I should also add one more thing about Connelly: I think he and Robert Crais have some sort of contest to see how many words they can devote to describing their characters' driving routes around LA. "The freeway entrance looped around then I was heading south on the 170. I took one of the 101 merge lanes and got the car up to sixty."

Feynman's Rainbow

A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life

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I enjoyed this slim book by Leonard Mlodinow quite a bit. Probably a lot of that is due to some personal factors: I was an undergrad physics major at Caltech way back when, and like most of my peers, was an unabashed Feynman Fanboy. This despite having all three volumes of his big red books as my freshman and sophomore textbooks; this was often painful. I was brave enough to sit next to the man when my house invited him for dinner, and I even asked him a (in retrospect, stupid) physics question. Which he answered with far more patience and grace than the question deserved.

I fell off the physics track a few years later, a fortuitous move both for physics and me. But I still plod along with the field at a dilettante level, checking out books written by much smarter people. And I still count myself as a Feynman Fanboy.

This book was published in 2003, but I didn't notice it then. But when I (somehow) became aware of it, I plunked it onto my wanna-read list. And the University Near Here had a copy, so once it re-opened for civilians (long story) I ventured down into the basement stacks and grabbed it.

Mlodinow came to Caltech in the early 80s as a bright young postdoctoral fellow. No teaching duties, and an office in fourth-floor Downs Lab, just down the hall from Feynman's and Murray Gell-Mann's. (Gell-Mann is a supporting character here.) He has a bad case of Imposter Syndrome, very much worried that he doesn't belong with all the smart folks.

At the time, Feynman had been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him a few years later. But he still comes into work, and he's still approachable. Mlodinow's a fanboy too, and he looks to Feynman for advice on not just mundane physics topics, but on life. He took to recording (with permission) his discussions with the great man, and a number of those are transcribed here, with some Feynmanian opinionizing on the string theory, the relation of theorizing to experimentation, the place of beauty in science, etc. Good stuff.

A lot of anecdotes, many funny, one scary, some revolving around Mlodinow's generous consumption of marijuana with his buddies.

Mlodinow went on to a varied career. He still does physics, writes pop-science books (like this one). But I'm not sure any other physicist could boast a similar IMDB page. (Did you write an episode of Night Court, Kip Thorne?)

Consumer note: A couple of Amazon reviewers note this book was also published under the title Some Time With Feynman, and they're pretty steamed. If you (against all odds) bought that, you might not want to buy this.

The Searcher

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I got started reading Tana French thanks to a recommendation from Peter Suderman on the Reason Roundtable podcast awhile back. Fair play to him, I've become a dedicated fan.

Her first six books were (more or less) a series, centered around the "Dublin Murder Squad", each one focusing on a different detective from that group. Each concentrating on the cops' psychological flaws/traumas, putting them through the psychic wringer. Her seventh book, The Witch Elm got away from the police at center stage, but the protagonist was (again) teetering on the brink of the basket.

Now, this one seems different at first. It's out of the city, set in a rural Ireland of sheep, bogs, hilly terrain, and colorful characters who like to tipple down at the local pub. This bucolic setting couldn't be farther from gritty, decadent Dublin.

Into this scene plops Cal, a retired Chicago cop, hoping to build a quiet life far from the ashes of his old one. (A bitter ex-wife, an estranged and slightly hostile grown daughter.) He's purchased an old farmhouse, a fixer upper. And so he sets to renovating…

The only problem being that he feels like he's being watched. And he is. But it's pretty easy for an ex-cop to get to the bottom of that little mystery: turns out it's a kid, Trey, from a nearby farm. They strike up an uneasy companionship, with Trey helping Cal with renovating. Trey's explanation for stalking Cal seems iffy, though. And it is: at the 17% point of the book (I got the Kindle version), it's revealed that Trey's big brother Brendan has gone missing, and Trey wants Cal to find out what happened to him.

And then things oh-so-gradually get darker from there, because people don't become saintly just because they're living in the countryside. Cal prides himself as having a "code", a set of morals that guided his behavior as a Chicago cop, and he maintains in Ireland. But as his investigation plays out, he finds that his code is inadequate to guide his path.

The Square and the Tower

Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook

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I think I put this on the get-at-library list after listening to Jonah Goldberg interview the author, Niall Ferguson, on his podcast back in 2019. Eventually, some slow reader returned it to Portsmouth Public Library, and here it is.

Consumer note: as I type, the hardcover is available at Amazon for a mere $9.82. Good deal.

Ferguson's general method here is to view history through "networks" and "hierarchies". (A hierarchy being a special case of network: top-down with implications of authority.)

In that sense, networks/hierarchies are everywhere, and always have been. In this book, there are a lot of those labelled boxes/ellipses/circles connected with various kinds of lines (thick/thin, curved/straight dashed/dotted/solid,…) Does illustrating various historical episodes this way bring insight? I can give you a definite "maybe"!

That's OK. I read history books at a not-even-a-dilettante level. Or a "picking up facts I may be able to regurgitate if I ever get on Jeopardy!" level. And Ferguson has a lot of good, entertaining, thoughtful stuff herein, even if the network interpretive view didn't bring a lot of additional insight for me.

The book is wide ranging in time and space. And coverage is somewhat idiosyncratic. Example: Chapter 17 has a ponderous title, "The Economic Consequences of the Reformation". I steeled myself to deal with that weighty topic… only to turn the page and find the chapter ending after a total of three paragraphs. OK, they were long paragraphs, but still.

I did make a connection when listening to the Reason Interview podcast with Nick Gillespie interviewing Ted Henken about Cuba. Henken made the point that social media driven networks can be pretty effective at knocking things down (like dictatorial regimes). But they haven't had much success with driving improved situations. For that, you need something more hierarchical. (An example: the beginnings of the American Revolution were aided by the colonial networks of the day, and the initial outcome was kind of a mess. But the adoption of the Constitution was largely driven by a hierarchical elite.)

These Women

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Consumer note: if you, against all odds, read this report and decide to grab a hardcover copy of These Women, you might want to avoid reading the front flap. It gives away too much.

That's not to say it isn't good. It is good (except for the front flap). I put it on my get-at-library list because it was nominated for the Best Novel Edgar award, so I'm not alone in that judgment.

It's centered around L.A.'s famed Western Avenue, and the lives of "these" women who live in those environs. And it's also the current haunt of a serial killer that nobody's quite caught onto yet. There's foul-mouthed Feelia, who barely escaped death fifteen years back; Dorian, whose daughter was a victim, and has a hard time getting the police to take her seriously about the dead birds someone keeps leaving at her home and workplace; Julianna, a "dancer" and (um) reliever of male stress at a local club; Marella, a tedious, pretentious artist; Anneke, her mom. And (best of all), there's Essie, a dedicated but career-stalled vice cop who's obsessed with finding the killer, but is not taken seriously by her co-workers. She's also damaged goods, unrecovered from a horrific accident years back.

It's really more about "these women" than it is the crime, though. Ms. Pochoda does a deep dive into each character, and we get to know them pretty well. There's some feminist politics, but this brutish male reader didn't find them too annoyingly strident.

I think it's one of those books it pays to read quickly. I stretched it out over ten days or so, and some of the loose-end plot details at the beginning of the book had faded from memory before they were tied up near the end.

The Hidden Half

The Unseen Forces that Influence Everything

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I put this book on the get-at-library list after listening to the episode of the Econtalk podcast where the author, Michael Blastland, was interviewed by host Russ Roberts. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I didn't recognize Blastland as the co-author of the excellent book The Norm Chronicles, which I read back in 2014. This book is really good too. Blastland is a journalist (but a smart one), and his prose is lively and accessible.

Here, he takes a hard look at the concept of "all other things being equal". A concept so ancient, it's sometimes expressed in Latin: ceteris paribus. (This page says that Cicero used it.) Although most common explicit use of the phrase seems to be in economics, the concept underlies a lot of science. And for that matter, a lot of life.

The problem being: how can you assume "other things being equal" when they so often are not?

Blastland opens with an unexpected example: the marmorkreb, a species of crayfish. They are parthenogenetic, with all offspring being genetically equal females to their mother. A few years ago, German researchers decided to raise a batch of marmorkrebs with identical environments as well. And yet, their marmorkrebs defied their genes and upbringing, and became unexpectedly diverse. Their size varied greatly, as did their coloration. They socialized with other marmorkrebs differently; they had different lifetimes; they had different eating behaviors; …

It's almost as if they were individuals, not simply mass-produced clone crayfish. And if you can't assume ceteris paribus with a bunch of clones, how can you assume it elsewhere?

Blastland answers: you often can't, and you shouldn't. Simple mental models of how things "should" work are often correct. But just as often (about half the time?) they fail, because of underlying complexities and confounding details that you didn't consider.

From there, Blastland takes a wide-ranging tour of how that works (or doesn't). Many stories, most interesting. There's (for example) sinful boxer Mike Tyson, compared and contrasted with his sainted surgeon brother Rodney. Tons of research studies that turned out to be irreproducible.

There's way too much to try to summarize, but I found one issue Blastland raises particularly interesting, and it brings in his Norm Chronicles co-author, David Spiegelhalter: studies of "risky behavior" based on large sample populations can be (and often are) reported misleadingly. The semi-amusing example was from the Lancet where the well-documented result was that there is "no safe level" of alcohol consumption. Even one drink per day raised your risk of developing a serious alcohol-related health problem. And the article suggested that public health institutions should “consider recommendations for abstention”.

Let's swing over to Spiegelhalter's Medium article that Blastlad cites:

Let’s consider one drink a day (10g, 1.25 UK units) compared to none, for which the authors estimated an extra 4 (918–914) in 100,000 people would experience a (serious) alcohol-related condition.

That means, to experience one extra problem, 25,000 people need to drink 10g alcohol a day for a year, that’s 3,650g a year each.

To put this in perspective, a standard 70cl bottle of gin contains 224 g of alcohol, so 3,650g a year is equivalent to around 16 bottles of gin per person. That’s a total of 400,000 bottles of gin among 25,000 people, being associated with one extra health problem. Which indicates a rather low level of harm in these occasional drinkers.

In short: yes, drinking alcohol is risky. But on the individual level the additional risk is small. To repeat: in that population of 100,000, all imbibing one drink per day, four of them would develop a health problem due to their booze consumption.

Spiegelhalter comments:

But claiming there is no ‘safe’ level does not seem an argument for abstention. There is no safe level of driving, but government do not recommend that people avoid driving.

Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.

It's amusing, sure. But note that this type of research is used to advocate for "public health" measures including taxes, regulations, and prohibitions. It's all fun and games until somebody gets coerced.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

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I put this book on my get-at-library list thanks to its nomination for a "Best Novel" Edgar award. And (in April) it won! So: good for the author, Deepa Anappara.

The novel's setting is a poverty-wracked slum tacked onto an unnamed Indian city. The "Purple Line" in the title is the commuter train that runs under the slum. And the Djinn Patrol? Well…

The narrator (for most of the book) is Jai, a nine-year-old boy. He's very observant and insightful for his age. And he takes for granted a life that we Americans would find horrific: grinding poverty, pittance wages for shitty jobs, communal bathrooms, open garbage dumps, choking air pollution, lousy schools, Hindu/Muslim bigotry, corrupt and lazy cops. And the ever-present threat that your entire community's housing could be wiped out in minutes without warning if the powers-that-be decided to bring out the bulldozers.

But things get worse, because kids start going missing from the slum. Did I mention the corrupt and lazy cops? Yeah: they're willing to take hefty bribes from distraught parents. In exchange for not doing anything.

But plucky Jai does watch TV, enraptured by crime shows. Inspired by the fictional detectives, he decides to investigate the disappearances on his own. He teams up with his school friends: Pari (a girl who's significantly smarter) and Faiz (a Muslim boy). Their efforts are largely unappreciated, but their story illuminates much of the city's social ecology. And Jai entertains the idea that the missing kids might have been kidnapped by an evil djinn; hence the "Djinn Patrol" of the title.

It's very well-written, and (surprisingly) it's not without humor amidst all the bleakness. I didn't care for the ending. No spoilers, and your mileage my vary if your tastes in crime fiction run a certain way, but… no, I didn't care for the ending at all.

The Disordered Cosmos

A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred

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I have my Master's Degree in Physics from the University Near Here. Although I eventually decided (way too late in life) that the field was not for me, I still kind of keep tabs on it, mostly by reading "for the layman" physics books. Recently, my old department added Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (CPW) to its faculty, and she pretty quickly made herself, um, known. (I don't think I could name another current faculty member.) She has appeared at Pun Salad occasionally since 2018: here (pre-UNH), here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

When I noticed that the Portsmouth Public Library owned her recent book, I decided to grab it. From my previous encounters, I knew it would be outside my comfort zone, but you need to go there every so often, right? So…

Well, the good things first. She likes Star Trek. Hey, so do I! And (in the first chapters) she describes the wonders of modern particle physics and cosmology with a lively voice and obvious enthusiasm.

But even there, it's clear her real topics are (a) race and (b) herself. And once she's done with the physics, those drive the rest of the book. It's occasionally interesting, but mostly not. She hammers science, history, and philosophy into a 100% "woke" hard-left perspective, all wrapped up in the tedious and tired jargon that implies. On her bumpy journey, she indicts: capitalism, colonialism, the proposed Mauna Kea Thirty Meter Telescope, sexism, misgendering, global warming, … and so much more. Any valid points she might have made are drowned out by her obvious confirmation bias. Except for (I hope) her physics research, she's not looking for truth; she's looking for ammo. This approach leads her into making ridiculous overstatements.

Example (pp 241-2): "In this [American] system's sphere of influence, Black children cannot safely rest on the couch without being murdered in their sleep by police. Black children cannot go to the store and buy candy without being murdered on the street by vigilantes who are operating as part of a surveillance structure encouraged by the state. Black children cannot listen to music in a car without being murdered by vigilantes who believe the state gives them permission to shoot loud Black children. American white supremacy is a total authoritarian structure that shapes every aspect of Black lives."

Meanwhile, in the real world, the Chicago Sun-Times counts 99 people shot over last weekend, 17 fatally. The wounded include 11 children. The article doesn't classify by race, but it's safe to assume that both shooters and victims were mostly Black, and the shooters were neither police nor "vigilantes".

[Update: apparently the Sun-Times revised its count: 104 shot, 19 killed, 13 kids wounded ("at least").]

Analogies are strained far beyond their breaking point to bring the discussion around to the Real Topics. Example (pp 119-120): "I tend to think of [weak gravitational lensing] as being a lot like systemic racism. You look at any one incident, say when someone comments on my hair and asks me if it's real, and some person who hasn't experienced racism might say, 'Oh, that's not racism. That person was just curious.' The hair incident, which happened to me while I was grabbing lunch at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is a classic example of an individual manifestation of systemic racism. But in order to understand it as such, one has to have an awareness of systemic racism or a lifetime of experience with its various patterns. If you're experienced, it's easy to identify. I didn't need anyone to tell me that the white man who asked me if my hair was a wig was doing something that Black folks might call 'super white', and it academic parlance is a microaggression—an almost mundane expression of racism."

CPW doesn't show the slightest awareness that her "lifetime of experience" causes her to see racism everywhere, even in an innocent, probably clumsy, effort to engage her in conversation.

CPW points with pride (p.235) to an article she co-wrote a couple weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated: "We Are The Scientists Against A Fascist Government", her protest against the relatively moderate "March for Science" which (unsuccessfully in my view) strove for big-tent non-partisanship. Nope. Unless you view Trump's rule as a "totalitarian catastrophe", exercising "total authoritarian power over communities of people", and didn't admit that it all showed a "fascist, totalitarian pulse" in "America's political foundation" you ain't on Team CPW.

Geez. I didn't like Trump either, but that seems overblown.

Well, I've yammered long enough. Bottom line: America's sins of racism are real, of course. CPW thinks they're the whole story. They aren't. She thinks hard-leftism is a valuable lens for analysis. It isn't.


Last Modified 2021-07-07 7:39 AM EDT

Hunting Four Horsemen

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Jim Geraghty is a longtime favorite of mine, ever since he took up the task at National Review of reporting on John Kerry. More recently, he deserves plaudits for his skepticism about the once-prevailing conventional wisdom about the origin of Covid-19. His carefully laid-out reasoning convinced a lot of people (whether they admit it or not) that there might be something to Explanation B: an unintentional leak of the virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

But Jim writes fiction too, and this is the second book in (so far) a two-book series. It's billed as "A Dangerous Clique Novel", referring to a (fictional?) CIA team that's called on to terminate terroristic threats with extreme prejudice, and zero regard for due process. I read and reported on the first one back in 2019. And the Kindle version was, for a time, just $3.99 at Amazon. So…

It's set in a slightly-alternate universe where the recovery from the Covid pandemic is much less robust than what we're actually experiencing. The world is fragmented and paranoid. And then comes word that a mysterious evildoer, who's adopted the moniker "Hell Summoner", has engineered an even worse virus: one that can be targeted against those carrying a specific genome. And he's offering to tune it up and sell it off to whatever rich madman can give him $20 billion.

So the team is off globe-hopping, following up leads as they present themselves. A lot of gunplay, fisticuffs, and other miscellaneous violence occurs. And (of course) it comes down to a thrilling climax at Nakatomi Fox Plaza in Century City.

It's a page turner and a decent read. Jim (I call him Jim) has obviously done some globe-hopping himself, and describes many scenes with I've-been-there detail.

Downside: same as in the previous book. Some typos. Dialog that is sometimes clunky, sometimes didactic, and often just non-credible. Numerous shout-outs to pop culture, especially movies. And when I say "numerous", I mean "way too many." You know that Nakatomi Plaza reference? It's worked into the ground, especially when an FBI agent shows up named… yup, Johnson. To Geraghty's credit, he resisted giving him a partner also named Johnson. And thereby avoided the inevitable line "No, the other one."

Dry Bones in the Valley

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This is the first book in Tom Bouman's series with hero cop, Henry Farrell. Put on my to-read list thanks to Tom Nolan naming the third book in the series (The Bramble and the Rose) on his Best Mysteries of 2020 list. So…

Henry is a sad cop, operating in his old home town in rural Pennsylvania, outside Scranton. It's a changing world, drug use and poverty are rife, and the whole area is set atop the Marcellus Shale, and the frackers are doing their thing, causing environmental destruction and weird diseases in the populace. (Including Henry's wife. He's a widower now.) There's a lot of conflict potential.

Things kick off when a long-dead corpse is found on the land of an old eccentric. It's anyone's guess as to the dead guy's identity. Henry is left to inquire with the colorful neighbors, who all seem to have secrets, dysfunctions, and hidden bad behavior of their own. Worse, Henry's deputy goes missing, and Henry has to look for him as well. (The search result just provides another crime to solve.)

It's all dark and moody. And there are a lot of characters, most of them suspects. At my age, it was hard to keep track of 'em all. Not really my cup of tea, but Tom Bouman is a fine writer with a gift for describing the… well, the dark and moody.