Dr. No

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Continuing my mini-project to read/re-read Ian Fleming's James Bond books. I wouldn't say this is Fleming hitting his stride, exactly. But Dr. No is (I think) the first true Diabolical Mastermind that Bond has encountered, outside his previous foes, spies, and ordinary crooks. Dr. No also embodies a couple of genre clichés: (1) a long monologue in which he discloses to Bond his biography, criminal past, current projects, evil plans, and general madness; (2) instead of just shooting Bond in the head, sets up an elaborate course of torture that he's pretty sure will end with Bond's demise.

Spoiler: it doesn't. But almost!

The book opens with the grisly murder and disposal of the representatives of the British Secret Service in Jamaica: John Strangways and his secretary, Mary Trueblood. Most assume that they've run off together. That's what M thinks anyway; since Bond has just recovered from near-death at the end of From Russia with Love, he views sending Bond to investigate will be a cushy near-vacation. Bond, looking at the same set of facts, correctly thinks otherwise.

Other stuff of note: birdwatching. (Note the roseate spoonbill on the cover of my edition.) A major female character with a joke name ("Honeychile Rider"). A reminder that you do not want to accompany Bond on his investigations, trusting that he won't tell you to do something that will get you killed. (RIP, Quarrel.)

I couldn't find a reasonably-priced edition of the book for sale at Amazon; I purchased one of the new ones, where "terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers" have been polished out. (Don't worry, modern reader: if you're sensitive to such things, there's still plenty of invidious racial stereotyping and colonialist cheerleading.)

The Myth of American Inequality

How Government Biases Policy Debate

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A better title is found on the book flap: "Everything you know about income inequality, poverty, and other measures of economic well-being in America is wrong." The authors (Phil Gramm, Robert Ekelund, and John Early) all have academic or professional backgrounds in economics, and Gramm, of course, was a US Congressman for six years, and a US Senator for nearly 18 years. (He is just a few months older than Joe Biden.) Their audacious thesis is presented convincingly (at least for this fan of free-market capitalism): the "official government statistics" that get reported periodically on inflation, incomes, and poverty are deeply flawed. Alternative measures exist, because serious people demand them. But they need to be dug out of more obscure sources, a task only suited for … well, diligent scholars, like these guys.

The book's style leaves something to be desired for the casual reader. There are graphs and dense tables aplenty. And many eye-glazing paragraphs filled with data: dollars, dates, percentiles, percentages, rates, etc. It's dry stuff. The key points—the stuff the authors really want you to know—are repeated over and over.

But if you can pay attention throughout, it's pretty damning. The government is kind of lying to you. Only "kind of", because it's open about its flawed methods, which may have worked OK in the past, but have persisted due to inertia and (I would guess) political cowardice.

And of course, some favor this inherent dishonesty: it creates winners and losers. It boosts some political narratives over others.

First: the Consumer Price Index (CPI), used to "adjust income eligibility levels for government assistance, federal tax brackets, federally mandated cost-of-living increases, private sector wage and salary increases, poverty measures, and consumer and commercial rent escalations". As a short-term month-to-month measure, it's not bad, but it has well-known biases that overstate inflation. So over years, that overstatement builds up. Good news for (say) Social Security recipients, at least until the trust fund is emptied.

The official US poverty rate has been "stuck" since around 1970 between 10-15%. But the calculation the government uses to determine poverty omits the value of many of its transfer payments to the needy. And the overstated CPI above also inflates the poverty rate. In fact, the authors claim, actual poverty has been in a long-term decline and is nearly zero. (I don't, frankly, know if that includes all those homeless folks in the big cities.)

Another source of bias occurs at the upper end of the income scale, and it's something I'm ashamed to admit that I'd been oblivious to. We citizens also make "transfer payments" to the government: these are called "taxes". These transfer payments are (nevertheless) counted as part of your income. This, despite the fact that in most cases, that money never even touches your bank account; subject to withholding, it just goes directly to Uncle Stupid's coffers. (And, in other cases: as people who pay estimated taxes know, the government gets pretty mean if you fail to pay them first.)

But, bottom line: your "official income" according to the government includes a big chunk of cash that you either can't, or probably shouldn't, spend as you desire on stuff you want.

Taken together, the government mismeasures drastically overstate measures of "inequality" like the Gini coefficient. The authors particularly criticize the scholarship of folks like Piketty, Saez, and Zucman, who use the flawed numbers to argue for (even) more punitive taxation of the rich.

The mismeasures also drastically understate the progress in economic well-being over the past few decades. As noted above, this feeds into a anti-capitalist narrative that's echoed in the mainstream press and in many political speeches. And the result is reflected in the nasty, resentful mood of the electorate. (Headline a couple days ago in the Wall Street Journal: Voters See American Dream Slipping Out of Reach, WSJ/NORC Poll Shows.

The authors wind up with some policy suggestions: first (obviously): reform the government's statistical calculations to use alternative, less-biased measures of economic statistics. But also: Embrace school choice. Reform occupational licensure and other barriers to earning a living. At the same time, remove the disincentives to work, as welfare reform did in the 1990s.

The Watchman

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This is billed (front cover) as "A Joe Pike Novel". Don't worry, Elvis fans: he's here, he does important stuff too, despite his rocky recovery from the horrors in the previous book. But the interesting stuff, character-wise is Pike.

In a different previous book, Pike promised a future favor to Jon Stone: Stone would offer Pike a gig, and Pike would have to accept it. That promise comes due here. The FBI has a witness to the presence and activity of a wanted terrorist. That witness is the very spoiled, insanely rich heiress Paris Hilton, sorry, Larkin Connor Barkley. The normal witness-protection procedures ain't working. Squads of Ecuadorian gangsters keep showing up at the "safe" houses, apparently trying to kill her.

Worse, once Pike takes over, Ecuadorian gangsters show up at his safe house, and it's all Pike can do to kill a few of them, and take off. Obviously there's a mole somewhere, but who?

The best defense is a good offense, and Elvis and Joe take it upon themselves to discover the truth about what Larkin saw, and why people want to kill her for it. Larkin is a lot to handle, but she's never met anyone like Pike before. Diligent detective work soon determines that one of the FBI guys is lying to them; does that mean he's the mole? It's not safe to assume that.

As usual, a suspenseful and action-packed climax.


Science Tackles the Afterlife

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You will also see this book titled Six Feet Over. The cover depicts (I think) a spirit rising from a newly-deceased person, on its way to whatever awaits.

Mary Roach has made a niche for herself exploring offbeat (often unsavory) topics with diligent research and irreverent humor. This 2005 book examines efforts to discover what happens after we die.

Example of the irreverent humor, a footnote on page 265:

A celebrity website reports that Elizabeth Taylor saw [ex-husband] Mike Todd during her near-death experience. "He pushed me back to my life," she is quoted saying. Whether this was done for her benefit or his was not clear.

Ms. Roach travels to India to check out reincarnation. She looks at historical efforts to locate the soul. Efforts to measure the weight loss caused when your spirit escapes your body at death. (It's tough to get folks to occupy a sensitive-enough scale at this trying time.) The somewhat icky nature of "ectoplasm", and various scam artists preying on the gullible. She goes to "medium school", where they teach you how to communicate with the departed. And more.

Mary Roach is a hoot, a fine and honest writer, and I'm slowly working through her oeuvre.

A Little Life

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Another book down on my project to read the not-previously-read books on the New York Times Best Books of the Past 125 Years.

Executive summary: not my cup of tea. There's no question that it's fine writing. The author, Hanya Yanagihara, peppers the 720 page book with Proust-like descriptions and deep character insights. (Not that I've read Proust, but I've heard about him.) The Wikipedia page quotes one critic calling it "the long-awaited gay novel".

I may have never read a less gay novel. Glumness pervades. Fresh dreadfulness is never more than a few dozen pages away.

The book's flap, and many summaries, will tell you that the book is about four college classmates that try to make their living in New York. It really centers on one of them, Jude. He's brilliant, on a lucrative career path as a lawyer. But he's got physical woes. And mental woes. And those woes feed on each other in self-destructive ways. His past life is mysterious, hidden from his friends and colleagues. His secrets are horrible, and are gradually revealed in flashbacks. Nothing is his fault, really, but he is cruelly used by a series of ill-meaning people.

But (good news) he has a few saintlike friends as well. They try without letup to save Jude from himself. Do they succeed? Well, you're gonna have to read it yourself to find out, like I did. Or read that Wikipedia page.

Random Observation: I am pretty sure the most common dialog in the book is "I'm sorry", and variations thereon. One paragraph (page 673) has eight occurances of "I'm sorry". People have a lot to be sorry for here.

Although most of the characters start out struggling in the big city, they all get rich pretty quickly. Easily one-percenters, outstanding in their respective fields. Casual trips to France, Morocco, Bhutan, etc. are made. Gourmet restaurants are patronized. (Ms. Yanagihara does her homework: you may not have dined at a restaurant where "sablefish with tobiko" is served, but she has.) Dwellings are luxurious and (eventually) owned in multiple places. And when they buy suits, they don't go to Men's Wearhouse; they have their guys who make suits.

In any case: only three left to go!

The Secret

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Well, good news: another Reacher novel, co-written by Lee Child and his brother Andrew. This is set in Reacher's MP days. (His brother Joe is still alive.) Reacher is fresh off a relatively easy investigation involving a scheme to steal and sell M16 full-auto lower receivers to the general public. (Presumably, buyers would include gun enthusiasts, criminals, and homicidal maniacs.) His new assignment is with a team trying to thwart a pair of murderous women who are picking off elderly scientists, Roberta and Veronica. They seem eager to find out the names of people involved in some secret project in India in 1969. (That's a Chapter One spoiler.)

Reacher's team is realistic and cynical, quickly realizing they've been set up to fail, and to be eventually scapegoated for that failure. Fortunately, they're also pretty good at thinking outside the bureaucratic box, breaking the rules, entering forbidden territories, etc. And if some violence needs to be wreaked, Reacher's on hand.

But Roberta and Veronica are impressive in their abilities to evade detection while tracking down and dispatching their targets. In fact, their abilities seem almost Reacher-like. Has Jack met his match?

(Well, no. Why are you even asking?)

Do we have the stylistic trademarks of Child-style here? Sure thing! Thanks to Kindle's search function: Eight occurrences of "Reacher said nothing." Six "That was for damn sure." Five "That was clear."

Free Agents

How Evolution Gave Us Free Will

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I'm unsure why, but I've long been interested in the topic of free will. I made one of my rare suggestions that Portsmouth (NH) Public Library buy this book, and they acceded. As you can tell from the title, it's pro-free will. (But to be fair, I also have Robert Sapolsky's recent anti-free will book Determined on my "get" list.)

There's a blurb on the back from Steven Pinker:

Kevin Mitchell brings clear thinking and scientific rigor to a vital topic that leaves many people confused, caught between the preposterous alternatives that either humans are robots or that every time we make a decision, a miracle occurs.

That's a pretty good summary. Mitchell is a professor at Trinity College (Dublin) in the Genetics and Neuroscience department. Much of the book is devoted to exploring the long and tedious process by which evolution developed ever-increasingly complex neural systems for survival advantage. To be honest, my eyes glazed over in a number of spots. (Page 73: "We already saw transient multicellular behavior in the slugs and fruiting bodies formed by the aggregation of individual Dictyostelium amoebas. This kind of aggregative multicellularity is observed in many other species, across diverse groups of eukaryotes, and even in some bacteria called myxobacteria." OK, if you say so.)

I confess that pro-free will authors are pushing on an open door in my case. But Mitchell's argument here is careful and (seemingly) fair to the other side. He's even reluctant to provide his Official Definition of free will; I think the closest he gets is (page 282): "If free will is the capacity for conscious, rational, control of our actions, then I am happy in saying we have it." That works for me.

I believe Mitchell is making a strong science-justified claim roughly similar to the psychological argument made by Ken Sheldon in Freely Determined; there's a "hierarchy of human reality". At the lowest level, there's the physics and chemistry of interacting atoms and molecules; moving up, there's increasing complexity in cells, organs, and "systems". And it proceeds upward into relationships, society, and culture. Determinists only see causality working bottom-up: it's just those atoms bumping into each other that cause everything else. Mitchell and Sheldon say no: causality works top-down too. Specifically, your cognitive functions can work their will on the lower level too. And that means (ta-da) free will.

The usual disclaimer: ardent determinists and zealous free-willers (I'm pretty sure) are united in their beliefs having absolutely no effect in how they run their everyday lives. To use a common example: they pick out which shirt to wear in the morning, neither thinking too much about it, nor waiting until the molecules in their body do whatever they were predestined to do anyway.

Minor nit: Mitchell says (page 29) that the hydrogen nucleus "comprises a single proton and a single neutron." Ack, no: it's just a proton. (I assume he's right about everything else, though.)

The Myth of Left and Right

How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America

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The authors, Verlan Lewis and Hyrum Lewis, make a pretty good case that the one-dimensional political spectrum everyone uses for convenient pigeonholing of others and themselves is (let's see…) historically illiterate, inherently fallacious, and profoundly damaging to ourselves and our political discourse. The book's argument is presented in an accessible and punchy style. I get it, and I'm probably going to be a lot more careful about ideologizing people (and myself) in the future.

The authors' look at the history of "left" and "right" politics is illuminating. You might remember from a high school history course that it originated in the seating arrangements of the post-revolution French legislature, with stodgy monarchy supporters on the right, wild-eyed radicals on the left. How could that possibly apply to American politics?

Well, for a long time, it didn't. The authors note that the "spectrum" simply wasn't a part of political discourse in America until the 1920s; before that, we just had a bunch of politicians and statesmen taking stances on issues. Hard to believe, I know! (Later, historians and pundits tried to shoehorn previous pols into the spectrum, unconvincingly.)

The authors identify "left" and "right" as essentially tribal positions. You, you typical voter you, first associate yourself with your political party, then (and only then) do you try to fit in, discovering that your positions on the issues just happen to coincide with the prevailing positions of your party.

The authors (entertainingly) debunk efforts to explain the one-dimensional spectrum in any other way than tribalism. Even the sainted Thomas Sowell's dichotomy of "constrained" vs. "unconstrained" political visions is rebuffed.

The authors' association of the spectrum with today's political parties is probably the least convincing bit of the book. Republicans have their ideological fractures (just ask Kevin McCarthy or any never-Trumper). So do Democrats, although I think they do a better job of hiding it. In any case, they are very leaky pigeonholes.

But the "tribalism" accusation can sting. Am I being tribal in my general disdain for Democrats? Especially when I disrespect a lot of Republicans too? I can't even stand many of the Libertarian Party pols these days.

But the strongest part of the book is the authors' description of where this tribalism (or "ideological essentialism", as the authors describe it) has taken our political discourse: right into the toilet. We are forever asked "which side are you on". The "other side" is not just people you disagree with on a number of issues; they are the enemy, who want to destroy the country, and probably you too. Tribal people are especially prone to nasty biases, especially confirmation bias. (I can confidently refuse to believe anything reported by the New York Times, because…). Every election becomes a "Flight 93 Election". Storm the cockpit!

The authors offer some advice, which I promise to take: stop the manichaean pigeonholing of others (and, if necessary, yourself). Disaggregate positions on issues from the one-dimensional spectrum; it's sloppy and stupid to dismiss someone as a left-winger because of their position on abortion; just describe them as pro-abortion. Check.

It's a short book, with a lot of end matter. According to my Kindle, the main text stops at page 100. The Notes section takes up pages 101-148, and the Index is on pages 149-160. My only gripe is that this makes the Kindle's estimates of remaining reading time of the book way off.

Last Modified 2023-11-07 8:11 AM EST

You Can't Joke About That

Why Everything Is Funny, Nothing Is Sacred, and We're All in This Together

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Kat Timpf was a welcome and reliable chronicler of amusing goings-on over the years; I linked to her writing, usually at National Review here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (Many of those items were bylined "Katherine Timpf", which now seems overly formal.) Her current gig, a mainstay on Greg Gutfeld's show on Fox News, seems to have crowded out her writing, which is a real shame. But she wrote this book, and I snapped it up from Portsmouth Public Library when it became available, and…

I share Kat's basically-libertarian politics, and her generally tolerant and well-meaning attitudes toward life. She is disdainful of the "speech = violence" crowd, and so am I. So I wish I liked this book better. It's not awful, but…

As the title implies, its main theme is the increasing clampdown on free speech, especially speech that aspires to humor. As you'll note, the book cover shows Kat posed on a coffin, with a mic and a beer. Yes, death is one of the things Kat believes can be a fruitful source of humor. But not just death; there's politics, religion, physical and mental illness, infirmity, dysfunctional relationships with friends, family, and lovers, and more.

So she's a defender of edgy humor, as when Kathy Griffin posed for a picture holding up a blood-soaked mask depicting Donald Trump. Okay, maybe not that funny. But career-wrecking? Kat says no. That's just one example, and she has more.

Yes, sometimes comedic efforts misfire badly. (As do non-comedic efforts; just look at college administrators come up with responses to anti-semitism among their sstudents.) Suck it up, comment on their fumbles, and move on.

So what's my problem? Well, Kat doesn't have any insights you can't get from other sources. (How many ways can you say "Suck it up and move on", after all?) She chronicles a bunch of stuff that I'm pretty sure we've all heard before. Her writing style seems to be adapted from her stand-up act and appearances on Gutfeld!; many parts read as if they were dictated, not typed. We get a voluminous amount of information on Kat's personal life: dealing with family, lovers, illness, pets, death, …

Sometimes this works. At one point, she breaks into a soliloquy on Blink-182 that's pretty hilarious, even on the page. But more often, I'm like, okay get on with it.

And, by the way, one of the minor irritations is her constant use of "like", in the way I did above.

So: an easy read, but more superficial than I would have expected from a onetime National Review journalist.

The Man from the Future

The Visionary Life of John von Neumann

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Fun fact: John von Neumann didn't show up at all in that movie, Oppenheimer. But he was there at Los Alamos, and his mathematical wizardry played a key part in designing the atomic bombs. He was particularly expert in analyzing the propagation of shock waves generated by explosions, and that was critical (heh) in producing a chain reaction in the fissile material. I guess that story wasn't cinematic enough.

This book is an interesting look at von Neumann's life and times. He grew up in a wealthy Jewish family in Hungary, and his math wizardry was apparent from a young age. Wisely escaping Europe in the 1930s, he found himself at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, and was a natural choice for recruitment to Los Alamos. His career was a mixture of blue-sky theory and down-to-earth practical applications. (The latter being especially useful to the military.)

The book is slightly unusual in that it goes into great detail on the fields he (mostly) pioneered. Disconcertingly, this means von Neumann goes offstage for much of the book, as the author, Ananyo Bhattacharya, discusses how those fields developed under his intellectual successors. (Disconcerting, but also interesting.) For example, his pioneering work on cellular automata was glommed onto by (most notably) John Conway and Steven Wolfram, and their work is extensively examined.

Those fields are dizzying in their variety and depth: computer design, set theory, game theory, theoretical economics, algorithms, and many more. Game theory, especially, became important in the 1950s when it became apparent that the USSR was also acquiring nukes. The work of the RAND corporation in discussing our war-fighting (and, hopefully, holocaust-avoiding) strategy is explained in depth. (Just one more fun fact: von Neumann briefly advocated nuking the USSR before they could nuke us.)

Another disconcerting underlying theme: while von Neumann seemed to be relatively psychologically normal, that might have only been in comparison with his co-workers and peers. Wolfram is famously cranky; Kurt Gödel met an untimely and unpleasant end, as did George R. Price and Alan Turing.