Stalking the Angel

[Amazon Link]

Robert Crais's second Elvis Cole novel, and of course it's good.

Elvis is hired by asshole banker Bradley Warren to try to find a purloined copy of the "Hagakure", an extremely rare edition of a 17th century guide to Samurai life and lore. Warren doesn't care too much about the book itself, just its implied price tag: about $3 million. And the pull it gives him with his Japanese business partners.

Reader, it's a real thing.

Wisecracking all the way, Elvis visits the scene of the crime, Warren's home. He meets Warren's wife, Sheila, who throws herself wantonly at our noble detective; nothing doin', ma'am. And he also encounters Warren's surly daughter Mimi. A good guess: the book is getting peddled to the local Yakuza-infested Japanese underworld, which sends Elvis into LA's Little Tokyo. Eventually: fights, grisly murders, gunplay, kidnapping, sordid revelations, Joe Pike. And a lot of psychic turmoil for Elvis, who wonders if he could have handled things better if he'd been a little quicker on the uptake.

For some reason, as he navigates the Southland, Elvis is obsessed with telling us (seemingly) every street he's driving on. Could do without that, unless it's Mulholland Drive. But otherwise, he does a great job of detailing late-80's LA.

The inside front cover, by the way, refers to Joe Pike as Elvis's "sociopathic sidekick"? On Joe's behalf, I resent that psychologizing. He's not a sociopath, he just has an unusual personal code of conduct.

Apocalypse Never

Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All

[Amazon Link]

This book by onetime environmental hero, Michael Shellenberger, aims at a lot of sacred cows: Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, 350.org, Greta Thunberg, Tom Steyer, Bill McKibben, Malthus, Leo DiCaprio,… He paints a convincing (to me) case that "environmental alarmism" is a dangerous trend, very likely to do more harm than good.

It's very wide-ranging. (Maybe even a little unfocused.) Let's see if I can summarize: most of the "solutions" to environmental issues peddled by the activists are (at best) ineffective and, very often, counterproductive. Specifically, they doom poorer nations to their poverty, mandating (for example) that they give up relatively reliable and cheap fossil fuel and hydro for expensive and unreliable "renewables": solar and wind. Worse, they've successfully kiboshed nuclear energy in the richer nations. In addition to being unreliable and expensive, transitioning to solar/wind power would require vast amounts of land, squeezing out wilderness, endangering species. (Especially birds and bats.)

All this alarmism is accompanied by massive amounts of propaganda, scare tactics, and politicized science. Dissenting voices are ignored or slandered.

Shellenberger also scores points against the anti-nuclear crowd via hoisting them on their own petard. They routinely excoriate think tanks and scholars, sometimes falsely, for taking their funding from hands that might once have touched fossil fuel. But, Shellenberger says, wait a minute: doesn't that equally condemn the anti-nukers who are massively funded by oil/gas/renewable magnates?

Well, sure. If we were judging everyone by the same standards. (The idea that we should take arguments on their merits, instead of "following the money", has long since been abandoned by the alarmist crowd.)

Much of Shellenberger's thesis will be familiar to people who read outside the (unfortunately huge and impermeable) alarmist bubble. But his credentials seem solid, and he provides a welcome counterpoint to the green totalitarians.

Fake Like Me

[Amazon Link]

Always on the lookout for good reads, I put five of the 2020 Edgar Award Nominees onto my get-at-library list. This is the first, and it's pretty good.

Not that I wasn't a little worried. Out of six back cover blurbs, five are from women, and the six is not gender-identified ("Kirkus"). Was I going to be awash in estrogen-fueled fancy writing? Well, maybe a little, but it's mostly just good, compelling prose.

It's set in the art world. Which is a far different one than the one I (and probably you) inhabit. The narrator is a moderately successful painter, about to finish up a project that will make her wildly successful. Unfortunately, a fire in her (uninsured) loft destroys everything. What now?

"What now" is quickly answered: she wangles her way into "Pine City", a small conclave of artists set in a once-fashionable, now-shabby lakeside campground in upstate New York. The idea is to (fraudulently) recreate her paintings in the few summer months before they're scheduled to be exhibited.

The artist community is haunted, however, by the past suicide (or was it?) of their colleague and performance artist Carey Logan: she apparently filled her boots with concrete and walked into the lake one day. Especially moody is Carey's once-boyfriend Tyler, who is pretty clearly keeping secrets about their relationship. Coincidentally, the narrator's childhood friend, now married into big money (and also plugged into the art scene), has a mansion across the lake, and their complex, semi-dysfunctional, relationship gets even more complex and dysfunctional.

And before you say: "Gee, that sounds kind of like Rebecca." You got it in one. Down to the book's narrator never getting a name. It's not as if this is hidden; one of those back-cover blurbs says it's 'du Maurier-esque', which even a lousy literary detective like me could pick up on.

It's very much a psychological thriller, which is easy because all the major characters seem to be some flavor of crazy, combined with a heavy dose of pretension, often accompanied with substance use. Their art is intentionally out there, mostly making Piss Christ look like Norman Rockwell in comparison.

It's also a detailed look at the technological details behind the production of cutting-edge art; there's a surprising amount of engineering and chemistry involved. With trips to Home Depot. And (in one case) stomach-turning deals with shady medical technicians.

Starship Troopers

[Amazon Link]

Continuing on my "Reread Heinlein" project. I still remember when I first read this book: got the hardcover out of the library of Boyd Elementary School in Omaha, Nebraska. I was either in fifth or sixth grade, and that would have made me 10 or 11 years old.

I even remember what shelf it was on in the library. Memory is funny.

And: whoa. I'd read some of Heinlein's juveniles before that. This was different. With someone buying the farm in Chapter One, despite the best, heroic efforts of the narrator.

And the book pictured at your right is the edition I own: Signet 50¢ paperback, second printing 1963. (Available for $9.60 at Amazon, plus shipping.)

The narrator is Juan Rico, spoiled aimless rich kid. On a lark, being eighteen years of age, he signs up for the Federal Service, which is the only way in his future society to get the vote and qualify for full citizenship. Having no skills of possible interest, he's assigned to the Mobile Infantry (MI). Which is a tough way to go; even if you survive basic training (not everyone does), there's soon an interstellar war on. The enemy is a race of insect-like creatures, unaffectionately called the "Bugs". Also involved are the "Skinnies", who are initially Bug allies, but are "persuaded" (by MI actions) to switch allegiance to the humans.

But what the book is really about is Juan's growth from callow youth into a seasoned military veteran. Heinlein handles this transformation deftly, to an extent I didn't really appreciate as a pre-teen.

Another theme is the obligation of individuals to their society. A few flashbacks to Juan's (required) high school course in "History and Moral Philosophy" illustrate: the teacher, Mr. Dubois, is a veteran and a martinet. None of this "two sides to every question" nonsense for him. He's utterly certain that the philosophical underpinnings of the Terran Federation are not just true, but provably mathematically correct! (I doubt that.)

The book won the Best Novel Hugo in 1960. So yeah, it's very good. But not perfect; for some reason, Juan spends a bunch of paragraphs on the MI's organization and politics. Those are details we don't need, Imho.

And can you have spoilers for a sixty-year-old book? Well, stop reading if your answer is yes.

The book just ends, with Juan about to lead his troops into another battle. Does it end because Juan buys it? Gee, hope not.

Oh, yeah: if you like this book at all, you're probably gonna hate the movie.

Human Diversity

The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class

[Amazon Link]

Odd things happen to language all the time, and one of the oddest is what happened to the word "diversity". I blame Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, whose decision in Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke mentioned "diversity" in a student body could be a "compelling state interest" that would justify treating people better or worse based on their race. "Progressive" people turned that word into a magical justification allowing blatant unfair racial discrimination. But now, given Justice Powell's pass, as long as you say "diversity", you can get away with not saying what you're really doing.

The title of Charles Murray's new book uses the D-word in the classic sense: differences. And it's a noble effort to bring science into the discussion, tempered by a classical-liberal view of essential, underlying, human equality. As the subtitle implies: when it comes to issues of "gender, race, and class", biology plays an important role in explaining observed differences. Avert your eyes if that shocks or offends you, but ignoring it will ensure that your efforts to improve/reform/transform society will be misguided, ineffective, wasteful, and almost certainly invidious.

The main body of the text is split into three parts, each dealing with one of those subtitle pieces. Easy to summarize, because Murray puts forth "propositions" heading up each chapter.

  1. Sex differences in personality are consistent worldwide and tend to widen in more gender-egalitarian cultures.
  2. On average, females worldwide have advantages in verbal ability and social cognition while males have advantages in visuospatial abilities and the extremes of mathematical ability.
  3. On average, women worldwide are more attracted to vocations centered on people and men to vocations centered on things.
  4. Many sex differences in the brain are coordinate with sex differences in personality, abilities, and social behavior
  5. Human populations are genetically distinctive in ways that correspond to self-identified race and ethnicity.
  6. Evolutionary selection pressure since humans left Africa has been extensive and mostly local.
  7. Continental population differences in variants associated with personality, abilities, and social behavior are common.
  8. The shared environment usually plays a minor role in explaining personality, abilities, and social behavior.
  9. Class structure is importantly based on differences in abilities that have a substantial genetic component.
  10. Outside interventions are inherently constrained in the effects they can have on personality, abilities, and social behavior.

Each proposition is supported by Murray's summary of research, mostly very recent, of what's been revealed by genetic and sociological studies. In my case, Murray was pushing on an open door; I was kind of believing those things anyway. But he gets very deep into the genetic weeds, and (frankly) I'm not looking to become conversant with the science at that level. But it's there if you need it, and can understand it. Supporting Murray's argument, should you want to go even deeper: three appendices (about 50 pages) and end-matter footnotes (about 80 pages).

A couple concluding chapters are less science-intensive, and contain Murray's speculations and recommendations. Dilettante readers (or those not even pretending to dilettantism) might want to read these more intently. They won't surprise his fans (and they will be ignored or misconstrued by his enemies): they're a humane and liberal vision of how to deal with "diversity".

The book's penultimate sentence: "We need a new species of public policy that accepts differences and works with people as they are, not as we want to shape them." Amen.

[You might think that Murray's concerns are overwrought; if so, you might want to check out a recent Quillette article by Tim Courtois on Gender Ideology. There are powerful forces of denial, and they don't cotton much to your fancy-schmancy "science", Chuck.]


Last Modified 2020-11-11 9:41 AM EST

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear

The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)

[Amazon Link]

An irresistible title for me, and (even better) it's a book about a town more local than most: Grafton, New Hampshire, just up US Route 4. A few years back, it was the target of the so-called "Free Town Project", an effort for self-styled libertarians to take over the reins of Grafton's town government, and start whittling back on its power. The book's author, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, centers his book around this movement, but it's really more wide-ranging. For one thing, Grafton had (and has) a pretty serious bear problem, and MH-H goes into great (and sometimes gory) detail there. But there's no indication the bears ask about your political leanings before they raid your beehives and chicken coops.

Since the book is so wide-ranging, it also seems unfocused. There's stuff about Grafton's history (a long record of tax-hating). But most of the book centers on people: one citizen takes the local church building off the town's hands, only opening up years of wrangling over whether the town can assess property taxes on it. (A tragic ending unfolds.) Various people have bear interactions. NH Fish and Game is criticized for its bear policies. Bear poaching is deplored, and MH-H is given "Friendly Advice" that he probably shouldn't inquire into the details.

At one point, MH-H's story-telling takes him to Tunisia and the colonialist scholar Professor Daniel Butt of the University of Oxford. Which gives rise to the following phraseology:

  • "Butt heads down a different path…"
  • "… the oppressors (according to Butt) wipe out the indigenous culture…"
  • "Butt cracks down on the notion of benevolent colonialism…"
  • "All three characteristics, taken togother, make this very serious theory of colonialism, proposed by Professor Butt, whole."

My inner thirteen-year-old couldn't help but chuckle.

By coincidence, while I was finishing up the book I read this Reason article which urges libertarians to work politically at the local level. I'd recommend this book to anyone looking to go that route: sure, you can hold down spending, but it would be a good idea to have privately-provided services ready to take the place of the taxpayer-supported ones you're defunding. Arguably, Grafton libertarians failed on that score.

Also from that article:

In 2014, Jeffrey Tucker wrote about two main libertarian camps, which he termed "humanitarians" and "brutalists."

The humanitarians believe in liberty because it "allows peaceful human cooperation" and "keeps violence at bay," he argued. "It allows for capital formation and prosperity. It protects human rights of all against invasion. It allows human associations of all sorts to flourish on their own terms."

By contrast, brutalists like liberty because "it allows people to assert their individual preferences, to form homogeneous tribes, to work out their biases in action, to ostracize people based on 'politically incorrect' standards." It allows them "to hate to their heart's content so long as no violence is used as a means, to shout down people based on their demographics or political opinions." I call them "get off my lawn" libertarians.

Arguably, Grafton's libertarians might have had a brutalist tilt. Some seem nice enough, others not so much.

Small data point, since we just had an election: In Grafton, the Trump/Biden/Jorgenson US presidential votes split 423/345/16, for a Libertarian percentage of 2.04%. In my town of Rollinsford, things went 735/951/50, working out to 4.42% for Jorgenson. I question Grafton's [Ll]ibertarian creds! (Yes, anarchistic libertarians don't vote, because it's a symbolic granting of legitimacy to the state, blah blah blah; but there's no reason to think we don't have those folks in Rollinsford too. It shouldn't affect the apples-to-apples town comparison.)

By the way, Jorgenson's statewide percentage was a puny 1.63%. So Rollinsford is a relative libertarian hot spot.


Last Modified 2020-11-07 6:05 AM EST

Gentle on My Mind

In Sickness and in Health with Glen Campbell

[Amazon Link]

I usually read more serious non-fiction, but when I don't, I tend to be drawn to musician memoirs. I tell myself I'm looking for the sources of their talent and inspiration. Usually what I get is tales of substance abuse (licit and illicit), dysfunctional relationships, greedy hangers-on bamboozling cash out of the artist's pocket, and, well, you get the drift.

This one is a memoir of Glen Campbell, written by his fourth wife, Kim. Kim was the longest-lasting spouse, from 1982 up until Glen's death in 2017, and bore three of Glen's eight kids. Kim tells the story personally, starting from how they were set up on a blind date when she was a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall. Glen's just coming off his famously disastrous relationship with Tanya Tucker. But he's a charmer, taking Kim to a James Taylor concert, but slips into boorish behavior ("I wanna jump your bones"), nearly wrecking the relationship on Night One.

But once Glen knows the rules, things eventually slide into love and marriage. They float in celebrity culture. An amazing number of names are dropped, because Glen is grounded in nearly all genres of music, plus the movie/TV world. Here's something I didn't know: he was good buddies with Alice Cooper.

Kim is a devout Christian, as is Glen. This gives her strength and patience through many trials: Glen's boozing, his fondness for cocaine, and (eventually) his final challenge with Alzheimer's. There's also reference to nasty legal struggles, as people (apparently his children from previous marriages) accuse Kim of malfeasance in her role of Glen's caretaker. They weren't in the will. As near as I can tell from Googling, the wrangling over the estate is still going on; at least some lawyers are getting rich.

Dear Committee Members

[Amazon Link]

I heard good things, at some point in the past, about this book. Might have been this WSJ review or this WSJ review. I didn't find it as riotously funny as the reviewers, but maybe I was in a sour mood.

The author, Julie Schumacher, is a professor of Creative Writing and English at the University of Minnesota. Her protagonist, Jason Fitger, is a (male) professor of Creative Writing and English at (fictional) Payne University. Thumbs up to Prof Schumacher for writing from a gendered POV not her own!

It's an "epistolary" novel, consisting of (mostly) letters and (some) web forms into which Jason pours his distressed, peevish, soul. He will write letters of recommendation for just about anyone, including Melanie deRueda.

I've known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes. This young woman is certainly tenacious, if that's what you're looking for.

Jason's character is slowly revealed via correspondence with his ex-wife and ex-girlfriends, academic colleagues he's accumulated over the years. His sputtered-out literary career becomes apparent. He's particularly dedicated to nurturing the writing career of a student who's in the process of a "shattering reinterpretation of 'Bartleby'", titled Accountant in a Bordello: the poor updated scrivener works in a whorehouse outside Vegas. Things don't work out well.

It's an easy read, 180 pages with a lot of whitespace. Denizens of English departments at institutions of higher education might especially relate. (But hopefully not; Jason's life is not a pretty one.)

Squeeze Me

[Amazon Link]

Carl Hiaasen's latest adult book; I nabbed the Kindle version when Amazon offered it to me for $9.99. I've been reading him for … hm … must be going on thirty years or so, when I picked up one of his books in the McAllen, TX public library while visiting Mom.

The primary protagonist is Angie Armstrong, once a Florida wildlife ranger. She lost that job (and did a stint of jail time) because, due to some hot-headedness, she once fed a poacher's hand to a convenient alligator. Now she's running her own business, dedicated to removing unwanted wildlife, dead or alive from venues where they are not wanted. Things kick off when she's called to a fancy Palm Beach club, where a very large python is digesting a recent meal.

Complication: Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons, a wealthy and petite older woman has disappeared around the same time. Coincidence? (Spoiler: no.) Kiki was a member in good standing of a group of Palm Springs dowagers called the "Potussies" (short for "POTUS Pussies"): fans of the President of these United States. The man himself shows up soon, accompanied by the First Lady.

I can verify, thanks to Kindle's search function, that the words "Donald", "Trump", and "Melania" don't appear in the book, perhaps for legal reasons. Indeed, the book is set in a slightly-alternate universe: the pandemic is over, and Orange Man is still President.

To put it mildly, Hiaasen despises Trump: addicted to Adderall and room-temperature Dr Pepper, obsessed with his tan and science-fiction hair, casual slinger of bullshit and hatred. Hiaasen is equally rough on Trump supporters. Especially his rich supporters; he takes Hillary's "deplorables", and doubles down: they're all hate-filled boobs, ecology-trashers, drunkards, and cheaters. The First Lady comes off only slightly better: she's carrying on a torrid affair with one of her Secret Service guards. Understandable, because her husband is boinking a stripper he keeps passing off as his "nutritionist".

Well. If you like Trump even slightly, this may not be the book for you. (I don't like him at all, and I found Hiaasen's cartoonish caricature tedious and unfunny.) Shear that off, the book is about 60% shorter, and what's left is standard Hiaasen, which is pretty good. As in previous books, an ex-Governor of Florida has taken to the wilderness, playing pranks against the despoilers of the state. There are lowlifes galore with amusing quirks, and Angie, our likeable intrepid hero, finds a way to navigate herself through all the nonsense.

The Dream Universe

How Fundamental Physics Lost Its Way

[Amazon Link]

This book by David Lindley is a criticism of one of the glamorous fields of physics: "Fundamental" physics, the effort to "explain everything" in one grand, hopefully nice-looking, equation. (No, that's simplifying slightly. But not much.) The topic is very similar to Sabine Hossenfelder's Lost in Math, which I read last year. (Lindley credits Hossenfelder at a number of places.)

Lindley's approach is historical, first looking at Galileo. The standard story is that Galileo was persecuted by Church authorities because he ran afoul of religious dogma. That's not quite accurate, Lindley claims. The problem was that the Church had bought into the worldview of the old Greek philosophers: Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras. Who were all taken with the idea that the world's grand design could be revealed by thinking. Backed up, of course, with a modicum of observation, but certainly no careful experimental observation was required. And that's where Galileo's heresy resided.

So experiment-free conjecture sometimes leads us astray. Does it always? No. Lindley relates the speculations of Paul Dirac, who noted that his equation for the quantum behavior of electrons also held the possibility of a positive electron. Check it out, he urged the experimenters. And sure enough, my undergrad advisor Carl D. Anderson discovered the positron in his cloud chamber a few years later.

But (Lindley points out), Dirac also speculated about magnetic monopoles, carriers of "magnetic charge". Those, as near as anyone can tell, don't exist. So the theorize-first-experiment-later process can lead you to a dead end.

Today, Lindley contends, theoretical physicists have gone too far down the rabbit hole in their empty speculative theorizing. They're not really doing "science", they're doing philosophy, albeit philosophy with very advanced mathematics.

Along the way, he makes an interesting point about the multiverse. Our universe is (obviously) congenial to life, with just the right balances between electromagnetism, gravity, and the nuclear forces to allow atoms, molecules, stars, planets, and geckos to exist. You dink with those numbers much and you get a universe that's a large grey mass of nothing. In fact, absent evidence to the contrary, that's the way to bet.

So, they say: we're biased because we live here. There are an unimaginably large number of universes where the story is different, and ours is just one of them that occurred by microscopically small chance. (Amusingly, Lindley wonders about the spacetime setups: our universe settled out macroscopically wth three spacelike dimensions and one timelike. But—whoa!—that one over there has forty-three spacelike dimensions and seventeen timelike! What's their deal?)

Which gives us a dilemma when we're trying to explain the nature of this universe. How much detail are you going to push off to the multiverse? It's a damned convenient escape hatch.


Last Modified 2020-10-27 4:57 AM EST