A Song for a New Day

[Amazon Link]

"Recommended by Katherine Mangu-Ward in Reason" was probably enough for me to grab this book out of the Portsmouth Public Library. It also won the Nebula Award for Best Novel.

So it's not bad. I'll get to my problems later.

The book follows two female protagonists: musician "Luce Cannon" (first person narration) and customer service drone turned talent scout "Rosemary Laws" (third person narration). A small bit of Luce's story is set in the "Before", where she's giving a live concert in the face of rising terrorist threats. But that threat quickly becomes reality when a football stadium and its audience are blown up. The second part of that one-two punch is the "pox": a nasty, contagious disease that also kills a bunch of people.

Which basically kills off live music. Bummer.

So we're quickly transported to "After". America quickly goes to permanent and serious lockdown mode. Everybody has a "hoodie", which provides you with Zoom-in-virtual-reality. Deliveries by drone, because you don't want to catch anything or get blown up. That becomes the new normal, Rosemary barely remembers anything different. She works from home, doing customer service for "Superwally", a retailer providing all your needs. But she gets an offer for a new job, seeking out rogue musical talent for "StageHoloLive" (SHL), provider of VR concerts, drained of spontaneity and communal vibes. This moves her out of her comfort zone of social isolation. And she meets up with Luce, who's running a bootleg illegal speakeasy where live music is presented. And then… things happen that reveal that unbeknownst to Rosemary, she's actually been sent on a dual mission by her corporate SHL masters! (Spoilers below, beware.)

  • As I said, it's good. It's especially good at describing the live music scene, the gritty details of setting up, plugging in, trashing hotel rooms, etc. (The author is a practicing musician herself, so…)

  • Rosemary and Luce are both lesbians. (As is the author, so…) A couple trans folks show up along the way. Nobody's explicitly labeled as a heterosexual. So this makes me wonder if the Nebula "Best Novel" isn't really "Best Eye-Poking to the Cis-heternormative Patriarchy".

  • It's clear that the combination terrorism/pandemic threat has profoundly changed American society. Think: Covid, up by a couple orders of magnitude. It's not (particularly) clear how this affects anything other than the American music biz, though. It would have been nice to have a little wider take on what's going on globally and in other important sectors. There are hints, but come on.

  • Spoiler coming: SHL's hidden motive is to poach live talent from illegal concert venues, and then call in the cops to shut the venues down. Whoa, is that a sustainable strategy? If you need new talent coming into the corporate pipeline, why would you want to shut down the sources of such talent?

  • I kept waiting for a Grand Conspiracy to be revealed between Big Corporations and the State: laws and regulations based in paranoid fear long after actual threats are gone, designed to keep customers locked into "SuperWally" and "Mickeys" (the dominant restauranteur).

So, bottom line, a fun read. I don't read much science fiction these days, so I can't say it's not the best. But I wanted more.

Science Fictions

How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth

[Amazon Link]

This is a shoo-in if I do a "Best Non-Fiction Books Read in 2020" post.

A lot of kooks, quacks, and loons are science doubters. And even at the highest levels of government… So you might suspect the author of this book, Stuart Ritchie, is one of those guys. But he isn't. The debunking is coming from someone fully inside the tent, and his book is meticulously researched and footnoted. There's some trouble a-brewin' in Science. It would be especially recommended reading for all those "I F***ing Love Science" and "Science is Real" bumper sticker and yard sign owners.

I even got taken down a peg on that score. I read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann back in 2017; it made me pretty smug about knowning about the funny little biases and traps our evolved brains lead us to.

But as it turns out one of the major themes of that book, the concept of "priming", is largely hot garbage, based on faulty and irreproducible research. Our brains are not especially trustworthy, but we probably don't need to worry overmuch about priming.

Anyway, the four horsemen leading modern science astray are right up there in the subtitle: Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype. Each has its own chapter, and each is a deadly sin for scientists, leading away from the virtues laid out back in the 1940s by Robert Merton: science is universal, not a respecter of class, gender, race, etc. of the participants. Scientists should be disinterested in tawdry temptations of fame, ideology, institutional loyalty. They should be communal, openly sharing methods and results with one another. And they should be skeptics, always avoiding faith-based arguments, demanding to see the numbers and facts.

Ritchie does a fine job of laying out the problems. He also has some proposed solutions, all along the lines of enhancing the Mertonian norms, and decreasing the incentives and temptations that lead scientists astray.

My only problem with the book is that Ritchie seems to have a blind spot for a few areas of science. For example, climate change: he's disdainful of the skeptics there, dismissing them as "politicians on the fossil fuel dole".

That's not a great approach. Climate scientists are every bit as human as the other scientists who've churned out shoddy research. Are they somehow immune to the incentives that Ritchie ably describes? If they've somehow avoided those pitfalls, shouldn't Ritchie describe how they managed that feat?

A lengthier review from Joakim Book at AIER is here.

[Added 2020-10-13] You might also be interested in this recent Matt Ridley essay that explicitly ties various Covid-19 controversies to Ritchie's argument.


Last Modified 2020-10-13 3:47 AM EST

URLs du Jour

2020-10-12

Happy Columbus Day! Let's start it out with some Eye Candy:

[Not Chris]

Pun Salad Fact Check: True. But the linked article from David Marcus at the New York Post doesn't do the bait-and-switch:

Happy Columbus Day. There, I said it. And I mean it. I don’t wish you a solemn Columbus Day, nor a mournful one, nor still a guilty one. No, I wish you a happy Columbus Day.

It’s a day to celebrate the contributions of Italian Americans to our nation’s history. That was the original intent behind the holiday, after all, to elevate Italians at a time when they still faced marked bigotry. But more than that, it’s a day to celebrate a man whose example of courage and determination we need, as they say, now more than ever.

Shame on my fellow Norwegian-Americans for not coming up with making Leif Erikson Day a Federal holiday. Although President Trump did (indeed) issue the yearly proclamation.

Still not gonna vote for him though.

  • Since this is Pun Salad, I will note that Peter Suderman at Reason could not resist the pun: Debt Reckoning.

    It's a difficult time to be a deficit hawk.

    In March, Congress passed the CARES Act, named to show what lawmakers on both sides of the aisle wanted to be seen to be doing in the wake of the economic devastation caused by the outbreak of COVID-19. They cared to the tune of about $2.2 trillion, all of it billed to the deficit, making it the single biggest legislative care package in history by a wide margin. It was the first time Congress had ever passed a bill with a trillion-dollar price tag. As a point of comparison, the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health law that would be known as Obamacare, which was viewed as unusually costly, had to be whittled down during the legislative process so as not to technically exceed the trillion-dollar mark. Its 10-year price tag, at the time of passage, came in around $940 billion.

    But any real worries about those sky-high figures appear to have melted away in the face of the pandemic, which has exposed the underlying unseriousness of Washington's approach to budgeting. For nearly 40 years, federal lawmakers have been trying, or at least pretending to try, to reduce the deficit. But when asked to make tough budgetary choices, they consistently buckle under the pressure of partisan politics. This, in turn, has given rise to simplistic economic theories designed to justify whatever outcomes are most convenient.

    Peter provides the recent history, and see if he can't convince you that we're in a heap of trouble.

    One lousy reason for conservatives/libertarians to cheer for Democrat victory next month: they'll get blamed when the results of fiscal insanity are made manifest.


  • Speaking of which, George F. Will asks the musical question: Republicans, are you tired of winning yet? It's kind of an interesting grab-bag of fact and speculation, here are the final two paragraphs:

    Trump, whose reading of constitutional law has convinced him that Article II, properly construed, means “I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” has now taken to speaking reverently about “law and order.” “Nothing,” wrote George Orwell, “is gained by teaching a parrot a new word.”

    Joseph Stalin — like God, in the book of Genesis — looked upon his work and saw that it was good. Hence Stalin’s March 2, 1930, Pravda article “Dizzy with Success.” Trump told Americans they would get tired of all the winning he had in store for them. They are indeed tired. Promises made, promises kept.

    Mr. Will's link goes to Wikipedia, but it includes the link to Uncle Joe's Pravda article.


  • Counterpoint to Mr. Will from Paul Mirengoff at Power Line: Not tired of it, but there has been plenty of winning under Trump. After a pluses-and-minuses analysis:

    If, on this record, Will wants to taunt Trump for saying we’d tire of winning under his administration, that’s his right. However, it would have been better if he had bothered to analyze the record.

    It would also be nice if he would compare the amount of winning conservative Republicans can expect in a second Trump administration to the amount that’s likely to occur if Joe Biden wins. The latter amount is approximately nil.

    Instead, we can expect non-stop losing, including, quite possibly, a packed Supreme Court and the end of the Senate filibuster. These measures would give Democrats almost limitless ability to enact left-wing legislation with virtually no hope of having the unconstitutional portion of that agenda struck down by the courts.

    It’s futile to ask most Never Trumpers to recognize this reality. To most of them, it’s more important to signal their distaste for a distasteful president than to focus on the policy implications of defeating Trump. And the worst of them have already switched their positions on key policy matters, anyway.

    In one way or another, they have sold conservatism down the river.

    Also selling conservatism down the river: lots of Republicans, including Trump.


  • Hey, I've occasionally mentioned that it would be nice to get Jeanne Shaheen, our state's probably-gonna-be-re-elected Senator, on the record about court packing. Here you (sort of) go: Shaheen Joins Dems Claiming Filling Vacancies is 'Packing the Court'.

    During a Facebook Live Q &A session hosted by WMUR’s Adam Sexton, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen told viewers she did not support packing the U.S. Supreme Court. She does, however, support Democratic efforts to label filling judicial vacancies as “court-packing,” a notion rejected by virtually every legal scholar and political historian.

    “I don’t support packing the court, although I have to say I think that’s exactly what [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump have done,” Shaheen said. “But no, I don’t think expanding the number of judges on the Supreme Court is a good thing to do.”

    That's not an ironclad commitment to vote against court-packing legislation, but we'll take what we can get. When she votes in favor of it anyway, sometime in 2021, she'll probably be in her final term, and can afford to thumb her nose at the suckers voters who believed her.


  • But note her silly rhetoric, trying to redefine "packing the court" with "Constitutionally nominating and confirming justices Democrats don't like". An interesting Twitchy article that asserts ‘Americans aren’t idiots!’.

    Well, that's your opinion. But at issue is an AP article containing the following:

    Why it's almost as if the AP is in the pocket of the Democratic Party. (Much like my local paper.)

Cold Pursuit

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Desperate for new movies, I put this on the Netflix DVD queue. Not great, but a pleasant surprise.

Liam Neeson plays an ordinary Joe, a solid citizen, a snowplow driver in a remote Colorado town. His grown son is a baggage handler at the regional airport who makes the unfortunate mistake of being friends with a co-worker who has the bright idea of ripping off an incoming drug shipment. Which gets the kid abducted, driven off to Denver, and murdered via lethal heroin overdose. The Denver cops write this off as yet another drug death, but Liam knows his kid is no junkie, and sets off on a trail of detection and revenge.

That sounds pretty standard by-the-numbers shoot-em-up, and of course that's part of it. But the movie develops the character of everyone involved, even (maybe especially) the bad guys. E.g., the head drug kingpin has a broken marriage, a feisty ex-wife, a cute young son, wacky ideas about diet. Amidst the overall grim and violent plot, there are veins of actual quirky humor.

Except for Liam, of course. He's dour and relentless. IMDB trivia says this is going to be his last action movie, and it's a pretty good farewell.