The Overstory

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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 2024-01-13 10:59 AM EDT

"You Are Not Expected to Understand This"

How 26 Lines of Code Changed the World

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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 2024-01-13 10:58 AM EDT

Burning Down the House

How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed

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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 2024-01-13 10:58 AM EDT