17 December 2014

"The Overcoat," "Gone with the Wind," "The Dead," "11/22/63," and more

I am sadly behind in book reviews, distracted by school and politics and Confucianism.  At some point I started reviewing every book I read, but as it turns out, I now have a backlog of almost a hundred books to do.  I may have to start skipping, but I'm going to resume regular updates.

The Overcoat, Nikolai Gogol
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
The Dead, James Joyce
11/22/63, Stephen King
What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell
The Everyday Language of White Racism, Jane Hill
The Eisenhorn Trilogy, Dan Abnett
Life in a Medieval Village, Frances and Joseph Gies
A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson
State of Fear, Michael Crichton
Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E. Thomas


The Overcoat, Nikolai Gogol (trans. Constance Garnett)

Gogol's work has been said to be the true beginning of Russian literature.  But it's hard not to see an even stronger influence once you read The Overcoat, a very short book about a shabby man.  The hour you spend with poor protagonist Akaky Akakyevitch will make you realize that you've been hearing echoes of this work in work as diverse as Camus' Nausea, the works of Kafka, Hugo's Les Miserables, Nabokov's Pnin, Melville's Bartleby, and (of course) War and Peace.  It's kind of absurd, this ur-texting, like hearing a background noise you'd never noticed before.

There's a specific feeling that's articulated in the text and which transmits itself ineradicably to later authors: the worn sort of pathos of a man who's just slightly irregular enough to be comical.  It ties up in itself a weariness with the indignities of life and a vast compassion for suffering.  It is so immensely Russian.
It would be hard to find a man who lived in his work as did Akaky Akakyevitch. To say that he was zealous in his work is not enough; no, he loved his work. In it, in that copying, he found a varied and agreeable world of his own. There was a look of enjoyment on his face; certain letter were favourites with him, and when he came to them he was delighted; he chuckled to himself and winked and moved his lips, so that it seemed as though every letter his pen was forming could be read in his face. If rewards had been given according to the measure of zeal in the service, he might to his amazement have even found himself a civil counsellor; but all he gained in the service, as the wits, his fellow-clerks expressed it, was a buckle in his button-hole and a pain in his back.
The writing is excellent, at least in translation from the extremely reliable Constance Garnett, and this story is so short and so important that you frankly have no excuse not to read it.  It's one of the necessities.


Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

The basic idea of Gone with the Wind is that a childish debutante, Scarlett O'Hara, endures the harshness of the Civil War and is exposed to the courage and kindness of others, and so she grows as a person.  She doesn't become a good person, but she does begin to finally value the things she took for granted, and finds a steely resolve to keep herself and hers safe on the family plantation of Tara.  All the while the handsome rogue Rhett Butler is subtly hiding his true knightly brilliance and love for Scarlett behind a devil-may-care attitude.

It's a pretty good book, even if the movie's immense popularity has made it difficult to experience with any freshness.  But wow: super-racist.

It's racist in the obvious ways, of course, because it's an uncritical historical romance set in the Civil War-era South: slavery is depicted as basically a good thing and the heroes of the book are mostly members of the Ku Klux Klan (seriously).  But it's also racist in smaller ways, such as the way in which the freed slaves are depicted as a savage horde of animals when Scarlett drives her wagon through Shantytown, or the way in which every black character is a one-dimensional romanticized stereotype (loyal stoic giant or subservient surrogate mother or so on).

The racism aside (though for real, it's weird to find yourself glad that the heroic Klan is riding in to stop the villainous Freedman's Bureau) it's an engaging read.  The writing has a lot of the vigor and sharp contrasts of nineteenth-century adventure stories, and it's fun stuff.
As she chattered and laughed and cast quick glances into the house and the yard, her eyes fell on a stranger, standing alone in the hall, staring at her in a cool impertinent way that brought her up sharply with a mingled feeling of feminine pleasure that she had attracted a man and an embarrassed sensation that her dress was too low in the bosom. He looked quite old, at least thirty-five. He was a tall man and powerfully built. Scarlett thought she had never seen a man with such wide shoulders, so heavy with muscles, almost too heavy for gentility. When her eye caught his, he smiled, showing animal-white teeth below a close-clipped black mustache. He was dark of face, swarthy as a pirate, and his eyes were as bold and black as any pirate's appraising a galleon to be scuttled or a maiden to be ravished. There was a cool recklessness in his face and a cynical humor in his mouth as he smiled at her, and Scarlett caught her breath. She felt that she should be insulted by such a look and was annoyed with herself because she did not feel insulted. She did not know who he could be, but there was undeniably a look of good blood in his dark face. It showed in the thin hawk nose over the full red lips, the high forehead and the wide-set eyes.
So despite the racism (and you should really be an alert reader when it comes to this one) it's a fun book that is extremely well-paced, with arresting action and interesting characterization of the main characters.

You have probably seen the movie.  If you liked the movie, you will probably like the book.  As far as I can tell, in this instance that is an almost infallible test.


The Dead, James Joyce

Joyce's work is thick with meaning.  Well-chosen words and symbols dance around through the text, all around a single theme: the point at which life and death meet.

All forms of this meeting are explored during the dinner-party encountered in The Dead.  The complacently happy are dead in spirit.  An encounter with a rowdy friend reminds you of friends gone by.  Those who have never known passion have never truly known life.  And so on.  Traipsing always around the edge of explicit statement, but coming tantalizingly close near the end, Joyce waltzes us through the many ways in which death is present in our lives.

It truly is a dance, as deep symbolism is followed by teasing overtness is followed by deep symbolism. And all the while, it is expressed with a mastery of the language that staggers the soul:
He was astonished to hear that the monks never spoke, got up at two in the morning and slept in their coffins. He asked what they did it for.

"That's the rule of the order," said Aunt Kate firmly.

"Yes, but why?" asked Mr. Browne.

Aunt Kate repeated that it was the rule, that was all. Mr. Browne still seemed not to understand. Freddy Malins explained to him, as best he could, that the monks were trying to make up for the sins committed by all the sinners in the outside world. The explanation was not very clear for Mr. Browne grinned and said:

"I like that idea very much but wouldn't a comfortable spring bed do them as well as a coffin?"

"The coffin," said Mary Jane, "is to remind them of their last end."
This very short book is available for free, and you should take advantage of that if you have not read it.  If you have read it, read it again.  You will find still more to think about.


11/22/63, Stephen King


Stephen King can write.  There's no way around it.  For a while he fell out of fashion with the literati, but his talent burns so brightly that no one can ignore it for long.  That's especially true when he surpasses his too-frequent mediocrities like Dreamcatcher (which was a cut-rate It) or Under the Dome in order to turn out a wonderful book like 11/22/63.

The plot is simple: a man goes back in time to try to kill Lee Harvey Oswald and prevent the death of JFK.  But King tells the story of that mission with such skill that you are snatched up in the narrative. It's a spy thriller, and a sci-fi tale, and a historical discussion, and a high romance.  And it's all well-done.

The writing, as usual with King, is ever-so-slightly sloppy.  King's prose has a loose tie and sleeves rolled up: it's here to get things done.  It's not artful and seldom very deep, but it is extraordinarily effective.  He's been writing every day for decades (his published work must surpass 20,000 pages by now), and paying attention as he does it, and it shows.  The pages and words drop away and you fall into the pages and forget yourself with ease.
Even if you do have to kill him, you don’t have to do it right away.True enough. Oswald was going to relocate to New Orleans for a while after the attempt on the general’s life—another shitty apartment, one I’d already visited—but not for two weeks. That would give me plenty of time to stop his clock. But I sensed it would be a mistake to wait very long.  I might find reasons to keep on waiting. The best one was beside me in this bed: long, lovely, and smoothly naked. Maybe she was just another trap laid by the obdurate past, but that didn’t matter, because I loved her. And I could envision a scenario—all too clearly—where I’d have to run after killing Oswald. Run where? Back to Maine, of course. Hoping I could stay ahead of the cops just long enough to get to the rabbit-hole and escape into a future where Sadie Dunhill would be . . . well. . . about eighty years old. If she were alive at all. Given her cigarette habit, that would be like rolling six the hard way.
This is a fun book, and perfect for a quiet Sunday evening read when you have no energy for examination or introspection but just want a great story to pull you in. Take a look.


What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell


Ah, Malcolm Gladwell.  He is almost the soul of the modern New Yorker, a sanctified officiant at the altar of Hidden Expertise.  Other altars stand alongside his, such as Elizabeth Kolbert's Stern Cynicism and Jonathan Franzen's Wistfulness, but the burnished stone to which Gladwell offers his rite is distinct in prominence.  And it is quite a rite!

The trick to it is this: some unknown number of years ago, Malcolm Gladwell discovered that there was brilliance hidden in every crack of modern life.  I'm not being sarcastic when I say that this is a genuine insight.  As the podcast 99% Invisible teaches us, there is a surprising amount of thought spent on many of the most seemingly trivial topics.  We can probably thank the trio of academia, bureaucracy, and capitalism for this wealth of consideration, but whatever its source, it definitely exists.  IF you think about something - anything - in just the right way, you can find astonishing depths.

Ketchup is one example.  In What the Dog Saw, there's a detailed consideration of condiments, and Gladwell ponders why mustards and steak sauces come and go, while Heinz soldiers on popular and unchanged.

As far as it goes, this is excellent stuff.  There's interesting aspects to so much of life, and it can be really rewarding to expose the hidden intricacies at work in the small things.  Unfortunately, it also means that Gladwell inevitably winds up reporting on topics on which he has no expertise at all.  He must instead rely entirely on his experts and consultants and the subjects of his profiles.  Gladwell is a very good judge of character, so he doesn't go too wrong, but there is definitely a problem at hand.  Stephen Pinker sums up the issue well in his review of this same book in the NYT:
An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.
This is a problem particular to Gladwell's style, though, and it's one that won't bother many people (unless you have any expertise in mathematics or finance or anything else).  Suffice it to say that you should check out another source on these things if one of them interests you, before you go repeating your own half-understood notions of Gladwell's half-understood ideas.

If you have never read one of Gladwell's essays in The New Yorker, then do so.  If you find it enjoyable, then you will probably enjoy this collection of his work, since they're all much the same.


The Everyday Language of White Racism, Jane Hill

I should read things like this book more often, I have to admit.  I just wish I could.  It's hard to face up to uncomfortable truths.

The Everyday Language of White Racism is a well-informed and well-considered discussion of the ways in which a dominant white culture is casually racist in a sweeping and structural sense.  The soft bigotry of condescension, the diminishing theft of appropriation, and the simply thoughtless use of historical viciousness are all treated with thoroughness.  It's not incendiary or accusatory - by and large, Hill calls for greater thought and awareness of our language.  And while she occasionally reaches too far in her condemnation, there is no doubt that she also neatly pinpoints the ways in which some aspects of racism have been subsumed wholly into our normal language.

For example, she discusses the vicious cycle of how overt racism scandals - someone caught saying a racial slur or the like - become race panics that are exaggerated by pundits and the media in order to make it clear that they are not prejudiced in a direct way.  It's a shield.
These episodes of [racism-awareness] panic probably occur because when utterances of racist words and propositions by public figures, especially by highly placed White men, become public, this is profoundly unsettling for many White Americans. They have invested, at the very least, attention to these figures in their role as celebrities. And many have invested far more: admiration, envy, votes, financial contributions, hero-worship, and the like. George Allen, whose political career probably ended after he called an opponent a “macaca,” was not only a United States senator. He was widely admired by White men because of his association with the all-American sport of football. He had himself played varsity football in college at the University of Virginia, and his father, also named George Allen, had been a legendary professional coach of major teams including the Chicago Bears, the Los Angeles Rams, and the Washington Redskins. Since “racism,” in the folk theory the practice of rednecks and Ku Kluxers, is held to be incompatible with the exemplary character and courage that many fans associate with football, and certainly incompatible as well with service in one of America’s highest elected offices, evidence that Senator Allen used racist slurs was profoundly unsettling to the self-image of his admirers. And it was unsettling to anybody who believed that White Americans are people who believe in racial equality, and who would be able to detect and reject racists as unqualified for public office. Those who had invested enough in Allen to feel attacks on him as a racist as an attack on their own creditable selves and on White virtue more broadly rose to his defense to preserve that credit and virtue.
If someone gives me an implausible excuse for lateness, I might reply with brief irony - "Ay yi yi" - before moving on.  I'm conveying that I don't entirely believe in their unlikely excuse by using calmly an expression that's usually associated with an alarm.  But seriously, it's a little bit racist.  I'm not Latino and the only way I became familiar with the expression was from people mocking or appropriating the cultures in which "ay yi yi" was colloquially used (and here I'm thinking maybe Speedy Gonzalez).

I'm not beating myself up too much, of course, and Hill doesn't call for a grand cultural inquisition.  But there's really no harm in pausing every now and then to rethink some of the very quiet bigotry woven into our language (even as we admit, like the song says, that everyone is a little bit racist).  Check this one out, if you have the moral fortitude.


The Eisenhorn Trilogy, Dan Abnett


The world of Warhammer 40,000 is a curious one, and it has more in common with the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft than anything else.  In this science-fiction universe, created for a tabletop tactical game, the galaxy is filled with nothing but monstrous horrors and puling victims.  There is virtually no joy, except as snatched between moments of horror and serving only to highlight the depths of despair that will follow.  It is bleak and humorless and extravagant.  A sprawling space empire of thousands of inhabited worlds and billions of subjects fights desperately to preserve itself in the face of hordes of vicious invaders.  Human life has no value in the brutal fight.  The motto of the series sums it up well: In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.

The Eisenhorn Trilogy is one of the canonical books in the Warhammer 40k universe - if you ask someone which book to read from that world, this is usually the first recommendation.  There's a good reason for this: the three books of the series capture the dominant mood of Warhammer 40k perfectly while also offering decent writing and a good plot.  In the world of branded sci-fi, it's rare to get all three in the same package.

Gregor Eisenhorn is an imperial Inquisitor.  He serves the God-Emperor, a demigod that lives frozen in half-death and is sustained only by daily sacrifices of thousands.  As a member of the Ordo Xenos, he fights against the different alien species that threaten mankind - Orks, Eldar, Tyranids, Necrons, and more.  But his greatest struggles come from the intrusions of the chaos demons into...

No...  No, sorry.  This can't be done.  There's no way to explain Warhammer 40k without sounding a little silly unless you avoid nouns.  That's the consequences of a naming schema that so transparently leans on common words (the Tyranids are terrible/tyrannical, the Eldar are quite old, the Necrons are all zombies, etc)  You reap what you sow, nomenclature-wise.

The writing is consistent throughout: breathless and grim and not terribly well-done.  Archaic language is chosen deliberately to try to create a faux-medieval atmosphere.
I was on Lethe Eleven under instruction from the Ordo Xenos, deep in work, with the accursed xenophile Beldame Sadia almost in my grasp. Ten weeks to find her, ten hours to close the trap. I had been without sleep for three days; without food and water for two. Psychic phantoms triggered by the Darknight eclipse were rolling my mind. I was dying of binary poison. Then Tantalid turned up.
To appraise you, Lethe Eleven is a densely populated world at the leading edge of the Helican sub-sector, its chief industries being metalwork and shield technologies. At the end of every Umbris, Lethe’s largest moon matches, by some cosmological coincidence, the path, orbit and comparative size of the local star, and the world is plunged into eclipse for a two week period known as the Darknight.
The effect is quite striking. For the space of fourteen days, the sky goes a cold, dark red, the hue of dried blood, and the moon, Kux, dominates the heavens, a peerlessly black orb surrounded by a crackling corona of writhing amber flame. This event has become – students of Imperial ritual will be unsurprised to learn – the key seasonal holiday for all Letheans. Fires of all shape, size and manner are lit as Darknight begins, and the population stands vigil to ensure that none go out until the eclipse ends. Industry is suspended. Leave is granted. Riotous carnivals and firelit parades spill through the cities. Licentiousness and law-breaking are rife.
Suffice it to say that the books strongly resemble what might happen if you gave all the people in the Lovecraft universe lasers and magic swords and sent them out to fight aliens.  It's pulpy and bleak and silly and interesting.  If you want to open yourself up to a whole new genre, this is your best bet to try it out.


Life in a Medieval Village, Frances and Joseph Gies


I am fairly sure that Lizzie hates this book, even though she hasn't read it, because for two days I was following her around saying, "Hey, did you know that many common names today, like Bywater and Oxford, are simply geographic... Thomas Bywater was the Thomas who lived by the water and Thomas Oxford lived near where cows crossed a river!  Isn't that interesting?"

On the other hand, she may just never feel the need to read a book that I have spouted to her in one excited exclamation after another.

Either way, this detailed examination of the everyday lives of the people in a typical medieval village - in this case, residents of a village north of London called Elton - is fascinating from start to finish.  It is written to be both informative and interesting.  It avoids picking out the more exotic bits for the sake of shock value, and instead puts the whole life of the typical medieval villager in context.  It's the sort of thing that goes almost wholly unremarked in histories and sagas and poetry, and yet it is so intriguing!

Did you know that it was customary for most families to keep a pot of vegetables such as cabbage and carrots cooking gently over the fire all day, and that this "pottage" would constitute most of their meals when combined with a dense loaf of "maslin" wheat/rye bread, washed down with weak ale (by adults and children alike, since water was often unsafe)?

Did you know that "clandestine marriage" was a long-running problem for churches, wherein a couple would exchange secret vows in private and pledge only by a kiss and a ring, causing problems for inheritance rulings and the legitimacy of children (and cutting the Church out of fees), and that churches only solved this once the Council of Trent began requiring a marriage have witnesses?

Did you know that the shortage of winter feed for livestock was said to cause an annual Michaelmas slaughter, where the people killed and ate all of the animals they didn't want to feed over the winter?

Authors Frances and Joseph Gies, both only recently deceased, wrote a number of these sorts of books.  They seem to have traded credit from book to book (Joseph and Frances, Frances and Joseph, Joseph and Frances) and yet their work has none of the occasional awkwardness of collaboration about it.  It's clear and direct.  We might find some criticism with the chapter divisions which segment up peasant life into different spheres, but the transitions make us stumble for only a moment.
The art of preaching, however, was undergoing a revival, led by the mendicant friars, the Dominicans and Franciscans. Arriving in England in the 1220s, these roving brothers preached in the parish church with the permission of the rector, or failing that, in the open air, where their sermons offered a lively alternative to the routine of Sunday services. Illustrated with personal experiences, fables, and entertaining stories, they encouraged the participation of the congregation. A preacher might call out, “Stop that babbling,” to a woman, who did not hesitate to reply, “What about you? You’ve been babbling for the last half hour.” Such exchanges brought laughter, applause, and more friendly heckling.
I must admit that people less interested in history than myself might find this boring, even though I found myself fascinated by the simple details of everyday life in the medieval era.  But if you enjoyed works like The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, or other glimpses of that other country that is the past, I think you'll like this book.


A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson


This is a project book: Bill Bryson decided he would hike the Appalachian Trail (with his friend Katz) and then write a book about it.  It didn't quite work out - he skipped big sections of the trail because, hey, it's long as hell, who blames him?

Project books seldom end up with a real finished project.  When A.J. Jacobs tried to read the whole encyclopedia he skimmed/skipped a lot of content, and when he tried to follow all the rules in the Bible he found it difficult to stone anyone.  So we won't be too hard on him, particularly since his musings and digressions are so much more interesting than those of A.J. Jacobs.  Bryson discusses the history of the Appalachian Trail, the attraction of the great American wilds (no matter how diminished), and his reflections on the more solemn aspects of wilderness hiking.  And, of course, we are entertained by the comic relief of the bumbling Katz, who throws away his backpack in favor of a postal carrier's bag and who eats days' worth of food at a time.

Bryson is excellent at two things in particular: expressing a quiet wry humor and conjuring a sense of awe.  This is how he plucks an interesting narrative from even the driest facts.  It works well.
Imagine it--a wall of ice nearly half a mile high, and beyond it for tens of thousands of square miles nothing but more ice, broken only by the peaks of a very few of the loftiest mountains. What a sight that must have been. And here is a thing that most of us fail to appreciate: we are still in an ice age, only now we experience it for just part of the year. Snow and ice and cold are not really typical features of earth. Taking the long view, Antarctica is actually a jungle. (It's just having a chilly spell.) At the very peak of the last ice age 20,000 years ago, 30 percent of the earth was under ice. Today 10 percent still is. There have been at least a dozen ice ages in the last two million years, each lasting about 100,000 years. The most recent intrusion, called the Wisconsinian ice sheet, spread down from the polar regions over much of Europe and North America, growing to depths of up to two miles and advancing at a rate of up to 400 feet a year. As it soaked up the earth's free water, sea levels fell by 450 feet. Then, about 10,000 years ago, not abruptly exactly but near enough, it began to melt back. No one knows why. What it left in its wake was a landscape utterly transformed. It dumped Long Island, Cape Cod, Nantucket, and most of Martha's Vineyard where previously there had just been sea, and it gouged out the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, and little Sunfish Pond, among much else. Every foot of the landscape from here on north would be scored and scarred with reminders of glaciation-- scattered boulders called erratics, drumlins, eskers, high tarns, cirques. I was entering a new world.
Everyone should check this out; this book was wildly popular for good reason.


State of Fear, Michael Crichton


Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex has been harping for a while on the difficulty of sorting through statistical and scientific studies to locate the truth.  If you're a layman on a topic, and often even if you have some expertise, it can be incredibly hard to figure out which studies to believe.
[T]ake the minimum wage question (please). We all know about the Krueger and Cardstudy in New Jersey that found no evidence that high minimum wages hurt the economy. We probably also know the counterclaims that it was completely debunked as despicable dishonest statistical malpractice. Maybe some of us know Card and Krueger wrote a pretty convincing rebuttal of those claims. Or that a bunch of large and methodologically advanced studies have come out since then, some finding no effect like Dube, others finding strong effects like Rubinstein and Wither. These are just examples; there are at least dozens and probably hundreds of studies on both sides.
But we can solve this with meta-analyses and systemtic reviews, right?
Depends which one you want. Do you go with this meta-analysis of fourteen studies that shows that any presumed negative effect of high minimum wages is likely publication bias? With this meta-analysis of sixty-four studies that finds the same thing and discovers no effect of minimum wage after correcting for the problem? Or how about this meta-analysisof fifty-five countries that does find effects in most of them? Maybe you prefer this systematic review of a hundred or so studies that finds strong and consistent effects?
And it gets worse, since you often can't even trust real experts to sum things up fairly and give you their assessment.  Everyone's got an agenda.

But it has to be said that it's far, far worse when a skilled author falls victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect and, in an attempt to prove himself and his chosen partisans correct, tries to do away with inconvenient truth (haha! get it?) and wield childish fiction as fact.

Most of the book is Crichton's standard thriller style fiction, propelled by intriguing technologies and ideas.  Credulous lawyer Peter Evans is caught up in a plot by environmentalists to fake a tsunami, in order to popularize the idea of global warming.  Brave and intelligent scientists take him along as they fight to stop this, pausing along the way to explain how global warming is not occurring and proving it with science, even including graphs and charts that are very impressive (and unusual in a work of fiction).

The other half is a densely sourced essay demonstrating to the reader why global warming does not exist and pointing out the villainous lies of the environmental lobby.  It also has charts and figures.

The fiction is a little embarrassing, to be honest.  The writing bears a shocking resemblance to Glenn Beck's The Overton Window, with a good-natured dilettante being led with gruff kindness to the truth (but golly you can't blame him because it's the fault of the brainwashing media!)  It's even worse that it's trying to use the emotional elements of fiction (this is what the heroes believe, and this is what the villains believe) to bludgeon the reader into being more accepting of a particular perspective on a controversial question (again: The Overton Window comes to mind).
“People have no perspective on Antarctica, because it appears as a fringe at the bottom of most maps. But in fact, Antarctica is a major feature on the Earth’s surface, and a major factor in our climate. It’s a big continent, one and a half times the size of either Europe or the United States, and it holds ninety percent of all the ice on the planet.”
...
“No wonder they’re concerned that the ice here is melting,” Evans said.
Kenner said nothing.
Sanjong was shaking his head.
Evans said, “Come on, guys. Antarctica is melting.”
“Actually, it’s not,” Sanjong said. “I can give you the references, if you like.”
Kenner said, “While you were asleep, Sanjong and I were talking about how to clarify things for you, since you seem to be so ill-informed.”
“Ill-informed?” Evans said, stiffening.
“I don’t know what else one would call it,” Kenner said. “Your heart may be in the right place, Peter, but you simply don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Hey,” he said, controlling his anger. “Antarctica is melting.”
“You think repetition makes something true? The data show that one relatively small area called the Antarctic Peninsula is melting and calving huge icebergs. That’s what gets reported year after year. But the continent as a whole is getting colder, and the ice is getting thicker.”
The "science" is reportedly even worse.  But I'm not going to get into that.  If it interests you, check here or here.

There's no reason for anyone to read this.


Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E. Thomas

This book is a thin strip of meat attached to an enormous wedge of repetitive fat.  There is a trickle interesting insight throughout, but the lion's share of the worthwhile material is exhausted within the first chapter.  The rest of the book is devoted to reiterating a few points: sociopaths like Thomas are amoral, sexually liberated, and work hard to fooling the world.  These points are illustrated with a series of examples that quickly become tedious and masturbatory.

There is, naturally, a very specific allure to the mind of a madman or killer.  Audiences are always fascinated by a look into a different sort of mind as it successfully defies society's rules.  I suspect there is also an unconscious pairing of wish fulfillment and self-flattery at work, because we are less fascinated by unsuccessful sociopathy: we can imagine that we could be just as successful and dramatic if we weren't just so darned moral.  We allow ourselves to imagine that it's only our essential goodness that holds us back from dominance, congratulating ourselves on our scruples, while speculating the extent to which we would inflict our will on the world if we were more villainous.  We can't quite bring ourselves to think such a thing in so many words, but would we be as fascinated with a Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs) or Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) who failed to enact his desires?

These Confessions just don't have that much to shock, and the succession of small banal exchanges soon starts to bore.  It isn't too long before stories designed to showcase sociopathic amorality start to highlight sociopathic narcissism, instead.
I have never killed anyone, but I have certainly wanted to, as I am sure most people have.  I have rarely wanted to kill those close to me; more often it has been a chance encounter with someone who caused me consternation.  Once while visiting Washington, DC, for a law conference, a metro worker tried to shame me about using an escalator that was closed.  He asked in thickly accented English, "Didn't you see the yellow gate?"
Me:  Yellow gate?
Him:  The gate!  I just put the gate up and you had to walk around it!
Silence.  My face is blank.
Him:  That's trespassing!  Don't you know it is wrong to trespass!  The escalator was closed, you broke the law!
I stare at him silently.Him: [visibly rattled at my lack of reaction]  Well, next time, you don't trespass, okay?
It was not okay.
Nothing is lost if you restrict yourself to only the first chapter of Confessions of a Sociopath, since there are few grand revelations to be had in the rest of the text.  Don't waste your time with the fatty excesses.

09 December 2014

Accordion: What 2016 Predictions Reveal About Predictors

This post is an accordion.  Read just the top paragraph, or follow the footnotes for weird discussions.

Now that the 2014 midterm elections are completely finished1, pundits are turning with glee to the 2016 race for Republican presidential nominee.2  Perhaps more interesting than the discussion of who is recruiting more "bundlers"3 are the beliefs revealed by the predictions themselves.  There are a lot of assumptions inherent in how a prognosticator speaks of the GOP candidates4 - and the fact that there are literally dozens of potential nominees gives pundits plenty of room to wedge in their own ideas.  It's almost the opposite of 2012's tournament of the lightweights, as all the big names are coming out to play.  Do you think the Grand Old Party has swung unrealistically far to the right?  Then you might speak well of Jeb Bush's chances, though they're really pretty lousy.5  Do you consider yourself a "serious" pundit or a Republican "wonk?"  Then you might single out Paul Ryan, instead.6  And even more than that: if you started talking about all this nonsense and all of these candidates (Christie,7 Cruz,8 Jindal,9 Paul,10 Perry,11 Rubio,12 Santorum,13 Walker,14 Romney,15 and Carson,16) as far back as last year, then you're confessing something else: you're a serious masochist.

1.  Mary Landrieu (D-LA) just got crushed in her run-off election against Bill Cassidy, her GOP challenger.  Her departure from the Senate means that there is not a single Democratic senator or governor from the Deep South (Virginia and Florida do have Democratic senators, but a majority of their citizens are transplants from elsewhere).  Jonathan Chait at New York's Daily Intelligencer argues that this decline in southern Democrats is "overdue," saying that it reflects a regional difference that has existed since America's earliest days:
Barack Obama ran for presidency hoping to transcend old divisions, but his presidency has ironically lent renewed vigor to the most ancient division in American politics. The tea party, which presents itself as the heirs to the Founding Fathers, is actually an heir to one side of the American argument. One tradition bore intense suspicion of centralized government, venerated farmers and rural life, believed the Constitution forbade Congress from all but a handful of specifically enumerated fields of activity, felt comfortable with aggression and violence in both domestic life and foreign affairs, and defended existing social institutions against racial minorities and their allies. This political coalition has always had its strongest base in the Deep South. It is right-wing.
The other tradition advocated a stronger federal government (and deemed this expanded role Constitutional), considered public investment and education the best method of securing prosperity, was more averse to territorial conflict with neighbors, and was more solicitous of racial minorities. This coalition has always had its strongest base in New England. It is left-wing.
2.  The Democratic nomination is promising to be a coronation for Hillary Clinton.  We have passed the point where there can be any doubt that she intends to run; if she were to decide not to run now, then she would be rightfully accused of hobbling her party's nomination procedure with her own vanity.  Assuredly, she is going to run for President, and she is likely to win (barring the known unknown and unknown unknown in any major race).  Her likely rivals, right down to the serving Vice-President Biden, have not been gathering the materiel they'd need for a real race: money, bragging rights, and so on.  The major threats right now are people like Sen. Bernie Sanders (VA)... and he has already admitted his candidacy is designed to force Clinton further left.  Maryland's Gov. Martin O'Malley is widely discussed, but it seems clear that his bid is mostly designed to increase his national profile, not to win.

3.  A "bundler" is a professional political middleman who gathers together individual donations into a more significant sum.  There's a limit on how much any one individual can give to a campaign or party (although they can launder unlimited funds through Super-PACs), and so some communities and social circles concentrate their monies in the hands of one person, who "bundles" their donations together.  The idea is pretty simple... candidates pay more attention to the one person who writes them a $25,000 check than they do to any ten people who write them $2,500 checks.  Bundlers are the purest articulation of money in politics.

4.  Yes, you meta smartass, I know that I am doing this too.  But hey, γνῶθι σεαυτόν, right?

5.  Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush once headed up a fearsome state machine, but his brother's presidency and the years he's spent out of the public eye have left him with a personal brand that is - at best- extremely complicated.  He's fondly remembered by unapologetic Bush family fans and some powerful corporate interests, but he's also spent years supporting the Common Core standards and comprehensive immigration reform, two positions anathema to the party's base.  NOTE: It is a federal crime to use the word "anathema" in any other context than this during an election year.  Combine these flaws with a general reluctance to nominate a third Bush, and Jeb might have problems even his probable money advantage won't help fix.

6.  Rep. Paul Ryan (WI) was Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012, using his disproportionate reputation as an "ideas man" to bolster the ticket.  His first budget plan, offered in 2008, never made it out of committee.  But careful work with colleagues and ceaseless speechmaking helped raise Ryan's profile and made his ideas popular.  Successive budgets not only made it to a vote, but became the de facto budget plan of the entire party.  Perhaps I should call it a "budget," though, since it is unable to pay for its large proposed tax cuts for the wealthy even with its draconian budget cuts.  For the rest, the "budget" relies on handwaving and on something called "dynamic scoring," in which the budgeter assumes that the economy will very conveniently boom into overdrive when cued by tax cuts.  Ryan's been working on poverty issues with his head down since the Romney-Ryan ticket lost, but he has already been seen to be sniffing the 2016 air.

7.  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a brash and brilliant political creature, and a really good example of the dangers of narrative.  He is often described as a bully, even by admirers, and that means that every small instance of harsh language has an instant framework for a lazy thinker.  Even though he might actually be fully capable of controlling himself on the national stage, like other politicians with nasty tempers (think Lyndon Johnson), his biggest challenge will be escaping his image.  The real danger lies in the big moves he's going to make to try to force people to re-evaluate him.  On the plus side, he'll raise absurd amounts of money with his Wall Street and RGA connections, and Bridgegate will help him a great deal in the primary; he should see if he can delay the investigation's conclusion six more months, to time it better with the race.

8.  Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) has achieved a fevered following among the base, even though he's only been in office for two years.  He has become (in)famous for his efforts in pushing for the government shutdown last year and for his frequent jeremiads about the threat Obamacare poses to our precious fluids.  Unfortunately, his party spent a lot of time attacking the current president over a lack of experience, and it doesn't seem as though Cruz's rhetoric can withstand much scrutiny.

9.  Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will be interesting to watch, but stands virtually no chance of success in the presidential bid he's been preparing.  He never made it to the real race in 2012... at the time, this was commonly blamed on his disastrous response to Obama's 2009 State of the Union, but the real reason was that he'd had to focus on a 2011 re-election as governor.  That would have been a hard move to make, and maybe Jindal was also smart enough to see the writing on the wall for 2012.  But it may also have been his only chance.  In the years since, he's run into problem after problem.  He was an advocate of Common Core, and his many soundbites on the issue open him up to easy attacks (and his claim that it was a "bait and switch" just makes him seem gullible to the base).  Even worse, he proposed to repeal Louisiana's income tax while hiking the sales tax - we can call it the Fuck the Poor Plan, perhaps - but lost a high-stakes confrontation with the state legislature.  It's hard to run based on a string of well-intentioned failures.

10.  Sen. Rand Paul (KY) is winning, but tenuously.  He has a large organization and a lot of money, and his unorthodox views force many people to re-evaluate him on his own merits.  Unfortunately, his own merits aren't all that great.  He's avoided scandal and endeared himself to many civil libertarians, but it's extremely difficult for someone who has worked to maintain an "outsider" brand to unite the GOP factions behind him.  He also has the unique distinction of being perhaps the most dangerous candidate from my perspective: he has little interest in my priorities (the environment and income inequality), while his esoteric policy interests pose a threat to a wide variety of important infrastructures in government that no one else cares about.

11.  Outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry has spent the last year building relationships and explaining his terrible 2012 performance, and he'll have good connections and the free time to use them when he leaves office.  But leaving office means that he'll have fewer opportunities to make headlines, and it's hard to stand out in a field this crowded with big players.  He'll be a serious contender, but it's hard to believe that the whole of his problems last time around came from back pain and medication.

12.  Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) is a victim of his party.  By all rights, he should be sitting in the catbird seat.  Out of the gate in 2012, he led the charge for comprehensive immigration reform.  It was a lousy bill, but it responded to the demographic trap facing the GOP, as the party's scant minority appeal forced it to rely on scraping up every spare scrap of the white vote that it could manage.  But what should have been his shining moment and a turning point for the party abruptly reversed course, to the horror of the party elite, and the fever dream deepend instead.  Demagogues denounced the proposed bill, backed by hard-line fearmongers, and Rubio watched his numbers plummet.  He believed in the bill: he knew it was not only the right thing for the Republican Party and not just the right thing for the country: it was the plain Right Thing to Do.  But he didn't risk his career, and he was forced to denounce and campaign against his own bill.  He still hasn't stopped his backpedal.  Rubio had almost proverbial chance at greatness, where he could do the smart and right thing in the face of difficult odds and unreasoned hatred.  He backed down, and it was so unspeakably sad.

13.  Former Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) has now put many years' distance between himself and Dan Savage, and he may have left that incident behind (hehe... "behind").  He was even able to put up a respectable showing in 2012, winning a few primaries during the few mayfly weeks during which he was the front-runner.  Unfortunately, the list of other onetime 2012 frontrunners includes Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain.  These were figures who were distinguished only by virtue of not being Mitt "The Inevitable" Romney.  Santorum, like the rest of this list, never managed to get any serious backing from other politicos or monied interests - he was sustained in large part by a single donor, Foster Freiss.  Theres no sign that his fortunes have gone anywhere but down in the years since.

14.  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is so boring that I am not going to blurb him.  Blah blah he hates unions.  Google him.

15.  Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign introduced me to the term "nurdle," and for that I will be forever grateful.  But despite the rumors about how he would be solid candidate if he ran again, his strong polling right now is mostly a reflection of name recognition.  He's much more famous than a lot of other prospective candidates, and that's nothing to ignore... but could anyone really launch a third grueling national campaign after a movie was already made about your two previous humiliations?

16.  Dr. Ben Carson is a surgeon who has made some very good speeches, and who interviews very well.  He is wildly popular as a speaker, but he also seems to be smart enough to know better than to try to actually run for the nomination.  And who really needs the hassle, when you already have money and you're not someone actually interested in political power?  Better to bask in admiration from vast crowds, sell a few more books, send your ideas out into the masses, and wait for the humble requests from famous men.