Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Book Review: Never Home Alone

Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live
Rob Dunn
Nature, medicine

Don't read this book if you're squeamish. Really, seriously, don't. It'll make you want to burn your house down and then shower with industrial-grade solvents and then cover yourself with sterilized plastic wrap and you still won't feel safe.

If you are lacking squeams, Never Home Alone is a very good book about . . . well, it's about several things. Most fundamentally, it's a celebration of the microbial ecosystem. Dunn's major point, I think, is that we are deeply mistaken if we think that we can exist--much less thrive--separate from the fungi, bacteria, protists, microscopic crustaceans, etc. etc. etc. that surround us. In the first place, we evolved to live with them. In the second place, they're everywhere. In the third place, heavy-handed attempts to engineer this microenvironment tend to go awry, sometimes spectacularly so--wiping out benign strains of Staphylococcus both weakens the immune response and leaves a gap for virulent strains to fill, for example.

Okay, there's a little bit of drum-beating for these ideas going on. Thankfully, it's comparatively muted. Even more thankfully, it's backed up by sound observation and testable hypotheses, which is not invariably the case.

Dunn writes in a pleasingly non-technical style, so Never Home Alone should be accessible to almost any reader. (He's also restrained in using the vertical pronoun--also not invariably the case, and nice to see.) He even offers readers a number of ways to join in the scientific fun. If you have any interest at all in natural history, you should read this book.

Me, I'm off to change my showerhead.

This book pairs nicely with Ed Yong's I Contain Multitudes. It also overlaps thematically somewhat with Charles C. Mann's superb The Wizard And the Prophet, particularly in its critique of the technocratic approach to environmental problems.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Book Review: Capitalism in America

Capitalism in America: A History
Alan Greenspan, Adrian Wooldridge
Economics, history

Capitalism: Alan Greenspan is for it!

No, that's not the whole review. For the first half of Capitalism in America I thought that it might be, though. That's the half that's purely descriptive. It's stuffed full of statistics, sure enough, and not badly written, but it's a fairly standard economic history of the U.S. into the early 20th century. I already knew that railroads were important, that slavery was bad, that Standard Oil was big; Capitalism in America added only some numbers to my knowledge, which I have since largely forgotten.

The book gets more interesting when the authors finally start constructing an argument, instead of a play-by-play. Thank the reformers, such as Theodore Roosevelt, who put the brakes on the laissez-faire free-for-all. Greenspan and Wooldridge have to come to grips with what they did, which forces them to assess the system's successes and failures. The result is a pretty good argument for capitalism, broadly speaking, as an engine for innovation and as a proven way of lifting people out of poverty.

That's not to say that I think their analysis is a complete success. On the contrary, I think it's open to some fairly serious criticism. For example, Capitalism in America rightly contains some ringing denunciations of the slave economy. Good for you, gentlemen! But nowhere--literally nowhere--does it acknowledge that this country's 19th-century prosperity was based on spending down a metaphorical trust fund, consisting of land that had been looted from its native inhabitants. It's easy to make one group (white settlers) prosperous by making another group (Native Americans) poor. How much should we credit that to the success of capitalism vs. the profits of theft? Greenspan and Wooldridge are silent.

Similarly, G&W are decidedly . . . let's say "myopic" . . . when it comes to their critique of the New Deal. They make a fuss, several times over, about the fact that the New Deal recovery under FDR was interrupted by a second downturn in 1937. They do not see fit to mention that many other economists blame that downturn on FDR's premature decision to end a lot of New Deal spending in favor of balancing the budget. They also fall into the classic trap of saying that "It wasn't government spending that ended the Depression; it was World War II." Okay, and World War II did this how? Hint: who paid for all of those tanks, airplanes, salaries, jeeps, Liberty Ships, prophylactics, bullets, cans of Spam, uniforms, etc.? Could it have been the U.S. government? Why, I believe it could!

Perhaps the most telling small indicator of this myopia comes near the very end of Capitalism in America. "There were good reasons for complaining" about the effects of industrial capitalism, the authors concede. . "Deaths from industrial accidents in Pittsburgh per 100,000 residents almost doubled . . . between 1870 and 1900." Then, in the very next sentence, "Politicians such as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson whipped up all this discontent into successful political movements" (emphasis added). Note that verb phrase. Now, "whipped up" is a dismissive phrase. The strong implication is that those people who were complaining about the doubling of the death rate were a bunch of slow-witted hoi polloi malcontents, who--instead of being property grateful for the beneficence of their betters--were so crass as to actually agitate for a larger share of the fruits of their labor. The nerve! What right did they have to interfere with the process of accumulating wealth, by questioning the purposes for which the wealth was accumulated?

What's particularly ironic is that it's a version of an argument that southern slaveholders used. Chattel slavery (they avowed) made the country richer as a whole. If some people were the losers in that process, well, too bad for them. Greenspan and Wooldridge would surely have no truck with that version of history; but when it comes to more recent developments they are blind to the parallel.

In the end, Capitalism in America is what I'd call tactically convincing. Its final argument--in favor of "creative destruction" (a cliche that the book rather overuses), and against the growth in entitlements and regulation--is well put, and well-supported by facts. I'm not unsympathetic. It's easy to close the book thinking, "well, that makes sense." But I've read other books that take the same facts, put a different slant on them, and evoke the same reaction towards a quite different set of policies. It's worth reading, but not worth accepting uncritically.

One of the best books on finance out there is Liaquat Ahamed's The Lords of Finance, focusing specifically on the role of central bankers and the gold standard in bringing on the Great Depression. Broader, and also excellent, is Nicholas Wapshott's Keynes/Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics.

Also, G&W refer several times to Richard White's The Republic for Which It Stands. I didn't like the latter book much, but I have to say that future historians could be pardoned for thinking that it was describing a completely different country than the one in Capitalism in America

Friday, December 28, 2018

Book Review: Jeeves and the King of Clubs

Jeeves and the King of Clubs
Ben Schott


Now that we've got the Surgeon General's Warning out of the way, I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by Jeeves and the King of Clubs. The author seems to have approached it in a suitably chastened spirit: "nothing can cap perfection," he notes in an afterword. Certainly it's a big improvement on Sebastian Faulks's Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, in which Wooster, B. actually ends up (God help us) engaged.

Not that Jeeves and the King of Clubs is entirely free from innovation. This is the curse of the pasticheur (as I have occasion to know). Imitate slavishly, and you end up with something that's at best dull and uninspired. Stray too far from the template, and the justified wrath of the true believers pours down upon you. In this case, Schott inserts Bertram Wooster into an actual, not-entirely-silly spy plot--one that's occasioned, not by the blundering of his chums, nor by the machinations of his family, but by what might loosely be called the real world.

It's not all that much of a plot, mind you. Nonetheless, it's a departure. Classically, Bertie is motivated by nothing more than his own desire to be a decent chap, aid his undeserving compatriots, stay out of trouble, and not get married. The plot obstacles that occur are of a social nature, no more. Placing him--however gingerly!--into a situation with politics and secret messages and consequences is . . . a little different. It not only features Bertie being almost competent at something; at one point he is right when Jeeves is wrong. Great Scott!

In matters such as this, I'm generally a purist. I liked Jeeves and the King of Clubs pretty well, all the same. There's a little tip of the hat to Lord Peter Wimsey--nicely meta, that man--and an informative section of notes, which will however confuse you if you don't know that Wodehouse's nickname was "Plum". The language is quite good (a sine qua non), and the secondary characters entirely consistent with the Wodehouseian oeuvre. It helps, too, to remember that Wodehouse himself adored detective stories

Put another way, Jeeves and the King of Clubs was good enough that I'd read a sequel. As pastiches go, that's high praise.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Book Review: Forever and a Day

Forever and a Day
Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz is one of the better mystery writers working today, so I was mildly curious to see what he could do with the James Bond form. Forever and a Day is in the continuity of the written Bond, not the filmic one, and the written Bond is a more interesting character altogether. (Also, it's a good James Bond title.)

Well . . . it's not bad. It's not especially memorable, though. As an origin story for 007, it has the problem that Daniel Craig's movie version of Casino Royale does the same thing, only better. Often it puts Bond in a curiously passive role, with his love interest Sixtine taking the initiative.. The construction is a bit loose: there's a scene where Bond and Sixtine reconnoiter the enemy base, for example, for no reason whatsoever. And the big reveal--while it really does read like something Ian Fleming might have used around 1960--isn't all that shocking to a modern reader. Even Bond's character is underdeveloped.

On the other hand, the writing is smooth, the scene is alluring, the villain is very good in a very Bondian fashion, and the final chapter is outstanding. Forever and a Day isn't a book for everyone, but there are many worse ways to pass an afternoon.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Book Review: Race to Hawaii

Race to Hawaii: The Dole Air Derby and the Thrilling First Flights That Opened the Pacific
James Ryan
History, aeronautics

This isn't a bad book. The subject matter is interesting, and the writing is clear (if rather simple). On the down side, Ryan is too digressive; perhaps it's an attempt to give context to the air madness of 1920s, but if so it's too unfocused and too anecdotal. The picture of just how big a deal this all was gets presented very effectively--tens of thousands of people showed up just to watch the airplanes take off. The significance of these events in the larger history of air travel and technology isn't. 

What does come through is the absolute star-struck passion that the early aviators had. It's no wonder that primordial science fiction had as one of its staples the half-crazy, half-inspired rocket jockey who aims his untried craft at the moon: that's exactly what these guys were like. Their death rate was absurdly high. While they lived, though, they were touched with fire.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Book Review: In the Hurricane's Eye

In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown
Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick is an outstanding writer. This is a good book. It's not Philbrick's best work, however.

The aim of In the Hurricane's Eye is to tell the real, de-mythologized story of the Battle of Yorktown. In particular, the battle would never have taken place without the intervention of the French fleet, and it wouldn't have succeeded without French troops. None of what happened was inevitable. Philbrick does a nice job of making a narrative out of the various strange contingencies--the arguments between Washington and the French, the misjudgments on all sides, the titular hurricane, and many more--that led to the astounding result.

All the same, there are so many aspects in play here that the book is somewhat fragmented. The main story has to do with the naval strategy, and the main theme concerns just how much the Americans owed the French; but there are a great many excursions and side trips, and the story of Yorktown itself is curiously divorced from the rest of the book. Perhaps it's necessary to understand the war in the southern colonies in detail, along with Benedict Arnold, Lafayette, the siege of New York, and so forth, in order to fully understand Yorktown. Yet in a narrative history, the narrative has to be king.

Don't get me wrong. I read this book in a couple of gulps, enjoyed it, and will be back for more. It's a good read for anyone with a basic grounding in the facts of the American Revolution. If it's a little undirected at times, that at least accurately reflects the confusions and concerns of Washington and his contemporaries.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

"Holmes on the Range" RETURNS!

It's no secret that I like Steve Hockensmith's writing. Heck, I shamelessly ripped off lovingly borrowed his main characters.

Now, after a long hiatus, they're officially back. The Double-A Western Detective Agency is on Amazon even as we speak. Short summary: I liked it a lot, and not just because I had the chance to see an early draft of the manuscript. This is an actual Adventure, with quick pacing and a good deal of action. There's a nice intertwining of multiple plot threads at the denouement, too. There's even an honest-to-God theme about going it alone vs. relying on others.

If you liked the prior books in the series, you'll like this one.