2008  

January 2008

Buckley, Christopher. No Way to Treat a First Lady. New York: Random House, 2002. ISBN 978-0-375-75875-1.
First Lady Beth MacMann knew she was in for a really bad day when she awakened to find her philandering war hero presidential husband dead in bed beside her, with the hallmark of the Paul Revere silver spittoon she'd hurled at him the night before as he'd returned from an assignation in the Lincoln Bedroom “etched, etched” upon his forehead. Before long, Beth finds herself charged with assassinating the President of the United States, and before the spectacle a breathless media are pitching as the “Trial of the Millennium” even begins, nearly convicted in the court of public opinion, with the tabloids referring to her as “Lady Bethmac”.

Enter superstar trial lawyer and fiancé Beth dumped in law school Boyce “Shameless” Baylor who, without the benefit of a courtroom dream team, mounts a defence involving “a conspiracy so vast…” that the world sits on the edge of its seats to see what will happen next. What happens next, and then, and later, and still later is side-splittingly funny even by Buckley's high standards, perhaps the most hilarious yarn ever spun around a capital murder trial. As in many of Buckley's novels, everything works out for the best (except, perhaps, for the deceased commander in chief, but he's not talking), and yet none of the characters is admirable in any way—welcome to Washington D.C.! Barbs at legacy media figures and celebrities abound, and Dan Rather's inane folksiness comes in for delicious parody on the eve of the ignominious end of his career. This is satire at its most wicked, one of the funniest of Buckley's novels I've read (Florence of Arabia [March 2006] is comparable, but a very different kind of story). This may be the last Washington farce of the “holiday from history” epoch—the author completed the acknowledgements page on September 9th, 2001.

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Rex and Sparky [Garden, Joe et al.]. The Dangerous Book for Dogs. New York: Villard, 2007. ISBN 978-0-345-50370-1.
The Dangerous Book for Boys is all well and good, but what about a boy's inseparable companion in adventures great and small? This book comes to the rescue, with essential tips for the pooch who wants to experience their canine inheritance to the fullest. Packed cover to cover with practical advice on begging, swimming, picking a pill out of a ball of peanut butter, and treeing a raccoon; stories of heroic and resourceful dogs in history, from Mikmik the sabre-toothed sled dog who led the first humans to North America across the Bering Strait land bridge, to Pepper, the celebrated two-year-old Corgi who with her wits, snout, and stubby legs singlehandedly thwarted a vile conspiracy between the Sun and a rogue toaster to interfere with her nap; tips on dealing with tribulations of life such as cats, squirrels, baths, and dinner parties; and formal rules for timeless games such as “Fetch”. Given the proclivities of the species, there is a great deal more about poop here than in the books for boys and girls. I must take exception to the remarks on canine auditory performance on p. 105; dogs have superb hearing and perceive sounds well above the frequency range to which humans respond, but I've yet to meet the pooch able to hear “50,000 kHz”. Silent dog whistles notwithstanding, even the sharpest-eared cur doesn't pick up the six metre band!

Dogs who master the skills taught here will want to download the merit badges from the book's Web site and display them proudly on their collars. Dog owners (or, for those living in the moonbat caves of western North America, “guardians”) who find their pet doesn't get as much out of this book as they'd hoped may wish to consult my forthcoming monograph Why Rover Can't Read.

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Pratchett, Terry. Making Money. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-116164-3.
Who'd have imagined that fractional reserve banking, fiat currency, and macroeconometric modelling could be so funny? When Lord Vetinari, tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, decides the economy needs more juice than the stodgy plutocrat-run banks provide, he immediately identifies the ideal curriculum vitæ of a central banker: confidence man, showman, and all-purpose crook. (In our world, mumbling and unparsable prose seem additional job requirements, but things are simpler on Discworld.)

Fortunately, the man for the job is right at hand when the hereditary chief of the Royal Bank goes to her reward: Moist von Lipwig, triumphant in turning around the Post Office in Going Postal, is persuaded (Lord Vetinari can be very persuasive, especially to civil servants he has already once hanged by the neck) to take the second-in-command position at the Bank, the Chairman's office having been assumed by Mr. Fusspot, a small dog who lives in the in-box on Lipwig's desk.

Moist soon finds himself introducing paper money, coping with problems in the gold vault, dealing with a model of the economy which may be more than a model (giving an entirely new meaning to “liquidity”), fending off a run on the bank, summoning the dead to gain control of a super-weapon, and finding a store of value which is better than gold. If you aren't into economics, this is a terrific Discworld novel; if you are, it's delightful on a deeper level.

The “Glooper” in the basement of the bank is based upon economist William Phillips's MONIAC hydraulic economic computer, of which a dozen or more were built. There is no evidence that fiddling with Phillips's device was able to influence the economy which it modelled, but perhaps this is because Phillips never had an assistant named “Igor”.

If you're new to Terry Pratchett and don't know where to start, here's a handy chart (home page and other language translations) which shows the main threads and their interconnections. Making Money does not appear in this map; it should be added to the right of Going Postal.

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Buchanan, Patrick J. Day of Reckoning. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007. ISBN 978-0-312-37696-3.
In the late 1980s, I decided to get out of the United States. Why? Because it seemed to me that for a multitude of reasons, many of which I had experienced directly as the founder of a job-creating company, resident of a state whose border the national government declined to defend, and investor who saw the macroeconomic realities piling up into an inevitable disaster, that the U.S. was going down, and I preferred to spend the remainder of my life somewhere which wasn't.

In 1992, the year I moved to Switzerland, Pat Buchanan mounted an insurgent challenge to George H. W. Bush for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency, gaining more than three million primary votes. His platform featured protectionism, immigration restriction, and rolling back the cultural revolution mounted by judicial activism. I opposed most of his agenda. He lost.

This book can be seen as a retrospective on the 15 years since, and is particularly poignant to me, as it's a reality check on whether I was wise in getting out when I did. Bottom line: I've no regrets whatsoever, and I'd counsel any productive individual in the U.S. to get out as soon as possible, even though it's harder than when I made my exit.

Is the best of the free life behind us now?
Are the good times really over for good?

Merle Haggard

Well, that's the way to bet. As usual, economics trumps just about everything. Just how plausible is it that a global hegemon can continue to exert its dominance when its economy is utterly dependent upon its ability to borrow two billion dollars a day from its principal rivals: China and Japan, and from these hired funds, it pumps more than three hundred billion dollars a year into the coffers of its enemies: Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran, and others to fund its addiction to petroleum?

The last chapter presents a set of policy prescriptions to reverse the imminent disasters facing the U.S. Even if these policies could be sold to an electorate in which two generations have been brainwashed by collectivist nostrums, it still seems like “too little, too late”—once you've shipped your manufacturing industries offshore and become dependent upon immigrants for knowledge workers, how precisely do you get back to first world status? Beats me.

Some will claim I am, along with the author, piling on recent headlines. I'd counsel taking a longer-term view, as I did when I decided to get out of the U.S. If you're into numbers, note the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar versus the Euro, and the price of gold and oil in U.S. dollars today, then compare them to the quotes five years hence. If the dollar has appreciated, then I'm wrong; if it's continuing its long-term slide into banana republic status, then maybe this rant wasn't as intemperate as you might have initially deemed it.

His detractors call Pat Buchanan a “paleoconservative”, but how many “progressives” publish manuscripts written in the future? The acknowledgements (p. 266) is dated October 2008, ten months after I read it, but then I'm cool with that.

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[Audiobook] Churchill, Winston S. The Birth of Britain. (Audiobook, Unabridged). London: BBC Audiobooks, [1956] 2006. ISBN 978-0-304-36389-6.
This is the first book in Churchill's sprawling four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Churchill began work on the history in the 1930s, and by the time he set it aside to go to the Admiralty in 1939, about half a million words had been delivered to his publisher. His wartime service as Prime Minister, postwar writing of the six-volume history The Second World War, and second term as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955 caused the project to be postponed repeatedly, and it wasn't until 1956–1958, when Churchill was in his 80s, that the work was published. Even sections which existed as print proofs from the 1930s were substantially revised based upon scholarship in the intervening years.

The Birth of Britain covers the period from Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 B.C. through Richard III's defeat and death at the hands of Henry Tudor's forces at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, bringing to an end both the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet dynasty. This is very much history in the “kings, battles, and dates” mould; there is little about cultural, intellectual, and technological matters—the influence of the monastic movement, the establishment and growth of universities, and the emergence of guilds barely figure at all in the narrative. But what a grand narrative it is, the work of one of the greatest masters of the language spoken by those whose history he chronicles. In accounts of early periods where original sources are scanty and it isn't necessarily easy to distinguish historical accounts from epics and legends, Churchill takes pains to note this and distinguish his own conclusions from alternative interpretations.

This audiobook is distributed in seven parts, totalling 17 hours. A print edition is available in the UK.

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Mashaal, Maurice. Bourbaki: A Secret Society of Mathematicians. Translated by Anna Pierrehumbert. Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, [2002] 2006. ISBN 978-0-8218-3967-6.
In 1934, André Weil and Henri Cartan, both young professors of mathematics at the University of Strasbourg, would frequently, when discussing the calculus courses they were teaching, deplore the textbooks available, all of which they considered antiquated and inadequate. Weil eventually suggested getting in touch with several of their fellow alumni of the École Normale Supérieure who were teaching similar courses in provincial universities around France, inviting them to collaborate on a new analysis textbook. The complete work was expected to total 1000 to 1200 pages, with the first volumes ready about six months after the project began.

Thus began one of the most flabbergasting examples of “mission creep” in human intellectual history, which set the style for much of mathematics publication and education in subsequent decades. Working collectively and publishing under the pseudonym “Nicolas Bourbaki” (after the French general in the Franco-Prussian War Charles Denis Bourbaki), the “analysis textbook” to be assembled by a small group over a few years grew into a project spanning more than six decades and ten books, most of multiple volumes, totalling more than seven thousand pages, systematising the core of mathematics in a relentlessly abstract and austere axiomatic form. Although Bourbaki introduced new terminology, some of which has become commonplace, there is no new mathematics in the work: it is a presentation of pre-existing mathematical work as a pedagogical tool and toolbox for research mathematicians. (This is not to say that the participants in the Bourbaki project did not do original work—in fact, they were among the leaders in mathematical research in their respective generations. But their work on the Bourbaki opus was a codification and grand unification of the disparate branches of mathematics into a coherent whole. In fact, so important was the idea that mathematics was a unified tree rooted in set theory that the Bourbaki group always used the word mathématique, not mathématiques.)

Criticisms of the Bourbaki approach were many: it was too abstract, emphasised structure over the content which motivated it, neglected foundational topics such as mathematical logic, excluded anything tainted with the possibility of application (including probability, automata theory, and combinatorics), and took an eccentric approach to integration, disdaining the Lebesgue integral. These criticisms are described in detail, with both sides fairly presented. While Bourbaki participants had no ambitions to reform secondary school mathematics education, it is certainly true that academics steeped in the Bourbaki approach played a part in the disastrous “New Math” episode, which is described in chapter 10.

The book is extravagantly illustrated, and has numerous boxes and marginal notes which describe details, concepts, and the dramatis personæ in this intricate story. An appendix provides English translations of documents which appear in French in the main text. There is no index.

La version franšaise reste disponible.

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[Audiobook] Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audiobooks, [1942, 1959, 1961] 2006. ISBN 978-0-7861-7279-5.
If you're looking for devilishly ironic satire, why not go right to the source? C. S. Lewis's classic is in the form of a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon in the “lowerarchy” of Hell, to his nephew Wormwood, a novice tempter on his first assignment on Earth: charged with securing the soul of an ordinary Englishman in the early days of World War II. Not only are the letters wryly funny, there is a great deal of wisdom and insight into the human condition and how the little irritations of life can present a greater temptation to flawed humans than extravagant sins. Also included in this audiobook is the 1959 essay “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, which is quite different in nature: Lewis directly attacks egalitarianism, dumbing-down of education, and destruction of the middle class by the welfare state as making the tempter's task much easier (the original letters were almost entirely apolitical), plus the preface Lewis wrote for a new edition of Screwtape in 1961, in which he says the book almost wrote itself, but that he found the process of getting into Screwtape's head very unpleasant indeed.

The book is read by Ralph Cosham, who adopts a dry, largely uninflected tone which is appropriate for the ironic nature of the text. This audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 3 hours and 36 minutes. Audio CD and print editions are also available.

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Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51184-1.
This is a book which has been sorely needed for a long, long time, and the author has done a masterful job of identifying, disentangling, and dismantling the mountain of disinformation and obfuscation which has poisoned so much of the political discourse of the last half century.

As early as 1946, George Orwell observed in his essay “Politics and the English Language” that “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’”. This situation has only worsened in the succeeding decades, and finally we have here a book which thoroughly documents the origins of fascism as a leftist, collectivist ideology, grounded in Rousseau's (typically mistaken and pernicious) notion of the “general will”, and the direct descendant of the God-state first incarnated in the French Revolution and manifested in the Terror.

I'd have structured this book somewhat differently, but then when you've spent the last fifteen years not far from the French border, you may adopt a more top-down rationalist view of things; call it “geographical hazard”. There is a great deal of discussion here about the definitions and boundaries among the categories “progressive”, “fascist”, “Nazi”, “socialist”, “communist”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “reactionary”, “social Darwinist”, and others, but it seems to me there's a top-level taxonomic divide which sorts out much of the confusion: collectivism versus individualism. Collectivists—socialists, communists, fascists—believe the individual to be subordinate to the state and subject to its will and collective goals, while individualists believe the state, to the limited extent it exists, is legitimate only as it protects the rights of the sovereign citizens who delegate to it their common defence and provision of public goods.

The whole question of what constitutes conservatism is ill-defined until we get to the Afterword where, on p. 403, there is a beautiful definition which would far better have appeared in the Introduction: that conservatism consists in conserving what is, and that consequently conservatives in different societies may have nothing whatsoever in common among what they wish to conserve. The fact that conservatives in the United States wish to conserve “private property, free markets, individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and the rights of communities to determine for themselves how they will live within these guidelines” in no way identifies them with conservatives in other societies bent on conserving monarchy, a class system, or a discredited collectivist regime.

Although this is a popular work, the historical scholarship is thorough and impressive: there are 54 pages of endnotes and an excellent index. Readers accustomed to the author's flamboyant humorous style from his writings on National Review Online will find this a much more subdued read, appropriate to the serious subject matter.

Perhaps the most important message of this book is that, while collectivists hurl imprecations of “fascist” or “Nazi” at defenders of individual liberty, it is the latter who have carefully examined the pedigree of their beliefs and renounced those tainted by racism, authoritarianism, or other nostrums accepted uncritically in the past. Meanwhile, the self-described progressives (well, yes, but progress toward what?) have yet to subject their own intellectual heritage to a similar scrutiny. If and when they do so, they'll discover that both Mussolini's Fascist and Hitler's Nazi parties were considered movements of the left by almost all of their contemporaries before Stalin deemed them “right wing”. (But then Stalin called everybody who opposed him “right wing”, even Trotsky.) Woodrow Wilson's World War I socialism was, in many ways, the prototype of fascist governance and a major inspiration of the New Deal and Great Society. Admiration for Mussolini in the United States was widespread, and H. G. Wells, the socialist's socialist and one of the most influential figures in collectivist politics in the first half of the twentieth century said in a speech at Oxford in 1932, “I am asking for a Liberal Fascisti, for enlightened Nazis.”

If you're interested in understanding the back-story of the words and concepts in the contemporary political discourse which are hurled back and forth without any of their historical context, this is a book you should read. Fortunately, lots of people seem to be doing so: it's been in the top ten on Amazon.com for the last week. My only quibble may actually be a contributor to its success: there are many references to current events, in particular the 2008 electoral campaign for the U.S. presidency; these will cause the book to be dated when the page is turned on these ephemeral events, and it shouldn't be—the historical message is essential to anybody who wishes to decode the language and subtexts of today's politics, and this book should be read by those who've long forgotten the runners-up and issues of the moment.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

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