Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The United States of Paranoia, by Jesse Walker

I recently finished Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. It is, despite its entirely unnecessary subtitle, an phenomenal book. It provides an historical account of conspiratorial thinking in America, mixed with an insightful analysis of the patterns and ur-myths that form the groundwork of modern conspiracy theories.

I should say that I am probably the ideal audience for this book. I’ve been fascinated by conspiracy theories for as long as I can remember, being in my youth an obsessive X-Files fan1, as well as a fan of the work of Robert Anton Wilson, Umberto Eco, Steve Jackson, Rev. Ivan Stang, and anyone else who co-opted the conspiratorial worldview in their art. I have been, at times, nearly obsessed with what Jesse Walker refers to as the “ironic style” of conspiracy theories. This is the use of conspiracy as a central tenet for art or play, best seen in the Church of the Subgenius, Discordianism, and the games of Steve Jackson.

But I was happy to find that Walker’s account of conspiracy theories in America went well beyond kooks and jokers and focused instead on instances in which conspiracies played major roles in the course of history. His examination of the role of conspiracy theories in both sides of the run up to the civil war was particularly interesting, with both sides fearing similar secret machinations, but with inverted hidden powers. The South feared agitation and back-room dealings by a cadre of abolitionists, while the North held a terror of a great cabal known generally as the Slave Power.

The book is remarkably well-written and researched, and Walker has a clear love for his topic. The author is a surprisingly fair judge, giving even-handed, almost sympathetic, accounts of various hysterias through the ages, starting with the first European colonists to American shores. Despite his commendable neutrality, Walker is a very engaging stylist, giving wry glimpses of the stories of conspiracies he explores, spinning them as compelling yarns, which helps convey a bit of their persuasive power.

The United States of Paranoia is an excellent book, and highly recommended for any reader, even those less intrigued than I with the conspiratorial obsession of their fellow human beings.


1 To my slight shame, I remember meeting William B Davis (“Cancer Man”) at an event in Richland much more clearly than I do the Middle School friend with whom I attended the event.

Sing the Praises of Your Devourer

Eric Naiman, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, pens an account of the greatest literary detective story in years. I won’t spoil the story for you, because it really is a delightful tale of deception, and Naiman tells it wonderfully. But suffice it to say that academia is not as free from perfidy as some people might want to believe. And I hope that the sad, small villain at the center of the tale understands the mastery with which Naiman dissects his work and lays it bare across the pages the TLS.

A quote to whet your appetite for the mystery:

“Late in 2011, Michiko Kakutani opened her New York Times review of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens with “a remarkable account” she had found in its pages. In London for a few days in 1862, Fyodor Dostoevsky had dropped in on Dickens’s editorial offices and found the writer in an expansive mood. …

I have been teaching courses on Dostoevsky for over two decades, but I had never come across any mention of this encounter. Although Dostoevsky is known to have visited London for a week in 1862, neither his published letters nor any of the numerous biographies contain any hint of such a meeting. Dostoevsky would have been a virtual unknown to Dickens. It isn’t clear why Dickens would have opened up to his Russian colleague in this manner, and even if he had wanted to, in what language would the two men have conversed? (It could only have been French, which should lead one to wonder about the eloquence of a remembered remark filtered through two foreign tongues.) Moreover, Dostoevsky was a prickly, often rude interlocutor. He and Turgenev hated each other. He never even met Tolstoy. Would he have sought Dickens out? Would he then have been silent about the encounter for so many years, when it would have provided such wonderful fodder for his polemical journalism?”

And so the mystery is afoot.

Beat Patrolling Seattle

I’m reading a very interesting book by Peter Hitchens about the history of modern policing in Britain. The book is called The Abolition of Liberty and it focuses primarily on the differences from early British policing in the 19th and early 20th century in contrast to the modern policing system. So far, Hitchens has identified two major inflection points in the policing in the 20th century. The first in the 1920s with the start of sweeping prison reforms, and the second in the 1960s with the move from foot patrol (so called “bobby on the beat”) policing to “unit beat” or responsive policing that increasingly put officers in cars dispatched from central stations.

The argument that I found most interesting about this second shift is that it fundamentally changed not just the mode of policing, but the purpose. Police officers went from a primarily preventative organization whose officers were tightly ingrained in the community and whose job was to deter crime in their beat area to being a reactive force more like a fire department who only showed up after crimes had already occurred.

Hitchens makes the argument (though I have a few minor quibbles with the way he reports numbers) that this was in part responsible for the increase in crime in England, and especially London, in the latter half of the 20th century. Arrest rates have risen, but so has total crime, since an important preventative stop-gap has been removed and replaced with a reactionary force that can only ever catch criminals after the fact.

Hitchens’ engrossing explanation for this shift from beat policing to more reactionary policing got me interested in the manpower requirements of the old beat policing system. I decided to try and estimate how much manpower would be required to assign one officer to every quarter square mile in the city, 24 hours a day, assuming 8 hour shifts. I picked quarter square mile beats, since I think this is about the maximum territory that a careful, observant human being can reliably patrol once every hour. This makes for a square space about a half mile or roughly six city blocks on each side.

Based on the land area of Seattle listed in Wikipedia, I came up with a manpower requirement of 1,140 patrol offices, or 160 fewer officers than the SPD currently employs. The 1,300 total officers almost certainly includes non-patrol officers who I would expect to make up the majority of the force. Of course, a main point of Hitchens’ argument is that by placing more officers out on foot or bicycle patrols, you actually need fewer officers in support or investigative roles because of the deterrent effect of having so many officers embedded in the community.

I honestly don’t know if beat policing would work in a city like Seattle. I think it would probably would better in the denser, downtown districts, and many of those are already subject to occasional patrol by officers on bicycles. I do find Hitchens’ argument that getting officers out of cars and on foot in high-traffic areas probably makes for better relations with the public and may well have a deterrent effect, but I do wonder about the scaling and efficacy of 100%, 24-hour coverage.

Still, the simple idea that there’s an officer patrolling every neighborhood would make many opportunistic criminals think twice about committing crime, and may very well reduce response times to crimes in progress.

I should note that, despite a number of high-profile instances of discriminatory policing and undue use of force the past few years, it appears that all three metrics helped by beat policing (police/public relations, crime rates, and response times) are improving, according to this Slog post from last year. The Slog also notes that SPD ” … managed to divert 19 officers to non-emergency beats like foot and bike patrols.”

If Hitchens is correct, this diversion of officers towards regular non-car patrols may have something of a sympathetic effect in which an increase of beat policing reduces crime, freeing up more officers for beat policing, further reducing crime, etc.

Matt Ridley on the Poverty of Self-Sufficiency

Just two minutes long and well worth watching. I can also highly recommend Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist.

“The officer who supervised the capture of [John] Brown was Robert E. Lee…Lee’s retreat from the decisive battle of Gettysburg would pass over the same road that Brown took to Harpers Ferry on the night of his attack. The lieutenant who demanded Brown’s surrender was J.E.B. Stuart, later Lee’s celebrated cavalry officer. Among the officers who supervised at Brown’s hanging was Thomas Jackson, soon to become the renowned ‘Stonewall.’ Among the soldiers at Brown’s execution was a dashing Southern actor, John Wilkes Booth.”

David S. Reynolds, as quoted by Christopher Hitchens in “John Brown: The Man Who Ended Slavery”

London: The Biography: The Review

I recently finished Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography. The book takes an interesting approach to the subject of London by presenting the user discrete views onto London. Each chapter turns the reader’s gaze to one aspect of the City and then follows that subject throughout London’s history. This technique gives Ackroyd a chance to not only tell tight stories about the City, but also to deftly build larger themes from smaller evidence without presumptuous declaration or relying on facts not entered into evidence.

These larger themes were for me the most interesting and most maddening part of the book. Ackroyd does an excellent job of showing the dogged persistence of City. Building and districts maintain their life and function for centuries, even as governments and even nations rise and fall around them. Districts are home to the same peoples and families for centuries. Place names of deeply obscure origin are suddenly explicated by the discovery of centuries-old artifacts. The City takes on the character of slow-tempered Mammon with near-infinite inertia. Conquest, destruction, plague, fire, and the slow crush of man’s pretensions to planning have all utterly failed to change anything about London’s basic workings. London just assimilates all these things in stride, heals its wounds in time, and goes on much as it did before.

The sociology of this phenomenon, even without Ackroyd’s pseudo-mystical psychogeography, is a fascinating subject and one that Ackroyd leaves largely unstudied. He points to this persistence of London’s life and purpose several times, but never really sits down to tease out his ideas on the subject. He instead relies on his historically longitudinal vignettes to make the case for a City of infinite will and with a body, life, and plan all its own.

When Ackroyd does stop briefly to speculate about London’s character writ large, it’s clear that he feels deeply ambivalent about the place. He’s quick to point out the armies of the poor that have occupied the city for its entire history. He seems to look down on the avarice and constant human energy of the City. He sees the city as a kind of monstrous other that eats its children and disregards anything resembling human decency. And yet, in the midst of that, he openly marvels at London’s beauty and majesty and revels in its ability to foster some of mankind’s greatest achievements and pursuits. London is a city so full of life and affirmation that even Ackroyd at his most cynical can’t help but quote Samuel Johnson’s famous line: “If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.”

And while you may never tire of London, you might tire of its Biography after five or six hundred pages. Towards the end of the book, some of the essays begin to retread territory and do get a bit shopworn and familiar. After seeing so many threads meticulously picked up, spun, laid out, and then left, I started wishing he’d take the last hundred pages or so to break from his form and at least try to tie a few of them together and to tease out some greater truths that he’d only hinted at in his many essays.

Ultimately, though, Ackroyd’s meticulous study of the many faces of London’s history is extremely valuable. Anyone who is interested in London as an entity or a historical force, or simply besotted (as I am) with the City as a place unlike any in the world, should definitely read it. Just be prepared for an army of small scenes and for Ackroyd to keep all his most important big ideas maddeningly to himself.

Interesting Argument from Deirdre McCloskey

“Milton [Friedman] argued that a society with more wealth can better pursue its transcendent goals, and more wealth is produced by maximizing profits. THat’s right, and is one crucial argument for capitalism. He further argued that a hired manager for Boeing who improves his social standing in Chicago by getting the corporation to give to the Lyric Opera is stealing money from the stockholders. That’s right, too, though there is a contrary economic argument, namely that the ability to play the noble lord with the stockholders’ money is part of executive compensation. The stockholders would have to pay the manager more in cash than they do if they insisted that he not be allowed to give away the corporation’s money to worthy causes.”

-Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues

She then goes on to note that Milton Friedman advocated maximizing value within ethical constraints, something that often gets missed by his detractors.

P. J. O’Rourke is the Man

I haven’t had a chance to read P. J. O’Rourke’s new book, but I did stumble across this amazing interview he did for Wanderlust. They talk about his excellent book Holidays in Hell and compare it with his newly released sequel to it, Holidays in Heck. My favorite bit from the interview:

I was up on the Pakistan frontier, trying to get into Afghanistan as the Russians were being kicked out of there in 1989. And the best informed person I ran into was, of all things, a Christian missionary. He’d had fuck-all success converting anyone, but he had actually met the Taliban. As with many pious people the Taliban had respect for other religious people. They have a certain respect for other people of the Book. What they really hate are atheists.

Anyway, this missionary had a really nice relationship with the Taliban and at one point, in the chaos, he had to leave his warehouse full of food. The Taliban took it over and were launching anti-aircraft missiles from his warehouse. When he managed to get back to Kabul, the Taliban took him back to his warehouse and proudly showed him that they hadn’t touched any of his food. There’s rice and sugar and so on and in the month or so he’s been gone they have not touched this.

“Everything is here as you left it,” they said.

He pointed to the missile launcher and said “I don’t remember leaving that here.”

“No, no, no, that’s us. But we have not touched any of your food.”

“Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.”

From the wonderful Letters of Note blog comes this brilliant missive from H. L. Mencken. I idolize Mencken and think he was one of the best writers the English language has ever had. His lucidity and enchanting way with language far surpass any writer who has lived since.

This letter, sent to the abstract painter Charles Green Shaw, is a scattered list of seemingly haphazard observations. It bares reading in its entirety, but below is an excerpt from the transcription provided by Letters of Note:

10. I believe in marriage, and have whooped it up for years. It is the best solution, not only of the sex question, but also of the living question. I mean for the normal man. My own life has been too irregular for it: I have been to much engrossed in other things. But any plausible gal who really made up her mind to it could probably fetch me, even today. If I ever marry, it will be on a sudden impulse, as a man shoots himself. I’ll regret it bitterly for about a month, and then settle down contentedly.

11. I believe in and advocate monogamy. Adultery is hitting below the belt. If I ever married the very fact that the woman was my wife would be sufficient to convince me that she was superior to all other women. My vanity is excessive. Wherever I sit is the head of the table. This fact makes me careless of ordinary politeness. I don’t like to be made much of. Such things please only persons who are doubtful about their position. I was sure of mine, such as it is, at the age of 12.

12. Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.

13. I usually lie to women. They expect it, and it is pleasant to watch them trying to detect it. They seldom succeed. Women have a hard time in this world. Telling them the truth would be too cruel.

14. I am completely devoid of religious feeling. All religions seem ridiculous to me, and in bad taste. I do not believe in the immortality of the soul, nor in the soul. Ecclesiastics seem to me to be simply men who get their livings by false pretenses. Like all rogues, they are occasionally very amusing.

I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing. It is well worth your time and attention.

Two Short Book Reviews

Sorry for the light posting lately. I spent most of the past two weeks preparing for a job interview at work. (I’m applying for a more coding-heavy role.) The interview was a few days ago and I haven’t heard back yet, but now I’m getting caught up on all the stuff I didn’t do while I was plowing through pages and pages of practice questions.

In prepping for the interview, I picked up a couple of new texts to help me sharpen my skills. I wanted to say a few words about two of them.

The first is Cracking the Coding Interview by Gayle Laakmann McDowell. The book is a collection of 150 programming questions, with solutions provided. It also feature brief, high-level overviews of major areas of knowledge. The questions themselves are excellent, but the provided solutions can be hit or miss. Most include sample code which appears to be correct, but the descriptions of their solutions can sometimes be vague and hard to follow.

I was also unimpressed with the overview at the beginning of each chapter. They tend to be too shallow to be very useful, and I found a few technical mistakes in them. (E.g., the book asserts that a full and complete binary tree will have 2n nodes. This is wrong. A full and complete binary tree will have a number of nodes that is one less than a power of two. To be more specific, it will have 2h+1-1 nodes, where h is the height of the tree.)

All in all, if you’re prepping for an interview, this will be a handy book to have for the list of excellent coding questions it provides. I would recommend looking around for a used copy at a reasonable price.

The second book I wanted to comment on is Algorithms by Robert Sedgewick and Kevin Wayne. The Sedgewick and Wayne Algorithms book is one of The Texts in algorithms, and it largely lives up to its reputation. It’s well organized, clearly written, and has excellent explanations and samples. It also has an excellent website that includes all the sample code from the book as well as notes and other resources.

Unfortunately, it too had some noticeable mistakes. The authors of this text, however, have taken the laudable step of making all the known errors available on the book’s site. This allows you to double check code that doesn’t appear correct or which doesn’t behave correctly when you run it.

I highly recommend this book. It’s a fantastic resource programmers of any level. For my purposes it served as a fantastic study text, but it would also be an invaluable reference resource or learning text as well.

One note: I got the Kindle edition of the book, and while the publisher did an awesome job with it, it’s probably worth it to get a physical copy. If for no other reason than it lets you pencil in the corrections to the mistakes listed on the book’s web site. That being said, I seriously doubt you’ll regret getting the Kindle edition.


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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.