Posted on October 14, 2013 by Steve

The sequel to the 2005 hit is just what you would expect: more casual, sometimes cheesy, and invariably fascinating explorations into human (and, in the epilogue, capuchin) behavior. Levitt and Dubner deserve credit for popularizing the notion that economics is not all pie charts and interest rates. Here you will find a (meticulously researched) price list for prostitution services in Chicago, an analysis of the risks of drunk walking (with the intentionally scandalizing conclusion that driving is safer, for the drunk), and a revealing reinvestigation into the murder of Kitty Genovese, showing that the psychology textbook case of the Bystander Effect was probably much exaggerated.

There are also sections on the male-female wage gap, terrorism, and climate change. These are necessarily more speculative, but still provide helpful talking points in case you run into someone who has all the answers for one of these issues. A section on talent, showing that top performers often enjoy hidden advantages such as a good birthday month or a last name starting near the beginning of the alphabet, was mostly scrapped after several books appeared on the subject, such as Outliers. (The notes indicate that the authors worked with competitive eating champion Takeru Kobayashi for this section. Other heroes mentioned in the notes but not the index: Dr. Sherwin Nuland, author of How We Die, Atlantic and Vanity Fair author William Langewiesche, and Neal Stephenson. There is also a mention of the Ellsberg Paradox and a great quote: "Facts, like jade, are not only costly to obtain but also difficult to authenticate." One ignores book notes at one's peril.)

I look forward to UltraFreakonomics. I have no objection to a disorganized collection of material, full of revealing data and great stories. One of my favorites is the crisis of equine transportation, which gets a couple pages of attention in the introduction. I first read of this in Simon, where the wonderous passage below was quoted (from H. B. Cresswell in the Architectural Review, 1958, according to The Motoring Age by Peter Thorold).

The Strand of those days...was the throbbing heart of the people's essential London...But the mud! [a euphemism] And the noise! And the smell! All these blemishes were [the] mark of [the] horse....

The whole of London's crowded wheeled traffic - which in parts of the City was at times dense beyond movement - was dependent on the horse lorry: wagon, bus, hansom and `growler', and coaches and carriages and private vehicles of all kinds, were appendages to horses...the characteristic aroma - for the nose recognized London with gay excitement - was of stables, which were commonly of three or four storeys with inclined ways zigzagging up the faces of them; [their] middens kept the cast-iron filigree chandeliers that glorified the reception rooms of upper- and lower- middle-class homes throughout London encrusted with dead flies, and, in late summer, veiled with living clouds of them.

A more assertive mark of the horse was the mud that, despite the activities of a numberous corps of red- jacketed boys who dodged among wheels and hooves with pan and brush in service to iron bins at the pavement-edge, either flooded the streets with churnings of `pea soup' that at times collected in pools over-brimming the kerbs, and at others covered the road-surface as with axle grease or bran-laden dust to the distraction of the wayfarer. In the first case, the swift-moving hansom or gig would fling sheets of such soup - where not intercepted by trousers or skirts - completely across the pavement, so that the frontages of the Strand throughout its length had an eighteen-inch plinth of mud-parge thus imposed upon it. The pea-soup condition was met by wheeled `mud-carts' each attended by two ladlers clothed as for Icelandic seas in thigh boots, oilskins collared to the chin, and sou'westers sealing in the back of the neck. Splash Ho! The foot passenger now gets the mud in his eye! The axle- grease condition was met by horse-mechanized brushes and travellers in the small hours found fire-hoses washing away residues....

Right Ho, Jeeves

Posted on October 22, 2009 by Steve

"Jeeves," I said.


"I've just been having a chat with young Tuppy, Jeeves. Did you happen to notice that he wasn't looking very roguish this morning?"

"Yes, sir. It seemed to me that Mr. Glossop's face was sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought."

"Quite. He met my cousin Angela in the larder last night, and a rather painful interview ensued."

"I am sorry, sir."

"Not half so sorry as he was. She found him closeted with a steak-and-kidney pie, and appears to have been a bit caustic about fat men who lived for food alone."

"Most disturbing, sir."

"Very. In fact, many people would say that things had gone so far between these two nothing now could bridge the chasm. A girl who could make cracks about human pythons who ate nine or ten meals a day and ought to be careful not to hurry upstairs because of the danger of apoplectic fits is a girl, many people would say, in whose heart love is dead. Wouldn't people say that, Jeeves?"

"Undeniably, sir."

"They would be wrong."

"You think so, sir?"

"I am convinced of it. I know these females. You can't go by what they say."

"You feel that Miss Angela's strictures should not be taken too much au pied de la lettre, sir?"


"In English, we should say 'literally'."

"Literally. That's exactly what I mean. You know what girls are. A tiff occurs, and they shoot their heads off. But underneath it all the old love still remains. Am I correct?"

"Quite correct, sir. The poet Scott----"

"Right ho, Jeeves."

"Very good, sir."

"And in order to bring that old love whizzing to the surface once more, all that is required is the proper treatment."

"By 'proper treatment,' sir, you mean----"

"Clever handling, Jeeves. A spot of the good old snaky work. I see what must be done to jerk my Cousin Angela back to normalcy. I'll tell you, shall I?"

"If you would be so kind, sir."

I lit a cigarette, and eyed him keenly through the smoke. He waited respectfully for me to unleash the words of wisdom. I must say for Jeeves that--till, as he is so apt to do, he starts shoving his oar in and cavilling and obstructing--he makes a very good audience. I don't know if he is actually agog, but he looks agog, and that's the great thing.

"Suppose you were strolling through the illimitable jungle, Jeeves, and happened to meet a tiger cub."

"The contingency is a remote one, sir."

"Never mind. Let us suppose it."

"Very good, sir."

"Let us now suppose that you sloshed that tiger cub, and let us suppose further that word reached its mother that it was being put upon. What would you expect the attitude of that mother to be? In what frame of mind do you consider that that tigress would approach you?"

"I should anticipate a certain show of annoyance, sir."

"And rightly. Due to what is known as the maternal instinct, what?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very good, Jeeves. We will now suppose that there has recently been some little coolness between this tiger cub and this tigress. For some days, let us say, they have not been on speaking terms. Do you think that that would make any difference to the vim with which the latter would leap to the former's aid?"

"No, sir."

"Exactly. Here, then, in brief, is my plan, Jeeves. I am going to draw my Cousin Angela aside to a secluded spot and roast Tuppy properly."

"Roast, sir?"

"Knock. Slam. Tick-off. Abuse. Denounce. I shall be very terse about Tuppy, giving it as my opinion that in all essentials he is more like a wart hog than an ex-member of a fine old English public school. What will ensue? Hearing him attacked, my Cousin Angela's womanly heart will be as sick as mud. The maternal tigress in her will awake. No matter what differences they may have had, she will remember only that he is the man she loves, and will leap to his defence. And from that to falling into his arms and burying the dead past will be but a step. How do you react to that?"

"The idea is an ingenious one, sir."

"We Woosters are ingenious, Jeeves, exceedingly ingenious."

"Yes, sir."


Posted on September 18, 2009 by Steve

  "Ah, well, I was at church that day," said Fairway, "which was a very curious thing to happen."
  "If 'twasn't my name's Simple," said the Grandfer emphatically. "I ha'n't been there to-year; and now the winter is a-coming on I won't say I shall."
  "I ha'n't been these three years," said Humphrey; "for I'm so dead sleepy of a Sunday; and 'tis so terrible far to get there; and when you do get there 'tis such a mortal poor chance that you'll be chose for up above, when so many bain't, that I bide at home and don't go at all."

Sustainable Energy - without the hot air

Posted on September 17, 2009 by Steve

In his "straight-talking book about the numbers," David J.C. MacKay provides a clear, balanced look at the possibilities of a future without carbon-based energy. He does not argue for one alternative or another (though nuclear advocates will find much to like), and repeatedly claims that the only position he espouses is that "we should have a plan that adds up." To cut through the "flood of crazy innumerate codswallop" he uses a wonderfully simple device: a stacked bar chart of average energy consumption, in consistent units of kilowatt hours per day per person. He recognizes his necessary simplifications, even calling some of his models "cartoons," but the result is an unambiguous picture of roughly where our energy is spent and how much might be generated without fossil fuel.

Chapter by chapter, he attempts to balance typical consumption with a parallel chart of theoretical alternative energy production. From the start, it is an uphill climb. A typical car driver consumes about 40 kWh per day driving. Massive wind energy infrastructure covering 10% of Britain's land area could generate half of that, 20 kWh per day per person. As a dieter finds it all too easy to consume a few more calories and hard to work them off, the consumption chart climbs ever higher while the alternative production side struggles to keep up. If you take one intercontinental jet flight each year, you consume another 30 kWh (daily average) to power the flight. ("Planes are twice as fuel-efficient as a single-occupancy car," i.e. the same, per person per mile, as a car with a driver and a passenger and worse than a vehicle with many passengers.) Solar thermal panels on every south-facing roof could provide 13 kWh per day per person. Heating, cooling, and the making and transporting of manufactured goods are significant sources of additional energy demand. With back-of-the-envelope calculations, it becomes apparent that even using all of the green energy sources to their practical maximum extent, there will be a shortage. And this is based on physical limits alone, without considering financial costs, popular acceptance, and political will.

Do we need to bother making the switch? MacKay is carefully neutral, but offers three motivations for the conversation: the finite supply of fossil fuels, energy security, and climate change. On this last one, he is sensitive to "climate-change inactivists" and merely claims that "it’s very probable that using fossil fuels changes the climate." Regardless of necessity, the practicality of many proposed energy sources should inform the dialog. Setting aside costs, the weak concentration of green energy sources means that the amount of space they require is a significant factor. A chart of renewable energy sources measured in watts generated per square meter has the sobering conclusion that "facilities have to be country-sized."

Perhaps what's most surprising and enjoyable about the book is the tone. Excusing himself from advocating any particular solution, he focuses on facts and figures, so the text is friendly, informative and not confrontational. Extensive notes provide details, and an appendix of "technical chapters" introduce equations and diagrams to expand on the cartoon models and justify estimates. There is a definite focus on Great Britain, both in the examples cited and the language. An American might well misunderstand, as I did, this sentence: "A pumped-storage chamber one kilometre below London has been mooted." The meaning becomes more clear later on, with the sentence "A 1.2GW high-voltage DC interconnector to Norway was mooted in 2003, but not built." MacKay mocks the British saying "every little helps" when used to justify pointless exercises like unplugging cell phone chargers. "A more realistic mantra is: if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little."

The graphics are also almost all excellent. The repeated stacked bar chart of energy sources is brilliantly simple, and becomes so familiar that it makes a diagram of the theoretical windfall from fusion jaw-dropping. I've seen comparisons made to Tufte, but there's an ugly chart here and there that make this an exaggeration. I did like the graphic on bird kills, though.

Best of all is the clear thinking. Again and again he exposes ridiculous claims and energy foibles:
Glendoe [hydroelectric project] has been billed as “big enough to power Glasgow.” But if we share its 180GWh per year across the population of Glasgow (616 000 people), we get only 0.8 kWh/d per person. That is just 5% of the average electricity consumption of 17 kWh/d per person. The 20-fold exaggeration is achieved by focusing on Glendoe’s peak output rather than its average, which is 5 times smaller; and by discussing “homes” rather than the total electrical power of Glasgow.
Fuelling the Hydrogen 7, the hydrogen-powered car made by BMW, requires 254 kWh per 100 km – 220% more energy than an average European car.... I know of no form of land transport whose energy consumption is worse than this hydrogen car. (The only transport methods I know that are worse are jet-skis – using about 500 kWh per 100 km – and the Earthrace biodiesel-powered speed-boat, absurdly called an eco-boat, which uses 800 kWh per 100 p-km.)

The price is right too. The complete PDF is available on the site as well as a ten-page synopsis.

The Unthinkable

Posted on September 08, 2009 by Steve

How would you behave in a disaster? Do you have what it takes to survive a life-threatening situation? Amanda Ripley provides some surprising clues in The Unthinkable.

First of all, you probably wouldn't panic. Most people don't, contrary to common expectation and typical media coverage of disasters. Instead, they often freeze, struggling to comprehend and rationalize an abnormal situation, reluctant to recognize the risk. Survivors who left the doomed World Trace Center reported waiting an average of six minutes before heading downstairs. One, Elia Zedeño, described walking in circles in her workspace looking for something to bring, finally grabbing a mystery novel. At the Beverly Hills Supper Club, where 165 people died in a 1977 fire, six victims were found seated around a dinner table. One man took the time to order a rum and Coke to go.

Even when people start trying to escape danger, rushing and hysteria are rare. People are more courteous than usual, helping strangers and waiting for one another. They form groups, look for a leader, and resist discord. Stories of strangely normal behavior on the Titanic were not exceptional -- a survivor from the Estonia reported that many people did nothing to save themselves.

The best way to improve your odds of surviving a disaster is by advance preparation. Anticipate that your brain won't be as reliable when your life is on the line. In the words of a wartime bomber pilot, "When you walk across the ramp to your airplane, you lose half your IQ." Have a plan, and know where stairways and emergency exits are. It's no surprise that people with military experience, trained to move quickly in response to sudden adversity, are better survivors.

One curiosity in the book is a line of thought I've seen elsewhere -- an interest in finding an evolutionary explanation for a behavior that does not enhance one's survival, heroism in this case. Despite great risk to themselves and having no family members at risk, Walter Bailey repeatedly entered a burning building, Roger Olian braved the freezing Potomac, and Rick Rescorla marched back up into a flaming skyscraper. Pundits suggest that there is a hidden self-interest at work, that the risk-takers hope to benefit from being perceived as heroes. Olian, in typical heroic fasion, denied that he did anything special, just that he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he had done nothing. As for benefit, he got hypothermia, then had to retrieve his towed truck from a D.C. impound lot the next day, paying for it with bills that were still wet in his wallet. Isn't it simpler to suppose that we have adaptive tendencies (say, for assisting those around us) but they don't always lead to adaptive behavior? No one seems determined to find an evolutionary explanation for other relatively rare behaviors that diminish one's chances of reproducing, like suicide, cellibacy, hang-gliding, or homosexuality.

Ripley presents a condensed version of her subject in a Top 10 list, and in a recent article reiterates the need to prepare and equip the real first responders to emergenices: regular people.


Posted on March 21, 2009 by Steve

Most everyone likes music, which leaves neurologists like Oliver Sacks perplexed. The enjoyment of music doesn't obviously confer any survival or health benefits, at least not like other popular activities such as sports, dining, the pursuit of wealth, or social interaction. One theory is that something about music simply appeals to whatever it is that makes us intelligent beings. So much the better.

For some, however, music can be maddening. Dr. Sacks describes some extreme cases of people suffering from "earworms" -- unending repetitions of a song or jingle. Others, especially those who have moved to extremely quiet environments, may be disturbed by musical hallucinations. Then there are those who suffer from tinnitus, the perceived ringing or buzzing in the ears that can drown out sounds in the real world. Beethoven suffered tinnitus before losing all hearing, and Schumann was tormented by "a single, 'terrible' note, an A, which played ceaselessly day and night, with unbearable intensity" at the end of his life.

Sacks also discusses absolute (or "perfect") pitch, the ability by which some people can recognize and name a tone, such as B-flat, without using any external reference. This rare trait occurs more frequently among those exposed widely to music as children and to speakers of tonal languages. It can be an advantage to musicians, but can also make them uncomfortable hearing familiar pieces which have been transposed to a different key.

An interesting question is why all of us don't have absolute pitch. To someone capable of naming any note, the inability to do so seems bizarre. One such person, Diana Deutsch, puts it this way:
Suppose you showed someone a red object and asked him to name the color. And suppose he answered, "I can recognize the color, and I can discriminate it from other colors, but I just can't name it." Then you juxtaposed a blue object and named its color, and he responded, "OK, since the second color is blue, the first one must be red." ... When I hear a musical note and identify its pitch, much more happens than simply placing its pitch on a point (or in a region) along a continuum. Suppose I hear an F-sharp sounded on the piano. I obtain sense of familiarity for "F-sharpness" -- like the sense one gets when one recognizes a familiar face.

In this second edition, Sacks has added a few chapter postscripts and many footnotes. These tiny asides are often annoying in books, but they're also frequently the source of the best material. This book was no exception; here's an example:
The tritone -- an augmented fourth (or, in jazz parlance, a flatted fifth) -- is a difficult interval to sing and has often been regarded as having an ugly, uncanny, or even diabolical quality. Its use was forbidden in early ecclesiastical music, and early theorists called it diabolus in musica ("the devil in music"). But Tartini used it, for this very reason, in his Devil's Trill Sonata for violin. (And, as Steve Salemson reminds me, "Leonard Bernstein used the 'devil in music' most effectively and repeatedly in his song "Maria" from West Side Story.)"

Though the raw tritone sounds so harsh, it is easily filled out with another tritone to form a dimished seventh chord. And this, the Oxford Companion to Music notes, "has a luscious effect.... The chord is indeed the most Protean in all harmony. In England the nickname has been given it of 'The Clapham Junction of Harmony' -- from a railway station in London where so many lines join that once arrived there one can take a train for almost anywhere else." (p. 132)

The most poignant case described in the book is undoubtably that of Clive Wearing, who was stricken with severe amnesia after a brain infection, and now suffers from what has been called "Memento Syndrome." Unable to form new memories or recognize most people around him, he spent years in confusion, relieved only by visits from his wife, whom he greets as if for the first time in ages every time he sees her. After some time, his wife was astounded to discover that, not only could he still read and perform music, but he completely returned to his calm, relaxed former self when engaged in musical performance. The Radiolab episode on "Memory and Forgetting" includes dialog with Dr. Sacks and recorded excerpts from a documentary on Wearing. Sacks also told Wearing's story quite well for the New Yorker.

While I remain as ignorant of music theory as ever, I have a new appreciation for the richness music brings to life. I even started listening to the CDs that have been sitting neglected on the shelf for years, and may even get around to reviewing some one of these days.

Galileo's Daughter

Posted on March 01, 2009 by Steve

The heavier cannonball fell faster.

This was the first of several corrections made to the legend of Galileo provided by Dava Sobel's engaging biography. Another assumption was that Galileo was an irreligious scientist, forced to recant his ideas by an adversarial Catholic Church. In fact, he was quite devout, and in old age and ill health would request a reprieve from house arrest to attend mass. He was aware from the start that his ideas were contrary to official doctrine, and carefully described his forceful published arguments for heliocentrism as mere theories, subservient to revealed wisdom, as if to demonstrate that good Catholics could understand heretical ideas as well as any Protestant. Meanwhile, he maintained private correspondence with non-Catholics who had embraced the Copernican revolution, and would ultimately turn to such friends outside Italy to publish his last work, Two New Sciences.

The arrival of Pope Urban VIII in 1623 seemed to bode well for Galileo, who was on good terms with the fellow Florentine and judged him a friend of the sciences. Galileo took no chances, however, and had his potentially incendiary Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems approved by Inquisition officials in both Rome and Florence. No matter, he was called down to Rome to face prosecution in 1633, basically on a technicality. The authorities had dug up the minutes of a 1616 meeting in which Galileo had been warned not to "in any way hold, teach, or defend [the Copernican theory] by word or in writing." For his part, Galileo had abided by the public edict of 1616, which censured Copernicus' book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and named his ideas "false and contrary to Holy Scripture," but did not prohibit considering them hypothetically. The investigation dragged on, and Galileo was advised by a sympathetic official, Father Commissary Vincenzo Maculano da Firenzuola, to disown his ideas, avoid scandal, and let the matter drop. Thus, the country's most famous scientist testified:
A long time ago, that is, before the decision of the Holy Congregation of the Index, and before I was issued that injunction, I was undecided and regarded the two opinions, those of Ptolemy and Copernicus, as disputable, because either the one or the other could be true in Nature. But after the said decision, assured by the prudence of the authorities, all my uncertainty stopped, and I held, as I still hold, as most true and indisputable, Ptolemy's opinion, namely the stability of the Earth and the motion of the Sun.
The inquisitors were not convinced, and Galileo was pronounced "vehemently suspected of heresy." He was forced to sign, and read while kneeling before the tribunal, a humiliating statement that was publicized throughout the country: "...having held and believed that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the Earth is not the center and moves....I abjure with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies...." According to legend, as Galileo stood he muttered "E pur si muove!" -- and yet it moves. The author points out that this would have been most imprudent for a man facing the death penalty.

Galileo was instead sentenced to indefinite imprisonment in the dungeons of the Holy Office. Continuous intercession by friends enabled him to serve his time first at the Tuscan embassy in Rome, and eventually in his home in Florence, though he was not allowed to publish or receive visitors. No less painfully, the Dialogue was added to the Index of Prohibited Books, and would remain banned until 1835.

In his long life of 77 years, during which he managed to avoid multiple outbreaks of bubonic plague, Galileo never married. However, he had three children with Marina Gamba of Venice, whose social station made her an unsuitable candidate for marriage. The two daughters, unmarriageable due to illegitimacy, became nuns, and the eldest would become Galileo's confidant and tireless supporter as he faced illness and trials. Quoting extensively from her letters, Sobel reveals the deep affection that united them, the despond that overcame the father at the death of his favorite daughter, and a surprise ending that is as touching as anything in a fictional love story.

Galileo's writings do not record the dropping of two balls from the Tower of Pisa; the story was first told, or invented, by one of his students after he died. The heavier ball, better able to overcome air resistance, would have dropped slightly faster. Galileo described the experiment in Two New Sciences:
Aristotle says that "an iron ball of one hundred pounds falling from a height of one hundred cubits reaches the ground before a one-pound ball has fallen a single cubit." I say that they arrive at the same time. You find, on making the experiment, that the larger outstrips the smaller by two finger-breadths, that is, when the larger has reached the ground, the other is short of it by two finger-breadths; now you would not hide behind these two fingers the ninety-nine cubits of Aristotle, nor would you mention my small error and at the same time pass over in silence his very large one.
Clearly Galileo is rightly recognized as the "father of physics," but he is also an early and inspiring example of scientific thought independent of conventional wisdom. As he wrote in his first book, The Assayer:
I say that the testimony of many has little more value than that of few, since the number of people who reason well in complicated matters is much smaller than that of those who reason badly. If reasoning were like hauling I should agree that several reasoners would be worth more than one, just as several horses can haul more sacks of grain than one can. But reasoning is like racing and not like hauling, and a single Barbary steed can outrun a hundred dray horses.

Dark Sun

Posted on January 02, 2009 by Steve

Richard Rhodes' style of writing makes history a pleasure to read. Referring to the genre as "verity" instead of "nonfiction" (he grouses that "the oboe isn't a 'nonviolin'"), his frequent use of original quotes, asides, and interesting stories make a technical history read like a thriller.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb told the story of the Manhattan Project, and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb at first seemed to be composed of leftover material. Much of the same time period was covered again, but this time with a broader scope to include the parallel effort in the Soviet Union, especially the extensive espionage that led to Joe-1, a carbon copy of the Fat Man design. Klaus Fuchs, working at Los Alamos, is well-known as a key player in the spy network, but many other colorful characters contributed to the information flow. The Lend-Lease program, which supplied war materiel to allies, inadvertently shipped hundreds of sealed black suitcases full of "diplomatic" paperwork directly to the U.S.S.R. Officer George Jordan was in charge of the staging area at Gore Field in Great Falls, Montana. One day in March 1943, the Soviet staff invited him to a restaurant and began letting the vodka flow uncharacteristically freely. After a few toasts, Jordan received a call from the field about a C-47 demanding clearance to take off. Suspicions aroused, he raced back to the aircraft, pushed past a Russian guard, and found "an expanse of black suitcases," each sealed with rope and red wax. He started slashing them open and found maps of industrial plants, naval intelligence, scientific journals, and "hundreds of photostats of what seemed to be military reports." Those suitcases were duly shipped, along with more later containing blueprints for factories and copies of hundreds of thousands of patents.

What's more, the pipeline carried material useful for atomic weapon development: exotic metals including uranium, millions of pounds of graphite used in reactors, and even a kilo of essential heavy water. Thus equipped, the Soviet atomic program tracked American progress with a lag of just a few years.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was our first serious flirtation with nuclear apocalypse, but the seeds had long been planted. Curtis LeMay, head of the Berlin Air Lift, returned to the U.S. to lead the Strategic Air Command. "Old Iron Pants," as the authoritative general was known, whipped the force into shape and eventually wrested control over most of the country's atomic arsenal. He itched to eliminate the Soviet threat before it could develop into a credible rival, and would inspire the George C. Scott character in "Dr. Strangelove" -- "Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!" This entry in the book's index is telling:
LeMay, Curtis, use of atomic bombs urged by, 437, 438-40, 449, 454, 560, 563-64, 574-575, 576

In the early days before locks on warheads, LeMay had the capacity, if not authority, to launch an atomic attack if he deemed leadership in Washington incapable or incommunicado. When Soviets installed missiles in Cuba to counter American weapons in Turkey, he had his opportunity. While Kennedy and Khrushchev waged a war of telegrams, LeMay initiated a series of provocative gestures. Scrambled bombers flew beyond their customary turnaround points, one U-2 even strayed into Soviet airspace. When the SAC security level went to DefCon 2 (bringing the number of online nuclear weapons to 2,952), a radio message was broadcast in the clear announcing the alert and instructing wings to "review your plans for further action..." An Atlas ICBM was launched westward from Vandenberg Air Force Base according to a previously established test schedule which the SAC declined to postpone.

Somehow cooler heads prevailed and catastrophe was averted. LeMay was furious, claiming that "We lost!" Amazingly, when Kennedy had asked him how the Soviets would respond to the full attack on Cuba that he advocated, LeMay "assured him that there would be no reaction." While there have been other close calls since, this was likely as near as we have ever been to global thermonuclear war.

Somewhat reassuringly, Rhodes argues that no national leader could risk the damage, both political and retributive, that an atomic attack would invite. Somewhat less convincingly, he doubts that any nation would allow outlaws to develop atomic weapons within its borders. The somewhat surprising reality that atomic weapons have not been used since World War II gives some reason to hope.

Selling It

Posted on October 24, 2008 by Steve

Here's a NYT book review.

As a publisher, how do you get the most bang out of this copy? Put these excerpts on the back cover:
"An exciting spy story, which is at the same time a lively international comedy ... A well-informed, up-to-the-minute political parable, incisive and instructive ... rich ... poignant ... fascinating."

After reading the book, I suggest excerpts more along these lines:
"Portentous ... rather wooden ... Mr. le Carré is less good at portraying ... professional spies ... A sham and a mess ... distressing ... horse manure ... inherently pointless."

"Selling It" borrowed from the entertaining feature from Consumer Reports.

Reading Lolita on the run

Posted on September 16, 2008 by Steve

After efforts to synchronize a read-by-e-mail group session around Notes From Underground came to naught, I nudged some friends toward Nabokov's infamous book. I was myself encouraged by Tony, who assured me that the book was not on the All Time Greatest lists for nothing.

Indeed, the book was not at all what I expected. I was among the readers who assumed that this was a "lewd book." The subject, of course, is discomfiting, to say the least. But one soon falls under the trance of the narrator's hypnotizing prose and forgets to despise him. And Humbert Humbert wallows so in his abject wretchedness that it's hard not to feel sorry for him.

It didn't hurt that my book was an audio performance by Jeremy Irons, proven by mathematical formula to have the perfect voice. (Here's a sample of the delicious mellifluousness.) This meant that I had to "read" the book while driving, but these uninterrupted half-hour blocks of literature made even commuting enjoyable.

As for the story, well, it's a bit of a sideshow. Almost slapstick at times (inconvenient character, meet speeding truck), it's not really enough to go on -- a licentious road trip, a shadowy rival. If fancy verbiage is not your thing, I doubt you'll make it through. I felt my interest begin to flag at least once, during an overlong appreciation of Lo's tennis technique, complete with a distracted aside caused by a passing butterfly.

But there's more than enough fancy verbiage to keep a fan of language entertained. I frequently had to back up the CD, sometimes to catch something I missed, more often to absorb in amazement a bit of prose. There are plenty of foreign inclusions, mostly in French, and one multilingual mouthful that defied recognition:
Seva ascendes, pulsata, brulans, kizelans, dementissima. Elevator clatterans, pausa, clatterans, populus in corridoro. Hanc nisi mors mihi adimet nemo! Juncea puellula, jo pensavo fondissime, nobserva nihil quidquam.

This was translated in Alfred Appel's Annotated Lolita:
The sap ascendeth, pulsates, burning, itching, most insane, elevator clattering, pausing, clattering, people in the corridor. No one but death would take this one [Lolita] away from me! Slender little girl, I thought most fondly, observing nothing at all.

It wasn't until I finished Lolita and moved on to one of Graham Greene's standards that I realized what a step down I'd taken. Compared to the artless bumblings of a vacuum cleaner salesman, HH's adventures seemed positively enthralling. Indeed, I was deeply chagrined halfway through Lolita when I scanned the Wikipedia article on the book and thought I spoiled a plot point. It turned out I was one of the inattentive readers Martin Amis mentions who missed a major plot device that is hidden in plain sight.