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Archives for Joe Martin (page 1 / 75)

Review: Hidden Figures [★★★★★]

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures
by Margot Lee Shetterly

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 22 January 2017 - 24 January 2017
Goal: Non-Fiction

I loved reading this book. I enjoyed it on multiple levels. I'd heard that the story involved the African-American women scientists, who helped NASA send men into orbit. I was surprised to learn that all of them worked in Hampton, VA.

I grew up next door to Hampton, in Norfolk, VA. I'm not used to reading about my hometown in books. It was a very pleasant surprise to read about my hometown in this book. I'm woefully ignorant of the history of the area, so I'd never known that Hampton had played such a pivotal role in the development of flight.

The women worked for an organization called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) — a precursor to NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). I was fascinated to learn about the role that NACA played in the development of airplane technology, discovering the science behind many of the airplane features that we take for granted today.

I also learned something about airplane designations. For instance, we've all heard of the B-29 bomber or the P-51 Mustang. I hadn't realized that the "B-" and "P-" designations had specific meanings. Shetterly explains.

Like Darwin’s finches, the mechanical birds had begun to differentiate themselves, branching into distinct species adapted for success in particular environments. Their designations reflected their use: fighters—also called pursuit planes—were assigned letters F or P: for example, the Chance Vought F4U Corsair or the North American P-51 Mustang. The letter C identified a cargo plane like the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, built to transport military goods and troops and, eventually, commercial passengers. B was for bomber, like the mammoth and perfectly named B-29 Superfortress. And X identified an experimental plane still under development, designed for the purpose of research and testing. Planes lost their X designation—the B-29 was the direct descendant of the XB-29—once they went into production.

I was also struck by the love that these woman had for science and mathematics. They were truly doing these jobs because they loved the work and the mathematics behind the work. I don't think it would be inaccurate to call them math nerds and I love reading about the contributions that nerds have made to our world.

Finally, I was struck by the racism that Shetterly revealed. I'd known that Virginia had a racist past. I wasn't aware of just how committed to that racism Virginia had been and just how adamantly they fought for it.

The racism could be casual, such as the incident that Mary Jackson experienced, at the predominantly white East Side section of NACA.

Her morning at the East Side job proceeded without incident—until nature called. “Can you direct me to the bathroom?” Mary asked the white women. They responded to Mary with giggles. How would they know where to find her bathroom? The nearest bathroom was unmarked, which meant it was available to any of the white women and off-limits to the black women. There were certainly colored bathrooms on the East Side, but with most black professionals concentrated on the West Side, and fewer new buildings on the East Side, Mary might need a map to find them.

And the racism could be very deliberate, entrenched, and vindictive. For instance, one Virginia school system took extreme measures to avoid integrating their schools.

In Prince Edward County, however, segregationists would not be moved: they defunded the entire county school system, including R. R. Moton in Farmville, rather than integrate.

… Prince Edward’s schools would remain closed from 1959 through 1964, five long and bitter years. Many of the affected children, known as the “Lost Generation,” never made up the missing grades of education. Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth.

… Commenting on the situation in 1963, United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy said, “The only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.”

Definitely, it was offensive. But, ultimately, Southern racism was incredibly stupid and shortsighted.

Foreigners who traveled to the United States often experienced the caste system firsthand. In 1947, a Mississippi hotel denied service to the Haitian secretary of agriculture, who had come to the state to attend an international conference. The same year, a restaurant in the South banned Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi’s personal doctor from its premises because of his dark skin. Diplomats traveling from New York to Washington along Route 40 were often rejected if they stopped for a meal at restaurants in Maryland. The humiliations, so commonplace in the United States that they barely raised eyebrows, much less the interest of the press, were the talk of the town in the envoys’ home countries. Headlines like “Untouchability Banished in India: Worshipped in America,” which appeared in a Bombay newspaper in 1951, mortified the US diplomatic corps. Through its inability to solve its racial problems, the United States handed the Soviet Union one of the most effective propaganda weapons in their arsenal.

… Newly independent countries around the world, eager for alliances that would support their emerging identities and set them on the path to long-term prosperity, were confronted with a version of the same question black Americans had asked during World War II. Why would a black or brown nation stake its future on America’s model of democracy when within its own borders the United States enforced discrimination and savagery against people who looked just like them?

I came away from this book with great admiration for these black women as well as an even greater contempt for the racists that dominated the South during this time period.

I was also struck by Shetterly's epilogue. She wants to give these women their due, not by showing how extraordinary they were but by showing how normal they were. They were extraordinary because they were black, female nerds who had to fight to fit in, but they were also very normal because they were nerds who just wanted a chance to fit in and do what nerds everywhere do — geek out about the science.

For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.

… By recognizing the full complement of extraordinary ordinary women who have contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule. Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talent.

I enjoyed reading about these women and I'll recommend this book to anyone that asks for a recommendation of what to read.

GOP Defectors Have Received Thousands From Teachers Union →

The two Republicans who broke ranks with their party and announced they would vote against education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos have received thousands of dollars from the nation's largest teachers union.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) and Susan Collins (R., Maine) have each benefited from contributions from the National Education Association. Collins received $2,000 from the union in 2002 and 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Murkowski, meanwhile, has received $23,500.

Is this an example of a special interest buying legislators or of legislators being responsive to public opinion? Careful — I'll hold you to your answer the next time that there's a vote involving a lobbying group and legislators that have received donations from that lobbying group.

Reading Idea: Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology
by Neil Gaiman
$12.99 on Kindle

Growing up, somewhere around the age of 10, I was a huge fan of Norse mythology and read several different versions and retellings. I'm also a big Neil Gaiman fan. So, really, all Goodreads had to do was send me an email letting me know that Neil Gaiman had written a novelization of the Norse mythology. Sold. It was, as they say, self recommending.

I'll give you the Goodreads blurb anyway, just in case you're not already as excited as I am.

Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman fashions primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds; delves into the exploits of the deities, dwarves, and giants; and culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the rebirth of a new time and people. Gaiman stays true to the myths while vividly reincarnating Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, the son of giants, a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. From Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerges the gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to dupe others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

Thumbs Up to a Justice Gorsuch

Tonight, President Trump nominated Judge Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court. I'll give credit where credit is due: I didn't think President Trump would nominate someone that I liked, but he surprised me. From what I've read, I'll like Justice Gorsuch quite a bit.

I'm basing my opinion on SCOTUSblog's potential nominee profile. First of all, Judge Gorsuch is definitely qualified.

Neil Gorsuch was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit by President George W. Bush on May 10, 2006, and confirmed shortly thereafter. Both his pre-judicial resumé and his body of work as a judge make him a natural fit for an appointment to the Supreme Court by a Republican president. He is relatively young (turning 50 this year), and his background is filled with sterling legal and academic credentials. He was a Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford, graduated from Harvard Law School, clerked for prominent conservative judges (Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, as well as Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court), and was a high-ranking official in the Bush Justice Department before his judicial appointment.

And he has the potential to live up to Justice Scalia's legacy. Given that Justice Scalia was my second favorite Supreme Court Justice, this is no small thing.

He is celebrated as a keen legal thinker and a particularly incisive legal writer, with a flair that matches — or at least evokes — that of the justice whose seat he would be nominated to fill. In fact, one study has identified him as the most natural successor to Justice Antonin Scalia on the Trump shortlist, both in terms of his judicial style and his substantive approach.

With perhaps one notable area of disagreement, Judge Gorsuch’s prominent decisions bear the comparison out. For one thing, the great compliment that Gorsuch’s legal writing is in a class with Scalia’s is deserved: Gorsuch’s opinions are exceptionally clear and routinely entertaining; he is an unusual pleasure to read, and it is always plain exactly what he thinks and why. Like Scalia, Gorsuch also seems to have a set of judicial/ideological commitments apart from his personal policy preferences that drive his decision-making. He is an ardent textualist (like Scalia); he believes criminal laws should be clear and interpreted in favor of defendants even if that hurts government prosecutions (like Scalia); he is skeptical of efforts to purge religious expression from public spaces (like Scalia); he is highly dubious of legislative history (like Scalia); and he is less than enamored of the dormant commerce clause (like Scalia).

​It's especially refreshing to see that Judge Gorsuch shares Justice Scalia's disdain for vague and overly broad criminal statutes. A Justice should be skeptical of the government's position and should demand that criminal law be unambiguous and clearly defined. My biggest complaint with Judge Merrick Garland was that his record showed too much deference to the government. I'll be very happy indeed if a Justice Gorsuch is Scalia's heir on criminal law.

Reading Idea: Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire
by Candice Millard
$13.99 on Kindle

Robert Costa Tweet

@costareports: Book recommendation: "Hero of the Empire" by Candice Millard. Terrific insights on political ambition, the media and a young Churchill.

So what's it about?

Churchill arrived in South Africa in 1899, valet and crates of vintage wine in tow, there to cover the brutal colonial war the British were fighting with Boer rebels. But just two weeks after his arrival, the soldiers he was accompanying on an armored train were ambushed, and Churchill was taken prisoner. Remarkably, he pulled off a daring escape--but then had to traverse hundreds of miles of enemy territory, alone, with nothing but a crumpled wad of cash, four slabs of chocolate, and his wits to guide him.

The story of his escape is incredible enough, but then Churchill enlisted, returned to South Africa, fought in several battles, and ultimately liberated the men with whom he had been imprisoned.

All of that plus an analysis of political ambition and the media? Sounds right up my alley.

Reading Goals: 2017

I'm going to continue what I started in 2016. I'll keep a low and easily achievable goal on Goodreads, so that I can read more on the web, read longer books, and read slower books. On the other hand, I hit my 2016 Goodreads goal by the end of July, which is just too early. I'll move my goal from 40 books to 50 books, which should have me finishing around the end of September.

Here are my 2017 goals (and the corresponding reading list). There's no way I'm going to fully hit everything on this list, but I'm definitely going to at least sample it all.

Literary Fiction

I only technically achieved this goal last year, by reading 1 book. That's no reason to quit though. I want to keep exercising my literary muscles by reading more literary novels this year. Let's make this year's goal a little more concrete: a minimum of 2 literary novels.

Non-Fiction

This is a perennial goal. This year, I want to read the rest of Bruce Catton's "Army of the Potomac" series. I'd also like to find a good popular history of China and read some more about Israeli history.

Historical Fiction

Last year, I rediscovered my love of historical fiction. I found the Accursed Kings series, thanks to George R.R. Martin. I reread the entire Hornblower series. And I enjoyed the first book of the Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. This year, I'm going to fully dive back into historical fiction.

New to Me Series

I'd never read L.E. Modesitt or his Recluce series before last year. I'd also never heard heard of the Sector General series. I enjoyed The Magic of Recluce and Sector General sounds good enough to take a chance on. I'll dive into both, as well as anything else interesting that comes along.

New Releases

I'm already looking forward to the release of Oathbringer, so let's just go ahead and say that reading it is an official goal. I'm going to hope for a new Dresden novel from Jim Butcher. And I'm patiently awaiting the appearance of volume 5 of Robert Caro's "Years of Lyndon Johnson" series (even though past history says I shouldn't expect it for another 5 years).

This goal will also include any rereads that I need to do in order to fully enjoy the new book.

Enjoy Comics

Time to finally read Sandman, as well as other stories that catch my eye.

Dip Into the 2015 and 2016 Reading Lists

Last year, I finished my 2014 reading goals by finishing the Culture novels and the Wheel of Time series. I didn't have anything nearly as specific for 2015 or 2016, but I did compile a list of books that sounded interesting. I'll dip into those lists more.

I also still want to re-read some of my favorite books that I didn't get to in 2016.

This entry was tagged. Reading List

Reading Idea: The Saga of Recluce

The Magic of Recluce

I've somehow never managed to hear of L.E. Modesitt Jr, even though he's written over 60 books. The Tor blog helped me to overcome my ignorance. I read the first book earlier this year and I'm looking forward to reading more.

A Beginner’s Guide to the Fantasy Worlds of L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

“The most important thing you need to know about Recluce—both the saga and the island—is that there is a neverending battle between chaos and order. In their natural state (a.k.a. Balance), these qualities make up all matter; but as white wizards unleash the entropy of chaos and black mages harness the structure of order, these forces become imbalanced. Modesitt’s intention was to subvert fantasy tropes by having the “good guys” wear black, though, as he points out, there is a lot more gray area to it—and not just the “grays” who can manipulate both chaos and order. Even as the first book, The Magic of Recluce, establishes Recluce’s tenets of uniformity and repetition in order to keep chaos at bay, such monotony—even with the safety it provides—bores protagonist Lerris. His lack of engagement with order gets Lerris sent away from home on the dangergeld, or ritualistic journey to learn more about the world before deciding if he will follow Recluce’s rules. But ennui aside, what we’ve learned from all of the dystopian fiction that has been released in the 25 years since the first Recluce book is that order can be just as dangerous as chaos.

While Lerris’ dangergeld is the focus of the first book, he is by no means the series’ protagonist; in fact, each of the characters in the 18 books to date get only one or two novels. In a recent piece for Tor’s Fantasy Firsts series, Modesitt challenged the notion that The Saga of Recluce is a series, considering that they neither follow one protagonist nor take place in “a single place or time”—instead spanning 2,000 years, and the rise and fall of empires worldwide in 20 countries on five continents. And even then, he adds, “the Recluce books aren’t really a ‘saga,’ either, because sagas are supposed to be tales of heroism following one individual or family. And that’s why I tend to think of the Recluce books as the history of a fantasy world.”

The internal chronological order is also vastly different from the publication order—if you’re going by timeline, the series starts with 2001’s Magi’i of Cyador and concludes with 1995’s The Death of Chaos. Modesitt says it’s the reader’s choice to read the books in either order, or neither, the only caveat being that one should read the first book of a certain character before going on to the second.”

I'm going to list out the books in chronological order. I'm a sucker for knowing where in the timeline everything happens.

  1. Magi'i of Cyador ($8.99)
  2. Scion of Cyador ($7.99)
  3. Fall of Angels ($8.99)
  4. The Chaos Balance ($8.99)
  5. Arms-Commander ($7.99)
  6. Cyador's Heirs ($8.99)
  7. Heritage of Cyador ($9.99)
  8. The Mongrel Mage (coming October 31, 2017)
  9. The Towers of the Sunset ($8.99)
  10. The White Order ($7.99)
  11. The Magic Engineer ($9.99)
  12. Colors of Chaos ($7.99)
  13. Natural Ordermage ($7.99)
  14. Mage-Guard of Hamor ($8.99)
  15. The Order War ($7.99)
  16. The Wellspring of Chaos ($7.99)
  17. Ordermaster ($7.99)
  18. The Magic of Recluce ($9.99)
  19. The Death of Chaos ($8.99)

Reading Idea: Aubrey–Maturin Series

Master and Commander

After reading the Hornblower series, it only seems natural to read the other major naval series set during the Napoleonic era.

Aubrey–Maturin series - Wikipedia

The Aubrey–Maturin series is a sequence of nautical historical novels—20 completed and one unfinished—by Patrick O'Brian, set during the Napoleonic Wars and centering on the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin, a physician, natural philosopher, and intelligence agent. The first novel, Master and Commander, was published in 1969 and the last finished novel in 1999.[1] The 21st novel of the series, left unfinished at O'Brian's death in 2000, appeared in print in late 2004. The series received considerable international acclaim and most of the novels reached The New York Times Best Seller list.[1] These novels comprise the heart of the canon of an author often compared to Jane Austen, C. S. Forester and other British authors central to the English literature canon.

  1. Master and Commander ($8.87)
  2. Post Captain ($10.07)
  3. H.M.S. Surprise ($8.47)
  4. The Mauritius Command ($9.47)
  5. Desolation Island ($9.48)
  6. The Fortune of War ($9.47)
  7. The Surgeon's Mate ($9.46)
  8. The Ionian Mission ($9.47)
  9. Treason's Harbour ($9.46)
  10. The Far Side of the World ($9.47)
  11. The Reverse of the Medal ($9.54)
  12. The Letter of Marque ($10.99)
  13. The Thirteen-Gun Salute ($10.99)
  14. The Nutmeg of Consolation ($9.88)
  15. The Truelove ($9.49)
  16. The Wine-Dark Sea ($10.04)
  17. The Commodore ($9.46)
  18. The Yellow Admiral ($10.39)
  19. The Hundred Days ($9.85)
  20. Blue at the Mizzen ($9.89)
  21. The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey ($10.74)

Reading Idea: Sharon Kay Penman

Here Be Dragons

I heard of Sharon Kay Penman last summer, when George R.R. Martin recommended multiple writers of historical fiction. Reddit comments backed up Martin's recommendation.

I have read some of Sharon Kay Penman's books. If you're into history, they are really really wonderful. She creates a captivating story while also keeping true to much of the history within the time periods she specializes in.

Reviews on Goodreads concurred.

AJ

It is incredibly accurate with regard to characters and events they were a part of, precipitated, and were involved in, impressively so.

Cassy

Did I mention this book is heavy on the history? It is honest-to-goodness historical fiction. Joanna, John, Llewelyn, and the other big players are the real deal. Sometimes Penman’s commitment to accuracy and completeness bogs down the story. There would often be a gap of years between chapters. And characters would give these odd monologues to catch readers up on what happened. What a beautiful day. It reminds me of last June when my father, the Earl of Whatever made a pact with Duke of Wherever. Of course, Papa would only consent to such an alliance, because Prince Whoever was taken hostage by Evil Guy. It was exhausting, but I loved it.

Meeting Penman last week confirmed the obvious: this woman knows her stuff. She was out promoting her latest book, Lionheart. Most authors start off talking about their writing process. Not Penman. She dove into a history lesson. When someone from the audience asked her opinion on a couple of obscure historical figures, she knew exactly who they were and broke down their life in great detail. And trust me, no one was yawning. She was really fascinating.

Penman had two series that caught my eye: Welsh Princes and Plantagenets.

Welsh Princes

Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England's ruthless, power-hungry King John. Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce by marrying the English king's beloved illegitimate daughter, Joanna, who slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband. But as John's attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales—and Llewelyn—Joanna must decide where her love and loyalties truly lie.

  1. Here be Dragons ($9.99)
  2. Falls the Shadow ($9.99)
  3. The Reckoning ($9.99)

Plantagenets

A.D. 1135. As church bells tolled for the death of England's King Henry I, his barons faced the unwelcome prospect of being ruled by a woman: Henry's beautiful daughter Maude, Countess of Anjou. But before Maude could claim her throne, her cousin Stephen seized it. In their long and bitter struggle, all of England bled and burned.

Sharon Kay Penman's magnificent fifth novel summons to life a spectacular medieval tragedy whose unfolding breaks the heart even as it prepares the way for splendors to come—the glorious age of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Plantagenets that would soon illumine the world.

  1. When Christ and His Saints Slept ($7.99)
  2. Time and Chance ($5.99)
  3. Devil's Brood ($12.99)
  4. Lionheart ($6.99)
  5. A King's Ransom ($11.99)

Reading Idea: CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping
by Kerry Brown
$15.66 on Kindle

Another book recommendation from Tyler Cowen. This earns a spot on my reading list because I've been wanting to learn more about China.

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping - Marginal REVOLUTION

That is the new and excellent book by Kerry Brown.  Almost all books on China are either bad or mediocre, but this one is the best book I ever have read on the exercise of power in contemporary China.  Every page is good, here is a short excerpt:

More important than a cabinet in the Western system of government, yet ostensibly separate from day-to-day decision making, the Politburo owns the crucial function of dispensing ideological, spiritual and political leadership.  This description means it covers nothing and everything.  It has the broadest framework within which to operate, which means it can wander into every area of administrative and governmental life in the country.  But like the ideal city described in Plato’s Republic, in a strange way China is really run on the model of philosopher kings.

Definitely recommended, one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year so far.  I can readily imagine re-reading it.

The Reporters Who Cried "Trump" →

Glenn Reynolds:

SO THIS ISN’T EXACTLY A CLIMBDOWN, but I’m rethinking my position that a good argument for having Trump as President is that if he gets out of line, the press and the Deep State will go after him and bring him under control.

There are two reasons for that. First, the press and the Deep State are already going after him, before he’s even had a chance to get out of line. And second, I mean, holy crap, could they be any sorrier at doing so? I mean, “Peegate?” Really? What the hell?

This is good news for Trump, sort of, but overall it’s really bad news, since it means that both journalism and the intelligence community are both more politicized, and less competent, than even I thought. Sweet Jesus, these people are terrible.

I agree. If the media hyper reacts to President Trump every single week of the next 4 years, we're going to stop talking about "the boy who cried wolf" and starting talking about "the reporter who cried Trump". And guarantee Trump's reelection. Trump was already elected once by a perception that the media takes sides. They shouldn't be trying to confirm that perception with every story they write.

This entry was tagged. Donald Trump News

Does The Left Know How To Make An Argument Not Based On Racism? →

Warren Meyer makes a very good point, over at his blog.

An even better example of focusing on all the wrong problems is the confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions. If you read pretty much any of the media, you will be left with the impression that the main issue with Sessions is whether he is a racist, or at least whether he is sufficiently sensitive to race issues. But this is a complete diversion of attention from Sessions' true issues. I am not sure what is in his heart on race, but his track record on race seems to be pretty clean. His problems are in other directions -- he is an aggressive drug warrior, a fan of asset forfeiture, and a proponent of Federal over local power. As just one example of problems we may face with an AG Sessions, states that have legalized marijuana may find the Feds pursuing drug enforcement actions on Federal marijuana charges.

Why haven't we heard any of these concerns? Because the freaking Left is no longer capable of making any public argument that is not based on race or gender. Or more accurately, the folks on the Left who see every single issue as a race and gender issue are getting all the air time and taking it away from more important (in this case) issues. The SJW's are going to scream race, race, race at the Sessions nomination, and since there does not seem to be any smoking gun there, they are going to fail. And Sessions will be confirmed without any of his real illiberal issues coming out in the public discussion about him.

Furthermore,

Trump has an enormous number of problems in his policy goals, not the least of which is his wealth-destroying, job-destroying ideas on trade nationalism. But all we get on trade are a few lone voices who have the patience to keep refuting the same bad arguments (thanks Don Boudreaux and Mark Perry) and instead we get a women's march to protest the Republican who, among the last season's Presidential candidates, has historically been the furthest to the Left on women's issues. It is going to be a long four years, even longer if the Left can't figure out how to mount a reasonable opposition.

Congrats San Diego, you win by losing Chargers →

The people of San Diego won by losing. Chargers owner Dean Spanos did the corporate equivalent of taking his ball and going home Thursday, bolting for Los Angeles because San Diego residents had balked at building his team a fancy new stadium. Imagine the nerve of those people! Refusing to spend millions for a stadium that, studies have shown, would likely end up costing taxpayers more than what is originally estimated while providing less in return.

For a team owned by a family whose net worth was $2.4 billion as of Thursday, according to Forbes, no less. Yes, billion. With a B.

Emphatically seconded. Sports owners need to fund their own opulent stadiums. And if they don't think it's a good investment, why should taxpayers be expected to pay?

Reading Idea: The Red Sphinx

The Red Sphinx

The Red Sphinx
by Alexandre Dumas
$12.99 on Kindle

Newly translated, a sequel to ‘The Three Musketeers’ is as fresh as ever

Originally called “The Comte de Moret,” “The Red Sphinx” first appeared during 1865 in Les Nouvelles, but it was never quite completed after the magazine folded. For this handsome new edition — the work’s first translator since a wretched 19th-century version — Lawrence Ellsworth appends a related novella titled “The Dove,” which brings the adventures of the Comte de Moret and his beloved Isabelle de Lautrec to a dramatic, nick-of-time close.

Yet the Red Sphinx himself, as the historian Michelet dubbed Cardinal Richelieu, wholly dominates the book’s 800-plus pages. The action begins in December 1628, shortly after the French victory at La Rochelle chronicled in “The Three Musketeers.”

From the start, Dumas presents Richelieu as a man of cool analytic intelligence, who is nonetheless devoted to France and beloved by those who serve him, including his next-door neighbor, the courtesan Marion Delorme. Like a modern spy master, the cardinal seeks data about everything happening in Europe. In some of Dumas’ best chapters, Richelieu even acts as a detective, trying to crack a cold case: Who actually planned the assassination of Henri IV? The search for information gradually leads him to the dark secret of the Convent of Repentant Daughters.

Since so much of the pleasure of this novel involves its slowly unfolding plot, I won’t say too much more. But there are scenes of farcical comedy (usually involving the cardinal’s servants), France nearly topples because of a peevish boy-favorite of the king, two old enemies sword-fight while seated in sedan chairs, and young love blossoms.

In the final third of this continually enjoyable novel, the action moves to the battlefield, as the armies of France enter Italy. Here several guerrilla operations behind the lines should thrill even fans of Bernard Cornwell. Here, too, Richelieu encounters a young papal officer named Mazarino Mazarini, who will eventually become a French citizen and ultimately Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin.

So, en garde! In Lawrence Ellsworth’s excellent, compulsively readable translation, “The Red Sphinx” is just the book to see you through the January doldrums. And maybe those of February, too.

​I love The Three Musketeers. There's no way I can avoid checking this out.

Reading Idea: All the Shah's Men

All the Shah's Men

All the Shah's Men
by Stephen Kinzer
$8.28 on Kindle

I discovered this book after David Henderson wrote about it.

Kinzer tells the story, in great detail, of how Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of TR and an employee of the CIA, set in motion the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran in the early 1950s. It's fascinating and disturbing: I found Roosevelt even more evil than I had expected.

I remember that when the Iran radicals had taken over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, they chanted and had signs about the CIA. Shortly after November 1979, I learned the connection with the 1953 events, but I had just assumed that they were angry about the CIA's role in 1953. Kinzer suggests an even more direct connection. He writes:

The hostage-takers remembered that when the Shah fled into exile in 1953, CIA agents working at the American embassy had returned him to his throne. Iranians feared that history was about to repeat itself.

In the back of everybody's mind hung the suspicion that, with the admission of the Shah to the United States, the countdown for another coup d-etat had begun," one of the hostage-takers explained years later. "Such was to be our fate again, we were convinced, and it would be irreversible. We now had to reverse the irreversible."

The whole story is tragic. Iran was a fledgling democracy stopped in its tracks by the U.S. government at the behest of the British government. When the Iranians finally overthrew the Shah, they got, not another liberal democracy, but a vicious theocracy.

The motivation for the coup was to get back the oil company that Mossadegh had nationalized. I don't defend nationalization, but overthrowing a government to reverse it is too extreme. I think Americans would be justly upset if, in response to the U.S. government's nationalization of an Iranian firm, Iran's government fomented a coup against the U.S. government. Moreover, as British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, of the Labour government, had said at the time: "What argument can I advance against anyone claiming the right to nationalize the resources of their country? We are doing the same thing here with our power in the shape of coal, electricity, railways, transport and steel."

This would pair well with reading The Fall of Heaven.

Reading Idea: The Death of Caesar

The Death of Caesar

The Death of Caesar
by Barry S. Strauss
$12.99 on Kindle

I've had this book written down for a while now. I think Goodreads recommended it to me, based on my reading history. I've always been interested in Roman history, so this intrigued me right away.

Goodreads

The exciting, dramatic story of one of history’s most famous events—the death of Julius Caesar—now placed in full context of Rome’s civil wars by eminent historian Barry Strauss.

Thanks to William Shakespeare, the death of Julius Caesar is the most famous assassination in history. But what actually happened on March 15, 44 BC is even more gripping than Shakespeare’s play. In this thrilling new book, Barry Strauss tells the real story.

Shakespeare shows Caesar’s assassination to be an amateur and idealistic affair. The real killing, however, was a carefully planned paramilitary operation, a generals’ plot, put together by Caesar’s disaffected officers and designed with precision. There were even gladiators on hand to protect the assassins from vengeance by Caesar’s friends. Brutus and Cassius were indeed key players, as Shakespeare has it, but they had the help of a third man—Decimus. He was the mole in Caesar’s entourage, one of Caesar’s leading generals, and a lifelong friend. It was he, not Brutus, who truly betrayed Caesar.

Caesar’s assassins saw him as a military dictator who wanted to be king. He threatened a permanent change in the Roman way of life and in the power of senators. The assassins rallied support among the common people, but they underestimated Caesar’s soldiers, who flooded Rome. The assassins were vanquished; their beloved Republic became the Roman Empire.

GOP Congress Has a Detailed Agenda →

Dave Weigel, writing at the Washington Post.

For six years, since they took back the House of Representatives, Republicans have added to a pile of legislation that moldered outside the White House. In their thwarted agenda, financial regulations were to be unspooled. Business taxes were to be slashed. Planned Parenthood would be stripped of federal funds. The ­Affordable Care Act was teed up for repeal — dozens of times.

When the 115th Congress begins this week, with Republicans firmly in charge of the House and Senate, much of that legislation will form the basis of the most ambitious conservative policy agenda since the 1920s. And rather than a Democratic president standing in the way, a soon-to-be-inaugurated Donald Trump seems ready to sign much of it into law.

The dynamic reflects just how ready Congress is to push through a conservative makeover of government, and how little Trump’s unpredictable, attention-grabbing style matters to the Republican game plan.

That plan was long in the making.

Almost the entire agenda has already been vetted, promoted and worked over by Republicans and think tanks that look at the White House less for leadership and more for signing ceremonies.

In 2012, Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist described the ideal president as “a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen” and “sign the legislation that has already been prepared.” In 2015, when Senate Republicans used procedural maneuvers to undermine a potential Democratic filibuster and vote to repeal the health-care law, it did not matter that President Obama’s White House stopped them: As the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action put it, the process was “a trial run for 2017, when we will hopefully have a President willing to sign a full repeal bill.”

“What I told our committees a year ago was: Assume you get the White House and Congress,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told CNBC in a post-election interview last month. “Come 2018, what do you want to have accomplished?” Negotiations with the incoming Trump administration, he said, were mostly “on timeline, on an execution strategy.”

​That's funny. I've been hearing for the last 6 years that the Republican Congress just liked thwarting President Obama and didn't know how to govern or have any plans of its own. I wonder if that's an example of the fake news that I've suddenly been hearing so much about.

This entry was tagged. Government News

New York City's Expensive New Subway →

Progressives are fond of pointing out the excellent quality of life in Europe. America, they say, could enjoy the same quality of life if only we were willing to tax each other and spend the way Europe's democracies do. The problem, of course, as conservatives and libertarians are fond of pointing out, is that there are vast differences between Europe and America. Matt Yglesias, at Vox, explains.

According to transit blogger Alon Levy’s compendium of international subway projects, Berlin’s U55 line cost $250 million per kilometer, Paris’ Metro Line 14 cost $230 million per kilometer, and Copenhagen’s Circle Line cost $260 million per kilometer.

​Okay.

Today, New York City is celebrating the opening of the first phase of the Second Avenue subway, a project that’s been anticipated for nearly a century, and that’s sorely needed to relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue lines and to extend access to some very densely populated neighborhoods. But exciting as the opening is, phase one is also a very modest-sized project encompassing just three stations. The plan is, eventually, to extend it up into East Harlem, and potentially then either go further south or else swing west to provide crosstown subway service across 125th Street.

Any of this would be extremely useful to the city, but it’s far from clear that any of it will ever happen. That’s because even with $1 billion currently allocated in the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s capital budget for phase two of the Second Avenue subway, they’re still badly short of the $6 billion that’s going to be needed.

That's a lot of money.​

The $6 billion price tag for phase two works out to $2.2 billion per kilometer. That would make it the world’s most expensive subway project on a per kilometer basis, narrowly surpassing phase one of the Second Avenue subway, which clocked in at “only” $1.7 billion per kilometer.

And there's your difference. NYC is spending 10x more per kilometer than Berlin, Paris, or Copenhagen is.​ And it's not that NYC is unwilling to spend money. It's just not it's not getting much for the money that it's spending.

But this kind of discussion too often elides the real practical difficulties in implementing big domestic policies like those, and the ways in which the US system is uniquely bad and inefficient about doing so. Between the Second Avenue subway, the $10.2 billion East Side Access tunnel for the LIRR, and the $4 billion World Trade Center PATH station, the New York City region is in fact spending a lot of money on upgrading its mass transit system. The money is simply not going to generate as much transit service as a comparable amount of spending would in Paris or Copenhagen, because New York’s institutions don’t seem up to the task of spending it as effectively. Improving is both possible and desirable, but it would take actual time and skill and effort.

...

Until places like New York and California — the bluest jurisdictions that are most open to the idea of taxing and spending to improve public services — get better at actually delivering those services in a cost-effective way, it’s going to be difficult to persuade residents of more skeptical jurisdictions that it makes sense to take the same agenda national.

​American governments are good at spending money but bad at spending money well. I think it's perfectly reasonable for American citizens to look at the poor management of their governments and then ask why they should be giving those governments even more resources to mismanage.

I don't even think it's fair to claim that this problem would be fixed if only Republicans stopped obstructing good government and worked together with Democrats in a bipartisan alliance. ​​Taking a long view of the patronage machines that have dominated city governments throughout America's history, it's easy to conclude that American government is best at looting the private sector and handing it out to the ruling party's friends. This is a bipartisan problem and one that argues against giving American governments, of either party, too many resources.

Reading Idea: The Last Lion

The Last Lion

The Last Lion
by William Manchester
$50 on [Kindle][kindle]

I discovered this biography while listening to Russ Roberts talk to Ryan Holiday, on the July 18 episode of EconTalk.

So, let's take the flip side of that character trait, and let's look at Winston Churchill. And Winston Churchill, you talk about in the book. But he had, it appears, an enormous ego that sustained him through all kinds of failure. He was blamed politically in the first World War. And in the run-up to WWII, he's considered a crazy lunatic who is worried about Nazi Germany. And ultimately his reputation is redeemed and he's considered one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, like top five. So, his ego--and by the way, you quote, I think, the Manchester biography, Volume 2, Alone. Well, in Volume 1, one of the moments that's legendary in my household because my kids loved it so much--you know, he escapes from a prison in the Boer War, walks a huge distance, I forget how far, and presents himself in the middle of the night at the British Embassy and pounds on the door and someone opens a window upstairs and says, 'What's going on?' And he yells up something like, 'It's Winston Bloody Churchill. Open this door.' And so, here's a man who is totally full of himself, as far as I can tell. And he's a great success. So, why is ego the enemy?

Guest: I'm fascinated that you would ask this, because — and for our listeners, we did not plan this — I am actually in, I have like 10 pages left, in Volume 2. And I read Volume 1 in the last couple of weeks. So, I've been reading about Churchill, and he's fascinating. And the Manchester biography is so great, because he looks at that ego; and he says over and over again, basically Hitler and Churchill were opposite sides of the same coin. And he says — it's interesting, maybe the only reason that Churchill saw through Hitler was that he saw a bit of that megalomania in himself.

That sounded interesting enough to check out. The full biography is three volumes, all available on Kindle.

  1. Visions of Glory, 1874 – 1932, $14.99
  2. Alone, 1932 – 1940, $14.99
  3. Defender of the Realm, 1940 – 1965, $19.99

The first two volumes were written by William Manchester alone. The third volume was written by Paul Reid, whom Manchester brought in after Manchester developed writer's block. Paul Reid was supposed to actually co-write the last volume with Manchester, but Manchester died before the project got fully off of the ground. Reid ended up having to mostly research and write the last book himself.

Reading Idea: The Fall of Heaven

The Fall of Heaven

The Fall of Heaven
by Andrew Scott Cooper
$19.99 on Kindle

While expensive, this book comes with a strong endorsement from Tyler Cowen. I've been reading a lot about the 60's and 70's over the past couple of years. This would fit right into that pattern.

The Fall of Heaven - Marginal REVOLUTION

I loved this book, the author is Andrew Scott Cooper, and the subtitle is The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran.  It is the best book I know for understanding the Iranian revolution, and it is compulsively readable throughout.  Did you know for instance that the Ayatollahs were deeply disturbed by the presence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and also Rhoda on Iranian TV?

I would describe this book as relatively sympathetic to the Shah, and also arguing that the oppressions and tortures of Savak are sometimes overstated.

This one makes my best non-fiction of the year list, and it will be in the top tier of that list.