25 May 2017

Nothing's Worse that a Know-Nothing Know-it-All, Right?

The Death of Expertise - Tom Nichols

If the statisticians are right – and there’s a good chance that they are – half the people out there are of below-average intelligence. So why is it that everyone thinks he or she knows everything? Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, says it’s because of the Dunning-Kroger effect: the dumber you are, the less likely you are to know how dumb you are. Makes sense to me…

Tom Nichols The Death of Expertise
Nichols’ book is a hard look at our modern society; where half the people claim to have graduated from “the University of Google” and the other half believe everything the first half said. Perhaps that’s why medical doctors are routinely lectured about possible treatment regimens by patients who’ve been watching TV drug commercials. The author, who lectures on national security at the Naval War College and is also on the faculty of Harvard, has a few fingers to point on the topic of expertise and the people who killed it.

For one, Nichols thinks that experts have committed a form of suicide: they talk only among themselves and pretty much only in jargon. He allows as to how that might be a defense mechanism, since whenever an expert does express an opinion, he or she is likely to be “corrected” by someone with a fast wireless connection.

For another, Nichols has little or no use for the “new journalism,” in which careful research and in-depth study of topics has been replaced by retweeting suspect information and passing along rumors. He’s no fan of either InfoWars or of TheOnion, since both perpetuate the bubble mentality that has made ignorance the currency of conversation.

Nichols upbraids self-appointed experts – especially celebrities who are blindly respected by people who "respect" them because of professional work unrelated to their pronouncements. He holds Gwyneth Paltrow and Jenny McCarthy in especially low esteem, though he has naught to say about Ted Nugent or Charlton Heston…

     He reserves his strongest criticism, however, for the American educational system, in particular colleges and universities (noting that many universities have inflated themselves from colleges in recent years). Since everyone is now “expected” to go to college, he says, admission standards are reduced and academic rigor has given way to trying to make a school “popular” instead of a “quality education.” Students, especially memebrs of the blue-ribbon-for-everyone generation, squabble with professors for higher grades instead of working harder. Professors are “graded” by students who expect a buddy instead of an educator. As a result, many a college graduate is little better-educated than a high-school graduate of their grandparent’s generation. This is especially true, Nichols says, of those getting “communications” and “liberal studies” degrees.

Almost everyone is an “expert” in some field, whether it’s high-energy physics, plumbing, farming, or oncology. And almost every expert has had the experience of having his or her life’s work “explained” by a layperson who learned everything he needed to know about it on some blog – I know I have.

The Death of Expertise is a sobering look at a society that’s rapidly fragmenting, a society in which sociopolitical “bubbles” have replaced both learning and civil discourse. That’s the real reason, for instance, that Americans are ten times as likely as Europeans to deny climate science: they’ve all become “experts” by cherry-picking the occasional fact that agrees with them: confirmation bias.

And that stuff has got to stop…
copyright © 2017 scmrak

30 April 2017

Love Dogs or Only Like 'Em, "Just Life" Will Disappoint

Just Life - Neil Abramson

Some say that man’s greatest invention is the wheel, some say it is fire. Personally, I’d like to make a case for the domestic canine: I love my dogs and firmly believe that there are no bad dogs (only bad owners). Lawyer-author Neil Abramsom would probably agree, and perhaps that’s why his latest novel, Just Life, so clearly outlines the difference between humans and dogs. I just wish he’d done it better…

Just Life - Neil Abramson
Samantha Lewis, DVM, operates on the edge of insolvency: her tiny no-kill shelter in NYC’s Riverside neighborhood has managed to scrape by for years, but time has run out for the Finally Home Animal Shelter. In thirty days, the shelter must place all 24 of its dogs and close the doors -- forever. That’d be bad enough, but suddenly there’s a mysterious killer virus striking local children and rumor has it that the CDC thinks pooches are the carriers. Sam’s charges number almost 100 as her neighbors entrust their animals to her care while fleeing the specter of disease.

Sam and her helpers – a couple of employees, a teenaged volunteer and a defrocked shrink doing court-ordered service – find themselves at the center of a whirlwind, as the mayor and NYPD protect the shelter’s occupants against the governor and the National Guard. There are, of course, the expected villains – soulless politicians, soulless business types, and soulless rednecks – but nevertheless we expect Sam’s band of misfits to prevail (spoiler alert: not one dog dies in this book)…

Abramson’s second novel (after 2012’s Unsaid) is perhaps most memorable for the heart-rending cover photo of a hooded figure, facing a phalanx of uniformed cops, while clutching a precious pup to his chest. Research reveals that Unsaid has a handsome weimaraner on the cover – I see a trend here…

Sadly, the cover photograph is the best part of Just Life (the survival of every dog mentioned notwithstanding). Abramson’s writing is from the “kitchen-sink” school, a style in which every known trope that might be the slightest bit related makes an appearance. We have a healthy dollop of religion, far too much gratuitous mysticism, and enough redemption of sins to populate a shelf full of syrupy young-adult fiction books at the local Christian bookstore.

Abramson’s writing is clunky and clumsy, the pacing is uneven, the characters are thin, and an overreliance on tropes of good and evil makes the plot as predictable as a “Wild Kratz” short. I had high hopes for a plot with so interesting a premise, but Just Life did not deliver.
copyright © 2017 scmrak

27 March 2017

The Pot Thief Who Couldn't Spell "Chile"

The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras - J. Michael Orenduff

The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras - J Michael Orenduff
Meet Hubert Schuze (pronounced, I believe, “shoes”). Hubert runs a pot shop in Albuquerque’s Old Town – no, New Mexico hasn’t legalized marijuana, he sells Native American pottery. Hubert’s a pot thief, at least according to the Feds, since he has no problem with digging up old pottery on public land and selling it in his shop. That’s not legal, but since he thinks the law is wrong, he engages in civil disobedience that just happens to fatten his bank account. Hubert’s forty-something, was kicked out of UNM’s archaeology program for – you guessed it – stealing artifacts, and keeps a great deal of company with a lovely Basque by the name of Susannah.

Hubert also likes to read non-fiction… and while he’s reading a collection of essays on Pythagoras (the eponymous theorem guy), he becomes embroiled in a bit of theater involving the theft of not one but two valuable pots. In fact, they’re the only two known complete pots attributed to the Mogollon culture – and both are (or were) in museums. Weirdly enough, two people end up dead over this caper, which means one per pot.

Of course, Hubert’s up to his bolo tie in the mess, since some guy offered him a tidy sum to steal one of the pots – and the other one turned up stolen just hours later. Add in a couple of dead bodies, and the pot’s… errr, the plot’s afoot. It’s a good thing Schuze is smarter than the average museum curator, or he’d be in a lot of trouble! When all is said and done and Hubert’s Miss Marple-style lecture to the suspects is over, he’s left a hero and had picked up enough to pay his quarterly taxes to boot. Not bad for a margarita-swilling slacker, eh?

The first in J. Michael Orenduff’s series, The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras was first published in 2007 by the former president of the University of New Mexico. Orenduff draws on his personal knowledge of his native city for this entry in the series, although he has precious little to say about anything beyond restaurants and shops except for an occasional reference to sunrise over the Sandia Mountains. More’s the pity, since the landscape deserves far more attention. But I digress…

As a mystery, The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras is no great shakes, mainly because Orenduff fails to leave the clues necessary for a reader to track along with the amateur sleuth. Hubert solves one of the two murders via a series of deductions in which the crucial deduction is decidedly weak, while the second murder is completely lacking in motivation. I hope that the author improves in this sense through the next six books in the series – it was interesting enough that I will probably take a look at a second installment some day.

I might not, though: I found the character of Hubert to be rather unsympathetic. For one, there’s the endless rationalization of his law-breaking; for another there’s his constant companionship (and heavy drinking) with his friend Susannah. And while he bitches constantly about being broke, he eats almost every meal in restaurants and drinks four or five margaritas each night. And he listens to jazz… of course.

     Most of all, though, Schuze peeves this reader because he keeps talking about “chilies.” I sure hope that he got stuck with that spelling by an editor, because a real New Mexican knows there’s only one I in “chiles” – and the proper spelling is preserved in The Congressional Record
copyright © 2017 scmrak

01 March 2017

The Blight Way: McManus Makes a Better Humorist than Mystery Writer

The Blight Way: A Sheriff Bo Tully Mystery - Patrick McManus

I have to admit that I’ve probably never read a Patrick McManus column – “Field and Stream” ain’t in my wheelhouse when it comes to outdoor fun.  They say he’s a humorist, which careful reading of The Blight Way: A Sheriff Bo Tully Mystery seems to support, assuming you like that kind of humor. His idea of “funny” is a lot closer to mine than the likes of Louie C K, so I’ll buy that. What I won’t buy, however, is that he’s a mystery writer – and The Blight Way is exhibit A in my case.

28 January 2017

The Long Read With Little in the Way of Results

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

When I was just a teenaged science fiction fan, my parents gave me a short story collection titled Bullard of the Space Patrol -- yes, it’s still available, even though originally printed (posthumously) in 1951. The stories are pure space opera, all about life aboard a human-crewed spaceship called either the Castor or the Pollux, I forget which. Whatever the case, the stories follow the same set of characters on the same spaceship in more or less chronological order.
     The point, I suppose, is that the book in question was sold to readers as a collection of short stories. That’s honest: what isn’t is anyone's pretending that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a novel, because it’s not – instead, it’s a collection of short space opera stories following the same characters on the same space ship in more or less chronological order. The debut effort of Becky Chambers, The Long Way… describes life on The Wayfarer, a “tunneling ship” in a distant future in which mankind has destroyed the Earth and is now a second-class member of a galactic confederation of sorts. The crew includes four humans, a reptile, a strange many-legged critter, a humanoid with a symbiont, and an AI.
In other words, Captain Picard, Mr. Spock, Seven of Nine, Jadzia Dax, Commander Data, Doctor Flox… and any of dozens of other characters in the Star Trek universe, Firefly, the Star Wars series, and all the other by-now hackneyed and semi-hackneyed science fiction tropes like space folds, galactic alliances, and the like. Each chapter (short story, actually) is self-contained except for the introduction of characters and scene setting, and most of them are standard set pieces: the bizarre market (think Mos Isley in “Star Wars IV”); the argument over the rights of an AI (think Isaac Asimov’s I Robot); the crew members with deep, dark secrets (about a million movies and novels). One of the only two things original, as far as I can tell, to Chambers’ version of the space opera is the idea that wormholes (“gates,” “trans-space tunnels” or whatever a scifi author calls them) are constructs instead of natural (c.f. Niven and Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye).     

The other thing is that Chambers is apparently fixated on interspecies sex. Not only do we have two humanoids of different species coupling, we also have a lesbian relationship between a human and a reptile and the obvious desire of a human for the AI. Weird, if you ask me – perhaps she didn’t recognize it at the time.

     When push comes to shove, however, I find that the greatest failing of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is its lack of a real plot. There’s no buildup of tension and conflict, just one installment that’s more hectic than all the ones before it put together. The stories read like a series of episodes of a soap-operaish sitcom (on cable, perhaps, given the sex). Of course, if it had been sold as a collection of short stories, I might have been okay with it. To be sure, the characters are nicely drawn, if a bit on the derivative side – Kizzy, for instance, bears a striking resemblance to Abby Sciuto on “N.C.I.S.” When all is said and done, the lack of originality and the lack of an actual plot mean it just doesn’t measure up. Two and a half stars…
copyright © 2017 scmrak