Book Review: Everything Burns

Everything Burns, by Vincent Zandri

A nominal thriller, Everything Burns kept me reading without ever truly keeping me interested. Part of that is that I am not particularly fascinated by fire, so the dozens of separate descriptions of flames are about as interesting to me as descriptions of people’s clothes. (I tend to skip both. I finished The Devil Wears Prada in 25 minutes.) Part of it was the plot, which suffers from a number of weaknesses.

I have to give Zandri credit for his protagonist, Reece, who’s neither likable nor particularly impressive but is an intriguing profile of a man with obsessive-compulsive disorder. After his family is killed in a fire, Reece grows up with a fascination with it and also deals with some other problems. Reece is maddening in his decision-making and sometimes yo ujust want to shake him, but for some stretches – especially the slower moments – you see a man dealing with a mental illness, a man who wants to feel differently but can’t. (Zandri uses the verbal crutch of “I can’t help myself” so much that it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s using it intentionally.) Reece’s rollercoaster ride of love, jealousy, trust, anger…it’s frustrating but no more frustrating that being Reece. (I have to admit, it took some reflection to see what Zandri did here, especially because Reece can be very stupid.)

Unfortunately, Zandri doesn’t do much with this character. Having recently reunited with his ex-wife Lisa and moved back in with her and their daughter Anna, Reece is now a best-selling author. His wife is headed for minor surgery, and in her absence Reece becomes obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, a less successful writer named David. When his house is ransacked, Reece confronts David, and the day spirals from there. I wish I could say Reece’s unreliable narrator makes for great suspense, but it just doesn’t. Zandri makes some elementary mistakes that run the plot into the ground.

There are minor mistakes (law firms don’t have CEOs) but that’s not what ruins this. Two of these issues are so egregious I’m going to do a rare thing and put complete spoilers below the fold.

Continue reading Book Review: Everything Burns

Stockholm Tries To Help Seattle

A while ago I mocked an article that praised Stockholm’s rent control scheme as one way to prevent high rents in a place where construction of rental units is not keeping up with demand. I pointed that rent control was the cause of the shortage of housing, not a reason to institute rent control. Economists are universal in their loathing of rent control, and Stockholm has become proof that they’re right. This was driven home by a recently published letter from a Stockholm resident to the city of Seattle which is considering instituting rent control. Key excerpt:

Look at the inner city – people are waiting for 10-20 years to get a rental apartment, and around 7-8 years in my suburbs. (Red keys = new apartments, green keys = existing apartments).

Stockholm City Council now has an official housing queue, where 1 day waiting = 1 point. To get an apartment you need both money for the rent and enough points to be the first in line. Recently an apartment in inner Stockholm became available. In just 5 days, 2000 people had applied for the apartment. The person who got the apartment had been waiting in the official housing queue since 1989!

Perhaps nominal rents are “low” in Stockholm, but that ignores two things:

1. The cost of waiting years or decades for a rental is a massive cost that just isn’t reflected in the price.

2. The price for something you can’t get is infinity.

In any case, I’m just glad I mocked that article when I had the chance.

 

Joe Machi (Zanie’s, Chicago Old Town)

I learned of Joe Machi from Last Comic Standing, a show that is way better at what it does than American Idol is at identifying reasonably talented people. I think he’s hilarious, although I’m slightly biased, as I benefit from raising the status of pudgy awkward white men.

Machi enters the stage with a manic energy, pacing the stage as if he just wants to leave, and his faux faux confidence makes his material pop that much more. He intersperses dark humor (“I bring the heat!”) with sweet jokes to offset them. His comedy is neither physical nor ridiculous, and yet he uses his pacing and his high-pitched voice to emphasize his material which is very well written.

His dialogue with someone in a poor country, inaccurately paraphrased here, may have been the highlight:
“What problems does America have?
“Too many fat kids. Yeah, we just have too much food.”
“…”
“There’s also a drought in California.”
“Is that leading to famine and warfare?”
“No, but some people may not get to fill up their pools.”
“What are pools?”
“…you’re not gonna like this. They are artificial, alligator-free lakes that we have in our backyard and never use.”
“Oh, like a store of fresh water for emergencies?”
“No, we poison the water.”

I’d quote more, but it wouldn’t do it justice. Here’s a youtube clip with, basically, the last quarter of his set, which is even better in person.

Joe’s opener, Adam something, is like Joe Machi if Joe Machi told a punchline and then tried to repeat it in different ways seven times.

Movie Review: Jurassic World

Kicking off my summer blockbuster season with the blockbustiest of them all; an ultimately enjoyable romp that is coming to resemble its eponymous park in many ways.

The plot is relatively simple: the original Jurassic Park concept has worked out, and a Disneyworld-meets-zoo concept has become a popular tourist resort on a distant Costa Rican island. In fact, it’s worked so well for so long, the tourists will no longer flock to it to see ACTUAL DINOSAURS, so the parent corporation’s scientists start concocting bigger and scarier dinosaur hybrids. Some dinosaurs escape their enclosures and go after people, and action ensues, mostly consisting of chases and the corresponding escapes (or not). The action is competently executed, and the comic relief is campy in an outright self-conscious way, and it works. The plot has a strange third act that’s never fully explained, but in any case seems as unnecessary to the film as hybrid monsters seem to a park featuring ACTUAL DINOSAURS.

I haven’t mentioned the characters, which are loosely sketched out as the movie tries to cram some (unnecessarily deep) characterization into the early minutes. Chris Pratt is his usual fun self, Bryce Dallas Howard channels some of the best damsel-to-heroine arcs of past adventure movies, and Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus are likable sidekicks (with one of the funniest moments in the film). On the other side, Vincent D’Onofrio plays a completely undefined quasi-bad guy, B.D. Wong adds an odd gravity to an otherwise bland scientist character, and Judy Greer and Andy Buckley are completely wasted. There are also two kids who are not interesting.

The movie’s best moments – and I may be showing my age here – are the throwbacks to the original Jurassic Park, through vintage t-shirts and abandon sheds. The iconic score is similarly effective, and combined they manage to do what a dinosaur park frnachise shouldn’t be able to do: provide a sense of history and versimilitude, tying together two decades of this “place” as if the island is out there somewhere. The movie plays off this nostalgia rather than using it for cheap laughs or affection.

Recommended, in the sense that this is exactly what you thought it would be.

Cast:

Chris Pratt
Bryce Dallas Howard
Irrfan Khan
Vincent D’Onofrio
Ty Simpkins
Nick Robinson
Jake Johnson
Omar Sy
BD Wong
Judy Greer
Lauren Lapkus
Brian Tee
Katie McGrath
Zara
Andy Buckley
Scott

Book Review: Long Knives

Long Knives, by Charles Rosenberg

Another Kindle first, this novel advertises itself as a legal thriller, though in many ways it’s neither. I was unaware that the book is the second in a series, but I didn’t feel like I had missed much by not reading the first installment – at worst, it makes you think that references to a past trial will play a role when they may not.

Jenna James (and yes, I could not stop thinking of Jenna Jameson) is a former biglaw attorney turned law professor at UCLA who is up for tenure. One morning, a student offers to show her a treasure map, as her specialty now is maritime law, and minutes later the student is dead. The map disappears, and suddenly James is facing a lawsuit for its theft. Meanwhile, the police is looking at her as a suspect in the death of the student. Jenna summons her team – Oscar, a strange man, and Robert, her ex-mentor. There is also a rich but emotionally unavailable boyfriend/colleague, an academic rival, the deceased’s ex-girlfriend, and a nephew with questionable loyalties. Eventually (and it does take a while) the plot gets going. It eventually resolves.

The novel’s prose is in many parts outright maddening, explaining in minute detail very basic activities that turn out to have no effects on the plot. Where a decent writer would have said “I made coffee” Rosenberg says “I opened up my purse and took out a fresh bag of Peet’s dark roast coffee, preground. I took out a measuring spoon and spooned the proper amount of coffee into the cone-shaped permanent filter.” At 497 pages, you can imagine how much of this there is, and how much of it is necessary (none). Rosenberg has an odd habit of interrupting speakers mid-sentence (“Weren’t we discussing,” Oscar said, “who did that?”) in a way that’s jarring.

Not particularly satisfying as a thriller, and definitely not recommended for the prose.

SCOTUS Follow-Up

As predicted, it begins:

Following Friday’s Supreme Court decision, two of Texas’ top officials, Gov. Greg Abbott and state Attorney General Ken Paxton, issued opinions directing state agencies to “respect and preserve Texans’ religious liberties,” in essence encouraging county clerks to refuse to issue licenses to gay couples if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

While the comments don’t quite say what the USA Today says they mean, let’s assume that some states will permit certain government officials to refuse to perform certain acts on behalf of the government due to their religious objections. How does this shake out?

Practically, it’s easily avoidable. The state has an obligation to comply with the law, so as long as a clerk’s office performs marriage, someone in that office must be available to perform same sex marriages. If that’s the accommodation, that’s fine with me and not particularly intrusive.

The legal question is a bit thornier than it appears. The hypothesized clerk isn’t acting on his own behalf; he’s an agent of the state. The state is obligated to perform this task. By giving the clerk an out (and not providing an immediately available alternative) the state can effectively opt out from complying with the law. That’s ultimately untenable. Further, agents of the government, as a general rule, must be able to perform those actions that the state must perform. It’s an essential requirement of employment. If I had to pick the next legal battle in the culture war, I may well pick a clerk refusing to perform same sex marriages, being fired, and suing for infringement of his religious freedoms under the First Amendment and the various Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.

Commentary on SCOTUS

I’ve mostly ignored the commentary on the Supreme Court’s blockbuster cases the past couple of days (most of it is not interesting, legally speaking) but I suppose I should offer my thoughts, having followed the court more intensely than ever before this term. (I’m serious. My pump-up mix contains the Scalia dissent from Maryland v. King.) I’ll comment in general, though you’ll see a theme.

King v. Burwell (The Obamacare subsidies case)

The outcome was predictable, of course, and I can’t get too worked up about the result. A few million people get subsidies, which is a rounding error for the bloated federal budget, so whatever; it’s not like forcing the Democrats back to the legislative table would have taken us very far. (Yay politics.)

The real disaster, and there’s really no other way to phrase this, is the precedent this sets for the future. It encourages sloppy legislation at the very least, with the understanding that courts will give you a break if you get it wrong. It will probably encourage intentionally vague drafting with the hope that a court will give you more than you could have gotten in the political process. (Lawyers will sometimes leave a contractual provision vague for the same reason. …I hear.) This has been a trend in legislative interpretation for decades, with doctrines of “saving constructions” and “constitutional avoidance” going out of their way to invalidate or otherwise restrict bad laws. (Bond v. US and Canning v. NLRB are recent examples of this.)

Also, on a personal note, I hate the idea that “established by the State” can also refer to things “not established by the State.” Words have meanings. Please stick with them.

Obergefell v. Hodges (The Same Sex Marriage case)

This wasn’t exactly a stunner, since Kennedy has been telegraphing his desire to be the one to address this issue, but I admit I was surprised by the reasoning of his majority opinion. It’s perhaps the least useful opinion written in the last few years, worse than this year’s Elonis v. US (which passed up an easy chance to pick a mental state requirement rather than saying “the lowest one isn’t it.”). While he can count on being quoted at weddings for the next few decades, the opinion offers very little in terms of legal reasoning that can be translated to any other context. Equivocating between Substantive Due Process and the Equal Protection Clause, Kennedy ultimately concludes that the constitution requires all states and territories to recognize same sex marriages mostly because it would be a good thing to do.

In many ways, Obergefell could be similar to Brown v. Board of Education, another important opinion that suffers from the same legal infirmities but has obviously had a tremendous legal impact. (I would argue, however, that all the hard work for Brown had been done by Justice Harlan’s famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, as tremendous a piece of legal writing as you’ll ever see.)

The four dissents don’t offer much in terms of rebuttal, although I imagine they didn’t really bother to. Thomas and Alito do provide a decent constitutional analysis that makes me think this should have gone the other way, but this was not anyone’s finest writing hour.

I should say, I’m very happy about the outcome, and I definitely think it’s the correct social policy. I’ve voted in favor of SSM in all elections I’ve participated in, and I would have liked to see it go national this way, rather than through a very dodgy legal ruling that could undermine the rule of law and trust in the court as an institution. That said, if I were denied a right, I know I couldn’t care less about those other things if the court ruled my way. So this decision is a good thing.

That said, be worried. Burwell and Obergefell have made the Supreme Court more important than ever. Control of the court will become essential, and it’ll make presidential and senate politics even worse than it is now. (Yes, it’s possible.) It opens the doors to constitutional rulings on religious freedom or gun laws, for example, that should have been left to the states and people. In fact, some early analyses wonder if the court’s reasoning in Obergefell translates to the rights under the Second Amendment. Watch for that fight in the near future.

I’ll skip the other decisions of this term, although there have been some interesting ones, but I will note that the court has not impressed with clarity this year. I’d imagine the early October cases next year being tamer than usual to offset the acrimony of the last few weeks.

The Nurture Assumption and Rebellious Behavior (Or Why Teens Are A**holes)

In my last book review of Judith Rich Harris’s “The Nurture Assumption” I made the following parenthetical comment: Teenage behavior is a complete mystery, for example, if the nurture assumption is true. I said this because JRH rightly points out that teenagers aren’t trying to become successful adults by copying their parents; they’re trying to become successful teenagers who are liked and respected by their peers. So far so good.

Earlier in the book, JRH describes the way that children have, until recent memory, been brought up: at about age 2, they’re handed off to their older sibling or cousin or whatever child is around in the village, and the child learns behavior from other children. In their teenage years, they would transition to adulthood through rites of passage, marriage, and child-bearing. At that point, children immediately acquire the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. Extended adolescence as it now exists in the world is a very new development.

This made me wonder about how this extended adolescence plays out, and JRH doesn’t spend much time on it. As we know, teenagers are notoriously combative with their parents and many go through a rebellious phase. That conflict makes some sense: teens want to rise to become the most popular teens in their peer group, while parents want them to become the best role-players in their wider family setup. However, that’s true of all family conflict; what, then, makes teenagers particularly rebellious?

If historically teenagers have been considered adults, and present-day teenagers definitely are not, we have a brain that desires to be taken seriously and a society that considers us a child. It’s natural rebel against that setup. More importantly, however, I think it’s simply that in today’s society, teenagers couldn’t possibly compete with adults on a level playing field. Perhaps a 17-year-old can be a successful hunter and warrior with the older men, since his physical characteristics are not that different, but today a 17-year-old can’t compete with a 24-year old in terms of money (or education, or other resources that matter). As a result, teenagers rebel because they want to set themselves off from the adult society: if you’re not part of their game, you’re not losing; you’re just playing a different game (that of being a teenager).

I think this works, as you’ll notice the rebellious spirit disappear as teenagers acquire the rights of adulthood and start playing the adult game in which they’re not competitive. (You will still notice subcultures divided by age, loosely enforced, that enable people to claim victory in their own group.)

Anyway, just a theory on why teenagers can be such a**holes.

Book Review: The Nurture Assumption

The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris

This is probably the foundational book of modern socialization theory, so it was time I read it if I was going to continue to comment on anything involving humans. I was already familiar with some of the ideas, as they permeate much modern social science, but JRH is so thorough and complete in her approach that the effort was well worth it.

The titular “nurture assumption” is the idea that children are socialized into adulthood primarily by their parents, and that adult personality is a reflection of, essentially, how you were raised. While no one disputes that families have a real effect on children, JRH persuasively argues that children are socialized primarily by their peers, that is, other children. Anthropology and modern tribes show us that children were under the supervision of other children by about age 2, and their entry into society was one of working its way through that hierarchy by, basically getting older.

JRH takes apart studies showing strong effects of parents because many of those forget that parents provide genes in addition to nurture; she points out that birth order effects mostly disappear once you take away the context of the family; she explains many social phenomena that wouldn’t make sense if the nurture assumptions were true. (Teenage behavior is a complete mystery, for example, if the nurture assumption is true.)

The book is deep but accessible, and its mixture of studies and anecdotes keeps it moving fast. For a sociology text, it’s fantastic.

I have to insert the usual disclaimer here: abuse or neglect will definitely affect your socialization. No one’s claiming otherwise. Within a wide range of normal parenting, techniques, however, peers will be the key determinant of your socialization. If you’re about to be a parent and find this disconcerting, remember that parents can often pick the peer groups by choosing where their children live.

Highly recommended.

Better Financial Habits: A Project-Based Approach

Let’s say you incur an unexpected wasteful expense – perhaps you forget to cancel a hotel reservation and have to pay a fee, or your car is towed because you didn’t pay attention to the signs (hypothetically ). It’s a frustrating experience, and one that most people would rather forget and move on from. However, I’ve found that that sort of unforced error can be a great motivator to make permanent changes to your financial habits. [This works even if you already have excellent financial habits and helps you squeeze that last bit of savings from your daily and weekly routines.]

Let’s work through the hotel example: you pay $700 more than you had to because you didn’t cancel and book someplace cheaper in time. If you’re like most people, unless your finances are completely wrecked by this* you’ll probably cut back on something for a couple of days and then return to your regular life. This is a mistake.

*(and they shouldn’t be – your cash cushion should be able to pay a few months rent, let alone a weekend in Jersey)(…hypothetically speaking).

Here’s what you do: Write the number 700 down in a place you keep notes and access regularly. I use a spreadsheet, though in the past I’ve used a dry-erase board. Notebooks, smartphones, anything you normally use works. 700 is your starting point. The goal is to get that number to zero by cutting your spending in small ways until the savings add up to 700. A couple of guidelines:

1. Don’t cut out big items. If you have another big trip planned, don’t cancel it to offset the first mistake. Your finances should enable you to live a good life, not hold you back.

2. Don’t go crazy with austerity. You can stay home eating Ramen for a few weeks and get the job done, but that’s not sustainable.

3. Look for new habits. Instead of big things, look for savings in places where you have been meaning to make a change, or where you can develop a permanent new habit.  (It’s easier to make one change at a time, but don’t let me stop you from trying for more.)

Perhaps you get a $3 coffee every day on the way to work, or you get a couple of diet cokes at the vending machine, or you buy the $7.99 salad special at lunch, or you pay for an expensive garage instead of a cheaper one three blocks away. Start making coffee at home, buy a case of diet coke for your office, brown-bag your lunch, and park further away and walk a few minutes. Every time you do, note your savings and update your running total.

That seems straightforward, but it actually does a few things:

1. You feel better. You just do, when you get to erase a mistake.

2. You hold yourself accountable. It’s easy to feel you’ve “done enough” to offset the error. This way, you actually get your finances back where they need to be.

3. When it gets to zero, you can stop – but you don’t have to. If the process took long enough, your habit becomes part of your new routine. You’ll instinctively put on a pot of coffee in the morning, refresh your diet coke stash weekly, pack a sandwich with carrots nightly, and routinely park down the street.

It won’t always work – it’s not magic – but some of these habits will stick with you. If they don’t, don’t worry. You’ll make another mistake soon.

Thoughts on law, economics, sports, food, and pop culture. Not necessarily in that order.