Book Review: The Fire Seekers

The Fire Seekers, by Richard Farr

When his father discovers ancient tablets in the Mediterranean, Daniel Calder’s life slowly unravels. His mother dies under suspicious circumstances on a mountain; his father’s former intern becomes a powerful cult leader; hundreds are disappearing worldwide. The teenager, with the help of his brilliant friend Morag and the powerful Rosko, tries to figure out mysteries in both the past and the present. The characters aren’t particularly interesting or boring; this is about the plot more than anything. The ultimate question is whether the supernatural Architects are real, a myth, or something else entirely.

There are two real parts to this story: the historical puzzles surrounding the origins of civilization, and the present-day mysterious disappearances. The former is significantly more interesting than the latter, with old documents and real-life unexplained phenomena woven into mostly satisfying explanations. (It helps to enjoy ancient history.) The present-day story is less well developed, and moves along in fits and starts, leading up to a final, somewhat muddy showdown.

Most aspects of this book are characterized with the same pattern: occasional brilliance punctuating a lot of average. There are some very insightful or funny lines here:

“[my father] wants to feel close to me, wants to understand me, and wants the easy road to that results, which is me being more like him than I am.”

“I am an Armenian, and therefore I hate everybody. I am also a Christian, and therefore I love everybody. Life is complicated.”

Rather than including more gems of this kind, Farr spends much of the time describing the action scenes (Daniel suffers lots of pain and describes all of it every time) in excruciating, though fortunately skippable, detail.

I haven’t decided if I’ll keep reading the trilogy. If you like books like The Rule of Four or Dan Brown’s work, you might like this.

Work, Drink, Sleep, Repeat

Slate’s Jordan Weissman reports on a new paper regarding the drinking habits of professional who work long hours:

Science has finally confirmed what anybody who has ever met an i-banker, lawyer, or journalist already knew: People who work exhaustingly long hours like to drink themselves insensate at the end of the week.

To be specific, an analysis published in the British Medical Journal found that working more than 48 hours a week was associated with a slightly higher probability of “risky” alcohol consumption. The authors reached their main conclusions by analyzing unpublished data from 27 studies conducted in the United States, Europe, and Australia. They also looked at the findings of 36 previously released papers, many of which were also from Japan—where after-work binge drinking is basically a cherished part of its office culture.

I’ll confirm this from personal anecdotal experience, and I think we’re all intuitively on board with the finding. Weissmann, however, backs the wrong conclusion:

the data doesn’t give any clear answers on correlation vs. causation. Maybe those who tend to pull endless hours at the office are the same personality types who tend to imbibe heavily. Or maybe working long hours drives people to drink. Personally, I’d bet on the latter.

While no doubt some people drink to cope with the long hours, it is far more likely that the same factor causes both long work hours and heavier drinking. I’ve had this hypothesis for a while and this is as good a time as any to mention it: the brain’s reward system  is the same for all rewards. Your dopamine level doesn’t know if you’re raising it with work, sex, alcohol, or cocaine. My hypothesis is that the people whose reward center is more sensitive are more likely to exhibit addictive behavior in different domains; that is, they’re more likely to feel “rewarded” working long hours and similarly “rewarded” drinking that 8th whiskey. I’d bet that this common factor explains a lot of the correlation found in the paper.

Annoyed Thoughts About Planned Parenthood

I try not to comment on abortion because I’m baffled that it’s a major political issue, but the recent leak of Planned Parenthood videos and the ensuing effort to remove the taxpayer funding provided to PP are forcing me to point out two stupidities that I’ve seen circulated on Facebook and am currently watching on Larry Wilmore’s show. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s all the worst things of the Daily Show combined.)

1. “Planned Parenthood is the only place poor women can go for health care!” – Didn’t we just spend years installing a massive, expensive, invasive, and terrible federal program that ensures that even the poor have access to regular medical care like everyone else? Hasn’t the administration bragged about the program’s success? (Larry Wilmore has.) Shouldn’t you have to pick one between ‘everyone has health care access’ or ‘they have no place else to go for health care’?

2. “Taxpayer money can’t be used for abortions!” – Yeah, probably technically true, but also doesn’t matter. Money is fungible. If I want to give you money but don’t want you to spend it on drugs, I could pay your rent. Of course, you can then use your money which you were going to use for rent to buy drugs, so it’s no different than if I had bought you drugs. Same with abortions.

That is all.

Book Review: The Ark

The Ark, by Laura Liddell Nolen

Full disclosure: Laura & I went to the same law school and overlapped by a bit, and have met before.

Somehow I keep reading apocalyptic science fiction involving young female protagonists (like Exodus and Zenith and Ticker), and this is probably my favorite of the bunch. Excellently paced, we watch the end of the Earth as humans try to colonize the solar system to stay alive. There is plenty of action and just enough reflection to keep it from being shallow but not so much as to bore.

The story is told from the perspective of Charlotte “Char” Turner, a juvenile delinquent from an otherwise upstanding family. As an asteroid approaches Earth, the powerful and the lucky are leaving earth on shuttles that take them to five arks, large spaceships hosting 100,000 humans on their way to a new home. 19 billion must stay behind to die* in the impact. Char, having a criminal record, isn’t considered for the lottery, but on her final visit her mother slips her a ticket to the last shuttle.

*There’s a bit of a handwave as to why they remain so docile until the end, but it’s forgivable.

The race to the shuttle is interesting, and I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say she makes it. (You saw the title, right?) On the Ark, the politicians and military who are in charge (and likely to create the most sociopathic society ever) allege a terrorist threat from a group called the Remnant, and Char finds herself in the middle of these power struggles.

There are other characters here, but none are as compelling as Char. In part that’s because the plot moves fastest when Char is out on her own, but in part it’s because she’s just more interesting in this world than anyone else. There are two sequels planned, and I’ll probably buy both to see where she goes.

The prose in The Ark is solid, very similar in style to The Hunger Games. One passage stuck with me in particular for the haunting efficiency with which it shows a catastrophe:

The Pinball struck Africa directly. The mighty continent split apart, creating instant shockwaves that coursed over the surface of the Earth. Australia was underwater within moments, along with ll of Western Europe. Near the poles, the remaining clouds ripped apart, then evaporated as the atmosphere shattered.
Earth no longer existed.


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.


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
Andy Buckley

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.

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