Richard Ford. Canada. ©2012 Fifty years later Del Parsons relates what happened to him when he was 15 and growing up in Great Falls Montana in 1960. His father, Bev, was a retired Air Force captain, who was decorated for his service as a bombardier in WW II and never accomplished much of anything after that except to get broken down to Lieutenant and asked to retire after running a scam to sell the officers’ club sides of beef that had been rustled and slaughtered by local Indians. His next great idea was to sell rustled beef to a porter responsible for a dining car on the Union Pacific. When the porter refused to buy some beef that he said had gone bad, Bev was unable to pay the Indians, and they threatened him and his family. Bev persuaded his wife to help him rob a bank over in South Dakota to get the money to pay off the Indians and some for themselves. They got caught, of course. Del saw them once in the Great Falls jail and never saw them again. His mother’s friend arranged for him to live with her brother, Arthur Remlinger, in Saskatchewan, because otherwise he would have been detained in an orphanage for wayward youth until he was 18. Remlinger ran a hotel and a goose hunting operation in a town next to nowhere and had a reason for being in such a remote place. In about 1943 he had to leave Harvard in his third year, partly because of his anarchist views. One of the organizations to which he belonged asked him to plant a bomb at a union office in Detroit. No one was supposed to be there when he bomb went off. That never works out, and the union head was killed. So Remlinger was in Canada. A couple of months after Del arrives in the fall of 1960 two suits from Detroit arrive to “talk to” Remlinger. Del is just outside when Remlinger shoots them both and then has to help him and a couple of his workmen to bury the bodies. The story is rather sordid but well told. What it’s really about is how Del handles what happens to him and around him and how it totally changes his life. It’s his coming of age story told decades later, a device that Ford used in at least one earlier novel. Del stays in Canada and becomes a high school teacher, happily married and seemingly happy with his decision to stay in Canada. May 2013
John Hodgman. More Information Than You Require. ©2008 The title is entirely accurate. Hodgman is a funny man and this is a funny book, but as we Pennsylvania Dutch say “Too much is enough.” I quit – with some regret – about a third of the way through. It’s a series of performances involving false “true facts,” scads of misinformation and, if there is such a word, “misanalysis” and a song here and there. One concern I had was that some of his “true facts” might burrow their way into my memory to a point where I couldn’t say they weren’t true when they popped out again. Some of the stuff is really insidious along with being very funny.
Steven Pinker. The Better Angels of Our Nature. ©2011 I don’t know what possessed me when I took on a book that ran to 30 CDs, but I’m glad I did. After the first 15, I was wondering what more Pinker could tell me. The answer was “plenty.” The book is too long to summarize effectively; I took notes as I went along, but they don’t seem very helpful. So here is the brief summary of the core idea. Man started violent but violence has continually declined as civilizing institutions evolved -- government and commerce -- and particularly so since the Enlightenment. Empathy, self control and a moral sense have been important but the most important factor has been reason. Pinker goes through every kind of violence you could imagine from warfare and torture to violence against women and children to exposure of newborns and uses the many studies of these phenomena to demonstrate how violence decreased as reason and rational institutions developed. There are lots of anecdotes along the way. One of my favorites was that protection of children from violence began in NYC after the city’s experience with the SPCA. He has a lot to say about I.Q. I remember when everyone was reading and discoursing on The Bell Curve. My daughter left her copy behind when she moved on, but I never picked it up. It sits on a shelf, upside down, which is probably appropriate. The bell curve of measured intelligence comes up in Pinker’s discussion of the “Flynn Effect.” It seems the keepers of I.Q. tests have to add about 3.5 points every decade to keep the average at 100. An I.Q. of 100 in 1910 would measure about 70 today and an I.Q. of 100 today would be equivalent to 130 in 1910. Are we actually smarter than our grandparents and great grandparents? Maybe so. The change in handling of answers from decade to decade doesn’t happen in questions that test math and language, but in questions that test abstract reasoning. Our apparent gains in intelligence have not raised scores on tests like the SATs. I didn’t notice whether Pinker described results for tests of abstract reasoning other than those within standard I.Q. tests. I hope I will soon see a study of the results over time for part three of the GRE (Graduate Record Exam), which tests reasoning and problem solving and would seem to be testing the kind of development that has caused the Flynn Effect. Pinker distinguishes between 1910 and the present by suggesting it is the difference between pre-scientific and post scientific reasoning and points out a major difference between then and now. We routinely use terms like percentage, rates of change, correlation, causation, post hoc, representative sample, statistical control group, placebo, empirical, median, circular argument, cost benefit analysis, false positive, trade off and so on. If you tried these in 1910 your listener might think you were speaking a foreign language. Another contributor to our shift to more abstract thinking is simply reading, where we deal with symbols instead of things. It’s fortunate that no conservative will ever read this review, because I have to note that Pinker concludes that people with higher I.Q.s tend to be liberal – he quotes a study that found that people who said they were very conservative had an average I.Q. of 94.8 (and that was without Michelle Bachman to skew the results) and those who said they were very liberal averaged 106.4. He goes on to say that higher I.Q.s seem to correlate with classical liberalism and with less tendency toward aggression and war. Finally, nostalgia for the past is wrong-headed. The “good old days” were horrible.