This is yet another book about the idea that we are in a period of stagnation in terms of economic improvement for the average western person. Although it was enjoyable, as a book it didn’t make a strong argument. Most of the book is (admittedly fascinating) historical tidbits about technological development, mostly in the 20th century leading up to the 1970s. Levinson’s perspective ultimately agrees with that of Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen, at least to the extent that they all blame the nature of post-1970s technology for the failure to improve the average person’s life. And, like, the others, Levinson has hope that a few technologies on deck (e.g. self-driving cars) will reverse that trend.
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English
I’m still on this McWhorter kick. This one was good, but not as good as some of the others. It’s about English and its interactions with other languages. The bulk of the book is about the idea that repeated conquests of English speakers resulted in English being particularly simplified in terms of its grammar, especially compared to related languages. There is also a large section on a proposed link between Celtic and English grammar, and even a section positing links between German and Hebrew. The latter idea is based on the work of Theo Vennemann, whose ideas are (as far as I could tell from google and wikipedia) found to be interesting but probably wrong.
Because it’s McWhorter, there’s also a long lament about the popular usage of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. You get the feeling that his later book “The Language Hoax” was a great unburdening of linguistic angst.
All the Gallant Men: An American Sailor’s Firsthand Account of Pearl Harbor
A great memoir and oral history about a man who was on the USS Arizona when the attack at Pearl Harbor happened. As these things go, it’s not necessarily a standout, but I always appreciate memoirs that give you a real sense of the person. Stratton talks about particular people and how he felt about them, as well as how he felt about certain political and social occurrences that followed the war. For instance, he talks about how he generally doesn’t like these attempts to get American and Japanese WWII vets together to make nice. To him, the memories are too horrific. Given what he saw on that day, and the year it took his body to recover, it’s hard to blame him.
Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima
This book. It’s a treasure, really. Sometimes, pop science books are written by people like me – interested non-experts who can turn a phrase. That’s fine, and I like those books. But, now and then you get a book where someone pours a lifetime of expertise and stories beteween the covers. That’s what Mahaffey has done.
This book is mostly a sequence of discussions of exactly what happened at particular nuclear accidents (ranging from nuclear power to nuclear bombs). The depth of his research is sometimes staggering. He also has funny stories, and he provides insights into the psychology of disasters in general.
That said, it’s thick. It’s thick and although it CAN be consumed by people who aren’t well-versed in nuclear power, it’s gonna send you to wikipedia a lot. And, especially in the middle of explanations about nuclear plants, it can get really tough to follow. Here’s a sample sentence from page 344, which I wrote down to illustrate the point: “In the 177FA design, B&W had replaced the troublesome Crosby PORV with a Dresser 31533VX30.”
One gets the idea that there exists some nuclear engineer who reads “Crosby PORV” and bursts out laughing at the very idea of such a thing. Personally, I found I just had to accept that, as someone without a graduate degree in nuke stuff, there were parts that flew over my head. That said, Mahaffey is such a charming writer, so obviously in love with his subject, it can be enjoyable even when it’s hard to follow.
Humpty Dumpty in Oakland
I’m getting to where I can’t take any more Philip K Dick non-scifi works. They’re not bad, they’re just all the same. Narcissistic men and flighty women have difficulty getting along in a post-war consumerist society. It’s not bad, and the characters and scenes are good, but there’s just no core here. In fairness, most of these books weren’t released in Dick’s lifetime, so there wouldn’t have been a public to get tired of him repeating the same plot elements. But, as I try to read his entire corpous, it gets a bit tiresome.
Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter
This is a collection of short essays by the great utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer. I found it enjoyable and stimulating, but I find I am just not prepared to get onboard this form of hardcore utilitarianism, which says “Action X would increases total human happiness. Thus, not doing it is unethical.” Partially, this is because this sort of statement at least seems non-obvious to me. But, more importantly, I think it’s often hard to know the consequences of actions, especially in the longterm. I’m willing to buy the idea that a dollar I spend on cake would bring more pleasure if given to a starving poor person overseas. But, it’s not clear to me that this sort of thing is true in the big picture. For instance, if it’s true that buying Chinese consumer electronics will ultimately raise the Chinese living standard, is it unethical for me not to buy them? Another for instance – is it obvious that $50,000 buying meals for poor people overseas is more ethical (in a consequentialist sense) than spending that money on a scholarship for someone who will improve renewable energy.
Now, in fairness, these are short essays meant for public consumption. Singer can’t address every possible objection, and for all I know he handles these sorts of complaints elsewhere. On the whole, a worthy read.
Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence
I guess you’d categorize this as an early work (late 80s) in the modern futurology movement. The book is somewhat about the particular idea of creating superior robot descendants of humanity, but a more appropriate title would be something like “A brief history of computing up to 1988, followed by a bunch of stuff Hans Moravec thinks about.” On the whole, it’s pretty good! A lot of the speculations are obviously a bit out of date, and in some ways this is very interesting when we think about modern futurologists.
For example, Moravec thought that by the year 2000 we’d have a general purpose robot assistant. This wasn’t just a blind guess, either. He made estimates comparing neuronal and computer processing power, and thus guessed we’d have a robot assistant computer brain within 10 years of when the book was written. This not only hasn’t happened, but the closest thing we’ve got is the Roomba (or, perhaps the Baxter industrial bot). Makes you wonder about these people predicting full brain emulation by the 2030s or so.
The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers
A delightful quick history of the telegraph, which shows that much of the things we think are unique to the Internet were present about 150 years ago, including “online” communities, and predictions that connectivity would free information and bring about peace. Whoops!
The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan
A great biography of Ramanujan, with the one caveat (for the potential buyer) that, well… from the perspective of storytelling, Ramanujan’s life just wasn’t that exciting. Of course, as a mathematician (in ways I’m sure I don’t understand) he was one of the most incredible in history. But, perhaps for that reason, his life consists of a lot of sitting around, having abstruse discussions, and making poor dietary choices. It’s a very good biography, but it can’t help but feel a bit tedious here and there, when describing minor flaps between Ramanujan and his relatives, for instance. This sort of thing is made doubly tiresome by the fact that it seems we often don’t actually know the full nature of this or that disagreement, because Ramanujan is treated almost like a God by those who knew him.
Still, quite good, and if you want to know about Ramanujan, this is probably the book!
Demerit: Kanigel repeats an incorrect etymology of the word “posh” in which it purportedly is a sea acronym for Port Outward Sea Home. This is known to be false.
The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy
Dammit, Graeber. Every time I wanted to hate this book, he had something really insightful to say. This is my second time reading a Graeber collection, and this one is very similar. There are big, interesting, sweeping thoughts about how humanity and society work. I kinda like this – it’s a sort of throwback to the way people sometimes wrote in the 19th century, trying to grandly analyze The Whole Thing. On the other hand, as with those writers, Graeber often makes statements that are simply wrong.
For instance, he has a whole theory on why superhero comics are the most popular. It comes from an anthropological perspective, which is interesting, but completely neglects the fact that (as any comics dork can tell you) non-Superhero comic genres basically got killed off in the mid-50s by the Comics Code Authority. It’s possible the theory could be salvaged, but it’d have to bear the weight of that weird turn in history.
And yet… he’s got so much insight, you find yourself wanting his advice then wanting to scream at him. It’s like a conversation with a brilliant polymath who doesn’t quite have every little fact straight, but who nevertheless is absolutely delightful.
One particular bit really stuck with me: Graeber described the idea that in modern life, people have ideas but then don’t pursue them because they find something vaguely similar on Google. This is obvious, but Graeber’s theory is that this effect may hold back progress more than we think. I’ve certainly observed other cartoonists doing this, whereas my personal rule is to never check google after I have an idea. It’s a waste of time, and it benefits nobody.
A bit later (see next week’s book reviews) I happened to read Tom Standage’s book on the telegraph, in which an important occurrence was that Samuel Morse had no clue other people had tried and failed to make a long distance telegraph. I can’t help but wondering if our incredible connectivity today has more subtle negative consequences than we typically consider.