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.

Ethics in the Real World (Singer)

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 A lot of the speculations are obviously a bit out of date, and in some ways this is very interesting when we think about modern futurologists.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.

Mind Children (Moravec)

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 Victorian Internet (Standage)

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 Man Who Knew Infinity (Kanigel)

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.

The Utopia of Rules (Graeber)

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World

I really enjoyed this book. Wohlleben works in forest management, and has written a wonderful book on all the weird ways in which trees adapt to their environments and communicate with each other (using chemical signals, electric signals, etc.). It contains a ton of strange info – for example, apparently some bug-infested trees will chemically signal parasitoids to come eat the bugs that are harming the tree. The author also claims that old trees are more disease resistant because they can communicate with each other about what pathogens have entered the area.

Wohlleben occasionally gets a little sappy and mystical about forestry, but all of his serious claims are either backed by scientific evidence or have a disclaimer that they’re just something he suspects is true.

The Hidden Life of Trees (Wohlleben)

Cartoon History of the Universe Volumes 1-7

I decided I’m gonna plow through these. This one was as good as the first, but with the same (in my opinion) tendency to sometimes rely entirely on myth for parts of the story. To Gonick’s credit, he tends to point out when he does this, but to me it makes the stories less enjoyable, insofar as they’re presented as history. Still, quite good, and I feel like I’m learning a lot from his art style.

A Cartoon History of the Universe (book 2) (Gonick)

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

This is A+ non-fiction. This book is a history of the idea that you can sell attention for money, using content as merely the attractor of the attention. Wu traces the whole history of this concept from early newspaper sales tactics, through war propaganda techniques, on through Google, Facebook, and so forth.

One thing I really appreciate is that Wu isn’t explicitly arguing that the paradigm of attention sales is a bad one – he’s asking us to deal with what it means. I wish everyone in tech would take a peek at this book.

The Attention Merchants (Wu)

Born on the Fourth of July

One of the great Vietnam memoirs, which I hadn’t yet read. This book is a bit more dreamlike than some of the others, dealing not just with war stories, but with his attempt to adjust back to society afterward despite an injury that leaves him paraplegic. In a sense, that makes this book a bit more unique (and perhaps timely) than a lot of other Vietnam memoirs, in that it’s really more about what war does to you *after* you get home.

Born on the Fourth of July (Kovick)

The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution (Pt. 1)

I vaguely remember reading this as a kid, but I picked it up again on a friend’s suggestion and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s really not so much a history of the world as a bit of illustrated info on a bunch of really interesting points in time.

The one strike against it is that it’s often, well, a bit wrong. Some of this is because it’s simply out of date, but (for example) at one point he mentions the infamous Aquatic Ape hypothesis, and it wasn’t (I don’t think!) as a joke.

The Cartoon History of the Universe (volume 1) (Gonick)