The Way of Strangers

Wood does an excellent job of trying to make you understand how people in the Islamic State think. A lot of it is personal memoirs and history, but most interesting of all, Wood argues that the West has often misunderstood Islamic State members, by either claiming that they’re purely the product of our own influence, or that they are not truly a religion, or that the people in charge are mere power seekers. To oversimplify a bit, Wood’s big point is that these people are best understood as religious people with a great deal of conviction, who believe in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qu’ran, that leads to their awful behavior. Particularly memorable for me was a part where he mentions a conservative American scholar who believes we fail to understand ISIS because most of us in the secular West no longer understand the basic ideological framework that would lead someone to endure war and privation for religious beliefs.

The Way of Strangers (Wood)

The Adventure of English

A great little book describing the history of English. Its only flaw (which I hesitate to call a flaw because the author is quite aware of it) is that in the book’s exuberance for the specialness of English, it can get quite a bit too teleological. Just about any claim in English’s favor could be easily explained as survivor bias.

Still, it’s a fun romp through the history of the English language, and worth a read.

The Adventure of English (Bragg)

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World

This book was a bit light, but still very enjoyable. The thesis is that play and pleasure very important to the history of science, technology, and culture. As an example, Johnson argues that interest in automata helped lead (if a little indirectly) to the development of computers. Apparently, Babbage was quite interested in these early robots as a child, and it probably influenced his work. Johnson discusses other topics, such as the spice trade and the development of the Jacquard loom.

I found this book fun, though I’m not quite prepared to buy the thesis as such. After all, anything that reaches fruition as a technology must first have been imagined. It’s hard to think of any interesting contraption whose origins couldn’t be traced back to something fun, in part (I suspect) because fun things tend to be easier to make. It’s hard to think of space-rockets coming into existence without someone first making toy versions. Furthermore, people play with all sorts of stuff that, of course, does NOT lead to technological revolutions.

Wonderland (Johnson)

An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy

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.

An Extraordinary Time (Levinson)

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.

Atomic Accidents (Mahaffey)

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)

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 Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)

A very good book, which is in some sense a different take on Tyler Cowen’s Great Stagnation theory. Gordon’s book is much longer and quite extensive in detailing why, in his view, growth was abnormally high during the middle 20th century and part of the early 21st century, but has otherwise been disappointing. Somewhat depressing, but very enlightening. If it’s not something you’re interested in, you’ll find it painfully tedious, but if it’s a topic you’re curious about, it’s fantastic.

Nov 11 – The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Gordon)

Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It’s Necessary, How It Works

Gruber is the economist who was the architect of the ACA, also called Obamacare. This comic was apparently written as a sort of guide for the public. It’s unfortunately pretty awful. It summons up complex topics, then dismisses them in a hand-wavey sort of way. The art doesn’t do much to supplement the topic. And, in general, it feels like it was crafted hastily without much thought for the craft of a good comic. Too bad, because I was interested in the topic!

November 8 – Health Care Reform (Gruber, Schreiber, Newquist)