Reading Journals

Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir - Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

January 28, 2020

I’ve had this on my Amazon wish list for a while, so I was very excited to find it at my library the last time I went up there. It was a quick read, easy to digest and understand, and one I enjoyed. It’s tempting for me to say that it was also too simple, because upon first glance the conclusions that the authors draw seem too obvious--scarcity in one’s life of any kind causes stress, which diminishes what they have termed “bandwidth,” which is essentially the breadth of our cognitive function. But I think there’s something else going on here--the book’s conclusions are deceptively simple, in that they seem inevitable when we read about them because we recognize how we’ve been feeling their effects in our own lives every since we can remember. What is lacking, however, and I think the reason the authors wrote this book, is a shared conversation around the phenomenon that I feel as if we’ve talked around for a long time, but specifically not about. I hope that this book changes that, because, as they mention several times throughout the book, a discussion about the root causes of our failure to follow through with diets, our inability to get (and stay!) out of poverty, our forgetfulness about taking our daily medications, and many other issues, rather than treating the symptoms could possibly produce far better solutions than the ones we are using now. Shifting the focus to the way we are all universally affected by scarcity of any kind, and recognizing that this is something we are somehow biologically pre-programmed for, would also be helpful in increasing empathy, and hopefully dispelling some of the politically and emotionally charged rhetoric that gets thrown around so much with regards to poverty, personal responsibility, etc., and how we can decrease the one and increase the other.

While the book does not include in-text citations, it does survey many studies on a lot of different related topics, which are all covered in the notes section in the back. I especially enjoyed reading about them, a few of which it seems were actually conducted by the authors of the book at various times.

N.K. Jemisin - Emergency Skin

January 23, 2020

I wasn’t originally going to list this since it’s a short story, but I’m behind in my reading so far this year (I’m sure I’ll catch up later), and I felt that I should note that I listened to the audiobook version of this story, which I got for free via Amazon Prime. I’ve tried several times to get into audiobooks, but wasn’t successful, and since I’ve been running out of more podcast episodes to listen to, I figured I ought to give it more tries. This one was an easy listen and I enjoyed it a lot. It’s kind of a wish-fulfillment sci-fi tale in which Earth’s most toxic individuals bail and leave the planet when it looks like things are at their worst, and without them the remaining inhabitants finally manage to pull things together and create a functional, equal society.

Tim Wu - The Master Switch

February 15, 2020

While the gist of the book is about information industries and the ways in which they initially exist as free markets and are eventually brought to heel under the hand of one or two monopolies, it is largely a history of AT&T and the way they have influenced the development of our country. As such, I thought it was great, because the history of Ma Bell is kind of a pet hobby of mine. It begins at the very beginning, with Alexander Bell himself, and how his company grew and changed from a state-sponsored monopoly with an (albeit small) idea that it should serve the public rather than control it, to a fragmented shell of what it once was (in the eighties), and now a monopoly once again, though not as all-encompassing as it was when our country was younger. It then switches back and forth between the film industry, radio (I was particularly shocked to learn here that we’ve never really fully exploited the capabilities of FM radio, even to this day), and later on the Internet. That last item eventually becomes the main point of the entire book--as Wu explains, he fully believes that the internet will not remain open, but will fall in much the same way that radio, film, and the phone systems all have. He’s not all doom and gloom, though--he does point out that the very structure of the web itself--namely, its ability to carry data completely independent of the network it is transferred along--means that things might go slightly differently this time. Hopefully, of course, we’ll all get together and do something about it, but I’m not particularly optimistic about that myself.

I think one important takeaway from the book is that it details just how very closely the FCC and other branches of the government worked with AT&T to ensure that they maintained complete control over the phone system. I was not aware of just how very deep this went, nor of how this was not always seen as a bad thing. There are a lot of other things here too that I will not be able to forget quickly: how Wells Fargo, the telegraph monopoly of the time, shifted the results of the 1877 election by leaking the Democrat’s messages to the Republican party because Rutherford B. Hayes was more favorable to monopolies (I was highly amused to read in Wikipedia that his opponents referred to him as “Rutherfraud”); how AT&T invented the fax machine and voicemail machines in the 1930s, and then promptly squelched them completely because they felt that they would threaten the industry (AT&T believed that no one would want to place calls any more because they’d just listen to the messages!).

In fact, Wu makes a specific point about monopolies that I wish more people would realize: an industry monopoly doesn’t always result in higher prices, though the courts have generally assumed that this is the main criteria by which to judge them. In many cases monopolies result in stifled innovation and stagnation while still keeping prices low, and in others they simply control the ideas and conversations on their airwaves. The Edison Trust did this in the 1910s with movies, when they refused to sponsor any films that did not fit their very strict (and in my opinion, boring) criteria , and there is a particularly harrowing, and more modern, example of this happening with AT&T in the 1990s. Faced with the reality that the public were no longer tolerant of monopolies, AT&T decided to shift the national conversation to one of free markets, and made the argument that the presence of competition means that there is no need for government regulation. Getting rid of these regulations enabled them to rebuild the monopoly that the FCC had split apart nearly a decade earlier.

Dan Simmons - The Fall of Hyperion

February 24, 2020

My god, I do enjoy “existing” in this universe. The book gets some flack because a lot of people think the resolution to the character’s arcs are not satisfactory, but I’m just here for the world building. This second book largely focuses on the Hegemony-Ouster war that broke out at the end of the last one, and while I was worried I would find the whole boring, it turned out to be quite entertaining. Without spoiling too much I will say that the death toll is very high, and when the worlds went up in flames and explosions, I realized I was going to miss them. They were only described in brief, but those descriptions were very, very vivid, and I felt hit when they were gone.

In fact, there was more of everything that I loved about Simmons’ universe in this sequel. I’ve realized that I really love stories that are set really, really far into the future, and this one is so far away that their machines are really indistinguishable from magic. I myself am kind of a tech fanatic, and I frequently enjoy immersing myself in it--I don’t believe smartphones will rot my brain, or that socializing online is worse than calling people on the phone (there was a time when phone conversations were expected to lead to the death of face to face interaction!), and I Google literally everything. Technology has undoubtedly made my life much, much better, and having a smartphone with me at all times has gone so far in alleviating a great deal of my chronic anxiety. So the novel’s underlying theme of overdependence on technology was one that I thought wouldn’t resonate with me, but it was done very well. There were some interesting hints about mankind’s “spiritual stagnation” that may have been caused by this over-reliance on the technocore, but it’s not something that’s really elaborated on. This is probably for the best, since it would probably just end up sounding preachy (much like another book I’ve been reading for a while, which isn’t even in the same league as this one. I’ll probably write about that one later).

This will be the second Hyperion book that I started out with, thinking I wasn’t going to read any more Hyperion books, only to have me change my mind. I’m not sure if I’m going to feel the same after reading a book in which all the words I love are dead, but we will see.

Jennifer Traig - Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting

February 24, 2020

I loved this book! It made me feel so much better about being a sometimes less than stellar parent. It also opened my eyes to how recent the phenomenon of “gentle parenting” (for lack of a better word) is. I loved her tales of just how often and how much parents have foisted the raising of their own children (especially among the higher classes) onto other people, and was surprised to see how prevalent it was. I was also delighted to see how many of the crazy things about what’s supposed to be best for our children are really just fad-based nonsense.

Sy Montgomery - The Soul of an Octopus

February 28, 2020

I went into this audiobook expecting something about natural history and science, but it’s basically just a memoir. It includes a lot of tidbits that the author apparently researched via books and the internet, and I didn’t actually know that much about Octopuses in general, so I suppose I learned something, but this is all sandwiched in between anecdotes about her personal journey to make friends with the creatures at her local aquarium. She also talks a bit about learning to scuba dive (which she ultimately wasn’t able to complete because of ear issues), but I have to admit I zoned out a bit during these. They didn’t really seem to be going anywhere, and I didn’t care to hear her describe the places underwater that I’ve seen in photos or videos much more vividly. The fact that she narrated her own book is a nice touch, because she obviously has a lot of passion for the subject she writes about, but that didn’t raise my interest in most of the material.

I have to admit that the book was keeping me far more entertained in the beginning, until she got into her interactions with high schoolers and her inner boomer started showing. She doesn’t seem like an appallingly rude person, but describing young girls as “loud” and covered in “makeup and piercings” sounds a bit naive and tone-deaf. It made me kind of re-evaluate her writing and managed to put a lot of it into perspective. I was especially confused by the situation with the replacement octopus that the aquarium procured, Kali. She’s described as being kept in a barrel, which seems horrible and restrictive and boring, but then later on in the book when she talked about how they were thinking about switching her with a fish in another tank, and I started to think she was actually in a barrel that was in a tank. I know that Octopuses like to hang out in barrels and boxes within their tanks because it makes them feel safe, but then after that the way she wrote about it confused me further. I have no idea how the set up actually was because the description was vague and confusing. I do know that there are a lot of reviewers over at goodread who were far more sure that it was a barrel only and are furious with the author for presenting this as normal. The aforementioned naivete of the author made me feel that her narration on that subject was not to be trusted.

Apparently Montgomery has another book on dolphins and seems to like writing about marine life. I think I will skip that one and any others she writes.

Ben Fritz - The Big Picture - The Fight for the Future of Movies

March 21, 2020

While the prose in this one was somewhat lacking and sounded amateurish at times, the information included was pretty great, and I can forgive clunky writing if I happen to be learning something interesting while reading it. This book is about Hollywood’s recent history, the fall of Sony, and the rise of franchises. Being a curmudgeonly out-of-touch movie watcher myself, I often worry that reading books like this one will only serve to confirm my biases and make me feel more self-righteous, but actually I came away from this one understanding more about why Hollywood is actually doing this. I think partially this was helped along by a revelation that I came across when I was reading The Master Switch--namely, that making movies has traditionally been a gamble, and not something that I would particularly enjoy putting my money on. The move to large franchise-based blockbuster flicks removes this gamble. Disney’s Bob Iger figured this out about ten years ago when he realized that his movie studio could make more money by making fewer films per year, and spending more on each of them. I still don’t really enjoy the films that are coming out now (and I only enjoyed a small number of them before this switch anyway, so I’ll admit I was never the target audience for any of this), but I can appreciate and understand why they are made this way.

No discussion about film and entertainment today would be complete without Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and Fritz devotes a good chunk of the book to the whole phenomenon. Because of viewer’s changing habits and the availability of online media--which we can now watch all at once instead of tuning in each week (blegh! I always hated that!)--the way we tell stories has fundamentally changed, and the adventurous art pieces that used to find themselves in small cinemas (and maybe the larger ones if they were lucky) are now viewed on phones, tablets, and internet-connected TV screens. Fritz calls this the Golden Age of television, and while I’m sure there are plenty who still have a lot to complain about what’s on the screen, I certainly think he’s right that television (which is no longer defined by the actual television sets it may or may not be viewed on) is experiencing more freedom and creativity than it ever has before. In fact I definitely find myself watching far more television programming than movies in any given week, when I’m not watching non-traditional stuff on YouTube. Even if I don’t enjoy all, or even most of it, I get excited about television shows far more than I ever do about movies.

This one was definitely a good buy. I’m not a film buff by any means, but I do enjoy entertainment, and I can appreciate parts of it in a new way now (though I’ll still probably remain out-of-touch and maybe a little bit less curmudgeonly).

Stephen D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner - When to Rob a Bank: And 131 more warped suggestions and well-intended rants.

April 4, 2020

This was a quick, easy, and entertaining read. I read Freakonomics quite a while back and enjoyed it, and I listen to the podcast pretty obsessively, so I was excited to see this pop up in the sale lists. It’s actually a compilation of blog posts from the Stephens’ blog, which I’ve never read, but certainly could for free. However, I got the book for about $2.15, so I can’t complain too much.

Some of the posts were a bit briefer than I would have hoped, and some have some truly terrible ideas in them, while others were pretty great (and I enjoyed the guest posts particularly). One thing that surprised me is the marked difference between Levitt and Dubner’s writing--turns out that Dubner is far more Libertarian-leaning than I had noticed before, and I found many of his ideas to be rather distasteful. Still, the purpose of the blog seemed to be for speculation and play, so I read the good and bad both.

For $2.15, I can’t really complain.

DNF - Katherine Eban - Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom

April 4, 2020

I am not finishing this book, but I am including it here because I’m pissed at it and have things to say.

I should really like this book, because I usually love books about this kind of subject matter, but I can. Not. Get. Through. This. Eban seems to have decided that she needs to write for a wide, general audience, and so has not only dumbed down the narrative, but also tried to inject a level of personality into the book by focusing on the individuals involved, and including a lot of unnecessary detail about their lives and personalities. It’s not that I don’t really care about the people behind the story, but they were not written well, and I wanted more detail about the companies and the legal framework in which they work. I don’t really feel that I learned anything while reading this crap and I kept questioning why I kept trying after the first few chapters. Maybe I’ll come back to it at some point, but I’ll probably just go and find a better book.

Ann Bannon - Odd Girl Out

April 4, 2020

This is one of those pulp novels that I picked up as part of the queer fiction pulp bundle that I found who knows where a while back. It was simple and fairly predictable, set in the fifties and concerning an overly-sheltered young woman who enters college and falls in love with her charismatic roommate. All of the men are idiots, and being gay was largely illegal at the time, but the rest of it was pure schlock and exactly what I was craving at the time. There’s lots of “reeling” and “burning passion” type prose everywhere, which I just love if it’s done right (as right as you can be when your prose is bright purple, anyway), and this one had a relatively satisfying ending. Our protagonist didn’t end up with the girl, but she had her own triumphs in the end.

DNF - Becky Chambers - The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

April 20, 2020

%32 of the way in, I’m not finishing this one; I just can’t. I knew it was going to be all flowers and roses going in, because I had seen it described as a “very nice” book, but it is incredibly boring and I can’t make it through. The plot features a ragtag crew aboard a spaceship that punches holes through spacetime in order to build wormholes that the rest of the galaxy will use to get around. Now, if that sounds cool, it’s because it is--there’s some really cool worldbuilding in here. I liked the huge numbers of different life forms that these characters are forced to contend with, and some of them led really different lives than those that I’ve experienced. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t really do anything with them. Any potential conflicts between them or issues that could arise because of their differences get explained away and resolved in a few sentences immediately after they’re brought up, and everyone is happy to get along without ever looking any deeper than the surface. The narrative brings up differences in gender, physical appearances and ability, culture, and then immediately makes it clear that no one ever struggles with these problems because we’ve gotten past our differences and everything is perfect now.

At first I thought I must be more addicted to cynicism than I thought, but then I realized that I wasn’t the lack of negativity that was getting to me, it was the lack of plot and character development. So I went online and read a few reviews to see if anything in the book picks up later, and apparently it is exactly as stagnant throughout as it’s been the entire time I’ve been pushing through this slog. In addition to that, the dialogue for some reason makes me cringe--I’m not sure what it is exactly that makes me hate it so, but when I imagine anyone saying these things in real life, I think it would make me want to vomit. It’s not that I don’t agree with the sentiment behind any of it--in fact, I agree with almost all of it--but the way in which they talk about extreme acceptance and openness is almost patronizing. They talk about food much the same way, with an over-emphasis on comfort food and being caffeinated that I tend to think of as immature. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who thought the QUIRKY engineering girl was repulsive and annoying (what is it about people who try so hard to be QUIRKY that I just can’t stand?).

Blegh, I think my time will be better spent elsewhere.

Blake Crouch - Dark Matter & Recursion

August 21, 2020

I’m reviewing these together both because I’m behind in my personal reviews, and because they’re both really similar and short. I found Blake Crouch via Libby, where the synopses of his books looked interesting and the wait wasn’t too long. He’s not bad, but I’m not a super huge fan. Most of his books are classified as Sci-fi, but I feel like he’s not incredibly good at writing sci-fi, whereas his skills as a thriller writer are great. They’re both quick reads and not too deep, so I usually go through them in a day or so. I do enjoy the ride, even if they’re not intellectually challenging.

Dark Matter is about a man who invents a machine that allows him to travel to multiple parallel universes. It starts off quick, with the main character being kidnapped and swapped into one of these by a mysterious man who seems to know everything about him. It’s not too terribly difficult to figure out who this person is (our protagonist from another universe that he clearly wasn’t happy in), but the rest of the ride is enjoyable anyway. After it takes our original main man far too long to figure out who has kidnapped him and stolen his life, he pairs up with a lady from his adopted universe and goes through a dizzying array of different dimensions. This, of course, was my favorite part, and I have always loved things like this in other stories. It reminds me a bit of the excitement I got from reading C.S. Lews’ The Magician’s Nephew for the first time, wondering how amazing it would be to jump into all those different pools and visit different worlds.

Beyond that point, it turns into a love story about a man who is determined to get back to the woman he loves. I feel like the author leaned too much on the “destined for each other” trope, and it felt like lazy and trite writing. We soon see there are tons of parallel-universe versions of himself trying to get back to his family, but we’re just supposed to accept that the one we know is the “true” Jason, and all the others can just get stuffed. Because he treats the multiverse theory with about as much depth as you’d find in a Hollywood movie, there’s no time spent on how to resolve this in a more satisfactory way. He basically just ends up killing the rest and then running out. All in all, it was a fun read, but it’s not incredibly deep, and I thought the ending was a cop-out.

Spoiler warning, Recursion’s ending also ended up being a cop-out. It touches upon many of the same ideas (Crouch is evidently a big fan of the multi-universe-that-we-can-control-with-our-minds-theory, as well as using quantum physics to explain away everything that doesn’t make sense). Recursion focuses on a woman who has made it her life’s work to create a machine that can map people’s brain patterns when they recall memories, so that they can then live them back afterwards. When the book opens, her mother is dealing with the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease, so her motivations are both obvious and touching. I’ve had many family members who have suffered from this terrible disease, so maybe I’m particularly biased towards this, but I always feel for characters who are forced to deal with it. At any rate, through the magic of “quantum mechanics,” her machine ends up transporting people through time, giving them the chance to relive their lives over again. Unfortunately, this is co-opted by her employer who then screws the world over and instigates nuclear war, because humans obviously cannot be trusted with power ( tells me this is called “No Man Should Have This Power”). The inventor, Helena, then ends up going through multiple 30-year loops in order to fix things, only to have the solution fall completely flat for me. The key, it seems, is to go back to the original “dead timeline” where everything diverged from, which you can do with little to no explanation provided you just concentrate hard enough. This isn’t accomplished by Helena, though, it’s done instead by her love interest, Barry, with whom she shares most of the book and narrative. The fact that the world is fixed by a cop with little training, rather than the inventor of the machine who has multiple degrees, made it seem even more ridiculous for me.

I didn’t really like this one as much, despite the fact that it’s his more popular book. Honestly I wouldn’t have read it, but I had forgotten I reserved it on Libby until the hold came up and I figured, “why not?” I think I’ve decided that I’m not too much a fan of his, so I probably won’t pick up any more, unless I find myself in an airport with time to kill and happen to be standing next to a cheap paperback copy in the souvenir shop. (I also wanted to point out that this book kind of reminded me of LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, which is a much better book, and probably did not help in my assessment of this one.)

Kell Inkston - Condemnation (Substation 7: Book 1)

September 19, 2020

I both loved and hated this book. The world is amazing, and there’s a huge amount of action. It picks up in the beginning and literally does not stop at all throughout the entire thing. The main character i a young girl who, while she does act like a bit of a brat through most of the book, is relatable and Gets Shit Done. The reason I hate it is that Inkston (what the fuck kind of name is that anyway?) clearly loves torturing his characters. This doesn’t actually become more apparent until later on in the book, but (spoilers) I read the entire series (couldn’t put them down!!!), and it only gets worse as it goes on. This poor girl goes through so much and ends up going for so long without food (although it seems perhaps that the book doesn’t cover as much time as I thought it did in realtime), that I wondered whether or not realistically she would still have been conscious in real life. Not to mention, she loses the function of most of her body in one way or another.

Nonetheless, given that I’ve already mentioned I read the entire series, the book clearly has a lot going for it. The worldbuilding is really unlike anything I’ve read about before, and there was so much to be revealed that I just wanted to find out more. I wish there wasn’t so much violence, and that the language wasn’t so intense, because if that were the case I’d recommend it to my kid. But as it is, it’s waaay too extreme for someone his age. Also, there were a lot of typos and instances in which Names were swapped because the author forgot who he was writing about (and at least once I swear he forgot to mention something present in one of the rooms, and then referred to it as if we were aware that it was. I had to flip back and was left thinking, “where the hell did that come from!?!?!). I come across this pretty frequently since I do have a thing for self-published books (and I’m pretty sure this was self-published), but it was especially bad in this one. Like I said, love and hate it.

Liu Cixin - The Three-Body Problem

December 25, 2020

Well, this one was a bit disappointing. There were parts of of that were really great, and some of the science had some neat ideas, but it read much more like a pulp novel than I expected it would. Before picking it up, everyone else’s reviews online made it sound like sort of an old-school science fiction novel, in the line of Clark or Asimov, etc. The main complaints I saw were that there was no character development (turns out this was only true for some characters, not all of them), and that it was hard science fiction. I did not find it to be something I would consider “Hard sci-fi,” although there as some thought put into the physics of space travel and faster-than light spaceships. But the science behind everything else wasn’t up to the same standards--for instance, one of the main characters early in her life comes across a message from a civilization on another planet, and is somehow able to read it after translating it later that night, alone. She is not a linguist, and her methods for doing this are hand waved away. I understand if an author is better about writing some things than others, but I found this to be shuch a glaring omission that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief and it kind of ruined the rest of the book for me.

Another nitpick I had occurs later in the novel, when said alien civilization begins building a computer in another dimension, so that they can send it to Earth in the form of a single proton. Sounds ridiculous, right? There were a lot of visualizations accompanied with this that made me really question the logic behind any of it. It sounded like pop-quantum physics to me, which is one thing I’m really, really tired of in popular science fiction novels.

That said, there were things in it that I did like. I disagree that there wasn’t any character development. The character that the book opens up with is a young woman whose life unfolds during the Cultural Revolution, and I found her character arc to be quite compelling. I actually really liked her as a character, even if I disagreed with a lot of the choices she made. That’s probably because I really enjoy reading books that are set in China and dig into the things they went through during the Culutural Revolution and the trauma it left behind. It’s so difficult to read about those things from an American perspective and know whether or not they’re honest or colored by propaganda and/or bias. Anything set in modern China, written by people who actually live there, facinates me.

This book, it turns out, was the first in a series, and at this point I’m not planning on reading the rest. The young lady I mentioned is older at the end of the book and I don’t believe will be the focus on subsequent ones. Maybe if I ever run out of reading material (ha! That’s a laugh), but not now for a while at least.