The week in reading—September 23rd–29th 2013

I completed relatively few things this week. I tend to read items in parallel, so while I have a lot of things in the queue, here’s what I actually finished reading this week.

Books

Approaching The Future: 64 Things You Need to Know Now For Then, by Ben Hammersley

This is a great book for someone who hasn’t been reading Wired and other probing-the-near-future books and magazines. In other words, I think it’s pretty good, but I didn’t get very much out of it, it was covering ground largely familiar to me.

I did get enough out of it that it was useful, and he’s an entertaining and facile writer who manages to largely keep his own politics and agendas out of what he’s presenting. For example, it made me more enthusiastic about doing my own bio-hacking; I knew it had gotten cheap, but I think I want to order some equipment now and mess around with altering DNA. And I liked the bit about Nicaragua invading Costa Rica based on an error in Google Maps. And believe it or not, I had never heard of (or forgotten) about Spimes.

OK, I take it back. There were lots of bits in this book that were new to me, it’s just that the first half of it was such familiar ground that I was conditioned. But I learned about “human flesh search engines” (literal translation from Chinese), I learned about /b on 4Chan (hey, I can’t be everywhere), I was reminded of why I think favorably of Anonymous (their first big campaign was waged against the Church of Scientology), or that there are now over 900 TED Talks videos. Or that there are online money changers to exchange your WoW gold into FF gil.

So yes, I liked this book a lot. Give it a shot, even though it’s ever so slightly out of date. I mean, it mentions 2012 as the future. Serious!

This is in fact the book I need my wife to read, my parents, and all my other friends and acquaintances that don’t already live in the future. Because, as William Gibson pointed out not too long ago, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”.

The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White

I think I own every book that Steven Brust has published. If there’s one that I don’t own, it’s either through horrible oversight, or that it was published in a very exclusive format and hidden from me. I love Steven Brust’s writing style. This is my first interaction with Skyler White, she was previously unknown to me.

The central premise of The Incrementalists is hoary, but the authors make it work. A set of basically immortals have been meddling with humanity for as long as humanity has been around. And yet, they aren’t exactly immortal. Instead, they are memories and personalities that are transplanted from person to person. And the meddling is small things intended to make people and situations better. It’s also a murder mystery with a twist, and follows a moderately tough double-first-person track (it’s told first person by both of the main protagonists).

Steven Brust, like Roger Zelazny, is a master of dialog; probably half of the text in the book is dialog. It’s snappy, wry, snarky, emotional, and tricky – it’s very hard to have a mystery or surprises with first-person without it being deus ex machina, and there’s a minimum of that.

That said, it’s not his finest book. His first Vlad Taltos books were better, and I don’t think he’s written anything to match The Sun, The Moon and the Stars (my personal favorite of his). But this is still a fun book and a thoughtful book, since it touches on identity and humanity and purpose.

Magazines

Fewer magazines this week, I think.

The Philospher’s Magazine, Issue 59, 4th Quarter 2012

I’ve been reading this on and off for a few years now, ever since I discovered it on a rack at Barnes & Noble.

This issue covered argument (“Can reasonable people disagree?”), ethics and banking, an article on a controversial experiment by Benjamin Libbet that purported to show free will is weak or nonexistent, genetics and ethics,  women in philosophy (still very unequal), can evil achievements have value, an interview with Frank Jackson (famous for his paper titled “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (google “Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument”).

It’s not a terribly big magazine, but it’s moderately dense, this issue more so than normal.

Psychology Today, October 2013

This is probably one of the most “pop” magazines I read. I usually pick up an issue based on what the cover screams out, and this cover was “When Virtue becomes Vice”. Did you know that fairness taken too far is a vice? Excellence I get – you can become so focused on perfection that you get paralyzed and get nothing done (I’m looking at you, Blizzard). The passion one I’m not so sure about.

I agree with the myth of the balanced life. I’m so tired about hearing that we need balanced lives. Get stuff done! Live a great life! Don’t worry about whether it’s “balanced” or not.

There was also an article on one of the founders of Akamai, Daniel Mark Lewin, who died in the 9/11 attacks (he was on one of the airplanes, Flight 11, that crashed into the World Trade Center). He was brilliant, and who knows what more he would have accomplished had he not been killed.

The other interesting article for me was on sleep. I really need to sleep more. I just find the whole process to be a waste of my time, but I realize it’s important and I’ll think better if I get enough rest. Blah blah blah yeah ok.

Economist, September 28th-October 4th 2013

One near-ritual I have is to buy the Economist Saturday morning, and read it. I really should be subscribing to it, but there’s something about the anticipation of going to the newsstand, purchasing it, and then reading it over a meal or two. I think it takes about 8 hours of reading for me to finish it all (I’m guessing that a typical issue has somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 words in it – I counted a few pages and they run at around 1000 words per page). Sometimes I finish it over the weekend, and other times I’ll be reading it (along with other things) for much of the week.

Al-Qaeda is alive and well, alas. The Arab Spring has turned sour, and that bodes ill for the stability of the region and maybe the world. Brazil’s economy is sputtering due to the high taxes insane hide-bound rules laden over everything. Venezuela is trying to blame everything on The Great Satan (America) instead of their own disastrous policies.

The special report this issue was on Brazil. Brazil is facing a milder version of the challenge currently crippling Venezuela – huge resources letting hard decisions be deferred. In the case of Venezuela, it wasn’t tenable even back 10 years ago, whereas Brazil seemed like it was on a sound footing. But Brazil’s maze of laws, its pretty unrepresentative government, its gigantic pension liabilities, and its lack of infrastructure and education investment bode poorly for the future. Venezuela will probably face civil war or something equally dramatic, whereas Brazil could turn into a zombie like Japan was for the past 20 years. Or it could fix its woes.

Angela Merkel won in Germany, or rather both she and the CDU/CSU. This is good for Europe and the world. There’s going to be some drama, because the CDU’s reliable minority partner, the FDP, failed to get 5% of the vote and therefore is not in parliament any more (you need at least 5% to be important enough to have any seats). So there’s going to be a coalition of some sort, but the potential coalition partners aren’t looking forward to it. So there will be interesting times for the next few weeks to months, and all the EU looks towards Angela Merkel to ratify EU-wide decisions.

Blackberry (formerly known as Research In Motion) was worth $83 billion in 2008, and is now likely to go private at $4.7 billion. But unlike Dell, I’m not sure what Blackberry’s future market is – even if they focus on business, businesses are now buying what their users want, and that’s iPhones and Androids.

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