Books Reviews 2023
I'm not sure that this book needs an introduction as the 2011 film was quite popular, but to recap, investigative journalist Michael Lewis attempts to understand the unusual success of the Oakland Athletics, as led by their unconventional manager, Billy Beane. In the early 2000s, the Oakland Athletics were consistently one of the best teams in professional baseball, despite having one of the smallest payrolls. In Lewis' estimation this success was traceable to a change in perspective: Oakland management saw the game differently and consequently managed their team differently.
Because I saw the movie before I read the book, I was drawn to the differences between the book and the movie. First, I think the movie does a better job situating Billy Beane within a tradition of unconventional thinkers. The book makes clear that there were many people challenging the conventions. At the time of writing, Billy Beane was just someone who had accepted an unconventional field of thought and was in a position to actuate it. Second, I think movie overplays the conflict between Billy Beane and his scouts. In the movie, the scouts come off as useless. In the book, it is clear that some are onboard with what Beane is doing, and that there is still a need for their skillset, its just being augmented and refocused.
I give this book 5/7.
My friend Tom recommended this near-future thriller to me. Set in a world where genetic research is banned after reckless experimentation caused a global famine, the novel is built around a conflict between a government agency, the GPA, tasked with preventing further genetic research, and a rouge group of scientists who want to continue their research. The protagonist, Logan Ramsay, is a GPA agent that is ambushed and forcibly altered with a host of beneficial DNA changes (the eponymous upgrade). Now hunted by his former employer, he must figure out the identity and motivations of his misterious benefactor. Twists and turns ensue.
Overall, this book was entertaining, and it would make for a fun beach read. The author clearly did quite a bit of research with respect to genetic engineering in an attempt to ground the science in a sense of realism. Notwithstanding this effort, the result is that Logan Ramsay is a super hero, with the requisite super strength and super intelligence. Unfortunately the upgraded Ramsay's was not written as a real genius, more like a Hollywood genius who can multiply really fast and catch bullets. Other than that the setting is fun, but probably too embed in our present conception of the future.
I give this book 5/7. It was entertaining if shallow.
Another year, another Neil Stephenson. When I reviewed Cryptonomicon, I described it as a series of lectures bound together by a framing story. I think that holds mostly true here as well, but the balance is different. This is maybe 40% main story, 60% lectures.
The main story takes place in an fantastical world with a level of technology roughly equivilent to our own. Scientist-monks isolate themselves for long periods so that they may focus on their studies unconcerned with the political, social, and cultural happenings of the outside world. However, on rare occasions, the outside world conscripts them to address some crisis. The main story is focused around addressing such a crisis after a monk notes an astrophysical anomaly.
One of the things I usually enjoy so much about Stephenson's work is how he can swing between unrelated topics: one minute you can be reading about traditional family structures in the Philippines and the next about network communication protocols in aquatic environments. Here, the ahistorical setting of the book detaches the lectures from real-world history and politics. Instead the discourses focus on questions of human consciousness, mathematics, and physics. This choice has a positive and negative effect, Positively, it draws our attention to the questions of what is universal to the human experience. Negatively, it narrows the scope of what is discussed.
I give this book 6/7. If you like read other Neil Stephenson and want more, this is a fine choice. If you are just getting introduced to the author, I'd start Cryptonomicon or Snow Crash.
A Canticle For Leibowitz
I first encountered this book through a reference in After Virtue. I found the reference strange enough that I decided to read the former (although perhaps I haven't read enough ethics, perhaps this is a fairly common practice to reference 1950s science fiction). In form this was a fix up novel consisting of three interconnected stories centered around a fictional, catholic order of monks. These monks are dedicated to preserving knowledge after a nuclear exchange has obliterated society. On a superficial level each of the three stories was entertaining, but arranged collectively they tell a story of a clash of mindsets: one modern, one ancient.
It is the exploration of these mindsets that captivated me. The first mindset, represented in the lay community, is a product of the 1950's impending sense of doom. It is curious, industrious, and inventive, but reckless and vain. The second mindset, present in the clergy, was likely inspired by Miller's encounters with Italian monks during the World War II. It is an infinitely patient, resilient, and uncompromising. In the novel, the monks come off quite well, but as the predicted doomsday has not yet arrived, it is too soon to tell.
I give this book 6/7, but I think some of the stories might be a 7/7.
Map and Territory
Eliezer Yudkowsky is one of the self-proclaimed rationalist.
I give this book 6/7. Very insightful and informative, but at times unpolished.