The Electric Commentary

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The 50 Book Challenge

The 50 Book Challenge

#16 The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
#17 Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

#16. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I read this book specifically because it contains the original use of the phrase "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" (abbreviated as TANSTAAFL). It's about a moon colony made up of Earth criminals and their children (now several generations removed from Earth) staging a revolution and becoming independent. It is very libertarian in tone and closely echoes the sentiments of the founding fathers of the Unites States (they even use an old copy of the Declaration of Independence as their declaration of independence).

Messages aside, the story is very good. The creative way in which they manage to fend off Earth is compelling, as is the notion that a sentient computer would have more difficulty creating a visual representation of a face than it would coordinating all the functions of a giant settlement. I have two minor issues:

1. Despite the fact that Heinlein repeatedly states that women on the Moon have most of the power (because there are about half as many women as there are men women set the rules based on supply and demand principles) it still seems a bit misogynistic, but maybe I’m just overthinking this a bit.

2. The main character speaks in an odd lunar dialect that apparently lacks articles, making him sound a bit like Frankenstein's monster. Eventually you get used to it, but it's irritating for a while. I think Heinlein does this to establish the Moon as its own land with its own culture, just as we don't speak the Queen's English anymore. He may also be attempting a Russian accent here, which also would make some sense. Whatever the intended message, it is not worth the resulting awkward prose.

It is still an excellent read, and it has been influential in countless sci-fi books since its publication.

#17 Blink

Blink succeeds on two separate fronts. First, it is a joy to read. Malcolm Gladwell is a fantastic storyteller, and I suspect that he could write about almost anything and it would be compelling. Second, as a bonus, Blink is also informative and enlightening.

The subject is snap decisions, and the science behind them. Gladwell contends that somejudgmentnap judgement is better than an reasoned one, and that we often suffer paralysis by analysis. Anecdotal examples abound. How does an art expert correctly determine that a sculpture is a fake immediately upon seeing it when scientific analysis to that point had determined that it was real? Can I make you walk more slowly by having you read a list of words? How can a seasoned tennis pro predict a double fault before it happens with over 90% accuracy? And what is your face telling other people, and telling you?

Gladwell makes a strong case that the snap judgment of an expert is often very reliable, but that snap judgments can fool us too. He asserts that we can get better with practice, and that we lose this ability in excited situations essentially becoming autistic. It will make you consider why you made certain unconscious decisions, and why you're in a certain mood right now.

This book also features a surprising and rather brilliant analysis of unconscious racism that will have you thinking about how you think for a while.

Gladwell is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Highly recommended.

On Deck:

Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon (on page 200).
Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond.
Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card.


  • In what context is the free lunch line used?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:11 AM  

  • TANSTAAFL is the motto of the lunar folk. When the main character, Manuel O'Kelly is explaining it to an Earth person after a rather odd civil trial in which Manuel acts as judge (for a fee, of course), he takes him to a restaurant where lunch is in fact "free." However, drinks cost twice as much. And the drinks are mandatory.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 10:27 AM  

  • More quotes from the book:

    I will accept any rules that you feel necessary to your freedom. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them to obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.

    "Sovereign," like "love," means anything you want it to mean; it's a word in dictionary between "sober" and "sozzled."

    One way or other, what you get, you pay for.

    This air isn't free, you pay for every breath.

    Thing that got me was not her list of things she hated, since she was obviously crazy as a Cyborg, but fact that always somebody agreed with her prohibitions. Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws— always for other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up. Because not one of those people said: "Please pass this so that I won't be able to do something I know I should stop." Nyet, tovarishchee, was always something they hated to see neighbors doing. Stop them "for their own good"—not because speaker claimed to be harmed by it.

    First, what is it you want us to pay taxes for? Tell me what I get and perhaps I'll buy it.

    In past history popularly elected governments have been no better and sometimes far worse than overt tyrannies.

    Suppose instead of election a man were qualified for office by petition signed by four thousand citizens. He would then represent those four thousand affirmatively, with no disgruntled minority, for what would have been a minority in a territorial constituency would all be free to start other petitions or join in them. All would then be represented by men of their choice. Or a man with eight thousand supporters might have two votes in this body. Difficulties, objections, practical points to be worked out— many of them! But you could work them out. . . and thereby avoid the chronic sickness of representative government, the disgruntled minority which feels— correctly!— that it has been disenfranchised.

    Whatever you do, do not let the past be a straitjacket!

    "Comrades, I beg of you – do not resort to compulsory taxation. There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him."

    You have put your finger on the dilemma of all government— and the reason I am an anarchist. The power to tax, once conceded, has no limits; it contains until it destroys. I was not joking when I told them to dig into their own pouches. It may not be possible to do away with government— sometimes I think that government is an inescapable disease of human beings. But it may be possible to keep it small and starved and inoffensive— and can you think of a better way than by requiring the governors themselves to pay the costs of their antisocial hobby?

    I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent— the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws. Let the legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority... while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third minority. Preposterous? Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two-thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law? And if a law is disliked by as many as one-third is it not likely that you would be better off without it?

    In writing your constitution let me invite attention to the wonderful virtue of the negative! Accentuate the negative! Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do. No conscript armies... no interference however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or occupation... no involuntary taxation.

    What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government powers to do something that appears to need doing.
    Seems to be a deep instinct in human beings for making everything compulsory that isn't forbidden.

    "Soul?" Does a dog have a soul? How about cockroach?

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 10:40 AM  

  • I'm looking forward to hearing your review of "Guns, Germs, and Steel", as I know several people who have told me it is very good.

    Also, "Ender's Game" is one of my favorite books of all time. It's very good.

    By Blogger Jason, at 1:36 PM  

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