The Electric Commentary

Monday, November 21, 2005

What ever happened to the 50 Book Challenge?

I'm not going to make it. This is the result of some poor choices on my part. I had too many big books going all at once, and while I'm a fast reader, I really buried myself. Secondly, my commute was shortened by several hours earlier this year and consequently my reading time was significantly reduced.

That said, I've actually read quite a few books since my last 50 book challenge post, so if you're looking for a good read over the Thanksgiving holiday, here are some ideas:

Interface, by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George

This is a rerelease of an old Neal Stephenson book that was published under a pseudonym. Neal is one of my favorite authors, but his early work leaves something to be desired. That said, this is a good, but not great, political thriller. It owes a lot to The Manchurian Candidate, as well as Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man.

Presidential candidate William Cozzano has a device implanted in his head that feeds him instant poll results, so that he can adjust his speeches on the fly. It soon becomes unclear if he is responding to the signals, or being controlled by them. Mystery and intrigue ensue. If you're in the mood for political conspiracy theory you could do worse. Or you could reread Cryptonomicon instead.

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

To be fair to Diamond, I'd heard so much about this book already that it felt like I had already read it. Diamond won a Pulitzer for this work, and I must admit that he does have a way with words, but at the end it starts to feel like the last 150 pages are just padding. Diamond attempts to explain why some civilizations succeed and some fail through geography. He makes a big deal out of usable pack animals, seed cultivation, and the American continents vertical orientation vs. the Eurasian continents horizontal orientation. Some of his explanations are compelling, but I would have liked to see him spend a little more time on the role of political institutions.

Not a favorite of mine, and certainly not a page turner, but it's worth a read if you're interested in the subject.

The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and Eric, all by Terry Pratchett

These are books that I should have read when I was a nerdy teenager. Terry Pratchett writes the Discworld series of books, about a world that actually rests on the backs of four elephants riding a space turtle. There are a lot of fantasy books that deal with magic. Where Pratchett excels is that he treats magic like we treat physics. The Discworld also runs on observable laws, and magic isn't so much practiced as it is held in check. Think nuclear containment.

Pratchett is also consistently witty, and puns and plays on words are pervasive. Very Douglas Adams-esque.

Love, Poverty, and War, by Christopher Hitchens

I love a good Hitch rant, and this collection of essays from Vanity Fair, Slate, etc. is great for a quick fix. Like any collection, it's uneven, but I enjoyed enough of it to make it worthwhile. I am especially fond of his book reviews, which make up about 1/4 of the book. And his religious rants are second to none.

The End of Faith, by Sam Harris

Rarely have I been so disappointed in a book. Sam Harris spends hundreds of pages dismantling the idea that faith deserves respect, and then in the end, he basically admits to being a Buddhist. This is a slight overstatement, but he basically asserts that transcendental meditation is the way to go, and that this is objectively verifiable. It was sort of like reading an entire treatise that you agree with only to discover it was written by a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

I felt dirty.

The Raving Atheist takes Harris to task here. Skip it. It's not worth your time.

The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford

This is one of the best books that I have read this year. Harford is a great storyteller, and every single example that he uses is interesting. Whereas Freakonomics is written by a journalist (Steve Dubner), and can often sound like an expose, Harford takes the tone of a teacher without ever sounding condescending. You can read an excerpt here, and you can watch a speech by Harford, Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowen, and Sebastian Mallaby here. (Click on the "video" icon in the upper right hand corner.) Here's the Marginal Revolution review, with more links.

The Singularity Is Near, by Ray Kurzweil

First, read Ray's bio. This is important because if you read The Singularity Is Near without knowing anything about the author, you might think that he is nuts. Basically, he asserts that due to the nature of the exponential acceleration of information technology development, that we're on the verge of creating fantastically smart artificial intelligence, helpful nanobots, and genetic engineering that will eliminate basically all disease, and the we can use these to expand out knowledge at an even faster pace. He also mentions that we might destroy the world if we're not careful, but in general he's the one of the biggest optimists ever.

There's a portion of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that describes the invention a supercomputer called Deep Thought. A super smart race builds the computer to tell them the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. They are not pleased with the answer, however the computer (which is the second smartest computer ever built) says that it will help them build the smartest computer ever built, which can then tell them what the ultimate question means. Kurzweil's philosophy is fairly similar. He asserts that once we achieve a certain level of computerized intelligence that everything will really take off, because at that point the computers can build computers.

Predicting the future is difficult, and I suspect that Kurzweil will be mostly wrong, but he makes a good case, and I certainly hope that he's right.


  • I'm a big fan of The Singularity is Near, although I have a hard time explaining it to people. I usually get a response along the lines of either "Well, 50 years ago everyone thought we'd be flying around in rocket ships by the year 2000" or "What if the robot overlords enslave us?"

    I saw Sam Harris on TV and thought he seemed cool, so I started reading some of his stuff and also was disappointed.

    By Blogger MDS, at 9:38 PM  

  • I like "The Singularity Is Near" a lot, as I'm a sucker for unbridled optimism. And I've run into similar problems explaining it. Everyone really wants a flying car, apparently.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 4:13 PM  

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