Articles: Left field routes to Mars, and complex systems managing nuclear weapons

Katy Vine has an interesting piece in The Texas Monthly, ‘The Astronaut Who Might Actually Get Us to Mars‘. I’m not across the technology, so I don’t know how probable his approach is. But it’s an interesting reflection on how solutions sometimes come from improbable places. I hadn’t realised that the lunar lander was a project initiated counter to most of NASA’s beliefs at the time.

Eric Schlosser writes in the New Yorker about all the things that can go wrong, in ‘World War Three, By Mistake‘. It’s a piece written before the 2016 US election, so it focuses in on the systems rather than the personalities, but it’s all the more terrifying for that. It’s also worth checking out Alex Wellerstein’s blog, which is an interesting historical context for nuclear weapons.

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Games: Monument Valley and the Banner Saga

I’ve played a few games on my phone recently, looking for something apart from books to keep me entertained in down time.

Monument Valley is a beautiful puzzle game, set in a three dimensional space where objects don’t always follow the spatial rules that we experience in everyday life. I imagine that there must have been a decent amount of work put in to creating the beautiful shapes – at times it feels a shame to solve quickly what feels as though it must have taken a long time to create.

The Banner Saga is a fascinating game. Set in a fantasy world where men co-exist in a tenuous peace with giant varls, and both are threatened by giant iron invaders. The viewpoint flits between multiple characters, making choices in a set of storylines that intersect at times. At points your group will encounter conflict, played out on a two-dimensional grid, with some intricate tactics.

The game imposes consequences – there are constantly choices. Help the weak? Look after yourself? Investigate strange phenomena, or march towards safety? It’s a challenging game, in that it doesn’t make save-point management easy, and there is no clear pattern to what the right answers are. Sometimes doing the right thing pays off. At other times, it has disastrous consequences. In that sense, it feels like it’s a little truer to life than a game that either encourages blowing things up, or making sacrifices every single time. It’s a juggling act.

At times the intersecting storylines, particularly when you’re jumping back and forth, can feeling confusing. Despite that, it’s an excellent game. It’s better played on a tablet than a phone, given the luxurious art, and the intricacy of the storyline. Well worth it.

I’ve only played the first one, but I’m looking forward to the second one. Apparently a third one is in the works.

Articles: Political life and Facebook’s media dominance

I’ve come across a few interesting articles recently.

In Meanjin, Katherine Murphy reflects on the day-to-day experience of political life in ‘The political life is no life at all‘. I think her underlying thesis, that the day-to-day of politics in Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament is exhausting, and crowds out all but those individuals who are statistically anomalous in their ability to withstand stress (for better or worse) is correct. The essay casually back-hands the inability of the public service to respond to the demands of the Rudd PMO, but I think that’s a story worth unpacking a little more – Speechless – a Year in My Father’s Business is, I think, a good starting point for the other side of the story.

As per my continuing fascination with the intersection between politics and media, ‘This Country’s Democracy Has Fallen Apart — And It Played Out To Millions On Facebook‘ is an excellent piece of longform from Buzzfeed, who I think do a much better job than many outlets in focussing on where the media is right now (which is to say, Facebook, and Google to some extent). There’s a disconcerting sense in the piece of how decisions are made at vast removes from Cambodia, in offices where people haven’t bothered to think about how they will impact Cambodia, but that have an enormous impact there.

 

Articles: Democracy, Free Speech, and the Strange Brands in Your Instagram Feed

The Atlantic has an interesting piece by Alexis Madrigal on internet sales: ‘The Strange Brands in Your Instagram Feed’. It’s worth a read, purely as a peek into some of the less obvious mechanisms behind online shopping.

Wired has an interesting reflection by Zeynep Tufekci on free speech, and what that means in practice as technology shifts: ‘It’s the (Democracy Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech‘.

Articles: National security reporting, social credit and baboons

An interesting piece out by James Risen at The Intercept, on his experience reporting on national security at the New York Times. It gets a little bit into the ‘he said, she said’ territory, but he seems to be careful to quote those with a different view on the story. Underlying it all is a sense of how much there is behind a story that makes it into the media, in the back-and-forth between government and reporters (as per Manufacturing Consent).

Wired has been doing good reporting on the development of China’s social credit system, and I think it’s a fascinating area. It feels like something that may be more important in retrospect, than the amount of attention it’s getting today. This is an interesting piece, reflecting on the concept and its development.

It’s been a long while since I read Baboon Metaphysicsbut it’s stayed in my mind as an interesting piece. This is an interesting article on how culture can change and persist in a very different context.

Let’s wait a little longer for ‘The Winds of Winter’

I’m a big fan of A Song of Ice and Fire. I enjoyed re-reading all the books a little while ago, when I needed some less academic reading. I pre-ordered the hardback of A Dance with Dragons, when it came out.

So I’m really looking forward to reading the next book. But it’s been a long wait. The last book came out in 2011. And sure, there are the (correct) pieces of commentary about why GRRM doesn’t owe the fans anything; as Neil Gaiman (correctly) points out, GRRM is not anyone’s bitch.

Having said that, fans don’t owe GRRM anything either. Sure, I’d like to read the next book, but at this point, I’ve waited eight years. When (if ever) GRRM does get around to finishing the next book, he’ll have a vast number of fans who’ve already waited eight years (or longer), and will have already seen one conclusion in the TV show.

Even if most readers decide to wait and buy the book second-hand, there’ll still be plenty of copies to go around. And readers will be doing the same thing to GRRM that he did to them – exercising patience that’s well within their rights. What’s a few extra months, when you’ve already waited eight (or more) years?

So that’s why I’m planning not to buy the book, and to just wait till it shows up in the second hand book stores. Someone else can pay the full price for a first printing. I’ll get a second hand copy at a discount. I’ll have already waited eight years – I can wait a little longer.

These books explain a lot of things

A while ago I read a book titled This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World WorksEdited by John Brockman, it was a collection of responses from a range of thinkers on their favourite theories or ideas, that had significant explanatory power.

In a related way, I wanted to try and start a list here of books that I’ve read that I thought had interesting or important ideas, in understanding different aspects of people / society / the universe. I think explaining everything is a tall order, so this is just a list of books that I found interesting on a range of topics. In a way it’s also a useful list for me, of keeping track of books that I think cover or explain useful or interesting theories. Obviously, a mention here isn’t an endorsement of the book or the author, etc.

I’ll try to keep it updated as I come across other interesting pieces. But in the meantime, tell me what you think: What are the books that explain essential, profound or important ideas? What have I missed on this list?

Science

It’s been years since I read it (and please be aware this isn’t an endorsement of the author), but reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins was a useful introduction to evolutionary theory. Interestingly enough, evolutionary theory is one of the ideas that cropped up quite frequently in This Explains Everything as a powerful idea.

James Gleick’s books on information theory (The information: A history, a theory, a flood) and chaos theory (Chaos: Making a new science) are fascinating, approachable introductions to very important branches of mathematics.

It’s been a long time since I read it, but I found a book on Popperian hypothesis testing and falsifiability useful (unfortunately I can’t remember the title).

Philosophy and ethics

There are a few books that I found interesting here – but it’s a complex area, and not one that I have a deep understanding of.

  • The Intentional Stance by Daniel Dennett was an interesting read; I think particularly in how to think about people and intentionality from a materialistic viewpoint. If I can paraphrase, Dennett essentially argues that intentionality is a model that we have of behaviour in the world, so that we conceptualise other people as agents, with goals and mental models.
  • Elbow Room by Daniel Dennett was also an interesting set of ideas, in how to reconcile a materialist viewpoint with questions about free will and ethical responsibility. Essentially, (if I can paraphrase many years after reading it), Dennett is arguing that traditional debates about free will and determinism define things in the wrong way; that if we think meaningfully about what free will means, we can have a useful form of free will, in a deterministic universe. Having said that, I think there is something to this webcomic sending up his approach – that it may feel a little too much like a glib redefinition.
  • Reason and Morality by Alan Gewirth was a difficult book. It took me several months to wade through, when I had the time to read in-depth. But I think meta-ethics is an interesting and important philosophical topic, and this is one of the more satisfying reads I’ve found. To very loosely paraphrase, Gewirth argued that for any agent that acts towards desired goals, there are implicit assumptions that, if logically carried to their conclusion, necessitate valuing the agency of others.
  • Beautiful souls by Eyal Press isn’t a particularly deep theoretical book. But I think it’s valuable to think about the factors that lead us to make courageous decisions, and for that reason this is well worth a read, as Press examines four ordinary people making courageous choices.

Psychology

Story-telling

Perhaps because I read a bit of fiction, story-telling is one of those things that fascinates me. What makes a good story? Why do we find some stories gripping, and others dull?

  • Story by Robert McKee is an interesting read. It’s not foolproof, but it works to break down the key components of what McKee thinks makes for a good story: difficult choices and unexpected consequences.

Politics

There are a lot in this category – perhaps because I’ve been reading quite a few since the blog started, where as other categories I read more of before I was taking notes.

  • The Dance of Legislation by Eric Redman is a fascinating first-hand account of a set of power struggles involved in the passage of legislation. It’s useful as an insightful account of the role chance and relationships can play in day-to-day political outcomes.
  • Collapse by Jared Diamond and The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter both deal with how a society collapses. Diamond’s thesis rests on five key factors:  environmental damage, natural climate change, war, weakened allies, and the ways societies choose to respond to these pressures. It’s a compellingly detailed historical account that societies can collapse because of poor responses to external pressures. Tainter’s thesis centres around diminishing marginal returns to complexity.
  • The Master Switch by Tim Wu is an excellent account of how media empires rise and fall. It’s particularly valuable because it identifies cycles over time, rather than analysing a static moment. He argues that as new technologies emerge, the field is fragmented between many contenders, before it gradually merges into a smaller number of firms. Given that media can influence political outcomes, these cycles are important.
  • The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge is an excellent outline of something that’s so ubiquitous it’s almost invisible – when did companies emerge? They make the compelling case that the legal structure of a company has a significant influence in our society.
  • Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels is an important read. They argue that our ideas of how democracies work are wrong, and set out a strong evidence base of how a range of voter behaviour theories are contradicted by particular pieces of evidence. It raises interesting and important questions.
  • The rise and decline of nations by Mancur Olson an analyses of why some nations succeed, and why others fail. He sheds powerful light by focussing on the relationships within a society, and how particular groups can have an incentive to take action that is detrimental to the society overall. Interestingly, it seems that since publication, his thesis has held up reasonably well.
  • Manufacturing consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky is an interesting read, and one of the few pieces I’ve read that focuses on the structural relationships between media entities and government. Have you come across any other good ones?
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a powerful reflection on race in America.
  • The origins of political order by Francis Fukuyama is an impressive attempt to tell a unified, theoretically grounded story of how political frameworks emerge. I may not agree with all of his conclusions, but I wish there were more books tackling questions like this on this scale. He writes about the historical emergence of the state, the rule of law, and democratic accountability.
  • Economic Justice by Stephen Nathanson sets out, very simply, a set of ideas about how resources should be distributed in society. For all that it’s very simple, it’s actually quite useful: there’s real value in a clear, simple exposition of basic ideas.
  • While not explaining deep theories, I wanted to quickly mention both Neil Chenoweth’s Murdoch’s Pirates, and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, because they’re both well researched pieces that set out in some detail the mechanics of how particular entities interact with the political / media system, in ways that aren’t always obvious.

Economics

Paper promises by Philip Coggan isn’t an excellent book, but it is a starting point on an interesting question – what is money? How does it function? Essentially, it’s a store of value, a unit of exchange, and a unit of measurement. But fundamentally, money works because we expect that we can trade it with other people for something. This is, on some level, obvious, but occasionally easy to forget.