Monthly book roundup – 2014 May

Books finished in May:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (2013) by Adam Minter. A fascinating account of the globalized trade in junk. Illustrates how trade connects parts of the world with different specializations. Repeatedly comes back to the fact that the trash trade has an undeservedly bad reputation: Minter several times acknowledges that there are problems with pollution and lack of labor regulations many places, but emphasizes that the trade allows materials to be used again rather than be used as landfills. If the trade in junk was not there, we would see a lot more environmentally harmful mining to extract these materials, that is something to think about for greens denouncing the garbage trade. Recommended.

 

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (2014) by Nicholas Wade. An interesting book. Wade argues that genetic factors are seriously undervalued and indeed repressed as an explanation for human societal diversity. He claims that different social tendencies at the race level have evolved fairly recently and explain much of today’s economic world. His view is a subtle one – these tendencies are not god-given, but have evolved in response different societies’ needs (-“human evolution has been recent, copious and regional”). However, I think he should have gone more deeply into the point that as in the past, whether traits are good or bad depends on the context, both today and in the future. There was an interesting discussion about the book on Andrew Gelman’s blog.

Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (2010) by Dan Ariely. Ok. Often lacking is a discussion of how various seemingly irrational behaviors may not be so dumb in a larger context, but the book is fine enough, good popularization of many findings.

Red April (Vintage International) (2006) by Santiago Roncagliolo. Set in Perú in 2000. Prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar investigates murders purportedly carried out by the Maoist terrorist group Sendero Luminoso. Meets and creates several difficulties. The conflict and violence in the novel are modelled on the real world. Despite this, the book was not really my style.

The Atrocity Archives (A Laundry Files Novel) (2007) by Charles Stross. Occult IT expert Bob Howard starts his journeys in the British intelligence organization “the Laundry”. Charlie Stross’ blog is here.

The Jennifer Morgue (A Laundry Files Novel) (2009) by Charles Stross. Second book about Bob Howard working in intelligence organization the Laundry. This time he outlandishly finds himself in a literal James Bond plot, the idea behing which is a little difficult to follow at times.

How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like (2010) by Paul Bloom. “[…] people naturally assume that things in the world – including other people – have invisible essences that make them what they are. Experimental psychologists have argued that this essentialist perspective underlies our understanding of the physical and social worlds, and developmental and cross-cultural psychologists have propposed that it is instinctive and universal. We are natural-born essentialists. (p xii)” Evolution moulded us this way, and our essentialism determines much of how we experience pleasure from food (how old we believe a wine to be), sex, art (the real painting, not a fake); even if many pleasures evolved as by-products. Maybe, but much essentialism still seem quite silly. It was interesting to learn about an experiment by McClure et. al (2004) which showed that difference areas in the brain lighted up in fMRI scans when people knew as opposed to did not know whether they drank Coke or Pepsi.

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907) by Joseph Conrad. Disappointing. About anarchist terrorists in London around the end of the 19th century, but one hears little concrete of either anarchism or terrorism, only about the not too interesting characters. One of the characters is supposed to have been an inspiration for the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski.

Enigma (1996) by Robert Harris. Picked up this novel set in the codebreaking center Bletchley Park during world war II as a follow-up to reading Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I learnt less than what I had hoped about cryptography. And I do not find historical fiction in which the protagonists contribute major efforts to historical episodes that interesting. Not recommended.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. We follow two groups of people, one that is attempting to conceal the fact that the Allied powers have broken the German code system Enigma during World War II, and some of their relatives who try to launch a digital currency in the 1990’s. Cryptography plays important roles in both storylines. In contrast to the books of Ramez Naam, which I recently read, the lack of threats of torture is conspicuous and made the plot seem less realistic. The book is good enough, but one should note that it is so long that one can read several other books in the time that it takes to read it.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

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