Monthly book roundup – 2014 June

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

Imperial Life in The Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone (2006) by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Heavy indictment of the American civilian administration in Iraq during the occupation 2003-04. The amount of groupthink, suppression of dissent and intentional conformity pressure present that Chandrasekaran details is almost hard to believe. Republican party connections and a right-thinking attitude were the most important qualifications for employees to have. Of course the situation involved many genuinely hard decisions that did not have one “right” answer, but the administration did not seem to have had the humility to admit this. Chandrasekaran is a bit quick to dismiss the efforts at economic reforms as misguided-these had to involve hard trade-offs one way or the other, but it is clear also they were approached haphazardly: A German working on the privatization of state-owned East-German entities in the German unification says they had 8000 people working on it; the privatization in much more chaotic Iraq was managed by three people. Recommended.

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (Bantam Spectra Book) (1995) by Neal Stephenson. Largely entertaining, but I completely lost the thread among all the subplots. The most interesting theme for me was how artificial intelligence could help to educate kids by giving them appropriate challenges and lessons.

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2005) by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Impressive work about Stalin, who at all times was some combination of cynical, ingenious, paranoid, brutal and mad. Purges work some of the time, but give personnel challenges. I should read this again to get more of the history.

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (2014) by Nikil Saval. A history of the office and office jobs, from nineteenth century clerks, to todays “knowledge workers”, going through different management fads, worker aspirations and status, design ideas, office frustrations.

A Deepness in the Sky (2000) by Vernor Vinge. A great book. To begin with, it has a fantastic plot in which two different human cultures, the largely sympathetic traders Qeng Ho and the at least governmentwise unsympathetic authoritarian Emergents, are on their way to a planet with newly discovered alien life. The inhabitants of the planet have the forms of spiders, but are in other aspects very much like humans on Earth in the 20th century, when atomic energy, space flight, video imaging and other technologies were on the verge of being invented. This provides the ground for topics like governance, research and the benefits of public knowledge, drugs, slavery, free markets, artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction, all amidst a curious mix of new technology like localizers, focus, and mindscrub and the more known ones emerging among the spiders. Recommended.

Rainbows End (2007) by Vernor Vinge. Near-future novel set in 2025. Augmented reality – implemented by smart clothing and contact lenses – has become ubiquitous, but is also a tool for controlling others. Noah Smith sold this book as being about future labor markets where seniority rules do not apply and older people must go back to high school, but to me it was mostly a confusing mix of conspiracies, literature nostalgia and family affairs. It did not catch me.

Permutation City (1995) by Greg Egan. Mind-boggling novel about personal identity and artificial life and evolution. Mind uploading has become possible, but being such a “copy” is not a fulfilling existence for most. Part of the story is about a scientist who designs a program within which lifeforms could be capable of evolving. In what must be a reference to Asimov’s I, robot, the evolved creatures do not accept the hypothesis of having been designed. Complex and difficult to follow at times, but recommended nonetheless.

The Gold-Bug (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe. Short story. A man decodes a cryptographed message. According to Wikipedia, Poe played a role in popularizing cryptography.

Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything
(1999) by James Gleick. About how everything goes faster and faster. I found the book disappointing. Some people’s obsession with having accurate watches is different from being in a hurry. Gleick criticizes value of time calculations, but what is the alternative when evaluating the costs of seatbelts, road safety, etc? He validly criticizes a confusion between saving time and doing more on the part of other authors. Even though the benefits of the acceleration is mentioned at times, they should have figured more prominently. E.g. many of us wants to do more.

Ratings and old books are in the library.


2 thoughts on “Monthly book roundup – 2014 June

  1. Paweł Doligalski

    If you like history books, you should check the Baroque cycle of Stephenson. The only difficulty is figuring out, which events and characters are fictional and which are real, but for me it was just another layer of fun (and there are websites that can help you with that) :). On the other hand, the book is massive, which you seemed to dislike about the Cryptonomicon.


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