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Review

“Physics of the Impossible”

Michio Kaku

I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of these “explain the whole field in broad strokes” books lately. I do enjoy the twist in this of focusing specifically on impossible things, particularly science fiction tropes; it provides a bit more of a narrative through line, a nice organizational structure to hang the various facts on.

Two caveats to this book:

Firstly, it’s somewhat dated; just from reading, you can narrow down the publishing date to sometime in the mid-aughts. The downside to writing about something as inherently contemporary as “the latest scientific discoveries.”

Secondly, the use of the definite article when referring to theories. It’s never “quantum theory”, always “the quantum theory.” Which I’ve listed as a caveat, but really it falls somewhere between being overly tied to semantics and doing a good job of reminding us that all theories are theories—sure, the theory of gravity is pretty well understood, but it remains a part of the scientific process; it remains a theory.

All told, I found this a pretty good read. The chapters are about the right size for chunks of reading time, and it’s a nice overview of the various impossibilities. (It also feels like it’d be a great reference book for a science fiction writer—it provides enough terminology and understanding to get the realistically-wrong physics you want for good sci-fi.) Give it a go.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Economics Through Everyday Life”

Anthony Clark

I can make this review pretty quick: it’s a good overview of the field of economics, and is probably worth a read for anyone who wants to have a good foundation in understanding what the heck they’re talking about on the news. The title is a bit odd, though, because the “everyday life” part never makes much of an appearance. It’s just… a regular book about economics. I suppose it’s “everyday” because it explains, like, the concept of the Gini Coefficient without burying you in the math of how it actually works, but still. Not really “everyday life,” just “Economics: Approachably Told.”

Still, a good read, worth reading.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Solutionary Rail”

Bill Moyer & Patrick Mazza

Right off the bat, let me say: the name is not great. Having just read the whole book, which mentions its own name quite often, I feel as if I’ve been somewhat inoculated against how bad a name it is, but even with that, it’s still very clearly not a great name.

That said, the actual concept is, in my opinion, rock-solid. In short, the book is arguing that we should convert from diesel to electric power for our rail networks, and use the existing rail right-of-ways to build the transmission lines that we desperately need in order to make the green energy transition.

In slightly longer:

  • Rail freight is, inherently, way more efficient than truck freight, and hilariously more so than air freight. Rolling resistance is a hell of a thing; the least efficient train is still twice as energy-efficient as the most efficient truck.
  • Making a train run on electricity is a lot easier than making a truck run on electricity. Turns out it’s way easier to run power lines over a train track than it is to run them over every road ever. (And, bonus, electric trains have the exact same benefit electric cars do: way less maintenance.)
  • Truck freight is massively taxpayer-subsidized: by gallon of fuel purchased, a heavy truck pays, very roughly, 1.75x the gas tax of a sedan. But, for every mile driven, that heavy truck does around 5,000x as much damage to the road it’s driving on that the sedan does. tl;dr: the reason our roads need so much work is because of trucks; every time we use taxpayer money to rebuild a road, the trucking industry is getting a big ol’ present.
  • Railway right-of-ways are a Whole Thing, but for historical reasons, are basically a perfectly-interconnected network that ties together every city in the entire country, as well as whole lot o’ non-city land. This description also applies to the sort of long-distance power transmission infrastructure we need. Is it a coincidence I’m putting these two facts in the same bullet point? Not even remotely!

By these facts combined, we arrive at the argument that a) we should be using a whole lot more rail freight, b) we should be electrifying as much of our rail network as possible, and c) we shouldn’t be afraid to have government step in, because the competition literally could not exist without the massive government intervention that is the creation and maintenance of the interstate highway system.

The bit about using rail routes to also do power transmission is just a really clever way to combine two big projects and get them to pay for each other. Electrified rail means power companies have a brand-new, large-scale customer; siting power transmission literally on top of that large-scale customer not only provides guaranteed demand, it also significantly reduces the amount of time the power companies have to spend shoveling through the horrific mess that is the approvals process for power transmission.1

There’s some weird parts to the argument, namely the way that the book bends over backwards to never yell at the Class I rail carriers for their horrible business practices. Sure, there’s an appendix about it, courtesy of the rail unions, but within the actual text, they’re very careful not to say “and hey, maybe if Wall Street spent less time turning rail freight into the highest-profit-margin industry in the country and instead focused on making it actually good at its job, these problems wouldn’t be as bad!” But then, given that the target demographic of this book is Warren Buffet (owner of Berkshire Hathaway, owner of BNSF, monopolist of the Seattle-Chicago rail route that the authors have identified as the best starting point for electrifying the rail network), it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to draw attention to the fact that he’s kinda the villain of the story.2

Overall, I found this a fascinating read, and I heartily recommend checking out their website, if not the whole book. (There’s a video summary, but you can also get a free download of the book if you, like me, saw the concept and went “oh I have got to know more about this.”)

And then, as a secondary call to action, write to your representatives (state and federal!), your governor, and whoever you know that owns some shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Point out that, hey. Trains. They’re pretty cool. We should do more with them.

  1. As a side note, we desperately need to fix that. Hey, Congress, get on that!
  2. And, frankly, he really should be listening to the idea of using the rail right-of-ways to connect all the wind farms he owns to, y’know, places people actually want to buy that electricity. If you’re gonna be a capitalist on that scale, at least actually get the benefits of vertical integration!
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Review

“The Fifth Risk”

Michael Lewis

It took me a bit to realize that this was a reread—I thought that I’d just read some of the marketing materials when the book first came out, maybe an excerpt, but no—by the time I got to the end of the book and it continued to feel familiar, I had to admit that I’d read it before and just missed marking it as read in my big list o’ books.

Still, it holds up well! Honestly, I think it’s almost more interesting now, during the Biden administration, than it was during the Trump years. Sure, it felt more urgent when these things were being actively undermined, but now, it works well as a reminder that our institutions are still fragile. Just because everything is alright in this moment doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. Hanford’s still got about 100 years and $100 billion in work necessary to clean it up; publicly-funded databases are still one executive order away from being inaccessible to the public that funded them. The core function of government is to handle these big problems, the things that business incentives just don’t work for.

Given the subject matter, it feels like this book would be a tome, something that’ll take you ages to work through. In fact, it’s quite short and easy to read—and, in a way, reminds me of some of McPhee’s stuff. It’s an exploration of the huge, banal things that the US government does every day to keep the world turning.

Overall, it’s an interesting read, and not a huge time investment. I heartily recommend it; check it out.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Global Catastrophic Risks”

Nick Bostrom and Milan M. Ćirković

I’d love to see an updated version of this book, because some of the chapters held up really well, a couple need some revised timeline estimates,1 and a couple would be heavily revised in light of how the last couple years have gone.2

The gist of it is, there’s a category of potential problem that can bring human civilization to its knees… or wipe out all life on earth. Some of them, we’re working on; some, we’re powerless to stop; and some, we’re actively making worse.

After establishing that core concept, the book splits up; each chapter is by a different author or authors, and they each address their own area of expertise. A volcanologist addresses the possibility of a super volcano eruption; an astrophysicist talks about the likelihood of gamma ray or cosmic ray bursts.3

Being the kind of person that I am, there wasn’t actually much in this book that was a new concept to me. This is the kind of thing I think about all the time! And so, given that background, it was a surprisingly uplifting book. Aside from the “the universe decided there isn’t life on earth anymore” type issues, every chapter came with advice on how to prevent or mitigate the issues, and discussion of who’s already working on it.

None of the problems discussed are solved, or anywhere near. I’d say that the one that’s currently in best shape is either naturally-occurring pandemics or nuclear proliferation—we have reasonably robust institutions, within the UN, working on those. Building a nuke is frighteningly easy, but getting the raw materials is, fortunately, very difficult. New diseases keep cropping up, but we’re getting reasonably good at developing vaccines, and things with sufficient lethality to totally collapse human civilization kill to fast to spread that well.

The other issues, though? Well… they remain a work in progress. AI researchers are still playing with fire, and CRISPR CAS-9 has made the possibility of engineered pandemics terrifyingly real.

All told, I’d call this book “required reading for anyone working at the UN.” And every world leader. It’s a long read, but the chapter divisions make it fairly digestible; I do recommend it, though with a caveat of “maybe not if you’ve been suffering from anxiety.” It… isn’t likely to help with that, unless you, like me, are already anxious about all these things. Give it a go.4

  1. I can report that we didn’t crack self-replicating nanotechnology by 2020, for example.
  2. Although, actually, the one on dealing with pandemics was pretty much spot-on for what should have been done; the revised version would probably include a lot more pointing at our new historical counter-examples.
  3. The latter being, by my standard, among the scariest concepts in the book. No way to see it coming, and nothing we can do about it regardless. To borrow a term, it’s an out-of-context problem.
  4. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Palaces for the People”

Eric Klinenberg

This book felt so familiar throughout that I had to check, several times, if I’d read it before. Evidently I haven’t! Which, I suppose, tells me that I’m more of a hobbyist civil engineer than I thought.

The very quick summary of the book is that, along with everything we usually think of as infrastructure, the US has also severely underinvested in social infrastructure—the things that make it easy for people to connect with one another in a space. The shining example of this, and the titular palaces for the people, are libraries: a completely free, completely public place where people are given the freedom to explore whatever may interest them.

For me, the familiarity of the book was a negative; I didn’t get much at all new from it, and so feel like it wasn’t a great use of my time to read. Conversely, though, if you haven’t spent a bunch of your spare time learning about this kind of thing, it’s probably a very good introduction to the topic. With that in mind, it’s an interesting read; give it a go—or, y’know, check it out from your local library.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“The Final Hours of Portal 2”

Geoff Keighley

Another one for the ‘short reads’ category!1

Portal 2 is an iconic game, and I’ve spent many, many hours happily playing it with friends. It was cool to get a bit of visibility into the process of making it, and to hear about what Valve is like on the inside. (Very, very different from anything I’m used to, is the moral of the story.)

If you’re interested in video game history, check it out.2

  1. Which I don’t actually have on this site, but maybe I should. On the other hand, going back through hundreds of these book reviews and adding more metadata doesn’t sound particularly fun, so I think I’ll leave it.
  2. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.
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Review

“Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base”

Annie Jacobsen

Structurally, I think the only descriptor I can come up with for this book is “inverse shit-sandwich.” Which is a disgusting mental image, but it fits—the first and last chapter of the book don’t fit with the rest of it, and are undoubtedly the worst parts. They make for an interesting conspiracy theory, and the first chapter actually sticks mostly into the realm of believability, but the last chapter comes back, swipes away that believability, and tacks on a whole lot more conspiracy theory energy. She had one source—who may well have been messing with her—and upon finding that it was impossible to verify anything he told her, instead of throwing it out or putting it in a single chapter with some very big caveats wrapping around it, she went “well, this’ll work as a hook” and made it the start and end of the book.

With all that said, it’s the inverse shit sandwich for a reason—everything else in the book is well-researched, well-cited, and absolutely fascinating to read. So perfectly up my alley, as I just love these histories of the completely wild things going on during the Cold War. The sheer amount of UFO sightings, and conspiracy theories, that came about because the CIA was testing spy aircraft out in the desert is just incredible. And the storytelling as she leads the reader to the reveal that the CIA was leaning in to the UFO theories because it kept people from trying to figure out what was actually happening? Impeccable.

There’s also some great stories from the larger Nevada test site. I had a great moment of realizing that the NERVA research being done involved a whole lot of underground facility—that kind of thing immediately makes me want to go explore an abandoned research site!1 And, beyond that, there’s a great story of someone who invented a whole new level of screwup.

So, set the scene. It’s 1980something, and today’s the day of a nuclear test, with another one coming up in a few days—meaning, there’s a live nuclear warhead, and materials to assemble at least one more, on-site at the Nevada test site. You’re a security contractor for the Department of Energy, and you’re going to do a penetration test of the security at the site—take a helicopter and a couple guys with guns full of rubber bullets, and see how well they’re able to handle it. But first, pop quiz, what’s step zero of a security test like that?

If you answered “call the Department of Energy and let them know you’re doing a security test,” congratulations, you’re smarter than the people who actually did the test that day.

And, as I was reading this story, my thought was “wow, this is a whole new level of screwup I can aspire never to achieve—‘they had to scramble fighter jets about me’”

Except, as I found a page later, I was wrong. It was worse than that—the phone tree made it to the White House, who put the Navy on alert—Tomahawk missiles targeted at the site. Which, all told, is actually quite sensible, in an obscene way: there’s already a nuclear test scheduled, so it’s nearly evacuated. If the Mystery Bad Guys manage to take the nuke-and-a-half that’s there, well, the people on-site are already dead. And “the Mystery Bad Guys have a nuke or two” is pretty much the end of the How Bad Can It Get scale. So, here we are with the actual brand new level of screwup: “the White House decided the best option for containing what I did was a nuclear strike.”

Yikes.

So, seriously, with the weirdness of the first and last chapters aside, this book was really, really good, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. I heartily recommend it. Check it out.2

  1. That said, it would be an Extremely Bad Idea! Firstly, it was full of spiders when it was being actively maintained, so it’s probably not gotten less full of spiders since then. Second, it’s officially decommission and was, y’know, a tunnel under a mountain, so it’s very possible it’s caved in. Thirdly, it’s smack dab in the middle of the Department of Energy’s test site, which means if you actually get they’re you’re technically either a terrorist or doing a treason, just by being there. And fourthly, it was the site of two distinct nuclear reactor meltdowns, so it’s not exactly the healthiest of environments.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

PDFs, Various

I’ve been working my way through the big pile of ebooks I own, and recently—ahead of the delivery of a new ereader—decided it’d behoove me to go through all the ones that I’ve only got in PDF form. It’s a fun pile, because I have no idea where I got most of these, but that’s the story for a great deal of my ebook library. I spent college on the mailing lists of several websites that would do charity ebook sales, and I’m the kind of person who’s rather unable to resist that kind of thing, so it’s unsurprising that, after over a year of making a concerted effort to read through that backlog, I’m down to only a couple hundred books left.

Most of those ebooks I’ve got as various ereader-compatible formats, because, books, duh. A few, though, were determinedly available only as PDF—things that had a lot of visuals and hand-laid-out pages that tend to get, at best, rumpled up by the conversion to epub. None of them felt quite right for a full review on their own, but having gone through the pile, I feel like I should at least mention them here.

“Sushi at Home: A Mat-to-Table Sushi Cookbook”

I remain utterly unconvinced on the concept of sashimi, and am not likely to actually take up sushi-making, but learning the history was interesting. I’m also feeling a bit more open to the idea of trying sushi again for the first time in several years; now that I’ve got somewhat more of an idea of what things are, I’m hoping I’ll be able to better-select the things to try that I have a chance of liking.

“Real BBQ” – Will Budiaman

Similar structure to the sushi book, being primarily recipes that I skimmed over, but the first couple chapters on the history and general techniques of barbecue were interesting, and there’s a few tips in here that I hadn’t seen before. A useful read, if you’re in a skimming mood!

“Handcrafted Bitters” – Will Budiaman

Only now, in writing this review, do I notice these two are the same author. Probably got them at the same time, then!

Same structure, some overview and techniques and then many recipes. More of a disconnect than the sushi book for me, given that I don’t drink, but again, interesting to read the history and see at least a little bit of what this thing is about. I do like having enough background knowledge on a topic to at least ask interesting questions, and I feel like this got me there.

“Hallucinogenic Plants” – Richard Evans Schultes

This was actually the first of these four that I read; I ended with BBQ, and joked that I’d been in a sequence of three books on topics I have no intention of ever getting much involved in.

Beautifully illustrated, and kinda reminded me of John McPhee at times. An interesting read, although I spent a lot of it wondering how, exactly, the various cultures involved figured these things out. I guess before the invention of writing, “licking random plants to see what would happen” may have been a pretty good form of entertainment?

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Review

“The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success”

Mark Jaccard

The intro to this book does a good job of explaining what the whole book is going to do: go through some common climate beliefs and prove them wrong. And not in a single direction, either—sure, there’s the usual “anthropogenic climate change is a theory in the same way that gravity is” thing, but there’s also some good deconstruction of a couple of my personal pet theories. Which is for the best: when it comes to the climate emergency, being able to look at the evidence and change your opinion as necessary is pretty important!

I don’t actually have a great deal to say about this book; it was useful to read, and I appreciate that it came with some clear action items. (tl;dr: push for politicians to put in climate regulations; bonus points for flexibility in implementation, extra bonus points for handing power to regulatory agencies a la California’s Air Resources Board)

So hey, give it a read! As an extra push, the PDF version is free to download, so all it costs you is the time.

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Review

“Encounters with the Archdruid”

John McPhee

Somewhere over the course of my last several moves, I lost my copy of The Control of Nature; given that I absolutely loved that book, it’s been on my list to get another copy of it. During a recent foray to a local used book store, I took the chance, and also took a chance on grabbing another of McPhee’s books to see if it would captivate me in the same way. About an eighth of the way through Encounters with the Archdruid, I had a very clear vision of my future, wherein I have an entire shelf dedicated to a collection of all of McPhee’s works. While Control of Nature was maybe the single best possible option to start with for me, Encounters with the Archdruid also grabbed my interest in the same way.

Encounters with the Archdruid is in three parts, but this time, the unifying thread isn’t a single theme. Instead, it’s a single person: David Brower, head of the Sierra Club, stout conservationist. He’s… a character:

Jerry Sanderson, the river guide who has organized this expedition, calls out that dinner is ready. He has cooked an entire sirloin steak for each person. We eat from large plastic trays–the property of Sanderson. Brower regularly ignores the stack of trays, and now, when his turn comes, he steps forward to receive his food in his Sierra Club cup. Sanderson, a lean, trim, weathered man, handsome and steady, has seen a lot on this river. And now a man with wild white hair and pink legs is holding out a four-inch cup to receive a three-pound steak. Very well. There is no rapid that can make Sanderson’s eyes bat, so why should this? He drapes the steak over the cup. The steak covers the cup like a sun hat. Brower begins to hack at the edges with a knife. Brower in wilderness eats from nothing but his Sierra Club cup. (186-187)

The book isn’t solely focused on Brower, though. It’s focused on three people opposed to him in very different ways—a miner, a developer, and a dam-builder. McPhee managed to arrange for these meetings on grand scale, setting up long tours with himself, Brower, and each of his three ‘natural enemies.’ It’s a powerful way to tell the story, and makes for some fun moments. For example, at the dedication of a dam on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, where the man who spearheaded the construction of the dam introduced him thus:

Then Dominy spoke. “Dave Brower is here today,” he said, and the entire ceremony almost fell into the reservoir. “Brower is not here in an official capacity but as my guest,” Dominy went on. “We’re going to spend several days on Lake Powell, so I can convert him a little. Then we’re going down the river, so he can convert me.” (196)

It’s a really interesting way to tell… well, not a story. Several stories, twining together, and lacking the clear beginning, middle, end of what you’d find in a novel. It’s just the events, the interactions, told in a deeply personal way that still manages to get the author well out of the reader’s way. I really enjoyed reading it, and I recommend checking it out yourself.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Strong Towns”

Charles L. Marohn, Jr.

I’ve been hearing about this book off and on for a while now. Mostly by way of Merlin Mann’s podcasts, I suspect, as he’s been a proponent of some of the ideas of late.1 Honestly, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.

If I were to try to distill it down, I think the core argument of the book is that we need to stop optimizing for growth. Which largely makes sense — building a city budget around “if you build it, they will come” can look like it’s working, but infrastructure maintenance is expensive and tends not to be budgeted for all too well.2 What Marohn argues is that we should stop building new infrastructure, cut off the stuff that’s the worst bang-for-buck, and refocus on value-per-acre. Specifically, that city planners should be focusing on value-to-the-city-per-acre. And, again, it’s a solid argument: why should the city spend $10 million building roads and water and sewer and power lines to connect up a new Walmart when that Walmart will take 30 years to put $10 million of tax revenue back into the city’s coffers, and over those 30 years a bunch of that infrastructure will need to be (expensively) maintained or replaced?

If I sound skeptical, it’s the Keynesian economist in me. I rather suspect I’m going to have to read this book a second time and sit with it some more, though. Because, yes, Keynesian theory — I think the role of government is to not act like a business, to spend money that private industry won’t in order to solve problems that the economy doesn’t provide the incentive to solve.3 But then, maybe Marohn is right, and that’s only true at the state and national level, and that sort of responsibility doesn’t fall to cities? What’s the right level of government for interventions like that? I don’t know!

That whole debate aside, I think there’s some arguments he makes that don’t need that sort of alloying to be palatable. We totally should be lightening or even getting rid of zoning restrictions — when I was studying a broad in Vienna, one of the nicest things that was easy to not notice is that there was always a grocery store in walking distance. Going grocery shopping without needing to get in the car is the best, and any city regulation making it harder to achieve that state of being is bad and it should feel bad.

All in all, I… am a bit unclear on how I felt about the book. I don’t regret having read it, though, and I think at worst it’s a good way to start asking yourself some interesting questions. So, hey, check it out!4

  1. Relatedly, he was also the tipping point for me on buying an ebike, which I’ve been enjoying and slowly working into more ‘personal mobility’ use.
  2. Citation: gestures broadly
  3. And hey, while we’re on the topic, call your state and federal legislators and tell them to pass a carbon text.
  4. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Soonish”

Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith

I’m really the exact target market for this book — I love the sort of ‘pop science’ stuff like this, examining some of the stuff currently happening in the lab and looking at what it could be useful for in the future. A nice plus to this book over the versions of that that you’ll find online, though, is that they’re willing to say “actually, no, that’s a cool concept but it just won’t work.”1

Honestly, I don’t have a ton to say about this book. It’s an easy read, comedic and informative, and I totally recommend it to any of my fellow “I wanna know about the Cool Science Stuff” people. Check it out.2

  1. Specific example: space-based solar power, which they pan for being so economically infeasible that it’ll probably never pan out. Personally I still somewhat disagree, but part of that is that I think they’ve missed an opportunity for getting two birds with one stone by parking the space-based solar panels in an orbit where they block some light from reaching the Earth. A one-two punch against climate change!
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Open Borders”

Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith

As a Certified Liberal, it was never going to be particularly hard to sell me on “we should loosen our immigration restrictions,” but I still think this book did a great job at selling me on it. It’s a very quick read—more of a highly-illustrated essay than what you’d think from the term “book”—and is well-organized around the topic idea.

Structurally, it reminds me of writing essays in school. A chapter of overview, a chapter of the primary argument for, and then a few chapters rebutting the arguments against your thesis, and then a final wrap-it-together with a call to action. And, hey, they teach essay structures like that because it’s effective!

I think my favorite line from the book comes from a discussion of keyhole policies.1

“How can immigration restrictions handle problem x?” is simply a bad question.

It makes far more sense to ask: “What’s the cheapest, most humane way to handle problem x?”

The final call to action is less a “let’s make open borders happen!” and more a “let’s start moving the Overton Window to make open borders happen!” So, by reading this post: thank you for your contribution. If you’re interested in furthering that goal, I recommend you check out the book, as I quite enjoyed it.2

  1. Keyhole policies are defined in the context of keyhole surgeries: instead of cutting the patient wide open, you make as small an incision as possible—a keyhole—in order to reduce collateral damage/side effects. Similarly, a keyhole policy is a narrowly-focused policy in place of a (possibly overly-) broad one.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“The Design of Everyday Things”

Don Norman

Unlike my usual book reviews, this wasn’t my first time reading the book. Last time, though, it was an assigned reading—I have this in print because it was provided as a textbook! And, as a textbook, it is both an excellent choice and a seminal text.

On both a first read and a reread, it holds up remarkably well. That tends to be an issue with the things that were formative to their field—eventually, they start to feel very obvious, because what was innovative has become a well-known trope. Not here, though; the only part of the book that felt noticeably dated was the couple pages that went into “the video phone” as a technology that hasn’t yet gotten big. That portion will need to be rewritten for the next edition.

Despite having been one of my textbooks, this doesn’t feel overly academic. I wouldn’t recommend trying to get through the whole thing in one sitting, but you won’t fall asleep trying to navigate through a sea of citations. If you’re at all interested in design as a discipline, check it out.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.