Recent book diet

The last couple of months I have been listening through books using the Libby app. I highly recommend the Libby app: It connects you to your public library, and let's you search, borrow, and download audiobooks from your library easily. I used to listen to a lot of podcasts, but after I downloaded Libby, I have been listening to books mostly. Here are some of those books I listened to.

The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch (2005)

This book is by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. It is set on the Discworld world, and it teaches solid science while being entertaining at the same time. The book not only talked about evolution but also a lot about quantum physics, string theory and time travel (yes, the science behind time travel).

The book gives a good account of Darwin's life as well as his contemporaries, like Wallace. I think Darwin's superpower was writing. This was the Victorian era where suddenly the writers started to get and control mindshare of large fraction of population. Darwin seized on this opportunity well, as he was a talented and prolific writer.

In contrast to the myth around him, Darwin was not an atheist. The wikipedia article on the topic tells that he had a Unitarian background, but "from around 1849 Darwin stopped attending church, but Emma (his wife) and the children continued to attend services. On Sundays Darwin sometimes went with them as far as the lych gate to the churchyard, and then he would go for a walk. During the service, Emma continued to face forward when the congregation turned to face the altar for the Creed, sticking to her Unitarian faith." Darwin still believed that "God was the ultimate lawgiver" even after writing the Origin of Species. He wrote "In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind."

I recommend this book highly. I think the book could have been shorter and sweeter though. Also the book was not very well organized, but it managed to stay engaging most of the time.

Ready Player One (2011)

This book was written by Ernest Cline. I liked this book, but it had an amateurish feel to it. It turns out this was Cline's first novel.

The book is written in the first person narrative (which is also the case for the Hunger Games book, which I discuss below). Do amateur writers prefer first person narrative because it is harder for them to pull a third person narrative? Is the first person narrative supposed to be more engaging? Maybe the first person narrative acts like a self-hypnosis session for the reader to role-play along.

In the book, the female protagonist, Artemis, is caricaturized to please the male target audience. She came across very submissive in her dialogs with Parzival and this bugged me a lot.

The book plot is significantly different than that of its movie adoptation. The book is all about 80s cultural references, which the author seems to be very comfortable in. I think he set up a nice futuristic world which still enabled him to make the book about 80s nerd-dom.

Overall, this is an OK book. When talking about the haptic VR suit, and the nerd culture of obsessing about stuff, the book gives a realistic but not very desirable view of the future.

Hunger Games (2008)

This book was written by Suzanne Collins. This book also felt rushed and underdeveloped, but it was engaging. The parts where the book talked about hunger and sisterly love tugged hard on the heartstrings. Maybe a bit too strongly.

There were big gaping plot holes in the book. In the beginning of the games, Peeta was collaborating with Careers. Then he was a ruthless killer, he finished a girl with a knife. He was also portrayed as very good with throwing knives. Later in the game, he comes off as a wimpy pacifist again. He felt very sad when he inadvertently kills Fox-face when she swiped the poisonous wild-berries he collected. What was that all about? Did no one proof-read the book before publishing?

Katniss is comically ignorant of others' feelings towards her. She is smart for other things but very dumb when it comes to reading social cues and especially romantic interests of others. The only plausible alternative to bad writing (which I can't rule out) is that she has Aspergers or Autism. (Google produces many hits for this, but the book did not develop on this line.)

The setting of the book was promising, but I don't think this got developed/analyzed enough either. I realize there are two sequels, so maybe the other books picked up on these. So I recommend to avoid the book or listen/read it with low expectations to pass time. This is easy reading/listening. I listened to this book only because I had a long drive and needed to pass time.

"What Technology Wants" (2010) and "Inevitable" (2016) by Kevin Kelly

I had high expectations going into these books. But I was disappointed by both. And frankly both books are pretty much about the same topics, and they merged in my mind into one (very very long) book.

The first book talks about technium, the ecology/culture around technology, and explores the characteristics of technium and the path of technium. It tries to make a case that technium is an organic/emergent organism, and as a child outgrowing its parents, it will leave home one day. The book already started talking about inevitabilities for technium, leading the way to the second book. The discussion about DNA being a miracle molecule was interesting. The book also mentioned that there are inevitable optimal valleys for evolution to gradient-descent into and these lead to convergent evolution. This was then connected to theories about directed evolution, and whether technium was inevitably somehow coded in our genes. Thought provoking stuff maybe, but it stalls there at the metaphoric level, without any further development, supporting arguments, or critical evaluation.

The inevitable book talks about "12 technological forces that will shape our future". These are outlined as below as quoted from the wikipedia entry:
  1. Becoming: Moving from fixed products to always upgrading services and subscriptions
  2. Cognifying: Making everything much smarter using cheap powerful AI that we get from the cloud
  3. Flowing: Depending on unstoppable streams in real-time for everything
  4. Screening: Turning all surfaces into screens
  5. Accessing: Shifting society from one where we own assets, to one where instead we will have access to services at all times
  6. Sharing: Collaboration at mass-scale 
  7. Filtering: Harnessing intense personalization in order to anticipate our desires
  8. Remixing: Unbundling existing products into their most primitive parts and then recombining in all possible ways
  9. Interacting: Immersing ourselves inside our computers to maximize their engagement
  10. Tracking: Employing total surveillance for the benefit of citizens and consumers
  11. Questioning: Promoting good questions is far more valuable than good answers
  12. Beginning: Constructing a planetary system connecting all humans and machines into a global matrix
The problem with these books are they are very long, with a lot of unnecessary filler text, and they get very boring and dry as the narrative drags on. If I were reading them I could skim and skip ahead, but listening to them I didn't get this opportunity. Another problem with the books is that the topics/ideas concerned are explored in a general and abstract manner.

Kevin Kelly is a very interesting guy. I pay attention to his short writing. But these books were not good. They would be improved a lot by cutting two thirds of them. So my recommendation is to avoid these books and read summaries/highlights from them.

MAD questions

Can we write nonfiction books with story narratives?

You can easily spoil a fictional work/story, but you cannot do that with nonfiction. I was wondering whether we can write nonfiction work with such an engaging story that readers would get angry if you gave spoilers to it.

I think good science/technology journalists already do this. Instead of a generic instance, they focus on one individual and tell the story of a disease or invention in a more personalized way. I liked the "Undoing Project" and "Flash Boys" book by Michael Lewis a lot. I would have complained hard if someone gave me spoilers about those books while I was reading them. Also the Hackers book by Steven Levy was somewhat like that.

Long ago one of my colleagues told me that he is tired of writing papers in the straightforward boring format. He said he tried to write a research paper where he developed gradually to the punchline and gave that at the end and this made the reviewers very unhappy. Today I asked him about the fate of that paper again. He told me that he made "the paper very formal and hideously complicated, so it got published".

There is a benefit to the traditional predictable format, because it makes the readers' and reviewers' job easier. But it also spoils the fun of reading the paper. I sometimes lose interest after an introduction where everything is revealed. Sometimes the only reason I read the rest of the paper is to learn some techniques in detail, or see where the authors cut corners and cheat by sneaking in assumptions/limitations not mentioned in the introduction.

They say the obvious UI is the best, but is our paper writing format where we give the spoilers in the abstract and the introduction the obviously better way to do things?


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