The Infinite Resource by Ramez Naam

1681460-inline-infinite-resource-cover-1I won this book on Goodreads first-reads.

The premise of this book is that every single problem we face, from climate change to world hunger to disease to resource scarcity to overpopulation, can be solved through human ingenuity and innovation. He makes a fairly good case that the free market repeatedly rewards innovators that solve or greatly diminish serious Earth-spanning problems. World hunger has been drastically reduced in the past 30-40 years despite farm area and energy consumption barely rising at all, and in many cases decreasing. Technology has vastly increased the yield per acre of land and Naam identifies the root of this as profit motive rather than any moral goodness in the people designing said technology.

The market has holes of course — specifically pollution and destroying the commons. If there is not incentive to not pollute, then people will pollute if it improves the bottom line even while killing the planet / their future. Intelligent government programs and mandates can create incentive to stop pollution without any doomsday economic scenarios that many conservative groups declare when they are proposed. Naam repeatedly returns to the example of the ozone layer — the ozone hole is repairing itself now and CFC usage have basically been reduced to zero in the past 20-30 years. This was largely because of legislation signed by Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr. Another one of Naam’s points is that environmentalism and our response to climate change need not be a political (left) concern and he hammers this home by pointing out that one of the greatest planet-wide threats we’ve ever faced (ozone depletion) was solved in a timely and effective fashion by republican presidents. Partisan polarization is such a negative force that An Inconvenient Truth may have done more harm than good, simply because it was attached to Al Gore.

The ozone topic was startling to think about. I remember being in elementary and middle school and hearing how awful ozone depletion was — how it will take years and years to eliminate CFCs in our appliances/cooling systems and how we’d have to make great sacrifices in using inferior technologies. It would be decades until the ozone hole could begin repair. CFCs have actually been eliminated way before schedule, the ozone hole is repairing itself, and no one even noticed the change. Naam argues the same can be done for climate change, which is actually a lesser threat than ozone destruction, and on a much cheaper and faster scale than many experts predict. So long as we act soon, anyway.

Naam’s optimism is infectious, but he occasionally makes me dubious when he glosses over important topics. When he’s being a cheerleader for capitalism he does address some its sleazy elements. And he is not always convincing. He blames growing income disparity entirely on education. People with degrees do better and even post-economic repression, they are doing better than they did in the past. I think the implication is that higher paying jobs have become more specialized and require more education, though I can’t remember Naam going right out and saying that. His solution is privatized education — essentially using the competition of the open market to improve schools and force them to be better. Yet, is that honestly going to help people living in poorer areas of the country? It seems to me that it’s a no-brainer that the better privatized schools would end up in wealthier, middle class areas by default. And blaming income disparity entirely on education in the first place is much too simple and hard to believe.

He also suggests greatly increasing the incentives for high school students to go into science and technology fields and disincentivizing liberal arts fields. They’d end up with higher paying jobs and maybe be able to pay back their mountainous debt. This is sort of laughable, given the book begins by quoting A Tale of Two Cities and the implication that science/tech is more important is stupid. How about actually treating the root of the problem — horrendous debt accumulation and forcing 17 year olds to make gigantic life-altering and financial decisions —  instead of sticking disingenuous band-aids on top?

He also urges us to look beyond Monsanto and giant corporations when we look at the ultimate good of genetically modified organisms. I think he’s right. There is nothing wrong with genetically modifying seeds (and humans have been doing it for thousands of years anyway…) and it can help people in developing countries immensely . And yes, Monsanto’s patents are running out. But you can’t hand-wave the enormous amount of negative factors thrown into the mix by giant malevolent corporations. Putting Vitamin A in rice? Great! Putting this in the hands of corporate entities and patenting life? Ehhh, need to actually discuss the downsides of the market here too.

All in all it was a pretty good book and I am glad I read it. It’s definitely a mode of thought I have not been introduced to in such detail and it also reminds me I need to read more non-fiction books written in the current year. I am 28 — possibly around a third of my lifetime — and thinking how drastically different the world was in 1985 is sort of shocking. Were there even cellphones yet? How did a supercomputer compare to a modern iPhone? No internet, of course. Like Naam, I’m optimistic and also sort of anxious for what the future holds.

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Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

https://scryingorb.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/owls1.png(I won this book from goodreads first-reads giveaway.)

This is the first David Sedaris book I have ever read. Due to this, it took some time for me to get into and enjoy these essays. They are stories of the author’s life and your enjoyment of them is tied to the notion that you like David Sedaris. The first few essays were frankly boring and I was afraid this was going to be a slog, but as I got to know the author, his style and persona, it vastly improved.

While I did like some of these stories, I rarely felt they were as laugh-out-loud funny as many of his fans purport. The writing is best when he is being insightful, touching, or reflective rather than funny. And the humor works much better when it is secondary then when it is the focus. Some of the best essays were one about missed romantic opportunities on trains and another about capturing wild sea turtles and trying to feed them hamburger. Insightful and melancholy but when they’re funny, the humor is far better than a lot of the “funny man” pieces. And the less said about the book’s fictional monologue pieces, the better.

There’s also cases where I am not even certain if a story is supposed to be funny or not — for instance the antics of his parents, especially his father are not really wacky or funny, usually they are just straight-up awful. I found myself bewildered and wondering does his father read his books? How are they even still talking? If his dad isn’t blaming his sister for being assaulted on her walk home from the grocery store, he’s going on and on about how much better at swimming/school/life another boy in his son’s class is than David himself. In the latter example, I kept expecting the punchline to be how David was mistaken or his dad suddenly realizes he praises some random kid more than his son, and does something about it. But no! There is no punchline. His dad really did just like the other kid more.

I shouldn’t harp on the humor too hard. There are some legitimately funny pieces. The essay on taxidermy and owls (that does not reference diabetes at all, I have no idea why the book is titled as such) and the one about book tours are both funny, just not side-splittingly so. I think more than anything else, I’m ambivalent about the book. I didn’t hate. In fact, I think I enjoyed it. I just don’t feel much about it. Forgettable you might say. Eh.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

This book is awesome.

File it under the surprising books that suddenly remind you why you read, or at least what you are looking for in the best books. It came out of nowhere. Prior to this book I had near zero interest in the Tudors — I only picked up it because I was intrigued that Mantel was the first woman to ever win the Booker Prize twice and that both prizes were for two books in the same series. Now I’m hooked. I wanted to run out and grab the next book about my man Tom Cromwell, but had to force myself to go to my to-read pile instead.

The story follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith/brewer whom eventually becomes a close confidant and advisor to Henry VIII. My lack of knowledge on English history, especially of this time period does do me a disservice. I understand that Cromwell is often cast as a villain or at least not much of a hero, so the contrast of making him the sympathetic lead does not strike me as important. Though now I feel if I ever read/watch any adaptations of this story by other authors, I will be firmly on Cromwell’s side and annoyed at any negative portrayals.

It’s a slow story. Despite much happening during the decade or so the story encompasses, the narration is usually a slow, detached view of events to mirror the measured and calm demeanor of its protagonist. But this all works because the writing is excellent. It’s written in third person present tense, however, Mantel uses this weird POV quirk where most of the time she writes “He”, she means Cromwell. It’s sort of like first person with “I” replaced with “he”. It gives it the intimacy of a first person story while also giving her the freedom to narrate events that Cromwell himself is not present for.

It’s also occasionally incredibly confusing and at odds with how we normally read books in the English language. Consider the following sentence:

“Bob crossed the street. He thought about his meeting with Jane this morning.”

In Wolf Hall, the “He” could mean either Bob or Cromwell. Even when you get the hang of it, it can be confusing. I see some other reviewers have hated this, but I think it is absolutely worth the price of a new and effective take on writing point of view.

The story is largely about Cromwell becoming Dad to all England. After losing his family to the plague, he builds an amalgam of relatives, orphans, wards, and friends into a family at his ever-expanding estate. He also seems to be the father figure of all the nobility of the English court, calmly navigating their petty whims and doling out advice. Yet somehow, this is a pageturner. I read its very dense 600 pages quickly.

I’m in awe here. I need to read a lot more Mantel. Soon.

Bioshock Infinite by Irrational Games

bioshock picBioshock Infinite has received outstanding critical acclaim. Some excerpts from Metacritic (where it has a 94%):

“Whether or not you enjoy first-person shooters is irrelevant. It is whether or not you want an experience like no other; one that will be left in the back of your mind for years to come. “ – Hardcore Gamer Magazine

“This is the sort experience you don’t get every day: an easy-to-like spectacle for the masses with enormous production values, but a story right out of the art-house cinema.” Eurogamer Germany

“BioShock Infinite is a hell of a lot of fun to play. That really should be the only quality it needs to exhibit. The fact that it holds much more feels like an advancement of an art form. Just remember that nothing in BioShock Infinite is an attempt to be cute. Just let it tell you its story. “ – Guardian

These are some of the most hyperbolic, but they still represent a general trend for a game that did not receive a score lower than 8/10 across 67 critical reviews.

Anyway, here’s my blurb: Bioshock Infinite is a disappointing sequel to a great game, filled with sloppy, repetitive gameplay, a narrative that’s not particularly engaging and has terrible politics, that happens to be bookended by some pretty set pieces. Worse, its reception by “video game journalism” is embarrassing; it gives credence to the late Roger Ebert’s much maligned commentary on video games being incapable of high art.

The original Bioshock is excellent. It follows the story of an intruder to the fallen city of Rapture — an underwater objectivist dream conceived by a man whose name is a sort of Ayn Rand anagram. Okay, sure, “Objectivism is bad and wrong” is not a profound or novel theme, but in an industry that holds up storytelling like, well, Infinite’s, it is something. Libertarianism’s greatest constituent (privileged white men) is the greater part of the first person shooter audience as well.

It had interesting things to say about videogames and their audiences, even if the narrative falls apart after the big twist. Speaking of which, the twist is smart and fun unlike Infinite’s telegraphed and uninspired one (Listen guy, we’ve all seen Oldboy…). It was also weirdly and hilariously prophetic given the existence of real life plans for a libertarian ocean paradise.

Infinite’s narrative is doubly weak (general spoilers follow). It’s not thematically sound though it seems to want to be. It has been praised by actually tackling race but apparently “tackling race” just means acknowledging racism exists. Or at least did in 1912. And any points it receives for this minor feat, it immediately throws away. Then shits all over itself. The oppressed, mostly black underclass at one point in the game, arms themselves as the freedom fighting group “Vox Populi” and begins to rapidly and violently overthrow the privileged white elite led by Zachary Comstock. The narrative quickly decides that “The Vox are just as bad as Comstock”. This is formally shown by the black woman leader of the Vox attempting to execute a white child.The final climactic fight, indeed much of the second half of the game, has you fighting the newly armed underclass and murdering them by the bushel.

This is shit. No, the oppressed slave class does not become “just as bad” as their oppressors if they react just as violently. Knowing real life American history, they were victims of violence and worse for centuries. This does not excuse killing children (completely ignoring here for a moment that the first thing the black folk do when they get weapons is start murdering children…), and maybe there actually was something interesting to investigate here in regards to revolutions and oppression, but the game doesn’t try. Instead, the narrative immediately accepts their villainy and replaces the uniforms of the enemies you are fighting.

Even excusing all this, it’s not even a cool sci-fi story. The alternate world storyline is mostly squandered, especially in regards to the awkward gameplay mechanic called “tears”; you can open them during gunfights and they basically just give you more supplies or warp in AI robots to assist you. There’s vestiges of something that could have been a cool story at the very end, which feels like a different game, but the game does not deliver.

The gameplay itself is repetitive (admittedly, something the original suffered from at parts too). Endless swarms of the same enemies that only increase in how many bullets you need to shoot them. There is artificial limits — only two “tonics” (superpowers) or guns at a time — something that feels like it is there to adhere to the modern FPS model set by Halo and not for any real gameplay reason. The guns are forgettable and some of the later ones you pick up are just inferior versions of the guns you have been using and upgrading all game up to that point.

Did I mention the game is buggy as hell too? I had to restart at a previous point 3-4 times due to the game getting stuck in some fashion. Enemy stuck in terrain I could not kill to progress, storyline event just not happening, that sort of thing.

It’s not a terrible game. I did finish it. Some parts were fun. The ending was kind of cool, albeit silly. But, what a disappointment. Art-house cinema, indeed.

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Disregarding plot character etc for a moment, this book succeeds as an amazing piece of descriptive writing. The rural Canadian village and island cabin of the nameless protagonist’s youth is well realized and vivid. The air feels wet, the mosquitoes buzz. I was equal parts eager to visit, and creeped out by the place. There is a sinister bent that runs through the novel’s setting.

The plot is simple: Late 20s, unreliable narrator returns to her childhood home with her pathetic friends in search of the missing father she has not seen in many years. The setup is reminiscent of Winter’s Bone (the movie, never read the book), but the plot is secondary to the main character’s increasing confusion/disillusionment with her city life and friends and delusive reflection on her ex-husband. Also madness. A disproportionate amount of books I have read by a woman about a woman seem to involve madness.

I spent a significant chunk of this book thinking the protagonist was too smart to hang around these stupid men. The last fourth or so of the book clears this up a little, or makes it more believable as the narrator unravels, but no one is particularly sympathetic in this book and her boyfriend and the accompanying couple are terrible, to themselves and each other. It’s clever because it feels vaguely over the top yet they are still believable and useful to the societal and gender issues key to the books thematic exploration. But anyway, it’s not just thematic. Plot wise, the main character needs to be a victim before she can self-actualize and realize that purposely making herself powerless is just an excuse she uses to pretend her actions can’t hurt anyone.

That’s the key takeaway from the novel, I think; not that running away from a banal, self-and-other destructive society to a primal, unspoiled retreat would be swell, but that the latter is a pointless gesture and probably not much less (if any) harmful than the former. And as evidenced by the “stupid Americans” of the novel, the latter does not exist anyway.

This is the second Atwood novel I have read. The Handmaid’s Tale was the first, and I wasn’t blown away there. I liked Surfacing much more and thought the writing was excellent. Atwood’s detached, cold writing really shines here with her detached, cold protagonist in her detached, cold setting.

The Vorrh by B. Catling

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Alan Moore loves this book. His praise is all over the front and back covers and it begins with a few page introduction where he raves about how fantastic the Vorrh is — how it is the best fantasy novel of this century thus far, how it enlivens a stale genre full of wizards and dragons, how superbly written it is, etc etc. These sort of introductions are always problematic, especially for unproven novels, as they heighten expectations and when they don’t live up to them, you feel let down rather than surprised a book you never heard of was actually pretty good. The Vorrh isn’t bad, but it’s not nearly as excellent or groundbreaking as Moore claims and fantasy hasn’t been merely about wizards and dragons in a very long time though it is frustratingly limited at times.

The Vorrh is a massive, primal forest in Africa (unfortunately described as a single monolithic entity and not a large multi-culture continent here) that apparently originates in Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa and may or may not contain the Garden of Eden amongst other things. The novel itself follows several disparate threads / characters that slowly begin to converge within the titular forest during the middle and last thirds of the novel, though they do not come fully together and some threads barely meet at all all.

I don’t mind this sort of structure, a great plot is not essential, and some of my favorite novels follow it. It does require two things however:

1. An author who is a skilled craftsperson at the prose-level. They can write.

2. Compelling and interesting characters that the reader enjoys following even if the overarching plot is sparse.

For the first requirement, Catling largely succeeds. His writing isn’t quite the caliber Alan Moore describes, but it is still better-than-genre-average and he does creeping horror very well. The best parts of the book include a side-story involving stillborn babies and the doctor who first diagnosed anorexia. The descriptions of The Vorrh itself are also stellar. Additionally, the book has that difficult to analyze page-turner quality. I read it pretty quick for a big, bulky 500 page novel.

The problem comes with number 2. None of the characters are particularly likeable. Some of this is by design. The real life photographer Edweard Muybridge is the best character, and also a total prick. But for the most part, none of them are very compelling. The cyclops, Ishmael, is the worst. He is bland as all hell, and his storyline is boring for a significant chunk of the book. The rest are largely forgettable and some of the fates they meet are sort of bewildering (not in the good way) or shrug-worthy.

On top of that, the women are all miserable characters and all the noteworthy ones have sex with the main male characters. And having sex with them is why they are important to the plot. In fact, the only real point-of-view women in the novel have sex with same male character. And the only black woman (remember this takes place in Africa…) who gets any characterization at all is both mute and like, savagely sexual.

So ultimately, it has its moments and isn’t terribly written but I’d only recommend it with major reservations. It’s part of a trilogy and I am not sure if I would read future installments.

Thanks to Green Apple Books in San Francisco for stocking this. Even if I did not love it, it was interesting and somewhat unique and it’s good to support independent presses.