Book Review: Packing for Mars

Man, I love Mary Roach. She does popular science books with just the right mix of humor, personal involvement, hard science, and irreverence. In Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void Roach examines space travel from just about every odd angle you can imagine. Looking at the table of contents, you kind of get the impression that the author just sat down with a pad of paper, tapped a ball-point pen against her lips, and murmured, “Space. What’s the deal there? I wonder…” and then just jotted down topics without any care for impropriety or intellectual merit.

As a result, it’s all stuff that any bright and honest person would want to know about. It ranges from the curious (what other weird things do other countries do to select astronauts?) to morbid (what exactly does a crash landing do to a human body) to morbidly curious (just how does one poop in zero gravity, anyway?). This isn’t stuff that you’d get by reading the NASA website or a Popular Science article about the International Space Station. It’s real-life concerns, and perhaps more interestingly, it’s the real life account of how scientists, engineers, and astronauts have had to deal with those concerns. Sometimes Roach shares a little bit too much graphic detail –and I’m thinking of the chapters on the visceral perils of space flight, not the ones on deep space sex, though your results may differ– but it’s always interesting and it leaves you with the odd feeling that you’re glad someone is thinking about this stuff.

And, as with her other books, one of the best things about Packing for Mars is that Roach throws herself fully into the research. She does plenty of typing away on Internet search engines, but she also jets over to Russia to talk with former cosmonauts, tours NASA, observes interviews for the Japanese space program, and even experiences zero gravity by way of a parabolic flight on a type of plane affectionately called “a vomit comet.” And more. I think what I appreciate so much about this approach is that it makes you feel like you’re not so much reading about firing monkey-laden rockets into orbit, supposedly filming the world’s first zero-g sex tape, or abstaining from basic personal hygiene for the sake of science. You’re learning about these things alongside her, or at least strolling alongside an extremely informed and slightly cheeky tour guide. It’s fun and fascinating at the same time.

Also see these other reviews of Mary Roach’s books:

Book Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I was originally going to wait and read all three of the books in the “Millennium Trilogy” before writing any reviews, but I’m honestly not sure if I’ll ever get around to reading the rest. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first in Stieg Larsson’s series, published posthumously and taking airport bookstores everywhere by storm. Really, people seem to love it, but I don’t understand why.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo largely follows the story of Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced magazine editor in need of a long holiday. Blomkvist takes on a weird job of trying to solve a decades-old murder mystery in a remote village, but the twist is that the job is being done for a wealthy industrialist who asks Blomkvist to keep things quiet and pretend like he’s writing a family history. In exchange, he’ll get the dirt he needs for a career-making story. Also in the mix is Lisbeth Salander, a mentally unhinged but brilliant hacker and “researcher” who takes an interest in Blomkvist and the mystery he’s trying to solve. As far as a murder mystery slash thriller goes, the book is fine. There’s danger, sex, intrigue, excitement, sex, a serial killer, sex, and also sex. Did I mention sex? Seriously, Blomkvist sleeps with every female character under the age of 60 in the book in a very James Bond-ish fashion.

The shortcoming of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, though, is that it seems a little amateurish. Maybe it’s an artifact of it’s being translated from Swedish, but I frequently found weird repetitions of words and phrases along the lines of “he walked to the door and stood in the doorway” that seem like an editor should have caught. Larsson also has this odd predilection for detailing every street and neighborhood in Stolkholm that his character walk down, regaling us with their proper Swedish names. I completely understand that in the author’s native language the effect is simply banal, but for the rest of us it keep sounding like some 14 year old trying to make his fantasy world sound exotic by throwing in the elvish or dwarfish names of everything. Entirely my fault for speaking the wrong language and never having been to Sweden, for sure, but I nonetheless couldn’t escape the effect.

The book is also oddly paced. Large chunks of it are spent hearing about the characters clomp around Stolkholm or the tiny village of Hedeby, else we’re hearing about the sausage and liverwurst sandwiches Blomkvist had for lunch. It’s really boring exposition that seems to serve no purpose. There’s also one sequence where Larsson goes into excruciating detail about the laptop computer Salander buys, providing breathless details about processor speed, hard drive space, and RAM that serve only to make the device seem laughably outdated by the time someone from six months in the future reads it. Sequences of action or insight –OR SEX– punctuate the story, but it’s really uneven. There’s also the problem that Lisbeth Salander is a way more interesting character than Mary Sue Blomkvist, yet she disappears entirely from the tale for huge swaths of time. I think Larsson corrects this some in later books, but it accentuates the dull bits here and makes a long novel seem even longer.

So, not sure if I’ll continue on to the other books or not. I’ve got them, though, so maybe I’ll plod on. Does it get better?

Book Review: Tongues of Serpents

Descriptions of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series usually invoke the phrase “the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.” But after reading the last few books in the series, including the latest, Tongues of Serpents, I think “travelogue of a dude and his dragon with Napoleon doing stuff somewhere else entirely” would be more apt.

Tongues picks up with (supposedly) disgraced and former Captain William Laurence and his draconic companion Temeraire being banished to the unsettled continent of Australia for having chosen his conscience over orders from his superiors in the previous book. And so it becomes apparent that the reader, having visited locations such as China, Africa, and the Middle East in previous books is in for a dragonback tour of the land down under. Indeed, it isn’t long until Lawrence, Temeraire, and their companions are soon chasing a macguffin into the continent’s sunburnt interior and telling us all about the sights, sounds, and tastes (all three of which largely involve kangaroos).

It’s not like Novik hasn’t learned how to tell a ripping good yarn in this setting and with these characters. She has. There’s danger, mystery, challenges, and hardships. But at the same time, Novik can be a bit transparent in her practice of drawing from a bulleted list of “Danger/Excitement Ideas” and plopping them down in the narrative to break up the travelogue. There’s a bar room fight here, conflict with the natives there, a wildfire over there, and a snake bite induced fever tucked in somewhere else. But at least things pop.

That being said, though, it seems like little of consequence happens during the book. It’s mostly flapping around the outback. Any larger plot about England and the war with France is abolished to the background, and there’s no big ideas like in earlier books, such as equal rights for dragons or the morality of deliberately spreading a virulent disease among their enemies. Laurence’s situation doesn’t even really change until the final pages of the story.

I’ll probably read the next book, though, because they continue to be decent adventure stories if nothing else. The next one seems primed to take us to the Americas –either North or South or maybe both. I just hope something more interesting happens.

Book Review: The Last Colony

The Last Colony is set in the same sci-fi universe as some of John Scalzi’s other books, like Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades. It also features the same hero, John Perry, joined again by his ex-supersoldier wife, Jane Sagan. And like those other books, this one deals largely with the macro-level drama of the human race’s (or really the Colonial Union, which calls most of the shots on behalf of humanity) frantic quest to stay alive and propagate in an unfriendly universe rife with competition for limited resources.

But not right away. At the beginning of the book, Perry and Sagan are retired from the military, mostly enjoying their lives on a pastoral planet and raising their adopted teenage daughter. Soon they’re convinced to help seed a new planetary colony, but it becomes quickly apparent that the Colonial Union is playing them crooked and using them as an expendable pawn in an attempt to outmaneuver The Conclave, a coalition of other races bent on putting a stop to colonization by non-member races such as the humans. The Conclave welcomes everybody to join its team, but otherwise plays really rough, so things get dirty and the two heroes have to figure out how to survive the situation.

I like Scalzi’s stuff, but The Last Colony is easily my least favorite book in this series so far. What I liked about the earlier works was that they were all about adventure, genetically and technologically modified supersoldiers, nanotech, and fightin’ dudes. The Last Colony has a bit of that in spots, but far too much of the book contained simple talking heads. There’s even one stretch where we’re actually watching Perry watch a video of two talking heads, so you kind of get a double down effect. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit boring in places. Scalzi drew some parallels about Western imperialism and colonization that were a bit on the nose, but they were generally interesting and it was fun to see if you could figure out what (if any) message was there about the American empire (i.e., the Colonial Union) and its chances of standing against a world set against it (i.e., The Conclave, a.k.a, the United Nations).

So The Last Colony isn’t bad, but it’s not as enjoyable as the other books I’ve read so far. I’m going to continue reading the series, though, in the hopes that Scalzi returns to form.

Book Review: On Stranger Tides

Tim Powell’s On Stranger Tides caught my interest because it’s apparently the story on which the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie is going to be based. I could see it: Powell’s book is set at the twilight of the great age of piracy in a world where magic is possible, but almost exclusively in the new world of the Americas and Caribbean.

As far as world building goes, this struck me as a pretty darn interesting premise. The magic is a mix of voodoo, old-world hexes, necromancy, and good old fashioned “burn the other guy to a crisp” approaches. The author plays it pretty loose with the internal logic and rules of his system, so that I never really did understand it and there were several aspects of it that were transparently there in service of the plot. But it was creative and fun, and that’s enough. Plus I like pirates and all that nautical talk.

The plot of the book is kind of another story. Our hero is Jack Shandy, a former English gentleman forced into piracy by his capture and a series of unlikely events –a standard trope of stories that want to have a pirate hero, but want to side step that whole “he’s a murdering murderer who murders” problem. Shandy spends most of the book trying to track down and rescue his inexplicable love interest, a young woman form whom her sorcerous father has nefarious plans. There’s also the Fountain of Youth, Blackbeard, and lots of zombies.

All in all it was a pretty fun book, but mostly for the world building an the pure novelty of it. Jack Shandy and the other characters in the book aren’t inherently interesting, though, and Powell didn’t strike me as a writer that could hold my interest once the novelty of the setting wore off.

Book Review: Grand Theft Childhood

I came across Lawrence Kuthner and Cheryl Olson’s Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Games (And What Parents Can Do) while doing some research for an article on the psychology of video games. The book is the end result of a research program by the authors, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice weirdly enough, focusing on violent video games and kids. Kuthner and Olson claim to be impartial researchers who don’t have any particular axe to grind on the issue, unlike activists, politicians, professionals working in the games industry, or gamers themselves. Their aim, they say, was to let their data do the talking.

The data in question are those collected by the researchers from surveys, focus groups, and individual interviews with kids and their families. Right away any reader who has taken anything beyond a Research Methods 101 class could tell you that this is a limiting factor –self report data are subject to a range of biases and using only one or two methods of data collection represents a substantial flaw in any program. But that’s not to say that the data are worthless or that the conclusions the researchers (who readily cop to these limitations) draw from them can’t be used to inform continuing research or draw some conclusions with the right caveats.

And the claims that come out of all this make a certain amount of sense: kids are vulnerable to some of this stuff, but bullying and warped senses of gender or race roles are more likely outcomes than sociopathic killing sprees. Some kids are more vulnerable than other on account of good old fashioned individual differences. Actually, girls play and enjoy violent games, too. Kids think guns and weapons are cool, but what they really like are chances to develop skills, make choices, and interact with other people. Some games may only be single player, but kids build social relationships around them by talking about their common experiences. There is a ratings system in place (the ESRB) but it’s pretty flawed and kids are savvy about how to acquire restricted games. Anyone who has a reason to lie to you about the effects of violent games on kids and culture may very well be. That kind of stuff.

Overall, it’s not a bad read, and a pretty quick one. There are some chapters, like the one drawing parallels between the uproar over violent games to past uproars over every other media you can think of, were a little too long and turgid, and despite claims to be impartial the researchers occasionally pinned their political views onto their sleeves, it is a pretty impartial look at the topic that doesn’t toe any particular line. It’s not the last word on the subject, but I hope that other social scientists pick up on these research programs and build on them.

Book Review: The Upside of Irrationality

Dan Ariely’s previous book on behavioral economics, Predictably Irrational was fantastic. It explored the way that economics work on a personal level when you stop assuming that people are completely irrational and provided a great overview of the many kinks in the human brain that lead us to make weird, suboptimal decisions. His new book, The Upside of Irrationality, flips that coin onto its other side and looks at hour our penchant for irrational decision-making can actually benefit us and make us better off. Or how it could if we let it.

Like in his last book, Ariely draws from a deep well of research conducted by himself and his colleagues in order to provide context for everything he discusses. What I love about this aspect of the book is how clever off-the-wall many of the experiments are. Ariely and company send researchers to villages in India to measure the surprising effect of extravagant rewards on task performance. They construct fake and experimental online dating sites to see how we might better construct our online interactions to capitalize on what it really is that people –especially those of us south of “supermodel” in the looks department– look for in a mate. They talk about subjecting lucky subjects to massages and unlucky ones to excessive vacuum cleaner noise in order to see how we adapt to pleasure or pain. And a lot more. Every chapter contains descriptions of scientific research, but it’s almost all really interesting and takes you to conclusions that will stick with you.

So while I still think Predictably Irrational is the better of the two books because it’s more interesting and instructuve to see how people fail than to see how they might succeed, The Upside of Irrationality is still a very quick and very interesting read. What’s better, it’s practical and may change how you think about your own behavior.

Book Review: Priceless

I’ve always been interested in the psychology of consumerism, along with related topics like marketing and purchasing behaviors. Both for how shameless it is and how readily we (myself included) seem to fall for what really amount to simple psychological slight of hand. Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (And How to Take Advantage of It) by William Poundstone looked like it was going to scratch that itch, and while it does to some extent I’m left a little off balance by the book.

If you look at Priceless as a whole, it seems to hit a lot of the right notes for me. It takes practical questions like why we buy what we do and why marketers do what they do, and it answers them by turning to theories and well established phenomenon from psychology –most notably Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s prospect theory. There’s chapters on how menu consultants use psychological anchoring and the contrast effect to get you to order what they want, an examination of the effectiveness of prices ending in “.99” and other such “charm” numbers, the allure of all-you-can-eat buffets, the power of breaking out many small benefits in a sales pitch (i.e., the “But wait! There’s more!” trope), and other such fascinating topics. And overall I’d say it’s a good read for all that.

The main thing that keeps me from whole heartedly recommending Priceless to any reader, though, is that none of that good stuff really starts until page 143 out of about 290. The entire front HALF of the book focuses less on the specifics I listed above and more on the general case of prospect theory and its history. In places it reads more like a mini-biography of Kahneman and Tversky as well as some of their predecessors. And when he’s not doing this “history of science” thing, Poundstone is going into some pretty gnarly specifics on the science (both from psychology and economics) of all this. Now personally, I loved all this and ate it up because while I knew most of it I was interested to get some biographical information and see it all in a different context. It’s just kind of hard to recommend to someone who’s walking into the topic without any other education.

And while the book does turn the corner halfway through when it starts getting into some practical and fascinating specifics, those chapters do assume that you’ve read and understood most of the stuff in the earlier, technical parts. The discussion of our preference for all-expenses-included vacation resorts, for example, assumes that you grokked an earlier discussion about the convex nature of the value function to the left of an individual’s reference point. Or somesuch.

It’s an interesting way to structure the book, as opposed to the typical approach of tackling one topic (say menu design or the fallibility of real estate agents) and then presenting all the related research in one chapter. One advantage to the approach in Priceless is that the latter, topical chapters are all really short, averaging just 3 or 4 pages each. I think this will make it a pretty good reference book and I enjoyed it overall, but any recommendation has to come with the caveot that you should know what you’re in for.

Book Review: The Drunkard’s Walk

Yeah, that’s right. A book about probability theory. And actually, it’s not bad if you can either shrug off or endure a bit of lecturing on basic mathematics and statistics. Author Leonard Mlodinow sets out to review the history of probability, starting with the ancient Greeks and following the field’s evolution and application. Mlodinow has a pretty good style, keeping things relatively low level so that anyone with a high school education in math can probably follow along. He also peppers the narrative with jokes and asides to break up the otherwise less-than-fluffy subject matter. And it works pretty well, though I suspect the lengthy discussion of the normal curve might have lost me if I hadn’t already had all that info drilled into me in graduate school.

My favorite parts of The Drunkard’s Walk were the historical bits dealing with the personalities and biographies of the people who helped define the field. It’s interesting to see how one, for example, labored as a would-be academic for years and years, before turning his burgeoning probability theory to gambling and making more money than he ever dreamed of. Actually, that theme shows up a lot –another section describes how another researcher working in the field went to a casino and used his meticulous study of roulette tables to uncover flaws in the system and make himself fabulously wealthy before they kicked him out.

Where The Drunkard’s Walk falls down (ha!) a bit is in its examination of the practical problems to which probability theory can be applied. That is, why it matters to YOU. The best books on popular science do this really well, and it moves the work from being academic to accessible by anyone looking to be both educated and entertained. Don’t get me wrong, Mlodinow does some of this, but he doesn’t really nail it as well as some others I’ve read. Still, if you’ve got a little bit of grounding in the topic and want to add some context to your knowledge, The Drunkard’s Walk should do that quite nicely.

Book Review: Influence: The Science of Persuasion

I first read Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Science of Persuasion when I was in graduate school studying judgment and decision making. I was amazed not only by the power of the psychological levers for influence that the author describes, but how easy he makes them to understand. It turns out that MANY things guiding my every day decisions have their roots in psychology, but what’s really amazing and a little distressing is how these levers are used deliberately by people in the know to influence me. Free samples at the super market? They’re given out because the reciprocity effect makes you more likely to buy the product. Fraternity hazing? The consistency principle makes you put up with it. Buying things on sale when you don’t need them? It’s the scarcity principal and loss aversion making you do it.

What’s equally impressive about Influence is how effectively Cialdini communicates these ideas. He provides one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of straddling the line between practical examples anyone can recognize and how it relates to academic research published in scientific journals. Each chapter focuses on one major concept and then dives deep into it before ending with a set of recommendations about how we can guard against unwanted influences. The latter often boil down to “You just gotta be aware of it,” but sometimes they offer pointed advice that can be quite useful.

For anyone interested in the topic of psychology and how it relates to what you buy, what you like, who you support, how you act, what you value, and what you think in every day situations, you can’t do much better than this book. It’s a great combination of empirical science made accessible (and relevant) to the masses.

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

I really enjoyed Audrey Niffeneger’s first book, The Time Traveller’s Wife, so much so that I named it my favorite book that I read in 2006. So it’s kind of surprising to even me that it took me so long to got around to picking up her sophomore novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which tells the story of two (almost) identical twins who inherit a London flat haunted by their aunt’s ghost. No, seriously. Unfortunately this book isn’t nearly as good, mainly because it tosses about as much drama, weird plot twists, and inexplicable behavior as a daytime soap opera.

To be fair, The Time Traveller’s Wife did a lot of this as well. The marriage on display in that book is maudlin and overwraught, with gushing emotions and breathless dialog more suited to a romance novel. But I enjoyed The Time Traveller’s Wife DESPITE all that, because Neffiniger did such an awesome job twisting the time travel threads around the lives of these people. But Her Fearful Symmetry has no such hook, and what we’re mostly left with is some heavy handed themes about freedom and identity. Julie and Valentina, the two aforementioned twins in their early twenties, move from America to London to fulfil the inheratance requirements of their aunt’s will. Their aunt and mother happen to also be identical twins, but are estranged for some reason that’s not revealed until late in the book, by which point it’s actually both hysterically stupid and contrived. Their aunt’s ghost is haunting the apartment where the twins live, and they are also visited by their aunt’s long-time lover Robert, who lives downstairs. In a particularly icky plot line, Robert falls for Valentina, which is a little skeezy when you think about the substantial age difference, really skeezy when you consider that Robert and Valentina are for all intents and purposes uncle and niece by marriage, and super skeezy when it becomes apparent that Robert is only interested in her because she’s the spitting image of her aunt. Who, you know, is watching all this happen as a ghost. And encouraging it.

So yeah, it’s kind of crazy. I get the feeling that Niffeneger was trying to write some kind of romantic thriller, what with all the vulnerable girls, twins, coming of age, rocking the cradle, weird sex, and death. The plot reaches a climax with a series of decisions that no rational person –even an immature girl– would pursue, and which no reasonable adult would condone much less participate in. I actually thought that the author had done something mind blowing with this when it seemed that her characters had more nefarious intentions than we had thought, but she backs down from that twist in the next chapter. Niffeneger had a plot to wind, so there we went. Like I said, the rapid fire series of reveals, twists, and betrayals made me think that I was watching an episode of Guiding Light written by Stephen King.

So if I were to recommend one of Niffeneger’s books, it would still definitely be The Time Traveller’s Wife. It’s much better and has a better hook.

Book Review: The Best of Dinosaur Comics

The Best of Dinosaur Comics 2003-2005 AD (subtitle: Your Whole Family is Made Out of Meat!) is a collection of a webcomic strips that by any reasonable analysis really should never have gotten to the point of having enough strips to be collected. Author Ryan North basically took six panels of generic dinosaur clip art and just changed the words to make a new comics every weekday. Not the pictures, just the words.

Here’s what he starts with every time he makes a new strip:

Then he just writes words. What’s amazing: he’s been doing this since 2003. What’s even more amazing than THAT is that Dinosaur Comics is totally, inexplicably awesome. You should at least check out a few strips at www.qwantz.com.

The strip features just three dinosaurs plus the occasional off-panel character like God or The Devil. The strip’s star is T-Rex, who is a force of pure id in that he’s constantly amazed by his own awesomeness, utterly enthusiastic about everything that involves him, and oblivious to the implications of his hijinks. Yet you can’t help liking T-Rex –even loving him– because while he’s a bit narcissistic, his zest for everything that crosses his fever-dream of a consciousness is contagious. He’s a bit like a more thoughtful and intelligent Homer Simpson. In one strip T-Rex may be expressing his irrational fear of cephalopods or how much he enjoys stomping on things, but in others he may be discussing philosophy, the etymology of obscure phrases, or novel applications of fields like economics, statistics, or literary criticism to problems your non-dinosaur brain never thought of.

T-Rex is joined by Dromiceiomimus and Utahraptor, who often act as his foils, but who just as often go along with his debates, discussions, and proclamations simply because doing so makes life more fun. You get the feeling that North is a really smart guy whose interests are far flung, and he is somehow able to use these six panels of clip art to talk about whatever thoughts happen to cross his mind. The strip is blessedly bereft of your typical pop culture or subculture references, instead opting to create its own weird amalgam of quasi-intellectual absurdity. The fact that North has been able to do so for so long and to make it so consistently entertaining is really astounding. Go to www.qwantz.com to see examples of what I’m talking about.

Book Review: The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind is the first in a planned trilogy of high fantasy novels by Patrick Rothfuss that follow the adventures of the improbably named Kvothe. At the beginning of the novel Kvothe is a young boy traveling with his minstrel parents and their trope. Ha ha, sorry, I meant “troop.” Bit of a Freudian slip there. Regardless, Kvothe soon finds himself homeless and scrounging to survive on the streets of a large city. The lad is gifted, though, so he weasels his way into University where he sets about learning magic. Only Rothfuss thinks he can trick us by calling it “sympathy” and talking about it like it’s a science, but we’re not fooled –it’s magic. Anyway, the bulk of the book follows Kvothe through his rapid but trecherous rise within the school’s student ranks. Also, there’s a girl.

I liked The Name of the Wind pretty well as pure entertainment and an example of the genre. It’s a little offsetting that Kvothe is a bit of a Mary Sue character, in that he’s super smart and mature beyond his years from the offset. He learns an entire language in a matter of hours, for example, and more than once he easily grasps advanced academic subjects for the sake of moving the plot along and letting Rothfuss engage in some quick world building. But in the end Kvothe is flawed enough to avoid falling into this trope entirely and he faces his share of genuine adversity. Most of the conflict in the book comes not from swordplay or spell slinging, but from the young student’s struggles against his poverty. He’s constantly living on the edge of destitution and scrambling to not only make ends meet, but save up enough to pay for next term’s University tuition. He works multiple jobs, borrows funds from a convivial but nonetheless dangerous moneylender, launches a career as an entertainer, and scrounges wherever he can. Kvothe is also a bit of a prig and despite his best intentions to make friends and influence people, he can’t help making enemies of a few people in positions to make his life difficult. This was a novel source of conflict for a high fantasy book. You’re used to seeing the youths in these books fight bandits and slay monsters, not pinch pennies and eat out of garbage cans. So if nothing else, it’s unlike other stuff in the genre and it’s very readable even if we do catch ourselves rolling our eyes at Kvothe’s improbable aptitudes.

And while we’re on the subject, don’t let anyone tell you that this book is “like Harry Potter, but for adults.” It’s nothing like Harry Potter except that they both feature young boys learning magic at a school. Past that, there’s nothing alike, neither in character, larger setting, or tone. The Name of the Wind isn’t exactly dark, but it’s not the imaginative, fanciful romp that the Harry Potter books are at their best. I also get the feeling that Kvothe isn’t going to stay at the University once subsequent books are released. And while we’re on the subject, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like the prospect of waiting years before a series is complete and available for reading, you may want to hold off on this one; as I mentioned, it’s only the first of a trilogy, and we all know that those have a habit of blooming into quartets, and then five or six book series, and then so on until the author finally dies. Yes, I’m looking at you, Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin.

Still, Rothfuss is a snappy enough writer and an imaginitive world builder that I was able to look past Kvothe’s “I’m an orphan but I’m totally noble in spirit and can do anything really super effectively” pastiche. As a character he’s kind of “meh” but I’m hoping that Rothfuss moves past that in subsequent volumes. At any rate, I’m along for the ride if he can get them to me before the close of the next decade.

Book Review: The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade

I’ve mentioned before how big a fan I am of the guys who make the Penny Arcade webcomic, so you can imagine that when the book tour promoting their new volume, The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade, came to my hometown I went to see them. And it was a really fun event! They got up on stage for about an hour and a half, during which Mike (the artist) sketched on a computer that was projected in front of the crowd (80% of which were wearing black tee shirts, I’d estimate) while Jerry (the writer) ran a question and answer session. They really knew how to work a crowd and afterwords I was able to get my copy of the new book signed.

Speaking of which, the first thing you should probably know about The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade (subtitled either “The 11 1/2 years anniversary edition” or “Nearly 12 years of bullshit” depending on if you look at the dust jacket or the actual hardcover) is that it’s not just another collection of the webcomic fixed in a paper medium. They have those for sale if that’s what you desire, or you can just go read the website for free. Rather, this new book is split evenly between reprints of favorite/relevant strips and big delicious blocks of text describing not just the comic, but the entire Penny Arcade enterprise. There’s a biographical recounting of how Mike and Jerry met and eventually got around to creating the comic, there’s articles about the Child’s Play charity they created, and there’s photos and stories about the Penny Arcade Expo that has quickly risen to claim the crown of “Best Public Expo For Nerds Who Like Gaming Ever.” There are even harrowing tales of how the PA guys ran afoul of the law, almost went out of business, and floundered at almost every step of the way. Almost all these pieces are written by the PA staff (most usually Mike, Jerry, or their business manager Robert Khoo), so while they’re not exactly impartial and obviously aim to leave you with the impression that Team PA is totally awesome, they do get you a lot of inside information and are surprisingly frank about things that the creators and their collaborators did flat out WRONG. So if you’re a fan of PA and are looking for a little more biographical information on everyone involved to date, the book should satisfy.

I should mention that despite all the words in the book, its graphical elements are also outstanding. Some of Mike’s best artwork is scattered throughout the book to give it the right flavor, and the layout and typography make the book a lot of fun to just flip through. Coupled with the brief nature of all the stories contained within, this makes it an ideal coffee table book of the kind that friends may just enjoy opening to any page and starting to peruse. I can’t guarantee what they’ll think of you afterwords, though.

Book Review: Dune Messiah

I really liked Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune when I first read it a few months ago –so much so that I named it one of the best books I read that year. But upon finally getting around to the sequel, Dune Messiah I’m pretty disappointed. It’s really boring.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see some of the impressive literary clockwork that Herbert assembles in the book. Where Dune told the story of Paul Muad’Dib’s rise to the Emperor, controller of the universe’s only source of the coveted super spice “melange,” and general badass dude, Messiah tells the story of his downfall. It also follows through on one of the more interesting concepts introduced in the first book: Paul’s spice-induced ability to foresee the eventual species-wide extinction of humans and the hard choices he has to make in order to steer history towards a lesser evil. Indeed, Messiah fast forwards to a point where Paul’s fanatic followers have propagated a holy war that has destroyed entire planets and left over 60 billion people dead in just a few years. By those measures, Paul is the worst monster history has ever created, yet he has to bear the mostly private burden of knowing that he’s killing all those people to save the race as a whole while simultaneously trying to outmaneuver his political opponents and crafty assassins. Angst!

The problem I have with Messiah is that it suffers acutely from a kind of talking head syndrome. It’s not until the back sixth or so of the book that anything interesting happens. Dune had sword fights, skirmishes, Paul and his mother tromping around the deadly desert of Arakis meeting and learning about the Fremen, and all other kinds of adventures. Messiah devotes literally dozens of pages at a time to sitting in a room listening to conspirators talk to each other. And then talking about what the talking means. And then thinking about what the talking about the talking means. It’s terrible and jarring to see how Herbert has switched gears so abruptly from fascinating adventure and world building to stark exposition and naval gazing.

Not that some of the ideas aren’t interesting. The way that Paul must grapple with his precognition and how he has to grasp at things to try and leave humanity on the path to survival in the wake of his inevitable fall is a complex and fascinating idea, for one. And I liked the idea of how his strengths are the things that ultimately do him in –sometimes literally. It’s just that I wish Herbert had found ways to make this story less tedious in its execution.

Is the third book any better? I’m on the fence at this point.

Book Review: Men at Arms

Men at Arms is Terry Pratchett’s fifteenth …woah, really? This is the fifteenth Discwordld book? And I’m not even HALFWAY done with the series yet? And he’s still writing them? That’s AWESOME!

Anyway, in Men at Arms returns to the metropolis of Ank-Morpork, specifically the Night Watch charged with preventing suicides, such as suicide by strolling through the wrong part of town or saying the wrong thing to any of its inhabitants. Captain Samuel Vimes is relegated mostly a B-story for most of the novel, allowing Pratchett to focus more on the new recruits foisted on the Watch by the city’s new affirmative action. But since on the Disc Black and White live in harmony on account of their ganging up on Green, the race relations here have more to do with dwarfs, trolls, and the undead being added to the Watch’s ranks. Pratchett has a ton of fun with this concept, playing both sides by skewering the idea of affirmative action in employment while simultaneously lampooning people who are biased against other races without even really being aware of it.

Of course, that’s not all. There’s also some fun stuff about detective novels, investigative police dramas (Corporal Carrot of the Watch does a great Columbo impersonation), charismatic leadership, gun control, clowns, and the domestication of dogs. Speaking of which, Men at Arms gets bonus points for including Gaspode the Wonder Dog, the talking mongrel who only survives his many diseases (including Lickey End, which you only get if you’re a pregnant sheep) because “the little buggers are too busy fighting among themselves.”

All in all, another great book in one of my favorite settings with some of my favorite characters. Pratchett really shows that he’s more than a simple satirist, he’s actually a good writer capable of including characters that are subtle and nuanced while still standing in as proxies for larger concepts that the author wants to lampoon. I don’t imagine that it’s easy to do something like that.

Book Review: Under the Dome

With my tepid reaction to recent Stephen King books like Just After Sunset, Duma Key, Cell, and Lisey’s Story, I was kind of prepared to be vaguely disappointed by Under the Dome. I wasn’t. In fact, it’s one of my favorite King books to date, because it harkens back to a lot of what I loved about his earlier work. It also does some stuff that’s new for King.

This epic novel (the print version is over 1,000 pages long while the audiobook version took me 35.5 total hours to listen to) tells the sad tale of what happened when the town of Chester’s Mill is suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an inexplicable, dome-shaped force field. There’s relatively little supernatural or sci-fi to the story beyond that, as what King seems really interested in is examining how the social fabric of a small town ripples, strains, and eventually tears when Chester’s Mill becomes insular to an extreme. At the center of society’s startlingly rapid deterioration is the opportunistic and sociopathic politician James “Big Jim” Rennie, a town Selectman and –I kid you not– used car dealer. Big Jim takes “dome day” as an opportunity to seize and consolidate power in Chester’s Mill, building a ruthless police force and deftly manipulating public opinion in his favor. Opposing Rennie is Dale “Barbie” Barbera, a drifter and ex-Army Captain who had worn out his welcome in town but becomes trapped there by the dome. Barbie and his cohorts do their best to counter Rennie’s machinations, but they have to swim against the tide of apocalyptic hysteria and mob mentality created by the dome disaster. That and the fact that things seem to break Big Jim’s way at every turn.

The concept of a small Main town alienated from the rest of the world and preyed upon by sinister forces is one that King has worked extensively with before. It’s the central theme of both Needful Things and Storm of the Century, plus it shows up in other works like The Tommyknockers, and Desperation/The Regulators. But King explores the concept a lot more thoroughly and a lot more convincingly in Under the Dome, if for no other reason that he shows how the people of Chester’s Mill are responsible for their own doom moreso than the dome. The dome is just there. It’s the people, and the mob they form, that freaks the hell out and turns to Jim Rennie for help. It’s the people who blindly believes in Big Jim to the point of savaging each other and tolerating his abuse “for the good of the town.” The town cracks along the fault lines of human nature, and with Jim Rennie in charge things get really bad astonishingly quickly.

Likewise, King does a pretty good job of showing how the voices of reason, like newspaper owner Julia Shumway and physician’s assistant Rusty Everett, have their work cut out for them. And in the last few chapters of the book everything goes to hell (as it always does in King’s stories) and people are fighting just to stay alive, sometimes without success, in a poisonous and polluted environment. This part was pretty effectively done and evoked genuine despair in me.

You may be thinking, “Hrmm. That makes me think of Iraq. And global climate change. And the Bush administration.” To which I would say, “Yep, pretty much.” Under The Dome is clearly King’s most nakedly political (or allegorical, if you prefer) work. Big Jim Rennie and his easily manipulated First Selectman Andy Sanders are CLEARLY stand-ins for Dick Cheney and George Bush, respectively. The rapid deterioration of the air and weather inside the dome is CLEARLY global warming writ small. The town’s rapidly expanded and sadistic police force CLEARLY embodies the deterioration of civil liberties in the last decade. This is not subtle stuff, people, and you wouldn’t have to hunt very far to find King going on record with it. But at the same time it clicked for me, and Under the Dome becomes not only King’s most exciting book in a while (it has an amazingly peppy pace for such a long work with a whole town’s worth of characters) but also perhaps his most insightful and relevant examination of human nature.

Book Review: Nudge

The full title here is Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, and between them the two authors, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, can claim a substantial amount of expertise in psychology, economics, law, and public policy. The stated goal of the book is to take lessons from these four areas and squish them into a concept that the authors dub “libertarian paternalism.” The idea is that as libertarians the two believe in free information and free choice in all things public and private, but as students of behavioral economics and psychology they know that most people, most of the time, simply make bad decisions on account of our human nature. This is a book about how to fix that. Or at least improve things relative to the status quo.

Specifically, Thaler and Sunstein propose a series of “nudges” that spring from the way that choices are presented, framed, and informed. Early on they give the example of Carolyn, a fictional director of food services for a public school. Carlyn wants the students at her school to eat healthy, but she has limited control over menus so she can’t just ban unhealthy food –nor does she necessarily think she should. But what she can do is nudge children into making healthier choices by changing how food is presented and what information kids are given about their choices. Putting carrots at eye level while chips are relegated to the bottom shelf, for example, would translate to more carrots being eaten. Or including milk with the value meal by default, even if kids can request to substitute soda for free. It’s not a matter of forcing (read: legislating) students to eat their damn carrots, but rather creating what the authors call a helpful choice architecture that encourages the students to make better decisions on their own by side stepping (or even capitalizing on) well known foibles in human decision-making.

After a few introductory chapters to explore these foibles (think anchoring, framing, availability heuristic, loss aversion, status quo bias, etc.), Thaler and Sunstein run with the idea by showing how to create choice architectures that favor their libertarian paternalism approach to public policy and personal choices in everyday life. Specifically, they show how to nudge people into saving more money for retirement, investing money better, choosing a better prescription drug plan, increasing organ donation, protecting the environment, choosing the right school for their kids, and more. I have to admit that I enjoyed the early chapters on psychology and behavioral economics more than the later chapters, which became more nakedly political, but there are a lot of really solid ideas in here, even if they are of varying levels of practicality.

The authors also have a great style. They keep things friendly, funny, and engaging, with the occasional vignette, figure, or photograph to illustrate their points as needed. I was rarely bored, even when talk turned to traditionally tiresome subjects like 401(k) savings, prescription drug plans, and fuel economy. And the book is full of thoughtful insights on how human psychology plays into everyday decisions and, more importantly, how to avoid those kinks in the human brain that often lead to poor decisions about things that really matter.

Book Review: What The Dog Saw

Unlike Outliers, The Tipping Point, or Blink, Malcom Gladwell’s newest book What the Dog Saw isn’t an examination of one topic cut from whole cloth, but rather an eclectic mix of articles that originally appeared in The New Yorker. In it he examines everything from why it’s impossible to improve on Ketchup, why Enron’s failure was a mystery but not a puzzle, what makes for a good dog trainer, and what FBI criminal profilers have in common with psychics. It’s good stuff.

The format of What the Dog Saw actually highlights one of the things I really like about Gladwell’s style: he takes a single interesting idea and then dives really deep with it, meticulously building towards a conclusion by snapping together what at first appear to be wholly disparate elements but by the end form a strong pattern. What do homeless people in Reno have to do with the Rodney King Riots? What does the song “Last Christmas” by Wham! have to do with accusations of plagiarism on Broadway? What do the late John F. Kennedy Jr. and (almost) tennis superstar Jana Novatna have in common? Gladwell pulls them together and makes it riveting despite the fact that the language and tone he uses in his writing is usually pretty tame and without a whole lot of personality.

This is not to say, however, that Gladwell isn’t completely without his shortcomings, and indeed his habit of fitting pieces together can sometimes be revealed to be a flaw in his writing if you’re after a complete picture. Specifically, he seems to sometimes selectively pick what research he reports on and who he talks to, possibly in the service of forming a coherent and simplified story. This only really became evident to me when I a story on one of the topics where I somewhat approach being an expert: the use of general intelligence to predict job performance. Not only does Gladwell conflate intelligence with “talent” (a term that probably has different meanings to different people), he sells cognitive ability short by deriding its small (in absolute terms) relationship with job performance without giving consideration to the piles of research saying that while the correlation isn’t a perfect 1.0, it’s still really high relative to other predictors like emotional intelligence.

On the other hand, Gladwell’s excellent essay on the benefits of structured interviews should be required reading for all HR managers and anyone involved in interviews. Go read it here. If you liked it, you’ll probably like the rest of the book as well.

Book Review: The Strain

One of the things wrong with the world today (and yes, I’m shaking my tiny fist as I write this, which is one reason I’m typing so slowly) is that you can’t use the phrase “it’s a vampire book” without some qualifying information. So, I must point out that The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan is less the “sparkly teen romance” kind of vampire book and more the “Aaah! Monsters are going to drink our blood!” kind. There’s blood, monsters, murder, horror, mutilation, and all that stuff. A lot of it, actually.

That being said, The Strain has some modern twists to the old vampire genre. It examines the vampire outbreak in New York City as a highly communicable disease that starts at one eerily darkened airliner on the JFK International Airport and spreads out to the population from there. The authors even go so far as to make one of the book’s two main heroes an epidemiologist from the Center for Disease Control, who strives to understand the plague in scientific and medical terms. The authors indulge this angle, considering the biological basis for the vampire condition and elaborating on how that kind of plague would spread.

There are also some references to the 9/11 attacks and how it changed the way in which New Yorkers respond to such large-scale catastrophies. I also enjoyed the creepy way in which the authors describe the very first onset of the plague, where people are dropping out of sight and everyone left knows that something is wrong, but isn’t quite sure how to react yet. It’s a great sense of impending doom.

Which is not to say, I assure you, that the book is without the typical horror schlock. We get lots of scenes of secondary and tertiary characters meeting their grisly ends, and there’s plenty of old school vampire lore at play as well –the second hero of the tale is a Jewish Holocaust survivor bent on revenge against the chief vampire and appropriately steeped in the benefits of silver, sunlight, and mirrors when dealing with the undead.

If anything, the repetitive scenes of horror and subjugation to the vampire disease became tedious, and I enjoyed the more CSI inspired bits of the book a lot more. So much so that my appraisal of the book dropped quite a bit when things devolved into a Hollywood-esque showdown (and yes, one of the authors is that Guillermo del Toro) with the big bad boss vampire instead of pursuing the medical crime drama vibe that had been built up earlier. I’m not sure I’ll be on board with the other two planned sequels or not; there’s just not that much that’s seems interesting to explore now.