What I read in 2011

12/26 N. K. Jemisin, The Kingdom of Gods

The title evokes the phrase “kingdom of God” from Christian theology, but I don't see any particularly close connection there. Between the World Tree and the deaths of gods, Ragnarök and Götterdämmerung seem more relevant.

Make sure not to skip reading the glossary!

12/18 Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Wide Window

“It would be difficult for me to tell you what the moral of the story is. In some stories, it's easy. The moral of ‘The Three Bears,’ for instance, is ‘Never break into someone else's house.’ The moral of ‘Snow White’ is ‘Never eat apples.’ The moral of World War One is ‘Never assassinate Archduke Ferdinand.’ But Violet, Klaus and Sunny sat on the dock and watched the sun come up over Lake Lachrymose and wondered exactly what the moral was of their time with Aunt Josephine.”

12/15 Emanuel Derman, Models. Behaving. Badly.

Like me, Emanuel Derman is a former theoretical particle physicist. Unlike me, he went to Wall Street when he left physics. He was a “quant” at Goldman Sachs, where he worked on financial modeling, and in 2005 he published a book about his experience there.

The years between 2005 and today were eventful for Wall Street, and a lot of seemingly sophisticated financial modeling seems to have gone badly wrong. Perhaps there's something wrong about the whole activity — overly complicated financial constructs, and managers who took theoretical calculations too seriously and didn't understand how risky those constructs could be, seem to have had a lot to do with the housing and financial crisis that surfaced in 2006. Perhaps the managers just didn't understand what a model was, and what its limitations were.

This book is partly about finance, but only partly — that's about 50 pages out of a 200 page book. For the most part, it's the author explaining his distinction between a model and a theory. A theory, as he sees it, is a deep description of the principles of the world; it “tells you what something is.” To illustrate what he means by a model, he uses the metaphor of a model airplane, and he sees models as essentially metaphorical: they may help to predict the future, but they provide no real insight and their results should always be distrusted: they “tell you merely what something is like.”

That “merely” is important. The distinction between “model” and “theory” isn't a neutral one; Derman clearly sees models as an inferior form of description, and I think it's even fair to say that he uses the word as a perjorative. He calls something a model not just when it is strictly speaking constructed as a metaphor, but whenever it's based on a simplifying hypothesis or when he wants to convey that he doesn't trust its predictions. Occasionally he has to use slightly unconventional terminology for that: he can't get around the fact that particle physicists call their current best description of nature the “Standard Model,” but he is at pains to point out that it's what he calls a theory. Conversely, what everyone else calls the “Efficient Market Hypothesis,” he instead calls the “Efficient Market Model.”

I found this binary opposition frustrating. There are real distinctions to be made, but I don't think they're as simple as he does. I think Derman would see this as essentially a book about philosophy, but I also don't have the sense that he's read much philosophy of science. And you don't have to have read much philosophy of science to find a comment like “Laws are not contingent. They describe the way the universe works, unconditionally” a little naïve. Whether you're a Kuhnian or a Popperian or a Rortian or a logical positivist, the relationship between science and nature is more complicated than that. How could he say something like that just one sentence before mentioning Newton? Yes, I, like most people with a physics education, agree that there's some important sense in which Newton's laws of motion are true, but we've known for more than a century that they are not a perfectly accurate description of planetary motion, and if you're looking for today's best mathematical description of what gravity truly is, rather than just a way of getting accurate predictions in the low energy domain, it's not the inverse square law (or any power law in flat space-time) that you'll turn to.

And what should we make of what he calls models? I'm not convinced that it's a coherent category. Model airplanes, climate models, the Black-Sholes model of options pricing, the Bohr-Mottelson collective model of nuclear structure, the IS/LM model of macroeconomics, the Turing Machine in theoretical computer science, the Standard Solar Model… I don't think they have much to do with each other. Some of these models are truly metaphors, some are gedankenexperiments (a simple model can be a very useful way of illustrating that a particular effect is or isn't important), some are just calculational tools.

It's the last category, in particular, that makes me think that Derman is wrong in drawing as sharp a distinction as he does. Climate models, for example, are based on perfectly well understood physics, thermodynamics and fluid dynamics. They're a use of finite element analysis, just like aeronautical engineers use, because we can't get exact analytic solutions to nonlinear partial differential equations with complicated boundary conditions. Is the use of an approximation technique all it takes to make the qualitative transition from a theory to a mere model? If so, there's not much left. Derman is right that quantum electrodynamics has made some astonishingly precise predictions, but he neglects to point out that those predictions all come from the approximation technique of perturbation theory, and that perturbative quantum field theory is on much shakier theoretical grounds than numerical solution of partial differential equations. Derman is contemptuous of theoretical finance for having a “Fundamental Theorem of Finance” that involves compact sets and topological vector spaces, contrasting it with physics: “Physics is concerned with the world about us. The world may or may not have laws, but it cannot have theorems.” But he's just wrong about that. There may well be good reasons to have contempt for theoretical finance, but the existence of theorems isn't one of them. As a former theoretical physicist, surely Derman is familiar with Noether's Theorem, the Spin-Statistics Theorem, and the CPT Theorem. They're all quite fundamental to theoretical particle physics.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. I wanted to see an explanation of why smart people on Wall Street could have been so badly wrong, and I thought that an ex-physicist could have explained it in language that I would have understood. The problem with this book was basically philosophical. Most scientists don't know much about philosophy of science, and that's perfectly normal and understandable. But scientists who write books about philosophy need to know more.

11/27 Jacques Tardi, It Was the War of the Trenches (tr. Kim Thompson)

Not a graphic novel, because it isn't a novel, but it is a graphic story in both senses. It also isn't World War I history; it's a “non-chronological sequence of situations,” some scenes from the lives and deaths of ordinary French soldiers.

11/27 Barbara Hambly, Search the Seven Hills (a.k.a. The Quirinal Affair)

A mystery story set in Rome in the time of Trajan, in the year that we would now call 116 AD (although nobody at the time would have called it that). The story begins when a young woman is violently kidnapped. There is evidence, the main character learns to his horror, that the kidnappers were the Christians — a proscribed and secretive cult that's rumored to practice sexual abominations and cannibalism and human sacrifice.

The mystery ends up being fairly straightforward, actually, once we meet all of the relevant characters. What makes this book interesting is its portrayal of a world that's very familiar in some ways, because it's an ancestor of our own culture, but very alien in others. For that most part it does so successfully. My only real complaint is that the main character sometimes seemed too modern; he sometimes seemed to react the way one of us would react when encountering casual cruelties that I would think he would have seen differently.

11/22 Jane Austen, Lady Susan

Chronologically it's not quite juvenilia and also not quite one of Austen's mature novels. It may have been written in the mid 1790s, around the time when she wrote the first drafts of what later became Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, but some time before her first novel (Mansfield Park) was published.

It's not much like her six major novels. It's much shorter — novella length, really. It's an epistolary story. The main character is an antihero. There are some traces of Austen's wit (“My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.”), but not like in her major works. Perhaps that's because the epistolary form minimizes both dialogue and the authorial voice.

Definitely worth reading if you're a Jane Austen completist (and if you aren't an Austen completist you should be), but not a neglected masterpiece.

11/19 Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room

The reptiles are the happy part of the book.

11/16 Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy

Most of the series is about the author's childhood. This one is about her husband's.

Almanzo Wilder was the son of a prosperous Upstate New York farmer. The Wilders were certainly far more self sufficient than your average 21st century city dweller (Almanzo's father says that “If you're a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber.”), but their life was very different from that of the Ingalls's in Little House in the Big Woods. The Wilders were a solid part of a cash economy; they sold potatoes and horses for the New York City market, they rented a shed at the church stables, they went to county fairs, they sent their children to the town Academy. This isn't a book about the frontier.

11/13 Robert Graves, Good-bye to All That (second edition, with a prologue and an epilogue)

Nowadays I think that Robert Graves is best known for I, Claudius, at least here in the US. Graves himself seems to have cared more about his poetry than about any of his prose works. Good-bye to All That, though, is the book that made him rich and famous. Or at least that made him financially secure enough that the money worries in the latter part of this book went away, enabling him to live comfortably as an expatriate in Majorca.

If Paul Fussell is to be believed, this book was deliberately written to be a best-seller. It's Graves's War memoir, published in 1929. It begins before the War but the shadow is always there, as when he mentions the farmhouse where “my cousin Wilhelm—later shot down in an air battle by a school-fellow of mine—used to lie for hours picking off mice with an air-gun.” Parts of it are undoubtedly fictionalized; it was written to be a good story, and it is a good story.

Parts of the story seemed very familiar. That's true in some details (Pat Barker's story about Siegfried Sassoon and W. H. R. Rivers in Regeneration must have been based at least in part on Graves's version), and it's also true in the overall tone: the deadly futility of trench warfare, the callous stupidity of the high command who ordered pointless attacks that wiped out whole battalions, the civilian world filled with jingoistic bombast written by people who didn't understand and didn't want to understand what was happening in France. It's familiar, I think, largely because of this book: even if you haven't read Good-bye to All That, you've undoubtedly read many books that were influenced by it.

10/30 Robert Goddard, Caught in the Light

A photographer on assignment in Vienna suddenly falls for a stranger he meets there. He agrees to leave his wife and she her husband, and they arrange a rendezvous. She doesn't show up. At that point the mystery begins — a double mystery, one part of which involves events from the first half of the 19th century.

The title refers to photography. The three sections of the book are called “Composition,” “Exposure,” and “Development.” At least one of the mysteries is about photography. Within the first few pages the main character talks about seeing light reflected from surfaces. As he learns, surfaces can be deceptive.

This is the first Goddard book I've read. I'll have to read more.

10/25 Vernor Vinge, The Children of the Sky

“The long-awaited sequel to the Hugo Award-winning bestseller A Fire Upon the Deep,” says the front cover. It's true. It's a direct sequel, set a few years after the end of A Fire Upon the Deep. (A Deepness in the Sky is not a sequel. It's set in the same universe, but in a very different place and in the very distant past.)

The best part of this book is the aliens: the Tines, pack animals that form group minds. The worst part is the human villain. I think that's a general weakness of Vinge's. His villains are too monochromatic, evil in too many different ways. It makes sense for the Blight to be a nightmare of destruction with nothing redeeming about it, since one of the key premises is that the Blight is beyond the comprehension of humans or anything that humans can talk to, but it makes less sense for an actual character.

The whole idea of a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep seemed odd to me when I first heard about it. Given the way that book ended, I didn't see how there could be a direct sequel. It partly depends on how you interpret the end of A Fire Upon the Deep, though, and one of the key plot points of The Children of the Sky is that there's intense disagreement about what actually happened and what it meant. One character described it as a religious dispute, which is arguably a fair description in a couple of ways. The disagreement is bitterer than one might expect just from the factions' stated goals; it shouldn't have much effect on short term policy. But that's believable, because what's really at stake is accepting a truth that requires giving up something important to your identity — in this case, accepting that people you cared deeply about made a horrible mistake with disastrous consequences.

Even Ravna Bergsndot, the main character of both books, doesn't interpret the events at the end of A Fire Upon the Deep the same way I did. I'm not sure whether we, the readers, are supposed to accept her assumptions. There are some hints that we are, but this is clearly the middle book of a trilogy. There are many guns hanging on the wall in this book, some of which go off by the end of the book and some of which don't.

10/15 Ryan Avent, The Gated City

The Gated City is an argument that restrictions on development, such as height limits and low-density zoning, are a major drag on the economy. The underlying logic is pretty simple. Productive innovation comes from cities, and not just any cities — it's the ones that happen to be important centers of the most productive sectors of the moment. Back in the early 20th century, the cities with important and rapidly growing industries grew in population. Nowadays, though, that doesn't happen: in the first decade of the 21th century, Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties hardly gained any population, and in the late 20th century tech boom those counties actually lost population. For the last three decades the US has seen a net migration from the most productive cities to the least productive ones. And it's not too hard to find a pretty obvious reason for that migration. Anyone who has priced houses in Palo Alto (where I live now) and Pittsburgh (where I was born) knows it: housing costs. High prices are normally supposed to be a signal of high demand, which is supposed to be an incentive to increase supply, but legal restrictions make it impossible to add housing in those cities where there's such high demand for it.

What should we do about this? Mostly, the book argues, we should just stop doing things that hurt us. We should stop making it illegal to build more housing and to build dense, walkable neighborhoods. If we don't eliminate lot size and height restrictions and other laws that make it hard for people to build on their own property, we should at least relax them.

Ryan Avent writes on the Internet, and there are a lot of Internet folks who call themselves libertarians, so he was quite explicit about how libertarian-friendly his argument was: he isn't proposing any new government programs to increase urban density, he isn't trying to force everyone (or anyone) to live in cities, but is instead arguing that we should stop making it illegal to build dense neighborhoods, that we should reduce regulations about what people are allowed to do with their property. I'm not a libertarian, so I didn't care terribly much about that part. (Except to the extent that everyone, regardless of ideology, thinks that you shouldn't make something illegal without a good reason.) I suspect, actually, that nobody will care much about it. I suspect that most Internet-libertarians have an aesthetic preference for low suburbia and car culture, and that in practice they won't care much about the niceties of distinguishing between starting a government program to increase density, and ending government regulations that enforce sprawl. I hope to be proved wrong.

10/13 Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods

“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.

“The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.”

More like 140 years ago, now. The way of life in these books was long gone when they were written, and by now it's quite alien. What's fascinating is reading the minute step-by-step details of that life: how you make bullets, how you thresh grain, how you make cheese, what going to a store was like.

I don't think I ever read the whole series as a kid. I know I read (or perhaps had read to me) at least two, because I remember scenes from them. Now we're reading them to Alice.

10/9 Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

Back when I was in high school, one of my friends said that Dombey and Son was his favorite Dickens novel. An idiosyncratic choice! It's not one of Dickens's most famous books. Not sure what I'd say my favorite is; Dickens wrote a lot of books, and there are still many that I haven't read.

There are, as I count it, four characters in Dombey and Son who are destroyed by their pride. Multiple kinds of pride: the arrogance of power, the resentment of others' power, an exaggerated sense of one's own worth. Most of those characters are sympathetic at least in part: “it would do us no harm to remember oftener than we do, that vices are sometimes only virtues carried to excess!” Some of the characters are merely ridiculous, some are admirable in a tragic way, some are truly monstrous. (Which, in this book, sometimes means treachery but mostly means cruelty toward people you ought to love.)

As with most Dickens books, one of the strengths of Dombey and Son is its minor chraracters. They have a way of not staying minor, of being memorable in their own right, even if they aren't central to the plot. Another strength is the book's description of unselfish and disinterested love. Some of the characters are almost too good to be believable, but only almost. Good people exist.

This is a long book with many characters, many coincidences, many plot twists. I expected one more surprise revelation that didn't happen, even though (I thought) there were hints to set it up early on. Possibly I just imagined those hints or possibly, since Dickens was writing this as a serial, he didn't know at the beginning exactly where he would take the story and he inserted many hints for many possible directions.

9/24 Kristine Kathryn Rusch, City of Ruins

Sequel to Diving into the Wreck. Essentially an expansion of the novella “Becoming One With The Ghosts,” published last year in Asimov's. This time I thought the novel worked better than the shorter version; it feels like a complete story, not a fragment.

9/22 Anita Loos, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes

The further adventures of Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw.

9/19 Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

The characters of Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw are recognizably the same in the novel as in the Marilyn Monroe movie; so are some of the scenarios (yes, there's a diamond tiara!), and even some of the dialogue. (“kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire [sic] bracelet lasts forever” turned into “A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, / But diamonds are a girl's best friend.”) That's unsurprising. Anita Loos was adapting her own work; she co-authored the musical that the movie was based on, and by that point she had worked for many years as a screenwriter.

Also unsurprisingly, the book is more complicated and meaner than the movie. It's written as the diary of Lorelei Lee, who is an unreliable narrator and an unreliable speller. Her account of her visit to “Dr. Froyd” is hysterical.

The book is entertaining, and so is the history of the book: the sketch that eventually turned into Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was originally a private joke, Loos poking fun at her friend H. L. Mencken's love life. But Mencken was able to laugh at himself, and he's one of the people who encouraged her to publish.

9/16 Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man

Not at all what I had expected from the title, and not at all like Moby-Dick. It hardly even seems like a novel; it's a series of sketches set aboard a Mississippi riverboat, some loosely connected to each other by common characters, others even more loosely connected by a common theme of “confidence,” or trust. Many of the sketches, not all, involve what we'd think of today as scammers or con men, but usually lacked a definite resolution. I'm not sure I understood the book. Some of the individual sketches were memorable and wonderful, but I don't think I understood the overall shape of the book.

9/9 Duncan Watts, Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer)

This book is essentially an explanation of what sociology is, and why it matters, for the Internet age. Can social science ever tell us anything interesting? Doesn't it just confirm what we already know from common sense? Well, no.

What does it mean to understand something? One definition of understanding something is that you can tell yourself a satisfactory story that makes it make sense. A different definition is that you understand something if you can make predictions about it. Neither definition is completely satisfactory, but the idea of understanding as narrative make it particularly easy for you to fool yourself into thinking you understand a phenomenon when you really don't. You can usually tell a story to explain any possible outcome, which suggests that this mode has limited value. “It is this difference between making sense of behavior and predicting it that is responsible for many of the failures of commonsense reasoning.”

A big chunk of this book is devoted to cognitive biases, since those biases are responsible for most of us thinking that the world is simpler than it really is, that actual experiments about the behavior of people in groups are redundant. You may already be convinced of that; I was. Something I hadn't quite appreciated, though, was how the Internet has enabled psychological end sociological experiments that would have been completely impractical even in the recent past. Milgram's 1967 “six degress of separation” experiment has now been repeated on a scale orders of magnitude larger; Amazon's Mechanical Turk enables new kinds of experiments. We're living in a golden age for some kinds of science.

9/5 Mark Twain, Roughing It

The memoirs of Twain's time in the American west, 1861 – 1867. I read this book once before, a long time ago — probably before I'd ever seen Mono Lake, or San Francisco, or any of the other places Mark Twain wrote about in Roughing It. I picked it up this time when I was in Calaveras County, where part of the book takes place. (You can visit the “Mark Twain cabin” in Tuolumne, near Sonora.)

This is an early book, and it's a mixed bag. It covers a large territory, both figuratively and literally. Parts of it take place in San Francisco, parts in Hawaii, parts in the California gold country, parts in Utah (there are several appendices about Mormons). There's also a long section about the stagecoach journey that took Twain and his brother west. (Not an easy journey!) The bulk of the book, though, and the most memorable part, is about Twain's time living in Nevada in the middle of the silver mining boom. And an awful lot of the book is about money — about a world awash in easy money, about not having money, about making a fortune on paper and losing it by carelessness. (Twain lost fortunes later in life too.)

Roughing It, like much Twain, is a mixture of truth, fiction, and exaggeration. It's not always easy to tell which is which. The stories of flush times in Virginia City are all believable, though, because I saw them in Silicon Valley in the late 20th century. I guess a bubble is a bubble. “Every one of these wild cat mines — not mines, but holes in the ground over imaginary mines — was incorporated and had handsomely engraved ‘stock’ and the stock was salable, too. It was bought and sold with a feverish avidity in the boards every day. You could go up on the mountain side, scratch around and find a ledge (there was no lack of them), put up a ‘notice’ with a grandiloquent name in it, start a shaft, get your stock printed, and with nothing whatever to prove that your mine was worth a straw, you could put your stock on the market and sell out for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. To make money, and make it fast, was as easy as it was to eat your dinner.”

8/18 Kameron Hurley, God's War

A rather violent science fiction story, set in a world that has been at war for many years. The war is in part a religious conflict, and religion is important to many of the characters, but, despite the title, I didn't see that as the central concern of the book. It has a noirish sensibility, with no really sympathetic characters.

8/8 Robert van Gulik, The Red Pavilion

A Judge Dee story, which includes, among other things, a locked room mystery. This is unlike the others I've read, partly because Judge Dee is travelling rather than presiding in his own provincial court and partly because the book is a single case rather than a number of loosely linked cases.

8/5 P. G. Wodehouse, A Damsel in Distress

A standalone novel; no Bertie Wooster or Psmith or Lord Emsworth or any of Wodehouse's other continuing characters. Unmistakably Wodehouse, though.

8/2 Sylvia Neely, A Concise History of the French Revolution

In 1774, when Louis XVI became king, France had a severe debt problem — partly because of an antiquated revenue system and partly because it was still trying to pay off expenses from the Seven Years' War that ended (in defeat) ten years earlier. In the latter half of the decade France became involved in another war against Britain. This time France won, and Britain lost a large chunk of its American colonies, but France didn't get anything from the victory but revenge. France was paying for a large army, and a large navy, and subsidies for the new United States. Worse, the French government chose to finance its war through borrowing instead of through taxes.

By the mid 1780s it was clear that major changes were necessary, and in particular that the country couldn't survive without more revenue, but the political structures of the ancien régime lacked the legitimacy to make those changes and entrenched interests were able to block reform. The king convened the Estates-General in the hope that they would be able to find a political solution that his government failed to find. That ended badly for the monarchy. Most of the delegates didn't initially intend a radical transformation of the social order, but events led to greater radicalization. When an old system collapses, the outcome is inherently unpredictable.

This book is probably the best introduction to the French Revolution that I've seen yet. It is indeed concise, but it goes all the way through Napoleon's rise to power and it doesn't feel at all sketchy.

8/1 Agatha Christie, The Big Four

I picked up a random Hercule Poirot novel because we recently watched an episode of 30 Rock that was structured around Murder on the Orient Express. I don't think I'd ever read The Big Four before, even in my voracious Christie phase in high school. It's a very peculiar book: more like a thriller than like a puzzle novel where the detective puts together the clues. It was an early novel: published in 1927, Christie's seventh novel and her fourth Poirot book. Perhaps she intended it to be the last Poirot book; I'm sure she didn't realize that she was going to spend the next half century living with the little Belgian detective.

7/25 Robert Charles Wilson, Vortex

Sequel to Spin and Axis. I found Spin really good, and Axis disappointing. Vortex is somewhere in between: not quite up to the level of Spin, but that would be a tough act to follow. Well worth reading. And yes, I'm pretty sure this is the last of these books.

7/24 Debra Satz, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets

Is economics a normative discipline or a descriptive one? Most economists, I imagine, would say the latter: it's a descriptive science, not a branch of philosophy. In practice, that distinction doesn't always seem so sharp. It's easy to take efficiency or utility or Pareto-optimality (a very weak condition) as normative goals. And as usual, it's hard to have a sophisticated analysis of something without explicitly acknowledging that you're doing it.

Political œconomy, in its 18th century origin, was not so limited. It recognized heterogeneity; different kinds of markets had different functions in society and had different practical and ethical implications. It was tied in with theories of human nature. It was explicitly concerned with the struggle against feudalism.

This book was written by a philosopher, not an economist. I didn't get much out of the author's four-part test for “noxious markets,” mostly because I don't think it added anything to the discussions of specific cases, but her discussion of the history and limitations of economic reasoning, including the limitations of externalities and Pareto-optimality, were valuable. It's useful to remember that markets aren't just the product of choices, but also constrain the universe of future choices. Even if an individual transaction improves two people's welfare, it does not necessarily follow that a world in which millions of people make such a transaction is better than a world in which they don't.

7/24 Edgar Wallace, The Clue of the Twisted Candle

I was vaguely familiar with Edgar Wallace as a mystery writer, but I don't think I'd actually read anything of his. (Although I had seen some of his work, sort of: he wrote the first version of the screenplay for King Kong.) He wrote an enormous number of books, and was once extremely popular. I don't know how widely read he is now, or which of his books are now best known. The Clue of the Twisted Candle has the most downloads from Gutenberg, for whatever that's worth.

This was a fun book, and I'll have to read more of his work. There is eventually a mystery (in the sense of a crime whose perpetrator is unknown to the police and the reader), a locked-room mystery no less, but the overall shape of the book wasn't what I had predicted. It didn't end up being about what I had thought it would be.

7/16 Beth Revis, Across the Universe

Oh dear. What happens when a spaceship's engines start to fail during a trip? The spaceship slows down, and if the engines fail completely then the ship stops, right? Uh, no. I'm not one to think that a science fiction book needs to be written with sliderule in hand, and that you need to justify every line of a story with pages of orbital mechanics calculation, but really, we've known about Newtonian mechanics since, well, Newton. This should just be automatic.

7/13 Charles Stross, Rule 34

Rule 34 of the Internet (ObXKCD): If you can imagine it, there is porn of it. Rule 34, the novel, is a near future crime novel set in Scotland some time in the 2020s or 2030s. It's a sequel to Halting State, with some characters in common, but the connection isn't very important.

A lot of science fiction is built around speculation about the possible societal implications of new technologies. Charlie Stross is one of the few writers who does that with the technologies of financial and business models. What would organized crime look like if it used more modern organizational principles? What kinds of models does the Net make possible? (Sure, I know about botnets and DDOS and spear phishing. So does he. That's just the beginning.)

Reading this book after reading the author's blog is amusing: you see him playing with ideas that made it into the book, sometimes in altered form: the essay about the uselessness of a conscious machine that emulates a human mind; the thought experiment or joke about the spamularity.

7/10 Plato, Republic (tr. Robin Waterfield)

Not the first time I've read the Republic, but the first time in a long while.

People often talk about the Republic as a Utopian book about an ideal society. That's not completely false, but it is misleading; that's not the real point of the book. It begins when Socrates is asked a dual question: what is morality (or “justice,” as it's more commonly rendered, but Waterfield prefers to consistently translate διχαιοσυνη as “morality”), and why is it better to be moral than to be immoral? Thinking about an imagined community is intended to clarify those question. It's introduced with the famous simile of the letters: if you're trying to understand something complicated then it's best to start looking at it in larger form than in smaller form, just as it's easier to understand a difficult text if it's written in larger letters. So by understanding morality in the context of a community we can understand individual morality better, for two reasons. First, we can see social morality, and second, we can use a community (in several different ways) as a metaphor for the different part of an individual human mind.

The most straightforward reading is that Plato intends the community to be taken as both metaphorical and real: he intends us to be taking all of the proposed social arrangements as commentary on how an individual's mind should be ordered internally, with the three classes reflecting what Plato believed to be the three parts of a mind, but he also intends to be presenting a better way of living, one that is possible in principle and that we should take as a measure of real communities even if the chance that it could be established in reality is slim. (There is some uncertainty about that reading, though. Before the enormously detailed discussion of a community with guardians and auxiliaries, we saw a simpler community. Glaucon thought that first community was more fit for pigs than for humans, but Socrates initially said the first community was better than the second. Is there some irony in the question of what kind of community is truly best?)

And the metaphorical view of the ideal community ends up answering the original question, by turning it around in an interesting way. The original questioners, even the cynical Thrasymachus, assumed that morality was a matter of what you did. What kinds of actions are moral and immoral? That's certainly a common assumption today; it's something that utilitarians and Kantians have in common. Socrates, instead, answered it in terms of what kind of person you are. What kind of person is moral and immoral, and which kind, if you distinguish adequately between real and illusory pleasures, is truly happier? I don't believe in Plato's tripartite psychology (why always threes?), but something along these lines does seem right.

Republic is long and discursive, and a big chunk of it has to do with the distinction between the real and the illusory. Plato never gave a full and straightforward explanation of his theory of forms (or of “types”, as Waterfield prefers to translate ειδος and ιδεα), but this where we see one of the most complete accounts. In particular, this is where we see the allegory of the cave. I'm not at all sure I understand platonic metaphysics, but I'm also not sure anyone does.

6/26 Father Owen Lee, Wagner's Ring: Turning the Sky Round

I'm studying for next week's Ring at San Francisco Opera. This is a very brief introduction, but with real depth.

6/11 John Scalzi, Fuzzy Nation

Not a sequel to H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy, but a reimagining. I can't think offhand of any other novel I've read that does this sort of thing. It's the same general situation as Little Fuzzy and the same general plot, and some (not all) characters have the same names, but the personalities and relationships and sensibilities are Scalzi's, not Piper's. It's fascinating to see what two different authors did with the same starting point.

6/7 Diana Wynne Jones, House of Many Ways

Sequel to Howl's Moving Castle. Not nearly as funny, but still worth reading.

6/5 Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

A historical novel about the French Revolution — the sort of book that blurs the boundaries between fiction and history. All of the characters who are of any importance are real people, for the most part very famous people. The three main characters are Maximillien de Robespierre (he later dropped the “de”), George-Jacques Danton (or “d'Anton”, as he supposedly styled himself as a young lawyer), and Camille Desmoulins. Danton is the largest and most complicated character and Robespierre is, oddly, probably the most sympathetic. It's hard not to feel sorry for him.

From the author's forward: “The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.”

6/3 Mary Roach, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

Some of the funniest segments in Stiff and Spook involved sex. This book is about sex research. As with her first two books, it's both entertaining and informative — often in ways one might not expect. The digressions are some of the best parts.

5/30 Ursula K. Le Guin, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

I read this in the context of a discussion of generation ships; someone recommended that I read one of the stories in this collection, “Paradises Lost.” It's a very good and moving story, and it does new things with the generation ship setting. It was first published in this collection, and it would be worth buying this collection for “Paradises Lost” alone. Of course, it would also be worth buying this collection for “The Matter of Seggri” alone, or for “Mountain Ways” alone. The number of important and memorable stories in this collection is impressive.

5/26 Samuel R. Delany, The Ballad of Beta-2

In a way an old fashioned sort of science fiction book. The main character learns of a historical puzzle, and most of the book involves him finding the solution. In this case the puzzle is the meaning of a song, “The Ballad of Beta-2.” His initial reaction is that the song doesn't seem to be about anything. By the end, having learned the vocabulary and having learned the full story, he marvels at how clear and straightforward the song is. It's a similar experience for the reader.

5/16 Jack Campbell, The Lost Fleet: Victorious

In which some but not all mysteries are resolved.

5/15 Jack Campbell, The Lost Fleet: Relentless

5/15 Jack Campbell, The Lost Fleet: Valiant

5/14 Jack Campbell, The Lost Fleet: Courageous

Lots of military science fiction is obviously inspired by the naval part of the Napoleonic Wars. This series seems instead to be inspired by Anabasis. I really need to get around to reading Xenophon.

5/9 Jack Campbell, The Lost Fleet: Fearless

5/7 Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma

This is the first time I've read this book, but I've heard so much about it over the years that it sometimes felt as if I'd read it already. It's the book that everyone was reading back when I was working at SGI.

The Innovator's Dilemma is about how good companies that are leaders in their fields, run by managers who make correct decisions, can fail. It distinguishes between sustaining and disruptive technological innovations. A disruptive technology isn't necessarily a radical technological innovation, and a radical technological change isn't necessarily disruptive — some of the examples in this book are mundane things like smaller form factors for disk drives, or a light lower-powered motorcycle, or a different business model for retail stores. The characteristic of a disruptive innovation is that in some important way it's worse than the previous technology; it's something that leading companies' customers don't want. It can't be sold into existing mainstream markets, but only into new ones, usually smaller and less profitable ones that involve lower margins and cost structures. Since the markets are different, the innovation doesn't even seem like a competitor. But it's easier to move up-market than down. By the time the established companies see a disruptive innovation as a competitor, it's often too late.

SGI — Silicon Graphics — is mentioned once in this book: one of the newcomers who manufactured engineering workstations that the established minicomputer companies didn't see coming. Nowadays, I imagine, someone who was writing a book about disruptive innovation in the computer industry would point to SGI as a classic victim of the process. What's extraordinary is that SGI failed with its eyes open. Management there, and even ordinary engineers, all read this book and all understood the kinds of threats that the company was facing. Knowledge wasn't enough. Responding to a disruptive innovation basically means turning your company into something else. That's very hard.

5/6 Jack Campbell, The Lost Fleet: Dauntless

A main character from the past, someone who is already the subject of legend and who has important insights into the present day, is a surprisingly common pattern. In a sense it's already there in the Odyssey.

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless is military science fiction, the first book in a series. The main character comes from the early years of a war that has now been going on for almost a century, a ghastly thought. It's well done. I'll have to read the rest of the books.

4/20 Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking

Cars are parked about 95% of the time, and in about 99% of trips they park for free. (The latter figure varies between metropolitan areas. In the Bay Area it's only 98%.) But, of course, we live in a society where things are owned and cost money. Someone owns those parking spaces, and someone ultimately pays. Who? Are we distributing those costs in a way that's fair, or efficient in the economists' sense, or good for society? Almost certainly not.

Parking spaces are heavily regulated, usually by local zoning regulations, and they're an extremely important and expensive part of those regulations. If a business is required to supply 4 parking spaces per 1000 square feet (this is a typical requirement, although the details vary wildly depending on the type of business), then that means more land devoted to parking than to the business itself. In a city with high land values, like Palo Alto (where I live), that's a huge burden. The book gives one example of a subsidized moderate-income housing development in Palo Alto — the amount spent on parking for that development ate up the whole subsidy. And the burden goes beyond the cost. Existing businesses, ones that predate today's parking regulations, may be grandfathered in, but anyone trying to use the same building for anything else may not be allowed to do it without meeting parking requirements that the building makes physically impossible. These regulations thus lock in old businesses and building uses, preventing cities from evolving and adapting themselves to new needs.

What I found the most surprising in The High Cost of Free Parking was the extent to which parking requirements are an afterthought. A parking garage may be a building's dominant architectural feature, but it's surely not where an architect will start thinking about a project. Parking regulations have an enormous impact on land use, but urban planning schools don't teach anything about them. If you ask city planning departments how they set their parking requirements for new developments, most won't be able to tell you — they may have copied the regulations from other cities, or they may have consulted the charts in the Institute of Traffic Engineers' Parking Generation, whose methodology is just embarrassing. (Seriously: look at the R2 in their charts and shudder. And that's just the beginning of what's wrong.) This isn't an area that's gotten serious study.

This book is essentially an argument for abandoning this heavy regulation, abandoning the idea that government should make it such a high priority to ensure that drivers can park for free all the time. It's persuasive. It's is a good and informative book, and I learned a lot from it. It's one of the rare books that literally changes how one looks at the world: anyone can see that most of El Camino is ugly, but reading this book teaches a lot about exactly what features make it ugly, and why those features are there.

This book is also far too long. It would have been a better book at half the length. Parts of it are repetitive, or redundant, or repeat the same thing, or give the same information and argument in slightly different words, or just repeat themselves unnecessarily. Some whole chapters could have been cut without loss. I recommend this book, but be prepared to skim in places.

4/13 Jo Walton, Among Others

A semi-autobiographical coming of age story; I don't know exactly how semi. “I've found that writing what you know is much harder than making it up. It's easier to research a historical period than your own life, and it's much easier to deal with things that have a little less emotional weight and where you have a little more detachment. It's terrible advice! So this is why you'll find that there's no such place as the Welsh valleys, no coal under them, and no red buses running up and down them; there never was such a year as 1979, no such age as fifteen, and no such planet as Earth.”

I didn't grow up Welsh, or female, or a twin, or with a bad leg, or talking to fairies. (Although I'm told the last is something children sometimes forget when they get older.) I did grow up reading, though, and in 1979 I was about the same age as the main character. She read a lot of the same books I grew up on, and they were as important to her as to me. It felt very real, and very familiar.

4/8 Diana Wynne Jones, Enchanted Glass

Magic, for the most part not very flashy, as part of ordinary and slightly old-fashioned 20th century English country life.

4/6 Plutarch, On Sparta (tr. Richard J. A. Talbert)

This book is part of Penguin's Plutarch series. It mostly consists of four biographies from Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans: Lycurgus, the semi-legendary lawgiver who is said to have established the Spartan way of life; Agesilaus, a king whose reign, if that's the right word to use for a Spartan king, began shortly after the Peloponnesian War; and two post-Alexandrian kings, Agis and Cleomenes. It also includes two famous works from Plutarch's Moralia, “Sayings of Spartans” and “Sayings of Spartan Women,” and, as an appendix, the “Spartan Society,” or “Politeia of the Spartans,” attributed to Xenophon. (The attribution is disputed. It was disputed even in Plutarch's day.)

Plutarch was an ancient writer, but he was writing about events centuries before he lived. He was a scholar who relied on secondary sources, not an eyewitness. He tells us what many of his sources were (many of which no longer exist; often Plutarch is the best surviving source), and tells us where the sources disagree. Modern scholars don't know when Lycurgus lived, or even if there was a single person with that name who did everything he's said to have done, and Plutarch doesn't know either. Some sources say that Lycurgus lived in Homer's time, whatever that might mean.

Penguin chose to publish Plutarch in an odd way, which has advantages and disadvantages: they divided up his work by era and theme, so in this volume, for example, I read most of what he wrote specifically about Sparta and Spartans. But that's not the way Plutarch himself organized his work. His major work is commonly called Parallel Lives, because that's what it is: pairs of biographies, one Greek and one Roman, each pair accompanied by an essay comparing the two men. His life of Lycurgus was meant to be read with that of Numa Pompilius (a semi-legendary early king of Rome), his life of Agesilaus with that of Pompey, and his lives of Agis and Cleomenes with those of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. The comparisons were obviously an important part of Plutarch's project — he was writing character studies, not history. Penguin's organization, in which the Roman lives are in different volumes, makes it hard to see that.

3/30 Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

A book about the kinds of environments in which innovation happens. The “natural history” is fairly literal: there's much discussion of how novelty arises in the natural world. The most interesting of those was the concept of “exaptation” from evolutionary theory, which has a close parallel in the history of human innovations.

Reading this made me think that maybe I should start keeping a commonplace book, like people in the 18th and 19th centuries did, or some modern-day electronic equivalent.

3/29 Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

Edmund Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790, and Thomas Paine published Rights of Man in 1791. Rights of Man was published in two parts, written separately and published some months apart. The first part is subtitled Being an Answer to Mr. Burke's Attack on the French Revolution, but really both parts are a response to Burke. It's interesting, actually, to see how directly both Burke and Paine reply to their opponents — a big part of Burke's book, too, was a response to one Dr. Price. Both Burke and Paine respond to (and make fun of) individual sentences and thoughts of their respective opponents, and both authors clearly take the dispute personally. It reminds me of a modern day blog spat.

Paine's short-term political predictions weren't as good as Burke's. The tense he chooses when he writes of the French constitution makes it seem as if it was a settled and established thing, but in fact the constitution of 1791 that Paine writes about didn't last beyond 1792. Paine thought that universal representative government would mean universal peace, and that a republic would never wage aggressive war, but in fact the French Revolutionary Wars, which continued without a pause until they turned into the Napoleonic Wars, started in 1792. Still, my sympathies are much more with Paine than with Burke, and Paine saw important truths that Burke didn't. Paine was right that hierarchy and hereditary aristocracy is a great evil, he was right in thinking it monstrous to declare that a people has no right to choose its own government, and he was right to celebrate the French National Assembly's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens.

Paine and Burke both discuss grand matters of political philosophy, and they also both have many pages of detailed topical analysis. Some of that part, two hundred years after the fact, seems irrelevant and boring, but not all. A big chunk of Rights of Man is a detailed discussion of England's finances, and a proposal for tax reform. A lot of Americans today vaguely remember Paine as an anti-tax crusader, and there's some truth to that — he was very concerned with the tax burden on the poor — but it's also a misleading impression. The ideological fault lines of the 18th century weren't the same as the ones today, and Paine's proposed tax reforms included a proposal for a progressive tax on the income from estates (“progressive tax” is his phrase, and it appears to mean pretty much the same thing as it does today) that would eventually rise to marginal rates of 100%.

Paine has an odd status in American culture these days. He appears in every child's history of the Amerian Revolution, and everyone knows him as the most important revolutionary pamphleteer of the 1770s, but hardly anyone ever reads his famous pamphlets. By the end of his life, Paine ended up being too radical for the United States. Perhaps he still is.

3/21 John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered woodchipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.”

Well, not anymore. Now it's gift shops and fancy hotels, and the Aquarium. Every time I've gone to the Aquarium I've reminded myself that I really ought to get around to reading this book.

3/17 Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel

“We seek him there, we seek him there, Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven? — Is he in hell? That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.”

The Daffy Duck version is funnier, but this is still a great anti-Revolutionary adventure story. Oddity: why in the world does a book set during the Terror in 1792 have a major character named St. Just, when the character has nothing to do with the real Saint-Just who was so important in precisely that time and place? Couldn't she have chosen a less confusing name? Nobody in the book even mentions that this character just happens to have the same name as Robespierre's henchman.

3/15 Alastair Reynolds, House of Suns

This is what space opera should be like! It's intelligent, it has compelling characters, it takes place on a grand scale of both space and time, and it has a healthy respect for what that scale means. At the beginning of the book the main characters have almost finished circumnavigating the galaxy; they took 200,000 years, because, well, that's how big the galaxy is. A chase scene may last decades, or millennia. Naturally the characters who make trips like that have no intention of going home, since there's no reason to think that a civilization can last that long. The book is also a crime story, and a love story.

It's not really what the book is about, and it's certainly not what the title refers to, but the earliest part of the book (set about six million years before the main part) takes place in what's obviously a fictionalized and futurististic Winchester Mystery House. Hadn't realized it was famous enough that a British writer would be putting it in his books.

3/13 Dani and Eytan Killon, The Unincorporated Man

The book begins with a quote from Milton Friedman, musing about the possibility of contracts where an individual's education is paid for in exchange for a claim on a fraction of the individual's future earnings. Stock is a claim on a fraction of a corporation's future earnings, so the logical extension of that idea is a society where individuals are treated as corporations, complete with publicly traded shares. One might, or might not, own a majority interest in oneself.

An intriguing idea, but the book doesn't live up to it. First, I could have done with less Fox Newsish haranguing, complete with snide remarks about the ACLU, modern art, incompetent government bureaucrats, jackbooted IRS thugs, and environmentalism. Second, and perhaps related, the authors didn't really do very much with the idea the book is written around. The society in this book is, for the most part, a libertopian paradise founded by Alaskan Republicans. A heroic billionaire from our time is horrified by the idea of personal incorporation, and thinks that it's an infringement on freedom, but, in a book that one might expect to be about a conflict between two different ideologies that both claim to maximize freedom, we never get a coherent exposition of the difference. Instead we get a villain who's personally nasty, an inadequate substitute.

I'll probably read the sequel, just so I can finish the story, but that's just because I'm an obsessive story finisher.

3/12 Georges Lefebvre, Napoleon: from Tilsit to Waterloo, 1807–1815 (tr. J. E. Anderson)

A translation of the second half of Lefebvre's Napoléon.

I found parts of this hard to understand; it was written for someone who already knew a lot of Napoleonic history, and I knew relatively little. I did still get a lot out of it, though. In particular, I have a better understanding of a seeming puzzle: Napoleon suppressed the Jacobins, set up a police state, reestablished monarchy and aristocracy, but was nonetheless considered, by most of his foreign enemies and even some of his friends, to be a personification of Revolutionary ideals. It becomes less of a puzzle once you realize that the ideological fault lines of 200 years ago weren't the same as those of today. Napoleon was certainly no democrat and no Jacobin, but he was also no defender of feudal privilege. His Civil Code really was a threat to the ancien régime social order. A centralized bureaucratic police state was not the same thing as 18th century despotism. (It's also easier to understand why subsequent generations viewed Napoleon as a Promethean Revolutionary hero when you realize that he portrayed himself that way in his memoirs.)

The chapter I found most fascinating, but understood the least, was the one on the Continental Blockade — by extension, a history of the economic warfare between England and the French empire. It was fascinating because so many things were changing at that precise moment. It was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the beginning of the modern international finance system (several of the Rothschild brothers set up their businesses during the war), and the beginnings of capitalism. It was also the time when the understanding of capitalism was just beginning, and 18th century mercantalist ideas were still prevalent. Both sides realized that economic warfare was important, but without quite understanding what they were doing.

3/10 N. K. Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms

Sequel to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and second book of the Inheritance Trilogy. Hm. There are three main gods in this world, and three books in a trilogy. A pattern?

3/4 P. G. Wodehouse, The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories

Not Wodehouse's first book — not by more than a decade, and not by more than a dozen books. It's early, though, and it does include the first Bertie Wooster story. (Jeeves is present, but with hardly a speaking role.) Many of the stories are English, but almost half of them are set in New York.

2/26 N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

A first novel, and, deservedly, a 2010 Nebula nominee. I'll have to read the other two books in the trilogy. (The third isn't out yet.)

2/25 Georges Lefebvre, Napoleon: from 18 Brumaire to Tilsit, 1799–1807 (tr. Henry F. Stockhold)

A translation of the first half of Lefebvre's Napoléon.

The overall tone isn't as intemperate as Esdaile's, and it's obvious that in some ways Lefebvre admires Napoleon, but ultimately the portrait of Napoleon's character is still damning. “That is why it is idle to seek for limits to Napoleon's policy, or for a final goal at which he would have stopped: there simply was none.”

One part I found especially interesting was the economic analysis of the Revolution and of Napoleon's rolling back of the Revolution, an analysis that I found pretty persusasive and that seems to owe a lot to Marx. Another was an explanation of the interplay of logistics and strategy in Napoleon's military campaigns. It made it clear both why Napoleon was so successful in Italy and Germany, and why he ultimately failed in Spain and Russia.

2/22 Walter Jon Williams, Deep State

Sequel to This Is Not a Game. It's also a near future techno-thriller, but more explicitly a spy novel. (Complete with James Bond!) Some of the computer jargon is a little painful, but only a little.

I doubt if the author realized how topical this book would seem: it's about an Internet-mediated revolution in a middle eastern country.

2/16 Charlie Stross, Wireless

I'd read two of the works in this collection before: it includes the novella “Missile Gap”, which Subterranean Press published in a limited edition hardcover, and “A Colder War”, originally published ten years ago and still a terrific story. (The better known Laundry stories are sort of like “A Colder War” but much lighter.) The other stories were new to me. It includes one original story, “Palimpsest”, which is probably what most people will buy Wireless for: “Palimpsest” won the 2010 Hugo for best novella, and it's a worthy winner.

2/15 Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

In some important ways, the United States no longer uses the Constitution of 1789. Madison thought it was axiomatic that “In republican government the legislative authority, necessarily, predominates” — in matters of war and peace as in all other matters. Nothing can be clearer from the text of our Constitution than that Congress decides whether the country goes to war, establishes the rules for our armed services, decides whether the country enters into a treaty, and has many other powers in foreign and military policy. Americans have largely forgotten that. We've grown accustomed to presidents claiming sole power over foreign affairs, even the power to start wars on their own. We've read far more into the brief phrase “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States” than anyone in 1789 could have imagined, and we live with supposedly Constitutional doctrines of state secrets and executive privilege and implied inherent presidential powers that aren't even hinted at in the text.

In essence, although nobody put it that way at the time, we got used to an emergency wartime constitution in the early 1940s. When the war ended, we never went back to the original peacetime constitution — there was always another enemy. By the time a state of emergency lasts for 70 years, it becomes the new normal.

Wills's thesis, as implied by the title of the book, is that the national security state, the extraordinary expansion of presidential power, can ultimately be traced to nuclear weapons: new institutions to develop and deploy them, new bases all over the world to stage them, new organizations and legal theories to guard atomic secrets, and new layers of secrecy to guard the original layers. “Executive power has basically been, since World War II, Bomb Power.” I didn't ultimately find the thesis convincing, and in the later chapters of the book it had a tendency to disappear. As Bomb Power demonstrates, the national security state has many interlocking pieces, all mutually reinforcing. The Bomb is just one part of it.

2/12 Christopher Hibbert, The Days of the French Revolution

The title is almost literal. There's a prologue about the ancien régime and an epilogue about the rise of Napoleon, but the bulk of the book is a narrative history organized around individual events, sort of a series of set pieces. One or two chapters are on fairly extended periods (e.g. the Terror), but many of them have titles that really do refer to identifiable days: the Tennis Court Oath (June 20 1789), Bastille Day, the attack on the Tuileries (August 10 1792), the execution of the King (January 21 1793), etc.

2/8 Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

The main character's name is Charles Yu. Within the book there is a fictional book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, written, of course, by Charles Yu. The book is full of time loops and paradoxes and fictional science and minor universes and metanarrative and self reference. Unsurprisingly, the author credits Douglas Hofstadter as one of his inspirations. The surprising thing is that, while there's whimsey enough in this book, that's not the main tone of the book; what there's more of is sadness. As much as anything else, it's time travel as a metaphor for loss and regret.

“Because I work in the time travel industry, everyone assumes I must be a scientist. Which is sort of correct. I was studying for my master's in applied science fiction — I wanted to be a structural engineer like my father — and then the whole situation with Mom got worse, and with my dad missing I had to do what made sense, and then things got even worse, and this job came along, and I took it. Now I fix time machines for a living.”

2/6 Frank Miller, with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

This is the first time I've read The Dark Knight Returns. I knew essentially nothing about it, other than that it's a Batman story and that everyone praises it as one of the must-read graphic novels. I hadn't known that it was a story about an aging Batman at the end of his career, or that Robin in this book is a girl wonder instead of a boy wonder. And I was especially struck by how much it was a Reagan era story, in several ways. Even if you didn't know that it was originally published in 1986, you'd be able to tell.

2/5 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

Written in 1790, this is probably the first well known counter-revolutionary book. It takes the form of a very long letter written to an unnamed young French gentleman, who asked for Burke's opinions of the Revolution. I don't know if this was real or a literary conceit.

The latter part of this book is an analysis of the Revolutionary political and economic system, at least as it appeared in 1789 and 1790. With the benefit of hindsight, many of Burke's attacks were undeniably right — the political system was indeed unstable, and did indeed collapse into chaos and then a military dictatorship. Others, again with the benefit of hindsight, were undeniably wrong. Constititional monarchies can work perfectly well even when the monarch has a weak or purely ceremonial role. Paper currencies, not backed by some heavy metal or another, can work perfectly well. But at least some of Burke's reputation for prescience is deserved.

This book is also well known as one of the intellectual foundations of conservatism, going beyond the details of the French Revolution. Burke famously attacked the French Revolutionaries for creating an entirely new system, instead of adapting and reforming what already existed: “you chose to act as if you had never been moulded into civil society, and had everything to begin anew.” He contrasts the French Revolution unfavorably to England's Glorious Revolution of 1688, which, he says, “was made to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty.”

In this he's being disingenous. Yes, some politicians in 1688 justified their actions by appealing to the past. So did some politicians in 1789. It's also misleading to talk about 1688 without pointing out that it was merely the end point of a good half century of chaos. The English constitution in the 17th century, like the French constitution in the late 18th century, was contested. Before things were more or less settled, England had had its own civil war, its own beheaded king, and its own military dictatorship.

There's still much to admire in Burke's general point. Passing over the historical details, his general observation is: societies are complicated, our understanding is limited, and we don't always know why a functioning society works. Even when we make changes, we should respect the accumulated wisdom of the past and we should be cautious about tinkering with something that works. Burke's most famous formulation of this point is semi-mystical: he accepts a version of the social contract, but says that “As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living,those who are dead, and those who are to be born.“ You don't have to accept mysticism, though, or social contract theory, to see some merit in thinking that we should be cautious when we're dealing with a complicated system that we understand poorly. Much the same argument applies to ecology; we should be scared of experimenting with pumping unlimited amounts of CO2 into our atmosphere, or exterminating species we've barely even heard of. What makes us think we understand the ecosystem well enough to avoid disasters when we make those sorts of radical changes?

So this is indeed a founding intellectual text of a sort of conservatism, but not the sort of conservatism that's important in early 21st century American politics. It's certainly not a celebration of unrestrained free market capitalism. Burke thinks of landed property as the foundation of a well run country, and doesn't have many friendly things to say about financial innovation or dealmaking. He understood that capitalism was a socially radical force, not a conservative one. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” That isn't actually Burke (it's one of the more famous quotes from the Communist Manifesto), but, allowing for the difference between 18th and 19th century language, it could easily have come out of Reflections on the Revolution in France.

There's another sense in which this work is a founding text of a sort of conservatism, one that I think fewer people today would claim with pride: its defense of inequality and hierarchy. Burke found it obvious that a country should be founded on “the natural landed interest,” and on a few men of great wealth, that ordinary occupations “cannot be a matter of honor to any any person” and that “the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule.” There probably are still some people today who wish we lived in an aristocracy, where we were ruled by our betters and where we ordinary people knew our place, but at least most people today won't say that openly. In decrying the principle of aristocracy, the French Revolutionaries were right.

2/2 P. G. Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves

Published 1919. Can you imagine Bertie Wooster in the trenches?

2/1 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Annotated Hobbit (annotated by Douglas A. Anderson; revised and expanded edition)

“This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours' respect, but he gained — well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.”

I've read The Hobbit before, of course, although not recently and not as many times as I've read The Lord of the Rings. This is a beautiful edition. It has an introduction with a brief Tolkien biography and a history of The Hobbit's publication and initial reception, a set of color plates (including Tolkien's own now-standard color illustrations), artwork from many translations, and extensive annotations on the sources and language and textual history of The Hobbit. Much of this information is based on Tolkien's own unpublished or hard-to-find works, like the guide to invented names and archaic words that he wrote for translators, or poems that he wrote around the same time as he was writing The Hobbit.

The Hobbit was first published in 1937. There was an extensive revision in 1951, a few years before the publication of The Lord of the Rings, and further revisions for a third edition in 1966. The annotations explain the changes between editions, in most cases showing the original and changed text. In most cases the changes are small: fixed typos, or minor adjustments to the geography as Tolkien understood it at the time of writing The Lord of the Rings, or things like that. As most Tolkien readers know, though, Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark,” was largely rewritten. You can guess what the original must have been like from the hints in The Lord of the Rings, but it's still wonderful to be able to see the original version.

1/31 Ellery Queen, The French Powder Mystery

1/29 Charles Esdaile, Napoleon's Wars: An International History, 1803–1815

This book has a definite point of view, in several ways. One of them is connected with the subtitle, “An International History”: a discussion on the conflict in Europe (and elsewhere) as a whole, which leads to an emphasis on the continuity between the great powers' foreign policies in the Napoleonic era and the same powers' policies in the era of continual dynastic warfare of the 18th century. It's not always easy to tell exactly what the phrase “Napoleonic Wars” should mean, either in time or in space. 1796 (the beginning of General Bonaparte's Italian campaign) is as good a beginning date as any, but it's hard to draw any definite line between the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.

And all of the great powers had concerns, and wars, that didn't directly concern Napoleon or France. Were the Russo-Persian war, or Sweden's attempt to conquer Norway, or the United States's war against Tecumseh's confederacy, or the Serbian revolt against the Ottoman Empire, or the Austrian-Prussian-Russian partition of Poland, part of the Napoleonic Wars? Whatever the answer to that question, all of those conflicts, and more, were part of the extremely complicated diplomacy of the time. Part of the thesis of this book, then, is: the French Revolution, and Napoleon's coronation in 1804, didn't immediately cause an abrupt and qualitative change in great power politics. The other great powers continued to pursue their own goals, using war as one of their tools, and continued to treat France as the same sort of partner and rival that it was before. Napoleon were finally defeated when all the kingdoms of Europe saw him as something new, something requiring a suspension of traditional foreign policy goals.

Which gets to this book's other very definite point of view: it's strongly anti-Napoleonic. “If Europe was not divided along ideological lines, what did the long period of conflict that gripped her between 1792 and 1815 stem from? In the end, as we shall see, the prime mover was Napoleon's own aggression, egomania, and lust for power.” The author says he's writing as a corrective to histories written by generations of Napoleon's partisans. I haven't read that pro-Napoleonic propaganda; if I had, I might have found an alternate perspective useful. But I've read enough British and Russian fiction set in this era to be quite familiar with the anti-Napoleonic point of view. I don't know that I disagreed with the author's conclusions, but I found his relentlessness tiresome. He kept judging Napoleon's motives, always unfavorably, always arguing with those countless unnamed pro-Napoleonic partisans.

I ended up wishing this book had been written in a slightly more neutral manner, but it was still very informative. It's the first book I've read that puts all of the complicated wars and diplomacy of the era together. Alas, I can't recommend the Kindle edition, which is what I read. It was a poor quality etext. The block quotes consistently failed to be intended, the index was useless (literally just a list of index entries, with no hyperlinks back to where the entries appear), and, worst of all, there were persistent problems with dates and other numbers. Many of them were incorrect (the French Revolutionary Wars didn't start in 1972), many of them were bizarrely transposed with punctuation or nearby words, many of them caused spurious paragraph breaks in the middle of sentences, some were entirely missing. I have no idea what the publisher did with numbers during the ebook conversion that made so many of them go so wrong, but it was at best irritating and at worst a serious readability problem in a history book. At times the meaning was completely obscured. Penguin should be ashamed of having their name on such sloppy work.

1/22 Lois Bujold, Cryoburn

The latest Vorkosigan book.

1/22 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Everyone remembers the first line of this book, and the last. Also, everyone remembers the depiction of the Terror; a lot of people think of A Tale of Two Cities as an antirevolutionary book, and that's not completely wrong given what it says about the horrors of the Revolution. But it's only part of the story, literally. The Terror comes up in Book III, which is set in 1792. The first two parts are about the oppression that made the Terror inevitable. Mme. Defarge is certainly a monster, but she is a fairly sympathetic character when we first meet her. By the end of the book, we've had a long time to understand what the aristocrats did that made her a monster.

“It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it was the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown — as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it — as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw.”

1/19 William Doyle, The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

Just what the title promises. The author has written many other books about the French Revolution (including The Oxford History of the French Revolution), and this is his contribution to Oxford's “Very Short Introduction” series. It's just 150 pages long, and assumes little or no previous knowledge of the subject. Its focus, to the extent that such a short book can have a focus, is on explaining why the French Revolution matters. It's fast reading, well worth the time if you're even casually interested.

I should have read this before reading Citizens. Even reading in the opposite order, though, I now understand Citizens better. This very short introduction includes a discussion of the historiography of the French Revolution, and now I have a better idea of where Citizens, published in the bicentennial year, fits into the scholarly disputes.

1/18 The Best of Ellery Queen, edited by Francis M. Nevins, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg

Is Ellery Queen the name of a fictional detective, or the name of a mystery writer? Both! It's the pseudonym that Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee published under, and it's also the name of their detective. The stories are told in the third person, though; it's not that there's some sort of conceit in the fictional world that Queen is writing his own adventures. The fact that the same name is used for both purposes was, as far as I can tell from the editor's forward in this collection, a purely commercial decision: Dannay and Lee were writing commercial fiction (initially for a mystery story contest in 1928), they wanted to have an unusual and memorable name for their detective, and they didn't want to dilute their brand by coming up with another name for the author.

Ellery Queen was published from 1929 through 1971, and at one point he was the most popular fictional American detective. He doesn't seem to be read much these days, and I've never read any Ellery Queen before. I'm afraid that my reaction, at least from this book, is: meh. Not bad, but none of the stories and characters were particularly memorable. Probably I'd have enjoyed them more if what I liked about mysteries were logic puzzles. I may still try reading at least one Ellery Queen novel, since novels and short stories are different.

1/16 Carl Hiaasen, Skinny Dip

“The events described are mostly imaginary, except for the destruction of the Florida Everglades and the $8 billion effort to save what remains.”

1/15 Jack London, The Sea-Wolf

I think this might actually be the first Jack London book I've ever read. Oh well, we all have our odd gaps. Now I should read more.

The opening of this book is oddly like that of another book I read just a week ago. A literary gentleman, Humphrey van Weyden, is cast adrift in the Bay when the ferry he's taking from Sausalito collides and sinks. He is rescued by the schooner Ghost, but he is kept on board, exposed to manual labor and brutality, instead of being returned to land. Captains Courageous is minor Kipling, though, and The Sea-Wolf is one of London's most famous works. This is a much better book.

I hadn't really known what to expect when I picked this up. I knew it would be a sea story, and I suppose I expected that it would be an adventure story. The adventures, though, to the extent that there are any, aren't all that important. What's more important is the character of Wolf Larsen, the titular sea wolf, the brutal, dominating, intelligent, well read, and arguably sociopathic captain of the Ghost. The Sea-Wolf is almost a philosophical novel. The conflict between Larsen and van Weyden, the narrator, has many levels, but at the center are the discussions they have, informed by (among others) Nietzsche and Spencer and Darwin, about ethics and altruism and immortality and whether life can be anything more than “piggishness,” a “yeasty crawling and squirming” where “the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength.”

1/12 Roger Zelazny, Doorways in the Sand

1/10 H. Beam Piper, Little Fuzzy

As Stephen Jay Gould said, “Human equality is a contingent fact of history.” This novel is about the discovery of extraterrestrials who are unquestionably sapient beings, but not as intelligent as we are. They're also small, cute, helpful and just generally nice, and, well, fuzzy.

1/9 Robert van Gulik, The Chinese Maze Murders

In the Ming era, apparently, there were a number of works that in our own culture we would call historical detective novels: stories about famous magistrates of the past discovering and punishing crimes, with more or less basis in historical fact. Some of them were based on the real Tang era magistrate (and later in his career an important imperial official) Di Renjie.

Robert van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat and scholar, translated one of these historical works, Dee Goong An (“Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee”), into a number of languages, including English. Instead of translating more, though, he wrote his own, more adapted to modern and western tastes but using elements of the Chinese stories and written in a similar style. His own novels were doubly historical, since he retained the conceit that they were written in the Ming era and made sure to introduce appropriate anachronisms.

The Chinese Maze Murders, published in 1957, was the first Judge Dee novel written. (Although not the first in internal chronology.)

1/8 Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageous: A Story of the Grand Banks

Not one of Kipling's best, but not bad either. Something I hadn't realized when I started, or even some pages in, is that it's an entirely American novel — the “Gloucester” that most of the characters are from is the one in Massachusetts, not the one in Gloucestershire.

I finished this book lying in bed at Stanford Hospital, so I found it especially amusing that the last chapter took place right at “The Farm.”

1/2 Philip Roth, Nemesis

A short novel set during the 1944 Newark polio epidemic. It's hard to remember in the second decade of the 21st century how feared polio once was.

This book isn't really about polio, though — it's a character study of one man, of his choices during the epidemic and what they did to him.

Matt Austern