“Consider Phlebas” by Iain M. Banks

This is the first full length novel I’ve read as an eBook.  Yes, I’m behind the times.  I just enjoy having a real book more.  But I tried out Libby, the new Overdrive app.  Works pretty well – check out books from the library (*very* long hold times though) and simple eReader in the same app.

As for the book, it was pretty good – action packed and an interesting-enough universe.  It’s the first book in the Culture series, which has been on my list for quite a while.  I finally decided to bite when I found out recently that SpaceX names its recovery ships after AI ships from the series, eg. “Of Course I Still Love You” and “Just Read the Instructions.”  I’d heard this first book is not quite up to the standards of the rest, but it was not too bad, so I’m looking forward to more.

Horza is a Changer, a humanoid who can change appearance at will (takes a few days though), and thus perfect as a spy.  (Actually it is explained his race was created to be weapons in some long distant war…)  He’s working for the Idirans, a giant, long-lived, insectoid race determined to spread their religion through the galaxy.  They are fighting the Culture, a post-scarcity human/AI utopia.  Horza is ideologically against the Culture since he sees it as giving up humanity’s role in the universe to machines.

Anyway, the main goal is to retrieve a Culture Mind (super AI which usually serves as the heart of a massive ship) which is hiding in a long-dead world which is kind of a nature reserve/monument preserved by the god-like Dra’Azon.  Most of the book revolves around Horza actually getting there.  Once there, a kind of comedy of errors or tragedy ensues, as his main antagonists are a group of Idirans already on scene, but unaware the Horza is really on their side.  Pretty much everyone dies at the end – sad commentary on war, I believe.

Ironically for Horza being so anti-machine, he is saved by an intelligent drone multiple times in the final few scenes.

I thought the scene on the Eater’s Island was most memorable for its sheer horror – a grossly obese “prophet” presiding over a small group of starving followers.  He ritualistically eats them, or at least any dissenters, and then provides his excrement to his followers for their own food.  Yuck.  It’s capped off with a really funny few pages when Horza is trying to escape the island on a Culture, AI-controlled shuttle: he pretends there’s a fire and tricks the AI into revealing where its brain is located (so he can destroy it).

Memorable quote, re: evolution via DNA mutations: “All progress is a function of getting things wrong.”



“The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner

The author sets off to many places around the world to find out what makes us happy.  Pretty entertaining travelogue, interposed with some philosophy and psychological research about happiness.

Key ideas on happiness:

  • “Wanting” and “liking” activate different parts of the brain.  What we want is not always the same thing as what makes us happy.
  • Trust is a huge part of happiness.  We need to have trust in our neighbors, government.
  • On the flip side of trust, envy is toxic to happiness.
  • Family, friends and relationships are important.
  • Recipe for happiness: count the number of kind acts you do each day + think about death each day (makes you realize each moment of life is a gift).
  • Hedonic adaptation: events may temporarily boost our happiness high (winning the lottery) or low (being paralyzed in a serious accident), but over the long term an individual’s happiness levels are generally consistent.

Some notes on some countries he visited:

  • Bhutan: “Gross National Happiness”
  • Qatar: Riches don’t buy happiness.
  • Iceland: head of Iceland’s “Heathen” religion admits it all might be a “confused muddle” but still people need a belief system in order to have transcendental spiritual experiences.
  • Moldova: Least happy country on the list that isn’t at war.  Moldovans are glad when misfortune strikes others – “at least it wasn’t me!”  (Although, seems like author was looking for misery and found it…)
  • Thailand: too much introspection, even about happiness itself, causes unhappiness.  Just go with the flow.

A paraphrased quote: “Maybe happiness is being in a place where you don’t want to go anywhere else, or just being yourself and not wanting to be anyone else.”

“The Demon-Haunted World” by Carl Sagan

Sagan summarizes why he wrote this book, his last before dying in 1996:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

Twenty+ years later, I’d say America is not much better off…

Sagan spends the good first chunk of the book discussing UFOs and alien abductions.  This is an interesting subject in its own right, particularly with Sagan’s involvement with SETI.  But it is also a good example of the type of pseudoscience, lacking in firm evidence, which he feels is so dangerous to our society.

One interesting point, which informs the choice of title, is that alien abductions are awfully similar to medieval accounts of demons and witchcraft, even down to the often sexual nature.  Many other details which Sagan describes point to these events as being almost solely psychological.  He does propose a clever test for those claiming to be in contact with presumably-advanced aliens: ask them unsolved mathematical problems for which a correct answer would be immediately recognized.

Some possible explanations of UFO sightings may be gleaned by examining conditions during their heyday, the late 1940’s through the early 1960’s.  Nuclear missiles were being developed, and a key aspect being worked out was re-entry.  Tests would have resulted in strange lights in the sky, along with an evasive national security response, since acknowledgement could give away what our national capabilities were.  Also during the same period, US and Soviet aircraft were routinely testing each others radar defenses, perhaps even with experimental aircraft.

A few more examples from the book of pseudoscience:

  • There is a human innate tendency for pattern recognition (especially faces): Man in the Moon, Jesus in tortillas, face on Mars, canals on Mars.
  • Incredible and horrifying story of Paul Ingram.  He was led to believe that he had actually done horrible things to his children under Satanic influence.
  • Carlos Hoax – incredible story of a deliberately fake medium who still fooled the entire Australian media.  Even when the hoax was revealed, some people insisted that the revealers were lying and he was a real channeler.

The gist of the matter is that we should be more skeptical.  “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Everything hinges on the matter of evidence.  On so important a question, the evidence must be airtight.  The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be.  No witness’s say-so is good enough.  People make mistakes.  People play practical jokes.  People stretch the truth for money or attention or fame.  People occasionally misunderstand what they are seeing.  People sometimes even see things that aren’t there.

And from Sherlock Holmes:

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.  Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”  We should make theories from facts, not twist facts to fit theories.

And the opposite attitude, which Sagan quotes from from Theodore Schick Jr and Lewis Vaughn:

There’s no such thing as objective truth.  We make our own truth….If an idea feels right to you, it is right.  We are incapable of acquiring knowledge of the true nature of reality.  Science itself is irrational or mystical.  It’s just another faith or belief system or myth, with no more justification than any other.  It doesn’t matter whether beliefs are true or not, as long as they’re meaningful to you.


Several concluding chapters bemoan the state of science literacy and education.  Is it any better now, with widespread internet?  Seems to be … or am I just in my own Google-personalized bubble?  Fake news and pseudoscience seems just as easy to find as real science.  Are all the skeptics getting more skeptical, and the gullible getting more gullible?

For formal education, Sagan echoes Dorothy Rich, teacher from Yonkers: more important than traditional subjects are “confidence, perseverance, caring, teamwork, common sense and problem solving” + skeptical thinking and an aptitude for wonder.

Sagan stresses the need to fund basic scientific research, even if there is no known application – it’s the “seed corn” of the future.  Maxwell had no idea about radio, television when coming up with his equations.

My big thought after reading this book is on science vs. pseudoscience: how do you know what’s true when you don’t have a lifetime to devote to personal study and experimentation in the subject relevant to whatever is being claimed?  It seems like you have to trust someone at some point.  Maybe we just stick with the general scientific consensus?  More often than not, this will probably be the best we can do… but many times the whole of a scientific field has been upended by a single individual, fighting the system.  Eg. Copernicus, Darwin, continental drift theory.

One thing Sagan does offer us to determine truth is the “baloney detection kit“:

  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight.
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained.
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  6. Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses.
  7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much.

I think the hesitation of the masses to accept science and instead choose willful ignorance or belief in religion or pseudoscience is that ultimately science runs out of answers – there will always be the wall of “we don’t know”.  (But, over time, that wall inevitably shrinks; until it exposes the next one behind it…)  The quest for truth will never end, and precious little meaning to existence has been uncovered by science.  The alternatives have convenient, pleasing, and comprehensible (at least superficially) truths.  “Oh, just follow that prophet and I’ll get to heaven and be joyous forever!  Awesome!”  vs. “We are just highly evolved apes; there is no meaning in life beyond what you make of it.” — this makes us work to find our own causes; it’s so much easier to just have someone tell us what to do!

Maybe it is ok to permit some delusion?  Good things have been done by those believing in something other than reality.  Sagan:

…if the comfort, consolation and hope delivered by mysticism and superstition is high, and the dangers of belief comparatively low, should we not keep our misgivings to ourselves?  But the issue is tricky…if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition – even when it seems to be doing a little good – we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate.




“The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin

This is a real page-turner, the most interesting novel I’ve read in a while.  Very good worldbuilding, and a nice “narration twist” as I’ll call it.  This book really just sets up the story for (I guess) the following two books; the majority of it is flashbacks of the main character’s life as an Imperial Fulcrum orogene.

The orogenes, or roggas, are individuals with an inherited trait of being able to control earthquakes and the like.  For the most part, they are shunned by society, since they are seen as destroyers of civilization and all that’s good — at times past, certain orogenes have either intentionally or accidentally in a fit of passion raised a volcano on their city or something similar.  The Fulcrum, a school and governing body of orogenes, is the only authorized user of their powers.  It is watched over carefully by the Guardians, superficially polite but under the surface almost cruelly inhumane towards the roggas.

The “Fifth Season” per the title is Death.  In this world, catastrophic seismic events which more or less end civilization occur every few hundred years on average.  Besides the event itself, the real killer is the years of nuclear winter which usually follow.  The different communities, or “comms” are built around vigilance and eternal preparation for surviving the next inevitable apocalypse.

The main event here is an engineered apocalyptic shake, which seems to have the potential for a Fifth Season much longer than ever before.  And the instigator is actually one of the “good guys.”  I won’t spoil the story any further; just will say that there’s lots of mysteries in the world-building vein which get revealed as the book goes on, only to reveal new mysteries later.  I guess that’s the definition of good pacing??  And the narration twist is pretty good.

“Elon Musk” by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk seems like kind of a jerk to work for, and live with apparently – he often told he wife “if you were my employee I would fire you.”  But, man, what an incredible vision.  The reason he drives people so hard is because that’s what he demands of himself, and if he is giving his all then you should too.  For Elon, life is short and there is so much to be done to realize a goal so much more important than almost anything else: the very future of humanity itself.

This sounds very grandiose, but I think that is really what he is motivated by.  And I am glad he is out there doing it!  (But like I said, I think I’m too lazy and incompetent to work for him … but at the same time I sort of idolize his commitment and capability.  Weird/not weird?)  Elon’s purpose in life is to make humankind a multi-planetary species.  We need this as a kind of insurance policy against asteroid strikes or super-volcanoes or good ol’ fashioned nuclear holocaust or irreversible global warming.  A few of these at least seem a little too probable for us to remain comfortable while doing nothing.

One in particular, global warming.  Contrast what Elon is doing, with SpaceX trying to get us to Mars and Tesla (although he started out as more of an early investor in Tesla rather than a founder, but gets furious when people point this out) trying to get us using non-polluting cars, with Mayer Hillman giving up and saying we are doomed … Even if Hillman is right, I’d rather humanity goes down swinging!

Some of Elon’s lack of empathy and demanding nature might be explained by his father.  There isn’t much detail given, but Elon said “he managed to turn any happy moment miserable” and effectively psychologically tortured his kids.  Sounds horrible.

On the other side, his maternal grandfather sounds like quite a character.  Joshua Haldeman was a pioneering chiropractor in Canada when he abruptly decided to move the family to a life of adventure and flying bushplanes in South Africa in 1950.

After making a lot of money in the dot-com era with the sale of his first company Zip2, and then after being forced out at Paypal, Musk found himself with a lot of money and free to pursue his real goals.  He became involved in a concept called Mars Oasis, which would try to grow Earth plants on Mars.  This led to starting SpaceX.

In 2008, SpaceX seemed unable to have a successful launch, Tesla was running out of money, and Elon was going through a divorce.  Not a fun time.  But he perservered, and really was vindicated with the 2012 successful Falcon 9+Dragon launch to the ISS and the launch of the Tesla Model S.  And things have looked bright since then.

Recently I was in LA and stopped by the SpaceX factory in Hawthorne.  I wasn’t expecting to see much, but there is a mockup of the Falcon 9 first stage outside, which is pretty cool.  Later the same day, we saw the Getty Villa, which is a recreated Roman villa, stocked with ancient Greek and Roman statues and other artwork.  The contrast kind of struck me: here are two ways to spend your wealth; one looking forward and one looking back.

Elon Musk is a serial workaholic, very impatient with “fools” (anyone who disagrees with him), and fairly lacking in empathy.  But like I wrote above, I think it is all due to how important he feels his goals really are.  I’m glad he’s working on them and I’m sure he’ll have a place in the history books.

A few things from the Appendix which were interesting on their own:

  • Per Musk, PayPal’s secret to success was minimizing cost per transaction.  The best way to do this is with internal transactions, which are secure (no costs due to fraud) and have no external processing fees.  So, the goal is to encourage people to keep money in PayPal.  Counter-intuitively, making it very easy to transfer money out of PayPal made people more comfortable with leaving money there. Also, offering high money market rates is not a money maker for PayPal – it is to have people maintain a balance.
  • Musk’s letter to SpaceX employees on (not) going public (2013): very clear that he’s not in business to get (more) rich: “Creating the technology needed to establish life on Mars is and always has been the fundamental goal of SpaceX. If being a public company diminishes that likelihood, then we should not do so until Mars is secure.”  Also: “If you really are better than most hedge fund managers, then there is no need to worry about the value of your SpaceX stock, as you can just invest in other public stocks and make billions of dollars in the market.”

Coco (2017)

Really great movie, and makes you think.  Who will remember you after you are dead?  And what do you want to be remembered for?

Love is the best answer.

Arrival (2016)

Really did a good job on the weird, surreal, otherworldly, mysterious atmosphere regarding the alien presence.  But they kind of spoiled it when Amy Adams finally cracked their language.  Turns out they are understandable after all, and have understandable, selfish motives, just like us!

Kind of spoiled it for me.  Also the whole “we just gotta work together! Yeah!” ending is kind of lame.  Plus, knowing the alien language = being able to see the (only yours?) future is kind of …magic, not sci-fi.

“Boomerang” by Michael Lewis

Before the 2008 credit crisis, countries discovered they could borrow extraordinary sums and do whatever they wanted.  Big debt ensues.

  • Iceland – became heavily involved in investment banking, from virtually no experience at all. They would borrow foreign money cheaply, use it buy assets (land and companies – usually not the best ones) at inflated prices. Therefore they now have booked some very valuable assets, and they would continue the cycle by borrowing again, with the assets as collateral.  Worked as long as people kept accepting the rising, inflated asset prices.
    • “We don’t have a debt crisis; just a liquidity crisis!”  Well, here’s what that really means: you sell me your cat for $1 billion, and I sell you my dog for $1 billion.  Now we each have assets worth $1 billion, awesome!  I decide to borrow a paltry sum, $10 million, with my $1 billion cat as collateral.  Life is good!  But $10 million doesn’t last as long as it used to, and I start to get behind on the payments…  Hmmm, well, (sorry Fluffy!) I guess it’s time to sell this $1 billion cat!  Uh, oh; no one will pay me $1 billion for old Fluffy.  But I’m still worth $1 billion, you know; it’s just a non-liquid market right now for $1 billion cats.  A liquidity crisis!
  • Greece – government was too generous. Incredible pension and govt wage insolvency. Everyone cheats on taxes.  There’s a monastery which traded a lake it had been ceded in medieval times for millions in government land.
  • Ireland – incredible property development boom, but with no real customers. A few banks about to go under due to their ill-advised investments; inexplicably govt decided to bail them out.
  • Germany – very trusting; think that everyone else follows the rules like they do.  And so they get burned.  They thought AAA rated bonds meant risk free. Didn’t care about what the bonds were actually for, as long as they had a good rating. Interesting stories of American banks creating complicated investment products with sole purpose of selling to suckers like the Germans and then having their own traders short.
  • California – incredible pension debt and gerrymandering which prevents anyone from solving the problem.  Points to example of moderate, popular Schwarzenegger making no progress as example of this.

In the end, Lewis doesn’t really leave us anywhere besides knowing some stories about bad big finance decisions.  There’s some attempt at guilt – bankers choosing to go so deeply in debt that they sink their country does seem pretty immoral.  But did that stop anyone from doing it?  No.  People are wired for self-interest, that’s why capitalism works.  Unfortunately they also are poor at evaluating risk; but even if we could do it perfectly no one’s risk tolerance is the same.  So what do we do?  I think that’s the pickle.  It seems like the answer is regulation to prevent future-crushing deals (for those other than the parties to the deal itself – we should allow banks to fail!) from happening in the first place, but I think the problem is bankers are creative at finding loopholes, and politicians don’t want onerous regulation which would be seen as hurting they economy.

From a personal level, takeaway is that debt is bad – avoid.  But even if you are totally clean, it is possible that others will screw up your country or currency.  Maybe bitcoin is the answer?  Although that suffers from similar problems – large bitcoin holders kind of determine its future.  Diversification in many currencies?

“Rework” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Really short audio book of 3 CDs, but very dense on good ideas.  (Well, at least they sound pretty good.  Lately I often think of the survivorship fallacy when hearing someone who “made it” tell their secrets of success – are those really repeatable formulae that would work for me, or were they just lucky??)

Lots of good tips on starting/maintaining a business, but overall the biggest message I got is this: have a great product and be confident about it.  Doesn’t have to be great for everyone, just enough to satisfy you and enough to secure customers to sustain your business.  Never forget why you are in business: to get a better life for yourself (via providing a useful product or service to others).

There’s something of the message of Siddhartha here too – you have to make your own path in business, too; as well as in life in general.

  • Learn from successes, not failures. Success rate of businesses with a founder who succeeded already at a first business is 34% vs 23% for those who already failed with a business… 23% is the same success rate for those who are starting their first business
  • Start small and frugal – no need for unnecessary growth
  • Your idea doesn’t need to be unique; you just need to execute better than anyone else



“Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse

I read this book sometime during high school; I think it was an Academic Decathlon selection for one year.  Since then I’ve confused the storyline a bit in my mind with stories of the Buddha himself.  Siddhartha in this story does meet the Buddha, but goes on his own quest for meaning.  Which is kind of the point – everyone need to find their own meaning in life.

He begins as a son of a Brahmin family, the priestly caste.  He feels like there is something lacking in what his father and others preach, so he joins a group of wandering ascetics as a shramana for a few years.  Then he and his friend, Govinda, hear of a new teacher, the Buddha, and leave the shramanas to find him.  They listen to his teachings for a while; Govinda is convinced that it’s the answer and stays as a disciple of Buddha.  But Siddhartha, though acknowledging that the Buddha does seem to have achieved peace and perfection, thinks that he won’t achieve it himself by following someone else – he must experience his own revelation, find his own path.

“Wisdom cannot be conveyed.  The wisdom a sage attempts to convey always sounds like folly…  One can convey knowledge but not wisdom.  One can find wisdom, one can live it, one can be borne by it, one can work wonders with it, but one can neither speak it nor teach it.”

So Siddhartha leaves the Buddha and decides to try out worldly pleasures for a time.  As shramana, Siddhartha and his crew always secretly disdained the “child people” in the real world, who were so concerned with the trivialities of love and life.  But as he became more worldly himself, he began to respect them more: “He envied them the importance they were able to attribute to their lives, the passion of their joys and fears, the fearful but sweet bliss of their eternal amorousness.  These people incessantly fell in love with themselves, their women, their children, with honor or money, plans or hopes.”  I have caught myself in times past looking down on others who seem so concerned with things I see as meaningless, like fashion or celebrity gossip or anime or …  But then, those activities make people happy.  So what’s it to me?  I have hobbies and interests which others might view in the same light.  I also think about studies on happiness – the one thing that happy people have in common is striving for a cause.  Doesn’t seem to matter what it is, as long as it is truly important to you.

Siddhartha says he only learned three things from his time as a shramana: he can think, he can wait, and he can fast.  But these are all he needs to quickly become wealthy and win over the beautiful Kamala.  There’s a recipe for success for you: be smart enough to recognize opportunity, patient enough to wait for the right moment, and willing to sacrifice when necessary to seize that opportunity.

He grows into a rich man.  But then he realizes that all his wealth is meaningless, since it will all be consumed by death one day.  (You can’t take it with you!)  He becomes a ferryman, learning from the older ferryman he joins as well as from the river.  The river teaches him that time doesn’t matter – the river is at the source and at it’s mouth all at the same time.

At one point as a ferryman, Siddhartha’s son comes to live with him when Kamala dies.  The boy is very unhappy with the simple life.  Siddhartha tries to show him by example how peaceful and happy it can be, but to no avail.  The boy just gets angry and eventually runs away.  Siddhartha is saddened, but then realizes how much it was like him rebelling against his own father and joining the shramana – yet another example of how everyone must find their own path.