Author Archive: yakinikuman

“The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” by Agatha Christie

Hmmm.  “in 2013, 87 years after its release the British Crime Writers’ Association voted it the best crime novel ever.”  Well, maybe it was innovative for its time?  I thought the story was ok, but really the “twist” was a little unfair.  The book has an untrustworthy narrator, but not a whole lot of clues pointing to that until you get to the end and “Oh, I left out a bunch of important details.  But here they are!”  I guess I am just not as smart as Poirot.

I did think the Mahjong scene was pretty funny, with gossip and teasing out information going on amidst the Colonel boasting of his time in the Shanghai Club…


“The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The key idea of “The Black Swan” is that every once in a while, something happens which is completely unexpected, and has huge impacts in a particular realm or even to the world.  These events are black swans, named after the black swans observed in Australia — something Europeans had no experience with and had no reason to suspect, yet was real.

The major side story to the existence of black swans is the danger of ignoring them, as essentially proposed by many economics and finance experts.  Taleb doesn’t hide his contempt for most of them, even calling the Nobel prize in economics a crime against humanity (for giving the impression that we can understand and control things, which then spectacularly blow up in our faces).

A list of goodies gleaned from this book:

  • Causal fallacy – when we read history, we seek causes and portray events as a logical progression.  In the moment, things are not so obvious.
  • Scalable work = good … if you are at the top.  Eg. actors – used to be able to have steady work at the local playhouse; now you only have a career if you are lucky enough to be a Hollywood star.
  • “No evidence of A” != “proof of no A”
  • Overcome confirmation bias by forcing yourself to look for negative, weak points in the argument you want to accept
  • We are very bad at estimating: experiment where people asked to estimate high/low bounds of something to within 2%.  Actual answer was outside bounds 30% of the time.  (Takeaway: people overestimate their knowledge.)
  • Interesting example of a casino, with incredibly sophisticated security as well as delicately calibrated gaming odds.  Yet their largest loss was when Siegfried & Roy had to close due to a tiger attack – something completely unexpected and uninsured against.
  • Don’t trust experts proclaiming 100% confidence of a hard-to-falsify statement.
  • Gaussian thinking is dangerous – can’t dismiss outliers when it is possible they are so large/small as to dwarf the average.  Only ok to use Gaussian when samples truly average out, eg. quantum motion of particles very unlikely to cause cup to jump off table – silly to be concerned about that type of randomness.
  • By definition, cannot predict black swans.  Can only be adaptable.
  • Taleb keeps ragging on futility of prediction, eg. writing a “5 year plan.”  Yet, I’m reminded of Ike: “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
  • Confirmation of my thoughts with “Thinking Fast & Slow” – it’s hard to know true probabilities outside of trivial games.

One approach Taleb proposes to mitigate against black swans is to use the “barbell strategy” in everything.  In finance this translates to holding 90-95% of funds in super safe investments (T-bills), and the rest in extreme speculation.  This is contrary to conventional wisdom of holding almost everything in index funds – you’ll usually get boring <+10% returns, but occasionally you get all but wiped out.  In Taleb’s strategies, you switch from most years = small winners + some disasters to most years = small losers (the speculative portion of your investments) + some huge winners.  The idea is that the big win is more than enough to cover all your years of losses.  Taleb mentions entire fortunes of a lifetime being made on just a single black swan.  I believe that’s what he and Mark Spitznagel do – out of the money options and similar.  Very much worth looking into.

Taleb advocates something similar in other aspects of life.  When there is uncertainty, we should base decisions on the severity of consequences, not on (unknown) probabilities.  Be aggressive when going for exposure to positive black swans; always be cautious of exposure to negative black swans.

“A World Lit Only By Fire” by William Manchester

Based on discussions mentioning this book, and the subtitle, I figured it would be mostly about the common life in the Middle Ages.  Not quite; it’s more about the end of the Middle Ages, specifically the Renaissance and the beginnings of the Reformation.

The Middle Ages in Europe is portrayed as mostly static, with the Church and Pope wielding supreme control.  Anyone questioning the church would soon find themselves lashed to a burning stake.  The church even burned translators of the Bible into vernacular languages, for “corrupting God’s word” but actually for injuring the priests’ ability to control the message/interpretation.

Interesting aside here; it hadn’t ever really occurred to me that pilgrimages were often taken as a form of penance.  Prisons for long term incarceration didn’t really exist – it was very temporary, as the offender was quickly either released, banished, or executed.  Pilgrimage was a sort-of banishment.  This guy was one example of a noble pilgrim mentioned in the book.

Anyway, despite the prevalence of the Church, pagan superstition and belief in spirits was also widespread.  Christianity really took in a lot of what came before it, but that’s probably a story for another book.  Also: “The fear of hell was a more effective deterrent than the promise of salvation.”

Despite the Bible’s admonitions for chastity, and a priest’s vow of celibacy, the clergy in general (at least in some areas, like Italy) and several Popes in particular were notoriously promiscuous.  Apparently, some convents were more like whorehouses.   Besides this hypocrisy, the selling of indulgences for sin, even for future sin (“license to sin” I guess?) was really an outrage to any who stopped to think about it.  Martin Luther was one such individual.  Manchester points out, however, that were political circumstances not just right, with German leaders looking to assert their own authority over that of Rome, Luther would have quickly been one of many burnt alive.

Just before the advent of the printing press, the greatest libraries only had hundreds, maybe a few thousand books.  It’s pretty incredible that the “whole” of knowledge was therefore basically knowable by a single individual.

The end of the book talks a bit about the age of discovery and Magellan, but nothing really stood out to me that wasn’t already covered well enough by Bergreen.  (Yeah, I know Manchester was published first; but I read Bergreen first.)

“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley

I think I read this a loooong time ago, like in high school.  I really couldn’t remember much of the story.  Anyway…

The plot itself is really stupid, but I think that’s forgivable since it’s just a device to introduce us to the world.  In a nutshell, a “savage” from an Indian reservation joins civilized society, but is appalled by the rampant promiscuity, psychological drug use, lack of God, and lack of Shakespeare (and the like).  He kind of goes violently crazy, I think a little too quickly and in an uncalled-for manner.

The brave new world: people are “born” or rather grown in bottles in giant assembly line factories.  An individual’s status in society, which determines the type of jobs available to them, is predetermined from birth.  Alphas are given the best care and advantages, then there are Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons.  The latter two are purposely injured to limit development by such things as pouring alcohol into their bottles to stunt their growth and intelligence, making them more suitable to the life of a laborer.  After “decanting”, children are raised communally, and a good portion of their education is done through hypnotic repetition during sleep.  The whole effect of these suggestions is to mold the desires and thoughts of every individual into a stable unity.  If anything unpleasant does manage to occur, the drug Soma is widely available, which gives a long-lasting high with no after effects, besides a great feeling of contentment.

Alright, so, this is all supposed to make the reader uneasy and start questioning whether a stable, safe, disease- and want-free society is worth sacrificing all individuality.  I’m somewhat persuaded by the merits of the system — so much of unhappiness is due to our reality not meeting our expectations; so why not mold human expectations so that they fit our reality?  But the characters living this way do seem more like machines than men – something essential to humanity seems like it got lost in the process.

“Jeeves and the Mating Season” by P.G. Wodehouse

Another fun audiobook.  Really great narrator.

The story is the usual crazy mix of Victorian romance plus avoiding cranky aunts.  Good stuff.

“The Lessons of History” by Will and Ariel Durant

In the 1960’s, the authors wrote a lengthy, multi-volume overview of world history.  This is the conclusion to that effort; ~100 pages of the lessons they believe history has to offer.  Lots of references (eg. to USSR) make it a bit dated, but still seems very applicable, and full of wisdom.

Intro: History doesn’t help us predict future, and it might just be a bunch of stories. We aren’t ever sure what really happened. But maybe we can glean something about human nature.

Biology: Population growth rates determine much of the outcome of international struggle. (long Africa?)  Race does not determine destiny; but culture does.

Human behavior and motivation has not changed. Peoples or individuals who declare the past order dead or obsolete usually struggle to replace it. “No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.”
“So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it – perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race.”
(My thought: so is it a big mistake in jettisoning ethics and morality along with disproven religious beliefs? What motivation with results akin to heaven/hell can we serve up to encourage good behavior?)

Morality: “Probably every vice was once a virtue – ie. a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.” Current morality is based on agriculture: fidelity, monogamy, anti-birth control.

Religion: Gives hope to the poor. When religion wanes, class war intensifies. Religion originally had no connection with morality, but with fear. Somewhere along the way, this fear was subverted to support the local laws and hierarchy.

Economy: Income inequality has historically been “met by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.”
“History is inflationary, money is the last thing a wise man will hoard.” Societies are always somewhere on spectrum of equality – whenever it gets to be too much, masses revolt; but soon the old or a new class begins accumulating wealth again. Amazing that history of China has seen multiple cycles of capitalism-socialism, eg. Wu Ti, Want Mang, Want An-Shih.

Government: freedom and equality are opposing ends of the same spectrum. “Most governments have been oligarchies – ruled by a minority, chosen either by birth, as in aristocracies, or by a religious organization, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies. It is unnatural for a majority to rule, for a majority can seldom be organized for United and specific action.”

War is inevitable because of human nature.  History seems to repeat only because human nature changes very slowly.

“History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances.”. History is what makes us what we are. Be grateful for your inheritance, and “gather up as much as you can” of knowledge and art and those things which make life worth living “and transmit it to your children.”

“Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari

This book is well written, and has a certain provocative style that threatens to demolish certain preconceived notions.  It really makes you think.

For starters though, this really is a work of evolutionary psychology masked as an overview of history.  Human ancestors have been around for 2 million years or so, and homo sapiens themselves for about 200,000 years.  For most of that time, change was slow; it’s no wonder that our breakneck race into modernity has been accompanied by some growing pains, which result when our current lifestyle doesn’t match the expectations of our biology, honed by evolution through the millennia prior to the great revolutions that shaped our natures.

The first great turning point was the Cognitive Revolution.  Somehow, homo sapiens developed the use of language, accompanied by the capacity for abstract thinking.  Language is obviously useful for warning the tribe of danger, and for planning the hunt.  Some scholars surmise that the use of language for gossip also played an important role, as it allowed for the shaming and shunning of slackers and wrongdoers who weren’t acting in the interest of tribe.

Also unique in sapiens among all the animals (as far as we know) is a belief and conceptualization of things that aren’t really there.  “Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”  This is a pretty interesting concept — myths as a survival trait and a motivator towards collective goals, rather than just a “bug” in our critical thinking.

Corporations as modern collective myths: “According to the French legislators, if a certified lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the required spells and oaths on a wonderfully decorated piece of paper, and affixed his ornate signature to the bottom of the document, then Hocus pocus – a new company was incorporated.”

Religion is a big part of the collective “myths” we believe in, but which might be useful to drive community to action and as a shared cultural touchstone.  So, are we in trouble if we live in a society which is slowly rejecting religion?  Is religion necessary to compel the masses to be altruistic, and/or to provide hope in the face of death and despair?  Or is it sufficient to supplant religion with other causes, eg. equal rights or social justice?  Although Harari demolishes the idea of special human rights as well.  He points out that belief in humanism takes as much faith as belief in God – indeed, “without recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual Sapiens.”

Anyway, next up is the Agricultural Revolution, or “history’s biggest fraud.”  “What?” you think.  “Agriculture is the foundation of civilization, no??”  Well, Harari contends it actually made individuals worse off, since we were not doing activities we had evolved to do, not eating the diets our bodies were accustomed to, and were more prone to famine due to a less varied, more insecure food source.  HOWEVER, agriculture was better for the species as a whole since it allowed for a population explosion.  Essentially, we went from an idyllic king-of-the-beast, top-of-the-food-chain existence to miserable peasants tending the fields.  Kind of like how lifestyles expand to consume all available income.  It’s a similar story for domesticated animals – they are a resounding success from an evolutionary perspective, but individually they often live short lives of misery.

The rise of humanity has been horrible for other forms of life.  Not sure which is worse, those being wiped out by extinction or those domesticated species being exploited by the billions.  “Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity.  Again, it is fueled by indifference….Ironically, the same scientific disciplines which shape our milk machines and egg machines have lately demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that mammals and birds have a complex sensory and emotional make-up.  They not only feel physical pain, but can also suffer from emotional distress.”  (I wonder if Harari is straying into the same contradiction for which he decries humanism — what’s so special about animal lives, or anything really?  Kind of have to pick something, or else why are we here!?)

All right, the rest of this is just going to be a list of some thoughts I liked.

  • Freedom vs equality – these are opposite ends of a spectrum.  Think about that.  We probably need to remember that for the Founders of the USA, equality = equality in eyes of the law and equality of opportunity, not equality of condition or wealth.
  • All cultures have always been in a state if flux.  Religion is a conglomerate: “The average Christian believes in the monotheistic God, but also in the dualist devil (dualism seems solves problem of evil but doesn’t mesh with all-powerful God), in polytheistic saints, and in animist ghosts.”
  • I really like the concept of “empty maps”.  Before the Age of Discovery, maps were often depicted in complete form.  Even though people knew little of lands beyond their backyard, they felt free to fill in the gaps with religious explanations, folklore, or legend.  But then the scientific revolution became concerned with reality and describing things as they actually are; and a big part of that is being honest about what we do not know.  Hence publishing maps with large empty spaces – by its very nature, this provides a goal for us to discover real knowledge.
  • Economies thrive in a world of law and trust.  We wouldn’t be willing to lend money if we didn’t have a reasonable expectation of being paid back.  Furthermore, “the most important economic resource is trust in the future… markets by themselves offer no protection against fraud, theft, and violence.  It is the job of political systems to ensure trust by legislating sanctions against cheats and to establish and support police forces, courts, and jails which will enforce the law.”
  • World is becoming more peaceful: “while the price of war soared [threat of nuclear annihilation], its profits declined [wealth in today’s world is mainly intangible assets like patents and technology, not land and resources]”.  Harari would agree with Michio Kaku that we are moving towards world government.
  • “Amortality” – coming when we conquer death.  Paradoxically, it will bring anger – from those unable to afford the undoubtedly expensive treatments, and anxiety – from those who no longer fear aging, but still are vulnerable to accidents, violence, and the loss of friends and loved ones.
  • “Bioethicists should not only ask ‘What should be forbidden?’ but ‘What should we want?'”  Some biologists assert that happiness is just a product of brain chemicals; if we want to increase happiness we should develop new medicines to alter those chemicals.  Most people are averse to living in a false drug-induced “happiness” – but with any good reason?  Alternatively, there is strong evidence that having meaning in our lives provides happiness.  Medieval peasants lived impoverished lives, but presumably were happy striving for their place in God’s heaven.  But when we lose these “collective delusions” what about the meaning in our lives?  Is any meaning we come up with ultimately just a delusion?  (A very Buddhist thought … maybe we just should let it go…)
  • It seems inevitable that we will create new life beyond humanity.  Whether genetic supermen, or artificial intelligence, or some combination in between, homo sapiens may not be long for this world.  Something else will exist, which may have very alien thinking and motivations.  So much of what we “are” is based on our evolutionary past and hunter-gatherer lineage; with our new children we can change all that.  But to what?  Haunting final line: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Those last two bullets are what really wrap up the book.  We’ve been on this long journey, more or less guided by chance.  But now seems different – we are able to choose our next step.  Maybe deciding what that should be, and striving for it, is the new cultural (or personal) cause from which we can derive meaning.  There is no meaning to life except what we make of it, so what is the cause for which we should strive next?

(At the risk of destroying my provocative rhetorical, I’ll say that providing an interplanetary insurance policy on humanity’s existence a’la Elon Musk going to Mars seems like a good first start.)

“Physics of the Future” by Michio Kaku

Interesting description of future technology, but doesn’t get very deep into the physics involved.  Probably because that would get rather complex very quickly.  So really it’s just a list of “won’t it be so cool when” stuff.  The list holds no big surprises.  Big entrants are AI, virtual reality, fusion power, nanotech, and gene manipulation.

Everything’s at different stages.  For some items, like AI or fusion power, we just don’t have a viable method yet, but Kaku is optimistic that the current trajectory of progress points to a solution in <100 years time.  For other items, prototypes already existing and what remains is an engineering challenge to get them workable at an economical scale.

Kaku predicts a collapse of Moore’s Law in the ~2020’s, with a big impact to the economy, because people’s computing devices won’t become obsolete as fast.  But then again, he predicts a world filled with chips.  So maybe a wash for the tech sector?

As for AI, Kaku’s prediction is a slow rollout.  We won’t have human-level AI for a very long time, particularly if we follow our brain’s blueprint.  Kaku estimates one billion watts plus an entire river for cooling in order to simulate one brain.  So maybe another path is in order.  (Minsky’s Society of Mind is a possibility.)  But, then would it really be a “human” intelligence?  I wonder if we will come up with “other” intelligences which are not human-like at all, but are just as advanced.  Kind of a weird thought — alien AI…

In medicine, we will likely always have some disease, due to the sheer # of viruses and their rapid mutation rate.  But we should be able to generate vaccines very quickly, by sequencing any new viruses DNA and finding weak spots.  We’ll also have nanotech robots in our bodies, constantly monitoring for and neutralizing any cancer cells, years before they become problematic.

For fusion, two promising current experiments are NIF (laser fusion) and ITER.

In the concluding chapter, we have an almost-comically written account of daily life in 100 years.  It’s a grand utopia: wall screen AI, magnetic superconducting highways, programmable furniture, major cities submerged or fighting back the oceans (ok, almost a utopia), genetic engineering of babies, elimination of cancer and aging, AI taking over all menial jobs and freeing us to do creative tasks.  Sounds pretty nice, although I couldn’t help but wonder how this utopia might be subverted, ala Black Mirror or Gattaca

“How Jesus Became God” by Bart D. Ehrman

Although the author wrote many books in between, I see this as a good follow-up to “Misquoting Jesus.”  In the first book, Ehrman established that what we have in our New Testament today has been modified extensively over the centuries.  We probably won’t really know what the “original” sources looked like, but by examining what’s left and applying critical thinking, we can at least lay a baseline.  For instance, one method scholars use to determine veracity of early documents is the criterion of dissimilarity: if something would have been unlikely for an early Christian to have wanted to add it, then we can consider it more authentic.  There are other methods, all of which are like applying psychological detective work to long ago history.

Now in “How Jesus Became God”, Ehrman looks at the reasons for Christianity’s belief in a divine Jesus.  He starts by pointing out that myths and stories about people becoming divine, or divine beings becoming human for a time, were not uncommon in the time period.  One example who can actually be described in very similar fashion to Jesus was Apollonius.  What we can, with high probability, say about the life of Jesus: he was baptized by John, was an apocalyptic preacher who declared a soon-to-come kingdom of God on earth, and was executed for teaching that Jesus himself would be the Messiah, God’s chosen king in that kingdom.  (Ehrman suggests that this latter teaching, of Jesus as future king, was the secret that Judas betrayed to the authorities.)

“Jesus began his ministry by associating with a fiery apocalyptic preacher, and in the wake of his death enthusiastically apocalyptic communities of followers emerged. The beginning was apocalyptic and the end was apocalyptic. How could the middle not be?”

So how did we get from the life of Jesus, a man, to the concept of Jesus as God?  If you know the New Testament you might think the answer is obvious: because Jesus said he was the Son of God.  But all those passages can be shown to be later additions.  “…the followers of Jesus, during his life, understood him to be a human through and through, not God.”  In Ehrman’s hypothesis, Jesus was not thought of as anything more than a holy man during his life.  But then, after his death, his followers began to believe that he had been resurrected.  This was the key that caused early Christians to re-evaluate the teachings of Jesus, and to retrofit his identify as more-or-less God himself.

What caused them to believe in the resurrection?  Ehrman points out that leaving bodies up on the cross to rot and be eaten by scavengers was a big part of the punishment of crucifixion – it would have been unusual to allow someone to be taken down only a few hours after death.  The tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea is probably an invented story.  The belief in resurrection could have been due to visions experienced by a few key followers, namely Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Ehrman notes that ~10% of people (P. McKellar 1968, T.B. Posey 1982, A.Y. Tien 1991) have reported vivid visions or hallucinations at some point in their life, not uncommonly during the grieving period for a loved one who has unexpectedly passed (“bereavement visions”).  The accounts of Jesus appearing physically to all the disciples were probably added later – stories of doubters remain but don’t make sense if he was actually physically there; they do make sense if the doubters were only doubting the visions that others reported.

Continuing the evolution of beliefs, Ehrman posits that the early Christians first subscribed to a “low” or “exaltation” christology: that Jesus was a man, who was exalted at his death to semi-divine status, as evidenced by the miraculous resurrection.  The earlier gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke, mostly support this view of Jesus.  (Note that Ehrman mostly rejects John as historical as it is much different in tone and a much later addition — 90 AD.  John is the source of virtually all of Jesus’s own clear divinity claims.  I can picture the apologists: “easy to argue your claims when you throw out our most powerful source!”)

In not so many years, the low christology became a high, or “incarnation” christology: that Jesus was a pre-existing divine being, who came down to earth as a human.  Ehrman admits something is not quite right with his timeline, since the earliest parts of the New Testament, the Pauline epistles written about 50 AD, suggest a high christology but the early gospels, not written until 65 AD at the earliest, suggest a low christology.  Some speculation is that the oral traditions which later became the early gospels pre-existed Paul, but were just not written down yet, or at least not in any form we still have.  (For that matter, consider that the whole of early Christian belief was not written down for many years, but was like the game of telephone.  We don’t have any original sources written in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his immediate followers, but only in Greek.)

As time went on, doctrine continued to be molded and heresies (which are only ideas which ultimately were not accepted by the church) pronounced as scholars and leaders tried to reconcile incompatible scripture.  Witness the admittedly weird doctrine of Trinity: God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are One, but separate.  Jesus was fully divine, but also fully human.  What does that even mean??  The heresy of Marcion was particularly interesting.  He thought the God of the Jews and the God of Jesus were separate beings, one a god of justice who established the law, and the other a god of mercy who provided the means (Jesus) to save us from the law.

This is a fascinating book, particularly for someone with a Christian background.  Part of me wonders, is this really true?  Is Ehrman just spouting off lies from the devil, trying to lead me astray?  I think, ultimately, belief is a choice; we can never know the truth of practically anything, much less the truth of events which occurred two thousand years ago.  But Ehrman and his colleagues are the world experts – in a blog post, Ehrman points out that his views are more or less the consensus of bible scholars at all the major universities in America; after all they use his textbook.  They are the heirs of many before them and the torch-bearers holding the best reconstruction of events that humanity can muster.

The exception, people who disagree with him, come from the evangelical bible college and fundamentalist apologetic community.  Something in this disagreement strikes very deep, and is very similar to what I’ve noticed in researching Mormonism lately.  If truth is what you are after, then you should consider the merits of all sources and all sides.  Weigh the evidence, and see where it leads.  Pre-supposing a conclusion is what I see apologists do time after time.  Sure, you can cherry-pick little details which support your position.  That’s what flat earthers and anti-vaxxers do, too.  But looking at the big picture and deciding what the whole of the evidence suggests is the more sound method.

I wholeheartedly admit I am not and will never be an expert on the bible, or early Christian history, or early Mormon history, or anything really.  Relying on the consensus of experts, while not totally abandoning our own critical thinking and realizing that we will never know the whole “truth”, seems like the best option we have.


“The Player of Games” by Iain M. Banks

Gurgeh is a master board game player.  (In the post-singularity Culture, why not?)  He’s a little disenchanted with life – the games are interesting, but what’s the real point of it all?  “This is not a heroic age.  The individual is obsolete.  That’s why life is so comfortable for us all.  We don’t matter, so we’re safe.  No one person can have any real effect anymore.”

Then he takes an opportunity to assist Special Circumstances, the division of Contact (which handles external relations with other galactic powers) which deals with sticky situations.  His job is to go to Azad, where the Culture is almost unknown, and to enroll in the game tournament there.

The Empire of Azad is not quite as advanced as the Culture, and retains almost medieval social structures.  Rather than being tied together by something like a religion, the thing that provides common glue for the Empire is the game, also called Azad.  It’s a massive, multi-stage game, with room-sized boards, which takes several days to complete.  A huge tournament is held every “Great Year” (10 years or so?), the winner of which is crowned Emperor.  Those who do well in the game are made high level government officials.

Gurgeh is super-focused and (surprise!) does rather well at the tournament.  As an outsider, he attracts considerable attention and plots against him.  But he just really cares about the game.  Then he finds out more about the atrocities the Empire is involved with, and becomes somewhat conflicted with his love of the game, and his moral outrage.

Cool world building; kind of disappointed at the ending – the mad Emperor basically is a sore loser and overturns the Monopoly board in a fit of rage.  Gurgeh is left to reflect on it all, kind of in an attitude of “but I just wanted to play a game, not get caught up in all these politics!”

Just like in the first book, AI/robots/drones play a large role, and once again save the day.  Maybe Gurgeh is right – humans are something of an afterthought in the Culture.