I’ll admit to being generous rating this five stars on Goodreads, but it’s a rare delight to find a book on economics to be so engaging. There is even a call out to Terry Pratchett and a couple of quotes by Douglas Adams, two of my favorite (sort of) philosophers. It’s written as a kind of Platonic dialogue, a narrative in which the ‘reader’ (or just some guy with a mild interest in the subject) poses reasonable questions and provides appropriate comments while the ‘author’ offers responses that are informative but not overly detailed or technical. So sure, the explanations tend to be fairly superficial and gloss over nuances, but the basics are here. What are the essential differences between Keynesian and classical economic theories? What’s GDP and how does it differ from GNI? Is inflation always bad? How might problems like unemployment, poverty, and economic inequality be mitigated? Is perpetual economic growth possible? I found it all interesting and about as delightful to read as a nonfiction book can be. If you’re looking for a serious, in depth study on macroeconomics, this isn’t it. But for a clear introduction, this is hard to beat.
Hogfather by Terry Pratchett ~ A Fine Fantasy for the Holiday Season
The midwinter holiday on Discworld is Hogswatch rather than Christmas, and the Hogfather is the Discworld’s version of Santa Claus. He climbs down chimneys, gives presents, says, “HO-HO-HO,” and drives a sleigh pulled by four flying pigs. Many children of the Disc believe in him, which is why he exists. (This is a fundamental characteristic of the magical system in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.) Belief causes the thing believed in to exist, and when belief stops, that existence stops. Teatime, an assassin retained to do away with the Hogfather, plans to exploit this metaphysical law to accomplish his assigned task, but first he must break into the Tooth Fairy’s castle and get control of the teeth stored there. With them, he can influence the belief of their former owners through sympathetic magic. (That’s something of a spoiler, but if you haven’t read this yet, you may be thankful for it.)
Hogfather was the first Discworld book I ever read. This was back in 1999, I think. It could have been 2000. I’m not sure. I didn’t buy it. The book was given to me, not so much as a gift, but as a case of, “Here, I’m not going to read this again, but you might like it since I know you like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
A few months later, I decided to give it a try. I didn’t know what to make of the book at first. It wasn’t like anything I had ever read before. I recall thinking when I was about halfway in that I wasn’t sure I liked it. It was obviously fantasy, but it wasn’t like the epic fantasy stepchildren of Lord of the Rings or the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, which dominated the fantasy genre at the time. Those stories seemed to make a concerted effort to portray their fantasy settings as ‘real’ places, and they were chocked full of dragons, evil warlords and their minions, and powerful magic. Their plots often boiled down to simple, and often bloody, contests between good and evil. The reader didn’t have to think much for most of these. They offered an entertaining escape from reality, but not much else. The plots were often a bit like sporting events in which one side is ‘good’ primarily because it’s from your hometown (although there’s a good chance none of the players are). In some, the biggest difference between the protagonist and the antagonist was the point of view that dominated the story.
In any case, that was the kind of fantasy novel I was used to. Hogfather is none of the above. It’s not even like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, but the person who gave me the book was right in one regard. If you like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, there is a good chance you will like Discworld. Both are satirical, funny, incredibly clever, and mind-bending.
But, back to what I was saying. Halfway through my first reading of Hogfather, I was confused. This book was far more complex than it seems at first glance. There was certainly more to it than the fantasy stories with which I was familiar. The setting was comprehensible but bizarre. I mean—really—a flat world carried on the back of four elephants standing on a turtle? Come on! The plot confused me, and there were subplots and multiple points of view presented by an omniscient narrator. There were even footnotes! This wasn’t like watching a sporting event or a cartoon. I had to pay attention. This book was trying to make me (*gasp*) think! To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge.
Then, about halfway through, I got it. I can’t recall exactly what scene or phrase caused my epiphany, but I finally caught a glimpse of what this story was doing, and it floored me. The author wasn’t trying to draw me into the story to the point of total immersion. The setting was absurd because I wasn’t supposed to believe it was possible. The story was fiction, and I wasn’t being encouraged to suspend disbelief to the point where I felt for a moment that it wasn’t. There’s a kind of honesty to that that I still find refreshing. Yes, the story is set on a fantasy world starring a recognizable parody of Santa Claus and an anthropomorphic personification of Death, complete with black cloak and scythe, but it’s not ABOUT them. It’s about us!
But at the same time, this ridiculous setting was rich and textured. It was unbelievably believable. And the characters, although they seemed exaggerated caricatures at first, had surprising depth and personality. I recall thinking that this Terry Pratchett fellow must be some kind of genius.
I’ve read all forty or so Discworld books since, all them at least three times, and I still think this is true.
Hogfather, like many of the Discworld books, is multifaceted. Here are a few things I noticed:
• It is, of course, a parody of the Santa legend.
• It’s a cultural satire about our traditions and philosophies.
• It’s a not-so-thinly veiled criticism of holiday commercialism.
• It’s a morality tale about duty and the importance of family ties.
• It’s a philosophical statement on the nature of humanity.
• It contrasts rational and irrational ways of thinking.
• It provides a brief comment on emergent artificial intelligence.
• It’s a fantasy story that pokes fun at fantasy, while, at the same time, explaining why fantasy is both meaningful and necessary.
• Oh yeah, and it’s funny.
If you have not read any Discworld books yet, you should. Actually, my advice is to read them all and then to reread them. When reading Hogfather, one key point to remember is that time is not necessarily linear where Death (the Discworld character) is concerned. It can be frozen, and causality can work in reverse. The future can change events in the past or cause them not to happen at all.
Hogfather, however, is not the Discworld book I would recommend to newcomers to the Disc. Yes, it was my first, and each book can stand on its own, but Hogfather is a tough go without the background provided by some of the others. I hesitate to recommend any particular Discworld book to start with. I’ve seen some forums in which people can become quite heated about this, believe it or not. I highly recommend all of them, but I will say again that Hogfather probably shouldn’t be your first.
If you are familiar with Discworld, but have not yet read Hogfather, I suggest doing so now. It’s a great book for the holidays. If you have read Hogfather before, it’s a great one to reread for the Holidays.
HAPPY HOGSWATCH, EVERYONE! HO-HO-HO!
-An earlier version of this review was posted on the D.L. Morrese website in 2014. https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/hogfather-for-the-holidays/
-Some wonderful quotes from Hogfather: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/583655-hogfather
-My Problem with Terry Pratchett: https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/my-problem-with-terry-pratchett/
P.S. Hogfather became a made-for-TV movie in 2006, and is now available on DVD. I have a copy. Here’s a trailer…
The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives by Lisa Servon
Taking jobs at a check cashing service in New York, and at a payday lender in California, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania (and a writer and lecturer on consumer financial services) attempts to obtain some ground truth on the plight of financially insecure Americans.
I think it comes as no surprise that a great many Americans are struggling financially. The economy isn’t what it once was. Adjusted for inflation, wages have declined since 1972. Secure jobs with benefits are relatively scarce. Although productivity has increased over the past few decades, most of the resulting benefits have filtered up to CEOs, managers, and stockholders. They no longer trickle down as pay raises or benefits for average workers. Personally, I don’t see how this situation is sustainable. Too many people are living paycheck to paycheck, saving little, and are unable to cover contingencies such as medical expenses or car repairs, let alone luxuries. What may come as a surprise to some is how pervasive economic insecurity is. It’s not just for the poor anymore. It’s now affecting the middle class. Far too many find themselves marginalized in an economy that still hinges on consumer spending. With so many consumers effectively excluded, how can the system endure?
Anyone interested in this subject has seen the statistics. The author of this book goes beyond those to the personal level, showing what the impact is on some of these excluded individuals and relating how they cope. Many have turned away from banks to alternative financial services such as check cashers and payday lenders. When you simply look at the numbers, these services may seem predatory. Paying close to 2% of the value to cash a check, or 400% annual interest on a payday loan certainly seem excessive. But for some, this turns out to actually be less expensive than similar services from traditional banks, which do not offer small, short-term, unsecured loans, and charge exorbitant fees for maintaining low balances and for overdrafts. It’s an interesting read about a subject that I think should be getting more political attention. There is a problem here that needs to be addressed.
What is life? What is intelligence? What is consciousness? Are these possible only in naturally evolved, biological creatures like us or might a substrate constructed of metal, plastic, and silicon allow them? And if it could, if an artificial intelligence did come into being, would its intellect grow such that our minds would seem like those of bugs in comparison? If so, what are the consequences?
These are the kinds of questions Max Tegmark, a professor of physics at MIT, addresses in Life 3.0. He doesn’t definitively answer any of them, of course. No one knows if, let alone how, such an Artificial General Intelligence could be made. And certainly no one can predict with accuracy what changes such an AGI would bring about to us lowly humans and to our civilization. It could mean the beginning of a grand new era for humanity, or it could mean its abrupt end. Several alternatives are explored in this book.
Tegmark argues that because the impact of AGI could be so profound, it is vitally important to ensure that it benefits our species rather than harms it. He, along with a group of AI developers, scientists, and philosophers, propose twenty-three principles to guide AI development, which can be found on the website of the Future of Life Institute (https://futureoflife.org/ai-principles/). Since these were established by consensus, they are fairly generic, pie-in-the-sky kinds of statements, but they seem to be a good start.
Personally, I’m not overly concerned about a robot apocalypse. I have little doubt that AI will continue to improve, and that it will impact us in significant ways—materially, culturally, and even psychologically. I also see no reason why a super-intelligent AGI could not exist…some day. But I see no reason for such a thing to be malevolent or even harmful. By definition, AGI isn’t human, so, unlike us, it should be a rational agent, immune to the kinds of psychological flaws that have been at the root of much of human misery. AGI may increase the rate of societal change and stress our capacity to adjust, but we’re an adaptable species. I think we can cope. There will be those who will no doubt attempt to abuse AGI for personal gain or to pursue a favored ideology. This is a concern with any new technology. It’s a human failing, not an inherent problem with AGI, and for every despot with an enslaved AGI, there will be those of nobler temperament with AGIs of their own to counter him. It seems to me that the very existence of AGI would help ensure that conflicts would be foreseen and mitigated before they become an existential threat simply because there are more people who want to avoid an apocalypse than there are those who wish to bring one about. At least, I hope this is true.
I found this an interesting read. I recommend it.
Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything
by Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith
Technological advances can change the world. They have before. Human civilization was significantly altered in the not-so-distant past by indoor plumbing, steam power, and the assembly line. Imagine how different your life would be without electricity, automobiles, computers, and the internet. One can argue about the costs and benefits, but no one can dispute that such things have had wide-ranging impacts on how we live. Innovations like these were the result of brilliant people striving to understand the forces of nature and then inventing new ways to harness them to improve our lives. This process continues today. (If it ever stops, we’re in trouble.)
In Soonish, a husband and wife team (a cartoonist and a biological scientist) explore ten areas that may soon (or soonish) bring about such life-altering changes: cheap access to space, asteroid mining, fusion power, programmable matter, robotic construction, augmented reality, synthetic biology, precision medicine, bioprinting, and brain-computer interfaces. For each of these, they explain what it is, how close we are to achieving it (and why we might not), things to be concerned about, and how it could change the world. It’s not a comprehensive list of emerging technologies nor is it an overly detailed one. It doesn’t predict that these things will happen. It doesn’t promise a brighter future or warn of an impending apocalypse. It doesn’t argue that these things should or should not be pursued. It’s a reasonably objective overview for casual readers of areas that are currently being explored, interspersed with humor and cartoons, and it’s a surprisingly entertaining read. I know I enjoyed it.
Will the availability of Big Data permit the social sciences to collect objective information, test hypotheses, and provide predictions in ways traditionally possible only for the hard sciences? In this book, a bright young economist argues that that the answer may be yes.
The title, Everybody Lies, refers to the fact that people lie, a lot, about all sorts of things. They lie in interviews, on surveys, and even on anonymous opinion polls. They even lie to themselves. Until recently, the best way for social scientists to understand what people were thinking and feeling was to ask them. But because people lie, the information collected was unavoidably flawed. Enter Big Data. It seems a person’s internet searches and online activity are better predictors of their behavior than what they are likely to tell you. Mining such data is becoming not only a powerful tool for the social sciences but also a big business.
Despite the author’s undergraduate degree in philosophy, he doesn’t address the question of whether or not this is a ‘good’ thing. He makes few value calls. He simply demonstrates that these data are out there, and they can be used to understand, predict, and even manipulate human behavior. But there is an an unaddressed ethical question here. Can special interests successfully manipulate human attitudes and behavior for selfish economic or political gain? Are they doing so already? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. Advertisers and politicians have been waging wars of domination for the minds of people for years, but now with Big Data, they’re better armed. My cynical soul quivers at the thought.
Convergence: The Idea at the Heart of Science by Peter Watson
Carl Sagan once said that science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge. In Convergence, historian and journalist Peter Watson demonstrates one important aspect of this profound insight. Individual scientific disciplines once regarded as separate are converging, influencing and fueling one another to reveal a clearer and more detailed picture of reality. The findings of geology help answer questions in biology. Discoveries in physics shed light on issues in cosmology. Assuming the existence of an objective reality, science is how we learn about it. A fact discovered by one scientific discipline remains a fact across all. This is why the inability of quantum mechanics and general relativity to play well together is so bothersome. Each works remarkably well in its own realm. Each makes accurate predictions. But if both theories are describing different aspects of a single reality, it means that at least one of them still needs a bit of work. Watson touches on this quest for a unified theory in this book, but it is mostly a broad overview of the science of the last 150 years or so with a focus on how separate disciplines have come together. It’s an informative read.