Books of 2015

Boy, I really love book lists. But since I’ve never written one, I thought I’d give it a go. Here’s my top eight for 2015.

Learning by Doing, James Bessen

The best thought-through antidote I’ve read to the “Robots are going to replace all human jobs except the one yoga teacher broadcasting via YouTube to the world” story. Prof. Bessen dives into the textile mills of 19th century America to show that advancing loom technology drove down the prices of clothes, which generated massive new demand, which increased the numbers of overall jobs in the mills. “Engels’ pause”, a term coined by economic-historian Prof. Robert Allen, describes the time it took for tech to create jobs (remember; Marxists lack patience). A second strand of Bessen’s argument is that wages rose in the mills as technology was standardised, enabling skills to be taught en mass and a market for these jobs created. The reservation I have with this story is human capacity; how many workers will have or be able to develop the “I-work-well-with-tech” and “Tech-cannot-do-this-stuff” skills? Tyler Cowen reckons their numbers are limited and I tend to agree. Horses did not lose all their jobs because they did not want to adapt to the combustion-engine world; rather, horses find it very hard to code html (and me only moderately less so).

The Big Fat Surpise, by Nina Teicholz

Teicholz reports the hell out of this amazing story - the wholesale selling of mis-information about whats good and bad for us to eat over the past 80 years. I know its commonplace to read and talk about diets; and we are better informed now. But just how much what we thought was bad for us was built on industry-financed pseudo-science flim-flam is amazing. She, in contrast, has read all the science and met all of the ‘authorities’. Long story short: saturated fat does not make you fat, nor raise your cholesterol, the links between cholesterol and heart disease are not strong at all, olive oil is not that healthy for you, and all the sugar we threw into our food to replace the “bad” (i.e. good) fat is killing us. Fuck the processed sugar, man.

Our Mathematical Universe, by Max Tegmark

I read this twice, because its three things: brilliantly written, endlessly fascinating and because it deals with concepts which are incomprehensible to most human minds. As far as I understand it, Tegmark believes the logical implication of current physics is that there are multiverses - several levels of them, indeed. Type 1 look like ours; they have the same physical laws; but Type 2 multiverses have force-settings set to different levels. Types 3 and 4? I’ll let the professor explain. Forget the myth of a single Big Bang - there are infinite numbers of them, generating infinite numbers of universes - partly inhabited with infinite versions of ourselves, spinning off into Hilbert space at every juncture. And there was I thinking Interstellar was kinda complicated. Durr!

The South China Sea, by Bill Hayton

I think this is probably the go-to source on what - if all our fears are realised - could shape up to be the Sudetenland of the 21st century (Can i say that? Its disputed territory, right? And does anyone think it could not trigger a major war if tempers frayed?). Hayton is a BBC journalist who plunges into the sea’s history (the disputed islands were not really anybody’s until the C20th), maps out the various claims and counter-claims, and then travels and visits people. Its a very sophisticated analysis. He has little time for spurious CCP claims that the area was China’s in times immemorial - and Beijing of course has little time for him or those who question their very-recently-manufactured facts.

And now for some stories

I tend to be much more selective in the fiction I read these days. Having overdosed on Ellroy’s venomous highs as a younger man, most novels can’t find the vein. But 2015 was a pretty good year. This stuff held my attention. The first two are beautiful and the other ones thrill.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

I was blown away by this. One of those novels I had no idea existed. Quiet, steady, relentless - we walk with US marines through the jungles of Vietnam, and learn what they carried, on the trail and back home. Full of war stories, crazy, bloody, lonely stories, but narrated so cleanly. ‘True war stories do not generalise’, we learn - there is no moral, only sunlight on broad river and chance; its just you know its true if your belly turns. Full of marvels, amongst the mud.

The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness

“In 1980s Romania, boredom was a state of extremity”, it begins. A clueless British bloke flies in, plays at being an English teacher, falls in with students, smugglers, and other low-lifes, and lives the end of what they tell you is communism. The rottenness smoulders through; you clamber through the decay; and betrayal is guaranteed. End of days poetry from McGuiness. The ‘new’ beginning after the palace has fallen: ‘new brothel, same old whores’.

The Three-Sphere problem, by Cixin Liu

This is a spell-binding read. Famous in China, though friends complain about the sometimes-tedious prose in Chinese (I read it in English). You thought the legacy of the Cultural Revolution was just mass torture and murder, acute personal suffering, families rent apart, and a everyone now laboring under Party-proscribed historical asphia? Nope; to all that you can add to the possible extermination of the human race by a bunch of dry-freezing aliens stuck in a messed up planetary orbit. I loved the nano-technology deployed to salami-slice an oil tanker in the Panama canal, the passionate intensity of the ignorant alien-lovers, and the total weirdness of the Game world. Roll on Part II and prep for war with the aliens.

Ghost Fleet, by P.W. Singer and August Cole

China’s had its revolution, massive gas reserves have been found in the South China Seas (see above), and America is being annoying - cue a lightening techno-strike that makes Pearl Harbor look like a clumsy mud-fight. China’s “Protectorate” government is a frail veil over what really is just present-day China - and the US fights old-school, mostly, but no worries, this is a gleaming gunship of a thriller. Distrust every chip-enabled device you have on your person; even if you cannot live without them. Oh, and don’t go surfing alone with gorgeous Asian chicks in occupied territory.

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