Category: Books

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court (J. Toobin)

I waited for the paperback edition of this book to come out, and I did well. This is a book best read with a bit of distance to the events described.

A history of the Supreme Court of the United States of America in recent times. Once an institution of minor rank, over the 20th century the Supreme Court transformed itself into a powerhouse of societal transformation, pushing the nation forward towards equality and the rule of law. Never mind that most of the justices were appointed by conservatives: they ended up veering sharply to the liberal side once appointed.

Unfortunately, though, the Supreme Court is still a deeply political institution. Its composition is determined by presidents who increasingly cannot choose based on legal merits but have to select someone who, first of all, will espouse a political opinion, and only secondarily is able to justify it in legal and rational terms.


Uncertainty (D. Lindley)

There is no topic in elementary physics as odd as quantum mechanics. Once you learn the formalism, it is easy to apply (although the mathematics required can be daunting). The experimenters say, on the other hand, that the results you get from quantum mechanical computations are accurate within the limits of measurement.

Problem is, there is no reason for that. We are all a little surprised by how accurately QM models the world. It’s as if God in his or her infinite wisdom had decided to choose QM as the infinitesimal model of the world on a whim.

The problem, you see, is that there is absolutely nothing necessary about QM. It certainly suffices the requirement to make sense in the everyday realm, but in the microscopic it sounds and feels just like one of many possible descriptions of physical reality.


The Armchair Economist (S. Landsburg)

I felt like an addition to my review of Landsburg’s book was in order after completing the read. I am as enthusiastic as I ever was, but I think I have a more nuanced look now.

First of all, I read the book as an attempt to popularize both economics and its fundamental tenets. In that attempt, Landsburg succeeds spectacularly: the way of thinking of economists, which is probably the most important thing right now about their achievements, is brought forth with great clarity and persuasive power. 

Economics is a clear winner in this game. We learn what economy is about, what it’s not about, and rational ways to distinguish between the two. To spice things up, Landsburg shuns the obvious and focuses almost entirely on the paradoxical. That certainly makes him more interesting and makes his reasoning more likely to be a feature at parties. Everybody wins.


The Armchair Economist (S. Landsburg)

I love economists. They are a special breed of scientists. They tower high above all the other ones in their all-knowing wisdom and dispense it to the rest of the world in little parcels, mostly at dinner parties and economic summits.

Ok, maybe I don’t love economists in general, only some of them. People that tell me something that is unexpected, especially when they combine an obvious piece of information with another one and come up with something totally unexpected. The Peter principle, for instance, is a really good example.

Some books by economists are great. I haven’t written a review of it yet, but More Sex is Safer Sex by the same identical author is very interesting and insightful. The Armchair Economist, though, is extremely poorly researched and an embarassement to the author and to the whole science of economics.


Superhumans on the Rise – Orson Scott Card and Ayn Rand

Really, this should be a review of my latest read, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow. After thinking about it for a while, though, I realized any review would be meaningless if it didn’t look at things from a broader perspective. I changed the scope, changed the title, and you know the background.

Over the years, I’ve met plenty people that were fervent enthusiasts, passionate about Orson Scott Card’s novels or Ayn Rand’s own ones. Oddly enough, there was little of the typical polarization that usually goes hand in hand with passionate fervor. Instead, the majority of people I spoke with remembered both or either writer as an also ran.

I started looking at patterns that fit both writers, started reading their books, and couldn’t come up with much. Now that I read Ender’s Shadow, I finally have a theory about the whole thing, a way to reconcile two radically different writers with their at times eerily similar audience.


Four Novels of the Sixties (P.K. Dick)

The Library of America ( decided it was time to honor Philip K. Dick and published four of his most famous novels in one volume. Good choice, since Dick's novels are in general quite short and publishing only one would have left the reader dissatisfied, given the tomes that are usually produced in the series.

The 60es were a crazy time by anyone's reckoning, at least in the United States (in Europe, the 70es would assume the same significance). Philip Dick, who was genuinely mentally troubled, works well as a paragon of the time – Dick and the Sixties, a match made in heaven.

The four novels in question are The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and Ubik. They have some themes in common, yet they show a visible evolution in the writing and thinking of the author.


Dreaming in Code (S. Rosenberg)

Confession: I had the hardest time understanding relativity. Not such a big deal for the average Joe, but quite a handicap for a physicist like me. I could certainly apply the equations, that was straightforward enough. The inner logic of it all, though, escaped me.

Take the twin paradox, for instance: one of two twins leaves for an extended trip to another star, and the other one is left behind. When the traveling brother sees the other one on screen, the latter's speech is slowed down, a relativistic effect. I saw that on Ustinov explaining relativity. The Earth-stuck twin, in turn, sees the fast brother talking at twice the speed. Says Asimov. 


The Lost Painting (J. Harr)

I had the good venture of spending my high school years in Rome, just at the time when you get acquainted with the fine arts. My memories are still vivid with entering the churches of San Luigi dei Francesi and Santa Maria del Popolo and seeing the Caravaggios in there.

They are an unforgettable sight. They hang high up, far out of reach, and you have to drop a coin to turn on the lights that allow you to see them. And when you do, get ready for them, because they are not what you'd expect in a church.

Caravaggio's paintings are spectacular in a way you can't readily appreciate, because they are so contradictory. They are vulgar in their depictions of the commonest things, and yet sublime. They are photorealistic, yet give up any pretension of accuracy when even major positional problems face the painter with the ugliness of reality.  


The Game Players of Titan (P. K. Dick)

Get ready for a flood of P.K. Dick novel reviews, since I am getting caught up on old reading. I even went out of my way to order all the ones I didn't buy yet on, and they are going to arrive any time soon.

The Game Players of Titan is the typical P.K. Dick novel: an uncertain society after a catastrophic development, extraterrestrial life (in this case not imagined), a mystery to solve, and an unusual setting with a great many surprises.

Titan is the largest moon of Saturn and the second-largest moon in the solar system. It is quite notable because it's the only moon with a real atmosphere, and hence there has been speculation it might harbor life. In this particular case, it's life that (a) is silicon-based, (b) communicates between themselves and to humans telepathically, and (c) is not well disposed to humans, a race almost destroyed.  


Anthem (A. Rand)

There you go: buy a 400 page book, and then discover that it's a 100 page book plus 300 pages of "original material" with commentary and other stuff. Disappointing, not because it's really only 100 pages, but because I had packed it for the beach – and I can definitely read 100 pages in under an hour, leaving me without much to do but counting grains of sand and waves crashing onto shore.

Anthem is yet another one of Ayn Rand's messages of individualism. For those of you who don't know her (anyone?), she is a philosopher that created this school called Objectivism. The goal of Objectivism is to assert the individual's rights with respect to the collective or society and to affirm that it is immoral for society to downsize the individual for the good of the all. Worse, it is inefficient: society, according to Ayn Rand, grows faster and better if everyone is left to their own devices.