Cover for "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow" by Zevin

This is a tolerable work of fiction that relies heavily on nostalgia. This is a story about normal people having normal people problems. It is basically inoffensive, occasionally touching, a little inspiring, but mostly bland. Like a PG Disney version of reality, it penetrates the surface of life but doesn’t get very deep.

In spite of these weaknesses, there is some decent character development here. Zevin has created a strong dynamic between the main characters. They make bad decisions in a manner that is utterly believable. They mature and change realistically, and their evolving relationship drives the narrative. It could be said that Zevin has done as good a job writing Time as she has writing these people. The rest of the cast is a bit thin, but we spend most of our time with the two main characters.

The book’s timeline is wrapped around video game culture from the early days of PC games. This “gaming” aesthetic is, frankly, weak. Zevin uses terminology and makes references and then compulsively explains it all like some sort of Dummies’ Guide to Gaming. This prevents this from being a book of gaming culture and becomes a book about gaming culture. In truth, it mostly just pushes nostalgia buttons with assorted cultural references. Now, this isn’t entirely unforgivable because the heart of this story is people and relationships and life; it could have been told about people in most any creative or collaborative profession.

However Zevin doesn’t allow room for that thought as gaming references are crammed in at every opportunity. This comes across as more than a little forced. The repetitious talk of video game characters being able to die and retry is perhaps a useful metaphor, but when the characters themselves (book characters not game characters) discuss it they do not really sound like gamers. Anyone immersed in a culture uses its distinctive vocabulary: shorthand, vernacular, slang. Gamers are no exception and have their own cryptic language. Rather than lean in and use some of this authentic vintage gamer slang, Zevin has run everyone’s dialogue through a translator to make it comprehensible to non-gamers.

This lack of commitment leaves the gaming identity of this book feeling half-baked. As another example, there is a lengthy scene in the book that takes place within an online game. It has the feeling of being video-game shaped without feeling at all like a real game. The player’s conversations with other players and npcs are almost entirely unbelievable. The dialog requires both the most technically sophisticated AI chatbots and the most hardcore community of fanatic role-players. For as much as this book grounds itself in the real history and culture of video games, it misses the mark in some key places.

And of course, I must mention the elephant in the room. This is a book about a female game developer with barely a mention of how misogynistic the industry is. This is a serious omission. With all the crises and struggles that are included, it is hard to understand why this one barely gets a mention. This is an issue that, unlike most aspects of gaming culture, has reached the mainstream media on multiple occasions.

And finally, any book is instantly discredited when it uses the game of Go in its story and incorrectly describes the white stones playing first. That’s a simple failure of research. and it reflects the shallow feeling this book has throughout. It gets close to a lot of interesting places, it even dips its foot in, but it leaves one feeling more than a little unsatisfied. Your mileage may vary, and there might be more to recommend this book if you aren’t a gamer, but it had little to say to me.

Cover for Altered Traits by Goleman and Davidson

I wish there were more books like this. In fact, I wish most books were like this. You can find any number of volumes about meditation, but these are mostly guides and personal stories that extoll the benefits of a certain practice. This book is different. This is a summary of meditation research written for a popular audience. It explains what exactly has been tested scientifically and what hasn’t. This is a catalog of evidence. The authors go down the list of claims made about what meditation can do and provide a simple reality check. They also provide some essential details, clarifying the differences between different types of meditation, and which types have been associated with which results; breaking up the monolith of “meditation” in the popular conversation.

Continue reading
Cover for I Never Thought of It That Way by Monica Guzman

This is a curious book. On the one hand, it is a pithy self-help book, riddled with acronyms and buzzwords, and continuously padded with “we’ll talk about that in a later chapter” and “like we talked about in a previous chapter”. On the other hand, it is an effortless and engrossing read. Ironically, Guzmán’s conversational tone betrays her professional expertise. Here is a journalist of high caliber; someone who is experienced and expert at talking to anyone.

Continue reading
Cover of the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

What is most striking about these sorrows is not their obscurity but rather their specificity. Koenig has tapped the well of human experience and amassed a sizable collection of, what are usually, deeply personal moments. For each of these, he has assigned a name, generally a portmanteau of words from an assortment of languages, and composed a description of the feeling that is utterly dripping with sorrow and nostalgia and… there’s probably a word for it in here somewhere…

Continue reading
Homelessness is a Housing Problem

This is the particular kind of science that ought to be encouraged and supported. It’s one thing to expand humanity’s understanding and knowledge in a general sense. It’s another to investigate competing claims about causes of and solutions to the ills of society. Public policy must be subject to scientific scrutiny. We shouldn’t guess, we shouldn’t appeal to emotion. We should do what works, or we will be overtaken by those that do. Colburn and Aldern have done the math, made some conclusions, and written them up for broad consumption.

Continue reading
Cover of Noise by Kahneman

Kahneman has done some great research, and it is a tragedy that such useful research is represented by such poor writing. This book is a slog. The authors are still defining the titular “noise” come page 72. I do not know which of the three is to blame for this travesty (I’m generally inclined to point a finger in the direction of the editor), but this book is inexcusably long and laborious. I do not recall having such a hard time with “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, but as I am in no position to hold anyone directly accountable, I will not belabor blame. I will belabor the tragedy of bad writing.

Continue reading
Cover of Exercised by Daniel Lieberman

Exercise in the modern world has been commodified. The people talking about it the most are some of the least trustworthy. Daniel Lieberman has taken a step back from the fitness-industrial complex and asked the elephantine question: Are homo sapiens even supposed to exercise? Through the lenses of anthropology and evolution, he has untangled exercise from modern culture. The result is an enlightening journey through history, civilization, and biology.

Continue reading
Cover of Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

This is a tight volume describing and decrying some of the ways we misuse technology, specifically mathematical models. O’Neil has both the academic and industry experience to give us a clear picture of what’s going on and why it’s terrible. And it is terrible. She wastes no time explaining models and their misuse, where they are being misused, and what it is costing us. This is a concise and thorough account, and there’s little more to say. The only criticism I will raise is the title. Calling these misused models “Weapons of Math Destruction” or “WMDs” is obviously easily confused with the other kind of WMD, and it is a clumsy name in both cases. Naming things is hard, but writing books is harder, and O’Neil can be forgiven the awkward name for she has written an important book.

Cover of The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Ministry for the Future starts with bang, and then plods for the remainder of its considerable length. This is a strange book, even for KSR. It has a non-fiction feel but not to its benefit. It is reminiscent of Neal Stephenson at times with its giddy exploration of technology. In fact, it might be better to describe this as a collection of ideas for re-engineering society and geoengineering rather than a novel. This is a brainstorm-your-way-out-of-climate-catostrophe session brought to life. It’s the meaty fare late-night change-the-world conversations are made of, but while interesting, this particular meal is unsatisfying.

Continue reading