2016 book recommendations

I managed to read more than 100 books in 2016, though about half of them were graphic novels, novellas, and other short books. Some of them were really great! The ones I’d most recommend are: “Stories of Your Life and Others,” by Ted Chiang. It’s a beautifully written philosophical science fiction anthology, less interested in exploring the impact of technology than using speculation to explore philosophical questions suspensefully. There’s a Babylonian story of the Tower of Babel, a story where angelic visitations are commonplace but people are still as puzzled as ever. The title story is better than “Arrival” IMO. Also “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” by Johann Hari.


Books: “Why Nations Fail”

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson’s Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty is in many ways a liberal response to Jared Diamond’s biogeographical explanations for unequal economic development in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, but along the way they provide biting criticism of the Washington consensus and truisms of development policy. Contra the Washington Consensus, for example, they make the point that (despite the virtuous circle of inclusive political and economic institutions) economic growth should not be expected to lead to political liberalization, since inclusive political institutions are fundamental to economic development, not the consequence of it. Their book is heavily rooted in economics and political economy while remaining a very accessible read, although some of the importance of private property rights, free markets, technological innovation, and creative destruction may escape readers who do not have a solid foundation in economics. The book offers a broad historical overview of development in dozens of modern historical societies. Occasionally, Acemoglu and Robinson apply their theory to some prehistoric societies, where the results are overly speculative and unconvincing—Jared Diamond may be more convincing in the premodern era, whereas Acemoglu and Robinson shine when explaining contemporary inequality. This is a fine explanation of contemporary differences in economic circumstances, although at times it seems overly broad.

Central to our theory is the link between inclusive economic and political institutions and prosperity. Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few and that fail to protect property rights or provide incentives for economic activity. Inclusive economic institutions are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions, that is, those that distribute political power widely in a pluralistic manner and are able to achieve some amount of political centralization so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy. Similarly, extractive economic institutions are synergistically linked to extractive political institutions, which concentrate power in the hands of a few, who will then have incentives to maintain and develop extractive economic institutions for their benefit and use the resources they obtain to cement their hold on political power.

…Extractive institutions that have achieved at least a minimal degree of political centralization are often able to generate some amount of growth. What is crucial, however, is that growth under extractive institutions will not be sustained, for two key reasons. First, sustained economic growth requires innovation, and innovation cannot be decoupled from creative destruction, which replaces the old with the new in the economic realm and also destabilizes established power relations in politics. Because elites dominating extractive institutions fear creative destruction, they will resist it, and any growth that germinates under extractive institutions will ultimately be short lived. Second, the ability of those who dominate extractive institutions to benefit greatly at the expense of the rest of society implies that political power under extractive institutions is highly coveted, making many groups and individuals fight to obtain it. As a consequence, there will be powerful forces pushing societies under extractive institutions toward political stability.

The synergies between extractive economic and political institutions create a vicious circle, where extractive institutions, once in place, tend to persist. Similarly, there is a virtuous circle associated [with inclusive economic and political institutions].

These vicious circles motivate the iron law of oligarchy, and can be avoided when broad-based diverse coalitions come to power at critical junctures and enable new groups to prosper.

Why Nations Fail also skirts around a few issues. First, there appears to be a tradeoff with political centralization: too little and the state cannot provide basic safety or property rights; too much and it is easy for a narrow elite to seize the entire state. But it appears that a state can be both too centralized and too small: unable to secure the nation’s entire territory while at the same time being easy to monopolize.

Also, much of what extractive economic and political institutions do is labor exploitation. These institutions are constantly trying to erode the social position of labor, to make extraction easier and cheaper. In some cases, they are exploiting cheap labor to extract agricultural or mineral goods, but in other cases, they are simply expropriating resources from the population itself.

The most memorable moments of the book were the profiles of diverse individual states, and it is astonishing to see historical leaders as diverse as the Roman emperor Tiberius and England’s Queen Elizabeth punishing or executing people who dared to dream up a technological innovation, in the fear that it might put people out of work and thus cause social instability:

During the reign of the emperor Tiberius, a man invented unbreakable glass and went to the emperor anticipating that he would get a great reward. He demonstrated his invention, and Tiberius asked him if he had told anyone else about it. When the man replied no, Tiberius had the man dragged away and killed, ‘lest gold be reduced to the value of mud.’

[William] Lee became obsessed with making a machine that would free people from endless hand-knitting. …Finally, in 1589, his ‘stocking frame’ knitting machine was ready. He traveled to London with excitement to seek an interview with Elizabeth I to show her how useful the machine would be and to ask her for a patent that would stop other people from copying the design. …[the Queen’s Privy Council member Henry] Carey arranged for Queen Elizabeth to come see the machine, but her reaction was devastating. She refused to grant Lee a patent, instead observing, ‘Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.” …Elizabeth’s successor…James I also refused, on the same grounds as Elizabeth. Both feared that the mechanization of stocking production would be politically devastating. It would throw people out of work, create unemployment and political instability, and threaten royal power. The stocking frame was an innovation that promised huge productivity increases, but it also promised creative destruction.

Maintaining social position by race means racism can never end

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has been making the rounds to discuss her book Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right about working class white people in the Louisiana bayou country, which is timely in light of the rise of Trump. Here’s her interview at Vox:

While I was there I found Calcasieu Parish, the county containing Lake Charles, a central town in southwest Louisiana. This was one of the top 2 percent most polluted counties in the country. It was a center of the petrochemical industry, which, with cheap natural gas due to fracking, had been growing and expanding. And you can see the smokestacks, you notice that everyone’s drinking bottled water, that on hot days no one is swimming in the lakes. … It’s a fantastically beautiful state, and these bayous are absolutely extraordinary. You see these forests with tupelo trees and 100-foot-high tall bald cypresses with Spanish moss hanging from them. Spoonbills are swooping from one tree to another over the water; it’s really exquisite. And the people I met there love their bayous, they love to fish and hunt.

It isn’t that they don’t care about their environment. They know more about it than anyone in the world, and they love it more than anyone in the world. …But they were even more suspicious of an ever-expanding federal government and state government that they felt was “can’t-do” and money-gobbling.

…they feel like almost like a minority group, forgotten and set aside, displaced.

They feel their cultural beliefs are denigrated by the culture at large. They feel that they’re seen as rednecks, that they live in a region that’s being discredited. Many of them are deeply devout, but they see the culture at large becoming more secular. And then they see economically that this trapdoor that used to only affect black people and people one class below them is now opening and gobbling up them and their children too.

… the deep story I felt operating in Louisiana was this: Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they’d worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls].

Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. And even an oil-drenched brown pelican getting priority. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly. And then in this narrative, there is Barack Obama, to the side, the line supervisor who seems to be waving these people (and the pelican) ahead. So the government seemed to be on the side of the people who were cutting in line and pushing the people in line back.

I went back with this story to a lot of the people that I’d talked to. I asked, is this the way you feel? And they said, “Yeah, you read my mind!” or, “Yeah, I live your narrative!”

It seems absolutely true that the economy of the last decade has been treating black and white working class people similarly, in the most disastrous way possible: by treating working class white people as badly as working class black people, rather than treating working class black people as well as working class white people.

And it’s also true that Southern and rural culture is subject to lots of unfair disrespect and humiliation.

But ultimately this “cutting in line” metaphor is a positional argument. It is not about the absolute welfare of working class people, black or white. It is about the social position of white people relative to black people. Some have always sought to divide the American working classes on racial lines. There has always been a group of lower-class white people who defined their social prestige in terms of at least being higher on the pole than black people. And this kind of racial social positioning is simply not compatible with racial progress in the U.S.

Zombie infection rates modeled

Good news! How would a zombie invasion play out in the US? These scientists modeled it.:

The zombie simulator is based on a real-life disease model known as SIR (which stands for “susceptible, infected, and resistant”). The researchers developed simulations based on variables like how fast zombies move, how often humans kill them, and how often bites occur. The team is presented its results at the 2015 American Physical Society March Meeting.

“Modeling zombies takes you through a lot of the techniques used to model real diseases, albeit in a fun context,” Alemi said in a statement. “Each possible interaction — zombie bites human, human kills zombie, zombie moves — is treated like a radioactive decay, with a half-life that depends on some parameters, and we tried to simulate the times it would take for all of these different interactions to fire, where complications arise because when one thing happens it can affect the rates at which all of the other things happen.”

The simulator allows you to control various factors, like the “bite-to-kill” ratio — a measure of how likely zombies are to bite humans versus how likely humans are to kill zombies. (The researchers told Jacob Aron of New Scientist that an 0.8 bite-to-kill ratio was roughly the value they found for movies like Shaun of the Dead…) …When I ran the zombie simulator using the default assumptions, it took several months for zombies to overrun the entire United States. Cities fell astonishingly quickly. But zombies were much slower to spread into rural areas. And areas like the northern Rockies remained zombie-free for a long time.

The first outbreak, of course, will be Pittsburgh or outlying farms.


Having kids is a lot like getting a college education: you’ll have four years of sleepless nights, gross stories, and scrounging for cash—after which you have earned something of enduring value.

A reading list of the Appendix N literature

At the back of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (first edition), Gary Gygax famously included Appendix N: a short list of suggested fantasy and science fiction books.

This list is not actually so short.

Gygax listed 21 specific novels, another 12 novel series (comprising about 55 books by 9 authors), and 9 individual authors listed without specific works cited. These works have had a rather varied publication history—the “Harold Shea” stories were issued in a single volume in 1989 (which is how I treat them here), while Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft published short fiction that has been widely anthologized in a variety of editions. Jack Vance’s Dyring Earth novels are probably best read today in the Tales of the Dying Earth omnibus. Other of these are desperately out of print, although some have come back into print in eBook editions (at writing time, Gardener Fox’s Kothar series has a Kindle anthology, but the Kyrick series does not). Others are currently available in different formats—the Harold Shea anthology has long been out of print, but is available as an audiobook from, while public domain works are available on Project Gutenberg and Librivox. I have also generally excluded books in series that were published after about 1977 or 1978.

Novels specifically cited:

  • Three Hearts and Three Lions, by Poul Anderson
  • The High Crusade, by Poul Anderson
  • The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson
  • The Face in the Frost, by John Bellairs
  • Lest Darkness Fall, by L. Sprague de Camp
  • The Fallible Fiend, by L. Sprague de Camp
  • Carnelian Cube, by L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt
  • Hiero’s Journey, by Sterling Lanier
  • Creep, Shadow, Creep, by A. Merritt
  • The Moon Pool, by A. Merritt
  • Dwellers in the Mirage, by A. Merritt
  • Stormbringer, by Michael Moorcock
  • Stealer of Souls, by Michael Moorcock
  • Swords Against Darkness III, ed. by Andrew J. Offutt
  • Blue Star, et al., by Fletcher Pratt
  • Changeling Earth, et al., by Fred Saberhagen
  • The Shadow People, by Margaret St. Clair
  • Sign of the Labrys, by Margaret St. Clair
  • The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Eyes of the Overworld, by Jack Vance
  • The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance
  • Jack of Shadows, by Roger Zelazny

Novel series:

  • At the Earth’s Core, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914) (“Pellucidar” series #1)
  • Pellucidar, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1915) (“Pellucidar” series #2)
  • Tanar of Pellucidar, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1929) (“Pellucidar” series #3)
  • Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1929) (“Pellucidar” series #4)
  • Back to the Stone Age, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1937) (“Pellucidar” series #5)
  • Land of Terror, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1944) (“Pellucidar” series #6)
  • Savage Pellucidar, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1963) (“Pellucidar” series #7)
  • A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Barsoom” series #1)
  • The Gods of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Barsoom” series #2)
  • The Warlord of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Barsoom” series #3)
  • Thuvia, Maid of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Barsoom” series #4)
  • The Chessmen of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Barsoom” series #5)
  • The Master Mind of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Barsoom” series #6)
  • A Fighting Man of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Barsoom” series #7)
  • Swords of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Barsoom” series #8)
  • Synthetic Men of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Barsoom” series #9)
  • Llana of Gathol, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Barsoom” series #10)
  • John Carter of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Barsoom” series #11)
  • Pirates of Venus, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1934) (“Venus” series #1)
  • Lost on Venus, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1935) (“Venus” series #2)
  • Carson of Venus, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1939) (“Venus” series #3)
  • Escape on Venus, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1946) (“Venus” series #4)
  • The Wizard of Venus, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1964) (“Venus” series #5)
  • The Warrior of World’s End, by Lin Carter (1974) (“World’s End” series #1)
  • The Enchantress of World’s End, by Lin Carter (1975) (“World’s End” series #2)
  • The Immortal of World’s End, by Lin Carter (1976) (“World’s End” series #3)
  • The Barbarian of World’s End, by Lin Carter (1977) (“World’s End” series #4)
  • The Pirate of World’s End, by Lin Carter (1978) (“World’s End” series #5)
  • Giant of World’s End, by Lin Carter (1969) (“World’s End” series #6)
  • The Complete Compleat Enchanter, by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (1989) (“Harold Shea” series)
    The Maker of Universes_, Philip José Farmer (1965) (“World of Tiers” series #1)
  • The Gates of Creation, Philip José Farmer (1966) (“World of Tiers” series #2)
  • A Private Cosmos, Philip José Farmer (1968) (“World of Tiers” series #3)
  • Behind the Walls of Terra, Philip José Farmer (1970) (“World of Tiers” series #4)
  • The Lavalite World, Philip José Farmer (1977) (“World of Tiers” series #5)
  • Kothar—Barbarian Swordsman, by Gardner Fox (1969) (“Kothar” series #1)
  • Kothar of the Magic Sword!, by Gardner Fox (1969) (“Kothar” series #2)
  • Kothar and the Demon Queen, by Gardner Fox (1969) (“Kothar” series #3)
  • Kothar and the Conjurer’s Curse, by Gardner Fox (1970) (“Kothar” series #4)
  • Kothar and the Wizard Slayer, by Gardner Fox (1970) (“Kothar” series #5)
  • Kyrik: Warlock Warrior, by Gardner Fox (1975) (“Kyrik” series #1)
  • Kyrik Fights the Demon World, by Gardner Fox (1975) (“Kyrik” series #2)
  • Kyrik and the Wizard’s Sword, by Gardner Fox (1976) (“Kyrik” series #3)
  • Kyrik and the Lost Queen, by Gardner Fox (1976) (“Kyrik” series #4)
  • “Conan” series, by Robert E. Howard (17 original stories)
  • Swords and Deviltry, by Fritz Leiber (1970) (“Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser” series #1)
  • Swords Against Death, by Fritz Leiber (1970) (“Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser” series #2)
  • Swords in the Mist, by Fritz Leiber (1968) (“Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser” series #3)
  • Swords Against Wizardry, by Fritz Leiber (1968) (“Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser” series #4)
  • The Swords of Lankhmar, by Fritz Leiber (1968) (“Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser” series #5)
  • Swords and Ice Magic, by Fritz Leiber (1977) (“Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser” series #6)
  • The Jewel in the Skull, by Michael Moorcock (Hawkmoon/”History of the Runestaff” series #1)
  • The Mad God’s Amulet, by Michael Moorcock (Hawkmoon/”History of the Runestaff” series #2)
  • The Sword of the Dawn, by Michael Moorcock (Hawkmoon/”History of the Runestaff” series #3)
  • The Runestaff, by Michael Moorcock (Hawkmoon/”History of the Runestaff” series #4)
  • The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien (“Lord of the Rings” trilogy #1)
  • The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien (“Lord of the Rings” trilogy #2)
  • The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien (“Lord of the Rings” trilogy #3)
  • Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny (1970) (“Amber” series #1)
  • The Guns of Avalon, by Roger Zelazny (1972) (“Amber” series #2)
  • Sign of the Unicorn, by Roger Zelazny (1975) (“Amber” series #3)
  • The Hand of Oberon, by Roger Zelazny (1976) (“Amber” series #4)
  • The Courts of Chaos, by Roger Zelazny (1978) (“Amber” series #5)

Individual authors:

  • Leigh Brackett
  • Frederic Brown
  • August Derleth
  • Lord Dunsany
  • H.P. Lovecraft
  • Andre Norton
  • Stanley Weinbaum
  • Manly Wade Wellman
  • Jack Williamson

It’s hard to narrow down the last category: Stanley Weinbaum wrote for only about 18 months before his death, and his work fits in an anthology or two. Jack Williamson, on the other hand, wrote dozens of books, mostly science fiction, and Leigh Brackett is better known for planetary romance than fantasy per se.

Some of the fantasy I’ve read, and would recommend, of these individual authors includes:

  • Who Fears the Devil?, by Manly Wade Wellman
  • Darker Than You Think, by Jack Williamson
  • The Gods of Pegana, by Lord Dunsany
  • Time and the Gods, by Lord Dunsany
  • “The Doom that Cane to Sarnath”, “The Terrible Old Man”, “Celephaïs”, “The Cats of Ulthar”, “The Rats in the Walls”, “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Colour Out of Space”, “The Dunwich Horror”, “The Nameless City”, “The Thing on the Doorstep”, “The Haunter of the Dark”, “History of the Necronomicon”, by H.P. Lovecraft
  • The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, by H.P. Lovecraft
  • At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft
  • The Shadow Over Innsmouth, by H.P. Lovecraft

In any case, that’s approaching 100 books—quite a reading list!

Excerpts on Speedtalk

Speedtalk, from Robert Heinlein’s novella “Gulf”, is an example of science fiction grappling with the possibilities of “logical language” and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s a bit silly, as most of the best science fiction can be. The story is anthologized in Assignment in Eternity, which has finally come back into print as an e-book.

Speedtalk was a structurally different speech from any the race had ever used. Long before, Ogden and Richards had shown that eight hundred and fifty words were sufficient vocabulary to express anything that could be expressed by “normal” human vocabularies, with the aid of a handful of special words— a hundred odd— for each special field, such as horse racing or ballistics. About the same time phoneticians had analyzed all human tongues into about a hundred-odd sounds, represented by the letters of a general phonetic alphabet. On these two propositions Speedtalk was based.

To be sure, the phonetic alphabet was much less in number than the words in Basic English . But the letters representing sound in the phonetic alphabet were each capable of variation several different ways—length, stress, pitch, rising, falling. The more trained an ear was the larger the number of possible variations; there was no limit to variations, but, without much refinement of accepted phonetic practice, it was possible to establish a one-to-one relationship with Basic English so that one phonetic symbol was equivalent to an entire word in a “normal” language , one Speedtalk word was equal to an entire sentence. The language consequently was learned by letter units rather than by word units— but each word was spoken and listened to as a single structured gestalt. But Speedtalk was not “shorthand” Basic English. “Normal” languages, having their roots in days of superstition and ignorance, have in them inherently and unescapably wrong structures of mistaken ideas about the universe. One can think logically in English only by extreme effort, so bad it is as a mental tool. For example, the verb “to be” in English has twenty-one distinct meanings, every single one of which is false-to-fact. A symbolic structure, invented instead of accepted without question, can be made similar in structure to the real-world to which it refers. The structure of Speedtalk did not contain the hidden errors of English; it was structured as much like the real world as the New Men could make it. For example, it did not contain the unreal distinction between nouns and verbs found in most other languages. The world— the continuum known to science and including all human activity— does not contain “noun things” and “verb things”; it contains space-time events and relationships between them. The advantage for achieving truth, or something more nearly like truth, was similar to the advantage of keeping account books in Arabic numerals rather than Roman. All other languages made scientific, multi-valued logic almost impossible to achieve; in Speedtalk it was as difficult not to be logical.

Another section:

There were hurrying footsteps moving past his bedroom door. There were two voices, one male, one female, outside the door; the female was Thalia Wagner, the man he could not place.
Male: “tsʉmaeq?”
Female: “nø!”
Male: “zulntsɨ.”
Female: “ɨpbit’ New Jersey.”
These are not precisely the sounds that Gilead heard, first because of the limitations of phonetic symbols, and second because his ears were not used to the sounds. Hearing is a function of the brain, not of the ear; his brain, sophisticated as it was, nevertheless insisted on forcing the sounds that reached his ears into familiar pockets rather than stop to create new ones.

A third except:

“You’re the doctor. Joe. In that case—” A speaker on Baldwin’s desk uttered: “œnIe r nøg rylp.”

Baldwin answered, “nu,” and sauntered quickly to the fireplace. An early-morning fire still smouldered in it. He grasped the mantel piece, pulled it toward him. The entire masonry assembly, hearth, mantel, and grate, came toward him, leaving an arch in the wall. “Duck down stairs, Joe,” he said. “It’s a raid.”

Heinlein, Robert A. (2012-07-01). Assignment in Eternity (Kindle Locations
749-752). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.

TIL: Immiseration

In the U.S., the left and right immiserate people in different ways: the right tries to bring down wages, and the left tries to drive up prices. Same thing in the end.

2016 Derby Disclosure

Nyquist (13), Exaggerator (11), Destin (9), Mohaymen (14)

Shit Donald Trump Says

A running catalog, until I go insane. Not even really gonna try to go back and catalog anything before May 3, 2016, the day Donald J. Trump clinched the GOP nomination at the Indiana primary. Not even going to try to catalog the daily reversals on policy (this would be a category error: policy for Trump is just a means of generating media attention). This is not at all comprehensive: Donald Trump says way too many bizarre, ignorant, or offensive things to fully keep track of.