Category Archives: Books

James S.A. Corey – Tiamat’s Wrath: The Expanse, Book 8

James S.A. Corey – Tiamat’s Wrath: The Expanse, Book 8

This book’s theme is hubris. Though the book’s universe and most of the characters are secular, it has an underlying tone of angering the gods. The totalitarian Laconian regime is continuing to consolidate its rule over the entire 1,300-world ring gate system, and the main characters are continuing a small underground resistance in ways reminiscent of dissenters under Stalin and Hitler. But High Consul Duarte, in his hubris, attempts to wake up the forces that destroyed the civilization that destroyed the protomolecule’s long-gone creators. It goes about as well as one would expect.

There is also a bit of game theory involving the prisoner’s dilemma game. Duarte’s misuse of it results in a spectacular mistake about a third of the way into the book, and at least two facepalms from this reader. The book ends on a rather large cliffhanger, presumably to be resolved in the series-concluding book 9, which will likely come out in 2020.

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Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere: A Novel

Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere: A Novel

Heavy on the atmosphere. I imagine this book was written with a film adaptation in mind. The plot is a typical ordinary-guy-goes-on-magical-quest story. Most of the book takes place in London Below, an alternate-reality version of London where the protagonist sees strange sights, meets strange people, and to his surprise, finds himself much happier than in his ordinary life. The imagery is dreamlike, with characters and settings somewhat disjointed and not always wholly making sense. Something about it evoked in this reader’s imagination a poorly lit, musty-smelling place, with recently rained-on worn brick buildings framing dirty, potholed streets, in a perpetual night punctuated here and there with dim blue, red, and yellow neon lights. The characters and story are far less memorable than this sort of imagery and feeling Gaiman evokes. A good cinematographer with the right sensibilities could have a field day recreating London Below.

Mark Miodownik – Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives

Mark Miodownik – Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives

The follow up to Miodownik’s delightful Stuff Matters, which is about solids. That book was my introduction to materials science, which as it turns out is darn interesting. Liquid Rules adds liquid materials to the picture. Miodownik has an academic background, but is an excellent popular writer. For this book, he uses the narrative device of a plane ride to segue from liquid to liquid, and to give the reader frequent short breaks from scientific explanations and the occasional molecular diagram. Various chapters cover water, gasoline, coffee, chocolate, wine, glues, ink, magma, and more. Hopefully Midownik will complete the trilogy with a book on gases.

Harold J. Berman – Law and Revolution, The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition

Harold J. Berman – Law and Revolution, The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition

Berman’s thesis is beyond my ability to state succinctly. This is in part because he thinks in a spectrum of grays and colors rather than a simple binary black-and-white. Unlike many scholars, Berman admits that many things are multi-causal, and defy simplistic explanation. His goal is to explain why legal systems look the way they do, and where they come from. Berman’s thesis ties into the larger rise of modernity itself and the modern economy we enjoy today, but intentionally confines himself to the law, his area of expertise. To highlight some of Berman’s main themes, which all intertwine:

  • Modern legal systems are a result of competing jurisdictions. Just as the U.S. has separation of powers and federalism, Europe had church and state competing against each other, as well as kings and nobles squabbling among themselves, free cities adding another sovereign unit to the mix. Eventually, nation-states emerged as a major unit as well.
  • The rise of trade also played a role. If two traders had a dispute, it was difficult to determine which legal authority had jurisdiction. The king of the origin country? The destination country? Traders responded by developing their own mercantile law over time. This spontaneous order competed with both church and state laws, adding another element of competition.
  • Berman doesn’t use the term, but scholars from Elinor Ostrom to David Friedman call such legal systems “polycentric” (many-centered).
  • This process pre-dates the Reformation, which is where most scholars place the beginning of modern legal systems as we know them today. Berman instead dates the key event as the Papal Revolution, a multi-generation movement which peaked in the 1170s.
  • This marked the rise of the church as a major source of trans-national legal authority. For the first time, it competed directly against kings and nobles, and on equal footing. Church and state had separate but overlapping jurisdictions, and competed with each other to attract “clients” and patronage.
  • The competition was not always peaceful.
  • Berman doesn’t operate on a strict back-and-white, church-vs.-state axis. Nothing in history is that simple. There are many other important factors in play.
  • This isn’t quite a market process in action, but there are similarities.
  • This was a process, not an on-off switch. Even when change was at its fastest, the change would only be noticeable over the course of an entire lifetime. It was not centrally directed or planned, and it did not happen suddenly.
  • Nor was the process unidirectional. There were reactions against it, and there were countless other factors in play. Berman doesn’t go this far forward in history, but the French Revolution is an excellent example of such a reaction. The Revolution swept away the ancien regime and was secular, so on the surface it appeared to weaken both church and state. Its intellectual underpinnings rejected hodge-podge evolutionary polycentrism in favor of a more orderly, centralized, and aesthetic top-down legal ethos. Think the Napoleonic Code-vs.-common law debate that continues today.

This is a deep and dense work, and I have almost certainly not done it justice in this capsule review. But it is a rewarding read, and as someone who works on regulatory issues and institution-level reforms, this book was a game-changer. It changes how I view where today’s debates, legal conventions, and implicit assumptions come from, how they evolve over time, and where needed reforms might fit into larger historical trends.

Berman, who passed away in 2007, also wrote a sequel, Law and Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition. When I am feeling ambitious, I hope to one day attempt it.

Andrew Roberts – Napoleon: A Life

Andrew Roberts – Napoleon: A Life

This recent Napoleon biography has quickly garnered a stellar reputation. It strikes a healthy balance between telling the story of the person and the story of the times, tending a bit more towards the personal side.

The justification for writing yet another Napoleon biography in a flooded market is that Roberts is the first biographer to be given access to more than 33,000 pieces of Napoleon’s written correspondence, and he draws on them heavily. He gives new details and insights from these primary sources about Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine, his thoughts before and after critical battles and inflection points in his career, and more. Unlike most other biographers, Roberts also traveled to the island of St. Helena. His portrait of Napoleon’s final exile is all the more vivid as a result, and even a little touching.

Adam Shepard – Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream

Adam Shepard – Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream

After graduating from college, Shepard tried an experiment. He traveled to Charleston, South Carolina with nothing but $25, and gave himself one year to meet a goal of having $2,500 in savings, a car, and an apartment. Among the rules he set for himself was he was not allowed to take advantage of his college education or take help from his family. He spent about two months in a homeless shelter, working odd jobs, learning the city, and looking for an apartment. By the end, he found a stable job and met his goals, and almost seemed pretty happy. Unfortunately, a family member’s health meant he had to return home and care for them. Good on him for knowing what’s important, and he still accomplished his goal of refuting the class-based hopelessness he found in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed.

James S.A. Corey – Persepolis Rising: The Expanse, Book 7

James S.A. Corey – Persepolis Rising: The Expanse, Book 7

As every generation gets older, it tends to grouse about young peoples’ shrinking attention spans. Pop culture these days shows that charge not to be true. Now that the media market is more diversified and less formally structured—something antitrust activists should keep in mind—people are flocking away from easy-to-digest 22-minute network sitcoms. When given a choice, many people are choosing complex shows in a serial format with large casts, nuanced characters that evolve and change over time, well-developed minor characters, and multi-season and multi-book story arcs with multiple moving parts. It is hard for someone with a short attention span to enjoy fare such as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, or The Expanse. Much as I continue to enjoy short attention span fare such as Seinfeld or The Simpsons, it is an unabashed good that people who want more thoughtful, complex fare now have that in abundance, too.

Which brings us to book 7 of The Expanse. Thirty peaceful years have passed since book 6. Earth, Mars, and the Belt are finally allies, and the colonies in the 1,300 solar systems accessible through the ring gates are reaching populations in the millions. Mars is lending Earth its terraforming technologies to help the planet recover from the extinction-level meteor strikes launched by Marco Inaros, the villain from the last story arc. The Belt has evolved from its hodgepodge of a legitimate government, the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) and its squabbling IRA and Hezbollah-style factions into a unified, more formal customs union. Its job is to aid traffic through the gates and back, and the process is going surprisingly smoothly, with less infighting and fewer abuses than this economist thinks plausible.

Captain James Holden and Naomi Nagata, both with some gray hairs at this point, are ready to retire together, and sell their shares of their now-aging ship The Rocinante to Bobbie Draper, a former Martian marine and longtime crew member.

Then the trouble starts. The new villain is Winston Duarte, who previously appeared in book 5. He led a mutiny in the Martian military that stole the last remaining sample of the alien protomolecule, a third of Mars’ navy fleet. He and his followers fled through one of the ring gates to found the colony of Laconia, and haven’t been heard from since—the authors probably had this plotline drawn up long ago.  He reappears at this point as High Consul of a totalitarian government, with designs on personally becoming emperor of each of the 1,300 known solar systems, including sol system. He backs it up with a new, unstoppable navy with advanced protomolecule technology, and handily defeats the EMC (Earth-Mars Coalition) and Transport Union forces in battle. He has also apparently been attempting to grant himself immortality using protomolecule technology, which should be an interesting development going forward.

The protagonists put up an underground-style resistance as best they can, allowing the Belters’ OPA roots to re-emerge, this time as good guys. The characters also deal with the still-incomplete fallout from Holden and Naomi’s retirement and the change of command. After the big naval battle falls short, the crew lead an escape of the resistance forces, presumably to regroup for Duarte’s major denouement in book 8. Holden is also taken prisoner and taken to Laconia, which should also lead to some interesting situations.