Review: Epstein’s Range

Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World

David Epstein

There is a certain kind of book I cannot resist and that book follows this basic format:

  1. Here is an ostensibly counter intuitive idea.
  2. Here are a series of chapters wherein the  following form to substantiate the idea
    1. An anecdote is presented
    2. A study or studies are cited to substantiate the lesson of the anecdote
    3. Analysis is done to show that the studies and the anecdote are correct

This is one of those books. Epstein shows (using the basic Gladwell method outlined above) that Gladwell’s most famous rule — the rule of 10,000 hours is wrong. To be successful (and happy) in the modern economy,  Epstein argues one shouldn’t focus on 10,000 hours of repetition at a specific skill set, but rather sample widely and change paths frequently. This experimentation and ability to learn new ideas and skills will serve you better in the long run than spending say your entire childhood getting good at soccer.

As someone who has held an enormously wide set of jobs, and has an even wider set of interests, I found this interesting and comforting. On first read, that’s all I thought it was, an interesting idea. But this book has stayed with me, and I think about it alot now when I make choices about what my kids do, what I do, and what I look for in employees.

Well worth a read if the Gladwell type books are your thing.

Recommended.

Book Review: Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power


We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy
Ta-Nehisi Coates

A collection of Coates journalistic pieces and other writings, most of which first appeared in the Atlantic, and many of which I’d read before. The pieces are organized chronologically, and importantly, tied to each year of the Obama presidency. Coates writes a thoughtful introduction to each piece which serves as a reflective (sometimes self critical) look back at who he was as a writer, and who we were as a country, at the time of the writing of the piece.

 

Coates is a gifted writer and one of the most important intellectuals in modern America. I read everything he writes, and was happy to re-read many of these pieces. But at the center of this book is one of his articles “The Case for Reparations” that I think may be one of the most important pieces published anywhere in the last decade. It cogently and carefully makes the case for reparations to the African American community in America and it lays out its case with a combination of narrative brilliance and airtight logic that is hard to ignore.

 

If you pick up this book and just read the Case for Reparations, it will be well worth the price of admission, but there’s so much more in here to remember and reflect on. As I often say, well worth the time.

 

Recommended.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

 

Book Review: Levoy’s Ghettoside


Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America
Jill Levoy

A captivating, depressing, challenging, frustrating, must read book about the state of modern policing in poor communities of color.  If you’ve read this one, I’d really like to talk about it.

Levoy spent a year covering every murder in Los Angeles for the LA Times. She then took one of those murders, of Bryant Tennelle, the teenage son of an LAPD cop, and turned it into the center piece of this book on the way black communities are policed and, justice sought, in Los Angeles. While toching on social science, many other murders, and the way race, class and geography function in Los Angeles, it focuses primarily on the search for Tennelle’s killers by a group of homicide detectives lead by the obsessive, deeply devoted, (and occasionally ethically dubious) John Skaggs.

The book is, above all, a portrait of Skaggs. He is meant to be seen as the hero, and there’s much to be admired about his commitment to the community he policies. He’s relentless in following up leads, is respectful of the families of the both the victim and the accused, and appears to believe, sincerely, that young black men murdered in the streets deserve as much attention as anyone else.

But while Skaggs takes his job protecting the community seriously, and operates apparently without racial animus, he’s also willing to go places that should make us all uncomfortable. One scene has stuck with me – the interrogation and eventual confession by one of Tennelle’s murderers wherein Detective Skaggs, a middle aged detective with years of experience in interrogations, boxes a teenage kid without a high school degree into confessing to the murder. It’s a masterful display of interrogation techniques and manipulation by Skaggs and chilling example of why you should never, ever, speak to a cop without a lawyer present. Ever.

In telling the story of Tennelle’s murder (and many more) the thesis which seems to emerge is that Black communities suffer not, as many on the left suggest, from over policing, but rather from an under policing of serious crimes. The murder of young black men are not taken seriously enough Levoy (and Skaggs) seem to be arguing. And if they were, then many fewer young black men would be killed.

I am not an expert on policing and crime and frankly, and I remain completely unsure about this theory. I will say as someone who believe less policing is usually better policing, I’m reflectively uncomfortable with the analysis. I’m also uncomfortable with Levoy’s canonization of Skagg’s and with some of the conclusions in the final section of the book on the possible reasons for the decline in murder rates in South Central (gentrification and video games among other reasons).  But these very real concerns aside, I found the book deeply compelling and thought provoking and wish everyone I knew had read it.

I want to work through these issues with smart friends, so if you’ve got someone to say, please do so below.

 

Recommended.

 

Review: Stephenson’s Seveneves

Seveneves: A Novel
Neil Stephenson

Neil Stephenson is among my favorite authors, and my number one go-to dude for popular fiction. His writing is clear, his characters well developed, and his research top of the line. He is one of the few authors whose books I buy no questions asked, as soon as they come out.

While generally considered a science fiction writer, his books are wildly different. In the past he’s covered virtual reality, the scientific revolution, neo-platonic future monks, cryptography, and more. This one, which is perhaps his biggest single volume work, is the “hardest” science fiction book he’s ever written. Its central premise is the absurd, but thought provoking question “what would happen if the moon exploded?” From there, Stephenson explores, in detail, both the technical and social aspects of rebuilding a society in space. Rarely does a book explore in this kind of precise detail how, exactly, you’d go about fueling interstellar travel, or how, precisely, you’d do major construction projects in space.

I like science, but these sections of the book (some of which go on for over fifty pages) were tough sailing for me. What kept me going were Stephenson characters – altruistic scientists, scheming politicians, individuals unhinged by the experience all of whom are trying to figure out how to rebuild a society from scratch. It’s well thought out from start to finish and if smart speculative fiction is your thing, this is well worth your time. The ending seems to hint at sequels. I hope they arrive. I get the feeling this story is just starting.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

*”hard SF” is generally defined as science fiction with an emphasis on speculative, but theoretically rigours science.

Review: Delany’s About Writing

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews

Samuel Delany

I am a huge fan of the writer Samuel Delany. A writer at the heart of what I think the best of “new wave” science fiction, Delany has gone on to write memoirs, literary fiction, pornography, comics books and much else in between. Though not all of his works are good, in the aggregate all of it is important. Delany  is, overall, one of the most interesting and important writers alive today.

This book collects Delany’s writings on the craft of writing. It isn’t particularly good. Books of this sort are notoriously difficult and often bad. Unfortunately, this is one of the not very good ones. Delany is an at times inspired writer (there are passages in Dhalgren, his masterwork, which are straight up gorgeous) but he also has a bit of logorrhea and can be hopelessly long winded and circular. Sometimes, this works to his advantage, at other times, it doesn’t. When discussing his early years in the East Village in the Motion of Light in Water, his penchant for the detail brings light to the world; but his circuitous, at times free form, style doesn’t play well as an instructional manual on writing. If you’re going to read Delany, and you should, this isn’t the book to read. For brilliant Delany, read Dhalgren. For a good book on the craft of writing, surprisingly (since I’ve never read one of his books), I’d recommend Stephen King’s On Writing.

Not recommended.

(ok, ok, recommended for the Delany completist, i.e. me).

 

Review: Braudel’s The Structure of Everyday Life

Ed note: this review was written for a now defunct livejournal sometime in 2007.

Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life (Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century)

Volume I
Fernand Braudel
The Phoenix Press Reissue (563 pages)

The first volume of Braudel’s massive work on the construction of capitalism in the 15th to 18th century sets the stage for all that is to come. It is an exhaustive survey of the social and economics conditions in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world at the beginning of the 15th century.

The amount of primary research that went into this is mind boggling. Everything you ever wanted to know about how much livestock the average farmer in Batvia had to the trends in fashion in the courts of Europe is covered here in great detail.

Braudel is all over the place in these books, chasing every detail and argument to their end, and it can be difficult to grasp the important threads running through the work. In the first volume this isn’t as much of an issue as it becomes in volumes two and three. Braudel is still all over the place, but since he is really only setting the stage, it isn’t as important to try and pick up his overall theory. Volume Two is where he really lays out his argument for the separation of capitalism and the market and why certain places in Europe became economic power houses and others didn’t.*

As in volume two, Braudel is at his best when he’s discussing Europe, and is out of his depth when he deals with the rest of the world. There is a trove of good information in this first volume however, and I would recommend it to the academics out there if only because at some point you may need to be able to speak on the Dutch economy in 1500 or the clothes worn in England by the aristocracy in 1600 and this is the place to get all that good info.

* This is also an idea that he returns to in extreme detail in volume three, which I am about a quarter done with and find…kind of ehh, actually.

Review: Martin’s Game of Thrones

Ed note: this review was written in 2007 for a now defunct livejournal account, long before GoT was the phenomenon it is now. Funny to re-read such a flippant review of what has become a cultural phenomenon.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)

A Song of Fire and Ice Series Book 1
George R.R. Martin
Spectra Reissue, 704 pages

I always thought of science fiction as speculative fiction that looked forward and fantasy as speculative fiction that tried to imagine some idealized past. Since I like to think of myself as a forward thinking person, when I have read genre fiction, it’s been sci-fi.

But lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time alone, and with no TV to entertain me; I thought it might be fun to give one of those crazy huge fantasy novel series a try. If it was good, it’d make for diverting reading after a day spent in law books, if it sucked, I’d just move onto something else.

Friends who are fans of fantasy novels have been telling me about this series for a while and when I read the good review Cosma Shalizi gave the books in his fascinating notebook on fantasy, I decided to give it a try. And now I am totally hooked.
Game of Thrones set up is pretty standard: noble nobility in semi-magical world fight evil nobility for control of the land. What sets Martin apart from others is the strength of his writing (you can tell right away, this isn’t a first book, the plotting is tight and the writing topnotch) and the darkness which permeates the story.

People say they enjoy Martin’s works because they are “realistic” whatever the fuck that means for a book that has dragons and magic in it. The book does portray humanity in all is awfulness, and the violence feels real and visceral. It’s a dark world where favorite characters are killed off all the time and really nasty shit happens to those who stick around. I found it compelling and I’ll definitely read the rest.