A Few Good Books

I haven’t been getting a ton of reading done this summer, but here are a few books that you might find interesting or fun.

The Psychopath Test

I’m sort of emphatically not a fan of those lightweight nonfiction books we’ve been seeing a lot of in the past few years that would have made (and often did make) a great article in The Atlantic, but that ends up being repetitive and boring when expanded to book length. I was afraid this was one of those books, but it isn’t. What it is is Ronson stringing together a collection of personal and historical anecdotes about psychopaths; this works because Ronson is unusually gifted at getting people — often wingnuts, but also regular people — to open up and talk. For example, there’s Tony, the guy who pretended to be insane to escape jail time but now can’t get himself released from the hospital that holds Britain’s most criminally insane people. There’s Brian, a scientologist dedicated to debunking psychiatry. There’s Charlotte, who selects applicants for reality TV shows by making sure they’re crazy enough but not too crazy. I’m just scratching the surface, and Ronson is pretty entertaining himself, with a bit of a Woody Allen thing. This is a fun book about a really scary topic.

Are Your Lights On?

If you think about it, an awful lot of problems are caused by the fact that we’re often not very good at identifying the real problem in the first place. This book is a collection of mental tools we can use to do better problem identification. The general gist is to stop and think, and to make an effort to put aside our preconceptions, before just jumping in with a solution that may well make things worse. This kind of material should be useful for anyone but for consultants, engineers, and researchers it is vital. The book is short and funny and out of print but Amazon makes it easy to track down a copy. You should do it.

Tau Zero

Like all science fiction from 40 years ago, Tau Zero has become a bit of a period piece with respect to gender issues and politics, but otherwise it has aged reasonably well. The plot is pure hard SF: an interstellar ramjet is damaged in such a way that it cannot decelerate. To fix the engine, the crew is forced to take their ship into a region of extremely hard vacuum — the nearest such region being outside the galaxy. Due to relativistic time dilation, the long distances involved are not a subjective problem. One thing goes wrong after another and the solution always ends up being to accelerate, compressing time more and more. Early on, the crew realizes that nobody they know on Earth could still be alive; later, they notice that star formation has ceased. The book would be pretty horrible if Anderson turned it onto a physics lecture, but instead he focuses on the crew members and their reactions to an increasingly desperate situation. If you don’t feel like tracking this book down, no problem: just read this classic article by Freeman Dyson while watching the old Keanu Reeves movie Speed.

Dirty Snow

Previously I thought of Simenon only as the author of some fun detective stories that I had to read in French class. Dirty Snow, on the other hand, is one of the darkest books I’ve ever read. It is set in occupied France, but really it could be any wartime police state. The first part follows a young man’s willful descent into evil; in the second part he gains a bit of unwanted self-knowledge.

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