Musings from Mike on subjects from politics to technology to culture to whatever else happens to be on my mind.
Following the tradition I started in 2009, and continued in 2010, 2011 and 2012 I present my annual list of my favorite books I read during the past year.
This novel starts out slow, and turns into an absolutely intense fight for survival in a harsh environment with stakes as high as they get.
A refreshing and entirely new take on World War II, focusing not on the fighting itself, but what happened during the first year after.
A teenage boy wakes up alone in a world that is empty and decayed, with no memory of how he got there.
Cross Nate Silver with Rick Grimes, and you might have the protagonist in this literate post-apocalyptic novel. Look around; almost everything in your home or office got there because it travelled on a giant boat from somewhere else.
There are many histories of Elizabethan England, and most of them cover the the lives of the powerful, and a certain well-known playwright, but what was it like to actually live then? In recent years there has been a lot of hype about how technology will finally be able to solve various problems that have been plaguing humanity.
The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Using the little-known diary of a German executioner as its primary source, the lives of 16th century Germans and their notions of law and justice are examined.
The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom by Mark S. Mary Roach is one of the most entertaining science writes out there, and she doesn’t disappoint with this delightful trip down the digestive tract, from the mouth to the, uh, other end.
A simple premise – the Earth starts rotating slower, the days start gradually getting longer. Phone Phreaks were the original hackers, and their story has never been told with as much verve as here. Zombies, meteors, bird flu, alien invasions or whatnot, what would it actually take to survive? This is the best book I have read concerning why government in this country is so messed up.
Usually when electricity comes in contact with the body, bad things happen, but of course electricity is also necessary for life.
This would have been a great book even if Silver would have blown his election predictions, but the fact he was nearly perfect only enhances his reputation, and in his first book, Silver covers the nature of predictions, and how forecasting works across a variety of fields. Security is always in the news, whether the lastest TSA outrage or another tragic shooting spree.
The title doesn’t do this book justice, making it sound like a catalog of disaster or porn for survivalists. North Korea is a fascinating country, being that it is the last totalitarian communist state on the planet, and mixes oppression with a cult of personality very alien to Americans.
Nonetheless, Thomas has written a fairly incisive book, and one which is rather depressing, if only as a catalog of the myriad of ways that a more imaginative or energetic Democratic party or President could have responded to the crisis.
A personal, philosophical and psychological look at what the experience of combat is like, and ideas for how soldiers, commanders, political leaders, and civilians can better deal with the reality of war.
A straightforward autobiography by one fo the best-known and most accomplished computer hackers that reads like a thriller. This book is another entry in the trend of history books covering some esoteric aspect of life, in this case, artificial light.
A superb review of the biological, social and psychological reasons why human beings seem to to demonize other groups of humans.
An extended philosophic essay on criminology specifically focusing on whether it would be a worthwhile reform to allow convicted criminals to optionally trade their sentence for a medically-supervised public flogging. A deeply-satisfying work of historic fiction, following the career of an archer in the English Army during the Hundred Years’ War. I reviewed this in more detail earlier, but suffice to say, this harrowing and believable story of ordinary people trying to survive during the slow economic and ecological collapse of modern civilization is an instant classic in this genre. And speaking of the apocalypse, peak oil cassandra Kunstler has written a great piece of PA fiction about the lives of some ordinary villagers living in upstate New Yorks after Peak Oil has ended national civilization. It wouldn’t be the 150th anniversary of the Civil War without some great books on the conflict, and this is one of the best, telling what is essentially a moral history of the war, focusing on the cultural and social aspects (of both sides) and showing how the war really built modern America.
This wide-ranging survey of the history of information, in all its forms, covers an impressive panoply of topics – biology, anthropology, physics, information theory, computer science, and mathematics. A swashbuckling collection of nautical tales of derring-do, which have the added benefit of being both true and quite relevant to the history of our nation. A beautiful panoramic novel about Sherman’s March, told through the eyes of a cast of dozens of characters, ranging from Sherman himself, to slaves, Southerners, and everyone in between. The heartbreaking and heartwarming true stories of what life is like in one of the world’s most impenetrable nations. I picked up this turd of a book essentially for free when our local Borders went out of business, and sadly, I still paid too much for it.
As we all know, the world is coming to an end tomorrow (and if you’re reading this after May 21, then you obviously weren’t good enough to make the Rapture), so why not kick back and spend the last few hours on the earth reading a good post-apocalyptic disaster novel? There are tons of great post-nuke books, but this unique one, from the perspective of a Navy ship at sea, is an underrated gem. Throughout the entire book, the protagonist, Jasper, deals with life as society slowly crumbles. Our story opens with Jaspar and friends living as travelling nomads a few years after a major depression has led to 40% unemployment.
As the years pass, Jasper settles into a modicum of stability as a convenience store manager, moving in and out of various social circles consisting of old and new friends, as the world around him continues to crumble.
There are so many fascinating and well-written vignettes here – a bowling alley during a power outage, a trip to a virtual reality speed dating service, a flash rock concert, an abandoned carnival, canine-powered taxis, browsing an abandoned bookstore, and even (a bit too sterotypical) an emergency surgery via cell phonel. As both protagonists discover more and more about the truth of the situation on the ship, they are faced with a bit of a murder mystery as well as threats from both the ship’s dictator, Eldest, and the various forces that are keeping most of the people living on the ship in a state of almost animal-like somnolence. Tyson’s collection of short essays covers the gamut of astronomy and physics, in a fun and enlightening style. A fascinating overview of the psychological and cultural aspects of humankind’s interaction with the animal kingdom. A man wakes up in an enormous, frigid, ancient, mechanically unsound spaceship, and has no idea what is going on, all the while being chased by strage horrifying creatures while trying to survive and figure out what is going on.
Rocket engines, trajectories, and such are quite important in space travel, but what about how you go to the bathroom in space? I never thought an evolutional psychology book on the nature of pleasure could turn out to be so interesting. Tony Judt is one of the the most thoughtful historians with a keen eye towards recent history and political trends. A starship sent from Earth has been wandering the galaxy for hundreds of years, searching for life. Now that it is six months later, a bunch of these are now available in paperback, and most of the hardcovers are now available at remainder or bargain prices. The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard DawkinsA masterpiece, and one of the finest examples of quality, thoughtful, intellectual popular science writing I have ever read.
Why Shit Happens by Peter BentleyYou make up in the morning late because your alarm doesn’t go off. The attention to historic detail and the minutiae of 1920s mountain-climbing tech is fascinating. He has much more interesting material here, chronicling one summer in American life, using as his hook Lindbergh’s famous flight.

Of particular note, the author covers the entire world, Asia and Europe, focusing on the themes of vengeance, re-establishment of the rule of law, and the politics and implementation of the occupations. This is King, though, and he doesn’t skimp on the plot development or strong characters. An essential history of how we managed these weapons is told through the story of a near-disaster in an Arkansas silo where a nuclear weapon came close to accidental detonation on American soil. This is the hook for a mystery that extends very deeply into the nature of reality, linked to traumatic events in the boy’s family past as he discovers who he is.
The protagonist is a conflicted math whiz who uses his predictive skill to make himself rich forecasting disasters for insurance companies and other wealthy clients, becoming numb to the world, until he and the woman he cares about experience an apocalypse he himself predicted. Both a history of the hijackers themselves and the story of how the system tried to respond, the book really brings alive that crazy, amazingly innocent (compared to now) era. The zombie apocalypse happens, and the only folks who are immune are meth addicts, and only if they remain addicted (sobriety means a quick death and turning into a zombie). Author Rose George climbs aboard the merchant marine and through her journey throws some light upon this little-known but essential piece of our world’s infrastructure, covering shipboard life, pirates, cargo handling, the the experiences of sailors and captains as they keep the flow of world commerce going. How would you go about daily life, what would actually make you laugh or cry, what might you do to fill your plate and where might you go to shit it out? While no luddite, Evgeny Morozov takes a much needed pin to these balloons of hot air, explaining that technology is not a panacea and by itself cannot fix problems that at their root are not solvable via purely technical means. This book is fascinating, because for the vast gulf of time, and major changes in legal concepts and morality since then, the humanity of the titular executioner and the people he served have stayed surprisingly constant over time. Looking at both the debate in the North and the facts on the ground in the South, author Levine brings this turbulent era to life on both sides. This wonderful book demonstrates experimentally some of the deep truths about sports fandom and the inner lives of fans.
It is rare to find an author who combines the childish fun of a fart joke with some interesting and genuine science, a real winner. Zuk uses real science to show us how evolution really worked on human beings and separates the paleo hype from scientific fact in an engaging and informative style. Combining an interesting technical history of the phone system in America with the personal stories of some of the most colorful hackers who explored the system, this book takes us to a more innocent time.
Sam Sheridan explores this, taking on the role of an ordinary schlub who decides to learn all the skills of apocalyptic living, ranging from extreme driving, tactical weapons, food preparation, and combat first aid.
Where this book differs is that it covers the Roman world more broadly, following the movement of a coin around the Empire, touching on dozens of different people as they go about their lives. A great exploration of how humans make moral decisions and how these decisions inform our political and social choices, Greene ends up with a full-throated defense of a form of utilitarianism as the best way for groups of people with different moral views to live in peace.
Ashcroft explores how electricity works in the human body, and how various processes keeps us alive, and enable us to move, sense, and think. However, it is much more, as the particular murder the protagonist is trying to solve has occurred against the backdrop of a massive asteroid that is only months away from ending human civilization. The history of rabies is surprisingly fascinating, giving rise to legends like werewolves, and one of history’s greatest scientific triumphs, the creating of an effective vaccine.
At its most basic level, it is the story of pre-teens struggling to survive in a future Washington, D.C.
Specifically, and optimistically, war as something that is not endemic to humanity and something that can be cured, like a disease. Carter’s very well-researched novel puts the reader in the middle of the swirl of life in Washington, with rumors of conspiracy mixing with the courtroom drama of the actual impeachment trial in the Senate. Like his earlier book, Thomas is puzzled why so many average Americans are seemingly choosing ideology over what actually benefits them economically. At least it is shocking and dismaying when these folks are middle-class Americans from the flyover states. In the end, the President ceded the ideological battleground to his opponents, and like French generals in World War II, seemed most interested in negotiating his own defeat rather then using imagination (and the significant resources still at hand) to try to actually win. He tells it like it is, and depressed liberals (as well as triumphant conservatives who aren’t afraid to read a book by someone on the left) will be both enraged and enlightened. Unlike some other lists of this type, not all the books were published that year; most were, but it was a list of my favorite books.
He backs his thesis up with extensive data and masterful research, presented with the precision of a scientist and the passion of a novelist.
A fast, fun, imaginative exercise in world-building which is a no-brainer bit of awesomeness for anyone who remotely considers themselves a geek, or who grew up in the late 20th century.
Brox, uh, illuminates her subject with verve and, dare I say, makes us see things in a…new light?
In spite of positing some rather unlikely political development, Simmons does a really nice job with world-building, and creates an exciting, fast-moving story that really works. The story is unoriginal, but the wit and graphic joy in which the author tells the various stories of individuals fighting the vast electronic hordes make this a damn fun read. Richly detailed depictions of medieval life and warfare, a serviceable love story, knights, ladies, and even a lecherous priest make for a fun (and historically accurate) read. A simple question leads to a great book about how everything ends, starting with your own mortal coil and leading to the heat death of the universe. He gets down and dirty describing day-to-day life in London during Newton’s era, and how the experience of daily life drove the mental state of the various scientists who travel through his pages. We are approaching the 200th anniversary of this little-known war that gave our country its navy and national anthem (along with the burning desire to invade Canada!) and Budiansky’s book is a great (nonfiction) survey of the naval aspect of the war, told with the storytelling skill of a good work of fiction. All of humanity’s foibles, and glories are laid bare in this stunningly well-written novel.
It is hard to comprehend the amount of suffering the subjects of this book underwent, all while keeping their humanity under harrowing conditions. It is essentially Starship Troopers, with a fascist 22nd century American Empire as the good guys and the part of the bugs played by an Islamic Caliphate that has taken over all of the Middle East and Europe. Set in the near future, it is the story of one man, and his friends, as they live through the terminal decline of our modern civilization.
He doesn’t have any grand plan, he just muddles by, unheroically, with a circle or friends, as things gradually decay. In one scene, paramilitaries are executing citizens, and Jasper spots a fondly-remembered teacher about to be shot, and all he can do is look away while the man begs for help. The basic themes are familiar – a passenger in hibernation is unexpected woken up, the cloistered society of the ship has gotten really weird over hundreds of years, and a tyrannical leader rules with an iron fist (and some help from genetic engineering and drugs). For those who like the science in their sci-fi, the author is quite believable, creating a realistic shipwide ecosystem, as well as not forgetting small touches, like the fact that the accents of the people living aboard would have gradually changed over hundreds of years to be difficult for a newly-awaked person to understand.
The author imbues even the dictator Eldest with humanity and you can really appreciate the reasons he made the choices he did, even if in the end you will probably not agree with them. This is one of the rare science books that would be enjoyed by any intelligent person even if they do not otherwise have much interest in science. If you’ve ever wondered why we keep dogs as pets but eat pigs, or how owners of fighting animals can claim with a straight face that they love the animals they condemn to death, this book will enlighten and entertain you.
As is Bryson’s wont, he peppers his prose with a myriad of fascinating historic tidbits and stories about obscure and not-so-obscure people and their amazing lives. Without plumbing, sewers, electricity, roads, and communications, we would be living like monkeys. This is probably as close as the average reader can come to getting a feel for the emotional and physical experience of being in combat in a modern wartime environment. For anyone wondering about our turbulent age and what the next few decades will bring, Starobin proves to be an adept guide lucidly laying out five scenarios, all of them both plausible and refreshingly free of the posturing and wishful thinking of the usual pundits on both the right and left. The genius of the book is its plausibility and refusal to give into Mad Max-like scenarios of a post-oil world. He passed away in 2010, and this was his last book, which was adapted from a speech he gave to graduating college students.

The captain is both immortal and mad, the ship is falling apart, and the protagonist seems to be suffering from severe amnesia, all the while someone (or something) seems to be trying to kill him, as he starts to unravel the secrets of the voyage. One of the most unique aspects of this book is that Grinspoon includes a history of SETI going back hundreds of year – surprisingly, a lot of philosophers and scientist going back centuries were open to the idea of ET and actively speculated what form he might take. If it were merely a thorough overview of evolutionary theory, it would be brilliant just on that alone, but Dawkins also manages to convey a beautiful sense of how science is done, as well as conveying his thoughts with a subtle wit and good humor lacking in his other, more strident books. This book is so many things at once: a speculative look at America after our technological civilization is done away with by peak oil, a mediation on the role of history and the preservation (and loss of) knowledge, a rousing military buddy adventure story, a wry comedic social commentary a la Mark Twain, and simply a damn good read.
Of all the book I read in 2009, it is the most likely to be turned into a movie, and reading it, it feels almost cinematic.
Your toast falls on the floor, a bird craps on you as you walk outside, your car breaks down on the way to work, and your pen explodes in your packet. HD Wallpaper and background images in the Books to Read club tagged: wallpapers books library read. A mix of delicious zombie gore and musings on the nature of society and addiction, this novel is both comic and touching. This is history made real, and short of a time machine, the closest we’ll come to really feeling what it might be like to experience another time. Sharp and witty, but backed by real thought and depth, this is some of the best writing on this issue I have seen in years. The cat and mouse tales practically leap off the page; a real celebration of the spirit of learning and exploring that marks true hacker culture.
A fascinating exploration of the chemical basis of life – and what can happen when things go wrong.
This presents a new sub-genre in the otherwise-tired pile of post-apocalyptic novels: the pre-apocalypse, and the thoughtful consideration about how our society would change with the end of the world months away is intriguing, and the dogged detective trying to solve a murder when the entire world is about to be ended is touching and haunting. Moloch talks about how security works, and how real security is actually accomplished, focusing both on the obvious areas (airports) and places people don’t think about (bathrooms).
If we’re lucky, occasional mild insomnia, but for some people, it gets a lot worse, none more so then a man who (apparently) murdered his wife while sleepwalking. Wasik and Murphy tell a great story, best read while curled up next to your dog, of course. Carefully considering the various possibilities, the author not only describes the various disaster, but talks about the natural of systems, and how the various levels of complexity of (man-made systems) can make them more or less liable to fail.
In the best tradition of popular science writing, Herz explores the actual mechanisms that drive disgust in humans, and what evolutionary pressures might have generated them.
A story of love, violence, and absurdity of life in a dictatorship, told with verve, a sense of adventure, and compassion, and quite possibly the best book I read in 2012. Whether you believe war is inevitable to the human condition or not, Horgan’s book is worth a read for being a clear, concise and well-argued polemic that we do not have to live with war and violence as the price of being human. I am doing the same this year, 20 of the best piles of dead tree matter I came across, and one bonus pick of the worst for the late great 2011.
WHat makes it great are all the Stephensonesque touches, such as long digressions into topics like MMORPG development. In between the author is quick to weave scientific anecdotes about everything from how aging works to the odds of various cosmological disasters hitting Earth.
The storytelling is hackneyed crap, filled with one-dimensional characters that make a 1930s comic book look like Wuthering Heights in comparison. The book takes place over a decade, and through the slings and arrows of Jasper’s daily life, you get a real sense of what it is like to live through the gradual decay of civilization. The power’s on, you can still find Oreos at the grocery store, and a text message is still the fastest way to stay in touch with friends.
A nihilistic tribal-ish terrorist movement called the Jumpy Jumps spreads random dadaesque violence. Even a riot which destroys a Wal-Mart is rendered in a way that is less about economic despair and more about pure nihilism. However, the author deftly blends these themes together, creating believable, sympathetic characters living in an environment that is weird enough that you wonder how things really work. They take steamers, trains, busses, cars and everything in between as they circle the world in an adventure featuring exotic people and places that are unseen from the usual 30000 foot view. Grinspoon covers the modern SETI program, technologies and findings, and then goes into details with some speculation on what real alien life might be like and why we haven’t yet found it.
In some zones life is impossible, in other zones humans can survive but higher-energy processes don’t work, and so on. I am referring to the Byzantine Empire, and Brownworth covers a millenium of history gloriously, with a full pageant of heroes, villains, emperors and patriarchs, with a good overview of the cultural and religious aspects of the empire as well. This is not just some Michael Moore-ish rant, but rather a thoughtful and bitingly funny celebration of the American crank, ranging from radio shock jocks to Creation Science museum curators.
Amazing concept of a habitat the size of a solar system and some truly alien intelligences mixed with old-fashioned sci-fi adventure and a sense of wonder. This book is must reading for any American concerned with how we react to security threats. This adventure story, filled with action and unforgettable scenes, works well enough simply at that level, but on a deeper level, this is a thoughtful book on the nature of war, on human nature, love, and what makes people do horrible things.
The ostensible protagonist, a female black legal clerk, has deep connections to the issues at hand that could save Lincoln, or bury him. If most fictional ends of the world are the sharp bite of a cobra, this one is the slow, long suffocation of a constrictor.
Yet, the middle class has declined, the armies of the poor are vast, and the rich live in secure privately-guarded enclaves while ostensible public servants such as the police do nothing to prevent or try to stop crime.
Strange new diseases and genetically engineered destruction accelerate the decay of both the natural and man-made environment.
Many of the scenes of destruction are more heart-rending then other books’ nuclear wars, perhaps because those are massive, while this book is, in many ways, very intimate. There’s a small amount of PG-rated romance between the protagonists, but also a few scenes of slightly less mild sexual and physical violence, but nothing outside of the scope of similar books. These somethings are isolated with researchers on a snowbound island in the middle of the Great Lakes.
The depiction of the ship itself is amazing (think something Rama-sized) and both the culture of the residents and the mechanics of the ship itself are presented in a very plausible manner weaved into a great adventure.
By necessity, he glosses over a lot of territory (literally and figuratively) but this is a general survey, and was a pleasure to read. I deeply identified with the characters and the deft nuance of the writing, and, yeah, I laughed out loud a few times as well.
Pierce explores the fauna and flora of American idiocy with a deft hand, and a firm grasp on the saddle (which is itself on top of a dinosaur at the creation museum). Using as his hook a litany of minor disasters that we have all dealt with at one time or another, Bentley explores the science and technology of our daily lives, and how it affects us in ways both bug and small. As a meditation on violence, the book is very memorable, and imagining the horrible, hopeless world of child soldiers, drugs, and despair that exists in places like the Congo transported into what was America leaves an image on the mind that I will not soon forget. If you were in a zombie movie, your brains would be in the digestive tract of the walking dead.
As ugly as the violence is, it is never gratuitous or celebrated, and is presented as a necessary part of the plot. However, part of the pleasure of browsing a real bookstore is that sometimes something completely unexpected will pass my eye, and I will discovered and enjoy a book that I never would have known about otherwise. Written in an engaging and friendly tone, never lecturing, the authors cover the latest research on human sexuality with wit and verve.

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