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What I’ve been reading, January 2021

A two-sentence summary of Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger: 1. Climate change is bad, but not that bad and won’t kill billions. 2. The best long-term solution is for everyone to become rich.

The second one is a hard problem, but at least we’re working on it (clumsily and slowly). The first one, at its core, is this story:

In the pandemic’s early days, Dr. Fauci tended to cite the same 60 to 70 percent estimate [of necessary herd immunity] that most experts did. About a month ago, he began saying “70, 75 percent” in television interviews. And last week, in an interview with CNBC News, he said “75, 80, 85 percent” and “75 to 80-plus percent.” In a telephone interview the next day, Dr. Fauci acknowledged that he had slowly but deliberately been moving the goal posts. He is doing so, he said, partly based on new science, and partly on his gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks.

If you think that the problem’s importance is X, but everyone else thinks it’s 0,05X, should you tell them that it’s X or that it’s 10X? I don’t think children should have nightmares about climate change (and their death by 2030), but, of course, it’s not just environmentalists who are guilty of this bias.

Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas is a disappointment. “I have also had had access to multiple ’big data’ sets that record aspects of the online activities of the movements that I study”, promises Tufekci in the introduction, but then those datasets don’t appear anywhere else, and the book is mostly about Turkey, Egypt and Occupy Wall Street, with sprinkles of Civil rights movement. I learned something about Turkey and Egypt, but all analysis is very shallow: Facebook and Twitter are bad, but also good (unlike Reddit, the website known exclusively for its jailbait and upskirt communities).

The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas is a 1978 collection of essays on biology-related topics. It might be useful if you want to check what predictions can age well, but not in a lot of other ways.

The Golden Rhinoceros by François-Xavier Fauvelle is a collection of short vignettes based on archeological findings and written sources from medieval Africa. It jumps a lot (on a map and through time) and reads like a Facebook feed with updates from people you know very little about.

(I have no idea why a rhinoceros on the English translation’s cover isn’t golden. It’s an artifact made from gold. Original French edition has it right, other translations aren’t changing it—who painted the rhino for Princeton Press?)

Crossing the Rubycon by Nadia Zhuk, despite the title, is only tangentially about Ruby. Nadia was a journalist till her mid-20s, when she switched to being a software developer without any prior experience, just by doing online courses and completing several projects. This a book about her experience, which might be very useful if you’re not sure about yourself; not “How to learn everything (on Leetcode) in 21 Days”, but “Maybe René Girard will convince you that it’s possible (if you’re smart)”. Ruby-specific stuff takes only several pages, so it’s a good book for anyone at the beginning of their tech career. (Disclosure: Nadia is my colleague at Zendesk.)

Russ Olsen’s Eloquent Ruby, on the other hand, is a book only about Ruby, and it’s pretty good at explaining why things work the way they do.

Antologia Polskiego Cyberpunka (Anthology of Polish Cyberpunk; no relation to CD Projekt) is five cliché-filled stories (Paweł Majka’s Pastuch (Shepherd) is the worst offender here). Visualisation of computer viruses as bullets or triangles or irregular polygons flying from one machine to another might have made sense in some movie, but bringing it into written text seems dubious at best. The audiobook is well-produced, though.