Book reviews

Sixteen ways to defend a walled city: Parker K. J.

The Heroic Engineer is one of my favourite literary genres. In Heroic Engineer stories, a technically capable but socially inept protagonist is stuck in a situation that forces them to solve An Impossibly Difficult Problem, suceeding brilliantly on the technical aspects and barely bumbling through on anything involving people. Usually they’re first person narratives, with a snarky, self deprecating voice. You won’t find books listed under this genre category on Amazon, because I just made it up, but there are good number of books that fit the description. For example:

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is one of the better examples of this genre. A military engineer is stuck in an medieval city under siege and must defend it with limited resources and the military leadership gone.

The central trope is the Sweet Technical Solution; an elegant fix to a looming problem. Heroic Engineer stories are usually a string of these leading to the climax, the solution of the Impossibly Difficult Problem. This is pleasing if set up properly. Like a good mystery, the reader should have been provided with the information to at least theoretically figure it out themself. The aha! moment from understanding a clever solution to a tough problem is the payoff for this genre, like finding out who did it in a mystery. Unfortunately, this is hard to do well.

The easier and more common version has a big build up of a problem but the eventual solution is something first mentioned when used as a solution. Star Trek (All The Series) does this routinely. I call it Checkhov’s Phaser; the solution to the problem in Act 3 that wasn’t on the mantlepiece in Act 1. It’s just lazy. Imagine a mystery writer making the murderer be a never-before-mentioned serial killer.

The other main trope is a heavy reliance on luck, with many narrow escapes and lucky breaks. I suppose you could explain it by (fictional) survivorship bias. If they weren’t that lucky they wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale.

Significant addition to the genre that make it stand out. * unreliable narrator * conflict childhood friend

Plusses: * glorifying engineers and skills *

Minus The protagonist is usally extremely lucky, which I guess could be explained by survivorship bias. If they hadn’t solved this usually a huge element of luck * lots of deus ex machina. A little like Star Trek where they solve the problem with some technobabble thing never mentioned before.

The stress of her regard: Tim Powers (reading, Jan 2020)

I couldn’t finish this. Declare, another of Powers’ books, is one of my favorites, and this book is doing something similar but it just doesn’t work for me.

When the earth had two moons: Erik Ian Asphaug (read Jan 2020)

An entertaining story weaving our current knowledge of planetary formation science together with anecdotes from the author’s life and career. I wonder how well it will age give the wild pace discovery in planetary sciences.

Killing Commendatore: Haruki Murakami (read Jan 2020)

I guess I just don’t like Murakami’s writing or perhaps his translation. As with 1Q84, I found it just readable enough to finish. I didn’t feel particularly attached to or interested in the characters. The magical elements seemed random and uncoordinated; it was just a bunch of stuff happening, with the serialized structure giving it some odd beats. I probably won’t read any more Murakami books no matter how well they’re reviewed. The one thing that stuck with me was a sort of tired sadness that also permeated 1Q84 and some other Japanes stories I’ve read and TV I’ve watched.

Medical Nihilism: Jacob Stegenga (read Dec 2019)

The book argues persuasively that most modern medical interventions aren’t insulin-like magic bullets, and rather are often weak or completely ineffective. Most new drugs, for example, have a small effect size that replicates poorly, and studies are biased to emphasize the positive effects and minimize the negative. Given the vast sums spent on drug development and drug purchases as well as the potential severity of side effects, this is appalling. The thesis is well argued and the writing, though academic, is often wryly humorous. Overall, I’m persuaded and I’ll be sure to review the literature carefully before I accept treatments, as it sounds like many of them are worse than useless.

Given the rapid worldwide growth in medical costs, this argument onsidered with Robin Hanson’s paper: “Showing that you care: The evolution of health altruism”, suggests to me an alternative model of medical care which is stringently evidence based requiring substantial replication but also addresses the social aspects of peoples need to feel cared for. Right now it seems that huge treatment expenditures are a proxy for people’s desire to feel cared for.