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Friday, September 20, 2019

Review: Raven Stratagem

Raven Stratagem is the second book in Yoon Ha Lee's space opera trilogy.  The previous novel didn't end exactly on a cliffhanger, but clearly the plot had started going and there were many loose ends left untied. This one begins with a deception, though one that careful readers of the previous books could easily see.

As with the previous book, there's precious little science in this space opera: it's not really science fiction, and it's more of a character study than it is say, a novel of political intrigue (though there's quite a bit of it). I enjoyed it as a diversion, though it's nowhere as good as say, early Richard K Morgan. Recommended.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Review: The Sociopath Next Door

I picked up The Sociopath Next Door during an audible sale. The biggest issue with audio books is that the voice actors reading the book might not be appropriate for the book's topic. This is particularly the case with this book: the actress reading the book read in a calm, gentle, languorous voice, completely at odds with the topic of the book.

The book, obviously, is about sociopaths, but works hard to debunk the typical impression you might have from the media, which is that they're the Hannibal Lector crime committer or serial killer. The reality is, the definition of a sociopath (according to this book), is that the person has no conscience, need, or ability to empathize with other human beings. That means they're free to do anything and everything, and will treat other people as objects or obstacles to achieving their goals.

As you can guess by now, most high level executives and CEOs are sociopaths. And of course, the profit-driven charter of most corporations means that by law, they are require to behave as though they're sociopaths! The book runs through several case studies of actual sociopaths and how they may behave with cruelty towards their peers, their patients, their students, and even their families. Then it goes on to describe the author's theory about how sociopaths may have evolved genetically, and why there are so many more sociopaths in Western societies than there are in Asian societies. This part of the book feels a little iffy --- maybe in the paper or Kindle version of the book there are references to research, but the statistics are that something like 4% of American society are sociopaths, and about 0.5% of Asian societies are sociopaths. There's some speculation about why this is so.

There's a tiny, weak chapter about how to deal with sociopaths if you find yourself in the path of one. I didn't think it had outstanding advice. In any case, the book's short, covers an important topics, especially if the 4% figure is true, and is worth your time. Just get the paperback version unless you enjoy sleeping to the sound of this particular actress's voice.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review: Nine Fox Gambit

Nine Fox Gambit is Yoon Ha Lee's first book in a space opera trilogy. While it has all the trappings of science fiction, it's actually a fantasy story, with magic powers and a magic system based on a complex calendar with much of the elements of the traditional Chinese lunar calendar (Lee is Korean American). The calendar system determines the powers of various battle formations, when it would afford attacks, and even what kinds of weapons are viable in a space empire.

The magic system is never fully explained: you're expected to infer it from the conversations and the actions of the protagonists and antagonists in the novel. A major plot point comes from a rebellion within an empire where the rebels have chosen a new calendar system as well as a new form of government (a democracy), and the reader is treated to a view of democracy as being a "known to have failed" system.

It's a rollicking read, and very compelling: I found myself looking forward to picking up the kindle every evening to learn more about the characters and situations. Recommended. I'm proceeding right to the next book in the series.
First: the value of a game is in abstraction. Many Nirai go in for simulationist approaches, a tendency you share, but sometimes you learn more by throwing details out than coding them all in. You want to get rid of everything nonessential, cook it down to its simplest possible form.” (Kindle Loc 3629)
 “According to the Shuos,” Jedao said, “games are about behavior modification. The rules constrain some behaviors and reward others. Of course, people cheat, and there are consequences around that, too, so implicit rules and social context are just as important. Meaningless cards, tokens, and symbols become invested with value and significance in the world of the game. In a sense, all calendrical war is a game between competing sets of rules, fueled by the coherence of our beliefs. To win a calendrical war, you have to understand how game systems work.” (Kinlde Loc 2640)

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Review: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer is Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel of the Vietnamese-American experience. In particular, it could only have been written by a Vietnamese-American who's grown up with the English language with eagerness: his use of language is erudite, eloquent, and nuanced, while his exposition of the Vietnamese-American experience itself can only have been written by someone whose command of the English language betters that of most native English speakers, but is still nevertheless rejected by the mainstream culture by virtue of his cultural background, skin color, and of course, his history.

The book won the Pulitzer Prize, and generally books that win such prizes are not much fun to read, being concerned with being in the vanguard of Literature and Literary achievement rather than story, character, plot, and being interesting. For most of the novel, Nguyen succeeds in avoiding such idiocy. The story revolves around a Eurasian man of descent who decides to be a double-agent, working with the communists to undermine the South Vietnamese interests. That experience, of course, is a great analogue with the Vietnamese American experience: someone who sympathizes with both the Vietnamese cultural experience and the American culture he finds himself immersed in.

Thus it is that we see great scenes, including the one where he, as a cultural expert, is involved in one of the many American movies written for (and by) Americans about the Vietnam war, but which of course, dehumanizes the Vietnamese as much as possible while still putting Americans (even American villains) on the center stage. He tries to change the movie by working from the inside, but of course fails.

Lots of similar scenes recur, and the story does cover the experience of being a refugee. Where the book flails is when Nguyen writes himself into a corner, by having the protagonist return to Vietnam. There's no reasonable setup in which this can happen and the protagonist has an exit (especially one in which he gets to write down what happened), so this section degenerates into magical realism and fantasy land.

Nevertheless, I found the novel worth reading. Recommended.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Review: Your Best Brain

Your Best Brain is by John Medina, since I'm a big fan of his, I picked it up despite knowing that it covers little new ground compared to the books I'd already read, e.g. Brain Rules.

I'd say that the biggest difference between this "Great Courses" audio lecture series and the books is the emphasis on social interaction. Medina emphasizes how important that is to longevity and brain function, which I don't remember him emphasizing in his previous books. Each lecture is accompanied by a section on "practical advice", but he admits that they're still few and far between.

If you haven't read any of his previous books, this lecture series is worth listening to. If you have read his previous books, this will serve only as a review. Recommended.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Review: Dopesick

Dopesick is a book exploring the opoid epidemic in the USA, specifically in Virginia. Scarlet pointed me at the book, and it's very much worth reading for an overview of what some economists call "The diseases of despair." I learned a ton in this book.

For instance, I didn't know that selling addictive drugs has long been part of the history of the big pharmaceutical companies:
By 1899, Bayer was cranking out a ton of heroin a year and selling it in twenty-three countries. In the United States, cough drops and even baby-soothing syrups were laced with heroin, ballyhooed at a time when typical opioid consumers were by now not only war veterans but also middle-aged barbers and teachers, shopkeepers and housewives. Many were mostly functioning, doctor-approved users, able to hide their habits—as long as their supply remained steady, and as long as they didn’t overdo. (pg 24)
Even more importantly, I didn't realize that the subjective pain management scale and the relatively recent emphasis on pain management was propaganda foisted onto the medical profession by the pharmaceutical companies. It's astounding to me that the FDA allowed opoid-based pain medication out along without guidance on the possibilities of addiction to powerful drugs. Many of the drug addicts became addicted not because they were partying, but because they were prescribed a drug for too long (and it's not clear to me how studies are done about potential addiction to a pain-killer --- I remember a nurse injecting morphine into me after I'd gotten hit by a car, telling me: "don't worry, you won't get addicted to it." Mercifully, right after that injection I lost consciousness, and needless to say she was right --- I had no craving for morphine after that).
New patients were given OxyContin “starter coupons” for free prescriptions—redeemable for a thirty-day supply—and Purdue conducted more than forty national pain management and speaker-training conferences, luring doctors to resorts from Boca Raton, Florida, to Scottsdale, Arizona. The trips were free, including beach hats with the royal-blue OxyContin logo. More than five thousand doctors, nurses, and pharmacists attended the conferences during the drug’s first five years—all expenses paid. (pg 47)
Again, this is only something that happens in the USA. Other countries with government provided healthcare wouldn't have marketing driven prescriptions. Again and again, the politics of the situation rears its head. For instance, Virginia was one of the states that fought Obamacare by not expanding medicaid coverage.  That creates a cycle of drug use, since many of the addicts were too poor to afford rehab (not that they would have wanted rehab --- many of the victims had families that paid for and pushed them into rehab). After a US district attorney successfully sued Purdue Pharmaceuticals and got them to cough up a relatively small settlement, he was almost fired:
Eight days after it accepted the deal, Brownlee was stunned to see his name on a firing list, along with four other U.S. attorneys. Though he wasn’t ultimately fired, the incident provided fresh criticism of then–attorney general Alberto Gonzales, accused of trying to sway the work of U.S. attorneys’ offices. And it only underscored the long reach of Purdue: Udell’s defense lawyer Mary Jo White, a former Manhattan U.S. attorney, had been the one to press for more time in a call to a Department of Justice official. (Brownlee would break down how Purdue’s attempted influence peddling worked—or didn’t—in a later Senate hearing about the case.) (pg. 82)
I'm always amazed by how Americans seem to fear the government, which is subject to elections and public oversight, while heaping social approval on corporations, who are effectively legally required to be psychopaths in pursuit of maximum profits regardless of the social consequences, can't go to jail, and have so much money that even multi-million dollar fines have no incentive effect on their  behavior.

More importantly, the book provides case studies of the drug addicts. This not just puts a face on the victims, but also points out that many of these drug addicts do not fit your stereotype of one: these were successful men and women from good families who were doing well in school. Drug addiction really does change your brain, and turns you into a desperate junkie in search of the next fix no matter your economic class or social status. (There's even a person who was a doctor on probation due to addiction) If you're a parent you will probably come away from this book fearful for your kids.

Ironically, these diseases of despair only hit white people. The black population was spared this because:
Why had blacks failed to become ensnared in opioid addiction? That question was addressed in 2014 data issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Doctors didn’t trust people of color not to abuse opioids, so they prescribed them painkillers at far lower rates than they did whites. “It’s a case where racial stereotyping actually seems to be having a protective effect,” marveled researcher Dr. Andrew Kolodny of Brandeis University. Put another way: By 2014, while young whites were dying of overdose at a rate three times higher than they did in 2002, the death rate for people of color was relatively unchanged. (pg. 253)
There's lots more in this book, such as the political fight over effective rehab (the scientifically proven to work stuff isn't used because the religious people and the AA types are ideologically opposed to it), and of course the individual case studies.
—he believes the five-year treatment model, common for addicted doctors and airline pilots, is ideal. It’s why they tend to have opioid-recovery rates as high as 70 to 90 percent. “There’s nothing scientific at all about twenty-eight days of [residential] treatment,” Loyd said of the kind heralded in movies and on reality TV. “It takes the frontal lobe, the insight and judgment part that’s been shut down by continued drug use, at least ninety days just to start to come back online and sometimes two years to be fully functioning.” (pg. 294)
There's a poignant section of the book where the author attends a "free healthcare" camp and compares it to 3rd world countries like Haiti:
In rural America, where overdose rates are still 50 percent higher than in urban areas, the Third World disaster imagery is apt, although the state of health of RAM patients was actually far worse. “In Central America, they’re eating beans and rice and walking everywhere,” a volunteer doctor told the New York Times reporter sent to cover the event. “They’re not drinking Mountain Dew and eating candy. They’re not having an epidemic of obesity and diabetes and lung cancer.” (pg. 274)
There are comparisons with other countries that have decriminalized drugs and reduced the cost of addicts to society by providing working rehab programs. Again, ideology (mostly from the non-evidence based crowd) trumps effective operation of society in the USA in a way that's uniquely dysfunctional.

While the author works hard to draw your sympathy, by the end of the book I was starting to get irritated that the voters of Virginia continue to vote for politicians that propound ineffective solutions that kill their children and loved ones while criminalizing them and blaming them for being victims of big pharma. Unfortunately, this book does not have a happy ending, and of course, it's not clear that the country as a whole will have a happy ending if voters keep operating as though the opoid epidemic is a crime issue rather than a medical issue.

The book does have weaknesses: I would have wanted to see a more involved examination of the various rehab approaches and the studies involved. I would rather have seen more statistics about drug movement and distribution rather than a lone interview with a drug dealer (who, like the executives at Purdue Pharmaceuticals, demonstrated no remorse about the lives he ruined). But overall, that does not detract from the point that the book's very much worth your time reading. Recommended.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Review: Prognosis

Prognosis was for me that rarest of books: an Amazon First giveaway that drew me in and force me to read until I got to the finish. The author, Sarah Vallance was a smart, risk-seeking woman who was thrown off a horse and hit her head. This resulted in what's called a "mild brain injury."

As one of my friends learned ages ago, there's no such thing as a mild brain injury, and Vallance describes her process of recovery and healing from the trauma well: from the horror of not having executive function to months of recovering the ability to read or even put together sentences, and the stories of the medical professionals writing her off after she scored with an IQ of 80.

Part of it was her very angry personality, deliberately refusing the help of social workers and other professionals. On the other hand, this was someone who'd suffered a brain injury, and the professionals should know that brain injury victims are literally unable to make rational decisions. On the other hand, she was very lucky to get her brain injury in a country with universal healthcare. In the USA, she'd probably have had her house taken away, and ended up homeless and there would be no way that this book would have been written.

The recovery process was painful to even read, but what came through in the end was that despite her self-doubts, Vallance made a good recovery and performed at a very high level after she attained her PhD, won a fellowship, and became a HR professional and expat. While she's not a very likable person (and neither were much of her family as described), the writing flows, is easy to read, and you will have sympathy for her by the end of the story.