Friday, July 01, 2011

BooksFirst - May-June 2011

Book BoughtItalic
I'll Mature When I'm Dead by David Barry

Books Read

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
I'll Mature When I'm Dead by David Barry
So Long and Thanks For The Fish by Douglas Adams
Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams


Not to be confused with the Natalie Portman movie of the same name, The Black Swan is a rambling philosophical discourse on the nature of chance, particularly highly unlikely events which have a disproportionate impact on the world. Much like the Improbability Drive which is in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, impossible things seem to happen much more often than anybody expects. Anybody except Nassim Taleb. He has made a fortune in the past decade putting his money and the money of his clients where his mouth is. He does this by assuming that conventional wisdom is neither. His major beef is with economic models which assume very nice Gaussian distributions based on highly massaged data which is far from regular or predictable.

I decided to read this book as a companion piece to A Hole At The Bottom Of The Sea by Joel Achenbach (reviewed here) since the Macando Oil spill is often cited as a 'black swan' event. It can be debated whether the event truly qualifies but it does illustrate one salient point. When you operate by extrapolating rules the apply in one set of conditions way beyond their range of applicability, you are courting disaster. The Japanese earthquake and the subsequent nuclear disaster also illustrate (again and again) the folly of men.

The ideas in the books are astoundingly thought provoking. They are the sort of paradigm shifting revelations that will color how you look at the world forever. Unfortunately, Nassim's prose style leaves a lot to be desired. Obviously erudite and far better read than I ever will be, he casually drops in obscure philosophical references as everyone is familiar with them. He also uses a lot of oblique parables and metaphors that bewilder as much as they enlighten. It took me well over a month to slog through the book but it was well worth it. Few ideas are truly world-changing but the black swan concept is.

For a palate cleanser after a deep philosophical work, you could do worse than Dave Barry. Part of a Miami Tropic alumni mafia that includes both Joel Achenbach and double Pulitzer winner Gene Weingarten, Dave Barry is the rock star (good band name or not)
of the ensemble.

As the forward describes, I'll Mature When I'm Dead (hopefully and oblique Warren Zevon call out) is a collection of newspaper essays that have never been published. For most writers, a book-length collection of columns is a vain attempt to get a secondary revenue stream from work the writer has already been paid for once. In Dave Barry's world, he can't be trouble to actually bother with the day job, so he goes straight to the bestseller's list.

Freed from the constraint of space in a fishwrap, he is able to expand his usual range, mostly hilariously. There are some sidesplittingly funny sections in here, particularly about male-female relations and child-rearing, althoug I did catch him recycling one anecdote. Less successful are his stretches outside his established oeuvre of booger jokes and non-sequitor exaggerations. In one chapter he tries to make light of his attempt with Gene Weingarten to crank out a thoroughly mediocre film screenplay, proving once again that Hollywood is so ridiculous it is beyond parody. That incident is in fact a little disingenuous since itcompletely ignores the fact that Barry has already been responsible for one astoundingly bad Tim Allen (SPOILER ALERT) bomb.

Dave Barry is a known quantity and it is good that he isn't coasting. This book is every bit as good as any of his previous works even if it is a bit uneven.

It is much to my shame that I have never read all five books in the no longer increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker's Guide Trilogy. I was not very impressed by the third outing so it was with a bit of trepidation that I took on So Long And Thanks For The Fish. But rather than getting a chaotic whacky mishmash, I found the book to be surprisingly tender and bittersweet. While there are some slapstick events, most of the book revolves around Arthur Dent mysteriously returned to Earth and his romance with a woman who has vaguely psychotic memories of its destruction.

There is a much smaller subplot about Ford Prefect but it is rather perfunctory and does not tie in well with the main plot. It’s as if Adams was performing some sort of contractual obligation, which based on the Wikipedia article on the book, he was.

More of a return to form is Mostly Harmless, the last Hitchhikers book written by Douglas Adams before his premature demise. Arthur Dent is back in space, at least for a little bit before he lands on a backwater planet to live out his life in obscurity until events again intrude.

Ford Prefect in a parallel plotline is up to his old tricks and doing so hilariously. And in between are various other characters, old and new and alternate. Conspicuous in his absence except by reference is Zaphod Beeblebrox who generated much of the frantic pace of the earlier books. The new character, Arthur’s daughter is never quite able to overcome her role as a plot Macguffin to become fully realized.

There is a lot of philosophical noodling going on under the hood here about reality and destiny and free will and the nature of existence but it goes largely unexplored. There are a lot of missed opportunities to get deeper but these quickly get short shrift.

Having finally finished the entire trilogy and insisting on never reading the sixth volume written by Eoin Colfer gives the chance to muse on the series as a whole. What becomes clear is that the canonical version of the series must be the radio series. The first two books which are clearly the best have the strongest connection to the source material. The latter three books are all interesting in their own right but none fulfil the promise or purpose of the first two. Many sequels are judged harshly as just being rehashes of the original story, but in these cases, the latter Hitchhiker books just seem to have too big of shoes to fill.

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