Distractions, Diversions, Books, Wines, Whiskeys and Other Stuff To Think About When You Should Be Doing Something Else.

Posts tagged “Non-fiction

On the Bookshelf: Theories of International Politics and Zombies by Daniel W. Drezner

Theories of International Politics and Zombies

by Daniel W. Drezner

There are three sorts of people who are going to read this book. The first are the kind of people who see the title and aren’t able to resist finding out what zombies have to do with international politics. These may, or may not be very interested but they might actually learn a few things about how the world works. The second type of people are those who already have an interest in international politics, possibly recognize Daniel Drezner’s name, and pick up the book to find out in what context zombies could possibly apply to international politics. They might be mildly amused but depending upon how seriously they take themselves may not get past the first chapter or two. That’s their loss. The third sort of person has an interest in zombies as well as international politics. They probably have been awaiting the opportunity, or have already started, to explore this most interesting of black-swan scenarios and it is likely that they will chuckle their way through the book.

I happen to fall into the third category.

No, this isn’t really the kind of book for a thinker who takes themself too seriously, but it is a pretty short and amusing read for someone who likes to think seriously about the unknown unknowns that can crop up from time to time. Honestly, I didn’t agree with some of the characterizations of the approaches of certain kinds of  thinkers that Drezner presents (The neo-cons in particular, though I think that one was more than a little tongue-in-cheek) but I do think he gets way more right than he gets wrong. Actually I really only have one major quibble with anything that Drezner presented, probably because I went against the crowd and I personally think I had good reason for doing so.

Drezner presents two questions that he asked during his research. I remember answering both of them.

You face the following choice:

Option A)  The certain destruction of 500 zombies.

Option B)  A 50 percent chance of destroying 1,000 zombies and a 50 percent chance of destroying 100 zombies.

According to Drezner’s research 61% of respondents chose option ‘A’.


You face the following choice:

Option A)  A certain increase of 500 zombies.

Option B)  A 50 percent chance of creating only 100 new zombies and a 50 percent chance of creating 1,000 new zombies.

The survey showed that 57% chose option ‘B’


Dezner uses these questions to illustrate prospect theory where the tendency is to be risk-averse (and go for the “sure-thing” in the first question) when you think you are winning, but risk-seeking (or take the gamble of question 2) when you think you are losing. By my recollection I voted opposite the majority in both questions because I viewed the scenarios in the opposite way than Drezner because the zombie apocalypse is pretty zero-sum when it comes to survival. In fact, I think the questions better illustrate the offensive (playing to win) and the defensive (playing not to lose).

In the first question I chose option ‘B’ not because I was risk-averse and afraid of losing, but rather that I am on the offensive against zombies and I am looking to win. Even 100 fewer ghouls walking around is better than none and getting 1,000 of them out of the way is even better. On the offensive against the shambling undead, a risk-seeking attitude is a good thing. Be methodical, yes, but seek every opportunity to remove potential zombie opponents.

The second question is one of those hard choice questions that I think really needed more information to be clear. I would like to know if Drezner had in mind the total number of people the decision-maker was responsible for. It doesn’t change my answer but it would be more important to know, to me, from a game-theory point of view. Regardless, I chose ‘A’ for the reason that it implies that I am on the defensive and I know at least 500 of my group would survive when survival, not losing completely, is the goal. There is no other rational choice especially if the risk of creating 1,000 new zombies means that the entire group is zombified. On the defensive against the undead the group is the asset that must be preserved, but in a triage-like manner. If there is a sacrifice that preserves the group, even if it severly diminishes the group, then it is a sacrifice that must be taken. Of course, I wouldn’t want to be potentially one of the 500 any more than anybody else but I definitely wouldn’t want to be in the 1,000.

 I wish this was out when I was in high-school or college. It would have made a really fun textbook.


On the Bookshelf: The New Cool by Neal Bascomb

The New Cool

A Visionary Teacher. His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts.

by Neal Bascomb

I am not quite sure how exactly I would describe The New Cool. On one hand it is a book that explores the potential future of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education. On the other hand, it is a story about a high-school sports team that, even though they are relative underdogs, manage to come through and triumph in the face of adversity.

 I guess the best I can say is “Welcome to the world of competitive high school robotics.”

The New Cool follows Team 1717 of the engineering academy at Dos Pueblos High School, a.k.a. the D’Penguineers, during the 2009 FIRST Robotics competition from the unveiling of the game their robot would have to play that season, through the development and building process, to the FIRST robotics competitions that pit robot against robot.

The 2009 FIRST game, Lunacy, is pretty intriguing and was probably a lot of fun to play. The first video is an animated description of the game. The second is a bit of the flavor of the competition from the Team 1717 point of view.


At the risk of an editorial digression I would have to say that there are points of this book that I really liked and other points where I felt it was very much lacking.


As a story about what could, and should, be the model for education in today’s modern world The New Cool is a fantastic read. This is what education should be about, more than just trying to stuff as many facts and figures into a kid’s head so they can take some sort of standardized test, but real and practical learning that lets students develop skills that are important in life and in a career. The New Cool demonstrates that these kids are involved and excited about this competition and really invest in the work that makes it possible. More importantly they have a teacher and mentors that provide real, practical, applications for learning. Nobody is standing over the teacher’s shoulder to judge if the students are learning enough according to an arbitrary standard. That the kids are learning is evident by their failures and their successes. Yes, you learn from both.

The New Cool is a story about vision in education. It is a story about the dedication of a good teacher. Most of all it is a powerful story about kids who want to do something to learn.


Ok, as far as the story itself went The New Cool lacks an engagement with the characters. There are so many players doing so many different things that there really isn’t room to really get into the trials and tribulations that the students have to overcome. Even those the story follows most closely come off pretty flat. Underscoring this is that these are pretty privileged kids. For the most part, these are kids who have smart parents who are encouraging and involved with their children’s education. If there is a lesson missed in The New Cool it is that the involvement and encouragement of parents goes just as far as that of a teachers, perhaps farther. One chapter in The New Cool does follow a kid from a bad neighborhood, with little encouragement who does make the effort to participate In FIRST with a team called 2Train, but we never really hear back from him. Granted, unlike Team 1717, 2Train is a FIRST Team without a lot of resources that probably didn’t make it very far in the competition, but really, to participate at all and learn by trying, doing, failing and/or succeeding is just as much a victory as going to the robotics championship and that is something that deserves to be highlighted.

Dislikes aside The New Cool is certainly a book worth picking up for its forward-looking story about vision in education.

Ok, a brief editorial digression:

I wish that this really was the trend in education, but I fear it is very much against the tide of the tyranny of standardized tests and the blaming of teachers for kids who aren’t learning. A teacher can teach, but they can’t make a student learn if the kid isn’t at all engaged or interested in the material. FIRST is great for STEM education, but programs just as innovative as FIRST need to be developed for other subjects outside of STEM.

That’s the kind of vision needed in education.

On the Bookshelf: The Junior Officer’s Reading Club by Patrick Hennessey

The Junior Officer’s Reading Club

Killing Time and Fighting Wars

by Patrick Hennessey

The idea of a reading club that meets in dangerous places around the world kind of appeals to me. It begs a sort of ‘what book would you want on a deserted island’ question, except in this case the destination is likely to be a war zone. What sort of book would you want to take? Would it be something fictional and escapist? Would it be something that has a bearing on your current situation, a history or perhaps a memoir? Would it be a classic or something from your quantum library, that you can read over and over again, each time getting something new from it?

For Patrick Hennessey, I would say at different times it is all of these things. The Junior Officer’s Reading Club is his personal journey through five years in the British military, starting at the Sandhurst Military Academy through his time as a junior officer in the Grenadier Guards deploying to Bosnia, parading at Buckingham Palace, in the Green Zone of Iraq and at the pointy end of the spear in Helmand Province Afghanistan. In each of these places Hennessey seems to have a different voice. During his time at Sandhurst he is snarky and snide, marvelling at the brutal pointlessness. In Bosnia the tone shows the boredom of the garrison soldier. His pride in being a ceremonial soldier in London shows through, though tempered by his eye-rolling disbelief at actually being a tourist attraction and desire to go out and do some real soldiering. When the Grenadier Guards are deployed to Iraq Hennessey is openly hopeful of seeing some real action, but being stationed in the Green Zone he only catches glimpses from afar, seeming to spend more time by the pool or working on his tan than patrolling in Baghdad. Finally when Hennessey reaches Afghanistan and combat, his prose begins to turn darker and increasingly introspective. Finally a soldier and finally fighting a war, Hennessey struggles with the strange dichotomy of wanting to be anywhere but in Afghanistan, but knowing that if he were, his only wish would be to be back in that hellish place with his men. It is something that frightens him enough to resign afterward and haunts him even after returning to a society of friends and relatives that seem to have little real interest in what he has gone through and never really could unless they had done it themselves.

The Junior Officer’s Reading Club is a great read. Sometimes surreal and absurd, sometimes dark and poignant. Patrick Hennessey’s writing style is at times almost stream-of-consciousness but always relatable and readable.

On the Bookshelf: The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies

The Eerie Silence

Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence

by Paul Davies

 Anyone who has spent as much time as I have reading science fiction has probably spent at least a small amount of time considering the possibility that there is intelligent life somewhere out there in the universe. Would first contact be a scary Independence Day scenario or more benign like that of Star Trek? Even in our widest imagination can we even begin to contemplate how an alien would look, think or act?

Paul Davies, as a scientist, has thought a lot about those questions as well, pondering the eerie silence that has greeted the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) radio telescopes that have been listening to the universal static for anything that may be considered a signal. The questions are obvious; Are we doing it wrong? Is there nobody out there to listen for? Are we really alone?

The pages of The Eerie Silence contain the clear thinking that should underlay how we approach those questions (considering an empty data set) and clear thinking about how those questions can be approached from other directions and warnings about the dangers of anthropocentrism, the insidious assumption that somehow intelligent aliens would think and act as we do.

Good reading.