The Premonition: A Pandemic Story

Michael Lewis (2021)

A hard work to classify. It sets out a bleak view of American healthcare in which politics has eroded a system that can, in principle, deal with large-scale medical emergencies – but which i practice has degraded to the point that it can’t function at all. In this telling, the covid-19 pandemic was an inevitable tragedy, one that the federal government and the president made worse by their actions (and inactions), but would have been unable to address in any case because the means of control, and of action, have degraded beyond the point of effectiveness. It’s especially scathing of the CDC and its false (in the author’s view) claims to authority and leadership.

But it makes, in my opinion, a mistake in trying to find a collection of heroes who can serve as independent counterpoints to the institutional failings. Perhaps that’s also inevitable in Lewis’ journalistic style, and (as always with his books) he does indeed find a cast of memorable and unusual characters. But he suggests that bureaucratic impediments serve no purpose or are malicious, where in fact they serve as important corrections on risk to the public: one may argue that the safeguards should be jettisoned in a pandemic, but not (I think) that their existence per se is unnecessary. More seriously in my view, Lewis inherently promotes the “great man” theory of science (although one of his protagonists is a woman): the idea that individuals can change the course of history, and are held back by the inertia of the scientific “establishment”, which in my experience doesn’t exist. He also seems to feel that capitalism and private investment are a way forward, despite detailing all the failures of private companies along the way, and despite the evidence from countries other than America as to the power of centralised, planned, government interventions.

4/5. Finished Sunday 19 September, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Fracture: Stories of How Great Lives Take Root in Trauma

Matthew Parris

An enjoyable, if limited, read.

The author’s hypothesis is that a lot of “great lives” – and he admits to not being able to define what this means clearly – are formed in childhood trauma. Some of the examples (especially Edward Lear and Rudyard Kipling) illustrate this perfectly. But to coverage of the lives chosen, one in detail and then others in a manner that is really rather perfunctory, left me feeling rather short-changed about the lives not fully explored.

But Parris seems to lose conviction in his approach for three of the later chapters, which deal with trauma in fiction. That’s a statement about what we find meaningful or entertaining rather than being about biography, and these feel like “fillers” rather than properly contributing to the book.

3/5. Finished Tuesday 14 September, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Serhii Plokhy (2021)

A revisiting of the Cuban missile crisis from more of a Soviet perspective, which is an interesting twist.

It’s a view that focuses on the politics in play rather than on the publicly-visible events, and this radically changes the view of what’s important. The confrontation at sea, for example, and the famous tussle at the Security Council between Stevenson and Zorin, barely rate mentions. Instead there’s consideration of Kennedy’s domestic credibility problem in dealing with Krushchev, as well as Krushchev’s problem getting out of the situation in which he found himself. It also shows the influence of Fidel Castro, who was far more willing to get into a nuclear war than either of the main protagonists, in spite of the obvious consequences that would have had for Cuba.

4/5. Finished Sunday 12 September, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy

Talia Lavin (2020)

Very much a dive into the murk of internet conspiracies and racism: an important book that shines a welcome (if that’s the right word) light on how the internet perpetuates and accelerates extremism, and especially how the tropes of past outbreaks (mainly against Jews) re-appear in updated guises time after time.

I think the book would be stronger if it focused more on Lavin’s actual experiences in the various fora she explores. Some of the other chapters, while interesting, aren’t really about her own journey and so slightly weaken the first-person narrative.

4/5. Finished Saturday 11 September, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

New version of epyc released

I released a new version of my epyc experimental management library.

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