The Left Hand of Darkness

lefthand-2010-fall

As an exemplar of anthropological SF, The Left Hand of Darkness is a LeGuin classic. As a disquisition on gender issues, however, it hasn’t aged as well as I’d imagined.

Darkness is part of LeGuin’s Hainish cycle of novels, a loose collection of stories set in a universe where humanity has evolved in parallel on different planets. Darkness takes place on the planet Winter, or Gethen to its natives – a planet gripped in the throes of an ice age. But what really sets Gethen apart – and by extension, the book – is that its inhabitants are essentially sexually latent androgynes for most of their lives, only developing secondary sexual characteristics (whether male or female is essentially random) during certain times of the month.

The book’s protagonist, Genly Ai, is a baseline human from Earth, a representative from the Ekumen, an association of human worlds, come to offer Gethen membership among its ranks. But he’s caught up in the complex tangle of Gethen’s geopolitics and ultimately sent to a gulag, until he is rescued by Estraven, once Prime Minister of Karhide, a nation on Gethen, now exiled by the whims of his mad monarch. Estraven helps Genly out of a sense of obligation to him and also out of a wish to see Gethen uplifted into the ranks of the Ekumen. Together, the two embark on an epic trek across the Gethenian ice to find safe haven.

The book, like others in its loose cycle, leads the reader to understand and empathise with its painstakingly built other-cultures. In Darkness, the reader has Genly as a narrative figure who starts out in a position of distrust and misunderstanding, but who, through the process of crisis and through Estraven’s companionship, begins to understand and form a connection with his host culture – to get skin in the game, so to speak.

I think Darkness does this particularly well. Darkness is a poetic study of gaining understanding and perspective through adversity. The development of Genly’s and Estraven’s friendship as they trudge through the frozen north is the best part of the book. LeGuin’s crystalline prose describes the Gethenian cold in terms of stark geologic beauty, using it as a plot device to bring two characters together in combined resistance to the elements. In the space of a short section of the book the prospect of their rapprochement transformed from an absurdity to something with real emotional weight.

LeGuin’s worldbuilding in the main is also on point. Her vision of Gethen, with its society and politics shaped by the lack of gender and sex-driven motivations, is a compelling one. They raise their children in communal creches, owing to the lack of gendered division of labor to define parental roles in a family context. Gethenian religion focuses on the essential duality inherent in every person – light and darkness, male and female. Gethen has never experienced war between nations, attributed by Genly to a lack of sexually-mediated militancy or nationalistic drive. And they are in a kind of technological homeostasis – they’ve had motorcars and electricity for thousands of years, but have never got it in their heads to develop flight. It seems fitting with the cold climate – an elemental metaphor of the slow burn of Gethenian progress, and the weight of their long history.  Gethen is LeGuin’s exploration what society would look like if gender and sexuality were not important parts of its psychosocial fabric.

For that reason, Darkness is often called one of the seminal works of feminist science fiction, because it tries to imagine society without sexual divisions. I do think, however, that in this respect, the book hasn’t really aged that well.

In one respect, the book is about Genly’s own journey from being a dyed-in-the-wool chauvinist to someone who tries to actively combat the urge to see people in a gendered light. But his initial chauvinist attitude is also a bit hard to take seriously, at least in the way he presents it, because he’s so nakedly contemptuous of feminine qualities.  There’s also the exclusive use of the masculine pronoun and terms of reference – everyone is described as a ‘man’, and terms like “Lord” and “King” are used to describe positions of authority. Then there’s the almost exclusive depiction of only the more stereotypically masculine aspects of civilisation in Gethenian society – its characters are soldiers, lords, politicians and military police – but we don’t get a sense that they also perform the more traditionally feminine roles in civilisation. In a supposedly post-gendered society without sexual division of labor, this lack of detail of who performs these “feminine” tasks is a gaping hole. While LeGuin does try to present the dispositions and demeanors of certain characters as feminine, it’s rarely more than telling the reader that so-and-so seemed feminine from Genly’s perspective, but that femininity is rarely shown.

But given that the book was written in 1969, in a time of more restrictive sexual mores, it feels unreasonable to harangue the book for what would have been seminal at the time of writing, especially in terms of its postmodern approach to storytelling – such as the frequent changes in POV and the use of disordered narrative sequencing, LeGuin’s way of bucking the literary trends of a male-dominated profession. Darkness, for its prose, its textured take on worldbuilding, and for its seminal nature, remains a classic of the genre.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 magic heaters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Bojack Horseman (Season #1)

bojack_horseman

Beyond its non sequitur premise, sometimes facile humor and weak first half, the first season of Bojack Horseman establishes it as a surprisingly compelling character study in self-destructive and narcissistic behavior.

Bojack Horseman is the kind of show seemingly birthed out of a one-line pitch to a drunk studio executive at an office Christmas party – “What about a show about a narcissistic washed-out former TV star who wants to make a big comeback? Except – hic! – he’s a horse?” The titular Bojack, the (very rich) star of the erstwhile hit 90s sitcom Horsin’ Around, struts around in his pyjamas, paunch visible, alcohol often in hand, Larry David-esque in his crabbiness and general aversion to positivity. He lives in a version of a world where every fourth person is an animal, with names like “Mr Peanutbutter” and “Princess Carolyn”, with jokes often made at the expense of their animal nature (for example, Princess Carolyn, Bojack’s agent and onetime girlfriend, is a dedicated career feline who manhandles a scratching post in her gym while talking on her bluetooth headset).

Initially, in the first few seasons, what stands out most is a sense of the slapdash nature of the world, seemingly conjured out of a wild writer’s session where they just compiled every animal joke they could (like having penguins run a publishing house). There are random side characters in Bojack’s life who appear to be there for no better reason than to serve as foils to Bojack’s nihilistic quips. The first few episodes are somewhat standalone – the premise is introduced, in which Princess Carolyn arranges for ghostwriter Diane Nguyen to help Bojack write his long overdue autobiography, in the hopes that it’ll make Bojack relevant in the public eye again. Bojack is, at this juncture, presented as your irascible and disagreeable protagonist, getting into petty feuds with a navy SEAL (who happens to be a seal) over who deserves the right to the last box of cupcakes from the grocery store. The first few episodes set up the show to be little more than a loosely connected series of episodes poking fun at the absurdities of American life, like the comically cultish devotion afforded to vets in the media (even as society treats them like shit), or the phenomenon of former child stars turning to a life of drugs and partying. All mixed with a liberal dose of absurdist zoological humor and a Bojack-focused cringe comedy. Nothing special.

But then, around the middle of the season, things get a lot better, almost like the writers decided to do something with their vague mishmash of ideas. They start exploring Bojack’s past and his character in earnest, and the series turns much darker despite keeping its exuberant edge of absurdist comedy. Bojack is not a nice person – he’s narcissistic, selfish, egotistical, and he has a penchant for hurting those close to him. But Bojack is hyper-self-aware of that tendency, and as much as he hates it about himself, he can’t help it, because he is terrified of being left alone and forgotten. He craves adulation and connections but at the same time his compulsive narcissism pushes away those close to him.

It’s a rich seam of character complexity to mine, especially in regards to Bojack’s past – his friendship with his mentor and Horsin’ Around lead writer Herb, whom he later betrays by not supporting him when Herb is revealed to be gay, his broken relationship with his parents, the pursuit of wealth and transient fame over love.

The last few episodes in the series are truly emotionally wracking, which is saying a bit given that 40% of the series is wacked-out animal jokes and absurdist humor – like Princess Carolyn dating one ‘Vincent Adultman’ – who may or may not be three kids in a trenchcoat who likes to “go to the stock market to do a business”, or a giraffe valet whose neck can’t fit in the car. At its best, Bojack Horseman combines these two aspects of itself to great effect – as in episode 11, “Downer Ending”, in which Bojack and friends take focus drugs prescribed by the shady offshore medicine specialist Dr Allen Hu to rewrite Diane’s autobiography, which Bojack hated because it was too faithful a mirror to his personality. That sequence combines your usual comical drug-fueled hallucinatory shenanigans with Bojack going on a bad trip that plumbs the depths of Bojack’s psyche, showing him alternative visions of the life he could have led if he’d made other choices. The episode ends with a gut-wrenching sequence where Bojack desperately asks Diane to tell him that he’s good, with Diane unable to answer either with comforting platitudes, or the brutal honesty that she so demonstrated in the memoir she wrote for him.

There’s a tendency for me to dislike watching people ruin themselves. I didn’t really enjoy watching Curb your Enthusiasm or even Fawlty Towers for that reason, as it features characters just doing all the wrong things. There’s something frustrating about that. But somehow Bojack Horseman doesn’t feel that way. Possibly because of its absurdism and because Bojack is just so self-aware of his own failings. But also because the show doesn’t use his failings as a source of its humor, but rather, treats it with the seriousness and emotional weight that it deserves.

I give this TV series: 4 out of 5 red herring receipts

 

 

 

 

 

La La Land

la_la_land_345x518_1d9cc31096

Everyone’s going ga-ga over La La Land, the latest from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, and the eponymous city of Los Angeles. Not only is it loved by audiences, it’s also been feted at the Golden Globes, winning a record seven awards, and receiving a total of 14 Oscar nominations.

On one hand, it’s not wholly unexpected. La La Land is almost perfect awards fodder for the Hollywood set. A film about performers making it big in the city of stars, and all the pitfalls, heartbreaks and wonders that process holds, mediated through a classical Hollywood romance that recalls Hollywood’s halcyon glories. It’s Hollywood navel-gazing at its finest.

But in truth, cynicism aside, La La Land really is a delight to watch. A musical set in 21st Century Los Angeles but containing all the lyrical charm, freewheeling style, and irrepressible energy of its Golden Age inspirations, La La Land makes use of that vast memetic reservoir of cultural memory of the classical Hollywood musical,to position itself firmly as a classic of the genre for a new generation.

After a somewhat humdrum first twenty minutes (yes, I wasn’t that impressed with the dancing on the freeway), the film really takes off after our leads bump into each other at a party. Gosling and Stone play talented performers who are struggling to make it big in their art. Mia (Stone) works shifts as a barista while going for audition after audition, and Sebastian (Gosling) picks out Christmas tunes at a local restaurant while dreaming about setting up his own old school jazz bar. Their shared circumstances and their irrepressible zest for their respective passions make them a solid match. And Gosling and Stone are perfect for the roles – they have incredible chemistry together, leading us almostly helplessly to root for them every step of the way.

There’s an almost cheesy – but not quite – exuberance to their budding relationship. It’s a very old school sort of affair – the kind that involves minimal long distance communication despite the existence of smartphones and internet. While shaky plotwise, it really lends a sort of intimacy to their romance, because all their interactions are mediated while they’re on screen together, sharing the same physical space. As I said, throwback to the classics. There is little tolerance for the slow burn, skype-mediated LDR relationship in this kind of film – it’s all or nothing.

Their budding romance includes a third element – the city of Los Angeles itself. Contemporary renditions of LA tend to bring out its less attractive aspects – just look at Gosling’s other movie, Drive, where the noirish, sodium-lighted streets of LA drift by to a slow-beat-techno tempo. Or they tend to fixate on its status as a city of artifice, criminality and chicanery. There’s even the whole Blade Runner depiction of it as this cyberpunk stratified dystopia, where the rich live in arcologies and the poor on the rainy, perpetually dark streets.

La La Land’s LA is vibrant, romantic, full of hidden doors that, Narnia-like, whisk you to other worlds and other possibilities. Its parks are lined with ornate lamps that give off a soft ivory glow to complement the couple’s’ tap dancing. Griffiths Observatory is not a place for the clandestine exchange of briefcases, but a podium from which our leads can dance amongst the planets and the stars. Of course, there are jokes about the traffic, the coffee, and the callousness of auditioners. But LA itself is just presented as is, but with a little dose of magic. It’s a refreshing take on a city that is so often maligned by its own denizens.

It brings me back to a point I wanted to make about things being as they are – La La Land just gives off a sense of authenticity. LA is LA, of course, but so are Mia and Sebastian – eminently normal people doing their best to achieve their dreams. Gosling and Stone aren’t the best singers or dancers, but the fact that their singing and dancing aren’t perfect makes them seem more real and more relatable. It’s strange because a musical is decidedly not ‘realistic’ – nobody bursts into song unsolicited. When Stone or Gosling sing, it’s almost as if the world shifts out of one frame of reality into another, where the camera flattens out and the world ceases to exist except for the performers themselves. It’s an arrangement that is pure artifice, but the raw emotional power of the performances (like Stone’s impassioned “The Fools Who Dream”, or Gosling’s “City of Stars”) allow it to transcend beyond artifice into authentic, aesthetic truth.

The film’s bittersweet ending is probably its most divisive, but the fact that it has evoked so much feeling is a testament to its effectiveness as a closing device for the plot. Over the course of their relationship, Mia and Sebastian have nudged each other in the direction of achieving their dreams, but they realise that they cannot both achieve them while they’re still together, and they go their separate ways. Years later, Mia, now an accomplished actress, comes across Seb’s thriving jazz establishment, where Seb is just about to guest perform. Seeing her, Seb, filled with sudden emotion, plays a long medley of all the musical motifs of the film and their past romance, imagining an alternate future where they had stayed together, but ultimately sounds a last, lingering note of melancholy. Before Mia leaves, they share a last, tentative glance, sad that their romance didn’t last, but happy for each other.

Never mind the quibbling about whether or not it would’ve been possible, logistically, for their romance to continue on pace with them achieving their respective dreams – it’s what their choice represented that gives the ending its unique resonance. Their decision to part ways was partly driven by their love for each other, and their wish for the other to have the best shot at achieving their dreams. And yet, there is always that element of uncertainty – what if they had stuck together? Life is full of these questions, these forks in the road, and it’s easy to regret decisions and imagine utopian might-have-beens. In the end, though, La La Land makes the bold decision to stake its position against the cliched tide of romantic tropes guaranteeing a happily-ever-after. It makes us ask the question, as we leave the cinema in a state of cathartic release, whether or not it really is worth giving up love for one’s dreams, or vice versa – and itself balances on the knife’s edge of answering either way. But, certainly, the wonderment of its tentpole romance is a testament to the oft-quoted Tennyson quote that “tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”.

I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 Buick Riveras

Battlefield 1

battlefield_1_cover_art

This review only focus on the Battlefield 1 single-player campaign.

I don’t usually play competitive FPS games, on account of their time-guzzling nature and the fact that I’m somebody who really only plays games for immersion and story. Having heard that Battlefield 1 had an atmospheric, well-crafted single-player, however, I decided to try it out.

The campaign is not a cohesive one as such, but more of a series of unconnected war stories or vignettes: self-contained stories featuring combatants in the many different theatres of this global conflict.

Even though the core mechanic is singular – point a gun at the enemy and shoot – the different stories introduce some degree of variety into the experience, enabling the player to explore different modes of combat and immerse themselves into different historical milieus.

There is tank warfare in the later war years, aerial combat over the Alps, intense, meat-grinder style fighting between Italian shock troops and the Austro-Hungarian army in the Dolomites, storming the shores of Gallipoli, and guerilla warfare against the Ottomans as a member of Lawrence of Arabia’s insurgency.

Of these five main stories, Through Mud and Blood and Friends in High Places stand out as the most well-told and well crafted. The former is the tank warfare story that sees a tank crew caught behind enemy lines, trying to navigate their way through enemy territory to get back to the Allied positions. I found this story the most evocative of the awfulness of war at the personal level, but also of its capacity to bring out the heroism and self-sacrifice of the human spirit.

The latter is set in the skies, and uses volumetric clouds and lighting to paint one of the most beautiful settings for a single player campaign that I’ve ever experienced, accompanied by a rousing, triumphant battle score composed by the underrated Johan Söderqvist.

For some strange reason, the stories all feature Allied characters and Allied-centric plots – despite the fact that WWI didn’t have the moral clarity of its successor war. In the first World War, countries rushed into war but found themselves bogged down in an interminable grindfest due to the fact that their battle doctrines had not caught up with their technology. There is no compelling moral or ethical reason not to feature some stories from the point of view of the Central Powers. But there you have it.

Some of the stories also make the soldier out to be an unkillable action hero, which also detracts from the initial premise, evoked in the game’s tutorial, that you are just one of many soldiers pushed into battle, with a life expectancy of a few days. But I suppose that boils down to the fundamental requirements of a satisfying single-player experience.

So, does Battlefield 1’s single player do a creditable job of depicting the ambiguity, pointlessness, horror and heroism of World War I? I think there are brief flashes where the clouds part and that essence shines, and for a moment there is that feeling of empathy and understanding of what it must have felt like to be a soldier on the front. By and large, however, the campaign is still, at its heart, an (albeit beautifully crafted) arcade romp through set-pieces designed to still give the player a sense of agency and empowerment. And there’s nothing wrong with that – but, if the objective were to provide a level of immersion and narrative insight into the lived experience of combat, Battlefield 1 could do more.

I give the single player campaign: 3.5 out of 5 doves

The Telling

telling-cover

The Telling is one of noted science fiction writer Ursula K LeGuin’s more recent and lesser known works.

Like much of her science fiction, it could be described as falling into the category of “anthropological sf”: an outsider’s intimate ethnographic account of the peculiarities of a particular society.

This is a core attribute of LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle universe, of which The Telling is a part. In this reality, Earth is not the origin of the human species – instead, the planet Hain seeded many worlds – including Earth – with humanity millions of years ago, but lost contact with its colonies, giving rise to scores of unique human civilisations with radically different social structures.

In the time of The Telling, the worlds of humanity have re-established contact with each other through the use of NAFAL (nearly as fast as light) ships and an instantaneous communication device called the ansible. This has given rise to a collective of worlds called the Ekumen, dedicated to the preservation of knowledge of the ways of the human worlds it encounters.

The Telling tells of a civilisation on the planet Aka that is visited by a Ekumenical representative from Earth. Aka is in the throes of a technological revolution that has elevated it to spacefaring status in only a short span of time. However, this revolution has been accompanied by the establishment of a global totalitarian corptocracy – one that practices extensive thought policing in an attempt to shape its citizens into perfect producer-consumer units to power its “march to the stars”.

Sutty, the Ekumenical representative, is on Aka to try to find the remnants of Akan culture and thought preceding the establishment of the global totalitarian corporate state. To give an added resonance, Sutty hails from an Earth plunged into a decades-long rule by monotheistic religious fundamentalists called Unists, whose rule is a nightmare of parochial restrictions on sexual mores and who take a delight in book-burning. She seeks out the fragments of Akan folk culture with a motivation that extends beyond her professional obligations.

Her pursuit takes her deep into the recesses of the Akan landmass, where the reach of the corporation state is limited. There, she finds the remnants of a folkloric tradition called the Telling, curated and passed down by maz, a term used to refer to anyone versed in some aspect of the Telling. The Telling is a living, corpus of stories and knowledge, multifaceted, contradictory, without a one true gospel – the very antithesis of mono-thought espoused by the corporation.

Sutty’s sympathies are for these remnants, practitioners of the Telling, who are being persecuted by the corporatist state. And yet, there are undercurrents beneath the surface that suggest that this folkloric tradition is something more than it seems. The corporation fears the Telling more than should be warranted, given its superiority in technology and numbers. There are hints that some Akans possess telekinetic powers that are associated in some way with the old traditions – perhaps some lost art accessible through their cultural lifeways.

It is that chink in the binary morality that at first appears to characterise these opposing lifeways that enables a rudimentary form of rapprochement between the totalitarian progress-fetishizing corptocracy and the past-focused folkloric traditions of the maz. Sutty is followed by a Monitor for the Corporation, whom she at first despises for his narrow-mindedness. But the Monitor becomes more human as he tracks her to the last sanctuary of the Maz, the repository of all their written folklore high in a vast mountain range, and they Tell each other their own stories, both having lived under the shadow of totalitarian states, both choosing different ways of coping with that totalitarianism. That rapprochement provides Sutty with the ability to negotiate with the Corporation State for the Ekumen to rescue the knowledge of the Maz.

Many might characterise the Telling as merely a cautionary parable of totalitarian repression, but it’s really more a meditation on the importance of understanding opposing cultural traditions, and not to be too beholden to how people of a culture represent themselves to you. The folkloric tradition of the Maz is a social system that presents a utopian alternative to the corporate state – but it is really just that – utopian, with all the cultural baggage that word confers. LeGuin refers to the emergence of the Boss Maz who used their knowledge and craft to establish feudalistic and stifling social structures on the populace, which was one impetus for the discontent that led to the Akan industrial revolution.

The Telling, if anything, doesn’t spell everything out and doesn’t try to pursue all its variegated story strands, and to some extent, that’s fine. As Sutty mournfully reflects, it is not possible for one person to apprehend an entire folkloric tradition. It may not be the best known of LeGuin’s work, but it does contain that spark of tantalising ambiguity and multilayeredness that characterises great literature.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 kittypups

 

 

 

How Not To Be Wrong

how-not-to-be-wrong-2

How Not to be Wrong is an entertaining and erudite guide to some of the ways in which math features in aspects of everyday life.

A chief challenge in math pedagogy is how to make its endless drill sets and lofty theorems relatable to the average student. In this book, Jordan Ellenberg has ventured to show just how interesting and useful math training can be, not just as an abstract set of rules for manipulating numbers, but, as he puts it, an “extension of common sense by other means”.

Ellenberg’s main preoccupation is extending mathematical thinking to relatable examples in everyday life – and this causes his writing to converge around a few broad themes or sections. There’s the injunction not to fall prey to the tendency to think linearly – i.e. that more of a good thing is necessarily always better, or vice versa. When you assume that we should cut taxes because Sweden is doing so too (i.e. our Laffer curve is straight), or treat ratios and percentage figures as truths without regard for sample size or non-positive fluctuations that, summed up, make up the overall delta, we’re thinking linearly.

Then there is an extended discussion on risk and uncertainty, and the differences between them. Risk is quantifiable in terms of expected return, and that quantifiability comes from the fact that things whose risk can be measured can be iterated upon multiple times – like a lottery or successive throws of the dice. Uncertainty is when the likelihood of something cannot be quantified – like the existence of god – and one’s decisions made in under such uncertainty inevitably require that one make certain axiomatic assumptions about likelihood and perform Bayesian inference on top of it, accounting for all possible permutations of outcomes, and in this sphere, math isn’t much help.

There’s also discussion on the vast, complicated and gnarly field of statistical inference – of ascribing too many things to causation when the seeming correlative effect is just a statistical artefact. These include regression to the mean and Berkson’s fallacy, which are essentially just perceptual artifacts that stem from our cognitive biases.

Berksons’ fallacy was especially interesting to me: it is essentially the generation of spurious correlations by the unconscious elision of data points from our sample set. For example, you might wonder why trashy books are so popular, or why old music was so much better. That’s because, when thinking about them, you don’t consider the universe of trashy unpopular books or lousy old music, and so in your mind, the sample size resolves itself to the set of trashy popular books, unpopular meritorious books, and a small subset of good popular books that you regard as an outlier.

Ellenberg also touches on Condorcet’s paradox, which is basically a statement implying that group preferences can be irrational even when individual preference is rational. This points to the impossibility of creating a voting system that can perfectly capture the will of the majority – just because there is no singular will of the majority. If there are more than three choices on a particular ballot, different voting systems will lead to wildly different outcomes based on the way the systems tally the votes to produce a single winner.

This paradox segues into a broader point about math – that it provides the fundamental structure of formal reasoning to tackle more intractable questions in life, even if it can’t provide the answers. In other words, math can show you how not to be wrong, and you can use it to decide how you define how to be right. We can’t use math to demonstrate if god exists or not, but we can base our decision of what epistemological position to adopt by using the tools of Bayesian inference. We can’t use math to create a perfect voting system, but we can use Condorcet’s paradox to assure ourselves that none such is possible, and therefore define our democratic process based on which trade-offs we’re more willing to make. Math itself, or at least its formal frameworks, cannot be proven to be self-consistent, as Godel’s Theorems show. But there is scope to set the starting points for it to be useful in as wide a variety of fields as possible.

And Ellenberg is able to demonstrate how interconnected math is, in terms of the ways in which mathematicians have been able to use theorems from one field to answer questions in the most unexpected of fields. One particularly elegant example that Ellenberg invokes is the use of plane geometry – Fano plane – to determine the smallest subset of lottery ticket number combinations necessary to maximise your expected outcome in a Transylvanian lottery. The whole thing is too involved to express here but the gist is that the Fano plane is a simple geometry created from a few basic axioms – one of which is that any two line segments can share at most one point – which also can represent the set of combination of lottery numbers that cover the largest subset of expected lottery outcomes, because the essential property of those numbers is that they share as few numbers with as few other numbers as possible, in order to maximise their spread.

What I think is Ellenberg’s biggest achievement with this book is to combine his mathematical expertise with a kind of cross-disciplinary wisdom – showing how math applies to a myriad of judiciously-selected fields and examples. Ellenberg even has a keenly literary sensibility, name-dropping David Foster Wallace and Ted Chiang and often quoting beautiful passages from mathematically-minded literary greats. Ellenberg’s wide-ranging scope fills his work with a sort of erudition that puts paid to the notion that math doesn’t intersect with human experience, and his wit and style place him as an exemplar of the ability to do math and write about it in a way that captures the imagination. It does require a fair bit of work to go through, especially in some of his more involved thinking exercises, but I think that the book is better for it.

In all, How Not to be Wrong isn’t a self-help book that instructs us on its titular subject matter, but it is an arresting look into math’s utility in different fields in human experience, one that is as illuminating as it is entertaining.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Transylvanian Lotteries