What If

what ifWhat If?, Randall Munroe

If you’re on the internet at all, I assume you’re familiar with national treasure Randall Munroe, the creator of xkcd.  It is one of the most consistently excellent sites on all of the global internets.  Before creating a job for himself being professionally funny online, Munroe worked as a robotocist for NASA, so he’s also pretty smart and seems to know some things about science and math.  That’s where this book comes in.

This is one of the most useful reference books a person can own.  There are numerous books, encyclopedias, websites and people that can give you the facts you might need about the Revolutionary War, conversion from ounces to litres, information about Newton’s Laws, or any other number of things.  But I’m fairly certain this is the only book that will tell you how quickly you could drain all of the earth’s oceans if there was a drain placed at the deepest spot, and also what Mars would look like if the glass_peopledrain was a portal that placed all of the water over the Curiosity rover.  Or what would happen if a glass of water became literally half empty.  Or, my favorite, what would happen if you built a wall out of the periodic table of the elements.

(Short answer:

  • You could stack the first two rows without much trouble.
  • The third row would burn you with fire.
  • The fourth row would kill you with toxic smoke.
  • The fifth row would do all that stuff PLUS give you a mild dose of radiation.
  • The sixth row would explode violently, destroying the building in a cloud of radioactive, poisonous fire and dust.
  • Do not build the seventh row.)

This book is also probably the best argument for why it is important to learn advanced math.  No one believes their teachers when they say they’ll use this in the future, but calculus, trigonometry, and differential equations do have real world applications.  And if you don’t learn them you have to write in to an internet cartoonist to find out if it’s possible to build a jetpack using machine guns, instead of being able to run the numbers yourself.

So, if you don’t have the knowledge yourself to find out whether you could drop a steak from high enough that would be cooked enough from heat during re-entry to eat, or the time to figure it out, I suggest you get this book.  I don’t know where else you can find that absolutely necessary information.





Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One, Ernest Cline

This book is a love letter to all the nerdiest parts of the 80s, and I loved it so much.  It’s set in 2044, a time when inequality has exploded, corporations control the country, resources have been severely depleted, and “real life” for most people has become a hellacious drudgery.  For our hero, a teenager named Wade Watts, the only real escape from this is the virtual reality world the Oasis which has grown to basically be the entire internet and has been kept free to access.

One of the co-founders of the Oasis, James Halliday, has left behind a quest: whoever can solve his challenges in the world of Oasis will inherit his fortune and controlling stake in the virtual universe.  The challenge requires an in depth knowledge of Halliday’s childhood in the 80s, including knowing all of movies like War Games and being able to beat all the old Atari video games.  Watts is one of many trying to solve this challenge, up against other individuals and Innovative Online Industries (IOI), the largest corporation-who wants to end free access to Oasis.  Apparently, the fight over net neutrality is still going on.

Okay, so you all know what’s going to happen just from that description.  It’s a bit of an 80s plot, too.  Not too much that’s unexpected.  But you know what?  I don’t care.  The book is a ton of fun.  Especially if you’re nerdy.  It’s well crafted, and the story hooks you in and moves quickly.  There weren’t any twists or turns that seemed majorly out of place, whereas a lot of books or movies like this have a few moments where they sacrifice plot or character or making sense for the sake of the story.  There was one point that seemed a bit silly and unnecessary to me, but it didn’t have much of a bearing on the plot and was really very minor.

This is the perfect fun book to read.  The only issue is that it’s hard to put down so pick it up when you’ve got a few hours free.  It pulls you in quickly and you’ll want to race to the end.  And while I’m usually fairly obnoxious about movies never being as good as books, I’m excited that this one will be a movie in a few years.  Steven Spielberg will be heading it up.  Who better to film a love letter to 80s pop culture?