What you are about to read is not sexy

For such a great title, Proofiness gets off to a rough start.

Maybe Iโ€™ve been spoiled by nonfiction writers known for their pizazz as much as their knowledgeโ€”my most recent nonfiction read was by the utterly hilarious Mary Roachโ€”but itโ€™s worth noting that Charles Seife is a decidedly dull writer. I mean, he triesโ€”on one page, he jokes that “Ramsey County’s voter turnout lists seemed to have been lovingly maintained by a pack of wild raccoons”โ€”but it comes across sort of like a high school science teacher trying to pal around with a classroom of uninterested students (not entirely surprising, considering Seife is a professor). Assuming the people reading this book are doing so of their own free will, the jokey pandering is odd. Then again, maybe he’s just a big nerd with a dubious sense of humor.

Unfortunately, Proofiness kind of missed the mark for me, at least in the beginning, and a low-ish opinion of his audience’s intelligence was a general problem I had with Seife, and the book overall. The first few chapters are devoted almost entirely to an overview of what I would consider basic math. On one page, Seife suggests “Most people think that ‘average’ means typicalโ€”that if, say, the average salary at a company is $100,000, then each employee earns $100,000, more or less.”

…Really? I mean sure, if you polled the general population, that’s probably the case. Shit, a significant percentage of the general population doesn’t know who the vice president is. But we’re not talking about the general populationโ€”we’re talking about the decidedly smaller universe of people choosing to read a nonfiction book about statistics. Give us the benefit of the doubt.

Seife does touch on some hugely relevant topics: poll results, elections, the validity of the Census, faulty science, the court system. In fact, despite my bias after reading three chapters of Stats 101, I was still intrigued and even shocked by some of his better pointsโ€”did y’all know that part of the reason OJ Simpson was acquitted was the use, in court no less, of a highly inaccurate statistic? (No really, am I the only one who didn’t know this?)Proofiness also has a healthy dose of pessimism, for which I have always had an affinity. In particular, I enjoyed reading about something known as “the tragedy of the commons,” which explains everything from global warming to that dickwad that orders lobster for dinner when you’ve all agreed to split the bill equally. Here, edify yourselves:

“The tragedy of the commons occurs when an individual can take an action that benefits him, yet the negative consequences of that action are diffusedโ€”such as when they’re divided among a large group of people or when they take a long time to materialize. In situations like these, people act selfishly, getting as much benefit as they can, but as a consequence, we’re all worse off. …Tragedy of the commons is an immutable fact about society. If the benefits of our actions are divorced, to some extent, from their negative consequences, we’re going to take those actionsโ€”even if they lead to a very unfortunate outcome for everybody. The tragedy of the commons is a result of human nature.”

Overall, Seife gets his point across: When people see numbers, they assume truth, and there are zillions of situations where that results in people believing, or being told to believe, things that are false. It’s a conclusion that has serious implications for the way we approach politics, the economy and human nature itself. I just wish he had said it with a bit more flare.


Long story short, this book ruined statistics for me. Which, even though it makes watching the news or reading magazines decidedly less fun, isnโ€™t necessarily a bad thing. But for such a (relatively) short read, Seife spent far too long explaining the basics and too little time going in-depth on the real-world implications of shoddy number-crunching. He could have used a read-through from someone more prone to sensation (even though part of his thesis is a condemnation of over-sensationalizing things). I think an edit from Michael Moore would have done him well. Personally, I’d prefer Seife in small dosesโ€”a weekly column debunking whatever statistic is currently being thrown around by pundits would probably be awesomeโ€”but the book is worth a full read only if you don’t feel up to snuff on your middle-school math (which, hey, many of us don’t). If you do, and still want the dirt, skip Chapters 1-3.

TITLE: Proofiness
AUTHOR: Charles Seife
PAGES: 260 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE:Zero, Decoding the Universe
SORTA LIKE: Freakonomics meets A Short History of Nearly Everything
FIRST LINE: ” ‘In my opinion, the State Department, which is one of the most important government departments, is thoroughly infested with communists.’ “

I’ve done it!

Against all odds, I have met my deadline in Week 1! I couldn’t be prouder than if I had actually spread all 300-some pages throughout the week, instead of buckling down and finishing two-thirds of The Fall yesterday. But hey, a deadline met is a deadline met. At the very least, I was fortunate to start with a page-turner, so I didn’t end up guzzling coffee all day Saturday while trying to pound through 200 pages of dense prose.  

Now, The Fall is the second in a series, so in a way it’s an awful title to start this project, sort of like beginning a comedy set with an inside joke. But since I’ve been waiting for this book for about a year, I had little choice but to begin it immediately after it was released. Don’t worry, I’ll fill you in.

The Fall, like its predecessor, is about vampires. Now wait. Before you get all huffyโ€””But Kira, I’m so sick of vampires!”โ€”I’ll say that it really could be about any virus or plague or epidemic; just so happens vampires are an apt analogy (hence its immediate association for me with Max Brooks’ World War Z, which is as much “about zombies” as World War II was). Without giving away too much of the first book, The Strain, which I highly recommend and you would need to read before this one, let’s just say that an ancient virus comes to New York via plane, infects a bunch of people, and proceeds to take over the city. A ragtag cast of charactersโ€”the head of the Centers for Disease Control, a local exterminator, a pawn shop proprietor who knows a creepy amount about ancient curses and shit, etc.โ€”come together through various means and begin hatching a plan to save the city, or at the very least themselves. Already you should be intrigued since, if you’re anything like me, your first move once the Vampire Apocalypse starts will be to hole up in a tanning salon (it’s the UV rays that get them, right?) or try hoofing it to the sunniest town in Florida. I am not a fighter.The Fall picks up where The Strain left off, which is to say the city is in shambles and our group of protagonists has moved on from assembling themselves to developing a game plan for defeating the select few behind the epidemic (and it is a plague born of malicious intent, believe you me). Though the suspenseful and altogether inconclusive ending of the first book meant I was waiting like a kid on Christmas in anticipation of The Fall, it’s worth noting that pretty much a year has passed since The Strain came out. I appreciate that this, the second book in the anticipated trilogy, puts us right back into the action, but at the same time it took me a few pages to remember everything from the inaugural title, and a good third of the book to truly recapture the suspense of The Strain.

Once I did, The Fall is an easy read: high-action, mixed in with sprinkling of select vampire lore. In this case: sun, silver, coffins – yes. Garlic, mirrors, capes – not so much.

There are some parts of The Fall that didn’t sit well with me, mostly to do with what I felt was a disparity between how New York City was reacting to the epidemic and how I personally think they would. Overall, it lacks consistency. (The police force has basically shut down, but trains are still running out of Penn Station? Trains barely run out of Penn Station when it rains.) Similarly, one of the characters apparently takes time to write a blog during the adventures, which frankly makes no sense and seems like a vague attempt to play up that this is happening in 2010. Additionally, although there’s plenty of action in the book, eventually it’s hard not to feel like “Well so OK, they’re vampires, got that. Now what?” Maybe it’s the two-hour time limit of natural disaster movies, but we’ve come to expect some resolution a little sooner than 900 collective pages in. One can only assume that will come in the third and final book, due out next year.

Of course, something I read 200 pages of in just a few hours can’t be all bad. The fighting scenes in The Fall are excellent, and perhaps more excellent are some of the pages devoted to the “ancient” vampires, who are in various ways behind the current state of affairs. Hogan and del Toro also make some interesting philosophical and/or moral arguments throughout the book, the kind of stuff that makes you wonder if in addition to global warming, mass genocide and other atrocities, man might also eventually be responsible for a vampire takeover of the world. If so, I now have several books to turn to for guidance.


For me at least, some of the novelty of the series wore off in the last 12 months (maybe because of the proliferation of vampire-related books/movies/shows in the meantime) and The Fall ends up feeling a lot like a placeholder between its introduction and inevitable conclusion. Character development is kind of an afterthought, I assume because the cast was introduced in the first book, but since so much time has passed, it would have been nice to reconnect with the group a little. That said, if you’re looking for some blood and guts and stingers and fairly excellent visuals that made me reconsider eating oatmeal while reading, then I say go for it.

TITLE: The Fall: Book Two of the Strain Trilogy
AUTHOR(S): Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
PAGES: 320 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: The Strain: Book One of the Strain Trilogy
SORTA LIKE: World War Z meets The Host
FIRST LINE: “It took the world just sixty days to end.”