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Category: Book Talks and Reviews

September 10, 2008

Talk: Neal Stephenson, Anathem

cvr_anathem.jpgThe Anathem book launch event sponsored by the Long Now Foundation was a bit of an organizational disaster, but I still found it a fun new experience among the many, many book talks I've been to. I love the Long Now foundation for attempting an ambitious event, including live performances of the Anathem soundtrack, cellular automata enactments, and shovel-fu, but the failures in execution were hard to overlook:

  • the event started a full hour late due to audio difficulties
  • the audio difficulties were never solved, leading to a persistent audio hum that ruined the singing
  • Danny Hillis, as important as he is, seemed to think the event was as much about him as it was Neal Stephenson, leading to annoyances like taking the microphone away from Neal Stephenson mid-answer to interject his own rambling, incoherent thoughts

Stewart Brand was much better in his role and surprisingly coherent given all that I've read about his past history. Unfortunately I missed any cellular automata enactments and shovel-fu as the delays in the event meant that it was time to get home (they weren't going to happen until after Stephenson finished signing books).

So why, then, did I have so much fun? Much of the credit goes to Susanne and Ed. As you'll read in the lengthy acknowledgements -- I joked they were put on the Web in order to save $2/book in printing costs -- Ed Zalta's work on abstract objects was part of the philosophical underpinnings of the books. Anathem's philosophy, I am told, is infused with a healthy dose of Platonism and if you try to look for contemporary works (i.e. post-Godel) in the Mathematical Platonist realm, you're bound to land at Ed's office door. Among Ed's influences in the book:

... the tree-dwelling, loincloth-wearing fraas mentioned during the Aut of Inbrase at Tredegarh are carrying out--albeit very slowly--a computation along the lines of what PROVER9 does.

How many of us can say that our computer programs come with interpretive dances?

Stephenson met with Ed during his research for the book and read his papers. He then did what novelists do, which is to mix it with theories from a bunch of different fields -- quantum mechanics, philosophy of the mind, etc.. -- and wrap a story around it. Neither Ed nor Susanne seemed offended by the end product, so it would seem that Stephenson is well-read.

I often groan as soon as the Q&A starts and someone asks, "So how do you come up with the ideas for your book?" which leads to the exact general answer you hear at any event. In this case, I got a real answer to that question, which started way back when Susanne first e-mailed me that she had an Advanced Reading Copy of the book -- she knew it would kill me inside with jealousy. It continued with discussions in our car ride up to the event, through the hours we had to kill and then the event itself. The car ride back seemed so quick as we were given one last opportunity to digest the synthesis of it all.

The interplay between popular literature and science is a creative genesis for both fields, with Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash and the Metaverse being one obvious example. We joked about the grad students that will be knocking on Ed's door in 2-3 years -- or however long it takes them to slog through 900 pages -- inspired by the new hipness of Mathematical Platonism. I've usually approached Stephenson's recent gigantic tomes with trepidation, but I'm really excited to dive into a foreign world with invented languages and synthesized philosophy. If Stewart Brand and Susanne can read it twice I think I certainly can manage it at least once.

December 28, 2006

2006 Books in Review

NOTE: you needn't follow along in my self-indulgent look back on my reading list from 2006. I'm merely trying to process for myself the threads of my reading.

I was a little disappointed with myself when I looked back over what I had read this year. I thought I had read a lot, but then I realized that it was mostly graphic novels and easier reading. I didn't quite challenge myself this year -- I won't be crossing any books off of "top 100" literary lists. I guess one of my New Year's resolutions will be to start picking up some of the more challenging stuff gathering dust on my shelves.

Biggest accomplishment

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I've been reading this since 2004, if not earlier. If feels good to check this one off, though that still leaves Confusion and The System of the World, which are both just as long and heavy. I enjoyed Quicksilver enough to attempt the other two books, but it won't be among my Stephenson favorites.

Recommended

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Fables: 1001 Nights comes at a perfect time for the series. Thematically, it dovetails well with the recent Fables: Arabian Nights release from the regular series, and it also provides a whole lot of character development/origins at a time when the series is ready for it. It also features art by Charles Vess, James Jean, Jill Thompson, Tara McPherson, and more. I'd probably put the other Fables books below on the recommended line, but I this collection stood out.

Old Man's War is John Scalzi's take on Starship Troopers, but instead of the young people going off to fight, it's the old folks. Scalzi provided a comfortable space in which to ponder this twist+homage. I've picked up Forever War as a result of reading this, so that I can continue the thought process.

What the Dormouse Said is a fun book for me, mainly because it pretty much places the companies that I've worked for in an alternate universe: LSD experiments, violent anti-war protests, Rolling Stone, and pot. And all of this lead to the modern computer and Internet.

Fiasco dissects the failures of the current Iraq War from a military strategic point of view. It was a new way for me to look at the failures of the Dubya administration :).

I've already said enough good things about Design of Everyday Things and Thud!.

Not recommended

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I generally like Queen and Country and McSweeney's, but not every release is a hit. I've previously described some of my dissatisfaction with Queen and Country: Declassified Vol 2 as well as McSweeney's 17.

Rest of the Reads

Whole lot of Lemony Snicket

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I'm not sure I felt fully satisfied by the end of Lemony Snicket, and that perhaps was Daniel Handler's intent. It was sadly fun, once it got out of the repetitive rhythm of the first four books and started gaining some continuity. My purchase of the Beatrice Letters falls in the McSweeney's clever packaging gimmick that I repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly fall for.

Whole lot of Usagi and Japanese-themed graphic novels:

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Usagi continues to delight -- Grasscutter I is one of my all-time favorite graphic novels. Soon I'll be caught up all the way through volume 20. Lone Wolf and Cub is dark enough for me that I don't think I will need any more of Tatsumi's depraved Push-Man-like stories.

Humor

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Terry Pratchett keeps filling that humor niche for me, though I'm testing the waters with Christopher Moore. I tried to see if Augusten Burroughs would be a good Sedaris fill-in: I was entertained but not impressed. I wasn't too impressed with Bruce Campbell's novel either, but it knew what it was and embraced it, so I respect that. On the graphical novel front, I've enjoyed filling in my historical knowledge of Penny Arcade, Groo, and Barry Ween. It's amazing how many good graphic novels there are to buy when you take 10 years off from collecting comics.

And the rest (good, possibly great, but no comment right now)

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November 17, 2006

Talk: Neil Gaiman at SJSU

Neil Gaiman at SJSU by mhuang

photo by mhuang

Last night a crowd of us went to see Neil Gaiman at SJSU, which makes for twice in two months as we saw Gaiman speak at Keplers for Fragile Things in October. Gaiman had quite the endurance this time around: 20 minutes for the humorous/questionnaire/sci-fi "Orange" and over an hour reading the Jungle-Book-with-a-twist "Witch's Gravestone." Then there was also the Q&A, the signing, and the earlier noon event he did, and it's clear that he was quite generous with his time towards SJSU.

"Witch's Gravestone" is from the upcoming M is for Magic short story collection that is being targetted at kids -- apparently school librarians have been buying his previous short story collections and Gaiman and his publisher wanted to release a collection that didn't feature hardcore sex scenes that would get him sued. Gaiman alternately described "Witch's Gravestone" as The Graveyard Book Chapter 4, which is both a reference to The Jungle Book as well as to imply the non-existence of chapters 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8... Gaiman got the idea for the story during one of his frequent trips to the graveyard with his then two-year-old son Michael (~1985). Putting aside the fact that the anecdote may explain a lot about Gaiman's stories, the idea came about that the story would feature a child raised by dead people instead of jungle animals.

The Q&A featured the typical questions that you hear at a Gaiman talk: when is X going to be made into a movie, when is Y going to be made into a movie, when is Z going to be made into a movie. I find myself impatient hearing these questions for the third time; I'm impressed that I am entertained by Gaiman's answers, and I'm impressed that Gaiman still answers these questions.

Videos of the event in the extended (quality much improved over last time)

Continue reading "Talk: Neil Gaiman at SJSU" »

November 15, 2006

Book: Thud! by Terry Pratchett

In increasing order of specificity: Thud! is a Discworld book. It is an Ankh-Morpark book. It is a Watch book. It is a Sam Vimes book.

There are probably ten or so Discworld books that share all these traits, and yet I found this one fairly refreshing. I always enjoy a Discworld novel, having now read about a third of the 30+ books in the series, but even though I have often used Discworld novels as light refreshers between more heavy books, they themselves can oversaturate you with Pratchett-like humor -- much like eating a pound of fudge. It is probably for that reason that I waited a full year to read this book after picking it up at a Pratchett talk in Mountain View.

Sam Vimes is a "father who suffers from Lego foot." That's how Pratchett started off describing Thud! at his talk and it's a good starting point as to why I think this book is a bit different -- there's more heart than satirical skewers. There's still plenty of humorous jabs at racism, Da Vinci Code, Blackberrys, fatherhood, fundamentalism, art, and more -- it really isn't possible to have a serious book set in a world carried on the backs of four elephants -- but the humor is scaled back a bit to give Sam Vimes, Young Sam, and Sybil room to breath.

This isn't the funniest of Pratchett's books and if you're looking for constant side-splitting satirical fantasy humor, this probably isn't the one to pick up. Luckily, there are 33+ other books of his that you can pick up that probably fit this bill. I happen to really like this one.

Before reading Thud!, I recommend reading Fifth Elephant. Of the many Discworld novels, it is the one I can think of with most appropriate background material.

November 8, 2006

Gaiman at SJSU

What:Major Author Series - Neil Gaiman
SJSU Center for Literary Arts hosts An Evening with Neil Gaiman. During the course of almost twenty years as a writer, Neil Gaiman has been one of the top writers in modern comics, and is now a best-selling novelist. Gaiman, icon of the comics and 3-time Hugo Award winner, will read from his work, with Q&A and book signing afterward. Sponsored by the Student Union, Inc. of SJSU.
When:Thursday, November 16, 2006 (all day)
Where:Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library
150 E. San Fernando Street
San Jose, California 95112   United States

FYI: I'm playing with an updated version of WIndows Live Writer -- the map and the event information were inserted using the Eventful and Live.com map plugins. There were some rough edges, but it was still quite easy.

October 29, 2006

Lemony Snicket and The End (San Bruno, CA)


Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler
Originally uploaded by mhuang.
Yesterday we went up to go see Lemony Snicket's book reading for The End, which continues my initiation into musically accompanied book talks (see John Hodgman at Codys). I wasn't sure what to expect from a Lemony Snicket reading -- with such a mythology of secrecy surrounding the character of Lemony Snicket, I wasn't sure how the actual author, Daniel Handler, would maintain that mythology in front of a crowd of mostly children. The answer was that it was fun, entertaining, and worth the trip, but you'll have to click through for specifics as I don't wish to spoil the details for those that wish to discover for themselves.

Update: added last of the videos (introduction, "This Abyss")

Continue reading "Lemony Snicket and The End (San Bruno, CA)" »

October 13, 2006

Lemony Snicket tickets at Books Inc

m passed along these details for an upcoming Lemony Snicket event:

A reading by Lemony Snicket, celebrating the release of The END, the final installment in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Music by the Gothic Archies, featuring Lemony Snicket

Saturday October 28th 2:00p.m. Capuchino High School Auditorium 1501 Magnolia Ave. San Bruno, CA 94066

More details from Books Inc. Berkeley-ites can go to the Codys Books event on Channing instead.

I'm only up to book five, but I figure that this is, in fact, the The End of Lemony Snicket readings, so I shouldn't pass this up.

October 12, 2006

John Hodgman -- Most Entertaining Book Talk, Ever

I'm still chuckling over the John Hodgman Areas of My Expertise talk at Codys SF. Some of you may already be aware that musician Jonathan Coulton accompanies Hodgman for his talks. I've never seen a book talk with an opening theme song and musical accompaniment, but I am now convinced it is a practice that should be adopted by every author. He is also the only author I have seen talk a brandy break (necessary due to the performance nature of his talk) as well as use walkie-talkies to do the Q&A (which works, for a bit).

Hodgman riffed on Benjamin Franklin, hoboes, Big Rock Candy Mountain, and more. If I didn't know better, I would think that Hodgman had been hanging out with metamanda, though I don't think she is nearly as knowledgeable about the Mall of America.

With the help m, who offered his tripod, I managed to shoot much more watchable video this time around.

Update: here's the video for the first half of the talk. After this, Hodgman and Coulton took a brandy break and then did Q&A. I only have a bit of the Q&A, which was hilarious in itself.

This is as much of the Q&A as I could record:

John Hodgman at Codys SF

Tonight, schedule permitting, I shall say Alas for Joy, as John Hodgman will be at Cody's on Stockton Street in SF. Anyone else interested in heading up?

October 3, 2006

Talk: Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things

Fragile Thingsupdate: all videos from the talk are online now

The Villa crew went out to Keplers tonight to watch Neil Gaiman speak. It was very nice to actually see Gaiman at Keplers: last year Keplers went out of business just before he was going to speak. I would hate to think that Gaiman is somehow cursed. It was charming to see Gaiman reading Anansi Boys from a church pulpit instead, a but one-minute drive to my local bookstore has its benefits. It was also special because Gaiman helped promote the Save Keplers cause.

The Fragile Things talk was charming as Gaiman talks are. I like to argue that it is important to hear Gaiman speak if you are to read his works: much of what he writes, especially his children's books and short stories, make much more sense if you can imagine a Neil Gaiman voice in your head speaking with the appropriate rhythm and inflections. It is also fun to hear Gaiman speak because he can make a story about buying a pair of pants at Armani yesterday amusing. littlestar was entertained enough that she went and bought a copy of Fragile Things immediately afterwards, going against her inclination to wait for a smaller paperback edition. I, of course, am a whore for Gaiman product: excluding individual comic book issues, my current count is 24 plus an autographed backpack. My count is only impeded by my desire to acquire my Sandman within the same printing vintage.

In the past, I've generally taken lengthy notes at book talks at spent hours upon hours transcribing them into blog form. Now that I'm slowly coming to the realization that my camera takes video and therefore is also an audio recorder, I've decided to make life easier by just including video with short summaries.

NOTE: all of the videos are of crappy quality shot with my ELPH. I was more concerned with just getting audio -- think of the video as bonus ;).

Intro

See the extended for more videos

Continue reading "Talk: Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things" »

September 11, 2006

Book: Private Wars

I was a bit hesitant about reading Greg Rucka's second foray into Queen and Country novel territory, Private Wars. After all, within a couple hours of my finishing the first novel, Gentleman's Game, the London subway attacks that he imagined in the book became headline news. You could say that I was worried about picking up the second book and having real-life and fiction yet again confused, but the fact is what makes Rucka's Queen and Country novels so compelling is that they are able to spin together the current geopolitical climate and the spy novel genre together such that what is written may become true by virtue of it already sitting so close to reality. The Iraq War and Afghanistan figure heavily into the backdrop for this book, and at least one character in Private Wars appears to share some loose modelling on an Iraq War figure -- Kenneth Garret seems based on Jay Garner, at least in that they share a "fuck off/shut the fuck up" anecdote with a neocon.

There was less worry for me when found out that the main setting for the book wasn't a terrorist attack but an extraction operation in Uzbekistan. Though unpleasant doesn't begin to describe the facts I learned about torture there, as well as the fact that the US looks the other way and may have used Uzbekistan for its secret prisons, its more of a sad truth, rather than new tragedy.

Within this setting, Rucka puts together the pieces strewn around by Gentleman's Game. I won't spoil what happens in this novel nor the one before it, but I will say that I enjoyed Private Wars even more than Gentleman's Game; there was a high degree of satisfication in how Rucka put together the leftover pieces of the previous novel and combined them within his new plot. Although Private Wars has the same mission-based skeleton of the Queen and Country graphic novels, Rucka gave his characters a chance to grow and express themselves in ways that would have been difficult in a graphic novel or at least challenged an artist with sheer page count. Rucka has given Tara Chace far more character development with these two novels and the end result is that both media improve the other.

I don't know what these books would be like if you didn't read the Queen and Country graphic novels, but I would recommend at least reading through Gentleman's Game first as it sets up this novel and it wouldn't hurt to read the first couple graphic novels to get more background on Tara Chace. If you're like me, you'll end up buying the rest of the Queen and Country graphic novels in quick succession.

Try before you buy: Bookreporter has the first several chapters

Continue reading "Book: Private Wars" »

September 9, 2006

Book: Microserfs

I read this book because I figured it was one of those must reads. Software engineering simply isn't one of those professions used in popular media, with a few exceptions like Office Space that come close, so given the opportunity to read a book that is not only about software engineers but also about the culture, the zeitgeist of the early .com boom as well as Microsoft, I knew I had to.

I've worked at Xerox PARC and a startup, and I've lived in the Bay Area for many years; I've never been to Seattle nor worked for Microsoft. Does it make me biased then that I liked the early Microsoft/Seattle portions of the book but started losing interest as soon as the book moved to the .com environment of the Peninsula? I would say so, except I've talked to someone else who read the book that is more familiar with Microsoft/Seattle, and she too had the same opinion.

In Seattle the book feels like it's accurately capturing and spinning the culture, from group homes of Microsoft employees to the Cult of Bill, which probably isn't all that different from the Cult of Steve. Once the book moved to the Peninsula, I no longer felt in touch with the story: the characters seemed less and less believable, the Peninsula culture seemed slightly off, and the story just never really went anywhere. I had minor geographical quibbles such as how they seemed to go far out of their way to drive past Xerox PARC or find Starbucks that I can't, but more important was the startup-of-friends experience didn't resemble my startup-of-friends experience -- when we had a startup, and everything was on the line, we ate, slept, and drank the startup, had trouble speaking of anything else because your life entirely was sucked into the effort, and I even dreamed in code; in Microserfs, the startup seems almost incidental to the relationships in the book and it only really there to move the characters around. From what I've seen of other startups, the experience sways more in my direction. I could be wrong, and the book does take place it a time slightly earlier than mine, but I had a strong feeling throughout the book that the Microsoft portion of the book was a closer revelation of software engineering culture, and besides Fry's, Apple, and mystique of PARC, very little else of it felt captured to me. This is one engineer's opinion of course: Philip Greenspun, MIT professor and ousted founder of the ArsDigita startup, left a glowing review of the Microserfs cultural mirror.

I've reviewed mostly the cultural/zeitgeist elements of the book rather than the story, but that's largely because I felt that there really wasn't any story; the book was meant to be about capturing a cultural tableaux. Then again, if it's merely a book about zeitgeist, you could also argue then that reading a 400 page compilation of Wired's Wired/Tired/Expired would make a wonderful read. Thus, I'm conflicted. If it was about story, I'd be terribly disappointed and have to give this book one star. Instead, I give it maybe a three-out-of-five with the caveat that you should end it whenever you like.

June 18, 2006

Book: Eats, Shoots, and Leaves

The rallying cry of this book is, "Sticklers Unite!" This doesn't fit me very well: more than one of you has corrected my usage of "it's" and "its." I do feel compelled to re-edit a post to correct punctuation and grammatical mistakes if I bother to spot them, but personally I find the illogical rules of punctuation usage to be humanity's method of delaying the robot uprising from taking over our publishing -- the Brits will probably be taken over first as they are allowed to sanely place terminal punctuatoin outside of quotation marks like "so".

I realized I was probably a stickler, though, when I couldn't stand the fact that author lynne truss constantly refers to the Internet as "the internet." I realize that the economist, the financial times, the guardian, the times, and the sydney morning herald (source) all make this same mistake, but I was hoping that truss would shed some sanity on UK publishing. There is only one Internet and it even has a sequel, Internet 2, not "internet 2." Presidential dubya malapropisms about "internets" are not fiat internets -- capitalize the darn thing.

The book is a quick read, even with pauses to grimace at uncapitalilzed "internet"s. My punctuation probably won't change a bit, except to start placing terminal punctuation outside of quotes when I see fit and to continue my abuse of the dash -- Truss kindly points out that "it is hard to use wrongly." The more fascinating aspect of the book for me was absorbing the differences between British usage and terminology for punctuation like "inverted commas" and "full stops" and "brackets" that should be parenthesis -- it was almost as fascinating as when I found out that a billion still often refers to 1012 in the UK.

June 17, 2006

House of M

A visit to BookBuyers today made me think of this series again... (spoilers ahead)

Continue reading "House of M" »

February 28, 2006

Book: Quicksilver

It took me two years, four months to finish this book. It's huge. So huge that I have to read it on weekends in coffee shops because it's too big to carry in my backpack. I can hardly remember the beginning as there's been many dozens of books I've read since I read the first page of this book and I can barely remember going to Stephenson's Quicksilver talk where I bought it. And it's not like I'm actually finished. I still have two thousand pages to go with Confusion and System of the World. Stephenson actually divides the Baroque Cycle into eight books, which I wish his publisher did because I might have been able to psychologically deal with its heft better.

I would feel more satisified if I felt that Quicksilver were anything more than exposition for the rest of the series. I can't actually call it exposition because I have not read the other two books, so I am not certain yet that Stephenson has a plot in mind. As far as I can tell, Quicksilver takes a thousand pages to explain the first chapter. I think it could have been done in fewer.

Quicksilver was fun, otherwise I would have abandoned mid-course. Jack Shaftoe's entry into the series helped pace things forward. But next time I'm buying the paperback edition and cutting it into three smaller books.

January 2, 2006

Book: Design of Everyday Things

meta warned me that when I read The Design of Everyday Things, I would learn very little. This is a compliment to the book, rather than a criticism. We both worked at PARC at the time and much of what is in the book is ingrained within the PARC culture. Thus, to say that I would learn very little is to say how influential the ideas of this book are. According to the Director of User Experience at TiVo, the book is somewhat of a bible. You'll find my own attempt at being Norman in "Affordances of a Seven-Foot Egg."

Another compliment I will pay this book is, in retrospect, the ideas presented seem like commonsense. As Norman dissects bad doors and light switch arrangements, the criticisms are intuitive, yet we must wonder, if this truly was commonsense, why is it so easy to find examples of bad design in everyday things? It's not hard to find a doors with "push" or "pull" signs taped on because the wrong type of handle was used. It's not hard to remember being confronted with an array of light switches and not knowing which light went with which. Sometimes the explanation is that someone was being cheap. Or lazy. But we also see simple principles violated in expensive, intensively designed products like airplanes and cars. Bad design comes with any price tag.

The most valuable aspect of the book for me is that it provides a vocabulary for being more specific about evaluating design. Norman once said something akin to, if it has poor usability, it probably got a design award. We don't do a good job separating out aesthetics and usability when we use the term design. The iPod is cited again and again as an example of "good design," but there are many usability problems. It's mappings are poor: press the center button and the next menu scrolls in from the right; press up and the previous menu scrolls in from the left; pressing left or right changes the track that's playing; rotating the scrollwheel wheel moves a linear menu up and down. The visibility is also poor: two weeks ago I taught two long-time iPod users that you can fast-forward/rewind, rate songs, and view album art if you press the center button while a song is playing.

I look forward to reading Norman's Emotional Design. I'm sure it will provide a vocabulary for discussing the good aspects of the iPod design, and then at last I can make my $billions.

Partial/ongoing notes in the extended.

Continue reading "Book: Design of Everyday Things" »

Book: Mind Wide Open

Mind Wide Open is a fun, light read by Steven Johnson. It's a pop-sci examination of the brain, with a focus on translating/rejecting Freudian ideas into a modern scientific framework. This Freud ambition limits the scope of the book: it is tourist equivalent of a quick day tour of New York by bus, a few stops, all brief.

The focus on Freud seems to come from a pop-sci similarity: Freud is one of the few psychologists whose ideas have entered into the popular lexicon and, by reinterpreting Freud's work, Johnson hopes to fulfill his goal of entering neuroscience concepts into the popular lexicon as well. Ambitious, especially in the book's final chapter which reads less like a conclusion and more like a Freud/Neuroscience manifesto (it is one Johnson's favorite chapters that he has written). If you hate Freud, don't distress. I hate Freud as well, but the most of the effort in connecting neuroscience to Freud is spent in the final chapter and only occasionally crops up elsewhere. Perhaps this is why the final chapter felt so out of place to me within the context of the book.

I prefer Emergence, Johnson's book on emergent behavior, to Mind Wide Open. Emergence was more the type of book where you want to grab a friend after reading a chapter and go, "did you know that __?" Perhaps this was an artifact of Johnson using himself as the subject of many of the experiments. Instead of focusing on the extraordinary cases of neuroscience like Oliver Sacks, we instead are confronted with the banal. We learn what Johnson learned about himself, but without being able to subject our self to the same tests the learning feels thirdhand. Much of the experiments have been better suited to a Discovery Channel special than a book, because video at least would better allow us to imagine ourselves in the experiment.

I have some limited notes in the extended. Due to the type of narrative, I found it difficult to take notes: much of the relevant details are scattered across many pages, so I eventually decided it was taking too much time.

Continue reading "Book: Mind Wide Open" »

November 4, 2005

Book: Gehry Draws

gdrawing.jpgThis is not your pretty-color-photo architecture portfolio books . As the title suggests, it is mostly a book of Gehry's drawings, all of which are about as detailed on the one shown here; in other words, it is many, many pages of scribbling. Ignoring the pretentious-art-historian essay at the start of the collection that compares Gehry's sketches to Durer's works and extols Gehry's use of grundlinie, the truth is that many of Gehry's sketches are thirty-second efforts (p. 126). I would prefer if the book focused more on the models, but then it wouldn't be called Gehry Draws. Also, as the models are built by his staff, it is really only the drawings that can be said to be Gehry's work.

This is not to say that the drawings are not interesting. At first I was put back by having to look at scribbly sketches, but after awhile you get a sense of the rhythm and form Gehry was trying to communicate. I still find it impressive that his staff can look at the drawings and translate them into 3-D models, then again, I don't have Gehry standing next to me to pantomime the form in the drawing. It is these models that are the key to the book -- the juxtaposition between drawings and models makes the models Rosetta Stones for scribble interpretation. Also, the models are pretty.

I most enjoyed the section on the Lewis Residence, which was a house designed in collaboration with Philip Johnson and Richard Serra (among others) but was never built. Six years were spent iterating the design for the house and it reads as a transition point into the trademark wavy style -- Serra's influence on Gehry becomes more obvious. Gehry has described the project as being like a research fellowship where they got to hone their physical- and computer-modelling techniques.

There are occassional quotes by Gehry and his staff in the book (though they are poorly edited tnough to have frequenty spelling errors). I especially like Gehry's quote, "There was a period when I used to look into my wastepaper basket and fantasize buildings and forms," as well as this quote about designing the office space for MIT's Stata Center:

We then made models showing [the MIT faculty] the ways different cultures might deal with this problem. We had a scheme based on a traditional Japanese house with panels that could open to combine spaces and close shut for privacy. They hated that because there was no hierarchy. Then we gave them a scheme based on a colonial American house with a central hall and rooms around the bottom and rooms around the top. But they didn't like that either; it was too formal. Then one of our team members made an "orangutan village" around a tree with elders higher up and the children below it. At first they were insulted. They thought we were calling them apes. But in the end they chose the orangutan village.

more quotes in the extended review

Continue reading "Book: Gehry Draws" »

October 3, 2005

Talk: Salman Rushie, Shalimar the Clown

Salman Rushdie-2 Salman Rushdie-1

Salman Rushie spoke at Books Inc in Mountain View. These are my notes (more in the extended entry). As always with my notes, although I attempt to use quotes as much as possible, I don't stand by the accuracy of my quotes and they should be considered paraphrasings at best.

For In the Name of the Rose Umberto Eco said, "'I had a great desire to murder a monk'... in my case it was an American ambassador." Shalimar the Clown starts off with Shalimar, a muslim Kashmiri, killing the American ambassador that his childhood sweetheart ran off with. Shalimar is a character transforms from tight-rope walker into terrorist.

In the book you root for Shalimar even though he does horrible things. It "would have been much easier to make him not likable," but then he would be a cartoon and cartoons can't make moral choices. Shalimar "retains the capacity for moral choice" and thus retains moral responsibility. Rushdie had watched a documentary about the downfall of Hitler that humanized the Nazis and he felt that the humanizing "does the opposite of exonerating them." It is one of the roles of writers to make you care about the people because "you have to care about people to care about what happens to them."

Much of the novel takes place in Kashmir and he said, "'[I] always wanted to write more about it than I have." Midnight's Children and Haroun and the Sea of Stories have parts in Kashmir, but not very much.

In 1987 he was participating in a British documentary about India at the age of 40. He met a group of travelling players in Kashmir and thought that they lived an "extraordinary lifestyle... on the one hand paradise-like... [but] incredibly poor." He observed their way of life and it "felt like the end of a very long line." This was before the eruption of violence and the insurgency, so he does not imagine that life has gotten better for them.

He wanted to put them in the documentary, but they were "too scared to tell the truth on camera." They would complain about the Indian troops off camera, but when you turned the camera on they would say, "We are very happy," and praise the Indian troops.

Continue reading "Talk: Salman Rushie, Shalimar the Clown" »

September 30, 2005

Talk: Neil Gaiman *Anansi Boys*

Neil Gaiman-1"Dearly Beloved..."

Neil Gaiman addressed us from atop the pulpit in the First Congregation Church in Berkeley on National Geek Day, the day that both Mirromask and Serenity were released in theaters. He read from Anansi Boys, a book that has the tagline "God is dead. Meet the kids." As Gaiman noted, you write a "book with strange gods, and they send you to talk in churches."

Gaiman described Anansi Boys as American Gods' second cousiin, once removed. He had the idea for Anansi Boys before American Gods, so one way he thinks of Mr. Nancy and American Gods is that it had a special guest star... for a book that hadn't been written yet.

For Anansi Boys I've decided to do something I've never done before: buy the audiobook. My reason for this was is very simple: there's an mp3 version. I never saw much reason before in buying audiobooks. They're as expensive as the book and there's this giant stack of CDs that you either have to cart around or you have to spend an hour ripping to your computer. With an mp3 CD I can immediately place it on my iPod or PSP -- it's ready to consume.

The battle over DRM rarely gets very far as it is an ideological battle with strongly divided opinions, full of speculation but few actual examples proving either sides' case. It's great to see an author that's #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List take what the industry would consider a risk and move the debate over DRM forward. Gaiman had to fight with Harper Collins to have mp3 CDs made, so he encouraged me to encourage my friends to purchase the mp3 version. I wish more authors were iPod users like Gaiman so that they too would act as intelligently about technology.

Neil Gaiman-2 Neil Gaiman-6 Neil Gaiman-5 Neil Gaiman-4 Neil Gaiman-3 Gaiman Pratchett-1

WARNING: Notes in the extended. I did a really, really bad job with my notes. Much more here is paraphrased from memory than actual quotes. For whatever reason my note-taking skills were terrible tonight and much that was funny I cannot remember well enough to transcribe.

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September 20, 2005

Talk: Terry Pratchett

talk at Books Inc in Mountain View

Pratchett opened his talk comparing the security at airports to "evil clowns at the circus." Shoes off, belt on, shoes off, belt off. "Trousers down -- they haven't done that yet -- you know they want to do it." There was a "guy with one leg. They took his shoe away." He found the focus on pocketknives puzzling in a country where we have so many guns.

On heart surgery

Pratchett had heart surgery last year. Afterwords his surgeon said that they had a little "fun and games." Pratchett asked if that was medical speak for "you nearly died." His surgeon responded, "heart surgery is medical speak for you nearly died." Apparently throughout the process Pratchett kept trying to get up saying, "he's got sandwiches." He never managed to get close to the man with sandwiches in his dream, so he chalks it up as a "near sandwich experience." Reflecting on this, he thinks that when you die "it's obviously some distance because they give you something to eat on the way." He doesn't know what type of sandwich it was, but if it was a cheese sandwich with a Branston Pickle he would go with but if it were a cucumber sandwich with the edges cut off he would turn away.

Q: What kind of sandwich would Death and the Death of Rats have?
A: Death would have a curry sandwich and the Death of Rats would have a double gloucester cheese sandwich (see Hard Cheese of Old England)

more notes in the extended

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August 31, 2005

Updated Keplers and Gaiman info, plus Chabon

I stopped by Kepler's today to visually confirm that the doors are shut, with a note of closing and 'Declaration of Independents.' The store is not emptied out, just closed, but unless this is some clever negotiation tactic it appears that Dealers of Lightning and Phaidon's Louis Kahn book will have been my last purchases there. Having Keplers next to Cafe Borrone was a big incentive for taking the leisurely route home, stopping to read a book over dinner. After finishing my first David Sedaris book while eating dinner at Cafe Borrone, I went over to Keplers, picked up another Sedaris book, and finished the same night while eating even more Borrone food. Good cafe/bookstore pairings are hard to replace: one feeds the other.

Neil Gaiman's journal confirms that his Keplers talk is cancelled, as I imagine all others are as well, but he mentions two other places in the Bay Area he will be speaking (one with Michael Chabon):

Thursday, September 29 7:00 PM PDT
SAN FRANCISCO & BAY AREA
Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman in Conversation
Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista Blvd.
Corte Madera, CA
415-927-0960

Friday, September 30 7:00 PM PDT
SAN FRANCISCO and BAY AREA
September 30, 7 PM PDT
Cody's
at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley
2345 Channing Way at Dana
Berkeley, CA
510-845-7852
(See http://www.codysbooks.com/ for details of the event)

August 14, 2005

Book: Red Mars

marscrater.jpgRed Mars is a book about Mars colonization, which means the story breaks down into two basic elements: Mars and the people that colonize it. Of the two, I cared more about Mars, which Robinson does a more than adequate job with.

I've been fascinated with Mars, as you can see from all the Mars-related links I have in this entry, and I enjoyed reading a book that tries to put Mars into humanscale and explores the science and culture of change that could befall it with colonization. Robinson puts a lot of science into the book, good enough that I don't have to lose my suspension of disbelief over it. In my one area of understanding, AI, I can state that the treatment of robots in the book went very well with some NASA AI talks (Mars Exploration Rover (MER) planning and AI and the New Exploration Vision) that I've been to recently.

There are characters to go along with the Martian terrain, but I did not find myself caring much about them as much as I did about what they were doing to Mars. Robinson does a good job in making them unheroically realistic; in this aspect they fit in with the scientific realism in this book. However, the 'driven scientist' archetype that he uses as a template for his characters rings false to me and in some ways the characters end up becoming more outlandish than Mars.

I haven't made up my mind as to whether I'll read Blue Mars and Green Mars as it's hard to imagine the same sense of exploration and pioneering that made the first book so compelling, but if any of you out there have recommendations let me know.

Some other Mars entries on this blog: * LiveJournals for the NASA Mars rovers * Cool Mars Animation Video * Moons of Mars * Marvin the Martian Going to Mars

Red Mars is also a great complement to the Google Earth Plus Mars Database -- the Google Earth visualization provides a low resolution skeleton and Robinson's text gives you enough to let your imagination fill in the rest. I am considering re-reading Red Mars, but next time with a greater focus on locating the geographical points on Mars maps to get a better sense of scale and environment.

Several quotes in the extended.

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August 8, 2005

Book: Wicked

I read this in preparation for seeing Wicked: The Musical in a couple of weeks. As someone thought well enough of the book to make a musical of it, I had high expecations for the story. In concept and themes, the story does well enough. The inversions of the moral relationships (from the movie, having never read Frank Baum's Oz series) were the most enjoyable part of the book, much in the way that playing Dark Side of the Moon as the soundtrack adds additional depth to a viewing. But the Dark Side soundtrack only lasts fifty minutes and as it repeats you shut it off and return back to the movie. Wicked is 400+ pages long, so you expect more.

In these 400 pages, Wicked reads more like a biography than a story: although the reader is aware of the book's climax -- the first chapter leaves no doubt -- the path to that point is not plot so much as the passage of time. Characters come and go, things happen, the main character develops, but the story never builds.

There are those who will find biographies of fictional characters entertaining, and apparently there are many of these readers on Amazon because I see tons of five stars reviews for this book. But I found this a slow, tedious concept that is much too large for what it contains.

August 6, 2005

Book: The Fall

I had a combined edition of Camus' The Stranger and The Fall that I just finished reading. I found the amorality of Meursault in The Stranger a bit too frustrating to warrant a second read, but the histrionic tale of immorality that Clamence weaves in The Fall was engrossing and tightly woven enough for me that I will have to read it again when I find the time. Clamence reminds me a bit of ginfiend for some reason. Perhaps it's because he proclaims, "Fortunately there is gin, the sole glimmer of light in the this darkness." (p. 12)

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July 4, 2005

Book: Aleph and Other stories

This ranks as one of my all-time favorite readings. As it is difficult for one person to give a more praise than that to this collection of fantastical, philosophical, theological, and historical short stories, I will be brief and state that quotes are in the extended, though they inherently spoil the short stories, especially the stories that are less than a page.

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May 11, 2005

Talk: Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good For You

Steven Johnson gave a talk at Books Inc. in Mountain View in order to promote his new book, Everything Bad is Good for You. (a shortened version of his Apple Store Talk for those who saw that).

His stated purpose for the talk/book is that is an attempt to talk on conventional wisdom that things have gotten worse, that newer media (TV/video games) appeal to the lowest common denominator. It is a "contrarian but honest argument" that looks, not at the content, but at the cognitive complexity of these media (# of characters, plots, etc...)

I've transcribed my notes into the extended entry. Before the jump you can checked out kottke's review or Gladwell's review (the kottke review includes some links to other resources). Or, you go straight to the source, Steven Johnson's blog, where he's be reviewing the reviewers, posting his schedule, and whatnot.

Finally, you can read Watching TV Makes You Smarter, which Johnson wrote for the New York Times Magazine and pretty much summarizes the arguments in his talk/book.

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April 2, 2005

Book: Maya Lin Boundaries

A few scattered thoughts, with quotes and a smattering of images in the extended entry to go along with Lin's sculptures/memorials.

Technical vs. emotional issues

This quote pretty much captures how I currently feel about engineering:

p. 3:11

There are always technical problems to be worked out -- getting the water in the Civil Rights Memorial to flow upside down or designing the click mechanism for Eclipsed Time -- but these problems did not pose a real difficulty for me (though my technical consultants might disagree). The challenge, for me, is not technical, but emotional: the attempt to capture the essence of the idea that is so much a part of the original model.

Typeface choice for the Women's Table

The sculpture uses Bembo to mimic the Yale course description book. It also happens to be the same typeface as Envisioning Information, which means that when Tufte is teaching his courses at Yale, his design evokes the process of choosing one's courses. I am reminded of Paul Dourish's Where the Action Is, which shares the same cover design as our MIT Medical pamphlets. My impression, as a former student, is that one must be careful in evoking administrative material in your design.

Art by blueprint

p. 4:44

But is sometimes easy to lose sight of the underlying idea in the making of architecture; it is easy to lose the soul of the work as one focuses on all the smaller aesthetic decisions. Or if one is too strong or relentless in the expression of the underlying idea, that idea can overwhelm the day-to-day functioning of the place; it can force the dweller into a space that is too singular in purpose. The process of making architecture is labored and detail-oriented. The actual process must be thought through thoroughly in advance -- it is a premeditated process, making it difficult to be spontaneous and intuitive. Imagine making a blueprint of a painting and then following it exactly through to its completion. How would it differ from painting the canvas with the guidance of an underlying sketch, yet inventing or seeing it for the first time on the canvas? Architecture requires a close adherence to the drawings and plans you have produced in order to construct the building; changes and alterations must occur during the earlier stanges of design -- in the drawings and models. Although there is room for some maninpulations and alterations ot the design during construction, this is not the time to be changing your mind.

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February 15, 2005

Book: Polysyllabic Spree

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The premise of this book was too good to pass up: an author I like (Nick Hornby) writing essays for a publisher I like (McSweeneys) about a dilemma I can relate to (the disparity between books bought and books read).

Hornby's voice provided a sympathetic harmony to my own viewpoints on book purchasing, selecting which book to read next, and the unintentional connections one finds. I've often compared selecting which book to read next to wine tasting: you can move freely between the whites, and sometimes you can follow a red wine with an even stronger red wine, but there reaches a saturation point where you can't really discern the taste anymore. For the full-bodied reds I need a good palette cleanser (e.g. Pratchett, Sedaris, King), a bit of mental floss to get the polysyllabic words out of the teeth.

Hornby has a slightly different food comparison (p. 44):

I'm beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes. When I read Moneyball, it was because I wanted something quick and light after the 32-oz steak of No Name; The Sirens of Titan wasn't a reaction against George and Sam, but a way of enhancing it. So what's that? Mustard? MSG? A brandy? It went down a treat anyway.

Also, being Hornby, the music comparison was inevitable (p. 101):

There's no rule that says one's reading has to be tonally consistent. I can't help but feel, however, that my reading has been all over the place this month. The Invisible Woman and Y: The Last Man were opposites in just about every way you can imagine; they even had opposite titles. A woman you can't see versus a guy whose mere existence attracts the world's attention. Does this matter? I suspect it might. I was once asked to DJ at a New Yorker party, and the guy who was looking after me (in other words, the guy who was actually playing the records) wouldn't let me choose the music I wanted because he said I wasn't paying enough attention to the beats per minute: according to him, you can't have a differential of more than, I don't know, twenty bpm between records. At the time, I thought this was a stupid idea, but there is a possibility that it might apply to reading. The Invisible Woman is pacy and engrossing, but it's no graphic novel, and reading Tomalin's book after The Last Man was like playing John Lee Hooker after the Chemical Brothers -- in my opinion, John Lee Hooker is the greater artist, but he's in no hurry, is he?

As much fun as I've had finding quotes in Hornby's book, though, in some ways I feel too attached to his opinion to fully enjoy it. It's only appropriate, I think, that I found this quote to express this sentiment (p. 66):

Twice this week I have been sent manuscripts of books that remind their editors, according to their covering letters, of my writing. Like a lot of writers, I can't really stand my own writing, in the same way that I don't really like my own cooking. And, just as when I go out to eat, I tend not to order my signature dish -- an overcooked and overspiced meat-stewy thing containing something inappropriate, like tinned peaches, and a side order of undercooked and flavorless vegetables -- I really don't wan tot read anything that I could have come up with at my own computer.

disclaimer: in no way do I think I could produce Hornby's writing, but for me the same applies to ideological agreement as literary agreement.

More quotes in the extended.

Continue reading "Book: Polysyllabic Spree" »

February 13, 2005

Book: White Teeth

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I was a bit let down by White Teeth. I expected too much from a novel with this much praise, though I should have lowered my expectations by noting that the praise was generally couple with "potential" and/or "first novel." It is a bold novel for a newcomer, but I also felt that it feel short of its goals and, while there was cleverness and wittiness, it was spread out enough that it stood out instead of blending into the fabric of the narrative. Perhaps I was more disappointed having just read Midnight's Children, which made it clear that White Teeth is a good, but not great novel.

There was one passage I really enjoyed, which is in the extended entry (page 384), where Smith took the idea of Zeno's paradox and related it to how her characters moved through life (by constantly reliving the past). Putting aside the actual notion of the paradox aside, I found it interesting to extend the idea that "if you can divide reality inexhaustibly into parts... you move nowhere." Similarly, if we look back on the past and constantly relive it, subdivide it, expand it, we turn it into an infinite space that is like Zeno's paradox: no movement through it is possible.

(see the Invisible Man entry for connections between this book, Midnight's Children, and Invisible Man).

Continue reading "Book: White Teeth" »

Book: Invisible Man

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Some quotes in the extended (not as many as I should have). I turned up a Salon article on "Invisible Man" at 50, which some may find as an interesting companion to the book.

Connections

Having just finished Midnight's Children, White Teeth, and Invisible Man, it's only natural I guess that my brain who try to connect the three together. The connections between White Teeth and *Midnight's Children" are the most obvious, given that Zadie Smith does not try to hide the influence of Salman Rushdie on her work.

There were passages that Smith had written about Millat from White Teeth that immediatelly reminded me of Ellison's descriptions of Rinehart (and to a lesser extent, the ever-shifting Saleem in Midnight's Children), though Millat tries to encompass all of his identities at once, and together these identities represents a crisis of identity, versus Rinehart, for whom identity is like a hat, each representing a new possibility that can be worn. Zadie Smith sees the shifting of identity as a sign of illness (missing twin, loss of culture, invisibility to father Samad) causing "an ever-present anger and hurt."

Invisible Man, p. 498

Can it be, I thought, can it actually be? And I knew that it was. I had heard of it before but I'd never come so close. Still, could he be all of them: Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend? Could he himself be both rind and heart? What is real anyway? But how could I doubt it? He was a broad man, a man of parts who got around. Rinehart the rounder. It was true as I was true. His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool. I must have been crazy and blind. The world in which we lived was without boundaries.

White Teeth, p. 225

And that's how it was for Millat. He was so big in Cricklewood, in Willesden, n West Hampsteada, the summer of 1990, that nothing he did later in his life could top it. From his first Raggastani crowd, he had expanded and developed tribes throughout the schoool, throughout North London. He was simply too big to remain the object of Irie's affection, leader of the Raggastanis, or the son of Samad and Alsana Iqbal. He had to please all of the people all of the time. To the Cockney wideboys in the white jeans and the coolored shirts he was the joker, the risktaker, respected lady-killer. To the black kids he was fellow weed-smoker and valued customer. To the Asian kids, hero and spokesman. Social chameleon. And underneath it all, there remained an ever-present anger and hurt, the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere.

I also found contrast between Invisible Man and Midnight's Children: the former which uses an unnamed protagonist who stumbles into new identities throughout, versus the many-named Saleem of Midnight's Children, who achieves both godly and base distinction through his naming.

Continue reading "Book: Invisible Man" »

January 31, 2005

Talk: Simon Singh, The Big Bang

Simon Singh Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe www.simonsingh.net

Singh gave a great talk on his book, The Big Bang. It was very easy to see how he could be so successful in writing popular science books. Who would have thought to use a backwards Led Zeppelin clip to explain how two competing scientific theories might both find support within a set of empirical data? Singh had a great ability throughout the talk to take a history and a scientific theory which are both dry and complicated, and make them both humorous and understandable, whether it be by analogy or by finding that Willow-esque nerd humor -- in discussing Fritz Zwicky's tired light theory, he brought up Zwicky's favorite insult: 'spherical bastard' (looks like a bastard no matter what direction you look at him). I appreciate that anecdote enough that you shouldn't be surprised if I refer to you as a 'spherical bastard' the next time you see me.

More notes in the extended.

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January 13, 2005

Book: A Partly Cloudly Patriot

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I've been blazing through the humor essay books because their fairly ideal for airline travel -- small, consumable during a brief layover or allowing you the victory of completing an essay before being overcome by the need to pass-out.

I've been blazing through Sarah Vowell's This American Life shows after having listened to her talking about her father's homemade cannon. The shows are a good preface to the book, as they give a good ear from her pacing and style.

Given my recent trips in and out of Pittsburg, I'll share this one quote, with the rest of the quotes in the extended entry:

I remember how at home I felt, the first time I left. The gallery sent me east to learn from the master at Graham Arader's Pennsylvania headquarters. Getting off the plane from San Francisco at the Philadelphia airport, I was taken aback. I realized I had been living under quarantine in some euthanized, J. Crew catalog parallel universe of healthy good looks. Because, in Philadelphia, I was pleasantly suprised to see old people, average people, even ugly people, ambling around in dumb T-shirts and home perms. And if that wasn't relief enough, the weather was terrible and the coffee was dreck. The nice thing about Philadelphia is that no one has moved there to find the good life for over two hundred years. I went home to California feeling like the prettiest, most upbeat overachiever in the world.

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Talk: A Theory of Neocortex

A Theory of Neocortex and its Implications for Machine Intelligence Jeff Hawkins Founder Palm Computing, Handspring Director, Redwood Neurosciences Institute Author of On Intelligence http://www.onintelligence.org

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January 4, 2005

Book: Eastern Standard Tribe

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I love BoingBoing, I love the EFF, and I love what Cory Doctorow is doing to change the conversation around copyright and compensation by allowing anyone to download his works for free. I also love Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which was the Doctorow's first novel.

With all that praise out of the way, let me know say -- hmm, how should I phrase this -- well, Eastern Standard Tribe sucks. The first chapter promises future cleverness by playing with the relationship between the narrator/protagonist and the reader. The early following chapters also promise an interesting riff on our relationship with the time zone that we live in and how that affects our relationship in the global community. I don't know where I transitioned from eager-cool-what's-next page flipping into eager-just-get-to-the-end page flipping, but somewhere in this short book the story fell flat (maybe this would be better as an even shorter story). Doctorow shows you the beginning, and he shows you the end, and you expect some clever twists inbetween -- instead the books keep marching in a straight line. Also, not to offend my HCI friends out there, but the User Experience angle in the book just doesn't work.

Don't trust what I say: download EST for free, breeze through the first few chapters (it's a light read), and decide for yourself (did I mention it's free?). While you're at it, read Down and Out, whether or not you end up liking EST, because -- did I mention? -- it's free also (and better).

January 1, 2005

Book: Invisible Cities

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More quotes in the extended entry. Some favorites:

"Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches."

"Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have."

"Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence."

This quote I like because it is actually fairly close to modern understanding of the biology of memory: "Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased," Polo said. "Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little."

To quote from Steven Johnson:

For a long time, memory researchers assumed that memories were like volumes stored in a library. When your brain remembered something, it was simply searching through the stacks and then reading aloud from whatever passage it discovered. But some scientists now believe that memories effectively get rewritten every time they're activated, thanks to a process called reconsolidation. To create a synaptic connection between two neurons the associative link that is at the heart of all neuronal learning you need protein synthesis. Studies on rats suggest that if you block protein synthesis during the execution of learned behavior pushing a lever to get food, for instance the learned behavior disappears. It appears that instead of simply recalling a memory that had been forged days or months ago, the brain is forging it all over again, in a new associative context. In a sense, when we remember something, we create a new memory, one that is shaped by the changes that have happened to our brain since the memory last occurred to us.

Update: for actual analysis, go see meta's notes

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Book: Midnight's Children

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Various quotations in the extended text. This book will stand up well to a second reading, in part because of the quality of writing, and in part because of the non-linearity of Rushdie's writing style. Of course, it might be years before I have the time to read this again ;).

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December 21, 2004

Book: Travels in Hyperreality

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I'm close to done transcribing my notes for Travels in Hyperreality, so I'm going to go ahead and post them now. The book is a collection of older essays by Umberto Eco, spanning a huge range of issues from Casablanca to Italian terrorism to (as the title suggests) American obsession with hyper-real recreations of historical works (note: several of the essays are a good preface to Foucault's Pendulum).

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November 21, 2004

Book: Art of the Incredibles

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Thanks to honeyfields for letting me borrow this. It was fun reading this because it not only showed the concept art in the evolution of the character design (I never realized Edna Mode is half-Japanese), it also revealed evolution in the story design. Tony Fucile, Lou Romano, and Teddy Newton did a great job giving this movie a proper retro-feel that carried into the final movie renderings. Given my inability to draw humans or understand color, though, I think Scott Caple's B&W vehicle and building renderings are the drawings I would most want to imitate (and what engineer doesn't want to be able to draw all his/her fanciful vehicle creations?).

The color script foldout with Lou Romano's art is beautiful: in addition to being a nice piece of art, it's also a great multivariate graphical display displaying palette, character design, film summary, and visual style. I especially liked the coloring in The Incredibles, and I liked being able to see their palette choices so perfectly summarized. With all the merchandising surrounding this film, I hope they sell this as a poster somewhere.

Book: Hocus Pocus

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I'm trying to burst through my reading backlog in an attempt to catch-up before a large Amazon order arrives with more books. Hocus Pocus made it into the queue because I've been meaning to read some more Vonnegut, and, besides, according to this test my book personality is Cat's Cradle.

Hocus Pocus brings my own Vonnegut reading into more current times, with the Vietnam War legacy, the American prison system, race relations, infidelity, religion, and selling of America all entering Vonnegut's blender. It's hard for me to find it as sharp as Slaughterhouse Five or Cat's Cradle, but the first exposure always feels brighter and this was an entertaining read in its own right.

Quotes in the extended entry.

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November 14, 2004

Book: The Future of Ideas

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I've always been interested in Lawrence Lessig's writings on the web as well as his work with the Creative Commons, but I hadn't actually taken the time to read his books. Also, I forgetfully missed his PARC forum, but one of these days I will get around to watching the video. At long last, though, I've read The Future of Ideas, just in time for me to read Free Culture, which he has made available freely.

If you've been following the battles over DRM, open source, DMCA, etc... you've probably already heard many of the arguments that are presented by this book, but I appreciated the manner in which Lessig so clearly breaks apart issues, categorizing and framing them so that see them each more clearly. Also, much like introductory economics courses, he provides terminology (like "rivalrous" and "imperfectly excludable") for common sense notions, which aides in discussion.

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November 10, 2004

Book: Me Talk Pretty One Day and Holidays on Ice

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I just finished reading Me Talk Pretty One Day and Holidays on Ice while downing caffeine at Cafe Borrone. I had read through Me Talk and decided that I hadn't read enough Sedaris for one day, so I walked over to Kepler's and bought Holidays and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, the latter which I am hoping to hold off on when I am in need of a humor fix.

Needless to say, I enjoyed Me Talk Pretty One Day. Meta had read me one of the passages involving Sedaris' sister Amy and it cracked me up. Reading it again it was even more funny, as the build-up to it was hilarious as well. The essays varied between mildly humorous and laugh-out-loud funny, though it seemed that the presence of Amy was concentrated in the latter category.

Holidays on Ice wasn't as good, but it did give me a couple of laughs over my bowl of soup. It was more satirical rather than pseudo-autobiographical, and personally I find his anecdotal stories more humorous and better paced.

I transcribed a couple of passages I liked, but the essays are short enough that you're probably better off picking up a copy and reading them one-by-one as you please.

Continue reading "Book: Me Talk Pretty One Day and Holidays on Ice" »

November 4, 2004

Book: America

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I just finished America: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. I like the idea of the book -- a satire of American high school textbooks -- and it definitely provided its worth in entertainment. However, the nature of the satire -- an American high school textbook -- is an extremely rigid framework that makes it difficult to keep the jokes high quality. Every margin has to be filled with joke figures, polls, and "Where you aware" one-liners. The jokes in the text have to keep pace with the brevity and summarizing of textbooks. It is constant humor, rather than great humor.

I won't spoil the jokes in the book, save one, which has probably been told elsewhere anyway:

Discussion Question #1: If "con" is the opposite of "pro," then isn't Congress the opposite of progress?

September 4, 2004

Book: Sourcery

I have a pattern of alternating styles of books, usually intermixing non-fiction or thought-intensive fiction with light-hearted sci-fi. I've often referred to this latter category as a "palette cleanser," as its main purpose is to wash my mind clean.

I'm starting to rely on Terry Pratchett books to fulfill this role (not that humor isn't good literature) because his books are both hilarious and quick-to-read, which are both good properties of a good interstice. I also don't feel bad about not remembering the details of what happened, as Pratchett doesn't appear interested either, particularly as it pertains to geography. Seeing as Pratchett's written a bazillion of these Discworld novels, his books will enable me to continue this pattern into the foreseeable future. (I used to use Stephen King as my palette cleanser

I've finished the fifth book now -- Sourcery -- and I figured its about time that I do an entry on one of these books. It somewhat defeats the purpose of an interstitial palette cleanser to do a blog entry on each one, but five sounds like a good number to do one. It wasn't my favorite of the first five in the series (that honor probably goes to Color of Magic or Equal Rites), but it was entertaining nevertheless.

In the extended entry I have four quotes that I liked, with full page images for you to enjoy.

Continue reading "Book: Sourcery" »

August 5, 2004

Book: The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Am I right in feeling like this book is an episode of the Twilight Zone, only extremely literate and set in 19th century England? The similarity to modern-day sci-fi enticed me, though it also made it easy for me to guess exactly how it would end, which made some of the plot progression rather tedious.

If you read through the quotations that I have selected, it may become obvious that the sections of the book that I enjoyed most were Lord Henry's epigram-filled rants and his rapid-fire dialogue battles with the Duchess of Monmouth (Gladys).

Strangely, Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver is proving a useful introduction to this book, even though it is set a couple centuries prior, as I actually caught some of the references to courtly figures and places.

Continue reading "Book: The Picture of Dorian Gray" »

August 1, 2004

Book: Martian Chronicles

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I started reading *Martian Chronicles* not realizing that I would be seeing Ray Bradbury speak at Comic-Con. If only the flight to San Diego were a bit longer so that I could have gotten a bit farther by the time I heard him speak -- I really enjoyed reading this book, and if I were braver I would have asked him for 'tips' in reading it.

In many ways it is not really a novel, as it is really a bunch of short stories loosely connected with one another (which made it perfect for finishing up on multiple Caltrain/BART trips). It certainly does not express hope for mankind, nor for technology/space travel, but it does open up the imagination in a variety of ways in how it plays with old (e.g. Poe) and new in both familiar and unfamiliar settings. Any number of the short, 10-page-or-shorter passages could have been published as a short story on its own merits, but published together they give a disjoint, yet complete narrative.

June 23, 2004

Book: The Stand

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I just finished the complete and uncut version of the The Stand. Luckily, I had a plane trip to and from Ireland to get me started, though even that wasn't enough to get me through the whole book. It's generally not insightful to start off by discussing the book's length rather than it's content, but at 1100+ pages, it's something you notice. The more important aspect of the book, though, is whether or not those 1100+ pages are worthwhile, and for the most part, I think that they are.

Part Lord of the Rings, and the rest feeling like a prequel to Gunslinger, the book did a good job of propelling me through the pages. At first, I was expecting your run-of-the-mill virus-wipes-everyone out story, and as I trudged through the introduction of the complete set of strangers that will all eventually meet through the author's contrivings, it didn't feel like the story was getting much of anywhere very fast. A third of the way through the book, I wasn't really looking forward to making it through the rest.

Then the book started to shift into weirder territory. The realm of science began to evaporated, and in the vacuum a mystical world started to emerge. At first I was put off; for me, the gap between scientific/rational thought and that of magical world is not easily traversed within the same context, so I was thrown ajar. Then I realized that it's a King novel; of course it was going to leave the realm of the rational. The similarities with The Gunslinger also helped pull me through the transition.

The next thing I knew, I had torn through the next third of the book, and I hardly recollected any time passing for the last third as well. I started off by saying that starting off with a discussion of a book length was a bad way to judge a book, but I believe that stating that I was pulled through the last two-thirds of a 1100+ page book is a good way of saying, "It was a darn good read."

It's a book that can foretell it's end, and yet still fill you with suprises. In fact, King frequently tells you exactly what is going to happen in the future, and then demonstrates that he can still do a great job telling you what happens between now and then. I'm not sure I liked the books overall sense of fatalism, but as a storytelling device King made it work.

This is the best King novel I've read, though I confess that I've only read this and the first two novels of the Dark Tower series.

May 16, 2004

Book: Beowulf

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I finished Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf during my flight to and from Boston and enjoyed it greatly. I think it will stand up to multiple readings, as there is the Beowulf story, the poetic style of Heaney, and the side-by-side comparison of the translation and the original Old English. Heany also writes a good introduction to the text, that gives insight into the influences of the text as well as the guidelines he followed in the translation.

Apparently, you can order CDs for the "Electronic Beowulf," which contains scans of the original manuscript. From the few images that I have seen, I think it would add a lot of character to see the text in that form, even though I would be unable to read it.

If you are a fan of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, you might want to read this book; at least in my reading, it seems to me that Tolkein took a lot of his influence for those works from this poem. Perhaps this is an obvious fact that I was previously unaware of -- it helped that Heaney's introduction mentioned Tolkein's paper "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," but it seems even without this setup the similarities are striking enough to come through.

April 27, 2004

Book: How Would You Move Mount Fuji

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This book is targeted at people who are preparing for an interview. Although it is a book about interview puzzles, the puzzles take up very little of the book. Most of the book is dedicated to interview guides (for the interviewer and interviewee) and the history of the logic puzzle, from its use in IQ tests to its adoption by job interviews. The history was a little bit interesting to me, mostly because it talked about Shockley, and it also happened to mention Jim Gibbons name, which made my world a little bit smaller. The main reason I picked this book up, though, is that I happen to like the puzzles that they give you during interviews, and I'm too lazy to find them on the Internet.

There are plenty of Fermi estimation questions in the book (the title of the book ends up being one). Fermi estimation questions ask you to estimate the value of something you don't know, like the number of redheads in Ireland. When I was in high school, we had an entire unit on this in chemistry. My chemistry teacher introduced the unit by telling the anecdote of Fermi at one of the nuclear bomb tests. As the shockwave approached, Fermi threw some scraps of paper into the air and watched their deflection. From this observation, he came up with an estimate of the megatons of the explosion that was reasonably accurate.

It's really not much use searching for examples of Fermi type problems; pretty much any type of estimation will serve as practice. Although it's nice to have estimation skills, as puzzles I find these a bit boring.

Another class of problems they have are design-type questions, where you get asked how you would design/build some sort of item. While I think these are good interview questions, as they allow the interviewer and interviewee to interact back and forth, I don't find them too interesting to solve in my freetime.

The last class of problems, logic problems with actual solutions, are the ones that I was shooting for when I got the book. There are some good ones in this book which made it worth the price of admission. Here are some of my favorites:
- 5 pirates have 100 gold coins to divide. The senior pirate proposes how to divide the coins, and the pirates then get to vote. If at least half of the pirates agree to the proposal, the division is made; otherwise the senior pirate is killed and the process is repeated. If you are the senior pirate (pirate #5), what should you propose?

- There is a village of 50 husband and wife couples. All of the husbands have been unfaithful. The wives know when men other than their own husbands have cheated, but they don't know about their own husbands fidelity. If a wife can prove that her husband has cheated, then she is required by law to kill him. Also, all of the wives are blessed with Spock-like logic skills. One day, the queen stops by and announces, "at least one of your husbands has been unfaithful." What happens?

- How many points are there on the globe where, by walking one mile south, one mile east, and one mile north, you reach the place where you started?

- Count in base negative 2 (doesn't have a "correct" solution)

- You have five jars of pills. Normal pills weight 10 grams, while poisonous pills weight 9 grams. One of the jars is filled with poisonous pills. Measuring once on a scale, how do you find the poison jar?

April 8, 2004

Book: Heart of Darkness

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This is an awesome book. I haven't read any of Conrad's other books, but they'll probably appear on my shelf soon. It was a bit hard to push Apocalypse Now out of my mind as I read this, but once I did I enjoyed symbolism and realism imbued from Conrad's own experience. I especially like the comparison between Marlow and Buddha: Buddha possesses knowledge of the path toward enlightenment; Marlow possesses knowledge of mankind's path toward baseness.

The version of the I read had copious end notes to help decode some of the allusions that Conrad makes, as well as point out where Conrad is including (and disguising) details from his own trip. It also has Conrad's diary from the journey, which I may get around to reading.

In the extended entry, I included my favorites excerpts from the book. Some come from near the end, so read no further if you want no spoilers.

Continue reading "Book: Heart of Darkness" »

March 30, 2004

Book: Against All Enemies

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(As I look down at my watch as I start this entry, I see it is 9:11, eery). I had been eager to read this book, partly because I wanted to see someone stick it to Bush's international policies, partly because it will most likely change the course of the election to come, and partly because Richard Clarke's career, spanning thirty years, would certainly offer much needed perspective on the evolution of America's relationship to the Arab world.

What I found inside Against All Enemies was three books. The first part recounts the events of September 11th from Clarke's perspective. The second part recounts the history of US counter terrorism policy and relationship with the Arab world from the mid 1970s up until the end of Clinton's presidency, with a large focus on the Clinton presidency. The third and final part of the book deals with the Bush presidency, briefly discussing its failures before September 11th, and then focusing on the failures of his post-September-11th policy.

In my extended entry, I recount each of these sections in more detail, but what was most surprising to me, was that the majority of this book is not a "attack Bush" book. Blind to the 9/11 Commission and the rest of the media circus swirling around this book, and asked to write a one sentence summary of this book, I would say

A history of America's counter terrorism from Ronald Reagan to present

In this function, the book is very insightful. You should read this book regardless of political viewpoint, as I, at least, found it to be the first cohesive and detailed history of the emergence of radical Islamic terrorism as a threat to America. At some point in our history, we transitioned from a Cold War threat to a jihadist terrorism threat, and Clarke is able to pull apart history to show us how this transition took place. One also gets to see how the gears of the CIA and FBI interact, how the Executive Branch analyzes terrorist threats, how our security policies in the seventies and eighties have come to haunt us in the present day. As a national security primer, one would be well served in reading this book, regardless of your personal political leanings.

Listening to the media circus surrounding this book, though, one would believe that it's three hundred pages of non-stop Bush Administration critique. However, of the three hundred pages this book encompasses, less than a third deals specifically with Bush, and of this third, not all of it is necessarily criticizing. Sometimes Clarke makes Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld look good, sometimes he makes them look bad. In the balance, though, he does make them look bad (Wolfowitz never looks good), and the book closes with an essay that can stand by itself as an informed critique of the current Iraq War.

From his vantage point, Clarke levels two main charges against the Bush administration. The first is that the administration ignored his warnings about the seriousness of the al Qaeda threat before September 11th, and failed to enact policies that could have possibly (but not certainly) prevented the attacks. The second charge is that by engaging America in a war with Iraq, we have only worsened America's defenses to future terrorist attacks: we passed up the opportunity to capture al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, we stretched our military and National Guard forces thin, we stirred up anti-American sentiment by invading an Arab nation without provocation, we've underfunded security efforts at home, we failed to promote an alternate ideology to counterattack the fundamentalist, jihadist ideology, etc... (there are many more)

Of these two charges, the first has gotten the most attention in the press, perhaps because the 9/11 Commission is naturally focused on events leading up to 9/11, not the response that occurred afterward. We also seem to be at a stage where we are looking to assign blame to particular people and administrations for failing to prevent the attacks. However, I believe that it is the second of these charges that is the most important to dwell on. What we did or didn't do to prevent 9/11 at this point is moot: we as a nation now recognize the threat from al Qaeda, and whether or not someone underestimated the terrorist threat is a question for the past, not the future. Clarke, himself, doesn't focus very strongly on the first charge, and his recounting of the events before 9/11 are offered up mostly as facts without follow-up analysis and critique.

Our response to 9/11, however, is still a matter of current policy, and it is important, as we look at our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, to decide whether or not our current policies are the ones that will best prevent future terrorist attacks. Although most of the book is a memoir, Clarke shifts gears to offer a detailed critique of how our second Iraq War has weakened our defenses to terrorism, while at the same time outlining what our national security response should have been.

There is a third, implicit, criticism in the book, which is that career civil servants, qualified, intelligent people that Clarke respects, have all quit (despite many years of service), due to frustration and the way the Bush Administration is handling it's security policy. There is also another, similar criticism, which is that enlistments are certain to suffer as the Iraq War is pushing extended enlistments for Army, Marines, and National Guard alike. These are serious criticisms, but ones that unfortunately takes second stage.

Reading the book, it's easy to see why Clarke is a threatening target to the Bush Administration. Clarke's views on foreign policy and counter terrorism sit well enough to the right to fit in with a Republican administration. He has no problems with using force to achieve foreign policy goals, including assassinating foreign targets and supporting the proxy wars as a means of fighting Russia. He is also against the Kyoto Treaty and the International Criminal Court (p. 273).

Clarke will also be difficult to refute because he is extremely specific with names, quotes, and other details. I am surprised at the level of detail he was able to achieve, and I wonder what sort of journal he has been keeping in order to make this book possible. Given that the White House has had a copy for several months now, and has chosen to challenge the book primarily with character rather than factual attacks, it would appear to me at least that Clarke is probably accurate in most of his recollection. It would be too simple to find the people involved in the conversations he recounts, or the documents that he refers to, produce them, and show Clarke to be incorrect if that were the case.

Even if you don't read my extended notes that follow, I would recommend reading the transcript of Clarke's, Berger's, Tenet's, and Armitage's testimony to the 9/11 commission, contradictions in Rice's statements/attacks, and the transcript of Rice's 60 Minutes interview, which includes this wonderful exchange

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I'm saying that the administration took seriously the threat - let's talk about what we did.

ED BRADLEY:: But no, I understand-

ED BRADLEY:: But you - you listed -

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: -priority.

ED BRADLEY:: You'd listed the things that you'd done. But here is the perception. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff at that time says you pushed it to the back burner. The former Secretary of the Treasury says it was not a priority. Mr. Clarke says it was not a priority. And at least, according to Bob Woodward, who talked with the president, he is saying that for the president, it wasn't urgent. He didn't have a sense of urgency about al Qaeda. That's the perception here.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Ed, I don't know what a sense of urgency - any greater than the one that we had, would have caused us to do differently.

This entry is almost incomplete, and I'm too lazy to finish. I have yet to write my summary of Part III, and my Part II summary is still a bit scattered.

Continue reading "Book: Against All Enemies" »

March 22, 2004

Book: Brave New World

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After taking a hiatus from dystopias (1984, Animal Farm), I finally got around to reading Brave New World. As an idea, it's an interesting book. It's world of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, where the social hiearchy is manufactured through bio-engineering, which contrasts against notions of a future where bio-engineering is used to manufacture perfect, equal individuals. I also found it interesting the that the World State in Brave New World reinforces social stability by promoting, rather than depriving, citizens of pleasure.

However, as a story, I have a hard time convincing myself that this is a classic. The story is flat, as are most of the characters. The only character I thought was really interesting was Mustapha Mund, but he is in very little of the story.

Overall, Huxley has more to say than story to say it with. Perhaps this would have been better as a series of short stories, but who am I to judge a classic?

March 11, 2004

Book: Foucault's Pendulum

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I finished this book a long time ago, and I've been meaning to write this entry for quite awhile. However, just like reading this book, I've taken my time saving up the willpower to write this entry. When I first picked this book up, I couldn't stand the first chapter, and it took a good three or four tries before I finally got enough momentum to vault through the book. Perhaps it's appropriate that I've waited until after I read The Golden Ratio, as both books share the same theme of the ability to hallucinate hidden messages in nearly anything.

I'll save the spoilers for the extended section -- this part of the entry should be safe.

Before this book, I had no idea what a Templar was. Maybe I'm a cretin. I had gone twenty-three years without noticing their presence, watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in complete innocence. Now they're everywhere. Just the other day I was walking through Amoeba Music, and there they were, sitting at the front of the CD rack, Templars. It seems like every book I've picked up since Foucault's Pendulum has a Templar connection: Seville Communion, 1602, The Magdelena, and The Golden Ratio (Rosicrucians). I hear The Da Vinci Code revolves around them, and that friggin' book is at the counter of every bookstore I visit. Kavalier and Clay has Jewish tradition/kabbala, Superman, and World War II Europe in common with the Foucault's Pendulum, so there's got to be a Templar hiding in their somewhere. Argh! This book has turned me into a lunatic.

With that bit of paranoia out of the way, let me say that Foucault's Pendulum is both a great and a terrible book. There are certain passages that are absolutely brilliant, and then there's the crushing weight of the overly ambitious plot. I would compare the structure to a book like Godel Escher Bach, though I use the comparison lightly because I think GEB is an awesome book that I liked thoroughly, whereas I only like Foucault's Pendulum intermittenly. To make the isomorphism:

Achilles, Tortoise <=> Casaubon, Belbo Crab <=> Diotallevi Hofstader's dialogues <=> Conversations between Causaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi.

I don't mean the comparison between Achilles, Tortoise, and Crab and Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi directly as personalities, as much I want to point out that, just as Hofstader saves the really clever bits for the dialogues, so, too, does Eco save the clever bits for his dialogues between his three main characters. And just as the chapters inbetween the dialogues in GEB can be fatiguing, so is the rest of the text in Foucault's Pendulum. In the case of GEB, the fatigue comes from the large amounts of intellectual ground Hofstader is covering, which is a good thing, because you're reading the book to learn. In Eco's case, the fatigue comes from overly frequent intellectual references and drawn-out storyarcs that try to unite everything under the Sun, from Templars to Rosicrucians to kabbala to love stories to World War II Italy to book publishing to philosophy to science to math to politics. Whereas Hoftsader succeeds in his attempt to bring math, music, art, and AI together, Eco's connections fail to coalesce.

Case in point, while I was reading this book, meta would ask me how it was going, and each time I would say, "oh, it looks like the plot is starting now, so I think the story's about to pick up." I said this at page 100, page 200, page 300... Just when you think that Eco's put his dominoes into place, he starts a new line that tries to extend the puzzle further, and eventually you feel that Eco is losing sight of the overall picture. This book takes soooo long to get going... (spoiler cut)

Continue reading "Book: Foucault's Pendulum" »

March 9, 2004

Book: The Golden Ratio

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I'm not going to give this book a good review, so if you're looking forward to reading it, turn away now. I won't give a spoiler warning, as the book is non-fiction. How could I possibly spoil that?

Continue reading "Book: The Golden Ratio" »

February 14, 2004

Book: Fast Food Nation

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(originally posted January 27, 2004)
In my post on Jennifer Government, I started off by saying "I seem to have a habit when I read books of reading two books in a row that are very similar in their themes." Well, I guess I can revise that to three books in a row in this case, and it's not a pleasant similarity.

I'm only two chapters into the book, but I stumbled upon an unpleasantness that makes Barry's Jennifer Government vision for the future seem all too real. In Barry's book, all schools are run by corporations like McDonald's or Pepsi, and the syllabus is entirely centered around preaching the values that the sponsor has to offer. Sounds pretty far-fetched, at least several orders of magnitude beyond the soda machine that my high school had. How wrong I was about the current state of the US educational system.

Fast Food Nation offers these examples of corporations using high school as advertising banners:
- A student was suspended for wearing a Pepsi shirt during "Coke in Education Day" at the school
- An agreement was made to open a Pepsi GeneratioNext Resource Center at an elementary school in Derby, Kansas
- Thousands of schools use corporated-sponsored teaching texts. Proctor & Gamble's Decision Earth teaches that clear cutting is good for the environment. Exxon's teaching materials inform kids that fossil fuels have caused few environmental problems and that alternate fuel sources are too expensive. The American Coal Foundation suggests that carbon dioxide might actually help, rather than hurt the planet.
- Fast food chains advertise on Channel One, which is broadcasted to eight million students daily.

Who knows what other sadly depressing insights this book will have in store for me...

Update: further along in the book now. Kenny with the herniated back sounds an awful lot like Boxer from Animal Farm, except for the part about the glue.

Update 2/14/04: done now. Learned a lot more disgusting facts. I wrote a brief review of the book in the full entry.

Update 2/14/04: don't know if this is real, but this seems like a appropriate reading to accompany Fast Food Nation. According to the site, which is claimed to be run by the guy who tested the American mad cow, the USDA has effectively stopped testing for Mad Cow in order to prevent the appearance of an epidemic. Just as disturbing is the assertion, which also appears in this MSNBC story, that the cow was not a 'downer' cow. This is important, as it is policy only to test downer cows for mad cow disease. The cow in question happened to arrive with a bunch of other downer cows, and the handler was impatient and killed it with the rest of the downers.

Continue reading "Book: Fast Food Nation" »

January 25, 2004

Book: Jennifer Government

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I seem to have a habit when I read books of reading two books in a row that are very similar in their themes. Much like Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom, Jennifer Government takes the current trends of human development and projects them into the future. Instead of the technology-driven adhocracies of Down and Out, however, Max Barry's vision is a marketing-driven laissez faire extreme: individuals take on the surname of the company they work for, law is enforced by paid contract, and elementary schools are completely bought out by companies.

The story itself follows the line between amoral corporate ethical policy in a laissez faire world and capitalist anarchy, and as one would expect, Barry pushes the line as far as he can. There is a sad truth to some of the extremes Barry explores -- the idea of killing someone to increase demand for your product isn't too different from companies that dump toxins into groundwater or sell defective products.

My only real complaint with the book is that the characters are about as well developed as characters in a cheap thriller novel -- they serve to propel the story forward, and nothing more. Also, it relies on the remarkable coincidence that these unrelated characters suddenly become remarkably connected, so as to better serve the uniting of the plot threads.

January 23, 2004

Book: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

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This book stands on the shoulders of the sci-fi authors that preceded it, and even manages to tip its hat to at least one (the Snow Crash parade). This is not to say the book is unimaginative. Rather, Doctorow takes samiliar SF premises and spins a dark-humored-but-fun yarn about an "ad hoc" named Jules who works at the Disneyland of the future, a future where money and death have been eliminated, and instead everyone is driven to elevate their "Whuffies" (peer respect).

In many ways, Doctorow's vision of the future is what would happen if you took the current social ecosystem of blogging and replicated that for all social interaction. Interaction is multimedia, occurring both offline and online simulatenously over multiple channels. "Whuffies" are much like your Technorati cosmos links or your Friendster list, and communities are fluid with quick shifting of allegiances like online communities.

His prose won't stand up to Stephenson or Gibson in terms of lyrical analogies or clever turns, but it flows well and pulls you through the book. I also give Doctorow extra props for (a) releasing the pdf of the book for free, and (b) being a regular contributor to BoingBoing, which quickly became my favorite filter. The dozen or so bucks I paid for the book was worth those two facts alone, and imagine my pleasure that the book was actually fun to read; I've gotten more than I paid for.

January 18, 2004

Book: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

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This is a wonderful book. As a comic book reader, I'm biased towards a story that uses the Golden Age (aetataureate) of comics as a backdrop for the story of the two cousins, Kavlier and Clay. Chabon makes excellent use of analogies between the cousins, their comic book stories, and world events as a tool for character development.

The book does have a high level of diction, at least to a illiterate fool like me, so I have made use of the extended entry to annotate some of the words/phrases that I had to lookup/translate. I felt more relieved at my ignorance when I discovered that at least one of the words was one that Chabon had made up (aetataureate). Nevertheless, the book is still remarkably easy to read. You never feel weighed down as the story gracefully moves you forward, assembling the strong character arcs Chabon has laid out.

My last comment before the extended entry is that there are too many unintentional parallels between my reading choices recently, which I blame all on Foucault's Pendulum. What are the chances that I would read two books that use Jewish tradition/kabbala, Superman, and World War II Europe? Honestly. At least there are no templars in this one (or so the templars would have me believe).

Update: Just found out on Newarama that Escapist #1 is due on the shelves in February. I'm hoping the image on Newsarama isn't the cover for #1, because it would be a shame to not try and recreate the Escapist punching Hitler cover that Chabon describes in the novel.

Continue reading "Book: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" »

December 10, 2003

Book: Holes

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I enjoyed the movie holes, and I enjoyed reading the book as well, but I didn't really do it justice by watching the movie first. I enjoyed going to the movie without any preconceptions, and I started the book with every possible preconception. Also, as Holes is a children's book, the movie was able to adapt it without dropping too many of the detalils. In fact, it probably took me as long to read the book as it did to watch the movie. The only detail that I noticed was significantly different is the fact that main actor in the movie a skinny beanpole, and the character he is meant to play is, well, fat, which affects his social relationships with other characters. The book was nice, but I need a 'forget' button so that I can read it without my memories of the movie influencing my interpretation of the story.

December 9, 2003

Book: Good Omens

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I liked this book, though I haven't disliked anything I've read that Neil Gaiman has been involved with that I've read or watched, so perhaps I'm biased. Imagine a really British version of the Apocalypse, where the Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse are bikers and the snake from the Garden of Eden drives a Bently. It's downright ridiculous, and plenty funny for it. I was a bit let down by the ending, but such is the way of the Apocalypse.

DISCLAIMER: read no further if you haven't read the book, outline/quotes below.

Continue reading "Book: Good Omens" »

November 30, 2003

Book: 1984

sad face I just finished reading 1984 for the first time. You may say to yourself, "Wow, you've never read 1984?" Well, now I have.

I was not as disturbed by this book as I was by Animal Farm. metamanda was surprised by this, but all I can say is that Orwell's dystopian future presented in 1984 is much less culturally shocking to me than Orwell's using farm animals to represent the rise of Stalin. Hollywood has put enough Philip K. Dick stories on the big screen to more than familiarize myself with a Big Brother future that I hardly blinked an eye at 1984, but Animal Farm seemed to take grab "Some Pig" Wilbur and turn him into bacon and pork chops.

sad face What caught my attention most about 1984 were the comparison to (a) Catch-22 and (b) The Matrix. I was especially shocked by how similar one of the speeches felt to the speech the Architect makes to Neo. I wrote some brief notes outlining some of the comparisons, but due to spoilers I have left them for the extended entry. I also have the traditional outline notes, that, as always, are only useful to those that have read the book. I have only outlined the second half of the book, I may get back to finishing the outline for the first half later.

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November 25, 2003

Book: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

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I started reading this book b/c I couldn't stand other book I had chosen to read (Everything is Illuminated), and I'm glad I made the switch. It's not as good as Cat's Cradle, and despite similar background elements (Kilgore Trout, poo-tee-weet, Tralfamadore), it's not nearly as good as Slaughterhouse Five, but it was still an interesting read. Vonnegut juxtaposes rich and poor, and questions who is less deserving of their fortunes, and mocks the hypocrisy of the rich-born criticizing welfare. There's also plenty of dark humor, and bathroom wall humor that kept me laughing to myself through out. Thematically, this book goes well with a book like You Shall Know Our Velocity, so if you haven't had your fill of charity satire, you can read both.

WARNING: everything from here on is a spoiler, and isn't much use to anyone who hasn't read the book, and it's not much use even if you have.

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November 22, 2003

Book: Doctor Faustus

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I just finished reading Marlowe's Doctor Faustus play. I felt compelled to read it, as Faust was an underlying theme of The Game we did a year ago. I liked the positioning of the book on the boundary of religion and science. Faustus denys God's existence and instead covets scientific knowledge, which he quickly parts with his soul to obtain. Strangely enough, he rejects the notion of hell even though it is hell's agents that provide him with his farcical powers. Also, it is the deadly sin of Pride, which he is introduced to in material form, that ensures his damnation.

Below I've posted links to an online version of the play (not the version I read), as well as nice summary and analysis from MonkeyNotes. The MonkeyNotes were nice to go through, as they reaffirmed/clarified what I read, as it becomes a slight chore to constantly have to translate the old English text. I imagine I would find the text more clever if it didn't rely on mythology and language that is very unfamiliar to me. Maybe an actual performance would be even more engaging.
- MonkeyNotes-Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe-Free Book notes/Chapter Summary
- Online text of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus - Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)

November 18, 2003

Book: Animal Farm

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pig 2WARNING: if you haven't read the book, and don't know what it's about, read no further. It's such a short, quick book that if you haven't read it, you would do well to just pick it up and read it. Granted, I'm probably one of the few people that made it through high school without reading the book.

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November 15, 2003

Book: Pattern Recognition

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I liked this book a lot. It's not my favorite Gibson book, but it's definitely in the top tier (along with Idoru and Neuromancer). Thematically, this feels like one of Gibson's strongest efforts, as he manages to create a novel within the grief of 9/11, without the overbearing sentiment, shrillness, or hackneyed emotion that is characteristic of nearly every other effort that we have long become desensitized to. It helps that 9/11 is more of a small piece in the backdrop of the novel, but the thematic parallels are still very strong.

Gibson also manages to create a novel that leaves the cyberpunk roots behind and strikes out in the present day, summer of 2002, in a world that is very nearly our own. The Web browser in the book seems a little strange, but the most sophisticated machine in the book is no more than an iBook. Web bulletin boards and e-mail are the important communication tools in the book, and Gibson captures the obsessive, investigatory nature of fan sites.

The rest of this entry are notes that I took, and should be ignored by the casual visitor. I have broken them down into several sections: themes, outine, footage/dig, and people. The "themes" section benefitted greatly from multiple postings on the williamgibsonboard, which has a section on Pattern Recognition.

WARNING: Massive SPOILERS ahead! Usual disclaimer: these notes are of little use to anyone who has not read the book, and probably not even useful to people who have, as notes tend to be useful only to their creator. I post them here, because I find it convenient to be able to search my notes online.

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Book: Bringing Down the House

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I was motivated to read this book b/c it comes straight out of some of the rumors I had heard at MIT. My friend Jay told me about a grad student who had a Foxwoods Blackjack champion jacket, and after the Wired article was published, others had shared friend-of-a-friend rumors about people on the blackjack team.

In terms of story, the book didn't disappoint. It's full of all the basic elements of a good story, with plenty of intrigue, clever plans, high-profile celebrities, danger, and betrayals. It also revealed the basic elements of their strategy, which surprised me with it's simple algorithm (hi-lo) and clever implementation. There were some more sophisticated tricks they used, such as following high cards through the shuffle and being able to cut exactly 52 cards, but most of the method came down to using a team to bring in the high roller at just the right moment.

In terms of writing, the book did disappoint. I groaned during some of the early chapters when the author introduces some of the characters. Many of his descriptions feel like attempted cleverness, and not once does he actually capture the feel of Boston or MIT. With the written word, there is power to embed great detail, comparison, and nuance, but instead it feels like the author is writing copy for a TV special, with everything reduced to a caricature. There are also several chapters where the author places himself into the story to describe his "research." These clumsy additions read more like attempts at breaking two-hundred pages than meaningful components to the story.

Despite the poor writing, the story is entertaining, and you won't waste too much of your life reading it as you can finish the book in a single night. I bought the book because I needed something to clean out my mind between more difficult prose, and this book didn't disappoint :).

November 11, 2003

Book: Catch-22

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I was feeling like a cretin b/c I had read so few entries on the top 100 list (American or British). I've decided to try and knock off a couple to improve my score, which would still make me a cretin, but I'd be a cretin who's read a bunch of entries on top 100 lists.

I started off with Catch-22, which has turned out to be a really good choice. I started marking the pages that had something I thought were hilarious, and from the extended entry you can see that I pretty much marked up the entire book.

I would have really enjoyed using the search inside feature of Amazon on this book, but it appears that they don't have the rights to. Heller's non-linear story construction is an ideal candidate for searching. I found myself two-hundred pages into the book, thinking, "Now that sounds familiar. I feel like I'm having deja vu." It would be very nice to have the search inside feature, because then I could find out if it was deja vu, or jamais vu, or presque vu. Instead, I've transcribed an outline/favorite quotes in the extended entry. I'll give my usual disclaimer, which is: if you haven't read the book, read no further, it won't be interesting to you. I can't even guarantee that any part of this entry is interesting to those that have read the entry.

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October 23, 2003

Book: Cat's Cradle

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I just finished Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, and I thought I'd use the opportunity to play with the new "search inside" feature on Amazon (Wired News: The Great Library of Amazonia). This isn't a review as much as it is a guide to some of my favorite moments of humor in the book, as well as a list of Bokonism keywords to play with the new search feature. This is my first attempt at this, so please feel free to point out problems or offer suggestions.

Note: If you haven't read the book, this guide won't be of much use to you, and it will certainly spoil the book.

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October 1, 2003

Book: You Shall Know Our Velocity

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I finished reading Dave Egger's You Shall Know Our Velocity a couple weeks back and I've finally taken the time to finish my post on it. I really liked AHBWOSG, partly because of the familiarity of the Bay Area it describes, and mostly because of his fast-paced, kinetic rants that have the ability to pull you through ten pages in ten seconds, all the while you're holding the book tighter and tighter and closer to your face, completely caught up in the flow.

While YSKOV is also full of the expected kinetic sections, what I enjoyed most about it was the way that Egger's plays with our expectations and interpretations throughout the story. He's willing to experiment with the format and concept of the book and derives great value from it. Take the first sentence for example: "Everything takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted guaviare river, in east-central Colombia, with forty-two locals we hadn't yet met."

He also throws in plenty of dialogues, monologues, and themes that I found hilarious, some of which I have managed to transcribe below.

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September 26, 2003

Talk: Author of Quicksilver

The author of Quicksilver gave a talk at a bookstore in Menlo Park to promote his latest book, Quicksilver, which is part of the Baroque Cycle. In an interesting social experiment, he will be running a Wiki for the book at Metaweb.

If you're wondering why I'm using pronouns and allusions to the identity of the author, it is because he began his talk by requesting that a new social convention be honored and observed during his talk. The author hopes that this convention will be called grith, which is an Old English term referring to protection/santuary. In modern parlance, he hopes that this term will spawn a new convention. In essence, if a person invokes grith, he is asking that he be able to speak frankly without fear of being recorded in any manner.

In the future he imagines that people will become more and more reticent to speak openly in public settings (much like politicians nowadays), and more and more information becomes accessible and free. Anecodotally, he spoke of his fear that his off-the-cuff remarks being videotaped and immediately placed on the Web, where it will remain until the Earth spirals down into the Sun. The fear makes it much more difficult for him to be open with audiences, as he knows that anyone might be carrying a small deck-of-cards-sized camcorder. He also related the story of another person who had someone ten thousand miles away take issue with an off-the-cuff remark he gave in a guest lecture.

In accordance with his invoking of grith, let me state that what follows in this entry is not a transcription of this author's talk; rather, it is a partial transcription of my imaginings of what he might say if these questions were asked of him, and I have not taken the time to note the many gaps. Also, as with anything that only occurs in one's mind, I didn't have a tape recorder or TiVo to replay my thoughts, and anything with "quotes" should not be construed as an actual quote of a fictitious character in my head. Instead, it should interpreted as the faulty transcriptions of an imaginative mind.

Finally, please also note that anything up and to this point was before he invoked the right of grith, or made permissible -- He was asked if it was alright to blog about grith, to which he responded, after some wavering, "go ahead - but don't quote me on that." I'm sure that anyone who was audience to this imaginary talk in my head will be intelligent enough to search google for "grith" if they wish to find me notes.

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September 10, 2003

Notes: Aria with Diverse Variations

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Last set of GEB notes for the night. Yet another essay/side story from the book.

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Notes: Crab Canon

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The "Crab Canon" is by far my favorite side-story in GEB, so I'd be remiss in not posting my notes on it.

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Notes: Little Harmonic Labyrinth

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Amanda's posting of her Ant Fugue notes reminded me that I have a bunch of GEB notes lying around. It turns out that my "Ant Fugue" notes are rather worthless, but I did find some other notes that were a little more complete.

The "Little Harmonic Labyrinth" was a pretty interesting essay with a lot of deep structure and detail that I thought was interesting, so I've posted my notes here. As always, notes are rather useless unless you've read the piece yourself.

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May 28, 2003

Book: Visual Display of Quantitative Information

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You don't need me to tell you that Edward Tufte's Visual Display of Quantitative Information (amazon) is a good book. I've posted my outline notes below (mostly for my own benefit, as this is useless without Tufte's pretty [and ugly] examples).

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December 16, 2002

Book: Wittgenstein's Poker

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This book was really a fun read. From the tagline of the book, "The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers," the first question you might ask is, "How is the world do you write an entire book about a ten-minute argument?" The answer is, "you don't." Instead, this book serves as a consise dual biography of Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein that uses the format to juxtapose the lives, viewpoints, and backgrounds of the two. The comparison is fun, especially as there are parts set in Vienna alongside Godel, Berg, Schoenberg, Freud, Einstein, and Bohr. I never knew that the Viennese culture had been so prolific, and although none of these greats has any real role in the book, it is fun to read about the culture that produced them. The book also lands itself in Cambridge culture with Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore.

If you read the reviews on Amazon you'll see either those who loved the book, or philosophy majors who complain that it isn't detailed enough. I personally found the complaining reviews overly pedantic, and it's unfortunate that they missed the fun portions of the book (IMHO). Granted, my background in philosophy is fairly light (I only had a Philosophy 101 course in college).

Outline below.

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Book: The Difference Engine

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The Difference Engine
Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer
by Doron Swade

I found this book very interesting, because it balances to opposite goals: demonstrating the novelty of Babbage's ideas/vision, and showing that they had absolutely no effect on the emergence of computing. These opposing goals are laid out upon a modern day challenge: building the Babbage's previously unbuilt Difference Engine and proving that it was functional to Babbage's original design. As a computer scientist, the balance of historical background and engineering challenge made the book rewarding for me to read.

The extended entry contains outline and summary (massive spoilers).

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October 28, 2002

Book: Snowcrash - World

Second set of notes for Snowcrash. This set describes the "real world" portion of Stephenson's novel.

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Book: Snowcrash - Metaverse

I separated the notes for this book into several sections. The level of detail that Stephenson put into describing the Snowcrash world is so amazing that I felt like outlining it. This section of notes describes the Metaverse.

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March 12, 2002

Book/Movie: Black Hawk Down

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Finished this a week or so ago. A great book, a fantastic book. It's amazing that so much detail could be extracted from an event that had to be so chaotic for those involved. Bowden covers a lot of material, from the mundane day-to-day monotony of preparing for missions that will be cancelled, to the spiritual conflicts involved, to the consequences of bad decisions made on the battlefield. It's easy to see why the author has been popular among members of the military, because the book accurately captures the nature and experience of armed conflict.

The Movie:
It bothers me when I see criticisms of the movie (not the book) that harp on the fact that it doesn't have a central plot structure like Saving Private Ryan or other war movies. Those types of criticisms seem to miss the point, at least to me. The movie is the first big screen portrayal of modern war that I know of, a type of war that isn't fought above the ground inside of airplanes, or behind a television monitoring a smart bomb, or a war that's fought in a remote jungle. Black Hawk Down was urban warfare, fought by American ground soldiers, where our technological superiority was made vulnerable by sheer numbers and innocents didn't have time to get out of the way.

The movie isn't important because it tells a good love story, or because we personally identify with a lead character's troubles. Instead, it reveal our vulnerabilities. It shows the difficulties of executing good intentions and America's ineffectual role as a nation builder. It shows us the consequences of our decisions to use force in carrying out foreign policy.

February 28, 2001

Book: Embracing Defeat

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John Dower taught several of the classes I took on Japanese history. This is my outline of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Embracing Defeat:
- Embracing Defeat

Note:These are notes are not much use to anyone who does not actually own this book, and I have only put these online so that those who do own the book might find them useful in remembering some of the salient points. Actually, I posted them online so that I could lookup my notes whenever I need them, but it sounds nice to be so generous to others. With that said:

If you don't own the book: Why don't you go buy the book on Amazon?

If you do own the book, but are using these notes in lieu of actually reading the book, shame on you, as it is a fine book that you should read. Dower's a great teacher, and a great writer. If you have a chance to take one of his classes, do.

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This page contains an archive of all entries posted to kwc blog in the Book Talks and Reviews category.

Current entries can be found on the main page.

listing.