June 06, 2010

The Annotated Turing

I've been 'reading' The Annotated Turing for coming up on two years now. I place 'reading' in quotes, as my approach is not a continuous effort, but rather, a series of frustrated exercises. I started by reading this book from the library, and extended my checkouts a couple of times before I concluded that I needed my own copy to give it proper attention.

The book, by Charles Petzold, is, as the title suggests, an annotation of sorts, of Alan Turing's 1936 paper, On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. The paper is a milestone in computer science, even if it precedes most of computer application. In the paper, Turing lays the groundwork to establish what we now take for granted, that it is impossible to 'decide algorithmically whether statements in arithmetic are true or false, and thus a general solution to the Entscheidungsproblem is impossible.'

Turing does this in his paper by a series of logical steps, first describing a hypothetical machine which can carry out various simple instructions, then gradually extending the power of this machine until it is computationally complete, that is, it is capable of generalized computation (much like a modern computer). He then proceeds to show how there is no"process for determining whether a given [machine] is satisfactory or not." In his paper, this means that we cannot determine if a given machine will perform the job it is supposed to (calculate a real number) or not (is 'circular').

Well, the paper is itself filled with lots of mathematical notation in various scripts (German, Greek, what have you), and additionally is compressed, in the sense that much of the notation and discussion assumes familiarity with the field at the time. Rather than read it alone, I thought it would be more enlightening to read the annotated version. As it turns out, this is at times true, and others, frustratingly false.

I try to read difficult papers on my own, as I don't really have the time to take classes right now. But my experience has been that in any difficult subject, I make much better progress if I have an expert in the domain of whom I can ask questions when I get stuck. Here, I was hoping that Petzold would bridge that gap, if not as an expert, than at least as an accomplished tour guide. The material, especially the mathematical foundation, is difficult enough that any ambiguity derails my thoughts immediately.

So I began reading, and enjoyed his introduction of Diophantine equations, and could even see the point in the context of the book. When he began discussing the cardinality of infinities, and tried to describe Cantor's first proof of the non-enumerability of real numbers, I had my first falling-out with this book. Unlike the diagonalization approach, which is very accessible, the first proof is difficult in the extreme (perhaps subtle is a better word), and I found Petzold's explanation opaque and frustrating. I gave up and put the book on the shelf. To be fair, it took Cantor some twenty years to come up with the clearer diagonalization proof, so the problem just ain't easy.

Eventually, I picked the book up again, and tried to retrace my steps. I reread the chapters leading up to the troublesome proof, and once again crashed on the rocks. It was not until I went surfing on the web and found a post by Dick Lipton (a Professor of Computer Science at Georgia Tech) on his weblog discussing the first proof that I was truly able to grasp the point (and the sublety is such that I can understand the fine distinctions which make this proof convincing only in the space of the day I have read Lipton's presentation -- the following day I am once again asking myself "but how???"). This entry supports my notion that access to an expert is sometimes necessary to make forward progress.

The book is not without it's moments of humor. After an ever-escalating tower of abstract machines, Petzold has shown how it is possible to do (binary) addition and multiplication with a 'Turing' machine, at the simple expense of adding dozens of machine configurations and expanding the 'tape' to arbitrary length. It is beginning to dawn on the reader that the primitive hypothetical machine may be extended to a general purpose computer, albeit so primitive as to comprise a bit of a tar-pit. At this point, Petzold shares the understatement: "Obviously, the Turing Machine is not a programmer-friendly medium."

My next stumbling block has only just arisen. I believe I understand the concept of enumerability fairly well, though I acknowledge that any given enumeration can be quite tricky. Petzold covers how Turing has assigned a number to each of his machines by stringing together all the states (machine configurations) of a given machine, along with detected symbols and transition states, to form an encoding, that when translated to digits, gives a unique, finite integer. This is its description number. Since we can enumerate all integers, and we can reject finite integers which are not valid description numbers (given Turing's encoding rules), we can therefore enumerate all Turing Machines.

But this is where Petzold loses me again. I can't agree with his conclusion. He says that since we can enumerate all Turing machines, and some of those Turing machines produce computable numbers, therefore "computable numbers are enumerable." I'll reproduce his conclusion in a complete quote:

By reducing each machine to a number, Turing has also made it possible, in effect, to generate machines just by enumerating the positive integers. Not every positive integer is a valid Description Number of a Turing Machine, and many valid Description Numbers do not describe circle-free machines, but this enumeration certainly includes all circle-free Turing Machines, each of which corresponds to a computable number. Therefore, computable numbers are enumerable.

So

  1. Generate each integer in turn
  2. Reject integers which are not valid Description Numbers (those which don't follow the rules to describe the states of a true Turing Machine)
  3. Reject machines which are not 'circle-free' (these machines can, for instance, get stuck in loops without generating a true real number)

And voila, we are left with the enumeration of machines which generate computable numbers! The trouble is with step three. The whole point of the paper is to show that "there can be no general process for determining" if a machine is circle-free or not. Given that, the procedure for enumerating Turing Machines does indeed exist, but a procedure for enumerating circle-free Turing Machines, and hence for enumerating countable numbers, seems not to be satisfied by this procedure. Have I misunderstood Petzold? Possibly. But once again, I am frustrated by being unable to ask questions.

I'm not putting the book on the shelf for another year, as for the most part, I've been able to follow the elaborations on the paper. In fact, the detailed dissections of the various example machines from the paper have been quite helpful. But I'm just not happy when I encounter these stumbling blocks.

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:30 AM | Comments (0)

April 04, 2010

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

I finished The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes last night. This was the second story collection Renee was reading from last term for school. She didn't have to read the entire book to satisfy her requirements, but I did.

Unfortunately, it is also the short story collection which ends in The Final Problem, the story where Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill of Holmes so he could move on to other, 'better' works.

I never set myself the goal of rereading this entire collection, but was enjoying it enough that I would take my iPod to bed and read part of a story to get sleepy. Having finished with the death of Sherlock Holmes, I feel that I want to get past that point, and so, I'm starting up The Return of Sherlock Holmes. I'll at least read the resurrection story, The Empty House.

Posted by dpwakefield at 07:51 AM | Comments (0)

January 20, 2010

Silver Blaze

Renee had a project to read a bunch of Sherlock Holmes over the last few weeks. She's almost done, but as she started with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I grabbed it from Project Gutenberg and followed along on my iPod Touch. She then started on The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and I just finished the first story, The Silver Blaze. I don't think that she's going to read the entire collection this time, but I'll probably work through it slowly as it is a pleasant nostalgia trip for me.

Posted by dpwakefield at 04:10 PM | Comments (0)

May 08, 2009

Moonraker

I just finished Moonraker tonight. I've been taking it at an easy pace, a chapter a night or less, so about a month has passed since I bought it. I really enjoyed reading a chapter a night before coming to bed. And I will say that following the chronology, it is in fact the best book so far. I'm looking forward to the next one, Diamonds Are Forever.

Posted by dpwakefield at 07:52 PM | Comments (0)

April 19, 2009

Moonraker

Moonraker has already piqued my interest. In the first few pages, we get a glimpse of the bureaucratic hierarchy in which James Bond operates. He has an office shared with two other '00's, 008 and 0011, and is the senior '00'. Here are some snippets that give a flavor of his routine between adventures.

He shrugged his shoulders and resolutely opened the top folder [of intelligence reports]...

It was the beginning of a typical routine day for Bond. It was only two or three times a year that an assignment came along requiring his particular abilities. For the rest of the year he had the duties of an easy-going senior civil servant...

He took no holidays, but was generally given a fortnight's leave at the end of each assignment--in addition to any sick-leave that might be necessary... He had a small but comfortable flat off the King's Road, an elderly Scottish housekeeper--a treasure called May--and a 1930 4 1/2-litre Bentley coupe, supercharged .. so that he could do a hundred when he wanted to.

...It was his ambition to have as little as possible in his banking account when he was killed, as, when he was depressed, he knew he would be, before the statutory age of forty-five.

Eight years to go before he was automatically taken off the 00 list and given a staff job at Headquarters. At least eight tough assignments. Probably sixteen. Perhaps twenty-four. Too many.

Those last two segments give us the tidbit that by the time of Moonraker, Bond is around 33 years old, and can look forward to having episodes of torture into his mid-forties.

The chapter closes out with a description of Bond's progress through a pile of memos, ticking them off, initialing them '007' and putting them into the out tray for the next bureaucrat. It really tickles me to see him outside the frame of action. It's like watching Superman relaxing in the Fortress of Solitude with a model kit, or working his taxes on a crummy too-old laptop.

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:45 PM | Comments (0)

April 12, 2009

Live and Let Die

I just finished Live and Let Die a few days ago. I've read quite a few Ian Fleming novels over the years, but at least a decade has passed since I last read one, so I've gotten the urge to read them all in chronological order. As already noted, I'd finished Casino Royale and enjoyed it quite a bit. It's been long enough, that with my memory, each book seems quite new.

I found a review on Amazon for Live and Let Die that contained the following snippet:

I would rank "Live and Let Die" in the second-tier of Bond novels, along with "From Russia, With Love" and "Moonraker." It doesn't quite reach the level of such absolute masterpieces as "Doctor No," "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," or "You Only Live Twice," but it's certainly superior to such relatively weak entries as "Goldfinger," "Casino Royale," and the disastrous "The Man with the Golden Gun." All in all, a classic Bond thriller.

I have to agree with A. E. Kaiser that Live and Let Die is a better book than Casino Royale. CR is not a bad book, by any measure I'm willing to apply. It's just that by the second novel, Fleming's already begun to get a much more three-dimensional brush stroke for his character and the world in which he maneuvers.

Seeing as how the next book in the sequence is Moonraker, which A. E. Kaiser puts into the second tier, I'm quite anxious to get started! And given that I can apparently identify the movie version of Doctor No in three notes, I'm not sure I want to wait for that 'absolute masterpiece' to roll around in the chronological sequence. But of the two intervening novels (Diamonds Are Forever and From Russia, With Love), the second is also in the second tier, so I'll struggle to hang on.

Posted by dpwakefield at 07:51 PM | Comments (0)

January 06, 2009

Sun in a Bottle

I'm just finishing up Sun in a Bottle by Charles Seife. He covers the pursuit of fusion power from the early awareness of radioactivity, through the construction of fission bombs, onward to fusion research (magnetic confinement, inertial -- laser -- confinement) and fringe science, such as cold fusion, sonoluminescence and electrostatic confinement (fusors).

[Update One: The above paragraph sounds pretty pejorative, and it is. Seife takes pains to describe how easy it is to mistake the signs of fusion, and how easy it is to become emotionally invested in the results of these smaller experiments. But he is pretty clear that the evidence is not there. I'm not going to become a champion for either side. I just read a book, people.]

It's a fascinating book, and coincidentally, I've been sitting on a video that was made a couple of years ago at Google featuring Robert Bussard. The video is called Should Google Go Nuclear? Clean, cheap, nuclear power (no, really). During the talk, Bussard presents his work on electrostatic confinement, and it's a wonderful talk, even if I don't really follow the physics that well. Sadly, Charles Seife mentions this in his book, and puts it in the same category as cold fusion and bubble fusion. I hope he's wrong. Bussard was a fascinating scientist and it would be great if he figured out a path to fusion power before he died.

[Update Two: I'm going to quote the entire paragraph on Bussard, so that M. Simon (another commentor) can judge the tone for himself:

On November 9, 2006, just days before the Olson story broke, the fusion physicist Robert Bussard gave a talk at Google about his research with a modified fusor. He had been working for the navy, but after a number of years he had run out of money for the program. The scientist told his audience that if he could only get his hands on $200 million, he would be able to produce a working power plant within four to five years. Bussard was deceiving himself if mainstream scientific thought is any guide. The equations of plasma physics strongly imply that fusorlike devices are very unlikely to produce more energy than they consume. Nature's inexorable energy-draining powers are too hard to overcome.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:09 PM | Comments (4)

December 09, 2008

Casino Royale

With Quantum of Solace out in the theatre, I had a hankering to revisit the original novel that kicked it all off. Grabbed it a few weeks ago, and I've been reading it evenings before bed since then. Just finished it last night, and it is pretty much as good as I remembered. A bit saccharine in parts, but it's kinda the 'birth' of James Bond. I enjoyed it, and will probably read Live and Let Die before too long.

Oh, and it was amusing to be reminded that Bond's first nemesis organization was SMERSH, a Russian counter-espionage agency which translates to "Death to Spies". And yes, while it had apparently ceased to exist by the era Bond supposedly operated in, it was a real organization.

Posted by dpwakefield at 07:45 PM | Comments (0)

September 19, 2007

Day of the Triffids

I finished this yesterday evening before going to bed. If you've seen the film adaptation, or worse, some pastiche emphasizing the ooga-booga creepiness of ambulatory, poisonous carnivorous plants directly or indirectly inspired by 'Triffids', then you might think this a trash novel. In reality, it's a very nice post-apocalyptic novel, with interesting characters and a decent exploration of the consequences of civilization's worldwide collapse.

I especially liked that Wyndham ensured that his protagonist had no omniscient knowledge of the source of the disaster -- almost literally a disaster, by the way. He speculates about it, but no one left alive speaks with certainty of it's source.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:08 PM | Comments (0)

April 09, 2007

Nassim Taleb

We cannot help being fooled by randomness. We're too impressionable. I was in London when the second terrorist attack happened and I automatically behaved like anyone else, ducking for safety. Then I realised that my biggest danger in London came from my jet lag and being used to traffic driving on the other side of the road. We should worry about preventable sources of death. I should worry more about how much sugar I put in my tea than whether I am going to be hit by terrorists. The key is not to try to stop being a fool, but to be aware of when it matters not to be a fool. If you can't do anything about a problem, it's a waste of time analysing it.

Just a quote, to remind me that he has a new book out, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. I really loved his first book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, so I'm looking forward to this next one.

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:30 PM | Comments (0)

November 24, 2006

Camelot 30K

The "30K" in the title of this book stands for "30 degrees Kelvin", pretty cold. Like most books by Robert L. Forward, it is rich in physics puzzles, filled with fascinating xenobiology, and equally weighted with clunker characterization and story. As always, I had to ask myself seriously if I wanted to continue, as it's a battle as to which wins out, the great 'hard' science fiction or the painful fiction.

In the end, I stuck with it, and was rewarded with a wonderfully imagined alien race. Not so much their culture, but their biology and their reproductive cycle. If you like that sort of thing, it might be worth the trouble to read...

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:35 PM | Comments (0)

September 26, 2006

Jhereg

Been reading mostly on the Web lately, and lots of technical papers. While I dip into a lot of non-fiction, which you'll occasionally see on the sidebar to this site, I don't usually finish them, as they're generally sorta browsy items. In fact, the last non-fiction item I read cover-to-cover, The Big Con, took me several weeks, even though it was only about 300 pages.

Anyway, I'm now giving in to a spate of fiction reading again. And not just fiction, but fantasy and science fiction. Just finished Jhereg, by Steven Brust. While I've been aware of Brust for years, I've never taken the plunge, being only a lukewarm reader of fantasy. Usually it takes a Roger Zelazny or Gene Wolfe to get me interested. But recently, Cory Doctorow waxed enthusiastic about Dzur, the latest book in Brust's main series, and I decided to take the plunge.

No write-up, follow the link. I'm noting it here so I'll remember which books of his I've read. And yes, it was more than entertaining enough for a light read.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:38 PM | Comments (0)

September 09, 2006

The Big Con

This review is a decent summary of the book I just finished, written by David Maurer in 1940. In The Big Con, what started out as a linguist's attempt to document the argot of a criminal brotherhood became a sociological study and a document of all the popular "big cons". Somewhere out on the Internet I read how this book had served as the inspiration for The Sting, which I'd seen as a kid, and I had to read it.

Nowadays I seldom finish a book, browsing for the highlights instead. But I finished this one. Let that be a testament.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:57 AM | Comments (0)

July 30, 2006

Finance for Non-Financial Managers

The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course In Finance for Non-Financial Managers was an interesting book, surprisingly. I have a phobia about financial planning and budgeting, so I'm thankful that my wife is so good at it. But Cooke is an entertaining writer, and in twelve chapters (plus appendices) he introduces many of the concepts of finance, financial reports and budgets. I don't think any of this will stick, but I felt the urge to read it after seeing an article on my company's financial reporting practices (which are mostly well within GAAP boundaries, I'm told).

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:49 PM | Comments (0)

June 18, 2006

Search and Return

I tore apart three closets today, working up a dusty sweat. I was looking for a book that the corporate librarian at my workplace said I had checked out. I know I checked it out, say, six years ago! She even offered to renew it for me! Enough time has passed, even, that the book is out of print, superceded by an expanded volume, CJKV Information Processing.

So on the off chance that I'd stored it along with my own Japanese books (kanji dictionaries, course books, manga, etc.) I started tracking down that box. In the end, I found it in the garage, and not in a closet at all. So it goes back on Monday.

On the bright side, I found a box of CDs in one of the closets, including one I'd been looking for for the longest time, Mel & George "Do" World War II. I'm now ripping it into iTunes so's I can listen to it on my iPod tomorrow while tracking insidious bugs...

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:08 PM | Comments (0)

December 09, 2005

Stocks and Math

I just finished A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market. John Allen Paulos makes his living popularizing math, but I found this book rather uneven. While I found the middle chapters generally interesting, the beginning was muddled to the point of seeming nonsense at times, and the latter chapters really didn't tell me anything that wasn't already obvious (actually, I knew most of what was in the book, but some chapters were pretty good at illustrating concepts at an intuitive level).

On the whole, I don't think I'll bother with any of his other books.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:15 PM | Comments (0)

September 07, 2005

Jumper

I'd heard Steven Gould's Jumper described as a 'young adult' science fiction novel, and though it's usually spoken of favorably, this categorization had led me to put off reading it. Considering that the central character is a runaway who has been beaten by his alcoholic father, abandoned by his abused mother, nearly raped at a truckstop, and who launches his independence by burgling a bank of nearly a million dollars, I can see why it's such a hit with young adults.

Seriously, this is a classic adolescent power fantasy, viewed through the filter of a rational science fiction writer. Gould tries to imagine what a smart teenager would do with the power of teleportation, short of becoming a megalomaniacal sociopath. Davey Rice of course, coming from a broken home, starts off a little rough, but is genuinely good-hearted, so the story doesn't take too dark a turn. In point of fact, other than the protagonist being a teenage male, I don't think this really is a 'young adult' novel. It's just a decent science fiction novel, and I can imagine myself reading the sequel someday.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:04 PM | Comments (0)

August 03, 2005

Recently Finished Books

Pure Ketchup by Andrew F. Smith. Spurred by the Malcolm Gladwell essay on ketchup, I found this book at the library and gave it a whirl. It's not the sort of book I read in depth, but it was interesting nonetheless. I learned that ketchup was not always confined to tomatoes. There were ketchups for walnuts, mushrooms, fish, pretty much anything you wanted to preserve and use as a sauce. Tomatoes are just the ultimate survivor.

In the trashy science fiction category, I finished Rogue Berserker by Fred Saberhagen a couple weeks ago. This is another in his universe where machines hunt down all life, following their scrambled program from a war millions of years ago. Lightweight as all get out.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:31 PM | Comments (0)

May 10, 2005

Vampire Trailer Trash

I just finished reading Dead Until Dark, the first novel in a series by Charlaine Harris. It's billed as a "Southern Vampire Mystery", but I think Vampire Trailer Trash captures it just fine. It was nice as a change of pace, but I probably won't get around to the second in the series any time soon.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:34 PM

May 03, 2005

Coalescent

I finished Coalescent by Stephen Baxter, this evening. Unlike the majority of recent 'hard' scifi (or gosh-wow indistinguishable-from-magic-superscience scifi) I have read, this book centers around biology, evolution and sociology for it's scientific underpinnings. While it took me most of the nine week library renewal cycle to finish it, it was nevertheless quite intriguing. By the time I finished it, I had had that sense of wonder reaction that science fiction is sometimes capable of invoking.

I hear there's a sequel. Perhaps I'll look for it sometime.

Posted by dpwakefield at 10:01 PM

April 23, 2005

The Hard Goodbye

This is volume one in Frank Miller's Sin City, and is one of the three volumes which served as source material for the cinematic triptych now touring the theaters. It's a graphic novel I picked up from the library.

It's violent, often misogynistic, corny and melodramatic. It is, after all, a tribute to and a send-up of the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and the film noir genre that is filled with so many losers like Marv, the 'hero' of The Hard Goodbye. The hard, angular art, in blocky, stark black and white, is Frank Miller's signature style, and the perfect medium to portray the story.

I'm going to give it a rest, but I think I'll be grabbing the second volume, A Dame to Kill For next.

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:49 AM

April 12, 2005

Krindlekrax

Eating into the time I allot to books of my own, I took time off to read Krindlekrax, by Philip Ridley. I brought it home from the library after reading a review of childrens' authors which mentioned his name. Kelly picked it up, read it in one day, and approached me Saturday evening with tears in her eyes. The book made her think of Grendl, our deceased family cat.

I felt bad, so I agreed to read the book to try to better understand her feelings. It turns out that the hero of the book has an adult friend who means a lot to him, and gives him gifts, physical and intangible, which enable him to transform his life for the better. But this adult friend dies late in the book.

The story is whimsical and fantastic, so to insert something so sombre in the middle felt like something of a betrayal to Kelly (sort of like I felt watching The Purple Rose of Cairo, a whimsical film by Woody Allen that ends in tragedy and tears). Why do authors do this? It's one thing to introduce a child to the idea of tragedy in a dramatic novel. It's quite another to sucker punch 'em when their guard is down.

Anyway, it was actually a pretty good book, and I would have to agree that Philip Ridley's writing bears a strong resemblance to Roald Dahl's.

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:30 PM

February 26, 2005

The Outlaw Sea

I finished William Langewiesche's book last night. Subtitled "A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime", the book is divided into six chapters, but boils down to "the ocean is big, and it's hard to enforce any laws out there."

I did like reading it, don't get me wrong, but it's kind of a collection of essays (to be expected of an Atlantic Monthly contributor), rather than a tightly themed book. He covers the anarchistic world of 'flags of convenience', where countries supply ship registries to any corporation that can pay, shielding owners from laws and regulations in their own countries.

He shares stories of at least three shipwrecks in massive storms, one in excruciatingly reconstructed detail. And he tells us about the abysmal conditions of the shipbreaking yards in India. I learned a lot, but would have preferred a bit more thematic unity.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:16 AM

February 14, 2005

Broken Angels

Sitting in the Irish Dance Class parking lot, before I fired up the laptop, I finished Broken Angels, the second novel of Takeshi Kovacs, by Richard K. Morgan. I finished his first book, Altered Carbon, about a year ago, so I guess I'll have to wait another year for the next one. But it's good Noir Sci-Fi, so I look forward to it.

Posted by dpwakefield at 05:55 PM

January 26, 2005

Vitals

I finished reading Vitals by Greg Bear last night. I read it on the strength of Dead Lines. Looking back on my notes on that one, I find that both books suffer from weak endings. He wants to end with mystery, but instead it seems a bit of a copout after the fine elaboration of the premise. Still, I enjoyed it mostly.

Posted by dpwakefield at 07:43 AM

January 16, 2005

Lorem Ipsum

Perhaps the most comprehensive explanation of Lorem Ipsum I've seen. I hope this stays on the web, as it also has a generator, allowing such swatches of pseudo-Latin as:

"Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Sed tristique, quam et placerat imperdiet, lorem dolor aliquam ante, vestibulum scelerisque ipsum erat in odio. Donec luctus, nunc in accumsan rhoncus, metus mauris fringilla elit, a venenatis metus mi vitae lorem. Donec quis sem nec mi lacinia venenatis. Nulla sagittis sem in ante. Integer id enim in augue fringilla fermentum. Duis vulputate, est nec aliquam sodales, purus erat imperdiet leo, id facilisis libero mauris ac arcu. Phasellus aliquam venenatis massa. Praesent aliquet adipiscing metus. Aliquam vulputate. Nullam tincidunt nulla sit amet eros. Proin turpis felis, suscipit id, accumsan id, ultricies ac, pede."

Note that this is just one facet of the phenomenon labelled greeking. The other is to simply represent text as illegible graphics resembling small lines of printed text. In both instances, the practice is to allow layout designers to judge a text layout without being distracted by content.

Posted by dpwakefield at 10:10 AM

December 29, 2004

Dead Lines

I finished Dead Lines by Greg Bear last night. To call it a horror novel as the jacket blurbs did is a bit of an exaggeration. Overall a quick, light read, and fun. I thought the ending two or three pages were kind of weak, though.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:32 AM

October 30, 2004

Scuppered Again

I think I've mentioned before that getting books from the library reservation system has a couple of disadvantages. One, you get the books when they arrive, rather than when it would be most convenient. So I put in requests for books that are checked out, and I'm sometimes sixth or seventh in line. Then one day, three or four of these long-term reservations become available at once. Take 'em or leave 'em. Right now, for instance, I've got two on hold and one 'shipped'.

The other problem is that the local library system gives you two renewals on any given book, unless someone else puts in a request. Then you try to grab one of those renewals through their online system, and oops!, can't renew, so sorry. That happened this morning with Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore. I'd only gotten about twenty percent into the book, but I was just starting to pick up steam, so now I have to screech to a halt until I can get it again. I could buy it, but I'm not sure yet whether it's a keeper.

Which brings me to the upside of the 'federated' libary system. They have enough of the titles I'm curious about that I can reserve titles, browse them and return them without having to drop twenty or thirty bucks on every book I hear about on Booknotes. This is a good show, by the way, if you get C-SPAN. The host, Brian Lamb, is almost transparent, asking brief drawing questions, and then fading into the background so the night's author can hold forth. I've gotten several ideas for books to read by scanning this show. As the show motto goes: "One Author, One Book, One Hour". Fifty-two weeks a year. Bound to be some hits.

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:27 AM

October 24, 2004

The King's Coat

I finished The King's Coat by Dewey Lambdin last night. This is a naval adventure set during the Revolutionary War, told from the viewpoint of an English midshipman. As the point of the series seems to be the coming of age and success of a ne'er-do-well illegitimate son, it's hard to see how he can sustain victories over several volumes (given that, you know, we won). But the first book was entertaining, and I'm gonna at least try out the second one before burning out. Overall, it was better than the usual David Weber space naval adventures I've been reading recently.

What's up next? Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. This is a huge book, 800-some pages, so I've no hope of finishing it in the nine weeks I can spin out from the library (assuming someone else isn't waiting in line before one of my renewals). As usual, in this case, I'll use the time I've got to determine if this is such a fine book that I actually want to buy it. Nothing to report yet.

Posted by dpwakefield at 02:10 PM | Comments (2)

September 27, 2004

Declare

It took me nearly three full library loan intervals, but I finished Declare, by Tim Powers. I've always liked his work, though I haven't followed it compulsively. He and James P. Blaylock both met Philip K. Dick and were each scarred in their own unique way.

Declare is some five hundred pages long, and I just don't read books with the same obsessive passion I used to lo these many years ago. I still read compulsively, but include magazines and tons of Internet reading as well as work material in the mix. Declare is a marvellous mix of history with a fantasy story that fits neatly in the cracks. Powers manages to tell a complex and convincing supernatural tale surrounding the life of double agent Kim Philby without altering any of the historical reality. Really quite neat.

More disappointing is another novel I've had in my 'current reading' stack for some time now, False Memory, by Dean Koontz. I've really enjoyed Koontz over the years, but this book just rubbed me the wrong way, and eventually I had to decide to let it go. Koontz has always had a tendency to build characters who are just so gosh darn likable, and quirky, individual heroes, that you can't help but want to kick them in the teeth. But usually I've been sufficiently enthralled by the myterious evil he throws in, that I can deal with that wholesome, lovable hero shtick.

This time he went over the top, and his criminal mastermind, while posessed of strange powers, is too close to an earthly evil to be tolerable. I like my villains cartoony and implausible, I guess. This guy seemed more serial killer/rapist than spooky poltergeist, and it just made me a little queasy. So bye bye, False Memory.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:54 PM

June 02, 2004

Revelation Space

I mentioned Revelation Space already, but I've finally slogged through the entire volume. I was right, I had to go out and buy it, since at the rate I was going, there was no way I'd finish a library book version.

It's not that it was a hard read. Hard science fiction used to be my bread and butter, and I've read more superstrange, sensawonder sf in my life than I can rightly justify.

No, the main problem is that I've got a hundred ways to recreate nowadays, and also take time to interact with Jean and Kelly in the evenings. All that after work, which is demanding in a somewhat intellectual way. So by the end of the evening, working through more than a few pages of a book is usually beyond my resources.

So, capsule review, two thumbs up. I intend to look into more Alastair Reynolds, Chasm City being set in the same universe, seems like a good candidate. Maybe I'll buy it for the summer. If so, you'll read about it here first!

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:09 PM

May 04, 2004

Free Culture

Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Stanford, is a strong advocate for preserving the public domain, in the sense of a Commons of culture. He recently published his third book, Free Culture, to discuss this topic. Putting his money where his mouth is, he has placed the book under the Creative Commons license, allowing others to put the book online, place their own creative spin on it, and otherwise surprise him.

So I was interested to hear in the cooperative project to create a "Free Culture" audiobook. Volunteers from all over have each recorded a chapter of the book read aloud, and they are now all collected together at the above link. The quality is very uneven, but certainly listenable. I am working through them now using my iPod. It's pretty damn neat!

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:18 PM

April 04, 2004

Book Rollover

I just finished Singularity Sky by Charles Stross. It was a lot of fun. Superscience and Vingean human Singularity wrapped up in a neat package. At times I thought I was reading Roadside Picnic, since Stross managed to capture that enigmatic and puzzling element of the truly alien. Even if the aliens are probably descended from us, by way of the Singularity.

Next on the menu is a great big brick of a sci-fi novel, which is the first of a trilogy, no less: Revelation Space by Alistair Reynolds. At 500 pages, on loan from the library, it's doubtful I'll finish it before I run through all my renewals, but I hope to at least determine if it's worth buying.

Posted by dpwakefield at 07:12 PM

March 21, 2004

Reading

Before crunch time kicked in, I finished reading Liar's Poker, though it would be fair to say that towards the end that reading became fairly skimmy. After the first half of the book, the anecdotes all sort of ran together. If I had to summarize, it would be "folks at Salomon Brothers were very smart, but we really didn't know why we were successful, and in the end, our luck ran out."

I've started reading Charles Stross' Singularity Sky, a hard science fiction book based in a universe where Vernor Vinge's Singularity has already happened. I love these super-science gosh-wow books, so I'll probably breeze right through this during those little breaks we all have. So far it's a lot of fun.

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:33 PM

March 07, 2004

The Pragmatic Programmer

I've moved Cocoa Programming off the rolls for now, as it's clear I'm not even crawling through it right now. Instead I'm adding a book I just got a work, The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas. This is the sort of book I like to read just to keep me questioning the central tenets of programming. I've only scratched the surface, so no commentary so far.

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:32 PM

Liar's Poker

Nonzero is back at the library. It was a very interesting read, but my mini-review stands.

Next in line is Liar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage of Wall Street, by Michael Lewis. An insider's look at the life of bond traders at Salomon Brothers. So far interesting...

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:25 PM

February 14, 2004

Death of Death and Life...

I finally returned The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. I never read it cover to cover, skimming through sections that tended to drone on, but I'm glad I finally gave it a try. It's kinda neat to see where some of today's more idealistic urban planning memes come from. I recognized many of her ideas as today's rules of thumb for what make good neighborhoods, from active sidewalks to mixed use neighborhoods. Worth browsing at least.

Now I'm wading through Robert Wright's Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. His main thesis is that, with a few hiccups, civilization has been moving toward ever greater connectedness and interdependency, a grand non-Zero Sum game. Lots of the book comes across as special pleading, but it is a fascinating survey of various social organizational structures. I suppose you'd call it Cultural Anthropology, but he makes it fun, the way James Burke plays with the connections in history.

I knew I'd like the book when I found him citing Teilhard de Chardin, whose book on the Omega Point I've read, and Henri Bergson, both of whom wrote about their visions of Man's ascent to higher orders of being.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:42 PM

January 14, 2004

The Short Victorious War

This is the third book of David Weber's Honor Harrington series, following the career of a naval officer in a space fleet. Chief among the flaws of this series is the simplistic characterization, with lots of not-so-subtle backing plot to let us know who the bad guys, good guys, gruff guys and just imcompetent guys are, so we know who to root for and who to tsk-tsk.

I was willing to live with that as I found the meticulous embedding of wooden ship battle strategies into a space opera entertaining of itself. However, by the third novel, that's gotten old hat, and the continuous wholesale and transparent borrowing of characters and nations from history continues to be rather heavy-handed (Rob. S. Pierre? Please!)

I'm beginning to think that getting some ten or twenty books for the price of one wasn't such a good deal after all. In any case, I'll read one of the other authors on the CD before attempting any more Honor Harrington. They're not bad, understand, just standard fare, and more of the same...

On the other hand, some people really hate this stuff:

[The Honor Harrington books] were bad. They were very, very bad. To paraphrase Pratchett, they were so bad they went though the other side of bad and were simply not very good anymore. Look, there go some one-dimensional bad guys! Look, there goes the one-dimensional good guy (well, person)! Look, she's put in impossible tactical odds and yet somehow still manages to triumph! Look, she gets no respect back at home! Look, the next book rehashes the EXACT SAME PLOT. Needless to say, I do not like David Weber, nor do I like the Honor Harrington books. I am deeply distrustful of anyone who does.

Roy Rapoport

Posted by dpwakefield at 10:22 PM

January 04, 2004

Prey

I picked up Prey for the holidays, and ended up reading it over the four-day weekend I allotted for New Year's Day. It's around 500 pages, but not exactly Wittgenstein.

I was somewhat disappointed in the book, as it sort of violated the implicit contract of a Chrichton techno-thriller (as distinct from some of his departures from the pot-boiler genres). He spends the first chunk of the book, up to page 117, developing his main character via domestic Mr. Mom minutiae, foreshadowing some of the plot elements to come, but mostly boring me to tears with details of the rube's family life. Cut to the chase, Michael! By page 130, we're finally starting the actual ride.

From there, the scientific handwaving that Chrichton is so good at sustained my interest and supressed my disbelief until the very end, when he more or less threw out the rather plausible evolutionary horror for a Frankenstein-monster ooga-booga grand finale. I suppose it will play better on the big screen (all M.C. techno-thrillers read like screen treatments anyway), but I felt let down by the shift from sorta-sci-fi to full-blown fantasy at the last.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:59 PM

December 28, 2003

Urban Planning

I've just started reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, written in 1961. It's a seminal work in urban planning, which exploded several myths about what made a city successful. I was doing a little background research on the book and came across a review where the reviewer suggested viewing a film stored at the Prelinger Archive, entitled The Dynamic American City. This film was created in the early 1950s by the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, and reflects some of the prevailing attitude of the time on urban planning.

I watched it, and the key phrase here is 'urban renewal', a code phrase for bulldozing old neighborhoods, and building high rises and parking lots in their places. There also seems to be a strong support for urban sprawl. Modern-day Los Angeles in the making.

Now I'm better prepared to read the book in the context of it's times.

If that's all too grim for you, you might want to view The Relaxed Wife, which is an educational film on how to manage stress using stretching and relaxation exercises, and if those don't work, Atarax, a tranquilizer produced by Pfizer. I found it pretty amusing, especially after my bout with Lorazepam (curse you Doctor Wynans!). Download it and give it a peek.

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:49 PM

December 27, 2003

Altered Carbon

Well, I managed to finish Altered Carbon. The conceit is to produce a hard-boiled detective novel set in a future where brain recording and cloning are commonplace technologies. If I had to guess, I'd say that Morgan was aiming for a world similar to Raymond Chandler's, and indeed he is quite successful at channeling Philip Marlowe, whose voice in my head is distinct from the one created by Humphrey Bogart (who did a great job, but whom I saw after I was fortunate to read a few Chandler stories).

The sequel, Broken Angels, is coming out in paperback in March. I may buy it then, though I think I'll want to wait a bit before diving into another story in Morgan's literary universe.

Posted by dpwakefield at 10:27 PM

December 17, 2003

Warchild

I recently finished Warchild by Karin Lowachee. Not much to review, just that it was sufficiently interesting that I bothered to finish it. I might hunt up the sequel when it comes out in paperback.

I'm now back to reading Altered Carbon. I had to return it after a single library signout because there was a long line of others waiting for it. It's due to return this weekend, so I may have to requeue again, though I'll try to renew...

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:48 PM

November 22, 2003

Journey Beyond Selene: Remarkable Expeditions Past Our Moon and to the Ends of the Solar System

I neglected to write this book up when I finished it. It was pretty good. It's basically a history of all the robot spacecraft launched by NASA since it's inception, and what we've learned from them thusfar. Already out of date, as we now are hearing about Voyager 1 and it's potential journey beyond the heliopause.

What else have I been reading? Lots of 'toe-dipping', as I'm trying to find a few books on the Middle East in modern history. I did a global search of the library for books on Israel, and reserved about eight. I narrowed it down to two, Israel: An Illustrated History by Daniel J. Schroeter, and Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert, for purchase sometime later. For good measure, I added Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power by Daniel Yergin, to my Amazon wish list. Next comes a search for a book from the Palestinian perspective, but I'm pooped out from the last search...

Currently, my library book du jour is Warchild, by Karin Lowachee. I read a review of the sequel which made it sound good, so I snagged it. Let ya know how it is later.

Posted by dpwakefield at 05:17 PM

October 15, 2003

Best American Science Writing 2001

I recently completed reading Best American Science Writing 2001, but haven't really had the time or inclination to write up a review. I got it from the library by mistake. I'd asked for the 2003 edition, edited by Oliver Sacks. Unfortunately, the library treats all editions as different copies of the same book, and I got the completely different book edited by Timothy Ferris.

Nevertheless, it was an interesting read, and I'd have no problem recommending it to others. Two essays I found particularly interesting:

Death of an Altruist - James Schwarz. A brief but fascinating biography of George Price, an eccentric polymath who proposed a theory of altruism in genetically related and extended groups which was more mathematically rigorous than anything which had preceded it.

Syphilis and the Shepherd of Atlantis - Stephen Jay Gould. Gould, one of my favorite nature writers, shares the story of how syphilis got it's name, including the politics of the era in which it was christened.

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:54 PM

September 16, 2003

Ring

Ring is finished, in a marathon session this evening. While my clumsy description of the American remake of the Japanese movie adaptation left Jean cackling at it's stupidity, I enjoyed the movie and thought it was both a reasonably subtle story of fear in the face of the unknown, with a frisson of Lifeboat style moral challenge at the end.

Well, the book is about twice as good as the movie version I saw. It still has the classic ghost story notes I mentioned in the past, but it works very well as a detective story, and has a very nice science fiction twist at the end. I won't give it away to those who want to read the book, I'll just encourage you to read it.

Posted by dpwakefield at 10:05 PM

September 14, 2003

True Note

Jean, Kelly and I went out to celebrate our anniversary. Jean's parents had sent us $50 to note the occasion, and after much debate we agreed to split the dough and go to the bookstore!

This really captures one facet of our relationship so well. Jean and I met at a bookstore (we both worked there), we have both been avid readers for all that time, and our tastes overlap and diverge like melody and harmony!

So Jean told Kelly she could have some of the money too. "How much?" Jean said $10. "How much are you getting?" Jean told her that Daddy and Mommy were getting $20 each. "That's not fair." It's our anniversary, Kelly...

How did Kelly spend her loot at the bookstore? She bought a Ty plush puppy for $6, and talked us out of an extra buck to get a packet of Yu-Gi-Oh cards at the register. She waffled over whether to get a book or the puppy, and she and I had a long and involved discussion of the utility of each. Turns out you can only read the book once (!) and you can play with the plush puppy many times. I pointed out that she could use the book as a doorstop too, but that didn't tip the scales.

Jean got a pocket nursing reference for her classes this Fall, then used her own money to buy another book she'd had her eye on for quite some time: Fluids & Electrolytes Made Incredibly Easy! Well, with a title like that, you can understand her enthusiasm!

I had amassed a pile of books from the computer, science and sociology sections of the store, and winnowed my pile down to two: The Best American Science Writing 2003, edited by Oliver Sacks, and Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World, by Bruce Schneier. I really couldn't decide, and Kelly said to me in a quite serious voice, "Dad, which one do you think you'll get the most out of?"

She worked it out with me, and I ended up getting the Schneier book. But I did look up the Sacks book once we got home, and have it on request from the library. In the meantime, Ring is turning out to be a rather good book, and a bit more subtle than the movie (the American one being all I've seen). It's sort of horror, sort of detective story, with offbeat characterization and a new twist on the classic campfire ghost story. I just breached the halfway point, and hope I can finish it before renewal comes around, as the library often says I can renew, then refuses to when I try (via the web). It's sorta "Psych! We really had someone else waiting in line to be next all this time, but we didn't tell you!"

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:02 PM

September 02, 2003

Six Easy Pieces

Finished this one yesterday. Indeed the first five 'pieces' were easy. Only the section on quantum mechanics had any confusing bits, and Feynman went very far to improving my understanding of it (which was rudimentary to begin with).

For example, I could recite the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but it was mostly by rote. Now, I really have a better comprehension of what it means.

He grounds his explanation in the classic 'two slots' experiment to show the wave/particle nature of electrons and photons, then shows how the measurements by sensor can determine which hole an electron enters, but only by destroying the interference. I won't recite the whole outline of the chapter, read it for yourself. By the time you're done, you'll understand that the Uncertainty Principle has physical manifestations which don't require a particle accelerator to show up.

Overall, worth the read. I'm looking at The Song of the Earth by Hugh Nissenson, next. It's a novel in the form of a journalistic biography, and thus far, isn't sustaining my interest. I'll probably give it about fifty pages, then bag it and move on to my next book, Ring, by Koji Suzuki. This is the Japanese novel on which Ringu and it's American remake The Ring were based. Dunno if it will grab me, but I thought I'd give it a try.

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:58 PM

August 28, 2003

Bringing Down The House

Well this was tons better than Posiitively Fifth Street. I've already noted the flaws in that book (in my opinion, of course). Ben Mezrich makes none of those mistakes, and his subjects are all interesting enough to sustain the book.

This story about how a group of MIT students clean up in Vegas and other towns playing Blackjack ("the only casino game with a memory") is entertaining for it's dramatization of the mechanics employed by the MIT team, and the sheer nerve of the players.

After reading it I understand what is actually meant by 'card counting', and I agree that it is not cheating or stealing. But the casinos don't like to lose their edge, so they reserve the right to bar you if you win too much, no matter how.

Sometimes they cross the line of legality too, as Mezrich relates the ongoing tale of a private investigation firm specializing in tracking card counters, and one agent who uses intimidation and violence to achieve his goals.

Overall, at least three stars.

Current book on the active stack: Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:19 PM

August 17, 2003

Masters of Doom

The secret to increasing my reading quota is, it seems, getting away from home. I plowed through this book in just the three days we were at the coast. I had no Internet access, wasn't interested in watching television without the remediation of my ReplayTV, and had many idle moments when we weren't walking around Florence, so read I did.

I was in fact fascinated by this book, as I'd never really gotten in on the Doom/Quake phenomenon. It all happened during one of my quieter phases, gaming-wise, and besides, I didn't have an Intel PC during those years. I'm taking away two things from this book.

One, John Romero and John Carmack are both geniuses, but the mid-term success of id was as much survivorship bias as pure sustained innovation. I always got the impression that id was a flawless house of geniuses who never made mistakes. The book shows how far from true this is.

Two, I finally know what 'gib' means in a gamer context. The book refers to victims in Doom exploding, leaving around little bits "like human giblets." This became regular slang, and evolved into a verb. "I gibbed him when he turned the corner."

Now that this is finished, I'm moving on to Bringing Down the House, about a bunch of MIT students who clean up on blackjack.

Posted by dpwakefield at 07:57 PM

July 21, 2003

The Master and Margarita

Finally finished, and returned to the library. I spread the reading over six weeks (initial three week library checkout, and one renewal). I almost renewed it a second time, but finished it with 'hours to spare'. It helped that we actually spent a big chunk of time at home this weekend. But this is yet another example of how much my reading habits have changed. Between all the other demands on my attention, and the fact that I tend to be quite brainless by the end of the day, I only read this book in snippets.

But it is a testament to the story that I stuck with it, while discarding other books that came from and went back to the library without so much as a mention here on this weblog. I mentioned before that the book is optioned for a movie, and that Johnny Depp is alledgedly signed up to play the role of Professor Woland, a.k.a. the Devil. I only hope that a gifted director is at the helm, because this could be an inspired romp.

Posted by dpwakefield at 10:24 PM

June 19, 2003

Fooled By Randomness

I finally finished Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I initially heard about him via an essay by Malcolm Gladwell, entitled Blowing Up. Gladwell is one of my favorite writers, and he has a knack for making the most obscure subjects exciting. In his essay, he described what it is Taleb does, which is options trading (and options design), and what makes Taleb interesting, which is his views on randomness.

Taleb believes that by and large, the visibly successful figures in the trader's profession are not in fact brilliant and insightful, but simply lucky--for now. As Taleb argues in the interview The World According to Nassim Taleb:

Everybody will tell you that stock investing is a great idea because it's been back-tested by some serious Guru and if you bought one share of some stock during the revolution you would have owned the GNP of some banana republic. But you forget that your back testing is only on stocks that are alive today and did not cover stocks in imperial Russia that a rational investor would have bought at the beginning of the century. Many continental stocks were recycled into wallpaper. When you look at markets you are only looking at the remnants, the parts that have survived.

It's this skeptical attitude towards today's winners that attracted me in the first place. Fooled by Randomness expands on this and other flaws in market trading, and more specifically options. Taleb has a rather snide authorial tone which gets tiresome at times, and the book seldom delves into the actual math and probability underlying his philosophy, but his parables and anecdotes make the reading worthwhile.

Posted by dpwakefield at 10:22 PM

May 06, 2003

New Worlds


In contrast, the uncanny in Harrison is very precisely modulated by strong plot. The thing is, though, that it tends to be happening just off stage. The stories are the messy, contingent, particular, organic journeys through and around narratives. It's the journey we follow, not "the plot" -- but without that plot, there'd be no journey.


From China Mieville's introduction to Things That Never Happen, by M. John Harrison

I recently checked out a book from the local library, The Centauri Device, written many years ago by M. John Harrrison. The book is in fact out of print now. Some weblog or other had noted Harrison's quirky style, and I found the name familiar, so I hunted down what was available via the library system and found exactly two titles, this one and the one whose introduction I quote above.

Well, The Centauri Device is rather arch and self-conscious, while aiming for a more plebian gutter-poetry. The part I got through reminded me of Samuel R. Delany, more specifically his early fantasy/science fiction works like The Einstein Intersection, and later (and better) Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Unfortunately, it's these comparisons which sank the book for me. I couldn't finish it, because I could remember, however vaguely, other books quite like it, which were so superior I simply didn't have the patience to continue.

Now this is probably unfair. I read those Delany books when I was in the bloom of youth, up through young adulthood. They have an inevitable gloss of nostalgia about them. But I'm pretty sure they were better, by a far cry, than The Centauri Device.

So I moved on to the short story collection, thinking I might be able to appreciate M. John Harrison better in smaller doses. It's there, in Things That Never Happen, that I learned that Harrison was one of the writers during Michael Moorcock's stint as editor of New Worlds, ushering in the revolutionary era of New Wave Science Fiction, which emphasized literary qualities over the science and McGuffins of the day. Perhaps this is where I remember him from. In any case, it is with a kind of shock that I look back and see how much my reading habits have changed.

From before high school to sometime in my early adulthood I often read big, fat books that ran 600 to a thousand pages without blinking an eye. I read The Lord of the Rings through twice in one summer, for example. I also read long, rambling, unresolved stories which I believe originated in the New Wave movement. Lots of Aldiss, Spinrad, Ellison, Moorcock, definitely J. G. Ballard! I think probably even Gene Wolfe could have been included in this company, and I really enjoyed his works, from his Book of the New Sun quartet to his absolutely wonderful collection of ambiguous short stories, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories, and Other Stories (yes, that's the real title).

What's the point of this ramble? It is captured in that little gem of a paragraph by China Mieville above. Those stories were about the journey, rather than the resolution of a conflict. A story existed for our characters, but we were only privy to bits and pieces of it. It was always a bit like seeing Hamlet entirely as incidental action in the background, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern muck about with their own petty concerns, never getting any kind of answer to their questions.

I used to love these kind of stories, and in fact seemed to have a brain hardwired for them. I honestly recall watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, and fully understanding it, what it was about, the broad themes, and the fact that the unexplained elements didn't matter. Maybe it didn't happen that way, but the fact I remember it that way illustrates my predilections from my early years.

So I picked up Things with a whiff of nostalgia, and a bit of trepidation as well. I don't read big, fat books anymore, and I certainly tend to pick books with a beginning, a middle and an end, more often than not. Just to be on the safe side, I picked a story somewhere in the middle of the book (before even reading the introduction), basing my choice on the fact that it was only ten pages long. I read The Quarry at the YMCA, while Kelly attended her swimming class. Reaching the end of the story, my first reaction was, "So?" Oh dear, that's not good. Is it me? I was afraid I would return the book to the library without so much as a second chance.

Kelly wasn't finished, though, so I browsed the endpapers and found that The Great God Pan was considered a great story. At my next opportunity I read it, and it was quintessential New Wave. Very literary, ambiguous, hinting at things we are never told. I was taken back to those halcyon days of yore. For a moment I was transported. I set the book aside and began to think about much of what I've set down here in my rambling way. I went on to read the introduction, and the quote at the head of this article struck me particulary hard. This is what I used to strive for when finding books.

I still appreciate artful ambiguity in storytelling, if it isn't an excuse for the author not really having a story to tell. But now the 'journey' can be tiring, leaving me anxious ("are we there yet?") if it wanders on too long. The pace of my life, or rather the volume, seems to be too distracting to allow long reveries. If I picked up Delany's Dhalgren today, a book I pored over lovingly when it was first out, I would no doubt read the first few chapters, then reluctantly put it down. I know that were I to pursue it doggedly, it would be a matter of a chapter a night for the first week, ten or twenty pages each over the next week, then a mute accusing book on a pile of other books I've never finished. So I admit I've changed and move on. Structured books, beginning, middle, end. Shorter books, less than five hundred pages most times. Often non-fiction (anything more ambiguous and unresolved than real life?).

I should mention that I also attempted to read a book by China Mieville recently. Perdido Street Station was getting a lot of buzz, so I got it from the library. Thick 700 page book. The protagonist seemed kin to Ignatius Reilly ala Confederacy of Dunces, only in a fantasy setting. What is it with science fiction and the flawed character? Anyway, I could see that in another life, I'd have enjoyed it, but not this one. Back on to the library with it.

Now you know why I get so many of the books I try to read from the library.

Posted by dpwakefield at 08:31 PM

February 19, 2003

Reading

I forgot to mention that in those sleepless nights of withdrawal, a backlit Palm Pilot is a very good book indeed. I finished Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom, which is part of that time-honored sub-genre of science fiction, the first-person narrative of a complete jerk. I don't know what it is about sci-fi and jerk autobiographies, but it's been done so many times. Sometimes very well, mind you. John Varley has done it more than once, most recently with Steel Beach.

It's a tough act to pull off, since one of the requirements is that the character, warts and all, must begin to grow on you, until by the end of the book, you're sure that he's not that bad after all, despite the terrible treacherous things he's done.

Well, Cory Doctorow has the sub-genre down pat, and I had a great time reading it, despite my suffering. I'll probably write a little more about the effect of strong negative experiences coloring one's appreciation for fun things in a future post, but for now, suffice to say it was worth the read. Have I bought a copy and given it to the library? Come on, I've been sick! I'll get around to it, believe me...

On another reading note, I sent Guns of August back to the library, since I didn't have the reserve brainpower to work through the dense text. Instead, I plan to buy a trade paperback copy for my own the next time I go to the bookstore. So it remains on the 'currently reading' list as in a state of suspended grace .

One final note. I've started reading Toast: And Other Rusted Futures, by Charles Stross, a Scottish science fiction author who's been getting a lot of buzz lately. I'll let you know what I think in due time.

Posted by dpwakefield at 07:28 PM

January 29, 2003

Not There Yet

Cory Doctorow wrote Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and got his publisher to agree to let him offer it simultaneously as a free e-book. I mentioned that I wanted to pay him back somehow, but buying the hardcopy just seemed a waste of paper after reading it electronically (still in progress). So can I send money anwhere? From his cite:


"Q: Can't I just send some money to you by PalPal instead of buying the book?


A: You don't have to buy the book, but I'm not interested in tipjar payments. I'm not doing this to compete with my publisher. If you read the ebook and want to pay me back, but don't have any use for the dead-tree edition, the best way you can do that is to buy a copy of the book and donate it to a school, library or community center. If you do this, you'll put a copy of the book on the shelf where it might be read, I'll get a royalty, and my sales-figures will go up (which means that I'll get a bigger advance on my next book and my publisher will be more likely to want to repeat the experiment)."

And...


"...the cost of bookeeping an entirely new type of transaction (which would also include the cost of my agent and my publisher's lawyers negotiating how to handle this kind of transaction) would far exceed that kind of sum -- IOW, they'd save money if they tore up your check."

So I'd agree with him that what he's doing is an "experiment" in that the details of a system that would encourage an author to publish online for free aren't ironed out yet. I'll ask at the library if they take donations other than for library sales, but if not, I'll just send Cory a polite note explaining why I wish he'd try to expand the experiment in this way. We'll see.

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:02 PM

January 26, 2003

Reading Update

Back to the library with Blundering into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age. I was hoping for a detailed account of the events surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that was my expectation, not any presentations by the author. The book skates over the crisis in about three pages, and is instead a considered technical argument for de-escalation of the arms race.

Considering that the book was published in 1986, it is very apt for it's time, but I'm not surprised that the book is out of print. I guess I'll have to hunt around and ask for recommendations on a good book about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I've since gotten a library copy of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. It is a history of the events which led to World War I, despite the intentions of some of the participants. I got interested in it when I read a snippet by Robert Mcnamara, where he stated that John F. Kennedy required all his cabinet officers to read it, to be better aware of how accident and unforseen forces can drive history. Compare this with Bush, who, when asked what his favorite book was as a child, cited a book that had been published only a couple years before he was elected!

If that's not enough, I also downloaded Cory Doctorow's debut novel in e-book form, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a sci-fi novel. I haven't gotten too far into it, though on the Palm, page counts are inflated, since each screenful of text counts as a page. He's put the book out under a Creative Commons License to test whether a book in the public domain can be profitable. I intend to buy it (or better, send money to the author, since I don't need the dead tree version on top of the e-book) to support his notion.

Posted by dpwakefield at 07:51 PM

January 21, 2003

Apples

In Praise of Apples: A Harvest of History, Horticulture & Recipes. I'm currently reading this, but I don't think it'll be on the pile much longer. I got it to try to answer my questions about apple propagation, how varieties come to be, that sort of thing. I'd once heard that apples don't 'breed true' and that if you plant a seed, the tree might not grow the same kind of apples as the seed came from. It turns out that's sorta true, but a bit more complicated.

However, the overwhelming majority of pages in the book are devoted to recipes including apples. I'm just not thrilled at the idea of making a bunch of dishes with apples, so now that I've sucked up the few vital facts the book had to offer, I'm pretty much done with it. Back to the library with thee!

Posted by dpwakefield at 05:48 PM

January 20, 2003

The Gift of Time

I finished The Gift of Time this evening. Jonathan Schell is not as compelling a read as I remember from Fate of the Earth, but then it's been decades since he wrote that, and I guess you get a little stale honking the horn for all those years.

When the book comes alive, it is during the interviews he conducts with figures close to the Cold War and the vicious circle of mutual assured destruction. His interview with Robert Mcnamara prompted me to get the book Blundering Into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age, which is next in my queue. I'm grateful I didn't keep track of all the books mentioned, or I'd be snowed under for the next year.

Instead of outlining the main ideas covered in the book, I'll simply urge anyone interested in the topic of nuclear abolition to get this book. Struggle through the prefatory material, but stay for the interviews, as many of them are quite stirring.

Finally, I want to quote one passage by Jonathan Schell himself, not directly on the topic of nuclear abolition, but rather on the end of the Cold War. It struck me because it illustrates a more nuanced view than the usual "we spent Russia into bankruptcy" view I've heard more than once:

"While some doves imagine that they reversed the arms race by their own efforts, some hawks imagine that they 'won' the Cold War. In truth, it was chiefly the peoples of the East who, through their efforts in their own countries, won the main victory -- in consequence of which the Cold War disappeared."

Posted by dpwakefield at 09:01 PM

January 17, 2003

A New Kind of Science

Well, I'm mildly bummed. I went to renew the books I've got at the library, and A New Kind of Science is not renewable, because there's too many people in line. I've gotten up to page 327, out of about 850, if you don't count the voluminous notes, which pad the volume out to it's 1200 pages. The reading is often repetitive, usually a bit annoying because Wolfram is egotistical and even justifies his egotism scientifically. But for every twenty pages or so there is a nice nugget of info that keeps me reading.

Do I want to pay $45 to own a copy? No, I honestly don't think it's worth that. I have my doubts about it's revolutionary nature too. So I guess I'll just queue up at the end of the line and check it out again when I come up in a few months. Sigh.

Posted by dpwakefield at 07:54 PM