Archive for October, 2011

Review: Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

I enjoyed Michael Lewis’s The Big Short so much that when I saw this bit of gonzo economics writing, I jumped in.  Boomerang has the feel of those P. J. O’Rourke books where P.J. travels to some hell-hole where history is happening and writes about it with panache.  I don’t think Lewis is as funny as O’Rourke, but I think he can be more insightful.

These are basically a set of well researched and well written essays about current economic hotspots.  Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany, and the US all take a turn in the hot seat.  Lewis knows what he’s talking about and knows how to pick a telling story to support his points.  He’s constructing an interesting view of the global mess we’re in the middle of.  Boomerang is interesting and thought provoking.

If there’s anything I disagree with about the book, it’s how much of the crisis he puts down to national character.  While it is difficult to argue that nations don’t have character, those characters don’t change much over time.  It is a fun idea that Icelanders believe they can be investment bankers because their fishing economy rewards self-assurance.  If he’s right, though, Icelanders have been that way for a long time. I would rather know what unique opportunity presented itself to magnify the effect of those traits so much.

Even if you don’t fully believe it, Boomerang puts many interesting facts and theories on the table in a very entertaining way.


Review: Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s stories are, in the right corners of the SF world, regarded as almost legendary.  They have a particularly devoted cult following that’s the right kind of interesting to attract my attention.  How many series of short stories result in a USENET group designed not to discuss the stories, but to mimic their environment?

As stories go, they are very much of their time – 1970’s SF magazine shorts that catch the feeling of the era and entertain.  They lean more heavily on the genre trappings of fantasy than SF, but they are about reflecting human values into changing times which may be SF’s definition.  They also reflect 70’s SF’s love of wordplay and bad puns.  This is clearly the same era that created The Flying Sorcerers.  I mention that not to run down Callahan’s or The Flying Sorcerers – which I see is available for the Kindle, so watch this space – but if you’re allergic to puns, Callahan’s will make you swell up like a balloon.

As far as the writing goes, the stories all amble along with enough drive to keep the reader interested but not so much urgency that Robinson misses a chance to talk about a shaggy dog.  The tone captures the feel of telling stories at a bar pretty well.  As for characters, the only real character is the bar itself.  There are folks running around with personalities and histories, but they’re all a little more decent than real people are, so I don’t feel like I could meet them.  The bar itself is a semi-magical force for compassion, and I think of the patrons as facets of that force more than characters.

Robinson doesn’t quite say that about his fictional bar, staff, and patrons, but he’s also clear that there’s more to the place than meets the eye.  Callahan’s is unrealistic in the way a dialogue in great noir novel is unrealistic; it becomes iconic.  I can’t imagine really walking into Callahan’s (any posts you find from me in alt.callahans not withstanding), but it’s fun to read about it and surprisingly reassuring that it has acquired such a following.

Strongly recommended, if you can cope with the puns.

Review: The Manga Guide To Statistics

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

If that title makes sense to you, you probably know if you want to read this.  It is a Japanese comic from Shin Takahashi (of Trend-Pro Co., Ltd.) designed to teach basic statistics.  To me it is 200 pages of pure awesome.  The plot concerns a young girl who wants to learn statistics so she can impress a young man working at her father’s marketing firm.  She winds up with an eccentric tutor who teaches her statistics and love blossoms.

The drawings are all clear, evocative, and are excessively expressive.  The translation is often hilariously formal – kind of the visual equivalent of bad dubbing, and the characters are fairly broad stereotypes.

But it’s all just trying to be diverting enough to get someone to learn the basics of statistics, including how to carry out and understand basic calculations and hypothesis testing.  It’s a delightful way to get a bird’s-eye view of the basics of the field, and I thoroughly recommend it.


Review: 1984

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

1984 is a book that can haunt you.  It is certainly relentlessly grim in content, which is enough to wedge it firmly in your memory.  It is also extremely thought provoking – both daring you to disagree with its bleak view of mankind and relentlessly defending its position.  Finally, it has so permeated popular culture that one cannot go more than a day or two without seeing or hearing a callback to it somewhere.

Most people seem to remember 1984 as a blueprint for a repressive state, and it is that, but what I found even bleaker was his ideas of how such a state appears.  The idea of a state built on power as cruelty seems more depressing than one that grows oppressive from venality or ignorance.  A nation of sadists seems more discouraging than a nation of sociopaths, somehow.  Yet, I find my internal arguments in favor of the sociopaths less compelling than I would like.  A book that leads one to argue unconvincingly that sociopaths are a better and more likely set of rulers than a null hypothesis of sadists is already an  impressive thing.

While I may argue myself into knots trying to escape the biggest and worst conclusions, I do notice some problems in the details.  Women are not portrayed well at all.  Even the romantic female lead is represented as primarily an object of desire possessed less of intelligence than a low animal cunning.  She is there to be betrayed.  Other females do not do any better.

I also believe that there are some aspects of human behavior that are so fundamental to our animal nature that no amount of conditioning could drive them out.  A world where men build governments to satisfy their lust for power, but in which the masses have their drive for sex and competition conditioned away seems unlikely. Still, that’s a quibble about the portrayal of a detail, not a fundamental flaw of the ideas.

And, of course, Orwell can be didactic to the point of lecturing.  Large hunks of the text are Orwell speaking directly to the reader through one mouthpiece character or another about how the world works or why the world of 1984 is a logical progression from the world today.  While these icebergs of exposition have the disadvantage of being bone dry, they have the significant advantages of being well thought out and clear.  If you are of a mind to listen to such things, they are filled with interesting ideas to oppose or jump off from.  While I am of that mind, I can only imagine the obstacle they present to a reader of a different mindset.

Those paragraphs make it sound like I am a 1984 detractor.  I am the opposite.  I came away from this reading convinced that this is one of the most interesting and important books of the 20th century, and that it is easily as important the people in the 21st.  It is not terribly entertaining, but it is brimming with interesting ideas and difficult challenges.

A must.

Review: Animal Farm

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a classic fairy tale, and benefits from all the timelessness and iconography of the genre.  Writing about pigs and horses means he can be pretty direct about the failings of men and women without blaming particular men and women.  His story about animals that overthrow their farmer and adopt socialist dogma is a classic.

Reading Animal Farm again, I was struck by how general his writing and themes were.  In addition to using animals to stand for people, he gives each iconic rather than individualistic personalities.  Rather than a group of memorable characters, I was left with the memory of a set of archetypes, which reinforces the universality of his ideas.  Similarly, though the chronology and ideology are based on communist history and dogma, the animals’ revolution seems less about a specific doctrine than a universal story arc.  As with all fables, this gives it a moral rather than an outcome.

While this generally works in favor of the piece, there are some moments when I felt a little distant from the proceedings.  There is not really anyone to identify with or root for in the story.  It is easy to follow the plot, but hard to be drawn in.

That is a fairly minor nit to pick.  Animal Farm is an excellent fable about the failings of men in pursuit of their ideals and the attraction of power.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Getting Things Done

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

I don’t have too much to say at this point about David Allan’s  Getting Things Done.  I received it as a gift from a friend who was sick of hearing me moan about my lack of productivity, and I’ll try to read basically any book someone hands me.  Overall, the ideas in here made a lot of sense.  I’m trying to implement them, but it’s very early to tell how well they’ll work over the long haul.

So far, I’m optimistic.  If you’re looking for a strategy for organizing your priorities, this is worth a look.

Review: Two Years Before The Mast

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast is a very well known memoir of an unusual experience.  Dana was a college student and well-to-do Bostonian who took several years off from study to serve as a common sailor on a merchant vessel trading on the coast of California.  This sounds like a recipe for gimmick book today, but that was not a common tactic at the time.

There are a lot of memoirs that get lost in time.  Dana has two major factors working for him.  First his book is one of the only pre-gold-rush descriptions of California that was accessible to the Gold Rushers.  Many of them retraced Dana’s path with gold on their mind and Two Years Before The Mast under their arm.  Second, he writes very well.

I have read many historically interesting books that were deadly dull.  Even the best authors from more than 150 years ago can be opaque.  Dana is a welcome surprise.  His language is clear, evocative, and descriptive.  While some of the turns of phrase are dated, his meaning is clear and his language flows pleasingly.

He is a good enough writer that a simple diary would be interesting.  The topic is inherently more interesting than that.  Part adventure story, part travelogue, part behind-the-scenes story, Dana always has an interesting incident to relate in his clear prose.  We are treated to two trips around Cape Horn – no Panama Canal in 1834 – trading and hide gathering work in California, a survey of the coastline and population, and quality time on the ship.  As a current Californian, it is fun to hear the descriptions of the people and land from years ago.

My version also includes a chapter relating a later trip to California years later where he sees the changes from the Gold Rush and reconnects with some of the people he met years before.

Overall a very interesting, well-written memoir of exciting times.