Monday, December 29, 2008

The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin

Utopia is anarchy. Or at least that is what we are led to believe at the outset of Le Guin’s tale. A terraformed moon houses an isolationist anarchy, while the planet it orbits has a two-class male dominated government. At first I thought this was going to be a thinly disguised treatise on the merits of Libertarianism, but as the story progresses we find that both communities have their problems. What the message actually is tells us that any society needs constant challenge to remain healthy. We see a class riot on one world, and a near lynching on the other; both instigated by one scientist that is trying to break down barriers that have kept these two apart. In tone it is closer to Atlas Shrugged than 2001; a fascinating read, but not hard science-fiction either.

First Sentence:
There was a wall.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Rebel Island, by Rick Riordan

Rebel Island, by Rick Riordan

Tres Navarre is back! Here we find him spending his honeymoon on an island resort off the Texas coast. With typical Navarre luck, a dead body shows up right as a hurricane hits cutting off access to and from the island. With guests slowly getting killed this setup could have easily devolved into a bad copy of And Then There Were None, but Riordan avoids that with deft characterization and sly humor. A fast but entertaining read.

First Sentence:
We got married in a thunderstorm.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley

The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley

Set in Brooklyn just after the close of WWI, this novel is filled with observations about books and the literary trade. The entire profession of the bookseller is romanticized here; the task of matching customers with the most appropriate tome is portrayed as the noblest of avocations: “Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing.” Within the trappings of a bookstore, a mystery of German saboteurs is unraveled and a romance blossoms. Told with a healthy dose of humor (“It is only the very young who find satisfaction in lying abed in the morning.”) this is a very entertaining yarn, especially for a bibliophile.

First Sentence:
If you are ever in Brooklyn, that borough of superb sunsets and magnificent vistas of husband-propelled baby carriages, it is to be hoped you may change upon a quiet street where there is a very remarkable bookshop.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Men's Guide to the Women's Bathroom, by Jo Barrett

The Men’s Guide to the Women’s Bathroom: A Novel, by Jo Barrett

I’m not quite sure how this found it’s way onto my bookshelf, but I’m glad it did. A lighthearted novel telling the story of a jilted writer who is trying to get her love life and career back on track. While not my normal fare, this was a lot of fun. Set in Austin, it has a strong local feel, with the Taco Shack, Captain Quackenbush’s, The Continental Club, Moonshine, and Little Woodrow’s all getting visited. The humor, however, is what really makes this enjoyable; Claire St. John (the lead character) is a cross between Maddie Hayes and Lucy Ricardo: part sarcasm and part slapstick. She speaks to the reader in little asides that the other occupants in the scene don’t hear; this breaking of the fourth wall is used to great effect and damn funny.

During the course of the story, Claire decides to write a novel of her own from which we get periodic excerpts. Her book shares the title with the real one, telling men what happens in the women’s restroom. From the opening chapter of the book-within-a-book:

Listen up gentlemen. I’m going to tell you the big secret right now. I’m going to unlock the vault. So pay attention.
You always ask why we (women) go to the bathroom together in groups.
What could we be doing in there? you wonder.
Plotting to take over Wall Street?
The Military Industrial Complex?
Does Hillary Clinton have us all in a huddle? “Okay ladies, here’s what you’re going to do. Every single one of you is going to vote for me for president.”
Well, the answer gentleman, is yes.
Yes, we are plotting against you.
We should not be left alone to our own devices.
We are very, very dangerous.
Funny stuff! My favorite quote though, for what I hope are obvious reasons, is this one: “Every woman knows that a guy who actually reads is a rare and special creature, indeed.”

First Sentence:
The greatest advice I’ve ever heard was in the women’s bathroom.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Einstein, by Walter Isaacson

Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson

I knew Einstein was a genius, but this book demonstrated just how inadequate that description really is. He helped prove the existence of atoms, devised a revolutionary quantum theory of light, explained Brownian motion, produced the world’s most famous equation, E=mc2, and turned the concept of space and time on its head—all in 1905 alone. There is a popular myth that he failed math in high school, but in fact, before he was fifteen he had mastered differential and integral calculus. Even as a child Einstein created thought experiments to give him insights into how our universe works, such as wondering what it would be like to ride alongside a beam of light. Isaacson also does an excellent job of juxtaposing this massive intellect with Einstein’s personal relationships, showing how he was passionate and yet often emotionally distant towards his family. This second focus is really what makes the book so interesting and keeps it from too strongly resembling a physics text.

Einstein was born into a Jewish family in the German Empire at the close of the 1800’s, so his politics are interesting as well. He was a pacifist from a young age; as a boy he cried when watching military troops march through the streets accompanied by fifes and drums, later explaining, “When a person can take pleasure in in marching in step to a piece of music it is enough to make me despise him. He has been given his big brain only by mistake.” (As a former marching band member, I found this quote particularly amusing.) Despite his pacifism, Einstein saw no alternative other than war to stop the Nazi power structure. After WWII, he was a strong proponent for the creation of Israel, and in fact was offered the Presidency of that country in 1952. Einstein became friendly with many Soviets when we were allies against Germany, and combined with his view that we needed a single world government, during the McCarthy era he became a target of the FBI. His genius came from challenging conventional wisdom, but posing challenges in politics was not popular in America in the 1950’s.

Despite being a biography at the core, this book contains many detailed technical explanations about the scientific advances Einstein made. The physics discussions are not only accessible and understandable, but entertaining as well. When discussing time dilation, Isaacson says, “In fact, if you spent almost your entire life on an airplane, you would have aged merely 0.00005 seconds or so less than your twin on earth when you returned, an effect that would likely be counteracted by a lifetime spent eating airline food.” Another bon mot is in a discussion on the expansion of the galaxy: “...we are at the center of the universe, something that since the time of Copernicus only our teenage children believe.” Funny stuff for a biography about a physics pioneer! Overall, I found this book to be a very thorough, witty portrait of a charming genius.

First Sentence:
“I promise you four papers,” the young patent examiner wrote his friend.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The History of Torture, by Daniel P. Mannix

The History of Torture, by Daniel P. Mannix

Fascinating. For a book about such a morbid subject, this was hard to put down once I started it. From roughly 2 B.C. through World War II (this was written in 1964 and so none of the more recent incidents are discussed), Mannix gives an overview of both the techniques of torture and the reasons why it was used. Clearly well researched, the descriptions of some of the horrors are meticulous and explicit; I got the idea more than once that the author was a bit of a sadist and taking glee in the more grisly sections. The biggest drawback to me was that it was very Euro-centric; China, India, and the pre-1492 Americas get mentions but nothing like the detail found in the bulk of the book.

Without references or a bibliography it is hard to consider this a scholarly effort, but I still learned quite a bit. For instance, starting in roughly the 6th century the use of torture to obtain information or a confession virtually disappeared in Europe. Centuries later its return occurred when the Church started to be seriously challenged by new ideas and reform; it turned to torture to get heretics to “confess,” and the institution has been utilized somewhere in the world nearly continuously every since. Something else I found interesting was the back story of the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill. In Germany adulterous men and women were once fastened together by the neck with a heavy yoke and then forced to carry buckets of water up a steep hill to the castle in the center of town. They would often fall and get seriously hurt; somehow this led to the sing-song fable our kids sing today. Another good anecdote is the history of the phrase, “third degree.” Referring to the stages of torture, the First Degree was the questioning of the prisoner, the Second Degree was showing the accused the instruments, and the Third Degree was the actual infliction of pain. Today the term has been watered down to mean simply intensive interrogation, but the etymology is much darker.

Mannix closes by drawing analogies between today’s corporal punishment and yesterday’s torture, but the summary is ambiguous and he doesn’t take a strong stand for either side. “No set formula can be used in the treatment of a criminal, and it is impossible to say that corporal punishment is never effective or that it is always effective. Too much depends on the individual’s emotional state, the reasons for his acts, the era, and the manner and method of inflicting (or withholding) the punishment. Formerly corporal punishment was regarded as a panacea for all problems; today many people consider it too terrible to ever be used. Yet in certain cases it would seem to be not only effective but justifiable.” I find it telling that nearly 50 years after this book was written we continue to have this debate; clearly there are no moral absolutes when it comes to corporal punishment—or torture.

First Sentence:
Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria, did not like Jews.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Serious Play, by Michael Schrage

Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate, by Michael Schrage

In my current job I’m leading a team that is creating a product that allows companies to create quick simulations in order to verify requirements early in the development cycle when it is relatively cheap to make changes. My product goes to the heart of what this book preaches: models and prototypes allow companies to manage risk while encouraging innovation and collaboration. I was excited when this was picked for our book club, hoping to gain more insight into the reasons why simulations are so useful and ammunition against those that believe exhaustive documentation and multi-year planning cycles are a better way to develop software. Twenty minutes after opening the book, however, my excitement was gone and the realization that I had yet another uninspiring business tome on my hands had set in.

Like many books found in the business methodology section of the bookstore, much of the content is both useful and applicable to real-world situations. Also like many of them, the writing is insipid and the style utterly dull. More than once I had to reread a section not because it was thought-provoking or packed with details, but because it was so vanilla and unmemorable nothing really stuck—kind of like watching a game score ticker for a sport you don’t follow. Perhaps I disliked this because I already understand the value of interactive simulations and early feedback; it is entirely possible that this would be a much more useful text for those that are skeptical or uneducated on the benefits prototyping. For me, though, I was sorely disappointed.

First Sentence:
We shape our models, and then our models shape us.

The Myth of Multitasking, by Dave Crenshaw

The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done, by Dave Crenshaw

Written with the “management fable” style (think The Goal by Goldratt and Cox) this is a very fast read. As the title suggests this book illustrates how multitasking (which Crenshaw renames to switchtasking) is an illusion that actually hurts productivity instead of enhancing it. Many folks take pride in the ability to do multiple things at once; this book outlines several exercises that clearly show that the overall time these take is actually much longer because of the hidden time it takes to switch between tasks. As Crenshaw puts it, as a society we have embraced concurrency “as a way of life, but the truth is that multitasking is neither a reality nor is it efficient.” After the story itself, an appendix includes a set of worksheets for the reader to duplicate the exercises described in the prose, making this an odd mix of both fiction and non-fiction: part novel and part textbook.

As the concept of completing work before starting something new is important to the agile management world in which I work I expected to enjoy this book. Instead, I found it a bit pedantic and found myself skimming sections even though it is just over 100 pages long. The overall message is solid and reinforced what I believe to be true (although admittedly don’t practice well in my personal tasks) but I was left with an empty sense of, “Is that it?” The worksheets in the back redeem the book in a big way, though; these tools can be used both to improve your personal productivity and convince others of the “myth of multitasking.”

First Sentence:
Phil glanced at the digital clock on his sedan.

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