Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Emergence, by Steven Johnson

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, by Steven Johnson

Distributed systems combine the output of multiple processes to solve a single problem, a common topic in computer science. Johnson explains this subject in simple terms, starting with the common ant. An individual ant does not have a view of the “big picture;” it just follows certain simple rules that trigger when certain simple phenomena are encountered. However, the colony as a whole can obviously manage its society, creating complicated and advanced anthills and balancing the various roles (worker, soldier, ...) needed at any given time. The queen, contrary to popular belief, is not the central architect; actually, the colony as a whole makes decisions in a distributed fashion based on incomplete—or emerging—data points.

As other authors have noted, making decisions in this fashion is something at which humans aren’t very skilled. Because the volume of data that is available to us at this point in history, the implication is we too often become paralyzed when trying to make decisions. Interestingly, Johnson posits that our children will be much better at this than we are. Younger generations are more comfortable with less control of their world, largely because of video games. Titles like The Legend of Zelda don’t have a set rulebook, so players become skilled at guessing causal relationships and building and testing working hypotheses of the true underlying rules. This skill translates to being “more tolerant of being out of control, more tolerant of that exploratory phase where the rules don’t all make sense, and where few goals have been clearly defined.”

Johnson’s style is smooth and easy, with a dose of levity for color. “If people were somehow deprived of the theatrical conflicts of city sidewalks, they’d all end up hollow men—or worse, Republicans.” Ha. :) Clear and clever writing makes a complex topic feel accessible, and the time to pass quickly.

From ants to urban planning to memes, the author covers a lot of ground about emerging systems, and hints at the importance of this subject in our near future. With Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare just in the social networking arena, new ways of processing data are going to be needed. The sheer volume of information is going to require that decisions are made based on localized or incomplete sets. Emergence is an intriguing glimpse into possible methods that may be used to accomplish this.

First Sentence:
It’s early fall in Palo Alto, and Deborah Gordon and I are sitting in her office in Stanford’s Gilbert Biological Sciences building, where she spends three-quarters of the year studying behavioral ecology.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Linchpin, by Seth Godin

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin

Seth Godin truly believes in what he espouses. The passion for his beliefs is evident in nearly every word; this makes Linchpin an entertaining read even if you don’t share the same ideas or aren’t convinced of the value of Godin’s. The basic thought here is that the key to job security is making yourself indispensable, a linchpin. This means that uniqueness and originality are more valuable traits than predictability and rule-following. That meeting goals is more important than how they are met. That the end justifies the means. An interesting and admirable point-of-view, but I don’t think as many corporations in our CYA, SLA, Sarbanes-Oxley world will reward these behaviors as Godin seems to believe. Or I’m not picking the right employers, anyway...

Godin writes, “Shipping something out the door, doing it regularly, without hassle, emergency, or fear—this is a rare skill, something that makes you indispensable.” I am a firm believer of a regular (and short) release cycle, but was asked to leave one job in part because I was doing this; ironically, I was told later that having regular releases wasn’t considered agile enough! It was obvious at this point that I wasn’t going to be successful in that company anyway, but according to Godin I should have been lauded, not let go. I don’t think this obviates the linchpin theory, but it does at least add a corollary about organizational acceptance of such methods. If you are in a conservative, hide-bound chain-of-command, getting labeled as a rebel rather than a rule-follower isn’t necessarily a key to job security.

Whether you drink Godin’s Kool-Aid or not, this is an enjoyable book. His sense of humor is sly and pervasive and he is unapologetic for his personal beliefs. In a discussion about business revolutions, Godin says shopping at Wal-Mart is okay because “you can get a jar of pickles the size of a Volkswagen for three dollars.” Pundits who try and convince people that shopping at Wal-Mart is somehow wrong “have been brainwashed into believing that the old version of the American Dream was a right.” I like both the humor and his political viewpoint here!

His personality is also on display in one of the passages towards the close of the book. The style of Linchpin is chapters, divided into smaller titled sections. One of these sections is composed of a single word, “Yes.” Of course, the title of this section is, “Wait! Are You Saying That I Have to Stop Following Instructions and Start Being an Artist? Someone Who Dreams Up New Ideas and Makes Them Real? Someone Who Finds New Ways to Interact, New Pathways to Deliver Emotion, New Ways to Connect? Someone Who Acts Like a Human, Not a Cog? Me?” Considering the titles are all in a heavy bold typeface, his point is well made.

The last bit of whimsy I’ll leave you with is the following diagram:
Zombies = Bureacracy

First Sentence:
The problem is that the bureaucrats, note takes, literalists, manual readers, TGIF laborers, map followers, and fearful employees are in pain.

Nothing to Lose, by Lee Child

Nothing to Lose, by Lee Child

Jack Reacher is a drifter. While he recognizes that isn’t a widely respected avocation, he believes that everyone deserves a degree of respect. When he visits Despair, Colorado and can’t even get a cup of coffee without being assaulted by the cops Reacher retaliates in the only way he knows how: violently.

This episode was a little different than most of the other Reacher novels in that our hero isn’t trying to help someone else solve a mystery; instead, he stumbles across something that doesn’t ring true and investigates on his own. It builds into seemingly two different puzzles; I really liked that Child didn’t try and tie the two together somehow as most author’s would, but instead has Reacher realize they are unrelated and proceed accordingly. Despite being a bit more preachy than usual and an unrealistic ending (even for Reacher!), I still quite enjoyed this novel—as expected!

First Sentence:
The sun was only half as hot as he had known sun to be, but it was hot enough to keep him confused and dizzy.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes

Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes is said to be the father of the modern novel, and after reading Don Quixote it is easy to see why. Set in the 17th century with an insane man as the hero and a buffoon for a sidekick, this easily could have been a dated and predictable (from our modern point-of-view anyway) book, but instead I found it engaging and exciting from cover to cover. Don Quixote thinks he is the last knight errant and roams the countryside looking for adventure and injustice; unfortunately for him he is met with ridicule and scorn virtually everywhere. While there are a few actual “quests” (attacking windmills being the most famous) most of the novel describes the elaborate practical jokes of which Quixote and Sancho Panza are the butt.

I was surprised at not only how funny this was, but how the humor holds up over the years. Monty Python would be proud of the physical humor here: “Sancho came so close that his eyes were almost in his master’s mouth; by this time the balm had taken effect in Don Quixote’s stomach, and just as Sancho looked into his mouth, he threw up, more vigorously than if he were firing a musket, everything he had inside, and all of it hit the compassionate squire in the face.” Apparently, vomit is a timeless comedic prop! One of the best stories related is about a man who convinces his best friend to attempt to seduce his wife in order to prove her love; his unintentionally humorous justification for this is, “Why be grateful when a woman is good if no one urges her to be bad?”

The odd pacing is a large indication this was written 400 years ago—at times there is a chapter break in the middle of a sentence!—but Edith Grossman’s translation is fantastic and allows the reader to immerse oneself in the story without getting lost in the physical structure of the novel. I quite enjoy the musical Man of La Mancha which is based on this book, but the novel is far superior.

First Sentence:
Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Great Book of Amber, by Roger Zelazny

The Great Book of Amber: The Complete Amber Chronicles, 1-10, by Roger Zelazny

I’d read the first half of this famous fantasy saga as a kid but only vague memories remained. I saw the collected novels in a single volume on a bargain table and decided to reacquaint myself and complete the cycle. Ten novels describing the serial drama of a feuding family with the ability to travel among multiple universes. The first five novels follow Corwin, an amnesiac magician discovering his heritage; the second five follow Merlin, Corwin’s son, as he becomes a pawn in the war for power between the Courts of Chaos and Amber. The first arc is much more compelling, with the magic and mystery at the forefront. The second arc was clearly written later, with the protagonist being a computer programmer as well as a magician. The characters are largely one-dimensional, but as with most quality soap operas this usual detraction is somehow made to work—largely because of the Machiavellian nature of the family and the sheer delight they seem to take in their schemes.

Zelany’s writing isn’t very complicated, and at times downright simplistic. The best example of this is in The Hand of Oberon where Corwin embarks on a wild ride between worlds. “Rising once more. . . . The fogs lower and ebb. . . . Grass, grass, grass. . . . Clear now the sky, and delicate blue. . . . A sun racing to set. . . . Birds. . . . A cow in the field, chewing, staring and chewing. . . .” Several pages exactly like this, the very definition of rambling. The lack of sophistication doesn’t really detract from the overall story threads between the novels though, and in fact is quite funny in some places: “While sex heads a great number of lists, we all have other things we like to do in between.”

Overall, this mix of science-fiction and fantasy tropes is a lot of fun. Uneven at times, but the cunning and sly characters and their devious schemes make for an entertaining read. The ten books clock in at just over 1,200 pages so this is a relatively quick read, especially when compared to the seven book, 4,100+ pages of the vastly inferior Harry Potter series. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as an introduction to the overall genre, but if you already love fantasy/sci-fi then you should check this out.

First Sentence from Nine Princes in Amber:
It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.
First Sentence from The Guns of Avalon:
I stood there on the beach and said, “Good-by, Butterfly,” and the ship slowly turned, then headed out toward deep water.
First Sentence from Sign of the Unicorn:
I ignored the questions in the eyes of the groom as I lowered the grisly parcel and turned the horse in for care and maintenance.
First Sentence from The Hand of Oberon:
A bright flash of insight, to match that peculiar sun...
First Sentence from The Courts of Chaos:
Amber: high and bright atop Kolvir in the middle of the day.
First Sentence from Trumps of Doom:
It is a pain in the ass waiting around for someone to try to kill you.
First Sentence from Blood of Amber:
My life had been relatively peaceful for eight years—not counting April thirtieths, when someone invariably tried to kill me.
First Sentence from Sign of Chaos:
I felt vaguely uneasy, though I couldn’t say why.
First Sentence from Knight of Shadows:
Her name was Julia, and I’d been damn certain she was dead back on April 30 when it all began.
First Sentence from Prince of Chaos:
See one coronation and you’ve seen them all.

Search This Blog