Book Report: Engineering the City

This book, Engineering the City showed up as an book, probably because I liked Brian Hayes' book Infrastructure so much. I kinda wish I'd paid more attention to the details of Engineering the City before I went to the hassle of requesting it through the LINK+ inter-library loan program. Not that it was a lot of hassle, but... Well... This book is for ages nine and up. I bet it's a very nice book for what it is. But. I went a ways through it, and it wasn't telling me much I didn't already know.

There was some new-to-me material--a few sentences about the history of construction of a harbor at Ostia. (The Romans built a couple of breakwaters, which were nice but not enough, so they built another one.)

The builders of the transcontinental railroad got a bonus built on mileage--before the "golden spike" was driven, there was a period of time when they were building parallel tracks, because the senate hadn't yet said "hey, we're only paying for one railroad, you west-bound builders and you east-bound builders have got to meet somewhere". That's neat stuff.

But I don't want to wade through a quick explanation of where rain comes from. And another quick explanation of something else I already have heard. And another and another.

Probably a darned good book for someone ages 9+. But not for me, I stopped partway through.

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Book Report: The Internet in China (Zixue Tai)

It's going to sound like I'm slamming this book, like it's bad. It's not bad. I just chose the wrong book, is all. The thing is: this is an academic work. [It might also sound like I'm obscurely referring to recent events. But, as usual, I had this book report sitting around in my queue for a while.]

This is an academic work about the effect of the internet upon civil society in China. By "academic work", I mean that... Well, for example this book's first chapter is a careful definition of "civil society". I guess. I mean, the book's intro warned me that's what the first chapter was going to be about, and that it would refer to Hegel. Hegel. Good grief. So I skipped the first chapter, since that was just going to be of interest to a few scholars.

Alas, the rest of the book is academic, too. It was tough to find useful bits amongst the hair-splitting arguments with others' work. Eventually, I stopped reading and started skimming.

There were nevertheless some worthwhile bits. This book taught me some things about China's administration of censorship. I assumed that the national censors had direct control over local news--but apparently, national censors control national news. Local news is under the control of local governments, which have their own censorship rules. So I thought that regional differences in censorship were mostly local corruption, but it turns out that some of those regional differences are legal.

This leads to an interesting pattern--local politicians worry about national news organizations. Just as a sherriff might help prop up a corrupt local government, in China a local news organization helps cover up illegal activities of local government. But just as the USA's feds might trump the sherriff, Chinese national reporters might expose local corruption since the local officials don't have power to stop them.

That was kind of neat. If it's true. I might have misinterpreted. Try wringing meaning out of a sentence like "Notwithstanding the Habermasian normative perspective of public opinion formation and its crtics, there has been a well-established line of research about the impact of public opinion on political governance (e.g., Heith, 2004; Manxa, Cook, and Page, 2002; Sharp 1999) and the theory and practice of accurately gauging public opinion (see Ferguson, 2000 for an overview) as well as the role of mass media in shaping public opinion (e.g., Perse, 2001)." Eventually figure out it's not saying anything about the book's topic, but is just anticipating debate about whether anyone can say anything about the topic... Oy veh.

There are probably a couple of dozen scholars who want to read this book. I eventually realized I wasn't one of them and stopped.

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Book Report: Remix

It's a book by Lawrence Lessig from 2008, and therefore it's about copyright law. (Nowadays he does election finance reform. Back then he was all about the copyrights.) It's about mashups. It's aimed at lawmakers, letting them know--each time you give more power to copyright holders, you aren't just making Mickey stronger. You're also outlawing art; much of art is reinventing prior art. "The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal," as Banksy recently appropriated.

I guess that's what this book is about.

I didn't make it very far. Hey, give me a break, I hang out on the internet. I see mash-ups all of the time. This book wasn't aimed at me. It was aimed at lawmakers, who don't have such an easy time hanging out on the internet. I hope that some of them read this book.

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Book Report: Stiff (The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers)

There's some interesting stuff in this book about scientific, medical, and engineering-testing uses of human cadavers. There's some interesting stuff, but there's some "humorous" reportage to slog through on the way there. The writer is working with interesting material--and she obviously did some good research to dig up this material and presents it well--but didn't seem to think that material was sufficiently interesting to her audience. So she tells us her reactions, she makes unfunny jokes, she tries to keep us engaged... I got tired of slogging through that. I stopped reading.

There were anecdotes of resurrectionists--graverobbers who didn't rob possessions, but who dug up bodies for early medical anatomists. There was a story I hadn't heard before: a guy running a boarding house who killed a sick boarder and then sold the body.

One thing I want to remember out of this book: I'd heard that crucified people couldn't breathe if they let themselves dangle, that they had to push themselves up or suffocate. According to one researcher, that theory was based on a kind of torture in which folks have their arms tied above them; but if your arms are out to the sides, you can still breathe OK.

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Book Report: Super Spy

It is a comic book, a collection of little spy stories. I bought it because it was an Amazon recommendation (albeit a tepid Amazon recommendation) and it had Morse Code on the cover. I didn't like it much, though, not the parts I made it through. I read some brief stories of love and loss amongst spies and informants. Nothing gripped me. Maybe the stories were too quick? I couldn't sympathize with a character so quickly sketched? If I'd kept going, apparently the stories intertwine. But I didn't stick with it.

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Zine Report: Wired 17.05 (May 2009)

I picked up the latest issue of Wired. A bunch of famous puzzlers made puzzles for it. There's, like, hidden puzzles inside. I didn't make it very far. There's a lot of stuff in Wired magazine. You can get tired of looking for hidden stuff. Ooh, look, there's some bold letters here, they spell out a message. Hey, these ads look fake. But there's just so much to slog through. Do I want to read an article about the Kryptos statue? I've read some about that statue. Do I want to read an article that introduces it, one that assumes I know nothing?

I got bored. I took a break from hunting, started idly riffling pages. My eyes fell on this snippet

Skip to the next article. You certainly could--you could skip the whole magazine.

It was a sign. I put it down went on to other things.

There was good stuff in the magazine. I enjoyed the puzzles that I saw! Thank you for making them! And there was a Clive Thompson article about ARGs and group-solving puzzles that quoted Jonathan Blow. Hooray for quoting Jonathan Blow. I also noticed a welcome lack. I noticed the lack of the crap that made me stop reading Wired years ago. The glowing reviews of unaffordable audio equipment--they're gone! Maybe Wired has turned into a worthwhile magazine. Maybe I shouldn't have looked at Loganbill so funny when he said he wanted to work there.

Still, though. Too much work to hunt through the whole darned thing looking for puzzles. I guess I could let Clive Thompson's article convince me it would be fun to look for other people on the internet. And we could shard up the magazine, each person searching one section for hidden stuff! And we could say "Look me made a communities!" and all collaborate around the magazine and... and...

To heck with it. I've got a new issue of Giant Robot. And I already watched J.J. Abrams talk about his $&#*ing mystery box on his TED video, and it wasn't that interesting then. On to the next zine.

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Book Report: The Best American Essays 2006

It's a collection of essays, not in any particular field. Apparently essayists, when they aren't writing about something in particular--uhm, apparently, they tend to write about themselves. Or else the editor of this collection likes that sort of thing. There were a bunch of slice-of-life-ish autobio pieces in here. "Personal essays" might be the phrase I'm looking for. I like autobiography and slice-of-life bits just fine... but the authors of these pieces weren't grizzled adventurers living lives of derring-do. They were, uhm, essayists: authors, college professors. I didn't finish reading some of these.

Getting past the griping, I liked a few of these essays nonetheless. Emily Bernard's "Teaching the N-Word" explores language, racism, and culture. Susan Orlean's "Lost Dog" was a good story, but it was a good story back when I first read it in The New Yorker, too. "George", by Sam Pickering, was good, but sad. "Group Grief" by Lily Tuck was good, but sad. It's good that these authors are able to find a silver lining in their tragic lives by using them as material for essays.

Still, I don't just want to read sad slices of life. Not too many in a row, anyhow. Especially when they're lives of bookish folks; those strike kind of close to home.

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Book Report: Code

I picked up this book because I'd heard it talked about codes and also about digital circuit design, two topics dear to my heart. I started on it and it seemed pretty readable. But it stayed with pretty introductory material, at least for the first several chapters. And when I riffled the pages of the rest, it looked like I wasn't going to learn much. So I put it down. Still, if this book had been available twenty years ago, I would have been glad to read it. (Except... I'm not sure if I'd discovered the fun of reading non-fiction back then. Uhm, if this book at been available twenty years ago and I'd been wise enough to appreciate it and, uhm... now I forget what the question was.)

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Book Report: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I guess I made through ~100 pages of palace intrigue before I realized I don't especially want to read through that much palace intrigue. Yeah, that's right, I'm yet another person who made it partway through Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and then wimped out.

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Book Report: The Inmates are Running the Asylum

I didn't finish reading this book. It's about software usability. Well, the first few dozen pages were about the importance of software usability, with precious little advice on how to achieve same. I didn't need convincing. I needed advice, but wasn't willing to slog through all those Reminders of Paramount Importance to get to whatever advice there was, if any. So I laid down that book.

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Book Report: Googleを支える技術

I'm a technical writer. Technical writers write tersely. This promotes quick comprehension. If your writing is translated, there is another benefit. The translator does not need to work so hard.

Holidays are generally good times. Friends who have moved away come back to town. I don't even mind when they call up to say that they're running late for dinner before a show at the Fillmore. (Aside: To gloss my twit, the sousaphone joke was a lame joke I told at the Fillmore. The opening band, Crystal Antlers, was setting up. They seemed to have a lot of equipment. "All they need now is a sousaphone," I said. But partway through their set, out came a sousaphone. Except that now that I do an image search on "sousaphone", I see that I had the name of the instrument wong--though they did haul out the instrument I was thinking of. It might be called a "melodica"? Wow, this is turning out to be a long aside.) I especially don't mind this if I'm next to a bookstore. Bookstores are good places to loiter. I wandered over to the Kinokuniya bookstore. I don't remember much Japanese, but I remember some. I drifted over to the computer section. I could browse titles there--they'd mostly be in English or in phonetically-spelled out English.

Googleを支える技術 had "Google" in the title, so I thought it might be interesting. (This is a good time to re-iterate that my opinions are mine, and might not reflect those of my employer who might find books about Google really really boring for all I know.)

I expected it to be a book about searching, but it was about Google's technology infrastructure. It was pieced together from public information--there were chapters on GFS, BigTable, the things you can find out about. Also, there was a chapter on engineering culture. And therein I spotted the sentence that caused me to buy this book:

GoogleのソフトウェアエンジニアであるSteve Yegge氏は、自身のブログで次のように述べています。

I didn't know enough Japanese to know exactly what that meant, but I could tell it was about Google engineer Steve Yegge. This was good news--maybe I could use this book to give Steve a hard time. So, like I said, I bought the book.

I finally got around to typing that sentence in. It took a while. To type in Japanese characters, you pretty much have to know how to pronounce them. Do you know how to pronounce "氏"? Yeah, like I said, it took a while. (Yes, I tried typing in a couple of words and then searching the web to see if the text was already out there. No dice. No, Amazon's search inside the book doesn't search inside this book. I tried all that, see?)

I was glad it was a short sentence to type in. This promoted quick comprehension. If your writing is translated, there is another benefit. The translator does not need to work so hard.

Oh, right, what does the Japanese sentence say? It says, roughly, "Google engineer Steve Yegge said in his blog." This part of the Japanese book was talking about code reviews. Steve Yegge mentioned that the Google codebase is clean.

Now think about what I said about writing tersely.

Now think about some poor sorry Japanese slobs reading Steve Yegge's blog posts.

Ha ha ha ha.

Uhm, for those of you in the audience who don't read Steve Yegge's blog, his blog posts are long.

Nevertheless, this guy Yasushi Aoki has posted translations of some Yegge posts at I salute you, Yasushi Aoki. I wore myself out just typing that one sentence into an automatic translator. I wondered if "aoky" might have a meaning other than just pieces of the translator's name. I tried searching the web for the "aoky", and the first hit was a Japanese web page which suggested that AOKY is an initialism. I fed that into the auto translator and got:

It first opened for YORO


O Happy

K a year

Y hi

Stands for.

I don't really understand what that means, but I'll take that as my excuse to say: Hi Happy a year! See you in 2009!

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Book Report: The Craftsman

In a passing reference to this book, The Craftsman, I got the impression that it was a book that studied how people think when they're working. But it isn't that at all. I wish instead people had pointed out this sentence from the book's Prologue:

I am a philisophically minded writer asking questions about such matters as woodworking, military drills, or solar panels.

There might be some useful information in this book. But I'll never find it. I gave up on this book. It is larded with philosophy. One imagines that the author, Sennet, felt compelled to write this book because he is surrounded by philosophers who are unfamiliar with doing real work and he felt he had to explain the process to them in their own language...

First and foremost, by putting manual pursuits on an equal footing with mental labors. The general idea had a sharp edge; the Encyclopedia scorned hereditary members of the elite who do no work and so contribute nothing to society. By restoring the manual laborer to something like his archaic Greek honor, the encyclopédistes mounted a challenge equal in force to Kant's attack on traditional privelege but different in character: useful labor rather than free reason challenges the past. The very march of the alphabet aided the Encyclopedia's belief in the ethical equivalence of manual work to supposedly higher pursuits. In French roi (king) lies near rôtisseur (a roaster of meats or fowl), just as in English "knit" follows upon "king." As the historian Robert Danton observes, the Encyclopedia seized on such couplings as more than happy accidents; these take the authority of a monarch down a beg by making it prosaic.

So the real is problem is that I misunderstood what the book was about. This is not a book about how we think when we work. It is a book about professional thinkers thinking about work. What did Kant have to say about work? Diderot? If I cared about these things, then I guess I could read this book to find out. But hopefully one of my friends would cajole me into caring about something important instead and I'd get back to doing real work.

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Book Report: Competing on Internet Time, Breaking Windows

Competing on Internet Time

This book is about the rise of Netscape including competing with Microsoft, contrasting Netscape's nimble pace to Microsoft's slow release cycles. I didn't finish the book. It talked plenty about the business side. Well, it didn't say that much about the business side, but it said it at length. Maybe if I'd kept reading there would have been something interesting about the software development process. But I couldn't stick with it. They kept saying "on Internet time" to mean "fast-paced". The Nth time I read it, I thought Oh, get over yourselves.

I tried looking in the index for bad attitude, it wasn't there.

I gave up and put the book down.

Breaking Windows

This book is about Microsoft's peak and downturn. It comes at the problem from the biz point of view, largely overlooking the technology. I guess. I didn't make it very far in the book. Maybe I would have made it past the discussion of how Microsoft needed to keep growing to sustain itself as a company. I guess it's very engineer-y of me to zone out during business discussions and only perk up when people talk about products and/or technology. I perked up when the book talked about Bill Gates' reason for getting into the software business when most companies were making software only as an excuse to get people to buy their hardware. Gates figured that Moore's law meant that hardware would become a commodity. So he didn't want to get into that business, just software. But in the first something something pages of this book, that was the only time I perked up. Eventually I realized this.

I gave up and put the book down.

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Book Report: TCP/IP Illustrated

Network programming today... gee, I just call into some standard library, say, "I want the webpage at" and it's there. It's almost that easy. You kids today, you don't know how easy you got it. Back in the day, things were different. Back at Geoworks, I documented our network interface, which was sockets. Sockets, darn it. Sockets, these virtual streams of numbers going out (and/or coming in) over the net. You couldn't just ask for a web page. Nooo, you had to carve the HTTP request out yourself. Heck, this was before we had HTTP, before we had the web. (There were these things called Gopher and Archie and Veronica, but nobody could figure out how to use them.) That was the hell of it: it was hard to program for the network, and there was not yet anything on the network worth getting. Except maybe you had two or three friends with internet accounts who might want to send you mail. But someone else had already written the email program. So there was no point writing a networking program to fetch your mail. There was no point in writing a networking program at all, except just to see it done. It was rough, I tell you. Uphill both ways. But it could have been rougher. At least I was using sockets. Someone else had already set up the TCP and IP crap. Someone else had already done all of the really low-level stuff, the stuff below the sockets.

Sorry, I was lost in a reverie. What? Oh, right, the book report. A book about the really low-level stuff and some of the merely kinda low-level stuff. The book, the book, I did not read the book.

In a discussion about great technical writing, someone mentioned this book, TCP/IP Illustrated. So I checked it out of the library and started reading. I think I made a mistake when I did that. This book does seem good, but I don't think it's meant to be read cover-to-cover. I think you're supposed to flip to the section describing the protocol you want to learn, and just read that section. Nothing wrong with that--but I was hoping for an interesting book to read cover-to-cover.

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Book Report: Principles of Instructional Design

This is the third book on instructional design I tackled reading. It's also the wordiest. "When one begins to think about the application of learning principles to instruction, there is no better guide than to ask the question, what is to be learned?" This book meanders like that; it meanders like that plenty. I stopped reading it.

A better use of your time: Google Streetview covers this year's Tour de France route. I.e., you can armchair-travel your way around many pretty French mountain roads. Go look. The roads meander... well, they switch back. But I don't mind that so much in a mountain road, not like I mind it in someone's writing.

View Larger Map

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Book Report: Keeping Found Things Found

This book's title is misleading: it make sense. This book's preface is misleading: it makes sense, too. It took a while before I realized that the book was noodling all over the place but not actually saying much.

It's tragic. The book is about personal information management. Everyone cares about personal information management: everyone has personal information. TODO lists, emails, schedules, articles, ... I'm a writer. As an information provider, I care about other people's PIM. It's not enough that I keep track of my own info. When I distribute the technical documents I write, I want to make sure that other people can keep track of them--this desire affects my choices in my publishing medium. (I'd love to distribute my documents on Hello Kitty stationery (It smells like bubble-gum!) but my customers couldn't track paper documents easily.) Alas, this book is no help. Or maybe it's some help, but I ran out of patience trying to slog through it.

Early on, it tries to define "information." When it comes to personal information management, spending more than a couple of paragraphs on the definition of information is philosophy. Where by "philosophy", I mean "not useful".

What is information? This question has been a repeated topic of discussion in its own right. Buckland provides an analysis illustrating that the word "information" alternately denotes a process (...), a result (...), or a thing (...). In reaction to the definitional inclusiveness of "information" and the many senses in which the word is used, Buckland concludes "we are unable to say confidently of anything that it could not be information".

I can't believe someone asked me to sit still for a paragraph like that--a paragraph that included the phrase "definitional inclusiveness"--just to tell me that some guy named Buckland pointed out that it's hard to nail down the meaning of a hand-wavy term like "information". But we go on for a chapter rambling on about what can be considered "information".

Let's keep going.

A wiki can be likened to the field in a public park after a snowfall. We can write what we like in the snow but others can too.

This is a pretty image. I appreciate the fact that he didn't compare a wiki to a palimpsest. I am so frickin' tired of people comparing wiki pages to palimpsests. On the other hand, we're already on page 39 and I have been slogging through this book for quite a while without encountering any insights. Why make me sit through a paragraph of simile about a wiki? Why not cut to the chase? Does this book have a chase?

I gave up on this book. There might be some insights buried in here somewhere, but extrapolating from the first 40 pages, I project it's a waste of time.

Maybe I'll just flip ahead. Angry technical writer challenge: choose random paragraphs; reduce each of them to a sentence.


Planning--whether planning a party, a vacation, or even a weekly meeting--can be fun and, anyway, it needs to be done. Chapter 5 considers the possibility that, given the proper tool support, an effective organization of information (based on file system folders, even) can emerge as a natural by-product of the planning we must do in any case. Chapter 9 generalizes by considering various activities that help us to make sense of our information. These activities help us understand and make better use of our information. These activities can alse be a way of managing our information.

Sentence: You can use information that you capture and organize while planning, but I won't say anything concrete about this for a few more chapters because I'm wordy.


It is time to consider a single, unified, and smarter auto-complete facility that can be accessed from all our machines and that works consistently across multiple applications. At the core of this would be a database such as "person" and "budget" and associated properties such as "cell phone number" and "current budget amount." Email applications, word processors, web browsers, and other applications could access this either to store new information or to retrieve information.

Sentence: Omnipresent strong AI would be awesome, but I would still be wordy.

We might hope that somewhere--perhaps at the Library of Congress--legacy applications will be preserved that are capable of rendering and supporting the manipulation of information kept in legacy formats, although support for legacy applications, in turn, may require preservation of legacy operating systems and even legacy computers to run all of the above. Better for most of us might be a web-based service to which we could submit information items in legacy formats--especially photographs and videos--and have them returned in a current format of our choice--in a manner reminiscent of the way we once sent exposed film to a film development lab for processing into prints or slides.

Sentence: It would be awesome if someone figured out legacy formats, but I would still be wordy.

Oh, even the individual paragraphs make me mad in how they waste my time. I need to put this book down. I think the root problem is that this book was written by an academic for other academics. But the title made sense, so I thought it might be written for human beings. That title tricked me into reading forty pages + three paragraphs, but no more.

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Unread Books "Meme"

via Journeywoman, a "meme" that's almost on topic with my recent whining about Russian novels:

What we have here is the top 106 books most often marked as "unread" by LibraryThing’s users. As in, they sit on the shelf to make you look smart or well-rounded. Bold the ones you've read, underline the ones you read for school, italicize the ones you started but didn't finish.

Here's the twist: add (*) beside the ones you liked and would (or did) read again or recommend. Even if you read 'em for school in the first place.

OK, this is me again. In addition to the suggested notations, I added (link)s to Book Reports for those books upon which I have Reported.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment (reached the finish, but only read the odd-numbered pages)
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi : a novel (link)
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick (skimmed a fair amount)
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey *
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace (link)
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods (link)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Quicksilver *
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian : a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys (link)
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible : a novel
Angels & Demons
The Inferno (and Purgatory and Paradise)
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse *
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes : a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present (link)
Cryptonomicon *
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas (link)
The Confusion *
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values *
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow *
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White Teeth
Treasure Island (link)
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers (link)

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Book Report: War and Peace

Russian novels are long.

Back in high school, my English class was supposed to read Crime and Punishment. Our teacher asked for a show of hands: how many of us had finished reading the book. Mine was the only hand to go up--and I was making a waggling so-so gesture. Mr Tresize asked why my hand was waggling. "Uh, I only read the odd-numbered pages." I'd reached the end, but only by skipping. The describing and re-describing of the anti-hero's situation... it was more fun to reconstruct the gaps than it was to read the material.

Russian novels are long.

A few weeks back, my mom loaned me a fraction of War & Peace. One problem with long novels--if you mostly read during a bumpy bus ride, heavy books are rough on your wrists. I'm not exactly sure when I'm going to break down and buy a Kindle/Iliad-like device--but I bet it will be around the next time Neal Stephenson publishes another 10kg novel. (Disclaimer: I have not actually tried weighing any of Stephenson's novels--that way lies despair.) My mom has a low-tech solution. She sliced her copy of War & Peace into sections. She loaned me a section. I read it. She loaned me the next section.

Yestere'en, I stopped by the SF Minigame after-party. The talk turned to Gamers' blogs. Justin Santamaria pointed out that I read a lot. I apologized, giving the excuse that I had a long daily bus ride. Lessachu remembered back when she was studying in France, she'd read on the Metro. She could polish off a Russian novel in a couple of days--she was in an immersion program, and these books were a welcome bit of English.

I remember really enjoying Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog, but part of why I liked it is that I read it in Japan and it was so nice to just understand something without straining my brain with translation.

I didn't finish reading War & Peace. I'm here in California. I have choices available to me.

And Russian novels are long.

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Book Report: On Food and Cooking

Here is the recipe I follow for tamales: 1. remove two tamales from package. 2. place in pot with steamer rack 3. place on high heat 4. get distracted by computer stuff, lose track of time 4. when apartment is full of smoke, the tamales are done. Remove from heat and hold out window. 5. remove tamales from corn husks, cover with salsa, and serve.

My cooking skills have atrophied in recent years.

I think that explains why I didn't finish reading McGee's On Food and Cooking. The parts that I read were pretty interesting! (Usually when I don't finish a book, it's because I was bored.) I read the chapter about dairy products. It discussed the history of humanity's use of animal milk. It was fascinating. It discussed the chemical transformations by which cream turns into whipped cream and other delights. That was fascinating, too.

But when I tried to remember these things a few hours later, they'd already leaked out of my brain. There were parts of my brain that were once dedicated to thinking about cooking, I'm sure. So I could, say, sit down to surf the web but a couple of neurons would keep track: has it been 15 minutes since you set that stuff cooking? Those neurons went away; I lose track of time. I recommend this book for most people, but it wasn't for me.

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Book Report: Devices and Desires

Monday did not go as I hoped.

Monday, I thought I was going in for HEAD & NECK SURGERY. Instead, I was going in to the Head and Neck Surgery department so they could look at my lip, diagnose that icky bump, and then schedule the actual surgery for a later date. (It's not cancer, Ron! It's not serious--or else they would have scheduled the surgery sooner, I guess. It's seriously gross, though.) Then I went to visit my parents. That Monday afternoon I woke up from a nap, felt dizzy, was hyperventilating, and my heart was beating super-hard. Apparently, if I was an experienced fainter, I would have known that this was "feeling faint" and would have called up my doctor. Not an experienced fainter, I thought Wow this must be serious and I asked my parents to call an ambulance. So I spent Monday night in the emergency room and Tuesday getting tested in the hospital. All this so that at the end, the doctors could tell me that probably most of my symptoms were results of me freaking out over feeling faint. (The doctors didn't say "freaking out". They were nice. Don't refuse an ambulance because you think the doctors will make fun of your nonimpressive health problems; the doctors I talked to were nice. And if you aren't sure whether or not to call the ambulance, you should probably call the ambulance.)

Anyhow, enough with all of the health whining. Reading someone's descriptions of their own medical complaints is rarely interesting. The writer wants to go into more detail than you want to read. It's like a novel whose author has grown to love the characters so much that those characters can do no wrong...

Oh, yeah. This is a book report. I picked up the book Devices and Desires because it had a cool cover and the blurb said that the hero was an engineer. Great way to choose a book, right?

Devices and Desires did not go as I had hoped.

In this novel by K.J. Parker, an engineer beats two trained guardsmen in a fight after they have him pinned. Wow. And all of the protagonists are very reasonable and carefully explain their clever reasoning and... I gave up on this book; the protagonists were all just a little too perfect. Oh, part of the book's premise is that there's a city of engineers under such tight government control that it runs like clockwork. How... clever.

If someone's read further than I have and can tell me "Later on, the book gives a darned good reason why that engineer is such a badass at hand-to-hand combat," please let me know. I can give this book another chance.

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Book Report: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution

Ron and Sua are moving soon; last night I helped Ron to pack up the library. "You should read this," he said, showing me a book. Its title was Skepticism and ... uhm, Skepticism and .... Uhm. I forget what the rest of the title was because it was a pretty boring title. I think I kinda fell asleep partway through reading it. I said "Are you sure I want to read this? It looks really boring." You might think that's a shallow way to judge books, but it's worked pretty well for me. Books with boring titles are boring. Books with interesting titles are often boring, too, but you boost your chances by choosing a book with an interesting title.

Thus, I considered reading Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution as a sort of calculated risk.

This book is trying to explain some theory of natural & unnatural selection which is different from some other theory. So it talks about selection. I got a few dozen pages in without figuring out what, exactly, the book was trying to explain. What is the new theory? I missed the part where the book explained the new theory. Probably it did explain the difference between the old theory and new but the difference as so subtle that I never realized that the book was stating its thesis. I guess that's what happened. There's no way I'm going to go re-read that thing to figure out what it was talking about. No way. It started talking about the history of the philosophy of the mind. Do I need to point out that any book which discusses the history of the philosophy of the mind is probably irrelevant? I slogged through a few more pages of the history of the philosophy of the mind. One has to make sure that an book hasn't temporarily meandered into something frivolous, eventually to reemerge into relevance. One must confirm that the book has fully set its course on folly with no sign of return. And that's what seemed to be going on, so I stopped reading.

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Book Report: Leave me Alone, I'm Reading

Today at lunch, the conversation was all about web application security. No, wait, it wasn't even about web application security. It was about what sort of effort it would take to educate computer programmers about web application security. No wait it was about how to educate computer programmers about one paradigm of web application security without totally alienating any computer security experts. I found this conversation interesting. This suggests that you might not want to trust me very far about what things are interesting and/or boring. So you might not want to read about what I thought of the book Leave me Alone, I'm Reading. Nevertheless, here we go.

This book starts out with a little bit of autobiography, but then dives into literary criticism, an informed essay about Women's Extreme Adventure Stories. It turns out that I don't care that much about Women's Extreme Adventure Stories, no matter how cleverly Maureen Corrigan compares and contrasts instances of these stories.

Actually, of the stories that she mentioned that I'd read, I liked most of them. I guess I just don't enjoy reading book reports that talk about overarching themes and common elements and all that crapola. Wow, those of you who have read many of these Book Reports are probably really surprised to learn that, but it's true. I gave up partway through this book. It seems well-executed. But it's not my thing.

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Book Report: Happiness (Lessons from a New Science)

Yesterday, I was walking in the Mission district and ran into Janak R. Janak just finished up an internship at my place of employment; soon he will go back to UCB. He asked, "Do you live around here?" I said, "No, but I come here to buy neckties." He said, "That's right--you wore a necktie yesterday. And again before--So was yesterday your last tie and now you need a new one?"

He was right. But because he was a true scientist, he tested his hypothesis--he asked. We like tests, we like confirmation.

Which is why I gave up on Happiness. As a society, we're figuring out that money can't buy happiness. We're learning more about how happiness works. Maybe we can start re-tooling society so that people can set smarter goals. So how can you find out more about what really makes us happy? Certainly not by reading Happiness (Lessons from a New Science). At least not from reading the first half or so. I read the first half or so. The book didn't tell me much about happiness. Mostly it made me grumpy. Did you know that people who win Oscars tend to live four years longer than people who are merely nominated? You could claim that this means that winners are happier and that this Oscarly longevity proves that happiness leads to healthiness. Or you could figure that Oscar judges might tend to vote for healthier people, who probably tend to look better.

Reading this book, I kept saying "correlation is not causation". I gave up on Happiness. I will choose my own path, test my own hypotheses.

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Book Report: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I started reading this book because it was highly recommended by Wikilens.

I stopped reading it because I didn't want to read more about day-to-day life in Brooklyn. The first hundred pages were fascinating. But I hit a wall.

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Book Report: Lunch Lessons

Those Debian install CDs showed up. Fortunately, I have two computers. So here I sit, typing on the laptop-- uhm, excuse me. OK, I'm back. Here I sit on the laptop, occasionally pausing to swap CDs, hunching over the drive and-- uhm, excuse me. Hmm, errors processing libc6. That sounds bad. It didn't like the libc6 that I downloaded, didn't like the one from the CD-ROM. Hmm, that seems bad. Man, I hate computers. Let's talk about a book instead. Let's talk about Lunch Lessons.

This book was good. But it was not aimed at me. I was reading the wrong book.

This book, by Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes, is about nutrition and sustainable food, applying good food techniques to school lunches. I wasn't the person who should be reading it--it's preaching to the converted.

I was hoping the book would have anecdotes about introducing healthy food to kids raised on junk food, how they were brought around. I thought I saw some magazine article about that... I forget who wrote it. I guess when I heard about this book Lunch Lessons, I assumed that magazine article was promoting this book. How many people could be out there, writing about school lunches, right?

This book didn't have much in the way of anecdotes. It had sound advice. I read it through. But if I'd had another book in my backpack, I don't know that I would have finished it. Oh, I didn't finish it, not really. A lot of it was kid-friendly nutritious recipes. I don't have kids and I don't cook, so I skipped that part. And then I was done with that book, and I was still on the bus and the bus was still in South San Francisco and I had nothing to read. Watch out for those recipes--they'll make you think that it will take a while to read this book, that you won't need another book for your commute. But you'll be wrong and bored in South San Francisco.

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Book Report: Assassination Vacation

Pre-book-report non sequiturs can be fun: Darcy Krasne. We now return you to today's Book Report, already in progress.

...ever get published? Though this book is by Sarah Vowell, I blame its widespread existence on David Foster Wallace. Wallace has written some good essays and many bad ones. He pokes fun at himself for being such a geek. He does it a lot. He does it until it stops being funny and then keeps going. In this book Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, she pokes fun at herself for obsessing over presidential assassination trivia. She travels to different places and thinks about things that happened there.

I didn't finish the book. Is it funny that she studied a lot about something? Not that funny, it's not. I just wanted to say, "Get over yourself. Get over David Foster Wallace's book sales, too. Just calm down and report. He'll be first against the wall when the revolution comes; you don't need to follow him." But there's no point in saying that to a book, so I didn't.

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Book Report: The Undercover Economist

It's another book explaining economics to the masses. Why did I start reading this? I should have known better. I've read too many popular-economics books lately. I stopped reading this one partway through.

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Book Report: the Birth of Plenty

Most books are boring. Most books about economics are boring. But a few stand out, are interesting. Some reviewers fooled me into thinking The Birth of Plenty would be interesting. Those reviewers were wrong.

This book claims that the following four things are necessary and sufficient to for a prosperous civlization, and that the emergence of these brought Western civilization into a time of plenty around 1820:

  • property rights
  • the scientific method
  • loans
  • rapid transportation and communication

I only made it about 100 pages into the book. I don't think he said anything that would persuade doubters, nor anything that would dissuade believers. Folks already inclined to agree with these points of view can have a fun time nodding their heads and saying "See, I told you so. And now this book agrees with me. So it must be true."

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Book Report: Out of Control

Interesting reporting and interviews about bottom-up organization, order from chaos, and emergent behavior. Plus some talk about What It All Means. Unfortunately, it doesn't take much talk about What It All Means to ruin a book for me. I gave up on this one about 2/3 of the way through.

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Book Report: The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy

I finished playing the excellent game Psychonauts! It was totally worth buying an XBox just to play this game. Actually, I didn't make it to the end of the game. I made it to the start of the "meat circus" level, peeked at a walkthrough, and figured out that I was at the end of the adventure-gamey part--you know, the part I enjoy. (That and figuring out ways to destroy hay bales.) So I stopped playing the game, opened up the bonus disc that only had cutscenes, and watched the final cutscenes. Wow, fun cutscenes full of funny and/or touching dialog. All the fun of the game without the tedious trapeze artistry! It was awesome.

Sometimes the path to maximum enjoyment of a product involves knowing when to stop. For yet another example, consider the book, The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy.

I didn't read the whole book. I read the introduction. The introduction was informative.

Hetch Hetchy is, of course, the big reservoir next to Yosemite where a lot of San Francisco's water is stored. It used to be a mountain valley; we dammed it. In hindsight, it wasn't such a great place for a reservoir in terms of beauty lost vs. water stored. John Muir, at the time, pointed out that it was a bad idea.

What I learned from this book's introduction: at the time when people were debating whether or not San Francisco should flood Hetch Hetchy, it wasn't rapacious developers versus nature lovers. It was public utility people versus private utility people. Pretty much everyone except John Muir figured that Hetch Hetchy would be turned into a reservoir; it was mostly a question of whether San Francisco or some private company would do so.

Some nature lovers who didn't want the valley flooded. But there weren't many of them. Cynical folks at the time didn't take these nature lovers seriously--and perhaps with good reason. The nature lovers wanted to build roads to Hetch Hetchy and turn it into a place for tourists. They didn't have any plans on how to do this, however. Private water and power interests exhorted these people--because private water and power interests didn't want the city to have public water nor power.

So I learned something from the introduction, yayy! Then I emerged into the book proper. I read a few pages and quickly determined that the author, Robert Righter, was going into more detail than I really wanted to read. So I stopped.

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Book Report: Last Crossing

It's pancake day, and I'm sick with a cold. Normally, I love pancakes, but today my body craves only soup, gruel, and tea. So be it. There will be other opportunities to eat pancakes. Today, I stayed home, napped, and read. Read. Oh, right, this is supposed to be a book report about Last Crossing. Sorry, I drifted off there for a second.

It's a Western but the first few chapters were mostly set in England. No doubt this is supposed to set up some interesting contrasts between the civilized world and the bleak frontier. But I'll never see those contrasts because the first few chapters lost my interest and I couldn't bring myself to pick this book back up.

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Book Report: Krakatoa

Krakatoa was a volcano that got bigger and bigger until it blew up.

Krakatoa was a book that got longer and longer until I just didn't want to hear any more about volcanoes, the Reuters news service, the history of theories of continental drift, pumice stone, or whatever.

Too bad. I like the author's book The Professor and the Madman.

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Book Report: Remaking the World

This is a collection of essays by Henry Petrowski about engineering. I suspect that he was paid by the word. The first essay is about the engineer Charles Steinmetz. But Petrowski wants an angle on Steinmetz, so he spends four pages talking about a doctored photo which made Steinmetz look goofy. There isn't four pages of material there.

The next essay was about Nobel's intent in setting up the Nobel prize, and how it turned out. This could be an interesting topic. And yet my attention wandered as I tried to read this essay. By the end, I only maintained my concentration on the essay by imagining how I would chop a third out of it if I were Mr Petrowski's editor.

I gave up halfway through the next essay, about the origin of Robert's Rules of Order.

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Book Report: Old Goriot

It's a French slice of life showing how petty greed and ambition amongst the middle classes can lead to zzz....

I only made it a few chapters into this book.

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Book Report: Portuguese Irregular Verbs

I posted a new travelog on this site, but I don't think it turned out very well. So I'm not going to link to it from here. I won't take the time to point out stuff I've done that doesn't read well. Instead, I'll point out someone else's stuff that doesn't read well. That will be much more satisfying.

Wow, Portuguese Irregular Verbs stunk on ice.

I made it three chapters into this book before gave up. I think they were supposed to be funny? The premise: there are three professors who lack common sense. One of them is very self-important. They get into trouble.

Ah, I feel better now.

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Book Report: Dreadnought

My cousin Betsy was in town this last weekend. She was full of energy. My parents and I had to take her in shifts, and we still got worn out keeping up with her. I accompanied her to a couple of museums and a few meals. My parents kept up with her through some of that, plus some sight-seeing and an opera. Today at work, I could hardly stir from my chair. But that's not my excuse for not making it through Dreadnought. It's not Betsy's fault. I blame Queen Victoria.

Dreadnought, a history of World War I by Robert Massie, revels in detail. At least the first few chapters did. They provided background about Queen Victoria and Otto Bismarck and they went on a lot longer than I wanted them to so I stopped reading. Well, the part about Bismarck wasn't quite so overlong, but I was soooo bored after slogging through tales of the British royals that I ran out of steam.

It's too bad. This book is well-researched and well-written. If only Victoria hadn't reigned so long, I might have kept going and learned something.

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