Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Jurassic World

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

jurassic world

Last weekend, Daniel (12), Aaron (7), Camilla (10) and I went to see this movie.  Despite being PG-13, Gabi and I determined that these three could see the movie, Nika (6) was too young.  Mind you, the kids harangued us all summer to see this; it was popular enough that it was still in theaters three months after the opening. Not only have the kids seen all three movies from the 1990’s, but I’ve been reading them the original novel at bedtime … and they’ve loved it.

I’m writing since this was probably the most enjoyable movie experience I ever had.  The movie was just fine, but the kids’ reactions were even better. Camilla was hiding behind a seat for parts of the movie, bobbing her head out to look every few seconds.  Aaron had a different reaction. Just as the dinosaur attacks a pair of kids in a spherical plastic golf cart, Aaron looks at me and says, “I need to go to the bathroom.”  He does this three times during the movie; I’ll have to wait until we rent it at home to find out what happened then.

The experience brought me back to Michael Crichton, one of my favorite authors. I read Pirate Latitudes for the first time (quite good, very much like playing Sid Meier’s Pirates in book form); I re-read Sphere, a book that does not do well on a second reading. Very much in the Michael Crichton vein is the new book, the Martian, by Andy Weir. Solid, well-researched, informative. I miss Crichton.

Wither the Bookcase

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

I was thinking the other day, there will be no new bookcases in my life. One of the major furniture considerations when adding to or moving to a house, and I will never need any more than I already have.

While I haven’t yet gone out and purchased an eBook capable device (hey, when are those cheap Android tablets coming out!), it’s undoubtedly just around the corner. And I prefer ebooks — I can’t lose them (I spent half an hour yesterday searching for a misplaced paperback), I can share them with my always-on-me cellphone and I can always adjust the text so that my age-altered eyes have no problem reading.

Is there a reason to keep physical books? They’re dang heavy when they need to be shifted or moved. Do I really want them to impress people walking through my home and browsing my shelves? Or would they just think I’ve wasted my life reading too much science fiction and history? I don’t really care about impressing people with my possessions (look at my cars, for instance) and books fall into the same category.

Quick observation: I spent two years shopping for a house in Los Angeles in the late 90’s, and a much shorter time just before moving to Temecula. One thing I realized — in every single house I walked into, if there were a substantial number of good books on the bookshelves then the occupant was a renter. No value judgment here – just an observation.

No more bookshelves. Gone the way of the buggy whip. Odd. Less unsettling than I would have thought, too.

Island in the Sea of Time by SM Stirling

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

I forget how I stumbled on the Nantucket series, but I did so when I was re-discovering sailing with Gabi a couple of years back. I’m not a big fan of alternative history fiction; it always strikes me as medium-lazy thinking. Change one thing in history (Hitler defeats England and invades the US) and follow it to its logical conclusions. Not very interesting.

This was different. The Island of Nantucket, along with a Navy training sailing ship, are transported to 1250BC. Stirling really worked in a wealth of information and data. Is a lathe really able to create another lathe from scratch? Sailing information is all accurate, so far as I know. Geography, economics, social interactions and, naturally, history are all interwoven here at an apparently high level.

When I first read this, I thought of it as a guilty pleasure (“I’m not supposed to like these books, but this one is cool.”). Recently, I bumped into a Charles Stross blog where he praised Stirling and specifically the Nantucket series.

Now armed with the warm recommendation of my favorite current era hard science fiction writer, I pull out the book again. Wow, this is more fun than I remember! And I’m going to read it with Wikipedia open the whole way through so I can really appreciate the data dump that Stirling weaves together here.

Highly recommended.


UPDATE: Funny reading this book, as it was written in about 1996. For all time shifting problems that are in the book, there are several that you have to put yourself through to enjoy this pre-Internet series. Cameras still had film, computers were not ubiquitous (or really necessary, for the most part). Cellular phones were highly unusual and are mentioned in passing once (someone uses one in the first couple of days after the Event). The only mention of the Internet is that a number of Internet addicts were badly hit. Odd the substantial things that change in 14 years.

The Dead Hand, a review

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

For awhile, when I started reading the Dead Hand, winner of this year’s Pulitzer for general non-fiction, I felt that I was finally in the grip of the definitive end-of-the-Soviet-Union book. Even while living through the events of those years, I figured that a lot of the events forming it would not come to light for decades afterward. Think of the decoding of Enigma and JN-25 (the Japanese wartime code), which did not come to light until the 1970’s. I’ve been waiting for a final, historical conclusion, but none has been satisfying yet. (I can go into the role of history-as-fiction written by the winners at some later date.)

However, after 150 pages, one has to scratch one’s head. Why so much time on biological warfare? A fair time is spent on nuclear command and control elements (and much of this new to me). Almost nothing on the other aspects of the war.

By page 250, I started deconstructing the author’s work. Why did it ring so true, but so hollow and partial? I finally realized that Hoffman was at the mercy of the interviews he’d been granted. Yes, some of them were startling — Gorbachev, members of the Reagan White House (Robert McFarlane), officers at the nuclear command centers, scientists from several of the biological warfare centers. This does not make it a bad book, but it is not a complete overview. I class this as an important part of the end of the Cold War canon, but far from the definitive tome it wants to be.

As always with books like this, I’m surprised at how much was done on the Russian side of the table leading up to the collapse and how little was done by the West. Of course, the Russian’s were the ones feeling the pressure – falling behind, atrophying economies, unable to compete.

Reading Lord of the Rings to Very Young Children

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

I’d been avoiding posting on this for some time now. I’m not even sure when we started reading it. But we’re on an even keel now, and the kids look forward to it every night, so I think we’ll actually finish it.

For those not familiar with our family situation, we have a 6 year old boy and a 5 year old girl as our primary listeners. Our six month old daughter also listens in, but I don’t think she understands much. Our 2 year old son was too disruptive early on, so now he’s with Mom playing video games while I read to the others.

This is much harder than The Hobbit. I strongly recommend starting with The Hobbit – it is far more kid-friendly and uses an adjusted vocabulary. Also, the prose gets right to the point (relatively speaking, this is still JRRT’s writing and one of the joys of his prose is a luxurious slow pace).

We don’t go very fast – four to six pages a night right now, though I expect we’ll do more when things get interesting. I don’t explain words (very often), but use voices and hand motions to get across the mood of any particular piece. And — horror of horrors — I actually sing the songs.

The evening routine goes as follows. We first read picture books with all four kids; Dr. Seuss, Sandra Boynton, Pat the Bunny. They finish their milks, brush their teeth and we set up for the evening reading. Camilla (5 year old daughter) takes care of the baby. Daniel (6 year old son) can lounge or play quietly, which he did early on but now spends his time listening to the text. I was ready to quit early on as it neither of them appeared to be listening to me. For a few days, I felt I was reading only to myself.

But after a little time, they get used to cadence of the text and listen to it with understanding. It takes time. A few days or even a week. We’re up to page 130 or so (Tom Bombadil’s house) and it’s only now that I’m sure they’re with me.

We’re completely avoiding the movies. They’re too fast paced, and too violent for us to be comfortable with kids this young. They can watch the movies after we finish the book. The second or third time, that is.

Thanks to Nic for the red leather edition for Christmas. It clearly communicates to the kids that this is a special book.

Aaron Reads to Veronica

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

Aaron has picked up the family enthusiasm for books. And everyone in the family wants to read to Veronica. The book in question here is Sandra Boyington’s Blue Hat Green Hat. Sometimes, you can even understand what Aaron says.

The Dollar Crisis

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Very, very occasionally I read something that immediately strikes my brain as being absolutely unexpected and completely true. It has happened twice while reading the Economist. The first time was nine or ten years ago when I first read Steven Levitt’s academic work linking the legalization of abortion in 1972 with the rapid fall in crime rates in the 1990’s. The criminals simply didn’t exist; their unwilling mothers’ had the opportunity to say, “No”. Levitt is since famous for his book and blog, Freakonomics, which I read daily.

The second time was two weeks ago, when I read this Buttonwood article (link may be gated). Drawing in large part on a book written in 2002, Buttonwood lays out the argument that the entire post-Bretton Woods economic system we’ve had since 1972 or so is rather like an out-of control kid’s wagon headed down a steep hill. Yes, we’re going pretty fast, but there’s going to be a nasty stop sometime soon.

The Bretton-Woods post-WW2 system made international currencies peg themselves to one another and to a fixed price per ounce of gold. The US dollar was pegged at $35 per ounce. While there are lots of reasons to dislike this system, it has the one enduring quality that it keeps everyone in the system honest. Around 1972, faced with the costs of the Cold War and a hot one in Vietnam, Nixon decided to no longer honor requests to convert dollars to gold by other nations. This led to the current regime of floating currency rates.

The problem now becomes that the system no longer has constraints forcing basic honesty on the participants. Money supply can be extended indefinitely. This no longer requires a printing press (printed cash is a vanishing small part of the amount of money in circulation). Credits can be issued willy-nilly, with increasingly large factors of leverage applied. Financial firms on Wall Street, leading up to the August 2007 collapse, were up to 30 times leveraged in their credit.

The book cited in the article was the Dollar Crisis by Richard Duncan, a Southeast Asia-based official with the IMF at the time, now working with a series of hedge funds. I just finished reading it for the first time; I will read it again. The amazing thing about it is how prescient it is of our current situation, though it was written eight years ago.

The primary thesis is that since abandoning any link to constrain supply, the amount of money in circulation globally has increased logarithmically. Vast sums are being created, mostly in the United States since the dollar has replaced gold as the primary global reserve currency. While making all the right noises politically and economically, the US has been creating money through a series of Federal Government deficits, as well as annual trade deficits by the private markets. These have been increasing over the years.

This all works as new money in the global system, used to buy trinkets made in China, Japan and Europe; as well as funding increasingly bureaucratic Washington initiatives. As that money goes to foreign suppliers, those central banks are forced to keep the dollars in their original form (for the most part). Transferring them to the local currency would overheat their markets. So these countries are effectively forced to purchase US Government debt, corporate debt and equities, financing the next round of trade and government deficits.

This mass of new money rests with governments, sovereign funds and central banks for the most part, with some portion also within the financial systems. This “extra” money has found attractive means of investment from time to time, which results in tremendous bubble economies: Japan in the 1980’s, the Asian tigers and Mexico in the 1990’s, NASDAQ and the technology bubble of the late 1990’s, property in the 2000’s, and the current gigantic bubble-int-the-making in China. Each bubble was bigger than the one before it, and caused greater calamity when it burst.

Further, the “extra” investment monies are almost entirely in the hands of national actors or large financial firms. The monies have not “trickled down” to ordinary citizens. This has led to the counter-intuitive result of wholesale deflation in many cases. As the “extra” monies seek out any potentially profitable industry in which to invest, there is an over-investment in virtually all fields that have a profit potential. This leads to lower and lower consumer prices, and a spiraling deflation in commodities and manufactured goods.

Where do things end? When writing his book, Duncan was unsure whether the world would be caught in a spiral of hyperinflation (as would make intuitive sense) or spiraling deflation (as with the argument above, for which he found more evidence). Since these are diametrically opposite results, his investment advice essentially was to purchase whatever governments would be unable to devaluate in some way: traditionally, either gold or land.

This book is up with the Black Swan and How We Decide for the most influential books I’ve read this year. Of the three, it is also the least accessible (more statistics that require real thought, not as clearly written, etc.). I’m going to read it again, probably later this month, with attention to reviewing the graphs and statistics updated to 2010.

This book very clearly and strongly pressed on my This Is True button somewhere in my brain. It fits very closely with a lot of observations that I’ve made, and explains a number of very strange things (such as, why the heck is the Euro so strong?).

Apple’s iPad

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Yesterday, Apple unveiled it’s latest creation, the iPad. I am less interested in the technology than in the backroom politics of digital media here. The iPad is essentially a giant iPhone without the two year contract. The new A4 processor does not allow multitasking, the apps will run like the iPhone apps, etc. It’s just bigger and brighter.

My point of interest is if this will really be a book reading machine like the Kindle, with 100’s of thousands of titles available to purchase, download and read immediately. It looks like it might be. The next question is if the files set up for the iPad are also readable by the iPhone. I have no problem reading on my phone, as I’ve mentioned before. And I’d be more than happy to read them on my handy, always-by-my-side cellphone.

Apple's iPad

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Yesterday, Apple unveiled it’s latest creation, the iPad. I am less interested in the technology than in the backroom politics of digital media here. The iPad is essentially a giant iPhone without the two year contract. The new A4 processor does not allow multitasking, the apps will run like the iPhone apps, etc. It’s just bigger and brighter.

My point of interest is if this will really be a book reading machine like the Kindle, with 100’s of thousands of titles available to purchase, download and read immediately. It looks like it might be. The next question is if the files set up for the iPad are also readable by the iPhone. I have no problem reading on my phone, as I’ve mentioned before. And I’d be more than happy to read them on my handy, always-by-my-side cellphone.

Einstein’s Telescope

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

einsteins_telescopeEinstein’s Telescope by Evalyn Gates is probably the best random choice I’ve made of a book since I picked up Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel 12 years ago. Wow! I’d heard about gravity lensing, dark matter, dark energy, MACHO and WIMPs, but I’d never seen them discussed in-depth in a readable format before. I’m learning more with each page here than I do in most entire books (What Would Google Do, being a more typical example). This is good science, extremely well done. Highly recommended.