Thursday, October 14, 2010


Ubik takes place in a very futuristic 1992, where everything from doors to appliances demand coins to perform their action. The principle character are employees of a "prudence" organization that have the ability to counteract psychic powers. The owner, Glen Runciter, communicates with his wife who resides in "half life", a post-death state that allows the dead to still communicate with the living. (However, communications gradually cause the half-life to fade.)

One day a new recruit is brought in that has a special "anti-precog" capability that allows her to go to "change" the past. She along with some of Runciter's best employees go on a mission to Luna which ends up being a trap. They find their world mysteriously regressing backwards. They also find strange communications from their boss showing up in odd places. They blame the new girl for this problems. However, they eventually discover it is another half-lifer that is "eating them". Luckily, some half-lifers have come up with a counter-measure, Ubik.

Like Dick's Flow My Tears the Policman Said, Ubik has an odd approach to "personalized" time travel. In Ubik, it initially appears somebody is purposely regressing people in the past until they whither away. However, it is later revealed that almost the entire world was created in somebody's mind, and that time period just happened to be a convenient one for them to be in.

The novel continues to build up interesting twists on existence itself, and eventually ends with a quasi-biblical quote. The "half-life" world has strong forces of good and evil that are trying to steer people to their side. They give messages and hints of the best course of action, and even occasionally try to assist. However, the end result is dependent on the will and actions of the half-lifers themselves. They eventually gain the ability to distinguish the good from the bad, and use that to be able to continue their existence. (and meanwhile, they still continue their limited ability to communicate with the "real" living.)

Ubik also provides strong contrast between an overly commercial world of the future with the "half-life" world. Each have their own challenges, and at times, people are unsure where they belong.

Altogether, it is a good science fiction book that explores many different aspects of life of the 60s when it was written as well as humanity in general.

Judy Moody Goes to College

Judy Moody's third grade teacher is in Italy and she has a substitute she doesn't like. She zones out in math, so her parents hire a tutor. This tutor is a student at the local college, and Judy Moody is thrilled to be "going to college". She gets a great enthusiasm for math and enjoys the college "scene". She decides she wants to dress and talk like her tutor. She even attends an art class, and has her picture displayed at an art show at the University.

The book is a "sassy kids book", that seems to "try" to hard to be that way. College students are portrayed as valleywag peaceniks that go to a school that more closely resembles 60s Berkeley than any school today. It makes for some third grade humor but comes out with a message that poor performance will be rewarded.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

I was interested in this book after I saw it referenced in a couple of other books I read. Perhaps it would have been better to leave it that way. The author has some good ideas; however, his delivery could use a lot of work. I found myself dozing off every time I picked up the book. The author tends to be extremely wordy, and goes out of his way to make sure he doesn't miss any minute detail. (There is even a long postscript, where he apologizes and corrects some of the details he did miss.)

The core thesis is that scientific revolutions are generally evolutionary changes to an existing paradigm. "Normal" science involves solving small problems in a narrowly defined scientific paradigm. Occasionally questions arise within the paradigm. These can eventually lead to challenges to aspects of the existing paradigm. New solutions may "improve" on it until a revolution produces a new paradigm. Old practitioners are often reluctant to adapt, but eventually they do.

Scientists working within a paradigm tend to look with the eyes of the existing system. They tend to color their results by what they expect to see. (This observational bias is present in all aspects of life and has been elucidated with a number of different studies.) A new paradigm can appear very revolutionary because it unleashes many observations that would not have been noted (or even "observed") in the prior paradigm.

When textbooks are written, the historical evolution of science is given fairly short treatment, thus making science appear to be a more logical progression than it actually is. (And conversely making the revolutionary events appear more significant than they really are.)

The arguments in this book are very convincing. However, you have to wonder if they are colored by the scientific paradigm in which they were written.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Baking pitas and apple cake

We baked an "Apple Hill Cake" from the Los Altos Stake cookbook for Sunday yummy today. It was ok. We probably overcooked it a little. (A real rarity in our oven.) The frosting also seemed to be a little lacking in sugar (1 cup powdered sugar to 8 oz cream cheese + butter and lemon juice.) However, I didn't mind the 'extra-cheesy' version of the frosting.

The cake itself was 4 cups apples, along with some sugar, flour, eggs and oil and a lot of spices. I think I like butter better in cakes. Nuts would also have been helpful. There was a nice apple coffeecake recipe we tried before.

However, it was nice to use up some of our abundant apple crop. Now we are throwing away all sorts of apples with even the slightest blemish. First we tried to save them, give them away or make applesauce, but now they have caught up with us. Just wait. In a few months, we'll be buying apples. D'oh! Too bad the pomegranate crop looks to be coming in at three fruits this year.

For dinner, I also whipped up some hummus (and finished off the tahini in the process.) I did get to use some fresh ranpor lime and lemon juice. (And managed to break the lock that locks the food processor on to the blender base. Maybe its time we got a new food processor/blender.)

After cutting up some carrots and celery, I discovered we were out of other good vegetables to serve with the hummus. It sounded like a good time to try pita bread again.

I used the king author recipe. Just flour, yeast, salt, sugar and oil. Its one of the easier breads to make. Just kneed it together, let it rise for an hour, then roll it out. After sitting for a few minutes, it goes in a really hot oven for 5 minutes and - presto - pita.

The recipe actually called for 5 minutes plus 2 minutes, but they seemed to be done after five. Our oven running hot for two recipes in a row? This is unheard of. Perhaps its the hot day causing it to act that way.

I actually used white flour in the pita because, well, its yummy. I prefer cakes and cookies with whole wheat, but pita just seems to need the white stuff to have the yummy fluffy texture.

The kids ended up making pita faces using hummus to stick the veggies on the pita. Yummy!

Mormon Stories

Card's Mormon Stories provide a diversity of "religious" themes. Two of the stories are strongly rooted in contemporary Mormon culture and are cutting, inspirational views on moral themes. The other two are more general in nature, and are "religious" only in that they use Christian characters.

The "Mormon" Stories

Christmas and Helaman's House
The humble entrepreneur builds a huge house in a ritzy neighborhood. However, he feels somewhat empty. On Christmas Eve, one of her daughters invites over a young man who has recently returned from a mission to Colombia. This man eventually runs out because he can't stand the display of such wealth. Helaman then realizes that he can't stand it either, and with his family, decide to dedicate the house to serving the poor.

It is a nice uplifting story, but it did leave me wanting to read more about how this "dedication to the poor" turned out.

Worthy to Be One Of Us
Two empty-nesters do not remain empty for long as his father dies, resulting in his mother moving in with them. Then, at Thanksgiving, their son announces they have sold their home in anticipation of a March move, and plan on moving (with two kids and pregnant wife). The grandchildren are wild and crazy, and the daughter in law comes from barely-literate "white-trash" stock (while they are the "university professor" types. The wife discovers that the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law both feel inadequate because they feel their husbands have married beneath their social status. In the end, however, they realize that they both provide the "spiritual mooring" for their families, and can point to the strength of their children as a major accomplishment in their life.

This is another nice story showing that we should look at the positive in others, rather than worry about superficial "class" attributes.

The More General Stories

Two seniors were discussing another woman from their town. This woman was always praising her oldest child. However, he recently was executed due to his political involvement. They then discuss some of the unsavory events in his life and how he could have fit in if he didn't seem to be seeking trouble all the time.

Though it is never explicitly stated, it becomes obvious that this is the story of Christ in his home town. This is a nice quick story that cuts at the problems of gossip and the fact that even the most lauded characters can be portrayed in a negative light.

God Plays Fair Once Too Often
God and Lucifer run in to each other at a party and discuss a "bet" which they made. Lucifer gets to destroy the world if he can convince everyone that God's social communal sharing is evil, while rampant capitalism is good. As part of the deal, God has to shut off his omniscience for 150 years. Lucifer manages to get the Stalinism installed in this world under the name of communism. This system, while it takes the name of communism is actually an atheistic monopolistic system with most of the evils of capitalism and few of the benefits. After this system falls, capitalism is seen as the true force that can benefit the earth.

This story is primarily a political critique, positing that we must not overlook the deficiencies of capitalism. Just because the Stalinists failed so miserably in their pseudo-communism does not mean that all communist principles are bad (and capitalistic ones good.) An alternate view could be that the atheistic nature of the government was its true problem.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Oh, Stanford

I should have known. Once Stanford makes it to the top 10, they're destined to lose the next game. But, I still had my hopes up. Could they even challenge for the championship? But, no. They jumped up to a big lead over Oregon in the first half, and then...

They decided not to show up for the second half. Oh well. There is still a chance for a good season.

More baffling is what happened in the rankings. Oregon turned on the quack attack for a second half pounding of Stanford. Boise State pummeled lowly New Mexico State (Boise's backups outscore NMSU on their own.) From a schedule perspective, all of Boise's previous opponents also won. Ohio State struggled with mediocre Illinois. Alabama also managed an annihilation of Florida. So it seemed obvious, Alabama, Oregon and Boise were the top three. But no, for some reason, Ohio State stays second and Oregon passes Boise for third. Oh whatever. Polls are always annoying.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Food Rules

I like Michael Pollan's books. However, I can't seem to tell them apart - except for this one. This is a "sound bite" version of his popular Defense of Food book. He narrows food choices down to a set of around 60 short "rules", some with a couple additional paragraphs, others with nothing more than the rule.

They all describe general approaches to "natural" healthy eating. Some rules include "only eat deserts you make yourself", "don't buy food you see advertised on TV", "don't buy food that makes health claims" or "don't eat something that was served through a car window." The main message is similar to the "real" book: go back to natural food that can be "enjoyed", rather than processed food that is consumed. The message is good. The presentation is extremely brief. I guess its a good way to cash in on a popular book that happens to gel with the cultural zeitgeist.

Yazoo Queen

In the afterward, Card acknowledges that Yazoo Queen is "chapter 0" of Crystal City. He wasn't kidding. When I first read Crystal City, it seemed as if I'd some how missed a chapter with some earlier events. Well, here they are.

In this story, Alvin and Arthur Stewart are taking a riverboat down the Mississippi to Nueva Barcelona (New Orleans). On the boat, they run in to Jim Bowie (who is portrayed as an amiable thug.) They catch a poorly-built raft drifting out in the river and go to rescue it. The raft is piloted by Abraham Lincoln (portrayed as an honest buffoon that everyone just can't help to like.) After they get him back and tie the raft to the riverboat, a group of slaves use the raft to sneak off to their freedom.

This story is a fun read that has fun weaving historical figures and places in to a fantasy narrative. However, it is best read in the sequence of Alvin Maker books (before Crystal City).


The Hunger Games Recipe: Take a bit of Survivor (and reality in general), through in the original Star Wars trilogy add a touch of Lord of the Flies and Inspector Gadget. The overall plot is a close star wars clone. The "rebels" fight the empire (capital), they seem to get a victory in the first book. In the second the capital fights back and seems to be getting even stronger. Finally, the big fight comes in the third where, against all odds, the rebels manage to win.

Like the previous books, Mockingjay is a great page-turner that I had to plow through in one night. And like the others, I felt unsatisfied at the end.

Here she seems to try just a little too hard. She wasn't sure how to resolve the two-guys thing. So, she brings back a totally brainwashed Peeta and a Gale who gets overly bloodthirsty. Peeta works hard to overcome his brainwashing while Gale concocts massive killing machines (one of which happens to kill Katniss's sister.) Is there any doubt which boy Katniss will end up with?

And then there is the rebel leader, who gets portrayed more and more like a power-hungry villain. You could see what Katniss would do to her long before it happened.

The author was willing to suddenly kill of characters after she built up a lot of sympathy for them. I guess that makes it real. But, it also seems somewhat unsatisfying. She also seems to burn out on the narrative after a parachute explosion that injures Katniss. (Again, she's in the hospital. And again we miss a lot of narrative.) The explosion happens to kill her younger sister. The quest to save her sister was the reason she entered the games in the first place. I guess this shows that it was all for naught. Or perhaps her sister would have become the tool for the revolution instead - and more likely kept her head on.

The Hunger Games series ends as a jumbled escapist mess. It had some potential to make some great observations, but got sidetracked with some bad characters and gruesome action. Hollywood in book form.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Catching Fire

While Hunger Games could stand alone, Catching Fire is the second book in a trilogy. It relies heavily on events of the first book and leaves things in a huge mess at the end. Suddenly, the narrator realizes she has inadvertently helped to launch a revolution. She tries to do everything in her power to make things better. Alas, things just get worse.

The capital has a solution - start a hunger games just for previous champions. That will let these problem people exterminate themselves. Alas, for the capital, it just seems to make matters worse.

The storytelling here is even better than in the first book. The characters are also richer. We get a stronger impression that the capital people are the rich "playboys" and the enemies of society. Unfortunately, Katniss is still downright annoying. In some ways it is not her fault. She is being used by the revolutionaries to help advance their plot. (Though she is totally clueless.) Oh, and she has two guys that love her, though she simply uses them when it is to her advantage. It all makes for another escapist book that you can quickly read through.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic world consisting of a capital city and thirteen distracts. About 75 years before, there had been a big rebellion and the thirteenth district had been annihilated. The remaining districts were put in their place of servitude to the capital city. To help the districts remember their "place", they have an annual event called the "Hunger Games". In the event, a boy and a girl from each district (chosen at random) are brought together in a fight to the death. The winner is lauded, with their entire district receiving some of the spoils. The losers are, well, dead.

The world is a combination of reality TV and class-stratification gone totally amok. However, the book doesn't spend much time looking in to what would be an interesting civilization. Instead, the focus is on the narrator, Katniss.

As the narrative comes to the drawing for the female participant from her district, it seems certain that she will be called. However, she isn't. Instead, her younger sister is called. However, Katniss volunteers to take her place. We see how the initial part of the games turns to hero worship. She is assigned a stylist and a prep crew who help make her up for the games. She dines like a queen. Everything seems like a dream life - well, except for the part that you will likely be dead soon.

The male participant from her district has had a crush on her for years. (She discovers this on the live television announcement.) Eventually, they both go through the games, with some of their allies being killed, while they do their bit of killing themselves. The "gamemakers" make a rule change allowing a district 'couple' to win together. They then revoke it when they are the only ones left. They attempt to get around this by attempting a double suicide with the poison berries. The gamemakers don't want this, and quickly declare them both winners.

The Hunger Games seems to end clearly, with few open threads demanding a sequel. (Their 'defiance' and willingness to buck the tradition seems to be one route.)

The storytelling is top notch, making this book one that is difficult to put down. However, the story seems lacking. The characters are also ho-hum. The narrator, Katniss, could use a few good slaps to get her to stop being such a jerk. Her fellow district competitor evokes much more sympathy (as do other "enemies", such as "Fox Face") It seems like it was made for a summer tentpole movie - large cast of beautiful teens with the romance to draw in the girls, violence and techno-gadgetry to draw in the adults. Unfortunately, like most of the big summer movies, it entertains you while you are there and that's about it.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Grinning Man

The Grinning Man is set in the Alvin Maker universe of fantasy frontier America. In this world, supernatural "knacks" are common and the politics are a little different than what we learned in history.

In this story, Alvin Maker and his sidekick Arthur Stewart run in to Davey Crocket "grinning" down a bear. Crocket does not take too kindly to them invading his turf. However, Alvin uses his "maker" skills to bend his gun and chase him away. They later visit a town where they find themselves unwelcome due to word Crocket was spreading. Eventually a miller takes them in. However, they find he is cheating his customers. Alvin and Arthur begin to set things right as Davey returns now essentially as a servant to the bear. (Alvin had used his "making" skill to help cause that outcome.) Eventually the miller runs off as his corrupt ways were found the town is happy and the bear gets elected to congress (with Davey as his interpreter.)

The story is fairly light and a fun diversion in the Alvin Maker universe. It could probably stand alone outside, but many of the inside jokes would be missed. The ending (with the bear as an elected official) is a little over the top. All told, it makes a nice addition to one of Card's best series.