Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Enough Already

Peter Walsh writes books about reducing clutter. He likes clutter. Thus, he sees it as the core problem for everything. In "enough already", he wants to help everybody eliminate the clutter in their mind to help live a better life.

This reminds me of an essay I wrote in high school about tennis being the entire meaning of life. After all, anything you do can be related to tennis. Walsh chose clutter. I suppose you could chose broccoli and get the same story.

His primary target is the shop-aholic. These people that buy and hoard let the clutter take over their life. They also see that as an excuse to not make the hard decisions that need to be done.

Some of the early discussion are well done. He discusses making hard decisions, creating common visions for family and not letting stuff and minutia take precedence over what is important. Priorities need to be set to get done what needs to be done. If relationships are not fed, they wilter. If the body is not taken care of it gets fat.

However, he ends up carrying it on too long. He layers on the "self-help" aphorisms from all aisles of the bookshelf. You get basic finance, health, religion and ripping up credit cards. All of it is pretty much on the 101 level. It doesn't have much that is groundbreaking, but I would be worried if it did, since it is way out of his area of expertise. Taken with a grain of salt, these can be good reminders of what you need to do. Taken seriously? Well, you can go all out with his worksheets and his philosophy. But if you are a shopaholic, this book is probably still sitting unopened on your bookshelf.


Vikings is a series of lectures focussing on Scandinavia during the age of the Vikings (roughly a few hundred years on either side of 1000 AD). A little background is provided on the people before the time and how they split off from the the other Germanic people of the time. There is also a brief section at the end covering the christianization of Scandinavia and the integration in to Europe of the time. The bulk of the course, however, focuses on the sea-going exploits of the Vikings. With their technology, they were able to rapidly move around to raid, trade and plunder with minimal opposition. While they often participated in purely "business" missions, at times they stayed and adopted the habits and customs of the locals. Thus we get the Norman French, who were primarily a Viking caste that had adopted the French language.

The history of Britain and France from the Viking perspective is also enlightening. The battle involved a bunch of French who had recently immigrated from Scandinavia fighting against a bunch of Scandinavians and some English who had taken the throne from Scandinavians. Its like the USSR and US having a proxy battle in Vietnam. It ends up very important for Vietnamese history, but for the players, it was just a small part in the bigger picture.

The concept of "kings" is also enlightening. It seems anybody with Scandinavian ancestry can find plenty of kings in their family tree. Part of this was the natural reproductivity of kings (and their many wives). However, there were also a large number of kings. The Scandinavians didn't have large kingdoms until after they Christianized. Instead there were numerous "sea kings" who ruled small areas and led raiding parties.

The Vikings had led a very complex society. Alas, other than the Icelanders, they were not too keen on writing about their exploits. Thus most of what we hear from them is from their opponents.

The phone memory money grab

One of the great things about android phones is the external sd card slot. My Samsung Galaxy Exhibit came with 2GB of flash memory. For under $30 I could put in a high speed 32GB micro SD card for storing photos and audio.

The Nexus 4, however, doesn't have an SD card slot. Instead, you can pay $50 extra to get 8 GB more storage. This seems like a page from Apple's book, where for a mere $100 you can get an extra 16GB of memory. And of course, there is no upgrading either of these. So if you later decide you need a few more GB, you are AWOL. A lovely case of planned obsolescence

Luckily, Samsung still allows you to plug in SD cards. Sure, they'll sell you a phone with 16GB more memory for $50-$100 more. But, they'll also let you plug in $10 16GB microsd if you later decide you need a little more room for your audiobooks. Hmm... Maybe that is one of the reasons they are now dominating the market.

The Cyclist's Manifesto: The Case for Riding on Two Wheels Instead of Four

[June 2009] From the title, I was expecting a brash "bikes rule" rant similar to an urban "critical mass" ride. Instead, I found a very balanced book that brings all aspects of cycling in to their historical context. From the cycling roots of Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers to oil crunches and government bailouts, the book covers a lot of ground in a short amount of space.
The authors style is very casual and somehow manages to wade through all sorts of heated while acknowledging the benefits of each side's arguments. It is a great book for getting background in bikes (and transportation in general) without having to subscribe to a particular idealogy.

The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History

[From 2009] O'Donnell attempts to tell the history of the Roman Empire through our modern multicultural sentiments. He is somewhat successful at removing the biases of the historians of antiquity - but then steers the history directly through the biases and modern day worldview.
The book's biggest downfall, however, is the lack of focus. He shows his knowledge by bringing in Wagner-playing Ipods and various Shakespeare characters. However, he fails to provide a compelling narrative. Whole sections often appear to do nothing more than show off his literary knowledge, rather than advance the narrative. With a little more focus, this book could have potential.

Time to Pee

[From 2006] Our daughters love this book. Even though they have both already been potty trained, they still love this book. They have now become much better at washing their hands - and they have become more idependent in the bathroom (telling each other "Go for it dude") before going. It has worked much better than any of the other potty training books.

The book itself is interesting for both parents and kids. Mo Willems has also put in a few references to his other books (like the toy pigeon driving the bus and the dedication to Trixie.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Mr. T on the loose

A student apparently thought he saw Mr. T at Cupertino Middle School. The entire school went on lockdown, because obviously, who would want 80s TV stars near a school? He might even encourage them to, I dunno, exercise or something.

Unfortunately, it looks like it was all a hoax. A student had just fabricated the whole story of a "black guy with a mohawk carrying a gun near the school. You'd think they would do a little fact checking. But, after the Connecticut shooting, I guess the schools are in full paranoid mode. But, would this even help? If there really were a guy with a gun near the school, couldn't he just unload his clips before the cops got there? Or if he didn't, could the police and him get in a shootout?

As for the fact checking. Well, did anybody else in the neighborhood notice him? In a mostly middle class Asian neighborhood, a black man with mohawk would stick out. And with a gun, holy black pants and a limp? Uh, this sounds like somebody was watching some 80s TV. But it does go to show the power that one kid can have. And

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians

The setting is a universe that is connected to ours. A bag of sand must be found. Librarians are evil. A boy has a special talent of breaking things. It is all bizarre enough to work.

Alcatraz is the hero of the Three Kingdoms, a parallel world unknown most "normal" people on earth (hushlanders) don't know about. And why don't they know about this world? Because librarians hide the knowledge from them. Librarians are the dark ones that control information and make people think things are true, even though they are not. The librarians go through great lengths to hide the lands they don't control from others. To help belittle the opposition, they also name prisons after popular names.

The Smedry's lead the opposition to the librarians. Each of them has a special "talent" that helps in the fight. Alas, these "talents" are not what you would typically consider beneficial. Grandpa's talent is always arriving late. Alcatraz's talent is breaking things. How does this help? Well, Grandpa can't be shot because he always arrives late for his death.

This book is rolicking good fun. The first person perspective constantly gets sidetracked with random interjections that some manage to enliven the story without slowing it down. There are plenty of zany things that don't make any sense - but that is just because the librarians have so brainwashed us into believing that it is the way the world is. If somebody could control the media everywhere, couldn't they make whatever they want appear "normal"?

In Defense of Food

[This is from 2009. I'm reading a book about fish, so I thought I'd make sure this one goes up.] I have enjoyed all of Michael Pollan's book, though this one was the best one that I've read. The one point I get out of it is that we are a long way from fully understanding our nutrition needs, making the "western" diet horribly incomplete. The western diet attempts to break everything down in to simple nutrients that are required, along with tastes and textures that make food 'pleasant'. The mix is then given to us by marketeers, often resulting in poor health. The health problems caused by the diet are then 'resolved' by the new wonder drugs and medical treatments (some of which don't yet exist.) A simple diet can actually make things much less complicated.

The book is a quick read, and basically comes down to the conclusion that we should eat "food" rather than chemical processed goop. Simple enough.

Monday, January 28, 2013

It's All Too Much

The full title of this book is : It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff. Perhaps the title could use a little de-cluttering.

Peter Walsh is passionate about clutter. According to him, clutter is the symptom of almost all problems in our life, and eliminating the source of the clutter can be a big solution to helping us out. Rather than just go for means of organization, he stresses the need to look at priority and make the changes that will prevent the attachment to excess consumption and hoarding. As such, consumer product companies are likely in line to suppress this book. After all, rather than encourage getting all sorts of organization solutions, he stresses simply getting rid of the junk. Instead of attachments to things, he stresses attachment to people and thoughts.

The philosophy of the book is great. My biggest complaint was that the author seemed to be a little full of himself, and would appear to be lightly talking down to his readers (as a big brother talks down to a younger sibling.) Other than the tone, however, the ideas are sound, though would require hard work to fully implement.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Castle

As in Kafka's Trial, the protaganist here is a "Mr. K". However, the Mr. K here is very different person. However, like the other Mr. K, this guy struggles against a crazy bureaucracy. Everybody else in the village accepts the ludicrous behavior of the bureaucracy as normal. The officials of the Castle seem to have no purpose other than being officials. Crossing them is a huge taboo. (The story is told of one family who's daughter dared refuse the advances of an official. The family was ostracized by the village and cut out of pretty much all economic life.)

Kafka takes bureaucratic inertia and stupidity to the extreme. Regular people are in a position of subservience to the officials. The official behavior is governed by a number of rules that people are expected to know and follow. These rules exist for the convenience of the officials. Failure to understand these "rules" is seen as a great offense by society.

The narrative is a little disjointed. You get the feeling there is a reason why Kafka wanted the book burned. It doesn't seem like he finished.

Top of the Rock

Good TV shows were meant to be. Bad TV shows? They were created by committee. That pretty much sums up this book.

Eschewing a "prose" style, it reads more like a television documentary. (Hmm, I guess the subject matter has something to do with that...) We have numerous snippets from writers, actors, producers and "suits" involved in NBC productions. We hear about shows like Cheers and Seinfeld got started from nowhere, and how they eventually ended. The theme is always "let the creative talent take risks and do something they enjoy doing." All the talent seemed to get along great on these shows, so it must of worked.

What we don't hear much about is shows that failed. There is also very little about friction on the sets or problems with production. This is your "Entertainment Weekly" fluff piece rather than a true behind the scenes look. Everybody got along and was just perfect for the part. The occasional removal from the cast is usually due to external factors (such as a Law and Order actor getting fired so they can bring in a woman to help the female ratings.)

While there is not a whole lot about failures, there is just enough detail about the goings-on in television to help you feel like an "insider." The narrative style just doesn't allow patronizing explanations. However, the many accounts from different angles help to get a feel of the process and structures that go into television production.

The time period for the reign of Warren Littlefield at the head of NBC. This time happens to coincide with the run of Seinfeld and NBCs time at the top of the ratings. It was also perhaps that last hurrah for broadcast television. Since then, the internet and cable profligation has provided many new options. There is not nearly as much "universal" as there once was.

All is a nice documentary, with Littlefield letting everyone else use their voice to tell the story. He is more of a "collator", organizing things to tell his story. At the very end of the book, he finally gets out his vendetta. He feels that he was unjustly canned from NBC, and that after his firing the network went down the toilet. This bitterness at the end distracts from what is otherwise a bit of nice entertainment. (Perhaps he should have been grateful for the firing. Otherwise, he would have had to live with NBC falling as broadcast viewership plummeted, reality shows took off, and "high quality programming" became uneconomical.)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Bungler

Richard Wilbur's translations of Moliere are quite impressive. They seem to have a nice rhythm and rhyme in the English. (I guess it helps that the language are fairly closely related.)

I was really lost with the plot and the characters here. However, the gist was that somebody was scheming to help get somebody else out of slavery. However, his companion kept bungling up his roles and causing issues with the scheme. He might mispronounce a name or do something silly.

Most of the jokes stood alone pretty well. Even when I was totally lost as to what was happening, I would still find myself laughing. The rhythm and rhyme also added to the joviality factor. (And I found that truly amazing with a translation)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Opened just in time to close

San Jose finally has international air service. It almost lasted a week.
On Friday January 11th, ANA launched service from San Jose to Tokyo. It was scheduled to be 5 days per week (no flights on Tuesday or Thursday.) Unfortunately, the flight for Wednesday January 16 was cancelled. And it will remain cancelled for most of next week. If we're lucky, there might be Service on Wednesday January 23rd. Talk about impeccable timing. Finally get the long sought after service and all 787s get grounded.

By my rough count, San Jose got a whopping four international flights. Lets see if they actually restart.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The football player's virtual girlfriend

Manti Te'o had girlfriend that died of cancer. Only she never existed. Now the college football world is suddenly awash with plenty of stories covering this bizarre revelation. Well, what else are they going to write about today? You have Oregon's coach bolting for the NFL and San Diego State putting the nail in the Big East's coffin. But none of those have the drama of a media-induced "fake scandal".

Way back early in September, Manti Te'o lost his grandmother. He also found out that a female friend had also died around the same time. He went on to play the game of his life that day, and put himself on the shortlist for the Heisman trophy.

As the initial story was breaking my impression was that she was just a friend. She was somebody he would talk to and felt close to. It didn't appear that he was a "girlfriend". After all, they were on opposite sides of the country. Later, she turned in to a "girlfriend" and he was portrayed as being noble for staying with her even as she was hospitalized.

Why did she suddenly become a "girlfriend"? If we take the "innocent Manti" route, he initially told people that a friend died. The media start to report and ask questions. They here about female friend and string it together as "girlfriend". The poor guy says sure, she was my girlfriend. No point in denying a relationship for somebody that is now dead. He had lots of deep conversations with her. Even if they weren't a "couple", saying that he was a girlfriend helps show respect to her and her family. The media go and ask a few other people what they feel and they get some people to say what they want to hear. Now we get a great story about a guy's girlfriend dying. He gets caught up in it. After all, his grandmother did really die. The grief is there. And as far as he knows, a girl he was close to also died.

However, this close girl was only a virtual friend, somebody met online and over the phone. You can have a close online relationship. However, online relationships are still stigmatized. Terminology would be used that could be interpreted either way. You still "meet" somebody online. You still talk to them. He may have really thought he was meeting her in person. He thought he saw her up in a crowd at a game. They planned on meeting in Hawaii or someplace, but a flight was delayed or something just didn't work out. It could still be a "meeting" even though only one side saw it, right?

Even in later discussions, Te'o's speech was fairly guarded. There was not a lot of talk about seeing her in person. He was a special woman that inspired him, but there is not much talk of holding her hand or a personal relationship.

How were we to know she was a fake? Well, first off, there was zilcho reporting of her from the Stanford side. I remember looking around the Stanford newspaper shortly after the story broke. A student or recent grad getting in a car crash and dying of cancer would probably make the student paper. However, there was nothing. In fact, a google search came up with pretty much nothing more than the Te'o stuff. In retrospect that was a red flag. However, then, it could just be somebody that wants privacy.

As for Te'o learning that she was a fake and sitting on it? Well, just look at the press coverage now. Wouldn't you be embarrassed to find that out? You don't want that type of distraction when you are receiving rewards or preparing for the championship game. I imagine he initially must have been in denial. It took some time before he want to the school. However, he waited, and hoped that it would go away. He wanted to get a good spin on it first before going public. Alas, somebody beat him to it. It may have been somebody connected with the hoax. (After all, they tried to fess up to him, maybe they just had to get it out elsewhere.) More likely, it was somebody tangentially connected. Somebody may have heard something. Or somebody may have seen some snooping around. They thought there was something there, and wanted to find out more.

Te'o eventually played a sub-par game in the national championship and Notre Dame lost. Could this distraction have led to the problem? Perhaps it was a plot by Alabama fans all along. They inspire him to do well enough to get Notre Dame to the championship, then let him know at the end so that 'bama can easily roll to victory.

Baring Alabama conspiracy theories, we still have the the "why?" question. Perhaps this did start out as an innocent online relationship. The girl used a fake name in order to protect herself. She wanted to ingratiate herself with a famous football player. She saw things going too far, so she had herself injured in a car crash. However, she missed her time with him, so she had herself recover, but gave herself leukaemia so that she could kill herself off later if she got tired of the relationship. She saw that Te'os grandmother died and that it would be a dramatic time to kill herself off ending the relationship. She loved the publicity, but saw that people were snooping, so she deleted her accounts. She saw that Te'o was doing well, so kept quiet. Then, when he was getting the rewards, she just couldn't hold on any longer and wanted back in his life. But she was dead, so she had to come things. And that is where things started to unravel.

And until they come clean, there will be many other possible explanations.

Was there any crime committed? Possibly. Fake identity. Defrauding. I'm sure politicians will love to pass the Manti Te'o act to protect people from "catfishing". However, an assumed name and fake events are quite common on the Internet. A faked death? A little more rare. But if you want to end a relationship, that is the way to go. Did they do that to get gain? Well, there doesn't seem to be much gain on Manti's side. Perhaps the girl got some flowers or money. Or perhaps she was after some wealth when he became a star. (Maybe she did it thinking that he would go pro after his junior year, but thought she couldn't pull it off all the way through the senior season.)

As for Te'o himself, there is not a whole lot that could have been gained if he had fabricated it all himself. It would have made his story a little less dramatic. However, the performance after a grandmother's death was still had a lot to it. It would stand to cause a degree of embarrassment if it came out. It is hard to see much rationale for him to make it up. However, once the press started latching on to it, things could be different.

The moral: Don't believe what you see written in the media - especially if it is written about you

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

College to NFL

The coaching journey from NCAA to NFL is riddled with cautionary tales. Nick Saban has won a few championships at Alabama and LSU, but he bombed out in the NFL. Petrino, and Spurrier each had short, unsuccessful NFL coaching stints, before returning back to success in the SEC.

Recently, however, coaches have been having more success jumping from college to the NFL. Most successful coaches have already had "big city" experience, and are often going to a "smaller" town for the pros. There aren't a lot that are "king" of their college town.

Jim Harbaugh didn't have to move to take the 49ers job. Stanford is less than 15 miles from 49ers headquarters.
Pete Carroll moved from LA to Seattle. USC is arguably LAs pro team, and moving up to Seattle could be seen as a less stressful job.
Greg Schiano was at Rutgers - just a few towns over from Giants stadium in New York. Going down to Tampa Bay could almost be considered a retirement.
Doug Marrone was at Syracuse, in upstate New York, just a few hours from Buffalo.
Tom Coughlin went from Boston College to Jacksonville - another trip from a big city to Florida. He eventually ended up at New York, and has not done too shabby.

Now the Eagles have tabbed Oregon's Chip Kelly as their new coach. Where does he fit in? Oregon is a Pac-12 school, and those coaches have had recent success in the NFL. However, Eugene is a college town. Portland is nearly two hours away. And the nearest pro team is 4.5 hours away. The Ducks are the "big boys" of football in the state of Oregon. They have Nike's money showering down on them. It seems more like an SEC school than the schools everybody else is coming from.

And the destination? Philadelphia is a much bigger city than Eugene. He will also be going to the opposite side of the country. However, prior to Oregon all his coaching experience was in the northeast, so it could be considered a homecoming. We will see how it pans out. However, there are a number of question marks now.

And there is also the question of why he decided to leave now. Not many days ago, he seemed ready to accept an NFL offer, but then decided to stay in Oregon. Perhaps during the few days he saw some major NCAA penalties coming to Oregon. Could he be pulling a Carroll and bolting before everything falls apart? Carroll and Caughlin saw their college teams regress after they left for the NFL. However, Stanford and Rutgers both continued to do well after Harbaugh and Schiano left. (They also both promoted from within.) We will see how things turn out.

Records at college and NFL (from ESPN)
Chip Kelly, PHI .868 ?
Pete Carroll, SEA .836 .518
Tom Coughlin, NYG .614 .555
Jim Harbaugh, SF .580 .750
Greg Schiano, TB .504 .438
Doug Marrone, BUF .500 ?

Human Prehistory and Early Civilization pt 2-3

This is a continuation of the first set of lectures. In these lectures, we do learn many times that the professor has had a classical education. But more important to the topic, we get the first episodes of herding animals and farming. These are treated as logical occurrences, rather than dramatic changes.

This delves into more of the "modern" prehistory. We get early europeans, Incas, Aztecs, early Chinese, etc. Some of the early societies built up huge, complex organizations. But often, something as simple as a climate change could lead it to all tumble down.

Since this is "prehistory" there is little in the way of written record. As such, a lot of what we "know" about the early societies is little more than guesswork. Perhaps some people had very advanced civilizations, yet fell to be totally unrecognized in the archeological record.

The professor follows a "5 paragraph essay" style for all his lectures. He tells us what he is going to tell us, he tells us, then he tells us what he told us. It makes the course slow moving. However, the content is quite interesting - even if it is ever-changing.

Earth Unaware

If you try to read Earth Unaware as a stand-alone book you will be disappointed. It ends seemingly in the middle of a great invasion of earth. There is an entire subplot about ultra-special military commandos that has absolutely nothing to do with the main plot.

Yep, this is obviously the first in a series. From the author's web site, the sequel has been completed for sometime, but is just waiting for a later release.

This is also geared at fans of the Ender series. We get the first look at the "Formics" and their invasion of earth. We also view a young Mazer Rackham. He would later go on to be a mentor and an important figure in the formic wars in Ender's Game.

The story in this book centers around a "free mining" ship that is mining an asteroid. They happen to spot something unusual in the distance that looks like an alien spacecraft. However, they just sit on the information. It just so happens that some evil corporate types want to test some of their weapons by blowing up the same asteroid. They bump the miners off the asteroid, destroying their communication equipment and hurting a miner in the process. The miners are now drifting through space, trying to rendezvous with another ship. However, when they get there, they find the ship is destroyed. They hunt for survivors (and find a few). They also have a live encounter with some of the formics. Now, they really need to tell the world. To do so, one boy goes back to the moon in a cargo ship, while the main ship eventually hooks up with the evil corporates and some "nice corporates" to try to battle the formics. They are not successful, with one ship destroyed and the others leaving. Eventually, the boy (Victor Delgado) makes it to the moon, but gets caught in bureaucracy. He tries to post the "alien video" on the nets - but we are shown lots of "fake video" making it seem unlikely they will succeed.

The book centers primarily around Victor. However, the most interesting character is Lern Jukes, the nominal captain of the corporate ship. He is the heir to the corporate fortune. However, he does not feel respected by his father. He wants to show a successful mission. However, he is constantly torn between doing what is "right" and what will bring "corporate success". He finds himself often justifying behaviors that he knows are "wrong". Yet, he has difficulty bringing out a full justification. He is upset that the crew seems to disobey his orders, often killing people or letting men die in the name of his safety. (However, it usually turned out that if they wouldn't have done that, everyone would have ended up dead.) In the end, he discovers that he is not even in control of the ship - his father had set up the security officer as the one ultimately in control.

All in all it is a good "first act" of a thriller. There is not a whole lot of "deep meaning" here. For the first part in a trilogy, there are not a whole lot of loose ends. (It seems the formic ship does a good job of blowing away potential loose ends.)

I wonder how much of the book was by Card, and how much by Johnston. My gut says "This is Card's Universe", so Johnston probably wrote the majority, with Card only helping out to give it some credibility. I can see him saying. "Yo! Scott! This Ender movie is coming out, and you have people hungry for more, and you are stuck creating new universes. Here is my idea for the prequel. You make some edits and lets release it." Card then rewrites a few sections and the book fits in with his style and it gets released in a hurry.

It does fit well with Card's style. I like almost everything that he has written, but love very few. He is a good "safe" author. I'm not likely to be overly disappointed. While I read plenty of science fiction in the 80s and 90s, I never read any of Card's SF work. However, at the time, I had known of him well, and read many of his works. I remember a Mormon humour book and a few good articles in Commodore 64 computer magazines like Ahoy! It wasn't until a few decades later that I heard somebody mention "Orson Scott Card" as one of the science fiction writers they really loved. Hmm... (However, the person wasn't somebody that I tended to have common tastes, so I brushed it aside until later.) Ender's Game was ok. It wasn't awful, but didn't drive me to read more. However, Speaker for the Dead was great, and that got me on the whole kick.

At the end of the Earth Unaware audiobook, there is a brief interview with Card. He mentions that he is a huge fan of audiobooks. (I share that with him.) He also mentioned that his favorite authors are Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkein. (I definitely don't share that with him. Those are the two most sleep-inducing authors I have attempted to read.)

Friday, January 11, 2013

The trial

In the trial, Josef K. is arrested, but given no information about what is crime is, or how he should be defended. It is all a very Kafka-eque scenario. (And that is very fitting, since it is written by Kafka.)

The accused wakes up one day to find a couple guards in his house. They tell him he is arrested, and proceed to eat is breakfast. They can't tell him why he is arrested (as they are only guards). They restrict some of his basic activities. However, he is allowed to go on to work and later continue with the rest of his life.

Everybody seems to know about his trial, but to him it is bizarre. The court is nothing like the legal system he knows. It all takes place in a slum neighborhood, and nobody seems to be able to tell him why he is there.

In spite of this being some odd situation that is totally foreign to him, most of his friends and acquaintances seem to know about the trial and feel it is a bad thing for him.

As in Kafka's Metamorphosis, things are absurd, yet normal at the same time. The crime, trial and bizarre court system seem to be way outside the realm of normalcy, yet they are accepted by those around. People who work for the "strange" court system do so even though they have to put up with strange things. However, they don't see any other way.

Other strange events and coincidences seem to happen on the way. Taken on their own, each event could be seen as slightly unusually but still possible in a normal world. Taken together, it is all absurd.

The Trial was never finished in Kafka's lifetime. He had requested that it be burned, but his friend, and later teams of scholars worked to publish and "restore" it. Alas, the approach shows. Some sections seem to be thrown in there without really helping the story. (There are also sections dumped off at the end in an appendix.) While the story is good, don't scholars have better things to do than fabricate a story from something that the author didn't see worthy?


There is just something about Card's works. I find myself really engrossed and excited to read them, yet there are very few that would be called "great". There are plenty of really interesting ideas. He also has a thing for literary allusions. Perhaps it is the writing style that degrades the work. But, I seem to like the style. Maybe it is just something missing there. Something that is hard to pinpoint, but that would be needed to launch his writing from the "good" to the "great".

Short story collections are always nice because they explore new ideas quickly. If one gets dull, there is not much time wasted before moving on to the next. Card is also very good with providing commentary on his stories - this is often some of the best stuff.

The last story in the work, "The Originist", was also the longest. As I started the story I did a quick double-take. These characters sounded familiar. Weren't they from Asimov's Foundation universe? No. That couldn't be. Card hates fan fiction. But, as they started talking about Trantor and foundations, I knew it was Asimov. What's with that? Well, it turns out that Card ended up breaking his own rules as part of a "Foundation's Friends" work. (Is that a sign of a great author?) The story was pretty good and did fit in well with Asimov's Foundation and Empire series.

"In the Doghouse" is a story about aliens looking for a new home planet. They only have their minds left and need to live in a host species. However, their morals don't allow them to live in highly sentient species. One scout comes down to earth "controlled" by a power-company monopoly. The company charges high rates, limits usage and prohibits solar panels. The alien scout comes down, assumes the body of a condemned man and starts selling doghouses with solar panels. This provides abundant power to people. However, so they don't get caught, he also requires everyone to have a dog. The power company now falls to its knees, and dog houses are spread all over the world. The scout goes back home, is commended for a setting up the ideal host situation, and is then asked to commit suicide (for being hosted in a man.) The aliens then come down, occupy the bodies of the dogs, and start showing their supreme intellect to the humans. The humans just laugh at the smart dogs, and the aliens end up going back to being just dogs.
This has a sly message about government and "do-gooders" getting mangled up in ideas that are not necessarily good. People conserve energy because it is so limited. Alternatives are made illegal. The great monopolists can grow rich in this scenario. Only through subterfuge can people overcome this. After gaining this victory with the aid of the aliens, the people turn around and do the same with the aliens. Rather than working together with the intellectual giants that have visited, they continue to hold dogs in their same subservient positions.

"A Thousand Deaths" is a gruesome tale of a man that is cloned and killed multiple times in an attempt to get a coerced "believable" confession. The confession is judged believable by the response of a test audience. He is never believable, eventually deciding to criticize the state and mentally "poison" the audience.

In "Clap Hands and Sing" a man and a woman independently travel back in time to kindle a childhood crush. This is one of the poorer stories.

"Dogwalker" is Card's cyperbunk about a password cracking man-boy who almost gets away with the perfect crime, but fails because the target always types his password twice. How hard would it be to guess somebody's password after knowing their life well?

"But We Try Not to Act Like It" is about a lonely man who is sick of his TV. Legislation has made TV watching mandatory for singles. Legislation also requires individualized programming for small minority groups, and restricts content based on tendencies (such as violence) of the audience. However, this attempt to control entertainment backfires as many people are harmed by problems with the programs. It contains some big-brother themes, but is an easily forgettable story.

"I Put My Blue Genes" is about a crew that returns to earth after 100s of years in space. They left right as the USSR and USA were on the brink of biological warfare. They find a small US base that is battling the Russian attacks. It turns out the Russians had been eliminated a long time ago, and it is simply the mutations of the past weapons that they are fighting. The earth, however, is nearly uninhabitable, and the people have significantly mutated and need to continue to do so to survive. Its a cautionary tale of war for war's sake. When your entire identity is wound up in fighting an enemy, its difficult to know what to do when the enemy is gone.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

End of Eternity

"Eternity" is a monastic-like organization that whose members bounce around through time. They have complex computer formulas to calculate the impact of changes. With that, they attempt to make the minimum possible change that will make the desired alteration in the world. If some great leader is about to destroy the world, they might move his briefcase, causing him to get agitated and miss a key meeting that lead to him getting in power. New members are men recruited from various time periods who can never marry, but have great power to affect changes.

One technician falls in love with a girl and is willing to throw all of eternity to the kabosh to get her back. It turns out he is a man who was supposed to train the guy that actual invents eternity. The guy is supposed to go back in time to "invent" the time travel. So, out protagonist alters the controls sending him back too early. Only, he has a change of heart after he is promised his girl, and searches magazine adds for the appropriate time period to find the guy. He gets the girl first, then goes back with her to the ancient past. Only, then he discovers she is a double agent. She came from a future that developed an even better time travel where they can see all possible outcomes. "Eternity"'s meddling has eliminated major conflicts, but because of this they have also eliminated major achievements, and led to the gradual extinction of man. He felt he had been used by eternity to bond with her and set up eternity. Then he discovered he had been used by her to kill eternity. But, in the end, she loves him, so who cares about the rest of the world? They then decide to live happily ever after, killing "eternity" they can improve the world. And as a bonus, they live happily ever after.

Ok. That is quite a jumble. This book tells a fairly compelling story, and has all sorts of ideas. Some are well executed, while others are not quite fully flushed out. (Computers can really calculate such detailed changes?) And how is it that people in the future can send things back to the past in order to invent the future? (Reminds me of how "Shakespeare" was invented in a Jasper Fforde book.)

Politically, the novel presents a strong indictment of central planning. Here it is amplified to an extreme of planning things over time. Sure, the central planning does alleviate some human wants. But the lack of these wants is often what drives the very innovation that improves society as a whole. Here Big Brother isn't just watching. Big Brother is actually changing - only it does it so well you don't even know. Freewill on the individual and societal level is very important here. Libertarians rule!

Time travel is presented in a couple, somewhat confusing, ways. With eternity, time travel an cause changes. But these changes are then "always" in place. If you change something in the past that should eliminate you, but you are still there, then the change didn't eliminate you. There is also a separate concept of "time" by those living in eternity. Somehow this time continues linearly while the "real" time is going on. Thus, they may not have "reached" their elimination yet in the linear time, even though they are in a vastly different time frame than the person sent back to invent them. Alas, this extra time doesn't quite jell. But, just set back and enjoy the flight, and try to worry about the world later.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Nerd Bowl

Maybe it is time to add a standardized test to the bowl festivities. Most major sports conferences have a smallish, private school that boosts the average SAT score, but usually serves as nothing more than a free "win" on the football schedule.

Apparently, these academic "doormats" didn't get the message.

Stanford has always been one of the most academic prestigious schools in the nation. A half-dozen years ago, the football program was a mere afterthought, with some pundits even calling on them to disband it as a worthless cause. Now, however, they have gone to through BCS bowl games in a row. If not for a few missed kicks last season, they would have been 3-0 in these bowls. The victory this year in the Rose Bowl was the first Stanford Rose Bowl victory since Nixon was president. Stanford has a young hot-shot coach who also happens to be an alum, and doesn't plan on going anywhere.

Northwestern is the private oddity among the big public schools in the Big-10. This season they won the Big-10s lone New Years Day game. This also happened to be Northwestern's first bowl victory since someone named Truman was president. If not for a few blown forth quarter leads, Northwestern could have been undefeated. (With just a couple small breaks for the Cardinal and Wildcats, we could have seen a truly "nerdy" national championship game.) Like Stanford, Northwestern is led by a young alum for a coach.

The SEC's nerd school also got in the action. Vanderbilt won its bowl game to rack up 9 wins, a number that has not been seen since World War I. While the coach doesn't have ties to the school, he did bolt from a "coach in waiting" position at Maryland to go to Vandy. He will be a much more likely "flight" risk than the other two.

In Texas, Rice also had a bowl win. The only "nerd" school that didn't win its bowl game was the ACC's Duke. It was, however, Duke's first bowl appearance in 17 years, so you need to start somewhere. Notre Dame is joining in the ACC (playing 5 ACC football games, and fully joining in all other sports.) They are a top 20 private school. This year they just happen to be playing for the national championship.

In this years US News rankings, Stanford is #6, Duke #8, Northwestern #12, and Rice, Vanderbilt and Notre Dame are tied for #17. They make up all the schools in the US News top 20 that play top division college football.

It almost seems that the "scholar" is coming back to "scholar-athlete", with top-flight football universities actually fielding top-tier football teams. The schools have now got a new pitch for recruits: You can go get a top notch degree with endless possibilities - and if that doesn't work out, there is always the NFL.

All Quiet on the Western Front

Near the end of the novel, the narrator questions why they are fighting the war. He has no beef with the other side. He comes to the conclusion that the Kaiser is fighting it because all leaders have to have a big war under their belts to make it in to the history books.

This realization was a far cry from his initial enthusiasm. On the outset, he was driven by patriotic zeal to go join the army. Once there, he realized it was not all it was cracked up to be. (This reminds me of people who have been eager to enlist in the US military to "fight the terrorists", but then find that things are not so glorious [or even as cut and dry] once they get there.)

The novel provides plenty of portrayal of the fighting and the dangers in trench warfare. There is no glory in the war being fought. There are some minor adventures (like sneaking across a river or pulling pranks on a mean leader), however in these have a somewhat depressing air in the context of the war.

The trip home expresses some of this contrast. The people at home are eager to hear the adventures at the front. They also want to ensure people are properly cared for, even as they die. The soldier, however, does not think of them as "adventures", and has grown to have a 'distant' view of people. (At times he feels "attached" to a person, but then can brush it aside.)

War in this novel is depressingly hard work that abuses both physically and mentally. It is no wonder it was banned by Nazi Germany.