Monday, July 29, 2013

Variable Star

Variable Star started out as a n outline written by Robert A. Heinlein during his early "juvenile" period. Long after Heinlein's death, it was adopted by Spider Robinson and finally given the novel treatment. The main character is a poor college student, studying in Vancouver. His girlfriend would like to get married. However, he would like to wait until they have the means. She then reveals that she is actually heiress to the richest man in the solar system. He is invited to join the family. However, he doesn't like the idea of having his life controlled so deeply. With the help of his girlfriend's younger sister, he escapes the compound, and eventually boards a colony ship that is set out to the far reaches of the galaxy. With the aid of some people with special abilities, they travel at nearly the speed of light. Much of the novel deals with the adventures aboard the ship. Eventually, a few of the speacial ship controllers die, leaving the ship flying endlessly in orbit. And, to make things really interesting, the sun goes Nova and the entire earth is destroyed, leaving the colonists the only hope for humanity. However, the ship they are on is likely the only one that knows that the deadly radiation blast is coming, leaving humanity in dire straits. Luckily, our narrator's former girlfriend has married a genius physicists who has developed faster than light speed travel. They come to the ship to get provisions, unearth some not so-nice plans, and eventually he hooks up with his true love.

The novel has its ups and downs. At times it feels like a Heinlein novel. At other times he get Simpson's and "War on Terror" refs. The combination can at times be annoying. The middle of the novel also seems to go on for a little bit too long. There is a decent story in there with plenty of fodder for a sequel, but it could use some more work.


Orestia is famous. Is that because it is really good? Or is that because it was lucky enough to survive until today. (And was it lucky enough to survive because it was good, or due to some fluke?) A brave warrior comes back from battle. He is killed by his wife. Eventually his son avenges the death by killing his mother. There is a great trial, with seemingly no good result. It is eventually hung with the gods declaring for the son.

This reminds me of the Zimmerman trial. Both sides did something wrong. The law would seem to provided no clear cut solution. Alas, in the real world case, the one-sided media coverage pushed things too far in one direction, resulting in prosecutorial overreaching that made a not-guilty verdict almost guaranteed. If only we had Athena around to help us today.

Swiss Family Robinson

The Swiss Family Robinson reminded me of Robinson Curusoe. And it turns out, the original title referred to a Swiss Family that had adventures like the famous Robinson. the story starts off with a shipwreck. This is nothing more than a quick setup to get the family abandoned and on their own on a remote coast. There they gradually build up their own self-sufficient civilization. The father seems to know all the world's flora and fauna, and spends much of the time instructing his sons in the details of what they have discovered and how they can use it. After many years, the boys grow up and are lucky enough to encounter a woman who was lost nearby. Shortly after that, a ship appears giving them the chance to be rescues. Part of the family is so content with their life that they desire to remain their. Some of the ship's passengers also desire to stay. This made for a perfect balance with the few members of the family that desired to sail back to the old world.

While the story has some bits of adventure, there is very little physical peril involved. Most of the adventure involves resolving problems having to do with wild animals and weather. At times the story does seem to drag on. (Once they become happy and master their surroundings, is there really much that can be added.) It provides a message that happiness can be found in even the most dire circumstances, through hard work and love. Eventually, this happiness can produce the physical happiness that was initially lacking.

Alcatraz Vs. The Knights of Crystalia

The third book in the Alcatraz series continues where the others left off. Alcatraz finally makes it to his ancestrial home. He discovers that he is elite royalty there. While this give him perks (like the ability to show up to parties uninvited and mary people), it also has its downfalls. (Adoring fans and sycophants clamor to be around him.) Librarians are in the town and ostensibly suing for peace. However, they are actually trying to take over the "three kingdoms." Alcatraz's "evil librarian" mother is trying to steal an important book from the "not a library" archives, while his father is busy trying to make his big "famous research." Alcatraz, however, spends more time with his grandfather and friends. (His mother, after all, is on the other side and outwardly denies she has feelings for him, while his father does not know how to relate to him.)

Eventually, through some well timed marrying and a little singing, Alcatraz is able to save the day.

The plot is engaging, while the style keeps it laugh-out-loud entertaining. There are jabs at many other stories. (The most evil librarian is "she who cannot be named". However, unlike Harry Potter, it is not a curse that prevents her from being names, but the simple fact that nobody can pronounce her name.) The book also concludes, then has an epilogue, and then a post-book section to remind people not to skip to the end, then another ending. It looks like it was a great blast to right.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Disappointment Artist

This is a collection of autobiographical essays written by an author who grew up in a "hippie" Brooklyn household in the 1970s. He finds himself "rebelling" against some of the received wisdom of his left-wing parents, adopting some fascination with more popular forms of art. He is a fan of Philip K Dick, has seen Star Wars 21 times. He also comes to the defense of the John Wayne film "The Searchers" and watches it many times, trying to soak in its importance. Yet he eventually finds himself "breaking" up with his artistic crushes, even falling away from the "punkish" music like the talking heads.

We also get essays on comic books and the silver age of the Fantastic 4 and the art of Jack Kirby. And we hear a lot about his upbringing with smart, countercultural parents in a gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn.

There wasn't a whole lot here to aspire to (or to aspire "not to".) He seems like a kid that had a slightly weird upbringing, but nothing really special. I wonder if this would have been Steve Jobs if he had not been adopted...

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones

Style and content. The Sanderson's Alcatraz books complete the rare feat of telling an engaging story in a very entertaining style. In Scrivener's bones, Alcatraz and his companions infiltrate the Library of Alexandria to try to find his father and grandfather. The library has a repository of all written knowledge. There is only one catch. You must give up your sole to check out anything.

Alcatraz tells this story as somebody straddling our "hushlands" world with that of the 3 kingdoms. He regularly butts in with random anecdotes or leads us on false tangents just to keep things interesting. There is plenty of subtle commentary on our culture and values along with a whole lot of really well done humor.

Geography of Bliss

What is happiness? Where can we find it? This book attempts to answer those questions in a pseudo-science pop-culture sort of way. The author voyages off to different parts of the world in the quest for happiness.

First off is the Netherlands. There, he meets with a happiness researcher in Rotterdam. He also samples "Dutch" happiness. The Dutch consistently rank very high on happiness surveys. He attributes that to the relaxed, permissive culture they have.

Switzerland also ranks high in happiness, yet has a culture very different from Holland. There, everything is clean and orderly. The rule of law prevails. Even small details of life may be regulated. However, it has a very localized, direct democracy, so everybody has a say.

Rounding out the Europe trip, he visits Iceland in the dead of winter. The sun hardly comes up during the year. Even during the winter, it never gets hot, only making it up to "not so cold." However, the people are very happy. There are only 1/3 million people there, with most of the people being related. There is also a large safety net, and a freedom to explore and change career. There is also a strong appreciation for the arts. Iceland produces a lot of really bad art, but that is just the fertilizer for the good art that comes. The country also has great respect for its language and historic culture.

The quest also takes him to Asia. Thailand has a relaxed culture where what happens happens. India has a conflicted culture, where everything can be itself and its opposite at the same time. Qatar has come into sudden wealth and attempts to "buy culture" and happiness. The Then there is Moldova. While the people have more than enough money for their needs, it is one of the poorest countries in well-to-do Europe. It has also seen its relative situation deteriorate after the fall of the Soviet Union. It has a mix of Romanian and Moldovan roots, with little strong culture or history of its own.

What do these anecdotes tell us? Money does seem to play a role in happiness, but only a minor one. Up to about $15000 a year, more money equates with more happiness. However, after necessities are met, more money could even reduce happiness. Some people can also be happy with limited money. Expectations seem to be more important than raw wealth. People that are content with what they have are happier than those striving for more. People with strong family ties and a support network are also happier. The rule of law also helps. When people can count on getting the appropriate reward for their action, they are happier than those without. Blissful tropical climates tend not to be as happy as those with warmer climates, possible due to work and keep busy. There is also the matter of being in the proper location. Sometimes transplanting oneself to a different location may increase happiness, but often not for what we expect. (Low cost of living and weather are not as important as a culture that matches one's personality.)

Monday, July 08, 2013

Steve Jobs

I've never been a big fan of apple. I was more a Commodore 64 or an Android guy. Apple seemed to be all about style and marketing rather than technology. After reading Steve Wozniak's autobiography, I had a little more respect for him on the technology side. However, reading Jobs' books drills in the fact that he is a jerk. Without Apple, he would probably be some unknown artist or maybe even a homeless guy wandering around. However, without Jobs, Apple would have probably never been the big behemoth it is today, and Wozniak would probably still be working at HP as a highly respected, distinguished engineer. They happened to have the right skills to complement each other and came together at the right time. This gave Jobs the position of influence and allowed him to use his ruthlessness to launch the pirate raid on the computer industry.

Steve Jobs was born to graduate students in Wisconsin who put him up for adoption in California. If he had grown up as Steve Jindali with an intellectual family in Wisconsin, he may be an obscure poet or intellectual today. Being adopted by a working class family in California put him in a position to be surrounded by an innovative industry as well as the drive to do something with his life.

In reading this, part of me says "this guy is a doofus." But, the other part says, why didn't I do this? Why didn't I take the big gambles at a younger age. Use the youth to flop more. If you fail, oh well. If not, you may have a giant company.

His parents did take a "reasonable gamble" in moving to south Los Altos so he could go to school there. If they didn't, well, he may not have made the connections that would have helped him found Apple. At that time, the area was expensive, but still in the realm of middle class. Today, there is nothing for less than a million dollars. (Though you can catch the old residents by the low assessed value (max of 2% increase since the 70s for unsold houses leaves a lot of assessments around $100,000).

Jobs may have lead to his own death by refusing cancer surgery early, and letting his cancer spread. He had motivation to try many weird diets. The strength and accomplishment of doing it led to his motivation for accomplishing many things, yet it may not have helped his health.

He left Apple, founded NeXT, did a lot of cool things there, but didn't really sell much. Yet, he was able to sell the company back to Apple for a few billion and end up taking over the company he helped found.

At the time, he also bought Pixar. There John Lasseter worked as an animator after getting canned by his dream job at Disney animation. Pixar eventually went from making computers to making movies. It got bought by Disney for a few million, and now Lasseter gets to be an animation boss there.

Jobs' wife gets to stay at home with the children, garden and do charity work. The joy of having money and being able to do meaningful work, rather than working for the "man". (Similarly, Jobs Apple money let him do all sorts of other stuff.)

In his end-note, Jobs said his goal was to create great products. Money helped enable, but was not the ultimate goal. Without money, he would not have been able to do squat. However, when the company focussed to much on money, the product faltered and money started to fall. He also couldn't name another "fully integrated" hardware/software company like apple that did cool stuff. What will happen to Apple now? It is a behemoth. Can it be creative as a large company and without the leadership? We are also in an era where operating system doesn't matter as much as it did. What new features are in the newest IOS? Does anybody really care? The power and performance of electronics are exceeding our ability to do stuff with it. Most innovation now is in new form factors (Google Glass, tablets, watches, etc.) Content is now more cloud based. We could be nearing the end of the "integrated" era, and moving into something new. What will happen to Steve's company?

The book ends with Jobs on his deathbead in Palo Alto. Yet, we don't get a final obituary. (I guess it finished a bit too soon...)

Monday, July 01, 2013

Canterbury Tales

Blacksttone Audio has since released a new version of Canterbury Tales. It is obvious why. Fred Williams seems to be struggling to read this version. At times he gets in the groove, but then gets back to the stuttering delivery. The translation here is nicely done, with most of the rhyme retained.

However, the translation didn't even bother with the prose sections. Even though the recording was "unabridged", it was an unabridged recording of an abridged translation. Ugghh.

As for the tales themselves, they show a great deal of diversity. We get a long tale of battles in ancient Greece. Then we get some bawdy tales of pg-13 gross-out humour. Add in a heavy dose of marriage comedy, and we have would be a near complete listing of movies playing in a modern cinema multiplex. And, to keep things interesting, there is the dialog tying all the different stories together. They give us prologues telling us about themselves and their tales. We even get the Miller and the Reve being offended at each other and making sure the next tale is more offensive them the first. Some prologues even seem to approach the length of the tale itself. The stories also have the air of "realism" to them, with some cutting off after they have reached their main point.

The stories are quite appealing (and they should be if they have lasted so many milenia.) The actual production here, alas, has much to be desired.