Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Phantom of the Opera

I couldn't help but hear Andrew Lloyd Webber's music playing as I made it through this book. It is a pretty easy read, though it tends to go off in tangents. It is also difficult to place. There is the underlying love story. Christine is torn between the "real life" love of a found childhood friend, and the "phantom" love of the angel of music. However, the "romance" is downplayed, and not the primary point of the book.

Then there is the "opera" itself. The opera "structure" itself is grandiose. (Was it really normal for operas to have so many stables, passages, etc.?) The attendees all dressed their very best, and concerned themselves with the very minutia of finery.

And of course, we have the ghost story. Like, the love story, this part is also downplayed. Many people just seem to acknowledge the presence of the opera ghost. "Sure, there is a ghost. You just have to make sure you treat it right, and all will go well. If you don't, then beware. Bad things have been known to happen to those who get on his bad side.

And finally, there is the story of a brilliant anti-social nonconformist. The "ghost" is a great singer and a master craftsman. But, he is also hideously ugly, and doesn't dare show himself to anybody out in the world. The story is really about him. He lives in anonymity, and has no qualms with seriously harming others as he advances his own personal goals. He falls in love with Christine, and finally is overjoyed as she reciprocates, even allowing him to kiss her before she is dead.

The narrative is told journalisticly, with a number of "accounts" in different styles. It is hard to identify any underlying agenda for writing this novel other than entertainment. It does succeed in entertaining, even if the narrative structure can at times be difficult.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Coach Hyatt is a Riot

My daughter checked this out from the library because she likes the series. However, she put it down when she discovered it was about football.
My soon loves football, and immediately picked it up when he discovered the contents. This was the first chapter book he read.
Ironically, the theme turns out to be pro girl. The football team is getting clobbered, but then the girl joins up and they end up winning by one point. She even gets a hug at the end.
The story is cheesy and over-the-top goofy like the other books in the series. I guess the author knows his audience.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Invisible Man

A black boy starts out with idealistic views of society, but finds himself beat down by society. Both blacks and whites accept the status quo of society. He gets a scholarship to a black college, but finds himself in big trouble when he takes a white trustee to see how the "other side" lives. The trustee claims that the boy is his "destiny", but is visibly upset at seeing the continued conditions of squalor in the black community. He still maintains his idealism as he is sent to make his way in the big city. However this is shattered when he discovers that his letters of introduction say that he is a persona non grata at his college.

He then has numerous experiences in the city, and becomes primarily involved with "the brotherhood". Eventually, he even has a falling out there, and becomes "invisible". Eventually, he meets the trustee that caused his trouble. He introduces himself as the trustee's "destiny", yet the trustee fails to identify him.

He realizes that he is being used as a pawn by others to achieve their goals. When his goals are in sync with their's, he feels great. But problems occur when they start to diverge.

There is an obvious statement being made of race relations and unfulfilled promises. However, this is only one symptom of the underlying problem. In a large society, the "goals" of the group are often set by a few strong individuals. These goals may be shared by some people, but rarely does one person share everything. When the initial focus is on the areas of strong mutual agreement, things go well. But what happens when we move down to the areas of less consensus? And what happens when "theory" and "practice" come in to conflict? It is easy to encourage others to "suffer" in order to bring up the underprivileged. But opinions change when that suffering is inflicted upon oneself. What is one without power to do? And how do you deal with conflicting forces for the same "ideal"?

Alas, the narrator here simply gives up, leaving many of the large questions unanswered.

Basics of Genetics

Basics of Genetics does exactly what is advertised. It presents a comprehensive overview of the basics of genetic principles. It does not go overboard in to the detailed minutia of modern genetic theory, but does provide a solid grounding in the "evolution" of genetic thought.

Having spent significant time immersed in advanced genetics scholarship, I was not expecting much from these lectures. However, I was pleasantly surprised. She did an excellent job of explaining the basics in an easily understandable manner (with plenty of analogies and examples.) I came away with a much clearer understanding of things that I thought I already understood, as well as knowledge of ideas that I "took for granted" rather than trying to understand. The analogy of the "Rube Goldberg cookie making machine" is still stuck in my mind.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


At the doctors' office they had a "survey". Would you rather skip eating a donut or run for 30 minutes to save a couple hundred calories. Most people selected "skip donut." What? Definitely not me.

Eat a donut and go jogging. Two great things to do. Why skip both of them?

I suppose the posting of calories at chain restaurants was also not intended for people like me.

I tend to use the calories as a guide to make sure I get the most calories. When grabbing a quick sandwich at a fast food place, the $1 for 400 calories easily beats out $1 for 200. (And besides aren't they all variations on corn anyway?)

At places with real food, it helps make decisions easier. If three dishes look good, I can simply opt for the 1200 calorie one, rather than one that is only 400 calories.

Maybe "glycemic index" will be next.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Shades of Grey

Having thoroughly enjoyed every Jasper Fforde novel I've read, I had high expectations with this book. Unfortunately, I was let down. I had trouble getting involved with this book.
After reading it, I'm still not sure what it was about. I think it was some futuristic society, where shade and color play a very important role. There is also a dictatorship in place. When people don't conform, they are sent off for a "reboot". However, out heroes discover that a reboot is actually death. They want to go and reform society. In the end, however, they decide to conform like everyone else.
It also has color smuggling, arranged marriages between colors to get the proper hue, and analysis of color profiles to determine compatibility. I'm sure he spent a while thinking of this scenario. But, alas, it just didn't make a good book. And the wittiness of Ffforde's other novels just wasn't here. There was nothing to save it from its confusion.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

bcs number two

Blog Poll

Looking at the results so far this season, it is pretty clear that LSU is the best team. They beat the champions of two BCS conferences. They also went undefeated and won their own conference.

Number two is less certain. For every team with one or two losses, LSU beat them them or beat a team (that beat a team...) that beat them. Most of these wins were by a touchdown or more. (Sorry Pac-12). However, there are a few "narrow cases". Alabama was only beat by 3 points. Getting to Oklahoma State or Boise State requires a couple narrow wins.

So, Boise State, Alabama and Oklahoma State seem like the likely targets.

Who should be the #2 in the championship game?

Alabama had a narrow loss, but it was at home. And they lost directly to LSU. Even if Alabama won the championship game, there would be the argument that LSU is better. (Even with a loss, LSU would still have a better resume, and an equal record.)

Boise State lost by three points to TCU, but it was at home.

Oklahoma State, has the worst loss. However, it was by less than a touchdown, and to get the LSU chain, you also need another narrow loss by less than a touchdown. The Oklahoma State loss can also be chalked up to mitigating circumstances. It was played on the road immediately after two basketball coaches died in a plane crash. If it wasn't "football", this game could have easily been postponed. A victory by either team would be a more clear cut champion.

So, of course, this being the BCS, we will see Alabama in the championship game. Oh well.

LSU beat Alabama (3pt)
LSU beat Arkansas which beat Texas AandM (4pt) which beat Iowa State which beat Oklahoma State (6pt) (which beat all Big 12)
LSU beat Oregon which beat Stanford (which beat USC)
LSU beat Arkansas which beat Texas AandM (4pt) which beat Baylor which beat TCU (2pt) which beat Boise State (3pt)
or LSU - Arkansas - Texas AndM which beat SMU which beat TCU
LSU beat West Virginia which beat Marshall which beat Southern Miss (6pt) which beat Houston
LSU beat Arkansas which beat South Carolina which beat Clemson which beat Virginia Tech
LSU beat West Virginia which beat South Florida which beat Notre Dame which beat Michigan State (which beat Wisconsin and Michigan)
LSU beat Georgia (which beat Georgia Tech which beat Clemson)

Free Range Kids

The media has trained parents to be paranoid, thus depriving kids of the chance to be kids. This book presents a folksy tail of a mom who dared let her tween navigate by himself home on the subway - and live to tell about it. It is fun, entertaining ramble.

Parents do many stupid things in the name of "safety". Some of the concerns are shown to be total crocs. There has never been a case of somebody tampering with Halloween candy in an attempt to injure children. (The only "documented" cases were of family members often trying to use it as a ruse to collect insurance.) Yet, parents are still restricting Halloween activity. Ironically, they are encouraging more "junk" candy rather than healthy. The candy companies benefit by this false sense of danger and are thus in no hurry to fight it.

Other fears are more often grounded in "poor" math. There is an infinitesimal chance of a child being kidnapped on the way home from school. However, these kidnappings are sensational news stories. Even people that act rationally, knowing they are rare still justify driving their children. They could never live with themselves if their child happened to be the one in ten million that had something bad happen. Of course, the odds of being injured in a car accident are much greater than the odds of being kidnapped. And the consequences of inactivity. Hmm... Pollution... And what about the congestion and the potential harm caused to other pedestrians. The world just becomes a much worse place because of people's inability to properly judge the likelihood of rare events.

There are plenty of people who know this. However, they are still afraid to do things out of fear of what "other people may think". I have even heard that from neighbors. Sure school is only half mile away from home, and walking over a pedestrian freeway bridge makes walking not much longer than driving. But, they don't want to let the kids walk themselves because they are afraid of what other parents would think of them. Sigh. In example was given of a mother of a young child that asked the lady behind her (with two young children) to watch her child while she ran to get something. The second mother was later flabbergasted. "How could the first mother have trusted a total stranger? What if I would have kidnapped her child?" Of course she didn't kidnap the child, and she new she wasn't the type to do it, yet she judged the other mother as bad because she was trusted. Huh? Even had she been villainous, she would have had a difficult time trying to kidnap a child while managing two others. Irrationality at its best.

And sports. Instead of playing, kids spend more time in organized sports. However, in organized sports, they spend more time sitting around. And there is the matter of being driven there, and only competing for a few hours a week. Oops.

In some cases the busybodies are well meaning, but cause huge overreaction. The Danish mother who parked her infant-containing stroller outside a restaurant is a great example. The busybodies thought is was a great travesty to do it. Think of everything bad that could happen. Oh yes. Plenty of bad things could happen. Passerbys could call the police. The police could send you to chail. Child protective services could be called. Yep. Lots of bad stuff. All caused by our paranoia.

Perhaps relaxing the paranoia is the key to solving our government financial crisis. We just need to back off on the regulation and official "support" in society. Let kids run around. Close the streets off near school. Why not prevent parents from approaching the school grounds. (Hey, that would even help the paranoid - no adults getting near the kids.)

The author does, however, go schizo in a few places. She has a long rant against "formula-feeding guilt". People that are fed formula turn out fine. But, she highly favors seat belts and helmets. "you never know". However the more apt thing is that people have succeeded with the worst possible upbringing. If we worry to much about things, we wont necessarily make life better for the kids. However, we will make it miserable for ourselves, which in turn can make life worse for the kids.

It is time for society to back off!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Religions of the East

Religions of the East covers some of the more popular Eastern "religions". The definition of religion is important here, for some would argue that they are just philosophies and not religions. (While others that appear to be philosophies would argue that they are religions.) In these lectures they are somewhat glommed together. Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Sikhism are all covered.

The relationship between a religion and a community are also important. While a religion may be very mainstream in one area, it may be symbol of counter-cultural rebellion in another. Many of the eastern religions are much less dogmatic than western or middle-eastern religions. They often more closely resemble schools of philosophy than belief sets. (They sometimes use these characteristics to help gain inroads in the west, leading to "popular" western versions that differed significantly from the eastern versions.)

These lectures lacked some substance. There was not enough history and analysis of the belief sets and the roll that the religions have played in the society as a whole. This may be a function of trying to cram too much in to a short time period. However, there also seemed to be a little too much "fluff" in the lectures that could have been cleaned out to provide more "meat".

Building Great Sentences

Brooks Landon appears to be a talented writer. Unfortunately, he is not a great lecturer. He sounds as if he is reading a lecture test verbatim - thus it becomes difficult to tell when he is lecturing originally or simply quoting another source. Take away the delivery problems and you are left with a long, but good lecture.

In Building Great Sentences, Brooks Landon focuses on the importance of "length". He even quotes from a multipage essay that consists of a single sentence. Cumulative syntax is one of his favorites. (And we hear him mention this over and over again.) He also stresses the importance of independent style. The author's feelings should come through in the writing. There is no way to prescribe the perfect writing style (though it is often easy to identify "bad" writing. There are many good points in here, though it may have been improved by cutting its length in half.

Smiles to Go

Dudes play Monopoly, hang out and skateboard. Little sister gets in the way. Best friend has crazy family. Friend manages to do the impossible and skate down Dead Man's Hill. A Proton dies, meaning the earth may end. A girl kisses a boy. A girl has already been asked to a dance, before a boy can ask her. A boy goes to a chess tournament, and is on track to win it all, but then...

The little sister has disappeared. She, inspired by the friend, tries to skate down Dead Man's Hill. Only, she is not so talented, and takes a very nasty fall. In the hospital, she is in an induced coma, and looks absolutely miserable. Her brother then discovered that the little sister really admires and respects him, though in her own special way. She was longing for him to "pass the pebble" as part of the elementary school tradition. She his favorite black jelly beans to give to him later as a gift. (He had thought she had just been throwing them out.) And meanwhile, the girl decides that she will not go to the dance because of all that has happened. Eventually the little sister comes out, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Smiles to Go is warm-weather, slightly younger version of Who Put the Hair in My Toothbrush. Swap out skateboards with ice hockey, make the kids a little younger, and add a little bit about protons and Monopoly and you have this book. (I liked Hairbrush better.)

The proton stuff still seems a little random. It allows for a dichotomy between "proton destroyed, universe ending" and "dude skated down dead man's hill!". For teenagers, the immediate is much more important than the billion years into the future. It also helps bring out the nerdiness of the chess-champion, monopoly-loving brother.

Epochs of European Civilization: Antiquity To Renaissance

Epochs of European Civilization: Antiquity To Renaissance starts with a lecture on the Jews.

Wait a second. Israel part of Europe?

Well, geographically, it may not be. But the European geographic boundaries are arbitrary at best. Culturally, the Jewish culture has played a big role in the European state. Christianity sprung out of Israel to become the dominant religion of Europe. Even the Jews that remained played important parts in the emergence of the European power. The Jewish bankers were indispensable to the European monarchs. Even as they were persecuting Jews, they would hold on to their key financial authorities. The separation and persecution of the Jews helped them to grow stronger and develop special skills and attributes that benefited European society. (Does that mean that the integration of Jews in to modern society will hurt them?)

These lectures pay a lot of attention to the role of religion and church within the culture of Europe. This makes a lot of sense. The Catholic can be considered the de facto continuation of the Roman empire, and spent a thousand years as the dominant force in Europe. The conversion of different peoples were also significant events in the middle ages. From this perspective, the crusades were seen as a way to "unite" the disparate small kingdoms. The underlying theme helps tie together many of the other key "battles" and "events" in ancient European history and makes for very informative lectures.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jerusalem: The Contested City

Jerusalem: The Contested City

Jerusalem has always been somewhat of a "backwater", yet a very important "backwater" to billions of people.
These lectures were a well done history of the Jerusalem throughout the ages. The professor does a good job explaining why the city has been so important, along with the curious relationship between the local residents and the many "pilgrims" and "travelers" that visit the area. The city has been significantly impacted by others far away. Simple changes in European beliefs have caused significant changes within the city itself. It also continues to have a curious presence of Christians, Muslims and Jews. All this makes for a lively, "contested" city.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Million Dollar throw

It is a sappy sports book written for a tween audience. Literary masterpiece it is not.
It is filled with details of the game of football. The protagonist is one serious junior high quarterback. An like all stereo-typical non-Andrew Luck quarterbacks, he doesn't do so well in school. However, we don't hear much about school. We do hear a lot of what goes through his mind on the football field.

Times are not going so well for his parents. (Queue sap-o-meter.) His father lost his good job, and is now struggling to make ends meet. His female friend is losing her vision. And in to all this, he got selected to make one attempt to throw a football through a hole to earn a million dollars. Oh, and did I mention this was at halftime of a Patriots game. Yeah, andhe goes by the name Brady because he is such a huge fan. And we get all sorts of details of the Patriots past and prsent... And he has the chance because he paid $500 for an autographed Brady ball (minumum $500 purchase required to qualify.) Yep, all over the top.

Of course, all of these events mess with his mind and he can't through if his life depended on it. He gets benched, and his life gets even worse. And then the girl may be going off to a school for the blind... The badness just piles on.

It does't matter because we know it will all turn out well at the end. There are attempts to inject a little suspense in the process, though this is more annoying than suspenseful. (Why tell us almost everything about a Google alert, but not what it was? Oh yeah, because that would spoil the suspense.) And then, the ending also has his hero come out, him participating in a magnanimous act and he and his buddies all starting on the varsity team as Freshman.

Could we have just a bit of believability? Sorry. nope.

This is a junior high football players dream. That pretty much sums it up.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Crime and Punishment

A man is living in Russia, struggling to make ends meet. He contemplates the cruelty of an old miserly lady who has lots of money, yet will donate it all to a monastery after her imminent death. He has fleeting thoughts about robbing her, but his nature prevents him from acting. He has also written academic papers describing situations where one great man (such as a Napoleon) is required to act "above" the law to achieve goals. Is he a great man?

One day he hears people talking about a similar moral dilemma. Wouldn't many people be better off if she was dead and her money were used to help the poor? The sacrifice of one life would be justified in the improved state of many.

That was enough for him. He decided to go out and murder her with an ax. He succeeded, but made himself miserable in the process. Most of the narrative concerns his psychological experience in committing the crime and its internal repercussions. He goes on for a while before there is any external consequence. However, internally, he is all but destroyed. His intellectual rationale could not cover for his internal moral position.

This book is long, and many of the characters have similar sounding names. However, it is possible to miss some of the details and still experience the moralistic force of the book. (

When he finally confesses to the crime, the punishment is relatively minor, just a few years in Siberia. His internal suffering (and resultant pain he inflicted on others) was probably worse than the true punishment.

California High School Football

Last night we went to a football game at Homestead High School. Some of the best known alumni are the "Steves" that founded Apple. That should tell you a bit about the school. It has produced a few NFL players, but clearly, football is not the focus here. The opponent was Los Gatos, a team that has had a little more recent football success. (Stanford and NFL QB Trend Edwards comes to mind.)

However, the school does go through the motions. There is a (really big) band in the stands. They are all dressed up like a band and play in the first half. Then, they do their half time show and go AWOL for the second half.

The opposing band doesn't bother to show up in California. This in spite of the opponent located within biking distance. (A sousaphone on a bike would be an interesting site.) In Texas, band would routinely travel a couple of hours to accompany the football team. California? Nah, they don't seem to be part of it.

At least the Los Gatos Cheerleaders came along. Homestead had cheerleaders, too. Well, at least they had a bunch of people doing synchronized cheering motions. They seemed fairly oblivious to what was actually going on on the football field. They also didn't look like cheerleaders. Black pants and a green jacket? They could have at least tried to adopt something resembling a cheerleader uniform. Instead they looked more like a few people that wandered out to show off.

Halftime was also a letdown. The dance team went on the field and did their thing (to piped in music.) The band then came out and stood in place while some brass and percussion danced around playing a funky song.

The stadium was also tiny. About the size of a junior high stadium in Texas. In spite of the size, the fanbase was not all that bad. A number of spontaneous "defense" chants arose during the course of the game, along with plenty of cheering and yelling.

At least the football team still seemed to play some fairly standard football.

However, instead of the pageantry that surrounds high school football, we get something more akin to the sterility of the NFL game, though without the large-scale community involvement.

The cheerleaders, dance team, band and football team were all doing their own thing, but none seemed to care about what the others were doing. While there were some fans that were really involved in the game, many seemed interested in only particular areas. (There for the band, the cheerleaders, the dancers, etc.) There were very few "external" members of the community involved in the game. You would even be hard-pressed to find any signs around campus indicating a game would be going on.

Perhaps it could argued that this is healthy. Schools don't dedicate too much attention to one area, but spread their loyalties and energies around. (This was the argument that Palo Alto gave when no students seemed to realize they were playing for the state championship.) However, this "diversity" of loyalties instead leaves each group isolated without the benefit of a strong supportive community experience. When the band and other groups are actively involved and tightly intertwined with the team, they become part of the entire experience. The fans support everyone together, rather than a single group. The participants and spectators all have a better experience. The individuals get to enjoy a bit of community.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Some alien pods come down from space and take on the shape of living things. They typically spend a few years taking over a planet, then zoom off to conquer another areas. They are initially discovered by some people in Marin county who find their relatives are acting a little "different". (The aliens don't show strong emotions.) Eventually, people manage to light fires and do other ruckus to scare them back in to space, thus saving the earth. (Though people still question whether this was a real event or just a psychological hysteria.)

It sounds like a great B-movie. And it has already produced one and its remake.

Many of the plot elements seem familiar. Perhaps this is a testament of the books influence, since many of the other works were written well after this books 1955 release. I had initially suspected it was written in the 70s (due in part to the mention of the 70s dates and familiarity of some of the deices.) However, the repeated mentions of "chesterfields" and doctors that make house calls placed in its proper time period.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

History of World Literature

It starts with Epic Literature, and concludes with post-modernism, with a hefty dose of realism in between.
The lectures provide a small dose of plot summary - just enough to get a feel for some of the works being discussed, without becoming tedious.

The approach worked well. It was enough for me to know that I just would not be interested in some of the works, while there were plenty of others that I should add to my future reading list. His manner was much more neutral than some other Teaching Company courses.

Generally one lecture corresponds to a single author. However, some, such as T.S. Eliot are mentioned multiple times without a dedicated chapter of their own. Dostoevsky, Joyce, Kafka, Becket, Borges and Rushdie are some of the auhtors that I have been inspired to read (or re-read).

The stupidity of upgrading Apple products

I should have known better. I had an iPod touch that worked well for playing playlists of audiobooks. I upgraded and all the playlists came in random order. D'oh! I hoped the next upgrade would fix it. It didn't. Then they stopped pushing out upgrades to my old hardware. Oh well. At least I was able to get a work around by saving the books with the same name and using the audiobooks view of the ipod.

Now on to the ipad. It is often used for playing audiobooks. It seemed to be working well. Some of the other apps also worked well. there was no pressing reason to upgrade.

So why on earth did I do it?

Stupid Apple.

They trashed the old "ipod" app on the ipad and put in place an inane music app. No double speed playback. No text list of albums, books (or anything!) You are stuck with an ugly album art view - which just wastes real estate when there is no art. Books are also in seemingly random order. Alright, even worse than that, they are ordered by track without regards to disk. Disk 1 track 1 is followed by disk 2 track 1. Absolutely lovely. I supposed you could try a playlist - put those are still broken as miserably as they have been for the past few years (with a total random order)

And of course, this being Apple, there is no way to go back to the previous version.

Maybe we can hope (in vain) that they will eventually fix it.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

How Fiction Works

Free Indirect Style. This is one of the key points of fiction, and is mentioned over and over. Unfortunately, I missed the part where he actually defined it.


This short work has a number of small chapters detailing various parts of fiction. Contrasting "classes" in the characters is an area that they author would like to see more of. We also seem to be continuing on the voyage of the Victorian novelists with "realism" playing a fairly dominant role in our society today. Some genres, like thrillers, abstract a few points of suspense that make novels good, while leaving out the "harmony" that makes them rich.

There are a number of small tidbits here written in a fairly accessible manner. It would make a good bathroom. It is tough to say whether it is best applied to the reader or the writer. Though the author does seem to hold "creative writing workshops" in disdain.

Origins of the Human Mind part one

delves in to details about the human mind. It begins by presenting some different means of looking at the mind (from completely chemical to completely ethereal.) Currently, a mixed view is most common.

The lectures spend a lot of time covering the physiology and chemical reactions that help the brain to work. This provides some background for explaining the causes of some mental disorders (and why certain drugs like Ritalin work by stimulating rather than depressing.) Psychological analysis (and even Freud) are also brought in to the picture.

The lectures were engaging, yet this first part seems to be primarily about dumping out factoids related to a lot of material.


The book is filled with droppings of plenty of "technical terms", used in fairly accurate context. Alas, it seems to be filled with "this is what thrillers should contain" content. It was a riveting quick read, yet very unsatisfying. It was also filled with plenty of loose plot ends that had potential, yet were simply tossed aside.

The book centers around the fight against a cyber-terrorist. The catch is that he has just died. He has infected a disparate number of remote computers with news-reading daemons that trigger events based on news articles. The dead guy was a somewhat crazy video game expert who specialized in realistic artificial-intelleigence supported massive roll-playing games. He "post-mortem" creation was the biggest game yet, with the world as a stage. On his death, however, he had to quickly eliminate any of his coworkers that might know about the games. And thus begins the reign of terror.

His terror, however, is portrayed in a somewhat sympathetic light. Sure, he killed a bunch of law-enforcement personnel. However, he warned them about it before hand. He also killed off plenty of spammers and attacked multi-nationals of dubious morals. Is he really bad?

Unfortunately, the author carries things on a little to far. A program written a few years ago may accurately respond to a few narrow events in the immediate future, but a few years down the road? And what are the odds that the system would stay unified under that force? What about the other wonderkidz out there that decide they want to have the power of the daemon - only they don't want to die first.

That is only the beginning of the holes that could be found. That, alas, is a symptom of sloppy writing in order to get across a point. If you disregard plausibility, the novel does have some good points to ponder. Are we putting too much control in electronic systems. We often assume that the digital system is accurate, but they are just bits that could be easily modified. And the outsourcing of services further distances the users of the information from those that are maintaining it. This leaves open more points of susceptibility. However, are we willing to pay the extra costs to reduce the possibility of some things happening?

The audiobook was well done, with the daemon and its "computer minions" vocalized nicely with just enough supporting audio to bring about the points without becoming tiring. Alas, that still didn't help the ending (which just seemed to bring out a "huh?")

The author appears to be well tied in to the world of information technology and gaming. These make for a reliable setting for the novel. This seems good fodder for a "brainless" summer blockbuster. Key the special effects and turn off the brain and all is good.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

One of Our Thursdays in Missings

Thursday Next makes nothing more than a cameo appearance in this most recent book in the Thursday Next series. Instead her "written self" is the protagonist. She finds herself mysteriously engaged in a quest to resolve a cab crash, find the "real" Thursday and prevent a book world war. The story takes places almost entirely in the book world, with only a brief sojourn in to the "real" world. (Hmm, I guess this had to be done to keep the plot from getting too far off.)

Alas, the story devolves to a fairly standard mystery, with only a slightly bizarre setting (the book world) and a bit of self-awareness to set it apart. It lacks some of craziness of the early books in the series and seems to be an attempt at moving the series to a more serious branch. It is not bad, but not nearly as original as the earlier books. Perhaps he has just ran out of originality and just stuck with a slight twist on the existing world.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

First Among Sequels

This takes place more than a decade after the previous book. Thursday Next is now a middle-aged mother of teenagers. The government is functioning well, though people are worried about the stupidity surplus. There is also some crazy time travel stuff going on. (Time travel has not yet been invented, but it is used because people know it will be invented.)

While this book has plenty of Fforde's zaniness, it is more of a "thriller" than the other books in the series. Thursday spends much of the book battling with her evil "fictional self". This fictional self even assumes her identity, leading to some confusing interactions. Fforde continues to do a create job blending "real" and "fictional" characters, with an all around self-awareness. There is also plenty of the not-explained paradoxes (like time travel) that are explained just enough for them to work in the story, even without having much of a chance of being really feasible.

Conference action and reaction

The Pac-10 proposing adding half the Big-12 to form a mega conference.
The Mountain West finally reacts to his by adding Boise State
Pac-10 adds Utah and Colorado to form the Pac-12
The Big-10 acts to add Nebraska
BYU proposes to become independent in football and WAC in other sports
Mountain West reacts by grabbing the Hawaii, Nevada and Fresno from WAC
BYU goes independent anyway and joins WCC in all other sports
TCU leaves Mountain West for Big East
Syracuse and Pitt bolt Big East for ACC
Texas A&M leaves Big-12 for SEC
TCU joins Big-12 instead of Big East
Mountain West and Conference USA merge football operations
Big East proposes pilfering Air Force and Boise from MWC, UCF, Houston and SMU from CUSA and independent Navy.

Who's the winner so far? TCU. They are now getting more money in a geographically closer conference.
Colorado and Nebraska are are washes. They were geographical outliers in the Big-12. They are now outliers in the Pac-12 and Big-10. They have moved from a train-wreck of a major conference to more stable conferences.
Utah also moved up to a much more prestigious conference. They fit in the conference's geographic footprint. However, they lose many of the nearby rivals from the mountain west.
Texas A&M, Syracuse and Pitt all left a mess of a "major" conference for another one with more stability. They are arguably in the footprint, but are much more outliers now.

As for the conferences, the MWC and Big East show the problems with dillydallying. Boise was rumored to join the MWC for a long time before they finally got the invite. It finally came right before Utah left. And Hawaii, Fresno and Nevada were gut reactions to BYU's departure. What if they would have all came earlier? Then the conference may have renogatiated the TV deal and been in a position of power.

The conference USA merger had also been rumored for a long time before it happened. What if MWC and CUSA merged before the conference shuffling?  Perhaps they could have aligned their football in two subconferences, with the "major" and "midmajor" division. They would be more in a position to poach the Big-East than the other way around.

As for the Big East, they had talked about adding teams for a year, but not much happened. Schools like Navy would have jumped at the opportunity years ago, but now they are hesitant. What will happen?

And the whole Missouri question.

What could be some possible outcomes?

Missouri could dart for the SEC and the Big-12 stays at 9 - at least for a season. This would give Texas an opening to schedule a yearly A and M rivalry game. (No excuses here!) However, it might help the Big East to survive.

I do hope the Big East dies. They have been an embarrassment to the BCS. However, Boise might find the prospect of a sure BCS bowl to good to miss - even if it is only for a season or two. However, it does not seem like it will help them much. They have pretty much gone to the BCS most years when they have won. Perhaps a better solution would be for the BCS to guarantee a BCS game for the top 6 ranked conference champions - provided they meet the at large criteria. This could prevent the ugliness of the Big East stinkers, while still providing a slot when they do have good teams.

Sensation, Perception and the Aging Process

At the start, he acknowledges that he is a biological psychologist. Thus, these lectures focus on the physiology of our senses.

The discussion of touch brings about the "terrorist" aspects of our society. Young children need a lot of physical touch. However, day care providers are paranoid of liability ad molestation charges, and are thus reluctant to give it. With kids stuck more hours in day care, this can lead to them growing up with a messed up psychological state. Hmmm... And that could lead to them being the people we were scared of in the first place. Ahh, the vicious circle.

The discussion of possible hearing and seeing problems are scaring. Those pesky cars hurting our hearing! Why can't we live in a nice quieter life. As for seeing, well, at least I am lucky that m ocular degeneration is actually improving my vision - at least for now.

There were also plenty of other useful tidbits. Women have a better sense of smell than men - and they tend to lose it at an older age. Smell is actually a very powerful identification sense that has, alas, been hidden away in our society.

These was a well delivered course with many great bits of physiological insights in to human senses and their degradation through aging.

Books that made history

Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life is an awful attempt at indoctrination. He uses the literary selections to try to push his ideology.

I've listened to many Teaching Company courses, and this is easily one of the worst. A red flag should quickly go up when Nazis are mentioned after many literary works discussed.

I felt like the lecturer was talking down to the audience. He would summarize a work, and then describe why it should be important. The books discuss "profound" themes, and thus they should be considered great. He gives us the "appropriate" interpretation of the works, and why they should be important for us. Usually this importance has something to do with World War II.

Since he spends so much time summarizing, there is little direct incentive to actually read the works discussed. (After all, he gives the summary and the "meaning" we are supposed to get out of it.) However, in books that I have read recently, I have had interpretations vastly different than his. Perhaps the incentive is there to just figure out how he managed to mess up the interpretation of other works.

There are plenty of other "great books" audio courses out there that are much better. I would reccomend A Way With Words, Part II: Approaches to Literature It lacks the forced interpretation and does a better job of inspiring an interest in literature.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Way With Words II: Approaches to Literature

A Way With Words II: Approaches to Literature

This continuation of the Way With Words series focuses on literature. A good junk of the early lecture is spent discussing language in general. However, here, the focus is on language use as it pertains to literature (he has other courses that provide greater detail.)

He provides a fairly balanced approach to the discussion of literature. He tends to view literature as good or bad on its own. However, he acknowledges some benefits of the narrow analysis by feminists, postmodernists and the like. (He provides examples of how they have opened up new ways of understanding along with ways they have seemed to go off the deep end on analysis.)

The discussion of the literary canon provides another area for controversial views. (Though he does not go the most controversial route in declaring a canon) Are we biased in what we consider to be important? Of course. But, if everyone else is biased, we need to understand that also.

Literature is about the feelings and "truths" that can be only told with the "lies". Some writers have a greater technical mastery than others. Some write about topics that seem to be more important or valuable. However, all of these things can be subject to personal views. Even if people with an agenda push certain literature (or attempt to blacklist other literature), there are some works that will achieve widespread appreciation.

But, something different may be more meaningful to you.

Thus is literature.

Something Rotten

This Thursday Next book provides more back-story and could "stand alone" better than some of the earlier novels. The narrator takes time to give us her background and briefly explain why she is in certain situations.

Thursday Next continues on her time-traveling, alternative history, literary detective work, all while taking care of her two-year old son (who was born in spite of his father being eradicated.) Eventually she gets the husband back, though he flickers in and out of existence for a bit before he is fully restored. And she also discovers that her "granny" is actually herself far in the future, living out the terms of a punishment. And a 13th century saint appears to cash in a bet for accurate predictions, including a seemingly impossible croquet match victory. Neither the author nor the characters understand how or why some of these things happen, they just happen. (Can you really call this science fiction? I dunno, but avoiding the explanation does keep things interesting.)

Ffforde also takes plenty of stabs at politicians and business. There are shows where the political figures earn points for evading questions, answering with half truths, and doing all the things that they are so good at doing. (Does this make it a post-modern world where people are fully aware of their idiocy? Or does the fact that they still vote based on the perceptions mean that they are not self aware? Or are they so self aware that they feel obligated to vote that way? Does it even matter?)

One politician (Kaine) is attempting to proclaim himself dictator. In attempt to whip up support, who has made the Danish in to enemy number one. Atrocities committed a millennium ago by the Vikings are used as means of building up anti-Danish sentiment. The people all fall in line with the propaganda stream. Soon they are all willing to burn books by Danish authors and restrict rights of anyone Danish. Could xenophobia run this rampant in the real world? (It does seem that most successful empires have had a multitude of ethnicities. If an enemy has a hope of joining you, then he may be less willing to fight. However, if your people have no hope of becoming one of the enemy, they have even more incentive to demonize and destroy.)

Kaine is actually a fictional character from a self-published romance novel written by a Danish author. Thus, by destroying all the books, he also has a means of preventing people from "discovering" him and sending him back to literature. Do two wrongs make a right?

Kaine is also partnering with the Goliath Corporation to obtain power. They both use a proximity mind-control device in order to control the masses. (Hmm... we could call this charisma.) Kaine readily awards no-bid contracts to Goliath. The big corporation, however, is undone by the return of the old saint. After Swindon wins the croquet cup, the saint wins his bet, and ends up with majority ownership of the company. However, he had been hit by a bus, so the ownership ended up going to the toast marketing board, and Armageddon was avoided. And there was also the Minotaur infected with slapstick who ends up accidentally saving the heroine, and "limbo" which is a rest area off a motorway, and plenty of other goodness.

The book is a product of an imagination gone wild. Many of the bizarre premises seem to follow quite logically from the other bizarre situations. There are a few serious messages in there, but those could even by seen as accidental in the face of the very British form of humor.

And with the title and Danish demonizing, do I have to mention that a self-doubting Hamlet plays an important role in the book?


I like to listen to a lot of audiobooks, often while doing chores or out breaking a sweat. The headphones tend to get stuffed in a pocket, get caught on a shelf, and suffer all kinds of abuse.
For headphones, there seem to be a few different categories:
For less than $5, you can get "junk" headphones. These will play back the audio, in a recognizable form, though with discernible quality loss. They wont be able to reach the volume of some other headphones and are more likely to suffer mechanical difficulties.

At around $10, there are "good" headphones. These provide good quality playback and don't need to be cranked all the way up to hear everything.

Above $10, the really nice headphones come in. For listening to audiobooks, these don't really provide much advantage.

I've tried to make sense of the stats, companies just don't seem to be consistent in what they list. It seems that low impedance is better. However, it seems the most valuable is the type of magnet. The neodynium ones are good, while the ferrite tend to be junk. But perhaps just settling on the $10 pair is the way to go.

Sony MDR-J10:
Sony MDR-J10
Driver Unit : 13.5mm
Frequency Response : 20Hz - 20,000Hz
Impedance : 16 ohms
Sensitivity (db) : 104dB/mW
Power Handling Capacity : 1,000mW (EIA)

On the box, these were different::
Power handling: 50 mW (IEC)
Impedence: 16 ohms at 1kHz
Frequency Response: 18 -22,000Hz

Power Handling Capacity : 50mW
Driver Unit : 13.5mm
Frequency Response : 18Hz - 22,000Hz
Impedance : 16 ohms
Sensitivity (db) : 104dB/mW
Magnet Type : Neodymium
These are some of my favorites. They have been durable, and survived an accidental thrashing at Chuck-E-Cheese, numerous falls, and plenty of sweat. The volume range and sound quality are both good, and they stay in the ear well. One pair finally died after the iPod took one too many falls. (Something in the cable seemed to cause the right one to lose strength.)

Sentry 3-pack (walmart)
Headphones Type: Headphones - binaural
Connectivity Technology: Wired
Sound Output Mode: Stereo
Impedance: 32 Ohm
Response Bandwidth: 20 - 20000 Hz
This was a three pack for $10. Junk. The quality and volume range were not great, but the sound quality was ok. All three ones ended up falling apart in various ways. (The over the ear ones actual broke before first use.)

iPod headphones
Frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz
Impedance: 32 ohms
magnet: neodymium
From the listed specs, these are identical to the wallmart ones above. However, in actuality, they have a crisper sound, and a better volume range. They were also more durable. I think a set made it about 6 months before the casing had fallen off and sound quality deteriorated.

Philips headphones (target)
Frequency Response : 12Hz-22kHz
Sensitivity : 103dB
Magnet Type : Neodymium
Impedance : 16 ohms
These are ok. They are better than the junk headphones, but don't have quite the volume range of the Sony. They also lost part of the outer casing for one ear before I remember using them. They are now in storage as back-up headphones.

Maxell PL-1 cheapies (walmart)
Impedance: 32 ohms
Frequency Response: 20-23,000Hz
Anisotropic Ferrite magnet
These are cheapies. They worked for a little while, but didn't have the volume response of others.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Well of Lost Plots

This third book in the Thursday Next series introduces many of the characters and themes from Fforde's nursery crimes series. In this novel, the protagonist is in "hiding" in the book world, as her husband has been "eradicated" in the external world. In the book world, she participates in a character exchange program (where she meets up with the nursery crimes characters.) She also completes her training for a book-world police force (under the apprenticeship of Great Expectations Miss Havesham.) In the process, she manages to defeat the mind manipulations of Hades's sister and regain the memories of her eradicated husband. She also helps to defeat the "new" improved book version, which, among other deficiencies uses "robo-written" stock characters and has a "three-read" limit. Hmm. This seems to be a not so subtle hit on the evils of digital rights management and the deficiencies of widespread information availability. With so much information readily available today, it is easy to go directly to what you know you like. Unfortunately, this also means you miss out on many instances of serendipity where you discover something different than you were seeking. The digital rights controls (and even digital encoding mechanisms) also make it more difficult for you to share. (If you and I both read English, I could let you borrow my book. However, even if Amazon permits it, I couldn't let you borrow my kindle book unless you had a device that could read it.) DRM makes it even worse, restricting the sharing that could be done. The result is that you get stuck in the narrow realm that you are familiar. Writers are encouraged to churn out content similar to what has sold. I've read multiple works by authors that I found to be "good". They weren't great, but were decent, and it was easily possible to get all their works. The ease of getting at it actually made it more difficult to discover others that were possibly better. Back to the story, this novel further blurs the line between "real" and "fiction". Characters jump around novels and move from novels to real life. The characters in novels have personalities and lives outside the novel. and sometimes want to change things. There are also "misspelling" viruses, word storms and punctuation thieves. All provide plenty of action for the literary police force. And then there are auctions of characters from torched manuscripts, generic characters, and real people hanging out in the fictional world. It all makes for plenty of fun.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Jungle

I had managed to avoid reading the Jungle through school. However, I had read plenty about it, about how it was an example of muckraking journalism that exposed the horrible conditions in meat-packing plants and the vile filth that has being passed off as meat. However, the actual novel was much different. Compared to modern "food" literature, like Fast Food Nation, this novel is rather tame. We hear about "sick" animals being passed off as meat, and second hand stories of workers becoming part of animal products. Now we have mad-cow diseased, E. coli and Salmonella, along with horrid conditions for immigrant laborers in the food-production industries. Hmm.. Guess things haven't changed much. But, at least the children of the jungle immigrants can now get fat at McDonalds while toiling in light-service jobs. The main focus was the struggle of an immigrant man in an oppressive system. He tries honest labor. His wife and child die. He tries the freedom of hoboing around the country. He tries being a party hack and a criminal. He even tries being a strike-breaker. No matter how much success he has, he is eventually beaten down. Finally, he stumbles in to a socialist meeting and finds his nirvana. This would make a nice pro-socialist ending, but the novel keeps going and rambles on and on about socialist ideology. And, then, socialism doesn't seem that good after all. Oops, maybe it would have been best to stop when ahead. The first part of the novel is fairly believable. However, as the novel goes on, the coincidences and chance happenings greatly stretch the limits of credibility. (He just happens to run in to a rich, drunk boy who invites him to dinner and gives him $100? And he runs in to a "budy" in prison that is willing to lead him on a life of crime?) With just a few of the events in story, it would have remained within the realm of the possible. But with so many, it strains the imagination.

Lost World

Mr. Sherlock Holmes also explored the "adventure" genre popularized by the likes of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. In this story, the journalist narrator joins with a scientist on a quest to a remote part of South America to verify the presence of dinosaurs. They succeed, but purposely hide their tracks so others will not follow. And they also manage to release a pterodactyl out over London. It is well written and engaging, and even reminds me of Chrichton's (much later) Lost World. The plot is tied together with the story of the journalist who's girlfriend does not want to commit because he does not seem brave and adventurous. This drives him to volunteer for the adventure - only to return home to find the girl already married. He then decides adventures are better than lame girls. There are also a number of holes left open. The scientist that leads them to the "lost world" seems to look a lot like the "ape men" they encounter (and be on speaking terms with them.) Are we to imply that he is one of them? And if it is so easy for them to go in and out of the world (including using a tunnel provided by the "savage" humans) why have not more creatures escaped from this lost world? Oh well, its just a century-old escapist yarn, should we even expect plausible science?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Starman Jones

A young boy gets a new "step-step-father" who decides to sell the family farm and everything they own. The boy decides to run away, with dreams of becoming an "astrogator". He manages to sneak on to a ship as a low-level crew, eventually managing to become an apprentice astrogator. His chief supporter dies of natural causes leaving him more at the mercies of the evil junior astrogator and the past-his-prime captain. These to miscalculate some numbers as they were trying a difficult jump and disregard the boy's correction, leaving them stranded in space. They land on a planet with a livable climate, with seemingly peaceful creatures. However, these creatures try to enslave them, and they realize they must escape. Meanwhile, the other astrogators die and the boy is responsible for returning the ship home through uncharted space. He manages to do this, but still gets fined by the astrogators guild. He does get to keep his post, though he opts for bachelorhood rather than marrying the rich girl from the ship. Ok, so what's the point? It seems to aimed at boys fascinated with technology and space travel who feel tied down with their current surroundings. The boy in this story was content with his life as a farmer, even though he had used his photographic memory to memorize everything needed to travel in space. He eventually achieves his glory, but still has to deal with the challenges of society. There is also the political "anti-union" message. The guilds and unions put in a lot of needless restrictions and inhibitions on people achieving what they are capable of achieving. Even though he was capable of navigating a ship through uncharted space without assistance, he was still fined and forced to resume the role of junior astrogator. What kind of justice is that? We also see a society with 1950s style division of labor and values, along with concerns of regulations and land "takings" Old science fiction also provides an interesting look at how bad we are at predicting the future. Here people use slide rules and lookup tables to calculate binary values to feed to computers so they can fly through remote galaxies. Technology has shifted on a slightly different trajectory.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lost in a Good Book

This novel has a plot - something about saving the world from destruction and finding a kidnapped husband. But as with other Jasper Fforde books, that is only of minor importance. What matters is all the tidbits and sideplots that flow in and out. Thursday Next is a special agent that inhabits an alternate world, similar, but different to our own. In the previous book, she was married. Now she is pregnant. But, the Goliath corporation does not like some things that she has done so they had some time travelers erradicate her husband. She also finds herself constantly in trouble at work and with the law. However, she has also apprenticed herself with Great Expectations Miss Haveshim and is getting better at traveling in and out of books. She also runs in to other coincidences, does some time traveling and even traps a supreme bad being. She does not manage to find her husband. However, she can have conversations with him in her thoughts. Unfortunately, she also sees an olf bad guy (Hades) that she destroyed there also. Hades sister had plotted to destroy the world by letting a nanotech sweetmaker get lose. This thing will, alas, consume all organic matter to produce the sugary topping, thus destroying the world. Luckily, Thursday's father comes in to take it away to the beginning of the earth where it helps start life. And there are also bits about the restoration of a lost Shakespeare manuscript and the Chesire cat, a Kafka-esque court, and plenty of other bizarre goodness. Each scene could stand on its own. However, there is plenty of "glue" and continued experiences that add to the entertainment value.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Adams vs. Jefferson

Adams and Jefferson were friends who found themselves separated by the birth of political parties. Adams is portrayed as the erudite conservative who lives within his means and desires to cling to old traditions. Jefferson comes across as the brash Hollywood type who appeals to the masses, while at the same time holding slaves, philandering and consuming significantly beyond his means. Though the book is about the election of 1800, the majority of the time is spent covering the earlier history of these political figures, with the actually election only appearing at the end of the book. This gives time ample time to cover Adam's presidency, with Jefferson serving as the vice-president. The 1800 election is informative in that allowed for a peaceful transition of power from one faction to another. With the tied Republican election decided in the Federalist house, there were plenty of chances for anarchy and political shenanigans to take over. But somehow, it all worked out. (And the constitution was soon reworked to allow for the inevitable political parties. The book provides a nice account of these men as people of their time. Alexander Hamilton also comes across as a man "behind" much of the extreme Federalist ideals - and somebody that is feared by Adams and Jefferson alike. In the end, after their presidencies, Adams and Jefferson rekindled their friendship via mail, and both died on the 4th of July.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Boise State to the SEC

Today, Texas A&M was officially welcomed as a 13th member of the SEC. Now they just need to add Boise to get to 14. The current "future" membership of the top 7 football conferences: Big East: 7 (- Pitt, Syracuse, + TCU) Big 12: 9 (- Texas A&M) ACC: 14 (+ Pitt, Syracuse) SEC: 13 (+ Texas A&M) Mountain West: 10 (+Fresno, Hawaii, Nevada, - TCU) Big 10: 12 Pac-12: 12 The odd numbers could be the most concern. The Big-12 is probably the least "in need" of expansion. After all, there was no real "loss" in television market with A&Ms departure. Prior to this season, the schools were all scheduling 4 non-conference games, so it would just be a switch back to there. The Big-12 also has lawsuit-happy Baylor. Would a team really want to risk being stuck there based on the whims of Baylor? Even worse, with the conference going through two consecutive seasons on the brink of extinction, would it be worth the risk to join? The Big East, however, could be desperate. Seven teams does not seem like a conference. With Connecticut, Rutgers and West Virginia looking for the exit door, TCU could easily get cold feet. (How would that feel to finally get to an AQ conference, only to have the conference yanked from under them?) They need to make some bold expansion moves fast. Perhaps the ACC should just invite some combination of the three and put the Big East out of its misery. TCU could then find its way back to the MWC or perhaps the Big-12. Thirteen is an unlucky number, so the SEC needs to act quickly to add another team. How about Boise State? The constant knock on BSU is that they can win a big game, but couldn't make it in the weekly grind of the SEC. Why not give them a chance to prove it? They are a name brand with a good following. They are located nowhere near the southeast, have a smaller stadium and smaller reputation than any of the SEC teams, but would make for some interesting football games. Even better yet, they could do something similar to international soccer and have some spots reserved for "top programs" from outside the SEC. If they win, they stay in the conference. If they lose, they are "relegated" back to their old conference. For now, they could grab Boise, along with a couple other "top" teams. (say some combination of East Carolina, Houston, Central Florida, BYU and Navy). They finish in the top half of the conference, they stay. They finish in the bottom half, they are gone. During this time, they "remain" a member of their old conference in other sports, and share some of their "bounty" with the home conference. If they enjoy a long period of SEC success, they may get invited to stay. Otherwise, they simply get rotated out. This scenario can be a win-win for everyone. The SEC gets the quality opponents with extended media markets. It also reduces the chance of great teams bolting for competitive conferences. The mid-major conferences get the showcase their top teams. These teams get the access they have been craving. (They can win the SEC and become national champions with their work on the field.) The increased interest should produce a cash cow. The rolling nature of the agreement provides greater access and money for many schools without harming the take of the "established powers". While the farm system may be a great idea, there are probably plenty of other realignment moves we will see first. Which conference will be the next one to act? If the Big East does not pull something quickly, it will be in danger of extinction. Will some of the conference USA teams by willing to "move up". (Maybe it wasn't such a good thing to boot Temple.) Or perhaps the Big East will decide it is not worth it and throw in the towel on football. It can return to a mostly religious school basketball league (similar to the WCC out west.) Connecticut and Rutgers will with the ACC, WVU the SEC, with the others knocking on the door of Conference USA for a chance back in. The BCS bid can float in the ether, giving another at-large bid. Or, better yet, it can become a "floating" bid, guaranteed to the top-ranked conference champion or independent, thereby ameliorating BCS critics, while still keeping the big-money open.

Friday, September 23, 2011

What can the Mountain West pull off?

For the second year in a row, the Big-12 managed to emerge from the brink of extinction. The Big East just lost two of its football programs. Last season, the Mountain West invited a new school to join, only to lose another school a couple days later. Then the conference attempted a raid on the WAC in a failed attempt to prevent a defection of another school. They later added another former WAC school as a football only member. Then another MWC team announced a defection to the Big East. But, the conference is still a "has been", the best of the "mid-majors" conferences. Can the conference jump in to the realm of the big boys and become a BCS automatic qualifier? I'd bet if the Pac-10's Larry Scott were running things, that would already be the case. Instead, we have rumours of the Big East trying to poach more programs. The Big East? Yes, schools would fly across the country to play football teams that usually rank worse than the Mountain West. But there is more, they get to send all their other programs out there. Sure, its a top notch basketball conference, but do all athletes really need to go out there? And what of these rumors of Air Force going to the Big East in football only? Ugh. Could the MWC engineer a BCS-sharing mechanism? Partner with the Big East to have a "playoff" between the best team in each conference for the BCS spot. Both conferences get the benefit of the extra money of the playoff game. The MWC gets the advantage of guaranteed access. However, the Big East stands to lose by requiring the money to be split among the additional MWC teams. But, if the Big East can be convinced they will lose the autobid soon, this could work. TCU could be a wildcard here. If they dart to the Big-12 (which makes a lot more sense than the Big East, or even MWC), then the Big East would need to struggle just to call itself a football conference. Adding Navy and possibly army could help a bit. However, beyond that, you start to hit the baggage. Would the basketball members really want an East Carolina or UCF? And why does a conference made up of former Conference USA members deserve the bid? If they suddenly become better due to the BCS money, it just goes to show further problems with the system. On the other hand, maybe the Big East will get gutsy. With Connecticut, Rutgers and West Virginia all showing wandering eyes, the conference needs some big names. How about plucking Boise State in football only? If the MWC objects, they may seek a "soft landing" in the WAC for the other sports. Add in BYU and Navy, and the conference does not look half bad. Doesn't really look "east", but when the Big 10 has 12 teams and the Big 12 has 9 or 10, it is right for the course in college sports. Which conference will pull it off? We should know within a year or two...


An old guy is near death, and we get to travel back to early 20th century America to learn about his life. I didn't find much of value in most of the novel until near the end when it started to become intriguing. We learn about how he snuck off from his family and started a new life, but kept coming back to check in on them. Then the novel suddenly ends right as it is starting to get good. Oh well, at least it was short.

Lost Symbol

The Lost Symbol works well as a thriller. However, it spends a little too much time trying to breach Dan Brown's version of Deism. In this story, the famed "symbologist", Robert Langdon gets a call to urgently come to Washington D.C. to fill in for a lecturer who couldn't make it to a very important lecture. However, this turns out to be a charade to get him to help unravel some deep secrets held by the Masons. The plot goes through a number of different twists and turns, with plenty of impressive escapes before the world is saved. Then it rambles on for a number of chapters on philosophy. Being a modern thriller, the hero runs in to a some archetypal government agents, and (of course) manages to get connected with a heroine who is at his side for much of the quest. He barely manages to escape many close encounters, but also manages to get caught a few times when we think he is on the verge of escaping. There is just enough variety to keep things interested without being too predictable (or too over the top.) The Masons are portrayed sympathetically, and the philosophical ramblings seem to espouse the masonic view as preferable to mainstream science and religion. (However, you have to wonder how well that represents what the Masons really think.) Just about every Washington D.C. conspiracy theory imaginable finds its way in to this book, along with plenty of geographical details of the city. (This would make it interesting for anyone very familiar with the area.) However, where the book excels is in the action. Unfortunately, a little too much additional time is used to "preach", distracting from a good story.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Conflicts that Shaped Pharonic Egypt

Conflicts That Shaped Pharaonic Egypt

These lectures provide a general history of Egypt from the pre-historical dominance of upper Egypt, going all the way to the crusades. Unfortunately, there is little cohesive narrative, with long digressions in to archaeological findings interspersed with attempts at storytelling. The delivery also has a lot to be desired. It is obvious the professor is reading rather than "lecturing" and his intonation can make it difficult to focus.

The Golden Man

In a future world, "mutants" are seen as a menace. Most or filtered and eliminated at birth. However, an elite squad is in place to hunt down and exterminate any that manage to slip through the cracks. One agent masquerades as a salesman near Walnut Creek and managed to uncover a stray comment about a stray mutant on a nearby farm. They capture the mutant (who is a beautiful "golden" man") and bring him in for investigation and potential extermination. He doesn't communicate. However, he seems to be able to avoid any attempts to fire weapons at him. They discover that he can see shortly in to the future just as we can see the present. Eventually, he uses this "power" to find his path to escape. The people then worry that he will seduce other women and eventually spread his genes, potentially becoming the post-human dominant race. Has the ability of "intelligence" reached its apex, to be replaced by this reflexive, future-seeing species. The novella is very much written in Dick's style. I enjoy the 1950s few of San Francisco suburbia. (dusty farms in Walnut Creek are a little harder to come by today.) The thought of another species with a set of enhanced skills in one area that can supplant other, possibly superiod development is interesting. It has often been carried out in a smaller scale socially. (Betamax, anyone?) Could we see it apply to a species? However, the story was underdeveloped, and spent more time explaining the situations than actually presenting them for the reader to explain.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Can the Big East Be Saved?

The founder of the Big East conference recently died. And at the same time, his conference was dealt a critical blow. With Pitt and Syracuse on their way out to the ACC can the Big East conference be saved? Would anybody want to latch on now in its fallen state?

The conference does still have the reigning men's basketball champ. Even with the losses of two power basketball programs, it remains one of the marquee basketball conferences.

However, football is hanging by life support. With TCU coming on board, they would be left with just 7 football teams. West Virginia is the only one that has a significant long-term national reputation.

A number of schools, such as UCF, are eager to move up to the ranks of the "BCS" leagues. However, should the league implode, or lose its BCS auto-bid, things could be even worse for them. They may want to play it slow.

The first step would be to get some of the football independents on speed dial. Notre Dame would be the obvious coup. They have an interest in having a place to park their non-football sports. They may be willing to add football to help save the league. Or they may just decided to jump to the Big-10.

Navy is in the right geographical footprint, and could easily join as a football-only school. They have a large following and a record of recent success that would help with the BCS standings.

BYU is a new independent with recent football success and a national following. They are not close, but they are eager for the cachet that being in an auto-bid conference would give them. By joining in football only, they get the advantage without having to undo their recent paring of sports in the WCC. If things don't go well, they can go back to being independent.

Hawaii could be another alternative. Their football team is separate from the other sports and may be willing to move. Geographically, it would be a huge mess, but a trip from connecticut to Hawaii in November doesn't sound all that bad.

The football only schools would help strengthen the BCS credentials of the conference, without adding to the large number of basketball only schools. However, there are still basketball schools that need to be replaced, especially if Connecticut also leaves.

This is where the Big-12 comes in. Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor. Invite them now. If Oklahoma jumps ship, have the press conference within the hour. Or better yet, have them join before. That way the Big East is on the offensive and can have more latitude with other schools.

In basketball, the big east is already the first "superconference." Will it stay so in football?

Saturday, September 17, 2011


A girl tells a boy she will give him anything he wants if he finds the fallen star. He goes on a quest to find it. He enters a magical world of fairyland and eventually finds that the star is a girl. In the process he has all sorts of magical adventures.

We returns and finds the girl is engaged - and in fact had been so since their initial conversation. She had thought she had led him on a futile quest. However, she has not been married, and saved herself to marry him since he had completed the quest. He contemplated the situation and decided that since she had promised him what he wanted, he would like her to marry the other guy.

He instead, marries the fallen star, and discovers that he is also only half human (and half magical). Due to other deaths, they now had the right to rule fairyland. However, they left a regent in place (who they had helped free in the adventures), while they embarked on a large honeymoon tour. When returned, they decided she was doing a good job, and let her continue to rule while the continued exploring.

This is a fantasy book and really hard to get in to.

Google: The End of the World as we Know It

Another book on the rise of the Google juggernaut. I wonder how these will look a few decades from now? Will Google crash and burn? Or will it continue to maintain its strong influence? I can see some parallels to Xerox or even Bell Labs from a few decades back. Both companies had cash-cows that were gushing in money, and used that to invest in great engineering research. Some of the many modern technologies like the mouse and graphical user interface came from these sources. However, the companies failed to take advantage of these, and eventually, the companies faltered when their mainline business gradually eroded.

This book doesn't consider the eventual fall of Google. Instead, it is concerned with the fall of media companies at the hands of the internet. Google is often seen as a "frenemy". It is trying to play nice, however, the forces are taking away the markets where old media had thrived. Google eliminated many of the inefficiencies that allowed old media to charge top dollar. While some respond by attacking Google, the smart companies are the ones that adapt. However, it is difficult. Most advertising is going online. However, online advertising only brings in 10% of what newspaper advertising does. How can newspapers survive? How can movies, music and books survive in the internet age?

The book posits many of the questions, but does not provide many answers. It does, however, provide plenty of biographical sketches and snippets in to the lives of (mostly former) googlers. It also has the somewhat self-introspective view of media writing about troubles facing media. Journalism is seen as a vital resource. The collaboration in true journalism is lost in blogging. How can this be maintained, even if the whole business of newspapers cannot? Perhaps an ASCAP for news articles? Or maybe micropayments? These are mentioned by the book, but no solution is given.

The book flows fairly well, and gets us to Google in late 2009. It doesn't go very far in depth with the company, but provides enough details of major issues to keep things interesting.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Icons of the Iron Age

Icons of the Iron Age: The Celts in History

She says "um" a lot. Whenever I focused on the word "um", I was too destacted to pay attention to the actual narrative. It is interesting how you can simply plot out an overly repeated word.

The story here is primarily an archaeological history. We hear a catalog of artwork and styles, with a little bit of linguistic analysis. What is lacking, however, is a narrative of the Celts and how they lived and evolved. Part of this may be caused by the lack of detailed knowledge of their life. (And this is compounded by arguments over who is actually a Celt, with the Irish and British Celts seemingly not originally being Celts.) The stories of warlike people may be exaggerated, due to the "war" settings in which they were encountered. (Similarly the "feminist" and pro-gay views may also be exaggerations or extrapolations based on limited or potentially misleading data. In the end, we really don't know a whole lot about them.


Similar to his Devil in the White City, Larson ties together the story of somebody's monumental achievement and another person's major crime. In this book, we learn of the gruesome exploits of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen along with the wireless achievements of Marconi.

The story of Crippen is told in a sympathetic manner. Not until the end, does he come across as a killer. I was wondering early on in the story which of the characters would be the actual killer. (The doctor was one of the last one's suspected.)

Marconi's adventures were also well-done, portraying the story of an inventor and shrewd businessman, who alas had some social difficulties. We feel for his obsession with trans-oceanic radio communication - even as he goes down numerous false paths. We also see his secretiveness and willingness to borrow from others, while being reluctant to share himself.

The novel provides a great deal of background for the characters and the early 1900s culture that they lived in. The final "murder" happens quickly with a trans-Atlantic boat chase enabled by Marconi's in-boat wireless communication. We also get a small coda of how Marconi was supposed to travel on the titanic, but a last minute change of plans prevented it.

The novel was very engaging, with the pacing providing numerous details, yet still moving along quickly.

Double Helix

It is tough to get involved with this book. The characters seem to be all caught up in some emotional wrongs, yet at the same time it is hard to feel sympathy towards them. Little attention was paid to details (tennis scoring anyone?), and the genetic basis seems somewhat plausible, but not very convincing. The characters also seem to come across as "what an adult would think teenagers would be if they could do what they want". Aside from all the plot and character issues, the book does move along well with some suspenseful pacing. If only the endgame of the suspense were something worth waiting for.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Apple's mothership

Apple has posted the plans for its new spaceship campus.
Architecturally it is original, but for the community it has a lot to be desired. Part of the charm with Apple in Cupertino is that the buildings are scattered throughout the neighborhood. Even the Infinite Loop headquarters building is connected by a pedestrian sidewalk to a junior high school and a residential neighborhood.

The new campus, however, falls victim to ugly car-central pseudo-eco development. The campus is somewhat isolated from living areas, and tries to make itself even more isolated. Sure, there is a lot of green space, but there is also a huge fence around the campus cutting off any public access to it.

And the plans include cutting off a section of Pruneridge to make a disconnected fenced-in path. Sure, greening over a street may be nice, but the least you could do is make a public path.

Perhaps a bigger question is whether or not this building will ever get built. Sure, Apple is on a nice upward trajectory now. But Apple was doing fairly well after Jobs was fired in the mid-80s, only to stagnate for a decade before the iPod came out. With one of the largest market-caps around (with a relative low valuation), is there much room for upward growth?

Perhaps Apple's growth will stall while the building is in the approval process, and it will be scaled down (or never built.)

Or maybe it will be built, with Apple needing every bit of space, as they sit on a cash hoard bigger than the US national debt.

Or maybe they will really vacate all the leased building, turning Cupertino in to an office ghost town - or perhaps leading to a startup boom in the city.

Tune in a few years from now to see how it plays out.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Losing by winning?

Stanford and Boise State both had decisive wins in the first week of college football. However, they both saw their chances at a national championship take a hit.

TCU lost to Baylor, taking the luster off of Boise's other future marque matchup.

Oregon fell hard to LSU, while Notre Dame lost to USF. There go a couple BCS-quality opponents. Then there was Oregon State's loss to an FCS team. But Oregon State always does poorly at the start of the season, so they may be able to recover.

Perhaps Georgia goes on to win the SEC, giving Boise a real shot at a national championship rematch. Oregon, Notre Dame and TCU could all find their way back to the top-10, their early season losses quietly disregarded.

Or we could just see another SEC champion...

Wednesday, September 07, 2011


College sports currently has a 12 team "Big-10" conference and a 10 team "Big-12" conference. You would think that by college people would at least learn how to count.

But that is just the beginning. Texas A&M is on its way out - or so it thinks. However, Baylor is holding things up by threatening to sue. These are the same schools that recently complained that A&M had "broken its word" by attempting to leave the conference.

They are also the same for schools whose leaders voted unanimously that the Big-12 would not use legal methods to prevent A&M from leaving. Uh huh. Complain when they try to leave, but then use dishonest doublespeak to get them to stay. Great.

Oklahoma is rumored to be on its way out also. And who would blame them? Its as if a guy couldn't stand a girl breaking up with him and tried to sue her to stay. Sure this might allow her to stay for a bit longer, but it does not bode well for the relationship.

BYU would be wise to stay clear of this sinking ship.

However, this could be the one chance to join an automatically qualifying BCS conference.

What do they do?

Perhaps they simply broker a scheduling agreement similar to what they have with the WAC. BYU plays a number of Big-12 teams to fill in the gaps in the schedule. Or they even join as a football-only member (and somehow rearrange some of their scheduled games.)

But a full member? The WCC is much more stable, and lets them stay the high ground, without creating ill-will with the WCC.

SMU and Houston? They have less to lose. A jump to the big boy conference would be nice. Should it collapse, the WAC would be more than willing to welcoming them back. Conference-USA could even swallow its pride to get some of its star teams back.

Oklahoma? They've been talking with the Pac-12, but I'm sure they'd love to be in the Big-10. The could resume the Nebraska rivalry, and should fit nicely in the geographic footprint. The SEC or Pac-12 could also be options. And the Big-12? Well, sure. But why?

Perhaps Baylor can pull this off. After all, they managed to weasel in to the Big-12 in the first place. However, if things do implode, others may think twice about inviting the school that just cannot take no for an answer.

Oh what a mess. At least there is some good football.