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.