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.