Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bradbury 13

Thirteen Ray Bradbury stories were dramatized as semi-modern radio plays. The quality is well done. The stories often end with a cliff that leaves you pondering. (And the "screaming lady" story that ends with everything neatly wound leaves you feeling odd that it was so neatly concluded.) Bradbury loves to use the colonization of Mars to comment on our current society. Earthlings freely disregard the Martians - even in cases when the Martians are merely assimilating earthlings from the past.

The dramatizations are top notch. The stories are "science fiction" in a very loose sense of the word. Bradbury spends a lot of time exploring space ships and the colonization of Mars. However, he is primarily telling human stories. Replace space with the oceans and Mars with the new world, and we have the same story in a historical setting. "Time Safari" is one of the few stories that would qualify as "science fiction" when removed from its surroundings. People travel in a time machine to hunt dinosaurs. However, they are careful to stay on the paths and only hunt a dinosaur that was about to die anyway. Even the smallest change from that many years ago could potentially have great ramifications in the future. (Though you have to wonder if even the mere alternate execution of the T-Rex could also have serious impacts.)


Simon Winchester uses the Pacific Ocean as a central theme to discuss a number of events that happened since 1950 (the "present" of Before Present time). Many of the events involve the military - the nuclear tests on Bikini Island, the division of Korea, and the growth of Chinese power on the Pacific. The environment is discussed, both in the context of newly discovered species in deep sulfuric trenches as well as climate change's impacts on coral and the "garbage" vortex.

There are also stories of the business and culture, including the rise of Sony and the building of the Sydney Opera house.

Intertwined with these stories is the plight of the people that call the pacific home - especially the Polynesian and Micronesian inhabitants of the pacific islands. They are often given faint mention in the rhetoric of the western world. The Bikini islanders lost their homeland due to the nuclear tests and the contamination of the land. Many Polynesians still live on their islands, but have lost their traditional lifestyle and navigation skills due to the advances of western civilization. Many islands are in further danger of being submerged due to sea level rises.

Winchester has a unique writing style. He loves to add details from personal experience and loves to dive into details of seemingly random topics. He will also use a narrow thread to string together a set of seemingly unrelated stories. It is not your typical linear writing style, but is a nice refreshing, entertaining style.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


I had thought that I read the second book in the series before reading this one. Alas, I had not, and that left made this a bizarre metaphysical exploration. The book spends much of its time exploring life after death and the internal battle between good and evil. By having the second book The Gate Thief, fresh on your mind, this would all make sense in the story. But without that context, it seems to be just about an author preparing for the end of his life.

In addition to the metaphysical exploration, we also get a war between the gods of another world, using modern technology. Modern military weapons have a greater capacity to cause destruction. When these are combined with "mage" powers, they can be more destructive than anything on this or the other world. There are also subplots of a queen whose body is occupied by her rival, high school kids that know a powerful mage, and the battle between body-less evil influencers.

The book got better as it moved along. It would be better after reading the second book in the series.

The Alice Behind Wonderland

In this short book, Simon Winchester interweaves the history of photography with the early biography of Lewis Carroll. Early photography was a messy affair. The bulky equipment needed to be brought in place and the subject had to be still for an extended period of time for the proper light exposure. Then, a mix of chemicals needed to be applied to "freeze" the image in place. It was a far cry from the instant feedback of modern digital photography. The initial photographic processes involved patent protected technology and were outside the price range of all but the most wealthy. Gradually new innovations arose that allowed more people access to photography. Some non-patent innovations caught on due to the cost. The "negative" and development process also allowed for greater flexibility in the process. However, photography was still far from the "everyday" occurrence that it is today.

And where does Alice in Wonderland fit in here? Charles Dodgson was a student at Oxford and an avid photographer. He would spend time telling stories to the dean's children as well as photographing them. He later published under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Many of his photographs were collected by an American collector and donated to Princeton University. One of the more famous photos is of "Alice Liddell", the "Alice" for whom the wonderland stories were created. The book spends a little time exploring Carroll's life and other works. However, the focus remains on his photography.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity

This is a refreshing approach to the question of income inequality. The problem is not so much the people, but the system that we have that puts a high premium on growth and consolidation. The financial provides strong benefits to consolidation and carving off singular domains. Consumers like the convenience of dealing with a single entity, rather than with multiple different people. It is easier going through a central source (like and Amazon or Uber), even though this leads to a huge amount of control on inequality. In turn, these businesses can use their clout to further "regulate" smaller companies out of the market (often under the guise of protecting consumers.)

The book has a balanced approach that attempts to present things objectively, identifying why like a system that seems less than ideal and why some of the "solutions" do not seem to fully work. Supporting local business and people that we interact with regularly helps move the big corporation out of the picture. There are many alternatives to the "big corporations". However, using them will involve some trade offs. Are we willing to make the changes? Or do we just want to complain and ask the government to become even more overbearing (and exacerbating the problem further)?