Wednesday, December 14, 2005

1984, George Orwell

George Orwell

After my review of Animal Farm, I had an interesting exchange with Bea about that book. (You can see it here if you're curious.) That exchange was in the back of my head as I wrote this review. (Thanks for the inadvertent prodding, Bea.)

I knew I was going to reread 1984 when I read Animal Farm, but I remembered even less about it. Having read it now, I want to break my review up into parts:

The text of the book

This was, perhaps, the largest surprise of rereading 1984. I found some of the actual text rather annoying. Criticizing one of the masterpieces of modern literature is risky - particularly for one such as me, who can't tell an adverb from a lemon, but I have to be honest here.

Mechanically, Orwell's paragraphs are huge and often contain three or more points. That's not how I was taught to write, and I found it distracting. But beyond that, I found some of the writing to be rather dull. Some of Winston's internal monologs go on forever, and the portions of Goldstein's book - quoted at huge length in the middle of part two - are repetitive, obvious, and pedantic. I kept looking ahead to see how long they went on, and they went on a long, long time.

Again, I must state that I am probably the least qualified person on the planet to quibble with Orwell's text, but it got up my nose, so I am mentioning it here.

The ideas in the book

Here again, I was disappointed, but for different reasons. Orwell's view of the future looks really limited to me. Some things, he clearly got right. As I write this, congress is debating whether or not the McCain anti-torture amendment will be part of the current defense authorization bill, and our own version of Big Brother - George Bush - has threatened a veto if it appears there. Taken in that context, what Winston endures in Miniluv is all too possible today. However, we also have the arguments - by John McCain, no less - that torture doesn't work, and produces no useful information. (Yes, I know, the Party wasn't after information in the book; they were out to convert their opponents before destroying them. Never-the-less, I doubt the usefulness of torture as an effective vehicle to actually change people's thinking.)

Looking at the broader picture, we're headed into a 1984 style scenario now, and we're going there willingly. That's the scary thing that I think Orwell missed. He envisioned a society where the revolution came and the new leaders put the party and all of its policies and mechanics into place deliberately. We're going to get there, but it's happening at our own request. Consider:
  • Does your cell phone tell the phone company where you are? Probably. Can they pass that information to the police, the FBI, or others, thanks to the PATRIOT act? Yes. Do they have to tell you if they do so? Nope.
  • Is the NSA capable of listening in on your phone calls? Definitely. Are they? Who knows? Do you care?
  • How many "security" cameras are posted on light standards in your town? How many are run by public vs. private entities? Just exactly who is watching you right now?
All of those things were done by our government to protect us from something at one point or another. The intent was almost certainly good at the time. The intent might still be good, but we all know what happens to those in power.

I could go on here, but I hope my my point is clear. An Orwellian future may well await us, but at the moment it looks like we're walking into it with open eyes and arms. Orwell envisioned getting there at the point of a gun.

How well it's held up over time

Here again, Orwell's crystal ball was cloudy. As a description of a repressive totalitarian regime - if you disregard the radical technological advances that Orwell had no way of predicting and extrapolate forward - it's OK.

The problem is that it discusses a society in a particular state. He discusses some of the rise of the Party, but the bulk of the story is set in the "now" of 1984. In contrast, Animal Farm showed the evolution from something familiar into something different - and yet still familiar, if you get my drift. In that way, Animal Farm seems more relevant to me now as a cautionary tale than 1984. As mentioned above, I didn't really buy Orwell's vision for how the Party came into existence, and so lost the willing suspension of disbelief.

What I worry about that might be similar, though, is a religiously inspired cataclysm. I recently discussed this with a family member, and we're both worried that some of those people who believe fervently in Armageddon (with a capital 'A') and "The End Times" might go out of their way to bring it about. That could result in many nasty things, of course, but exactly what depends on many variables. I suppose in some cases a religious government - as brutal and repressive as Orwell's - is a possible outcome. So is utter chaos, and nuclear winter with few or no human survivors, and everything in between. One thing I am not guilty of is underestimating the possible depravity and stupidity of groups of people under the influence of some set of inflexible rules. What makes things worse, of late, is that the number of people needed to unleash a really awful outcome is dropping - a lot. That partly explains why we may be willingly entering an Orwellian state, of course, but I don't like either the cause or the effect.

In any event, even with all those issues stated, I still think 1984 is pretty good, and I'm glad I reread it. Perhaps, in 1949 when it was published, it was dark and scary enough that it opened some eyes (and minds). Today, I think our (or at least my) vision of ugly futures is more "advanced" than it might have been back then.

Perhaps I need to write some of my own thoughts down. That way someone can accuse me of not having an adequate vision of the future and poor prose in 55 years. If only.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book & Album, Terry Jones & Brian Froud

Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book & Album
Terry Jones & Brian Froud

Two books:
  • Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book, by Terry Jones & Brian Froud
  • Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Album, by Brian Froud
These were an unexpected loan from someone at my local gym. They are both funny and sick.

Pressed fairies, like pressed flowers. How? Simple: fairy lands in open book, SLAM!, and voila, you have a pressed fairy. Now imagine a whole book of them, like a diary, with a running story line about a girl in the late 1800s and early 1900s. (The first book is about one girl, the second about two, actually. Any more details would be a spoiler, so you're on your own for that.)

If you search on amazon for these books, you'll find out there are more. In addition, some brief digging on google will also get you to this web site:

at which you can learn that the Terry Jones credited with the text in the first book is the same Terry Jones that was in Monty Python. You can also learn that the Frouds (Brian and his wife Wendy) appear to be artists who've made careers out of fairy art of various sorts.

Interesting, funny, sick, and worth the time if you can get ahold of a copy of these books. They are still for sale, as far as I can tell, with a 10th anniversary edition of the first book (Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book) coming out this year.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene

Title: The Elegant Universe
Author: Brian Greene
Rating: Great!

Wow. If you have any interest in physics or cosmology, read this book. Now.

My father gave it to my for my birthday a few months back. When I got to it, I discovered I was in for a treat.

The first couple of chapters give an overview of things like Relativity in a way that mostly made sense to me for the very first time. I say "mostly" because these concepts are fundamentally hard to grasp. I need to go back and read those chapters again. They were great, and they made a LOT of sense. I, however, am dense, and I was gulping the book down, rather than reading and pondering.

Then we learn about string theory: its past, present, and possible future. Wow. Greene makes this thing - which I had no real understanding of - come alive. I'd read a fair bit about it, but it was all pretty dry. Greene shows how it has grown, how it has fit into and enhanced existing theories, and where work still needs to be done. (And he's honest - there is a LOT of work that still needs to be done.)

Greene's prose is excellent, and his enthusiasm for the topic really comes through. He uses a lot of analogies to assist with the explanations, and he never bogs you down with the math. There are some hints at the math in the end notes, but the real stuff is so far out that I'm not sure how doctors Shaw and Eisworth would handle it. I suspect it would be nice to know the math, but honestly, I'd have to start all the way back at trig to get it into my brain again. And I'm the one that couldn't grasp the introduction for the layman in Doug's doctoral thesis.

Another great thing about the book is how often Greene acknowledges the people in the field. He shows just how big an enterprise string theory is, and how many people have been involved, and provides some insight into the cooperative nature of the research. There are a lot of people working on string theory, and after reading this, I hope they all get to keep at it for as long as it takes.

There is a newer book out by Greene as well, titled The Fabric of the Cosmos. I am fortunate enough to have been given that book as well, and I am looking forward to digging into it. I will put it off for a few days, though, to give me time to finish all of our holiday stuff. But then...

In all seriousness, if you have any interest in physics or cosmology, this is the book to read. From what I can tell, it provides both excellent background, history, and then follows all that up with current theory and future research directions.

Highly, highly recommended.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

God's Debris, Scott Adams

Title: God's Debris
Author: Scott Adams
Rating: OK

First off, this was an entirely unexpected thing. I visited the Dilbert web site when I had a few minutes to spare and found a banner saying Scott Adams was giving a way an e-book titled God's Debris. I like the Dilbert comic strip. As an (ex-)engineer, I know that is has an air of truth to it. In fact, sometimes it is far too close to the truth - bordering on a documentary about engineering life. (I've also found that people in many other professions feel the same way about it, which I find interesting. Mr. Adams is tapping into something deep and shared in all of us somehow.)

In addition, past experience has shown me that Scott Adams has some odd (to my way of thinking) ideas.

So out of curiosity, I chased the link. I figured it might be amusing, and (even more important) it might help me in my quest to get ahead of the Rev. Dr. Shaw in the totals page again.

The link is:

I don't know how long it will be good, but it's there now. If you want to read what I did, and have a PDF viewer on your computer, the entire thing is free.

Of this book, the page above says:
Why is it Free?

Frankly, this is the hardest book in the world to market. When it first came out in hardcover, booksellers couldn't decide if it was fiction or nonfiction. Was it philosophy or religion? It's a religion/science book written by a cartoonist, using hypnosis techniques in the writing. It's a thought experiment. It's unlike anything you've ever read. How do you sell something that can't be explained?
I'm not sure those big claims are all true. I've read some interesting things in my day, and I think they can be explained rationally if you take the time.

That said, I am not going to write a review that will spoil or explain the book.

I will say that it presents a lot of unusual ideas in quick succession, and that the author himself (on the web page listed above) challenges you to figure out what is wrong with it. Frankly, I found some of it interesting speculation, a bit of it was interesting philosophy, and some of it was tripe. However, the entire thing taken together was at least interesting enough to keep me reading. I also suspect that people will differ over which parts of it were interesting, tripe, or whatever. I think Scott Adams would be happy to hear that.

It's not long - about 150 pages of large type. I read it in perhaps three hours, total. (I wasn't keeping close track, so don't hold me to that number too tightly.)

The worst thing about God's Debris is that he got some of the physics entirely wrong. (Don't worry... there are no equations, and you don't have to understand relativity to read it.) The best part is that even when he's wrong he's trying to make you think and figure out what is right or wrong or interesting from your own perspective.

Consider reading it. It costs nothing, and some of the major messages (as I read them) can only do you (and the rest of the planet) some good.

There is a sequel as well, but that isn't free. At least not yet. I'm pondering that.

Animal Farm, George Orwell

Title: Animal Farm
Author: George Orwell
Rating: Good

A TV commercial style review:
This is the point.
This is me banging the point into your head.
Any questions?
More seriously, though:

Animal Farm is one of the couple of books that Orwell is really well known for. It is a fast read, simple in content and style.

As a howl of protest against totalitarian regimes, it is still a reasonable cautionary tale. However, rereading it well after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, I think it has lost something. I hasten to add that I know there are still totalitarian regimes out there - some of them quite large and nasty. Orwell was targeting the specifics of the Soviet Union with this book, though, and that has all changed rather substantially now. I don't hold that against the book or the author. After all, Animal Farm was originally published in 1946. I think any book is allowed to age a bit after nearly 60 years.

One of the more interesting things in this book was the actual, physical, copy I read. It belonged to my wife in school, and was clearly read for some class (probably in early high school, but perhaps a bit earlier - I'm not sure). She's highlighted various passages in the book, and included some notes (things like "the provisional government exists for a while", "you must sacrifice for the state", and "purge") in places. All pretty obvious stuff, really. However, when I asked her about her memory of the book as I was digging it out, the quote she remembered was the donkey (Benjamin) saying "Donkeys live a long time." I discovered that quote isn't highlighted. So the thing that stuck with her 25 or 30 years after she read it wasn't what she'd noted at the time. Interesting how our minds work.

I read it far too many years ago as well. The only thing I remembered was that the pigs took over, and the final revision of the commandments, painted on the barn wall: "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others." I've used that phrase in my professional career, but no one has ever taken the amount of offense I intended by it. Funny that.

I'd like to quote Doug's review of Animal Farm from his top 100 book review: "It's never too early to start mistrusting people with power." That is an important lesson we all need to learn somewhere along the line. If this book helps drive that lesson home for you or someone you know, good.

It's a classic book, and a reread every 20 years or so is probably in order, but if you're naturally cynical like me, the message is something you keep it in mind all the time anyway. Whether we do anything about it is left as an exercise for the interested reader.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About, Mil Millington

Title: Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About
Author: Mil Millington
Rating: Good

A while back I reviewed A Certain Chemistry by the same author - Mil Millington.

That one was funny. This one is better. Part of that is me... the main character in this book is a bit more approachable to me than was the main character in A Certain Chemistry. (My review of that book mentions that the subject matter of that book - a man having an affair - was tougher for me to read for some reason.) Both books see the author pummeling his character with all kinds of situations that would make a real person break down and cry, and yet they seem real enough that the willing suspension of disbelief isn't violated. (At least it wasn't for me.)

Though I am certain this book is fiction, Millington probably puts a fair bit of his real life into it. Mostly in the form of the arguments described between Pel and Ursula - the main characters - not in the actual plot.

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About is a comedy about, well, someone who accepts a promotion he shouldn't, I guess. It's hard to know where to start describing it, really. The contents wander all over, covering things as diverse as raising children, a car chase, remodeling a house, a Chinese triad, and many, many other items you wouldn't think were related. The writing is good, and laugh-out-loud funny at many points.

I highly recommend this one.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

The Penultimate Peril, Lemony Snicket

Title: The Penultimate Peril
Author: Lemony Snicket
Rating: Good

A fun read. The stories continue in the same style and the content continues to get more and more confusing - for the reader and for the main characters - so there are still just as many questions as answers for me. (That's nearly all questions and nearly no answers.) That means book 13 will be very interesting, or it will be a total flop.

At this point I somewhat regret having given all of the previous volumes to my niece & nephew, as I'll probably want to reread them all at some point, once the series is complete.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Losing America, Senator Robert Byrd

Losing America
Senator Robert Byrd

I heard about this book on some program on NPR a while back. I live in California, so Senator Byrd isn't exactly a local personality, but if you follow politics at all you may know that he is a very senior Democrat, and he sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He is also considered something of a constitutional scholar, and he has a reputation and a past that can be problematic. (He's from the deep south and over 80 years old now, so the race issue is "interesting" when dealing with him.) Regardless, when I hear him speaking about the constitution and the history of the country, he does seem to have a pretty firm grip on those issues. And with a subtitle of "Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency" I thought I ought to read it. So I bought it used.

My summary is that he's a better speaker than a writer. That may not make much sense at first, but it's true.

The book consists of (basically) 8 chapters followed by the text of 8 speeches he made on the floor of the Senate.

The chapters meander about, containing ideas and points that he never gets back to, or that seem out of place in the context he is trying to discuss. The speeches, however, are the opposite. They are concise, eloquent, and drive home a specific point clearly and cleanly.

While I did learn some things from the main text that I hadn't previously known, and that I will try to follow up on in my "copious free time" (tm), most of the important things are said much more cleanly in the text of the speeches.

I'm not going to launch into a political discussion here - I hope to write that up and put it on my personal web relatively soon. (I'm feeling the urge to make a statement somewhere that others might find, if they dig far enough.) What I will say is that obviously Bryd is no friend of President Bush, and he makes no bones about that here.

The things Senator Byrd has to say about how Washington is working during Bush's presidency should disturb anyone - regardless of their political affiliation. That said, I worry a tiny bit about how slanted this presentation is, and I'd have preferred some footnotes and/or and bibliography to document some of the things he says. This is a polemic of sorts, and whether it is deserved and accurate or not, I'd have preferred a bit more backing for the concepts presented. (If the Bush administration's way of handling X is bad, how did Clinton handle it, or Bush Senior, or other presidents?) I'd also have preferred a bit more openness from Byrd himself. In some cases he says how he voted on certain things, but in others he does not. The entire book could have been clearer and deeper without too much more effort. Perhaps it was rushed to press.

Regardless, Byrd's speeches are good reading, and they make sharp, concise points that I think should be heard. In theory, though, you can find them online somewhere in the *.gov hierarchy, if you dig.

So was this book worth reading or not? Yes, but it could have been a lot better.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, Lynne Truss

Title: Eats, Shoots, & Leaves
Author: Lynne Truss
Rating: Good

I need to be a bit careful reviewing this book. My text is always full of errors. No matter how hard I try, for example, I cannot manage to distinguish between "it's" and "its" without actually engaging the brain for several seconds on the topic. It should be simple, and it is in the case of "their", "there", and "they're", but "it's" and "its" are messed up deep in my reptilian brain.

This is a book in which Lynne Truss complains (rightly so, mostly) about the state of punctuation in our language. The American release of the book contains (essentially) the British content, so some things she does and says aren't "right" for us yanks. But that doesn't detract from the essential correctness of the content, nor the charm of her writing.

Personally, I didn't learn much that surprised me in this little volume. I did enjoy the time reading it, and it was nice to see that my tendency to put terminal punctuation outside of quotes at times is valid in the Queen's English, even if it isn't valid here. (Someone else commented on this in an earlier post as well. I will continue the habit as well.)

This isn't really a language reference book. Thus if you want to look up some of the more obscure rules for the use of the comma you'd be better off with a true style guide, rather than this book.

In short: recommended, but probably a library trip, rather than a bookstore trip, as you'll probably only read it once.

PS: Can someone actually explain the apostrophe in this phrase:
two weeks' notice
That seems entirely wrong to me, but Truss goes on and on about it. (It's a movie title - without the apostrophe - and even the photo on the back cover shows her adding an apostrophe to a movie poster; guerilla style.) To me, the phrase "that will take two weeks to do" needs no apostrophe, so why would "I'm giving my two weeks notice now" need one? Is this perhaps a British English thing, or am I missing something? Alas, Truss's text (I believe that 's is correct there) doesn't explain this issue in a way I could understand.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Amphigorey, Edward Gorey

Title: Amphigorey
Author: Edward Gorey
Rating: Good

This was a surprise. As I put Chatter back on my bookshelf, I noted the spine of this book, and I did not recognize it at all. I have no idea how we came to own it, but I've now read it, and call it #27 on my list for 2005.

Amphigorey is a collection of 15 short books by Edward Gorey. All were originally published between 1953 and 1965.

As with all things Gorey, they are macabre. His prose is as dark and twisted as his drawings.

Worth the read. Disturbing, but very much worth reading.

Chatter, Patrick Radden Keefe

Title: Chatter
Author: Patrick Radden Keefe
Rating: Good

Chatter is both profoundly interesting and frustrating at the same time. It amounts to an overview of most of the Western world's signal intelligence interception (SIGINT) capabilities, without actually having any meat available on the topic. That's not really a surprise, and the author cannot be blamed for that, as the subject of the book doesn't really want to be talked about, or even known.

Chatter should make you think about several things. Most importantly, where should the line between security and liberty be drawn? For some, the answer is clearly one way or another. For others, it's more vague. There has been no real discussion of that issue in the US as yet, but we spend billions of dollars each year on SIGINT, and errors (or deliberate aggressive actions on the part of SIGINT agencies) always reduce liberty. Is that the right approach?

I dog-eared a page near the end of the book, as it has some startling statistics on it. Assuming you accept the premise that 9/11 was a wakeup call and our intelligence gathering needs to improve, things have not gotten better. (The premise may be arguable... more on that in a moment though.) According to Chatter, in the time since 9/11, the NSA fired some people and hired a bunch of others. In order, they've hired:
  • Security guards
  • Polygraph analysts
  • Linguists
  • Analysts
Remember that after 9/11 it was made very clear that we didn't have enough linguists and analysts in the US spy agencies, and the NSA is hiring more polygraph analysts than linguists? Excuse me? The polygraph is a notoriously unreliable instrument, and there has never been a suggestion that anyone on the inside hid or damaged information that would have prevented 9/11. Why do we need more polygraph analysts?

And this plays into the reason that the above 9/11 "wakeup" argument may be flawed. Perhaps SIGINT is simply not the place to spend money anymore. Or at least not the place increase budgets anymore. Our new foes (Al Qaeda and others) work the technical side well, or communicate in person. They have handbooks to tell them when our satellites will be overhead, and encryption to slow us down if they are on a monitored medium. Should we spend more money on the NSA in such a case? How would we know? Seriously... how would we know?

Before answering that, though, let's look at the other side of the 9/11 wakeup theory. We were also told we needed more human intelligence (HUMINT in the lingo) after 9/11, since clearly our SIGINT hadn't warned us in advance. OK. But according to Chatter, as of May 2004, the CIA had fewer than 1,100 case officers posted overseas. It says that is fewer than the number of FBI agents stations in the New York City field office. So perhaps we're not spending our intelligence money in the right places there either. Again though, how would we know?

And that is probably the most important point of this book. There is no way for anyone - even our elected officials - to judge the success or failure of our intelligence agencies. There are stories in here about congress members on the Intelligence Oversight Committee, and why they are there that clearly show that no one is watching the watchers. No one.

So are we getting our money's worth from the CIA, the NSA, and the related agencies? Is ECHELON worth the effort and money we (as a country) put into it?

There is no way of knowing. None at all.

Stop and think about that, fellow tax payer. I may be odd, but I am not averse to paying taxes for things that are actually valuable and provide some measure of public good. In the case of our intelligence operations, though, I honestly don't know if I am getting even $1 worth of anything from them or not. And they won't tell us. They won't even tell our congress people. We don't know what we're paying or what we're getting, or even who is being watched. I find that profoundly disturbing.

A bit more about the book itself:

To be honest I was hoping for more nuts and bolts about the capabilities of the NSA (or other agencies) from this book. There is some of that here, but not much. After reading the book, though, you know why that is the case, which is nearly as valuable as the data I'd wanted. The writing style is light and breezy, though there are end notes and a reasonably sized bibliography at the back. The claim is the book is all (or nearly all) based on publicly available information. Developing sources inside the SIGINT community is hard, I's sure, so again that is no slight against the author.

All in all, I recommend Chatter. If enough people read it, perhaps we'll get a movement together to get the intelligence agencies to open up to some degree, and at least learn if the billions we pay are doing us any good or not.

Sunday, October 2, 2005

Art & Physics, Leonard Shlain

Title: Art & Physics
Author: Leonard Shlain
Rating: Terrible!

I really wish I'd liked this book more. It's the 2nd in the pair I've been slogging through for months now. Sadly, in the end, I have to state that it wasn't remotely worth the effort.

I am not a physicist, but I have some interest in the topic. I am an artist though - specifically a stone carver. Add to those a technical background in software engineering, and this looked like an interesting read.

Shlain's thesis is that artists give advance warning of pending changes in science (or what passed for science a long time ago). To do this, he describes various events in science, and then shows how one or more artists introduced new forms that not only predate those new scientific discoveries, but also how they anticipated the nature of those discoveries and how that anticipation is visible in their new work.

As the book unfolds, I started off thinking the idea was interesting, but as the examples got more and more recent - and more contrived - I became convinced that he was stretching whatever he needed to prove his point. About halfway through I decided that Shlain really needed to learn something I was taught years and years ago:

Correlation does not imply causation.

Any doctor studying disease causes has to learn that phrase. And guess what, Mr. Shlain is actually Dr. Shlain -- "the Chairman of Laparoscopic surgery at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and is an Associate Professor of Surgery at UCSF." (Text taken from his web site Shlain should know better than to conflate causation and correlation - it should have been drummed into his head in medical school.

To put the problem another way, it is easy to go back and find all kinds of connections between items A and B in retrospect, particularly if A and B are big, broad categories like "Art" and "Physics". Doing so is trivial with the benefit of hindsight.

Nowhere does he actually justify his coincidences, he just states them, as it the fact that they are pointed out makes them true. (Another related phrase that came to mind is "proof by repeated assertion" which I found in Peopleware by DeMarco & Lister. But I digress.) In fact, in many cases, he mentions or quotes artists and physicists saying they know nothing about the other field, as if that helps his cause somehow. It doesn't, and his ideas don't hold together.

To cap this all off, in the last few chapters Shlain goes off to find a way to explain this amazing connection between art and physics. To do so he launches into a discussion of an overmind of some sort. Using analogy and mysticism in ways I was entirely unhappy with, he suggests that perhaps we (as individuals) are part of some larger mind, which exists fully in spacetime. We're not aware of the overmind since we can only conceive of space and time separately, not as one unified whole.


The book finally ends in a bunch of new age (pronounced "newage" which rhymes with "sewage") psycho babble, oddly mixed with ancient Greek mythology.

Nowhere does he discuss near or far eastern art history. Perhaps this art / physics connection is unique to western society. That seems odd to me, since if he was right and artists do have some mystic connection to coming future events in science, that would be the same regardless of culture. After all, we're all part of the same overmind, right?

Before writing this review I went to and read the reviews of the book, to see if others felt as I did. That was enlightening. Some loved the book; some pointed out gross errors in the physics. It was a decidedly mixed bag.

As I come out the other end, I doubt I can trust Shlain's layman explanation of the physics, I'm not at all sure I believe his explanation of some of the art, and I have reason to wonder about his grasp of reality.

Sadly, I suggest avoiding this book.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Haz-Mat Course Book, CDF

Title: Haz-Mat Course Book
Author: CDF
Rating: Neutral

This was the next in an ongoing series of assembled course materials that I have to read as a volunteer fire fighter. It was, frankly, dry as dust. The main things I need to know as a fire fighter coming onto any event scene are:
  • Be aware that apparently non-hazardous materials events might actually be (or become) haz-mat events
  • If a haz-mat situation is discovered, I get to:
    • worry about everyone's safety, including my own
    • setup a perimeter around the haz-mat, maybe rescue people (depending on a risk/benefit analysis), and deny entry to anyone wanting in
    • call in the big guns who know how to deal with haz-mat situations better than I do
That's it. Really. An entire, thick, three ring binder of stuff that can be digested down to those few bullet points. Probably 250 pages of text.

Accompanying that tome was three days of in-class training to be told about this stuff.

To be honest, I am happy I took the training and read the book. My eyes are opened a bit wider to the real issues around haz-mat events. In reality, though, most of that eye opening experience comes from the real-life stories that the instructors told us about haz-mat situations they've been involved in. Some nasty things happen to fire fighters.

The volunteer company I am in responds to accidents on something like seven miles of the main highway between San Jose and Santa Cruz, CA. A huge amount of cargo is hauled over that road each day, some of it hazardous, and nearly all of it unmarked. The things that could happen there are a bit scary. Never-the-less, I will continue my studies and make myself available to respond to calls as soon as my training allows. This course - and the book - are a state mandated part of the training that lets me do this. I can live with that.

In a followup post to the original review, I added this:

In the interest of sharing lots of possibly useless information...

There are 2 major ways that hazardous materials are identified, that I know of, so far:
  • On trucks there are department of transportation (DOT) mandated placards for some loads and contents.
  • On buildings, tanks, and other stationary things, there is an "NFPA 704" placard.
DOT Placards

These are diamond shaped placards, generally containing a magic number, and often a symbol of some sort, or at least some unique color scheme. They are defined in a book called the "Emergency Response Guidebook". You can find and download a mid sized PDF version of that book online here:, and if you google "Emergency Response Guidebook" you'll find a few places that sell hard copies for a reasonable fee.

This book contains ways to identify some of the hazardous materials that are hauled around in trucks. There are several sections of the book:
  • White Section: general information on placards, placarding requirements, etc.
  • Yellow Section: look up a number to determine material (or class of material) and proper initial response data.
  • Blue Section: look up a material by name.
  • Orange Section: guide pages to describe how to handle the spill initially.
  • Green Section: isolation and protective action (evacuate or shelter in place, depending on many things) distances for the really bad stuff, which is highlighted in the yellow and blue sections. (This is the "methyl-ethyl-die-for-sure-inol" section, as my instructors called it.)
Why would you want this book? Well, I may actually need one for real at some point, but in actuality, I am a nerd, and it amuses me to know what is in the vehicles around me:
Me, driving the car: "Hey, what's in that truck? Placard number 2810."
My wife, thumbing through the book: "VX nerve gas."
Me: "I think I'll back off."
Yes, VX really is listed in here. Along with 5 forms of uranium hexafluoride, the nastiest of which (I think) is called "Uranium hexafluoride, fissile containing more than 1% Uranium-235." If you see a truck placarded 2977, I'd keep my distance. Then again, the military is not required to placard any of their trucks, regardless of what they are carrying. Not good.

NFPA 704 Placards

The NFPA is the National Fire Protection Association. They created the standard (number 704) that defines the 4 color (blue, red, yellow, white) diamond placards you have seen on tanks, buildings, etc. You can find a short but reasonable description of that standard here: Alternately, you can buy the entire description of the standard from here: A brief description, though, is as follows:

The 3 colored diamonds each contains a number ranging from 0 to 4. 0 means no hazard. 4 means a very high hazard. The 4th (white) diamond has other information in it. The colors each have a specific meaning, starting from the left and working clockwise:
  • Blue: health hazards
  • Red: flammability hazard
  • Yellow: reactivity hazard
  • White: symbols indicating unusual or specific hazards.
So, for example, an NFPA 704 reading "421" with a "W" with a line through it means:
  • a severe health hazard
  • a moderate flammability hazard
  • a low reaction hazard
  • whatever it is reacts badly to water
Given all that, you might not want to go into that building, depending on the circumstances.

I hope all of this information is interesting to someone other than me.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Challenger Launch Decision, Diane Vaughan

Title: The Challenger Launch Decision
Author: Diane Vaughan
Rating: OK

So I finally get to write a more meaty book review. One about a book that I have been slogging through for months now.

While probably not as bad as Foucault, this book has been driving me crazy. A brief summary for those of you too young to remember:

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger blew up during liftoff. The cause of the failure proved to be escaping propellant gases from one of the solid rocket motors (SRMs) piercing the external shuttle fuel tank. The resulting explosion was caught on film and became (for me) the logical equivalent of the JFK assassination. I wasn't yet born when JFK was assassinated, so I get a bit tired of the "where were you when..." question on that topic. But I definitely remember where I was on January 28, 1986.

Years later the space shuttle Columbia burned up during reentry. I hope you youngsters remember that event.

I started reading The Challenger Launch Decision well after the Columbia disaster. That level of additional hindsight made me wonder all kinds of things while (and after) reading this book.

First, I should say that the book is almost certainly accurate in its descriptions of things going on around the Challenger event. The paper trail there is huge, and the author has been very thorough. The conclusions are accurate too, as far as I can tell.

That said, there were many times I wanted to scream while reading this thing; sometimes at the author, sometimes at others. Here are some of my thoughts and concerns:
  • The author admits her own lack of expertise and experience in dealing with highly technical matters, but clearly she didn't get the right set of people to review her manuscript before publishing. A single simple example: someone is quoted discussing dimensions in the SRM joints with wording something like this: "yadda yadda 30,000ths yadda yadda". What? Thirty thousands of an inch is written: 0.030" and measurements are written correctly all over the rest of the book. Why did it come out wrong there? The author should have had a few (more?) engineers review and correct her book before publication.

  • Sometimes I think the author uses the phrase "scientific positivism" as if it has negative connotations. This may be my own hypersensitivity, but it bugged me. Given one of her conclusions is that almost any technology can be risky, my interpretation here might be correct, but I really don't know.

  • Many times I wanted to yell "Duh! Of course!" as the author describes parts of the engineering environment at NASA and Morton Thiokol (the SRM manufacturer). I've been an engineer, and while I've never worked on man rated software or on systems that might kill people, I know the environment. From my perspective, the system NASA had setup to qualify a shuttle for flight was about as good as it is going to get. There was at least one problem, though, and I'll describe that in a separate bullet below.

  • The author clearly doesn't quite get the distinction between science and engineering (or scientists and engineers). There is a major difference between the two, and it bugged me that she didn't deal with it. Here is a quote, taken from page 401 in my copy:
    In language that staggers in its seeming prescience about events at NASA, Kuhn describes normal science as "an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies. No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all." According to Kuhn, the recalcitrance of the scientific paradigm is in the worldview it engenders; it is overturned when a crisis arises that precipitates a transformation of that worldview. ...]
    My response to that quote could be summed up in just one obscene word, but I'll avoid sharing that with you.

    Science is all about finding new data in nature, understanding it, and figuring out how it works with the rules we have. Finding new data may well require changing the rules. Yes, there is resistance to changing the rules, but they do change. (Find me any other system with documented methods for changing its internal rules in response to new data. Go on... I'll wait.) The best rules predict things we haven't yet observed. Then we go look for them to determine if the rule is valid. The idea that science doesn't want to "call forth new sorts of phenomena" is entirely wrong. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the process of science.

    Worse, Vaughan conflates science and engineering, so now all the actors in the Challenger story are tainted with that same brush. Engineers are scientists, therefore they don't want to see new data, therefore they "normalized" the warnings of pending disaster in the SRMs. This is only one of the things she uses to rationalize her conclusions, and while I do agree with much of her conclusion in the end, this sort of point bugged me a few times along the way to getting there.

  • Vaughan is (I think) a social scientist, concerned mainly about the behavior of groups of people. Her intent her is to show that any technology or system where groups of people are responsible for decision making within or about that technology can have (possibly serious or life threatening) flaws. Once again, I wanted to scream "Duh!", but I am getting to be something of a Luddite in my old age.

  • A final critique of the author's work is that she's extremely repetitive. I'm an engineer, and thus attuned to certain things about the environment she's documenting, so perhaps things that are intrinsically obvious to me are hard for others to note, but I doubt it. She hammers at the same points over and over again often enough that I sometimes had to put the book down and go do something else until the urge to strangle someone had passed.
Moving on to other things that came out of this for me, there were three things that I found distressing in the Challenger disaster. Whether changing them would have been enough to avoid the problem I don't know, but they bother me.
  1. Without going into the details that later commissions found were the actual cause of the shuttle explosion, a couple of those causes were never mentioned or anticipated by SRM engineers. Wind shear, for example, played a role in the Challenger explosion, but it was never thought of by the engineers working on the SRMs. Excuse me? You have a vehicle plowing through an atmosphere that we all know is turbulent and didn't think about what that might do to the position of the O-rings in the SRM joints? That, frankly, was a failure of imagination, to use a recent phrase. I don't know why the people working on this didn't think the entire system through more deeply, but clearly there were issues they missed. That is never a good thing.

  2. The SRM joints followed a very successful design in another flight system, but almost immediately showed deviations in behavior. The engineers did review them, but I honestly don't think they were skeptical enough about this process. The things they were seeing shouldn't have happened. The fact that they were happening should have been a larger red flag than it was taken for. I admit I have the benefit of hindsight here, but I can't imagine sleeping the night before a shuttle launch given what they were seeing. My engineer's sense of "rightness" would be offended.

  3. As some may remember, there was a bunch of discussion on the eve of the Challenger launch about the cold weather and its impact on the O-rings in the SRMs. Some of the Thiokol engineers were worried about that, and recommended against launching, but they were overruled for various reasons that were seen as legitimate at the time. My problem with this is that no one stopped and said something like this:
    Wait a minute... we have about 25 shuttle launches so far, but none in this extreme cold. 25 launches is way too small a data set to give us any valid statistical data to go by, and we have no way to get that statistical data in the next few hours. Our best technical people say they are worried about the cold, but they can't justify it. Perhaps we should hold off a few hours until things warm up. That will give us a bigger safety margin on this flight. In addition we'll setup a task force to determine what the temperature criteria really should be.
    NASA had a 2nd launch window in the afternoon - when things would have warmed up - and there would have been no huge cost associated with delaying a few hours. But they didn't do that. The reason -- driven home by this book -- is that only "hard" data was acceptable at NASA, and the SRM engineers had no hard data about the SRM joints in cold weather. So they launched because it had always worked before. (I am condensing here... read the book to understand the entire rationale.) That can be viewed as reasonable, actually. Certainly no one intended to take a larger risk than necessary. But...

    In addition to being an engineer I've managed engineers. (There is a point coming. Bear with me.) I've come to value something that only experience - not engineering school - teaches: the gut feel. When I hire an engineer and have them working on something, I expect they will develop opinions about their task, and they'd better be able to share them, even if they are only half baked. They may be wrong, but if you squelch them, you may miss something important. Engineers should be able to give you an opinion of some sort about almost anything related to their discipline, even given little data. Though it may be small or large, there is some level of value to that opinion. It is the experience of the engineer that helps determine the value.

    In the NASA case, experienced engineers said it was too cold and bad things could happen. NASA culture said "You have no numbers to prove that. Go away." As a manager, that is a mistake I always tried to avoid. I'd always listen to those opinions, and take them into account. In the case of the Challenger, I wouldn't have launched if it were my decision and I'd heard the launch-eve conversation. I'd have rescheduled and asked the engineers how long they'd need to get more temperature data. I believe that I'd have acted that way (given my current background) even without the benefit of hindsight. In the end I view a NASA culture that totally devalued non-numerical data as having a fundamental flaw.
Finally, I need to say that one of my personal heroes (of a sort) takes one in the shorts here. Dr. Richard Feynman, the physicist, was a member of the President's commission that examined the Challenger disaster. Many of the conclusions that he and that commission came to were simply wrong. In yet another case of the distinction between engineering and science being lost, Feynman just didn't get it in places. Some of the opinions he espoused were out of touch with the reality of engineering in general, and risky engineering (like space flight) in particular. In fact, the Presidential commission's findings were wrong in many places, and the later findings of the congressional commission where much more accurate. There was a rush to judgment immediately after the disaster, and I am sorry to say that it appears Dr. Feynman was sucked into that mess. Not everything the President's commission found was wrong, but enough was to make me wonder about it.

I've blathered enough here. This book is not for the feint of heart. It is basically correct in what it says and concludes but the path it takes to get to the end is a tough one.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Basic Firefighter Academy (2005), CDF

Title: Basic Firefighter Academy (2005)
Author: CDF
Rating: Neutral

I am embarking on a new "career" as a volunteer fire fighter. Or at least, I hope I am. There are still many opportunities to wash out.

This book is actually a three ring binder of information assembled by the CDF that covers basic, overview stuff about working in the volunteer firefighting business. It doesn't actually cover anything about fighting fires - or medical response, or anything else directly call related like that - that's all coming in additional books and training. This volume really is more of an introduction to the CDF / County fire department and how it works.

Sections covered things like the incident command system, basics of vehicle safety, how to put on the structure firefighting clothes, some legal issues, etc.

If it wasn't 200 pages or so, I'd have ignored this volume and waited to claim something more meaty, but it did take time away from my other reading, so here it is.

There are more of this sort of thing coming, I'm sure.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

2005 Honda Element Owner's Manual, Honda Motors

Title: 2005 Honda Element Owner's Manual
Author: Honda Motors
Rating: Poor

This was a gripping read. A real page turner. I found the instructions for controlling the ceiling light particularly intense reading.


As you might suspect, this wasn't something I'd intended to include in my list, but I've decided it does count. It's well over 200 pages long, and dry as dust, but I suspect it makes more sense than Ulysses. (Heck, if My Little Golden Book About Zogg and Doug's The Art of Shaving count, then the back of my Raisin Bran box might count too, but I digress.) Some good did come of reading it, as I did encounter a couple of nits that I have to ask the dealer about next week.

Moving off topic a bit:

We are selling our 95 Acura Integra to our excellent mechanic to make room for the new Honda Element. Why am I doing that, you might ask? Good question. The Acura is in very good condition, and would probably get me another 100,000 miles without much expense (and it's got 204,000 on it now), and it's mileage is excellent as well. However, it's a 2 door, and it doesn't comfortably sit more than 2. Rear seat passengers encounter significant chin/knee interference.

Recently my parents visited us here. They rented a Ford POS and my wife and I were ferried around by my father, who was nervous about both the car (which drove like an ancient living room couch) and the narrow mountain roads where we live. We couldn't drive the rental, and we had nothing that would haul the four of us comfortably. In a couple of months my in-laws will arrive for a stay, and I am not going to go through being held to the whims - and vehicle - of my visitors again. Not if there is any way we can avoid it.

So we bought a new Honda Element. It has lots of room, plenty of pep, and seats four comfortably. The mileage is lower, alas, but hopefully not by too much. I like the vehicle a lot, though. It is stylistically "interesting."

I hope to get back to my other reading challenges in short order, but there are other distractions at the moment.

Cheers to you all.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

A Certain Chemistry, Mil Millington

Title: A Certain Chemistry
Author: Mil Millington
Rating: OK

Just completed this one. It wasn't what I'd expected to read next -- I still have 2 others going on as well and thought I'd finish one or both of them before moving on to this book. Ah well.

Without spoilers, it's the comedic story of an author going through an affair. It is funny, and reasonably well written, though at times it borders on pornographic, and it certainly doesn't skimp on the profanity. For me it was a real challenge to read because I am too empathetic with the main character. Not that I'm going to have an affair or anything like one, but I still found the situations that the character was put in very uncomfortable. My reading behavior was strange here. Often I'd read a few pages, and then put the book down, unable to go on for a while, thanks to the continuing torment the main character suffers. I empathize with many main characters in novels, but this was worse for some reason. Perhaps because it felt closer to something that could actually happen than most of the other novels I've read lately

In any event, the book is amusing, particularly the interludes between some of the chapters. Millington has a way with words and certainly does his best to keep things true to life. If you want to know more about him and his writing style, you can check out his web site:

What you'll find there is very funny, though less well edited. He's famous for the page "Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About." He has a novel of the same name, but (apparently) different content, which I will try reading in the not too distant future.

If anyone else reads this book, I'd really like to know what you think of it.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J. K. Rowling (spoilers)

Title: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Author: J. K. Rowling
Rating: Good

Finished this in essentially three sittings. Could have been two, or one, but I am old enough now that all nighters to read books are rare, and there was a commitment in the middle of the next day. I wasn't tracking hours.

The first thing I will say is that I found myself laughing aloud at appropriate parts of this book. Even the "snogging" bits weren't over done in my opinion. I'd read enough reviews to have heard complaints about the narrative structure being slow in the first half, but I didn't think that was the case.

I agree with Bea that Snape has to redeem himself in the end. Frankly, I am still trying to figure out some way that Dumbledore might not "really" be dead. Somehow I doubt that is the case, but I'm sure it would make a lot of HP fans happier. There are going to be many dollars spent on therapy around the world as a result of that loss.

I know people who say Rowling fills her books with subtle clues to things and that if you read very closely you can figure at least some things out in advance. Perhaps Bea's right about the locket and who RAB is, but I'm not certain. There might have been some discussion about the younger Black brother being OK in an earlier book... I honestly don't remember that much detail, which is why if Rowling does fill her books with clues about things, I miss them.

In any event, I really enjoyed this book, and I am looking forward to the last installment. She's managed to write 6 good or very good books so far, so I'd think the odds of book 7 being at least good are pretty high. Too bad it's so far out.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

9/11 Commission Report, 9/11 Commission

Title: 9/11 Commission Report
Author: 9/11 Commission
Rating: Good

I have finally completed reading this document. I fear that my review of it will say far more about me than I have to say about it, but here goes...

Reading the 9/11 report is not for the feint of heart. The main body of the report is over 400 pages long. There are over 100 pages of end notes as well.

It has taken me months (literally) to read it. I acquired it in August of 2004, shortly after it was released. Only now, in July of 2005, did I finish it. There were whole months when I didn't touch it during that time, though, so actual reading time is much less than that, obviously.

Why did it take so long? Part of that is due to the subject. The first chapter, which describes the actual 9/11 attacks in some detail, was a quick read. It reminded me of reading any number of spy thrillers. Later chapters, though, get into much more detail, documenting things like how various hijackers moved around the world, who they contacted, and how the US's various intelligence agencies did or did not handle these events.

All that detail gets hard to manage (for me at least) without charts and graphs and time lines. I've managed tons of technical detail in my job, but this is different, and it was harder for me to keep track of it all, which made it somewhat frustrating to read.

I found the description of the initial response - particularly at the WTC towers - to be both humbling and frustrating. People were doing incredibly heroic things, but they were (sometimes literally) fumbling around in the dark for lack of the basics, like communications, information, plans and even flashlights. I'm in the process of joining my local volunteer fire department right now. I know I will never have to respond to a disaster of the 9/11 sort where I live, but we do have wild fires. If the level of chaos I see in this book is accurate in other places, I'm in for a wild ride at times.

The last chapter of the book is a list of specific recommendations that the committee wanted to see happen. The most controversial of these was the creation of the national intelligence director. I remember all kinds of arguments in the news about that, but that was just one of many recommendations. The nastiest items in the list require various government branches to give up some of their (then) current responsibilities in the name of overall efficiency in the fight against terrorism, and large changes in congressional oversight of the various intelligence agencies.

Question: have these changes been made? I wish I knew the answer. This stuff fell out of the news at some point, and I have no idea where we stand on these issues as a nation. I find that very disturbing.

Finally, this book prompts some interesting thought on the trade off between civil liberties and the ability to find those that would cause us great harm. There will always be people who believe that the US is the pinnacle of evil and that it should be destroyed, but how much am I (or are we) willing to surrender (in terms of privacy and anonymity) to avoid their attacks? In the Internet age, that is a very interesting question.

What the government does in my name to keep me safe may or may not be something I am comfortable knowing, but I think I should know. Towards the end of the chapter on recommendations, I found a single paragraph that stopped me for a minute. I quote it here, because it still bothers me:
Whether the price is measured in either money or people, the United States cannot afford to build two separate capabilities for carrying out secret military operations, secretly operating standoff missiles, and secretly training foreign military or paramilitary forces. The United States should concentrate responsibility and necessary legal authorities in one entity.
Apparently we currently have two places we do this sort of thing now: the CIA and the military. Intellectually, I know this. And as a practical matter, I'd guess that any large nation will have something setup like this, to try and head off political changes in foreign countries that it doesn't agree with, etc. However, since I've been old enough to pay attention, I think that just about every time this sort of thing has come to light, we've screwed it up entirely. If the targets were just terrorist organizations, and if we could reliably predict the outcome of our actions, I'd be less concerned. But that's a very big "if". How many places in the world are we disliked now by the government that we put into place, or by the government that threw out the one we installed?

On the other hand, if we could kill Osama Bin Laden with an action along these lines, shouldn't we do it?

As I say, some of the things I found in this book made me think, and not always in the ways I wanted or expected.

If you can make the time, I recommend it.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Lemony Snicket, The Unauthorized Autobiography,

Title: Lemony Snicket, The Unauthorized Autobiography
Author: Lemony Snicket
Rating: Poor

This book is probably not worth the effort or money.

It is essentially a cryptic set of chapters that bear some relation to the events in the actual series of children's books. However, it isn't at all clear what this book actually says or means. The author hints at underlying things going on in and around the fictional Snicket family, but nothing holds together.

It's only mildly amusing, and often confusing. The reversible dust jacket is the funniest thing about the book, and while it is amusing, it's not enough to justify the purchase.

However, if you're the kind of person that enjoys incredibly complex puzzles, it is possible that there is data in here that will help to unravel the various goings on in the Snicket books themselves. I haven't had the patience for that - in any forum, not just here - and so didn't find the book useful in that way either.

In short, save time and read only the actual Lemony Snicket series.

No Germs Allowed, Winkler G. Weinberg, MD

Title: No Germs Allowed
Author: Winkler G. Weinberg, MD
Rating: Good

No Germs Allowed is a good overview of various infectious illnesses, and how to avoid them. The sections of use will vary a lot based on who you are and your lifestyle, but I found the entire volume to be an interesting read.

Winkler's presentation makes sense - he doesn't say "Don't do X". Instead he says "If you're going to do X, then take the following precautions. yadda yadda yadda." X can be anything from walking in the woods, to traveling to foreign countries, to... well... more personal activities.

As I have essentially zero medical training, I found the discussions interesting and relevant in most cases. I don't do much overseas travel, but I live in an area with Lyme disease, so his comments on that are very interesting to me, for example.

If you're already relatively knowledgeable about infectious disease, this isn't the book for you. If, however, you're looking for a good overview, this is a great place to start.

Reviewing this also allows me to plug the magazine where I learned about it: Science News. That little weekly magazine is keeping me up to date in a lot of areas, and I highly recommend it.

The First 11 of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket

Title: The First 11 of A Series of Unfortunate Events
Author: Lemony Snicket
Rating: Good

I just read The Bad Beginning and I quite enjoyed it.

It was a fun, quick read, and it certainly isn't the typical children's book. My wife is ahead of me in the series, but I've heard her laughing out loud while reading the later volumes.

These books are clearly targeted at a younger age group than (say) the Harry Potter books, and that gives them a different feel and pace then that (deservedly) wildly successful series. Because of their subject matter, they may also be a bit more challenging. (Discussing having one's parents die in a fire might be tough for some people, for example.) Never-the-less, I think that kids who read at least the The Bad Beginning will be better off in the fullness of time. Exposure to all kinds of ideas is important, and these are fun.

Perhaps you need a certain cynical point of view to find these funny and (in an odd way) validating. Regardless, I am now starting volume 2, and I'll keep on reading unless they change in some fundamental way.

... time passes ...

I have since gone on to read all 11 of the available books. (Actually, I haven't looked for a new book in some time, and I don't know when #12 is due out. I'll have to check on that.)

What I can say in general about Lemony Snicket is the following:
  • They are targeted at pre-teen readers, in general.
  • My niece and nephew - ages 7 and 8 - are dying to read them. Last I talked to my sister in law, that was due to get rolling any day now.
  • I quite enjoyed them. In fact, I am on the hook to buy and read the next volumes as they come out, and then send them on to my niece and nephew, who find it very funny that their aunt & uncle want to do that.
  • The books get more complex over time, and the plot thickens and builds, particularly after the first 3 or 4 volumes.
  • I suspect that, somewhat like the Harry Potter books, there is a whole series of hints and clues about events and characters hidden in these books. I don't have the presence of mind to figure them out, but I believe they are there.
I know some people don't like these books, but I found the style amusing and the stories diverting. I hope the author resolves all the various loose ends well by book 13.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Madness Season, C. S. Friedman

The Madness Season
C. S. Friedman

I just posted a review of a series by C. S. Friedman. I bought The Madness Season at the same time, as the reviews on Amazon looked good. (Sorry, Doug. I buy from There are simply no good bookstores nearby, at least none that are any better than Amazon. Borders is an evil empire too, and I'm not driving 40+ miles to find a good bookstore.)

The story follows several characters, but the main one is at least arguably human. His name is Daetrin, and he lives on earth after it has been subjugated by the Tyr - an alien race of extreme power and a communal mind. Daetrin has to come to grips with his own very interesting past as he fights against the Tyr. In the coarse of uncovering his past, Daetrin encounters several other interesting characters and species. Friedman provides an excellent conclusion to this novel as well.

This was the best written of the 5 novels by C. S. Friedman I have read. As with the others, she doesn't draw a hard line between science fiction and fantasy, so some elements are less realistic than others, but I didn't find that a drawback in this case.

Overall I found it very good. Recommended.

The Coldfire Trilogy, C. S. Friedman

Title: The Coldfire Trilogy
Author: C. S. Friedman
Rating: Good

Years ago I stumbled across C. S. Friedman when I read In Conquest Born. I found that book to be interesting, with powerful characters and an interesting story. In short, it had everything going for it except a very weak ending. Regardless, I liked her writing enough to pick up a couple of other books by her at the time -- they turned out to be the first 2 volumes of the Coldfire trilogy. I'll review all 3 books here in brief, and that makes sense, since I only read the last book for the first time in 2005.

The books are:
  • Black Sun Rising
  • When True Night Falls
  • Crown of Shadows
These books straddle the Science Fiction / Fantasy boundary, crossing more into Fantasy in general. The world she creates is rich and deep, though not as deep as those created by Tolkien or Donaldson.

The main characters in the first book are an interesting pair: a hero (Damien Vryce) and an anti-hero (Gerald Tarrant) forced to work together by circumstance. I found Vryce appealing but slightly less well fleshed out as a character than Tarrant. When she writes of Damien's past experiences it seems he hasn't lived long enough to do all she attributes to him. Tarrant, however, is much more believable in that area. The third book adds another main character -- Andrys Tarrant. He is less well fleshed out than the others, but still acceptable in form and style.

The story spans several years on another planet, seeded by earth and then lost for reasons that are explained in some detail. This isn't as huge and sweeping a story as, say, Dune, but it provides lots of opportunities to meet new people, some interesting demons, and understand some of the world they live in (called Erna).

In all, I recommend these books for some light fantasy reading. The story is reasonably paced and the characters are interesting. The conclusion is reasonable, though there is a single syrupy chapter at the end of Crown of Shadows that I'd have omitted if I were the author.

The most disturbing thing about these books has nothing to do with the writing. The cover of each book has a painting of Gerald Tarrant by Michael Whelan. The cover of When True Night Falls clearly makes him look like John Travolta. That's just wrong, in far too many ways to itemize here, and it's entirely different from the other two covers. Ah well.

Give 'em a try if fantasy literature is your bag.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth
Norton Juster

A fantastic book. Very highly recommended. I know it's a kid's book and all, but it's worth the read, just to see how someone can think like this, discarding all our standard notions of where everyday concepts come from.

I'm also a dog lover, and Tock is wonderful.

This one goes to my nephew very, very soon, and I hope to be able to read some of it to him, or with him.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Runes of the Earth, Stephen R. Donaldson

The Runes of the Earth
Stephen R. Donaldson

Apologies in advance for the spelling errors and typos that will inevitably appear in here. I'll do my best to avoid them, but...

I read some fantasy, some sci-fi, and some of whatever else seems like a good idea at the time. The books that have made me happiest in my life are The Lord of the Rings, Dune (just the first one, the rest are iffy), Neuromancer (and its associated relatives), and all 6 of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I am thrilled to report that there are more Thomas Covenant novels coming, and that the first of the new series The Runes of the Earth is extremely well written.

I will include no spoilers here. Suffice it to say that if you haven't read the first 6 books in the series, you need to. They are outstanding in their own right (I may be biased because it was my future wife who introduced me to them, but I reread them every few years, and they continue to hold up) and you need the background to know what is happening in Runes. Donaldson's writing is wonderful, full of vivid descriptions of the wonders of the Land, a world as fully imagined as Middle Earth, though not springing from languages, as Tolkien's world did.

The story is vast (I've read there will be 4 volumes in the Last Chronicles) and even the first volume covers all kinds of territory, from that which is familiar to readers of the first 2 series, to new places and events, and the changes that accompany the passing of vast amounts of time since the last series took place. Donaldson's world is amazing, and I'd go there in a heartbeat. To have the health sense that the Land's people possess would be worth nearly any price.

On a technical note, I have read that in the first books Donaldson deliberately misused certain words in places. Why he did that I don't claim to understand, but it was the only thing about the first books that ever bothered me. (Well, that and Thomas Covenant is an anti-hero of amazing proportion. It takes some serious time to decide you can stomach being around him, even in print.) In Runes, Donaldson's prose is wonderful, and he never misused any words that I noted.

I strongly recommend this book. If I have any reservation, it is only that it will be a long time before the series is complete. I turned the last page this morning, and I desperately wanted to pick up the next volume right away.

Saturday, January 1, 2005

Welcome to Jeff Powell's Book Review Blog

In these pages you'll find book reviews I've been writing since 2005. Who am I? Nobody, really. Just an artist, epee fencer, some time software engineer, and reader. See below for the history about why I started writing these reviews. If they appeal to you, I maintain a life in general blog, where I discuss other stuff.


I rate books on the following (essentially arbitrary) scale:


The rating given represents my reaction the time I read the book. If I want to change the rating I will either add a comment with additional information or re-review the book in a new post.

Review Contents:

I try to write something both interesting and useful about each book, but I know I don't always succeed. Should the review give things away, the word "spoilers" will appear in the review title (and in the index), as a warning. Read those at your peril.

Some reviews mention people by name or nickname. These were usually people who participated in Doug Shaw's book review forums, and the comments are in reference to something someone else wrote.

Contacting Me:

There are at least three ways to contact me:
  • Leave a comment after a review. I moderate all comments and will get an email telling me it's there.

  • Send an email to jrpstonecarver (at) gmail (dot) com. That will go straight to me.

  • Use the contact page on my sculpture website. That also generates an email to me.
Whichever way you select, I will do my best to get back to you if you request it and if you leave me a way to reach you. Your comments, suggestions, and even criticisms are most welcome.

Why Are You Doing This?

There are many reasons, some lost in the dim mists of time.
  • Back in late 2004 my friend Doug Shaw asked his friends to join a book club. He suggested everyone read 50 books that year. Most of us - particularly those with full time jobs - just laughed at him. But after he dropped the number to 25 and after I read Runes of the Earth, I decided to sign up. That's what really got this started.

  • Over the next couple of years I started helping Doug out. I assisted with moderating his forums, and really enjoyed it. Another thing that happened was I decided to post these reviews to my own website, and to, in addition to putting them on Doug's site.

  • In 2008, now a father with less time on his hands, Doug decided he didn't want to run the forum anymore. With his permission I moved it to a new location and did my best to keep it going.  (Edit: Sadly, in 2012, I shut it down.  It was Doug that held the community together, and it never really took off after his departure to be a parent.)

  • In 2009, when I found myself unemployed again, I decided to move the reviews off my personal web site and into a blog. I'd been keeping another blog for a while, but realized I needed to split it into art and non-art topics. It was at that point that I realized it would be simpler to publish my reviews in a blog instead of directly on my personal site too, so here they are.

    It took almost 1.5 weeks, but I published all of the old reviews here, added a few comments, fixed a few typos, and cross checked all the links. I think everything is correct now. And this is the definitive location for my reviews. Errors, typos, and the like will get fixed here first, and may or may not get fixed in other locations as time and ability allow.

  • Maintaining these reviews also keeps me both reading and writing, which are both things I enjoy and want to do more of.

Please write your own reviews. Turning these in will get you a very low grade and is plagiarism. Some of your teachers will figure it out too, and then you're toast. Besides, reading is the greatest thing invented by civilized man, so enjoy it!


I speak only for myself, not for any of my employers, past, present, or future. Nor do I speak for any organization I volunteer with

That's It...

Thanks for reading all this! More important, though, is that you read a book. Perhaps one I've reviewed somewhere in here. Have fun!