Monday, December 29, 2008

2008 wrap up

Rather than a long year's end list, I decided to just highlight a few things I really enjoyed, and posted about, this year:

Books - I read a ton of books this year, but two stood out: Water For Elephants and Anathem.

Concerts - By far, the standout concert of the year was Town Mountain playing at the Freight and Salvage. Not only was it a great show, but it was a great introduction to a band I'd never even heard of before and now will try to see any time they come to northern California

Movies - Not a lot of standout work this year, but I really enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire. Pretty standard story, but a stunning setting and look made the film a joy to watch

Events - A toss up this year between the Maker Faire and the CBA Father's Day Festival/Music Camp. Two very different events, but both very much about communities of dedicated people creating just for the fun of it.
Yesterday, I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.

Like Kafka on the Shore, the other Murakami novel I've read, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a convoluted example of magical realism/urban fantasy. It is a lot more obscure than Kafka on the Shore, with a much less straightforward narrative and less explained in the end. It starts off with a man receiving some mysterious phone calls and then develops into a story of a missing cat, a failing marriage, a sinister brother in law and dreams that may or may not be in some sense real, all tied in with some people who were soldiers in Manchukuo, the Japanese created puppet state on mainland China.

Overall, another excellent novel by Murakami.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The day before Christmas I finished Sun in a Bottle by Charles Seife, a fascinating popular science book about the history of fusion research.

It starts with the quest for the "Super", a fusion based, rather than fission, based, nuclear bomb, and proceeds through the quest for peaceful use of fusion, both in the form of using thermonuclear devices as landscaping tools and in fusion power, including discussions of the cold fusion and bubble fusion debacles.

Seife does a good job of explaining why fusion has always been more difficult to harness than scientists initially predicted, including the best version of all the sides in the cold fusion debate over the years. From his point of view, it is clear that the current mainstream approaches to fusion power, tokomak's like the ITER develolment and laser-driven intertial confinement systems, may never reach even a basic breakeven point where they generate more power than is consumed. And he doesn't see any viable new approaches on the horizon. He doesn't directly address Bussard's polywell fusion approach, but seems to dismiss all fusor like devices which seems to indicate he doesn't think it will be viable but I think the jury is still out on that.

Very nicely written treatment of the subject, even if the conclusions are depressing since viable fusion power would be a huge boon to the world.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

We saw the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still today.

It's a decent film, if you don't think about it very much. The special effects are all pretty and Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly and Kathy Bates are all effective in their roles. But Reeve's last minute change of heart and the pathos of Jennifer Connelly and her step-son bonding over a dead father we never met and who is a distant sub-plot aren't convincing.

Stick with the original in all it's 1950's cold war glory.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yesterday I finished Stone of Tears by Terry Goodkind, the second book in his huge Sword of Truth series.

I had read the first book in the series years ago based on a friend's recommendation but didn't like it very much. I decided to pick up this one after reading more about Goodkind and seeing the TV series Legend of the Seeker, based on the books. Sadly, this book only impressed me slightly more than the first one. The plot and characters are OK, if a little derivative. In particular, comparisons between this series and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series seem obvious. The main problem I have with this book is it's length. It feels extremely bloated and long-winded. Particularly in the beginning of the book, chapters go on and on while seeming to advance neither the plot nor the character development, re-hashing the same discussions and material over and over.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Yesterday we went to see the latest Danny Boyle movie, Slumdog Millionaire, and really enjoyed it.

The story is very standard - two children grow up in poverty; One is more violent than the other and both protective and abusive; Along the way, they meet a girl that they fight over; They get involved in the criminal underworld with serious consequences. The most similar modern example is City of God, set in Brazil's slums, but there are many more that come to mind.

But the setting, Mumbai's slums, is vibrantly presented, the images are marvelous and the performances are all good.

There is one new twist - the framing story of how the lead characters gets on India's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire", does better than expected and suspected of cheating, adds some dramatic and comedic elements to the story.

Overall, very nicely done and worth seeing.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

This morning I finished Anathem by Neal Stephenson.

In Anathem, Stephenson returns to the stand alone novels he used to write before his huge Baroque Cycle and it works very well. Unlike his last few books, Anathem focuses on one character and follows him throughout the novel. I enjoyed it from the start and it got better as it went along.

The beginning of the book will probably be offputing to some readers, in the same way that starting Patick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin novels is offputing. Stephenson does very little to set up, or give background, on the world he has created. Instead, he dives right in to the story. In addition, the story is very dialogue driven and uses a lot of terms that are specific to the history of this world. I spent the first hundred pages flipping back and forth to the glossary to keep all the different terms, historical personages and events straight. Once this information is mostly absorbed, the story starts to take off.

The story starts in a concent, kind of an intellectual monestary that is isolated from the outside world except for set periods every one, ten, hundred and thousand years. From there, it eventually ranges over the outside world, and above it. Along the way are a lot of intellectual discussions and a little bit of action. The novel is heavy on ideas, and light on action, which will turn off some science fiction fans, but those with a taste for philosophy and exploration of ideas will find a real treat.

Overall, Anathem is one of my favourite novels of the year.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Last night, I finished Viking Warrior by Judson Roberts, the first book of a trilogy of YA historical novels.

Fantasy has gotten quite popular in the YA world, providing an outlet for many fantasy authors as the adult fantasy/science fiction market struggles a little. Roberts seems to be taking advantage of that by positioning his historical novel set in the 9th century to the YA market. There are a lot of standard YA cliches in the book - the lack of, or quick death of the parents, the struggle for revenge, etc, but the book does a good job within that genre box in creating a compelling story and some sympathetic characters, as well as recreating a historical setting. The characters do not feel as period accurate as those in some hard core historical books, like the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien, but they are a definite improvement over the "90210 goes medieval" feel that occurs in some YA books.

My strongest quibble with this book is with the cover - what's up with the brooding hunk? The actual contents of the book would be great for boys looking for an classic adventure story but the cover seems to be trying to market it to girls looking for a cute guy, something that will probably keep many boys away from it.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Every once in a while, I get a taste to read some pulp fiction. Real pulp died out in the 50s but one of the modern equivalents is the media tie-in novel - novels based on a movie, game or other product.

Because of that taste, I picked up Eisenhorn by Dan Abnett, one of many novels he has written based on the Warhammer 40K tabletop/roleplaying/computer games. I've never played the tabletop or roleplaying versions but I have played the real time strategy computer game Dawn of War.

The universe of Warhammer 40K is a dark one, part Gothic, part steampunk with an endless war between the forces of Order and those of Chaos. The titular character of Eisenhorn is inquisitor on the side of Order, tasked with tracking down and eliminating aliens and heretics. The book is actually a trilogy of novels and a couple of related short stories. The novels would work as stand alones but are tied together enough to make one coherent story, one that is a little more sophisticated than I expected from a pulp book. Eisenhorn develops as a character in some surprising ways along the way, dealing with using evil to fight evil and the effects that has on him and his relationships.

Overall, some pretty good pulp and if the mood strikes me again, I might look for more by the same author.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Yesterday I finished Havana Nocturne by T.J. English.

The books subtitle, "How the mob owned Cuba and then lost if to the revolution", says it all. The book does a nice job of laying out how US based gangsters got involved in Cuba, became very influential by partnering with Fulgencio Batista, the military strongman who dominated Cuban politicals for the first half of the 20th century, and then lost everything when Batista fled the island as Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement took over.

English does a good job of balancing his coverage, keeping his editorial voice under control, and not giving any romantic overtones to two subjects often treated that way - the mafia and Castro.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Crows and Cats

I just finished Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.

The book tells two stories, the first is of a teenage runaway with some Oedipal issues, the second is of an old man who can’t read but can talk to cats. Ultimately, their stories connect even though they never meet or interact directly. The plot, and the characters, move in unexpected directions for the first half of the book. After the midway point, the stories start to come together, after which the events are easier to predict, if not always easier to understand. In the end, not every thing is explained but the underlying shape of what happened is revealed.

In the literary world, this book would be described as magical realism while in the genre world, it would more likely be called an urban fantasy. In either case, the term describes a setting similar to the modern world but with some degree of fantastical elements. In this novel, the fantastical elements are introduced very slowly but turn out to be integral to the plot.

Previously, I had seen a play based on Murakami's work, after the quake.

I liked both of these works quite a bit. Recommended.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I just finished The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam, his history of America's role in the Korean War.

Sadly, before reading this book my main source of info about the Korean War was having seen the entire run of M*A*S*H. For example, I knew the Chinese were involved but didn't know to what extent - that they were the main force the UN was fighting against in Korea for the bulk of the war.

The Coldest Winter is a little light on the actual details of the war - it seems to assume that most readers will be familiar with the details - and instead goes into a lot of detail in a few areas, like the initial Chinese offensive and the siege of Chipyong-ni. He also provides a lot of background material on the key figures involved, like Truman, McArthur and Ridgeway on the American side and Kim Il Sung and Peng Dehuai on the North Korean/Chinese side and on the larger political situation that provided context for the war.

Based on the quality of this book, I may pick up Halberstam's book on the Vietnam War as well.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Late last night, I finished Towing Jehovah by James Morrow.

Like the other books by Morrow I've written about here and here, Towing Jehovah is a satire with religious and philosophical dimensions. In this case, God has died and the protagonist, a fictionalized version of Joseph Hazelwood (captain of the Exxon Valdez) is given the job of towing the body from the equator to its resting place in the Arctic. Along the way, he will encounter radical feminists, a mutiny, WW2 re-enactors and an antediluvian island filled with pagan ruins.

Overall, the best of the three books I've read by him, though I enjoyed all three.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Yesterday I finished The Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf, a book on the science of the reading brain.

The idea of the book is a little better than the actual book is. It's still pretty interesting but a little disappointing.

It goes over the history of reading/writing, starting with the earliest representational scripts and leading up to the modern systems, like the Chinese, Japanese scripts and the Greek alphabet. One odd omission is the Arabic alphabet, which isn't mentioned at all.

The middle section of the book deals with what parts of the brain are involved with reading, and how that evolves over time as reader progresses from just learning to decipher text to being an experience reader able to consider subtleties. And the third section uses analysis of dyslexic readers to further illuminate how the brain processes text.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

This afternoon I finished The List of Seven by Mark Frost.

The List of Seven takes the historical figure of Arthur Conan Doyle, and then gives him an occult adventure before he became famous for writing the Sherlock Holmes stories. In this adventure, he encounters a few people and events that are obviously meant to be inspirations for things or characters that occur in the Holmes stories, including Holmes himself, his arch-nemesis Moriarty and their encounter at the Reichenbach Falls, and some other famous Victorians, including Bram Stoker and Madame Blavatsky. It starts when Doyle writes a novel based on the works of Blavatsky and featuring a conspiracy of occultists to conquer the world. It turns out that there is an actual conspiracy that finds out about Doyle's novel and decides to hunt him down for writing about it.

A not bad little pulpy pot-boiler.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Rashomon and Restoration

I just finished An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, a historical novel set in Oxford during the English Restoration after Oliver Cromwell had died. It is a popular time in novels, also used in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle and Morrow's Last Witchfinder, probably due to the turmoil in society at the time as well as the creation of new institutions like the Royal Society.

It is also a bit of a mystery, revolving around the death of a local scholar, possibly at the hands of a young woman. It's told Rashoman-like, in four stories told by different protagonists, most of whom are unreliable narrators for one reason or another. There is the Italian physician visiting Oxford on business, the law student seeking redemption for his fallen family honour, the court cryptographer looking out for conspiracies against the king and the historian who falls in love and resolves the mysteries.

Each of the narrative sheds light on the one before it and solves some mysteries while adding new ones. The author also does an excellent job of creating unique voices for each section - each story has a different feel to it that goes along with what we eventually learn about the character of the narrator.

Friday, October 31, 2008

I just finished Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, his paean to privacy, cryptography and "stickin' it to the Man".

Set after a terrorist attack in San Francisco, Little Brother is basically an excuse for Doctorow to go off on the stupidities of "homeland security" and the ways it can be spoofed by even tech literate teens.

In some ways, it resembles Heinlein's juvenile novels, for both good and ill. The story keeps moving and is interesting, and the writing is good in a straightforward way, but it gets bogged down in his pet interests/issues (privacy vs security) in a way that gets tiresome and, like a lot of Heinlein, there doesn't seem to be much distinguishing the protagonists of his various books, particularly not in the way they are written.
(I wrote about another book by him here.)

The other notable thing about this book for me is that it is the first one I have read in a digital format, in this case on the eReader app on my new Ipod Touch. I can't compare it to a Kindle, since I don't own one of those, but reading on the Touch is actually a pretty decent experience. The interface is easy to use, the screen/fonts are a decent size/appearance and, aside from some html text interpretation issues, it was an overall positive. I also tried the Stanza app, but abandoned, and deleted, it after it crashed for the twentieth time.

I could see transitioning a lot of my reading onto digital forms except for one thing - lack of reading material. 99+% of what I read these days is from the library and I buy very few books. Since there is no way yet to match DRM requirements and library use with digital readers, this limits me to free downloads, like Little Brother, or books that are in the public domain. Since the later includes most "classics", including personal favourites like the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle, I will keep it stocked for emergency situations, but most of my reading will remain in the standard book form.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I just finished Infoquake by David Louis Edelman, the first book in a new science fiction trilogy.

Infoquake is set in a future where a combination of nanotechnology and advanced programming referred to as bio/logic has transformed society. Society has also developed into a combination of tyranny/libertarian fantasy where a council seemingly rules everything but most day to day living is done without a global governing body.

It's an ambitious work, creating a full world that is very different from most, and a lot of the back story is still left untold, other than in a timeline included with the book. The beginning of the book also features an extensive section developing the main character, Natch, before the real plot continues. It's fairly well written, and the combinations of ideas are intruiging and new enough that I will definitely read the 2nd book in the trilogy when it comes out.

Last night we saw the David Thom and Del Williams bands at an RBA show.

I've seen David Thom a number of times before, and his band gets better every time I see them. They used to be just a good local band, but have changed into a very good, professional level, bluegrass band. The band has a very tight, high energy sound with lots of originals as well as traditional bluegrass songs. And it doesn't hurt that they've added a few Bay Area veterans, Paul Shelasky and Butch Waller, to the band.

The headlines, the Del Williams band, are a newer band, and you can tell. Their show was excellent, but less tight. The band itself is killer with excellent singers and pickers in all positions, except bass. The bass player seemed to struggle throughout the evening. They stuck to mostly traditional bluegrass and put on a great show.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

I just finished The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow.

I've only read two books by Morrow (I wrote about the other one here), but I liked both of them and will keep seeking out other books by him. Most books today are easily categorizable and seem familiar when read, even if they are new and the author has come up with an unusual plot, but Morrow's books aren't and don't. He is a self-declared secular humanist, and his books reflect that with themes of reason vs. faith, and other philosophical issues. This makes him rare from two standpoints - having an explicit philosophy that informs his writing, and having an uncommon one as well.

The Last Witchfinder is a good example. In some ways, it is a straighforward historical novel set around the time of the Enlightenment in both Europe and North America. The protagonist's quest is to see the practice of "pricking", i.e. witchfinding, ended and this quest takes them from England to British North America and back and involves Newton and Ben Franklin. But in a weird twist, the story is narrated by another book, Newton's Principia Mathematica, which provides background information, as well as waging a war with the Malleus Maleficarum ("Hammer of Witches". It starts slow, but definitely picks up steam.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Let Your Freak Flag Fly

Yesterday, I attended the SF Burning Man Decompression/Heat The Street Faire.

I've never attended Burning Man, and I'd never heard of this event even though it was the 9th annual one, but a friend was in town and is a fan of a local psychedelic surf rock band, The Mermen, who happened to be playing there.

It turned out to be a good show, and a neat little street fair, worth the wait in a two+ block line. The street fair seems to duplicate a little slice of Burning Man on 5 or 6 blocks of San Francisco's Dogpatch neighbourhood. Entrance was half price for anyone in "Black Rock Couture" so there were plenty of people dressed up, mainly in leather, fake fur and fishnet stockings. They had a couple of stages set up, even though most seemed to be more for DJ's with dancers rather than actual bands, and there were plenty of things to watch in the crowd as well.

You can see a bunch of pictures others took here. These pictures all look to be from earlier in the day when it was less crowded.
I saw the new Coen Brother's movie, Burn After Reading, on Sunday.

Similar to my thoughts on No Country For Old Men, I can't find anything in this movie to recommend it. The all star cast (John Malkovich, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton) give either dull or over the top and un-convincing performances, with the exception of Clooney as the over-sexed bodyguard. The story is a by now standard confused melange of misunderstandings and people treating each other like crap. I think it is intended as a comedy, but there are only a few funny scenes.

If you're looking to be mostly bored, and a little depressed, check out Burn After Reading. Otherwise, skip it and watch The Big Lebowski or Miller's Crossing again.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

I just finished The Miocene Arrow by Sean Mcmullen, the second book in his low tech, far future trilogy.

Set in a complex, and fairly original, world, this trilogy explores ways limited technology can be used to mimic higher technology. For example, in the first book, wind engines and a computer built out of human components feature heavily. In the second book, it is simple gasoline engines and heavier than air aircraft.

They are both interesting books, but the number of new characters and locations with weird names swamps the reader at the start. With persistence, it mostly becomes clear but Mcmullen's prose is sometimes too vague to follow well.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Best post I've read yet on how we got in to this financial meltdown comes from Megan McArdle.

She takes a higher level viewpoint - not getting into the nitty gritty of who lent what to whom and why, but instead thinking about what lead all sides to fundamentally misjudge risks. People made fun of him at the time, but Donald Rumsfeld was right, it's the unknown unknowns that you really have to look out for.

Sadly, we probably won't see any fixes based on this kind of thinking coming out of our panicked politicians. Instead, they will probably find ways to make it worse.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

This weekend, I spent a lot of time at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park.

On Saturday, I was there for most of the day and I saw Dry Branch Fire Squad (with a special appearance by Warren Hellman on old time banjo), Waco Brothers, Richard Thompson, Desert Rose Band, Laurie Lewis and Del McCoury.

The best thing on Saturday was a tie between hearing Richard Thompson's amazing solo guitar playing and hearing a few songs from Laurie Lewis + friends - including Alison Brown, Chad Manning and Dudley Connell.

On Sunday, I was only there for a few hours and saw Bill Kirchen and Riders In The Sky.

The highlight was definitely Riders in the Sky, with Ranger Doug's great swinging rhythm guitar playing, but Bill Kirchen was a pleasant surprise. I'd never heard of him before but he is a famous guitar player, originally with Commander Cody but going on to a good career on his own playing a mix of country, rockabilly, texas swing, boogie-woogie, etc. Very fun show.

Hardly Strictly is a great event in a lot of ways, from being free, to including some of the great bluegrass/country/whatever acts, and having a great setting but it also has a lot of serious flaws.

First, the crowd has become ridiculously large. By mid-afternoon, it is almost impossible to move around and the crowd has transformed from a genial, music appreciating festival crowd to a mix of local yokels that are there to get stoned/drunk, chat with their friends and appreciate "the scene" and whole families that have brought the parents, kids, aunts, uncles, pets, etc to have a picnic in the park where the music is, with the accompanying talking, pets running around, kids playing, etc.

The second is the sound mix. I assume most of the sound people are from the rock/country scene because they can't figure out how to properly mix a bluegrass band for their lives. They always mix the bass way, way too high and don't know what to do with the other instruments. I saw a few minutes of Heidi Clare's set and the sound guy seemed to think that the bass and guitar were the most important (i.e. loudest) instruments in the mix, and that Heidi's fiddle was strictly background, since he had it mixed the quitest and it could barely be heard.

The third are the festival rules/setup. The website says that people aren't allowed to setup till 10am, but everyone knows that is a lie and shows up early in the morning if they want to preserve their space. And they are allowed to save space by using large tarps. The result is that the first 50 feet before the stage is a quiltwork of tarps, half of them un-occupied until later in the day. Early on Saturday, a friend and I were near the front of the main stage looking for a friend, and decided we wanted to stop and listen to the band for a minute. We sat down on an open tarp and a minute later we were told by the people sitting in front of the tarp that the people using that tarp would be back in a minute to eat lunch but that if we wanted to stay they had a "free, spare" tarp just behind that wasn't being used. So that tarp sat there right in front of the main stage, empty for 90% of the time.
barely be heard.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Yesterday I finished Escape From Amsterdam by Barrie Sherwood.

Surprisingly, the book doesn't take place in Europe. Instead, it's set in Japan and the titular "Amsterdam" is a theme park. The protagonists sister is a performer there, and is also being kept there by a senior Yakuza. At the same time, he needs to get her out to help him get some money to pay back some gambling debts before his legs (or other parts) get broken.

The portrayal of Japanese youth culture from someone who lived there for many years - even though not an insider himself. The characters are well drawn, if not exactly sympathetic, and the plot avoids most of the obvious cliches.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

I just finished The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes

The Forgotten Man of the title comes from this passage from an essay by William Sumner :

The type and formula of most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism is this: A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes, from a sociological point of view, is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C's interests, are entirely overlooked. I call C the Forgotten Man.

During the 1930's, "The Forgotten Man" was a commonly used phrase in political speeches, but it was transformed from referring to the victim of welfare schemes to the recipient. Amity Shlaes' book tries to reverse some of that by re-examining the Great Depression from the point of view of those who were affected by Roosevelt's New Deal schemes.

It's a well written book, and I learned a few things about the Great Depression that I didn't know before. For example, I had read about how the gold standard didn't help, and may have hurt the economy at the start of the crisis but I didn't know that the Hoover administration was practicing what is known as "sterilization", where the effects of the gold inflows that would have naturally helped inflate the economy out of it's deflationary problems were artificially limited because Hoover's team incorrectly thought the problems were actually inflationary.

The one obvious weakness is the large cast of characters, from Roosevelt's brain trust to the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. The chapters are organized by time, so they necessarily skip around from person to person which leads to easy confusion about who is being discussed.

Overall, very interesting, particularly in light of the current financial meltdown. Whether this crisis ends up being handled better, or lingers and drags down the rest of the economy like happened in the Great Depression will be interesting to see.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Yesterday I finished Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Set in the same universe as the more famous Vorkosigan Saga but not including the same characters, Falling Free is more welding focused than most novels. In this case, it's welding in a microgravity, vacuum environment, but welding nonetheless.

The story involves the interaction between a welding instructor and the genetically enhanced property of a big corporation. Not surprisingly, the relationship between the corporation and the people it owns doesn't turn out well.

An OK read but nothing too special.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Last night we saw The Dave Holland Sextet at Yoshis Oakland.

I've seen Holland's various bands a few times, and they always put on a great, high end, modern jazz show. The pieces they play are almost avant-garde in their complexity, but is such a great musician, and has such great musicians playing for him, that it comes across very accessible.

One other thing that is very noticeable is the way Holland helps develop new musicians, and lets them really stretch out rather than just featuring himself. All the musicians in this band got a lot of room to show what they could do and gave wonderful solos.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Last night I finished The (Mis)behavior of Markets by Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson.

Though it was published in 2006, this book provides an interesting background to the current financial mess. The main thrust of the book is that the assumptions underlying much of modern finance are invalid, and have been known to be invalid for many years.

In particular, Mandelbrot argues that the distribution of prices in the market follows more closely a fractal/power law rather than the standard assumed Gaussian/Normal distribution, and that there is a dependence between current prices and past prices, though not in a way that is useful for so-called "chartists" who try to predict today's price based on previous data.

The first point doesn't seem to be very controversial anymore. Many studies have shown that markets do not match the Gaussian/Normal distribution very well, particularly in the "fatness" of the tails - the markets show much higher proportion of large price shifts than would be expected under Gaussian conditions - even though most finance courses still teach the CAPM/Black-Sholes types models that are based on this assumption. The second point is more controversial, and the book does not fully present that argument in enough detail for me to judge it, nor does there seem to be sufficient agreement in other studies.

I was hoping this book was more of a middle ground between detailed (and usually near incomprehensible to non-specialist) academic papers and pop-science type descriptions, but the authors chose to go the pop-science route and drop almost all mathematical detail from the book.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Last night I finished The Philosopher's Apprentice by James Morrow.

Part action adventure, part science fiction, part philosophical exploration, this is not an easy book to categorize.

The protagonist is a failed philosophy Ph.d who gets dragged into tutoring a girl with amnesia about ethics, or at least that is how things appear. The twists come fast and furious in this book which mixes elements from, and satirizes at the same time, Pygmalion, the Island of Dr. Moreau and Atlas Shrugged.

Good enough that I will be looking for other books by the same author, it does peter out a little half way through - the setup/buildup is more fun then the payoff and denouement.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

I just finished The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland.

As I read more of his books, it seems like I am enjoying Douglas Coupland more and more. I've read Generation X, Microserfs, Jpod and this book.

In my post about Jpod, I complained about the post-modern extras being annoying and distracting from the main virtues of the book. The Gum Thief lacks most of those distractions, possibly because there are a lot of self-referential things going on in the epistolary entries already. There is a coda to the book that is just too self referential and undermines the rest of the book a little, but mainly there are fewer gimmicks and that lets the characters and the story shine through.

The plot involves a middle aged drunk, his ex-wife, and some of the people he knows from the Staples he works at, particularly one young Goth who he forms a connection with. It also features a novel within the novel that is hilarious.

Highly recommended, particulary for people who have liked his other novels.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Last night I finished Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, his autobiography.

It mainly covers his youth and the years up to when he gave up stand up comedy and started making movies, with a few mentions of events after that. As the title indicates, it is really about him as a stand up comedian and there is a lot in the book about how his act developed, his influences, the ideas behind his act, and why he gave up stand up comedy.

Like a lot of autobiographies, it's a light read, but fun and pretty informative. Unlike most, Martin actually wrote it himself.

Monday, September 08, 2008

On Saturday, we saw smooth jazz icon David Benoit at Yoshi's in San Francisco.

Smooth jazz is not my favourite format, but David Benoit is a skillful enough performer that he overcomes the limitations of the genre. It was a good show, mainly built around material from his latest CD Heroes, where he does songs from some of his jazz heroes. The highlight of the show was his version of the Dave Brubeck tune Blue Rondo à la Turk.

This was our first trip to the new Yoshi's in San Francisco, located in the somewhat scruffy Fillmore district. The feel of the new Yoshi's is more upscale than the old one in Oakland - particularly the restaurant/bar section. The auditorium itself has what looks like exactly the same floorplan as the old Yoshi's, which makes for a weird deja vu when you enter it, but with the addition of a balcony with additional seating. This makes the space much more cavernous, and while the acoustics sounded good, there was a lack of an intimate feeling due to the very high ceiling.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Cthulhu as seen at Woodstock

This morning I finished The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson, the philosopher and prolific novelist.

The Mind Parasites was inspired by Wilson's conversations with August Derleth. After those conversations, Wilson decided to write a Lovecraftian novel, using some of his own philosophical ideas. The Lovecraftian themes are recognizable throughout, but the book is unlike anything Lovecraft wrote in a number of ways, mainly in the efficacy of the main characters. Lovecraft's characters are almost always helpless in the face of the horrors they encounter, and an overriding theme of his seem to be the insignificance to humans in the face of the cosmos.

On the other hand, Wilson is very much infused with the 60's ideas of human potential, including psychic and consciousness exploring potential. Out of the later comes the most innovative twist in the novel - instead of being an external, physical monster, the titular parasites exist inside the depths of human consciousness, where the interfere with people exploring their evolutionary potential and feed off human psychic energy.

The rest of the book is not as innovative - a simple struggle against the mind parasites more reminiscent of the pulp science fiction writings of the 30's - but the newness of the central idea is enough to carry the rest of the book.

Friday, September 05, 2008

I just finished Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.

We had watched the DVD recently and that made me interested in finding out more, but all I could find in the library was an audiobook. I've never spent much time listening to audiobooks, prefering the act of reading to that of listening, but this one was enjoyable so I may start listening more, particularly on my commute.

Into the Wild, the book, is better than the movie, though it does have its flaws. The greater detail available in the book allows us to get a better feel for Chris McCandless, and for the people he met in his travels. But it is also clearly a streched out magazine article. Krakauer spends a few chapters randomly listing other young men who had at least something in common with McCandless, and a few going over his own foolhardy attemp to solo climb an isolated Alaskan peak named Devils Thumb. Neither of these two sections feel well integrated into the rest of the book. The material about McCandless is always compelling, but the other material is not.

McCandless himself was clearly a Romantic, in the 19th century meaning, as one who rejected society and civilizations in favour of the spiritual aspect of Nature, and it resulted in his death. One of the reasons he is interesting is that we see few people in real life that live consistently by an explicit philosophy, and stick to that philosophy even in the fact of great challenge. Had he survived, it would have been interesting to see if he went on to a more standard lifestyle, or had continued what he was doing and became just another old bum.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Last night I finished Longitude by Dava Sobel, the story of how the problem of determining longitude at sea was solved.

Longitude is fascinating, but fairly short book. It's main focus is the watchmaker John Harrison, who created the first chronometers that could give accurate time even when subjected to the motion, temperature changes and rough conditions of a seagoing voyage. The chapters describing the problems, and Harrison's eventual solutions are fairly short and would be much better with illustrations to explain the chronometer's methods, or photographs of the surviving chronometers. The bulk of the book is about the political struggle that Harrison had to go through to be awarded the Longitude Prize, against rivals that proposed to use the lunar distance method and who were better positioned politically -- one of whom actually sat on the board that judged the outcome.

Nicely written book.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Last night, I finished Farthing by Jo Walton.

Farthing is an alternate history story, one of many involving WW2 and the Nazis. In this one, the peace mission Rudolf Hess was on was successful, and a peace was made between Germany and England, allowing Germany to tackle the USSR without interference and the US ends up under the leadership of the fascist sympathizer Charles Lindbergh, similar to Philip Roth's The Plot Against America.

But all that aside, Farthing is really a pretty straightforward mystery/police procedural where we get to explore the inner workings of a rich, upper class British family after a murder that may, or may not, have political motivations. It's well written and doesn't follow the obvious cliches of either of its genres.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Yesterday I finished The Face of Battle by John Keegan, a military history book.

The book is Keegan's attempt to influence the form of most military histroy books. He focuses on the lower level troops, rather than the generals and high level strategy. Keegan goes through three battles - Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme - in detail and uses them to illustrate his points about how battles should be described. The sections on actual battles are interesting, but the sections before and after about his new ideas in military history are harder to read - he writes in large blocks of text and doesn't always give the background necessary to understand what he is referring to.

I originally picked it up because I had an ancestor who fought in, and was knighted after, the battle of Agincourt.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Yesterday I finished The Sunday Philosopher's Club by Alexander Mccall Smith.

Smith has three series - the Ladies Detective Agency series, the Sunday Philosopher's Club series and the 44 Scotland Street series. This is the first book of the second series and I wrote about the first book of the first series here.

This book doesn't have the weird point of view problems that the other book had, but it also doesn't have as much charm. It's a perfectly serviceable mystery with some OK characters but nothing remarkable.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Last night we went and saw Town Mountain at the Plough and Stars in SF. I last saw this band at the Freight and Salvage and wrote about it here.

I only stayed for the first set, but it was another good show. Their previous show was almost all original songs, so it was interesting to see them do some bluegrass standards in this set.

I preferred the show at the Freight because the bar was very loud and filled with idiots who preferred to talk loudly and stand around rather than listen to music, but as I said before, I will definitely try to see this band any time they come to town.
Last night I finished The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton.

The Dreaming Void is set in the same Universe as his last two books, Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained ,which I wrote about here and here, but is intended as the start of a new trilogy.

It has the same highlights, and problems, as the previous works - great high energy space opera, with thin characters and very complex, hard to keep track of story. The one interesting new feature is a series of dreams, told as a separate story. The story in these dreams is more of a standard fantasy and it shows that Hamilton could easily write a good fantasy novel if he wanted to.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Last night we went to see a live musical, Insignificant Others, at the local tourist trap, Pier 39.

It was a fun little show, but not exactly high art. The show is very San Francisco centric, built around 5 people from the mid-west who move to San Francisco. It's described as "half Sex in the City and half Will and Grace" but a friend pointed out that "half Will and Grace and half Friends" would be more accurate.

I think a lot of the references would be lost on non-locals, but it would still be a fun show to check out if you like musicals.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Last night I finished Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith, the latest Arkady Renko novel.

I wrote about the previous novel, Wolves Eat Dogs, here. One of the hallmarks of the series is the horrible situations Renko puts up with, from being banished to work on an Arctic fishing trawler to having to work in the Chernobyl hot zone, and Stalin's Ghost doesn't disappoint. Renko has his closest encounters with getting killed while investigating sightings of Stalin in the subway.

Once again, Smith does an excellent job of taking advantage of Russia's turbulent recent history. In this case, it is the war with Chechnya, and it's aftermath. It makes me curious to see if we will see a Renko novel in a few years set in relation to the current Georgian situation.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

This morning I finished Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

Water for Elephants is an excellent book - a historical novel set during the Great Depression, in and around a traveling circus, with some chapters set in the present day as an old man remembers his time with the circus.

This one was a recommendation from a friend, who said she had trouble putting it down, and I felt the same way. Good characters, an interesting plot and the alternating between the past and present worked well.

Definitely recommended.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

This afternoon, we went and saw The Dark Knight, the latest Batman movie.

It's a pretty good movie, better than I expected. As many people have noted, it is very dark, with lots of fairly realistic and disturbing violence to go with the usual over-the-top comic book scenes. Heath Ledger's performance is a little over-rated, but he does a good job of selling a character through the makeup.

It has lots of very typical superhero movie moments - the battle between romance and the secret identity, the villain dedicated to revealing the hero's identity, the forced choice between rescuing one set of hostages and another, etc, etc, but they are all done with either little twists to make them fresh or with a panache that imbues them with a fresh feeling.

Deja Vu All Over Again

The other night I watched the Olympic opening ceremonies from Berlin - oops, I mean Beijing.

Very impressive displays of thousands of people moving in sync and cutting edge technology.

From the reviews, it's amazing to see how much people are still impressed with nationalist displays of pageantry, even when they come from one of the only 21st century nations that could be literally described as fascist. One gets the impression that if the Nazi's hadn't been homicidal anti-Semites, the Nuremberg rallies would still be considered nifty displays of national pride.

Friday, August 08, 2008

I just finished Free Lunch by David Cay Johnston. Subtitled "How the wealthiest Americans enrich themselves at government expense (and stick you with the bill)", it is a follow up to Perfectly Legal, his book on taxes that I discussed here.

Free Lunch has a lot of the same virtues of Perfectly Legal, and a lot of the same vices - Johnston does a good job of presenting a polemic that should raise anyone's ire about the current state of affairs, but falls down on explaining or understanding why this state of affairs exists or how to fix it.

The book goes into great detail on how free market rhetoric is used to push changes in regulatory systems that are really not deregulation, but just changes in regulation that favour one side over the other, and how government is used, often in secret, to funnel money to small groups of people. The most common terms for this are corporate welfare or corporate socialism.

But there are a number of problems with how the book is written. First, there are problems with organization - in the chapter on how sports franchises profits come mainly from subsidies, he gets derailed in talking about George Steinbrenner and ship building business. Second, there are problems with tone and journalistic standards - he mixes fact and one sided opinion very freely throughout the book without properly differentiating between them. Third, there are problems with math and argumentation - he counts discounted expected sales tax over many years as part of a subsidy, and then compares it to the single year earning of a business.

But all of those are minor flaws compared to the main one - he doesn't understand the political, and philosophical, context that underlies the facts he talks about. He discusses the growth in America post WW2, and contrasts that with more recent times, but doesn't understand that the expansion of government influence post New Deal, which accelerated after WW2 and got it's tendrils into every part of American life, is fundamentally to blame for the later results that he decries. Once this un-accountable system was in place, it is inconceivable that it wouldn't be turned from benefiting one group to benefiting another. And it is easy to understand why the group with the most resources, in every way, would come out on top. Once you have started the equivalent of gang war, why is it surprising that the strongest group comes out on the top of the heap?

But looking past those flaws, this is a valuable book that should be read as widely as possible so that people understand the extent of the corruption in the system, in order to make them understand that what is needed is not incremental fixes to the system, but a new understanding of the base of the system and why the gov't influence that exists is wrong. At times, Johnston sidles around this idea but in the end he seems to blame the problems on the emphasis on free markets, even though at other times he makes it clear that what are being set up are really fake free markets.

Monday, August 04, 2008

This morning I finished Vivaldi's Virgins by Barbara Quick.

Vivaldi's Virgins is a historical novel, set at an orphanage, Ospedale della Pietà, during the decline of the Venetian Republic. The abandonded girl orphans were trained as musicians and Antonio Vivaldi was a teacher there for many years. The main character is Anna Maria dal Violin, based on a real person, who was left at the orphanage as a baby and is desperate to know who her family is.

It's an enjoyable novel, though you don't learn as much about Venice as you might expect. The orphans are forbidden from travelling outside the orphanage, and though they do break the rules at times, most of the action is internal.

Having visitited Venice, it was hard for me to picture it as a place where people actually lived, rather than as the tourist trap it is today.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Last night I finished Resistance by Owen Sheers.

Resistance is an alternate history novel, postulating a fairly standard alternative - what if Germany had won WWII? - but with a novel twist: the book is not set after the war, but during it. The D-Day invasion has failed and Germany has replied with an invasion of Britain. The novel deals with a small group of women, isolated after their husbands disappear to help out an anti-German insurgency, and their interactions with a small group of German soldiers who come to their remote valley on a special mission.

More of a sophisticated character study than the thriller one might expect from the description, Resistance is a well written debut novel, well worth checking out if you have the right expectations.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

I just finished Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby.

It made an interesting companion piece to With God On Our Side, the book on the Religious Right I read a while ago.

It is a pretty interesting book, about a topic that is not much discussed. I knew about the Deism of many of the Founding Fathers, and that they had pushed for a separation of church and state, but I didn't know that many of the Protestant sects at the time had also pushed for the separation due to worries about established religions acting against them. I also didn't know about some key figures, like Robert Ingersoll, who gave popular lectures all over the US in the 19th century even though he was a militant secularist.

There are some weaker parts of the book - Jacoby spends a lot of time talking about the abolitionist, suffragette and civil rights movements even though all three of those movements were not solely, or even primarily, secular movements. All three did involve secularists in one way or another, but that doesn't justify the depth she goes into. Another weak point is an odd omission - there is no discussion, or even mention, of Ayn Rand, probably the most popular and influential atheist philospher/author of the 20th century.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

And now, with titles...

Yesterday, I finished The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith, the first in the popular series.

I have a friend who recommended another series by McCall Smith, but I couldn't find the first book in that series so I picked this up instead. It's a good, light read. Not so much of a mystery as a "slice of life" book about Botswana from someone who lived there. Most of it feels almost like short stories that had been tied together.

The one weak part of the writing is a weird inconsistency with point-of-view. Most of the book is from the point of view of the main character but at times it includes thoughts or feelings from some of the other main characters. I assume the author couldn't find a way to make his characters feelings clear in those situations without resorting to basically telling them to us.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Yesterday I finished Baltimore (Or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire) by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden, an illustrated novel by the creator of Hellboy.

Kind of an urban fantasy, Baltimore starts off with the title character on a WWI battlefield, where he encounters vampires feeding on the dead and inspires one of them to start feeding on living humans, unleashing a plague of vampirism that changes history.

The book is a deliberately "gothic" story, told mainly as a series of stories shared amongst three men who have met in a tavern. The black and white illustrations don't add much to the book, but the rest of it works pretty well. It's a basic story, told well. The format of stories being told adds a lot of overhead, so it's a short story in terms of content.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I just finished Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith, the fifth of his Arkady Renko novels.

Modern mystery novels are really differentiated by two things - characters and settings - and finding a good combination seems to be the key to a good series. Smith stumbled on a brilliant combination in this series - the Russian setting provides a better background than most for the bitter, dis-spirited character that is common in modern mysteries. In this series, Renko has gone from suffering under the Soviet bureaucracy, being fired and toiling in a fishing trawler to post-Soviet Cuba.

Smith has also been lucky that real world changes have provided a nice backdrop for ongoing novels - from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the rise of the Russian Mafia, and in this novel, Chernobyl.

Wolves Eat Dogs is a good addition to the series, and I will probably read the sixth book in the series soon.

Monday, July 21, 2008

This morning, I finished With God On Our Side by William Martin.

Subtitled "The Rise of the Religious Right in America", this book catalogs the shift in the 20th century from a religious population that worked hard to keep itself separate from politics to one that saw politics as an integral part in protecting, and extending, it's values in the public sphere.

The cover is a little misleading - it shows George W Bush as part of a progression of religious leaders, but the book was published in 1996, well before the 2nd Bush had moved into national prominence.

Overall, it's a well written look at the rise of this movement, written in a fairly non-biased way. If you are interested in how the religious right is influencing American politics, at both the grass roots and upper levels, this is a must read.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I just got back from seeing WALL-E, the last Pixar film.

Pixar is yet to make a bad movie. Even when paired with an insipid, anti-consumer, environmental propaganda background, they can turn it into a fun, and amazing looking, event.

One odd thing about WALL-E is the use of real people in some scenes. When there is recorded footage played, it uses real people, even though when WALL-E encounters humans, they are animated in the standard way. I guess they just wanted to have Fred Willard in the movie.

WALL-E also comes with a new Pixar short entitled Presto, the best short they've done in a while.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Yesterday I finished The Man With a Load of Mischief by Martha Grimes, the first book in her Richard Jury series.

It is a decent mystery, set in a small English town. Light entertainment, but good light entertainment.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Yesterday, I finished The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

I developed a dislike for Dickens after speed reading Great Expectations on high school. I tried to read A Tale of Two Cities years later, but could never get into, which I thought confirmed that I didn't like Dickens, but I did enjoy this book. The pathos at the end is very overdone, but otherwise it is enjoyable.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

This morning I finished Revenge of the Cootie Girls by Sparkle Hayter, the third book in her Robin Hudson books.

The Robin Hudson books are light-weight mysteries centering around the exploits of Robin Hudson, a New York reporter/producer loosely based on Hayter herself. I picked up the first of Hayter's novels because she is from the same city as I am, and is the daughter of one of Edmonton's longest serving politicians.

Like the other books, Revenge of the Cootie Girls, is a mystery but is less plot centered than the other books. It is set on Halloween night and involves the main characters going from place to place in New York, following a trail of clues left by an old friend, reminiscing about her past and meeting up with a bunch of current friends. Very low key, humorous reading.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Yesterday I finished Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow.

The book is an urban fantasy, involving a main character to who is descended from a mountain, a winged girl, a brother who won't stay dead and a subplot about WiFi access.

It's a very good book, with a few problems. First, the ending is weak. It's too short and depends on a twist that doesn't fit very well with the rest of the book. Second, the book uses a flashback structure, shifting between the present day and the main character remembering incidents from his childhood. This works OK but at a point it shifts from a two pronged structure to a three pronged structure, adding flashbacks to the recent past, after some of the events that occur in the "present" part of the book. This is confusing and at times it is hard to tell whether a given chapter takes place before or after an earlier chapter.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Last night we saw Mark Knopfler at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.

I have a friend who is a big Knopfler fan, so we go see him whenever he has a new tour. I'm not a huge fan of Knopfler, but I have to admit he puts on an excellent live show.

His music was always a little on the sophisticated side, instead of being teenage rebellion or angsty, so it works very well with an aging audience and an artist. Highly recommended if he plays in your area and you have any familiarity with his music.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Today I finished Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters, a steampunk fantasy novel.

The setup/background of the novel is never described or explained very clearly but seems to involve two gods having taken over part of London and slowly consuming or converting the inhabitants thereof. Where they came from, or what they are trying to build/create is never very clear.

And that is indicative of a general problem with this book - the author has some interesting ideas but doesn't do enough to properly set them up or describe them so that it is clear to the reader what is happening.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Yesterday, I finished Brasyl by Ian McDonald.

Brasyl starts out feeling very vintage cyber punk - dystopian near future where high tech mixes with societies under-classes - but then branches out to include a historical section, secret societies and the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum physics, and then wraps it all up neatly in the end.

The only weak part of the book is that the usage of Brazilian slang and unfamiliar terms is almost overwhelming. It turns out there is a glossary in the back, but I didn't realize that until I had finished the book. This adds a nice colour to the text but strongly lowers the readability. I had to either stop numerous times to puzzle out what was being talked about or to skim some passages, absorb the general feel of it and not worry about understanding the specifics.

This book is one of the nominees for Best Novel in the 2008 Hugo Awards. So far I've read four of the five, and wrote about the others here, here and here. Of those four books, Brasyl is my favourite.

Friday, June 20, 2008

I just finished The Pixar Touch by David A. Price, a book about the hardware/software/movie company.

It's quite a good book, well written, with a good amount of background and inside knowledge of the company. Before reading it, I had known that Pixar had failed as a hardware company, had some success as a software company and hit the big time with the first complete computer graphic animated movies but I didn't know that the animated movies were the goal the whole way; the hardware and software were just ways to make money off their computer graphics expertise until they could get someone to give them the chance to make animated features, and until the technology was ready.

The book also gives a lot of details about the ties between Pixar and Disney - a partnership that always made sense since a number of key players were ex-Disney employees and/or were inspired by the way Disney did animation.

Also, like other books like Insanely Great (about the creation of the Apple MacIntosh) or iWoz that feature him, this book makes it clear that working with or for Steve Jobs is basically a nightmare. He comes across as petulant, childish, a horrible manager and someone who is excellent at taking advantage of creative talent around him. From this book, he clearly didn't have a lot to do with Pixar's success other than funding them, even though he gets a lot of credit in the media.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

I just finished The Hidden Family by Charles Stross, the 2nd book in his Merchant Princes series.

I liked this one better than the first book in the series, The Family Trade. If you've read that one, but found it only marginally interesting, try this one. If, on the other hand, you're interested in this one, read the other one first. They are short books and they are really one continuing story.

The first book felt like a lot of setup with little payoff, which is probably why I liked this one better. There is still some setup, as Stross complicates the story, but the book is focused on resolving some of the mysteries raised in the first book and advancing the characters.

The first book mixes a modern day world and a medieval one, and this book introduces some steampunk elements as well. I've liked other books by Stross (see here and here), but I had mixed feelings about this series until now. Based on this latest book, I will keep reading.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Yesterday I finished The Armies of Memory by John Barnes.

It turns out this is part of a series, but I don't think I've read any of the other books in the series but I might look for them now.

The setting for this book is very complicated, too complicated to summarize here, but it has some interesting new twists on standard science fiction settings. The book also has some well drawn characters and a plot that is deeper and more interesting than most.

For me, John Barnes is a difficult writer to judge. I really like some of his books, like this one, and really dislike some of his books, like Kaleidoscope Century.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

I spent the entire week at the California Bluegrass Association's Music Camp, where I am a volunteer/teaching assistant, and the following Father's Day Bluegrass Festival.

The highlight of the festival was the second set by the new Dan Tyminski Band. The first set was well played, but the song selection wasn't too my taste. The second set had a lot more hard driving bluegrass songs, and a few great instrumentals.

The second best thing was the first Crooked Still set. They complained during the set that they were tired since they were still recovering from being in Europe, but it seemed much more high energy than the other two sets I saw.

And the third best thing was the new stage, Vern's. It was a trial run this year, was fully launched this year and it was great. Overall, I liked the bluegrass coming from the bands on the Vern's stage more than the too polished sound of the bands on the main stage. There were sets by Angelica Grim's new band, the duo of Keith Little and Jim Nunally, Blue and Lonesome, and friends of mine in Kitchen Help.
A few days ago I finished The Last Legion by Chris Bunch.

I don't have much to say about this novel - it's an example of pretty generic military science fiction without much to recommend it. I picked it up at the library because I wanted a paperback to read while camping, and I doubt I'll pick up anything else by this author.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

We saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull yesterday. It's not bad - better than Temple of Doom, but not as good as the other two.

It was neat to see them use the pulp elements from the 50's - Roswell, atomic bombs, Soviet agents, McCarthyism - and the action sequences were good. Surprisingly, the worst element of the movies is the acting. Harrison Ford looks fine in the action sequences but looks uncomfortable in the dialogue scenes, as if he had difficulty getting back into this character. The worst acting comes from Karen Allen, who doesn't look convincing or comfortable in any scenes. She looks like she is just too happy to be working again to not let it show, no matter what is going on around her.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

I just finished Dust by Elizabeth Bear.

Dust is a very standard science fiction story, the generation ship, updated with more modern ideas like nanotechnology, genetic engineering and distributed artificial intelligence.

Bear adds a touch of fantasy imagery, another approach that has been extensively explored by Gene Wolf in his Book of the Long Sun series.

But even though she is playing an well developed setting, Bear still writes an enjoyable book and, based on this novel, I will check out some of her other works.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

It's been a while since I've posted here because I've been re-reading a very long book - Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, the first book in his Baroque Cycle.

I was re-reading it because I've had an odd reaction to his later books. I loved his earlier science fiction books like Snow Crash and Diamond Age, but starting with Cryptonomicon, his last book before the Baroque Cycle, I found that I didn't like the books on first reading, but liked them a lot more on second reading, and the same holds true for Quicksilver. I still think it is overly long, and could have used some more hard editing, but it seems more focused and interesting and make me think I might continue with the 2nd book in the series, The Confusion, at some point.

It's odd that some book stores put the Baroque Cycle in the science fiction/fantasy section because there really is nothing SF or fantasy about them - they are straight historical novels, where the main characters interact with a lot of real people (like Isaac Newton, Charles II, James I) and are involved or witness a lot of actual historical events (like the Great Fire of London and the Glorious Revolution).

Reading this book gives a nice background for why the American Founding Fathers considered it so important to separate religion and the state. The religious wars between Catholics, Anglicans and various other Protestant sects drove Europe into ruin numerous times during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Compared to other historical writers, like Patrick O'Brian, Stephenson does not try to create an accurate feel of the historical period. Instead, he draws on the similarities and emphasizes common ideas from his other books, like cryptography, science and computation.