Panicking and Running

I recently finished reading The Panic of 1907 and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

The first book is about one of the largest financial crises before the Great Depression. Main thing—living in a world where you could lose all of your money in a run on your bank sounds awful.

It’s encouraging to see that solutions were put in place for some of the causes of this panic, but future crises certainly weren’t avoided. Fixing problems is worthwhile, but it seems like someone will be able to game any system that gets put in place.

The second book is a memoir by Haruki Murakami. I’m not a runner, so I took a while to get around to reading this but I’m glad I did. His running seems like a way to have some mental space in the midst of a busy life.

As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I’m not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.

This can be done with running, yoga, gardening or whatever. Something like this has stuck in my mind since reading an article about David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel that takes place in an IRS agency.

“I caught a glimpse of a long room filled with I.R.S. examiners in long rows and columns of strange-looking tables or desks, each of which (desks) had a raised array of trays or baskets clamped to its top, with flexible-necked desk lamps in turn clamped at angles to these fanned-out arrays, so that each of the I.R.S. examiners worked in a small tight circle of light. . . . Row after row, stretching to a kind of vanishing point near the room’s rear wall.” Wallace’s unquiet mind is not yet ready for this paradise. Ms. Neti-Neti quickly spirits him away.

Basically, if something is valuable because it is scarce then boredom is gold for many people now. What does that mean for things?

Up next, The One-Straw Revolution.

He Was Saying Bin Bag

I finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go a few weeks ago. It was odd in a Haruki Murakami sort of way (a good thing). Not too surprising since I was having a discussion with some friends about Murakami and they lent it to me since they thought I’d like it.

The book also solved a 16 year old mystery. I saw Shallow Grave when it came out in 1994 (best Ewan McGregor movie ever) and watched it probably more than a dozen times on video. The Scottish accents get pretty thick and I couldn’t always tell exactly what they were saying.

There’s one scene were I thought one of the characters said that he’d stuff someone in a bean bag. I just figured he was trying to come up with an eccentric threat. Apparently this is one of those English vs. American boot vs. trunk things though and he was saying ‘bin bag’.

This book is set in England and they mention bin bags at one point and suddenly I understood. Thank you Kazuo, now I know.

Next, The Panic of 1907.

Machine Vended Chili Burgers

I finished reading Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On The Moon a couple of weeks ago. This is certainly not the most well known of his books to start with, but I like space and was curious.

My first impression was amazement that he turned the biggest moment in the 20th century into a book largely about himself. The reference to him in The Simpsons now makes more sense (“Norman Mailer’s latest claptrap about his waning libido.”)

He did have some interesting ideas about something other than himself. Most stories about Apollo don’t really go beyond The Onion’s reporting, but Mailer has some legitimate concerns about what comes next and what unintended consequences may come from this.

For example, the Green Revolution has feed millions, but has come at a cost of severe health and environmental risks. Chemicals used in rocket fuel have begun showing up in humans, but that’s not quite what he means.

Some of his specific concerns (such as what may happen with computers) seem quaint, but the general idea seems right. We can’t do something like this without changing ourselves and not everything will be positive. Even after 40 years, it still seems too early to tell.

One other note: the title of this post comes from a great anecdote about trying to find something to eat at a press event at one of the NASA centers. Just in case you were wondering…

Up next, Never Let Me Go.

This End Up

I recently read two more gardening books—The Backyard Homestead and Sow and Grow. Both had useful information about growing plants in your home or yard that you’d only figure out after a lot of trial and error.

For instance, we recently put a sweet potato in a jar and the leaves started coming out the bottom and going into the water. The Sow and Grow book told us that potatoes have an up side and a down side (who knew?) so I turned it around and it’s much happier now with everything pointing in the right direction.

There were all sorts of other interesting bits that hopefully I’ll try to put into practice soon (except for the parts that talked about keeping chickens, pigs and cows in your backyard). Maybe I’ll work on an indoor pineapple grove next to go along with my one baby tree avocado grove?

Up next, I’ve started reading Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon.

P.S. After the gardening books I read Home Game, a funny book about fatherhood. It felt like a long article that had been double-spaced into a small book and I don’t really have that much to say about it (other than the fact that I learned you can camp in Fairyland).

Sex, Drugs and Bunnies with Antlers

I just finished reading Dean Wareham’s Black Postcards*. The sex and drugs parts weren’t surprising, but it is amazing how little money a band as popular as Luna made—they weren’t as big as the Beatles but they had a loyal following and several solid albums. The power law in action…

It was interesting finding out more about the band and the stories behind some of the songs but the best part was learning about Wolpertingers, bunnies with antlers that live in Germany. I grew up in San Antonio and we are very proud of our jackalopes (there are a couple of them at the great Hall of Horns) and I had no idea about other antlered bunnies.

Central Texas was settled by Germans, so maybe they brought this idea over with them and it got picked up as a local custom? Wikipedia says the idea of a jackalope came from a couple of brothers in Wyoming who had studied taxidermy. I still like my idea about German settlers though, so I should go update the Wikipedia page to make it official…

Up next, a couple more gardening books.

* It was probably unrealistic to expect Dean to mention the time we saw them getting coffee at Jo’s the morning after seeing them in Austin. He did mention their last shows at the Bowery Ballroom but forgot to mention seeing me there too.

Thoughts About The Future Of The Internet

I finished The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It the night before OneWebDay. It’s a good fit since OneWebDay is about broadening awareness of web issues and deepening a culture of participation and the book identifies both actions as key to keeping the Internet healthy.

“Today’s consumer information technology is careening at breakneck pace, and most see no need to begin steering it. […] Internet users enjoy its benefits while seeing its operation as a mystery, something they could not possibly hope to affect.” (from paragraph 40 of the Conclusion)

When I was reading I also noticed similarities between how the book talks about the benefits of the Internet and how Mozillians have been talking about the same thing.

Jonathan Zittrain talks about the benefits of the Internet using the term generativity and he describes five features of a generative system:

  • Leverage
  • Adaptability
  • Ease of mastery
  • Accessibility
  • Transferability

There are certainly differences between this list and the way other people have been describing things, but the common elements are clear: the Internet is a global public resource and people need to get involved to keep it that way.

principle_graphic

Pluto Correctness

I recently finished reading two books that had Pluto in them (one had a little, one had a lot).

When is a Planet Not a Planet?: The Story of Pluto felt like an article that had been stretched into a small book by using lots of photos and illustrations. A pretty book, but it didn’t have anything new in it for me (to be fair to the book, I spent a big chunk of time in graduate school writing a paper about Pluto’s so-called demotion).

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is supposed to be one of Philip K. Dick’s best books, so I was curious to read it. For Pluto, it’s just mentioned as a place where a ship crash lands. For the rest of the book, it was like the other things I’ve read by him—it had a lot of sci-fi elements but was really about people’s perceptions of their world. Weird and interesting.

pluto2

To round out the Pluto references, my daughter started pre-school recently and I was fascinated to see that the teachers had crossed Pluto out of the solar system material they had (wanting to stay up to date, but not getting around to buying a new planet puzzle yet).

It’s a really interesting time right now—the change in status is new enough that a lot of old information is still out there, but it’s been long enough that younger kids have grown up only knowing that Pluto used to be a planet. It’s a paradigm shift in action with the new generation simply accepting the new status as normal while any disagreements among older generations start to fade away.

Up next: The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It.

Gardens and Math

Although it’s been half a year since my last post about a book, I have managed to read a couple of things since then (I just haven’t had the time to write about them). To catch up on things, here’s some quick mini-posts:

Second Nature: Lots of interesting stuff in here, especially the Why Mow? chapter. One part stuck with me that talked about how it used to be a point of pride to organize homes for consumption as people were moving off of farms. Now emphasis is shifting back to organizing homes for at least some production. And there is a lot you can produce without turning a house into a farm — you can produce food, water, dirt, energy

Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel: Just like the book on infinity, this book is less about math than it is about our experience of the world. In short, the world is a weird place. While I was reading, I kept thinking of the second best line from Ghostbusters: I’ve seen shit that would turn you white (this clip is notable for also having the best line from the movie).

Up next: When is a Planet Not a Planet?: The Story of Pluto.

Me and Mr. Chicken (Or Not Just a Bunch of Abstract Math-Class Vomitus on Transfinite Set Theory)

Surprisingly I just finished reading David Foster Wallace’s book about infinity, Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞*. Like his other books a lot of it is over my head but it’s fun to read anyway. He could be talking about math, tennis, lobsters or tennis and it will be an interesting experience.

I don’t have much to say about the math bits**, instead I wanted to talk about the story of Mr. Chicken (you can go read it online on pages 15-17 of the book starting at “This latest thought may or may not be accompanied…” through “…the concrete business of the real workaday world—from the unhinged.” [plus footnote number 8]). This provides a perfect explanation of why I dislike flying so much.

In my experience people tend to call a fear of flying irrational based on the statistics involved in flying versus driving. If I understand the Mr. Chicken story correctly, it is the people who are unfazed by flying who are not being rational (or rather, they are the ones who are able to cut off the abstract thinking process in order to go about their business).

In my case, I am being rational but the process of thinking through the statistics and justifications goes on forever without end and that ends up causing logistical issues in real life. Or to bring it back to Mr. Chicken, I’m not reassured by having flown successfully before since there’s no reason that past experience with flying will have anything to do with my next flight***.

Anyway, it was a good book.

This book seems to lead in to another book in the Great Discovery Series about Gödel. I’d like to read that soon, but up next I’m going to read a book by Michael Pollan.

* There’s been a lot of hanging out on the couch with baby asleep in my arms time over the past three weeks (I had forgotten that babies are a lot less active than toddlers).

** One of his examples about infinity cleared up a question I’ve had ever since plotting low-resolution graphics for the Apple II on graph paper in our middle school computer class. Back then you took a piece of graph paper and used that to select the pixels you would draw on the screen. If you drew a right triangle on the graph paper, the long diagonal line would have the same number of pixels in it as the shorter line running below it. That seemed odd to me since the diagonal line is longer than the other line (see the Pythagorean Theorem).

Low resolution right triangle
Low resolution right triangle

DFW explains that although the lines are different lengths, they both have the same number of points (they both have an infinite number of points that match up in a one-to-one correspondence). In the book he uses the example of drawing a series of vertical lines through the triangle to show that there’s one point on the longer line for every one point on the shorter line (pages 37-38 in the paperback I was reading). The low-resolution pixels show the same thing just using big chunky points.

*** Investment advice almost always features something along these lines with the words “Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results”.

Fiat Libellus

I just finished reading A Canticle for Leibowitz. I came across a reference to it recently that referred to it as a classic of science fiction and I hadn’t heard of it so I wanted to see what it was about. It was good, so go read it.

There was a fair amount of Latin in it (some of it was translated and some wasn’t) so this would have seemed to be a perfect excuse to apply the skills I picked up in college when I received a Latin major. I made a half-hearted attempt to translate some of it, but mostly didn’t bother. Maybe I was being lazy or maybe I thought that after being out of school for more than ten years I wouldn’t be able to translate any more?

This reminds me of when my family went to France when I was twelve or so. We were at a museum to see the Bayeux Tapestry, sort of a long graphic novel of the Norman invasion of 1066, and I was trying to get my dad to read the Latin text on it. I had remembered that he had mentioned before that he had taken some Latin courses in school, so I just assumed he could translate it if he wanted to. After nagging him a bit about this, I noticed that there was an English mum up ahead of us translating the text to her two kids. Pretty soon all of us were trailing behind her trying to listen in to what she was saying.

Anyway, the title of this post is my little attempt to make a Latin joke referencing the book. Now that everyone has had a good laugh, I’ll tell you that it’s my attempt to say ‘Let there be a blog post’. Not sure if libellus is right here. Maybe I should have coined the new Latin word bloggus? The Vatican may have an answer to this since they apparently are keeping the language up to date.

Up next, I still want to read some more David Foster Wallace (either the book about infinity or the book with the piece about cruises) but I have some other books I might read first. I think the issue is moot for now though since I’ll probably not be doing any reading for a bit with #2 due to show up any day now.