So They Have Pancakes In Hell, Huh?

I just finished Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. When the English translation came out a few years ago I meant to pick it up, but then never did. Back then I was going through a period where I was reading as much of Murakami’s work as I could find, but then I got burnt out and couldn’t read any more. The same thing also happened when I read several of Salmon Rushdie’s books — it felt like I was reading the same thing over and over.

It’s not that the books are reusing the same plots, it’s more that the details that make up the story seem to keep coming up. For instance, in Kafka on the Shore and the Murakami short story I recently read there are characters in both that are very meticulous about how they handle pencils. Also in all of his books, inevitably there will come a point where the main character will cook a simple meal at home and eat it with a beer.

A page from A Wind Up Bird Chronicle from Evan

These are not complaints, but it does explain why I’m reading this book now and not a few years ago. I’m glad I got around to reading it since I enjoyed it — there’s strange stuff, interesting characters and good writing. Even if some of the bits and pieces do get reused, that’s OK (write what you know, after all) but I’ll just remember to read other stuff between Murakami books next time.

Up next, a pile of magazines that have been building up recently, including a New Yorker short story collection.

More: I forgot to mention that the library in this book reminds me of the Magnes Museum in Berkeley (the history of the building, the location, the layout). I also ended up reading one more thing by Murakami in the pile of magazines I went through recently (an excerpt from his book about running that was in a recent fiction issue of the New Yorker). OK, so that’s it for Murakami for now. Up next, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

The Exciting Life of Bureaucrats

I just finished reading Life of a European Mandarin. It was written by a former EU official and is full of stories of his time in Brussels. Most of the stories dealt with explaining how difficult it was to get anything done in such a big bureaucracy and some others involved dishing dirt on European politicians I’ve never heard of before.

It was interesting to compare his experiences with his overview of the history of the European Union. He mentioned several times how amazing it was that so much had been accomplished in 50 years — who would have guessed right after World War II or during the Cold War that most of the countries in Europe would voluntarily join to form a political and economic union?

The author ends by saying that he thinks the EU has become less capable as it’s grown larger and that it is no longer able to meet the challenges ahead of it. I can understand why someone who has dealt directly with the frustrations of working in a huge bureaucracy would have a negative opinion of that organization’s abilities, but I think he misses the larger picture.

It’s true enough that on one level it is nearly impossible for a bureaucracy to get things done but on another level it can bring about huge changes, like uniting a continent or sending people to the Moon or creating the Internet or… There are issues that are unique to the EU’s situation today but any large organization deals with this dynamic and somehow things manage to get done.

This is getting me interested in going back and reading more of Arthur Schlesinger’s Age of Roosevelt series. I read the first a couple years ago and am interested in reading more about an earlier transition where people started looking to the government as a positive influence instead of something that worked poorly and should stay out of people’s way.

But first I’m going to read Kafka on the Shore. My friend Evan sent me a Murakami short story recently and that got me excited to read more of his books again.

Which Type Of Reader Was I?

I finished reading Landscape Painted with Tea a week or so ago. It took me a while to get through it partly because we took a couple of trips recently (I take magazines with me when I travel instead of books) and also because I wasn’t able to get into the book. There were a lot of absurb bits and I just wasn’t in the right mood for stuff like:

…and she listened to her husband in bed next to her as in his sleep he ate in Serbian and then translated into French, tasted cabbage, dipped into the jar of pickled peppers, gnawed at fish bones, guzzled brandy, or blew into the polenta full of bursting bubbles…

The story overall was interesting though, so I did want to read through it all. I also like the way the second half of the book was structured. The author numbered the chapters like a crossword (8 Down, 4 Across…) and encouraged me to read in crossword order instead of reading the chapters in the order they were printed (I read straight through and not in crossword order). There was also plenty of commentary for people who didn’t want to read it that way, such as:

Because, while a fine story may not need fine language or fine words, it does need a fine way of reading, which, unfortunately, does not exist yet, but will, we hope, come with time… Because, just as there are talented and untalented writers, so there are gifted and ungifted readers…

To make the point about the crossword, you had to solve the crossword to get the ending of the book (although the publisher printed the last sentence at the end of the book — after the blank page left by the author that said ‘Space left for the reader to write in the denouement of the novel or the solution to this crossword’).

To make the point about how he felt about certain types of readers, the last line of the book (before the solution to the crossword) was ‘The reader cannot be so stupid as not to remember what happened next to Atanas Silvar, who, for a time, was called Razin.’

For the next book, I’ve started reading Life of a European Mandarin.

Locavore Life

I just finished reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and have gotten so excited about growing some food that I just bought a sixth fruit tree for our new orchard (although my wife has suggested I calm down a bit since we don’t yet own a house that has a yard where we can plant these trees). Our orchard now includes: an avocado tree, an apple tree with three varieties grafted on to it, a blueberry bush, and lemon, lime and oranges trees in the citrus section. I suspect I’ll get at least a couple more soon — I’ll get a kiwi tree (do kiwis grown on trees?) if I can find one (they are apparently local since there were kiwis at the farmer’s market) and maybe an apricot or cherry tree too.

So the book was good and is definitely worth reading to help give you a good persceptive on our food culture and explain why eating locally, even a little, can be beneficial. There’s too much to summarize here, but I did want to point out one funny Calvin Coolidge related sexual anecdote (go read about it on Wikipedia) and one complaint I had (go read about it in the next paragraph).

The book talks about the horrible conditions of factory-farmed cows and chickens, but then ignores the fact that the condition of factory-farmed fish isn’t very pleasant (or healthy) either. The book also talks about raising heritage turkeys to help keep these breeds from going extinct, but then the author talks about how see misses wild-caught alaskan salmon and tuna without mentioning that fish populations are plummeting around the world. It’s interesting that she would have this blind spot, since one theme of the book is that being distant from the source of your food makes it difficult to understand what you are eating and how your food choices effect your health and the health of the environment. That certainly seems to be the case here — she may be living on a farm with turkeys and asparagus, but she’s still physically removed from where the fish live (I also think the fact that fish are anatomically more removed from us relative to most farm animals can help explain this blind spot and can explain why some people who say they are vegetarians eat fish but not chicken or beef).

Up next, a switch to fiction with Landscape Painted with Tea.

The Elevator World

I just finished rereading Colson Whitehead’s book The Intuitionist. I don’t often read books twice since I have a big stack of new books waiting, but I wanted to try this one again since I remember thinking I had missed something the first time (so the story is all about elevator inspectors and some of them do their job by feeling how the elevators are operating and something is certainly being referenced here, right?).

Even if I didn’t pick up on anything new, rereading books is interesting because I have this habit of sticking bits of paper in between pages whenever I have a reaction to something. It’s not clear though what bits I’m reacting to since I decided a long time ago not to highlight or underline anything — just stick a piece of paper in between the pages to let me know I thought something was interesting. This time through I left a couple pieces of paper in spots, but I also came across some paper I left several years before (a part of a boarding pass from a flight from Newark to Heathrow).

When I got to the place I marked before I couldn’t tell why I put it there and didn’t see anything particularly worth flagging. It’s not frustrating that I can’t figure it out — I just think it’s interesting that what grabbed me before didn’t this time (and vice versa for the other two pieces of paper I left the second time through). I could have marked that spot better or could have written some lines in a journal somewhere, but I wouldn’t know what to do with that information anyway and leaving bits of paper is easier.

Up next, locavore manifesto Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

My Ambrose Bierce Blog Post

I just finished reading a collection of Ambrose Bierce‘s Civil War writings. I’m not really a Civil War buff (I have watched Ken Burn’s documentary and I enjoy Shelby Foote’s drawl but that’s the extent of it) but I was interested in finding out more about Ambrose Bierce. The writing in the stories is amazing and they are full of great lines like:

I will cheerfully confess that if my story had been different from what it was it might have been worse than it is.

If only all 19th century authors could have written like this. I’ve tried several times to read books from that time that are supposedly so great but I always bog down (have I mentioned Herman Melville’s extended ambergris digression before?). A year or so ago I forced myself to get through all of Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima but I couldn’t connect with the story and it was tedious to get through. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m glad to know that I am able to enjoy some things from this period.

Up next, I’m going to reread a book about elevator inspectors.

Interesting But Not Entertaining

I’m just now finishing Umberto Eco’s Serendipities (I skipped over some parts earlier in the book and am considering skipping the last few pages). It’s only 115 pages long, but it’s taken me 2 months to get through it. I do have a legitimate excuse for not reading more, but I think the real reason I haven’t read more is sentences like this:

The intent is first of all to question the materialistic claims of all epicurean, polygenetic hypotheses and then to reject every conventionalist theory as a way of separating language from the very source of Truth.

Right now I want to read books for fun and don’t really have the patience for parsing academic text even if the subject of the book (essays on the history of langauges) is appealing. I recently read a review on Amazon that sums up my limited experience with Eco’s non-fiction — “it is like listening to a professor who is interesting but not really entertaining”.

I have really enjoyed Eco’s fiction though and I’m happy to read more of that. The Name Of The Rose is great and I enjoyed Foucault’s Pendulum enough to read it twice (I thought I might understand more the second time around, but I’m not sure if I did). The Island of the Day Before and Baudalino weren’t quite as good, but still enjoyable enough. If I do read any more, I think I’ll try The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Up next, a collection of Civil War writings by Ambrose Bierce.

Yeah for Transparency

I finished reading A Demon of Our Own Design a few days ago and I enjoyed it. A lot of the details about financial instruments and trading strategies were way over my head, but I did learn some things. For instance, I was aware that there was this thing called Long Term Capital Management that caused a huge ruckus several years ago, but now I have a better grasp of what it was doing and how it caused that ruckus.

The parts of the book that I found most interesting dealt with possible policy responses to the burst of financial innovations that have been driven by increased computing power and globalization. The main point that I took away was that the author believes that adding more regulation will just make future crises more likely since the problems in the financial market are related to how complex it already is.

This is not some sort of laissez faire-ish argument for keeping the government out of the market, rather it is simply saying that by reducing complexity the transparency of the system will be increased. This would be a good thing since more people will be able to understand what’s going on. As things are, only a few people understand how certain parts of the market work, so it is easy for them to game the system if no one else can figure out what they are doing (his phrase for this is “complexity helps the malfeasant”).

I think the concept of transparency clearly applies to more than just the financial markets. Governments certainly work better when they are transparent and understandable (to reference a different phrase here “sunshine is the best disinfectant“). This also applies to software and the Internet (although I’m clearly a little biased here in favor of open source). If you want a phrase here to describe why developing software in a transparent way is better than doing it in a closed way, take your pick from The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

Up next: Umberto Eco’s Serendipities.

Bender’s Bookshelf

I finished reading World War Z a few weeks ago, but haven’t had time to write anything about it (with a week and a half trip to Texas and a few days in New Jersey for Thanksgiving it’s been a busy November). And now I’ve just finished The World Without Us, so I might as well write about both of these books at the same time.

These books do share a theme, so it makes sense to write about them together. One is a fictional account of a global pandemic that nearly wipes out humanity (or to be more precise the pandemic almost eats humanity since the disease turns people into zombies). The other is a non-fiction account of what would happen on Earth if humanity were wiped out (for example, almost everything (except nuclear waste) humans have ever created won’t last that long).

Besides the obvious theme of humanity being wiped out, I think the thing that these books have in common is that they would both probably be found on Bender‘s bookshelf. For those who haven’t watched all of the episodes of Futurama before, Bender is the robot who dreams of killing all humans one day. He’s funny though, so he’s OK.

Next up: A Demon of Our Own Design.

When Colonizing The Galaxy, Do As The Romans Do

I was going through some old books to find things to take back to the Strand and I came across a book called Where Is Everybody?. It presents a number of different possible reasons why we haven’t found any evidence of alien life even though the universe is so big and so old that other advanced civilizations ought to exist. This is also known as Fermi’s Paradox.

Seeing this book again reminded me that in college I took an astronomy class and our professor asked us to try to come up with a reason to explain Fermi’s Paradox. Although I had entered school as an astronomy major, I was a Latin major by this point and was taking a lot of classes about Roman history. Because of what I was studying at the time I was coming at this from an unusual angle and I remember the professor mentioning to me that he hadn’t heard my explanation before (I can’t remember if the Where Is Everybody? book had this or not).

My basic point was that one of the big assumptions about this topic might be wrong. It is assumed that if alien civilizations have the ability to travel interstellar distances then they will be able to colonize all of the stars in the galaxy in a relatively short period of time. So, some people argue that there can’t be other advanced civilizations out there since we haven’t been colonized yet.

Using Rome as an example though, I think there is reason to think that there is a natural limit to how far any civilization can expand. If you look at a map of the empire at it’s height, it forms a rough circle centered on Rome. The Roman military could have gone into Scotland, Germany or other areas beyond their frontier, but for practical reasons the extent of their empire was fixed by the speed of travel and communication. If an emperor went to fight a campaign and got too far away from Rome, they became vulnerable to a foreign invasion or civil war since it would take so long to hear about it and then get back home to respond.

This same idea could apply to space faring culture as well. I think it is much more likely that advanced civilizations will stay centered in a small area where communications, travel and trade can happen relatively quickly (unless tesseracts or superluminal flight is possible.). It’s certainly appealing to think of a galaxy wide civilization, like Asimov’s Foundation series or Star Wars, but alien life is probably scattered in isolated pockets and separated by huge distances.

Now that the Allen Telescope Array is starting to begin observations, I guess we only have to sit back, install SETI@home on our computers, and wait to see if we can find out where everyone is.