What would you do?

Quick hypothetical: You’re at the library, and you pull a copy of The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell from the shelf. Before bringing it to the front desk to check out, you flip through the pages, and an envelope falls out. You pick it up, and it’s stamped and sealed and addressed to a P.O. Box one town over. What would you do with it?

Followup: Would your answer change if it came out of:

  • ... a volume of Encyclopedia Britannica?
  • ... Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban by J. K. Rowling?
  • ... The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism by Matthew Carr?
  • ... a book on the new releases shelf?
  • ... a magazine?

If no to all of the above, is there any case where your answer would be different?

Book reviews for 2006, part 2

3.5/5 stars The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki (22 July 2006 - 7 August 2006) This book, along with Freakonomics and Blink, are the three books that took the blogging world by storm in 2005. The latter and the former are clearly applicable in social-network and website design. Somehow, I missed this one last year.

4.0/5 stars The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (10 August 2006 - 23 August 2006) I’d never actually read a single Philip K. Dick story. I came across this while I was wandering through the library, so I grabbed it. Reading Science Fiction from the 1960’s is unlike reading anything else. The state of instability in real-life scientific progress during the Cold War makes everything seem so out-of-place. Dick’s drug use, schizophrenia, and escalating psychosis definitely show through, but it never affected his ability to write a great story.

4.0/5 stars Sundiver by David Brin (29 August 2006 - 11 September 2006) Science Fiction, at it’s best, is not about science. It’s about society. I had read something about David Brin’s “Uplift Saga” at some point, and it sounded interesting. The social dynamics in a universe where entire species are voluntarily subservient to others for millennia are fascinating and complicated. This is a great detective story. (I started to read the second book, Startide Rising, but my heart wasn’t in the story.)

4.0/5 stars Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs by Ken Jennings (14 October 2006 - 21 October 2006) I follow Ken’s blog and subscribe to his weekly trivia mailing list. I knew he was funny, intelligent, and a great writer, so reading this book was a no-brainer. It alternates between a memoir of his Jeopardy rise-to-fame and an investigation into the history and spread of the trivia phenomenon. He even goes to a Boston-area trivia night!

2.5/5 stars Einstein: A Life in Science by Michael White and John Gribbin (24 October 2006 - 27 October 2006) I finished Brainiac on the plane on the way to Spain, so I had to keep an eye out for English-language bookstores. When I finally found one, it was in Gibraltar. Einstein’s an interesting figure. It’s somewhat jarring to realize how young he was when he made his primary contributions (he was only 26 in his “Annus Mirabilis”) and how quickly physics ran, yes, beyond his comprehension.

5.0/5 stars The Omnivore’s Dilemma : A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (15 November 2006 - 12 December 2006) This is the second of the two books I would pick to recommend strongly. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an in-depth look at how the food we buy at the grocery store gets there, and the role that historical happenstance has played in the development of the current American’s diet. Supermarket “Organic” isn’t as different from non-organic as you think.

Book reviews for 2006, part 1

Like last year, I kept track of what I read this year. And like last year, I’m going to tell you what I thought, whether you’re interested or not. Here’s the first half of the year. The second half will come later.

2.5/5 stars The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout (30 Nov 2005 - 18 Dec 2005) To be perfectly honest, I no longer recall any of the details of this book. I apparently enjoyed it enough to finish it, but not enough to give it any more than an average score. I vaguely remember that it was an interesting read, but was about 100 pages longer than necessary. Note to self: Write book reviews in vivo next year.

3.0/5 stars Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis by Jimmy Carter (22 Dec 2005 - 21 Jan 2006) This book was one of the most enlightening I’ve read in a long time. Although I was alive for a little more than a year of his administration, I have no recollection of it. In fact, in the political atmosphere I’ve been aware of (essentially the past five years), the idea of a deeply religious southerner who is intensely liberal and libertarian has seemed like a fairy tale.

4.5/5 stars V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (5 Jan 2006 - 9 Jan 2006) My sister-in-law, Shaun, gave me the comic book just a few months before the movie came out. And I’m glad she did, because the book’s plot is deeper and its philosophy is far more Anarchist. I might be willing to go so far to say that it’s a totally different message with a fairly similar story.

4.0/5 stars 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (28 Jan 2006 - 4 Mar 2006) If I had to suggest one book to read based on my list from this year, I wouldn’t be able to. But if I was allowed to suggest two, this would be one of them. It’s somewhat amazing to hear that there were likely more people in the Americas than there were in Europe, Asia, and Africa in the 15th century. Corn was mankind’s first GMO. Oh, and learn the dirty politics behind Squanto aiding the pilgrims.

2.0/5 stars Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos (12 Jan 2006 - 28 Jan 2006) This is another book I can’t remember. I was waiting for an interlibrary loan, and had to kill some time.

4.0/5 stars Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About by Mil Millington (10 Mar 2006 - 28 Mar 2006) As I said in January, Mil Millington’s humor is canonical English. Dry and sarcastic, but also silly and exagerrated. This book gets wilder as the main character’s life spins beyond his control, but I smiled through every single page. Absolutely strongly recommended.

4.5/5 stars Gödel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter (3 Apr 2006 - 22 July 2006, holy cow) This book took me forever. To be perfectly honest, I skipped a couple chapters in the middle and at the very end. His discussions about mathematical language systems and especially Gödel’s incompleteness theorem are invaluable. They reminded me a lot about one big part of school I miss: true theory.

Mil Millington

Way back in August 2004, I posted about Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, an amusing list of petty arguments. As you read the tome, it becomes less of a bullet list and more of a pithy British comedy. If you scroll to the bottom, you’ll see that Mil Millington, the author, turned the website into a novel roughly based on his real-life life. And then he turned that into a career as a novelist.

His latest book, Love and Other Near Death Experiences is quite high on my to-read list.

I ♥ Jimmy Carter

I think I’m in love with Jimmy Carter. I’ve started reading his most recent book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, and I’m totally taken with how improbable he is. Southern-raised, farmer, born-again evangelical Christian, yet he’s a liberal Democrat and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. I yearn for a president like that.

Reading 2005

Late last year, I finally started requesting inter-library book loans regularly. As I started reading more (because it was now simple and free), my list actually got longer, so I started writing it down. One unexpected advantage to this is that I can go back and look at the books I’ve enjoyed (or not) over the last year. I’m not an especially prolific reader, but I’ve surprised myself with the amount that I’ve actually had time to get through.

  • 3.5/5 stars Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
    An epic fictional memoir that brings you through three generations of family conflict. Quite touching and surprisingly entertaining.

  • 1.5/5 stars The Golden Ratio by Mario Livio
    Phi is an interesting subject, but in the end the book was unfocused and a bit weak. I was hoping for something Simon Singh-esque.

  • 4/5 stars Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (Borrowed from Rosi)
    Amazing. Somehow, Margaret Atwood explains absolutely nothing until the very end, and then you realize there wasn't really much to explain. Totally believable.

  • 0.5/5 stars Unfinished Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 by John E. Ferling (17 Feb 2005 - 10 Apr 2005)
    I just couldn't get interested in this one. I had high hopes that it would be enlightening in the shadow of the 2000 and 2004 elections.

  • 3/5 stars Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams by M.J. Simpson (10 Apr 2005 - 3 May 2005)
    You appreciate the Hitchhiker's Guide books so much more when you learn how close they came to never really being written. A great biography of a hilarious, distractable author.

  • 1/5 stars Unfinished Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design by Henry Petroski (5 May 2005 - 17 June 2005)
    I picked this up at the book store and was enthralled. But the chapters somehow were both repetitive and unconnected. I got bored about two-thirds of the way through.

  • 4/5 stars Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (19 June 2005 - 23 June 2005)
    Short and sweet. A great summer read.

  • 3.5/5 stars Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (23 June 2005 - 30 June 2005)
    A classic that I somehow never got around to reading. Despite the fact that this is a massive novel, I finished it in a week. The jumping point of view was perfectly done, and the plan to settle Mars was very well planned.

  • 4/5 stars Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks (2 July 2005 - 24 July 2005)
    Dr. Sacks' book was one-half childhood memoir and one-half the history of chemistry. I don't know which was more interesting.

  • 5/5 stars The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (24 July 2005 - 28 July 2005)
    I can't say much more about this book. One of the best stories I've ever read.

  • 3.5/5 stars Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (30 July 2005 - 7 August 2005)
    Another good summer read. It's nice to see how much numbers and carefully designed studies can explain. I follow their blog, now, too.

  • 4.5/5 stars Re-read Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (8 Aug 2005 - 13 Aug 2005)
    Waiting for a book to get to my library, I decided to re-read this classic. (See Ender's Shadow, below)

  • 3.0/5 stars Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking (16 Aug 2005 - 5 Sep 2005)
    A great introduction to modern physics and astrophysics theory. In fact, it's written so well that I want to read more Hawking.

  • 4.5/5 stars Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card (9 Sep 2005 - 15 Sep 2005)
    Waiting for another book, I decided to re-read the parallel novel to Ender's Game (above). This time, I realized how much is left open at the end, and I was inspired to read the rest of the series (see below).

  • 2.5/5 stars Unfinished The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy by William Strauss and Neil Howe (16 Sep 2005 - 10 Oct 2005)
    This book is wholly remarkable. It suggests (and strongly supports) a theory of cyclic American history, and warns of a coming period of "Crisis". But it is so dense with information and concepts that it reminded me too much of college. I'm glad I read what I did, though.

  • 4.0/5 stars Shadow of the Hegemon by Orson Scott Card (6 Oct 2005 - 10 Oct 2005)
    (See Shadow of the Giant, below)

  • 2.5/5 stars Unfinished Awakenings by Oliver Sacks (11 Oct 2005 - 31 Oct 2005)
    Something made me lose interest by the end of this book: either Dr. Sacks' earlier writing is less engrossing, or the fact that every patient had fairly similar symptoms and reactions to L-DOPA. But he covers a startlingy insidious disease and its ambiguous "cure" in fantastic detail.

  • 3/5 stars Shadow Puppets by Orson Scott Card (24 Oct 2005 - 28 Oct 2005)
    (See Shadow of the Giant, below)

  • 5/5 stars Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card (23 Nov 2005 - 27 Nov 2005)
    By the time I got to the fourth book in the Bean Series, I was worried. Each book had become a little less strong than the last, and although I was still interested in the story, I was worried it was going to end badly. I was wrong. The finale literally moved me to tears. It was absolutely amazing. Another thing: In the original Ender Series, Card has this habit of introducing a new planet based on a single country (the Portuguese Planet, and later the Chinese Planet). It seemed really silly at the time, but he explains it well here, and is able to show the same deep understanding of different societies in these books without it seeming quite as clumsy. Looking back, this was (by far) the better series.

The Time Traveler's Wife

Recently I finished reading The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I had been reluctant to pick it up. The cover and the summary on the back gave me this dizzy “romance novel” feeling, but my father-in-law recommended it. Finally, when I hit a thin area in my reading list (and M essentially forced me to read the first chapter), I decided to give it a chance. Five pages later, I was completely and irreversibly hooked. That statement is NOT an exaggeration.

The story starts quickly, and the first couple of chapters give you the goose-bumpy willies when some weird stuff happens. The characters are totally believable even if their situation is (literally) incredible. The book started off very engrossing, and as it got more serious and intense, I couldn’t stop reading. I averaged more than 100 pages a day for a week, the first time I’ve done that with a book in a long time.

Here’s my suggestion: go to the library or the book store. Read the first five pages. The book will either purchase itself, or you will put it back. Oh, and don’t do any research into movie deals until you’ve finished the book, or you’ll be sorry.

Bibliomation Global

It’s a little-known fact that with a library card in the state of Connecticut, you can take out books from any public library in the state. You also don’t even need to go to a library other than your local one to do it, and even then you don’t have to go until your book is in. Visit the Bibliomation global catalog and search for the book. If it’s in any of about fifty participating libraries, it’ll come up. Click the “Request Item” button to the right of your result and put in your library card bar code number.

It generally takes less than a week for your local library to get the book. They call the phone number associated with your account when they get it in, and you borrow the book for the lending library’s standard period (usually 2-3 weeks). I’ve got three different books out on inter-library loan right now. It’s easy, useful, and it increases the pool of available library books immensely.

(Note, also, that many libraries carry movies on VHS and DVD. Bibliomation includes these, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell what format the video is in.)

Tada reading list

Tada Lists were a blog-world meme a few weeks back, and I’ve finally come up with a good use for them: keeping track of my reading list.


Plutor’s word of the day: zeugma /zoog'-muh/ n. 1: the use of a word to modify or govern two or more words, usu. in such a manner that it applies to each in a different sense.

I, Robot

Half of me is offended by what the movie I, Robot does to Isaac Asimov's universe. The heart is in the right place -- to a certain extent -- but it messes up some characters and it throws a huge monkey wrench into the pre-Empire timeline. But, I did get a kick out of the references to his stories. I can think of three off the top of my head. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

  1. Near the beginning of the movie, Dr. Calvin and Detective Spooner are trying to find the "malfunctioning NS-5" in a warehouse of 1000 other non-malfunctioning but otherwise identical NS-5's. In the Little Lost Robot, Calvin is trying to sort a robot with a modified First Law from a group of otherwise identical robots. Her proposal in the movie - interviewing each robot and correlating their responses - is what she first tries in the story. Even more amazing, the model number for the robots in the short story is NS-2.
  2. Sonny's dreaming, and the dream itself, are taken almost verbatim from the story Robot Dreams.
  3. Viki's interpretation of the three Laws (and thus the very climax of the movie) is very similar to R. Daneel Olivaw's development of a Zeroth Law in the Empire series.

Add to that the very prominent position of Dr. Susan Calvin, Alfred Lanning, and Lawrence Robertson in the movie (not to mention the Three Laws and the title itself), and you have a movie that borrowed pretty heavily from Asimov's work.

Update: Damnit, IMDB's trivia page for I, Robot listed all three of my references.

The Nine Billion Names of God

This is one of the few sci-fi short stories that really sticks out in my mind: The Nine Billion Names of God, by Arthur C. Clarke.

Despite the reaction this will provoke from Chris, I will take this opportunity to go off on a tangent on Sir Arthur (probably best known for writing the 2001/2010/2061/3001: A Space Odyssey series). Although I love that short story, and 2001 was pure genious (more elaborate than the movie, and really shines a bright searchlight on Kubrick’s obfuscations), most of his other stuff that I’ve read was really dismal. The book that he’s said he’s most proud of — Childhood’s End — ended about a hundred pages before the back cover.