packbat: Headshot looking serious and superimposed on the Gettysburg Address. (gettysburg)
I wish this was a proper review, but the book came out a good seven years ago - long enough for this to be awfully old news regardless.

I. Love. Moneyball.

I would say this, if I were cynical and funny: Moneyball is, ironically enough, a story about how storytelling is deceptive. But it's not true. There is a hint of that feeling when I read it - the story is such a good story that I'd want to believe it if the entire book was lies from cover to cover, and the book does warn against dreaming and making up expectations based on merely what you see - but I would do Michael Lewis an injustice if I said that. The man worked his butt off getting it right, and that dedication shows.

What is the material? Well, Moneyball is, perhaps, the perfect underdog story: a story about a baseball team (the Oakland Athletics) with a financial payroll tinier than almost any other in a sport where the richest teams spend many multiples more than the poorest ... that sets out to win, with a determination and intelligence that is an inspiration to behold. Moneyball is also a layman's introduction to that intelligence which, long ignored by the very people who would most benefit from it, finally found its instantiation in the Oakland A's: sabermetrics. And Moneyball is a story of this intelligence on this team reaching out to rescue an oddball collection of underrated players and give them the chance to give a bloody eye to the entire baseball establishment that didn't see how good they were.

And it's a story of how such a thing should ever happen - how mistakes were made and perpetuated and compounded upon, and how the visions found when that fog of confusion was pierced could take so long and strange a journey to where they deserved to play out: on the diamond.

It's a business book, a sociology lesson, a baseball story, and a hell of a good read. A nearer approach to perfection in nonfiction is rarely seen.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (quarter-rear)

Given the choice, would you prefer to be a world-class (visual or performing) artist or an intellectual genius? Which, in your opinion, would facilitate a more fulfilling career and social life?

Submitted By [ profile] numbartist

View 809 Answers

Why, this is perfectly straightforward. "Intellectual genius" and "world-class artist", respectively.


Oh, the contradiction. Yeah, I just have to own that one. The thing is, somewhere in my head, I have this driving principle which seeks out knowledge rather than pleasure. "Socrates dissatisfied", as they say. The thing is, though, I do so even though I dispute John Stuart Mill's thesis: I would be more content, not merely happier, if I chose to subordinate my intellectual drive and took up the paintbrush. I just choose not to. I prefer to choose the less pleasant when offered the choice of truth or happiness, or even truth and safety, or truth and pride - I would rather know the truth, though it tear me to pieces.

Which, to disgress, may be part of what I find so compelling in Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net. And that may be as satisfactory a conclusion as any to the post.
packbat: Leaning on a chain-link fence, looking to my left (your right) with a neutral expression. (spectator)
Ah, the disorganized list. What greater bloggoriffic staple could there be?

  • Our house has a heat pump for both winter and summer ... and it's dead. Capacitor's blown, and wires of the condenser fused together. Whole new unit's needed, and won't arrive before, well:

    Joy to the world.
  • I got a lucky break (alluded to in the prior post) with respect to a presentation I am to deliver; I now have a fair bit of time to actually produce that which I must present.
  • The slide of the zipper on my leather jacket is brokened. However, the buttons on my blue slacks are fixted.
  • I would be interested in purchasing this tee-shirt, should it ever be for sale.
  • I am once again a TA for Heat Transfer Transfer Processes! (So called because the processes can transfer mass, as well ... and I have now taught you the entire mass-transfer curriculum of the course.) I come better equipped this time, as I have Asked A Professor For Advice On Running Discussion Sections. (Also, my student guide on the solution of nonlinear algebraic equations is much improved!)
  • Prof. Orzel gave a talk today on campus!
  • I reread The Moonstone (excellent! --although Ms. Clack danced a merry jig on one of my berserk buttons) and read for the first time World War Z, which my mom kindly lent me after I bought it for her (rollicking zombie fun!). I also read The Silent Tower by Barbara Hambly, and am now jonesing for the #2 in the series.

I fear I may pass out before finishing, s
packbat: Wearing my custom-made hat and a smirk. (hat)

What are the three best books you have ever read and what are the three worst? What made them so good or bad?

Submitted By [info]crazylove16

View 274 Answers

With the caveat that I'm just naming books off the top of my head, and I might miss something perfectly obvious, and the further caveat that I only include books that I've read straight through:


Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

One of the best English humor books ever written. Three English blokes (and a dog) decide to go on a trip up the Thames river. What makes it hilarious is J's writing - he is a brilliant raconteur with a poetic, charmingly digressive style, and he finds exceptional material in his reminisces.

(Conveniently, it is available online in several places.)

Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling

You could describe it many ways, but it feels to me a bit like film noir Twenty Minutes in the Future (as they say on the Tropes of the TV). Remarkably, it's still Twenty Minutes in the Future despite being published in 1988 (five years before the Eternal September), which should give you an idea of how strong Sterling's SF chops are. In any case, this stands out for its skilled worldbuilding (of course), characterization, and pacing. Events occur kinetically yet vividly, which is a fine line to walk.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Reportedly, somewhere in the television series Lost, a character named Sawyer says about this: "Hell of a book! It's about bunnies." It would be difficult to describe it more eloquently in less space.

Taking advantage, then, of having more: this is my very first favorite book, and I'm proud to say that it's held up well for more than half my life, reading it again and again. Richard Adams possesses the most fluent descriptive voice that I have ever encountered, and paces it with a master's grace. There is a simply beautiful passage where Hazel (the protagonist) pauses at the mouth of a burrow to check the surroundings before going out in the field, and Adams takes this moment of time to describe in lyrical terms the sights, smells, and sounds of that instant. It is a beautiful trick of the writing art, and Adams wields it with virtuosic skill. A true classic, in the sense of a work which survives the test of time.

And fun to read! Hell of a book, like the man said.

Some books which I considered, but did not include in the top three:
  • Shardik by Richard Adams
  • A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
  • A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason
  • A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will by Robert Kane
  • Fooling Some of the People All of the Time by David Einhorn
  • The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  • Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II


Caveat: I enjoyed most of these. All of them, if I'm honest. I (mostly) don't finish books if I don't. That said...

Born to Run by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon

Cheesy modern fantasy. It makes this list less out of any flaw than out of general lack of merit.

War of Honor by David Weber (Book Ten of the Honor Harrington series)

The Honor Harrington series follows a very simple formula. That formula has worn paper-thin by Book Ten. The new elements Weber introduces to liven it up do precisely the opposite, except where they introduce a little excitement by being profoundly stupid. I had enjoyed the first two books in the series, continued reading the series out of intertia, and ran out on this one.

In truth, this is probably the worst of my three-worst list. But I feel obliged to bump it from that slot in light of...

The Radiant Warrior by Leo Frankowski (Book Three of the Conrad Starguard series)

...which features censored ) trope. The first four books are pure fluff otherwise - time-travel wish fulfillment fantasy of the most elemental sort - but the misogynistic aspects are utterly grating. Fortunately, the most epochal Crowning Moment of Awesome for the series is in Book Two. Unfortunately, as far as respect for women is concerned, the aforementioned censored ) is more a dip than a chasm in the narrative.

(I will not include a near-misses list here - I have too much respect for NAME REDACTED and NAME REDACTED, and TITLE REDACTED wasn't supposed to be good in the first place.)

(Edit: Actually below all three books on the list is a Dean Koontz book I read ages ago, my former copy of which my mother decided should be dismembered and recycled rather than continue to exist. I take pride in not remembering the title - it featured incest, Body Horror, thoroughly horrible people, and was written in a loving style which cannot reflect well on the author.)
packbat: Leaning on a chain-link fence, looking to my left (your right) with a neutral expression. (spectator)

What three items would you place in a time capsule to help future generations understand you?

Submitted By [profile] mausengeist

View 228 Answers

...oh, wait - it's future human generations! That makes things simpler!

I'd say the following would be quite informative of my personal habits and development:

  1. Imre Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations.

  2. Turn 10 Studios, Forza Motorsport 2.

  3. Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin: Red Rackham's Treasure.

If the videogame is out, substitute Abramowitz and Stegun.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (quarter-rear)
From [ profile] peterchayward

Don't take too long to think about it. 15 books you've read that will always stick with you. They don't have to be the greatest books you've ever read, just the ones that stick with you. First 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Copy these instructions and do it yourself, because I'm interested in seeing what books are in your head.

(I spent more than 15 minutes. I r slo.)

1. A Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson. This is the book I often talk about when I'm talking about racism - the movie is good as well, although I prefer the text. The thing is: the problem doesn't stop with the people who go out hunting with baseball bats and chains and trucks on back roads. It's an education, for sure.

2. Watership Down by Richard Adams. This is merely one of the best written books in the English language. Adams is very simply a master of description, and he uses it in a way which flows seamlessly with the narration - I remember vividly scenes where a pause in the action is indicated, not by any explicit statement, but by the opening up of the world which occurs in the pauses, the sounds and sights that awaken in the silences of our conversations.

3 & 4. A Woman Of The Iron People by Eleanor Aranson, Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling. These are simply good SF - books that take you to a place that does not exist and let you live with its natives. The former is one of the best anthropological SF stories I have read, better than Ursula Le Guin - simply very, very interesting. The latter is a political thriller in a world not unlike our own that is just a superb piece of storytelling - a story with all the tempo of a potboiler, but just intellectual in a way which those are not.

5. Transmetropolitan #1 by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson. I swear this book is the most anti-classy ode to Truth I have ever read. It's a series I haven't finished reading, but even Vol. 1 alone is a poem. A poem you wouldn't want to read in church, but still.

6. Abel's Island by William Steig. An illustrated talking-animals book for the younger set (not youngest set, but those to whom Watership Down is incorrectly marketed, I believe); a simple bildungsroman, but well done.

7. Proofs and Refutations by Imre Lakatos. A lesson in the form of dialogue (polylogue? "Dia" always seems wrong when many people are speaking) in the nature of mathematical proofs, surrounding Euler's formula and the counterexamples to it. Suggests many things, including (and this counters a widespread myth) that mathematical proofs aren't truly perfect and irrefutable deliverances of knowledge.

8. Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It's just a fantastic example of someone breaking the rules of novels in a way which works, breaking narrative order, breaking the division between falsity and truth ... it's somehow still readable. And it has a reality to it, a coherency in the face of its manifest contradictions and blatant insertions of biography into fiction.

9. Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. Just an impressive, impressive dissection of the thing that is us, destroying an army of illusions in its wake.

10. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. One of the best humor books of all time. No more need be said. (Except that it's old, so you can find it for free online and for cheap in the shops.)

11. Still River by Hal Clement. This is not what you might call a great book - every flaw that Hal Clement's writing is prone to, this book suffers from ... but the setting! I will long remember this one fondly just as an utterly science-fiction potboiler - only no bodies, just the brute mystery of the research project the protagonists have to complete.

12. Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement. Probably one of his best books (although Needle might be more popular). Don't read Still River if you don't like Mission of Gravity, but Mission of Gravity is a classic. Especially if you have the edition with the discussion of the creation of the book, a discussion which I highly recommend to every SF fan.

13. Shardik by Richard Adams. I joked with [ profile] toya121 that if I had a million dollars, I'd give everyone I know a copy of this book - like Watership Down, it is just magnificently written. Much more depressing, though, and epic on a grander scale.

14. A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge. Science fiction rather than fantasy, but still greater in scope and grandeur. A real potboiler, too. Pay attention to the side stories.

15. I will cheat a little with the last slot: On War by Carl von Clausewitz. I have not finished reading it, but it is a simply muscular work. I anticipate much of it.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)

Out of all of your favorite books, pick just one you'd recommend everyone read. As a bonus: why did you pick that one?

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Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. Picked it for two reasons:

  • It's well-written.
  • It's funny.

Seriously. If you can read in English, I think you will enjoy this book. J. is one of the greatest raconteurs of all time.

P.S. It's out of copyright - 1889 - so it's available everywhere online.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)

If you knew that a friend's significant other was cheating on him or her, would you tell your friend the truth or keep it to yourself?

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I would confront the S.O. before anything else (not the least because some people are in open relationships). Then I would talk to someone I trust, to make sure that I'm not being utterly stupid. But if I did that and still knew, I would tell my friend - it's what I'd want.

(See, that's the thing with lies - it's much easier to think lying is okay if you don't put yourself in the shoes of the lied-to. I know - I read it in a book!)

(But seriously - it's true, and it's a good book: Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life by Sissela Bok. I recommend it.)
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
Quick sanity check: is it just me, or does John Scalzi write in a style that is very Internet-fiction?
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (butterfly)
Saw this "genre fiction" (how I hate that term!) book list on [ profile] hmmm_tea's journal - made a few inconsequential alterations to the rules myself...

1) Look at the list, copy and paste it into your own journal.
2) Marks: read one or all of, intend to read (or reread, or finish), loved, hated.
3) Feel free to elaborate wherever you like, whether on the books, the rules, or the list itself.

In no particular order:

100 items long, for whatever reason. Be warned. )

Obvious lacunae - Richard Adams (at least "Watership Down", and I'd add "Shardik"), Hal Clement ("Needle", "Mission of Gravity", but probably not "Still River", however much I love that book), Vernor freakin' Vinge ("A Fire Upon the Deep", I haven't read "A Deepness in the Sky", "True Names"), Edgar Allan Poe (anything, for cripe's sake), Bruce Sterling ("Islands in the Net", for one), Bram Stoker ("Dracula")...
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)

Have you ever ruined the ending or given away plot developments in a book, movie, or tv show by telling someone who hasn't seen or read it what happens? Has anyone ever done this to you?

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Indeed I have, and have been! Most memorable of the former regards "Just Cause" (1995), starring Sean Connery and Lawrence Fishburne, where I in my effusive state blurted out a major plot twist (fortunately to an individual who didn't care, or at least so professed), and most recent to my recollection of the latter regards "Wall-E" (2008), which I still haven't seen.

As a rule, I avoid spoilers assiduously from both ends, regardless of the age of the work. I firmly believe I benefited greatly from seeing "The Sixth Sense" (1999) without knowing even the tagline, for example, and I would have been quite peeved if someone had blurted out the solution to the mystery in "The Woman in White" (1860) before I reached it. For other people, though, I generally do not voice any objections if the work is at least thirty years old.

(I'm still mad about the widespread disregard for this rule with respect to "The Sixth Sense", actually. I didn't suffer from it, but only because my mom sat me down and made me watch it before I had the chance.)

(By the way, if you get the DVD, after you've seen the movie, check out the alternate ending in the deleted scenes - it's worth seeing.)
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (twisty little passages)
In response to [ profile] shatterstripes, [ profile] ceruleanst, and [ profile] tracerj simultaneously:

  • Grab the book nearest you. Right now.
    • I mean it. Don't dig for your favorite book, the coolest, the most intellectual. Use the closest.
    • ...straight line to the centroid of your head, if you have to ask.

  • Turn to page 56.
    • Count if you have to. Start on the first page (including the title) of Chapter One, and remember to count both sides of the page.

  • Find the fifth sentence.
    • No, a colon doesn't end a sentence.
    • Yes, a question-mark ends a sentence.

  • Post that sentence along with these instructions on your LJ.

"All part of the show."

(Dag, two fifty-plus word sentences to start the page and I hit the five-word? The book is Rhyme's Reason, John Hollander.)


Nov. 5th, 2008 07:13 pm
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (darwin has a posse)
Dropped by the comic shop in College Park today - I just read Issue #1 of Transmetropolitan (h/t Blake Stacey), and was jonesing for some more.

Unfortunately, Vol. 1 is out of print. Not Vols. 2, 3, 4, whatever, just Vol. 1. Great timing, Detective Comics - I'm proud of you.

So proud, in fact, I got two other DC-subsidiary books while I was there - The Plain Janes (a Unshelved recommendation that I, who read it on the bus, wholeheartedly second) and Global Frequency Vol. 1: Planet Ablaze (also Warren Ellis, but I mainly got it because of the movie that didn't get made). Oh, and I got Whiteout, Vol. 2: Melt (because I got Whiteout, Vol. 1, which because of Free Comic Book Day 2007, which because of Wings of Change, which eventually because of Dad=[ profile] zhurnaly emailing me a link to Mark Sachs and I'm cutting this off before we get ridiculous).

So, a fun evening, even before the lasagna [ profile] zhurnaly's got in the oven downstairs. Rawk aut!
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
As a sociological relic, The Art of Thinking by Ernest Dimnet is an interesting book.

As a book of advice, The Art of Thinking by Ernest Dimnet is a superb book - but you may save a great deal of time by a simple method: turn immediately to Part Three and stop immediately upon reaching Part Four.

Some quotes:

1—About saving time.

Is there no time you can reclaim, not from your work, not from your exercise, not from your family or friends, but from pleasure that really does not give you much pleasure, from empty talk at the Club, from inferior plays, from doubtfully enjoyable week ends or not very profitable trips?


Do you know how to gather up fragments of time lest they perish? Do you realize the value of minutes? One of the Lamoignons had a wife who always kept him waiting a few minutes before dinner which in those days was in broad daylight, at three o'clock. After a time it occurred to him that eight or ten lines could be written during this interval, and he had paper and ink laid in a convenient place for that purpose. In time—for years are short but minutes are long—several volumes of spiritual meditations were the result. Mankind might be divided between the multitude who hate to be kept waiting because they get bored and the happy few who rather like it because it gives them time for thought. The latter lead the rest, of course.

There are in the daily press a number of writers, male and female, who make it a point to have an opinion about everything. Day after day, four or five hundred words from their pens appear in which they express their views on an immense variety of subjects, most of them interesting. An expert runs little risk of erring in estimating how much time these fellow-writers of his have devoted to each individual question. It can be counted in minutes rather than in hours. The authors have seldom referred to any literature, even to an encyclopædia, they have been satisfied with summing up their own flimsy knowledge of the data and their flimsier impression of them. Yet, this is so much better than nothing that we read the articles through.

Some people imagine they have to write a book as, at fifteen, they had to write an essay, whether they liked it or not. All the time they are at work on a chapter which ought to monopolise their attention, they are anxious over future chapters still unborn and even unconceived, and the anxiety throws its shadow over the page just being written. As long as an author does not take the habit of "only writing his book," as Joubert says, "when it is finished in his mind," or cannot honestly say, like Racine: "My tragedy is done, now I have only to write the verses," he will be a prey to the schoolboy's error. Nothing is as exciting as the hunt after thoughts or facts intended to elucidate a question we think vital to us, and the enjoyment of writing when the hunt has been successful is an unparalleled reward for intellectual honesty. Leave only the slavish necessity or the meretricious desire for producing a book and all the pleasure will be gone.

A fascinating book.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (chess)
And now, for something completely different.

In between slacking off at my job and slacking off at home (coincidentally, both are due in part to feelings of frustration, powerlessness, and irritation at Stuff Not Done The Right Way), I've been reading on the bus. Most recently, Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained.

Having already read The Mind's I, Breaking the Spell, and Elbow Room, I must say that I am reading with both anticipation and trepidation - Dennett is smart, but sometimes unfortunately disappointing. But, although I have only made it through the introductory section, I'm beginning to think this might be one of the excellent ones.

More on that when I finish (maybe!).
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
A few of you may be acquainted with [ profile] kirabug of kirabug's idea files - but then, you may not be. A few of you may also have seen the latest 100-book meme floating around the LJ-o-sphere in the halcyon days of two weeks ago.

Anyway, kirabug filled out the meme, and in our shredding of "Big Read"'s list I and her other fans began to put together a list of a few items which were rather notable in their absence - and Kirabug suggested making a list of our own. So when she, a few days ago, set up a Wordpress forum on her site, she made sure to include an "Ideaphiles Book List" subforum.

The rules are pretty straightforward - one thread ("topic") per author, or a thread called "[your name here]'s book list", and no calling each other names.

C'mon - I know the lot of you are inveterate readers; here's your chance to make a case for your top lists. And if you need inspiration, here's a bit I wrote on my first book-crush, Hal Clement:

Read more... )

Come on in, register, and contribute!
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
Just a little entry before bed - I've been flipping through Ernest Dimnet's The Art of Thinking on the bus for the past couple weeks, and there are a few bits in there worth reading. One little piece that might strike the fancy of any of us:

There are in the daily press a number of writers, male and female, who make it a point to have an opinion about everything. Day after day, four or five hundred words from their pens appear in which they express their views on an immense variety of subjects, most of them interesting. An expert runs little risk of erring in estimating how much time these fellow-writers of his have devoted to each individual question. It can be counted in minutes rather than in hours. The authors have seldom referred to any literature, even to an encyclopædia, they have been satisfied with summing up their own flimsy knowledge of the data and their flimsier impression of them. Yet, this is so much better than nothing that we read the articles through.

packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)

What are some gripping opening lines from films or books, and why do you think they work so well?

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I have never seen a book, film, song, or anything with an opening line to match one old entry by [ profile] daysgoby (formerly anjimito), here:

On the way home today, while crossing the Fuller-Warren bridge, someone threw a kitten out of their window.

God themself could not write a more gripping first sentence.

(Edit: This entry was reposted to [ profile] readers_list here, in the event that [ profile] daysgoby is lost.)

(Also: The kitten came out all right, and went to live in a new, loving home. Sorry to spoil the ending for you. ^_^ )
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
From here, with minor edits:

If you choose, look through the following list of books and:
1) Bold those you have read.
2) Italicise those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you LOVE.
4) * Put a star next to the ones you've only partially read.
5) Strikethrough the ones you refuse to read.
6) Reprint this list in your own LJ.

Big whopping list... )

Read - 11
Planned - 10 (Edit: +1)
Loved - 6
* Begun - 10
Abhorred - 3

That was ... a surprisingly sloppily-executed list - I count at least two partial-duplicates. But I did score over the estimate [ profile] joee_girl says "the Big Read" makes, which is six read!
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (pale blue dot)
In honor of the [ profile] goblinpaladin's birthday (last month...), here is a review of What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture by Edward Slingerland, 2008.

There's an old Isaac Asimov essay I recall reading where he discusses the implicit social hierarchy of different fields of study. You know, where math is more prestigious than physics, which is in turn 'above' chemistry, which is 'above' biology, et cetera. Asimov then asked (I paraphrase), "What's above mathematics?"

His answer was "the humanities". And he defended the answer with a little story, whose details I've sadly forgotten, but which essentially compared the reactions of the faculty at a school to (a) a student named Cicero failing rhetoric and (b) a student named Gauss failing mathematics. Asimov pointed out that all of them would laugh at the former (being as we all know Cicero was a great orator) but that only the math and science people would be amused at the latter (being as none of the humanities scholars would ever have heard of a mere mathematician, nor cared about his extraordinary influence upon mere math and sciences).

Sociologically, Asimov was probably just about right. Ontology, however, is Professor Slingerland's game, and he proposes just the opposite. And inverting this hierarchy - making the case for humanities as a higher-order level of explanation above neuroscience, psychology, biology, et cetera, the same way chemistry is a higher-order level of explanation above quantum physics, and just as dependent on its substrate - is the purpose of his book. It is so, he explains, because humanities is in desperate need of new life - it is visibly, clearly stagnating, as many scholars have observed, and Slingerland argues that an "embodied" or "vertically integrated" view of the humanities is necessary to move forward. Thus What Sciences Offers the Humanities seeks to open a new strain of humanities studies in close collaboration with scientific knowledge.

There. Now let us discuss what it does.

What Science Offers the Humanities, between introduction and conclusion, is divided into three parts. The first is a refutation of the objectivist and postmodernist views of humanity, the second his physicalist tertium quid based on modern cognitive science, and the third a defense of his view against a few anticipated objections. It is quite enough of a task for a bookshelf of books, and indeed Slingerland makes reference to at least that many along the way. Further, it is by its very nature difficult reading in many places - Slingerland in this book writes philosophy, and a modern philosopher must blaze a path through some of the harshest terrain in our mental landscapes.

(Incidentally, delicious little metaphors like that are featured prominently in Slingerland's "vertically integrated" model of humanity, described in Part 2. More on that anon.)

First, the refutations. Objectivism (which, in this case, contains a sort of Smullyan-logician theory of the person and the correspondence theory of truth) Slingerland spends comparatively little time with - while it is certainly not unpopular (I have strong inclinations in its direction myself), strong criticisms of it are well-established in the humanities, to whose scholars Slingerland addresses the book. Thus he deals his objections out quickly and competently (though not completely enough for my satisfaction - as I said, strong inclinations) and turns his attention to the other side.

Postmodernism, he explains, is a controversial term to use for what he describes. As he explains in the introduction, "virtually every [modern] postmodernist denies being one". Thus his treatment of postmodernism ends up extended over two chapters, with one dedicated chiefly to showing that, as he defines it, the appellation "postmodernist" still applies to many of the scholars he addresses, and only afterwards establishing the self-refuting nature of postmodernist theories. Naturally, for the non-postmodernist reader, these are among the most difficult chapters in the book - possibly by its very disconnect with experiential reality, postmodernist writing is almost invariably turgid. The density of the material is leavened by Slingerland's well-executed asides and rhetorical flourishes - his discussion of the Sokal hoax particularly struck my fancy - but those with an active disinterest in postmodernism may find it tiring. However, those coming from the humanities would be likely to profit much from these chapters - both by exposure to some basic objections to certain common lines of thought in the works of their peers and, if they share said lines of thought, by exposure to problems with their theoretical frameworks that need resolution or refutation.

Having thus cleared the ground, Slingerland turns to his own theory.

I will not attempt to elaborate his theory for him. The most central element of it is the theory of conceptual blending. This theory (originating, Slingerland says, with Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner) maintains that most (perhaps all) of human thought involves the mixing of properties from various already-existing ideas, as illustrated in expressions like "digging your own financial grave". This sort of combination (in the example, drawing the emotional content of the grave to accent the suggestion that a given financial plan is unsound), Slingerland argues, is a fundamental, universal part of how human beings work with ideas - he demonstrates its generality to analysis of cultural artifacts (a major part of humanities) with an analysis of the fourth-century B.C.E. Chinese Confucian work Mencius by blending theory.

After introducing his theory, much of the rest of the book deals with probable objections from the humanities tradition. (As a proponent of a minority theory, Slingerland is obliged to spend the main part of his book in its defense.) It is interesting material - defenses of pragmatism, refutations of common fears of reductionism, and the like - and competently presented, but it is certainly a decline from the excitement of the various introductions - of his theory, of postmodernism's weaknesses, of objectivism's weaknesses, and of the book entire.

It is not surprising when a book is exciting at the start and less so towards the end. What struck me in this case, however, is that there is a definite sense of the precise element lacking - and, ironically, that element is science. Slingerland is a fan of science, but he is a sinologist - student of Chinese culture - not a scientist. He has a breadth of scientific reading that does him great credit, a breadth far in excess of mine own, but his lack of depth in the specific fields shows. He quotes Dawkins and Dennett excellently, but he seems to need to. It is not a fault - he isn't a scientist - but the difference does make his very real contributions seem a little grayer in contrast.

What is the bottom line?

Slingerland's What Science Offers the Humanities is an excellent epistle to a world of humanities work in need of new insight - one with the understanding of the Academy whose lack prevents the Sokals, and even the Dawkins and the Dennetts, from engaging and not antagonizing its audience. It draws from the strength of the sciences to build a vision of a better university - for, as Slingerland points out in the conclusion, the sociological and psychological studies are rapidly approaching territory which requires knowledge of the humanities, just as they are - or should be - transforming the understanding of what the humanities contain.

As a popular science book, it is not. In its path, it alludes to a spread of important discoveries to understanding of the humanities, and of humanity, but its aim is not to bring true comprehension of these to the reader. Its aim is to show that the social sciences are relevant.

It shows this. That is enough.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
Earlier today, while we were shifting boxes in the storage lockers so my brother could close out his locker to consolidate into the big locker, he handed me a couple books to read. One was Sinclair's The Jungle. The other was Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker.

I trust I need not explain which caught my attention most.

Anyway, being as I'm still in Chapter 1, I can't review anything yet, but it's exceptional so far. Let's see how it goes.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
In the comments on my artist-QOTD post, [ profile] jfs gave a good definition of art: art occurs whenever a person creates something whilst trying to evoke an emotional reaction. I was just thinking about the specifics of that - why "emotional" reaction, what kinds of reactions can/does art make, what kind of moral value should we ascribe to the methods and contexts of these reactions ... I don't know if this will be coherent, but it might be interesting interest.

I guess I'll start with Dan Brown and Myst. No - I'll start with Agatha Christie and Myst; it's wrong to snipe at works you haven't perused.

Wait - no, the point doesn't really work with Agatha Christie. I'd better just start somewhere, and let the chips fall as they may.

One purported property of Dan Brown's writing is that it makes the reader feel clever. Specifically, The Da Vinci Code is accused of making its readers feel clever by showing them stupid puzzles. Assuming "feeling clever" is an emotional reaction (not much of a stretch, I think), I point out the following:

  • Assuming it was on purpose, The Da Vinci Code is art.

  • In addition, The Da Vinci Code is successful art in the evocative1 sense, not merely in the financial sense.

  • It is being criticized for the way it evokes these feelings - its critics say it should not make the reader feel clever in this way, presumably because the reader does not earn feeling clever.

"Hey," my brain said. "What about Myst? It does take a little cleverness to solve those puzzles - isn't feeling clever justified there?"

I'm not going to divert to the obvious moral, here. (I was tempted, mind - any excuse to plug Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit is welcome.) Instead, I think we should consider where this idea of justification of art, in this earned-emotion sense, leads. Is the emotional climax of Terminator 2 justified? What about the excitement and satisfaction of a good game of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City? Or of a good performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor? Or, on a more abstract note: are we justified in evaluating these works and the reactions they evoke? Or, higher still: are we justified in rejecting such evaluations as unworthy, or unnecessary, or inappropriate?

Comments are open.

1. "Evocative of emotional reactions". Hey, I wanted something short and snappy. ^
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
The Five-Question one again - this time inherited (with modification) from [ profile] maggiebloome, who got it from [ profile] backinblack:
  1. Leave me a comment. You may take one of two tacks, here: (a) complete insignificance - for example, song lyrics, sandwich recipes, videogame reviews ... anything, really, as long as it's completely meaningless in context, or (b) a specific request for participation, with the specifics up to you. (But not completely up to you - I do still get to choose the questions.)

    (Okay, somebody needs to take out a restraining order against me on use of the word "completely". I mean, d-mn.)

  2. Receive five questions, chosen so as to allow me to know you better, in a reply to your comment. They will likely not be excessively personal, so as to Avoid Internet Drama™.

  3. Update your LJ - or, if the thought of contaminating it with mere Internet memes gives you fits, reply to my comment - with the answers to the questions.

  4. If you chose the former: Append (or prepend) this (or a substantially similar) explanation to your answers. When others respond with desultory comments, ask them five questions. (Each, that is.)

  5. If you chose the latter: Write an appropriately brilliant and witty diatribe about the pointlessness of copying these idiotic things across the Web as if they're somehow valuable, then throw it away as being nearly as annoying as the things themselves.

Anyway, the five questions, courtesy [ profile] maggiebloome:

1. What's your favourite extinct reptile?

Mmm - I don't know nearly enough extinct reptiles, let me think.


Y'know, I think I'm going to go for the obvious and vote tail-spikes. Stegosaurus, I choose you!

2. If you could pick an Era to live in apart from our own, which would it be?

Well, being as I'm obviously of (mixed, but including) African descent, it would seem of questionable wisdom for me to dwell in the near past. Further, I am quite ignorant of any language other than my own and quite enamored of modern medicine - thereby eliminating the far past (and the near past, really). On top of that, environmental degradation and the expenditure of Earth's natural resources (not to mention the ever-present hazard of warfare involving weapons of mass destruction, or even garden-variety epidemics) would seem to discourage proceeding into the future.

So, recognizing that I have no good choices, I expect I would either choose the latter half of the nineteenth century in London or the latter part of the reign of Caesar Augustus in Rome. My ignorance of history is mighty, but neither of those places and times seem too offensively intolerant, and both are associated with a great deal of magnificent literature.

3. Deserted island. You are Tom Hanks. Volleyball, basketball or ping pong ball?

I think I'll have to go with the canonical answer, here - volleyball seems like the most durable.

4. How would you prefer to die?

Heart attack might be nice. A stroke, perhaps. Quick and clean is the way to go, I say - none of this long painful decline into death, and a minimum of gross bodily harm. Basically worst, in my opinion, would probably be a car accident followed by long, unsuccessful medical intervention. (Not that I'd refuse treatment - I'm just saying: pain? Seriously uncool.)

5. Which work of literature has changed you the most?

Slaughterhouse 5 was pretty sweet. The Gate to Women's Country made me think a lot. The Dispossessed was fascinating. I'm not sure that any book changed me radically, though.

Wait. Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson. Despite being black (by American standards), my visceral conception of racism was, to a large degree, unformed until it was informed by that book. It was a good movie as well, but I feel that the book was more subtle about it, and so more satisfying. (However, I am also obliged to mention - although this is my mother's observation, not my own - that the beginning of the book is somewhat slow. Take it as you will.)

...Okay, how are you supposed to wrap these things up again?
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
I was in the library booksale looking for Raymond Chandler with my dad when a stranger in the "Mysteries" aisle said, "If you like Raymond Chandler, that" - he indicated - "is a good book." Well, I don't know if I like Raymond Chandler, but I know he's supposed to be very good. I figured anyone compared favorably to him ought to be worth a shot. So I bought it and read it.

Dancing Bear is clever, but lacks verisimilitude. There: the book review in a sentence.

To elaborate: books must be evaluated on several levels. There is the most fundamental level, which is basic literacy. (Fortunately, few published works have much trouble in this area.) Then there is writing, storytelling, characterization - the responsibilities of every fiction writer. Then there are the responsibilities of the genre, which fall into two parts: defining characteristics - e.g. the presence of a mystery - and genre-specific merits - e.g. the cleverness of the solution.

As I said, Dancing Bear is clever. I would not spoil the secret, but Crumley lays out the threads quite skillfully - perhaps not as subtly as could be desired, but quite competently and with a knack for indirection. If a shortage of red herrings does not disturb you, the unraveling of Crumley's mystery might well entertain.

However, as I also said, it lacks verisimilitude. This lack is produced chiefly by two properties of the book: its clumsy adherence to nonessential genre characteristics and carelessness of characterization. These go together, as many features of the characters seem to exist either to imitate the clichés of hard-boiled detective fiction or to support the plot - sometimes both. A particularly glaring example of the former is the neighbor who, for no visible reason, loves to 'visit' the protagonist/narrator (Milton Chester Milodragovitch, III - usually referenced in the last name) while her husband is working. This could, perhaps, be forgivable, save that Milodragovitch is so thoroughly miserable a character (in every sense of the word) that it beggars the imagination that he would ever be sought out. (Fortunately, he's at least somewhat introspective - I don't think I would have bothered to finish were he not.) Unfortunately, the neighbor is hardly atypical - in every possible reading of the phrase. Annoying, that was.

The storytelling and prose, my two remaining categories, also failed to show any especial merit. Competent, both, the former more than the latter, but both were simply up to par and little more. In the final reading, all I can say for it is that it was clever. Lacking verisimilitude, lacking any sort of extraordinary literary virtue, but clever, all the same.

Even for only $2 U.S., I expected a little more than that.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (pale blue dot)
Ooh, this is a good one.

If you could travel back in time to spend a day with someone, who would it be and why?

I can't say what I'd do if I had infinite time to prepare. Would I visit an influential Greek playwright, retrieve copies of the work? Would I drop in on Bartok and swipe some of the reputed 90% of his compositions he burned? Would I step back to spend a day with Melville and Moby-Dick? There are just too many choices.

If, however, I had to do it right now (though I would prefer an hour's - or better, a week's - advance notice), I think I would go back to October 1941 to talk to Isaac Asimov about "Nightfall".

Isaac Asimov was a dreadfully prolific writer. In fact, he'd published at least seventeen stories prior to the September 1941 printing of "Nightfall", of which I've probably read the revised version of one ("Robbie"). In no sense am I an expert on his writing, having read naught but Nightfall and Other Stories, half of I, Robot, that I. Asimov memoir, Fact and Fancy, Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, Asimov's New Guide to Science, and maybe a smattering of others I forgot.

But reading them, I think I can see why "Nightfall" is one of the greatest stories of all time, and why his other shorts don't compare. And having read the memoir, I know Asimov never knew.

See, Asimov was like a writer of 'whodunits'. (Very like, in fact.) Every story had to have an angle, an plot twist - perhaps something frequently hinted at, but which no-one would twig to until the end, or perhaps just a punchline. "C-Chute" had a character's motivation. "It's Such a Beautiful Day" had a bit of defiance of societal mores. "The Machine that Won the War" - well, that was practically a purebred joke, the whole thing's the setup.

"Nightfall" - the punchline was revealed the first page. It wasn't needed.

No 'locked-room mystery' was "Nightfall". While most of the story takes place in a single building, the characters constantly allude to broad societal trends, to various events occurring in the previous months ... the world feels real, plausible - maybe in part because it is much like our own, save for the difference that drove the plot. The characters, the same.

He thought it was because it kept up a dramatic pace. He said so. It's just sad.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
(I'm getting up in under eight hours, so I must be quick.)

A few weeks (months?) ago, an article about President Bush mentioned a book he was reading (had read?) about the deposing of Neville Chamberlain and placement of Winston Churchill in his place. Although the article alone was amusing, I decided to read the book as well. So, I checked Lynne Olson's Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England out of a local branch of the library.

I think it's a history book. At least, it shows many of the characteristics of history books, and while I am hardly well-informed about the time, it gives the impression of genuine scholarship. I suppose that qualifies.

It wants to be a thriller.

It is interesting how the conflicting urges of these two styles interplay in Olson's writing. She knows how to open her chapters in the middle of the action, how to develop the dramatic tension, how to pull the precise quote out of the historical record to make an impact. Against that, she knows that she cannot merely write what happens - each of her dramatic quotes are smoothly annotated, and when the presentation of related facts forces her to skitter back and forth in time, she invariably does so, however the suspense of the moment may be broken thereby. She takes the reader straight into the House of Parliament in the most visceral fashion to show the decisive vote - and lingers on there for a few chapters more past the climax, that we will not be ignorant of how things played out in the days, months, and decades to follow.

The reader - or, at least, this reader - bemoans the dreadful abuses Lynne perpetuates on her storytelling, and applauds them for the greater accuracy gained by their presence.

Troublesome Young Men is not what it hoped to be, perhaps. But it is easily readable, clearly informative, and even in places a page-turner. Would I buy it? I can't say. Would I read it? Absolutely.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (pale blue dot)
Just for today, a little quote from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot:

It is conventional wisdom now that anything built by the government will be a disaster. But the two Voyager spacecraft were built by the government (in partnership with that other bugaboo, academia). They came in at cost, on time, and vastly exceeded their design specifications--as well as the fondest dreams of their makers. Seeking not to control, threaten, wound, or destroy, these elegant machines represent the exploratory part of our nature set free to roam the Solar System and beyond. This kind of technology, the treasures it uncovers freely available to all humans everywhere, has been, over the last few decades, one of the few activities of the United States admired as much by those who abhor many of its policies as by those who agree with it on every issue. Voyager cost each American less than a penny a year from launch to Neptune encounter. Missions to the planets are one of those things--and I mean this not just for the United States, but for the human race--that we do best.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (pale blue dot)
Belated reply to [ profile] alchemi's prompt: revisiting my Nuclear War Reading List.

Really, 'Nuclear War Reading List' is the wrong name. Especially as I expand it out to not-books.

Anyway, the list, expanded:

  • Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (Harry Hart) - a remarkably clever story of events in a small Florida town after a nuclear war.
  • Failsafe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler - a good story, exploring the possibility of an accidental nuclear attack.
  • Warday by James Kunetka and Whitley Strieber - another story about the aftermath of a nuclear war. Not so realistic as "Alas, Babylon", as it suffers from an excess of sci-fi zeal, but a worthy book on its own merits.
  • The Curve of Binding Energy by John McPhee – a good nonfiction book about nuclear issues, including judgments of how difficult it would be to build weapons.

  • From the comments:
  • [ profile] kirabug: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. - a classic postapocalyptic science fiction story.
    Not included: Farnham's Freehold - these are stories about, not stories including, nuclear weapons; Earthwreck! by Thomas N. Scortia - I haven't read it yet.

    (Excluding adaptations of the above books.)

    • "99 Luftballoons", Nena - in the lyrics, a nuclear war is launched when the 99 red balloons are released and mistaken for an attack.

    • From the comments:
    • [ profile] baldanders: "8 1/2 Minutes", The Dismemberment Plan - 8 1/2 minutes is implied as being the length of the 'war'.

    I'm obviously missing tons of these - any opinions?
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
I think I saw this from a couple people. 'Slightly' edited.

When you see this, choose a few quotations from your favorite writers to your journal. Write them from memory, mistakes and all, and post them in your journal.

"A scientist at least can hide behind the idea that he is merely seeking impersonal truth. The artist cannot. He cannot hide anywhere."
—Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

"All war is deception."
—Sun Tsu, The Art of War, Lionel Giles translation.

"An hour is this:

A minute and a minute and a minute and a minute and a minute.

A minute and a minute and a minute and a minute and a minute.

Another minute. A minute. Two more minutes. A minute.

A minute. Two minutes. Then two more minutes.

A minute. A similar minute. Three minutes.

Three minutes. A minute. A minute.

That's thirty minutes.

Now do them all over again."
—Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net

"I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song.
I'm twenty-two now, but I won't be for long –
Time hurries on,
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither in the wind,
And they crumble in my hand...."
—Paul Simon (and/or Art Garfunkel), "The Leaves That Are Green"

"Here is a hand. Here is another. Therefore two objects exist in the exterior universe, and the universe exists."
—David Hume (I think)
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (challenge)
The University of Maryland College Park campus Health Center offers to each student a certain number of free mental health counseling sessions. On the advisement of my professor, to whom I still owe a big paper, I availed myself of that opportunity.


Well, ADD does explain a few things, I must admit.

In other news, I finished reading Bram Stoker's "Dracula" for the first time, and it was quite a page-turner. More interesting to me, however, were the novel's weaknesses, the most vivid of which was the strangely inconsistent misogynism. The behavior and treatment of Mina Murray is what I have in mind: most of the time, and in the opinion of all the characters, she is brilliantly clever and uncommonly brave, but then she will be reduced to a weirdly sexualized pawn. Come to think of it, all the sexuality in the novel is very strange, and all of it regarding the females. I think Mr. Stoker had some very interesting issues.
packbat: Wearing a open-frame backpack, a pair of sunglasses, and a wide, triangular grin. (hiking)
It's been a week, I see. No groundbreaking new events, but I have watched "The Lake House" and "Redeye" – the former is a truly superb little SFnal romance, and the latter is an exciting (and startlingly short) thriller. I also finished "Beauty" (which is interesting, but not my favorite Tepper), and both a takehome and an in-class midterm.

More importantly, though, a pleasant little intermeme from [ profile] the_zaniak:
I'm feeling particularly great at the moment, and it has alway been my philosophy to share the self-esteem. So, comment in this entry, and I'll give you x words about how awesome you are!

The condition: x = how many words you give me about how awesome I am! Cheat, and I'll cheat right back atcha.

So come on people, comment, and lets get the self-esteem flying!
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
After the fifth or so time I saw this turn up on my flist, I gave in. Modified version from and by [ profile] elynne.

This is a list of the 50 most significant science fiction/fantasy novels, 1953-2002, according to the Science Fiction Book Club.... )

I'm sorta surprised "The Gate to Women's Country" by Sheri S. Tepper isn't here. Nor "A Case of Conscience" by James Blish. I wonder what other omissions I'm not noticing.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (RZ Ambigram)
Okay, how many of you have heard of Edwin Abbot Abbot's story Flatland? Because as [ profile] baxil just pointed out, they're making a movie.

Clearly the animators won over the mathematicians when they made it, unfortunately.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (butterfly)
In less depressing news, I finished Gell-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar.

The short review: Needed a better editor.

The long review )
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
Back in 1994, a rather well-known physicist named Murray Gell-Mann wrote a book called The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. Back in, hmm, August, I checked a copy out of the library.

I'm not done with it yet. But judging it so far, there's an important lesson I think people should learn, here, in writing books or articles on popular science. And it comes down to these two things: rigor and readability. You can be exactly right, or you can be easily understood. Being both is hard or impossible. In this case, Gell-Mann was writing a popular science book, so he wanted to be understood. But he is a physicist, and used to exactness*, and he let that lead him into a big mistake: he tried to stay precise – correct – without spending the time to explain the definitions.

This is unbelievably important. Unless you spend the time to make definitions, you cannot be precise. 90% of confusions are definitions or semantics.

Scientists are probably worse off here than anyone else, since they're used to talking with people who already know the definitions. But if you want to explain it to people who don't, you have to fudge it or spend a lot of time working it out.

This has been another installment of "Robin Pretends To Know All Theatre". Thank you for coming.

* For all the jokes that science guys make about the philosophy guys**, they do have this in common: they both define words very precisely. Defining words precisely is absolutely necessary to clear and correct reasoning on any difficult subject.

** Q: How do you get a philosopher off your porch? A: Pay him for the pizza. Q: What does the liberal arts major say to the science major? A: "Would you like fries with that?"
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
Hugo Award-winning novel of 2006, and deservedly so! Link from Making Light.

(Wait a sec ... *gears turning* ... the Nielsen-Haydens work at Robert Charles Wilson's publisher! Wow!)


Aug. 17th, 2006 05:21 pm
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (RZ Ambigram)
This midday, I adored a wee flutterby (wish it stayed - clever term) a lady smuggled held. I ask: is magic?

Again, been missing online – I wanna appear more. As it stands, not hopeful.

In other news, I'm reading Helen Fouché Gaines's "Cryptanalysis: A Study of Ciphers and Their Solution" – good book. Still working on the "Concealment Cipher" exercises, though.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
From [ profile] cadhla, here, with slight changes:
Go to the Random Quotations Page and look through the quotes until you find five that you think reflect who you are or what you believe. (If you are large and contain multitudes, feel free to pick ten.) Repost them in your journal, with this information, and with a brief explanation of what the chosen quotes say about you.

(I, for my own part, picked ten, then only included half of them. I like this policy.)

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Samuel Smiles, Hugh Elliott, Bertrand Russell, and Jeannette Rankin )

Now, the above has its virtues, but I can't resist adding a couple more quotes from my own stock. Ergo....

WheelsOfConfusion (what?), William Wordsworth, Sigmund Freud, Robert Charles Wilson, Ralph Waldo Emerson )
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (RZ Ambigram)
Approximating the shape of a tomato as a cube is an example of another general strategy for making order-of-magnitude estimates. A similar situation would occur if you were trying to estimate how many m2 of leather could be produced from a herd of ten thousand cattle. There is no point in trying to take into account the shape of the cows' bodies. A reasonable plan of attack might be to consider a spherical cow. Probably a cow has roughly the same surface area as a sphere with a radius of about 1 m, which would be 4π (1 m)2. Using the well-known facts that pi equals three, and four times three equals about ten, we can guess that a cow has a surface area of about 10 m2, so the herd as a whole might yield 105 m2 of leather.

From the Light and Matter series of physics textbooks, Newtonian Physics, Section 1.4 – the textbook [ profile] alun_clewe plans to use for his class.

I'm only at the beginning, but I must say: so far, very good.

Book Quote

Jul. 16th, 2006 10:58 pm
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
I thought about med school again, the anatomy class I had told Jason about. Candice Boone, my one-time almost-fiancée, had shared that class with me. She had been stoic during the dissection but not afterward. A human body, she said, ought to contain love, hate, courage, cowardice, soul, spirit ... not this slimy assortment of blue and red imponderables. Yes. And we ought not to be dragged unwilling into a harsh and deadly future.

But the world is what it is and won't be bargained with. I said as much to Candice.

She told me I was "cold". But it was still the closest thing to wisdom I had ever been able to muster.

- Robert Charles Wilson, "Spin"

Quickie: Z

Jul. 11th, 2006 09:49 pm
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
Toute ressemblance avec des évènements réels, des personnes mortes ou vivantes n'est pas le fait du hasard.

English subtitle: Any similarity to actual persons or events is deliberate.

I mentioned buying the book "Z" a couple months ago – I finished reading it before Goshen, and watched the movie today. The above is the exact quote from the screen, at the end of the opening credits.

"Z" is a peculiarly interesting example of book-to-movie transition. I have both seen and read (though rarely in that order) "The Shipping News", "Hart's War", "The Great Escape", "The Postman", and doubtless a few others whose names escape me now. "The Shipping News" was a singularly ineffective translation – a mediocre movie out of a spectacular novel – and every other one on my list had their plots significantly altered for the silver screen. Some (e.g. Mom) would disagree with me about how significantly in some cases, but they all underwent major revision.

"Z" was different. I don't know if it's like the Dune movie – incomplete – and I'm just filling in gaps in the movie from knowing the book, but somehow the scriptwriter(s) of "Z" found ways to imply enough, and drop enough repetition of ideas, and enough unneeded ideas, to bring most of what I got from Vassilis Vassilikos's book into itself.

A remarkable film.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
All caught up on my webcomickage and friendspage! Now, for a review!

My sister and I went out to the Cheesecake Factory for our birthday (we're twins), and while we were waiting for our table we dropped in at the bookstore. I got two books there – first, Issac Asimov's latest autobiography, and second, a Joan D. Vinge book called "Catspaw".

Possible spoilers )

In toto, I think all I can say is that the book passes the first test ("did it keep me through to the end?"), and possibly even the second ("would I like to reread it?"), and I don't mind that it fails the third ("is it perfectly executed?"), but I'm still trying to decide about the fourth. Is it a worthy book? Does it give you anything to think about that's worth taking away? I can't think of it.

In any case, it was nice way to spend a day, I must say. Now to finish "Blind Lake" by Robert Charles Wilson – loaned to me by my mom, and therefore very likely to be superb. (I'll possibly go back to IF after that, but I don't know. I've still that Asimov....)

Packbat ... out!


Jun. 18th, 2006 09:16 pm
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (RZ Ambigram)
Today: played "Literati" on Yahoo Games, played Scrabble with Dad (^z), and went to my friend's house for his high school graduation. It was extremely crowded for much of the time; I mostly ate, played Ping Pong and darts in the basement, and jumped on their trampoline until most of the people were gone. At the end, though, there were only three visitors including myself, and along with the graduate and his three siblings, we played "The Gread Dalmuti" until nine. After, he gave me a ride home. So, a good day.

Notes from yesterday/day before: I've finished James Blish's "And All the Stars a Stage" – was not too impressed, really. I don't think I like a lot of the old sci-fi. However, it was galaxies better than the IF game "The Sword of Malice" – I gave it a 2 out of 10, and the 2 was only for not being unplayably full of typos. The problem instead was that (1) it was really easy to make the game impossible to complete, without any indication that you have done so, and (2) the plot was past "pedestrian" and well into "bad".

Anyway, I'm reading "Rainbows End" now – it's Vernor Vinge, but I don't think its as good as his older works. Interesting, though.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Half-Face)
Today, again, wasn't too busy – I decided not to go to school to sneak into that drawing class, and ended up staying at home, mostly reading. Specifically, mostly reading "Seven Days in May", which I started this noon, and finished this same day.

Seven Days in May is an excellent book, in my amateur judgment. My parents compared it to Fail-Safe, and while the plot is very different the styles do have some resemblance. It's a classic thriller – that is to say, a story combining the tempo of an action or adventure story with aspects of the mystery – and insofar as I can determine well thought-out. Certainly I can see no flaws in the production, and many points (the description at one point of a character tailing someone, for example) the details add a strong sense of verisimilitude that benefits the reading immensely. I recommend it highly.

16 Blocks is also excellent, though in a partly different fashion. For starters, it's a movie. Anyway, all the acting is top-notch, which is not surprising – the most important parts go to Bruce Willis, Mos Def, and David Morse, all of whom are expert. (From what my mom tells me, Eminem is a good actor too. Are most rappers that way?) Also importantly, the plot is extremely well crafted – there are a lot of surprises in it, but like good plot twists, they serve to explain unusual things earlier in the movie, rather than merely to astonish. Again, high recommendations.

Anyway, I didn't do much else today. [ profile] nanakikun called in to report that he is fine and well at Anthrocon, and who was that artist I wanted him to get prints from? (Ans: Ursula Vernon, i.e. [ profile] ursulav) Anyway, it's late, as Mom has just reminded me – goodnight!

P.S. Still curious about truth vs. happiness, if anyone's interested.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (RZ Ambigram)
First, another vocabulary term: "diablerie". It is a word which, according to my mother's turn-of-the-century dictionary, refers either to devilry and mischief or to magic arts and incantations.* Chesterton uses in the latter sense, as implying devilish magic – a use I found quite evocative.

That facility with language is actually the first characteristic I want to mention in my review. G. K. Chesterton is a good writer. I compared him to Dorothy Sayers, to Jerome K. Jerome, and to Charles Dickens – I stand by each of those comparisons, that to Dickens the most. His language is literate, it is evocative, and, most importantly, it is precise. Like a classical artist, Chesterton simultaneously makes his language beautiful in itself and makes it always serve the story.

Ah, but the story...! I cannot appreciate it.

The following contains spoilers of the worst kind - spoilers for the ending. It also contains spoilers for the middle, and to a lesser degree for the beginning. If you wish to read this novel from a state of ignorance - although I do not recommend it, in this case - do not continue. )

* "Diablerie" is also a term which, according to Wikipedia, refers to a particular action that can be taken in the Vampire: the Masquerade et al. games from White Wolf. I image a number of modern readers will have a pretty odd reaction when they see the word in The Man Who Was Thursday.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (RZ Ambigram)
Oh, bother! Stuff and bother! G. K. Chesterton, the brilliant writer, the famous Christian apologist, the utter cad!
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
Don't you love turn-of-the-century* prose? In just the first chapter of The Man Who Was Thursday (copyright 1908), even if I restrict myself to mere praise of vocabulary, there's "empyrean" (refering to the heavens, more prosaically named the sky), "navvies" (an antiquidated slang term chiefly referring to construction workers), and greatest of all "flâneur" (that unique term of Baudelaire's† describing the detached gentleman observer who walks about the city). And, of course, Colney Hatch‡ (that metonymic term for a mental asylum which is so much more colorful than the standard phrase).

I'm going to enjoy this one. I can tell.

* By which I mean turn-of-the-20th-century. This latest turn was of the millenium.
† Wikipedia, I admit.
‡ Wikipedia again.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (RZ Ambigram)
Mysticism is a rational experience. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial—at once full of hope and full of fear—of the vastitude of human ignorance.

A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it. Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith.

That was the end of the penultimate chapter of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. The final chapter is the Epilogue, which in all honesty reads like an extended summary. I think the book truly ends with the above.

I find myself in a curious position relative to this book. Harris seems to oscillate between the roles of the angry atheist and the modern mystic, almost without pattern, while speaking chiefly in the style of the objective observer. He is entirely contemptuous of the modern idea of religious tolerance – he seems to believe that religious beliefs (while protected the same as any other beliefs) should be accorded the same degree of respect (or even a lesser degree) as alien abduction beliefs. On the other hand, as is evident above, he believes spirituality and mysticism (neither of which, he states, are accurate terms for what he speaks of, as they do not connote the "reasonableness and profundity of the possibility [...] that there is a form of well-being that supersedes all others, [...] that transcends the vagaries of experience itself") are not only rational, but necessary.

I am being unfair.

I can say honestly that the book is not badly written – in fact, though dry in parts, I daresay it is well-written. Harris makes arrogant claims, but defends them with facts, logic, and references (not all of which I find convincing – for example, a book titled "The Case for Israel" does not sound to me in my state of ignorance like an objective source). His claims include many which I agree with, mostly about the flaws of religion (for I am an atheist myself, and occasionally prone to anger), and many claims which I consider absurd (for I am an atheist myself, and as dismissive of mystical claims as religious ones). He makes heavy use of endnotes (my count is 63 pages out of 281) for both citations and for extended side arguments, and provides an extensive bibliography and useful index.

However, I don't like the book. I think his conclusions are too strong for the academic tone he seems to be trying to maintain, and I think some of his basic premises – well, specifically his premise that spirituality in some form is a necessity – are far from obvious. (I, being uncharitable, attribute his shortage of skepticism towards psychic phenomena to his mystic stance as well, and condemn him in my mind for it.) My greatest objection is that I cannot imagine his book will be useful; he speaks at times as if all religious tenets are obviously risible, which would seem to be turnoff to most theists, and at other times as if his mystical beliefs are obviously reasonable, which would seem to be a turnoff to most atheists.

Again, I am being unfair.

Bah! I am a useless reviewer. I would not recommend reading the book – I think the good fellows of the Internet Infidels (who have on their site their review of the book, which is far more positive (and heavily cited) than mine) and the members of their forum would be a better resource for those curious about the arguments against religion. If you are interested in atheistic ethics and spirituality, Chapters 6 and 7 respectively might be of interest, but he does not go into great depth. If you are interested in arguments against confidence in religious pluralism and against supporting religious moderates, the remainder of the book might be of interest. Otherwise, I do not believe it will be of great interest.

I think that's all I have to say about the book. Sam Harris has a website he cites in the dust jacket. It links many positive reviews of the book (giving somewhat the lie to my idea that most readers would reject it), and has some info on related topics as well as an apparently large forum community.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (RZ Ambigram)
First off, the original Russian title of the book is transliterated "Arkhipelag GULag", which has a catchy rhyme that is essentially impossible to translate into English.

(For the record, the translator of my edition is one Thomas P. Whitney. Translators get such low billing, I thought I should mention it.)

Second, the beginning of Solzhenitsyn's preface rather caught my attention:

In 1949, some friends and I came upon a noteworthy news item in Nature... )

And third, and final, the dedication.

I dedicate this
to all who did not live
to tell it.

And may they please forgive me
for not having seen it all
nor remembered it all,
for not having divined all of it.


packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)

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