Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Light of Other Days

Well, my blog has turned into something of a book review. I was in the middle of reading The Elves of Cintra when I came across a reference to the Arthur C. Clarke book, The Light of Other Days. I ordered it from a local library and quickly devoured the book.

In summary, the book is focused on the events following the creation of a remote viewing technology which can be used anywhere at any time. As the technology becomes widespread, everyone can see what everyone else is doing whenever they want, even going back in time.

The premise is great. The plot sucked. The characters were rather boring and unsympathetic. I never really connected with them and didn't care what happened to him. In a big "revelation" towards the denouement I found that I just didn't care.

The interesting parts to me were the changes that the invention brings to humanity. Some chapters have nothing to do with the books characters, but merely serve as background to how the invention causes fundamental shifts in the way our society perceives itself. That's what was interesting to me; that's why I tore through the book so quickly.

Interested in science fiction? Does the premise interest you? Go check it out at the library and give it a read. Don't concern yourself too much with the plot; it's just a bunch of people talking on the stage. It's the changes in the sets behind the actors which are most interesting...

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Undercover Economist

From my reading list in January, I forgot to mention The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford. Harford writes "The Undercover Economist" column for the Financial Times in London; this book is an extension of that column.

I thought the book was quite good. It sounds like a boring topic, but its not... It's basically a look at how the world is set up in the mind of an economist. Harford covers topics ranging from poverty in Africa (why are poor countries still poor?) to the difficulty in buying a used car (the dealer knows whether its a lemon). Each topic is covered from the point of view of an economist.

That may be the books shortcoming however. I have a bachelor's degree in economics. Therefore, when he was explaining topics like scarcity, marginal costs, and market efficiencies, I knew exactly what he was talking about. Unfortunately, I don't think the layman would be able to follow along with the ideas in his book. Don't get me wrong, Harford does a good job in explaining what he's talking about. But when half of the population doesn't understand the basic concept of supply and demand, it's unlikely that they are going to understand that a producer produces where the marginal costs equals the marginal benefit.

So, having said that, if you're interested in economics, this is a great book. If you want a more street level book which is much easier to understand, I'd recommend "Freakonomics", the best-seller from 2006. It's focus seems to be much more on the consequences of peoples actions from the drug trade to the name that parent's choose for their children. It's quite an interesting read and I'd recommend it as well.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Stopping to smell the roses

Surely you've heard that you need to frequently take time to stop and smell the roses. Do you do this? Do you take the time out of your busy schedule to enjoy all that life has to offer?

Have you ever considered that roses aren't always flowers?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Aquariums of Pyongyang - reviewed

Back in January, I noted that I had received several books over Christmas and I was looking forward to reading them. The second book that I ended up reading was The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan.

The author of the book was born in raised in Pyongyang, North Korea. At the age of nine, he and his family were placed in a "re-education" camp to atone for the "wrongs" committed by a relative. This is his story.

I actually finished reading the book a few weeks ago, but it had such a profound impact on me that I wanted to wait a bit before writing about it. If you've ever read Night by Elie Wiesel (an excellent book, by the way) you know exactly what to expect. The re-education camp is a gulag; a modern day concentration camp. Life was brutal and short, and when death came it wasn't always unwelcome.

The difference between Night and Aquariums is actually somewhat profound: the events of Night took place in the 1940s. The events of Aquariums took place in the 70s and 80s. Yet, although the German concentration camps were closed in 1945, the gulags in North Korea are open today. That's right, the disgusting human abuse depicted in this book is happening today. Right now, as we speak.There are thousands and thousands of innocent people enduring starvation, torture, extreme working conditions, and other brutalities as you sit here reading this. That, my friends, is what struck me about this book.

And when I say other brutalities, I mean it. There are some wicked people in this world; this book exposes you to some of the worst. If you have a weak stomach and choose to read this book, I'd highly recommend that you skip the chapter on executions. Just trust me on this one. The other chapters are definitely adequate to describe the absolutely abominable conditions in these camps.

However, I do highly recommend the book. The average American knows far too little about North Korea. There are those who question whether the Korean War was a wasted and senseless conflict. It was not. Reading this book, learning about the savage cruelties brought about by the North Korean government, one will finally understand and appreciate why we had to fight that war and why we stand ready to protect South Korea in the future.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Siberia Mine Blast Kills 78; 50 Trapped

It's sad... This is obviously a terrible tragedy, but you won't hear anything about it in the news because it's in Siberia.

I remember back in July 2002 at the Quecreek Mine when the nation was waiting with baited breath for days, waiting to get word on the recovery of nine miners buried underground. Then, the more recent Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 miners with only one survivor. The stories were all over the news.

Why is it that the media only cares about such tragedies if it happens in the United States? These are human beings; trapped underground and/or dead. It shouldn't matter whether they're Americans or not...

Sunday, March 18, 2007

On Commuting

I recently read this Washington Post blog entry about the benefits of a longer commute. In this world where people moan and groan about having to deal with traffic, there are those who use the time to wind down from work and relax a bit before returning home. A bit of "me time" if you will.

I never thought I would feel that way, but I found that I do. Until very recently, my commute consisted of a 10 minute (half mile) walk from our house to the local light rail station (called the "T" in Pittsburgh). I would then board and ride for about 25-30 minutes into downtown. The Wood Street T Station is across the street from my building, so it was a quick walk on the other side and I was at work. In the morning, I would commute with my wife Heather. This gave us some quality time together where we could talk about various things going on in our lives. She gets off of the T one stop before I do. It's treasured time together that I enjoy very much.

In the evening, it was a simple trip backwards. Heather works later then I do on most days, so I would be alone. However, I found that it was a great time to catch up on my reading or listen to my headphones. Sometimes, I could even take a 20 minute nap if I wanted. Again, it was treasured "me time" that I valued greatly. Plus, with two ten minute walks per day, I got at least one mile of walking in each day.

I never really thought I would miss commuting until I was staying home with Abigail during FMLA leave. I missed the time with Heather, the exercise, and simply leaving the house. It was quite cold and snowy for many weeks this winter and I simply wasn't willing to take Abigail out in it just so I could get out of the house. Now that I've started back to work, I've found that I appreciate the time outside even more.

Of course, the day that I start back to work, all hell breaks loose with the T service. A large bridge near the city, the "Palm Garden Bridge" is in pretty bad shape. So they've closed the bridge for a six month renovation. Instead of taking the T straight north into town, we have to take the T south, away from town, transfer to the other T line, and then catch the ride back north. This adds probably 10-20 minutes of commuting time in each direction, which sucks. What's worse is that can't always sit next to Heather once we're on the second T line. I've experimented with some of the buses that service our area. They're as fast as the T is as long as the weather is somewhat perfect. (Pittsburgh drivers can't drive in rainy, snowy, foggy, windy, cloudy, cold, or hot weather). I have a 50% chance of cutting 10 minutes off the T trip, but a 50% chance of making the trip 30 minutes longer then it would have been.

But things like this are only temporary; we'll be back to normal after a few short months. Then, I can go back to simply enjoying the ride, reading my book, listening to my music, preparing for my life at home.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Some thoughts on writing book series

Actually, after reviewing Armageddon's Children, I remember a conversation I had with Heather. I am a fan of Terry Brooks and have read almost all of his books. The conversation was on the dilemma that authors face in writing a book series.

Say an author writes a book, Book 1. That book is popular and the public clamors for more. The author writes Book 2 as a sequel. Then maybe the author writes Book 3 as another sequel. Book 2 and Book 3 will never make as much in sales as Book 1. Why? Most people will want to read Book 1 before reading Books 2 or 3. A few people won't like Book 1 and not bother to buy Books 2 and 3. Therefore, the returns on the books are smaller.

An author like Terry Brooks knows this. In his Shannara series, he has tried to renew interest by having new sub-series. The first of these after the original Shannara series was quite successful. The trilogy after that (the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara) was somewhat less so. The most recent trilogy (the High Druid of Shannara) was rather boring. Again, he's writing towards a diminishing audience. There are definitely people who may want to read the later books, but I would think that it actually pushes up sales towards the first book, the Sword of Shannara as well.

So Brooks, and other authors, try to expand their repertoire. Brooks wrote a prequel to the Sword of Shannara (Book 0 if you will). But then he wrote the Kingdom of Landover series, a separate grouping of 5 books completely unrelated to Shannara. As aside, previously we knew that they were completely related. However, the main character in the Landover books arrives through a portal from Earth and the characters have in the past traveled to and from Earth. Could it be that they are interconnected after all? Only time will tell.

Anyway, Brooks then wrote the Word and Void series, based here on earth in the 1990s. Again, this was (at the time) different from the Shannara series. Thus, it provided a new entry point for potential readers to pick up and read a Terry Brooks book. Armageddon's Children was supposed to be a similar entry point as well; if you read my previous review, you'll see that I disagree with that assessment.

So Terry Brooks has published 25 books. Two of these, Hook and Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, were novelizations from movies, so I really don't think they count. Of the remaining 23 books, five are in the standalone Kingdom of Landover series, which has an entry book, "Magic Kingdom For Sale -- SOLD!". For the remaining 18 books, there are only three "entry points" to the series: The Sword of Shannara (Book 1 of my example), First King of Shannara (Book 0 of my example; as a prequel it could be used to introduce the entire series), and Running with the Demon, the first of the Word and Void series.

I think you can easily see the difficulty here. Out of 23 books, there are only four entry points. Even worse would be Harry Potter; of seven books there is only one entry point. Compare this to an author who publishes more stand alone books, such as John Grisham, John Irving, or Steven King. Each book is self-contained. Any of them can be picked up by anyone at any time, with no reason to read them in the order published. Potentially, a lot more money can be made by writing like that. However, each story set would be much smaller. If you've gone through all of the trouble creating an imaginary world, you want to use it as much as possible.

Having said all of this, I am pleased with the effort of Terry Brooks to introduce Armageddon's Children as a new starting off point (even if it isn't). More readers equal more profits meaning more books. I just wonder about the economics of writing series versus stand alone books.

Quick thoughts to wrap this; compare this to movies or computer games. It seems that half of the new releases out there are sequels to previously released material. Maybe it's just harder to constantly invent new worlds? Maybe audiences are more comfortable with stuff that they know they will like? I guess I just have difficulty understand why there are so many sequels when you're constantly battling diminishing returns...

Armegeddon's Children - reviewed

Back in January, I noted that I had received several books over Christmas and I was looking forward to reading them. The first book on the list was Armageddon's Children by Terry Brooks.

In truth, I didn't receive this book for Christmas, but I bought it last September. When I bought it, it was billed as a new series for those who had never read Terry Brooks. Ahh, just the thing, I thought. I've read Brooks' Shannara series and enjoyed them. I never got around to reading his "Word and Void" series though. But here was something new. I sat down to read.

About a quarter of the way into the prologue, the text mentions a "Knight of the Word". My heart drops. A Knight of the Word was the second book in the "Word and Void" series. I absolutely hate reading books out of order as it spoils so much of the previous story. Therefore I endeavored to read the other three books before continuing to this one.

So, a week after Abigail was born last September, I read the first book, Running with the Demon. I read it mainly during my commute to and from work, as well as over lunch breaks. Because I also ready several magazines and papers, it took me the better part of the month to read it. I then continued on to A Knight of the Word in October, finishing up in November. I didn't start on the final book, Angel Fire East, until December. By then, I was taking care of Abigail full time and my reading time evaporated. I was able to plow through the whole thing over our Christmas vacation and finished up in early January.

Finally, I was able to start on Armegeddon's Children. Set approximately 100 years after the end of Angel Fire East, the plot is definitely different then the previous three and it is not as interconnected as the previous books were. That's where they get the "new series for new people" line from. However, if I had not read the previous series, I would not have had nearly the appreciation for the world of Armegeddon's Children. Thus, reading the Word and the Void series first is optional, but actually highly recommended.

Anyway, the book was a very pleasant read-the beginning of a series of books linking the Word and the Void series to the later Shannara series. Those who have read both series will appreciate the references to both worlds. Those who haven't may quite well get lost.

There are four storylines in Armageddon's Children. The main story line seems to revolve around a group of children in Seattle. This storyline provides the most detailed view of the destruction which has spread throughout the landscape. Two other storylines deal with two Knights of the Word and their struggles to save humanity. A knowledge of the "Word and the Void" series is particularly helpful in figuring on the what and why things are happening in these storylines.

The final story line is about the Elves. In the Shannara series, there were many hints that the Four Lands were actually Earth in the far distant future. The presence of Elves (in present day Oregon no less) confirms these hints and begins the bridge that will connect the "Word and Void" series with the Shannara series.

Actually, the plot lines of Shannara had gotten old, quite frankly. In fact, I was rather disappointed with the "High Druid of Shannara" series. The "Word and Void" series was therefore a refreshing change from the stale Shannara plotlines. Armegeddon's Children continues more on the path of the "Word and Void" series, and as such, was interesting to read.
However, this is what troubles me about the introduction of the Elves. There have previously been two books centered around the Elves, magical elfstones, and their sacred tree, the Ellcrys. (The Elfstones of Shannara and the Elf Queen of Shannara). When the "quest" is finally introduced for the Elves, I saw that it was remarkable similar to the two Shannara books. I just hope that new ideas are introduced that don't rewrite the old material.

Anyway, I felt that this was a much better book then his later Shannara works, and was quite an interesting read. If you're a Terry Brooks fan, I'd say go for it. If you're new to the Terry Brooks world, I'd suggest that you start with the "Word and Void" series before reading Armageddon's Children. All in all, I'm looking forward to the next installment!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Mummified body at home; TV still playing

Mummified body at home; TV still playing

Sunday, February 18, 2007
By The Associated Press

HAMPTON BAYS, N.Y. -- The partially mummified body of a man dead for more than a year has been found in a chair in front of his television, which was still on, authorities said.

Vincenzo Ricardo, 70, apparently died of natural causes, said Dr. Stuart Dawson, Suffolk County's deputy chief medical examiner.

Police found Mr. Ricardo's body last week when they investigated a report of burst pipes.

The home's dry air had preserved his features, morgue assistant Jeff Bacchus said.

Mr. Ricardo's wife died years ago, and he lived alone, Dr. Dawson said.Neighbors said they had thought Mr. Ricardo was in a hospital or nursing home.

Unanswered question: Why did the electic company not cut off his service for non-payment of bills?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Traffic congestion

Hey, I was quoted in another blog. Well, not exactly quoted. I send an interesting article on traffic congestion to another blogger to post in his blog. Thanks!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

More on the Port Authority cuts

In this week's "Getting Around" column, Joe Grata points out:

In 1975, John T. Mauro, the executive director of the Port Authority wrote:

"By this stage of the 20th century, with a lengthy history of transit failures to look back on, it would seem that our community and political leaders would have come to understand this one universal fact: The long-term answer to financial problems of public transportation cannot and will not be found in cutbacks in service and in the work force, nor in fare increases.

"These stopgap measures have been tried repeatedly in the past, and they have proved to be regressive and self-defeating. Such steps, if tried again, will certainly lead to the complete downfall of this and other public transport systems."

So why is the Port Authority working to eliminate 124 of 213 routes in the system? Make the routes smarter, yes. But don't eliminate them altogether!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Next for Pennsylvania: Putting Its Cards on the Table

Stupid slippery slope... They said that it would only be slot machines. Then why is everyone calling them "casinos" instead of "slots parlors"?

Read the article.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Unfortunately, I know people like this...

You Look Like You Could Use Someone To Talk To On This 5-Hour Bus Ride

The Onion

You Look Like You Could Use Someone To Talk To On This 5-Hour Bus Ride

Do you mind if I move your coat? This happens to be my third-favorite seat on the bus. Numbers one and two are already taken. Those are...

Unfortunately, I know people like this...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What I'm reading

I received a bunch of books for Christmas and I'm looking forward to reading them this year. Here are the books that I'm planning on reading:
  1. Armageddon's Children by Terry Brooks
    • A fiction book from one of my favorite authors
  2. Big Dead Place by Nicholas Johnson
    • A book about Antarctica
  3. 1776 by David McCullough
    • History of the Declaration of Independence
  4. John Adams by David McCullough
    • The well-known biography of John Adams
  5. The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan
    • This odd book is written by a man who survived the North Korean gulags and escaped to South Korea.
  6. The Day the Universe Changed by James Burke
    • James Burke was the host of several PBS documentaries, including "Connections". This book explores the way inventions influence history.
Does anyone have any books that they would suggest? Please post your suggestions in the comments!