January 31, 2011


UbikUbik by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A wonderful exploration of reality and psychics set in a world that offers salvation in spray can. Great stuff even with a few superficial characters.

View all my reviews

Tags: book scifi

December 28, 2008

Nothing to Be Frightened Of

Julian Barnes' "Nothing to Be Frightened Of" has a wonderful opening line, "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him." For a book examining mortality from a once atheist now agnostic author the duality captured in that line exemplifies the tone the book takes in its examination of death. I've not read anything else by Julian Barnes but picked up the book based in part on its opening line and a favorable review I read of it. Since then I see that the book graced The New York Times "10 Best Books of 2008" list.

While I have thankfully not suffered the dreaded jolt awake in the middle of the night realizing my own mortality the author vividly describes in the book, I must admit to the occasional panic attack concerning someone else's mortality (another theme touched upon in the book). The author writes not only about death but also family, memory, and legacy. The author approaches the morbid subject with the right amount of wit and decency that I highly recommend reading it.

Some of my favorite pieces from the book:

"The Pascalian bet sounds simple enough. If you believe, and God turns out not to exist, you lose, but not half as badly as you would if you chose not to believe, only to find out after death that God does exist." [21]

[Quoting Shostakovish] "We should think more about it [...] and accustom ourselves to the thought of death." [27]

[Paraphrasing Montaigne] "You should have the taste of death in your mouth and its name on your tongue. To anticipate death in this way is to release yourself from its servitude: further, if you teach someone how to die, then you teach them how to live." [42]

"[...] philosophizing, is practicing for death -- in the sense that he is spending time with his mind and ignoring the body which death will obliterate." [44]

"Do you want a distillery or a river? Life rendered as a few drops of the hard stuff, or as a litre of Normandy cider?" [49]

"The fury of the resurrected atheist: that would be something worth seeing." [65]

[Quoting Voltaire] "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." [82]

"[...] the additional tragedy of life is that we do not perish at the right time." [84]

"The better you know someone, the less well you often see them [...]" [154]

[Quoting Renard] "Imagine life without death. Everyday you'd want to kill yourself from despair." [189]

Tags: book death quote

September 22, 2008

Critical Mass

Philip Ball's "Critical Mass" is an exploration of how one thing leads to another. I found the book to be a laborious read and overall wouldn't recommend it. While it touches on interesting topics such as phase transitions, power laws, self-organizing patterns, collective motions, and scale-free networks, the book isn't cohesive. It is bookended with the thought of using the laws of nature to guide and predict human nature. While there maybe corollary between the two, I didn't find any of the law applications that persuasive.

The use of modeling, particularly the chapter on traffic has merit, but again didn't feel like it derived from natural laws, it was more simplistic rules producing complex emergent behavior. Other models explored, such as the axis versus allies assignment, felt like the model was tweaked to get the desired result bringing into question the validity of the entire exercise. Some models, like predicting market crashes, clearly have an observer effect as noted on page 236.

When the book is talking strictly about natural phenomena (meta-stable states, one way flows), and not trying to relate it to human behavior and affairs, it makes for okay reading. The problem is that between the good scientific bits, the author's diversions into politics, policy, and people feel preachy and self-righteous. Given the length of the book I'm sure everyone is bound to find some nugget of usefulness in it, but slogging through the rest to find that bit doesn't seem worth it.

Tags: book science

September 22, 2008

The Time Traveler's Wife

Yesterday I read Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife". It is by far one of the most entertaining books I've read in a long time. Stories that deal with time travel often times get bogged down in the science behind the time travel or worrying about the various paradoxes that it can produce. This book mostly avoids those subjects and instead focuses on the two main characters and their time traveling love story.

Time travel in this book is a result of a odd genetic disorder. Enough said. One only travels in time with one's own genetic material, but memories are part of that. Enough said. The primary paradox of time travel explored is the issue of free will. While it is addressed multiple times the book doesn't get bogged down with exploring the issue and instead quickly reaches the conclusion that you can't change anything. The main character is able to travel both forward and backward in time but randomly with some preference for important events. A wonderful twist that is used to great effect throughout the story.

However, despite all the nifty time traveling aspects of the story they are primarily there to serve the love story. A love story of longing. Longing but knowing. Maybe not always knowing exactly but longing knowing that something will come to pass. With love comes sorrow but neither is written with melodrama, which makes it very approachable. Overall a wonderful book that I highly recommend.

Tags: book timetravel

April 27, 2008

The Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan starts off strong but with each major section gets less informative and more autobiographical. This isn't to say that the later sections don't have worthwhile material, it's just that what material they do have is harder to find and not as thought provoking. I suspect if the book had started off with his tales of novice hunting and mushroom gathering I wouldn't have read the rest of it.

The writing style of each major section does match its theme. Which is why I may have found the Industrial (scientific) section the most interesting, while the Pastoral (pseudoscience) less so, and the Personal (new age) a chore to read. Despite the major differences in the quality of the material the book does prompt one to consider where your food comes from.

The first section focuses on corn. One of the key reasons that corn is grown so much is the seed market. Given parents A and B the seed they produce C (F-1) has better yields than either parent. But C's children (F-2) are genetically worse producing yields up to 1/3 as poor [31]. Big business has an interest in this because to get consistent high yields requires buying new seed from them every year.

Some other tidbits:

  • Approximately 50 gallons of oil per acre of corn are used in the production of it [45]
  • Thoreau's line: "Men have become the tools of their tools." [55-56]
  • Cargill is the biggest privately held corporation in the world. [63] (or 2nd by other metrics)
  • 60% of commodity corn goes to feeding livestock [66]
  • rumen is what allows cows to digest grass [70]
  • 32 pounds of feed into 4 pounds of gain [80] (livestock corn conversion rate)
  • 10 calories of fossil fuel are used to produce 1 calorie of processed food [88]
  • $1 buys 1200 calories of potato chips and cookies compared to 250 calories of whole food like carrots. $1 buys 875 calories of soda or 170 calories of fruit juice from concentrate. [108]
  • 19% of American meals are eaten in the car [110].

The second section had plenty of information about organic farming and the fact that the USDA organic guidelines specify an approved list of non-organic additives that maybe used. Another big take away form this section is that even though animals maybe fed organically it doesn't mean that the animals quality of life is any better or that it's being fed its natural diet.

The last section had a couple of tidbits I seem to think I knew but probably forgot. In both cases really not at all related to the subject matter.

  • Human brain in 2% of body weight but uses 18% of energy [291]
  • Tears are only produced by humans [292]

With all of that said, what will I change about my food buying or eating habits? Not much, at this time. I already eat healthy and try my best to support local businesses.

Tags: book food