Sunday, April 29, 2007

A few moments of personal reflection. An update on the varied aspects of my life which might interest anyone who reads this, and may serve to amuse me in future years when I glance back at this post:

First, an apology for whatever has happened to the font on this page, which has turned any number of symbols, from the common " to the slightly less common -- into some silly block. I'm going to experiment with changing the font on the page, but if I were REALLY going to spend any serious time on this blog, I'd first post on the 15 books I've recently read that I've not yet written about. Some of them were even great, like Bill Bryson's works...

The Professor and I are both home tonight at our house in Hyde Park after an enjoyable and low-key afternoon of celebrating Vic's 60th birthday. We had a water-balloon fight on the back deck of the house, and MF & SKF made some incredible dinner. Yesterday we attended Eyore's birthday down in Pease Park, and enjoyed a relaxing hippie vibe with the Keep Austin Weird crowd.

I'm still jet-setting between Austin and Vancouver, which is enjoyable though frequently exuausting. The Professor is finishing up her first year of law school, and it's safe to say she'll be happy to have it behind her. We're leaving in a few weeks for Houston, where we'll be spending about nine weeks this summer while she does a summer associateship with a big firm down there.

MF is working at a sushi-bar again this spring, and seems to be enjoying it immensely. LAF is working for a web-developer, and enjoying it not-at-all, but she has a new puppy named Reece, who is delightful, and I suspect that she'll really enjoy living here this summer. SKF recently won an award for her pastel work, so we're all very proud of her, and she's still kicking much ass on the real-a-tor front; displaying an impressive amount of adaptibility and business savvy. Vic says he is now "the cat's gardener."

So for now, I'm off to read in bed until The Professor finishes reading her Con Law.


Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield

Pressfield’s engaging retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, in which three hundred Spartan warriors held off the boundless hordes of Persia for seven days is a really fun “Last Stand” type historical novel. For those of you who have seen the kickass trailer for the upcoming movie “300” – this novel well chronicles the same events. And if you aren’t quite up to reading Herodotus’ chronicle of these same events in ancient greek, then you might quite enjoy this book.

If, on the other hand, descriptions of manly valor, piss, blood and mutilation, and senseless warfare are distasteful to you, you might not enjoy this book. At all.

In the course of reading this tale of heroism and slaughter, I came to two conclusions: First, I now know a good deal more about the history of ancient Greece than I did before, and second, the Spartans were probably not very nice people. Valuing the ability to take and dish out massive punishment above all other attributes doesn’t make for a very nice society, but it does make for warriors who are superb fodder for historical epic battle tales like this one.

I’m now eager to see the movie “300”.

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

The oddest thing about Odd Thomas is that it was actually a little moving at the end. See, I expected this book to be really weak, since the premise, the writing, and the emotional maturity of the characters all seemed to hover around the age-appropriateness of, say, a novel featuring a scimitar wielding dark elf. But despite all this, the book had some cool imagery, a surprisingly appealing central character or two, and a decent twist at the end.

So, Mr. Dean Koonz, despite your novels being widely sold in grocery store checkout lines, I must admit that I rather enjoyed both of the novels of yours I’ve read. So, I suppose I’ll add to the massive tub of gold doubloons you use to bathe and by another one sometime.

Sorry Didion, McCarthy, Kundera, Carter, Pamuk, Atwood, and all you other serious writers out there working to improve the craft and placate the ghost of Alexander Pope. The novel may well be a trashy form for the lower classes, but it sure is a lot of fun as popcorn sometimes.

Pareto & Mosca by James H. Meisel

As is easy to do these days, I found myself incensed and fascinated by the current political climate in the United States. The last few years have provided a fascinating study in the breakdown of the democratic process at the hands of a few corrupt elites. But it seems clear that this sort of behavior is nothing particularly new. It wasn’t new with Mills obseverved a similar clustering of Power Elites in the post Eisenhower days. It wasn’t new in the Roman Senate. Corrupt and elite individuals or cabals seem to have been excercising their power in ways which are not necessarily in line with the common weal for as long as monkeys have been talking to one another.

So I started blogging on the topic a little here:

My great social and political science mentor, Columbia University graduate and ex-CIA analyst recommended that I check out Pareto & Mosca if I wanted to better understand some early Italian philosophers’ take on the relationships between the individual and the state, which seemed to have some significant bearing on the topic.

So I read and skimmed my way through this somewhat dusty tome, very impressed by how currently relevant the work of these two great minds still is today.

A fascinating if somewhat arcane look at two early social / political scientists.

The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

The Hellbound Heart is a tightly written horror novella. Apparently it served as the inspiration for the Hellraiser series of films.

In The Hellbound Heart, Frank, a man for whom life’s pleasures have ceased to be enough is given a puzzle box. Once opened, the puzzle box summons a breed of sadomasochistic demons from another dimension, who thrive on torturing eternally those mortals who foolishly open the box.

Somehow, Frank’s tormented soul escapes from the Cenobytes and inhabits an attic room in the house where his brother and his brother’s unpleasant wife life.

I’ll not give away anything further except to comment, as I have before, that I really admire the unique tone, the brutality, and the overt sexuality of Barker’s writing. Lots of good wordplay here, like mixing “abattoir” and “boudoir” for example, or fun phrases like, “his flesh a catalog of torments”, and so on…In the early to mid eighties, Barker was doing things in the horror genre that were quite outside of what the mainstream horror novelists attempted.

This novel was fun, vicious, and fast.

Freakonomics by Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Freakonomics has a subtitle: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.

This subtitle is a bit misleading, but Levitt (who does the number crunching) and his author Dubner, who is a writer for the New York Times, do a good job of looking at a number of different social phenomena using economist’s methods and mindset. They mostly use complex statistical correlation tracking to draw conclusions from data on a variety of topics quite unrelated to what most people think of when they consider the dismal science.

They tackle Sumo Wrestling (it’s rigged), teacher cheating to improve student performance on standardized tests (they do), the pyramid scheme of Chicago crack dealing, the correlations between infant name selection and socio-economics, and most controversially, the relationship between the passage of Roe v. Wade and a drop in crime rates.

Of course, economics is really little more than a set of theories to interpret data which is based on statistics, so it applies nicely to these sorts of topics.

Levitt and Dubner are interesting, convincing, and the book is certainly written for the layman. No background in math, statistics, social theory, or economics? No problem. Just let the boys explain a few basic principles for you, then sit back and be dazzled by their factoids.

The book is delightful, fast to read, and will encourage you to think, however briefly, about the world in a slightly different way. And that’s never a bad thing.

Thanks to Tucker for loaning me this one.

World War Z by Max Brooks

“And the flags are all dead at the top of their poles…”

Max Brooks’ novel of human v. zombie warfare is vastly better than it has any right to be. Brooks has given us a retrospective oral history of the first war between humans and the living dead. The book gives us interviews with a wide array of people who relate their experiences during “World War Z” – from the Chinese doctor who discovered patient zero, to the marine grunts who held the line during the disastrous Battle of Yonkers.

Seems like this book was almost required reading for the game developer / geek set last fall. Everwhere one turned in these circles, it was being mentioned. Certainly, it doesn’t really deserve a place alongside serious apocalypse fare, but it WOULD make a good MMO video game, I suppose…

Good stuff here if you appreciate the cultural meme that the zombie gene occupies

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Larson weaves together the stories of two obsessed men in this interesting, dark historical novel.

I suppose that the work is non-fiction. These folks lived and died in much the way Larson tells it, though one suspects that he had to imagine quite a bit (to echo Han Solo) in order to provide us with this level of detail.

In the months leading up to the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair a killer worked Chicago. He lured young women to their deaths in an oddly productive way. This isn’t your lurid sex-fiend serial killer, so much as a homicidal opportunist with a zeal for capitalism.

At the same time, young America’s foremost architects, planners, landscape artists (Frederick Law Olmsted, father of Central Park, for example) were all gathered together to create a World’s Fair which would outdo the one put on by the Parisians some years earlier.

This was a fascinating look at large scale project management, the spirit of the age, attitudes and lifestyles at the turn of last century.

While the serial killer stuff almost felt tacked on to lend enough lurid wickedness to the tale to make it more mass marketable, the book was still fascinating, and made me understand why the Chicago World’s Fair of 1892 features so prominently in the mind of those young men and women who grew up in the early years of the 21st century.

Coming off the post-civil-war farm and into the White City of Chicago and the modern age must have been an incredible awakening for the country.