Catch up on my reading

Posted in Reviews at 17:21 by RjZ

You’d never know it from my reviews, but I actually have been reading a bit now and then. Here look, I’ll prove it:

Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller. Amazingly poetic, raunchy, funny, barely intelligible at times, almost pointless, but quite fantastic. Oh, and you can read this online!

Freakonomics, Stepehn Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Thought provoking. You don’t want to agree with some of their claims but there’s no lack of evidence and discussion to at least concede there might be something to it. A joy for lateral thinkers, likely annoying to everyone else, at least this book reminds us to follow the money, or least the incentive behind facts and figures describing how people act.

How to be Good, Nick Hornby. I enjoy Hornby’s books because they’re just fun easy reading. This too was fun, and easy reading, just not as much as his other books. Which is fine, except it wasn’t as good either. If you’re a Hornby fan it won’t kill you to read this one too. It’s less autobiographical, so we can assume it was more work to write. That’s worth something. Maybe?

Bliss, O. Z. Livaneli. Learn how diverse Turkey is. Learn how Turkish people are filled with pride, but completely torn about being Turkish. Torn between Europe and the Middle Eastern cultures, Turkey can’t decide which one it likes better or wants to be a part of. Learn how scary Turkey can be too. Oh, and feel like that it’s more important than the story for you to learn all these things.

There. All caught up now. Add comments if you actually want to know more about any of these books.

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Fossil Food

Posted in Energy, Reviews at 17:16 by RjZ

I’ve only just begun reading a book handed to me: Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan but it looks like such promising blog fodder that I figured I’d start writing about it even before I finished. (I’m on page 47 now–I’ve got a little while.)


Today’s news; the Federal Reserve Chairman, Berneke released today that inflation would remain at bay with the exception of food and fuel prices which are rising. Are these connected? In more ways than we realize. Only a century ago, yield for an acre of corn was nearly 20 times less than it is today. To what do we owe this increase in production? In part it’s due to scientific advancement and hybridization which has enabled corn to be harvested more easily and be grown in tighter and tighter spaces. But even rich Iowa soil wouldn’t be able to support such an increase in natural production without a little help.

Naturally, energy to grow corn comes from the sun. The sun powers the photosynthesis that produces the stalk, leaves, silk, cob and kernels. The sun powers the the bacteria that live on the soybean roots and combine nitrogen in the air with water in complex chemical reaction to make amino acids. Bacteria don’t live long though so their nitrogen enriches the soil that the corn to grow in the next time it’s planted. Unfortunately, soybeans can only foster so many bacteria per area of soil and only so much nitrogen is removed from the air, combined with hydrogen and made useful to the plants.

That’s where fossil fuels come in. Fossil fuels are essentially old dead plants and animals. Millenia long, dinosaurs and ferns lived and died and were buried and crushed by the weight of new soil, ferns and dinosaurs. Today we uncover these remnants as coal, oil and natural gas, but really, it’s stored up solar energy. And this stored up energy, for example as natural gas, can be used to create high temperatures and pressures that create usable nitrogen, which we usually just call fertilizer. Bacteria use enzymes and biological processes to create this fertilizer at lower temperatures and pressures, but our method is quicker.

Unfortunately, our method may be quicker, but there is loads of demand for that fuel, so it isn’t cheap. And as it get’s scarcer it won’t be getting any cheaper. Even Iowa soil can only provide so much nourishment for Iowa corn on its own. Add some super concentrated sun in the form of natural gas to create fertilizer and suddenly 2 million subsidized farmers can feed a nation of 250 million.

The beauty of physics is that one really only need to memorize a few laws and everything else follows. In this case, it’s conservation of energy. We can grow more food per acre, but the energy to do so has to come from somewhere. According to Pollen it takes about 50 gallons of oil per acre of corn, or about two calories of fuel for every calorie of food. Doesn’t it seem ironic, then, that we’re considering growing corn 50 gallons per acre, to plant, grow, harvest and deliver, in order to make ethanol to power our cars?

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Posted in Reviews at 9:09 by RjZ

Silly, but, when I was younger and a good friend of mine collected records from obscure alternative music groups, we we’re often a bit disappointed when suddenly those bands became popular. Then, later, I remember thinking about philosophy and coming up with what I thought to be clever and innovative ideas, only to finally get around to reading what philosophers had actually been writing for a couple of millennia and being a bit crestfallen that I wasn’t as original as I initially imagined.

Fortunately, these days, I rather enjoy the ego boost I get when I read a book that confirms much of what I already thought. It’s especially nice (and imminently more valuable) when the ideas are better articulated, more thoroughly researched and quite expanded. That is exactly the case with the quirky Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Taleb.

Taleb is something like a financial analyst and trader cum elitist snob philosopher. Anyone who knows me, readily recognizes we’d probably either like or hate each other instantly upon meeting, but we’d have plenty to talk about either way. His book discusses the many, many ways, we are fooled by randomness in the world. Our very brains are likely programmed to misjudge the visible victories of the few (as opposed to the sheer quantity of the many failed) and assume their success is due more to their efforts than inherent randomness in nature. Being obsessed by randomness for so long, Nassim has collected hundreds of anecdotes, examples, and quotes illustrating his point and he has even developed a resigned affection for it too.

I made my way through this occasionally, I think unnecessarily, dense and confusingly organized book because it captured and explained many of the issues I struggle with when trying to explain complex observations. Here’s one of mine that could have easily made it into Taleb’s book.

The CEO Club
From early on in my career (my first professional job actually) I noticed that in North American business there is a club with an exclusive membership but almost no real requirements of its members. Once an individual through skill, tenacity, charisma or chance, is promoted to CEO, he (most of them are still ‘he’ today) may remain in the club regardless of performance for the rest of his career.

Imagine an incredibly talented CEO, who makes all the right decisions, only to have a terrorist attack trigger a stock market crash which, in turn, destroys his company’s stock value. If his unfortunate company goes bankrupt and he winds up looking for a job he won’t have to for long. After all his resume mentions his experience running a multi-million dollar firm.

Imagine a very tall, good looking CEO with no real qualifications other than his fashion sense and the ability to remember names. Assume his company performs well and he makes many important decisions along the way, even though he’s been guessing the whole time. How many of those decisions will truly end up being critical to the success of his company? We’ll never be able to separate his choices from the thousands of internal and external forces that guided the company towards success but he’ll be able to take credit just the same.

In fact, once you’ve reached the point of CEO for a company (provided that company is bigger than, say, you and a couple of your beer drinking buddies) you’ve got a pretty good chance that your experience alone, regardless of your performance will ensure good jobs from here on out, so long as you’re willing to work hard (or at least look like you do.) Simply stated, once a certain position is achieved, the captain of the ship will still be able to negotiate a new ship, even if his last one sinks spectacularly.

Of course, there are entrepeneurs who truly take risks and affect change in their environments, and there are plenty of excellent talented CEOs out there. It’s just that it may not be so easy to tell who’s who. Being talented is no more guarantee of success than being an idiot is a guarantee of being of failure. (Being talented just stacks the odds in your favor.) I think Taleb writing a whole book about makes me feel very clever and validated. Maybe it was just luck that I found it.

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Absolutely the complete antithesis of a date movie

Posted in Reviews at 14:13 by RjZ

That’s my one line review of Grindhouse.

I was impressed and amazed even as the credits rolled, but it took me a while for the three hour epic/homage to grimy movie theaters and exploitation films to soak in. This morning I decided to read the reviews and see what others thought of its hard to classify format.

Grindhouse is two movies in one, plus some trailers and commercials for good measure. The big question on many of the reviews is which of the two films in the pre-packaged double feature by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino is the better one. Unfortunately, I think this analysis misses the point.

It’s not hard to see that the directors of each of the segments wanted to do something more than package their movies together, although it does make for great bang for your movie going buck. This is not only two movies by Hollywood power-house directors, it’s an immersive theater-going experience about a whole genre of movies.

The reviewers who noticed this like Rodriguez’ film much better than Tarantino’s. After all “Planet Terror” plays affectionate homage to hundreds of b-movie zombie films, at once mocking the plotless action of these films, and yet playing it out with special effects and action that those low budget films could only dream of. Like a b-movie directors wet-dream, you can almost hear them saying: O what I’d do if I had all the money and support of a real studio… this is it.

And while the reviewers who get the whole tribute to grind-house theaters love “Planet Terror”, they feel cheated that Tarantino goes and breaks the very rules the producers have set up by taking the evil car chase film into new territory with (well, I’ll admit it, sub-par) Tarantino dialog and characters. The poor reviewers are angry because they thought they were getting a salute to b-movies and Tarantino’s contribution isn’t really such a film at all. They wonder what the director was thinking..after all, we’re not actually supposed to get to know, let alone, like the characters murdered needlessly in such films.

But what would be the point of simply repeating the exploitation fair that Grindhouse is so affectionately mocking? Instead of arguing which film is better, reviewers would simply suggest grabbing a couple of old movies from the back of the video store and making your own double feature at home.

One genius stroke of this film is that it introduces the genre, exploits it passed it’s own original aspirations and then adds to it in a way that brings it to new heights and depths at the same time. One of Tarantino’s signatures is that he can make an audience laugh at completely inappropriate moments. When a head gets blown off in the back seat during Pulp Fiction (a scene we never actually see, we’re only shown the results) the audience finds itself laughing. What the heck is going on?

In this film get to witness a car crash four times in a row, just to give us enough time to see the gory results for each of the victims. I, for one, was put off by this level of violence, but you can’t but help admire Tarantino for his ability to control the viewers like a puppeteer behind the screen. It’s as if he’s saying: you think you’re desensitized to death from Die Hard I, II, III, CCXIXV? Well, what do you think of yourselves after you’ve thought of laughing at that?

And making you think, even while you’re entertained, is what good film making often achieves. But I still don’t think you should bring a date.

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Great story, what’s the point?

Posted in Reviews at 16:30 by RjZ

I was telling my story of a person hacking up phlegm on holy Mt. Sinai to some friends at dinner the other day. I was really doing it up, quieting my voice to communicate the hushed tones of the climb and then really hacking to demonstrate the shock of hearing such discordant noise near the top of the mountain. When I was done, they looked at me puzzled; expectantly. What’s the point?

I have to admit they’re right. It’s a cool story, but I’d built it up so much with my dramatic telling that being told that all that really happens is that we’re disturbed on our way up a morning hike is a bit of a let down. I still like the story, but I guess it’s easy to over promise and then under-deliver! I’ll have to watch out for that in the future.

It wasn’t so different with Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers. I enjoyed the book very much. Unlike a typical novel, nearly every chapter could stand alone as a fascinating short story in its own right. Yet, like the carpets mentioned in the title, they are interwoven with each other into a complex pattern.

Translated wonderfully from German (actually, I’d like to see the German edition, because I can’t judge how good it really is, except to say that one would never know it’s translated) The Carpet Makers reflects many themes from post WWII Germany including how one questions authority from the state and the church and what can happen to a society with and without absolute power. The novel reads quickly and enjoyably and makes for an interesting genre bender: is it science fiction for the fantasy lover or fantasy for the sci-fi buff?

The only problem is, like my climb up Mt. Sinai, Eschbach seems to have spent more time in the telling than on the ending. Most of the chapters would make fine short stories; the last chapter isn’t one of them. Approaching the last few pages I kept thinking “there won’t be enough time to wind this up.” There wasn’t, but that didn’t stop Eschbach from offering us an unsatisfying, and certainly not terribly unexpected ‘plot twist.’ One wonders if the author suddenly became tired of writing.

I enjoyed the journey through the book and I’d recommend it to anyone for an exciting, page-turning read, but, like my dinner companions hanging on my every word, you might wonder where the punch-line is.

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Science forgotten

Posted in Reviews at 12:08 by RjZ

The most interesting thing about reading vintage science fiction is how apparent the things people took for granted are. H. Beam Piper is one of the giants of early science fiction and his stories are elegant and fascinating. While reading The Worlds of H. Beam Piper, a collection of short stories, I particularly enjoyed his frequently recurring self-made, personally responsible, characters. In Piper’s future, heroes will be libertarian!

Piper is also interested in the effects of time travel and many of his stories offer an alternative view to the results of going back and forward in time. In the most interesting, the hero and villain are actually one and the same, cleverly woven together through a fascinating fold in time. Even then, the now permanent time loop keeps repeating and we never learn the true ending to the tale.

What remains interesting though, is that, in spite of Piper’s tremendous attention to detail and huge leaps of imagination, he still sees a future where gentlemen smoke a pipe and information is presented from tape on visiscreens (TVs). Weapons change and medicine improves, but the world is still divided into the Soviet bloc and the free western world. Piper is not so pedantic that he assumes the same bad guys in the future, but the fact is, his future isn’t much different than his present, but rather a plausible extension.

The challenge, however, for science fiction writers, is to imagine a world that is plausible enough, alright, but one in which the things really does grow and change, perhaps in unexpected ways. It’s not easy to imagine the internet or what happens after the Singularity, but no one forced them to take the job. Still, Piper’s writing about an imagined future tells us more about his present than he may have intended. After all, that’s whom he was writing for in the first place.

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Not everyone knows what you know

Posted in Reviews at 17:45 by RjZ

“Five pieces of coal, a carrot and a scarf are lying on the lawn. Nobody put them on the lawn but there is a perfectly logical reason for them being there. What is it?”

That’s a rather easy one. You can probably guess without even asking any questions. Sometimes these “Lateral Thinking Puzzles” can be quite a bit more difficult. The quizmaster will answer your questions only with “yes”, “no”, or “irrelevant” and somehow you slowly piece together the story behind this odd situation.

“One night during the Second World War, an allied bomber was on a mission over Germany. The plane was in perfect condition and everything on it worked properly. When it had reached the target, the pilot ordered the bomb doors open. They opened. He then ordered the bombs released. They were released. But the bombs did not fall from the plane. Why should this be so?”

They really were released and neither was the crew surprised by this nor did anything malfunction, but still the bombs remained in the plane. Had they been on the ground back in England when they tried this, the bombs would have fallen from the plane. Got it yet?

These puzzles are truly logical and involve little or no word play. But they require “lateral thinking” which is a phrase coined to describe the non-linear problem solving you’ll need to put everything together. There’s a logical explanation of course, but it’s not the kind of answer that follows 1-2-3 from the question.

I first learned about these puzzles from my new boss, while I was living in Holland. He was an American and he loved these puzzles and knew many of them by heart. I liked them too, but when I tried them with friends and colleagues I noticed a problem in many of them. It turns out that many of them have a cultural bias. You have to know something about an custom or activity that clues you into what’s really going on in the story but that activity might not be practiced everywhere.

Without spoiling the questions above, the first one might be tougher if you live in, say, India, or Thailand. The second one is pretty reasonable, but it helps the process if you can at least picture a WWII airplane.

Still trying some these out and having them fall so flat with my intended audience was a great lesson in assumptions. It’s certainly easy to assume that someone ought to know something but that doesn’t make it so. But imagining what is not obvious to someone else requires you to really step out of your own skin and into someone else’s. Turns out that’s a handy skill to have.

For more of these puzzles, pick up the book Lateral Thinking Puzzlers by Paul Sloane. If you didn’t already figure out the examples above, feel free to ask yes-or-no questions in the comments and we’ll solve them right here.

(1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
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Give me $50 that Shamans make people better by bringing their souls back to their bodies

Posted in Reviews at 11:52 by RjZ

Edgar…picked up a funny-looking device rather like a bar-code reader.

‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘It’s a Geiger counter. Notice how the needle doesn’t move. How would you explain that?’

‘There’s no radiation in here?’

‘There are no batteries in it.’

Books are piling up on me but Scepticism Inc. jumped the queue and I finished it in two days. (Not fast for some of you, but pretty quick for me.) It’s an easy book with loads of white space, so I shouldn’t be impressed with my new found speed-reading skills, but I don’t think that’s what made it such a quick read. I zipped through this book because it was easy.

Bo Fowler created a crazy and funny book which imagines the next century world narrated by an artifically intelligent shopping cart whose programming forces it to believe in God. The shopping cart tells about his best friend Edgar Malroy, the main character, who is the founder of Scepticism Inc., a company which takes metaphysical bets. His shops will take your money on anything you can bet on but can’t prove, such as the existence of God and since he never has to pay up he becomes the richest man in the world as religious leaders and followers alike put their money where their beliefs are and demonstrate their faith.

What makes the book so easy, though, isn’t the humorous, whimsical and entertaining writing, it’s that there’s nothing new here for me. Fowler is singing to my chior. How many times do I get to have a gratified laugh where his characters say things I would say or do things I would do before it actually becomes a bit boring? This book offers me no challenge to think new things or question my ideals. No effort other that complete mind-candy was expected of me. Alas, I think this would be true of nearly all of his readers, too. The satire is so in-your-face that it is unlikely that anyone who doesn’t share Fowler’s views will get very far in the novel and the rest of us don’t really need to read it unless we’re bored with time to kill.

There’s nothing wrong with killing time, of course. I like TV and romantic comedies (whoops, did I just say that out loud?) It’s just that I felt so empty when I was done. What had I gotten out of this? What new insight, even if only a humorous one, had I acquired? Is it worth it? There’s something compelling about being told what we already know. It strokes our ego when authors repeat back to us what we already think, but how useful is it? Is it maybe a bit dangerous to read things that make us feel smart by saying what we want to hear? Isn’t that what, for example, some presidents are famous for? Look where that’s gotten us.

It’s definitely entertaining though….

(1 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)
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Hurrah! Torpedo.

Posted in Reviews at 11:45 by RjZ

or check out the slideshow!

Hurra Torpedo is unquestionably the best Norwegian appliance-rock band in the world. You don’t want to miss them the next time they come to your part of the world. Three terribly attractive Norwegians teach the audience how to be sexy, why they come to rock concerts and how make violent love with your old kitchen appliances.

If that’s not good enough, the covers of Prince, the Pixies, and, if you’re lucky enough to catch them in Colorado, John Denver, ought to be enough to get you to the show. Check out the attached slide show to see them in action.

(2 votes, average: 4.50 out of 5)
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Baudolino is a liar. Does it matter?

Posted in Reviews at 20:49 by RjZ

Umberto Eco’s Baudolino is another book that was recommended to me. Eco’s book is dense and sometimes difficult. Have your dictionary at the ready. I read slowly and a thick book like this was quite daunting. Indeed, often, while reading it I kept wondering why I was continuing. It’s not that like I didn’t like it, but I just couldn’t seem to focus on it.

The paperback version was too large to take with me on trips and thus, I finished two other books since I started Baudolino but I stuck to it. I am glad I did. It is an amazing tale, amazingly written (even if it did take me most of the book to realize it) Eco’s attention to detail and clever story telling forces the reader to think, to philosophize, to reflect and to wonder.

Baudolino is a travel book through time, history and legend about philosophy and meaning of words and beliefs and…about lies. Because the narrator tells us from the very beginning that he’s a liar; that everything we read is from one who tells tales and stretches the truth. The power of his lies changes the world inside this historical fiction and makes us wonder how powerful lies are our own world.

Reading Baudolino forces you to put your beliefs and skepticism to the test. How much does the truth matter if false premises yield true and beneficial results?

(3 votes, average: 3.33 out of 5)
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