Thursday, July 17, 2008

It was the Summer of the Library Books. San Mateo County glowed red...

[The title is an allusion to the pseudo-medieval text on the cover of one of the Redwall books: "It was the Summer of the Late Rose. Mossflower Country shimmered...]

"A red sun rises. Ash has been spilled this night." -- all right, that was worse. I couldn't resist making another allusion, though. All the wildfires in Northern California have been sending so much smoke into the air that, many days, the sky has been silvered over and the sun has turned red long before setting. (I don't remember exactly how long before setting, but the sun's been red while still five or more diameters above the horizon.) It's actually a beautiful sight, for all it's a symptom of fire and destruction elsewhere, and for all the smoke is causing trouble for people with asthma (especially in cities closer to the actual fires).

Other than that, though, mostly the weather has been fantastic. There have only been two days so far that I'd call "uncomfortably hot". Take that, friends back in Boston. It doesn't even matter that my house doesn't have air conditioning! I don't need it!

For the first time in four years, I'm not doing any kind of science research internship thing over the summer. This is mostly because I was too lazy to get myself a lab job, although it's lovely to have all this spare time. And since I have almost nothing but spare time, I've been lavishing attention on my book heap. I've taken an inordinate amount of books out of the library, bought a few from Barnes & Noble, and pulled several out of my family's rather large collection. I even have time to reread books! What a luxury.

(Because I've started to get a little tired of just reading, I'm also teaching myself Scheme in fixnum days.)

Here are some lists of books, with comments. I may write up more details on some of the sciency ones.
(Lists are not in any kind of order, and are not exhaustive (I'll probably remember more and add them later).)

  • The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien. This is a lot more fun than I remember it being when I read it as a kid. Tolkien's prose style is maybe a little difficult for kids -- but this time around I kept wanting to grab a bunch of random kids and read aloud the fun parts, really perform them. On a totally unrelated note, it's also fun to reread The Hobbit after knowing Lord of the Rings; Tolkien is constantly hinting at things. For example, it makes so much more sense that the Necromancer could cause Mirkwood to be nasty and gross if you know that the Necromancer is actually Sauron. And, there are the Dwarves charging into battle yelling "Moria!".

  • This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin. This one had me itching to make funny waveforms to screw around with my auditory perception, and to listen to the pieces of music he mentions with a totally different ear. Unfortunately, I was stuck on an airplane. Quite a ride. I took note of several small things Levitin said about his approach to his area of research, and am planning to write them up.

  • When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech For Better And/Or Worse. Ben Yagoda. This one's good for dipping into because each of the chapters (Adjective, Adverb, Article, Conjunction, Interjection, Noun, Preposition, Pronoun, Verb) is relatively short and stands alone. Yagoda writes as a serious linguist, but not a dry one: he clearly enjoys language for its own sake, as any geek ought to. This is not a writing-advice or prescriptivist book (although it does contain some tidbits of writing advice).

  • How To Dunk a Donut: The Science of Everyday Life, Len Fisher. This is an interesting popular-science book. Rather than describing one small area for the public, Fisher describes applying a "scientific" approach to random topics like "Why do cookies crumble when you dunk them in milk?". I'm somewhat wary, because some of his projects seem to have been solicited by companies who want publicity for their cookies or whatever. Similarly, some of the "scientificness" of his approach seems to consist of wrapping things in numbers and graphs. A very laudable goal, but in some places the description is pretty dense for a book with that goal.

  • Proust Was A Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer. This was really well-written and engaging. Lehrer's idea is to show how various artists/musicians/writers (mostly of a certain Paris avant-garde club, it seems) anticipated recent developments in neuro / cognitive science. For example, Walt Whitman's "the body includes and is the soul" lines, and embodied cognition. I thoroughly enjoyed the arts-description parts and the science-description parts. And sometimes the connection between the two was strong and clear, as in the chapter on Proust; not so much in the chapter on, say, Stravinsky (that one felt forced). Still, eminently worth a read.

  • The Time Machine, H.G. Wells. Oh boy, did I ever get the wrong impression from the movie version of this. The book is a lot more realistic and a lot more... quietly horrifying? I don't think it's at all plausible that class separation will lead to humans splitting into two species, but it's thrillingly creepy to imagine humans evolving into either the Eloi or the Morlocks. I guess this one is halfway between dystopia and SF. (And I'm still a fan of the virtual-encyclopedia guy from the movie.)

  • Across the Wall, Garth Nix. I'm a big fan of the Abhorsen trilogy, and the first half of Across the Wall is a shorter story that's part of the canon. The rest of the book is a bunch of short stories outside the canon that I didn't find all that interesting. Nix writes young-adult stuff; Abhorsen aged well, IMO.

  • Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Wow! Franklin gets short-shrifted among the Founding Fathers because he didn't do "hero" stuff like command armies or ride at midnight through Massachusetts, because he doesn't look all that dignified and because the things he did do were quietly behind-the-scenes and/or sounded silly (kite, anyone?). But his autobiography is full of all kinds of interesting things, like the brilliant way he basically tricked the people and the legislature into funding a new hospital. And it's packed to the gills with advice that's a little antiquated, but still good. This is a real self-help book, not some lame thing full of whining and words like "self-actualization". I would have liked to hear more about his experiments with electricity.

In Progress
  • Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, Douglas Hofstadter. What can I say? This is a book about translation -- but it's also a book by Hofstadter, which means it's a book about the idea of translation stretched and twisted and abstracted and applied to all different kinds of things, and at the same time it's also a book about poetry and music and elegance and math and computer science and AI and love. The book describes itself as something of a memory of Hofstadter's wife, Carol, and it's touching to read it as the world's longest, most elaborate love letter.

  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter. This one is also about music and elegance and poetry, but with a much larger dose of logic and math and AI and symmetry and abstraction. It's more work to get through, but it's so worth it.

  • On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Harold McGee. A really well-written guide to food, "scientific" in that it describes foods using scientific terms, not "scientific" in the sense of nutrition-reductionism. Sort of a Hacker's Guide to Culinary Experimentation.

On Deck
  • I Am A Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter

  • Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, Neal Stephenson

  • Vaccine, Arthur Allen

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

  • On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins

  • Dante's Inferno (anybody got recommendations about which translator to read?)

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