What the Dog Saw

Another fantastic read by Malcolm Gladwell, this time with vignettes on everything from Ketchup to pitbulls to the interconnection of feminism and hair dye.

If you haven't read any of Gladwell's books yet, you really should. The details inside are infinitely interesting, and the people he interviews are always memorable. But, it is the lasting idea that you must always question your beliefs that really gives his books value.

Gladwell has the rare ability to see something obviously true and say that it's not so obvious at all. Then, he has the unique mindset that makes him painstakingly research just how these things work.

His books also have this unique ability to bring together elements that are so disparate that you can't imagine how he's going to relate them to one another, but he always manages it, and with a type of success that makes you wonder just how many other things might be involved in seemingly simple parts of our day.

In this book, you'll learn about the Dog Whisperer, two different takes on the Enron failure, more than you'd ever expect to know about the birth control pill, Jana Novotna, solving the homelessness problem, and the truth about criminal profiling.

Catching fire - Just finished

Finally finished Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, and, of course, all I can do now is count the days until the third volume ships. It looks like none of my librarian friends were able to get an advance copy, so I'll have to wait like all the rest of you suckers.

The story picks up a few weeks after The Hunger Games, so, if you haven't read HG, you should probably stop reading right now and go get a copy. It's impossible to talk about the sequel without spoiling everything. And Hunger Games is such a compelling page-turner, you'll be happy to give up your entire Sunday reading it. Honestly, most people I know who have read it did so in just two or three sittings. It's that much fun to read.

Now, my first and only real criticism of Catching Fire is that it begins so slowly. The tumultuous action of HG hooks you from the very beginning. But Collins really takes her time in this volume, working hard to establish a world that is politically and socially interesting, and setting the stage for the events that will happen later in the book.

Again, we meet Katniss, Peeta, Gale, and Haymitch, who all maintain their unique character. However, District 12's win, we learn, has had heavy ramifications throughout the country of Panem. As the two victors begin their Victory Tour (not unlike the Jacksons in 1984), Katniss learns that President Snowe, the leader of the known world, has special plans for her, as well as certain expectations of behavior.

When the tour doesn't go as Snowe has planned, and the presence of Katniss and Peeta causes unexpected repercussions in the Districts, he decides that there is still one more way he can have his revenge while squashing any hope of revolution.

After this lengthy exposition, Catching Fire really takes off, and once again, we're back in the thick of the action, and Katniss the Appalachian Amazon is kickin' ass and takin' names. Haymitch is communicating in his cryptic way, and Peeta becomes the baffling object of protection while the world seems to be spinning out of control. The big reveal in the last chapter reminds us why we love this series so much, and leaves us with an unquenchable thirst for more.

New characters include Finick, the crazy-gorgeous career contestant from District Four, Nuts and Volts, the inventors, and Johanna, who seems to like getting naked all the time. Everyone's favorite designer, Cinna (who we desperately hope will be played by Christian Siriano), returns, as well as Effie, the annoying scheduler lady.

Overall, the book is a great read, but it ends so abruptly that it leaves you with a narrative hole the size of District 13. Guess we'll just have to wait until Fall.


Please cast Christian! He's the only person who can be Cinna!

The classic pass kicks my ass

So, I have a minor interest in magic. I have no interest in being a stage magician or anything like that. But, I love the work of magicians, and I could watch them for hours. I saw a comedian once who said that all magic is essentially the same: paying money for someone to tell you that you're stupid. And, I used to believe that. But, I've realized that there is a lot more to it.

Last year, someone introduced me to the work of Derren Brown, a modern mentalist who uses the most amazing form of misdirection: he pretends to use modern psychological "science" to explain how he does what he does. In particular, he uses the buzzwords and catchphrases of a certain pseudo-discipline called ""Neurolinguistic Programming", and he's brilliant at it.

Anyway, what I've come to realize is that Magic can be a satire of the modern world, and, more importantly, an opportunity to apply knowledge learned in real scientific fields to the world of people. In particular, all forms of magic rely on something called "Cognitive Bias," a study that was revolutionized by a pair of Israeli researchers named Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.

Since there is no such thing as real magic, and at heart most of us realize that fact, it is the duty of the performer to bend minds just a little, and the best way to do that is by studying the existing flaws in our decision-making processes. Brown is the master of that.

Anyway, I have studied quite a bit of magic over the last couple of years, but what interests me the most is card magic, because it is direct, fast, requires little setup, and, like playing the guitar, your success is based solely on your dedication to practicing a lot of movements that can be foreign, unnatural, and even painful.

I have been told that the highest barrier to doing card magic at a professional level is the ability to flawlessly perform a movement called the "classic pass." I probably do 500 passes every day, and I'm currently at a level just north of pathetic. I honestly think I might spend years getting it down, but I know it's worth it, in some way.

Here is a VERY good pass done by Ari Woolf:

But, if you want to see the greatest living performer of the pass, let me introduce you to Mr. Fujii Akira.

Fujii-san does the classic pass.

Unfortunately, YouTube embedding is disabled, so you'll have to click through.

Anyway, my wrist freakin' aches right now. But, at least it's right hand, so I can still play guitar and make my left hand ache later on.

Who the hell is Seth?

So, we took a rough defeat last at pub trivia, and the question that stuck with me was "Who was the third son of Adam and Eve?"

Well, most everyone knows about Cain and Abel, because of that whole murder thing. But, if you're not a Bible scholar (or, in my case an Atheist heretic) you wouldn't have a clue about the first Bobby Brady, the first Theodore Seville.

However, I was informed that some of our players had some religious background, but they were useless. I, in fact, had started reading the Bible last year, and hadn't made it too far, but, I remembered that Adam died in Gen 5, so I knew I must have read about this third son, since he had to have shown up in the first 10 pages of the Bible. Anyway, here is why nobody can remember the third son, who, by the way, was named Seth:

He only shows up in about 6 lines of scripture, and he doesn't do anything.

Gen 4: 25-26

25 - And Adam knew his wife again; and she bore a son and called his name Seth. "For God," said she, "hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew."
Sucks to be a child that your parents only had to replace the one who died

26 - And to Seth also there was born a son, and he called his name Enosh. Then began men to call upon the name of the LORD.
Coincidentally the same name his murderous brother gave his kid.

Gen 5:

3 - And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and called his name Seth.
Sucks when your dad is 130 years older. I guess catch is right out.

6 - And Seth lived a hundred and five years, and begot Enosh.
Which is why he decided to have kids while he was still young.

7 - And Seth lived after he begot Enosh eight hundred and seven years, and begot sons and daughters.
I wonder how many years his kids had to take care of his old ass. It's my nightmare to live that long.

8 - And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years; and he died.
I like how the Bible knows how to really put the period at the end of a sentence. And he died.

So, yep, he lived a hell of a long time and had some kids. Congrats.

Poutine at Soleil

So, the missus and I got it together on Saturday and went to Soleil in Westwood in order to try out their Poutine.


We sat in that table in the middle!

As I am not Canadian, ni Quebecois non plus, I have no credentials to judge this poutine. But, I do have a mouth, and that is at least some qualification.

So . . .

Thin, crispy, tasty french fries (Soleil's frites are fantastique) covered with soft white cheese curds and some sort of brown gravy which I can't identify. Great flavor, nice saltiness. My only complaint is that the curds were a little cold and it threw off the overall temperature of the dish. Other than that, however, I enjoyed the poutine very much.

I also had Brian's sandwich, which was a nice slab of beef cooked about medium with mixed greens on a baguette. The star of that meal, however, was the peppercorn sauce. If they bottled it, I'd buy it. As the waiter suggested, it would taste good on just about anything.

Speaker for the Dead


So, I just read Ender's game by Orson Scott Card, and it was so good that I immediately went out, bought, and read the sequel, Speaker for the Dead.

The experience began by feeling a little disappointing. The plot wasn't centered around childish pranks and simulated combat in three dimensions. It turned out to be an extremely different book, one that focused almost solely on the motivations of its characters.

Plot
Nearly 3,000 years after Ender's Game, Earth's savior-turned-scapegoat must appear once again, when colonists discover a new Earth-like planet, perfect for humans except that it contains sentient beings, in a seemingly primitive state. Remembering the Bugger Xenocide, humans are now much more cautious in their dealings with other species, and have created a highly restrictive code for studying the natives, called Piggies, or pequeninos.

Everything goes to hell when the piggies kill one of their observers in a particularly brutal and horrible fashion. When he hears of it, Ender Wiggin, Speaker for the dead, must travel 22 light years to save a woman, her family, and her planet, and perhaps to justify religion in the future.

Characters
Andrew "Ender" Wiggin - Thanks to relativity, the child prodigy returns, this time in his new role as Speaker for the Dead.

Novinha - Brilliant daughter of two scientists who save the colony, but die in the process.

Pipo - Novinha's adopted pseudo-father, the first to die in the piggies' strange sacrificial ritual.

Libo - Pipo's son and Novinha's one true love.

Marcos - Novinha's Husband, an abusive, angry, useless alcoholic who recently died of a rare genetic disease.

Thoughts

Speaker for the Dead is a much better book than Ender's game in many ways. It isn't as exciting, and it doesn't have the raw energy and physical conflict. But, it really shows the author's belief that conflict resolution can only be handled through empathy. In Ender's world, communication can only begin when we really try to experience life as another being experiences it.

Of acute interest is how the author of this book could write such a bizarre semantico-religious argument against gay marriage. It's hard to believe the same author wrote these words, particularly when Speaker talks about so many types of relationships, marriage being the most flawed and ugly of them all.

Ender's Game

So, after my beautiful and important fiancée read a copy of the graphic novel version of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card for an illustrious committee on which she sits, it occurred to us both that we had never read the novel as kids. We missed out.

If you enjoyed The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (and is there anybody who didn't?), then you will love this book. A lot of webspace and printspace have been devoted to calling out Collins for aping Koushun Takami's Battle Royale, but I think that Katniss owes a lot more of her existence to Ender Wiggin, the small boy who never cracks, and whose genius is only exposed more and more as people throw seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his way.

Plot
Ender Wiggin, the third son of a secret Mormon and a secret Catholic, may or may not be mankind's best hope for survival. A special government program enlists the brightest kids on the planet in a lifelong training and discipline program devoted to finding the great minds that will save us from the Buggers, when they return to get their revenge.

Characters
Ender - The youngest kid to do pretty much anything, and he also does it better than anyone else.

Peter - Ender's older brother. He flunked out of the program for being too sadistic. Strong physically, mentally brilliant, but without moral decency.

Valentine - Ender's sister. With her brothers, one third of the most important family ever conceived. Her gentle nature nurtures Ender, and perhaps tempers Peter.

Bean - Ender's friend in Battle School. Card went on to write several books with him as the star.

Graff - The head of the Battle School program. Caring and moral, but goal oriented and hierarchical.

Mazer Rackham - The hero of the 2nd Bugger War.

Interesting stuff
The book isn't really interesting because of the extreme youth of so many characters. In fact, the youth angle is more of a gimmick to be overlooked in many ways. What is important is the idea of "turning the board around." Ender becomes successful because he is able to think like his enemy. It is not the mind of a hacker, though Ender is a hacker in many ways, that makes him successful. It is his intuition and empathy that make him strong. His ability to step into the shoes of other people, to understand their weaknesses and motives, that gives him his power, a power that is developed in beautiful style in the sequel, Speaker for the Dead.

Booklist 2010

People who know me well know that I read a lot of books, but they may not know that I don't finish a lot of books. Starting today, I'm going to keep a running tally of all the books that I am reading, plan to read, or that I have read in 2010.

The whole idea behind this is to help me better assess how much information I am getting into my head and what it's about. It's not enough to just read things and learn from them. A person needs to set aside some time and think about that the effect that reading different things can have on your mind. Anyway, here are my lists, and, as I finish books, I'll move them from one list to another, hopefully finishing 50 this year, maybe 100. Who knows?! And, as they are finished, I hope to review them all, in my way.

Pat Robertson is a real dick

On January 12, the tiny island nation of Haiti, often called the poorest in our hemisphere, suffered a devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake. 1994 showed just how much damage an earthquake measured at the substantially lower magnitude of 6.7 could do in the highly populated, yet thoroughly modern Northridge, California. In a nation with little modern infrastructure, no building codes, depleted topsoil on hilly terrain, and pervasive poverty, we are currently seeing the immense human toll such a quake can bring.

And, in the midst of so much suffering, pain, starvation and death, Pat Robertson, that fucking swine, had the audacity to utter the following words on his program:

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French ... and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.'"

"True story. And the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another."

TRUE STORY?
For what it's worth, "true story" is the line I normally use when I'm telling an obvious lie. "So, there I was, nuzzled in the bosom of the Amazon princess - true story." In this sense, Robertson is at least following my conventions, if not those of conscience and Christianity.

I can't think of anything more sickening than a rich Christian condemning people for being poor and unlucky. I mean, their Archbishop died when the diocese office fell in on him, for crying out loud! I'm really at a loss for appropriately mean things to say about this condescending and evil man.


This is what an asshole looks like.

The clock, it moves

Seems like just the other day I was talking about the Doomsday Clock, and here it is in the news again, for the first time in three years. An announcement, with live streaming video, will be made tomorrow, January 14.

It seems that something has happened that has either brought Doomsday closer, or pushed it back a few years. Honestly, I have no idea.

It seems that there are a lot of possible factors on both sides:

  1. Korean Nuclear Testing - +3 Doomsday Points ™
  2. Iranian Nuke Program Continues - +3 Doomsday Points ™
  3. US - Russian Arms Reduction Talks - -2 Doomsday Points ™
  4. Global Climate Change - +2 Doomsday Points ™
  5. Pandemic Diseases - +3 Doomsday Points ™
  6. Terrorism Uncontrolled - +2 Doomsday Points ™

I take it back. It seems pretty obvious which way they're going to move it.