booklist

The Question V1 - Zen and Violence

Based on a recommendation from Darren at Skylight Books, my favorite independent bookstore, I picked up this little gem from 1987. Back in print since 2007, The Question, by O'Neil, Cowan, and Magyar, takes place in the DC Universe in a town called Hub City. The series follows the life of The Question, a night-time vigilante in the spirit of Batman, and day-time freelance journalist Vic Sage.

While the comic throws a battery of genre clichés at you, it's still a very entertaining read with a protagonist who gets more and more interesting, and a few bad guys that you really want to learn more about.

My only complaint is that the first 80% of the book takes place under a consistent story arc, and the last chapter feels like it dropped out of the sky. Not the best way to end a trade. If it made sense to just collect the first 4 issues, they should have done it.

All in all, a good read. Unfortunately, I don't see this title stocked at many shops, so it may be a while before I have a chance to get V2 and V3.

The Confidence Man

Finally finished reading a book I started the day after Christmas. So, yes, 3 full months to finish 300 pages. This has to be a record for my slowest progress yet. But, I'm glad to say that the effort was worth it.

Melville's last novel is the story of a brief riverboat cruise down the mighty Mississippi, filled with interesting characters, and so much dialogue. God, there is a lot of dialogue. In 300 pages, I would venture a guess at around 250 pages of dialogue. It may have been more successful as a play.

The story tells a series of brief episodes in the lives of people asking for money, and the people who are convinced to give it, by a variety of means. The central concern of the work is the idea of Confidence, that rarest of things, Confidence in our fellow man. And, by showing us the worst of men, who comes bearing the loftiest of ideas, we're left with a feeling of weakness overall.

As the Man with a Weed, or the Cosmopolitan, or the Man from the Coal Company, or the Snake Oil Salesman (are they all the same man? I'm not sure) take people for one ride after another, cynically extolling the Biblical virtue of Confidence in strangers, we know at every moment that they are using this high ideal as nothing more than an opportunity for swindling.

The most interesting aspect of the confidence-game played out time and time again in the novel is the fact that these expert practitioners of the art of seperating sucker from money all do so without making grand promises or sophisticated cons. The method is simple and repetitive: infecting others with the idea that Confidence is supreme among human virtues, and letting the rest follow naturally.

How to resolve the dilemma of confidence, the paradox of trust in an untrustworthy world? Well, it seems that we must all follow a simple unspoken rule: confidence is something seldom asked for with good intentions.

Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science

It took me a while, but I finally finished Paul Thagard's "Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science" today. It's a very interesting read that summarizes the major questions facing researchers and the models that they are using to describe mental processes.

All was very informative, and surprisingly accessible to a layman, with very little of the pseudo-math, symbolic logical symbols that you often see in works of this nature. I suppose there is a certain irony to the fact that symbols can make things harder to understand, particulaly when you're talking about a field that is very concerned with symbols.

My only complaint overall is that, while Thagard seems to keep an open mind about virtually all aspects of the field, he is very dismissive of the Dualist and Idealist views of consciousness. He is quick to show the possibilities of many ideas that conflict with his own CRUM model of cognition, but he shows nothing but disdain for people who think that consciousness can't be described as an electro-chemical process, putting them down as merely "unimaginative."

That aside, I highly recommend this title for people interested in thinking about thinking. The first few chapters turn your brain upside down, if you're willing to really read closely and take in what's on the page.

All you need is kill

The fine folks at VizMedia, a leader in bringing Manga titles to the US, now have a cool literature imprint called Haikasoru, specializing in importing and translating cutting-edge science fiction titles from Japan. I was at Meltdown Comics this weekend and came upon one of the first titles from this exciting new division, a book called All you need is kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. A quick look at the back cover and I was interested enough to buy an unknown book by an author I've never heard of before. So, I have to deduct 5 points for the name of the book, but the paragraph synopsis was tops. ;)

AYNIK is set in the not-too-distant future, on a planet Earth that is being overrun by "mimics," a mutant species that may or may not be alien, and may or may not be sentient. All that humans really know about the mimics is that they are incredibly difficult to kill and they leave death and destruction in their path. Even their metabolic waste is a deadly poison.

They story gets interesting when a fresh army recruit, Keiji Kiriya, during his first battle, inadvertently sets himself in a never-ending time loop, repeating the battle over and over again. The comparisons to Groundhog Day will be plentiful, and rightfully so, as the story revolves around a man constantly reliving the same 30 hours. But, Sakurazaka has actually created a unique phenomenon for the novel which is internally consistent, interesting, and very entertaining to try and piece together.

The other central character is the Earth's greatest warrior, a slight, red-headed American woman called Full Metal Bitch, or Valkyrie. Kiriya knows immediately that their lives will become intertwined, but doesn't realize until it's too late exactly what that means.

AYNIK is a fantastic, energetic read with two strong characters and a plot that pushes you forward. Translation work by Alexander O. Smith is extremely well done, with a modern style and a compelling mode of storytelling that makes for a fast read that is difficult to put down. I hope that the imprint continues this partnership and that we see more work from both Smith and Sakurazaka in the future.


Don't drive angry.

The Design of Everyday Things

I finally finished this book after months of trying, and I'm glad I did. It's one of the most interesting and personally gratifying things I've read in a long time, and it gives me an entirely new respect for the simple details that make life easy, or at least possible.

Donald Norman's masterpiece on interface design principles examines the thoughts and ideas that go into product and software design, the many ways that they are misleading, and suggests many new ways to look at the purpose of design in general. Perhaps Norman's greatest achievement is addressing the problem of self-esteem versus design sense.

Throughout the book, Norman invites us to look at the millions of confusing, frustrating, and potentially dangerous mistakes we make operating everyday equipment, and to consider how design is at least partially responsible. He also speaks at length about the thought processes that go into using something, the universal language of interactivity, and how design trends actually serve to degrade the user experience serving no other purpose than winning awards.

Designers are constantly hobbled by the amazing shortcomings of the public who will one day use the products they design. But, it's important to realize that the point of design is not just aesthetics, but also utility and ease. Norman's book is the last book any designer should read, because it puts everything else in a logical perspective, with a user-focused agenda that reminds you to never blame a consumer for an error that could have been prevented by better design.

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.