Category Archives: Books

Recent media intake

I’m watching Flight of the Navigator for the first time since I saw it in the theater when I was 8 years old. While I wouldn’t say it’s going to rank as one of my adult favorites, it’s remarkably good for a PG-rated kid-oriented sci-fi film that I really liked when I was eight. The red panasonic cassette recorder I had as a kid briefly appeared in it too! I’m somewhat appalled at the idea of a remake, however.

I recently finished reading The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison by John Emsley. It’s a fun book, if you like reading about such things as the historical use of toxic metals (and metalloids), both as medicines and as poisons. It’s really interesting how many had useful medical purposes, albeit with side effects that were often as bad as their benefits. (Typically, a lot of toxic heavy metal compounds are even more toxic against microorganisms than against humans, but not much.)

I’m currently reading You Are Not a Gadget by the decidedly-curmudgeonly Jaron Lanier. I’ll have more to say about it later, but I think he really has some important things to say about the prospects for culture in the modern world.

Also, I bought a single-tuner HD Homerun and a UHF TV antenna (there was an existing and unused satellite mount and a piece of coax routed in through the wall, so it was quite easy), and I set up the MythTV backend on my home fileserver. I’ve got it recording what little broadcast tv is worth watching.

Book Notes: Gateway

I was recently copying a lot of my pages of old Amazon wishlist items into Paperbackswap to see if the items were already available there, and if they were, to get them. I’m only part-way through the process when I found a copy of Gateway by Frederik Pohl. As far as I know, I’ve never read anything by him before.

The story drops us into a rather grim future Earth, one where Malthus was right, and people are mining oil out of shale, not for energy, but as feedstock for microbial processes which produce edible food for humans. But, they’ve also discovered an asteroid in our solar system with tunnels drilled into it by a vacant alien race (the Heechee) — they’d previously discovered evidence of prior settlements on Venus as well.

The best part of all is that this asteroid which had been turned into a space station had a bunch of small ships attached to it. And, while they are half a million years old, they frequently work. People are still trying to figure out how to set the destination in the FTL (faster than light) drives of these ships, so taking one out for a spin is risky work. However, if you can pay the fee to get transported to this asteroid, you can be a prospector in one of these crews taking the abandoned ships to previously-unvisited destinations, some of which offer artifacts and technologies that are in great demand back home. Many other destinations (or the trips there) kill you.

And then every other chapter is the main character, later in life, talking to a computer psychoanalyst. That part wasn’t terribly engaging, but it did (along with the other chapters) build up to a pretty clever conclusion. I’ll probably read the sequels.

Book Notes: The One Minute Manager

I’m almost certain that the first time I heard of The One Minute Manager by Blanchard and Johnson, it was in deriding the notion that came to mind based on the book’s title.

Having read it, an allegory about a particular management technique which is inspired by a fair amount of behavioral psychology, I can’t say I think it’s universally applicable, but it’s a good set of ideas to apply in many situations.

In essence, what it’s suggesting is:

  • “One Minute Goals” – Set concise goals (which fit on one page and can be read in one minute) that people understand.
  • “One Minute Praisings” – Honestly praise people when thy do well and do it in a timely manner. Encourage them to keep doing great stuff.
  • “One Minute Reprimands” – Honestly and fairly reprimand people when they do something bad, also in a timely manner, expressing your true feelings about that specific matter and then encouraging them to do better.

What the authors are specifically proscribing is either letting your displeasure with someone’s actions building up to a point that expressing this backlog can no longer constructively remedy the situation, or piling on negative feelings you have about something unrelated to that person’s actions. It seems to me that this “say something about it when it happens” philosophy is quite clearly based in a lot of the experimentally-verified ideas about operant conditioning.

Worth a read at only a hundred pages (and used copies widely available for cheap.)

Book Notes: Little Brother

While I had been only kind of lukewarm on his writing, I happened to preorder Cory Doctorow’s new novel Little Brother, so it ended up arriving on Tuesday. I’m glad I did — I finished it between an hour during lunchtime and a few hours in the evening yesterday. I’m not sure if I’ll read it again, but it was really fun.

Basically, Little Brother is young-adult fiction of the coming-of-age by completely going against the society you’re living in, in order to save it. Kind of like some of the Uglies/Pretties/Specials trilogy by Scott Westerfeld, but much closer to the present day. I think this kind of fiction is really compelling because many of us first developed strong moral principles when we were the age of the characters (high school years), so it’s easy to identify. Also, in this case, it’s all about government abuses of power, terrorism hysteria, security theater, and similar aspects of the present-day political landscape. Well, that, and hacking and general mischief.

Book Notes: Better

In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance author Atul Gawande writes about a subject he knows well, medicine. But, while much of his writing is informed by his being a physician and has a close, personal quality to it, he has gone beyond his own immediate view of the field to really dig into some of the meaty issues.

He writes about a lot of specific things that happen, from expensive Polio vaccination “mop-up” operations which try to contain the spread of the disease, in a hope of eradicating it, to hospital infection control, to the ethically interesting subject of doctors who have assisted in the execution process. The book also covers some of the popularly-discussed issues like malpractice lawsuits and the difficulties of insurance.

Overall, I think it’s an interesting reflection on the difficulty of trying to do as good of a job as you can in a field which is complicated and demanding. It was really engaging for me.