Through the Language Glass – Guy Deutscher


Wow this book goes there and back. Apparently the premise that language shapes your thinking, worldview, possibilities is quite widespread, quite old and apparently utterly untrue.

At least that is what Guy Deutscher would have you believe towards the beginning of the book but by the end he comes full-circle and acknowledges that indeed it can color your thinking – it just doesn’t limit your thinking like some cultural theorists would have you believe in the 17 and 1800’s, they would use it support their “theories” about “less evolved” cultures and things like that.

The book starts out with the bizarre color associations in Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad what with his wine-colored sheep and green colored eyebrows. What to make of that? And it ends with an interesting language and culture of the Guugu Yimithirr which does not have “egocentric” coordinate concepts such as Left or Right, instead it only uses “geographic” coordinates so that speakers must always be aware of North and South no matter if they are in a room without windows or jumping out of a sinking boat in shark infested waters – they will always know which cardinal direction they swam to escape and their children always know which direction the tv was facing because Punch might have been to the West of Judy.

For someone who takes painstaking pains to back up his theories with evidence – the final pages of the book go into some wild hyperbole and flights of fancy and in fact the ending chapters somewhat unravel as if the author ran out of time or grant money or perhaps missed his children and just wrote some stuff to get the damn thing finished.

Overall I learned some stuff – but it wasn’t the book on language I was hoping for. And the author’s final revelation that naming things in a particular language is what actually carves up reality for us and not how reality is indeed divided, he presents as the ultimate revelation. Unfortunately buddhist monks have known about this for years.

Roz Chast – Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?


Well that’s a wallop of a book. It’s about DEATH. Specifically about dealing with it with parents who live well into their 90’s. But it’s a really, really great read. A very insightful, funny, poignant and unfortunately sad read. But that comes with the territory and unfortunately as people live longer and longer, it’s something many of us will have to deal with. Which is why I appreciated this book so much.

It’s a one of a kind non-judgemental, un-edited, tell it like it is, look into someone’s personal way of experiencing this situation and I loved it. All told through Chast’s one-of-a-kind drawings, hand-lettered text that feels like you’re reading her diary and interspersed with family photos, like a scrap-book.


Admittedly I picked up this book because I thought it would be hilarious. And it is, especially in the beginning but things quickly take a turn for the worse. Funny, personal, nyc-centric and geriatric quips abound and you keep going until the inevitable end, as Roz had to to do with the situation in real life.

The Dog Stars – Peter Heller


Of all the post-apocalyptic narratives out there this one is my favorite (although Daybreak is really good). There are no zombies here. Just the everyday reality of what would happen once the immediate threat disappears – and you’ve somehow survived.

The writing style seems to give people a lot of trouble, I think these are the same people who’ve never read a poem or for whom a minimalist painting somehow is a threat to their worldview. Either that or they are grammar nazis. But who is to say that every sentence needs a period or needs to be grammatically correct in a novel?

I think the writing style was one of my favorite parts of the book. Stream of consciousness style. Done really well I thought. Full of distractions, half thoughts, other people’s voices, memories… You get to really enter the mind of the character – who happens to be a pilot, own a dog, and share his somewhat miserable life (are their lives really any more miserable post-apocalypse then before?) with someone whose moral standards are a bit different from his own (but are they wrong or is survival the only thing that matters?).

These questions and others are presented as part of the, one could say mundane, existence of Hig. I guess all these zombie and other disaster movies try to show us that we are only a thin line away from utter chaos and reversion to an animalistic survival instinct and that societal niceties are the first to go – and this book shows those beautifully – but this book is also an amazing meditation on loss and longing under the circumstances. And really it’s the little things – amazing descriptions of flying, and gardening, fishing, the little pleasures in life – the only things left really – once everything else is gone – that really gave me joy and kept the pages turning.

Thank you Peter Heller, and thanks K for a great birthday read.

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections


This might be the most devastating book I’ve ever read. At the same time one of the most amazing. He has such amazing insight. A most accurate and extremely sharp mirror he holds up to society and its ills but on a micro-level. Human miserable existence as it grows from the individual, from our families, our relationships.

Our foibles, jealousies, ambitions, best of intentions all conspire to make us miserable – prisoners of our own feeble bodies, longing for understanding, relationships, power. We’re all like children not quite sure what we’re doing, just trying to survive even though all of it is possibly against us. Needless to say this is not an uplifting inspirational novel. More like a medieval treatus on the sins of humanity and how we are destined for hell. But more of a Sartrean hell where it is us and each other.

On the other hand this is a writers and a readers novel – some of the passages are just expertly writ. Beautiful poetry. There are quite a few characters here, both genders in all stages of their lives and not a moment feels false – their external actions, dialogues and internal motivations all ring true and all feel like reflections of ourselves or those who are closest to us. Throughout I marveled at Jonathan Franzen’s skill, and kept asking myself how did he do it, truly amazing.


dreamland_david_randallAdventures in the science of sleep, indeed. David K. Randall’s book, is the usual pop-sci romp through a topic of interest, but a fun one. As he states many times in the book it is a subject many of us know precious little about and it is just the same for the scientists even thought we spend up to a third of our lives sleeping.

I think the most shocking part of the book was regarding the fact that it is possible to murder someone while sleepwalking. And not just accidentally for example a hit and run, but actively murder them without knowing what happened. The legal system is a long way off from understanding this, and in fact different jurisdictions will treat a sleepwalking murder completely differently – Randall has examples of being acquitted and also put away for murder.

Valis Philip K. Dick

Something tells me this is not the best starting point to enter the Philip K. Dick universe. By that I mean, the written book universe, I am familiar with the film adaptations of his universe. Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly. Hard to find a through-line in those, perhaps because each director had a strong vision of his own?

That was one reason I never picked up a Philip K. Dick Novel, the other was his extreme popularity. Can’t trust an author who is too popular. I was also under the impression that his vision fell more in the fantasy camp than hard-core sci-fi, and I was absolutely sure (based on his popularity) that he could not compare with my all time favorite sci-fi author, Stanislaw Lem. I like as much science and philosophy in my sci-fi as possible, a popular populist fantasier just won’t do. Maybe too, I had always thought of Philip as a hippie for some reason. Not a big fan of new-age fantasy I am.

So why did I pick up this book? I think of myself as open minded, and I need to act on that if I am to continue to do so. Also, I never actually read one of his books so I can’t continue to judge them. I picked it up, but the back of the book was no help at all:

“What is VALIS? […] a beam of pink light begins giving a shizophrenic man named Horselover Fat (who just might also be known as Philip K. Dick) visions of an alternate Earth where the Roman Empire still reigns.”

If that doesn’t sound hippie-dippie enough on it’s own, you can also add historical fiction to the mix? Ordinarily I would say no thanks!, but to uphold my personal creed, I disregarded the back and dove right in.

Mostly I kept reading, because when I started, there was no science fiction to be found. Just a story about drug addiction and a character named Horseloer Fat, which is intriguing in it’s own right. It was well written and the story pulled me in, but where is the sci-fi? This is the famous sci-fi writer? And then it got dense. Really deep (bit new-age-y, but intriguing) sh!t, hard to slog through and make sense of, started assaulting me. And it kept going like that, alternating between a well written story that pulls you in – intertwined with grandiose world cosmological answer to the universe type stuff. Then there was the pesky fact that Horselover Fat and Philip K. Dick might be one and the same, meaning the author is in there, certainly elements were autobiographical. Suddenly it was intriguing, fantastical, and philosophical. And I kept turning the pages. And suddenly it was over.

So all this, is just part one, of a trilogy? Also this is one of his last books? written right before he died? Perhaps they are just rantings of an old man? Also, this dense theologically-bent drug-inspired conspiracy rambling is the stuff super popular science fiction is made of? Ergo, my conclusion at the beginning of this post.

Maybe some of my assumptions re: Philip K. Dick were not that far of, but I won’t pass judgement until I read one of his other novels, and even then—just like my feelings about the book based on reading the description on the back—maybe the assumptions are correct but the conclusions are not.

Some books

william zinsser writing well

On Writing Well

Oddly enough this got added to my reading list, because a developer/programmer recommended it. I’m surprised it was never required reading in any of my classes. It seems like a must read for any of us, seeing how we’re always communicating using the written word, and any one of us can be blogger or twitterer. We’re always writing but are we any good at it? The book is focused on writing books, but can apply to anything if you just follow his simple rules. Which can be boiled down to – edit, rewrite, rewrite. My favorite part was a re-print of an early version of the very chapter in the book I was reading, complete with all of his edits. This guy (William Zinsser) shows his work!

jennifer egan visit form goon squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Not sure what to think of this. Especially the format is a little hard to figure out. It reads like a collection fo short stories, with some of the characters intertwined. Don’t forget, Jennifer Egan also throws in a chapter in the form of a powerpoint presentation. I did enjoy her vision of the future, last chapter, which seems spot on and very likely to come true. Thought the picture it paints does not seem very pleasant, I’m sure the kids won’t mind it as they don’t in the book, just simply accept it as normal.

italo calvino invisible cities

Invisible Cities

Always wanted to read this, it’s been on my to read list for a while, people always recommend Italo Calvino, and this book in particular. I’m happy to check it off my list, but I’m not sure I loved it. A little too repetitive, but amazing to see all of the worlds he is able to conjure up. It was kind of like reading a painting.

The Voyeurs

I’m very picky about my graphic novels*. Drawing style is most important for me.  I usually flip through and soley based on the look of the panels make a decision.  Probably not the best way to choose reading materials but that’s the way it is for me when it comes to this genre. I wasn’t familiar with  Gabrielle Bell’s work before, and The Voyeurs almost made it to the discard pile. But I pressed on, I was thoroughly intrigued based soley on the first story, which at first I assumed is what the whole book was named after.

I am glad I pressed on, as Bell’s stories are thoroughly engaging, heartfelt and raw.  She gives a really great look into the life of a creative person, the life of someone who lives in new york, the life of someone brushing against personal fame and success, and the life of someone struggling with the daily minutia of life.  These are all one and and the same for her, and she has no qualms about laying out her insecurities and personal quirks for our inspection and perusal.

For example, she has an extreme ability to stay indoors and away from people, likewise she has an extreme ability to distance herself from those around her, no matter the situation.

In the end we are the voyeurs encroaching on Bell’s life and all of her personal moments and inner thoughts full of self-doubt, introspection, and awkwardness.

* Incidentally I learned form this book that among writers (drawerers? j/k) of this genre, Comics may be the preffered term, as “graphic novel” sounds too much like marketing speak and they really see themselves as comic artists.  I always thought graphic novels distinguishes it from the likes of marvel comics and other such things I would like to distance myself from, when I mention to people one of my favorite genres, but perhaps I’m just pretentious.  I still feel it is an important distinction but I’m open to discussion.

Nature of Technology

I was really surprised to find I never posted a review of this book. I finished it a while ago, and it really is quite fascinating. I keep thinking of it, especially whenever the question comes up of how technology evolves and changes over time. I wanted to look up my thoughts on it but alas, no posts.

I really recommend this book to any technologists out there. The subtitle of this book is “What it is and how it evolves” and W. Brian Arthur really tries to answer that question. But for me the word Nature in the title is the key, in this book. W. Brian Arthur applies somewhat of a biologists view to all of the technology around us and puts forth a thesis for how the evolution of technology works.

There are some stumbles a long the way, a lot of the book is very repetitive, and because he has a very specific thesis of how it all works he does a lot finagling of facts and ideas and examples to fit into a nice tidy package. For example the distinction between science and technology, and how scientific explanations/theories are cousins to technology but not actually technology. On the other hand, his explanation of how sometimes new technology can arise without scientists first deeply thinking about it, just by combining existing solutions is an exciting and novel idea.

His basic thesis is that technology evolves when a new novel combination becomes commonplace and stable enough to become a component in a new higher up more complex and abstracted solution. And on and on it goes. Makes sense. Once in a while an entirely new component becomes available, that is based on a new understanding of the universe and on harnessing and or exploiting new previously undiscovered phenomena. In time, as they become miniaturized and super stable, these too just become cogs in the progression.

I often think about this in terms of the web, of how each layer of abstraction still exposes all the layers underneath. jQuery is a nice framework, a great abstraction that lets you get things done quickly, but there is nothing stopping you from tweaking the underlying javascript. You can always tweak the php, or your data calls, circumvent any framework you use. The whole web is still the basic elements, css, html js. This is great for ad hoc solutions and infinite customization but in terms of super fast paced evolution, it hinders us, because we never get to the level of interchangeable components that can evolve in the way that W. Brian Arthur proposes.

Emergence – Steven Johnson

Wow, note to self: never write a book about the internet, the near future, or any kind of technological speculation. You just can’t ever predict what will or won’t happen.

On that note this book from 2001, didn’t age very well. Some of it’s predictions never came true, while other things heralded as the the next big thing have already come and gone.

But those are just unfortunate side-effects of writing about technology. The subject matter is still just as fascinating today as it was 10 years ago, and it seems it still hasn’t been explored and exploited enough, even though scientists have been studying the emergence phenomenon for years.

In science some headway has been made in understanding the self-assembly and self-organization of some biological systems. But in the tech sector, we are only now seriously beginning to use the logic of emergence for things like neural nets, pattern recognition, face tracking and learning networks.

The full title is Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. And the author does a reasonably good, thought not very deep, job on the first two or three points, but it’s the last part where too much speculation makes the book more of a sociological artifact on how people perceived the future of tech 10 years ago, than giving any real insight into software and technology. Thought as I said some of the broader implications of emergence are only now gaining wide adoption and watching little dots on a screen self-assemble without any explicit instructions to do so, is just as amazing today as it was then.

This book has been on my to read list for a while. Guess I should have gotten to it earlier.