Monday, February 16th, 2015

The Monkey Wrench Gang
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am no fan of the environment. Indeed, I am far more of an antifan. I long for the day when we are forced to flee to giant domed cities where we can finally solve the problems of insects and animals and humidity and sunburn and angry plants and all the other little evils waiting to strike in “the environment”. I am also not a fan of terrorists. I hate them even more than I hate the environment.

All of which is to say that I am not the target audience for this book in which the main characters are all eco-terrorists and the plot follow their eco-terrorist activities as they attempt to spread unnecessary mayhem across the Southwest. I am not even in the neighborhood of being the audience for this book. Had the author known me, I am almost certain that he would not have been able to find any use for me. And I am pretty sure that I would feel the same about him.

So it was a tremendous surprise when I started liking this book. I’m not saying that it’s a great book. And I wouldn’t recommend it. But I was expecting this review to be a long catalog of the book’s faults without a kind word for it.

And while there are certainly many faults to list (the most prominent being the weird notion that having a character pee is the height of comedy…), my heart just isn’t in it.

The book is fine. Even entertaining. It didn’t make me sympathetic to eco-terrorists but that would be a pretty tall order for a novel. So whatever.

It’s fine.

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015
Link: WonkBlog: Yes, the Federal Reserve has enormous power over who is president

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this book a few years ago and I remember really liking it. So I was surprised to find that I only gave it 3 stars back then — which is lower than I remember but about right for where I am now. Unfortunately, I didn’t write a review back then so I will attempt to explain the same 3-star rating more carefully this time around.

Mr. Feynman is sort of a nerd hero these days. That’s not terribly surprising. He was a brilliant mind (he shared the Nobel prize with a couple of other gentlement “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles”.) who could make complex topics approachable even for the layman (some of his lectures are on YouTube. You should watch them). He combined his genius with a playfulness, so many of the stories in this book are about pranks and games he would play. He was fun and brilliant and approachable — almost the perfect public figure for the nerds of the world to unite around.

Except, as his book makes clear, he was an unapologetic jackass. It starts off almost innocently early on where he taunts restaurant servers by hiding their tips in ways that will make a huge mess for them to retrieve the money. But eventually, he starts learning full “pickup artist” techniques like “negging”. He actually says he didn’t like doing that and would stop but then in the very next chapter notes that he knows how to treat a different woman thanks to his lessons in being jackass.

There’s never a sense of remorse or growth and it seems like Feynman never saw anything wrong with treating people (especially women) like playthings and experiments.

In an autobiographical memoir, it’s difficult to separate out the person from the book. In fact, I can’t do it: I don’t really like Feynman anymore so I don’t really like his book.

That said…there is one story where someone is extremely excited by how awesomely Feynman was playing a cowbell. No human being in the history of our civilization has ever said that about someone playing a cowbell. This story is almost certainly a lie.

And if that story is a lie, maybe the other stories are too. Maybe the whole book is just one more of Feynman’s famous pranks and this time, the joke is on us.

That probably-false meta-narrative is, at least, enough to allow the rest of the book to provide some redemption. The writing style is simple without being boring and easily carries the reader from story to story and moment to moment — it’s easy to see why Feynman was such a good lecturer.

His chapter on the textbook selection of California seems increasingly relevant these days.

His final chapter on scientific integrity should probably be read by everyone. I think a lot of things would be better off more people were able to internalize an rigorous and evidence-based approach to figuring out how we know what we know.

For better or for worse, this book is part of the canon of nerd culture. And, for better or for worse, Feynman is a hero to that culture. But he probably shouldn’t be.

How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants
How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants by David Rees
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a point in a middle-class existence where one looks around at all of the chintzy mass-produced garbage which so thoroughly fills our life and wonders — desperately — if there can’t be something just a bit more refined. Something just a bit more real.

And so we turn to good whisk[e]ys and wines. Or we turn to German sports cars that we can’t really afford. Or we build a woodshop in the garage and slowly drive ourselves mad chasing the craftsmanship that our grandfathers were unable to pass on to us through our ill-gotten haze of wasted Saturdays filled with nothing more than pop-rocks and cartoons.

One place that I have turned to fill this hole in my life is well-made writing instruments. There is much joy and humanity to be found in placing the tip of a fountain pen to a good sheet of paper or in turning a perfectly-crafted wooden pencil in a fine German single-blade sharpener. And it’s this experience which is the subject of this book which is at the same time a reference book, a how-to guide, and a meditative spiritual tract.

Because sharpening a pencil is not just about moving as quickly as possible from “a yellow stick” to “a thing one can mark paper with”. It is about that, true. The functionality of a well-sharpened pencil is key. But it’s also about the texture of the paint under your fingertips. It’s also about the heft of the pencil in your hand. It’s also about the smell of the freshly released cedar as you slowly remove everything that isn’t a sharpened pencil.

Sharpening a pencil is a full-sense task. And, as such, it is a task that should be taken up with the utmost care lest you waste another moment on this planet without actually seeing any of it.

While instructional, this book is also very funny with charts and footnotes lightening the mood on almost every page. I was particularly impressed with Chapter 11, “A Few Words About Mechanical Pencils”. While I ultimately disagree with Mr. Rees’ assessment of those tools, he made his argument passionately and persuasively.

I think it’s also important to note the design of the physical book as well. It is a classic work that leans strongly on Futura. Every chapter heading, every sub-heading stands out as something worth remarking upon. I normally read electronic books but in this case, I highly recommend purchasing a paperback to hold in your hand. It is a worthwhile exercise and experience.

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation
Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really enjoy this kind of book. From Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine to Zachary’s Show Stopper! (with a healthy dose of video game stuff like Montfort and Bogost’s Racing the Beam thrown in for good measure), I’ll almost always going to pick up a book that tells the inside stories and battles of the tech products I love (and the industry which makes them).

Unfortunately, this book doesn’t reach the heights of the genre. This has left me confused since it seems to have all of the major pieces to be a classic piece of tech history.

As I’ve been reflecting on it, I think I’ve figured out why: to steal the metaphor from this book’s title, the console war of the late-80s to mid-90s was fought on two fronts (Japan and the United States) across multiple arenas (with product development and marketing being the most notable). But, Console Wars only really describes the marketing battles in the US. I’m sure that’s a much easier story to write. The author is American, after all, so I’m sure it was much easier to talk to the Americans from the story. Since most of the product development was actually happening in Japan, American marketing was really all that was left.

But I’m more of a product guy. Yeah, marketing is important and I remember the commercials and I certainly picked sides back in the day (Big-N all the way! Play it loud!), but I really want to know the stories of the products that I spent so many of hours of my youth with. Who figured out Mode 7 and how’d they choose the chips for it? How many hours did Team Sonic spend agonizing over the exact speed of our favorite hedgehog?

Most importantly, though, are the questions “How did the 32X happen?” and “How did the Saturn happen?”. From the perspective of the Americans in the book, these decisions were just handed down by fiat with no explanation. But for decisions that were almost company-killers (and ultimately decided the console war that the book is describing), that’s unsatisfying. By not providing Sega of Japan’s side of the story, it makes them seem cartoonishly incompetent; and I don’t think that’s fair. They were undoubtedly working against a set of constraints and making the best decisions they could with limited information. But without actually knowing those constraints or that information, we’re left with a big gaping hole in the story that can, at best, be filled with wispy insinuations.

Without the Japanese side of the story, this book provides an ultimately superficial look at the great console war. It’s entertaining to see at least part of the inside story of such a major part of my childhood but it left me largely unsatisfied.