Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Only being familiar with Sherlock Holmes through pop culture references and modern adaptations of the character, I decided late last year to read through the canon in publication order. This is the third volume of the canon, with the first two being the novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four. While I enjoyed those books to an extent, Sherlock Holmes doesn’t really work as a novel-length work. The story tends to get bogged down and both books feature very long expositions at the end of what actually happened.

Fortunately, the bulk of the canon is in short stories: and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starts them off. Holmes works much better in the short story medium.

Each story has roughly the same format: Holmes and Watson are enjoying some aspect of mundane, everyday life. Suddenly, a case arrives! Holmes listens to the story and asks penetrating questions. They then rush to the scene of the incident where Holmes is rude to someone before examining things with his glass. Holmes may or may not need to put on an excellent disguise to acquire some additional information. He then makes enough deductions to hint at what had happened in order to convince the perpetrator to make a full confession.

Even though the basic framework of each story is similar, it doesn’t get old because the cases themselves tend to be rather fascinating (with a few exceptions like "The Five Orange Pips"). But even the ones that bog down are over so quickly that you can’t really hold it against them.

Primarily, though, I think it’s safe to say that short stories work for the character because it lets him do his thing and move on. Compared to the novel-length works, this short-story Holmes seems to possess a much more formidable intellect: if only because he necessarily solves the cases much faster with much more pin-point precision. There simply isn’t room for him to take his time or go down dead-ends.

And that’s how I think of Holmes: a master of the science of deduction who can solve most cases without even getting up from his easy chair. And that’s who was portrayed in this work.

I look forward to starting The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes as I continue this journey through the Holmes canon.

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Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time, #1)The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Wheel of Time. Oh boy. What have I gotten myself into?

Despite being a pretty big fantasy fan, I’ve somehow skipped this series until now. I can’t really explain it: maybe I just didn’t want to get sucked in to a massive time investment*? Maybe I didn’t want to ever feel the need to stand in line for a midnight release? I dunno. But I didn’t.

But now I have a Kindle, which really serves to lessen the Giant Fantasy Series Burden: in space and weight, if not reading time**. So, I decided to start the thing and see where it takes me.

So far, I mostly like it. Make no mistake: this is a Generic Fantasy Story. There are wizards and young heroes***. There are warriors and there are tree people. There are trolls and shades and all manner of beasties. There’s even a princess! Not to mention the chosen one… So there’s nothing truly Amazing in this book. If you’ve read a hundred fantasy books, you’ve essentially read this one too.

But, if you’ve read a hundred fantasy books, you probably like this sort of thing. In that case, this book will do quite nicely. It has all the comforts of home! Wizards, young heroes, warriors, tree people, trolls, shades, princesses, and a chosen one. It’s very familiar. Very comfortable. And, honestly? It’s not that bad****.

I liked it. I look forward to reading the next one. I hope that it inspires a sort of rabid fandom in me (and I hope the series is ended by the time I near the end so I don’t have to wait!).

So yeah. Do you like modern fantasy (or think you’ll like fantasy)? Then this is as good as any other random book on the shelf (and probably a bit better). Do you hate fantasy? Then this won’t change your mind.

It’s comfortable. I have complaints, of course: the heroes are incredibly stupid. They’re always rushing in to kick something or steal something or cause random mischief despite the fact that they’re being chased by minions of the Dark One. The religious zealots are zealous enough to be annoying; but I guess that’s also often true in real life. The ones in this book are probably no worse than actual Crusaders or Inquisitors, so it’s kind of hard to fault the book for that.

My biggest issue with this book is that the author keeps secret from the reader things that all the characters know. It’s taken as a given that everyone should mistrust Aes Sedai, but it’s never really explained why. The only one who’s really in the story seems perfectly nice enough and it doesn’t really make sense why the characters keep hiding things from her that she really should know. Maybe that starts to make sense in later books; but here, it just makes the characters seem even stupider. I want to scream at them: "Tell the wise mentor wizard the important things!". But they don’t.

As complaints go, that’s pretty mild. So would I recommend this? To a fan of the genre: absolutely. To anyone else: no way. Which, honestly, is how most genre fiction goes. Nothing to write home about. The Eye of the World meets expectations.

* Honestly, this is a big problem with the genre for me: Fantasy series are long and starting a new one means making a pretty long-term commitment.

**It helps with reading time as well: I usually have a book on my iPod with me.

***Is there a fantasy series where an old person is in the lead role? I’d like to read it.

****It’s Shakespeare compared to the rubbish Goodkind shovels out there.

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The Selfish Gene : 30th Anniversary editionThe Selfish Gene : 30th Anniversary edition by Richard Dawkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The last non-fiction book I’d read was Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond which tells the story of human civilization from when we first evolved on Africa to the modern day.

I followed that up with The Selfish Gene, which starts with guesses about the so-called primordial soup of hundreds of millions of years ago and ends its story with every living thing we have today. Clearly, I read these books in the wrong order.

Of course, it also provides some perspective: I had originally thought that Guns, Germs, and Steel was a brief summary; but Dawkins covers vastly more ground than Diamond did in fewer pages. So, naturally, The Selfish Gene is not a detailed history. Instead, it’s a popular-science level in-depth* description of the basic principles of natural selection.

I certainly had a lot of it wrong**. So I’m grateful that Dawkins starts at the very beginning and slowly builds up his theory step by step and example by example. With something of a math background, I particularly appreciated the sections on game theory and evolutionarily-stable-strategies.

Every chapter has a similar ebb and flow. They start out with basic principles and contrived examples and slowly build up to more complicated cases and real-world scientific examples. This is a good: you know what to expect in each chapter. And if a chapter starts bogging down as Dawkins gets more complex, you know that you’ll get a break when the next one starts. It’s nice.

I checked Wikipedia before writing this review: the absence of a "Criticisms" section for this book leads me to believe that the contents of this book is still the orthodox and accepted theory of how natural selection works. Assuming that’s true, this is probably one of those rare books that everyone needs to read. Even though I know far less about this stuff than even a Freshman biology student, I know far more about the origins of all the species around me (including my own!) than I did before I started reading this book. While I don’t expect to be able to apply any selfish gene principles at the office tomorrow, I suspect that being able to place so much into this larger context will be beneficial to my understanding of the world: I’ll probably be benefiting from this book for the rest of my life.

The executive summary:

If Diamond answered the question "Who are we?", Dawkins masterfully explains "Why are we here?". The answer ("Because our ancestors’ genes survived.") may not be particularly satisfying on a spiritual or philosophical level for some. But the fact (as Dawkins goes to great pains to point out) that we appear to be uniquely capable of asking and answering that question in the first place gives us a power that’s essentially brand new on the earth: We can change our world for the better. We can work together to rise above the petty demands of our selfish genes.

Heavy stuff.

*At least, as in-depth as it’s probably possible for a pop-sci book to be.

**This is not even a little surprising if you consider my education where the answer to just about any question was "A wizard God did it".

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Saturday, February 12th, 2011

The Sign Of The FourThe Sign Of The Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Sherlock Holmes canon: and, with luck, it’s the worst. However, I fear that my relatively poor opinion of this book* is a result of entire cultural context I have surrounding it.

In this book, Holmes just doesn’t seem Holmes-like. Some of the expected trappings are there. He summons his Irregulars. He uses his magnifying glass at one point. He abuses cocaine. And, it seems, this book even introduces the aphorism, "When you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, HOWEVER IMPROBABLE, must be the truth." And, of course, this is a Sherlock Holmes book written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Accept no substitues.

So, given that it is as true to the character as it’s possible to be, what makes it seem off? It’s hard to say. My best guess is that the length of the novel works against the character. In 2011, I’ve become conditioned to seeing Sherlock making rapid-fire deductions and quickly arriving at the solution. In this novel, however, things tend to take longer and the bulk of the story is taken up by the chase.

This book also continues the tradition of tossing in pages and pages of historical exposition. In the previous Study in Scarlet, it was a sharp break back to a poorly researched history of the self-styled Latter Day Saints. In this one, it’s an exposition of the Indian Rebellion of 1857**. This was the one part of the story which failed to hold my attention: I would be hard pressed to give an accurate telling of the back story of Mr. Small or his treasure.

As a point to Doyle, he did present this history as spoken exposition this time around instead of abruptly starting an entirely different story***. So that’s a mild improvement.

Ultimately, I strongly suspect that I will like the short stories in the next book of the canon more than I did this one. It seems like the shorter format will allow Sherlock to be punchier and more akin to what I’ve grown up expecting him to be.

But for this one? I’m glad I read it as I finally familiarize myself with the true Sherlock canon (and not just things like the BBC’s Sherlock or Star Trek’s "Elementary, My Dear Data"), but I don’t see myself ever bothering to read it again.

* I say relative because I did give it three stars. It’s not bad by any measure.

** I would hope that this is more accurate than Doyle’s tale of Brigham Young, if only because it happened within Doyle’s own Empire. But I haven’t researched.

*** When I first got to the Mormons in A Study in Scarlet, I thought that my eBook file had somehow become corrupted and combined with a different eBook. I had to check Wikipedia to make sure I was still reading the same book.

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Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

I try to be honest with myself. I probably don’t always succeed (I almost certainly don’t): I’ve found that I am amazingly good at self-deception. But I try.

Among other things, I try to look at my life in the same evidence-based manner that I stubbornly insist is the correct way to look at the world. If I notice that I’m doing something which contradicts what I say I believe, I take a very hard look at that belief to try to figure out if it’s something I actually believe versus something I just wish I believed. Almost invariably, it turns out that the belief isn’t real and I attempt to adjust the claims I make to myself and my others based on that.

As an example, I used to claim to believe that I was an incredibly hard worker who could and would accomplish great things by the sweat of my brow and my prodigious willpower. This is clearly bollocks. I am very much a slacker. I’m not going to change the world. I’m not going to be filthy sticking rich. That’s not who I am and that’s just not my ambition. (That’s not to say I wouldn’t want someone to hand me a pile of money. But that sort of thing just isn’t important enough for me to really work at it.)

Once I realized that this idea I had of myself was false, I took a good hard look at who I actually was. As noted, I discovered that I’m a slacker. I want a simple life of leisure and comfort. I want to go in and put in an honest day’s work (and while there, work hard and well; otherwise, it’s not really “honest”) and have an evening of couch-sitting and Net surfing as my reward. I’m not trying to climb the corporate ladder. I don’t want to run out and start a company and get bought out by Google. I want my bosses to be able to depend on me, but I also want to keep a very clearly-defined line of what it is trendy to call work and life balance. And that’s who I am. And I figured it out by looking at what I actually do every day and week and year.

And once I figured out that I’m not that aggressive, ambitious person and that I don’t really want to be (because if I did, I’d be doing it), I was able to become a lot more content. I was no longer struggling against the person I wished I wanted to be. I was just being who I wanted to be. That’s a lot easier on the ol’ psyche.

Which is all a too-lengthy introduction to what I’m really writing about. Today (assuming I got the scheduled posting set up correctly) is one month after New Year’s Day. Like most cynics, I don’t make new year resolutions. I personally feel that I already fail at enough things without creating a new list of things to fail at. Moreover, I think that if there were things I could “resolve” to do, I’d already be doing them. So clearly, a new year’s resolution is a waste of time and emotional energy. They’re also arbitrarily pegged to a day that happened to be when Pope Greg decided to start counting days. So I don’t do them.

Today, though, (one month after New Year’s that it is) is also my birthday. The earth has traveled `round the sun 28 times since I was born. I figure I should mark that day somehow. I could make some Birthday Resolutions, but those suffer from the same fundamental flaw that afflict their more well-known cousins: if I were serious about them, I’d already be doing them.

So instead, in deference to the life philosophy I so poorly tried to talk about above, I’m going to do something a little different (but still, I think, in a similar vein). I want to take a look at what I’m actually doing today, decide what that says about who I am as a person and what will move me towards more happiness and contentment, and just sort of take a look at those things and try to figure out what it means to be more awesome at those things and if that’s something I’m willing to do.

Ready? Go!

I want to be well-read. And while I do want to become more familiar with the more “literary” works (from both the classic set as well as the well-regarded contemporary authors), I also intend the genre fiction that I love to be included in there. Take a look at the 2010 Hugo Nominees. From the list of written works, I’ve read 2: the novel The City & The City and the short story “Eros, Philia, Agape”. That’s just pitiful. I love speculative fiction: how am I missing these works which are almost by definition some of the best that are out there. That has to stop.

I also want to read more non-fiction. Where I’ve previously only read about string theory (thanks, Dr. Greene!) or space or maybe some math. I want to know more about the world: I need to read books about history and current events and great people and their ideas.

And I know that I want to be well-read because I’ve been doing it. I haven’t read a lot since college (I’ve read some; but not nearly as much as I did when I was living at home). But last April, I got an iPad and it’s been sort of a literary renaissance for me. I’ve been reading tons since then. I got a Kindle for Christmas and I think that will help me read even more (it’s such a pleasant reading experience!). So that’s one thing I’ll be actively working on for my 28th year: trying to make more time to read and being selective so that I read better books with my time. So far, so good.

I want to know more about what’s going on in the world. I want to know what’s happening and I want to be able to place current events into their broader context so I can understand why they’re happening. I want to be able to have my own informed opinions instead of just parroting whatever Influential Person of the Day says.

To that end, I’ve found myself adding current policy books into my non-fiction reading list. Books from liberal thinkers and conservative thinkers, economists and politicians and historians, and whatever I run across that I think will elucidate things. I’ve also started reading more news (and, with Calibre’s help, trying to read the entire NYT on my Kindle every few days or so) from various sources and trying to stay in touch with what the professional bloggers are saying about it.

With the amount of reading I want to do, I’ve already exhausted all of my free time. But there are even more things that are important to me, so I press on.

I want to write shippable Mac apps. I do a solid bit of programming at work, but it’s enterprise software. No one’s going to make real emotional connections with the stuff I work on. And I’m okay with that: it’s still reasonably important stuff that’s a small part in making the world better. But no one’s going to ever feel the same way about it that I feel about, say, MarsEdit (which I’m using to compose this very entry).

I might never actually release any software (indeed, I have no plans to), but I want to create something that I at least find useful. So far, though, I’ve got a folder filled with Xcode projects of a general idea but nothing usable. I think I might start to move beyond that this year, though. I’ve already got a couple of projects which I think actually have a good chance of holding my interest. We’ll see. But I have good hopes. (But of course: even if I start a hundred little magpie projects, I’m going to count it as a win as long as I’m having fun.)

I want to write. Note that I don’t say “I want to write well”, because I know for a fact that that takes years of hard work that I clearly have no interest in. But, at this point, I think it’s obvious that I want to spew words onto the Internet. Since mid-last-year, I’ve written reviews for the books that I read (you may have seen them on this very blog!). I’ve also been trying to write blogs more. Though I admit that one post every couple of months is hardly regular blogging, I’ve been writing far more than I used to. I hope to continue that trend if not increase it a bit.

And I think that’s all I have time for. I’m also looking forward to playing a few video games this year (BioWare is going to steal a lot of my leisure hours), but I don’t think that that says anything about me as a person. I don’t think video games drive me in any way: they’re just something fun to kill time. Same with TV shows (which I watch a lot of with my partner) and movies. As far as this blog post goes, I think I’m in the Goldilocks zone for how much time I spend on games. So there’s not a lot to say about these topics.

But what I’ve already listed threatens to take up all my free time. And the nice thing is that failure is defined as “only reading the Sunday NYT” or “reading 45 books instead of 50”.

I wish my other failures could be so rewarding!

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