March 2004 Archives

March 21, 2004

The Da Vinci Code: That's not good

I’m not normally an emperor-has-no-clothes kind of guy, but am I the only one who thought Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was really not a good book?

I’m not high-brow when it comes to fiction. I’m really more of a non-fiction kind of guy; I like fiction, but I don’t have any reliable metrics to help me choose fiction that I might like. I liked Stephen King for years, but then he got unreliable; long ago I read lots of science fiction. These days, I usually hang back for whatever my wife strongly recommends.

At any rate, The Da Vinci Code was just poorly written. I got most of the way through it, then put it down for two months with something like 75 pages to go. That’s a sign that it really wasn’t doing the job for me – a thriller should glue itself to your fingers. I finally finished it in case the last 75 pages were the best – but to no avail. The book didn’t actually have exclamation points after every other sentence, but it had that feel about it.

11/04: This entry from Language Log makes the case far better than I can. Poor writing may not be the root of all evil, but it's deeply implicated.

March 9, 2004

Vienna Teng

Once in a while NPR will feature a musical group that will grab my attention. A few years back, NPR did a piece on Pearl Django that got me into their music.

This Sunday, I was grabbed by a piece on Vienna Teng. I only heard part of the piece, but the song that caught me was Harbor. (There's a splendid live performance in the NPR piece, or you can get an MP3 of the studio performance off her web site. (Click 'Harbor' and you'll get the lyrics and the song.) I've spent the last nine months away from my family for more than half the time, so you'll appreciate why this song resonates for me. I went back later to listen to the entire NPR piece, and discovered that Vienna was a computer science graduate from Stanford who gave all that up for her music. Sounds like the right choice to me.

Vienna has an arresting voice and a strong hand at the piano. I'm going to have to get her album Warm Strangers. And if I can make it, she's got a show in Atlanta on March 20th at the Red Light Cafe.

March 6, 2004

Intersections: stuff on a friends Amazon wish list that I have

I noticed today that Amazon seems to have made an improvement to their wish lists: you can now indicate how much you want an item, ranging from 1 (have to have it), to the useful 5 (don't buy this for me).

I was curious to see if anyone had taken advantage of this, so I started looking at the wish lists of other people.After searching for a short time, I came across the Ed Vielmetti's list. I've known Ed for more than 10 years; we both worked at CICNet in Ann Arbor for a time in the 90s. (CICNet was one of the original "NSFNet regional networks" that formed the early Internet. These days it would be known as a ISP.)

These days Ed writes Vacuum and works for Socialtext, a company commercializing Wiki technology.

Ed is also one of the more voracious readers I know. He gets my vote for the person I'd most like to trade bookshelves with.

Ed also has a longer wish list than anyone I've ever come across: 154 items. There items on the list dating back to 1999, so I suspect Ed hasn't pruned some of the older items.

The most interesting thing to me was noticing which items Ed wanted that I already have. Here's are a few comments on those items we overlap on. (The numbers represent the place on Ed's list; higher numbers were added more recently).

2. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. I've read perhaps a few hundred pages, but haven't been attracted back to it yet. Not nearly as good as Cryptonomicon.

7. The Phenomenon of Life: The Nature of Order, Book 1 by Christopher Alexander, author of the seminal A Pattern Language. Absolutely wonderful. Alexander has been working on this series of books for 20 years. Still, because of the price ($75), I resisted buying this, wanting to see a copy in person .. but couldn't find it anywhere. Then I went to Philly on a business trip in December, and found it at two stores within two block of each other. I couldn't resist. My wife got me The Process of Creating Life (book two in the four book series) for Christmas.

15. Krakatoa by Simon Winchester. I got it for Christmas. Not worth owning; not terrible, but not really great. Good book to get from the library. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, also by Winchester, is much better.

29. Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order by Steven Strogatz. Interesting. Not a page turner; I put it down in the middle for perhaps two months. Still, some overall good ideas. I actually finished this one off today; the middle is a little weak, but the discussions are wide-ranging, from fireflies that all flash together, to human sleep cycles, and finally to a discussion of the six degrees of separation idea. Also notable because Strogatz is a leading researcher in the field; he's doing the work, not just popularizing it.

41. John Adams by David McCullough. I started it, but I haven't been pulled in. By this point I'll probably have to start again. I usually go for biographies, but this one doesn't start strong. (Or maybe I just have no perseverance.)

45. At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity by Stuart Kauffman. I've had this one on my shelf for a number of years but have never started it. I've seen a number of references over time to both this book and Kauffman; I'll have to start it at some point.

46. A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram. I was in deep want when this first came out. When I was working at Georgia Tech, I managed to borrow a copy from the university library. After spending a bit of time with it, I was cured of wanting to own it. Perhaps interesting if you really want to go all the way into it, but I think Christopher Alexander is onto something much more interesting with his Nature of Order series.

62. The Wiki Way by Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham. Actually a pretty good book; it gives a good flavor of why Wikis are worth thinking about.

81. Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski. I own it; haven't read yet.

88 Secrets and Lies : Digital Security in a Networked World by Bruce Schneier. I got this one for free from a pile of reviewer books when I worked at CNN. A very good and readable book. Well worth the time.

94. Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams: Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds by by Mitchel Resnick. I wanted to like this, but didn't quite get into it.

130. Patterns of Software: Tales from the Software Community by Richard Gabriel. Wonderful book. One of the few books to look seriously at Christopher Alexander's pattern language work and explore its deeper implications for software. Gabriel talks about the "quality without a name" from Alexander's The Timeless Way of Building. Notable also because of a forward written by Alexander.

142. Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail by Matthys Levy. I liked this title so much that I apparently bought it twice; however, I haven't actually read it yet. I bought it because it sounded similar to Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down by JE Gordon. I did read Structures, and found it very intriguing. (Structures contains one of my favorite concepts: below a certain size, cracks in structures don't hurt anything. But beyond a certain critical size, they actually get energy from the rest of the structure and grow; this can lead to catastrophic failures. Thus, if you see a crack on a bridge, it probably doesn't mean anything. Yet.)

150. River-Horse by William Least Heat-Moon. Have it; didn't really start it. I will someday.

And the last book on Ed's list is 154. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built by Stewart Brand. One of my very favorite books. A combination of at least three things I'm interested in: Brand himself, architecture, and how places evolve and grow. Brand, best known as the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog is an exceptionally clear writer, Christopher Alexander references this book in Nature of Order.

Mysterious birds in Pasadena

A few weeks ago, I was sitting outside the house I've been staying in here in Pasadena. I heard a flock of bird coming towards me, and then all at once they were over me, making a racket the likes of which I've never heard. It seemed all the birds were calling to each other at the same time. The calls were coming from all points in the sky directly above me, like some kind of hyper-extended surround sound system. It was extraordinary.

I was curious to know what kinds of birds they were. A few days later I mentioned them to one of my roommates. "Oh, I've seen them. They're clearly parrots." I stared at him in complete disbelief, but he appeared to be quite serious.

Mrs. Conclusion: How do they put budgies down?

Mrs. Premise: It's funny you should ask that. I've been reading a great big book on how to put your budgie down, and evidently you can either hit them with the book, or you can shoot them there, just above the beak.

C: Mrs. Essence flushed hers down the loo.

P: Ooo, that's dangerous, 'cause they breed in the sewers, and eventually you get huge evil-smelling flocks of soiled budgies flying out of people's lavatories infringing their personal freedom.

-- Monty Python

I've heard the birds on and off again over the past few weeks, but this week I finally saw them ... and they are parrots! Green stripes, a bit of red on the wings .. parrots! I googled for "Pasadena Parrots", and confirmed that there are indeed flocks of feral parrots here in Pasadena. A bit of the rain forest here in Southern California ...

March 3, 2004

Going home

I'm going home back to Atlanta in 9 days. And this time, I'll be home to stay.

I've been working for Earthlink out here in Pasadena for the past nine months in the production system adminstration side of the house: working with all the sys admins who keep the 600+ servers out here running. It's been interesting work.

But it's also become clear that my heart is still in Atlanta. My family hasn't moved out here yet; so when an opportunity with Earthlink back in Atlanta presented itself a couple of weeks ago, I said Yes.

I'm going to be managing a small team that interfaces between the production SAs and the development organization that builds our "portal" products - our "personal start page"and our webmail interface.

I've been out here in CA by myself since February 2nd. I will be so glad to see my family again, and to be back home.

March 1, 2004

White Rabbits

When I was a child, my mother (who is from England) told me I'd have good luck if I the first words I uttered "white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits" as my first words on the first day of the month.

I have no idea how many years it's been since I last did it, but I did it this morning. It's not that I haven't thought about it in years, but rather that living with my family didn't allow for leisurely recollection of traditions early in the morning. (More likely first words: "Katie, time to get up.") But being on my own out here in Pasadena, I made it all the way through a shower and past without speaking, and got to the point where I remembered that it was the first of the month.