Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

To create Thing Explainer, Randall drew and labeled pictures to—well—explain various scientific and cultural ideas, but he chose to write all the text in the book using only a thousand commonly-used English words, just like he did when he published the comic “Up-Goer Five”.

Using the tool he made, you can write like that, too. Um, that is, you can try. (Good luck.)

The book straddles the border between humor and science. On the one hand, transforming simplified English labels back into conventional ones makes us chuckle; sometimes the “simple” labels are quite obscure, thus deciphering them can be both tricky and rewarding, like the word game Taboo. On the other hand, the simplified English goes a long way towards actually explaining things; science books sometimes raise as many questions as they answer because the explanations in them use terms that are as unfamiliar to readers as whatever the terms are intended to explain.

I think the book is best understood as Randall’s clever way of explaining stuff he knows about to clever people who might or might not know as much as he does on the subjects he chose to address. Seen in this light, the book helps us appreciate the power of words as flexible, useful tools in the hands of a talented wordsmith, and gives us the sense that, in principle, there is nothing under the sun anywhere in the universe (including the sun) that can’t be explained in an approachable way.

See below for when and why I read the book, and a list of the explained things.

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Jokes and the Linguistic Mind by Debra Aarons

Question: What do you call a cross between a collection of hilarious jokes and a collection of dull academic papers written by a dyed-in-the-wool Chomskyan linguist?

Answer: A big disappointment.

Jokes sit at the intersection of language, cognitive psychology and  illusions, all topics that fascinate me. Sadly, however, I was rather bored by Jokes and the Linguistic Mind. I think the reason was not that the author explained the jokes but that she did it in what I felt was an unnecessarily long-winded, robotic, repetitive, jargony kind of way. Anyone who explains jokes takes the well-known risk of killing the frog to understand it better, but I think once you’ve killed the frog, you should jolly well stop beating it like a dead horse.

Silver lining? I love the MC Escher stairscape on the cover. Moreover, many of the jokes used as examples of various linguistic phenomena were funny. See below for more on the aspects of the book I enjoyed.

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The Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard A. Posner

The Little Book of Plagiarism is a little book full of big ideas clearly explained. It’s hard to summarize, since the text is already so concise and in fact contains its own summary at the end.

There’s a lot of confused thinking on the subject of intellectual property. It angers me when people actively refuse to show respect for the intellectual property of others; it saddens me when people merely fail to do so. Posner’s very readable book sheds light on a number of key issues.

See below for my list of some of those issues.

Continue reading The Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard A. Posner

Why I am not interested in meditation

Long story short: I read books instead.

(That’s not a stock photo, by the way, or a photo I took in a library. That’s a photo I took of some shelves in my house.)

The appeal of meditation

Meditation is a popular and ever-trendier thing in the West. I have to admit there is some appeal to the idea of a peaceful, accessible activity that increases one’s ability to handle life’s challenges with wisdom and equanimity. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to give up thinking that maybe it’s for me.

You could argue that I haven’t really tried it, but I have tried it, and after some thought I realized that reading, too, is a peaceful, accessible activity that increases one’s ability to handle life’s challenges with wisdom and equanimity, and that there’s no particular reason I shouldn’t prefer it.

Perhaps if you read about my experiences and reflections on the subject, you’ll agree.

Continue reading Why I am not interested in meditation

Do Animals Think? by Clive D. L. Wynne

Do Animals Think? is accessible. The writing is highly educated but at the same time warm and gentle. The sense I get is that of someone who is so brimming with enthusiasm for the natural world that the enthusiasm bubbles out of him in all the conversations he has about nature and science—conversations he is eager to start because he is eager to share with anybody and everybody what it is that he knows and loves about the world. Reading this book made me feel like I was sitting in the author’s living room having a friendly chat. And a cup of tea.

The enthusiasm does not detract from the science; Wynne is ever careful to be clear and precise. Where there is room for misinterpretation, he stops and explains the intended implications of his words. And he never does it in an impatient or condescending way that makes me feel like I’m an irritatingly uninformed freshman, or, worse, a recalcitrant intellectual opponent.

Wynne shares with other authors whose work I have read the goal of re-enchanting nature. Even if—perhaps especially if!—animal behavior is not mysterious in any supernatural sense, we can still feel wonder and amazement when we observe or read about it. The two books I’m thinking of are George Levine’s book Darwin Loves You, for which I was the production editor assigned by the publisher, and The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins. I’m sure there are some overlaps with the work of Daniel Dennet, too. Wynne’s mention of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea moves it up in my stack of books to read sooner rather than later.

I don’t agree with everything Wynne says, but I have the utmost respect for what he says and how he says it, and I would be willing to read any book he writes, on any topic, if it’s written like this one.

For more on Do Animals Think?, including what I disagreed with and some things I learned, see below.

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So many books, so little time.

My copy of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley stands as testimony the fact that no matter how much I read, I will probably always acquire books faster than I can read them.

Why? Because this book was given to me on my birthday in 1997, and I haven’t read it yet.

You don’t believe I’ve had it that long? You should. I still have the gift receipt. Behold!

It’s been 7,069 days… receipt or no receipt, I guess it’s too late to exchange it.

Actually, funny story: A friend and I had a shared birthday party that year. This book was to be her gift from one of the guests. However, she already had the book, and in fact she’d already read it. From the same guest, I was to receive a CD. However, it was an album I already had on tape, and in fact I didn’t even have a CD player. The situation was awkward for a minute, but the solution immediately presented itself: My friend happily took the CD and I happily took the book. Ta-da! Everyone wins.

Fat lot of good that book has done me since then, though. I saw the movie adaptation one year on New Year’s Eve—that’s probably part of why I haven’t felt any particular need to read the book, though I still vaguely intend to. It’s daunting, though, because it’s not just a long stand-alone novel, it’s a series of seven of them—not that I don’t enjoy long books. I’ve read all the Wheel of Time books, all the Sword of Truth books, and as many Ice and Fire books as George R.R. Martin has managed to publish thus far.

And, indeed, I have a keen interest in King Arthur retellings. But there are a lot of them! And I have a lot of them. See?

Thomas Malory, Howard Pyle, John Steinbeck, Roger Lancelyn Green, A.A. Attanasio, Henry Frith, and more!
T.H. White, Stephen R. Lawhead, Mark Twain, Jack Whyte, Catherine Christian, J. Robert King, Nancy Springer… and John Steinbeck again.

Maybe I’d rather read Twain, Pyle, or Malory next. Or, you know, Steinbeck. Or heck, just keep reading nonfiction, which I quite enjoy.

Then, too, there’s this, which I only found out about just now: allegations of child abuse have made Marion Zimmer Bradley’s works less popular.

So maybe The Mists of Avalon will just keep sitting on the shelf, reminding me that you just can’t do all the things in life—especially things you only ever vaguely intended to do.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Although the graphic novel V for Vendetta has been in the house for, I dunno, years, I hadn’t read it yet because I opened it up and didn’t like the art. I still don’t. There’s not much I do like about it, but it’s interesting.

Why I didn’t like V for Vendetta

  • I thought the literariness was overbearing rather than deep. Evey gets frustrated with V’s roundabout answers that are all in quotations; I did, too.
  • There were way too many rapes and rape threats. There are several powerful women in the story, but it still comes off as male-dominated.
  • I found both the text and the images difficult to decode in places. (Who and what am I seeing, exactly? Is that a U, a W, or an L and an I?)
  • I do not buy the underlying ideology of anarchy-as-voluntary-self-governance. I can see how toppling a dictatorship could be a good thing. What I don’t get is how order is supposed to re-establish itself… I mean, okay, the will of the individual citizens, but… really, how, exactly?

More thoughts on the story below, including SPOILERS.

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The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Reading The House of the Spirits taught me that “nacre” is a natural material related to pearl. And that I don’t actually like magical realism.

The author is a Chilean-American (born in Peru), the novel was written in Spanish, and—though the narrative never says—its setting is Chile. There are a couple of unnamed real (or real-ish) people in the narrative whom I don’t know anything about without looking them up. (“The Poet” is Pablo Neruda and “The Candidate/President” is Salvador Allende.) Wikipedia informs me that the purpose of the book was “to exorcise the ghosts of the Pinochet dictatorship,” which overthrew President Allende, a Socialist who had been elected democratically. The last name is not a coincidence; he was a cousin of author Isabel Allende’s.

The narration strangely flips between first and third person. I found the narration frustrating because the events are told in a kind of distant, rushed way. Rather than feeling involved in the story as if I was living it alongside the characters wondering what would happen next, I felt as if the events didn’t matter because they’d already happened and the narrator knows it all in more detail than I’m ever going to hear. Not every frame story causes this kind of bored impatience. This one does in part because from time to time the narration drops in facts about later events, which made the story feel even more abrupt and made it even harder to relate to the characters.

Thus, as long as the story is, it feels like a summary of a story and not a story. It feels like a movie of a book, the kind of movie that pogo-sticks through a much longer tale, picking out only the highlights. But at least in such a movie, one that switches from scene to scene with a lot missing in between, the scenes themselves are immersive.

I don’t get it. If the point of the book is to teach those who do not know how bad the dictatorship was, why tell a long, quasi-magical family story that doesn’t actually convey much history? The book seems merely to be using the coup as a dramatic climax for the story… to the extent that the book has a singular climax rather than a series of them.

When and Why I Read It

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club Meetup in Singapore chose it. I bought it by mail from someone on Carousell in Singapore.

Genre: fiction
Date started / date finished:  9-Sep-16 to 23-Sep-16
Length: 491 pages
ISBN: 0552955886 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1985
Amazon link: The House of the Spirits

Why I don’t like magical realism

I started reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children back in 1998; it was the first book I recorded in the book log I’ve been keeping ever since. About six months later I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I just finished reading Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits.

I’ve read more than a thousand books (over seventeen hundred, actually) since my first recorded exposure to magical realism, so I’m better able to articulate an opinion. All three of these strange books are great in the sense that they are literary, cultural touchstones. But I don’t like them.

Probably I dislike these magical realism books in part because I don’t know enough political history to appreciate their settings, but I think mainly I dislike the books because they’re exaggerated. Grotesquely. I don’t like exaggeration as a form of humor—or as a form of literature, apparently.

I don’t mind fantasy books at all. I am willing to suspend disbelief when reading stories about dragons or other planets (or dragons and other planets—thank you, Anne McCaffrey), perhaps because it’s super clear when I’m supposed to. Pretending that wizards or warp drives are normal is a cooperative enterprise I can happily engage in with the author.

In contrast, magical realism makes me feel like the victim of a prolonged practical joke. The author presents what seems to be a realistic world, but then, here and there, nonchalantly distorts it worse than a fun-house mirror. Am I supposed to take the magical bits at face value (which is how they’re presented)? Are the magical bits just literary cleverness signposting some kind of wise metaphor that I’m stupidly overlooking? Is the magic just random nonsense that’s supposed to be funny, precisely because it makes no sense? I’m uncomfortable with all three of these theories, especially because a single book could, for all I know, include a mix of elements that fit all three patterns.*

Is magical realism to be lauded for causing feelings of mystery that reflect the mystery of real life, or is it to be criticized for pretentiously making book-reading as a form of entertainment harder than it needs to be? The former, judging by the sales figures.

However, in fact the sales figures have been used by literary critics to support the notion that magical realist works are not deserving of respect. Regardless of whether it’s about McCaffrey’s Pern or Allende’s Chile, any novel the masses enjoy, the logic goes, cannot be very profound.

Personally, no matter what the sales figures or the critics say, I’d far rather read magic than magical realism.


*Or—this didn’t even occur to me but was pointed out by someone in the HHBC discussion—maybe the magical elements are indicative of an unreliable narrator. In other words, maybe the story involves no magical events at all, but is being related by someone who’s lying, confused, or crazy. (I don’t like unreliable narrators any more than I like magical realism, so for me, this theory, while useful, doesn’t exactly fix the problem.) by Cass Sunstein

I almost wish I’d read the summing up chapter of rather than the whole thing. On the other hand, the benefit to be derived from exposing oneself to alternate viewpoints is what the book is about, and I wouldn’t have wanted to read it if I hadn’t been interested in the topic.

The idea is that technology increasingly allows us to filter the news we hear; thus we are in danger of losing touch with (or, worse, becoming polarized from) our fellow citizens and the very government we ought to be creating in conjunction with them. The book is a call for increased awareness of the potential problem but also for individual and private action to combat the tendency towards excessive filtering… and also for top-down policy change (regulation) coming from the government itself, if necessary.

See below for more on what I thought.

Continue reading by Cass Sunstein