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

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.

Continue reading Do Animals Think? by Clive D. L. Wynne

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

Republic.com by Cass Sunstein

I almost wish I’d read the summing up chapter of Republic.com 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 Republic.com by Cass Sunstein

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Though I didn’t know anything about the book, the title, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the author’s exotic-sounding three-part name were familiar to me for years. I’ve now read the book, but I don’t feel I am familiar enough with Hurston’s historical context or the intervening decades of relevant literary criticism to fully appreciate its significance.

For a plot summary and other thoughts, see below.

Continue reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Brilliant Project Management by Stephen Barker and Rob Cole

Brilliant Project Management is a concise, general book with some good psychological insights in it.

What Stood Out

Some of the insights are more or less specifically applicable only to project management. For example, part of Chapter Six (Leading Effective Teams) is about the fallacy according to which people add manpower to speed up projects, with the result that the projects are actually slowed down, due to the extra work needed to bring the new people up to speed. (The Mythical Man-Month is a whole book about this one idea!)

However, other insights seem to have broader application. For example, the beginning of Chapter Nine (Making Use of Lessons Learned) reminds readers, in a manner of speaking, that a ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Mistakes, in other words, are inevitable. The chapter goes on to describe how best to learn from both positive and negative experience and from the experience of others as well as one’s own. The specific suggestions for interacting in offices could apply to a variety of jobs; the underlying insights could apply to personal life as well.

Chapter Four (Delivering Quality) reminds readers that a good solution to a problem is neither under-engineered nor over-engineered. Providing a more elegant, elaborate, or complete solution than is strictly required may not seem like a mistake but in fact wastes valuable time and money. In fact, it’s good to keep in mind that it’s generally a bad idea to put more effort into something than it deserves. Done ‘well enough’ is done.

Chapter Five (Resource Management) reminds readers that something that is “about 90% complete” is almost certainly not, chronologically speaking. As we know, the last 20% of the work often takes 80% of the time!

When and Why I Read It

Bought it cheap because it looked like it would be relevant to past, current, and possibly future job functions.

Genre: Non-fiction (business)
Date started / date finished:  17-Jul-16 to 18-Aug-16
Length: 154 pages
ISBN: 9780273707936 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: Brilliant Project Management

The Romance of Scholars’ Stones by Kemin Hu

Beautiful color photographs of scholars’ rocks and other Chinese scholars’ objects accompany a series of essays.

What Stood Out

Literally meaning “without action,” [the Daoist doctrine of] wuwei is best interpreted not as doing nothing but rather acting spontaneously, in accordance with one’s nature. A tree for example, was not seen as “trying to grow,” it simply grew because it was natural to do so. Likewise, Song literati attempted to incorporate this quality in both their lives and their aesthetic judgments. (2)

Oddly, this reminds me of Now, Discover Your Strengths, a book that says  people should spend more time doing the things they are particularly good at (the things that come naturally).

When and Why I Read It

My husband bought several books by Kemin Hu to learn more about Chinese scholar’s rocks. I’m interested in them, too.

Genre: Non-fiction (Asian history)
Date started / date finished:  9-Aug-16 to 13-Aug-16
Length: 148 pages
ISBN: 9781891640612 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 2011
Amazon link: The Romance of Scholars’ Stones

Related Books

  • Modern Chinese Scholars’ Rocks by Kemin Hu
  • Spirit Stones by Kemin Hu
  • Scholars’ Rocks in Ancient China by Kemin Hu

…and someone is selling scholars’ rocks on Amazon.

Cranford by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

I did not particularly enjoy Cranford.

The work felt like a series of installments, which is in fact what it was. Though not every serially published novel feels so choppy, Cranford lacks the kind of plot one tends to expect of a novel. The narrator is a character in the story, but she isn’t the protagonist and plays almost no role in the events she relates. Her name, Mary Smith, is correspondingly bland.

On a positive note, the text contains the word ‘sesquipedalian’, which I’m not sure I’ve seen anywhere else but in an intentionally esoteric children’s book, Wally the Wordworm, that I had an audio cassette of when I was a kid.

What Stood Out

The whole town of genteel old women makes a virtue of necessity:

There, economy was always “elegant,” and money-spending always “vulgar and ostentatious”; a sort of sour-grapeism which made us very peaceful and satisfied.

I can’t decide whether this bit about the string is pure silliness or whether it’s a bit of distilled realism—one of those comic insights about life that is not exaggerated at all:

String is my foible.  My pockets get full of little hanks of it, picked up and twisted together, ready for uses that never come.  I am seriously annoyed if any one cuts the string of a parcel instead of patiently and faithfully undoing it fold by fold.  How people can bring themselves to use india-rubber rings, which are a sort of deification of string, as lightly as they do, I cannot imagine.  To me an india-rubber ring is a precious treasure.  I have one which is not new—one that I picked up off the floor nearly six years ago.  I have really tried to use it, but my heart failed me, and I could not commit the extravagance.

Here’s a bit of perspicacity and honorable stubbornness on the part of a serving-woman named Martha:

“I’ll not listen to reason,” she said, now in full possession of her voice, which had been rather choked with sobbing.  “Reason always means what someone else has got to say.  Now I think what I’ve got to say is good enough reason; but reason or not, I’ll say it, and I’ll stick to it.”

When and Why I Read It

After seeing a miniseries of Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and then reading Wives and Daughters, I thought I’d try Gaskell’s other fiction while traveling with my Kindle.

Genre: fiction (classic literature)
Date started / date finished:  21-Jul-16 to 30-Jul-16
Length: 178 pages
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 394
Originally published in: 1951
Amazon link: Cranford

Related Media

  • Cranford miniseries
  • Wives and Daughters miniseries
  • North and South miniseries
  • Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
  • North and South by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
  • Mary Barton by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
  • Ruth by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
  • Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

Do’s and Taboos of Using English around the World by Roger E. Axtell

Basically, this book is full of meaningless trivia on a subject I happen to like. It was amusing but not deep or scholarly.

I learned, among other things, that:

  • “blimey” is a contraction of “God blind me!” (60)
  • “biro” is pronounced “by-row” and refers to the kind of ballpoint pen invented by Lazlo Biro (60)
  • to express disbelief in German, say “My hamster is scrubbing the floor.” (88)

When and Why I Read It

Bought it cheap in Colorado.

Genre: nonfiction (reference / language)
Date started / date finished:  08-Jul-16 to 17-Jul-16
Length: 202 pages
ISBN: 9780785825289 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 1995
Amazon link: Do’s and Taboos of Using English around the World