Books 2001-03

by Mark McWiggins

Last update: March 8, 2003

Comments? Questions? Contact me!

2003's books

Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel, by Scott Adams. More cynical tomfoolery by the creator of Dilbert. Probably indicative of a character flaw in myself, but I enjoyed this one thoroughly.

What Einstein Told His Cook, by Robert L. Wolke. The science of cooking, which seems to always interest me even though I mainly cook things like turkey sandwiches. Anyway, this guy is a retired chemistry professor and consulting science editor at Cook's Illustrated magazine. I didn't read every word of this, not being interested in what "sulphured molasses" is, but the sections I did read were very interesting. There's a good chapter on the different salts available, for example.

China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh. It's sometime in the 22nd century, and China is ascendant after a "socialist revolution" in the U. S. But that's just background to this excellent character-driven novel. The title character, Zhang, is a half Hispanic, half Chinese gay construction engineer who's been genetically modified to look purely Chinese (which confers advantages in the 22nd century society). There are also Martine and Dmitri, two Martian colonists, trying to make ends meet amid harsh climate, resource shortages and inflexible communal government. And some interesting minor characters the "kite racers" who race silken kites that allow the "jacked in" viewers to share the racer's experience.

Although this book was published in 1992, apparently it was mostly written before 1989. There's no mention of the fall of the Soviet Union. And the relatively primitive Internet (bandwidth is expensive even on Earth, etc.) is fairly stunning even from February 2003 as I type this over the cable modem!

There is, however, a game "pressball" that directly stimulates the user's Pleasure Centers that's going to be a Big Hit when Sony gets in into the Playstation.

This was a Nebula nominee for 1992, though it didn't win the prize. I liked this enough to give it my "money back" prize, though: buy it, and if you don't like it I'll reimburse you. Thanks to Jeffy for the recommendation and loan of this one.

2001-2002

Behind Deep Blue: Building the Computer That Defeated the World Chess Champion, by Feng-Hsiung Hsu. A delight for anybody even vaguely interested in chess and computers. Hsu tells the whole story of the development of the custom chess chip that eventually became the heart of Deep Blue, the computer that beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. (And a big baby Kasparov was about it, too!) A very readable and engaging book.

How to Reasses Your Chess, by Jeremy Silman. One of the better of this type of chess instruction books I've read, with an especially good section on King-and-pawn endgames. Correlation is not causality, but I've won 7 in a row on Yahoo chess since reading this!

Rain of Iron and Ice: The Very Real Threat of Comet and Asteroid Bombardment, by John S. Lewis. I sought out this book after reading "A Comet's Tale" in the February 2003 issue of Harper's, which gives the impression that The End of Civilization as we know it may well be upon us due to one of these impacts. The book is a bit comforting in that respect; the probability of a comet (which have chaotic and impossible-to-predict orbits) hitting us over the next million years is "negligible" (which is good because there's not much we could do about it.) There's an ongoing effort to track all the sizable asteroids, which do have predictable orbits, so we can get some advance warning of impact of one of those of any size. See Nasa's program notes on this effort. Lewis figures that since we have all these asteroids hanging around right next to us and crashing into us from time to time, we may as well go and grab pieces of them to use. Some types contain huge amounts of nickel, iron, and platinum, among other useful materials. He's written a whole book Mining the Sky on this topic.

I didn't read every word of this, being already familiar enough with the history of "lights in the sky" from antiquity. Lewis' writing style is a little bit dry, but overall this was a very interesting and worthwhile book. Especially to anyone misleadingly alarmed by the Harper's article.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. Money back if not completely satisified with this one. The story of Owen Meany, a tiny person with a tiny voice (such that he has to shout and all his dialogue appears LIKE THIS) and a great big ... set of ideas about his place in the world. Owen's friend John is the narrator of the book, which is widely believed to be in part a thinly veiled autobiography of Irving's. I don't want to spoil the story; just go and get this one and I'll reimburse you if you don't like it; it's one of the best novels I've read in years.

Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, by Daniel Pinchbeck. Pinchbeck toured the world seeking out shamans (and others) dispensing ayahuasca (yage), psilocybin, DMT, and other mind-expanding substances. Along with his recounting of these experiences, he surveys the history of the flamed-out psychedelic movement of the 1960's and its successors, notably psilocybin and DMT advocate Terence McKenna. (Careful with this stuff, kids: McKenna died of a brain tumor in 2000.) He also meets various people claiming shaman-like experiences here in the West, and reports self-transformation and having become convinced of the reality of the spiritual world after his experiences. A very interesting and well-written book.

Chess Traps, Pitfalls and Swindles, by I. A. Horowitz and Fred Reinfeld. I recently became once again interested in chess after a 20+ year layoff after playing with my 13-year-old nephew and then on the Yahoo chess ladder for a bit. This is a book I remembered fondly from my adolescence, and it retains its spark after these years. Still in print, too: you can order a new copy from Amazon! Want to play? 1. e4 ....

Toxic Sludge is Good For You, by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. This book is a bunch of examples of what the public relations industry is able to do to convince us that black is white, etc. By the editors of the "P. R. Watch" newsletter, and well worth reading, if a bit depressingly repetitive in the results the PRsters get pulling the spinning wool over all of our eyes.

Up in the Air by Walter Kirn. I read one of Kirn's essays in the New York Times, and enjoyed, so I gave this book a try. The protagonist is a guy whose main aim in life is to accumulate 1 million frequent flyer miles. I gave this book 80+ pages and still couldn't find my self caring a whit whether they guy got the miles, the girl, the new job, whatever, so I gave up on it and can't tell you what happened from there.

Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow! by Jeff Greenfield. A very enjoyable and insightful look at the 2000 presidential election and its aftermath. I was especially interested in Greenfield's conclusion that once there was the "tie" there was very little chance that the decision could have gone any way but for bush.

The Amber Spyglass, by Phillip Pullman. Last book in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, an amazing fantasy of a couple of children escaping and battling evil through a series of parallel universes. Although the protagonists are children, I don't think this is a series I'd give to anybody younger than 15 or 16; it's too dark and weird. But wonderful! Highly recommended.

Startide Rising, by David Brin. This is the latest in my sporadic effort to read all the Hugo and Nebula winners since about 1975. This book won both: the 1983 Nebula and the 1984 Hugo. My friend Jeff Youngstrom was cleaning house and gave me this one and several others.

The premise is preposterous: a bunch of "Galactics" (advanced civilization) have gotten Extremely Upset when an Earth ship stumbles upon a bunch of dead ancient starships, maybe of the first spacefaring civilization of ancestors. For some reason they chase the earth ship, which hides with its crew of humans, genetically enhanced dolphins and a genetically enhanced chimpanzee, on the surface of a wet world.

Despite the goofy premise, the characters and plot forward from the setup are so engaging and well done, the book is a distinct pleasure to read. The Galactics act like 13th-century warlords, the humans and company try to maneuver to escape, some of the dolphins go haywire, the chimpanzee is a planetologist with poor social skills ... all good fun for any SF fan not too picky about premises.

Timescape, by Gregory Benford. This one won the Nebula in 1980.

It's 1998, and the world's in a heckuva mess: pollution run amok, economy in a shambles, etc. Some scientists, though, have figured out a way to send tachyon-based messages back to 1963 to see if they can convince the people back then to straighten things out.

The narrative pops back and forth between '63 and '98 and is well-written and interesting, but a bit too much focussed on the domestic travails of the main characters for my taste. Still worth reading, but perhaps better if more heavily edited.

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. This novel has been called "the funniest book in English," and while I didn't find it to be that, I did enjoy it. The protagonist, James Dixon, is an unhappy underachieving assistant professor at a British college in the early 1950's (when this was published). He's enmeshed in a web of weird personal relationships and academic maneuverings and, despite his much less than heroic actions I found myself rooting for him. I also found myself thankful that I live in 2002 rather than 1953, when 3 minutes of long distance from London to the provinces was expensive and of poor "whooshy" quality, and where cigarettes were smoked in every conceivable indoor space.

Managing in the Next Society, by Peter Drucker. Drucker is widely appreciated as the greatest business theorist of the era, and with this book one can see why! There's an insight on nearly every page.

For example, he claims that stock options for us 'knowledge workers' can't work:

	... the key to maintaining leadership in the economy ... is likely
	to be the social position of knowledge professionals and social
	acceptance of their values. For them to remain traditional "employees"
	would be tantamount to England's treating its technologists as
	tradesmen [in the 1850's] and likely to have similar consequences
	[i.e. loss of "empire."]

	Today ... we are trying to straddle the fence -- to maintain the
	traditional mind-set, in which capital is the key resource and
	the financier is the boss, while bribing knowledge workers to be 
	content	to remain employees by giving them bonuses and stock
	options. But this, if it can work at all, can work only as long
	as the emerging industries enjoy a stock-market boom, as the
	Internet companies have been doing [circa 1999]. The next major
	industries are likely to behave far more like traditional
	industries -- that is, to grow slowly, painfully, laboriously ...

	Bribing the knowledge workers on whom these [emerging tech industries]
	depend will therefore simply not work ... Increasingly, performance
	in these knowledge-based industries will come to depend on running the 
	institution so as to attract, hold, and motivate knowledge workers.
	When this can no longer be done by satisfying knowledge workers'
	greed, as we are now [in 1999] trying to do, it will have to be
	done by satisfying their values, and by giving them social recognition
	and social power. It will have to be done by turing them from
	subordinates into fellow executives and from employees, however
	well paid, into partners.
Yay. He claims flatly that "Microsoft alums hate Microsoft" because all they got was money and no recognition or respect. (How about this, ex-Microsoft guys/gals?)

And he also has a sense of humor:
	... Very few people get into a management job before age twenty-
	six or twenty-seven. You have to be in a job five years not only
	to learn it, but to prove yourself. And yet you have to be young
	enough to be considered for senior management jobs before you
	reach fifty. That gives you three levels of management.

	[General Motors] used to have twenty-nine layers, which meant that
	nobody could really be considered for a top management job before
	age two hundred eleven. This, obviously, is part of GM's problem.
I fervently recommend this book to any knowledge worker or manager.

What Just Happened: A Chronicle from the Information Revolution by James Gleick. This is a collection of writing that Glieck published from 1992 through early 2001, on a variety of technical subjects. He ranges from a piece on being an early user of Word for Windows v1 & v2 ("Chasing Bugs in the Electronic Village") to the Y2K crisis ("Oh-Oh") and its overhyping ("Millenium Madness") to the patent office and its misapplication in the age of software ("Patently Absurd"). Gleick writes clearly and with an intelligent and skeptical eye. This book is a delight to read.

Neither Here Nor There, by Bill Bryson. Bryson bounces around Europe circa 1990 at age 40, retracing some of the steps he took on a backpacking trip there at age 20. Probably the funniest of the three travel books of his I've now read: "Norweigan TV is the closest you can come to coma without the pain and suffering." He also visits Yugoslavia before the war there; interesting to send him back to report from there and Bulgaria now ...

In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson. A funny and informative trip around Australia with Bryson. Did you know that Australia has people-eating crocodiles and the world's most dangerously toxic jellyfish? Or that most of it is yet unexplored? I didn't. Quite an enjoyable read.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson. This is a collection of the newspaper columns that Bryson wrote for a British newspaper after returning to America after his 20 years in Britain. It's hilarious in spots, as in his description of the typical patter from a fancy restaurant's waiter:

		"Tonight," he began with enthusiasm, "we have a 
                crepe galette of sea chortle and kelp in a rich
                mal de mer sauce, seasoned with disheveled
                herbs grown in our own herbarium. This is baked
                in an inverted Prussian helmet for seventeen
                minutes and four seconds precisely, then layered
                with steamed wattle and woozle leaves. Very
                delicious; very audacious. We are also offering
                this evening a double rack of Rio Rocho cutlets,
                tenderized at your table by our own flamenco
                dancers, then baked in a clay dong for 
                twenty-seven minutes under a lattice of guava
                peel and sun-ripened stucco ..."

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. This is the story of Bryson's hike of about 40% of the 2800-or-so miles of the Applachian Trail, with 40-lb. pack and erratic companion Steven. I found it interesting and enjoyable even though I'm a day hiker at best.

The Information, by Martin Amis. I'd enjoyed a piece Amis wrote for the New Yorker on Wimbledon a while back, so thought I'd give this one a try. But after the first chapter gives the depressed protagonist deciding that the way to deal with his more-successful friend was "to f*ck him up" then I gave up on it. If you've read this and think I'm missing something I should see later in the book, please send me an email. But there's enough of this in real life that I didn't this this guy really deserved any more of my attention.

Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, by John Sarno, M. D. I felt my back relaxing as I read this book. I'm not a major sufferer of back pain, but when I wrenched my back a bit (or so I thought) digging postholes for a garden fence, I sought out the book. Sarno believes that back pain (and some other conditions, notably fibromyalgia) are not so much responses to physical accident or illness in most cases, but more likely the body's response to repressed emotional trauma. Not only that, the standard medical community's ability to deal with back pain is generally wildly unsuccessful and based on erroneous data. To wit:

In my case, I was helping my Lovely Wife build a fence on Memorial Day weekend (2002) and feeling under pressure (we need the fence before we can plant the garden) and incompetent (I'm a software guy and know very little about fence construction) but in a double bind of wanting to help L.W. finish her project. So I stuck with it and found my back hurting the next day and into the next week. After reading this book, I found my back relaxing immediately and I just relaxed in general upon learning that it's actually rather difficult to really injure one's back ... I fervently recommend this one for anyone with back pain or fibromyalgia.

Show-Stopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft, by G. Pascal Zachary. The author spent 2+ years with the project team and interviewed all the principals, from Bill Gates to Dave Cutler, as well as many of the minor players and their families. This is a very interesting look into the way things were done in the early 90's at Microsoft.

Breaking Windows: How Bill Gates Fumbled the Future of Microsoft, by David Bank of the Wall Street Journal. This is a later look into Microsoft, through the antitrust trial and Microsoft's branching off into XML. Turns out that Microsoft if just like any other organization at the stage of life trying to keep milking its successful product while avoiding anything else that might screw that up even if promising -- except that Microsoft has a $40 billion cushion on which to make mistakes. Did you know that Microsoft was thrust into XML by a disaffected lieutenant who demanded and got 3 years and a staff of 30 to do whatever he wanted? He wanted to do XML without Microsoft's normal lock-in edge, and persuaded (forced?) skeptical Microsoft management to go along with it. Very interesting and enjoyable book, for Microsoft friends and foes alike.

The Third Chimpanzee: the Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, by Jared Diamond. This is a fascinating book on how and why we evolved (language ability, the author thinks), how much we still have in common with our cousins the chimps, both positive and negative, and the best explanation of the value/necessity of *all* species to the health and continued existence of life on our planet.

Spontaneous Healing, by Andrew Weil. Weil is the author of several books on health and healing. In this one he discusses how to strengthen and maintain one's immune/healing system, as well as anecdotal evidence of various extraordinary healings he's witnessed and been involved in. I enjoyed this one quite a bit.

Blowback: Costs and Consequences of American Empire, by Chalmers Johnson. This was written well before the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, but it essentially predicts those attacks. Why do we have a global "empire" any more, when the cold war is over? Why do we still have troops in Korea? On Okinawa? Why is North Korea doing nuclear saber-rattling? How is Japan's relationship with the U.S. like the former East Germany's relationship with the former Soviet Union? Johnson has been a student of Asia since serving in Japan in the U.S. Navy in the mid-1950's there, and this provocative book could well change your thinking on the role of the U.S. in the modern world.

The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of by Thomas M. Disch. A review of SF from its origins up through 2000 or so, with an especially enjoyable skewering of Whitley Strieber.

Maximum Light by Nancy Kress. This is the third I've read by Ms. Kress. She tends toward the dystopian (this one no exception), but I thought it was excellent. Also don't miss her Beggars in Spain (Nebula and Hugo winner) & its sequel Beggars and Choosers.

Illegal Alien, Frameshift, Starplex, Flashforward, and the Nebula-award-winning The Terminal Experiment, all by Robert J Sawyer. You can't go wrong with ANY of his (at least the ones I've read).

Conversations With God, v 1-3, by Neal Donald Walsch ... supposed automatic writing, with some pretty interesting spins on 'Ol Jehovah, with some interesting ideas. (God is in favor of World Government, for example.) I enjoyed them, but your mileage may differ on these.

Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, by Lee Smolin. The first comprehensible thing I've read on String Theory and the attempt to resolve it with quantum theory and produce a Theory of Everything in physics. Very enjoyable for a Science Nerd like me, anyway ...

Fooled by Randomess: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Everyday Life, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Excellent treatment of the subject; first section is "If you're so rich, why aren't you smart?" and so forth. How not to lose $600 million in one day trading bonds.

This led me to read various financial tomes:

When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management, by Roger Lowenstein. This was the hedge fund that almost brought down the world economy; very interesting story. You think you had problems with the Internet bubble bursting your portfolio? These guys lost $5 billion in five days during the Asian financial crisis of 1998.

The New New Thing, by Michael Lewis. This is the story of Jim Clark, the founder of Netscape, Silicon Graphics, and Healtheon, which all became billion-dollar companies. The segment on JC teaching himself to fly a helicopter is worth the whole book, also he also had built one of the world's largest yachts and he and a team programmed it to run by computer. (SGIs, of course.) Great fun.

Next: The Future Just Happened, by Michael Lewis. This is the story of several people using the Internet and related technologies to Do Things Differently and thereby completely screw up {Wall Street, Network TV, Record companies). The first segment covers a teenage kid who made $800,000 hyping stocks on the Internet, and another covers an aging rock band using a website to connect directly with their niche audience and turn the tables on their evil record company. My favorite of the three Lewis books I've read.

Liar's Poker, by Michael Lewis, is the story of the author's time working on Wall Street as a bond salesman. Also quite good, just not up to the standards of the other two. Includes a cursory treatment of the Michael Milken story.

Den of Thieves, by James B. Stewart, goes more deeply into the Michael Milken & Ivan Boesky story of the 80's. Very much more detailed than the Michael Lewis books, and more interesting than I thought it was going to be. Milken's workday: 4:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. What a guy!

God's Debris, by Scott Adams. This was originally distributed as an e-book, and is billed as a "thought experiment." It's a very quick read and sort of philosophically interesting, but give me Dilbert and the pointy-haired boss any day.

The Invisible Future, edited by Peter Denning. These are papers from the 2001 conference of ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, on the future of computing and other technology. They're uneven, but I liked several quite a bit: Ray Kurzweil, especially.

The Age of Spiritual Machines, by Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil is a pioneer in computer music and speech recognition technology, and he also has a track record of accurate predictions of the last 20 years. (In the 80's he predicted that a computer program would beat the world chess champion in 1998; it happened in 1997.) This book takes his prediction and speculations through 2099, including a $1000 personal computer with the computing power of the human brain by 2024 or so. He writes well, and includes a dialogue with a "skeptical reader" progressing through the 21st century.

Naturally Dangerous, by James P. Collman. This is an overview of everything dangerous in our society, from food to global warming. Collman points out some surprises (for me): some "organic" food is much more likely to be dangerously contaminated with e. coli or other contaminants than some "normal" food, for example. He did strongly reinforce what I've read on hydrogenated oil and associated trans fats (i.e., that they're much worse than saturated fats, and only escaped labelling via food industry lobbying.) It's also in a very wide variety of food; look for partially hydrogenated on food labels and see how tough it is to avoid.

Favorite Periodicals

Atlantic Monthly has been even better than its ususal high standards since last year's redesign.

Harper's has had interesting cover stories on Israeli atrocities in Gaza, "The DNA Myth", Barry Commoner on "the spurious foundation of genetic engineering", and a review of recent findings in archaeology that don't square very well at all with The Bible. Oh, I forgot: they also indicted Henry Kissinger as a war criminal some months back.