Some more book reviews ... 1. "Palomar" by Italo Calvino <http://www.amazon.com/Mr-Palomar-Italo-Calvino/dp/0099430878> A collection of short stories where the central character, named "Mr Palomar" (as in the Observatory in California), makes observations about life, the universe and everything. He's trying to make sense of what's happening around him. Many of the stories focus on simple things, such as waves at the beach, a pair of merlins singing to each other, and shopping for cheese in Paris. Some have a humorous angle (e.g. about a topless sunbather), while many take a deeper, philosophical view (e.g. a visit to a Zen temple in Japan). In the author's words, Mr Palomar is "a man who is seeking wisdom, one step at a time", but "he hasn't yet attained it". Another great book by my favourite Italian writer. 2. "Il meglio dei racconti" by Dino Buzzati <http://www.bol.it/libri/scheda/ea978880445088.html> This is a selection of the best short stories by Buzzati. I read this for the Italian bookclub I'm a member of. While other members seemed to enjoy the book, I found a lot of the stories quite depressing. Kafka- esque would be one way to describe some of them. For example, "Sette piani" ("Seven Stories") is about a hospital with seven floors. The top floor is reserved for minor ailments. Each floor below is for progressively worse conditions, and those unfortunate to be in the bottom floor are gravely ill. You know what happens - a man enters the top floor with a negligible problem. Due to lack of space he volunteers to drop down to the second floor so that a mother and child can have his room on the first floor. Then, through accidents, misdiagnoses and bureaucratic mixups he eventually finds himself on the bottom floor. You could say the story is a metaphor for an individual's life journey. Later stories are not as obviously grim, but not by much. I wouldn't recommended for reading at night time in winter, unless you enjoy the writings of Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe. 3. "San Sombrèro: A Land of Carnivals, Cocktails and Coups" by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch <http://www.amazon.com/San-Sombrero/dp/0811856194> This is a parody of travel guidebooks, from the people behind The Panel (and The Late Show). It's the third in the series, following "Molvanîa: A land untouched by modern dentistry" (loosely based on countries in Eastern Europe) and "Phaic Tăn: Sunstroke on a shoestring" (Southeast Asia). This time they set their sights on Central America. As usual there are lots of gags written in the guise of a travel guide, usually by exaggerating themes and stereotypes relating to the region. Of course they always focus on the worst aspects, but they're often the easiest to make fun of. Some material from the book is presented at: <http://www.molvania.com/sansombrero/index.html> 4. "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" by Edward R. Tufte <http://www.amazon.com/Visual-Display-Quantitative-Information-2nd/dp/0961392142> Edward Tufte is an expert in information and interface design. In this book he gives examples of both good and bad designs when displaying statistical information. Here's an example of a well-designed statistical graph, depicting the dwindling size of Napoleon's army on its Russian campaign: <http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/minard> <http://www.britannica.com/eb/art-70821> Pie charts may look pretty, but are considered bad because they make it difficult to interpret. Tufte provides some guidelines when presenting graphs of data. For example, don't clutter your graphs with anything that detracts from the actual information content. Make sure there is a high signal-to- noise ration. He also provides advice on how to turn bad graphs into good ones. 5. "The Affluent Society" (New Edition) by John Kenneth Galbraith <http://www.amazon.com/Affluent-Society/dp/0140285199> This is a revised edition of a book by a famous Canadian economist. It critically examines the emphases of the economies of rich or "affluent" nations. He argues that such countries have long since satisfied the basic needs of its people, and are actually pursuing economic growth for its own sake. A lot of economic activity is now being devoted to "manufactured needs", created by advertising and greed. For example, everyone now "must have" a huge plasma TV, a 4WD, a swimming pool, etc. This book predates "Affluenza" by several decades, which I read and reviewed previously. In constructing his central argument, Galbraith traces the history of Economics. He cites the usual suspects: Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Keynes and the Monetarists. He argues that the shrinking role of government has lead to increased inequality in spite of the increase in total wealth of a country. Powerful vested interests have made themselves richer while governments have reduced spending on basic infrastructure. He's obviously a Socialist I hear you say!? Well, you're entitled to your opinion. Galbraith argues that to achieve a better society, the decline in public spending needs to be reversed - not by increased welfare, but rather by investing in education and improving infrastructure so that everyone can benefit from the increased economic wealth. While arguably some of the economic analysis is out of date, there is still some interesting food for thought. For example, the first chapter on "conventional wisdom" highlights how ideas become and remain accepted, even though they may no longer be true. Anyone who challenges the "conventional wisdom" faces an uphill battle. Truth is not always convenient or in one's interests, so it is resisted.