Sunday, July 15, 2007

Palomar + Buzzati + San Sombrero + Others

Some more book reviews ...

1. "Palomar" by Italo Calvino

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

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

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

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:

4. "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" by Edward R. Tufte

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:

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

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.