Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, February 2012

Mini-reviews of books I read last month: this time a mix of fiction and
non-fiction.  Listening to episodes of The Incomparable podcast prompted
me to get back into science fiction, so this month I read books by a
couple of new young authors in the genre.  I also read a collection of
short stories by Richard Yates.  The two non-fiction books were about
achieving excellence and Ruby programming.

1. "Talent Is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin

This book examines the usual explanations given for why certain people
achieve excellence in their chosen fields.  Hard work is one factor, but
many people work hard without distinguishing themselves.  Innate talent
is another common reason cited, but the author shows that particular
natural ability is not enough to achieve consistent high performance.
Even several years of experience does not always guarantee good results.
Each of these factors helps, but something more is required.  The book's
subtitle is "what really separates world-class performers from everybody

So what else does it take to excel consistently?  In addition to
persistence, talent and a supportive environment, the author emphasises
the importance of "deliberate practice".  It's not necessarily the
quantity of practice: merely repeating the same thing is not enough.
Instead, continuous improvement comes from the quality of practice, from
always challenging ourselves.  A virtuous cycle can develop:
  talent -> encouragement -> practice -> improvement -> practice etc.
The concept of "flow" (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), can also play a part.

The book includes several examples of great achievers who have
exemplified deliberate practice.  Benjamin Franklin wanted to be a good
writer.  As a boy he kicked off a process of continuous improvement
lasting years, building steadily from the basics of writing and using
high quality benchmarks of writing as a guide for his development.  The
book also looks at why many workplaces fail to provide environments that
allow their employees to excel.

Overall, a useful book for anyone wishing to get better at something, as
well as for parents and managers.

2. "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" by Richard Yates

This is a collection of short stories by the author of "Revolutionary
Road".  As the collection's title suggests, each story examines some
aspect or form of loneliness.  The stories are set in or around New
York, and were written in the 1950s.  Yates specialised in writing
critically about the American Dream.

Despite outward appearances of happiness and prosperity, many of the
characters are struggling within: something is missing.  An office girl
is on her last day of work before getting married; an ageing, tough,
by-the-book boot camp sergeant is facing reassignment; a cabbie is
looking for someone to help write and publish his anecdotes; an orphan
is trying to fit in at a new school.  Each of these everyday characters'
story is moving and poignant.

It would be interesting to read what Yates would have written about our
current, always-connected society.  Would he conclude that we are even
more "alone together"?  While there is obvious melancholy in the
stories, they are well written and provide insights into the human

3. "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe" by Charles Yu

This is a story about a chronogrammatical time machine repairman, who
happens to have the same name as the author.  He's spent a decade
travelling through time, ostensibly helping repair other people's time
machines when they get themselves stuck in the past.  But mostly he
stays in the "Present Indefinite" or visits alternate versions of
himself.  He's fallen in love with his time machine's AI operating
system, TAMMY, and has an imaginary dog called Ed.  One day, when he
makes a routine trip back to the present, he sees and shoots a future
version of himself.  He's now stuck in a time loop, forever, unless he
can find a solution in the book that his future self was carrying.

That book happens to be called "How to Live Safely in a Science
Fictional Universe", and our hero is simultaneously writing it and
reading it while he's in the time loop.  Are you confused yet?  We
also learn the story of how Yu's father discovered the science behind
grammar-driven time travel, but fails to get the credit.  Disappointed,
he runs away and hides in some alternate reality.  Meanwhile, Yu's
mother chooses to perpetually relive a specific happy dinner in her own
time loop.

According to an interview, the author only intended his name to be a
placeholder for the central character's name, but decided not to
change it.  In some ways the book's inventiveness reminded me a bit of
Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series.  The self-referencing title and
inclusion of excerpts of the book-within-the-book reminded me of Douglas
Adams's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy".  But, while I mostly enjoyed
this book, it didn't quite match the standard of those works.

4. "Stories of Your Life and Others" by Ted Chiang

This is a collection of short science fiction stories.  They are pretty
philosophical and thought-provoking in nature, posing hypothetical
situations and taking them to logical extremes.  I enjoyed most of the
stories, but a couple required considerable suspension of disbelief.

The first story is a clever retelling of the biblical "Tower of Babel"
story from the viewpoint of some workers building the Tower.  The
interesting "Story of Your Life" tells how the interaction between
humans and aliens leads the narrator to adopt a non-linear memory
consistent with the alien's view of time and science.  Another highlight
was the last story, "Liking What You See: A Documentary".  It's about a
treatment called calliagnosia which removes the ability to distinguish
beautiful faces from "ordinary" ones.  This supposedly removes
prejudices, and spares students the need to spend time and energy on
appearance so they focus on their education.  A college wants to impose
mandatory calliagnosia, on its student body.  The story presents with
the opinions and arguments of various students, parents, faculty members
and other interested parties.

5. "Eloquent Ruby" by Russ Olsen

This book is aimed at intermediate-level Ruby programmers.  It begins by
going over the basics of the Ruby language and outlining the current
accepted practices regarding structure and layout of Ruby programs.
Part II delves deeper into the language: classes, modules and blocks.
Part III looks at metaprogramming, the concept of writing programs that
modify themselves dynamically.  This is one of the real strengths of
Ruby, and underlies the power and flexibility of the Ruby on Rails
framework.  The final part looks at more advanced concepts like building
domain specific languages and packaging gems.

Overall, an interesting and well-written book.  It gives Ruby
programmers a better understanding of some of the "magic" behind the
language, and should help improve their programming.