Monday, March 11, 2013

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, February 2013

Reviews of books read last month: two novels and three non-fiction books.

To varying degrees, each book could be considered controversial.  Both
novels are award winning science fiction classics, and both written by
war veterans.  If pushed, I'd recommend "A Canticle for Leibowitz" over
"The Forever War".  Of the non-fiction books, "The Wonderbox" is
probably of interest to more people.

1. "The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live" by Roman Krznaric

The author is a cultural historian, and in this book he's put together
a "Wunderkammer", a collection of lessons learned from history on how
to live.  Topics covered include love, work, time, money, nature,
belief and creativity.  Regarding love, the Ancient Greeks identified
six different varieties: eros, philia, ludus, pragma, agape and
philautia.  The concept of romantic love is a relatively recent
invention.  The author argues that the "myth of romantic love has
not only left millions harbouring fantasies that reality has failed
to fulfil, but has also played a major role in causing the epidemic
of divorce that has struck the Western world in the past half century,
and the inexorable rise of unsatisfactory short-term relationships".
Note that he himself is happily married, so is he a hypocrite?  No,
he argues that we should be realistic and not place too much emphasis
on the dream of finding that "one true love".

Another controversial subject the author tackles is nationalism.  He
quotes George Bernard Shaw, who recognised the absurdity of
nationalism: "patriotism is your conviction that this country is
superior to all other countries because your were born in it".

Regarding work, we are fortunate to live in an age where we can mostly
choose how to earn a living, providing we are willing to put in the
necessary effort.  The author argues that we should "find careers that
not only embody our values, but that have meaningful goals, give us a
sense of respect and use our talents".  Accumulating great wealth,
say for our retirement, is actually counter-productive.  Work doesn't
have to be miserable, and if you can do something that you enjoy and
get paid for it, you don't have to suffer until retirement.

Overall, an educational and different type of "self-help" book.  By
drawing on lessons from history, he's put together some useful advice
on dealing with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

2. "The Forever War" by Joe Haldeman

This science fiction novel was written in the 1970s and is set in the
then near future.  While attempting to colonise far off galaxies,
humans meet an alien race, the Taurans, and war begins.  Intergalactic
space travel is possible due to discovery of "collapsars" or stargates,
which warp gravity.  But the consequences of relativity mean that
assuming the conscripts survive the mission, by the time they return
to Earth, centuries will have passed.  This is one reason why the war
goes on for so long: many years pass before either sides' leaders
learn of the outcome of a particular battle.  Also, depending on the
location of the battle, one side or the other may be at a distinct
advantage due to how much knowledge they had when preparing for the
battle.  This idea of prolonged asymmetric warfare extrapolates the
author's experiences during the Vietnam War.

The author describes in some detail the training, planning, tactics,
and mechanics of space war.  He also speculates on future trends.
Early in the 21st century, food scarcity mean calories will become a
universal currency.  The military will allow mixed-sex missions - in
fact a 50/50 mix is mandated, and in the interests of morale,
cohabitation is actively encouraged.  But in the more distant future,
soldiers will be genetically engineered, and heterosexuality will be
considered a "sociopathic leaning" in the military, requiring

While this interesting novel has won several awards, I couldn't
recommend it to anyone but hard core science fiction fans and/or
military enthusiasts.  Sequels have been written, but I don't plan
reading them.  I can't fault the poignancy of the book's message,
though.  Towards the end of the novel, we find out what we probably
guessed all along: the "1143-year-long war had begun on false
pretenses and only because the two races were unable to communicate.
Once they could talk, the first question was 'Why did you start this
thing?' and the answer was 'Me?'"

3. "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This is another science fiction classic written by a war veteran.
It's set in three separate eras in the distant future: six, twelve
and eighteen centuries after the book was written.  The novel was
inspired by the author's experiences during WW2, in particular his
assignment to a bombing mission to destroy a Benedictine monastery
in Italy.  After the war, the author converted to Catholicism, and
that heavily influenced his writing.

In the late 20th century, Earth's leaders opted for mutual destruction.
A new Dark Age followed the nuclear holocaust.  Monasteries fulfilled
the role of gathering and preserving as many forms of human knowledge
as they could, just as their predecessors did after the fall of the
Roman Empire.  The monks don't understand the so-called "Memorabilia"
they were collecting, but they know it would be important one day if
humanity was to re-emerge from the darkness.  The first part of the
novel is set six centuries after the "Flame Deluge".  A novice stumbles
upon a fallout shelter in the desert, and finds some documents
apparently belonging to Isaac Leibowitz, a 20th century engineer and
founder of the "Albertian Order of Leibowitz", dedicated to the
dangerous task of preserving knowledge.  Many survivors blamed
scientific advancement for the war, and sought to destroy any books
and repositories of knowledge.

The second part of the novel is set twelve centuries after the "Flame
Deluge".  During a new Renaissance, people have started making
scientific (re-)discoveries and request access to the knowledge
collected in monasteries.  New political powers and alliances emerge.
The head abbot says to a scientist: "But you promise to begin restoring
Man's control over Nature. But who will govern the use of the power to
control nature's forces? Who will use it? To what end? How will you
hold him in check? Such decisions can still be made."

The final part of the novel is set eighteen centuries after the "Flame
Deluge".  Unfortunately, humanity has once again brought itself to the
brink of self-annihilation.  "Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to
the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?
This time, it will swing us clean to oblivion."  But the Order has a
contingency plan: the memorabilia will be loaded on a spaceship along
with settlers, an interplanetary "monastery" bound for a new world.

Given the current atmosphere of hostility to religion by opinion-
shapers, it may be hard to see that the Catholic Church will have as
much influence in the future as the author suggests.  He does not seem
to have much faith in secular leaders and human nature.  Time will tell
how right his pessimism is.

4. "Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple's Success"
   by Ken Segall

The author was an advertising agency creative director who worked with
Apple on several prominent campaigns.  He argues that an obsession with
simplicity is the key to Apple's success in the aftermath of Steve
Jobs' return in 1997.  Having also worked on campaigns with some of
Apple's rivals, he's in a unique position to compare and contrast
Apple's approach to marketing and product development.  For example,
where Dell or Intel might engage a large and diverse committee to
market a new laptop or computer chips, Apple would involve only a
handful of key personnel, including Steve Job himself.  More people
reduces focus, and therefore reduces simplicity.

Apple is not afraid to wield the "Simple Stick" whenever it looks like
something is looking convoluted or messy.  The author offers ten
thoughts on keeping things simple, devoting a chapter to each of these
aspects of simplicity.  Topics include: think small, think minimal,
think casual and think human.  Crucially, it is important not to equate
"simplicity" with "simplistic".  In fact, it often requires effort to
make things simple.

By viewing Apple's actions through the lens of simplicity, this book
helps the reader better appreciate why Apple does what it does.  You
can't please all the people all the time, but Apple's continued
success in recent times shows it's doing something right.

5. "CoffeeScript: Accelerated JavaScript Development" by Trevor Burnham

CoffeeScript is a relatively new web development language.  It can be
used to generate standard-compliant and platform-independent JavaScript.
It has been adopted within the Ruby on Rails framework, which prompted
my interest in the language.

This book provides a concise introduction to CoffeeScript.  It follows
the usual path of splitting up related language features into chapters,
including code that you can type in and run as you read.  In addition
to simple examples, a word puzzle game project is gradually built up
throughout the book.  Unfortunately, the book suffers from a common
flaw in such programming books: code examples are sometimes incomplete
and contain inaccuracies, causing frustration.  It's a good thing that
working code is available online.

Overall, it was an easy to follow book, covering the basics of the
language.  But you will need to consult more comprehensive reference
material to progress beyond the beginner stage.