Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness

No doubt I’m late to the party.

Nevertheless, I just finished “Stumbling on Happiness”: by Daniel Gilbert. I’d certainly recommend it to people, though, like Daniel Pound, my late, admired Professor of Political Science, I doubt it’ll really change your mind, but it’ll give you a better vocabulary with which to articulate your assumptions.

It has many compelling things to say about the wild divergence between reality and how we, as humans, deal with the prospect of the future, and how our focus on the future influences our ability to be happy in the present.

A lot of it comes down to the fact that we are poor judges of what will serve to make us happy or unhappy–our memories of things that have affected our happiness become too muted to quickly, and are colored too much by how we feel most recently, or sometimes _right now_, and besides, we’re just not too good at really assessing things in any relative fashion at all.

(In a way, it’s sort of an argument against Intelligent Design, too–if the designer was so damned intelligent, how, exactly, did he come up with _this_ mess?)

Now I will concede that I have fallen prey to exactly these issues at lunch today–I had a brownie at the end whose sugar content is currently playing hell with my metabolism and making me jittery and achy, as the same item at the same place has done many times in the past–but on the big things, not so much.

I don’t generally feel a lot of buyer’s remorse, for instance. Especially in the last several years, I tend to hold off buying something until I feel certain that it’s going to fulfill my needs, and I’m going to use it enough to warrant it. As a consequence, I am often inordinately pleased with whatever it is, because it does fill a gap.

Also, although I consider myself an optimist, I don’t generally anticipate or expect great things for the future. The future is, in my opinion, going to look a lot like the past–we’ll muddle through, somehow.

And I don’t tend to plan too far into the future–I mean, how can I really know what’s going to be gong on in five years? Funny enough, I can trace this habit directly to reading Tolstoy’s “What Men LIve By”: at some point in middle-school.

Mostly, I try to achieve happiness with whatever I have right now. For a long time, there was a part of me that rebelled against that idea–being OK with what you happen to have sounds an awful lot like just what the Oligarchy wants. But I have come to realize that there’s a difference between contentment and apathy. You can be engaged, but content, and that’s the place I want to be.

How did I miss that?

“Michael Chabon”: wrote the story that became the screenplay for _Spiderman 2_? I mean, it’s not entirely surprising to me in retrospect, but I apparently was asleep for the credits.

Why writing a technical book has no appeal for me

Baron Schwartz has “a long discussion of the genesis of _High Performance MySQL_ 2nd Ed”: that goes into some detail about what’s involved in producing such a book.

There’s a reason Free Software often has dodgy or incomplete documentation–documentation is hard!

My uncomfortable relationship with Robert Heinlein

You know, if, at 18, I had needed to choose a favorite author, it would have been RAH, hands down. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve read everything he’s written except for his first novel (that was only published a couple of years ago).

So, a couple of months ago I was browsing my shelves and picked up _Stranger In A Strange Land_ for the first time in probably a decade and a half.

Boy, it annoyed the crap out of me.

Now it’s funny, because I mentioned this on a mailing list I’m on, and someone who knew me in college mentioned that he found that interesting, since I had once said it was an incredibly important book that had changed my life.

The thing is, though, it _did_. And all the things in it that caused me to change are still there. But I couldn’t get over all the things about it that annoyed me so–the awe-inspiring condescension of the main characters towards everyone else, the spectacularly patronizing attitude towards women, oh, it drove me crazy. But you can draw a very straight line between what I believe now and what that book exposed me to.

Just the other day I picked up _The Number of the Beast_ which I haven’t read in at least as long as _Stranger_, and found it absolutely unreadable. I skimmed it, but basically had to hold my nose to read any of it. And yet I remember liking it immensely.

There are others that I’ve read more recently than that that didn’t offend me. Basically, the simple adventure stories still work for me; there are things that occasionally annoy, but in the main they’re no worse than a lot of pre-new-wave SF. But most of his later novels–his largely “high-concept” output post-_Stranger_–I now find mostly unreadable, because of the absurd didacticism.

Except, and this surprises no one as much as me, _The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress_ and _Starship Troopers_. Yep, Heinlein’s famously “militaristic” novel, and his novel of libertarian revolution–two things that, in general I have no time for.

I guess it’s like family. They may annoy the hell out of you, but you’re still related.

Honya Budo

I am obviously not enlightened, for while I occasionaly show signs of being an adept at “Honya Budo”:, I often fail to be able to even master the “Way of the In-Out”.


I’ve decided to get rid of a lot of books. Mostly, but probably not exclusively, technical books. Many, but not all, fairly up to date. The fact is that for years I’ve bought them simply out of habit–I browse them, or maybe even actually sit down and read them, and discover that there’s little in them that I didn’t already know. And then they go on the bookshelves, or the floor, and take up space.

Getting a subscription to “Safari”: has made them doubly redundant.

If nothing changes, one day there will be a nice layer of humus where this house was from all the books that slowly composted–so here’s your chance to benefit from my compulsive behavior: I’m giving them away. I’m going to be going through the shelves over the next few weeks, and entering all the items in “a Google Spreadsheet”:; if you see something you want (I imagine you could subscribe to the RSS feed for the sheet for best results), email me at, and I’ll see about boxing it up and shipping it.

I may look into what’s involved in being able to accept some compensation through my paypal account–I just want to cover the cost of packaging and shipping, but this could be a lot of books, and even at book rate, it can add up.

If you know anyone who might be interested, please point them to the spreadsheet as well.

Schroedinger’s Ball, Adam Felber

Although I’ve not succeeded in catching a broadcast in a long time, I maintain a great deal of affection for NPR’s “_Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!_”: As a result, when I was in “Quail Ridge Books”: on Friday–it being perhaps not entirely surprising that the onset of the Christmas season tends to drive me more to local retailers, even though I’m generally content to browse at Barnes & Noble most of the time–I picked up (among other things), “Adam Felber”:’s _Schroedinger’s Ball_.

It’s a decent way to pass a few hours–not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you’re moderately familiar with Cambridge, where almost all of it takes place, it is perhaps more amusing than if you’re not–for instance, a scene takes place in the _Bow & Arrow_ (which, Googling tells me, 1) was the bar in _Good Will Hunting_ and 2) apparently no longer exists), in which I have actually been drinking. And drunk.

There are various other landmarks mentioned (The Coop, the _Au Bon Pain_) or alluded to (for instance, “_Grendel’s Den_”:, which I’ll note is probably the only a restaurant in the US that has a link on its website to “a US Supreme Court decision”: on it. Or, at least, a case that directly involves them).

In fact, it is perhaps telling that the things I find myself mentioning are all about the context in which it takes place. It _is_ an amusing book, and has some clever bits, but it is short, and it is fluffy. But that’s exactly what I was looking for, so please don’t consider this a complaint.

After a couple more fluffy books, of course, I intend to start the new Pynchon novel. That should be anything but.

Since I contain multitudes… is entirely possible for me to view the whole Harry Potter business with a certain benign affection, even while agreeing with A.S. Byatt’s “rather negative assessment of the books”: (though perhaps I’m biased by the fact that she “recognizes the skill in Terry Pratchett’s work”:,,836250,00.html).

But mild affection would never move me to public declarations (well, aside from this), so I can only assume that “Stephen King and John Irving feel something more than this”: What a world we live in.

Perdido Street Station

!! because of the “Mieville Seminar”: (or perhaps more accurately, the knowledge of its existence). Enough interesting stuff was said in the bits I read that I figured it couldn’t be a bad book.

And, indeed, it’s not. Neither, though, is it a great book. I’m hard pressed to articulate the things I didn’t like about it. I think it’s the prose. It’s not that the prose is bad, it’s just…too much. There’s so much going on, and sometimes the prose gets in the way of the story–not by clanging and making one cringe, but just by being a little too self-obsessed.

Still, if you’re willing to overlook some missteps and aesthetic quibbles for a book that has boundless ambition, you could do a lot worse.

Kepler’s closes it’s doors

It’s ironic that Neil Gaiman’s blog would be the place I would hear that Kepler’s, an independent bookstore in Menlo Park that I went to not-infrequently when I was working the gig out in SiliValley, closed suddenly, since that is where I got copies of ??American Gods?? signed for myself and Chet in 2001.

A Pretext For War

Hmmmm, what to say, what to say. The picture James Bamford paints, both of the failures leading up to 9/11 and of the failures leading up to the Iraq war are depressing. If you feel some need to go over this material again–if, say, you’ve been living under a rock for the last four years (in which case, good on you!)–this is a book you might consider.

That said, this, like his last book ??Body of Secrets?? (and perhaps his first book ??The Puzzle Palace??, though it’s been long enough since I read that that I don’t have a clear memory of the prose) seems to be in need of some more careful editing. Not so much copyediting, or even structural editing (in the sense of stringing things together in a way that makes sense), so much as redundancy editing.

It’s as if the book that was originally presented serially (which I don’t think was the case), and only later (and hastily) stitched together to be a stand-alone book–there are places where you will read very similar paragraphs giving you roughly the same background on the same thing a couple of pages apart.

I mean, my memory can be crap these days, but it’s good enough that this annoys me.

There is some interesting information I had not been aware of, with regards to the Iraqi National Congress–it was apparently setup in the early 90’s as a front for the CIA to try and destroy Saddam Hussein’s support at home. And then, a decade later, we were listening to these people tell us about the opposition situation in Iraq.

That seemed a little strange.

Oh, well, spilled milk and outrage fatigue, quite a combination.

Stranger Than Fiction

On the trip to Atlanta, I took along Chuck Palahniuk’s ??Stranger Than Fiction??, a series of odd essays and stories. I enjoyed it, though it’s not the most substantial book I’ve ever read.

But, you know, where else are you going to read about the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival?

“Other than the web, of course”:

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

I’ve been a big fan of Umberto Eco since reading ??Foucault’s Pendulum?? (which I really must re-read soon) in ’92 or so. I find his shorter non-fiction pieces incredibly funny, and I’m fairly certain I own all of his novels.

That said, I never actually finished ??The Island of the Day Before??, and although I did finish, and even enjoyed, ??Baudolino??, it was not the compelling read I had expected. Still, hope springs eternal, so when I happened across ??The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana?? just before we were going on vacation, I picked it up, even though it was hardback (and I was going to have to schlep it around).

You can check the links at Barnes & Noble or Amazon for plot information–I don’t feel like recapitulating it, nor do I have anything particularly unique to add as far as discussing the plot.

Mostly I want to say that I found it a very compelling read, even though it seemed a most un-Eco-like work–that is, there is little of the outright fantastic, as in ??Baudolino??, and there is none of the vertiginous fluidity of truth that characterizes ??Foucault’s Pendulum??. I mean, it is still obviously an Eco character, with his love of books in general and pulp fiction in particular, but any seeming uncertainty about what is happening is a result of the main character’s condition, rather than some grand plot element.

One passage had some amusing commentary about poetry:

bq.. Mixed in with the school notebooks was another, which began with the date 1948, but the handwriting gradually changed as I turned the pages, so perhaps it contained texts from the subsequent three years as well. They were poems.

Poems so bad they could have been no one’s by mine. Teenage acne. I think everyone writes poems when they are sixteen; it is a phase in the passage from adolescence to adulthood. I do not remember where I read that there are two kinds of poets: the good poets, who at a certain point destroy their bad poems and go off to run guns in Africa, and the bad poets, who publish theirs and keep writing more until they die.

p. And an amusing comment about a certain sort of relationship with God:

bq. And yet he was not mean, he loved the people around him. He had it in only for God, and that must have been a real chore, because it was like throwing rocks at a rhinoceros–the rhinoceros never even notices and continues going about its rhino business, and meanwhile you are red with rage and ripe for a heart attack.

I don’t think you have to be a lit major…

…to appreciate the hilarity of “Notes toward an Infernokrusher Manifesto”:, but it certainly helps, I think. I mean, surely this is funny to everyone?

bq.. I blew up the plums
that were in the icebox
and which you were probably saving for breakfast
forgive me
I like fire

— Dora Goss

“Theologically Unsound”

Seems to me the Anglican Church was taking the wrong tack “when denying the movie production of the ??Da Vinci Code?? the opportunity to film in Westminster Abbey”: I think they should have used the even simpler-to-understand argument that, “It’s an unreadable piece of shit”.

Perl 6 Now: The Core Ideas Illustrated with Perl 5

Though it pains me somewhat to say it, I cannot recommend this book.

Let me first emphasise that it’s not that there’s probably not a lot of good information in it–there is. I have continually stumbled across interesting tidbits about how Perl 6 will do things.

The problem is with that verb: *stumbled*. The book eschews a reference-book sort of setup, and in its own words:

bq. […] I wrote this book in the style of a plain programming-language manual with basic concepts coming first and later chapters building on them.

But if the point of the book is to show moderately-proficient Perl 5 programmers how to do things in idiomatic Perl 6, I don’t believe you need that build-up. And even if you do think it’s appropriate, consider that on that same page (xxix) there is a diagram of how the chapters relate to one another, and _it’s not anywhere near a straight line_.

So, I find myself wondering why the author made the choice to impose what seems an inappropriate structure on the material.

And then there’s a lot of material that seems to be either filler or just out of place. For instance, Chapter 7 runs from page 105 to page 127. Of this, 3/4 of page 106 covers Perl 6, while all the rest is about using PDL with Perl 5. That’s not what I wanted from this book.

As I said before, I’m sure there’s a lot of good stuff buried in this book, but it’s been a disappointing slog to find it. I couldn’t recommend this to anyone.

The Eyre Affair

Oh, I don’t know that I have all that much to say about ??The Eyre Affair??. It’s lighthearted escapism that has some fun with famous literature–the idea of a Shakespeare play being put on as if it were ??The Rocky Horror Picture Show?? is awfully amusing to think about, _especially_ if the play in question is ??Richard III??.

As further proof–if ’twere needed–that nothing ever changes, there is a plotline that revolves around the fact that the Crimean war has been running continuously to “present day”–which is to say 1985–that has all sorts of weird echos in this time and place, even though the book was released in January, 2002, meaning it had to have been finished before September 11 and well before the whole subject of Iraq came up.


!! is one of the definitive Computer Science textbooks. It was also, for years, the book that defined the scheme language. It’s big, and dense and fairly expensive.

Imagine my suprise, then, that MIT Press has apparently “made the entire thing available for free on the web”:

21 Dog Years

!! So, in an amusing coincidence–given that I had just spent three months among ex-Amazonians–Anne’s friend Chapman got me a copy of this book as a birthday gift.

It is not the book I was thinking it was–there is apparently some other Amazon insider that mentions my friend Alex by name. It’s a quick, light read. A fair amount of dot-bomb silliness can be recognized.

Yet, at the same time, I guess it’s the final proof that I’m not a slacker that I find the main character unlikeable. Self-centered, uninterested in doing work, a dilettante who doesn’t even do a good job of that, he pretty much offended me.

I mean, it’s not like I have some relentlessly Puritan work ethic–I regularly lose an hour or so each Thursday afternoon after I get back from the comic shop. I don’t always get started all that early. Even when I’m working long hours, I don’t necessarily get a whole lot done.

But at least I don’t think of this as my right, that I shouldn’t _have_ to work.

Bring out yer tinfoil hats!

!!cryptographic algorithm have put an awful lot of work into creating a more secure Linux, and now O’Reilly has a book about it.

Although my perspective is a little bit lower-level than most people–since I’m a professional sysadmin and software developer–the fact is, SELinux is almost certainly the wave of the future. Fedora Core is trying hard to ship with SELinux enabled by default–in fact, I think FC3 _does_, but I’m not sure; I do know an earlier beta did, but there were some problems.

Anyway, kids, this is the wave of the future–there is no indication that the Internet is going to do anything but get more hostile, and this is going to be an important ingredient in making sure your boxes don’t get beaten to death by the script kiddies. Consider picking up a copy yourself if you run any Linux boxes.

James Wolcott is a divider, not a uniter

“Writing about his experience at NY is Book Country”:

bq. It gave me a good feeling inside watching these two bats go at it. When I began Attack Poodles, full of the idealism that accompanies the arrival of the first advance check, I dreamed of writing a book that would drive a wedge between ordinary Americans, that would bring strangers together and have them turn on each other within minutes without quite knowing why. And on this Sunday afternoon in New York came proof that I had accomplished my mission.

Tears of the Giraffe (and No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency)

I haven’t written about the Alexander McCall Smith books before, though I liked the first very much, and just finished the second, which I also liked. This is, in part, because I don’t feel like I have the eloquence to do them justice.

These books are spare and beautifully composed, and they are almost enough to restore my faith in humanity. They are the work of someone who either believes in the goodness of people, or is able to present an exquisite front–something I could never do, personally. When I tell my co-workers that I believe that people are No Damn Good, I’m only half-joking.

I’m sure a lot of people don’t share my taste in books–let’s face it, I don’t know anyone else who reads Pynchon and Pratchett and Wolfe–but I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying these novels.

My first post on Herodotus

First things first–I’ve not gotten all that far in the book. Partly it’s because I haven’t been reading as much as I normally do, but partly because after two or three pages, I often glaze over a little bit; it’s nothing if not dense.

But it’s also interesting. It’s the first generally recognized history text, and the list of things it is the primary source for is pretty amazing.

Apparently the ??Histories?? are the only source we have for information about the Battle of Marathon (an appropriate reference given what’s going on in Athens).

Or, tell me if this quote sounds somewhat familiar:

bq. These neither snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness of night prevents from accomplishing each one the task proposed to him, with the very utmost speed.

Yep that description, somewhat adapted, of the Persian Post is what is engraved above the door to the Post Office.

Or, just on the first page, I enjoyed this little comment:

bq. […]for they sailed in to Aia of Colchis and to the river Phasis with a ship of war, and from thence, after they had done the other business for which they came, the carried off the king’s daughter Medea.

Kind of like picking up a pack of gum after robbing the convenience store.

There’s lots of other pithy stuff in this text–wry comments about human nature, and particularly that of nobles.

Or there’s the story of Croesus, with its character Solon, who puts for the concept that “no one of the living might be called happy.” I forget the more common form of the quotation, but I’m sure you recognize it.

It is, though, another, “In 2500 years, look how far we haven’t come” sort of experience. And, as I said, it is dense and sometimes hard to follow. But it’s fun.

Further updates on the ancients

So, in a fashion not unlike ??Canterbury Tales??, a huge part of the ??The Golden Ass?? is actually Lucius telling tales that he hears while he’s stuck in the form of an ass.

One of the tales he hears is a retelling of ??Cupid and Psyche??. I’ll leave you to google it if you’re not familiar with the story. The part that amuses me is towards the end, when Cupid begs Jupiter to get Venus leave off tormenting the poor girl. In my incredibly ancient copy of ??Bullfinch’s Mythology?? (I literally cannot remember when I got this book–I was _maybe_) twelve), this is recounted so:

bq. Then Cupid, as swift as lightning penetrating the heights of heaven, presented himself before Jupiter with his supplication. Jupiter lent a favoring ear, and pleaded the cause of the lovers so earnestly with Venus that he won her consent.

The Jupiter of Lucius Apuleius, however, is much more the randy bastard we’ve all heard of that will fuck anything that moves, and probably some things that don’t. Upon hearing Cupid’s entreaty, he says:

bq. Nevertheless, I can’t forget how often I’ve nursed you on my knees and how soft-hearted I can be, so I’ll do whatever you ask. But please realize that you must protect yourself against a Certain Person who might envy you your beautiful wife, and at the same time reward him for what he’s going to do for you; so I advise you to introduce me to whatever other girl of really outstanding beauty happens to be about on the earth today.

Yep, Jupiter agrees to help him, and as long as he finds him some other girl, he won’t fuck Psyche once she’s installed in Olympus.

You have to laugh.

People never really change.

Warning, this post has changed focus on me three or four times. Its writing has been deeply recursive, and, at this point, may not actually make any sense to anyone but me.

So, I decided to break out of my rut of constantly re-reading books; for whatever reason, one of my standard responses to having my brain occupied by other things–whether stress or a big project or whatever–is to retreat to re-reading books. I think this is because it keeps my eyes occupied, and stimulates the languages sections of my brain without really requiring, say, _thought_.

Anyway, my initial breakout was to go pick up three SF novels I hadn’t read at the library and spend a week on those. One, Larry Niven’s ??Ringworld’s Children?? is probably just as good as you would expect of the fourth book in a series that was never really intended to comprise more than one, written by an author who has been turning out less and less distinguished work for the last fifteen or twenty years.

I also got Roger Zelazny’s ??Damnation Alley??, with which I was mildly disappointed, mostly because I have been blown away with the last two things of his I read, ??Lord of Light?? and the short story collection ??The Doors of His Eyes, the Lamps of His Mouth??. ??Damnation Alley?? is obviously a much earlier and less mature work, although something about the prose had me flashing on ??Dhalgren??.

Checking the ??Encyclopedia of Science Fiction??, I find that 1) Chip Delaney and Roger Zelazny debuted in the same year (1962), and 2) Roger Zelazney has a novel I haven’t read called ??The Dream Master??, the original title of which, when it appeared as a story in a magazine was ??He Who Shapes??.

I find this interesting because, of course, “He Who Shapes” is one of the titles given to the main character in ??The Sandman??, and I don’t think it’s any particular secret that Neil Gaiman liked Zelazny, and furthermore, in the ??Encyclopedia??, John Clute describes the story thusly:

bq. In ??The Dream Master??–for one of the few times in his career–Roger Zelazny presented the counter-myth, the story of the metamorphosis which fails, the transcendence which collapses back into the mortal world.

Which, one might say, is a description that could also be applied to the arc of the story in ??The Sandman??.

But that’s all incidental.

Finally, I got Robert Silverberg’s ??Roma Eternal??–an alternate history hinging on Rome never falling to the barbarians. I generally enjoy Robert Silverberg quite a lot–he straddles a middle ground in Science Fiction between the simple (some might say simplistic) storytelling of the majority of the material out there, and the extraordinarily dense, elliptical novels of, say, Gene Wolfe.

I might liken him to Dan Simmons in many ways, in that he is concerned with people, not ideas, and yet the ideas are integral to the stories, too. And, again, like Dan Simmons, he is knowledgeable beyond the provinces of Science Fiction, though he’s also steeped in SF, too–he’s almost a contemporary of Issac Asimov (his first story was published a half-century ago), but one whose ambitions, and results, often more closely resemble those of the writers from the New Wave of the 60s, of whom Zelazny was one.

As John Clute says, again, in the ??Encyclopedia of Science Fiction??:

bq. He remains one of the most imaginative and versatile writers ever to have been involved with sf. His productivity has seemed almost superhuman, and his abrupt metamorphosis from a writer of standardized pulp fiction into a prose artist was an accomplishment unparalleled within the field.

Anyway, back to the book.

Thinking about it, I suppose you could say ??Roma Eternal??’s biggest message is, as this post is headed, “People never really change,” although it’s not actually the book I actually intended to write about when I wrote that title.

Because the other thing it did was get me to thinking about how little I am really cognizant of classical culture–I mean, sure, if a reference is made to the Emperor Justinian or Nero or Diocletian, I at least recognized the names, and I have some vague notions about the true tail-end of the empire (albeit gleaned largely from Umberto Eco’s ??Baudolino??–not a source to put a lot of faith in, really), and so forth, so I’m not utterly ignorant.

But, at the same time, I’ve never read the ??Illiad??, and although I’ve read plenty of ??Odyssey??-lite, I’ve never actually read a simple translation of the original material. I’ve never read Gibbon’s ??The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire??, or Plato, or Suetonius, or Herodotus or much of anyone from that period.

So, I called my friend George, who is the only person I know who reads that sort of stuff for fun, and asked him to recommend a couple of things. One was ??The Metamorphosis of Lucius Apuleius, or The Golden Ass??, and the other was Herodotus, who, he says, has an amusing tendency to move from reporting actual events, to, say, relating things of a rather more dubious nature, like the ant-headed people that “everyone knows about”.

Anyway, ??The Golden Ass?? is the shorter of the two, so I started with it. And hey, T. E. Lawrence apparently always traveled with a copy in his saddlebags, which is how Graves came to be acquainted with it (or so the introduction tells me).

The first interesting thing is that this is almost certainly the work (here goes some of the recursive stuff) from which the character of Thessaly (AKA Larissa) in ??The Sandman?? is pulled–the entire story takes place in the Greek province of Thessaly, which is renowned for the witches apparently lurking around every corner, one of whom goes by the name Larissa, which is a pseudonym Thessaly is known to have used. So, always nice to go back to the source material.

The second interesting thing is that people never change.

I’m sure many of you were less successful than I in avoiding actually reading the ??Canterbury Tales?? in college or high school (not, in retrospect, that I think I was doing myself any favors by doing as little as possible, I was just far too callow to appreciate it back then) may remember thinking it improbable that people back then thought fart jokes were funny.

Well, let me tell you what, apparently anal sex was just as big a deal then “as it is now”:–although Robert Graves hides behind some allusion to “having her like a boy”–and, I kid you not, when the main character gets transformed into a donkey, one of his first thoughts is about how much larger and more impressive his penis is, and wouldn’t his girlfriend enjoy that.

Yes, that’s right, _both_ sorts of ass-fucking. Just in case you thought for one second we had progressed in the last two thousand years.

A book almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the movie Big Fish

I also read the book ??Big Fish??, which Anne was able to get signed because the author actually lives around here, and spoke (for reasons no one entirely understands) before the Triangle Research Libraries Network, an organization to whose meetings she goes.

Dan Wallace is very diligent, in speaking about his book, to say that, really, the movie is the screenwriter’s. And, indeed, I have to say I agree with him. I thought the movie was glorious and sad and funny and gut-wrenching.

(And, incidentally, anyone who thinks for a moment that Albert Finney’s accent wasn’t right on never heard my paternal grandmother speak–that was eerie for me, the cadence and diction and tone reminded me so much of her.)

Anyway, the book is worth reading although it is, as I suggest in the title, almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the movie. It’s not just a matter of rearranging, but of writing more, and adding the fantastic. And both of them work.

So someone on /. mentioned it…

…and I realized that we had a copy of Dan Brown’s ??The Da Vinci Code?? sitting around–Anne’s mother had read it and sent it to us when done with it (all hail the First Sale doctrine).

So, looking for something to keep me busy while my brain was idling, I read it. Didn’t take particularly long, which is just as well, since I would have to begrudge more time spent on it.

Me, I’ll take Umberto Eco’s ??Foucault’s Pendulum?? any day. That’s a book that takes a lot of the same base material and does something that is not pat and predictable and Hollywood.

I mean, it’s not that ??The Da Vinci Code?? is _bad_, per se–the writing is perfectly workable, doesn’t clang on the ear like, say, Tom Clancy, the plot is internally consistent, etc. It’s just that it’s a perfect movie in book form, and if you know me well, you’ll know that that’s really not intended as a compliment.

It’s like listening to ??Kingdom Come??, who could never in a million years have produced anything like the first four bars of Led Zeppelins ??We’re Gonna Groove?? (why that track? I just saw the new live LZ DVD, and that opening just blew me away). Just go to the source.


Well, I finished it. All told, I think it took me two weeks, which is, for me, an awfully long time for _any_ book. I did read a couple of other things at the same time, but it was all fairly light stuff.

The first and most obvious question is, I think, “What is so pathetically wrong with the way that books are sold in this country that a novel reputedly written with a fountain pen, taking place entirely between 250 and 350 years ago, involving various and sundry historical events and persons, is going to end up shelved under _Science Fiction/Fantasy_ in most bookstores?”

But the ghettoization of literature is not something I feel any great need to rant about right now, so please just take it as read.

I think the writing is better than ??Cryptonomicon??, which seems sometimes too clever for its own good, and much, _much_ better than ??Snow Crash??, which is far too precious.

The characters are compelling and human, if at times improbable. The settings are interesting–both in terms of physical location and thetime and events surrounding them. Overall, I enjoyed it, but at the same time, Neil Stephenson seems to have a deep-seated need to try and address everything under the sun all at once. I can imagine a lot of people who would never consider slogging through such a book, with the promise of two more to follow, almost certainly of similar heft. At times I wasn’t even certain _I_ was up to it.

So, ultimately, it’s worth reading, but if I were restricted to a single historical novel by traditionally other-genre author(s), I would go with ??Freedom and Necessity??.

The Big Book of Amber, Zelazny

OK, so it’s the ??Great Book of Amber?? rather than ??The Big Book of Amber??, but it certainly big, and there’s some reference to my childhood that I can’t quite apprehend but nevertheless makes it stick (Note: the options you get “on Barnes & Noble”: are wierd and fascinating).

I’ve never read any Zelazny before, and it’s distinctly wierd for me; as I’m sure Unix old-timers would cringe to hear me admit that I know Perl infinitely better than sh and awk (I barely know awk at all), I’m sure many SF fans will look askance when I admit that I recognize the writing well–it reminds me of Steven Brust.

Now I’m not saying this is an original observation in any way–I think I probably picked it up from Steven himself on GEnie many years ago.

What strikes me, though, is the extent to which I think the student may have surpassed the teacher. Steven’s prose seems much more consistent and polished–Zelazny seems to have no problem with going from a formal feeling “fantasy prose” to something much more “20th century conversational” in the space of about three sentences, and I have to say, it drives me a little bit nuts.

Not so nuts that I’m not going to continue or anything–when was the last time I dropped a book entirely? Oh, wait, last week, just before I started this one…


Agile Software Development with SCRUM, Schwaber, Beedle

I started reading ??Agile Software Development with SCRUM??. I think I read a fair number of software-development-oriented books, at least compared to many of my peers, and although some of the writing in this book is _horrid_ (section 1.3.1 is the most buzzword-heavy thing I’ve read in ages, and it doesn’t need to be) and the images are badly done, the actual content is certainly intriguing.

In short (and I’m not suggesting that this is earth-shatteringly brilliant or new insight, it’s just someone actually discussing stuff of which most of us probably have an inarticulate sense) the message so far (I’m only on chapter 2) seems to be: requrements will never be complete, consistent or static, so keep your targets short-term so you can achieve them and then reorient yourself to the new priority.

Yes, commercial software development has discovered at least the “often” part of “release early and often”.

Oh, and the moment I looked at the table of contents I knew it was done in “TeX”: Free software wins again.