Archive for October, 2011


Monday, October 31st, 2011

Wired had a couple of articles in the past few days on the books that geeks should have read, here and here. Lists of books are obviously very subjective, but I did like these lists:

The first one is:

  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax (1979)
    Okay, I don’t think I ever had a copy of the original 1st edition DMG, but I have certainly read through it, and its many successors through to the current 4th edition. I love how Wired describe it as a book for building worlds. But be warned that much of the charm of the first edition was the crazy tables for all sorts of things, which are handled in the modern editions in a much less entertaining way.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979)
    An absolute classic, as a book, a radio series, or on tv. Really can’t be recommended highly enough – he really was a comic genius. Up until last week, I had the tv series on my iphone, for emergency watching in boring situations, since it couldn’t fail to cheer me up.
  • Watchmen, Alan Moore (1986 to 1987)
    Yes, it’s unpleasant in places, and the whole Curse of the Black Ship thing is a bit random, but as a study in humanity it’s a rich and interesting book, which happens to be told in pictures as well as words. Though I do feel that the conclusion of the film actually improved on the original.
  • Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter (1979)
    The first one on the list that I haven’t read. Though I did search for it on ebay last month, so there is some kind of intention to read it sometime. All I know is that it was a course text at Queens for the History and Philosophy of Science, wchi has always both attracted and repelled me…
  • Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)
    I read this a lot of years ago, and I remember it as a gripping and surprising book. I also remember that the sequels were very different, and a bit disappointing.
  • Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
    Another one that I haven’t read – possibly next on my reading list.
  • The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954 to 1955)
    The one, the only, the classic. I remember reading it as a young teenager, and getting a bit bogged down in the middle book, but it is a great set of books, with an important message – little people are important!
  • The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte (1992)
    I’ve never even heard of this. Wired make it sound interesting, but I worry that it would only lead to fancy powerpoint slides. The one I am least likely to read.
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
    Again, one I haven’t read. I’ve heard of it, and I suppose I the right time to have read it was 20 years ago when it wasn’t at all dated. I rather suspect it will have aged a bit, in a way that he Lord of Rings hasn’t 😉

And that’s all for the first list. Will get the second tomorrow perhaps.


    Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

    Today, Indians celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights. I remember this day a couple of years ago when I was working in the US. We were out driving, and it had got dark. We were on a big American road, with long columns of tail-lights in front of us, a stream of headlights beside us, and forests of neon on either side of the road. It wasn’t a celebration, but there were a lot of lights, and when you thought of it in that way, it was beautiful.

    This year I enjoyed Diwali again, as we had a very quiet day in work. When India is off, there’s a lot fewer people working in the world 😉

    Happy Diwali!

    On the past

    Saturday, October 8th, 2011

    On holiday, I brought a couple of actual physical books, printed on paper with me. One of them was How to live safely in a science fictional universe, which has a great concept, and a lot of wit and charm in the early parts. As it goes on, it becomes melancholy, but remains engaging, and ends in hope.

    Alan (who I borrowed the book from) has already reviewed it here, so I won’t go through the whole thing, but I did want to talk about a few paragraphs from the end of chapter 8 that I found really intriguing. I’ve been putting this off for weeks, as it involves so much typing, but here goes:

    “A typical customer gets into a machine that can literally take her whenever she’d like to go. Do you want to know what the first stop usually is? Take a guess. Don’t guess. You already know: the unhappiest day of her life.

    Other people are just looking for the weird. They want to turn their lives into something unrecognizable. I see a lot of men end up as their own uncles. Super-easy to avoid, totally dumb move. See it all the time. No need to go into details, but it obviously involves a time machine and you know what with you know who. General rule is you want to avoid having sex with anyone unless you are sure they aren’t family. One guy I know ended up as his own sister.

    But mostly, people aren’t like that. They don’t want trouble, they just don’t know what else to do. I see a lot of regular offenders. People who can’t stop trying to hurt themselves. People who can’t stop doing stupid things because of their stupid hearts.

    My vocational training was in the basics of closed time-like curves, but what they should have taught me was how that relates to people’s regrets and mistakes, the loves of their lives that they let get away.

    I’ve prevented suicides. I’ve watched people fall apart, marriages break up in slow motion, over and over and over again.

    I’ve seen pretty much everything that can go wrong, the various and mysterious problems in contemporary time travel. You work in this business long enough and you know what you really do for a living. This is self-consciousness. I work in the self-consciousness industry.”

    I hope I’ve done that justice by keeping it fairly typo-free. I think it’s a great bit of writing. The time travel in the book has its limits (as time travel nearly always does) – you can’t make changes, so there’s no point going back to try and kill Hitler (though it makes a pretty good Doctor Who episode, obviously), and I don’t think you can go forward either.

    But even with those limits, I don’t want to believe that the author is correct. With all of the past to experience, all of the great events of history, the highs and lows of the human race, I can’t believe I would want to go back to the lowlights of my own life. And yet, given enough time, perhaps the lure of our own life would be inescapable. Not the first destination, but maybe an inevitable one, sooner or later. I don’t know. But I think it’s a great bit of writing.