Category Archives: Books

Short Stories, Light and Dark

I just finished two collections of short stories, chosen seemingly at random.  I basically picked these up because their covers intrigued me, having heard nothing about them.  Also, I’m a fan of short stories as they are often a quick read but can contain very powerful statements about the human situation.

These two collections are very different.  The first, Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem, is an exploration, in some sense, of the superhero genre, though some of the stories touch more on science fiction than pure superheroics.  But, more than that, these are just devices for Lethem to explore human personalities.  In some cases, the protagonists aren’t even human, like in Interview with the Crab, in which a crab, who starred in a sit-com as a youngster, is interviewed in his later years about his fame and fortune.  Super Goat Man is about one near-hero, a guy who really has no powers except he looks a bit like a goat, and how he never lives up to being a hero.

All of these stories explore different quirks of people.  At times, I felt the stories were a little flat, though there were definitely times, like in The Spray and The Shape We’re In, which describes a cell’s adventures in a human body, when I wondered how the hell he came up with this stuff. Some of the stories are definitely inventive and pretty way out there, making the overall collection well worth the read, even if in a couple of cases, I was growing a little bored.

The second collection is Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.  I was intrigued by the title as I had seen the movie Rashomon by Akira Kurasawa in college, a movie which I really enjoyed and highly recommend.  It wasn’t clear to me there was a connection, but I picked it up anyways.  And, indeed, there is a connection.  Though, it is a little convoluted, as Akutagawa’s story Rashomon has little to do with the movie.  It is rather In a Bamboo Grove that inspired the movie Rashomon.  I enjoyed most of the stories in this collection.  They start out with his fiction, usually set in feudal Japan, and explore the human experience by putting people in odd situations.  In a Bamboo Grove describes a death from multiple perspectives, giving each person’s take on what happened, including the victim.  Hell Screen is about a painter who is commissioned to paint a screen with the Bhuddist hell depicted on it and the events that occur to complete the painting.  The later stories move into more modern territory, but no less odd events.  One describes a man who dies at the wrong time and is returned to life with the legs of a horse as his had already rotted.  The last few stories are more autobiographical and describe Akutagawa’s descent into madness (he ultimately committed suicide).  While I think it is very hard to convey the despair that someone must go through in such a state.  I’ve read Plath’s The Bell Jar and just didn’t feel the anguish she was trying to convey.  I feel it a little bit more here, as Akutagawa describes the random things that end up tormenting him.  In all the stories, Akutagawa has a unique perspective and is inventive in his subjects.  This is another collection that I enjoyed and would recommend.

The Wisdom of Crowds

Finally, after a year of carrying it around in my bag and half starting it, I just finished reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.  I have to say, I found this one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time.

Basically, this is an introduction to the concepts of collective decision making — colloquially knowns as “the wisdom of crowds” —  the idea that groups of people can make better decisions than the individuals within the group.  Surowiecki gives a number of examples of this phenomenon, some that are truly amazing.  The canonical example is at a fair in England.  A hog was being raffled to the person that could most accurately guess the weight of the hog.  Some of the people guessing were, of course, farmers that raised hogs, but many of the people were just regular fair-goers who had no real clue (I mean, seriously, how many of us could guess?).  It turns out that the average guess was much better than nearly any individual guess.   The errors of guesses by less expert people go on both sides of the right answer, giving a good overall estimate.  This is just one example of this phenomenon.

These ideas have become more formalized in recent years – for example by Scott Page and others — with a solid mathematical foundation.  Surowiecki doesn’t go into this foundation, rather introducing the importance of the concepts.  But, he does discuss the implications of collective decision making in companies and corporations, small working groups, government, and several other aspects of life.  These ideas have led to the creation of decision markets, in which people effectively trade “stocks” on the answers to questions such as who will win a given election or which drug should a drug company persue for development.  The best known example of such a market is the stock market, though it isn’t a perfect market, for reasons discussed in the book.

To me, the most interesting part was when he was discussing management of corporations.  He discusses how corporations are more successful when everyone within the corporation has some stake in decision making, when decisions aren’t top-down from upper management.  He also points out that bonuses for executives tied to certain deliverables lead to deception on the part of the executives, as they either overplay how hard the deliverables are to meet or just out-right deceive, cooking books or what not to meet expectations.  It seems that, in many places, management is actually moving the opposite direction.  I think all managers should be required to read this book.

I am really intrigued by these ideas and really trying to figure out a way to include them in my work.  Not just in how I interact with people, but just more generally.  We’ll see if I can come up with anything useful.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone that deals with groups of people.  The insights into how people work as part of a group are invaluable and, in many cases, counterintuitive.  Not only would it help people understand better how to interact in part of such groups, but it would also help to best create those groups in the first place.   The key, if I got the point correctly, is effectively cognitive diversity — diversity in how people think.  Even people who aren’t expert in the relevant area, as long as they have some knowledge, even if they are not the smartest people in the group, add significantly to the group and make the group smarter overall.

The lessons in this book are wide ranging and would impact many aspects of life.  I can’t emphasize enough how much I think anyone involved in management or decision making should be familiar with the ideas presented here.  I highly recommend this book.

For a summary of some of the ideas presented, take a look at this Wikipedia page.

The Three Investigators

The Three Investigators The genre of kid detectives is a pretty rich one, with the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and others.  However, my favorite as a kid was The Three Investigators.  The Three Investigators, as the card says, were Jupiter Jones, Peter Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews.  I never read any Hardy Boys or any of the others, but these stories really captivated me as a kid.  I think there was something about these seemingly normal boys and their adventures solving mysteries and crime.  It helped that their were stationed out of Jupiter’s aunt and uncle’s junk yard, where they had built a secret headquarters out of an RV left in the yard.  Jupiter also invented lots of other little devices with the junk in the yard, like communicator devices and such. And they were sponsored, so to speak, by Alfred Hitchcock (though, at the time, I’m not sure I really realized who he was).

I don’t remember any of the adventures all that well now.  I just remember waiting with anticipation for the next book to come out.  Looking back, there were some 44 books published (according to this Wikipedia article), many more than I ever read (though I probably read 15-20 of them, I imagine).  I remember that they seemed plausible (to a young kid) and they seemed intelligent.  The boys did things on their own, using their own ingenuity and smarts, and in a way that seemed believable.

According to that Wikipedia article, the series is still hugely popular in Germany and a movie was even made, though one review said it wasn’t too good.  It seems like perfect material for a TV show for young kids/pre-teen audience.  Now, some of the stuff is a bit dated (who needs some special communications device when you have a cell phone).  So, it would need updating, but with a clever writer, I’m sure the concept can be modernized.

The original author was Robert Arthur, who’s daughter runs a website in dedication to her father, with a lot of information about the series (including the addition 40-odd books written in Germany).  Another site with cover scans and other information is T3I.

Anyways, just wanted to share this bit of nostalgia from my childhood.

George R R Martin Book Signing

A friend of mine, Bob, is a fan of George R R Martin’s work. I personally don’t know his work at all. I follow Raymond Feist most, but also Joel Rosenberg and Jacqueline Carry. But, Martin lives in New Mexico and there was a book signing at Page One Books today in support of his newest work, Inside Straight.

I’ve been to a few book signings before, most notably Douglass Adams, Raymond Feist, Richard Etulain, and Kirmen Uribe. The only one that had even close to the same size as today’s was Adams’. I’m guessing there were 50 people or so today. Adams had even more, but Feist, even though it was in Seattle, only had about 15-20 people there.

This book is an anthology of stories in a shared world, with each story written by a different author. It is a superhero universe, with a long history, created over 20 years ago with a long hiatus until this release. The concept is intriguing, similar to Thieves World, which I’ve enjoyed (and, coincidently, has a similar history — 11 books in the 80s, early 90s with a long hiatus until a couple of years ago — though it is set in a fantasy world).

In any case, it was an interesting book signing. There was no reading, the authors (7 of them were there) introduced themselves and discussed their contributions to the book. One of the authors, Melinda Snodgrass, described her new book, The Edge of Reason, which she described as the conflict between science and magic. It sounds pretty interesting. Anyways, I got Inside Straight signed by the 7 authors there for Bob, so that is cool.

Selected Stories of Philip K Dick

Warning! Possible spoilers follow (though I will try to keep them to a minimum).

Philip K Dick is one of the more influential science fiction writers, probably ever. His stories have been the inspiration for a number of popular movies, including the Minority Report and Total Recall. They envision a technologically advanced world where what it means to be human is blurred. Many of his stories explore a post-apocolyptic world in which humans are struggling to survive.

The collection Selected Stories of Philip K Dick presents some of his best short stories, including the ones the two movies above were based on. All of his stories cause one to think. Dick lived during the height of the cold war, when the possibility of human self-destruction was at its highest and on the minds of nearly everyone. That, combined with some drug use, led Dick’s imagination to places that are incredible and mind-blowing. Some of his stories are just plain weird. This was epitomized for me by “The Days of Perky Pat”, a story of adults after a nuclear war who spend their times reliving their pre-war lives through the board-game adventures of a doll. The story is just so odd that I could not imagine thinking of such a premise. I mean, some stories, both by Dick and by others, involve a simple premise which the author then explores. The premise isn’t always too radical, it might be something that anyone could dream up. But “Perky Pat” isn’t one of those, at least to me. This story is the product of a mind that just plain sees the world differently.

Not only have Dick’s stories directly inspired mainstream movies, but there are obvious influences his stories have had in a lot of science fiction. The human-looking Cylons of Battlestar Galactica bear an uncanny resemblance to the machines of “Second Variety”, in which a human soldier, at the end, muses that the end of his race might be ok because the robots are already killing one another, already becoming human-like. Some of his stories, such as “Paycheck” (which also inspired a movie), are interesting adventure romps.  All of Dick’s stories, though, convey a unique view of the world, human’s place in it, and the ultimate fate of humanity.

That Dick’s stories provide such an incredible perspective on the human condition begs the question:  how instrumental was his drug use in his ability to devise these stories? It seems to me that many of the great artists, not just authors but painters, musicians, and so on, throughout history used drugs to some extent.  Does this allow a normal human mind to access thoughts and regions of the brain otherwise unaccessible?  Does it allow a person to make connections between otherwise seemingly random ideas to create something new?  If all drug use were completely eliminated, would art suffer?  I personally don’t advocate the use of drugs, but it seems to me that the connections between mind-altering substances and art are pretty strong.

I really enjoyed all of Dick’s stories, even those that start exploring more religious themes.  At least a couple of his stories involve direct interaction between humans and God, with less than predictable results.  But, I was more interested in his commentary on technology and the future of human kind.  I tend not to be a science fiction type of person.  I prefer fantasy.  But, I do enjoy what is termed “cyberpunk” (such as William Gibson and Max Barry) and Dick is a precursor to the cyberpunk genre.   He explores a more immediate future than a Star Wars or Star Trek universe does, though, unlike Gibson and Barry, he does allow aliens in his world.  And the role that aliens play in his world tends to be very disturbing.

I’ll close by saying that a lot of the stories in this collection deal with identity:  what it means to be you, what it means to be human, what separates humans from machines, etc.  These will be important questions as our machines become smarter and smarter and start getting aspects of personality, intelligence and identity.  He also addresses the issues of the individual in society and what role each of us plays in an increasingly technological world.  Again, these questions will become only more important with time.  It thus seems that Dick and his work will continue to reverberate for quite some time.