Readings

I had a rough semester this Spring, but I did manage to read some books, mostly thanks to an over-aggressive travel schedule.

Dead Ringers: How Outsourcing is Changing How Indians Understand Themselves (Shehzad Nadeem). Published a few years ago, this book is a study of how two kinds of outsourcing — business process (BPO) and information processing outsourcing (IPO) — have changed attitudes of Indians towards work in a globalized economy. Nadeem first lays out the context for outsourcing and tries to dig behind the numbers to see where and to whom the benefits are going. The concept of time arbitrage was a new way of thinking about the 24-hour work cycle that outsourcing enables — this results in a slew of deleterious health effects for workers as well as knock-on effects for family structures and the social fabric. This sets the stage for a discussion of whether or not outsourcing has really brought a different “corporate culture” to India (a topic on which I have heard a lot from friends/relatives). The book brings a critical perspective that complicates the simplified “cyber-coolies” versus “global agents” discussion that we often hear.

Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille (Steven Brust). Mind-candy, a somewhat slight novel that was a birthday gift back in high school. Science fiction of a certain era, and with a certain lightness.

Hawk (Steven Brust). Part n in a series, also mind-candy at this point. If you haven’t read the whole series up to this point, there’s little use in starting here.

Saga Volumes I-IV (Brian K. Vaughan / Fiona Staples). This series was recommended by several people and since I hadn’t read a graphic novel in a while I figured I’d pick it up. Definitely an interesting world, angels vs. demons in space with androids who have TV heads thrown in for good measure, it’s got a sort of visual freedom that text-based fiction can’t really match up to. Why not have a king with a giant HDTV for a head? Makes total sense to me, if that’s the visual world you live in. Unfortunately, the series is at a cliff-hanger so I have to wait for more issues to come out.

This Earth of Mankind (Pramoedya Ananta Toer): A coming-of-age story set in 1898 Indonesia, which is a place and time about which I knew almost nothing. Toer orally dictated a quartet of novels while imprisoned in Indonesia, of which this is the first. The mélange of ideas around colonialism, independence, cultural stratification in Java, and the benefits and perils of “Western education” echo things I know from reading about India, but are very particular to Indonesia. In particular, the bupati system and relative decentralization of Dutch authority in Indonesia created complex social hierarchies that are hard to understand. The book follows Minke, the only Native (full Javanese) to attend his Dutch-medium school, and his relationship with Annelise, the Indo (half-Native, half Dutch) daughter of a Dutch businessman and his concubine Nyai Ontosoroh. Despite their education and accomplishments, Minke and Nyai Ontosoroh are quite powerless in the face of the racist hierarchies of Dutch law that do not allow Natives a voice. This novel sets the stage for the rest of the quartet, which I am quite looking forward to reading.

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell): The latest novel from David Mitchell is not as chronologically sprawling as Cloud Atlas. I don’t want to give too much away, but there is an epic behind-the-scenes struggle going on, some sort of mystic cult stuff, and a whole lot of “coincidences” that Mitchell is so good at sprinkling throughout his book. There are also some nice references to his other books, including Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I liked the latter novel better than this one, despite its gruesomeness, because it felt a bit more grounded. I think fans of Mitchell’s work will like the Bone Clocks, but of his novels, I don’t think I would recommend starting with this one.

Readings

The Magician’s Land [Lev Grossman] : The finale of Grossman’s series. In a sense it had all the right pieces, but somehow it felt less specific and grounded to me, perhaps because the world was no longer “new” or because I felt like there was a need to “finish things up.” Of course, if you read the first two you have to read this one, so it’s not like I could not-recommend it. I was still quite enjoyable.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage [Haruki Murakami]: This also felt a bit slight with respect to other books of Murakami, but also “clean” in a way that I appreciated. I also now have to listen to more Liszt. Tsukuru Tazaki feels “colorless” and empty, shunned by his old childhood friends. He finally tries to seek out why, which turns out to be more surprising than he thought. As with much of Murakami’s work, the “mysteriousness” of women has this negative tint that makes me uncomfortable. This book, unlike 1Q84 or others, has very little magical realism going on, so it could be a good recommendation for someone who is less of a fan of that aspect of Murakami’s work.

Soy Sauce For Beginners [Kirstin Chen]: The story of Gretchen Lin, a 30-year old who has moved back to Singapore from SF to work at the family soy sauce factory after her marriage fell apart, this novel is part Gretchen’s painful journey towards self-discovery and resolution with her family, and partly an introduction to Singapore for the non-familiar reader. The latter part will appeal to some but at times I wanted less explanation and to be forced into trying to make sense of cultural elements myself. In this sense it’s a sort of novel of cultural translation. That being said, the best part of this book is how true and messy the story really felt. The family (and business) are dysfunctional, and Gretchen has a lot to come to terms with regarding herself, her marriage, and her relationship to this family.

The Name of The Wind / The Wise Man’s Fear [Patrick Rothfuss] : I should make myself promise to not read epic fantasy series that are not completed. Told in a kind of story-within-a-story, these books were a great way to unwind over the vacation. If you like those bards plus wizards coming of age stories, this one is for you. Also: plenty of unrequited love.

The Lowland [Jhumpa Lahiri] : I had read the opening of this book as a short story, but the novel is another beast entirely. Two brothers in Kolkata, one a Naxalite, the other looking to go to grad school in the US, and a torn apart and stitched together family in the US. While reading this I kept thinking of the movie Boyhood, which rather abruptly jumped years into the future to catch the family’s story at another time. This book does the same, but the shifts felt more jarring to me; I did not understand who there characters were quite as well. I think I had to suspend my disbelief a few times for some of the narrative choices. However, in retrospect it is because I think I didn’t quite get the characters, or I had misconceptions. Regardless, I think this is a story that helps complicate the story of middle-class Indian immigrant families, and is worth giving a read.

House of Suns [Alastair Reynolds] : Space opera, on a grand scale, but still grounded in our galaxy with humans, rather than the more distant and alien Culture novels of Banks. As Cosma would put it, mind candy, and a nice beach read.

Readings

Inverted World [Christopher Priest]. A science-fiction novel, but of a piece with a writer like M. John Harrison — there’s a kind of disconnect and a focus on the conceptual world building rather than the nitty-gritty you get with Iain M. Banks. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say it’s set in a city which moves through the world, always trying to be at a place called optimum. The city is on rails — it constantly builds fresh tracks ahead of it and winches itself forward a tenth of a mile per day. The city is run by a guild system of track layers, traction experts, bridge builders, surveyors, and the like. The protagonist, Helward Mann, takes an oath and joins a guild as an apprentice. The book follows his progress as he learns, and we learn, more about the strange world through which the city moves. Recommended if you like heady, somewhat retro, post-apocalyptic conceptual fiction.

Luka and the Fire of Life [Salman Rushdie]. A re-read for me, this didn’t hold up as well the second time around. I much prefer Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which I can read over and over again.

Boxers and Saints [Gene Luen Yang]. A great two-part graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion in China. Chances are you don’t know much about this history. You won’t necessarily get a history lesson from this book, but you will want to learn more about it.

The Adventures of Augie March [Saul Bellow]. After leaving Chicago I have decided to read more books set in Chicago so that I can miss it more. I had read this book before but it was a rushed job. This time I let myself longer a bit more over Bellow’s language. It’s epic and scope and gave me a view of Chicago and the Great Depression that I hadn’t had before. Indeed, given our current economic woes, it was an interesting comparison to see the similarities (the rich are still pretty rich, and if you can get employed by them, you may do ok) and the dissimilarities.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation [John Gertner]. A history of Bell Labs and a must-read for researchers who work on anything related to computing, communications, or applied physics and chemistry. It’s not all rah-rah, and while Gertner takes the “profiles of the personalities” approaches to writing about the place, I am sure there will be things in there that would surprise even the die-hard Shannonistas who may read this blog…

Readings

My first semester on a “real job” was sufficiently busy to prevent me from reading as much as I would have wanted. I also blame the driving commute.

Hidden History of New Jersey [Joseph G. Bilby, James M. Madden, and Harry Ziegler]. This was a gift from Erin, who apparently has not written up her analysis of the Twins’ crushing of the Yankees yet. This is a collection of short essays about New Jersey and some of the quirkier characters who provide local color. There’s a heavy focus on military history, which was less interesting to me, but later chapters delve into the immigration history and politics in Jersey City and elsewhere that provide a useful context and analogy for our current situation. There’s a wealth of references, although as the authors point out, no book on the history of the Klan in New Jersey. Apparently they had some sort of summer resort there.

Husband of a Fanatic [Amitava Kumar]. Kumar looks at Hindu-Muslim and India-Pakistan relations after the Babri Masjid riots through the lens of his own marriage to a Pakistani Muslim woman. A fascinating and harrowing book which did not leave me particularly optimistic about the new Modi government.

The Pun Also Rises [John Pollack]. A present from my brother, this book is a delightful (or if you are No Fun, painful) tour through the history and variety of puns and joking wordplay. Pollack waxes poetic a bit, but this is fun read.

Carpe Jugulum [Terry Pratchett]. A Discworld novel with the witches and vampires. Brain candy.

Your Republic Is Calling You [Young-Ha Kim]. This is a novel about a North Korean “sleeper agent” in Seoul who thinks he’s been forgotten but after years of no instructions is given a day to rendezvous with a pickup that will take him back to the North. He’s grown comfortable in his new life though, and things are difficult. The back of the book compares Kim’s writing to Murakami’s (hard to tell because it’s all in translation). I initially felt that poisoned my reading of the book, but in the end I think that they are similar in tone/affect. I rather enjoyed this book, and it made me want to investigate more contemporary Korean literature.

Linkage

A map of racial segregation in the US.

Vi Hart explains serial music (h/t Jim CaJacob).

More adventures in trolling scam journals with bogus papers (h/t my father).

Brighten does some number crunching on his research notebook.

Jerry takes “disruptive innovation” to task.

Vladimir Horowitz plays a concert at the Carter White House. Also Jim Lehrer looks very young. The program (as cribbed from YouTube)

  • The Star-Spangled Banner
  • Chopin: Sonata in B-flat minor, opus 35, n°2
  • Chopin: Waltz in a minor, opus 34, n°2
  • Chopin: Waltz in C-sharp minor, opus 64, n° 2
  • Chopin: Polonaise in A-flat major, opus 53 ,Héroïque
  • Schumann: Träumerei, Kinderszene n°7
  • Rachmaninoff: Polka de W.R
  • Horowitz: Variations on a theme from Bizet’s Carmen

The Simons Institute is going strong at Berkeley now. Moritz Hardt has some opinions about what CS theory should say about “big data,” and how it might be require some adjustments to ways of thinking. Suresh responds in part by pointing out some of the successes of the past.

John Holbo is reading Appiah and makes me want to read Appiah. My book queue is already a bit long though…

An important thing to realize about performance art that makes a splash is that it can be often exploitative.

Mimosa shows us what she sees.

Readings

The Wizard of The Crow [N’gugi wa Thiong’o] — This is an epic political farce about an African dictatorship. It’s a bit slow getting into it, but once I was about 70 pages in I was hooked. It’s absolutely hilarious and tragic at the same time. I’ve not read a book like this in a while. Ngugi’s imagination is broad and open, so the absurd situations just keep escalating and mutating. One of the effects is that if you looked at the situation midway through the book, you would ordinarily have no idea how things came to such a state, but thanks to the storytelling you can see the absurd (yet stepwise somewhat reasonable) sequence of events that led there. From now on I will always have the phrase “queueing mania” in my head. Highly recommended.

Proofs and Refutations [Imre Lakatos] — “Why did I not read this book years ago?” I asked myself about a third of the way through this book. Lakatos breaks down the process of mathematical reasoning by example, showing how arguments (and statements) are refined through an alternating process of proof-strategies and counterexamples. It’s a bit of a dry read but it made me more excited about trying to take on some new and meatier theoretical problems. It also made me want to read some Feyerabend, which I am doing now…

The Crown of Embers [Rae Carson] — a continuation of Carson’s YA series set in a sort of pseudo Spanish colonialist fantasy land. It’s hard to parse out the politics of it, but I’m willing to see where the series goes before deciding if it is really subverts the typical racial essentialization that’s typical of fantasy. The colonial aspect of it makes it most problematic.

The Wee Free Men [Terry Pratchett] — a YA Discworld novel. Feels fresher than the other later Pratchett Discworld books.

Equal Rites [Terry Pratchett] — an early Discworld novel. Feels a little thinner than some of the others, but it had some cute moments.

The Republic of Wine [Mo Yan] — Another political farce, this time set in China. This has to be one of the more grotesque and crass novels I have read… maybe ever. The title might be better translated (and Americanized) as “Boozelandia.” The novel is part correspondence between an author (named Mo Yan) and an aspiring writer from the state of “Liquorland,” partly short stories by said aspiring writer, and partly a story about an investigator sent to ascertain whether state officials are raising children to be eaten at fancy dinners. It’s got a kind of gonzo style that will definitely appeal to some. I liked it in the end but I was also totally unaware of what I was getting into when I opened it.

Readings

The Fractal Prince [Hannu Rajaniemi] — the sequel to The Quantum Thief is a bit of an arabesque (fans of Grimwood or Effinger may like that aspect). There are some interesting ideas about stories/code/viruses in there but some of it felt more like poetic gesture. I rather liked the Oubliette as a setting, but Sirr has some interesting bits too. I found the sequel a bit thinner than the original. Recommended for those who have read the first book and who are fans of the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks.

One Red Bastard [Ed Lin] — Third in the series of police/detective novels about Robert Chow, NYC Chinatown cop. This one focuses on the murder of a mainland representative who was going to smooth the way for Li Na to defect to the US. A fun read, although you probably want to read the first two novels in the series first.

Kingdom’s End and Other Stories [Saadat Hasan Manto] — A collection of short stories by a Pakistani writer who lived through Partition (and hated it, more or less). The stories are often dark, and depict a sordid underlife of violence, sex, and drugs in post-Independence worlds of Bombay and Punjab. I had never encountered Manto before — his sour cynicism is a counterpoint to the kind of knowing parody typical of R.K. Narayan, for example. I also checked out a new book about Manto from the Chicago Public Library.

Railsea [China Miéville] — A young adult book set in a world in which the sea is made up of traintracks and instead of hunting whales people hunt giant moles (moldywarpes). Captains have philosophies — everyone is out to hunt for their Moby Dick. The narrator, Sham ap Soorap, is a well-intentioned but somewhat immature fellow, and the world is just-enough-imagined to make you want to go along with it. A fun read.

No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice [Tom Slee] — A popular non-fiction book about how the rhetoric of “individual choice” is woefully misleading. Slee uses simple game-theoretic models to show how information asymmetries, power relationships, externalities, free-riding, herding, and other factors can make rational (and reasonable) individual choices result in (very) poor social outcomes. It’s a nice and accessible description of these results and a useful reminder of how dangerous it is to accept as an axiom that more individual choice is preferable. Collective action is also a choice. Recommended!