Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book Review: Ringworld

August 8, 2016

*** Spoilers included. But I don’t think you should care, because this is a horrible book and you should not read it. That’s also a spoiler. ***

Recipe: take about 200 grams of insightful ideas concerning civilization and space exploration, slice ’em and dice ’em, then mix in about 10 kilos of misogyny, extreme cherry-picking physics, poor character development, unrealistic behaviour, some more misogyny and a ridiculous historical explanation, and mix thoroughly until homogeneous. Congratulations! You have just cooked “Ringworld”, by Larry Niven.

The main setting of Ringworld is actually quite interesting: an ancient, almost all powerful civilization has figured out a novel way to avoid real estate problems: take all the matter in the solar system and stretch it out in the form of a thin ring around the sun. If the ring is about as far away from the sun as Earth is, and the ring is wide enough, you get an area equivalent to a hundred thousand planets; enough space for everybody. This is the Ringworld.
How would life on such a construction look like? Will it still have trees, mountains, seas, and lakes? What sort precautions do you need to take so that the Ringworld survives through the ages? How do you produce energy? How do you maintain a day-night cycle? How do you effectively leave and return to Ringworld? What happens when society finally collapses? All these questions and more are discussed in the book. Some of Niven’s solutions make good sense, others less so, but in any case, it’s an interesting concept to think about, especially since it’s a sort of intermediate stepping stone on the way to achieving a Dyson Sphere.
Unfortunately, apart from these scientific ponderings, I found the book to have very little value. Negative value, in fact. As you see above, the list of faults is large. Some things annoyed me so very much that I had to force myself to keep on reading. To name a few:

Sexism: There are two women in the book. I reluctantly accept this, as almost all science fiction of the time was exclusively male centered. But the book’s treatment of these two women is horrible. The first woman, Teela, is part of the four-person team that explores Ringworld. Her primary role in the book is to be lucky and naive, having “never been hurt in her entire life”. And by this, I mean that this is an actual plot device. Sentences of the form “this could only have happened because Teela was never really hurt in her entire life” do actually appear in the book. Her most positive merit is her luck. Teela also has a secondary role, which is to be a fuck-buddy to the main character, and to be heroically saved by him whenever possible. In fact, I think I got mixed up in my priorities: this is her primary role, and most of the book’s plot is moved forward by her being a fuck-buddy to the main character, or when the rest of the team tries to save her from peril.
The second woman, Prill, is a survivor who lived through the Ringworld’s downfall. How did she survive? By being a professional whore, of course (again, I’m not making this up; since she takes youth-prolonging drugs, she has had “thousands of years of experience” and is a sex grandmaster; that’s how she gets by). Obviously, a large part of her role is to be a fuck-buddy to the main character. Oh, sorry, did I say “large”? I meant “only”.
And this is without mentioning that there are two alien species in the book, both of which have “non-sentient females”, and one of the aliens in the expedition team is helping out only because this will give him the privilege of mating. If Niven tried to be sexist on purpose, he certainly did a really great job at it.

Physical cherry picking: Niven tries to describe Ringworld realistically. He tries to be accurate with the sizes and dimensions, the methods that spaceships will have to undergo in order to leave and return the Ringworld, etc. But he only does this when it suits him. Otherwise, he just hurls all the rules out the window, and expects us to accept a plethora of miraculous devices which do incredible things. To be fair, science fiction has often relied on some unexplained non-existent phenomenon – say, faster-than-light travel – and then investigated the social and psychological consequences of having such a device. And that’s fine, because that’s why we have “fiction” in the genre title, and people can get away with a little suspension of disbelief.
But Niven really misses it. He introduces way more unbelievable / impossible devices than he explains. To name a few:

  • Spaceships that are impervious to any known force except light and gravity.
  • A pill which prolongs life pretty much indefinitely.
  • Anti-gravity generators, capable of selectively floating entire buildings to arbitrary heights.
  • A small machine that can transform any organic matter into food.
  • A nearly indestructible material that stops neutrinos.
  • Teleportation pads.

Most of these devices are used extensively throughout the book, so it’s not like they are just a curiosity: without the food-generating machines, the exploration team will have no food. Without the life-prolonging drugs, Prill would not have survived, and neither would the main character. Without the nearly-indestructible spaceship, the characters would have been fried at the very beginning. And so on. And these aren’t even the craziest things that happen in the book. Did you know that there is a civilization that decides to migrate away from their solar system, so they get on their spaceships and just push their planets along? Niven is playing god in sandbox mode, and he doesn’t care to explain to us what is possible and what isn’t; it’s useless for us readers to try and predict how any event will turn out. The technology is so advanced, it really is just magic.

Unrealistic downfall: The main characters explore the Ringworld, discovering that its society collapsed from a state of master engineers who can basically move stars, to savages barely above ancient farmer technology and civilization. And why? Because a spaceship accidentally brought in some fungus which eats superconductors. Apparently, for Niven, this is a sufficient explanation for the downfall of a civilization with the power to turn planets into a gigantic ring around the sun. The fungus ate all the superconductors in Ringworld, an object with a 150,000,000 kilometer radius, and destroyed all of its power sources, before anyone could notice and do anything about it. Also, all written text was catastrophically lost, apparently, because the survivors have no recollection of anything of their past grandeur, they cannot fix anything or access any technology, and they worship the “ancient engineers” as gods. Well, I was the one who lost it in this case.

In fact, I’m losing it right now. I already wrote a thousand words, and I haven’t even gotten around to telling you about the crappy, one dimensional behavioural psychology going on between the expedition’s team members (except for Teela, of course. She has zero-dimensional interactions). So I’m going to stop here.

Do yourself a favor; don’t read this book.

I don’t like spinach: Book Review: Giant Book of Jokes

April 25, 2016


I got Joseph Rosenbloom’s “Giant Book of Jokes” when I was around 9. It contains over one thousand jokes, which really might seem like quite a lot for a young boy. In an age before the graphical image macros and social media, one did have to resort to books to get some literary humor.
I can’t testify much to the quality of the book. Most of the jokes are one or two liners, and many rely on awful puns and homophones. For example:

  • I don’t care if the basement wall is cracking. Please stop telling everyone you come from a broken home.
  • Hot weather never bothers me. I just throw the thermometer out the window and watch the temperature drop.
  • Nit: Please call me a taxi.
    Wit: Ok, I’ll call you a taxi, though you look more like a truck to me.


If your taste is a bit darker, there are some more sinister or sarcastic ones:

  • Junior wrote a letter from camp:
    Dear Mom,
    What’s an epidemic?
    Signed, Junior
  • Salesman: That suit fits you like a glove.
    Customer: Great! Can you show me one that fits like a suit?

In other words, if we want to keep up to date with the current jargon, it’s a book of “dad jokes”.

I’ve actually had quite an experience looking back and rereading the book (now out of print). This is probably where my humor converged to. If only my parents had known, twenty years ago, that I’d absorb this kind of thing to my bones, maybe they’d have gotten me a book about knitting instead. But the damage is done, and in fact, I still use some of the jokes today (!).

They say that every joke has a sliver of truth in it. Ok, obviously not *every* joke. But sometimes you find a joke so accurate, it shakes you with an exhilarating vibration. Two short examples:

  • Junior: Why does it rain, Dad?
    Father: To make the flowers grow, and the grass and the trees.
    Junior: So why does it rain on the sidewalk?
  • Teacher: Let us take the example of the busy ant. He works all the time, night and day. Then what happens?
    Pupil: He gets stepped on.

The first is a parody of pretty much all purpose-oriented explanations you would get in response to any question (and some scientific ones, too); the second is an all-too-accurate reminder of the futility of our pitiful existence.
But my probable favorite among them all is this gem:

I don’t like spinach and I’m glad I don’t like it, because if I did like it, I would eat it – and I hate the stuff.

In one simple nonsensical sentence, the joke exposes a basic fault of people dealing with politics, religion, and schisms: the belief that one’s opinion is clearly the correct one, and that there is no use in even trying to look at an issue from another perspective, because one’s opinion is clearly the correct one. To apply, just replace spinach with liberal, conservative, religious, atheist, alpha, beta, emacs, vim.

And as for me; I too, used to dislike spinach.

Book review: The Book of Wonder

February 8, 2016

Damnit, the kid wants a bedtime story again before she goes to sleep.
This would ordinarily be fine, mind you, if the brat had let you read a proper book, like one of Jules Verne’s adventures, or a classic by Dumas, or Feynman’s Lectures on Physics: Volume I. But no, we can’t have nice things like that; she wants a fairy tale, and at this point, you are quite sick of your options. How much more of the basic morals and contrived happy endings of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs can you take? Their simple language is boring; their repetitiveness is annoying; and their portrayal of the happily-ever-after world is distorted at best and utterly misleading at worst. Both you and your daughter deserve better, and you know it. She also knows it, but, being four, can’t quite tap into that knowledge. It’s time for change.


The Book of Wonder is that change. This is a book of fairy tales in *expert-mode*.
First, the language. Both you and your child will enrich your vocabularies as you dive into a remarkably unique and antiquated-yet-understood style. A sense of grandness will slowly overcome you, and in the end, you will refuse to imagine that things could be otherwise. The tales are not so much told as they are painted; indeed, many other online reviews complain that the plot is lacking in many of the stories. But this is because they are not really stories; they are paintings, illustrations drawn with the finest literary stroke and colour. Stepping in one level of meta, I would dare call them “tone poems”, though the term itself describes music which describes a text or image.
Second, the omens. It’s time to tear apart the happily-ever-after setting, and see life as it is: enchanting, tantalizing, even seductive, but ultimately bleak, sober, and depressing. Dunsany’s tales tell true what happens when men and gods are greedy and vain; and even when they chance to be virtuous, the circumstances of fate conspire against them and their quests end in misery and failure. In their own morbid and heart-pinching way, each story is more dispiriting than the other. The main characters embark on futile quests for what they perceive as glory, only to meet a perilous doom that no force on Earth could change. Once and again they proudly step up, and once and again they fall into the dark abyss. And when some hero finally does succeed, conquering all other challenges, he soon discovers that satisfaction is but a fleeting whisper – and given a glimpse at happiness, is there greater a woe than seeing it slip through your own fingers?
Third, the myth. The stories are mere snapshots of the world, each depicting a scant few images. There is only so much they can tell about the the culture, the lore, the geography of this majestic land. The book is therefore a tough exercise in imagination, for there are many more allusions than descriptions, and it is up to you to fill in the missing details. Can you picture the Athraminaurian mountain range overlooking the surrounding planes? What noble events happened at the city of Bombasharna? What had later become of Sylvia, Queen of the Woods after dismissing her suitors? All these are left untold, slivers of history that demand the attention of your own imagination; and in the end, both you and your kid will ponder upon these things, kingdoms fantastically rising and falling in your little heads, filling you up with Wonder.

The book is available online (alas, without the wonderful illustrations, though they can be Googled) at project Gutenberg:
My personal favorites: “How Nuth would have practised his art upon the gnoles” and “Chu-Bu and Sheemish”.

Book review: The Futurological Congress

December 2, 2015

phoca_thumb_l_1977 Futura Great Britain

10 VI 2015. I finally decided to replenish the endless yet dwindling tower of books that sits near my bedstand, waiting in vain to be read. Armed with only my credit card, I directed my browser to 2000 NIS worth of books later, a small library is now headed my way, including “Quantum Computation and Quantum Information” by Nielsen and Chuang, “Introduction to Analytic Number Theory” by Apostol, and “The Futurological Congress” by Lem. Needless to say I am excited, but know that many moons will pass until I can lay my hands on my newly acquired fortune.
In the meantime I started preparing for my test in electrodynamics, and learned by heart all possible identities involving cross and dot products of three vectors.

07 VII 2015. Today I had my final test in electrodynamics. I think it went OK.

08 VII 2015. I have successfully forgotten all possible identities involving cross and dot products of three vectors.

17 VII 2015. The books have arrived! Weighing in at half my body weight, they look imposing, yet seductive. The Futurological Congress winks at me playfully.

31 X 2015. I have been unable to get out of bed. And it’s not that I’m sick or anything, it’s just, I don’t see the point. I mean, we go through life having all these experiences, but sometimes I wonder if I really know which ones are authentic and which ones are phony. I mean, I love my wife, of course I do, yet there are days when I have the feeling that this love is not my own. Could she have just put the right chemicals into my drink since our first date? There are all sorts of such substances, you know: Hedonidol, Felicitine, Empathan. Perhaps even Halcyonal. And if she gave me some Antagonil or Sadistizine, would I start hating her instead? Would I hurt her? I certainly don’t want to hurt her. But what if she is just pretending? How do I know if I’m colorblind or not? Ok, so there are tests, but what if *everyone* is colorblind? After all, we are all magnetic-field-blind. What does a pigeon feel when it navigates according to Earth’s magnetic field? Is there a drug I can take to feel how it is to be a pigeon? Maybe if I were a pigeon for a day, I would have a reason to get out of bed. But only for a single day; nobody wants to be a pigeon forever. Not even pigeons.
I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but I finished The Futurological Congress today.

05 XI 2015. I can’t let go of how many things are in this book. We do all sorts of things in life, but we don’t really *have* to do them. You don’t really need to see “The Matrix”, and you don’t really need to watch “Inception”. You don’t really need to buy consumer products in order to feel good with yourself. But what you do really need, is to read The Futurological Congress. It will play with your mind and poison it like LSD on an acid trip. It will distort your thought and twist you in the same way that the society it portrays twists the minds of its citizens. It will make you laugh. It will force you to look into the inner void that are your own lost feelings. But you will not be able to put it down. You will know that you are being played with, yet this will not help you. You will want to see the light, and you will want to shout out, but your eyes, your ears, they will all be muffled by a stifling haze. In fact, they already are, but you will only see this when you read the book. Lem’s iron grip will squeeze you like a sponge.
Maybe I should write a book review about it, though I’m finding this book difficult to accurately describe. How to take on this hybrid? Its first half is a morbid mocking comedy, which several times caused me to laugh out loud – a rare feat. But the second part… An explosion of imagination, it is enlightening and depressing at the same time, with a powerful ending that many lesser authors would surely have blundered in. Mortal words can hardly do it justice. But what else do I have? Nothing – alas, it seems as if the only way to understand the world Lem had in mind is to read it – no shortcut will do in this case. But if I find something, I will post it.

06 XI 2015. Nothing.

07 XI 2015. Nothing.

15 XI 2015. Still Nothing.

18 XI 2015. I thought I had something, but no, I was wrong. Nothing.

02 XII 2015. Here we are, taking one small step at a time towards a dark, unknown future.

Book Review: The Secret Life of Germs

September 29, 2015

They are on your hands. They are in your food. They are underneath the carpet. They are in your gut. They are in your butt. They colonize your teeth. They prowl the house while you sleep. They crawl on your skin at this very moment. Chances are, they will kill you. If they won’t, they will eat your decomposing body. They are what decomposes your body.
There is no escape. There is no hope. There is only death.
Enter at your own peril, for here lies only doom and woe: presenting “The Secret Life of Germs”, by Philip M. Tierno Jr!


Surprisingly, this is not a horror-thriller book – it’s popular science. In general, it describes different types of germs – an inclusive name for fungi, bacteria, viruses and any other microbial badasses which have you on the top of their kill list – how you may interact with them in everyday life, and how you can prevent them from eating you alive (seriously, I’m not making this up. Go ahead and count how many times the phrase “flesh-eating” appears in the text).
After reading this book, you will know when to wash your hands, and which types of germ invasion you are preventing when doing so. You will also learn guidelines for preparing food, bathroom layout, handling pets, taking hikes, and basically anything else that relates to personal cleanliness. In short: it teaches you elementary hygiene, something which of course everyone should know, but at a much deeper level than you are used to. Which is nice.
But it’s also fucking scary. If you take its content at immediate face value you will not be able to finish it, because you will be curled up into a little ball, whimpering in the corner of of a remote island while continually pouring bleach on yourself. This is because “the modern office is densely populated with objects that can harbor infectious germs”, “[dollar] bills are contaminated with germs of fecal, respiratory and skin origin”, “leaky vacuum cleaner kept resuspending Salmonella”, “the infant’s walker had a heavy growth of S. aureus”, and “The steering wheel was covered in beta hemolytic group A strep, which can cause strep throat or flesh-eating disease”.
See? Flesh-eating! These examples are from a pretty much random sample of 20 pages around the middle area, and they aren’t even the most frightening ones. How can anyone touch anything after reading this?
Of course, it could be that Tierno is a bit exaggerating, but his descriptions seem to me to be accurate enough and fit in with what I already know – that bacteria can live practically anywhere and in almost all conditions. I guess the real thing to be learned here is this: that the human immune system is one badass piece of machinery, which successfully deflects innumerable invasions, agressions, sieges, infiltrations and all out bombardments without us so much as flinching. I tend to get sick about once a year on average, usually with a seasonal cold. There’s an army of tiny flesh-eating soldiers out there just waiting to get me, but all I get is a couple of coughs and sneezes.
Still, Tierno describes a dangerous reality, and takes large precautions to avoid those dangers. If you follow his instructions, you will probably wash your hands about 100 times a day (and remember, effective hand-washing requires at least 20-30 seconds of soap-rubbing, including underneath the fingernails). You will change the clothes you wear to the movies, the food you eat, and the amount of times you pet the dog.
This book is therefore very irritating. The advice Tierno gives seems sound (at least if you really want to avoid germ contact; we won’t discuss “training your immune system”). It’s logical. It’s clear. It makes sense. But it’s also annoying – it involves being “picky”, “overly-hygienic”, and changing habits that I have acquired throughout my whole life. It will require increasing my hand-washing time by an order of magnitude. It will require being conscious of the horrible world of the germs at all times. It involves “not eating sushi” at all because there is a chance that uncooked fish carry a Vibrio germ. It requires checking for fleas and ticks on my groin and behind the ears every time I walk through the woods. In short – it presents a mild inconvenience. This, at the benefit of a potentially longer life span and less sickness. It adds another “worry” to your world.
I’m in conflict. The rational part of me says, “you would be a fool not to embrace this advice. If you don’t, you can forget about me helping you when you contract a new strain of SARS”. The lazy and doesn’t-want-to-be-disturbed part of me says, “I have lived all my life as I do now, and my surrounding and neighbourhood act as I do. We are generally alright; why live your life in worry?”

I guess the question is, “is the extra worry and ritual worth the expected benefit in your life expectation and comfort (due to less sickness)?” To each his own answer. But the good thing is, you can take as much as you want from the book, and leave the rest alone. While I will not embrace the full extent of its writing, it has definitely made me more aware of the general germliness of the world, and probably will affect my overall behavior. To all you germs – make much your time.

Book review: Imperial Earth

August 8, 2015

By our beloved free encyclopedia, “Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both.”
When I (discreetly) mentioned to my friend that I might be interested in that sort of thing, he suggested reading Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama”. I did, and found it glorious. But perhaps we should mention another book by Clarke as a runner up for the distinguished merit award in that category. Here is an excerpt, recounting the protagonist’s experience at a fancy party:


Yes folks, your eyes deceive you not. As for me, I was rather lucky – for just half a year ago I took the third-year, fifth-semester course in solid state physics in which students learn about the Drude-Sommerfeld model for electron conduction in lattice-based systems – so I was able to calculate Duncan’s mean free path and draw a mental picture of his quantum scattering.
Intrigued? Want to read a sci-fi political novel while simultaneously taking a crash course in radio astronomy and polyominoes? Say no more! I present to you, Imperial Earth!


There is an entire chapter on pentominoes – a cool math puzzle that involves fitting twelve tetris-like pieces together to form various shapes. No ink is spared when describing the combinatorial explosion problem and the comparison between brute force computing and human creativity.
There are several long sections describing the difficulties of picking up long wavelengths on Earth, and how mankind can cope with them. There are considerations of the harsh reality of space travel and communication. There are even numerous paragraphs on interior design (of underground accommodation facilities on Saturn’s moon Titan, of course).
Of course, I exaggerate a bit. There’s still a plot, some character development, and a bit of mysterious schemes. But the reader who expects too much in this area will come out disappointed – these are not the book’s strong points. Rather, they serve mostly as an excuse for Clarke to show off and preach some of his thoughts and ideas about future society.
And this indeed is how you should approach the book: as a collection of ideas. Duncan travels through through a world where we have started colonizing the planets; this takes both time and technology, and Clarke fills in the gaps as he wills. Some ideas are textbook standards, like a unified world government that (somehow) manages to hold the peace on Earth. Others are more amusing with roots in the Classics, such as having the US president be picked at random from a pool of potential candidates: one of the required qualifications is not wanting to be president, and successful presidents get “time off for good behaviour”. And of course, there are more unique ones, such as Earthmen’s obsession for preservation of the past, despite (or perhaps because of) the marvellous technological advances.
It is true, some of the themes and events are underdeveloped, and the book cannot go down every branching path it presents. Various holes scatter the landscape, both in the overall plot and in the little details that make the world go tick: it is nice to have US presidents who are picked at random, but how this system stays in faithful unbiased hands is left for us to wonder.
But perhaps that’s a good thing.

Book review: The Andromeda Strain

July 9, 2015

*** spoiler included ***

Do you know that feeling where you say to yourself “I’ll just check out this article on wikipedia” and then five hours later when you finally raise your head from the screen and gasp for air after having dredged half the the internet you cannot help but wonder “where the hell did seven hours go?!”?
That is “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton, for the better and worse of that statement. On the one hand, it’s a page turner; you’ll have to take care not to tear the pages as you blaze through them faster than the speed of sound. On the other hand, at the end, you’ll sort of want those seven hours back.


Crichton wrote a very engrossing and thrilling book. Merely the basic premise – an emergency team handling the outbreak of an alien microbe – commands us to think for a moment how complicated indeed First Contact would be with any extraterrestrial race. This is an interesting and thought provoking topic, and science fiction is undoubtedly filled with contact books, speculating on an entire range of scenarios. Meeting with a disease is an original one, that seems obvious in hindsight in a satisfying kind of way. The possibility of an alien pandemic that threatens Earth’s entire population with near instant death or insanity is definitely page-turning material. The book also imitates the form of a classified report, and this adds realism to the sense of what-will-happen-next exhilaration.
It’s too bad that as you turn the final pages, exhilaration turns to disappointment, and all the pent-up tension, all the built-up potential energy dissipate to nothing. The disease simply and spontaneously “turns dormant”. Nothing happens to major American cities. Millions of lives are not compromised. No megapolis is evacuated. The scientists working on the project did not save the day; in fact, disaster was averted only because their advice was ignored. This, despite the fact that book constantly warns you, “and then the scientists made their second, crucial mistake”.
“Ok”, you might say, “so the book focuses mainly on the investigation going on in the research laboratory, instead of the dangers of the outside world. How is that so different from Rendezvous with Rama?” Well, there are at least two differences.
First, in Rama the exploration is so obscenely fascinating, and mankind’s technology is so pitifully crude compared to the Raman’s, that the team’s feeble attempts just multiply the overwhelming awe conjured by the book. The whole point of Rama was exploration. By contrast, The Andromeda Strain sells itself as one about preventing a major disaster, but doesn’t finally deliver on that front. The scientific investigation is exciting, but is not sustainable on its own without the knowledge that failure to contain the outbreak will have catastrophic consequences.
Second, there’s a lot of science in this book, but it falls short of convincing the slightly trained eye. While some of the methods used by the investigation team are Freakin’ Cool, the scientists sometimes perform tests in a manner so sloppy you would expect better from a freshman undergraduate. A freshman majoring in History, mind you. And the book uses “evolution of microbes” in such a grossly wrong way, it would have been better off to just blame it all on “the almighty hand of creationism”.

But do not take this review too harshly, dear reader. If disappointment is the main flaw of this piece, then the real problem is just the expectation. Give this book a try! You’ll read it quickly enough. Just keep in mind that today is not the day for a post-apocalyptic Andromeda-quarantined America.