Monthly ArchiveSeptember 2003



Fiction 28 Sep 2003 21:54

A Confederacy of Dunces

coverA Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
This book is like nothing I’ve ever read. It’s a comedy set in New Orleans in what seems to be the late 1950s or early 1960s, and it follows the adventures of Ignatius Reilly, his valve and the people he meets and whose lives he changes, almost always unintentionally.

One of the great things about the book, in fact, is the way in which the stories of all the characters interconnect and the way everything comes together at the end. In the mean time, the book will probably make you laugh out loud very often; it’s not a good book to read if someone is sleeping nearby.

I realize that I’m not describing the book very well, but that’s because it is somewhat hard to describe. Ignatius, our hero, is a very obese 30-something philosopher who lives with his mother in a minuscule house while writing his observations on the state of the world (apalling, according to him) and, occasionally, going to the movies to criticize loudly the depravation displayed on the screen. Suddendly, his life is turned upside-down by the need to find a job to help his mother pay a large debt. This leads him to meet several amazing characters in the streets (and bars) of New Orleans and to go through a number of adventures, most of which are quite different when viewed through his eyes. My favorite character is Patrolman Mancuso, the unlucky officer who tries to arrest Ignatius in the first pages of the book and suffers because of it for the next 400-odd pages.

One extra note: if, after reading this book, you feel like getting to know the work of Boethius, an English translation of “The Consolation of Philosophy” is available online here.

Technical 14 Sep 2003 19:18

Thinking in Java

coverThinking in Java, 3rd. edition
Bruce Eckel
If you are already a programmer, this book is a great introduction to Java and, in fact, to object oriented programming in general. Bruce goes to great lenghts (literally; the book is 1100+ pages long) to show you everything you need to know, while also letting you know when he is skipping over things you don’t really need to know. And, of course, pointing you to places where you can get the information if you ever come to need to know that.

However, if you are already an experienced Java programmer, this book may not be for you; certainly, it won’t be a book you will want to read from cover to cover. It may still be useful, though, as documentation you can go to if you need more information in things you don’t use very often. Personally, I would recommend this book to anyone who works or plays with Java.

The writing style of the book is also very welcoming: it is a nice prose, and the author lets you know not only how things are, but also why they are the way they are. You also get to know about what parts of the language he doesn’t like and why, and this, coming from a guy who’s seen everything out there, is very enlightening.

By the way, this book, in electronic form, is available at the author’s website, with several others in different stages of development.

Non-fiction 14 Sep 2003 12:37

Nonzero

coverNonzero
Robert Wright
The subtitle of this book, “the logic of human destiny”, is a good description of what it is about. The author tries to show us that human evolution (in fact, that the evolution of any civilization, or even any species) follows a predictable course towards more complexity, along an almost predictable path, without the necessity for a “designer” of any type setting this path. And, mostly, he succeeds.

To do that, he takes us, the readers, in a journey first through the evolution of the human societies, showing us the similarities among cultures evolving separately as far away as China and Central America, and later through the evolution of all the living species on this planet. He shows us the ways in which the steps taken in either situation are very similar, and he argues that these steps can be expected to be repeated in any type of evolution. The force, or the blind watchmaker, behind this is not an all-knowing god guiding us through the correct path, but rather a more down-to-earth entity: non-zero-sum games (hence the title of the book).

Zero-sum games are games in which one player’s winnings are the other player’s losses (chess is a good example of this type of game). Non-zero-sum games, on the other hand, are games in which the fate of the players is connected in a way that allows both to win (or lose). That is, in a non-zero-sum game, if the players collaborate with each other, each one will win more than any one would if they played independently. For example, if a group of hunters wants to tackle a mammoth, they will do much better by coming up with a strategy and attacking as a group (even if they have to split the meat later) than they would if each one tried to catch the beast on his own (there would be no meat at all to split — or not split).

In this way, non-zero-sum games foster collaboration, which fosters “closeness”, which brings complex structures to our society (and to living beings: multicellular organisms such as ourselves started with just a bunch of cells playing non-zero-sum games with each other), which brings technological advances, which increase the number (and the rewards) of non-zero-sum games you can play, which foster more collaboration, and so on. It’s a very optimistic book, in fact, and a great read. It will keep you thinking for a long time.