Monthly ArchiveJanuary 2005



Fiction 27 Jan 2005 10:09

Hybrids

coverHybrids
Robert J. Sawyer

This is the third book in the “Neanderthal Parallax” series, and, in my humble opinion, the weakest of them.

The title of the book sort of gives away one of the major plot points, that of a hybrid between humans and neanderthals (or gliksins and barasts, the neanderthal names for the species). We finally get to see more than a glimpse of the darker sides of the neanderthal society: suppression of “dangerous” research areas, incentives for people not to report certain types of crimes of which they were victims, and so on. These issues are mainly glossed over, and not much is made of what impact the knowledge of these issues has on the image of the neanderthals on “our side” of the portal.

The most annoying thing about the book, though, is the way we are constantly reminded of earlier events by having the characters talk about them. They sound artificial, and some of the points are rehashed to death, so much so that you expect them to be important in the future events, somehow; they are not. The author is just trying to make sure you don’t forget them. A better way of doing that would have been to add a prologue with the key events of the previous books.

There are also some quite far-fetched ideas (yes, more far-fetched than the idea of a portal connecting our world to one inhabited by neanderthals); I won’t list them here to avoid giving much of the book away. They do make the last hundred pages or so seem somewhat “disconnected”: things happen too quickly, incredibly spectacular events go by without hardly a blink by the characters, and then it’s over. Not very satisfying.

As in “Calculating God”, the issue of the existence of God is an important part of the plot, here. In both books, the “aliens” hold a position that is the opposite of that held by the scientist they contact (in the Neanderthal series, the scientist is a believer; in “Calculating”, the aliens are believers). And (spoiler ahead, sort of) in both instances the view of the “aliens” turns out to be the correct one. I’m not quite sure about what position the author holds, if any, but this seems to be an important topic for him.

Overall, the trilogy is not that bad, and I have to admit that the “artificial” feeling is typical of Sawyer’s books. A point in his favour is that he does refer to lots of very recent scientific results in the plot, which makes things sound more plausible (a list of references at the end of the book would be great, though). The first book is very good, the second is so-so (as with most trilogies), but the third fails to deliver, in my opinion. Still worth reading, specially if you’ve read the first two; if nothing else, at least to see what happens to the characters.

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Non-fiction 21 Jan 2005 10:30

The Panda’s Thumb

coverThe Panda’s Thumb
Stephen Jay Gould

Together with Richard Dawkins, Gould is (was) one of the better known scientific writers for the general public. Despite some differences in opinion regarding some fine points of the workings of evolution, they are very much in agreement in most things, and they both worked very hard to spread the scientific view on how evolution and natural selection work.

This books contains a series of essays from the late 1970s, first published in the Natural History magazine. The book’s title comes from the first article, which discusses the awkward way in which the panda has evolved something similar to the primate’s opposing thumb (in the panda, it’s actually an overgrown wrist bone the was attached to muscles originally “intended” for a real thumb). This article, and some others, argues very well for the idea that “perfection” in organisms is not the best way to prove evolution: it’s the awkward, odd, unusual quirks of the organisms, things an engineer would never do if not constrained by natural selection rules, that actually show how things have happened.

In other essays, Gould also examines many of the preconceptions and prejudices existing in the science of 100 or more years ago: ideas such as the inferiority of some races and of women, for example. He argues that we can’t really look at what scientist from that era wrote and judge it by today’s standards: their ideas and their work were immersed in their society and can’t be viewed in isolation. Much in the same way, he argues that ideas and concepts of today’s science (“today” meaning “the 1970s”, but, honestly, not that much has changed since) come from the society in which we live, and that this may cause mistakes as we assume some things to be “obvious” when they definitely are not.

And he makes much more sense than I do. His style is conversational, and a pleasure to read. The article on Mickey Mouse’s evolution is particularly good.

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Non-fiction 10 Jan 2005 09:35

The New Market Wizards

coverThe New Market Wizards
Jack D. Schwager

After reading A Random Walk Down Wall Street, I picked up The New Market Wizards at the library and looked at the introduction. One of the first things the author writes is “let’s be clear: the market is not random” (or something to that effect). Well, I just had to read it.

This book is a series of interviews with experienced and successful traders (the wizards of the title) on their strategies, life story, successes and failures, with short comments by the author before and after each piece. In this context, a trader is someone who makes money solely (or mostly) by buying and selling financial instruments (stocks, options, futures, commodities contracts etc.); that is, not a regular investor.

Most (maybe all) of the traders interviewed are basically “technical”; that is, they look at price movements and trading volumes and, armed with mathematical models and methods known only to them, make trading decisions. They do not look at “fundamentals”, most of the time, although almost all of them are, in some way, “hybrids”. They make short-term trades, holding securities for a few days, weeks at most. And they all get very good results (by definition, of course; otherwise they wouldn’t be in this book).

The author closes the book with a list of 42 (yes!) things a successful trader must keep in mind, gathered from the opinions expressed in the interviews. The most interesting one, to me, is the idea that the most fundamental thing a trader needs is a trading plan; almost any plan will do, as long as it is properly though of and correctly implemented (ignoring emotions in trading).

Throughout the book, you see a large range of trading styles and ideas, and most of them believe, to some extent, in the “random walk” theory of the other book (this one seems to be intended as a direct response to the first one; it even mentions it and its author by name a few times). By virtue of trading quite frequently, they explore temporary inefficiencies in the market and make money off this niche.

I fail to see how this invalidates the “random walk” theory, and it seems to me that Schwager missed the point of the other book. It is very clear that a very small percentage of active traders makes any money in the long term (if many did, there would be no book about them), and those who do act in incredibly different ways towards the market (some of them have methods that directly contradict each other). To me, it is clear that the reason this guys make money is because the market (and different markets) have temporary inefficiencies in them which can be explored if you act quickly; but this is not something a regular investor will be able to do with any success, and that is the point of the first book (and, in the end, of this one as well).

In short, this is not a book for the regular investor who doesn’t want to (or can’t) watch the market at all times; but it’s a book that tells something of how the market operates “deep down”.

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Fiction 07 Jan 2005 22:57

Jennifer Government

coverJennifer Government
Max Barry

Set in the near future, this book is about a world where corporations rule and the government has little or no influence in anything. Everything has been privatised (including the police), taxes no longer exist and the only service still being provided by the government for free is crime prevention. And I mean prevention; if a crime does happen, the victim or his/her family needs to pay for the investigation and eventual prosecution of the accused.

In this world, corporations are so important in peoples’ lives that everyone assumes the name of their employers (or, for kids, of their schools). So, some of the characters are John Nike, Bill NRA (yes, that NRA), Kate Mattel and Hayley MacDonald’s. The title character, Jennifer, is a government agent investigating a possible crime (hence her last name). Much of the action happens right here in Melbourne, in what is then the Australian Territories of the USA (talk about a free-trade agreement going overboard).

The plot of the book has to do with an “unconventional” marketing action taken by Nike, and the way the consequences of it spiral out of control, pushed forward by a sociopathic marketing director operating under a set of rules apparently approved by everyone. The book is a comedy, but it is a fair (if somewhat exaggerated) display of “wild capitalism” at its worst.

Personally, I am all for capitalism and free market, but I do think one can go too far, and this books shows one of the ways for it to happen. It may be a little too exaggerated to be called a cautionary tale, but it’s a good read nonetheless.

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Non-fiction 04 Jan 2005 10:45

A Devil’s Chaplain

coverA Devil’s Chaplain
Richard Dawkins

A collection of essays written over the years, this book is not just about biology and evolution, the author’s main subjects. He talks about evolution, for sure, but also about dear departed friends, jury trials, religion, education and humanities. It show a more “personal” Dawkins, especially in his eulogies; the two texts he wrote about Douglas Adams are some of the high points of the book, in my opinion. The book reviews he makes, though, are a little boring and repetitive at times.

The common thread joining all the texts is, I believe, his sceptical views and his common sense. He applies his thought to the matters and lets us know his opinions in ways that make sense and are easily understandable, even if you happen not to agree. The piece on jury trials, for example, would certainly make some noise if it were more widely publicised.

The best piece of all (in my humble opinion) is the last one, written as an open letter to his (then) 10-year-old daughter. It’s a beautiful text on scepticism and the reasons to believe the things we do.

This book is probably more appropriate to someone who already knows Dawkins’s work, but the breadth of the themes means that even new readers will find something of interest.

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Fiction 01 Jan 2005 16:02

Microserfs

coverMicroserfs
Douglas Coupland

I’ve read Microserfs before, but I decided to read it again because I thought it would be a fun book to read over the holidays. I was right.

Microserfs tells the story of a group of Microsoft employees who “jump ship” and move to Palo Alto to work for a start-up created by one of them. This is fiction, of course, but it could be real, and it feels real, specially if you were around the Silicon Valley at the time the action in the book happens (1994, before the Internet boom). The book is written as a series of diary entries by Dan, one of the programmers who make the move, and he chronicles the changes in environment and culture that happen when you go from working to a large company in Washington state to a start-up in California.

He also chronicles the “maturing” of his friends and himself, as they approach 30 years of age and start to want more from life than coding and “geeking out”.

Make no mistake, this is a book for geeks and about geeks, and there’s no way around it. You’ll not understand many of the jokes, or even realise that they are jokes, if you’re not a geek (at least partly). Anyway, it may also be a good book to help you understand a geek who’s close to you, if this is the case.

By the way, this is one of the books I would reread again (and again…) every few months, if I had the chance.

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