Thursday, June 30, 2011

If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino

I think it was in response to my befuddled reaction to Don DeLillo's Point Omega that an English major friend suggested I try Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler.  Given her expertise I assumed this would be a similar writerly, post-modern work.

I was wrong.  Winter's night is not a mirror held up for writerly self-examination.  Instead, Calvino shatters the mirror so that all its fragments reflect back a complex and likely incomplete view of both writer and reader.  Neither does it seem to me that Calvino is taking a stand or position - rather, he seems to simply be offering up questions for contemplation as though the book was of a style he intended to attempt only once - "See, what did you think of that?"

Consider first, the plot to which you, the Reader, are central.  You're just getting engrossed in Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler (yes, the book references itself and you directly in deepening and circular layers, kind of Inception-like) where a missed connection in a train station strands a traveler carrying a mysterious metal briefcase when you agonizingly realize that due to a binding error, your copy of the book contains only chapter one.  You resolve through various gambits to get a complete copy so you can finish what has intrigued you only to be foiled at every turn by receipt of a different book than the one you had previously been reading.  Ten times, ten books, ten chapters.  Along the way you are joined by Other Reader and the two of you follow the trail of books.

Structurally, the book consists of ten chapters separated by the interludes in which Reader and Other Reader attempt to get the complete book.  Each chapter is written in a different style of which my favorite is "On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon" which begins with a debate on whether it's possible to experience each individual leaf as it falls from a tree and ends with the conclusion "the empty and insensitive space in which the visual sensations are situated can be subdivided into a succession of levels in each of which we find one little leaf twirling and one alone."  You are probably wondering "So what?"  I think this goes back to one of the issues addressed by the book which is whether readers experience individual books or their entire body of reading (i.e. the falling leaves versus the carpet of leaves).  After all, the more one reads, the more one's viewpoint changes however subtly.  Rereading a book after an interval of years can result in a profoundly different experience because of how you've changed.  Or Calvino could be making a reference to the printed words on a page.  I dunno.

Rather than trying to expound, likely erroneously, on the other issues raised by the book I'll simply list the ones I noticed.
  • The alignment of the writer's and reader's expectations.
  • The writer's lack of control over their work between writing and reading (e.g. translation, printing).
  • The societal role of reading and writing including censorship.
  • A reader's approach to books - linear reading versus an almost fractal-like exploration of each individual idea.
  • The friction, good and bad, from readers' differing viewpoints of the same book.
  • The physical manifestation of writing - pages, books - and subsequent uses including the interaction of white space and the printed word.
Calvino's book is highly sexually charged - reader and writer, reader and reader, reader and non-reader - and I suppose the author would say a) that says more about the reader than the writer and b) that's indicative the passion that can be invoked by reading.  Oddly, if I remember it correctly, the only person whose advances are rebuffed are the writer's (i.e. the writer has to be content with the intangible action at a distance).  Here's a quote from one of the interludes: "What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space."

Thanks for the recommendation, Dani.  Maybe I should re-read DeLillo.

P.S. I certainly don't pretend to understand this book or its significance.  I did, however, enjoy it because it was different than anything I had read before.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Beach House by James Patterson

I suppose The Beach House is what you'd get if Danielle Steele wrote thrillers.  Maybe that's not fair to James Patterson.   Dunno.   Standing in front of the library shelves I chose this audio book for exactly two reasons.  First, it was only 6 CDs so I figured I could finish it in slightly over a week of commutes. Second, the title.

So, we're in the Hamptons among the ultra-rich and during a party at one particular rich person's house the body of a local young man washes ashore.  "Drowning," says the rich folk.  "Murder," says the town folk.  It's up to the local golden boy and law student to find justice.

Sitting here trying to think of something to write about this book that I just finished yesterday and coming up blank is probably all you need to know.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

How beautiful it is to do nothing...

The most amazing video you'll watch all week is the SWITL, a gizmo that picks up semi-liquid materials without disturbing their shape.  (I bet you thought I was gonna link to Go the F--k to Sleep.)

A comparison of the thought processes of successful entrepreneurs and corporate executives reveals that the entrepreneurs think effectually (use resources on-hand to develop goals on the fly then react to contingencies) while the executives think causally (set a goal and then diligently set  out to achieve it).

A venture capitalist who's invested in over 100 tech companies reveals the secrets to success: not technology but people and business models.
Know your innards.  source
How many questions is it appropriate to ask as an intern?  This thread on the Programmers Stack Exchange has generated a lot of discussion and I shared it with our interns.  I look at it this way - there's no such thing as a stupid question but there sure are a lot of inquisitive idiots.

I like Lorem Ipsum as much as the next guy but here's a guy who wants to kill it.  Someone doesn't like beards.  And Wisconsin doesn't like craft beer brewers.

At least ladies seem to like craft beer drinkers. What you're drinking at the bar apparently says a lot about you.  From a lady's perspective, a guy drinking a craft beer "knows his shit and has good taste."  Gin drinkers on the other hand don't get cut any slack.

Chartball melds information visualization and sports resulting in graphics like this game chart for last season's Cowboys vs. Eagles game.
It's been a while for one of these: the periodic table of storytelling.

Remember progressive rock band Yes?  Believe it or not, they have a new album, Fly From Here, coming out in July.  You can listen to the track We Can Fly exclusively at Rolling Stone's website.

If you're thinking about attending this year's Business of Software conference in Boston this October, you can get a taste for what will be presented with this video of Hubspot's Dharmesh Shah speaking at last year's event.

Further proof that sophomoric doesn't mean "not funny."  Play Let's Change Hillary.
Tips for writing: cut the waffling.  #1 Get clear about the topic.  (Topic?)  #2 Cut out any paragraphs that don't belong.  (What would be left?)  #3 Cut unnecessary words and phrases.  (I suppose that would leave just the links.)  Allow me to apply the author's suggestions to their own words.
  1. Get clear about the topic.  (No changes.)
  2. Cut out any paragraphs that don't belong.
  3. Cut unnecessary words and phrases.
There are days when reading a list of product management mistakes is informative and there are other days when reading the same article is depressing.  Today is one of the latter.  Sigh. As my penance, I list them here.
  1. Confusing customer requirements with product requirements.  (As Fred Brooks points out in The Design of Design a designer's goal is to help clients decide what they want designed.)
  2. Confusing innovation with value (i.e. technology looking for a problem to solve.)
  3. Confusing features with benefits (i.e. the products value is derived from its benefits).
  4. Confusing good product with good business model.  (Your product is irrelevant if it can't sustain the business.)
  5. Confusing adding features with improving product. (Can people figure out how to use the product and discover its value?)
  6. Confusing a complete product with a sellable product. (This kinda repeats the #4 about the business model.)
  7. Confusing product launch with success.  (Success is not launching on time but creating a growing community of enthusiastic customers.)
How are your DJ skillz?  Test them at Wheels of Steel.

I'm flying close to the sun by trying to find humor in this gallery of vintage ads that are sexist and racist.  Except for this one.  And the one about cooking.
Teh interwebs was made for this: a collection of hotel door hangers. (When I was a kid I'd bring these home from vacations and hang them on my bedroom door.)

I still read the local newspaper cover-to-cover every morning with breakfast.  (OK, "read" may be overstating it.  I heavily skim.)  If you prefer your newspapers on the internet, check out newspaper map, a map-based app with links to newspapers around the world.   (Warning: can be slow to load.)

Did you remember to celebrate Recess at Work Day on June 16th?  Neither did I.   For keeping up on all your lesser well known holidays use Checkiday.com.  For example, today is National Juggling Day.

Need an anonymous email address?  Try tempalias.

This solar bikini illustrates the difference between engineering (left) and marketing (right).  Engineering: mannequin.  Marketing: Real live girl.  Engineering: "USB connection!"  Marketing: "Soak up rays, power your iPod!"
Learn electromagnetism online using these lecture notes from UT Austin.

The solar system is apparently like a latte with froth at the top.  NASA is stumped.  Starbucks calls it grande.

From the I'm Not Sure What To Do With This department, here's Asciiflow, an online interactive tool for creating ASCII flowcharts.  I think I know what BoxCar2D is supposed to be doing, but I just like watching it.  Hunting arrows is just fun to play.

Having parented two sons in the school band this question comes up a lot: how many hours a day should I practice?  As long as your practice is deliberate (and not just noodling around), 2-4 hours is sufficient.

...and then rest afterward.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Death ends a life...

Bacon ipsum dolor sit amet ground round boudin brisket, turkey short loin tri-tip bacon chicken pastrami meatball corned beef tenderloin drumstick venison. Jerky ham hock chicken, tail ground round beef ribs brisket rump corned beef drumstick pork belly tongue boudin flank. Ham ground round andouille pork belly, meatball boudin beef pancetta cow pork loin spare ribs t-bone swine sirloin. Biltong headcheese pork belly pork chop, venison ball tip pork loin. Pancetta meatloaf hamburger jerky shoulder pork belly biltong pork loin, bacon ball tip drumstick pig brisket. Strip steak ham fatback, swine tongue biltong rump t-bone headcheese meatloaf pork chicken turkey ribeye. Headcheese t-bone meatball pastrami flank, swine tongue meatloaf jowl.  This paragraph brought to you by Bacon Ipsum.

Gotta see this: Bacon Cam.  One of the finalists in Instructables' bacon challenge is a bacon guitar.  This is not bacon but a rather nice campfire sculpture made using bratwursts.

Fluid Painter is only one of the interactive experiments you'll find at Escape Motions.
Videos worth watching - I'd love to get more of the original art from Victory Through Airpower, a World War 2 era film produced by Walt Disney.  It's worth 7 minutes of your time to watch art imitating art imitating art as a live orchestra provides the soundtrack of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen to Chuck Jones' epic animation What's Opera, Doc?  For my outer space loving friends, here's a cool video created from still photos of Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft.

The results are in: here are the winners of the 7th annual Best Illusion of the Year contest.  I would like to nominate that website for the Ugliest Website of the Year contest.

Use Textify.it to change an image into text.
Stirring the pot: 30% of surveyed companies will definitely or probably drop employer-sponsored health coverage when provisions of health care reform take effect in 2014.

What happens when you put composer Philip Glass together with Sesame Street?  You get a nice little music video called Geometry of Circles.

Via the Booze Dancing blog, here's a guide to pronouncing the names of Scotches like "Bruichladdich."  One might say Scotch tastes like it sounds - to be polite, "funky."  A collection of vintage cheese labels.

Hear "Art is an intellectual greased pig" and other gems in this talk by painter Wayne Thiebaud.
Watch this video of Pe Lang's installation Positioning Systems I - Falling Objects, in which an automated machine uses a pipette to place perfect water droplets on a omniphopic surface.

The list of 50 things every graphic design student should know is a little limiting because they apply to people who aren't students and professions other than graphic design.  I like #2: There is always someone better, or as Qui-Gon Jinn said "There's always a bigger fish."   I don't really like #33: There's no such thing as a bad client.  Apparently the author hasn't seen (The Customer Is) Not Always Right.

Please tell me I'm not the only one who never noticed this gas cap holder was there.
Check out this gallery of the best of behind the scenes photographs including Alien, Dr. Strangelove, and Mothra.

Microsoft has an exclusive deal to block any sale of more than 30% of Nvidia?  More FUD from Microsoft: "developers targeting Windows 8 would be using HTML5 and Javascript and some kind of new software development kit."  Want to win $20,000?  You've got until the end of June to enter Tech Briefs' Design the Future Contest.

This bikini brings together (and pushes up) two (3?) of my favorite things: boobs and 3D printing.  We're working on a 3D printer interface for our software and now I fully appreciate the possibilities.
I've had a Javascript book sitting here for over a week.  Maybe I'll be motivated to read it by this article from a Javascript hater who thinks everyone needs to learn Javascript in the next year.

Guy Kawasaki wants you to be enchanting.  How?  He offers twelve ways including "Always be likable" (oops).

Use the BARF Scale (BAxter Retching Faces) to indicate how this week's blog post has left you feeling.  From "Development and Validation of a Pictorial Nausea Rating Scale for Children."

...not a relationship.  ~Robert Benchley

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Start Over, Finish Rich by David Bach

On a whim, I scooped off the library shelf the audiobook version of David Bach's Start Over, Finish Rich in the hopes that I would learn more about finances and investing.  I'm certainly no financial genius, but Bach's advice was stuff I already knew.  It is probably good advice for a lot of folks out there but it wasn't new for me.

Bach starts out by observing that most of us are disorganized when it comes to our financial record keeping with papers, if we have them at all, spread out all over our homes and offices.  Lack of organization leads to bad things like missing payments and missed opportunities.

Bach lambasts us all for living beyond our means and accumulating credit card debt.  And rightly so.  Except for perhaps payday loans, credit card debt is one of the most vile forms of debt you can have and should be avoided at all costs.  On the topic of credit, Bach also urges everyone to check their credit report (for free) at least once per year to ensure that it's accurate.

He's also an advocate of maintaining an emergency savings account with anywhere between 3 and 12 months worth of expenses depending on your comfort level.   This is to protect you against something like an unexpected job loss.  If you're wondering how you can possibly save that amount of money, Bach talks about the "latte factor" and how all of us could eliminate conveniences and small luxuries from our daily spending and save that money instead.

Bach is an advocate of real estate even in this post-Great Recession environment saying that it's a good time to refinance your mortgage, buy a bigger home while they're cheap, or add rental property as a source of income.  His rule of thumb is that housing expenses should at most be 35% of your income.

Bach tossed out one statistic that amazed me.  He said that 25% of the mortgage defaults in 2009 were just paper losses.  People walked away from their mortgages simply because on paper the house was worth less than they purchased it for.  It's not that they couldn't afford to continue making the payments - they just chose to walk away.  Amazingly irresponsible because the assumption is that the home's value would never recover.

Bach also offered advise on saving for college including 529 plans.  His rule of thumb is by the time the prospective college student is 17 only 25% of their college savings should be invested in stocks - the other 75% should be in more conservative investments.

Like I said at the beginning, this isn't bad advice and it certainly isn't complicated.  It's just a lot less sophisticated than what I was looking for. 

The richness of life...

Brian Eno has released two tracks from his album Drums Between the Bells: Imagine New Times and Glitch.  Listen while you read.

A robot exploring the Great Pyramid of Giza found red-painted hieroglyphs that researchers hope will reveal the purpose of two dead-end shafts and possibly locate hidden vaults.  (For a while in high school, I thought I wanted to be an archeologist.)

Has searching the internet become too easy, too good?  Never fear, WackoSearch is here. 

This is the 2MASS Redshift Survey, a map of the local universe out to a range of 380 million light years.
I suppose this was inevitable.  A while back there was the story of the guy who made cologne from his poo poo.  Now here's an artist who's made perfume from her pee pee.  (The artist's name is Cherry Tree.  Of course it is.)

PHRAS.IN helps you overcome writer's block by showing you the relative popularity of two phrases.  For example, "shit" is much more widely used than "crap", 127 versus 97 million hits respectively.  And speaking of swearing, it apparently has an analgesic effect and other good properties.

Fans of C├ęzanne will enjoy this brief animation of a visit to his studio.

Is the office cubicle going away?  What would Dilbert do then?

Here's one man's list of last summer's business books that will "blow your mind."   Hippie hyperbole aside, here are a few comments off the top of my head.  I've only read one book on the list but I've either read other books by the authors listed or are familiar with their work on the internet. This is twice in two days that I've seen praise for Daniel Pink's Drive.   I liked the Heath brothers' Made to Stick so perhaps I should check out Switch.  On the other hand, I thought Freakonomics was worthless.  I enjoyed other work by Godin and Reynolds.  The big problem with business books is making them actionable so you don't finish reading and think "now what?"

Want to learn math and computer science on your own?  Check out Project Euler.  For example, what is the smallest number divisible by each of the numbers 1-20?

This week's aviation pr0n is an awesome display of airmanship as a helicopter lands on the deck of a pitching and rolling ship in high seas. 

There are lots of good 404 pages (the web page you get when you go to a URL that no longer exists) out there, but this cartoon of a blue wormy thing regurgitating the digits of pi while harmonizing females sing along is not one of them.

Obligatory beer links: Homer Simpson's Duff beer is available south of the border.  How to read beer expiration dates.  (As though any of you would leave it untouched for that long.)  How to make yummy beer brittle.  Sign up now to be one of the first to have a beer in space.

Last week Joel was mesmerized by the bouncing balls so here's a new one for him: BallDroppings.

When is a line not a line?  When it's a surface.  That's exactly what a space-filling curve is, a curve that passes through every point of the unit square.

I don't know what Augenkrebsbild means, but I'm certain it's not "soothing."

...lies in memories we have forgotten.  ~Cesare Pavese