Thursday, August 27, 2020

A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin

I got this since I like the author; didn't realize it was a kids' book.

Here's the thing though: despite the slightly restrained language and themes, there is a sort of utter modern power here. Le Guin goes for probably the most traditional of all wizarding and fantasy tropes (dragons, staffs, long white beards) and just ever so slightly subverts almost every word through her mental prism. Here you see the boyhood of the ordinarily always-old wise man. You see skin colour that is not white by default. And you see the gradiant, non-linear spread of cultures who trade and intermarry instead of the traditional delineated grid of races in fantasy novels.

In short, it's a study of what a fantasy world could be if it was real. I am pleased, and I will come back to Earthsea.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Secret River


The Secret River, Kate Grenville

Tense, brutal, calm. And also raw, violent. A different setting: the penal colonies of Australia. Liked it.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde


Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

Quaint and impossibly romantic, in the technical sense of romantic, like where a man but fiddles with some chemicals to discover a physical power the possibility of which he has dreamed up just months prior.

Obviously a captivating idea, but the short story format doesn't do it justice.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

The Talented Mr. Ripley


The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith

This is awfully depresssing. Just not worth it.

Big talent here. Excellent work. Just... no. I can't believe there's a series of these. Why couldn't she have written something happy?

Monday, August 03, 2020

Chaos

Chaos, James Gleick

Thirty years on my bookshelf and I finally "read" it as an audiobook, and boy do I not regret it.

Of course it's a science book, but it's more a story of discovery and the explorers behind it than the science itself. Quite inspiring actually; it makes you feel like you can do stuff. I started programming the famous (and I guess overdone) Mandelbrot Set visualization because of this book. But it touches on so many other fields and applications, like the weather, epidemic patterns (hey!), animal population trends or heart defibrillator design.

For one thing, where I could see myself doing amateur research is in phase space reconstruction. As far as I understand, although there is a ton of technical jargon that makes it all sound hard to get into, chaos is all about finding a simple formula that visually resembles a complex phenomenon. And phase space reconstruction is a way to reduce complex behaviour to an essential dimension that then makes it easy to find patterns in and match to a formula you might invent.

I'm impressed by this book's journey. Written in the 80's just after chaos threw off its messy and obstructive reputation, it quickly earned a place in public vocabulary through the butterfly effect, its striking graphics and its namesake subject. Yet forty years later, no attempt seems to have been made to re-popularize the subject in a way that would send more research its way. Perhaps it's not necessary? Perhaps we all intrinsically understand chaos? But I doubt that's the case, as many of the ideas here are wrenchingly unintuitive.

It's all about contradiction. Scientists initially thought chaos was either untrue, or useless. How can you use a theory that says "everything is a mess?" But it turns out it's a new kind of mess. Other people wondered what exactly the study of chaos was: neither math, nor science. Observable only as a function of other observations, not really existing on its own. Or as a final example, the book itself. It's about scientists, but much more about their frustrations and dreams than about laws and formulae. Such an enormous subject, one we mention so often, but we talk so little about.