Posts tagged ‘books’

So it’s been a little while… ;^)

Reading (well, listening) as best I can recall (many are ‘the first thing that I recognized or looked interesting’):

How to Speak, How to Listen, by Mortimer J Adler – a work that explains, in part, a phenomena that I’ve become familiar with: there are differences between things made to be read and made to heard.

The Education of Little Tree – not certain if the story itself is old, or if that is just the setting. A boy raised down in the hollar, with cherokee heritage. Some interesting commentary on politics, religion, and even christmas.

The Children of Green Knowe – A very changling children’s story – chimera abound.

Little Women – Apparently written in two parts, with the first being somewhat entertaining (if a morality play), and the second sounding like a soap opera, except that things do conclude in the end. Emphasizes the protastant work ethic, and family loyalty.

Knowledge in a Nutshell – Trivia, in every sense. Occasionally interesting, but only usefull if you are preparing for a game show.

In Progress: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Nature of Order, Book 2, and a long term project: the republican and democratic party platforms.

I was sick a week ago; I turned up the heat and added a few layers to help the fever along, and have just had a lingering cough for the last week.

This didn’t interfere with christmas at all; I spent the day at my parents. My father mostly watched Trading Spaces, and my mother made a good hearted attempt to play the games I brought; I need more two player ones though. We also went out to see Elf, which was exactly the cookie-cutter hollywood trash I expected it to be.

I spent most of the holiday break working on games one in form or another. Mostly a new thrust at Harmony, which first involved printing issues. Realizing that 1. Postscript is an programming language, and 2. It has an arc command, I just gave up on all the other multiple-program multiple-file monkeying around I was doing and wrote my card factory directly in Postscript. With a days worth of effort, I can produce just about any combo of colored ring I want, and I can use Postscript to boot.

A lot of the rest of the weekend was spent examining the effects of the new multi-color cards. Plugging them directly into the last ruleset, I find that I’ve largely solved the spacial complexity, but introduced a lesser, but more infuriating, kind of temporal complexity. This led to the search for more appropriate new rulesets, which have multiplied upon themselves and left me wondering if I wouldn’t be better off publishing basic disks and a various rules, a la Icehouse (which has being supplying pieces for a large group of variants.)

Eventually I needed a break from this (I still see colored rings when i close my eyes) and made an initial sorting of the medications for Pop’n Pills. This was followed by attempts to lay out a new card template in LaTeX, since I would need some paragraph wrapping. A pursuit given up several hours later in the face of roundabout methods and inconsistent syntax – Primarily argument passing, which variously uses {}, [], (), and comma to distinguish parameters, (and often using all of the above in a single invocation.) I’ll take Postscript, thanks, which is actually pleasant to work with, though I’ll have to find some way to pull formatted paragraphs out of LaTeX.

Middlemarch and company.

Middlemarch, George Eliot

Love, and a little politics, in an small old english town. About 32 hours of audio, it took me about two weeks. I don’t exactly recall why this got on my reading list, so I didn’t go in with much in the way of expectations, but even under my superficial reflection, a few themes show up in various characters. (Spoiler warning.)

Caleb Garth may be the author’s highest virtue: He believes that good, honest work (particularly, improving and managing land and houses) is an end of itself. In fact his wife has to remind him that he does have a family to support, and it would be a good idea to get paid for his labor.

Mr. Casorbin is an elderly man who has labored his entire life on a great scholarly work. He dies with it incomplete, casting large amounts of bitterness in his wake.

The other characters probably have their own messages, but I didn’t find them as poignant. It was obvious that the characters were all upper class, however – at one point a person experiencing financial trouble (as most do – perhaps another theme, taken together with Caleb Garth) says “We can get by with only one servant.”

The author concludes with books ‘big message,’ thoughtfully saving the read the trouble of discovering it: While we may all dream of greatness, simply being a person who does right each and every day is still a very good thing to be.

The next couple are only one tape each:

A Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi

Packaged as guide to modern business that was the secret to Japan’s success, this classic book is superficially about sword fighting, although it does explicitly claim that the concepts behind the moves have broader application.

This is a very dense book – the kind that requires study to really get anything out of it. As such, the audio presentation isn’t that useful – the speaker is going on to the next section before you can appreciate the use the broader use of a concept, let alone the use in sword fighting alone.

I actually bought this one, and it did just was it was supposed to: fill the gap between the end of Middlemarch and my next trip the library. Sadly, the library’s audio collection doesn’t align too well with my list of things to read, and after grabbing everything that I could find, I started browsing through the shelves and grabbing the first few items that looked interesting, just to keep my next visit at a reasonable distance.

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen, & Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Recommended to me as a guide to communication in general, not just to children. Though I doubt your interlocutor would be flattered if you told him that you were treating him like a child ;^)

The recommendation is one which I’ll say it fulfills, although this is another that would really work better in a written format that you could study a bit – it can go by fairly quickly on tape.

The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Giono

Unlike the dense works above, this, effectively short story, was so light that they had to insert lots of music to get it on both sides of the tape ;^) It’s the sort of story that exists just to present a very simple idea though, and it’s hard to even call it a spoiler to talk about – the title says enough.

A man, living alone in desolate area, starts planting lots of trees. Over the 30 years of the story, the trees gradually change the climate of the area, even revitalizing the human inhabitants nearby. The message is both about nature, and about the effect one person can have – a person already nearly to ‘retirement age’ with the ‘best years of his life behind him.’

Book Reports

Physics For Poets, Robert H. March

I acquired this old book several months ago. It is hardly the most current treatise on physics, being only a few years younger than myself. Still, it is always fascinating to peak into the weirdness that is held to be the reality behind the world. While curved space-time may in fact be a more consistent system with fewer exceptions, it is a bit hard for someone on human-scale to fully grasp the first time through.

I’m not entirely sure where the ‘for poets’ part came from. Really it seems to be more of a layman’s guide to physics, with all the heavy math shoved back into the closets. The calculus certainly scared me off from pursuing beyond physics 1 in college. My mathematics schedule got a little screwed up in high school, and I think I missed a little of the foundational material for calculus – I could go through the motions of derivation, but I didn’t really understand how to apply it. I’ve since gotten a slightly better conceptual handle on the process, but opening up the physics textbook again would be a rather monumental undertaking, and I’d much rather focus my attention on game design at the moment.

One of the most interesting things for me with PFP was the discussion of field theory, which was mentioned in The Nature Of Order. While I essentially understood Alexander’s discussion of the field effect of centers, the mention of it’s parallel in physics was little more than a footnote to me. Now I have a better idea of just how pervasive the field effect is, and some of it’s properties, which are indeed eerily congruent with the interactions of centers.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samual Taylor Coleridge

One of a couple of items grabbed at esotericbeccums’s moving give-away. It was kind of nice to finally see the oft-quoted work in it’s entirety. The study guide format slightly ruined the first reading experience; I really should have known to skip the opening comments, which gave away the ‘big idea’ right from the get-go.

Otherwise, the main oddity is that I started reading it a few weeks ago, while I was myself a wedding-guest (in the poem, the ancient mariner is telling his tale to a wedding guest) ;^)

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephan R. Covey

I heard this recommended as presenting actual habits of self-discipline, not just tricks to make sales. Most of the theories do make some sense and I find myself in agreement with them, at least until proven differently by experience. And theorIES is the right word. In some places the way things organize into regular systems feels almost too convenient, in others the whole things appears to be a hodge-podge of different ideas. Indeed, near the beginning of the tape Mr. Covey says that he performed a survey of success literature many years ago. The point raised is that up to certain point, it almost exclusively focused on personal virtues – then after that, it was almost exclusively salesmanship and the like. The seven habits encompass this, being divided into ‘private victories’ and ‘public victories.’

It hasn’t changed my life yet, but the ideas could do with further review. To this end, the publishers have thoughtfully included a review guide, saving me the trouble of taking notes or buying a printed copy of the book ;^)

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

One of my first audio books, the 11+ hours of which didn’t even cover one week. I came into the book knowing, and indeed got it because, it was written as a philosophical statement, which once again colored my reading a bit. Few of the plot twists were unanticipated, and most of the characters came off as the one-dimensional archetypes they probably were meant to be. Indeed the book proposes a rather sharp division of types of people, of which the better are frightfully scarce I’ve also heard tell that the actual paper book is some 1000 pages, and it came off in much the same way as the last book of such size that I read: a beginning and middle with lots of stuff going on, and an ending that leaves you thinking that a couple of chapters must have been sacrificed in the name of printing limitations.

I think however that pretty much covers the faults, and to be fair it was labeled abridged; to what extent I am unaware. Overall the book is well written; the introduction of characters and events is taken at a very manageable pace – something I noticed in contrast to Middlemarch, my first selection from the library, which is of a character that would be more comfortable with one’s full and rapt attention. The reading of Atlas Shrugged is also well performed, although I might have preferred notes stating ‘end of side one’ and the like.

Philosophically, there is a lot to chew on. I might like a printed copy of the book and a highlighter, as several of the monologues (the largest of which could almost be pulled out verbatim as a manifesto of objectivism) deserve greater reflection than the audio tape allows.

(Minor spoiler warning. I’m already in a cut, so the virgin reader is left with no defense save his own will.) I’m writing from memory here, and will probably get some part of the position wrong.

Part of the thesis is that there are two types of people: those of abililty, who produce, and those without, who bumble about living like parasites off the producers, making a terrible mess of things, and then throwing blame around to void themselves of responsibility.

The people of ability are also called ‘men of the mind’ Cultivation of the mind is presented as the highest virtue. Clear rational thought piercing through all the lies and illusions, and then the motivation to act on the truths perceived. The opposing views are the men of spirit, who say you should sacrifice yourself to some higher power with no concern for the conditions of the world, and the men of muscle, who say you should sacrifice yourself to the greater good of society – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – leaving no cause for personal motivation. The men of muscle are especially vilified, with the book’s timeline covering a rapid economic collapse under essentially communist policies.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihally Csikszentmihalyi

Another one I’d heard about, and I certainly knew that there were times where everything rolled along, and times where nothing much got done. A theory that might guide me to the productive mode of thought might certainly be useful. Of course, as soon as it got started, I immediately jumped rails to how much of this perfectly described the kind of game experiences I am trying to create. :^)

I’ve got a few notes from this one, and I really ought to go over the second tape some time when I’m not driving to finish them out. The main point I’ve absorbed so far is stress and mental white noise – if you are thinking about your finances, your job, your car, or your love life, you aren’t flowing. Kind of a nice meter for how distracted you are.

I do take issue with the audio presentation, however. It is two tapes, listed as about two hours. But I’m pretty sure that about half an hour of that is annoying music dispersed throughout, and a fair bit of silence on the ends. I know by now that there are 90 minute cassettes. Apparently the publisher preferred the two cassette price point. On the up side, I got to hear the the announcer pronounce ‘Csikszentmihalyi’ ;^)

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, interview by Bill Moyers

This six-hour/six-episode series was adapted from a series of videos. I’ve long been fascinated by symbology and myths, but Joseph Campbell had dedicated his life to them, and understands the big themes that cut across all the different story systems. To cross recklessly into to programming terminology, it is aspect-oriented mythology.

Definitely ideas I want to review some time in the future. It won’t be immediately; as I was listening to the tapes, they demanded to be brought to the attention of esotericbeccums, who just happened to be visiting last weekend. But I have Joseph Campbell’s name, and I’m sure he has written many books. I also have Parabola, the magazine that was involved in the tapes, and I’ve got subscription coming to try it out.

Ups and Downs

My sleeping pattern seems to have returned to normal (where ‘normal’ is obnoxiously more than eight hours in bed… :-( ) After I got up on my sleepless night, I noticed that the moon was rather bright, and tried closing my shade.

Meanwhile, the books on tape plan is in full swing. After helping out at a brief martial arts seminar my instructor was putting on, I headed out to get a small portable tape player with both home and car adapters. Then on to the library… I forgot to check the hours before I left, and I figured it was almost as far home at that point as it was to the library. The library, as I probably could have guessed if I’d thought about, was in the middle of a three week closure while they moved into the new building. So, off to the book store to hold me over then. The bookstore had a pretty disappointing collection. I only found two things on my list of stuff to read (so I don’t have mainstream tastes… ;^) ) Hopefully the library will have a wider selection, or I’m going to have to hit the internet. I wonder if there are any trading circles about…

The two things I did buy were The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (which I had read was based on real habits, not unproven theories) and Atlas Shrugged, which rinku and his associates had mentioned several times. I finished the little over four hours of the 7 habits in less than 24 hours… On one hand it’s nice to see that the plan is working – I’ve already ‘read’ a book I otherwise wouldn’t have – and a bit disturbing that about 1/4 of my waking hours didn’t require my full attention. There was driving back from the book store, making dinner and doing dishes, then today I made muffins, and a soup for dinner… which created a lot more dishes. I’m already over half a tape through Atlas; It’s over 11 hours total (barely enough to get me one way to Kentucky…) so hopefully it will hold out until the Library reopening this next Sunday. I wasn’t expecting these things to go so fast; the acquiring of new material will be something of a time concern itself…

The Nature of Order, Book One: The Phenomenon of Life

I finally read Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order; I started it while at GenCon and finished it probably at least a week ago – I’ve hardly been online in the intervening time.

To some extent I set myself to be underwhelmed; I was already familiar with the basic thesis and was pretty much in agreement with it, and I had already seen the list of principles at work in The Nature of Poetic Order. While some expounding, clarification, and examples are certainly useful the book had very few surprises for me. The writing also seemed to suffer from the extremely long incubation period (25 years or so since the inception of the ideas) Then again my reading method could be partly to blame; the only reason I get anything read at all is because I have a book open on the table while I eat.

I definitely had one thing wrong: the shorthand term for The Quality Without A Name is not ‘wholeness.’ Wholeness is used rather for any collection of things in it’s entirety; the collection can be good or bad, but it is a whole nonetheless. Rather, a ‘good’ wholeness is said to have lots of life – thus the title of the book, The Phenomenon of Life.

Alexander’s thesis goes something like this:
-That there is a quality he calls life.
-That this quality is measurable by any person.
-That this quality varies from one thing to the next.
-That people on the whole agree about the level of life in something – it is not quite the same as ‘liking’ something.
-Things which have lots of life tend to exhibit certain common features, which Alexander collects into fifteen principles of order, based on centers:

1. Levels of Scale
2. Strong Centers
3. Boundaries
4. Alternating Repetition
5. Positive Space
6. Good Shape
7. Local Symmetries
8. Deep Interlock and Ambiguity
9. Contrast
10. Gradients
11. Roughness
12. Echos
13. The Void
14. Simplicity and Inner Calm
15. Not-Separateness

Some of the properties are fairly obvious (many of them, admittedly, from previous familiarity with the pattern language of buildings) Others are not so obvious, and the descriptions given in the book seem too short in these cases. For instance, the description of positive space seemed like it may be insufficient for someone encountering it for the first time. I believe I struggled with this concept in the pattern language; it may be only because of my experience there and from the rug book that I understand it at all. I usually think of certain interlocking rug patterns to grok this myself; for everybody else, imagine a checkerboard: you can’t really say whether the white squares or the black squares are the figure or the ground (well, you could, but it would be personal preference.) Both are equally capable to stand as figure; because of this, both are equally powerful, and all of the space is contributing to the life, with none lost as background.

And yes the, use of the term interlocking while describing positive space implies that one property is defined by another. Alexander recognizes this – in fact he provides a table of which properties depend on which others – some even depend on themselves. That the properties are recursive and interdependent, much like the space that they describe, is offered as evidence of their correctness.

One interesting feature of the book is that it contains a table of contents not only for itself, but for the entire four-book series. Consequently, I now know something as to what each book is about.

Book one is about the concept of life and the fifteen properties of order, as discussed above. Book two, The Process of Creating Life, is about unfolding and structure-preserving transformations; the proper ordering of patterns, and the method by which the fifteen manifest. Book three, A Vision of a Living World, appears to focus on larger public spaces; how the application of these techniques might transform the world. Book four, The Luminous Ground is a little hard to peg down, but it deals with topics like the meaning of art, ‘I’, and god. In book one, Alexander reveals that he uses the word ground for, roughly, the world. So, luminous ground is the world glowing with life.

So, who should read the book? This volume is light on architecture; while one certainly could start using the principle of life to guide building, books two and three appear to deal more with building in particular. As an overview of Alexander’s work, it has hardly any material on patterns, which still have their uses despite being less general than the material presented. It does have a chapter about some projects he as worked on, the and the expected glowing reviews from the people who use them. Really, by itself, this book is primarily of interest to people like me: the nature of art, design, and a theory on how to improve them.

Christoper Alexander

rinku asked about Cristopher Alexander. Herin is a review of all the material I am personally familiar with, mostly back references to previous entries.

First stop would be his website (java, lots of images) that contains some biographical information, along with some of his material.

For books, he has many, not all of which I’ve read. I’m only going to discuss the ones I’ve read, or plan to. Let’s go chronological (title links are my reviews of each book):

Notes on the Synthesis of Form: A very early work. Especially in light of the later material, not really worth the casual reader’s time.

The Timeless Way of Building: Nearly twenty years old, but still makes for a good manifesto and introduction to patterns.

The Pattern Language: Useful if you are making a building, or just want an example of a reasonably complete pattern language; published at the same time as The Timeless Way of Building.

The Oregon Experiment: Once again, probably only worth it if you really go gonzo for Alexander’s stuff.

A Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art: The first reference I’ve seen to his current conception of wholeness; nominally about carpets but really about centers, beauty, and wholeness in art.

The Nature of Order: Supposedly this has existed in some form since the time of The Timeless Way of Building; there were citations to the unpublished manuscript in Foreshadowing, published ten years earlier. Maybe it is Alexander’s life’s work; of course I’d love to be proven wrong on that account :-) It may very well contain the current and up to date version of his theories, obviating the need to read the earlier the works, but I can’t say for certain yet. Of the four volumes, only the first has been published; my pre-order has arrived but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. It has a separate web site (which is excruciatingly slow…) I’ve gathered from the notes and such that I’ve read so far that a central part of the material is centers and the 15 principles that organize them to create whole geometry, of which buildings are kind. Richard Gabriel has already applied them to poetry (pdf); if I can find the game analog of geometry, perhaps I can apply them to game design…

Long Time Gone

A few weeks ago:
During one of the brief bursts of nice weather, I rode my bike up to Tyler Creek Forest preserve. It was pretty much just a target point for an excursion ‘somewhere north’ on a branch of the bike trail I hadn’t taken before; it crosses the river underneath the route 90 bridge. There was a pretty stream there, but I didn’t stay very long. For one, I was beginning to perceive that I might be sunburned by the time I got home. Which I was, but not very badly.

I made a few stops on the way back. One was to look the murals at the elgin water treatment station. There are two round-topped tanks, painted as the north and south hemispheres. The north side includes notes saying it was painted by Elgin High School. I’m not sure if the south was also by them. In any case the south has some extra murals in the land masses. The one for South America has a man holding out a handful of papers (“Brazil, property of man”) to a jury of the animals and god ;^)

There is another mural on a large flat wall (a year or so ago I rode past while it was being painted) This one features a undersea scene with all manner of strange creatures. I’m not sure if they they are real or imagined; Of course, given the variety of sea life, you could probably make up the weirdest creature you want, and if taken to the appropriate expert, he would answer, “Oh yes, the thus-and-such.”

Next stop was the library (It’s right on the path.) The first book I got was The Little Prince, recommend by esotericbeccums quite a while back. Interestingly, it is by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who I quoted here a while back. The book is filled with numerous insights into life, with special attention paid to some of the silly games us grown-ups play. ;^)

I also got The Art of Computer Game Design by Chris Crawford. The book was published about 1985; the examples and some of the technical discussion date it considerably, but many of the issues discussed are still as relevant today as they were almost 20 years ago. In particular, at the end of the book Crawford calls out the need for a game design lexicon, which we are still trying to build today. (The full text of the book is available online.)

Jennifer Government

Sometime during the past week I also finished the book Jennifer Government by Max Barry.

In a sense the book is about capitalizm, super-extreme capitalism where everything is a corporation and almost anything can be bought and sold. I’m not completely sure whether it is a future, or an alternate reality; no dates are give, and no divergent technology is mentioned, so I lean towards alternate.

The book is technically well executed; it is organized into a series of small chapters, making it easy to read in variable sized chunks, and each chapter introduces some meaningful plot twist. Overall, however, it failed to leave me with the ‘good book’ feeling.

A few aspects of the world and story bother me. The taking of company names as last names has always felt awkward to me, although the effects of name changing are used within the book. Furthermore, the initial premise (which can bee seen in the first chapter online) seems quite implausible to me (i.e., that killing people will sell shoes.) The other item is that the time scale frequently feels out of whack; i.e., major social change happening in what feels like mere hours, or at most days.

A Foreshadowing Of 21st Century Art

I got my hands another Christopher Alexander book a few weeks ago, A Foreshadowing Of 21st Century Art. I got this one through interlibrary loan, however. In part because I was a little disappointed with The Oregon Experiment, and in part because this one is rather more expensive. When I got it, I found out why. The book is large, has color on many pages, and is bound in a patterned cloth.

For that last part to really make sense, it helps to know that the book is about rugs. Yes, rugs. Christopher Alexander has been collecting carpets for quite some time, specifically very old, usually turkish, carpets. He does this because he believes that these carpets demonstrate long forgotten principles of design that he hopes to rediscover, and incorporate into his buildings.

In particular, it is about the principle of centers, an idea which he has also found at the heart of a lot of the patterns in his pattern language. A center can be the literal center of some shape, the point where lines cross, or can be created by a point or depression. Powerful centers are composed of other centers, which are composed of yet more centers, and so on down to the tiniest detail.

Another cute trick is that the familiar list of ‘other books by’ in the first few pages lists the next three books that Christopher Alexander plans to publish. Furthermore, this book, published in 1993, makes repeated references to the unpublished manuscript of the next book (which has since become four) The Nature of Order, the publication of which was recently pushed back to July of this year. ;^)

A Good Day

It was a rather unusual day. I had a meeting with a sound contractor (one of the many people who used to work for us and now does contract work, really). But he has a day job, and could only come out at 7:15pm. So I came in late, eating an early lunch at home, and dinner at work. I made fairly good use of the morning, getting the wiki closer tot he point were I will start publicizing it. I also made a spontaneous excursion to support NationStates by buying Jennifer Government. The new Barnes & Noble thought it was a book on CD and offered to order it for me ;^( Since I was there I bought Design Patterns however. Then I went a little bit down the road and found Jennifer Government prominently displayed at Borders, which I’ve always liked a little more anyway. (They also have self lookup stations so you can check for yourself if the computers even know about the book.)

Yes, I pretty much only bought the book to support the web game; it’s the only form of support Max Barry wants. But reading the first chapter on his web site beforehand made me feel a lot better about it. You should go read it, if only for the comment on suing employees who quit ;^)

And I officially own a car now. :-) The title was waiting in the mailbox when I got home. Curiously it’s stamped December 25th, I was really expecting it to be delayed a bit by the holidays, but I guess banking headquarters never shut down….