Sunday, July 31, 2005

An end to evil: Strategies for Victory in the War on Terror
(Richard Perle and David Frum, abridged, 6 CDs, punt after 1)
Know your enemy. I tried to listen to this, on the possibility that Perle does not deserve his reputation as a dark star who has exploited his defense ties for personal gain. This is toxic vitriol, with so little reasoning that it's impossible to listen to. It salutes Bush, attacks all Democrats (with a weak pass for Lieberman), and celebrates the victory in Iraq.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The World's Banker : A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations
(Sebastian Mallaby, 480pp)
If you want to know the Economist's point of view on the state of aid and development, read this book. As a bonus, the book includes a portrait of the President of the World Bank for 10 years, James Wolfensohn. Gleaned from the cumulative perspectives of dozens of World Bank executives who worked under Wolfensohn (as well as 20 hours of interviews with Wolfensohn himself), it's impossible to gainsay its accuracy; yet, as a record of underlings' resentment, it describes how the implementation of Wolfensohn's vision and ambition affected those called on to carry it out. It also covers the major world events of the '90s and early noughties, such as currency crises, AIDs epidemic, and the Yugoslavian and Iraq wars. Since I've only read a smidge in the past 20 years about development economics, I assumed that the World Bank was still an instrument of the West, inflicting debt on poor countries, funding environmentally destructive projects that lined only the pockets of kleptocrats. In fact, when Wolfensohn took over in 1994, he immediately aimed to address all these problems. Corruption was made a central focus, dialog with NGOs became an essential process, and to increase participatory development, the directorships of each country were moved to the local capitals, away from remote administration in Washington. In other words, almost anything you might imagine the World Bank needs to do, Jim Wolfensohn begun trying to do over 10 years ago. This book documents how much more complicated this turns out to be. The charismatic personality of the President of the World Bank was able to create storms of resentment. An excellent review of the state of the World, although I feel like I now need to read Joe Stiglitz point of view to get some balance.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Frost on My Moustache: The Arctic Exploits of a Lord and a Loafer
(Tim Moore, unabridged, 7 cassettes)
Too droll to be fun for the long haul. There's also nobility worship in a roundabout way, anti-German jokes, and other tropes of British humor.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Art of the printed book, 1455-1955; masterpieces of typography through five centuries from the collections of the Pierpont Morgan Library. With an essay by Joseph Blumenthal(Pierpont Morgan Library staff, 192 pp)
I didn't read the essay, but I did look at all the pictures of pretty pages. I am not convinced by the claim that Aldus Manutius' Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is the most beautiful book ever printed. Even though Tufte has joined forces with Daniel Berkeley Updike of yore, and the editors of this book to boot, in claiming this to be a matter of fact. (To check my spelling of the title, I discovered that the entirety of the book can be viewed online, and so I've linked to it.)

Friday, July 22, 2005

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories
(Alice Munro, unabridged, 8 CDs)
Great stories from the heart of Canada. Many of the tales kink in subtle directions, or take a sudden turn inside the line of a single sentence. Munro's language is un-ostentatious, direct, vivid, and a source of awesome power.

Monday, July 18, 2005

What the dormouse said : how the sixties counterculture shaped the personal computer industry
(John Markoff, 310pp)
Amazing story of how Menlo Park once was hip! Sleepy Menlo Park was a nexus of LSD experimentation, human potential movements, and the innovative explosion that created the personal computer. Doug Engelbart's team at SRI was pounding out the arcane technical developments that linked the mouse to the graphical display to the online system that would enable remote work groups to coordinate their knowledge work. Engelbart gave a demo for 90 minutes later described as if he were "dealing lightning with both hands." The demonstration was videotaped by a young Stewart Brand, fresh from merry prankster trips, and just before he began to put together the Whole Earth Catalog (near Kepler's bookstore). Unfortunately, Engelbart emphasized expertise over ease of use, and so, eventually saw his dream taken away and run by a young Alan Kay over at PARC. The second half of the book is less crunchy, and the era of the Home Brew Computer Club probably deserves its own book. Markoff's thesis is fascinating, and though he has identified an amazing confluence of odd experiences, there is much more that ought to be said about the era. The first inkling of this hippie confluence came from a conversation I'd had with Alan Cooper, who told me that Fire in the Valley was the closest account to the truth. Cooper said that he began his technical career making light shows with another Marin engineer, Gary Snyder. Although Alan Cooper is famous in the world of interaction design, it was surprising to discover that the Mountain Bike emerged from the same spark as the 'bicycle for the mind.' (Markoff says this phrase was first used by Alan Kay while he biked to and from PARC).

Friday, July 15, 2005

Paddy Clarke ha ha
(Roddy Doyle, unabridged, 8 cassettes)
This is my all-time favorite audiobook. The experience of a young (9-year-old?) boy is perfectly drawn. Every facet of young Paddy's life scintillates with a directness, an intensity of interest and confusion that is absolutely compelling. Even though I've listened to this book at least twice before, I don't recall ever fully realizing how dark the story is, how much physical aggression is encapsulated in the relationship between Paddy and his little brother Sinbad.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
(John Perkins, unabridged, 9:22; punted half way)
Listening to this book is like sitting on a flight next to a drunken, sentimental executive who tells you way more about his personal life than you ever wanted to know, and sprinkles in enough about his profession to make you sort of "get" why he's such a self-pitying worm. The topic is extremely relevant to the world's dystopian development, but the writer is utterly unreliable. He has some exalted sense of his importance, but his conspiratorial notions are so coarse and vulgar that it's useless to look to his story for the real dirt. He actually believes that academic economists publish papers that glorify the rich people who endow the university, and baldly states that they would be 'fired' if they didn't suck up. So, he has no clue about the perverse logic of academia. Strike one. He lards the book with un-reconstructed rage at his parents for sending him to an all boy's high school, and justifies his numerous acts of infidelity based on his deprived teen years. Strike two. He worked in absolute bad faith, justifying his worm's eye view with the belief that his reports, which justified the construction of big power grids, were not being listened to by the real decisionmakers. Strike three: I send thee to the compost heap, you cowardly sniveling wretch. PS: I've heard that this book was used by the SF Mime troupe to develop their summer show; although there's a sick kind of comedy in this wretched tale, it is such a bad fiction (arrogant delusions detached from the world's actual workings) that the choice seems really suspect.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Mile High Club
(Kinky Friedman, unabridged, 4 cassettes)
Our president's favorite writer is also a personal favorite, and the only mystery writer funny enough for me to follow. Great jokes, silly plots, but no use of the phrase, "stepping on a rainbow", in this fine tale.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

London : A History (Modern Library Chronicles)
(A.N. Wilson, unabridged, 4 cassettes)
A nice synoptic tour through 2 millenia, with incisive discussions of the London of Chaucer, of the Great Fire, of Johnson; there's also quick scans of the times in between, and a rather distraught nostalgia for the London prior to the firebombing in WWII. I'd agree with his disdain for modernist architectural monstrosities, although I can't assess with any knowledge his claim that the post-War years were savagely exploited by criminals.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Woman and the Ape
(Peter Hoeg, unabridged, 6 cassettes; punted after 1)
I cannot make myself listen to this-- It has a fairly promising theme, with an ape visiting London, etc. But it is a mere dreary pile-up of words, blah blah blah.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

McSweeney's Quarterly Concern Issue 16
(The 826 Valencia mafia, 200pp)
On beyond the book, in yet another re-de-construction of what can fit between a binding. This time, the quarterly comes in quarters: 1 part deck of cards, 1 part fairly traditional but skinny-ish journal, 1 part novella by Ann Beattie, and fully 1 part plastic Comb, with the word "Timothy" cursively scraped into and silverized. The deck of cards involves a fun story by Robert Coover, and with a better implementation of randomness than Julio Cortazar's Rayuela (hopscotch), the reader is encouraged to shuffle the deck, keeping only the first and last card in fixed points. The shuffle is enabled by each card ending with a specific noun, and opening with an unspecified verb. Moving the cards about changes who did what, but doesn't shift the joker. And as much as I've pondered the comb, it's underlying significance is still out of reach. I haven't read the Roddy Doyle or Beattie stories yet.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Speak, Memory : An Autobiography Revisited
(Vladimir Nabokov, unabridged, 7 cassettes)
A pleasure, although at times, reading Nabokov celebrate Nabokov can seem too rich to endure. His renowned synesthesia comes through in his ability to engorge a bare abstraction with vivid color.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Conversations with a mathematician : math, art, science, and the limits of reason : a collection of his most wide-ranging and non-technical lectures and interviews
(Gregory Chaitin, 158pp)
Light but still interesting. Very redundant, since the interviews are non-technical, and many of the same anecdotes and jokes recur. Algorithmic information theory rocked my world when I was in college. One huge caveat: This is NOT a pathway into understanding Chaitin's theories of randomness. Somehow, this book flew by my eyes, and I enjoyed paging through it just to get an idea of the guy behind the ideas. On the last page, he includes for further reading a few novels I've never heard of: Doxiadis' Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture; Hafner's Elements of Style; Martinez's Regarding Roderer.
The Storage Book: Over 250 Inspirational Ideas for Creating Stylish Home Storage
(Cynthia Inions, 176pp)
Tasteful, interesting, worth a scan once a person admits they have too much stuff and too little space.
A bunch of Sunset books on homes

It's not worth it to link to, nor review, these titles, but I did spend a hunk of time looking them over after checking them out from the Berkeley public library.
Complete tile; Windows & skylights; Ideas for great wall systems; Decorating with interior trim. Also: Insulate and weatherize : expert advice from start to finish by Bruce Harley & Ortho's all about plumbing basics