Monday, November 19, 2007

Book reviews

I've just finished a bunch of books, I better write down my thoughts on them before I've completely forgotten:

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

It took me a long time to get around to reading this, and I know almost everybody else has done already. It didn't take me long to finish the book, which is very beautifully written, lucid and very full of life. The theme of guilt is very interesting; how long do you punish yourself for something you did as a mere child? What does it take for you to forgive yourself? Does good come from guilt?

The book is the story of someone who did something he feels deep shameful of for most of his life, and also the story of what it is like to have grown up in and fled from turbulent Afghanistan.

The author has a somewhat similar background to the narrator, as he also came from a privileged background, and left his home country with his parents before the Russian invasion. It's no surprise then that the characters and settings feel authentic and are rich with illuminating detail.

I found the story very moving. About 2/3 in it seemed like the book was about to meander to a dull and predictable ending, yet the opposite was the case. In the final third much is revealed and loose ends are wrapped up neatly and thrillingly.

Tending to avoid books that invoke mass hysteria and dominate book clubs, I nearly missed this one. I'm so glad I didn't ultimately.

I saw what I thought was a new book by Guns Germs and Steal author, Jared Diamond. "The Third Chimpanzee" is actually a much earlier work from 1993. My mistake, yet I felt somewhat cheated to read a lot of the same material again that is present in GG&S. Yet still there was plenty or interesting new material.

My favourite idea in the book, was that of how peoples view of the past is profoundly shaped by their own history and professional interests. He describes this as 'paleopoetry' or looking at relics from the past as a Rorschach ink blot test, telling you more about yourself than about the people you are studying. I liked that analogy. People do seem to become very dogmatic, and view everything from their own corner, imprinting their own priorities and philosophies on everything they see.

I'd say GG&S is a must read, simply because it's filled with great ideas and is beautifully written. This book however is a lot more preachy, and a lot less important, at least in my humble opinion.

There are some more recently read books that I will cover shortly.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Book reviews: Double post combo

I recently finished two interesting books which I will now chat about...

The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil

This book is a somewhat breathless and optimistic view of the future of technology. In particular Ray focuses on AI, since he's an AI expert and entrepreneur this is hardly surprising.

In addition he looks at Nanotechnology and Genetic Engineering.

I spent a lot of time thinking about immortality; and the author shares my view that death is kind of a loss of information... the loss of you, your consciousness and memories. I've always wanted to have my brain set up in a jar and hooked up a computer and the internet when I die.

So I was intrigued and optimistic to read about the potential tech revolution that may be with the next couple of decades, that could enable just that kind of insanity.

The key point of the book is that technology is developed at an exponential rate, rather than linear. And at the same time we are approaching some kind of singularity where we will merge with our technology in a way that is probably not even conceivable to us.

I have to take it all with a pinch of salt. There's not a lot of support for the ideas in the book. Peter Norvig, AI researcher and google director of research, commented on the singularity in the recent conference, and was not exactly optimistic.

Still, an interesting read, I learned a lot of stuff I didn't know about current technology. On particular that researchers have been able to integrate artificial neurons with mice, and that there is an artificial model of the ear that is modeled at neuron level and yet exhibits many of the features of a human ear.

I'd recommend this to anyone interested in AI and the possible dramatic future of technology and humanity.

Shakespeare: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd.

Ironically, I picked this up in the book shop, and I was thinking it would be quite a chore to read. Peter Ackroyd's books tend to be packed full of knowledge, and I've found some of them a little dry in places.

I did want to read about Shakespeare though since I am English after all, and I don't know much about him, so I really wanted to make the effort to read it.

In the end I was really glad I did, since his life and times were really quite a lot more colourful and eventful than I quite expected. Being a biography, the book brings his plays to life somewhat, since for each one we know a little of what was happening in Shakespeare's life, the actors working with him and the political climate of the day.

It covers unexpected and interesting topics such as the multiple occurrences of different words for 'vagina', and what sex was life in those days of little sanitation and personal hygiene.

Shakespeare's friends get locked in the Tower of London, killed in duels and beheaded, whilst he manages to somehow keep in favour with Royalty and not annoy his enemies enough to end up in a deadly duel himself.

William is portrayed as the genius he no doubt was, and often the book speaks warmly of him. Not only as a great writer, but as a man with many friends, with a good head for business, a fascination with royalty and social status and finally a responsibility for his extended family.

Peter Ackroyd has also written London's biography, and many other books on London's history. It is no surprise to find the city playing a large part of Shakespeare's story, and he often speaks affectionately about that old town as he does about the great writer himself.

I would heartily recommend this to anyone with half an ounce of interest in Shakespeare, London, and the Elizabethan era in general, and I greatly enjoyed it.

Other books by Peter Ackroyd I've enjoyed include is fictional stories based in London "Chatterton" and "Hawksmoor". Both of which follow the fortunes (or lack of) of a couple of historic Londoners.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007


I just finished reading Longitude, by David Sobel. This is the story of the man who invented the first clocks capable of telling accurate time whilst enduring the rough conditions of the open seas. This being vital for establishing ones longitude when navigating. Before this was possible many ships and lives were lost due to not knowing the accurate position of the ship.

The story follows John Harrison, a self educated passionate clock maker from England, who built his clocks at a time it was considered impossible.

Along the way there's lots of interesting history, and some familiar figures from history show up including Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, King George III and Captain Cooke.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Saratoga Automobile Museum

Last week we went to the Saratoga Automobile Museum. This racing car is pretty cool. It was made at the local Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which funnily enough is where a lot of my co-workers at Vicarious Visions got their Computer Science degrees.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Jamie and Barney in the woods

One thing that's nice about this area (North Eastern USA) is you get proper cold winters with snow and that. Here you can see Jamie and Barney after a viscous snow ball fight, which Barney lost, on account of not having hands.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Faster emails to yourself in gmail

I send a lot of emails to myself via gmail, since it's so easy to search and find it again, tagging the subject line with 'music to buy', 'books to read' etc.

In doing this I have to type the first few letters of my name when doing this, and I thought it would be handy if I could just type 'me'.

Well today I figured out a way of doing this...

1) On gmail's main page click contacts
2) Find or add yourself
3) Click "edit contact information"
4) Set your name to 'me'

Now when you compose and email you can just type me and bing, your name appears.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Happy Welly CD

A friend of mine Matt Howlett has made an album of very unusual and brilliant music.

Thanks to the miracles of the internet you can now buy the CD online, and he hasn't even been on Top of the Pops!

It's amazing to think that a few weeks ago Matt and I were the only ones to have ever listened to it, and now, I have a CD, and erm, well, that's all that has changed really. But horay!

Oh, and since Matt is the only reader of this blog, that's all kind of irrelevant.

Check out this link for more music:

From happy welly

Friday, February 23, 2007

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Winter arrives

Despite the fact that upstate New York has months of snow and cold weather every year, the two years I've been here there's been very little snow. We got one decent snow fall last week.

Here are some pictures.