You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Year's Best SF 9

Year's Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, was published in 2004. The next edition is out now but I haven't gotten it yet. I just finished this one, reading during workouts at the gym. Here are some of the highlights:

"The Day We Went Through the Transition", by Ricard De la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero, is my favorite story. On the surface it's about a team of people who try to make sure the timeline isn't tampered with, but it's also a love story. Just think about going to a different timeline to find a loved one who you've lost.

"The Albertine Notes", a novella by Rick Moody, was also very good. It deals with a drug that lets you relive memories, but it also allows some people to alter what really happened in those memories, and some people can see future memories. It's a fasciting tale about fluctuating realities.

Other good stories are "Coyote at the End of History" by Michael Stanwick, a series of short bits about the Native American trickster and aliens; "The Hydrogen Wall" by Gregory Benford, a story about humanity's attempt to interact with a superior intelligence; "Night of Time", by Robert Reed, about an ancient being and its meeting with a man who retrieves memories; "Annuity Clinic", by Nigel Brown, with an older woman who's trying to salvage what's left of her life. Also, "The Great Game" by Stephen Baxter is a good story about a war being pushed by a powerful military.

Most of the other stories were pretty good too. "The Violet's Embryos", by Angelica Gorodischer, was an interesting story about a planet where some stranded men have figured out how to get anything they want--nearly. It's a little hard to read a first though.

Overall I'd give the book a A-. It almost always kept me interested.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Dude, Where's My Country?

I recently listened to Dude, Where's My Country? by Michael Moore, on CD during my commute. Despite being a bit dated with Iraq information from just after the Iraq war started, it's a decent read. Moore hits President Bush hard, and I agree with about 75% of what he says.

Some things he's way out there on, like he's suspicious about 9/11 being blamed on Osama bin Laden, who he says is on dialysis (I hadn't heard this before), so would therefore have a problem masterminding the attacks. I think it's probably pretty settled that he's bankrolling al Queda, who certainly orchestrated the attacks.

But Moore's got some strong points about Bush and the Saudi royal family, as well as the bin Laden's themselves, like their financial ties and swift exodus from the country in the days after 9/11. I agree that it's odd that on the hijacked planes, 15 of 19 hijackers were Saudi, none were Iraqi, yet we invaded Iraq. Moore points out that nobody says we were attacked by Saudi Arabia, yet if those hijackers had been Iraqi, we'd have heard that we were attacked by Iraq.

Moore gets into domestic issues too, but not as much as he could have. He does have some good points to make about the views of the American people (mostly liberal and tolerant) versus the Republican party (conservative and intolerant). And along those lines, how Republicans can keep winning elections. I'm not sure how serious he is about nominating Oprah, but it's not that bad an idea. She'd be more qualified than our current leader.

Overall, I'd give the book a B-. I can't really take off points for being out of date, since it was highly relevant at the time it was published. Still, more detail about the administration's awful policies would have been nice.

PS I have just started listening to Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. 30 CDs. We'll see how long it takes to finish it.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed was written by Jared Diamond, a professor of geography. It presents several studies of societies over the course of history that have collapsed, and examines the reasons for their collapse. At 592 pages, it contains a lot of detail about many cultures, past and present.

What impressed me the most about this book was the level of detailed knowledge we have about many of these historical people. For example, the pollen in lake mud can be examined at different levels to determine where and when different plant species thrived. This tells us a lot about how grasses were overgrazed in medieval Greenland, among other places. Diamond describes how researchers determined the eating habits of the Greenland Norse by examining their garbage pits and the bones therein.

Easter Island is known for its famous statues, but it's also known among anthropologists and others for the society that died out after cutting down all the trees on the entire island. Why would they cut down all their trees? It's an excellent question, and one that Diamond can only begin to answer. The short answer: island tribes were competing for the biggest statues, which required cutting down trees to make rope from the bark. When the trees were gone, the statues could not be moved, and more impotantly, they could not make fires to cook.

A contrast is provided in Japan in the 17th century. When it became clear that deforestation was a growing problem, leading to erosion, siltation, and other problems, the shogun established a "top-down" approach to forestry that severely limited wood production and provided for stiff penalties for violations. They also completed extensives inventories of trees. Amazingly, Japan has gone from being heavily deforested in the 17th century to being more well-forested today than many other developed countries.

Other examples include more islands in the Pacific. Like Tikopia, whose chiefs decided to destroy all the island's pigs because of how destructive they were. Diamond examines modern-day Australia, and their problems with salinization and introduced pests. He also looks at Rwanda, which had a huge overpopulation and environmental stress problems leading up to the genocide. Also China, which is having a huge and growing impact on its land. The book is very detailed.

Towards the end the author attempts to come to grips with why some societies can't deal with the impending doom, even if they foresee it. One of the more important reasons is that different elements of different societies have an interest in the status quo, so they either won't admit there's a problem, or fight any attempts at change. The one issue that sticks in my mind is hard-rock mining; gold, silver, and other metal mines produce a huge amount of waste for the small amount of ore they produce. Especially bad are poisonous elements like arsenic and lead. Yet mines often close down without cleaning up the mess they have made. I still can't figure out why society lets mining companies pollute so bad, and get away with it, often with bonuses for the executives. Diamond points to the miners' claims of Western values and tradition, but I for one wouldn't let them get away with what they do based on such BS.

Jared Diamond does a great job of bringing together history, land use, politics, and societal values. He shows how overpopulation and environmental strain converge to wreak greater havoc than either would alone. He also brings messages of hope, based on ways that societies have come back from the brink, and things that we can do to make things better, like reduce our impact on the land.

I give the book an A. I highly recommend it, even if you're not into such a dry sounding topic. The descriptions of societies that have failed is fascinating.