Some Books Read in 2004

I’ve been pretty busy this year at work and at school, but still have managed to read a few books, at least one of which was seriously good, though most are just escapist fare. Presented roughly in order of enjoyment:

What’s the Matter with Kansas?
by Thomas Frank

“How Conservatives Won the Heart of America”: I’ve already written at length about this great book, earlier in the year.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
by Lynne Truss

Another runaway best-seller on punctuation with a panda on the cover.
Not especially rigorous, but entertaining:

My producer invited John Richards of the Apostrophe Protection Society to come and talk to us…Suddenly I was a-buzz with ideas[:] What about issuing stickers with the words, “This apostrophe is not necessary”? What about telling people to shin up ladders in the dead of night with an apostrophe-shaped stencil and a tin of paint? Why did the Apostrophe Protection Society not have a militant wing? Could I start one? Where do you get balaclavas?

…We must take up arms. Here are the weapons required in the apostrophe war
(stop when you start to feel uncomfortable):

correction fluid
big pens
stickers cut in a variety of sizes, both plain (for sticking over unwanted apostrophes) and coloured (for inserting where apostrophes are needed)
tin of paint with big brush
guerilla-style clothing
strong medication for personality disorder

Big Trouble: An Actual Novel
by Dave Barry

I can do no better than to quote Stephen King: “I laughed so hard I fell out of a chair. This is the funniest thing I’ve read in almost forty years. It’s his funniest, coolest book.”

I personally can’t think of the phrase, “It’s a powerful law-enforcement tool,” without grinning maniacally, now.

Going Postal
by Terry Pratchett

…he collided with someone who hurried him across the floor.

“Don’t say a word, don’t say a word, but you are looking for a book, yes?”

“Well, actually–” He seemed to be in the clutches of a wizard.

“–you are not sure what book!” said the wizard. “Exactly. It is the job of a librarian to find the right book for the right person. If you would just sit here, we can proceed. Thank you. Please excuse the straps. This will not take long. It is practically painless.”


Another fine Discworld novel. Like all of them, it’s thoroughly readable. If you’re unfamiliar with the series then you should definitely start out with Guards! Guards! and then read Men at Arms, after which you will likely be pretty much inescapably hooked by the Night Watch grouping of novels, which continue with Feet of Clay, Jingo, and Night Watch.

Mr. Pratchett outsold any other author in Britain in the 1990’s, and rightly so.

A Hat Full of Sky
by Terry Pratchett

There is something called the Doctine of Signature. It works like this: When the Creator of the Universe made helpful plants for the use of people, he (or in some verisons. she) put little clues on them to give people hints…

…”This one’s called False Gentian,” [Miss Level] told Tiffany when they were in the long, cool workroom behind the cottage. She was holding up a weed triumphantly. “Everybody thinks it’s just another toothache cure, but just look at the cut root by stored moonlight, using my blue magnifying glass…”

Tiffany tried it, and it read, “GoOD F4r Colds May cors drowsniss. Do NOt oprate heavE mashinry.”

“Terrible spelling, but not bad for a daisy,” said Miss Level.

“You mean plants really tell you how to use them?” said Tiffany.

“Well, not all of them, and you have to know where to look,” said Miss Level. “Look at this, for example, on the common Walnut. You have to use the green magnifying glass by the light of a taper made from red cotton, thus…”

Tiffany squinted. The letters were small and hard to read.

“‘May contain Nut’?” she ventured. “But it’s a nutshell. Of course it’ll contain a nut. Er…won’t it?”

“Not necessarily.”

An outstanding children’s novel, and a sequel to the award-winning The Wee Free Men.

A Question of Attraction
by David Nicholls

“As a Glaswegian, born and bred, I think it’s safe to say that what we’re looking at here is an absolutely classic misunderstanding of the basic principle of the head-butt,” says Rebecca Epstein. “The whole point of a head-butt is to bring the hard part of your forehead down with as much force as possible onto the soft part of your opponent’s nose. What you’ve done here, Brian, is to bring the soft part of your nose down against the hard part of his forehead. Hence the blood and the loss of consciousness.”

The story of a working-class British boy’s first year at University, along with a sizable helping of obsession with the University Challenge quiz program (for one thing, each chapter begins with a Quiz question, having something to do with the chapter’s direction).

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1)
by Lemony Snicket

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle…

Like Harry Potter, this has recently been made into what Sean tells me is an insipid movie. Read the book instead.

His Dark Materials
by Philip Pullman

I got around to reading this delightful fantasy trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) this year, thanks to my sister Jan (a children’s librarian by training and experience). It’s targeted at youth, but that’s never stopped me.

He’s Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys
by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo

A book about relationships, targeted at women, written by two of the people responsible for the similarly-titled episode of Sex In The City. I read it because I quite liked the TV episode, and to get some insight into the kinds of things that men do that drive women crazy. The book’s unrelenting message to women is simple: if the man in your life doesn’t call you when he says he’s going to, if he doesn’t want to do things with your (perfectly-nice) family, if he belittles you in front of your friends, if he, in short, doesn’t treat you well, it’s not because (a) he’s afraid of intimacy, (b) he was screwed up by his mother, (c) he’s extremely busy and important, or (d) any other reason, really. If a guy isn’t treating you right, he’s just not that into you, so stop making excuses for him and go find someone who is. Sure, exceptions may exist, but 9 times out of 10, that’s why.

Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls
by Matt Ruff

I had hugely enjoyed this author’s wonderful second novel, Sewer, Gas & Electric, and to a very-slightly-lesser degree, his earlier Fool on the Hill, so I purchased this one sight-unseen.

Once it was in my hands, however, I was a bit put off by the subject — it sounded as if it would be more fun to write than to read. I got around to reading it this year, and it definitely has features of interest, though I’d certainly recommend that you read the other two first, especially SG&E.

Flu : The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic
by Gina Kolata

Or, “Why I, Tom Chappell, always get a flu shot every year, now.”

Naked in Baghdad
by Anne Garrels

“The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR’s Correspondent”: a great account by Anne Garrels of her experiences covering Gulf War II.

Skinny Dip
by Carl Hiaasen

Another enjoyable thriller, though the main character occasionally did some things that made me say, “Oh, you’ll never get me to believe that she would have done that.”

State of Fear
by Michael Crichton

A festering turd of a novel. Mr. Crichton has a real axe to grind here, about the [as he claims] poor quality of the science behind fears of global warming, and will do absolutely any violence to his characters’ integrity in order to further this aim. A clear low point comes when the protagonist, a supposedly-good lawyer, asks another lawyer unlawerly dopey question after dopey question, all so that the second character can be given a chance to deliver great expository rants. I’m not even saying, in this paragraph at least, that he’s necessarily wrong about the science — it’s just that the novel isn’t very good.

Asian Tsunami Relief

There’s still time to contribute this year to charitable organizations and deduct it from your taxes in April (or sooner!).

Here are a few links for your convenience (I was in the neighborhood, anyway).

The number in parentheses after each charity’s name is their Charity Navigator Overall Rating, out of a possible score of 70, as of 05/14/2008; they are listed in order from better to worse ratings.

American Red Cross  (69.40)
2025 E Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006
(800) HELP-NOW

CARE  (68.87)
151 Ellis Street
Atlanta, GA 30503
(800) 521-CARE

Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières  (63.57)
PO Box 2247
New York, NY 10116-2247
(888) 392-0392

Habitat for Humanity International  (63.07)
Asia Tsunami Response Fund
121 Habitat St
Americus, GA 31709
(229) 924-6935

US Fund for UNICEF  (61.50)
333 East 38th Street
New York, NY 10016
(800) FOR-KIDS

Oxfam America  (60.40)
Asian Earthquake Fund
PO Box 1211
Albert Lea, MN 56007-1211
(800) 77-OXFAM

Grameen Foundation USA  (59.25)
1029 Vermont Avenue, NW
Suite 400
Washington, DC 20005-3517
(888) 764-3872

Fall 2004 Grade Gloat

COMP 615, Computer Science: Advanced Theory of Computability: A

I murdered the curve in this class: my 92.5% on the final was a full 9% higher than the closest competitor. The median was 58%.

My cumulative score for the course was 87%, which was 8% higher than the second-place finisher. The median was 53%.

I was the only “A” in the class — the others in the top 4 had to settle for an “A-“, and there’s tarnish there.

The Prof. makes no effort to try to tune the tests to the 90-100=A, etc. rule, but just makes them super hard (“to separate the men from the boys”) and then curves as needed to get the letter grade, presumably picking the grade breaks based on his qualitative assessment of a student’s achievement. I like to try to make it to 90%, all the same. I did it on the final, but missed it by a few points on the cumulative score.

The great thing is, this subject is one that I never studied in school at Georgia Tech (well, minor parts were touched on, but nothing remotely near this depth), so I’m not cheating by using any greybeard knowledge — I just flat-out out-competed them at learning new stuff.

Question 1 was in two parts, and the Professor had given us a hint in the second part: we could answer the question by adding two non-terminal symbols to the generative grammar from the first part. I couldn’t figure out a way to do it in less than three, but we weren’t required to do it in two, so I just answered the question and moved on, because finishing the test on time is one of the hard parts of this class.

Later, at home, I looked at it some more, and finally wrote my Prof. an e-mail, asking him how he could possibly be doing it in two — wouldn’t (a certain bad thing) happen? He wrote back to say that I was right to be skeptical, because the way that he’d been thinking of doing it wouldn’t have worked with two symbols — you needed three. But then (perhaps because he’s as insanely competitive as myself) he felt that the gantlet had been thrown down, and figured out a way to do it with only two new symbols.

I laughed out loud when I saw his solution: he’d added a rule that said if one of the symbols was duplicated and adjacent (e.g. CC) then it would act like a different symbol (e.g. D). So he had to kludge it in very slightly, but he was able to meet the letter of the requirement.

COMP 595VAV, Software Engineering: Verification and Validation: A

I’ll be forever grateful to CSUN for breaking my once-crippling fear of Public Speaking. I was in good form for my individual presentation in this class, and the Prof’s notes were actually pretty great:

Excellent presentation. Interesting paper and ideas were well-explained.
Well organized. Good presentation style, but spoke a little too softly.
More eye contact would help.

Content:      10/10
Organization: 10/10
Visual Aids:   9/10
Delivery:      9/10

Total: 38/40 = 95%

I had realized about 7/8 of the way through the presentation that I wasn’t making eye contact — too late to fix it. I was surprised by the “too soft” comment; I had thought that I was really belting it out. So that’s valuable feedback.

The median score that I received from my peer reviewers was 92.5% — not bad. Several students went out of their way to tell me how much they’d enjoyed it, one even running over to be sure to tell me.

I had had the highest grade in the class on the mid-term, but felt weirdly logy and off my game during the final exam. In the end, I came in 4th place on the final exam, earning an 89% (there was one 90% and two 91%).

For the course overall, I had the top score of 91.25% (the next-highest overall score was 89.00%).

A Sinister Advantage

On average, left-handers are smaller and lighter than right-handers. That should put them at an evolutionary disadvantage. But it is hard to box against a southpaw, simply because most right-handed people have little experience of fighting left-handers, but not vice versa. And winning fights enhances your status. If this has translated into increased reproductive success, it might have been enough to maintain a certain proportion of left-handers in the population, by balancing the costs of being left-handed with the advantages gained in fighting. If that is true, then there will be a higher proportion of left-handers in societies with higher levels of violence, since the advantages of being left-handed will be enhanced in such societies.

Two researchers, Faurie and Raymond, found that the proportion of left-handers in a traditional society is, indeed, correlated with its homicide rate. One of the highest proportions of left-handers was found among the Yanomamo of South America, where the murder rate is 4 per 1,000 inhabitants per year (compared with, for example, 0.068 in New York). And 22.6% of Yanomamo are left-handed. In contrast, Dioula-speaking people of Burkina Faso in West Africa are virtual pacifists. There are only 0.013 murders per 1,000 inhabitants among them and only 3.4% of the population is left-handed.

While there is no suggestion that left-handed people are more violent than the right-handed, it looks as though they are more successfully violent.

“A Sinister Advantage”
The Economist
December 9, 2004

Whitewashing Torture?

On June 15, 2003, Sgt. Frank “Greg” Ford, a counterintelligence agent in the California National Guard’s 223rd Military Intelligence (M.I.) Battalion stationed in Samarra, Iraq, told his commanding officer, Capt. Victor Artiga, that he had witnessed five incidents of torture and abuse of Iraqi detainees at his base, and requested a formal investigation. He was given 30 seconds to withdraw his complaint, and was then told to leave his C.O.’s office, and that he would be called when the complaint was ready.

Thirty-six hours later, Ford, a 49-year-old with over 30 years of military service in the Coast Guard, Army and Navy, was ordered by U.S. Army medical personnel to lie down on a gurney, was then strapped down, loaded onto a military plane and medevac’d to a military medical center outside the country. This without any written order, against military regulations, and in spite of a psychiatric evaluation which initially had given him a clean bill of health — according a witness, the C.O. intimidated the staff psychiatrist to change her report. He spent the next eight months being evaluated by a series of psychiatrists, often in locked wards, all of whom found him to be completely sane. He was finally given an honorable discharge.

“Whitesashing Torture?”
December 8, 2004

“Intel Agent Strapped to Gurney and Flown Out of Iraq by U.S. Army After Reporting Torture of Detainees”
December 9, 2004

Why I Can’t Recognize Faces

I’m famous for it — I can’t recognize faces. I’ll give you some quick examples, but understand that these are just a few of many that I could tell you:

1. I used to work at home, and I would often pick up my son Sean at school, every day, really. It would often happen, and especially one day, that I just wasn’t sure if the kid coming toward me was my son or not. My actual son, whom I love and see every day. I really wasn’t sure until he saw me, smiled and waved. On other days, it was some other kid.

2. Once, about a year ago, I went my co-worker Teresa’s baby shower, and happened to have rushed to work without shaving. To top things off, when my good friend Larry Helmerich took my picture, I made a face. Later, looking at the picture on his web site while at work, I thought that I didn’t look too attractive, and asked him to remove that bad picture. He wrote me back that he had “taken action,” and when I went to look at the site, the picture was still there, but not so bad. When I told Larry that “the picture doesn’t look as bad on my Macintosh as it did on my PC at work, for some reason,” he replied, “I removed your face and replaced it with Brad Pitt’s, you idiot!”

…or five other stories that I could tell you. I just really can’t recognize faces.

This week’s Economist has an interesting (though short) story about the malady, with wonderful new words:

face-blindness — The inability to recongize faces.

prosopagnosia — face-blindness.

greebles — computer-generated, stylized doo-jobs, designed to see if face-blind people have a generalized pattern-recognition deficit, or something specific to faces. It turns out that it’s something specific to faces: face-blind people have no trouble with greebles.

“About Face”
The Economist
December 2, 2004