The best books I read in 2013

Back when I wrote out my list of quotes, I kind of thought it’d be just a part of a 2013 retrospective, where I’d tell you about movies I saw, books I read, places I went, post-graduate degrees I received, all that kind of stuff. It turned out to be too hard to do. But I still want to write a book review kind of post, so instead of telling you about all of the books, how about just talking about the best ones. I know that halfway through the next year isn’t really a good time to be doing end-of-year lists, but… uhh… I don’t have any counterargument to that, actually. In any case, since I didn’t read any books that came out in 2013, the year designation is completely irrelevant.

The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien, 1977). I tried reading the Silmarillion when I was about 10, and I stopped cause it was really boring. Which made me think that I should never read it, because that was when I practically had the LotR appendix memorised, and could tell you whom Castamir the Usurper usurped, etc. So what a surprise when A. said the Silmarillion was so much better than LotR, and what a surprise when I started reading it again, after A. (a different A.) finished using it for honing his trivia skills. The Silmarillion is a book of astonishing scope and vision. It doesn’t have dialogue. It doesn’t have settings, in the way the Lord of the Rings does. It doesn’t have characters. It doesn’t have insights into life. It has a plot, but not really one anyone would care about. It doesn’t even have beautiful prose in a conventional way. Instead, it has words that sound mighty and regal and wise. It has gods and demigods and shapeshifting dogs and one-on-one battles between good and evil. It has speeches and spite carried for generations and words like hame and fane. It is more like the Iliad than it is like any fantasy book that I know. I loved it.

The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes-Owles, 2011). When I briefly worked in a movie theatre, I used to claim that the endings of movies were so bad that I would find out when the movie ended and leave five minutes in advance. My dad, a serial book non-finisher, made a similar claim about the Sense of an Ending: he feels more justified not finishing books after finishing this one, since the ending undermined the entire book. But I don’t think it’s quite the case. Tony, our narrator, is not only unreliable and unremarkable, but it’s in part his unremarkableness that makes him unreliable. When the novel takes an abrupt turn and drama comes back into retirement-age Tony’s life, you can read that as Tony straining to recapture some kind of relevance for his life. Regardless, this is a short, pithy book, that, ending or not, I will think about for a long time.

Наши (Ours, Sergei Dovlatov, 1983). My grandpa said that everyone’s life contains enough good stories for one good book. And it’s writing a second good book that is a challenge. He may have been quoting someone else. Anyway, these sketches of Dovlatov’s relatives are funny and cute, and really absorbing. They also make you feel like you should get to know your relatives better. And that maybe you should write a book.

Dreaming of Babylon (Richard Brautigan, 1977). I loaned this book to somebody back in 2007 and never got it back. Since then, I’d remembered it as my favourite Brautigan, and coming back to it I was relieved to find it wasn’t nostalgia speaking. This book is awesome. The story of a detective so down on his luck he can’t afford bullets, so sadsack his biggest worry is calling his mom and so incompetent he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Also, occasionally, he takes a break from detective work to fantasize about being a guy called Smith Smith who is the best baseball player in ancient Babylon. The hilarious premise is hilariously executed.

Ghostwritten (David Mitchell, 1999) A series of vignettes about people (mostly) who are in some meaningful sense “ghosts” living in an interlocked world, this book is David Mitchell showing that he can do anything. Any style, any voice, any location, be it paranoid sci-fi or Lucky Jim-style charming English rom-com,  Haruki Murakami or crime caper, meditation on eternal travel or supernatural thriller. The guy is a virtuoso, and it’s awe inspiring to see him strut his stuff.

Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson, 1999). It’s sort of alternate history-but-not-quite that’s mostly about cryptography and world war II. It’s engagingly, cleverly written (“He’s on the third floor of a commercial building so nondescript that the most interesting observation one can make about it is that it has four stories”). It’s super inventive, it’s eloquent, without sounding pompous or overly impressed with itself, it’s funny. It has an almost Eugene Onegin-like scope: if Neal Stephenson is interested in something, it’ll be there. Its politics are rather annoying to me, and every female character – and even the male characters’ discussions of female characters – often made me cringe in frustration. Luckily, the enormous sweep of the book, how much interesting stuff there is in it to think about, philosophically, technologically, and just in terms of the staggering scope of information and topics overshadows that for me. Few reading experiences are better than getting “lost in the world” of a book, and Cryptonomicon offers as much of that as you could want. It’s weird to see that it was published the same year as “Ghostwritten” – I would have pegged “Ghostwritten” as a much later book.

Where the Jackals Howl (Amos Oz, 1965) This is so much better than every other Amos Oz book I’ve read that it’s hard to believe they’re by the same author – I wonder if maybe it’s a matter of translators? Stories that slowly build up to breaking point and then break epically. The reading equivalent of a day when you know a lightning storm will come and then the lightning storm comes.

Essais I (Montaigne, 1570) The essays are a joy to read because Montaigne constantly switches topics, digresses into outlandish questions and contradicts himself in a very entertaining manner. To a modern reader, you get the picture of a very decent person whose opinions and interests range from the very profound (on death) to the sensible but mundane (on superstition) to ones which seem crazy now but probably weren’t at the time (on how women can’t be true friends) to just completely bizarre (as when he muses on what he would do if he were hired as a defense lawyer by the human penis). You could be reading his thoughts on friendship one moment, and the next his thoughts on whether it’s reasonable to wear clothes or on whether people are unfairly prejudiced against cannibals. I was fascinated throughout.

Parkinson’s Law (C. Northcote Parkinson, 1958). The only business book I’ve ever read and also the only business book I’ve read twice, and also the only business book I ever plan on reading. It’s dry, it’s witty, it’s cutting, it’s astute. It’s hard to believe that someone with so much well-placed and precise contempt for all manner of enterprises actually was a member of society in good standing. The Law of Triviality (that when a group is tasked with spending money, the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the amount of money involved) is particularly well-spotted and brilliantly explained.

Selected Stories (Alice Munro, 1996). I read it because Munro won the Nobel Prize, and in my mind it was totally well-deserved. Only Tolstoy and Trifonov of people I have read have a comparable rapport with how people think, and how their inner and outer lives interact, often glancingly and indirectly. And that’s even though the topic of Munro’s stories – most usually a divorced middle aged woman remembering growing up in the Ottawa Valley in one form or another – is of absolutely minimal interest to me. Despite that, the stories are completely captivating. And every story I’ve read since has been on that same level. Munro has an incredibly high standard.

Carry On, Jeeves (P.G. Wodehouse, 1925). This book is so fun to read out loud. Not many people are as funny as P.G. Wodehouse.

The Book of the New Sun (Gene Wolfe, 1980-1983). Actually four separate books, it’s a dark fantasy that follows a journeyman torturer’s life. It has a bizarre, super-intricate world, excursions into philosophy, beautiful imagery and an exquisite prose style. The style is achieved in a novel way: there are no invented words in the Book of the New Sun, though there are obviously invented things. Instead, deprecated greek and roman-rooted words for weapons, animals, structures abound, making the books feel timeless. And the atmosphere is very dark. I don’t want to say austere, because Book of the New Sun is certainly ornate, too, but this feeling of a cold, unfriendly world that’s felt through the prose. Macabre and exciting and personal and not gussied-up at all.

Журавли и карлики (Cranes and Pygmies, Leonid Yuzefovich, 2009).  When I was buying this book, I was afraid it would be like “Chapaev and Void”, which I hated. The bookseller assured me that it was nothing like it. He lied completely. It is exactly like “Chapaev and Void”: the same spatiotemporal jumps from the Revolution era to the Wicked 90′s and European Russia to Mongolia. The same middling, venal characters spouting shallow philosophy. The difference is that “Cranes and Pygmies” is really really great. First, it’s the verisimilitude and attention to detail. Yuzefovich is a historian, and he really cares about Mongolia in a way Pelevin doesn’t at all. As a result you get a fascinating picture rather than something that looks like a hastily constructed set. But it’s also characters that are less put-on, and so much more interesting. It never feels like the whole thing is a vehicle for some bullshit philosophical point and/or pop-culture references. Instead, it’s a historical puzzle, a love song to Mongolia, and a novel about real people.

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Some songs, some comments

It was nice to work in a place where I got to use a radio. As a result, I got to say, and hear, 10-4 a lot. That always makes me want to listen to this:

Not until the Kings won the Stanley Cup and the Staples Center was mentioned a lot did I figure out that when Frank Ocean says “standing ovation at Staples,” he doesn’t mean a standing ovation at an actual Staples store. Somehow that would have been even more impressive in my mind.

This song is as good an explanation for several bizarre occurences in my homeland, and its politics, as any other

Say what you will, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is the best song on its chosen topic.

When walking down Richmond Street in Richmond, which I do surprisingly often, I would like to be listening to this:

or maybe to this:

Lastly, I asked this on Facebook, but no one answered me, so I will try here: is there anywhere where this is a normal pronunciation of Spanish double-r? Or is it just how José Larralde does it?

Posted in music, whimsy | 1 Comment

Unions and Pipelines

As you may know, the Canadian government just approved the Northern Gateway pipeline, despite strong opposition within B.C. The decision has seemed inevitable for a long time, so it’s not surprising. One annoying aspect of the situation, though is that certain unions fought for this decision, without figuring out whether it was their members’ wish to do so or whether it was actually in their interest or not. Not that union pressure is going to have any sway with the Harper government (or the Clark government for that matter), but still. If unions become a force for the worse on the environment, that is very much not the type of thing we at Rated Zed had in mind when zuuko spoke out in favour of a conservative-environmental rapprochement.

The inexorable logic of construction unions is that they favour more construction jobs, no matter what it is that is being constructed. Via Erik Loomis at LGM, though, here is Trish Kahle making the point that it didn’t used to, and needn’t be this way. According to her, the way to solve the current anti-environmental turn is twofold: to ensure there is democracy within the union structure itself, and to get energy sector workers into a single organization so that going with cleaner rather than dirtier energy projects needn’t pit one set of workers against another. The piece is at Jacobin mag, so it has rather offputting Marxist language quirks, but I think it’s worth reading despite that.

Posted in no value added, politics | 1 Comment

Zolltan World Cup Non-prediction Special

The World Cup is my favourite sporting event, even though many of the soccer matches are huge disappointments. Part of it is the kind of exotic nature. Back in Seattle during the 2010 World Cup, I would occasionally wake up at 4 in the morning to go out to a bar and drink by myself while watching a game – and I felt proud of it! But definitely soccer being really fun to watch for me is the bigger part. However, I am only a fairweather fan, not someone who knows anything about the players, the teams, the strategies, anything of the kind. So what’s the point of me predicting what will happen? There isn’t one, and though that doesn’t stop me from posting anything else on this blog, this time it will. Instead I will just talk about what I want to happen, because that will at least be enjoyable (to me) self-indulgence.

Group A: Brazil should win the group, and at least make the finals of the tournament. It doesn’t matter that this Brazil team isn’t filled with players who play particularly beautifully. Brazil has that kind of iconic nature a team almost can’t squander. They could play like Greece or Italy and I’d still look at those yellow jerseys and blue shorts and hope they do well (I’d draw the line at playing like England).

Group B: This group contains three teams I like, and Australia. I always cheered for the Netherlands even before I lived there (Clarence Seedorf was my favourite). And then I lived there for a bit, and participated a couple times in the incredible Orangeness that is Queen’s Day and that cemented the bond. Hup, Holland, Hup! And now the Elftal no longer has van Marwijk at the helm or van Bommel in midfield, so I don’t even feel bad about cheering for them (despite van Persie and Robben and Sneijder all seeming like terrible people). Also, they are coached by Louis van Gaal, whom I just watched speaking Spanish with the most lovable terrible Dutch accent known to man. I hope they go far. My first memory of watching an actual World Cup game is cheering for Spain, back when they were the good team that perenially disappoints. And they did then, losing to Nigeria, I think, on a bad play by excellently named keeper Andoni Zubizarreta. Since then, the familiar taste of disappointment kept me coming back as a fan, even when that disappointment turned to triumph. Probably because though Spain’s posession style has been described by some as beautiful and by others as boring, (and both are sort of true) I lean towards the first. I won’t be mad if Chile makes it, either. They’re cool.

Group C: Japan advance, as does the Ivory Coast. I have already mentioned my sentimental attachment to the Japanese men’s soccer team (as much as I disliked pretty much most of my experience of Japan and most Japanese things). Giving up that tying goal to Iraq in 1993 was one of the most excruciating sports-watching experiences ever, but the shared agony has bound me for life to the team. In case that isn’t enough, though, the emblem of the Japanese football association and the Japanese men’s football team is a three-legged crow. How cool is that? Meanwhile Ivory Coast has a team that used to be so good… you’ve got to hold out hope for them to make it out of their group as a consolation prize for the last two world cups.

Group D: Largely on the strength of being a tiny nation, and having featured star of the tournament Diego Forlan last time around, I want the dinosaurs of Uruguay to kick some ass. Also in part because I happen to know a Uruguayan, and also in part because Luis Suarez is crazy, but in a way that makes me want to cheer for him. Other than that, England must not make it. So that leaves Costa Rica or Italy. Not that I’m a huge fan of the azzuri, but I’d rather have them than England.

Group E: whoever advances, and I don’t care who, gets slaughtered in the round of 16, because all these teams are boring. And, luckily, that’s probably what’s gonna happen! Seriously, compare groups C, E and H on one hand and B, D and G on the other. FIFA needs to draw groups differently.

Group F: Argentina! Messi! De Maria! This World Cup being in South America, cosmic justice would be best served by a South American team winning. Argentina is the best bet. I always like them. Bosnia & Herzegovina apparently play a fun style, plus they won me over with this heartwarming (though incredibly pro-Bosniak biased) tale. Plus Aleksandar Hemon is writing about them.

Group G: Even though I lived in the US for six-some years, and I love the US in many respects, it never even remotely occurs to me to cheer for them in international sporting competitions ever. I don’t know why. Now that I think about it, I am feeling kind of guilty about it, and maybe will cheer for them to advance, but most likely not. Traditionally, Germany is the avatar of all that is bad in soccer, but that’s not true of a Germany with Mesut Oezil, Mario Goetze, Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira. Last World Cup I wasn’t prepared for this and was amazed to find myself cheering for them despite years of ingrained Germanofootballteamophobia. This time around, I expect I’ll like them from the start. I was twice forced to move out of a room I was renting because my landlord had relatives coming from Ghana that he wanted to house there. The first time, I found a room in a basement, with a single bathroom shared among eight people.  It sucked so much. It was under 400 bucks a month, but I had to shower at school. And I didn’t really even meet the other people who lived there, cause I tried to avoid the place. The second time, I found a really nice house with interesting people and enjoyed it greatly. But they apparently didn’t enjoy having me around nearly as much, and that sort of soured me on that experience, too. That is my only connection to Ghana. I still kinda hope they go through for some reason, though.

Group H: Belgium is apparently good. I’ll cheer for them as long as it’s understood they’re no Netherlands. I want Russia to go through, too. I guess.

Posted in non-hockey sports, The future | Leave a comment

Introducing the Phrasebook Project

Now seems as good a time to mention as any that I have another blog. It’s called the phrasebook project, and you can find it here. Having another blog may seem like a dumb idea considering I don’t even have enough stuff to post to this blog. And it is! But I decided to do so because rather than general posts as is the case here, posts there have a specific theme. The way it works is that I learn a phrase in some language. I write up the phrase, how I think one ought to say it, and some additional remarks. Here is a list of the languages written up / planned so far. As always, teaching me cool phrases in another language is super encouraged.

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Against theoretical minima

Here is a link to a page set up by Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft, called “How to become a GOOD Theoretical Physicist.” I’m lucky I decided to be an experimentalist! More seriously,  ‘t Hooft is putting together a fascinating, incredibly valuable resource, but has framed it in a way that I find unpleasant. And unpleasant in a specific way symptomatic of how too many physicists present themselves, in my view. Basically, it goes like this: being a theoretical physicist is damn near impossible, so forget it. Go play with some toys or something instead.

Here’s what I mean: having looked at that page, I immediately despaired of ever having a “good” understanding of theoretical physics. And I’m a Russian Jew! We’re the people most likely to have theoretical physicists as role models! We’re told early on in our lives that being physicists is something we can aspire to! We’re inured to thinking we don’t belong in this group! And, also, I have a Ph.D. in physics! If it immediately makes me feel I don’t belong in the club, imagine how literally anyone else – someone starting out in studying physics – is likely to feel.

‘t Hooft isn’t modest about the goals here. He basically says, this is what you need to know to be a Nobel Prize winning theorist. That may be. But then that’s sort of my point. You don’t have to win the Nobel Prize to be a good physicist. And you certainly don’t have to have winning the Nobel planned out before you start studying physics. You start because something interests you, and then that leads to something else, and you learn more and more, incrementally. Of course, some people relish the kind of challenge that ‘t Hooft’s list presents. Perhaps they are the people that become Nobel Prize winning theorists (I haven’t hung around Nobel Prize winning theorists, so I wouldn’t know). But I am willing to bet that for the vast majority of people for whom ‘t Hooft’s list and links could be enormously useful, and who could become good theorists (“good” in the conventional sense rather than ‘t Hooft’s) this framing is basically terrible.

A couple of admissions. If you read the preamble, ‘t Hooft seems to have been motivated to start this list on receiving grand theories written by amateur physicists (i.e. crackpots). Being e-mailed obviously wrong theories by crackpots is definitely annoying. Surprisingly, many of them are not very discriminating with the recipients of their theories, so it’s not just ‘t Hooft – I get these e-mails too. Thus it may be that discouraging people is part of ‘t Hooft’s point. But if so, that’s even worse. Crackpot e-mails are annoying, they are less annoying than penis enlargement e-mails or whatever other spam*. I think discouraging people from trying to understand physics just because they mildly annoy you is not a good idea.

Also, I understand that partly it’s just a matter of ‘t Hooft’s bristling personality and writing style (I think among physics Nobel winners, he is disliked less than only Samuel C.C. Ting and Hans Dehmelt. Unlike Ting and Dehmelt, though, I don’t really understand why all that well). And yet universally beloved figures like Landau have their own lore of “theoretical minima” as well. I don’t like it, and I don’t think it improves the physics community.


*Just to class this post up a bit: speaking of penis enlargements, this spammer prank is absolutely hilarious.

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How many streets are there?

“Great, wide, beautiful, wonderful World,
With the wonderful water round you curled,
And the wonderful grass upon your breast,
World, you are beautifully dressed.”
Part of a not a very good poem by William Brighty Rands

A couple days back I said “it’s a small world” because that was the response that was clearly expected of me at that point in the conversation, and if I said something else, it would just be annoying.

I didn’t mean it, however, because in fact the world isn’t small. It’s very large.

The world being large is one of the greatest things about it – you’re never going to run out of new things to see, new places. new experiences, if you want them and can access them,  for as long as you live. Thinking about how giant the world is, for me, one of the easiest ways to feel optimistic. And thinking that the world is small usually leads to the mistake of thinking that all people are basically like you and your group of friends in every way. So I actually greatly dislike the “it’s a small world” idea.

That's one street for Ubley, now just to count every other town everywhere in the world...

That’s one street for Ubley, now just to count every other town everywhere in the world…

I was thinking about all of this right after saying that it was a small world, and began to get sidetracked in thinking about exactly how big the world actually was. Pretty soon, I asked myself how many streets there were in the world. Since I was at work, I didn’t have a pencil or paper or access to any information whatsoever. I decided the simplest estimate would be to scale up Vancouver. It’s less street-dense than most cities, but more street-dense than many places where people live. I guessed Vancouver proper had roughly 200 streets and a population of 800,000. At 1 street / 4,000 people, we get roughly 2 million streets.

On one hand, this number seems too big: what of all the people who live where there are no streets at all? And what about where the streets have no name? Do we still count those? On the other, it seems way too small. I think I can easily name about 2000 streets (1st ave, 2nd ave,… OK, fine. I’m not going to try it). But the idea that I know .1% of all the streets in the world seems crazy. So I wanted to ask, what’s a way to make a better estimate? First, a better city than Vancouver may be found. In any case this method will help us bound our estimate: somewhere between 700,000 streets (using estimated Manhattan) and 7 million (using a Vancouver suburb).

Rather than using (streets/people)x(people), it may be more appropriate to pick an area, look at the number of streets, and then scale up. For instance, what if we determine the average population density of land (7 billion /(30%*4*pi*(6400 km)^2), or approximately 45 people/km^2) and then look at some area which matches that average density, see what its street density is, and then scale that up to all land? Let’s imagine a village of 180 people spread over 4 sq. km. Picture that in your mind, and I would say that it has about 5 streets. Now multiply that by the number of 4 sq. km areas in the world, and you get almost 200 million. The problem with this way of doing it is that the number of streets as a function of number of people is very much sublinear, especially once you get to having at least a few streets in an area. That is, the number of people needed to make each additional street keeps growing. So the above is going to be a wild overestimate of the number of streets in total, which is what we do see. We can get a better result by starting with a much bigger sample area. Say some square cut out of BC. At 45 people/sq km, the roughly 3 million people of the lower mainland fit in a roughly 250 km x 250 km sized square. My guess is this corresponds to roughly the US border to beyond Pemberton in one direction, and from the Strait of Georgia to beyond Hope (beyond Hope!) in another. How many streets are in this section? My guess is somewhere around 1,500. Scaling that up, we get somewhere in the neighbourhood of 3.6 million streets in the world.

The problem still remains that I don’t know, and don’t have a good way of guessing at, the question of how streets are arranged outside the developed world. For example, if you ask me how many streets there are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I couldn’t offer you any reasonable guess.

Another possibility, and one that somewhat reduces the “first world blinders” problem, is to use something like the earth location sampler used in this xkcd what-if, and look at street densities of various locations (as long as your “sample area” is large enough). The problem here is that finding a location with any streets at all is going to be quite rare, so you will need lots of sampling to get a reasonable answer.

The question is very ambiguous (what counts as a street?) to the point where I think even if you somehow could (and decided to) count all the streets by hand, you could get answers off from each other by a factor of 2 or 3. And yet, the crazy thing is, I bet if you asked google maps to just count them all, for example, you’d get a very specific answer.

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