book reviews

Book Review: Infinite Jest

Title: Infinite Jest
Author: David Foster Wallace
Published: 1996 by Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 0-316-92004-5

Without a doubt this was the worst book that I've read in a long long time. I suppose "read" is a bit of a stretch since I couldn't get through more than 30 pages before my head was spinning. Was there even a plot? I scanned through the rest of the book and it seemed to be more of the same. I just didn't feel like I could put myself through that sort of torture so I abandoned ship.

Ostensibly it's a book about addiction, philosophy and comedy. I found none of the above, unless the addiction was that of the author who possibly was high as a kite while he wrote. One would thus also assume that the reviewers on the back of the book were sharing in the ganja. I can't find any basis for their glowing reviews.


Book Review: The Pluto Files

Title: The Pluto Files: The Rise And Fall Of America's Favorite Planet
Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Published: 2009 by WW Norton & Company, Inc.
ISBN: 978-0-393-06520-6

Neil deGrasse Tyson was the spark that ignited a firestorm of controversy around Pluto, abut which I'm sure you're familiar. This is his story, but also the story of Pluto. It's a great read, not too long (about 150 pages not including appendices) and how could you turn down a book which includes a song by Jonathan Coulton?

The book has a great, humorous tone. I've always been a fan of Tyson's style anyway, and this book held true to form. The best part is probably the inclusion of letters that Tyson received from angry school children who felt scorned, complete with crayon drawings of pluto. I can relate because my 6 year-old is rather fond of Pluto and I think he went through some withdrawals upon hearing the news.

But my absolute favorite part of the story, the one that caused me to laugh out loud, was the following:

The article goes on to quote Ms. Ackerman [Shelley Ackerman of astrology website] criticizing the IAU [International Astronomical Union] for not including astrologers in its decision.

Ha! As if! They may as well have asked the aforementioned elementary school children. Astrologers just make me laugh.

For my part, I initially rejected the IAU definition. But as I've had time to consider it and read opinions from Tyson and many of those included in his book (both for and against), I've come to accept it. As Tyson states, it's not about keeping a count of planets, so whether Pluto is a planet or a dwarf planet, really doesn't mean a whole hill of beans.


Predictably Irrationally: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Title: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
Author: Dan Ariely
Published: 2008 by Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-135323-9

I can't exactly recall how this book got on my list of books to read, and that's a shame because whoever recommended it was dead on. This book is similar in many ways to one I reviewed previously, Mindless Eating, in that it sets out to show how our decision making process is much more complicated than we reason.

Let me start off with an example from the book. The author ran a study which asked students to perform a menial task for which they would be paid. On a computer they selected a virtual room and then were able to click on objects that would pay them a certain amount, based on which room it was. During one iteration, they spiced up the test by making rooms disappear if they were neglected for a certain amount of time. Users tended to waste their clicks keeping the doors open, rather than using them to earn money in a room.

Is this an efficient way to live our lives--especially when another door or two is added every week? I can't tell you the answer for certain in terms of your personal life, but in our experiments we saw clearly that running from pillar to post was not only stressful but uneconomical. In fact, in their frenzy to keep doors from shutting, our participants ended up making substantially less money (about 15 percent less) than the participants who didn't have to deal with closing doors. The truth is that they could have made more money by picking a room--any room--and merely staying there for the whole experiment!

The book is chock full of stories similar to this one, so it's a great read just for the humor. But it does have a number of lessons to be teach as well covering procrastinating, honesty, dieting, saving, and many more topics. It's an invaluable tool to look at how you make your own decisions. Occasionally I found myself thinking quietly, "well, duh!" only to remember a few moments later some choice I had made which was equally as flawed.

My one complaint I suppose is that he often answers questions with more stories, e.g. "how does that work? Well, let me give you another example that explains it." He does eventually come to a conclusion, so no need to fear being left hanging, and the stories are of course interesting so it's not a waste of time. I just found it somewhat humorous that he kept doing it over and over. I suppose that makes him predictably irrational. :)


Book Review: Starswarm

Title: Starswarm
Author: Jerry Pournelle
Published: 1999 by Tor
ISBN: 0812538935

It's been a while since I've read a work of fiction, and even longer since I picked up any science fiction. That's a real shame because there's some good stuff out there. I learned about Jerry Pournelle from the TWiT podcast, which I listen to regularly. On the show he seems to be quite abreast of technology and somebody (could have been him, not sure) recommended Starswarm as a good first read of his. That's how this book and I became acquainted.

The story is about a boy named Kip who lives on a planet named Paradise, somewhere far far away from Earth. It's a colony run by a corporation named Great Western Enterprises. The planet is fairly earth-like, although not a clone by any means. First thing you might notice would be the blue sun. The local flora and fauna are different, although similar too. Some of the notables include centaurs, haters and the lovable starswarm. The latter is some kind of a water based plant which can grow to immense proportions but is largely misunderstood by the humans.

Well it turns out that Kip isn't an ordinary boy. For starters he has a computer chip in his head which he can use to talk to a mainframe computer. He's also not who he thinks he is. During the course of the book, he does eventually find the truth (which I'm trying hard not to give away). The events leading up to the discovery and those that unfold afterwards are pretty interesting and exciting.

I was rather pleased with the book. It held my interest well and I finished it in about a week. The story flowed smoothly and the science all seemed to fit in with the environment.

The one complaint I might make would be that the book ends rather abruptly. One page there's an intense standoff and the very next the book is over. There is very little in the way of resolution beyond a quick hand wave that "they lived happily ever after". In one way that might be a good thing as it left more pages to be filled with helicopter chases, gun fights and other assorted excitements. On his website, Pournelle indicates that Starswarm may be developed into a series, something that I'm certain it would be well suited for.

I enjoyed the book immensely and would recommend it to others. I undoubtedly will read more Pournelle novels.


Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think

Title: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think
Author: Brian Wansink
Published: 2006 by Bantam Dell
ISBN: 0-553-80434-0

I've heard this guy on KCRW's Good Food before. He's a professor of marketing and nutritional science, and from the sounds of it he's a creative guy with an extremely fun job. He does research on why people eat the way they do and what influences them most. A lot of the time, it's not what you expect.

One of the best experiments he did was with a bottomless bowl of soup. His question was what makes a person decide to stop eating? What makes us stop eating? He rigged up a bowl of soup connected via a tube to a vat of soup. Without slurping down a lot of soup, basically it was impossible to empty the bowl. On average those with the endless bowl at 73% more soup than those with a normal bowl.

Most were still eating when we stopped them, 20 minutes after they began. The typical person at around 15 ounces, but others at more than a quart--more than a quart. When one of these people was asked to comment on the soup, his reply was, "It's pretty good, and it's pretty filling." Sure it is. He had eaten almost three times as much as the guy sitting next to him.

Another of my favorites is the story of a cook on a Navy ship in World War II. Due to some sort of error, the cook took on too much lemon Jell-o and no cherry. When you're out at sea for months at a time, little things like that can be a big deal. Fights were actually breaking out because of it. Well Billy, our fearless cook, thought quick on his feet and colored the lemon Jell-o red. The crew never even guessed what happened. Because they thought it was cherry, they imagined the taste of it.

But to the point of the book. Our body is quite capable of noticing changes in diet, such as eliminating all carbohydrates or eating half as many calories. That's why 90% of dieters regain their former weight. It's just not sustainable, and generally speaking the quicker you lose the weight the quicker you'll put it back on. But the human body can't detect slight changes, such as 100 calories a day. That amount of change over the course of a year works out to about 10 pounds. So if you drink an extra Mountain Dew every day, you'll gain 10 pounds. If you cut one out, you'll lose 10 pounds. In both cases, you won't notice any difference in your diet.

Dr. Wansink offers a number of ways to work 100-200 calories out of your diet, things like serving yourself 20% less (which will still leave you feeling just as full), fill your plate with fruits and veggies (less calorie dense, more vitamins), don't abandon your comfort foods instead rewire them (deprivation rarely works, but comfort foods are not written in stone).

There are plenty more suggestions, and more importantly, funny stories in this book. The author definitely has a good sense of humor and a good wit. It's an easy read that is still well supported by scientific research and more endnotes than you can shake a pastrami at.


Kitchen Confidential

Title: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
Author: Anthony Bourdain
Published: 2000 by Bloomsbury
ISBN: 1-58234-082-X

Joseph told me that one of his culinary icons was Anthony Bourdain. I had heard of him, seen him as a guest judge on Top Chef, but I was curious as to why so I picked up this book. I don't think Alton Brown has anything to fear as far as replacing my #1 food hero, but I have definitely learned a few things about the food industry.

I do respect Anthony Bourdain. He is unapologetically a ruffian. He is, or at least has been, a drug abuser. He's got a foul mouth. You definitely won't want to read this book to your kids. So what's to love about somebody like that? Well, the fact that he is who he is and he's happy about it. He doesn't pretend to be somebody else. He's not concerned with what others think about him. He says exactly what he thinks and you know that's what he means, nothing more and nothing less.

My favorite section, probably not surprisingly, is the chapter about why he doesn't eat fish on Monday. Turns out that because the fish market is only open Monday through Friday, the fish you're served on Monday is likely whatever they bought on Friday and couldn't sell over the weekend. I have since heard the same thing from other sources, albeit with less colorful language. Mr. Bourdain also makes it clear that it is in a restaurant's best interest to serve you food that may not be the most fresh. So whenever you see something that is on special, be wary. Carefully consider any item which is not commonly sold, since it may have been in the fridge for an extended period of time. He tells of one of his jobs which was to arrange the Sunday morning brunch buffet, which consisted of leftovers from service the previous nights (yes, plural). So, also be cautious there.

I think this book has scared me away from ever opening my own restaurant. No, it's not something I've ever seriously considered. Every once in a while I think to myself that it might be fun. I don't think I have my heart into it enough though. There's a vast difference between a love of cooking (and eating!) and the ability to put in the hideous amounts of work required by a restaurant. I fall clearly in the first category and I think I will happily stay there.


The Curious Cook

Title: The Curious Cook
Author: Harold McGee
Published: 1990 by North Point Press
ISBN: 0-86547-452-4

I'm all about the science of cooking. I'm a sucker for science in a lot of forms, but cooking is great because you can eat the results. If you like Alton Brown, you'll feel right at home with Harold McGee.


The Smoked-Foods Cookbook

Title: The Smoked-Food Cookbook
Author: Lue & Ed Park
Published: 1992 by Stackpole Books
ISBN: 1-985771-00-5

Lately I've been quite infatuated with barbecue. I place the blame squarely on Alton Brown, who has a really great recipe for ribs. He also came up with a wacky idea to build a terra-cotta smoker, which I've decided to implement. That's another blog post (complete with pictures, of course), but in preparation I decided to visit the library.


Peppers: A Story Of Hot Pursuits

Title: Peppers: A Story Of Hot Pursuits
Author: Amal Naj
Published: 1992 by Alfred A Knopf, Inc.
ISBN: 0-394-57077-4

Last summer we grew a whole bunch of peppers in our garden. The plan was to make some salsa out of them, and to that end it was a success. We made three batches of salsa and each was delicious. The jalapeños were the best pepper we had. Compared to the poblanos and green peppers, they were more abundant. The habeñeros barely started budding by the time it froze.

With that success under my belt I'm preparing to expand my pepper cultivation next year. I picked up this book hoping to further that goal. It turns out not to be so much about growing peppers like The Great Tomato Book was about tomatoes. But it was an interesting read nonetheless.


Alton Brown's Gear For Your Kitchen

Title: Alton Brown's Gear For Your Kitchen
Author: Alton Brown
Published: 2003 by Stewart, Tabori & Chang
ISBN: 1-58479-296-5

If you're a fan of Good Eats, you'll dig this book. But be careful. It's not a cookbook, so if that's what you're looking for you'll be disappointed. Instead, it's a book full of what A.B. recommends for your kitchen. Quite a bit of it you could guess at from his show. Some of it is straight out of the show, actually. I guess he can only have so many opinions.

I was quite intrigued by his recommendation for how to get rid of extra hardware. First step is to move everything to a single spot. As you use things, put them away. Eventually you find what you use and what you don't. Well, it's a little more involved (read the book!) but that's the gist. I just can't see myself doing that, though. I did suggest it to my wife, but she was not interested. How could we get ride of the ice cream maker we've only used once in the 6 years we've been married?



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