Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Read Log for 2015
By Tal Cohen Friday, 22 January 2016

January 2015

The uninitiated sometimes think of programming as something diametrically opposite of art; but programmers have always known that there is art in the process of coding. Knuth’s magnum opus, previously a core computer science textbook, is called The Art of Computer Programming. The graphics programming community has a series of books called Graphic Gems. The functional programming community has a series of articles called Functional Pearls. And I’ve always loved that passage in The Story of Mel that speaks of “lovely gems and brilliant coups hidden from human view and admiration, sometimes forever, by the very nature of the process”.

So it is not surprising that some art research is now focused on programming as art. Not the study of computer-generated art; that kind of research started decades ago, although these researchers also show clear interest in this subject as well. For example, in their book Second Person, Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin explored the quality of fiction in interactive fiction games (“text adventures” such as Zork and Platnetfall). But in the book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 (yes, that is the title of the book), ten of these researchers explore a tiny one-line Commodore 64 BASIC program that generates output of surprising visual appeal and complexity. The ten co-authored the book as a wiki, so it’s not your usual collection of independent research papers, although the individual areas of interest are clearly evident in the text. The chapters (numbered as a program lines in classic BASIC code) deal with the Commodore 64 itself, with mazes in art and mythology, with randomness, with grids and grid-driven art, with looping and repetitiveness, with the subtleties of BASIC programming and the history of the GOTO statement, with porting “10 PRINT” (as the program is called for short) to other computing platforms, and more.

I found the chapters dealing with art proper to sometimes be a bit too dense for my level of interest and familiarity, and at first I thought that non-programmers will find the chapters about code, coding, and computers similarly slightly too dense. It quickly became clear, however, that any non-programmer would find much of the second half of the book basically impenetrable, with algorithmic discussions of long BASIC listings, not to mention assembly programs, or the subtleties of programming the Atari 2600 system with its limited resource set.

In fact, I suspect that even among programmers, some will find these chapters a bit too much to their liking. To truly appreciate the beauty and simplicity of 10 PRINT the program, and the general subject matter of 10 PRINT the book, it probably takes somebody who played with a real Commodore 64 (or an Apple II of the same era) when it was a real piece of hardware, rather than a simulator. When I’ve shown the book to a colleague at the office and asked her if she could guess what the line of code in the book’s title would do, she didn't even recognize the language; when I told her this is C64 code, she mockingly took offense: “How old do you think I am?”.

But if you were there at the time, and if you enjoy the line connecting art to science (and in particular, computer science), you may find this book, or at least some parts of it, to be fascinating and thought-provoking. More than once while reading the book I found myself sitting down and coding on a C64 emulator; I even had a chance to undust some of those old BASIC programming tomes. I also found myself trying to emulate the look-and-feel of C64 using modern JavaScript, just so I could examine how 10 PRINT’s output would look like if we accept Rosalind Krauss’s critique of the use of grids to explore art (p. 81). Yet that critique was never meant at the character-gridlines of computer terminals; it was published in 1979 and referred to the experimental art of LeWitt, Molnar, Mondrian, and their peers. Art criticism, retrofitted to apply to code, yielding new art.

January reading list:

Miss Marple and the Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie. Reminded me so much of the (much later) Encyclopedia Brown series... But the solution often (not always) hinges on human psychology rather than knowledge of facts.

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit. Hebrew translation by Hagar Yanai. Keeping up with my daughter.

Stories and Fantasies by Sholem Aleichem (the complete works, volume XIII). Hebrew by Arie Aharoni.

10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 by Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost, Jeremy Douglass, Mark C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas, Mark Sample, and Noah Vawter.

February 2015

There’s a famous installment of PHD Comics from 2009, about how science gets horribly distorted by the time it reaches the public through the filter of the press. Recently, it seems like the press did that to Neo-Whorfian findings, as discussed by authors like Guy Deutscher and others. Deutscher says, “there are minute differences in...”, the reviews in the press say “Language speakers think differently!”. John H. McWhorter tries to counter that in The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. Well, at least that’s the impression I’ve got from the Introduction and the first chapter. Deutscher (and others) are praised for the precise, modest claims made in their works; it is the press which is at fault, for their uncalled-for sensationalism in reviewing these works. Yes, Russian-speakers are quicker to tell certain shades of blue, and this was mapped to their language having dedicated words for tones of blue which English doesn't. But, says McWhorter, the actual difference shown in those studies is of about 100 milliseconds; hardly something that has any meaningful effect on how reality is perceived.

But then McWhorter starts going deeper, and asks: why do Whorfians (by the third chapter the prefix “Neo-” is mostly gone) focus on aspects of other languages that are richer than English, rather than where English proves to be richer? What happens when you apply Whorf’s reasoning to Chinese, which has a far simplified grammar than English? What would be the implications about the consciousness, or the lens through which they experience life, of the Chinese? Well, it turns out somebody did perform that research, and that person -- Alfred Bloom -- was put under such heavy fire that nobody dares take that research seriously (and that is obviously the right thing to do). Why is it, asks McWhorter (p. 92), that Deutscher doesn't even mention Bloom’s research in Through the Language Glass? “As honest as that book is about how Whorfianism has fared, perhaps the Bloom story seems too utterly awkward to allow any room for languages as different as different pairs of glasses.”

February reading list:

The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John H. McWhorter.

A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin. I’ve read the Time-Life Books three volume edition. But it was so much focused on the geology part of science; so little discussion of other scientific aspects, like rocketing, or computing, that went into these missions, that I had to balance it with

Man and Space by Arthur C. Clarke and the editors of Time-Life Books (Life Science Library). Published in the mid seventies, the writing is often prophetic -- for example, a discussion on the effect of communication satellites on constant-availability, and the effects of that on privacy. Yet at times, Clarke is also amusingly naive. We just went to the moon, so surely the other planets are just around the corner!

and with

The Green Hills of Earth by Robert A. Heinlein. A re-read, of course, my fourth of fifth reading of this book. So hopelessly outdated, such a pathetically romantic look at the space age... pure fun. But then, the story It’s Great to Be Back! made me wonder -- sure, we’re not moon colonists, but aren't we building our own elitist society?

March 2015

Pebble in the Sky by Asimov. Hebrew translation by Assaf Cohen (no relation); a rather recent translation, as Asimovs go. Read to keep up with my son.

Weather by Philip D. Thompson, Robert O'Brien, and the editors of Time-Life Books (Life Science Library). Work-related, in a sense, but I guess I should be reading stuff later than the mid-seventies, where computerized forecasts are a promising prospect for the future.

The Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius, part I (first volume in the Loeb Classical Library’s two-volume works of Suetonius). English by J. C. Rolfe. A very odd approach to bibliography, going by topic rather than by timeline. You almost get convinced that some of these guys (Tiberius comes to mind) were saints, before you reach the part about their follies. “So much for Caligula as emperor; we must now tell of his career as a monster.”

The Gardener’s Year by Karel Capek. Hebrew by Ruth Bondy. A farmer’s almanac of sorts... except it isn't.

April 2015

I love serendipities.

I have ten volumes of Norton’s “Annotated classics” series on my shelf. I’ve read all but one, and the last one is something I keep reminding myself to read for the past year or two.

A few months ago, I’ve read The Story of Ain't, which whetted my appetite for more history-of-philology books. So I’ve ordered a copy of The Meaning of Everything, by Simon Winchester, whose The Professor and the Madman I’ve read and very much enjoyed back in 2001. But as Winchester notes, The Professor was just a footnote to a history; The Meaning tells the main story, the making of the greatest philological work ever.

It’s a slow read: Winchester, talking about dictionary-making, enjoys sprinkling the text with obscure and esoteric words. Every so often, looking up a specific word in anything but the hardcover, multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary seems just wrong. And at other times you have to look up something in the OED just to find the details that Winchester alludes to, or to see if things have changed in the 2nd edition. (One example is from a footnote on page 146; yes, the personal tone in the etymology of balm-cricket -- “as Tennyson tells us” -- is still there.) The price of all this is that looking up a word in the OED always takes longer than expected, because you just keep finding new surprises.

A slow read, but enjoyable. Imagine my surprise when Winchester mentions that the third editor, the “unconventional individualist” Frederick Furnivall, turns out to be the source character in a children’s classic: 'We learned 'em!' says Toad. 'We taught 'em!' corrects Rat, the language expert. It took me less than a minute of paging to find a reference to Furnivall in The Annotated Wind in the Willows. Yup, this is definitely going to be my next read.

April reading list:

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker. A bit too pedantic, too detailed, or too slow at times, but still a good reading, and an excellent style guide. Using his wife as a sample source for excellent writing is a bit over the top, even if he does give full disclosure; and sometimes he supports his style choices in a manner that he forbids others from using. And yet. (I just wish there was a 80% shorter version, “just the facts, ma'am”, without all the argumentation.)

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester.

May 2015

I’m sometimes surprised to realize how economic problems that seem modern are in fact ancient. Suetonius tells how, by bringing the royal treasures to Rome after his Alexandrian triumph, Augustus “made ready money so abundant, that the rate of interest fell, and the value of real estate rose greatly”. But what I found even more surprising is Vespasian’s reply to a mechanical engineer, “who promised to transport some heavy columns to the Capitol at small expense”. The emperor gave him “no mean reward for his invention, but refused to make use of it”, saying: “You must let me feed my poor commons.”

May reading list:

The Lives of the Caesars part II, and The Lives of Illustrious Men, by Suetonius (second volume in the Loeb Classical Library’s two-volume works of Suetonius).

Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight (Hebrew by Yoav Katz). Keeping up with the kids. Amusingly, my young one did not realize the implications of the father undoing his belt when he’s angry at his son -- the concept was entirely alien.

The Annotated Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, annotated by Annie Gauger. Grahame’s approach to class differences is... worrying.

June 2015

Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura, Hebrew translation by Einat Cooper. This is the second book by Yoshumura that I’ve read (the previous one being On Parole, reviewed here), and despite the very different settings and plots, they seem to share the same melancholic touch. Excellent books, both.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler. I’ve ordered Kindred after reading about it in some list of best SF novels. It’s a good book, but it’s not science fiction. Despite the surface similarities, it is closer to The Wonderful Adventures of Nils than to The Time Traveler’s Wife. Where TTTW speaks, among other things, about the human condition, and tries to provide some explanation -- however weak -- to the time-travel itself, Kindred treats time-travel in the same manner that Nils treats the protagonist’s magical shrinking and ability to speak with animals: unexplained magic. And where Nils uses this magic to initiate a plot which is in fact an excuse for a geography lesson, Kindred uses its magic to initiate a plot which is in fact an excuse for a history lesson. It is a modern attempt at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, using magic to show slavery as it would have been experienced by a modern black person. And it’s a very effective history lesson, focusing on people’s history and written in an era where that topic of research was just becoming fashionable (Kindred was published in 1979, about a decade and a half after the term “history from below” was introduced to popular culture).

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver. Any book that takes you by surprise when it starts, and then takes you again by surprise when you realize where the plot lies, and then takes you again by surprise several more times, is a good book. This is one of the best books I’ve read, I think. (And it was easy to see how it influenced Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, even though I’ve read the latter some twenty years ago.)

July 2015

Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychology Experiments of the Twentieth Century, by Lauren Slater (Hebrew translation by Meriam Shaps).

Saeko’s Year, by Katayama Kyoichi (author of Socrates in Love, which I am yet to read). Gentle, touching, and... odd.

Mathematics by David Bergamini and the editors of Time-Life Books (Life Science Library). The appendix, where the authors wax poetic about the wonders and promise of New Math, is adorably pathetic.

Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli) by Carlo Levi. Translated from Italian to Hebrew by “S&R” (apparently, A.D. Shapir and Y. Rin). Memories of a anti-Fascist dissident sent to exile in God-forsaken rustic villages.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher. Translated by the matchless Vered Tochterman. Something my son picked up at the library before realizing it’s not really something that would fit his age, but I ended up rather enjoying.

Rebirth by Woo, volume 1 (translated from Korean to English by Zacharias Lindgren). So I decided to try manhwa, but I wonder if this is representative in any way or form.

August 2015

A renowned author throws together a mediocre, badly-constructed, simplistic novel and it becomes a hit; critics love it, and find something fascinating in the work’s sloppiness. The author goes on to write over seventy more novels in the same series; apparently they all share this trademark low-quality-considered-great. The end.

I must be missing something: Pietr le Letton (Peter the Latvian), first in Simenon’s “Jules Maigret” series, was just... bad.

August reading list:

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. Basic premise is good and well-intentioned. Delivery is about five times longer than it should be, with too much apologies (for not being political) and too much off-topic chapters (the whole discussion about medical insurance not being available in a cheaper “no right to sue” version, for example; has almost nothing to do with the concept of nudging).

Perry Rhodan volumes 1 to 4 (volumes 1-8 of the original German: Operation Stardust; The Third Power; The Radiant Dome; The Twilight of the Gods; Atomic Alarm; The Mutant Corps; Invasion From Space; and The Venus Base), by Clark Darlton, K.H. Scheer, Kurt Mahr, and W.W. Shols. The mother of all space-opera series.

Le Désert de l'amour (The Desert of Love) by François Mauriac. Translated from the French by Baba Yanay. Of course, the proper thing to read after four volumes of a cheap space-opera is something by a Nobel Prize in Literature laureate. Balances your Karma.

Planets by Carl Sagan, Jonathan Norton Leonard, and the editors of Time-Life Books (Life Science Library). Opening chapter very reminiscent of first episode of Cosmos; the book generally obsessed with the question of the possibility of life on each planet.

Douglas Adams’s Starship Titanic by Terry Jones. A novelization of a computer game, and sadly, the game elements come through; for example, to get through this guard, you have show him that club membership card, which just happens to be in your inventory. At least there’s no Thing Your Aunt Gave You Which You Don't Know What It Is involved.

Pietr le Letton (Peter the Latvian) by Georges Simenon. Translated from the French by Rama Eilon. If you’re looking for simplistic detective stories, I actually prefer Enid Blyton.

Augie and the Green Knight by Zach Weinersmith. I supported this book on Kickstarter. It’s nice, but falls short of my (not really well-defined) expectations. The humor, in particular, was often not up to Weinersmith’s standard; some jokes (e.g., “turtles all the way up”) have too much buildup and can be seen from miles away. Plus, with all the professional level of work done of getting this book in print, I was annoyed by the amateur typesetting.

September-October 2015

Silence by Yuri Bondarev (Heb. trans. Haim Peleg). Soldiers trying to adapt to civil life in post-WWII Soviet Russia. Surprisingly bold anti-administration stance for a book from the 1960s; in the book, the protagonist gets into a fight with an officer that acted cowardly during the war and caused many soldiers to die, but that officer has good ties in the administration, so...

The Engineer by C. C. Furnas, Joe McCarthy and the editors of Time-Life Books (Life Science Library). Everything is swell until computers come into the picture. The picture painted by the authors is so absurd that even the non-technical editors should have realized that.

Ella Enchanted and Fairest, by Gail Carson Levine. Catching up with my daughter.

Netiva’s Notes, collected unpublished notes by Netiva Ben-Yehuda (edited by Rubik Rozenthal). A fighter for the modernization of Hebrew and an anti-prescriptivist, she’s a personal hero of mine.

Momo oder Die seltsame Geschichte von den Zeit-Dieben und von dem Kind, das den Menschen die gestohlene Zeit zurückbrachte (Momo, or the strange story of the time-thieves and the child who brought the stolen time back to the people) by Michael Ende (Heb. trans. by Hanna Toichsler). It seems like we are doomed to always believe the new generation simply not up to par with the previous ones, and the “old ways” are by definition better than the new ones. The book, as a friend pointed out, could easily have been written today, i.e., skipped a generation or two, and it would seem just as appropriate -- meaning its basic premise is a bit off.

The Fratricides by Nikos Kazantzakis (Heb. trans. by Yechiel Kimchi, as Papa Yanaros). Communism as the new religion, Lenin as the new Christ, and the tragedy of a father facing his son during the Greek civil war of the 1940s. Moving and well-written; I particularly enjoyed the scene where Yanaros turns the table on a priest that attempts to fleece the poor.

Giant Molecules by Herman F. Mark and the editors of Time-Life Books (Life Science Library). I couldn't read this book without that silly scene from The Graduate constantly popping into my mind. (“Just one word... Are you listening? Plastics.”) It’s sad to see how little of the possible promises of plastics research came into being in the last 40 years or so. I’m close to a complete ignorant in the field, yet I’ve heard of many of the huge inventions listed there (nylon, Teflon, etc.) and couldn't think of a single major advancement that came about after that era. Not to mention dreams of easy-to-build, safe and superior houses and cars made of plastic.

November 2015

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger.

The Marvels by Brian Selznick.

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (trans. Pnina Bat-Shiloh). A love song to a dying age.

Kongres futurologiczny (The Futurological Congress) by Stanislaw Lem (trans. Paulina Zelnik). The first adventure of Ijon Tichy.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. Comparison to Replay, which I’ve read some twenty years ago, is inevitable; but at some point Fifteen Lives turns into a not-too-shabby action/thriller book, having set the time-loop aspect as the playground for the game.

Sights and Knights of Jaffa, Round Two by Menachem Talmi. The gangster as a heroic knight -- content-wise, many of the stories are horrible, telling sad tales of human suffering; but Talmi’s storytelling is delectable.

December 2015

Gil Hovav is a well-known Israeli foodie -- TV host, restaurant critic, and more. He’s also a scion of Eliezer Ben-Yahuda, and has a fantastic Hebrew to show for it. His series of family stories/cookbooks, starting with Family Kitchen, are therefore a joy to read. Each chapter is a family history, occasionally true and often very droll, followed by the recipe for some food or dish that was mentioned in the story.

Over the past few months, we’ve started a family micro-tradition -- a readout of chapters during dinner. I get to quiz the kids on Hovav’s sporadic use of arcane or esoteric Hebrew words while they, more often than not, get a good laugh.

This was so successful that we’ve now moved to the second book in the series...

December reading list:

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. The loneliness... the loneliness...

Family Kitchen by Gil Hovav.

Summer Life by Sholem Aleichem.

The Body by Alan E. Nourse and the Editors of Time-Life Books (Life Science Library). The chauvinistic approach throughout the text shows the book’s age, and is painful (“man” for mankind, etc.); but data table in the appendix, showing different calories spent by men vs women on activities such as “office work”, “peeling potatoes”, “walking”, or “making beds” is really odd. Men spend 3.3 calories per minute washing dishes, but women only 1.53? Men spend 5.1 calories per minute walking, women only 2.9? 2.7 vs 1.29 for peeling potatoes? The only case where women spend more calories is “skiing on level hard snow”, 9.9 vs 10.8.

The Cell by John Pfeiffer and the Editors of Time-Life Books (Life Science Library). Convinced me I should find a modern textbook on the subject.
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