Tuesday, March 09, 2010

White Fang

This book about the harshness of the northern wilds by Jack London is shorter than I remembered, but just as excellent. The story follows White Fang, a part-dog, mostly-wolf, as he survives and finds his place in the Klondike during gold rush days. A main point of the book is how tough life is out in nature, and how one has to be pretty ruthless to thrive. When White Fang finds his true master, though, everyone learns the lesson that love conquers nature and its hunger pangs.White Fang, just like London's other books of the north, are really intense. This book starts with a couple of fellas trying to get to a settlement, but they are being tracked by wolves because food is scarce. Each night, the wolves surround their fire and the men have to wake up periodically to build up the flames and drive the wolves back a couple of yards. All the while, it's about thirty below zero.

I can't imagine voluntarily moving to the Yukon, but I guess the thought of gold was pretty enticing. That seems to be why Sam McGee went there:
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”


Toyota is still heavily featured in the news. This morning, NPR had a little story about a guy whose Prius was stuck accelerating, so he called a cop to drive in front of him as a buffer in case he crashed into anything. He was able to get the car to stop before any damage was done, but the obvious implication of the story was that Toyota cars are still sketchy.

The feds launched investigations and will likely create some new regulatory agency to help oversee car safety. But more regulation is probably not all that necessary. Customers are able to punish Toyota for its actions quite thoroughly: many Toyota lines have had sales drop as much as 20% from 2009 levels. And if consumers continue to perceive Toyota as a poor manufacturer, it will continue to falter. The market is fully capable of chastising bad producers.

That being said, Toyota is getting hit harder than is warranted. It is true that their cars have increased risk of accident due to manufacturing issues, but people need to keep perspective. The increased risk from Toyota is low:
"Replacing driving by walking really increases the risk of dying," Fischbeck said. "Walking a mile is 19 times or 1,900 percent more dangerous than driving a mile in a recalled Toyota. Driving while using a cell phone would increase risk much more than the chance of having a stuck accelerator."

Saturday, March 06, 2010


I have finished the first two Earthsea novels by Ursula LeGuin, so I'm combining them into a mega-post.

This book, The Wizard of Earthsea, is something of a fantasy classic, and it is indeed pretty good. The story follows Ged, a young kid who has an affinity for magic. He heads off to magic school (quite similar to Hogwarts) because he wants to become powerful in a hurry. While he does advance quickly, he gets too big for his britches and casts an overly advanced spell which unleashes some malevolent being. Most of the book involves Ged's dealing with the consequences of that spell.

The Tombs of Atuan follows in the series. Instead of focusing on Ged, it revolves around a girl who is sort of coerced into being a priestess at age 12, but she becomes disillusioned about her religion. Ged shows up after a while to first antagonize her, but later to help her figure things out.

Note to authors: if you've written an excellent book with a compelling main character, don't focus the sequel on someone entirely new and more boring. I was all excited to be getting back to Ged with Tombs, but he didn't appear until more than halfway through the novel. Because of this, I spent half of the book wishing things would move along and more excitement would happen. I'll probably keep going with this series, but Tombs has probably spoiled the rest of it for me.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Shopaholic and Baby

Ever since I "tricked" Abbie into reading Atlas Shrugged, she has been wanting me to read one of these Shopaholic books by Sophie Kinsella. Now that she is commuting with me one day each week, listening to it on my drive sounded like a good idea. For one thing, I finally got to see what one of these books is like, and for another, she for some reason wasn't interested in my picks of For a New Liberty or The Wizard of Earthsea.

Shopaholic and Baby was, I'll admit, much better than I expected. Since I am neither into shopping nor fashion, I was skeptical. And yes, the main character irked me throughout the book (who spends $3,000 on prams for one baby?!), but it was comically interesting overall. If you can get past Becky's complete disregard for money and her poor planning skills, it's a pretty fun book. Now, Shopaholic and Baby is the fifth book in the series, so I can't vouch for the prequels.

Despite my liking this book more than I anticipated, I don't think I'll be adding this genre to my preferred reading list anytime soon.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


As the Constitution requires, all of America is going to be censized this year, as the commercial below tells us.

The census is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, but it is bloody expensive. This year's census is expected to cost nearly $15 billion. The link above includes more detail about cost overruns and poor expense management and planning that have contributed to this high price.

The Census Bureau is blowing it big time, though. Their strategy is to send out a questionnaire, and send a field agent to any households that don't respond. But they could probably save a bundle on postage if people could simply fill out the questionnaire online. Seriously, in 2010 I can renew my license plates and pay personal property taxes online, but I can't tell the government how many people live in my house? The census website proclaims that they are "experimenting with Internet response options for the future." This seems like it should have been step 1 for the Census Bureau.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


After a brief lull, we are back for another post about The Divine Comedy. I am normally a slow reader, but my creeping pace through this book is almost laughable. Part of this is certainly because I mentally read the lines in their iambic pentameter form rather than as if they were just regular prose. I can't decide how best to absorb the book, though.

Pros of iambic pentameter:
1) The book was obviously written to be read in this form, so I'd be staying true to Dante's initial vision.
2) I don't read much epic poetry, so reading a book in verse is a fun change.

Pros of prose:
1) It is much faster.
2) Mentally ordering the syllables to match the verse sometimes distracts me from the actual text.

On to the actual book! The fourth circle of hell is home to the "Avaricious and Prodigal," or the greedy and the wasteful. They spend eternity pushing rocks in circles and making fun of each other, saying "Why do you hoard?!" and "Why do you squander?!", respectively. This doesn't seem too fun, but at least they are all probably in good shape.
Here is the strange part. Way down in the seventh circle are the violent against possessions. Dante's examples of this are members of the Spendthrift Club; the sole requirement for membership appears to have been an agreement to spend a ton of money on frivolous parties and gifts. (This is not to be confused with the ironically named Spendthrift Club of 600 years later, the members of which only spent about fourpence each evening. They probably made it up to Purgatorio.) These wasteful folk in the seventh circle are pursued by dogs. When a person is caught,
and, piece by piece, those dogs dismembered him
and carried off his miserable limbs. (Canto XIII, line 128)
This sounds way worse than the mere prodigal get. If I have any Dante experts among my readers, can you please explain the disparity?

Sunday, February 21, 2010


I am continually amazed by how inventive, um, inventors are. A potential type of headphones would let wearers start
controlling their phones or their music players. NTT DoCoMo has created headphones that sense eye movements. For instance, you can look from right to left to pause your music. Look right, then right again, to skip to the next track. Roll them clockwise to raise the volume....

The headphones look much like regular earbuds, connected by a cable to a phone. They sense the movements of the eyeballs by measuring tiny changes in electric charge. It turns out that the cornea, the outer surface of the eyes, has a positive charge. When you look left, the resulting shift in the electrical charge can be detected as far away as the ears. And no, this is not the source of the expression "electrifying gaze."
I would definitely like something like this for when I am running with my ipod in my pocket.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Tale of Despereaux

This book by Kate DiCamillo is ostensibly an adventure story about a mouse, but Despereaux is only in about a third of the book. The story is divided into quarters, with the first three quarters each told by a different character. Despereaux, one of these characters, is a misfit mouse who falls in love with a human princess, which seems unlikely. But due to his contact with humans, he is banished by the mouse community to the rat-infested dungeon, and conflict ensues.

The Tale of D. won the Newberry Award in 2003, and I think it is deserved. The book is pretty delightful throughout, and each of the leading characters' stories are interesting. I highly recommend it.

In 2008, the story was sort of made into a movie. I say "sort of" because (although I haven't actually seen the movie), the trailer below makes the film look appear to have only a couple of similarities with the book:

1) It has mice.
2) One of them is named Despereaux.

After reading this book, it occurs to me that there are a ton of books that revolve around mice.

1) The T of Despereaux (obviously)
2) Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (and the sequels, all excellent)
3) Poppy (decent)
4) Stuart Little
5) Ralph S. Mouse
6) The Rescuers
7) The Wind in the Willows (one of my personal favorite books (actually, this might just be rats, moles, and the like, but that's close enough))
8) The Redwall series (pretty good, for the most part)
9) Of Mice and Men (?)
10) Basil of Baker Street (also a movie which I remember enjoying)

And if we include TV, we can add Biker Mice from Mars, Chip and Dale, Mickey Mouse, Mighty Mouse, Speedy Gonzalez, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (almost!), and the list goes on.

Are these rodents disproportionately featured, or am I just thinking selectively? If this really is a large quantity of mouse fiction, what is the reason for all of it?