Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Stephenson’s latest novel is both highly imaginative and somewhat creepy. Lurking somewhere between plausible sci-fi and total fantasy, he posits a world where the human population is slowly diminishing and being replaced by robots, but at the same time cryogenics and quantum computers are giving people the option upon death of having their brains scanned and being uploaded into digiworld to achieve a sort of immortality. The action switches back and forth from the real world (meatspace) to what’s going on in the computing miasma, a world incorporating the Earth’s entire computing power. In turns out there’s quite a lot going on there as two computing giants, i.e. people who in life had been tech billionaires (imagine Gates and Bezos, or Jobs and Musk if you prefer), are fighting it out for dominance. At the same time, their families and loyalists back in meatspace are at odds over computing resources.
Once again the author has needlessly subjected readers to a massive tome (over 800 pages) that could have been better written in 250 pages. It’s very readable and contains some satire worth reading, but it can be a slog. The last third or so of the book focuses too much on the digital world which becomes increasingly like a video game or even the board game Quest, populated by giants and fanciful shape-shifting creatures with lots of world-building and slaying going on. The author rather boldly, or perhaps grossly, goes into how the digital beings discover sex, described clinically always as copulation. This ground has been well-trod already in movies and books (Wall-e, Tron, Wreck-it Ralph, Ready Player One). All in all it filled some hours with entertainment. That’s about the highest praise I can give it, but perhaps that’s all it was shooting for.
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Here are some recent Google Trends results I found interesting. The maps show which search terms are the most popular in which states over the last five years.
The scuba/snowboard one was mostly a test and the north-south split was much as expected, but I was a bit surprised by a few states. California has some great snowboarding, I’m sure, but I would have thought there would be more interest in scuba. In fact, depending on the season, the popularities switched. But really, it’s Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas that fooled me the most. Sure, you can scuba in lakes, and they may be too flat for much snowboarding, but Minnesota and Colorado are close and it’s awfully cold there.
The middle one, falafel/grits is rather interesting and surpising to me, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from it. I’m not sure why the distribution on the three mainstream TV channels, but it’s probably unfair. The term ABC is common for other uses while the others are not, so the overwhelming red may be misleading. In fact if you add the term “network” after each, you get very different results. See below. Then there’s issue as to whether you’re thinking of news, sports, or regular programming,
Recursion by Blake Crouch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In this time shifting novel the two main characters, Helena and Barry, meet and re-meet under varying and mostly frightening circumstances in different timelines. Deaths happen and then unhappen. It took quite a while for the premise to become fully obvious and the book went downhill at that point. The plot became so preposterous and irritatingly repetitive that I skimmed and skipped liberally through the second half. So much of sci-fi literature is really just fantasy or pseudo-science and this book, unfortunately, falls into that category.
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Here’s another cryptic crossword for you. Just click on the image of the grid to work it online, or click on the link to download the PDF file.
Cryptic Crossword 5PDF file
There are lots of artificially constructed palindromes out there, easily found on the Internet. Inspired by an email from Anu Garg at Wordsmith.org i decided to search for palindromes that occur naturally in various books, documents or forms of literature. A palindrome is a word or phrase (or set of sentences) that reads the same backward or forward, although usually it is permitted to ignore spacing and punctuation. The best-known English one I know of is “Madam, I’m Adam.”
Here are some examples I’ve found:
sensuousnes(s) – this appears in many, many works. I’ve seen “is sensuousness – I” and several variations.
“la minima minima+ (L” part of the scientific name of a gray-cheeked thrush)
“name not one man”
“drawn inward”, “drawn onward” – full-word phrases
“Palamala, Talamala), p” – at 17 letters, the longest I’ve found, tied with the next one.
“e madame! Vive madame”
“no man; even amon(g)” is the longest in the King James Bible (Isaiah 41:28)
There were many cases of long repeated sequences like “No, no, no,…” etc. that I dismiss as not in the spirit of what I am trying to find. Feel free to paste any natural palindromes you find in the comments. Please, no constructed ones.
Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It by James Geary
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The author muses at the beginning that an analysis of wit or any form of humor may kill the pleasure of it. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what he has done in this book. I had hoped it would contain many amusing examples of wittiness, but there are very few. Instead there are lots of quotes and opinions about what wit is or should be. That and a series of bizarre typographic choices like new typefaces and font size for every chapter, changing from one to two columns and back again, italics, colored background, etc. made this book somewhat irritating to read. It was a disappointment to me although there were a few interesting moments. I can barely squeeze out a 3 for this one.
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The 39 Steps by John Buchan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The author wrote this now classic book intending it to be in the genre he called “a shocker.” Today we’d call it a thriller. You could call it a murder mystery, but really it’s more of a pursuit book, in the same category as the popular TV show The Fugitive or the Australian TV series Wanted. The main character is an innocent man who finds himself in an unlucky circumstance leading to the police pursuing him for murder and at the same time the bad guys out to kill him for what he may have learned from the victim.
It takes place in England and Scotland in the time just before World War I. The appeal it may have had to readers back then has been superseded by a nostalgia of sorts today’s readers will experience for a time when life was simpler, more direct, and devoid of the kind of political correctness we have today. There are lots of descriptions of the Scottish countryside and inhabitants that will make modern readers gape in surprise or yearn to see first-hand. The plot is quite implausible, but full of suspense and action. It was made into a very successful movie by Alfred Hitchcock and subsequently by several other directors. One of my five stars can be chalked up to that nostalgia, so it may be more of a four star book, but I enjoyed it greatly.
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Every month Google sends me an email notifying me of my Google Maps Timeline. If I click on the link it takes me to a map with red dots showing places I’ve been during the preceding month. Every month it shows me visiting 22556 W Ravensbury Avenue, Los Altos, CA 94024. That’s a valid address, a house in a very expensive area. According to Zillow, it’s worth about $5,000,000, consists of 2.5 acres, and has 3 bedrooms and 4.5 baths (that last fact seems odd to me, one and a half times as many bathrooms as bedrooms). I don’t know who lives there and I’ve only been on that street two or three times in my life, years ago.
I’ve figured out what’s going on. Every week I run in Rancho San Antonio County Park, usually on the Rogue Valley trail, which runs parallel to Ravensbury for a short stretch. It’s not all that close to the street, and there is another trail, also parallel to Ravensbury and closer to it, on the other side of a creek. Apparently, though, my phone gets close enough on those occasions to pick up the wi-fi signal of that house. The house is on a ridge looking down on the trails, with nothing but air and a few bushes between them. My phone then notifies Google Maps which in turn knows where that wi-fi is located. Those cars you see with the cameras on top also record where all the wi-fi signals they detect are. It’s a popular hiking and running trail. It makes me wonder how many other people Google thinks visit that house.
So here’s where I’m going with this: if the Russians really want to screw up America, they should have some dodgy Russian exchange student or “businessman” rent or buy that house. The NSA will provide the FBI with a massive list of people visiting with the suspected Russian spy den, many with clearances from NASA, Lockheed, or the many other defense contractors nearby, and be too distracted or overwhelmed to focus on the real spies. Maybe the owner of that house will search his or her address online and come up with this blog. If enough other people discover this same issue and mention the address, they may find their privacy too invaded to continue living there. Isn’t the Internet wonderful?
I’ve got one! Passengers (2016) starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. It gets a whopping 30% on Rotten Tomatoes from the critics. Viewers give it 63%, so maybe that doesn’t count. My wife liked it, my daughter liked it and a friend of mine and his wife liked it. I haven’t met anyone who didn’t like it. For some reason critics don’t like romantic comedies. They love trash filled with violence, sadism, gore, pornography and anything politically correct (i.e. to those of liberal persuasion) but not so much things that are actually fun to watch.
Interestingly, the critics gave Isn’t It Romantic a 69% positive, but the fans gave it less than 50%. It’s also a romantic comedy, but I think it must be the fact that it satirizes rom-coms that made the critics like it. My wife and I liked it, too.
Once again I’m playing around with words, this time with pangrams. A pangram is a sentence or phrase that contains all 26 letters of the alphabet. I found all of the following in various public domain works in gutenberg.org. The length and source is provided for each. Feel free to add your own in the comments, although if they’re already well-known they’re probably not worth adding. Shorter is better, of course.
(43) William Jex quickly caught five dozen Republicans
from A COLLECTION OF SALUTATORY, VALEDICTORY AND
OTHER ADDRESSES DELIVERED AT THE FIRST FIVE COMMENCEMENTS OF THE FEMALE
STENOGRAPHIC AND TYPEWRITING CLASS OF THE GENERAL SOCIETY
OF MECHANICS AND TRADESMEN OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK
W.L. MASON 1892
This one was a well-known typist’s exercise as far back as 1892
(86) Ivory Knife Handles, with Portraits of Queen Elizabeth and James I. Englis
The “Milkmaid Cup”
from Arts and Crafts in the Middle Ages by Julia De Wolf Addison (Table of contents)
(110) “You — you — ” and Jack glanced at his father perplexedly; “you exhibited him in the store!” he said. ” Why, yes, as a great Velasquez I had just bought.
from Over The Pass by Frederick Palmer
(114) John Knox.–His uncompromising character.–Knox’s interview with
Mary.–His sternness subdued.–The four Maries.–Queen Elizabeth’s
from Mary Queen of Scots, Makers of History by Jacob Abbot
Here are a couple from more widely regarded sources of literature:
(180) “I am in a manner bound to do so as the representative of the attorney of the late Sir Joseph Mason ; and by Heavens, Mr. Cooke, I’ll do my duty!” “I dare say you’re right,” said Mr. Crabwitz, mixing a quarter of a glass more brandy-and- water.
Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope
(172) In the narrow side-street dance rooms of Florence and in the great avenue restaurants of Paris they were performing exactly the same gyrations—wiggle, squirm, shake. And over all the American jazz music boomed.
One Basket by Edna Ferber