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Books I read in December (and a bit of November)

2012-11-25 Sun Firefly Summer by Maeve Binchy. From the library. Well-written best-seller about two families in a small Irish town.

2012-11-26 Mon Norah Ephron Imaginary Friends, play about Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman. Probably better in the theater. From the library – just after Ephron died they got a whole bunch of stuff by her.

2012-12-08 Sat Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, the latest in the Barrayaran series by Lois McMaster Bujold. (bought from Baen) Brilliant – the last Miles plot seemed to be mining a very exhausted vein, but this one builds on the best of the earlier ones, and has both coming of age and dealing with middle-age aspects.

2012-12-10 Mon Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy. From the library. More warm-hearted middle-aged to elderly females fixing the world's problems for the well-meaning young.

2012-12-13 Thu The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. Got on sale from Amazon after recommendation by Cory Doctorow (I think). Police procedural set against the impending crash into earth of an asteroid. Good but not gripping.

I took most of an afternoon to revive my procedure for stripping DRM from Kindle books. Most of it was because of how decrepit my Thinkpad is. The answer turned out to be that you need current versions of Kindle for PC, Calibre, the drm removing tools, and the python library the tools depend on. Then you have to realize that for that format of Kindle, Calibre can read it, and convert it, but the ebook viewer can't display it. So you should convert it to epub and read that. Or ignore big sales on Kindle books.

2012-12-24 Mon Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, from the library. Some of the methodology reminds me of the story about how much senility increased in the UK after Margaret Thatcher's resignation as Prime Minister. One of their methods of determining whether someone was senile was to ask them who the Prime Minister was. Obviously, more people knew when it had been the same person for 15 years than when it had only been a few months. There are a couple of hallucination stories that seem to be similar to that. There's a man whose cat had to go to the vets for a few days. While the cat was gone, the man would hallucinate that he saw it walking across the living room. Sacks says that the hallucination stopped when the cat got home, but how does he know? Some of the cats walking across the living room might have been hallucinations, but you wouldn't investigate that if your cat was at home and might perfectly well have been going to the litter box.

A common form of auditory hallucination is to hear something that sounds like a radio left on in another room. If you live in a single-family home on a quiet street, you get up and go to all the rooms with radios to see which one was left on and to turn it off. But if you live in an apartment building on a noisy street, you hear other people's radios all the time. Some of them might be hallucinations, but how would you tell?

My methodology quibble aside, I think it's a good book. One stated purpose is to make people more comfortable thinking about (and maybe talking about) their neurological idiosyncrasies, and I think it achieves that. I discussed it at dinner with two friends, and it turned out that two of us have the visual hallucinations before going to sleep and the third had no idea what we were talking about.

2012-12-25 Tue Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley. I think it was his first novel. I read it in high school, or possibly college, and haven't looked at it since, so I was surprised how vividly I remembered some of the better bits. There are good reasons why I haven't reread it – the stuff between the good bits is very talky, and mostly about issues that don't concern me much, although certainly it's of historic interest how casually people in a Huxley novel published in 1922 advocated ideas that we would label fascist.

2012-12-25 Tue Finished Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson. I've been reading this off and on between a lot of the above – it works best a chapter at a time. It's fascinating but a little bit disappointing. We really don't think about how much of late 20th century technological change was fueled by World War II. He leaves out the antibiotics, but everything easily related to computers is mentioned. (bombs, weather prediction, stellar evolution, biological evolution…)

But with a better editor or co-author, it could have been a better book. Dyson doesn't really explain anything they way the great popular science books of the mid-twentieth century did. If you don't already know a lot about any of these subjects, you will come away from the book with a vague idea about how general-purpose computers helped develop them, and some interesting facts about the biographies of the people who did the developing, but you still won't know much about the subject.

2012-12-28 Fri Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier. I think I got this from Gutenberg because someone wrote an essay about it in the NY Times Book Review. You can see why someone who studies how people write novels would find it interesting, that someone would have done something that much like stream of consciousness in 1915. But it's really quite unpleasant. I thought about dropping it several times, but somehow kept on to see how the throat-cutting came about.

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