Saturday, March 29, 2008

Travel Reading

Who are you that wanted only a book to join you in your nonsense?
- Walt Whitman, By Blue Ontario's Shore

I started this trip with Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age by Bill McKibben. It seemed like a suitable counterpoint to an emerging technology conference. It's a good read, he's a good author, but as much as I agreed with many of his arguments, I just can't quite swallow his conclusion - that we should "stop" here and not pursue certain technology (e.g. nanotech and human gene manipulation) any further. Part of the problem is that I'm a techie geek - I live for the next great thing. Saying "no more" is about as popular as it would be to a kid in a candy store.

He claims things are "good enough" now. But couldn't/wouldn't people have said that at any time in the past? And likewise would most people want to go back? If not, then presumably they should have been in favor of going forward. Sure, we've cured many diseases, but what if you get one of the diseases we haven't found a cure for. Where that cure may require nanotech or gene manipulation?

There's no question that the future may bring changes that take us so far from what we now are as to be unrecognizable. But is that necessarily bad? Going from stone age jungle villages to a modern city is a huge jump too. And some might argue, not a step forward. But the fact that it's a big jump doesn't necessarily make it "bad".

I read a lot of science fiction and it explores all kinds of possible futures, many of them strange and inhuman. But "bad"? I don't know. Is it possible to say in an absolute sense that one culture is better or worse than another? In a way this theme is also explored in Theroux's book below.

For a change of pace, next I read The Escapement, the third and final book in the Engineer series by K. J. Parker. Although the descriptions talk more about power, politics, ware, and economics, what I liked best were the engineering - pre-computer geekdom. In that sense it reminded me of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Although it's classified as "science fiction" it's actually more like "alternate past". There's no magic and no technology that doesn't actually exist. The details of medieval technology are fascinating. I can't vouch for their accuracy but they seem well researched. I also enjoyed K. J. Parker's other Fencer and Scavenger trilogies, but this one is definitely my favorite. It also has an immensely dry sense of humor that I love - enough to make me snort out loud on occasion.

Next up was The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck. This is a non-fiction account of a trip he and Ed Ricketts, a marine biology, made from San Francisco to Baja collecting marine biological specimens. It's a good mix of nature, travel, adventure, and philosophy. I really enjoyed this book and it was great to read it while I was in the area. Here's a sample quote:
A squadron of pelicans crossed our bow, flying low to the waves and acting like a train of pelicans tied together, activated by one nervous system. For they flapped their powerful wings in unison, coasted in unison. It seemed that they tipped a wavetop with their wings now and then, and certainly they flew in the troughs of the waves to save themselves from the wind. They did not look around or change direction. Pelicans seem always to know exactly where they are going. A curious sea-lion came out to look us over, a tawny, crusty old fellow with rakish mustaches and the scars of battle on his shoulders. He crossed our bow too and turned and paralleled our course, trod water, and looked at us. Then, satisfied, he snorted and cut for shore and some sea-lion appointment. They always have them, it's just a matter of getting around to keeping them.
Currently I'm in the middle of three books:

Vagabonding by Rolf Potts was recommended by Timothy Ferriss of The 4-Hour Workweek. It's aimed more at beginning travelers, or at least beginners to off the beaten path, extended travel, but I still enjoyed it. I really liked the quotes at the start of each chapter, many from Walt Whitman, like the one starting this post.

The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux. I'm enjoying this, but it's a bit depressing to read about the problems of an area (tropical islands in the Pacific) that we like to think of as paradise. It fits this trip as he's traveling on his own near and on the ocean - as I've been doing.

The Phenomenon of Life Book One by Christoper Alexander. The sub-title is "An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe". Alexander is known to software people as the inspiration for "design patterns" from A Pattern Language and other books on architectural design. He has an interesting thesis and lots of interesting examples, but "the nature of the universe" might be pushing it a little far. It's thought provoking and I like to find parallels with software design. I wonder what I'll think after all four volumes! Here's a quote:
I have come to believe that architecture is so agonizingly disturbed because we - the architects of our time - are struggling with a conception of the world, a world-picture, that essentially makes it impossible to make buildings well. I believe this problem goes so deep that it even makes it extremely difficult to build the most modest, useful building in an ordinary way.

Many of us are not especially aware that our conception of things - our picture of the universe - could have any concrete or immediate effect on activity as architects. We go about our business trying our best to make good buildings - in whatever fashion we understand "good". The task is difficult. We struggle with it. But we are not aware, perhaps, that we have any special picture of the world.
How could it possibly be true that this conception might interfere so deeply with our efforts as builders, that it makes it all but impossible to make a building well?
Oops, actually I'm reading a fourth as well The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney (fiction). It's good, but it hasn't really captured my attention so it's going slower than usual.

In case you're wondering how/why I keep that many books going at once - it's my normal procedure. Generally I only read one fiction book at a time, usually reserved for the hour or so before going to sleep. Then I like to have a couple of non-fiction books of different types so I can suit my reading to my mood. I've mostly been reading Alexander over breakfast, Theroux and Potts during the day, and Penney before sleep.

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