BOOK REVIEW: The Information by James Gleick

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodThe Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Information is one of those topics that remains obscure not because it’s rare or hidden, but because it’s everywhere and the term is used for so many purposes it’s not thought of cohesively. It might seem like a book on this topic would be hopelessly boring by virtue of the fundamental meta-ness of the material. Instead, Gleick had a vast sea of topics and stories involving intense stakes for humanity from which to choose, e.g.: how did we learn to communicate and advance said capability until it was arguably the most important feature of our species, by what instructions are people “assembled,” might the most fundamental layer of reality be informational, and – in recent decades — will our species drown in flood of cheap information?

Given the vast sprawl of the subject matter, organization becomes a crucial question. In a sense the book is chronological, presenting humanity’s experience with information in more or less the order we came to think about the subject. I think this was a wise move as it starts from what most people think of when they think of information – i.e. language and its communication. That makes it easier to wrap one’s head around what comes later, and to see the conceptual commonalities. This approach might seem self-evident, but an argument could be made for starting with information as the word is used in Physics (as addressed in Ch. 7 – 9,) an argument that that approach is more fundamental and generically applicable, and while it might be both of those things, it wouldn’t be as easily intuitively grasped.

I found this book to be fascinating and easily followed — even though it covers some conceptually challenging topics, it does so in an approachable manner. It is over a decade old, but holds up well – though I think there is much more to say these days about the detrimental effects of information overload, a topic discussed at the end of the book. I recommend it for nonfiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide by Paul Cobley

Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide by Paul Cobley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Semiotics is the study of how symbols and signs are used to represent various things and actions in language and communication. This brief guide traces the subject from its origins with Saussure and Pierce (late 19th century) to the present day. It’s not a well-known discipline and overlaps with others (e.g. information science, linguistics, etc.) so as to further obscure it’s boundaries. It’s generally considered a sub-discipline of philosophy.

I’ve read several titles in this series. This one had the fewest and longest chapters – i.e. most of these books have sections that are only a page or two long, but here the sections were generally several pages long. The book looks at differences between American and Soviet approaches as well as discussing the Prague School and the influence of prominent philosophers on the subject.

I felt that I learned something about this obscure subject, though – I must admit – knowing so little of it, I can’t say that I would have recognized if there were any glaring oversights or mistakes in the book. As should be expected of such a concise introductory guide, it’s readable and not difficult to follow. However, it can be dry; though I suspect that’s difficult to avoid, given the subject matter.


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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Wittgenstein: A Graphic Guide by John Heaton

Introducing Wittgenstein: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Wittgenstein: A Graphic Guide by John Heaton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This concise guide offers a sketch of the life of the early twentieth century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, focusing on the evolution of his philosophical thought. As with other volumes in the series, it begins with biographical background of ancestry and youth before turning its focus to the ideas for which the subject gained fame, occasionally shifting back to more biographical focus to discuss impactful moments from his life. Wittgenstein served in World War I and had a somewhat strange academic career.

Wittgenstein had his hands in a lot of pots, studying the philosophy of logic, ethics, science, mathematics, language, and the mind. The book provides brief summaries of key ideas such as language games, family resemblances (as applied to groupings other than families,) philosophy as a form of therapy, the ubiquity of tautology in logic, the illusion of self, etc. In many cases, the ideas cut across neat boundaries as where questions of language, perception, and the nature of the self may overlap. I found I got the most out of Wittgenstein’s thinking on language and its limits. While some of the ideas were strange, others were illuminating.

This book provides a fine guide for the neophyte looking to be introduced to Wittgenstein’s work. Philosophers will likely find it lacking in depth, but few will find it too complicated or arcane. If you wish to learn more about the life and philosophy of Wittgenstein, it’s worth checking out.


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POEM: Mundane Magic

The girl cast an incantation —
and as her words bore fruit —
they burned her as a witch.

-Blaming the woman
-Blaming her magic
-Blaming a Devil,

But granting amnesty to the words.

What human endeavor is unswayed
by the force of words?

What marauding army was sent off
without a flurry of furious words?

How many Generals have tried
to match the grace of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech?
And though they fail,
their words aren’t without kinetic effect.

What lost cause found victory in words
spewed by a red-faced coach
in a half-time locker-room?

Hasn’t the stab of careless words
been felt more deeply than a dagger?
— splitting up couples, if not Empires.

It may be true that words don’t kill people,
that people kill people,
but when did anyone ever get lethally worked up
in the absence of a well-sequenced string of words?

Literally: the Dumbest Poem Ever

He held half-baked ideas in
his twice-baked brain.

He’d grab his umbrella when they
shouted, “Make it rain!”

–the umbrella he should have left for a
friend stuck home under the weather.

But his glasses were bent out of shape, and
he was hell-bent for leather

So, he couldn’t find his coat, nor gloves,
nor ass-less chaps.

And, thus, was running better late
than never — perhaps.

He couldn’t afford to miss the boat
that had sailed, my friend.

He needed his job, ’cause a penny
earned was one he’d spend.

When told he was skating on thin ice,
he maxxed out the AC.

All his blessings were disguised too
well for him to see.

He’d thought he was okay when told
he had stiff competition.

–the nuns taught him to fix that with six
Hail Marys and an Act of Contrition.

But they said his co-workers were
really on the ball.

He’d have gotten a Pilates chair,
but was afraid to fall.

When he heard the new guy was up-and-coming,
he got up and left.

He wanted to be thick as thieves so he
went out for a supply closet theft.

POEM: Divining Meaning

Imagine standing on the train platform,

listening to the distant approaching train,

and you hear a voice say —

unprovoked —

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to shove you.”

I predict you would take two steps back before you try to divine meaning.

And when that speaker objects, saying,

“Brother, you misheard me. I said I’m NOT going to shove you in front of the train.”

He’ll not have improved his credibility through clarity of negation,

especially if he gently lays a fraternal hand upon your shoulder.

It’s like being told to not think of a white bear.

An inseparable seed of murder is sewn into those words.

BOOK REVIEW: How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read OneHow to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The sentence is the unit of writing at which beauty resides. So, while sentences might not be the sexiest scale of writing, it’s worth learning how to do them well. Stanley Fish offers a book which explores why we should care about the sentence and what separates the good and bad of sentences, before it moves into investigation of various types of sentences.

The first four chapters lay the groundwork by explaining what it is about sentences that make them worth mastering, and then outlines what makes a good sentence (while simultaneously explaining how truly great sentence construction might not come about through the sources and approaches that one has been led to expect.)

Chapters five through ten examine a few different classifications of sentences. Chapters five and six contrast the subordinating style with the additive style. The former sentences are hierarchically arranged, while the latter offers the freer / less ordered approach. Each of the two approaches has its advantages. The former make up many of the pithy bits of wisdom transmitted through sentence, while the latter supports a streaming consciousness style of writing (if done well.)

Chapter seven considers satire by sentence. Chapters nine and ten turn to a different classification scheme: first and last sentences, respectively. Both first and last sentences are disproportionately remembered, and each has a unique role in written works. The final chapter is about sentences that are self-reflective.

Throughout the book, Fish uses sentences – some famous and others from famous works – to offer the reader exemplars of the craft. The general approach is a good deal less technical and more reflective than most books on the subject. This makes Fish’s book both more readable, but also more contentious (in as much as a discussion of sentences can be contentious) than related works.

I’d recommend this book for writers and those interested in crafting language.

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BOOK REVIEW: Eats MORE, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Eats More, Shoots & Leaves: Why, All Punctuation Marks Matter!Eats More, Shoots & Leaves: Why, All Punctuation Marks Matter! by Lynne Truss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Coming out: October 22, 2019

This children’s book shows kids what can go awry for want of properly placed punctuation. Lynne Truss’s popular and humorous grammar guide has spun off a cottage industry of books designed to shift perception of grammar studies from brutally dull to witty and fun.

The book is simple and easy to use. Throughout most of the book, each page consists of two pictures, each captioned with a sentence that describes said picture. The captioning sentences consist of the same words in the same order, but differently punctuated. Often, one of the plates is punctuated to make a perfectly logical picture; whereas, the other is absurd. However, other times both meanings are reasonable, but substantially different. Some of the sentences are grammatical oldies but goodies (e.g. “Eat here and get gas.”) but most are more original. There are a few pages upon which a larger multi-part picture is drawn with three or four captions.

The book’s only other feature is a sentence that explains the difference between the captions. Said sentence is written upside-down in small print below each plate, and is presumably a cheat code for parents who haven’t brushed up on “Strunk & White” in a while. Besides missing Oxford commas (i.e. the titular problem,) the book demonstrates miscommunications based on missing or misplaced apostrophes, semi-colons, parentheses, and exclamation marks.

The only surprise was finding “dog’s” used as a contraction for “dog is.” I was under the impression that that apostrophization could only be a possessive (i.e. “dog’s bone” is a bone that belongs to a dog) and only specified pronouns got apostrophe-“s” as a contraction. Don’t get me wrong, I employ such contractions all the time in poetry — mostly to preserve meter — but poets love to infuriate grammarians.

Though it’s intended for kids, I enjoyed reading this book, and found it to be a nice review of punctuation that didn’t require getting too cerebral. I’d recommend it for parents, and for those who want to hit the highlights of punctuation in less than a half an hour (it’s only about 30 pages.)

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BOOK REVIEW: The Painted Word by Phil Cousineau

The Painted Word: A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words and Their OriginsThe Painted Word: A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words and Their Origins by Phil Cousineau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Painted Word is a collection of interesting words with definitions, insight into each word’s origins and evolution, and interesting or humorous usages. These aren’t all GRE words (massive and mostly useless words that have little value beyond impressing admissions committees.) Many of the words will be familiar to readers without huge vocabularies. On the other hand, there will be words that are new to even New York Times crossword puzzle solvers.

As the title suggests, there’s a little bit of an art-related theme. However, I’m not sure I would have noticed this if it hadn’t been for the title. There are a number of colors included among the words—colors known mostly to interior decorators and not to most heterosexual men. There are also a few artistic styles (e.g. intimism.) However, the bulk of the words aren’t clearly related to the fine arts. Many of the entries are loan words, i.e. words that have been used in English literature or other English-language media but which are of foreign origin.

I’ll include a few of the words that captured my own interest:

Autologophagist: one who eats his / her own words
Bafflegab: language that misleads—intentionally or not
Cataphile: a lover of catacomb crawling
Inkhorn: an over-intellectualized word
Lambent: shining with soft light on the surface of something
Millihelen: the amount of beauty that would result in the launch of a single ship.
Monogashi [Japanese]: the sigh or sadness of things
Sonicky: A great sounding word—coined by Roy Blount Jr.
Oculogyric: eye-rolling
Phlug: belly-button lint
Snollygoster: a shrewd but corrupt politician
Ubantu [Bantu / Xhosa]: the interconnectedness of all things

This book is full of fun insights and statements. I learned that “hush puppies” were literally carried to throw to noisy dogs to get them to stop barking. There are many interesting and humorous quotes. For example, Brendan Behan said, “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.” Brief vignettes are used to help give depth of understanding to words. One such story is about a Luddite looking upon the operation of a steam shovel who said to his friend, “Were it not for that steam shovel, there would be work for hundreds of men with shovels…” to which his friend replied, “or thousands of men with teaspoons.”

I enjoyed this book. You don’t have to be fascinated by the minutiae of semantics to find it readable and interesting. It’s not as much like reading a dictionary as one might suspect.

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