Saturday, May 31, 2014

We Japanese book review

We Japanese: Being descriptions of many of the customs, manners, ceremonies, festivals, arts and crafts of the Japanese, besides numerous other subjects  is probably one of the best treasuries of old Japan out there and affordable as well. Prepared by the Fujiya hotel at Hakone it consists of a whole collection of one or two pages descriptions of customs, folk tales and more. These vignettes were originally prepared and printed on the menu cards by the hotel for the sake of both the local and foreign visitor. These became so popular that were gathered in three volumes.

By the looks of it, the flagship 1950 edition combines all three previous volumes. Most of the entries are illustrated with drawings, but some b&w photos are also included. The info is current to 1950, but some of it dates back to at least 1934 which makes the book a time capsule of sorts. As an object it is traditionally bound and enclosed in an unfolding case which shuts with a bone (faux?, real?) pin. There appear to be at least three different designs for the cover which is texturized. Each page is folded double.

The descriptions and stories are concise, insightful, frequently delighting. Since these only are a page or two, they allow reading at odd times. An index is included, but does not cover absolutely all, so some digging is still needed to find all there is to know about some particular topic.

We Japanese came on my radar it after reading Ryokan by Fahr Becker (also recommended) which borrows from it on a dozen or so occasions.

Despite its relative rarity, it surprises me how low it can be bought for. I got mine for around $20, but I've seen it as low as $12. I say one should grab a copy even if for a gift. This kind of value offers are not easy to come by.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Mega bee!

When I was about five, I remember once seeing  giant bee. My dad was taking out the car from the driveway and there it was on the steps going down. It was about 3 inches long, and although it had at least two bands, yellow and black, I couldn't see any of its wings. Of course, I was startled by such large animal and couldn't take a close look at it. My brother and I asked our dad about it and he told us that that would be a queen bee. We climbed into the car and probably one of the tires went over it.

Now, a bee cannot get that big, queen or not, so I do not know what I saw then. I'm sure I saw something nonetheless. It would have been a great prize for a natural history museum and it wouldn't have been that difficult to capture it too: a large bucket and on to the phones. I've asked both my father and brother about it since then, but they don't seem to remember anything of the sort.

However some present day analysis is warranted. According to  not a bee, but a bumble bee can effectively grow to be such large. I've never seen anything like that since on the field or on the media, or heard talk of humongous bees, but I must label this childhood mystery of mine as solved.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Information by Gleick book review

Nowadays we take information technology for granted. Computers and communication work, for the most part, as they should. But under all this, there is a fascinating story to be told. James Gleick, in his book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, describes all this and more with starry-eyed infectious wonder.

Actually, as the title implies, this is more like three books in one. Starts with the very notion of communication, language both spoken & written, and the meaning of meaning. One is magically transported from era to era as in a time machine to look at what happened and wander around each period . From the jungles of Africa, to Greece, to the lexicographer's desk, to Babbage's workshop, to Shannon's farmfield and more. Gleick conducts the guided tour explaining all and never losing the thread despite the must-see detours. It is very accessible and I believe it could inspire some children to follow in the steps of great men in the field.

With Shannon and Turing, Gleick passes from the history into the theory or more like the immediate history of the theory. This part cranks up the abstraction, but still to a manageable level for the most part. It warrants a careful read to not miss the details. At this point, of particular interest are the first cybernetics summits where the towering figures of the day try to make sense of it all for the first time. It feels like the Philadelphia Continental Congresses all over again.

Information within biology is not forgotten. Two chapters also are devoted to Richard Dawkins' ideas on the selfish gene and the meme and how these two work. Finally, complexity, information and randomness are tied together.

The final part, the deluge, is dealt in the final two chapters. These address the usual suspects, namely wikipedia, namespace and your email inbox. Being an overview, don't expect solutions to your possible information overload.

Colvin, in his book Talent is Overrated, says that an asset of great performers in any field is that they have an ever expanding mental model on which to hang new knowledge. The contents and structure of The Information can be your ready-made model for many wide areas: no need to start from scratch.  From language, to logic, to math, to biology, to computers, to the information. If you ever wanted to have a systematic feel for these areas, this is your ticket.

Totally recommended for those who have a programming, mathematics or linguistics background but just as well for those who just like nonfiction for its own sake.

The only caveat with this book is the psychodelic cover design of the paperback edition.

5 stars