Author Archives: leadereader

July, my personal “real” New Year

Hello, reader!

Thanks for stopping by Muze Redux, I haven’t been too busy with the site recently.

Stick around and maybe that will change.

(The internet must hate my abuse of the <hX> tags)

This is one of those generic “looking to the future” posts that everyone loves to read </sarcasm>, so move on if you’re not in the Thought Catalog-esque mood.

July always feels like a new beginning to me, like the real New Year in lieu of that freezing cold one we have otherwise (or that other, slightly warmer one – but Chinese New Year still doesn’t hold a candle to my Hotter than July fashion). Besides, it’s easier to stick to a New Year’s resolution to get my keester in the gym every day when I don’t have twelve hours of schoolwork every day.

I just finished The Design of Everyday Things, so you can expect meditations on that to be coming up soon. Aside from that, here are my hopes for July:

  1. Languages: I signed up for the Arabic Summer Academy, and so far I’m really loving it! Aside from that I’d like to keep trying to learn French (you would think a language that shares my best-known alphabet would be easier – au contraire, mon ami, the lack of a teacher makes it difficult).
  2. Musical: I’ve teamed up with my friend and kinmate of several years Noizy Brain to try to get my songwriting skills off the ground, finally. I love having supportive friends, especially when they’re back from college for the summer!
    As far as instruments go, I’ll admit that I’ve been slacking off a bit. I need to get back to practicing bass, learning cello, and playing guitar and singing. I don’t think I have a great voice, but in a way I actually think that’s a blessing: Any guy should be able to sing what I can without straining himself too much, I want the music I hypothetically make to be hypothetically accessible to the hypothetical future generations of psuedo-punksters. Of course, that’s all a crazy fantasy I have. But we’ll make it work.
  3. Artistic: Still trying to get in a solid hour of practice at observational drawing every day in preparation for my college major. Succeeding about every other day!
  4. Mathematical/scientific/”INTP skills”: To compensate for the year I spent in statistics (which is a great thing to know, just not that math-intensive) I’m currently flipping through my precalculus book and relearning things that gave me trouble. Like remembering how the hell synthetic division works. Urk. Once I’m done with that, I’ll continue on to calculus, which will probably go a lot easier once I’ve got a solid precalc base under my belt.
    I wish I had time for chemistry, but I find the subject difficult and time-consuming and I would like some semblance of a social life and enough sleep this summer please, thank you very much. Sorry, chem guys. I’ll letcha know if things update.
    And of course, literature won’t ever leave my side. I can’t go a day without reading a book, and I love my bibliophiliac upbringing for that. 🙂

Here’s to a great month of July. Party on, cool dudes.

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An Open Letter to Don Norman: The Era of the Smartphone

Hi Mr. Norman, (if you do end up seeing this after all),

I’m reading your book The Design of Everyday Things, and I came across a particularly lucid prediction that you must’ve wrote well before ’88, the year DOET was copyrighted:

“Would you like a pocket size device that reminded you of each appointment and daily event? I would. I am waiting for the day when portable computers become small enough that I can keep one with me at all times. (…) The technology I need is available today. It’s just that the full package had never been put together, partly because the cost in today’s world would be prohibitive. But it will exist in an imperfect firm in five years, possibly in perfect form in ten.”

Well, I don’t think you would call the smartphone quite what you’re looking for, at least not in its modern incarnation. It doesn’t have a typewriter keyboard, although I do like the HTC Sense input scheme (learned after watching my friend fiddle around with his phone for about twenty seconds – I think it’s the sort of software design you’d really like for that :). And your timeframe may have been a tad optimistic.

But better late than never. The age of the truly portable computer, the smartphone, is upon us – and personally, I rather like this little do-whatever-you-need gadget. For me, to date, it’s been a remote, an internet browser, a quick and dirty sound recorder for musical ideas, a time tracker, a gateway to internet-based commerce, a time keeper, a gaming device, and oh yeah, a phone every now and then.

Now the only thing I wish it has was a unified look and feel across all its apps. But I guess I can wait 5/10/25 years for that leap.

Best wishes, you wrote an inspiring book. -Andrew

P.S., guess what I wrote this on.

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Why Shakespeare?: A primer for confused high schoolers (and more!)

A little while back, I made some serendipitous purchases at my local library’s annual book sale. By far the two largest books I got (for $1.50 each – watch for these things!) are The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, The Cambridge Edition Text.

To give you an idea of what 1500 bound pages looks like, here’s a slightly tilted picture.

The opening pages and illustration of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, The Cambridge Edition Text, as edited by William Aldis Wright.

Who illustrated Justice? Can we hire them for the next edition?

Now, aside from English professors and those cute nerdy girls I like so much, I doubt most people are seeing this and licking their lips in excitement. On the other hand, Willie is widely hailed as one of, if not the greatest dramatist and writer of English to have ever lived.

Why is there this disconnect? Why do the so-called experts agree that this man is so great, and the rest of us would prefer to read A Song of Ice and Fire or, well, let’s be honest, anything first published in the past 50-100 years?

Hence, this primer. An attempt, by a recent high school graduate, to explain why Shakespeare is so important for other high school students.

I’m sure my advice won’t be heard out by everyone, but for those of you who do like it, feel free to leave your comments on it.

  1. Yes, Shakespeare’s language is difficult. Embrace the suck!
    I refuse to dress up the ugly truth. Shakespeare is not, in this day and age, immediately relevant or even comprehensible to anybody. You can look up a translation of Cicero and Ovid and those will be easier to read than the original, non-No Fear Shakespeare. I have never met somebody who can sit down, read a Shakespeare play cold, and just get it with all its hidden meanings like that.
    But think about what that means. It means that he has this immense reputation not because of, but despite this difficulty. People who do work through his stuff find it so mind-blowingly amazing that they’re reduced to tears, be it of sadness or laughter.
    Learning to read Shakespeare is like that boring part of first learning a language, where you’re mostly just memorizing basic semi-obvious facts. It’s only after that phase that things start to get really interesting – and with Shakespeare, oh boy, do they.
  2. Shakespeare was never a “classic;” he’s more like a TV writer.
    Believe me, after you get over the hurdle of his antiquated-but-beautiful language, this becomes a lot more obvious. In the book that I have, Macbeth takes up less than 40 pages of text in its entirety, and it’s one of the greatest tragedies ever written (not to mention I read Lady Macbeth in Marilyn Monroe’s voice – the sexiest insults ever ensue).
    You don’t cover that much plot in that short a time by dragging things out. When it does look like things are being dragged out, it’s always for the purposes of characterization, or just plain epic lines.
    What does that sound like? The writing philosophy of Joss Whedon. Or Steven Moffat. Or any writer of excellent television, for that matter. If it’s not advancing things, it gets cut out – so everything has some importance.
    Incidentally, this is why you hear so many popular and “literary” authors alike praising Shakespeare. He’s the perfect person to model oneself on in the world of writing, because — as crazy as it sounds — his verse has just the right economy to it, every time.
  3. Shakespeare was never a classic-ist, either. That’s how he got his reputation.
    Because I love seeing famous dead people get one-upped by other famous dead people I picked up a copy of The Cult of Shakespeare at that book sale, too, and I’ve been reading it over the past 2 days with immense relish. It’s a constant gaggle of stupid things people have done over the centuries in Shakespeare’s memory (look up William Ireland and be prepared to facepalm hard).
    But literature and the history of its reception always shed light on one another, and it suddenly hit me halfway through why Shakespeare’s plays were so powerful. You see, back in ancient theatre, works had to be made according to strict rules. Have a happy ending. People should get their just desserts. Don’t kill off the good guys, and give the bad guys their due.
    Now, for a beginning writer who doesn’t really know what he’s doing yet, these are actually very nice principles to abide by. They let him churn out stories that aren’t exactly formulaic, but it’s hard to fuck up a story that doesn’t end with an insane ending like a father and all of his daughters dying in the middle of a foreign invasion that they themselves started because of a dumb family spat that you’d expect to be parodied in an episode of The Simpsons.
    Oh, wait, that’s King Lear. My favorite Shakespeare tragedy so far. That’s where Shakespeare took things in a different direction: He simply ignored the rules of classical drama.
    In doing so, his stories took on an altogether more organic form to them, and all their parts could work together to form an insurmountable whole of pathos and power. Why did this work? Because true artistic genius can’t be handcuffed like that, by rules of “unity” and “symmetry”. True genius can pull a Houdini on silly rules like that when the opportunity arises, and you’ll just sit there amazed.
  4. Shakespeare’s characters are so well-developed we don’t always know what’s going on with them.
    What? What the hell does that mean? Let me explain: There are some characters in fiction who are completely predictible. Usually, they show up in supporting roles, and if they don’t they’re a negative indicator of the quality of a work. Nobody wants to watch a show about the guy who sells Jerry Seinfeld et al. coffee at that shop, because he’s boring.
    Conversely, there are some character who are a complete mystery to us – they’re so hard to pin down, they might as well just get written out of the story, because there isn’t much going for them in terms of audience appeal in the first place. As much as I love James Joyce, this is how I feel about Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – granted, I was much younger when I read it, but it proves that too much ambiguity can be just as bad as too much predictability.
    Shakespeare, however, puts down enough detail in stone for us to love his characters, and omits enough to let us come up with our own interpretations.
    Let’s take a step back and admire that for a moment: Is Hamlet just indecisive, or does he already have everything planned out from the beginning and he’s just waiting for a chance to strike? Is Lady Macbeth a cold-hearted bitch who goes crazy as divine retribution, or did she want to be that cold-hearted bitch but wasn’t really, and when she tries to be then she goes crazy? And don’t even get me started on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
    The point here is that Shakespeare’s got a knack for hitting the ‘sweet spot’ of characterization in his works. That’s why from the beginning his plays transcended their lower comedy and proved to be something more gripping.

Okay, I’m sure you’re getting as tired of reading this article as I am, but let me just reiterate: Shakespeare rewards those who put the effort in immensely. Yes, he is hard, and there’s little getting around that. He’s also awesome at what he does [uh… did], and that’s why people go so rabid about him, especially people who make reading and writing their professions.

I really hope somebody reads this, I don’t want it to disappear in the vacuum of the blogosphere.

'The Comedy of Errors' by William Shakespeare

‘The Comedy of Errors’ by William Shakespeare (Photo credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

It’s like, that people … well, that everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds … not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.

-Barbie, issue #36

“To Engineer is Human”, by Henry Petroski

Cover of To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski

There’s something deliciously cynical about seeing a bridge fall and saying, “History will vindicate me.”

The details, oh, the details. Why is it that we do not check them more carefully? For they can send innocent readers into the bowels of libraries, where madmen mug books, and they can send innocent citizens to their deaths in cracked airplanes and on shaky skywalks.

I’ll admit some bias in picking up this book; I’m entering college next year as an intended dual major in engineering and art, and a book subtitled “The Role of Failure in Successful Design” was just too good to pass up. I read To Engineer is Human with the intention of gleaning a few possibly life-saving lessons about the queer field I’m entering – and although Petroski’s pedigree is in civil engineering, many of his points are important across the board.

That being said, Petroski’s book may not be as suitable for the layman as he originally desired. There were several parts where I found myself saying, “I’d be lost if it weren’t for the fact that I know about all this stuff already.” The anecdotes are a bit hit-or-miss, the best one probably being the story of the Crystal Palace.

Although the effect is overall limited, the book falls into that all-too-familiar rut where the science outweighs the human effect on the reader. Petroski definitely relates his content all back eventually, but getting up to there is daunting.

(It doesn’t help that there’s one chapter basically ranting about how errors in computer design are going to be the bogeyman of the twenty-first century – like, why not call in some civil engineering experts to help design the system? Serious bro points lost with this Linux geek.)

A good and informative read for aspiring engineers (and maybe practising ones). Maybe a bit too intense for the average Joe.

But! For those of you who are in the civil engineering purview of interest, check out the related content links.

Slow week! — “Blink,” by Malcolm Gladwell

(Apologies are in order, reader! I slacked off a lot this week, due in no small part to having a lot of outside commitments, and the worst work day of my so-far-young life by far. Nobody who impressed business client at 15 should fall to doing door-to-door sales work at 18. I’ve learned my lesson! Onto the review.)

Cover of Malcolm Gladwell's

A smart guy? Yes. A prophetic researcher whose works change your life in under 400 pages? No. A writer who can point you on to the things that will? Definitely.

Rating: 4 / 5

I don’t make a secret of my minor obsession with books skirting the boundaries of psychology and self-help; in this regard, Robert Greene is my favorite author, and Malcolm Gladwell is pretty high up there.

That being said, anyone who opens Blink will do well to repeat this mantra to themselves:
“Gladwell’s a reporter, not a scientist,
May he no longer give cognitive bias.”

Blink is a great book, written in a fantastic style that betrays Gladwell’s long running position as a writer with the New Yorker. Beginning with the story of a falsified kouros statue that one expert just “knew” had to be fake, even after scientific testing appeared to prove that an impossibility, he builds up a fascinating series of anecdotes about the mind’s power to ‘thin-slice’ events and make snap judgments. There are a surprisingly large amount of events that we can do just as well if not better by suppressing our rational sides and acting on (trained, well-honed) animal instincts. Cool beans.

Apropos of his section on microexpressions and the work of the human lie detector and psychologist Paul Eckman is this great YouTube video I dug up. Even if you’re not interested in reading the book, this is an awesome watch:

So, Malcolm’s a great writer, and the stories he tells us are all great. Why doesn’t Blink get 5 stars?

Because chances are if you’re interested enough to read this review of it this far, you’re going to buy the damned book anyway. And you deserve to be warned that Gladwell is notorious for cherry-picking his accounts. Like I said: Gladwell is not a scientist. He oversimplifies issues.

But even a simplified version of an issue can be enchanting.

 

For seasoned Gladwell fans, the last link under “Related Articles” ought to give you a nice, if slightly deprecating laugh. 🙂

What $31 Will Get You at A Book Sale

image

Seriously kids, pay attention to your local library! It could turn into one help of a shopping spree.

These are the books I picked up from the sale currently ongoing at the West Roxbury branch of the BPL. No copies of Ulysses, unfortunately, but I did nab an exquisitely worn edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, as well as Chaucer and Aeschylus.

There are also some epic nonfiction titles on the literary smorgasbord here. After today’s book, by the inimitable polymath Malcolm Gladwell, I think The Design of Everyday Things will be next!