Tag Archives: first read

“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.

“Snow Crash”, by Neal Stephenson

It would be about 2/3 as long without all the Sumerian mythology. But then it wouldn’t be Neal Stephenson.

Rating:  5 / 5

Let’s go through the opening of Snow Crash real quickly just to show you what it’s like.

We have this guy named Hiro. Hiro Protagonist. (Yes, that’s actually his name.) He was one of the original programmers of the Metaverse, which is like the Internet if the Internet forced you to freaking walk to every URL and website you visited, and the world’s greatest swordfighter. Go figure.

And he’s dead broke, working a pizza delivery job to earn enough scratch to live in a 600 sq. ft. storage unit with fuzz-grunge rock “star” Vitaly Chernobyl. His job title is “Deliverator.”

Do I see you shaking your head? No. You don’t understand. The Deliverator works for the Mafia, delivering pizzas in 30 minutes or less. If he fails, the don Uncle Enzo will show up personally and apologize – and the Deliverator will be sleeping with the environmentally-altered megafishes very shortly thereafter.

That all becomes clear in the first 5 pages or so, during my personal favourite opening literary action sequence of all time. Neal Stephenson’s novel won’t be everyone’s taste, but if you don’t mind slogging through his digressions on Sumerian mythology (or if you’re like me and actually enjoy that part of science fiction writing!) you’ll find this book chock full of humor, badassery, and absolute coolness. It only gets better from a guy who prefers his samurai swords to an electric minigun, people!

A final comment: Linguists, virologists and old *nix hands alike will find this book especially enjoyable because of how much they can relate to the ideas Stephenson presents that are critical to the central running of the plot. I fall a little bit uncertainly into the third category, which might explain why I was chuckling at his descriptions of the Metaverse and found the infospeak more interesting than grating. It is one of the reasons so many people get turned off of scifi in the first place, after all.

Below are some links the lovely people at WordPress have deemed ‘relevant’ to my content. They’re probably not entirely relevant, of course, but have fun reading through them.

May 30: “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”, Chris Hedges

Book cover of

But that meaning certainly isn’t pretty.

Rating: 3 / 5

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning has a title that confused me at first – generally speaking, ‘meaning’ has a positive connotation, and so I expected a pro-war account. Truth be told, it’s not one hundred percent clear what Hedges’ thoughts on war are in the end, and perhaps that’s the way it is meant to be: A confused mess, with lines of contradictory coherency in every chapter.

But a good 80 percent of the book is detailing the horrors of war, horrors that Chris Hedges encountered during his time as a wartime journalist – so we may believe him to be an addict of war, just as others are an addict of drugs. It is a comparison he himself makes several times in the book. Take a look at the end of the first chapter:

During a lull [in the gunfire] I dashed across an empty square and found shelter behind a house. My heart was racing. Adrenaline coursed through my bloodstream. I was safe. I made it back to the capital. And, like most war correspondents, I soon considered the experience a great cosmic joke. I drank away the fear and excitement in a seedy bar in downtown San Salvador. Most people after such an experience would learn to stay away. I was hooked.

A great example of the definitely journalistic slant of the writing style – punctual sentences, flowing vocabulary – although it doesn’t contain the many references to classic works of literature like Shakespeare and the Aeneid that the book should also be known for.

Hedges’ ideas on war are interesting, and in many places very insightful – I couldn’t help but think about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as he talked about the link between a wartime scenario and the ensuant rise in sexual perversion, both on the sides of the soldiers and their patriotic [like “meaning”, here that word does not have a positive connotation] citizens back at home.

The thing that keeps me from rating this book higher, however, is that the structuring is horrendous – maybe there’s some underlying pattern I’m not seeing here, but the book reads like a halting mess of personal recounts of torture and death, philosophical meanderings, and the occasional one-on-one verbal confrontations that reveal Hedges’ pedigree as a journalist, but impress less in the form of a book.

There is also the question of background knowledge on the events being talked about – for a national bestseller, Chris Hedges sure didn’t spend much time explaining the military and political fiascos he found himself in, and I doubt the layman has enough knowledge of the various genocides that took place in the Eastern European countries to fit everything into a solid historical framework without doing outside research. (It is now on my list to do that outside research later, of course.)

All in all: Great ideas, great content, and a strong, mostly anti-war message, but it relies on the reader knowing a lot about the history of international conflicts in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the structure is tangled to say the least. If you want to get the most out of this book, do some research on Israel and the Balkans first.

May 29: “Looking for Alaska”, by John Green

Cover of John Green's

I searched “Looking for Alaska” on Google and Google gave me an actual map of Alaska. Gotta love the Internet.

(I suppose this’ll set a trend for writing my reviews of the books I read the day after. Fine with me!)

Rating: 4 / 5

The first book that I read was Looking for Alaska, a title by the more literary of the two [in]famous VlogBrothers, John Green. (For those of you who don’t know who the VlogBrothers are, here’s their YouTube channel. The name pretty much sums it up!)

Clocking in at 230 pages, it took me 4 hours and 28 minutes to read yesterday (I’m not the fastest reader).

Looking for Alaska reminded me of the basic structure of Philip Roth’s book Indignation in certain ways – that one may have been a bit longer, but they both feature 1. a protagonist who leaves a nowhere town and only sporadically keeps his parents and 2. falls in love with a girl who isn’t entirely mentally stable. They differ in that 3. John Green isn’t nearly as gleefully sadistic as Philip Roth (a term of endearment, Philip!), 4. being a work of young adult fiction, protagonist Miles “Pudge” Halter actually sounds like, you know, a teenager, and 5. it ends on a strangely uplifting note.

What makes this book problematic to review is that events past halfway would definitely be construed as spoilers, at least for a first time reader. So I’ll do my best to give you an idea of the setup: Pudge is sent from Nowhere, USA to Culver Creek Preparatory High School, where he falls in very quickly with a group of kids both intellectual and reckless – Chip “the Colonel” Martin, Takumi Hikohito, and of course Alaska Young. I don’t know about you, but there’s something about a girl that reads Marquez and still parties like an animal makes me drool. They are of course in opposition to the teachers and authority figures, as well as to the Weekday Warriors – snobby rich kids who go back home every weekend. Shenanigans are had all around, some more mean spirited than others; Pudge actually gets hazed his first night on campus, which really sets the mood that although this is a young adult novel, it does carry some gravity with it.

What really makes the novel shine, however, is John Green’s eye for motifs. There are several phrases that are repeated over and over in the book (a #3 for Indignation similarities), most importantly the last words of Francois Rabeleis and Simon Bolivar. Pudge is obsessed with memorizing last words, and they guide him a lot through the book. He even describes his decision to leave home at the tender age of sixteen as going to “seek a Great Perhaps,” the meaning of which is just enigmatic enough to make it interesting.

I got the feeling reading through the book that there was a lot of foreshadowing in miniature going on that I wouldn’t catch on a first read. And as Bloom County put it: Foreshadowing: Your clue to quality literature!

An enjoyable read, overall. (Maybe the next review I do for a novel I’ll break it down into categories?)