Tag: reading

Knowing When To Say When: On Giving Up On A Book

Well, I’ve done it again. I have failed to make it through Cryptonomicon. So far the third time has not been a charm. Interestingly, I stalled at almost exactly the same place as I did during my last attempt, right around page 600 in the paperback edition. I’m somewhat ashamed giving up on the book, especially since I made a big deal of announcing my third attempt to get through it. So I am giving myself one more chance at redemption. I’ve got a long drive today and I plan on listening to the book the entire way. I should be able to come close to finishing it. But this is really the last chance. I can deal with shame. What I can’t abide is spending time on a book that just isn’t doing it for me, when there are too many other books I want to read.

Most of what I read these days is nonfiction and it is unconscionable for me to spend as much time on fiction as I have on Cryptonomicon. I spent at least 10 days trying to get through it. During that same period of time, I could have made it through three nonfiction books. I made the sacrifice because the themes in Cryptonomicon would seem to be right up my alley. It’s got late 1990s tech, so there’s nostalgia from the dot com boom. It’s got crypto; it’s got information theory, which I ate up this summer. It’s got World War II history, which I enjoy reading. So why can’t I get through it? I don’t have an answer.

Actually, I broke my own rules this time. Long ago, I learned the importance of knowing when to say when with regard to a book. If a work of fiction doesn’t catch my interest after a few pages, I’m out. With nonfiction, I like the rule I once heard: give it 100 pages minus your age. This year, that means giving a book 51 pages, and then I bail. Time is too precious to waste it on books that aren’t good fits. This is by no means a slight to the authors. In just about every case, I’m sure the fit is bad on my end. Cryptonomicon is teetering on joining a cadre of eight other books I’ve failed to make it through this year, including:

To be honest, the pressure was already on even before I started reading Cryptonomicon. I should have had 50 books read by June 30. As of this moment, I’ve completed 48 books and I’m about 9 books behind my pace for the year. I gave Cryptonomicon far more time that I should have. I didn’t trust my instincts, and that always gets my into trouble, where books are concerned.

So, with Cryptonomicon finally set aside, what is on tap for me? Here’s some of what I am looking forward to reading over the rest of the summer:

My usual caveat about the butterfly effect of reading applies here. But this is the list that I am currently looking at tackling the rest of this summer.

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Audible Stats for the first Half of 2021

Audible was kind enough to send me an email highlighting some of my listening stats for the first half of 2021. Here is what they sent me:

That 24,063 minutes amounts to about 400 hours of listening time so far this year. Keep in mind that the 76 titles is how many titles I’ve started, not how many I’ve finished. According to my own records, I’ve finished 48 books so far this year. I’m about 7 books behind my pace of 100 books for the year. The main reason is that I’ve sunk a lot of time in catching up back episodes of the Tim Ferriss Show Podcast.

I love Audible, but they are owned by Amazon, and as I have pointed out, Amazon is terrible at predicting what I want to read based on what I have already read. In this case, the message from Audible was that “mysteries & thrillers are your jam.” Actually, I’ve read far more books on information theory this year than I have mysteries or thrillers.

This was actually a useful reminder that I need to get back to my usual volume of reading. I’ve slowed down a bit, but it’s about time that things returned to normal.

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Reading Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

My paperback copy of Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Sometime in 2002 a friend of mine asked me if I’d read a book by Neal Stephenson called Cryptonomicon. I said I hadn’t. I’d heard of other books that Stephenson had written, including Diamond Age and Snow Crash. He told me I would enjoy Cryptonomicon, which was published in 1999, because it dealt with cryptography and technology and contained lots of techie references. I picked up a paperback edition back then, and was immediately attracted to its length. I don’t know what it is about long book, but I like them. Still, I had a hard time getting through the book, and eventually, gave up.

A few years ago, I thought I’d give it another try. I was certain I’d get through it. I remembered almost nothing of my first attempt so the story would seem new to me. But I ran into the same problem as before. I had a hard time getting through the book and gave up again, in almost the same place (about two-thirds of the way through the book).

They say the third time is a charm. On Saturday, almost on a whim, I picked the book up again. This time, I was determined to finish it. I started reading, and something strange happened. I understood what I was reading. It wasn’t nearly as difficult. And I finally know why. At its core, Cryptonomicon seems to be a novel about information theory. And it just so happened that I spent much of the past spring, reading books about information theory. The focus of much of the book (so far) is on cryptography, which is a subset of information theory. But really, the novel itself is a novel about information theory.

In my previous readings, I hadn’t read about Alan Turing or Kurt Gödel. I hadn’t read about Claude Shannon and his invention of information theory. I hadn’t grasped the relationship between theories of entropy and theories of information. And of course, I hadn’t yet read Gödel, Escher, Bach and grasped the nature of the Entscheidungsproblem–whether any statement could be found true or false. Having read about all of this since the last time I attempted to read Cryptonomicon has seemed to make all the difference.

I don’t know how long it will take me to get through the book, but I am committed to getting through it this time around. I am definitely enjoying it more than on my first two attempts. And besides, I have precedence for this. I was once recommended a book and it was more than twenty years before I finally read it. Of course, when I finally finish it, I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it here.

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Finished Reading: The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin

The main reason I read so much is to learn. So I couldn’t pass up a book with the title The Art of Learning. The author, Josh Waitzkin, was as chess champion and the subject of the book and film Searching for Bobby Fischer. After his years in chess he moved into tai chi and its martial form, push hands. He became a world champion there as well. In the book, part memoir, part a distillation of Josh’s analysis of his own performance and how he tried to learn from it over the years. This is the art of learning to which the title refers.

When I read, I’m usually on the lookout for two things. The first is pure education: what I can I take away from my reading that I can use to improve myself. Sometimes these are concrete ideas. One example was the way Tom Kelly, in his book Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module, talked about how he used notebooks to capture his work and thoughts on the development of the lunar lander while working for Grumman. I read that book in 2001, and it changed the way (to say nothing of the volume) I take notes. Sometimes the takeaways are more abstract. A books like The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is, one the surface, a history of a scientific and engineering marvel (or terror). Beneath the surface, my biggest takeaways were all on how manage large scale projects. It is why I consider it one of the best books on project management I’ve come across. Finally, education is sometimes just that: filling in gaps in knowledge of whatever subject I might be reading about.

The second thing I lookout for is affirmation. When I read something and recognize that it is something I do that seems to work for me, it often affirms my methods. This is what I found most of in The Art of Learning.

Early in the book, Josh breaks down intelligence into two types, entity and incremental intelligence. He writes,

Children who are “entity theorists”… are prone to use language like “I am smart at this” and attribute their success or failure to an unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a think that cannot evolve.

Incremental theorists, or “learning theorists”,

are more prone to describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder.” A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped–step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.

The latter definition was the first affirmation I encountered because this is very much my style of learning, even today. The best example I have of this was when I was learning calculus. I remember trying to break the problems in the book into categories: these one use this rule, these other ones are special exceptions to that rule, and so on. Once I had a set of problem types, I didn’t try to just tackle each problem outright. Instead, I tried to develop a set of steps that would work for any problem of that particular type. First do x, then y, then z. When I studied for tests, I would first go through a set of problems and classify them into the types I had identified; then I could attack each one using the method I’d come up with for that type.

Another affirmation came when Josh discussed how he had to adapt his study methods for chess. Noise had bothered him, and could throw him off his focus, and take his mind down a rabbit hole away from the particular chess problem he was trying to solve. Rather than get frustrated and try to eliminate all noise, Josh took the opposite approach:

I took the bull by the horns and began training to have more resilient concentration. I realized that in top-rank competition I couldn’t count on the world being silent, so my only option was to become at peace with the noise.

This has also been my approach. In my post productive years of writing (in terms of variety of what I wrote and where I sold stories) I wrote every day for 825 consecutive days. I never missed a day. At the time, the Little Man was 4 and the Little Miss was two. The house was a constant flurry of activity and noise. One of the things I had to get used to was working while sitting in the midst of all of that noise. I had to get used to interruptions in the flow of my writing. Up to that time, I always told myself I needed quiet to write, but I had no choice. I forced myself to adjust and that adjustment allowed for some of my most productive writing. Being adaptable was important. I wrote about this for Adobe’s 99U when I had passed 350 days of my streak.

Later in the book, Josh describes his competition for the world push hands championship in Taiwan. Reading his descriptions of the event can be frustrating: he describes how the rules are continually changed (or ignored) to favor the local heroes as opposed to the foreigners. Some of this is tactical. If you can get under your opponent’s skin, you have a clear advantage. So Josh had to learn to anticipate these antics and deal with them without losing his cool. It reminds me of what we have tried to teach the Little Man.

When he loses points on a test for something that he considers unfair (“the teacher said this wouldn’t be on the test”) the Little Man can get worked up. What we have tried to teach him is that life constantly throws curves. Preparing for anything is often more than preparing for just what you expect. You have to prepare for the unexpected as well. When something goes sideways, you have to do your best not to let it rattle you. Good preparation goes a long way here, but even the best preparation can’t anticipate everything. That’s when you sometimes have to let things go. It is actually a great lesson in equanimity.

I enjoyed Josh’s book. His insights are keen and valuable, but most of the lessons in the book seem geared to the highest performers, the elite few who are already close to the top of their game and are looking for that edge to bridge the gap to the top. I am certainly not in that category, but I found many things in the book that affirmed practices I already had, and that much felt good.

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Finished Reading: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

cover of haruki murakami's what i talk about when i talk about running

In the long list of things that I would like to be able to do well, running–in particular, long-distance running–is high among them. I’m envious of friends and family who managed to cultivate this particular exercise throughout their life, and for whom it is a pleasure that they look forward to each day. When I consider running, my tendency is to want to skip the hard part, and just be at the level where I could match my friends.

Haruki Murakami’s wonderful memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running changed my mind. The good part of running is the hard part. Murakami is more than just a runner, he is also a novelist, and although I don’t think he explicitly stated this, it came across that running a marathon and writing a novel are really two forms of the same thing. Hard work, day in and day out, leads to results. Even the hard work that is painful. After feeling as if I suffered through five years of writer’s block myself, Murakami’s book made me realize that the suffering is optional. Early in the book, he writes,

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself. This pretty much sums up the most important aspect of marathon running. (Emphasis is mine.)

Hard work is where one finds joy in things. Running is hard work and writing is hard work. Reading this book about running made me realize that if I really did want to start running, then I have to do the hard work, just as I did when I first began to write.

Murakami comes across as an honest writer. He doesn’t try to hide any of his faults or difficulties, but puts them on display in order to see them and learn from them. He writes about the regiment of self-training he did preparing for the New York City marathon, only to perform poorly (in his mind). And yet he tried to learn lessons from that and apply them to the (less rigorous) training for the Boston marathon. He was equally displeased with his showing. The lesson he took from this: he was at the age where he simply couldn’t compete with his younger self and this was simply something he’d have to accept.

He didn’t so much describe his training or running methods as much as approach them almost as an outside observer would, commenting on a difficultly, or an adjustment he had to make. In this way, his descriptions made for a delightfully straight-forward read. He describes himself as “more of a workhorse than a racehorse” and that is often how I have thought of myself.

Perhaps the part of the book that most resonated with me was toward the end when he was summing up his reason for lifelong exercise:

For me, the main goal of exercising is to maintain, and improve, my physical condition in order to keep on writing novels, so if races and training cut into the time I need to write, this would be putting the cart before the horse. Which is why I’ve tried to maintain a decent balance.

This is exactly what I am trying to do for myself over the next ten years as I work toward becoming a full-time writer. I need to maintain and improve my own physical condition in order to be able to continue to write, and when I retire, write more than I have ever been able to write before.

What I discovered in this short memoir was not what I’d expected: a memoir of running. Instead, I found a kind of simplicity in daily habit that allows a focus and accumulation of effort to payoff in a big way. The fun is not in being a great writer, or great musician, or nurse, or project manager. The joy is in the hard work that gets you there, the living in the moment, the journey, not the destination.

Every writer has to start with the first words on a blank page and then put in the effort, day in and day out to become as good as they possibly can. Every runner has to put on a pair of running shoes and take those first strides understanding that the pain (and frustration) is inevitable, but also knowing that the suffering is optional. That, I think, is the nugget of gold buried within Murakami’s book. It will be the mantra I repeat to myself when I finally work up the courage to start running.

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The Left and Right Hands of Amazon

Tracking purchasing behavior online has been a hot topic for a long time. People have legitimate concerns about how websites track usage and behaviors and then use the data to display ads and suggestions tailored to a particular person’s interest. This has never bothered me as much as some people for one main reason. It seems that even the biggest sites aren’t particularly good at this yet.

Take Amazon, for example. I get a weekly email from Amazon titled “Book recommendations for Jamie Rubin” and they never seem to be current with their recommendations. Take a recent example. In the section of the email titled “New based on your author interests” there are two books suggested:

Amazon got at least one thing right: both of these authors interest me, and indeed, I am looking forward to reading both of these books. But that is where the system breaks down. Neither book has been released yet, and that is okay, too, since it is alerting me to books coming soon by authors I like. The problem is that I have already pre-ordered both of these book through Audible.

Audible is owned by Amazon. You’d think that with Amazon’s vast data resources, they’d reach into Audible’s database of purchases and see that I have already purchased these books, and perhaps, leave them off the list, knowing that I’ve already committed money and there is no need to convince me further. That they don’t do this surprises me and makes me skeptical that Amazon’s algorithms are all-knowing, or even particularly useful for that matter. Someone might argue that Amazon is offering me the hardcover, not the audio book, but from a content perspective, they are the same thing as far as I am concerned. Amazon should recognize this and find something else to suggest. It is almost as if their left hand doesn’t know what their right is doing.

Later in the same email is a section titled “Based on your reading” and there, Amazon recommends the following books:

In this case, I have read Nightmare’s & Draemscapes. It is book 836 on the list of books I’ve read since 1996. It is also listed on my Goodreads “read” list. As it turns out, Amazon also owns Goodreads. So why aren’t they tapping that as a resource to help improve recommendations? If they’d use that data, they would know that I have already read Nightmare’s & Dreamscapes and could have recommended something else instead.

I have not read The Closers by Michael Connelly and so at first glance, this seems like a good recommendation. But it isn’t. The most recent Michael Connelly I have read is Angel’s Flight, which is the 6th book in the Harry Bosch series. The Closers is #11 in the Bosch series. Given that Amazon has meta-data on series both on its store and in Goodreads, why are they skipping ahead 5 books in the series to make a recommendation? They should be using my data to determine (relatively easily) that the better recommendation is A Darkness More Than Night which is the 7th book in the Bosch series. Of course, I have already purchased that book, so Amazon would have to keep checking sources to see which one I haven’t yet read for a useful recommendation.

In the next section of the email, titled, “Books by authors you follow”, Amazon appears to give up entirely. They recommend the following books:

I read both of these books. The Perfectionists is book 759 on my list. And Basin and Range is 807 on my list. Both books have been purchased in Audible and both books have been marked as “read” in Goodreads. Amazon is just plain guessing at this point; they are not really making use of their vast resources of data.

I’d love to get great recommendations for possible reads from Amazon, recommendations that make use of everything they know about me. But I just don’t believe they have the ability to pull it off; not when they can’t even tap their own data resources to make a better set of choices. This is why I don’t worry much about sites that track my behavior to suggest purchases. If Amazon can’t get it right, I’m not worried about every other site out there.

Rereading the Walt Longmire Books

Last night I started to re-read the Walt Longmire series of books by Craig Johnson. This is my third time reading these book, and each time I read them, I love them more and more. Partly it is the characters. Although I enjoyed the Netflix series based on the books, the characters in the books are more alive and real than they seemed in the television show. Partly it is the setting. I enjoy the open wilderness of the setting in Wyoming. Partly it is the stories, which are always interesting. But mostly, it is the writing that impresses me.

The stories are told in first person, in an understated way, which is my favorite kind of writing. I think of books like Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 or Joyland which share this understated style. Instead of feeling like I am reading a novel, the book is written as if Walt Longmire is talking to me in his casual, but perceptive manner. This is the style that I aim for when writing my own stories, which seem clumsy by comparison. The closest I’ve managed to come is in my story “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown.” In that one, I think I got close.

Anyone who enjoys a character series of novels know what I mean when I say that the characters in the books feel like family. There is a comfort in settling down with one of these books, knowing that it is populated with friends.

As I read last night, what I really focused on was the writing. Everything about Johnson’s writing seems flawless to me. So much so that you could easily miss things if you weren’t paying close attention. Though this was my third reading of The Cold Dish, the first book in a series of sixteen (a seventeenth comes out later this year), there were things that I never caught the first time around. Some of these were subtleties of writing, elegant turns of phrase that turn out to have greater meaning when you know the story. Some don’t carry that meaning, but are delightful nonetheless.

These books can make me laugh out loud, something that is not easy to make me do. They can do it for pages on end, on again and off again. The relationship between Henry Standing Bear and Walt is a particularly good one and their interactions feel like the interactions of people who have known each other their entire life and have been best friends through it all.

I’m reading these books again for two reason: first, I am trying to learn what I can from the writing; second, because they are just a joy to read. If you’ve never read any of the Longmire books, I’d highly recommend them.

Fiction Cravings

Despite the best laid plans, the butterfly has flapped its wings, and instead of hitting up that list of nonfiction books I’d planned to tear through, I’ve found myself with a fiction-craving, which is similar to a fast-food craving for me these days. It doesn’t come as often as it used to.

It started with a re-reading of ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. I followed that up with a re-reading of Bag of Bones. I forgot how good that book was and I enjoyed it much more the second time around (I think I first read it in 2012). Last night I bounced around quite a bit, even reading half of Hell House by Richard Matheson before giving up on it (it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be). Late last night (or very early this morning), as I had trouble drifting off, I decided to switch to Harry Bosch, and started where I’d left off, with Trunk Music. That seems to have stuck for now.

I enjoy character novels like the Bosch books. I think my favorite of this type is Craig Johnson’s Longmire books, which I absolutely love. But the thing I like about Bosch is that they are set in L.A. and having lived in L.A. for nearly 20 years, many of the places are familiar to me. I can see them that much more clearly and that makes for a better over all story.

Michael Connelly has to be a fairly prolific writer and that kind of thing impresses the writer in me. I always wonder how some writers can be so prolific and still maintain what I consider to be high quality in their writing. There are, by my count, 23 Bosch novels that have appeared between 1992 and 2021, a period of 29 years. Consider, however, Connelly wrote 15 additional books in the overall “Bosch” universe making for a total of 38 books in a 29 year period. I guess that’s what it means to play in the big leagues.

These are great books to read over a long holiday weekend like the one that begins at 5 pm local today. After a spate of great (and sometimes very hot!) spring weather, things look cool and dreary this weekend with lots of rain. Reading Bosch novels, at least I can imagine I am in a place with some better weather than what we’ll be having on the traditional opening weekend of summer here on the east coast.

Late Spring Reading

I have mostly finished what books I could find on the history of computing. A few more linger and I’ll get to them, but I have a rough idea of what I will likely be reading for this last month of spring, or so, and it has me steadily moving away from computing history.

I am just about to finish Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary which is the first science fiction I’ve read in a while. It’s a fun book and I’m really enjoying it. What makes it even better is Ray Porter’s narration on the audio book.

The book managed to reignite my interest in science fiction, which had wane over the last 6-7 years. So a few of the books on my late spring reading list are my attempt to keep that interest kindled. Here is the list I am planning (not in any specific order, and butterfly-effect of reading always flapping):

  • Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government–Saving Privacy in the Digital Age by Steven Levy
  • 11/22/63 by Stephen King (my favorite book, which I try to re-read now and then)
  • The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
  • Apollo 1: The Tragedy That Put Us On the Moon by Ryan S. Walters
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • The Last Don by Mario Puzo
  • Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory and a Sense of Place by D.J. Waldie
  • Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game by John Thorn
  • Significant Figures: The Lives and Work of Great Mathematician by Ian Stewart
  • The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard P. Feynman
  • We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit the Internet’s Culture Laboratory by Chritine Lagorio-Chafkin

I think that’s a pretty good list for the next five or six weeks. I have a few more books on the back-burner in case I somehow manage to get through all of these.

Visualizing History and Science

Yesterday, I walked across the Beringia with a branch of Ancestral Native Americans, ancestors to the First Peoples. Later, I boated with them down the western coast of North American, several thousand years earlier. In both cases, I took note of what I saw around me, even though none of that was described in the article I happened to be reading in the May issue of Scientific American. I marveled that this was all happened 15,000 years before what history books typically describe as history. I watched as some of the people stopped to form settlements while others continued south. I watched their struggles a they emerged from colder climates into more mild ones. I couldn’t understand what they said, but I saw an occasional smile, heard and occasional laugh, or a shout of anger.

I can only speak for myself, but this is what happens inside my head when I read. Whether it is a novel, a book on the history of computing, or a science article on genetic and archaeological discoveries about how the Americas were populated, they somehow come alive in my mind. Reading an Isaac Asimov essay on, say, an electron, I am swept into its orbit, where the electron itself appears as a big world. Reading an article on supernovae, I don’t see the words, but instead, I’m hovering somewhere on the outskirts of the unfortunate star, impervious to harm, but able to witness the blast, and see the shock waves forming.

Thinking about those people crossing the land bridge into North America, I imagined them seeing deer flitting about. In my mind, their reaction wasn’t much different than the reaction I had this morning when several deer crossed my path on my morning walk. I paused to observe them, I watched their movements, curious about their behavior.

Maybe this is what is meant when someone is said to be a visual thinker. It is just how my mind has always worked. Science isn’t a bunch of equations and theories in my mind. It is a narrative, a story that unfolds as I read, and one that I see as clearly as I see the stories that unfold from novels, or history, or virtually any other type of reading I do.

When I think about evolution and genetics, it is less about the theories, though I think I understand them quite well, but more about the practice. There is Darwin, hip-deep in muck, collecting samples. There is Mendel, bent over his garden, gnarled hands touching every budding pea plant.

In science articles, timescales often become incomprehensible. How it is possible to imagine 15,000 years, or 14 billion years, when I haven’t even lived half a century? My mind plays little tricks to convey these distances, but I doubt any of them really get the message across in a comprehensible way.

There is so much history and science to read that it seems impossible to come close to scratching the surface on most of it. Perhaps one of the most profound and delightful reveries I have when considering these vast histories is that they are just a spec in the potential histories out in the universe. If other intelligent life exists somewhere else, just think of the histories they carry with them, multiplied over and over again. Are there common threads? Is Romeo and Juliette a uniquely human story? Is the struggle for rational thought a battle fought again and again, in those rare and delectable places, as Throeau once wrote, “in some remote and more celestial corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia’s Chair, far from noise and disturbance”?

Isaac Asimov and Information Theory

I have been reading a lot about information theory these last two months. In the course of this reading, the same people keep showing up again and again. Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, Claude Shannon, J. C. R. Lichlider, Marvin Minsky, Norbert Wiener, and John McCarthy to name just a few.

It is the last few that caught my attention. Having read much of what Isaac Asimov wrote over the course of his life–including his 3-volume autobiography, which I’ve read at least 14 times–the last three names were already familiar. Marvin Minsky, Norbert Wiener, and John McCarthy were mentioned a number of times in the second volume of Asimov’s autobiography, In Joy Still Felt.

Asimov knew them in his years living in the Boston area. All three worked in information theory at M.I.T. Asimov, who had quite the ego, said of Minsky that he was one of two people that was smarter than Asimov himself. The other was Carl Sagan. At a party for Asimov’s 50th birthday which both Sagan and Minsky attended, Asimov wrote that “Carl did not fail to point out that I had in the same room with me the two men I conceded were more intelligent than I was.”

Minksy was involved with robotics at the time. Norbert Wiener coined the term “cybernetics.” He also tried to get Asimov to collaborate on a mystery with him. McCarthy worked with Minsky on artificial intelligence.

Thinking back on this, it seemed that Asimov’s interaction with these men was purely social, and a matter of proximity, and knowing the same people. What is remarkable to me is that, knowing these people at the forefront of information theory, I can’t think of a single instance where Asimov wrote about information theory in the way he wrote about other sciences. He had the best and the brightest in the field over to his house, but as far as I can tell, he never showed any intellectual interest in the theory.

Sure, Asimov wrote about robots and the Three Laws, but that is not information theory. Asimov wrote about entropy in physics and chaos theory, but not about the parallels between entropy and information. He wrote popular pieces about using computers, but I could find a single essay in the 399 monthly science columns he wrote for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction from the late 50s until his death in 19922 that went into any detail on information theory. The closet I can come are 2 essays in the 1970s.

The first, “The Age of the Computer” is really more about the impact of computers on society, not information theory. The other, perhaps a little closer, is “The Ancient and the Ultimate” is about how information is contained (book form or digital).

I can’t explain this lack, especially given his camaraderie with Minsky, McCarty and Wiener. Asimov admitted that there were certain fields he simply didn’t understand. Economics was one such example that he gave. Could information theory have been another? After all, he did admit that Minsky was more intelligent than he was. By implication, could that mean he just didn’t get information theory?

It’s too bad, really. I would love to read an F&SF-style essay on information theory written by Asimov.

Reading Phases

I seem to be caught in the midst of one of my occasional reading phases. This is when I read many books on the same subject in a relatively short period of time. If I look through my reading list, I can find quite a few of these phases. They often last five or six books before I move onto a different subject. This one has lasted 9 books so far.

I find the history of computing fascinating, perhaps because I grew up with computers, and perhaps simply because I enjoy history. This recent phase has seen me go through the following books:

In the background, I have also been slowly making my way through Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter.

So far, my favorite of these books has been Brian Kernighan’s UNIX: A History and a Memoir. I also really enjoyed George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral.

I’m not quite ready to give up this phase. As I was dosing off last night, thinking about my morning walk, I realized that I would miss listening to the Alan Turing biography. There are at least 2 other books I hope to get through before this phase ends. They are:

Of course, I am open to others if anyone has any suggestions.

Meanwhile, to balance all of the technology, I’ve started a second attempt at reading Page Smith’s biography of John Adams. There isn’t an electronic version of this book, which means for at least a small portion of my day, my eyes aren’t focused on a screen.