May, 2005

May 05

Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the number of truly brilliant books/stories/novels/works of art in the world. Truly.

Cat’s Cradle is probably my favorite book by Vonnegut, who’s always been one of my favorite authors. He’s written for more than 50 years now, and has had a huge effect on American and World literature — in my mind, in very many ways he’s a modern day Mark Twain (also a tremendous writer & thinker about his world, if not his get-rich-quick schemes).

This particular work is a story about Felix Hoenikker, father of the bomb (in this fictional world), his family, his invention ice-9, a small Carribean island named San Lorenzo, and a holy man named Bokonon (and his outlawed religion, Bokononism). Here’s a taste: "The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is this: ‘All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.’ " Of course, the first page of Cat’s Cradle has this quote, also from The Books of Bokonon: "Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy."

One of my favorite passages from the book:

Newt (Felix’s son) says, "For maybe a hundred thousand years or more, grownups have been waving tangles of string in their children’s faces…No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s. . . No damn cat, and no damn cradle."

Anyway. This is maybe the third or fourth time that I’ve read this book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It gives you a very clear sense of hopes & fears during the Cold War, but at the same time seems very current and insightful towards today’s geopolitical situation.

May 05

Jury Duty

A happy thing happened this week — I got called to serve Jury Duty for California Superior Court when I actually am off work and have time to do it! I really value the privilege (and obligation) that we’re able to serve on juries and effectively manage our own community. I cringe when I hear folks talking about how easy it is to get out of doing it — of course it is — but that isn’t really the point.

Anyway, I went to the courthouse on Tuesday morning at 8:30a to check in — there were about 75 of us, and it was for just one case — criminal Battery. (I didn’t learn many of the details of the case, but it seems that the defendant allegedly assaulted a pregnant woman who called the police but eventually didn’t want to press charges — but in California only the DA can decide that, so the case went forward.)

We went into the courtroom around 9:30, and listened to the judge do his instructions/standup routine for maybe an hour, then started voir dire, or selecting the jury. Here’s how it worked: they called 12 of us from a random list — those 12 (not me) sat in the jury box. Then they called another 6 to sit in alternates’ chairs. The judge went through each prospective jury and asked them questions that boiled down to whether people really like & trust the police (or the opposite) and how they felt about certain aspects of the case (for example, one man whose wife is expecting a baby received extra scrutiny because the alleged assault was on a pregnant woman) — it all came down to trying to find a fair & impartial jury. This went on for a couple of hours (we had a break for lunch) and the judge eventually got through the 18; then the defense & prosecuting attorneys got to ask their own questions. After that, they each got to remove jurors for any reason at all — they each got 10 of these removals they could make. They each made 3 (6 total), so the 6 alternates moved up into the jury box, then the judge called 6 new randoms to sit in the alternate chairs and did the same thing all over again. This time the lawyers didn’t have any objections to the jury as constituted, so they kept the 12 plus one alternate and let the rest of us go home. I was home by about 3p.

The funniest question & answer was when the judge asked if one of the prospective jurors had any bias towards the lawyers or the defendant (he really meant racial or gender-based), and she replied that she thought the prosecutor was a lot smarter than the defense attorney. Everyone laughed. She didn’t make it to the jury, obviously. 🙂

Part of me wanted to be chosen for the jury because I’ve got the time lately and I think it’s an interesting & important process. But more of me was happy to get a day’s dose of it and still have the time to go to the gym. In between courtroom sessions I managed to read a good bit of a new biography of Andrew Jackson that mom sent me — I’ll post on that soon. Interesting book, interesting man. Funny/interesting how many of today’s political issues are echoes of similar ones from the origins of our country.

May 05

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

When I read Foer’s first book, Everything is Illuminated, a couple of years ago, I was completely blown away. One of the five best books I’ve read in the past few years, and probably one of the five best debut novels that I’ve ever read. (That’s a fun list to think about. Maybe I’ll post on that in a while.)

Anyway, this book is told from the perspective of a very smart 10 year old in NYC who lost his dad on 9/11. Like in his first book, Foer is tremendously talented at putting you into another person’s shoes, and is great at creating the voice of Oskar (the 10 year old). The book really explores Oskar’s relationship with his mother & grandparents, and is a sort of coming-of-age story for Oskar.

Extremely emotional book; I really enjoyed it. About 3 days after I finished it we were able to hear JSF give a talk at Kepler’s — and I was extremely impressed in all respects. One of my favorite authors; an emerging talent for sure.

May 05

Big Bang, by Simon Singh

This book took me a long time to read. Big Bang: The Origins of the Universe, is a good history and survey of cosmology and investigations into how everything came to be here. One of the things I find strange about cosmology books is that they’re all a mix of science and history. They all start with theories by Greeks like Anaxagoras & Aristarchus, move to Copernicus, Kepler & Galileo, and eventually meander their way into the 20th century, when the real action starts.

I was super-bored with the first 250 pages or so — it was all history of science type stuff that I’ve read many times, forgotten a few, and is ultimately important but not that interesting to me lately. Once I got up to Einstein & Hubble, though, things got much better. For the first time, I understand (I think) what cosmic radiation is, and why it’s here. Interesting to me that it was only in 1992 that the really compelling last piece of evidence for the Big Bang was observed (the COBE project detected very small variations in levels of cosmic radiation that resulted in forming the seeds of galaxies about 300,000 years or so after the Big Bang).

I suppose that the reason cosmology is always covered as such a mix of biography and history and science is because of the huge awareness that it’s an evolving field, and it’s very possible we’re still wrong on some of the fundamentals — so it’s important to understand how & why we’ve been wrong and evolved before.

I am not sure I can recommend this book to many folks — I really liked the last 100 pages or so — once Wilson & Penzias observed background radiation — but up until that point it was a slog. I learned some good things, though, so maybe worth it.

May 05

Formatting issues

Sorry for the formatting issues on the The World is Flat and some other upcoming posts. I’m monkeying around with my blog to try to enable some other things; it’ll have an "under construction" feel for a few days, probably.