Book Reports

Physics For Poets, Robert H. March

I acquired this old book several months ago. It is hardly the most current treatise on physics, being only a few years younger than myself. Still, it is always fascinating to peak into the weirdness that is held to be the reality behind the world. While curved space-time may in fact be a more consistent system with fewer exceptions, it is a bit hard for someone on human-scale to fully grasp the first time through.

I’m not entirely sure where the ‘for poets’ part came from. Really it seems to be more of a layman’s guide to physics, with all the heavy math shoved back into the closets. The calculus certainly scared me off from pursuing beyond physics 1 in college. My mathematics schedule got a little screwed up in high school, and I think I missed a little of the foundational material for calculus – I could go through the motions of derivation, but I didn’t really understand how to apply it. I’ve since gotten a slightly better conceptual handle on the process, but opening up the physics textbook again would be a rather monumental undertaking, and I’d much rather focus my attention on game design at the moment.

One of the most interesting things for me with PFP was the discussion of field theory, which was mentioned in The Nature Of Order. While I essentially understood Alexander’s discussion of the field effect of centers, the mention of it’s parallel in physics was little more than a footnote to me. Now I have a better idea of just how pervasive the field effect is, and some of it’s properties, which are indeed eerily congruent with the interactions of centers.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samual Taylor Coleridge

One of a couple of items grabbed at esotericbeccums’s moving give-away. It was kind of nice to finally see the oft-quoted work in it’s entirety. The study guide format slightly ruined the first reading experience; I really should have known to skip the opening comments, which gave away the ‘big idea’ right from the get-go.

Otherwise, the main oddity is that I started reading it a few weeks ago, while I was myself a wedding-guest (in the poem, the ancient mariner is telling his tale to a wedding guest) ;^)

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephan R. Covey

I heard this recommended as presenting actual habits of self-discipline, not just tricks to make sales. Most of the theories do make some sense and I find myself in agreement with them, at least until proven differently by experience. And theorIES is the right word. In some places the way things organize into regular systems feels almost too convenient, in others the whole things appears to be a hodge-podge of different ideas. Indeed, near the beginning of the tape Mr. Covey says that he performed a survey of success literature many years ago. The point raised is that up to certain point, it almost exclusively focused on personal virtues – then after that, it was almost exclusively salesmanship and the like. The seven habits encompass this, being divided into ‘private victories’ and ‘public victories.’

It hasn’t changed my life yet, but the ideas could do with further review. To this end, the publishers have thoughtfully included a review guide, saving me the trouble of taking notes or buying a printed copy of the book ;^)

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

One of my first audio books, the 11+ hours of which didn’t even cover one week. I came into the book knowing, and indeed got it because, it was written as a philosophical statement, which once again colored my reading a bit. Few of the plot twists were unanticipated, and most of the characters came off as the one-dimensional archetypes they probably were meant to be. Indeed the book proposes a rather sharp division of types of people, of which the better are frightfully scarce I’ve also heard tell that the actual paper book is some 1000 pages, and it came off in much the same way as the last book of such size that I read: a beginning and middle with lots of stuff going on, and an ending that leaves you thinking that a couple of chapters must have been sacrificed in the name of printing limitations.

I think however that pretty much covers the faults, and to be fair it was labeled abridged; to what extent I am unaware. Overall the book is well written; the introduction of characters and events is taken at a very manageable pace – something I noticed in contrast to Middlemarch, my first selection from the library, which is of a character that would be more comfortable with one’s full and rapt attention. The reading of Atlas Shrugged is also well performed, although I might have preferred notes stating ‘end of side one’ and the like.

Philosophically, there is a lot to chew on. I might like a printed copy of the book and a highlighter, as several of the monologues (the largest of which could almost be pulled out verbatim as a manifesto of objectivism) deserve greater reflection than the audio tape allows.

(Minor spoiler warning. I’m already in a cut, so the virgin reader is left with no defense save his own will.) I’m writing from memory here, and will probably get some part of the position wrong.

Part of the thesis is that there are two types of people: those of ability, who produce, and those without, who bumble about living like parasites off the producers, making a terrible mess of things, and then throwing blame around to void themselves of responsibility.

The people of ability are also called ‘men of the mind’ Cultivation of the mind is presented as the highest virtue. Clear rational thought piercing through all the lies and illusions, and then the motivation to act on the truths perceived. The opposing views are the men of spirit, who say you should sacrifice yourself to some higher power with no concern for the conditions of the world, and the men of muscle, who say you should sacrifice yourself to the greater good of society – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – leaving no cause for personal motivation. The men of muscle are especially vilified, with the book’s timeline covering a rapid economic collapse under essentially communist policies.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihally Csikszentmihalyi

Another one I’d heard about, and I certainly knew that there were times where everything rolled along, and times where nothing much got done. A theory that might guide me to the productive mode of thought might certainly be useful. Of course, as soon as it got started, I immediately jumped rails to how much of this perfectly described the kind of game experiences I am trying to create. :^)

I’ve got a few notes from this one, and I really ought to go over the second tape some time when I’m not driving to finish them out. The main point I’ve absorbed so far is stress and mental white noise – if you are thinking about your finances, your job, your car, or your love life, you aren’t flowing. Kind of a nice meter for how distracted you are.

I do take issue with the audio presentation, however. It is two tapes, listed as about two hours. But I’m pretty sure that about half an hour of that is annoying music dispersed throughout, and a fair bit of silence on the ends. I know by now that there are 90 minute cassettes. Apparently the publisher preferred the two cassette price point. On the up side, I got to hear the the announcer pronounce ‘Csikszentmihalyi’ ;^)

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, interview by Bill Moyers

This six-hour/six-episode series was adapted from a series of videos. I’ve long been fascinated by symbology and myths, but Joseph Campbell had dedicated his life to them, and understands the big themes that cut across all the different story systems. To cross recklessly into to programming terminology, it is aspected-oriented mythology.

Definitely ideas I want to review some time in the future. It won’t be immediately; as I was listening to the tapes, they demanded to be brought to the attention of esotericbeccums, who just happened to be visiting last weekend. But I have Joseph Campbell’s name, and I’m sure he has written many books. I also have Parabola, the magazine that was involved in the tapes, and I’ve got subscription coming to try it out.

Posted Tuesday, October 28th, 2003 under Review.