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Jeff's Gameblog
Sunday, 20 June 2004

Topic: Books
When I went to library yesterday I returned The Year 1000 without actually opening it. I do that sometimes. What seems like a good book to read in the library just doesn't excite me when I get it home. I checked out two books. Why I chose those particular books exemplifies how I wander into new subject matter to read.

The first one was Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould. I'm sure I've read something by Gould before, but I can't quite put my finger on the title.

I first got interested in the Burgess Shale after reading an article by Ken Pick over at the excellent Traveller webzine Freelance Traveller. Here's part of Mr. Pick's explanation of what exactly the Burgess Shale is and why we should care about it:
The Burgess Shale is a geologic formation in the Canadian Rockies, incredibly rich in fossils from Earth's early Cambrian period -- the earliest known (except possibly for the Edicara) muticellular life on Earth. Over 90% of these fossils are unclassifiable except as "Problematica" (unclassifiable weird ones), matching no known phylum.
Pick uses the Burgess Shale as a metaphor for Traveller gaming prior to the publication of the 3rd Imperium setting. Until the 3I stuff started appearing, people made their own setting. Traveller was a set of rules for sci-fi adventuring with no hardwired setting, exactly the way D&D approached fantasy. Anyway, the fossilized lifeforms preserved in the Shale have very little in common with life as we know it today. I'm hoping Gould can tell me a little bit more about these weird creatures.

The other book I picked up was Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. How I arrived at the decision to track down this particular book is kinda interesting. My cow-orkers Laurie gave me a couple of back issues of Discover magazine. She mentioned that she thought I would like some of the articles in them. The April 2003 issue has an article entitled "Who Loves Ya, Baby?" by Steven Johnson in which he reports on the emergence of software dedicated mapping relationship networks. Software designer Valdiss Krebs is on the forefront of this stuff and he did an experiment using Amazon's database of purchases. Krebs wanted to see if he could map the political polarization of the US by looking at two relationship maps. Each map would be based upon one book and the books connected to it by purchases. So for example, if you started with book A and some people who bought book A also bought books B, C, and/or D, the first step in drawing the map would look something like this (the periods are just place holders):

D-A-C
..|
..B


Next Krebs's program looks at D, C, and B. If some people who bought D also bought A, B, E and/or F, then the map might next look like this:

..F
..|
E-D-A-C
...\|
....B


This process is repeated until all the purchase relationships for the entire database are mapped, at least those relationships that can lead back to A. It's sort of kinda like playing Twelve Million Steps to A Biography of Kevin Bacon.

In order to look at the political divide in the country, Krebs made two such maps with Amazon's database. One started with Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and the other with Ann Coulter's Slander. Krebs wanted to see which books appeared on both maps. Only Lewis's What Went Wrong connects the two relationship maps.

Admittedly, only looking at Amazon purchases isn't exactly the most ideal method of mapping the political spectrum, but the results still creep me out. Is the question "What Went Wrong?" the only thing the right and the left have in common anymore? Lewis's book is about the Middle East, but not about 9/11/2001. However, it was in the print process when the tragedies of 9/11 happened and made it into stores not too long thereafter. I can see why a lot of people at that time would have been drawn to Lewis's book. Everybody wanted to know what went wrong. Here's a guy who maybe has an answer.

So anyway, I decided if What Went Wrong? is the only meeting place for the left and the right, then I had better read it. If all that the folks in the US of A have in common anymore is a desire to understand what the hell is going on in the Middle East then maybe we need to all get together and find the answer.

The folks on the other half of the political spectrum seem as incomprehensible as Wellsian Martians to me some days. The fact that so many people on the right and the left have this question in common says something important. It gives me a glimpse into the essential humanity of everyone, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum.

Posted by jrients at 10:33 AM CDT
Updated: Sunday, 20 June 2004 10:52 AM CDT

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