sexta-feira, fevereiro 20, 2015

Eloquent Writing: "The Devil and the River" by R. J. Ellory

The Devil And The River - R.J. Ellory
Published June 2013.

First something about Ellory’s writing style. Ellory is a master at describing everything in very visual terms. To me it’s what gives identity to the writer’s voice, ie, it’s what distinguishes their writing. How can we achieve this visual style? For starters by using physical references; they’re the main elements that pull me into a Story because it allows me to be immersed in it three dimensionally.

If a character is scratching his bum, how does he view the setting sun? Does the night fog linger over the grass look like a ninfa’s breath on a sea of rubies? Forget about inserting visual aids into the narrative. It’s not about that. Having a visual writing narrative means the writer is capable of writing seamless prose, ie, it’s embedded into the writing so that I’m not aware it’s there in the first place. It’s all about making what’s already there richer.
Let me give an example (entirely fictitious in case you’re wondering…):

“Here, Logen, have a Mars Bar,” Thelfi said.
“Sorry. No can do. I’m currently scratching my bum and crotch at the same time and consequently I don’t have a free hand at the moment. Besides, I haven’t washed my hands lately, so maybe I shouldn’t eat it,” said Logen Ninefingers sadly.

What can we say about this? It’s awful because of the adverbs and whatnot. There are no physical references. What do we get in result? Dry and workmanlike prose. Putting myself in Ellory’s shoes how would I write this? (I’m playing God here…):

Thelfi saw a Mars Bar in a sea of sticky leftover Mars Bars from yesterday’s movie session at home. She had gotten hold of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie from the Internet, and the night had been pretty wild with the Mars Bars and all. There was still one left resting on top of her bag and she still remembered her struggle to zip up her pants earlier that morning. She looked at Logen Ninefingers, a very manly Man who never said no to anything, and she laughed at the irony.  “Here, have a Mars Bar.”
Logen’s eyes enlivened and he reached out with tremulous, hungry fingers. Just as fast, he dropped his hands, his voice barely a whisper. “I can’t. Let’s save it for tonight.”

Which one do I prefer? The second obviously, and not because I inserted a “Fifty Shades of Grey” cue in the text, which I’m not planning on watching before you ask (here in Portugal it’s being nicknamed “The Fifty Bruises of Grey”, I can’t figure out why…).

Coming back to the text above, the first one is a boring dialog and the other is visual and full of physical references and cues. It takes me to a different milieu that doesn’t interfere with the narrative, but instead, enlivens it.

The Devil and the River”, despite being a very visual story, fell short of my expectations. Only two of Ellory’s books didn’t get 5 stars from me: “Candlemoth” and now this one.  Why? For a handful of reasons.

Gaines’ war experiences, although important are not that important, but nevertheless we’re constantly being pulled back from the narrative (making the story tiresome at some points), which detracts from the story; consistency errors abound (eg, Gaines is surprised almost at the end of the book by the reason to Nancy’s body mutilation when he just had had to ask Webster that when he was in jail), Deus-Ex-Machina plotting (eg, the fact that Gaines “forgot” to give Webster the permission slip to allow him to search his home), coincidences throughout the book, etc.

Was this one of Ellory’s earlier efforts before he started getting published? It seems to be not up to par with his previous books. I still haven’t read “Bad Signs” and “A Carnival of Shadows”. Nevertheless out of his latter efforts came “A Dark and Broken Heart” which is a superior and superlative story, and one of my highlights of 2012.

Fortunately Ellory, even at his weakest as it’s the case here, he’s still better than some other writer’s best, because his visual writing is always top notch even when plotting-wise things fall a bit short.

NB: I think I should get a night job writing romance novels

domingo, fevereiro 15, 2015

To Google or not to Google: "How Google Works" by Eric Schmidt and Alan Eagle

How Google Works - Eric Schmidt
Published September 23rd 2014

I had my first run in with Google in 2005 as a customer and maybe, because of that, I’ve read this book in a different light. Over the years I’ve found the Technology Giants experience sometimes incredibly frustrating (I won’t name any names in case you’re wondering). People who work with Technology on a day-to-day basis tend to look up to the Software giants with a stance of awe. I always get the sense they think there’s their way of doing things (insert here a Technology Company of your choosing) and then there’s the way of the rest of us… I quite agree with their take on the fact that one has to be super ambitious to get anywhere. I also see things the “Google way” when it comes to the importance of having a moonshot thinking, ie, we have to aim for the stars not to the hill next door. Most of the companies I know tend to assume that things are impossible, rather than starting from real-world physics and figuring out what’s actually possible. That’s the reason Google (and other American Technology companies) puts so much energy into hiring independent thinkers. If one hires the right people and have big dreams, one usually gets there. And even one fails, one will probably learn something important along the way.

On the other hand there’s a downside that comes from the fact that there is an absolute wall of arrogance and undeniable belief that their approach to every single problem is right, and if I’m too stupid to get that, they don’t need my business. I don’t tend to believe that they belong to an elite. In discussions with engineers, product managers, service managers and the like over the years, I found their arguments to be as weak as their listening skills.

In my first run-in with one of those so-called giants, the recruiter wanted me as a SysAdmin (I was working the Unix/Oracle/R3 side of things in a SAP R/3 team at the time); he said he had heard “great things” about my SysAdmin abilities and as well as about my understanding of how machines and systems interacted, not to mention my understanding of SAP R/3 processes and my programming skills, and on and on… Nothing came of it, mainly due to the fact that I had to go abroad and at the time that was not an option (it still isn’t). Some of the “techniques” I “suffered” on the 3 phone interviews were of the same caliber as the ones depicted in this book.

Google was one of the first companies to recognize the fact that there was a paradigm shift on the brink of showing up. It comprised three trends. To wit: the internet made the information free and ubiquitous; mobile devices and networking are really everywhere and continuous connectivity is also around uscloud computing makes virtually infinite computing power, storage and applications available at everyone’s fingertips. I’m still uncomfortable with some of the approaches some companies are making regarding the latter, namely, again without naming names, some of the solutions in cloud computing can make a lot of people nervous because it moves the services off premise and places them in the cloud on another company set of servers and data centres. But that’s the nature of the beast.

This books fully illustrates everything that makes Google so omnipresent. We get to know what they mean by being a “smart creative”, “hippos”, etc. Unfortunately the book fails miserably when it comes to explaining what makes Google Google. The underlying thesis in the book seems to support the notion that a series of company’s characteristics are presented as being the reasons for Google’s success, but in my humble opinion, they are all corollaries of Google’s success and not the other way around. In my way of seeing things, Google’s success relies on the fact that it works in a market without any kind of opposition. If you dominate a market, money pours in. On top of that Google’s dominance is in a very profitable, high-margin ad business (with minimal cost of sales). By reading the book one gets the feeling there’s something truly innovating in the way Google does things. So, there’s some kind of misrepresentation here, whether intentional or not I’m not sure. Is this an attempt to re-write history? It would be interesting to read another take on the rise of Google not written by one of its founders.

Just saying. Really.

Another thing that annoyed the hell out of me was the use of the 3rd person. There was no “I” or “us”, which is weird since most of the funny notes (aka “jokes”) involved the authors. Was there a ghost writer at work here…?

NB: This book will always be special to me for a different set of reasons, because my third little gadget was born while I tackled Google’s intricacies. Will this youth generation be also a Google adopter or, by the time my boy is old enough, will there be something entirely different in the technological landscape? I’ve already buried this message in the ground to be dug up in 20 years’ time…

Dumb Crap Galore: "Why You Need to Create an eBook" by Paul Read and Cherry Jeffs

Why You Need To Create An eBook (A Really Simple Guide 1) - Paul Read, Cherry Jeffs
Published January 17th 2015.

This book is completely useless.  Over-promising is also present in abundance, which is an immediate no-no in my book. It's a trait I hate in politicians, even more so in an author.

Tips galore with ideas and and they all come down to links to other books by the same author…

I don’t know why I bother reading crap like this.

For a crap book crappy review.

sábado, fevereiro 14, 2015

Jogging is Bad for You: "Why You Should Avoid Exercise" by Russell Eaton

Why You Should Avoid Exercise (DeliveredOnline Guides) - Russell Eaton
Published December 7th 2013.

As we approach a certain “age” some worries start to creep in. Thus I’ve been reading extensively about these themes. Through these readings, I’ve come across an article from The Journal of the National Cancer Institute related to the dangers of having a sedentary life. And then, as usual with me, I got curious on how much of this was hype and how much was scientific analysis and fact.

And then through serendipity I also come across this book I just read by Russell Eaton. Eaton advocatesphysical activity + eating right instead of exercise(+ eating right).

“Did you know that exercise actually makes you fat?”

With this bold statement starts Eaton’s argumentation. His thesis is supported in 11 pillars (I’m quoting freely from the book here):

  1. Exercise and Malnourishment. Exercise causes severe malnourishment and this in turn makes you over-weight however nutritious the diet
  2. Exercise robs the body of valuable vitamins and minerals (the loss is very significant). A body that is depleted of essential vitamins and minerals is a body that needs to store as much body-fat as a survival mechanism (“starvation response”: fat-saving mode when the body detects a threat of starvation);
  3. Exercise and Energy depletion. Exercise drains your muscle (and liver) energy and greatly increases your propensity to store body-fat
  4. As a result, we will inevitably eat food at some point following exercise, and the body will use energy (glycogen) from the food we eat (instead of using surplus body-fat) to replenish muscle energy, ie, the body always gives priority to taking energy from the food we eat rather than taking it from body-fat);
  5. Exercise and the Cortisol factor. Exercise increases the level of cortisol in the blood, and this is turn makes the body store surplus body-fat mainly around the hips and thighs in women, and around the abdomen in men
  6. The higher levels of cortisol gained from exercise pre-dispose the body to store fat around the midriff. When the body thinks that we are facing danger (from the stress of the exercise) many hormones are galvanized to get the body ready for emergency action. Cortisol makes blood glucose go up to give us maximum energy. Exercise pushes up blood cortisol and blood glucose. After exercise, insulin brings down the level of glucose in the blood by storing excess glucose as body-fat around the hips, thighs, buttocks and stomach;
  7. Exercise and the Leptin Factor. Exercise reduces the level of leptin in the blood, and this causes hunger, over-eating and junk-food consumption
  8. Leptin is a powerful hormone produced by the body to control feelings of hunger. In general the lower the level of leptin in the blood the fatter we become. The higher the level, the thinner we become. Exercise reduces levels of leptin circulating in the blood;
  9. Exercise and stress. Exercise stresses the body adversely (however much you may enjoy the exercise) and this makes you gain surplus body-fat (free radicals, etc).
  10. Exercise causes almost immediate hyperventilation and the greater the exertion the greater the hyperventilation (when we hyperventilate we lose carbon dioxide which in turn constricts blood vessels; the lack of oxygen resulting from this, oxidizes the body with all that it implies).
  11. Eaton also defines exercise “as any physical exertion that is sufficiently vigorous and sustained as to make you breathless and/or sweaty.” (Hyperventilation). On the other hand physical activity is super healthy, ie, activity that is not sufficiently vigorous and sustained as to make you breathless and/or sweaty (and you’re not forced to mouth-breath).

Eaton’s conclusions is that exercise is bad for health and physical exercise is good (eg, cycling, swimming, floor exercises, weight lifting, etc).

Exercise also oxidizes and ages the body before its time, causing a multitude of illnesses and chronic bad health (eg. cancer, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease, premature aging of the body, and weaker bones, etc).  

Also interesting is Eaton’s use of scientific papers to support his thesis. One of the most important papers quoted was from Dr. Warbung who won a Nobel Prize for proving that cancer is caused by a lack of oxygen into the cells.

Food for thought and interesting arguments as well, which I hadn’t never seen before in print. Depending on one’s particular case, I’d advise to do your own research. A recommended, thought-provoking read just the same.

Too bad there’s not a chapter dedicated to eating right. It would have gone nicely with the insights on the dichotomy between physical activity and exercise. Well, we can’t have everything…

Bottom-line: Sitting can be fatal. So get off your cushy butt and start any kind of regular physical activity as soon as possible. I don’t think it needs convincing that the odds of a longer, healthier life are far better for me (active sporting life) than the guy sitting on the couch eating chips and watching reality TV every night