Characters in John Lanchester’s Capital

Capital by John Lanchester has been mentioned on this blog several times [1], [2], [3] as it is one of my favorite books. I particularly like its many initially distinct, but eventually overlapping story lines.

When we read complex books like this in school, the teacher would make us plot out the locations where the story took place or visualize the connections between its characters.

I didn’t believe it at the time, but it’s true that such as structured approach to a story really does make you understand and thus appreciate it more. It’s too bad I didn’t have this realization back then. Sorry, Ms. Bartholdi.

So having just finished the book (again), I tried graphing the connections between all of the main characters (i.e. characters that are connected to two or more other characters). At the center is the We Want What You Have campaign that brings them all together.

Capital Characters

Things to Read: Favorite Books

I’ll be traveling to Hong Kong later this month. So as sort of a preparation, I decided to re-read Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester; one of my favorite books.

This made me think about, what it was about my favorite books that made them stand out from all the others. So here is (in no particular order) a list of some of my other favorite (fiction) books. What they all have in common, is that they consist of multiple, interleaving plot lines, sometimes spanning multiple decades. The story is told from multiple perspectives and the whole is revealed only over time as the different pieces fall into place.

Things to Read: Wish List Clearance

In Firefox, I keep one bookmarks folder as a wish list, containing links to the Amazon pages of books I would like to read some day. Whenever I see something I like, I add it to the list. And whenever I need something new to read, I go into that folder do an “Open All in Tabs” and pick one or two to buy.

As I don’t purchase books in the order that I bookmarked them, there are a couple of titles that have been on my wish list for quite some time, but for one reason or another have been trumped by others again and again and thus were never purchased.

So today, I purge these old timers from my wish list and publish them here instead. All of these books are great based on what I’ve heard about them, I just don’t think that after such a long time, I will ever get around to buying them.

Reading up on Cities

I’ve lately been reading a bunch of great books about cities that I would like to share.

Four Books

Right now I’m in the middle of reading Walkable City by Jeff Speck. I still have some pages to go, but I’m already really impressed by this book. There are so many ideas for making American cities more livable in a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way. Many times, he points to European cities as good examples, even though there are still so many things we could and I think have to do better.

WalkScore.com is also mentioned as a nice tool to help you assess how walkable neighborhoods are, for instance when picking a new place to move to. There’s also TED Talk by the author presenting the main points from the book if you are short on time.

One of the things Speck argues against the most in Walkable City is suburbia and the sprawl it begets. So it’s interesting to contrast this book with Building Suburbia by Dolores Hayden. Before reading this book, I had no idea there was a time when people would mail-order their houses , receive a kit and then with the help of family, friends and neighbors to built their home from parts. Or how trams/street cars where built by developers, not the city or another government agency, to allow new home owners to reach the suburbs and thus increase the value of their plots.

Bäume im Zoopark

Another great book on how to improve neighborhoods and cities is Smart Growth Manual that Jeff Speck was also involved in. In short, snappy chapters, it contains a number of great tips what planners can do to improve many details of city life. Even though European cities such as the one I’m living in are already doing a lot of these things, some of these tips could still be applied here. The FastCompany blog, which I read regularly, has a list of the 10 Smartest Cities in North America. Boston ranks pretty high on that list, thanks to many features that also make it my favorite city in America.

And of course no list of books on cities would be complete without a mention of Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I have to admit that I did not read this book all the way through. It is pretty lengthy. Nonetheless, the points it is making are now just as valid as they were when the book was originally published: such as the importance of an active street life on sidewalks, parks that are safe, because they are used throughout the day – by different types of people at different times.

A Personal Perspective

I am living in Düsseldorf, a city that regularly ranks among the best in the world on Mercer’s quality of living index. Reading these books showed me that city planners here have done a lot of things well over the years and I am very lucky to be benefiting from their foresight. The way my neighborhood and city is set up also makes it easy to live relatively environmentally friendly: Everything I need for my day-to-day shopping is within walking distance. As are more than half a dozen bus, tram and light-rail stops. To get to my place of work, I can pick from one of four tram lines for a ten minute ride.

Still, there are things that could be done better around here. For instance, the network of bicycle lanes is rather lacking, making it inconvenient and/or unsafe to ride a bike in some parts of town. Places such as Münster and Amsterdam are doing much better in this regard and I think it would be wise to learn from them.

Things to Read

Similar to the Things To Watch series where I talk about TV shows and web videos I like, I want to formalize my book “reviews” into series I’ am going to call Things to Read from now on.

As always, I keep my LibraryThing page pretty current in terms of the books I buy and read at any given moment. But this series isn’t only about books, but occasionally also about interesting things I stumble across on the web (although I also share those on my Twitter in a more timely fashion).

Here are the highlights among the things I have read recently.

The Sibling Effect

The Sibling Effect by Jeffery Kluger talks about the special bonds we share with our siblings. They are there for us all the way from when we are little to the day we die; unlike parents, our own children or even spouses with whom we only live for a part of our live. The author explains multiple aspects of the relationships among siblings, many times drawing on his own experience of having brothers and (later in his life) significantly younger step-siblings. But the book also has a chapter on sibling-relationships in the animal kingdom, which are often less harmonious than those of humans (among sharks, for instance, the largest embryo eats his or her siblings in-utero). But of course, there are some complicated sibling-relationships among humans, too, and those are discussed as well. In the end, I think reading this book made me feel even more blessed about the wonderfully close bond I share with my sister :-)

The Pastry Box Project

This is an online project for the duration of 2013. In their own words:

30 People Shaping The Web. One Thought Every Day. All Year Round. Sugar For The Mind.

Obviously not every thing written there is something I agree with or even something I care about. But the breadth of topics – including some I would normally never think about – makes this a really interesting read and something I aim to check out every day. I can’t wait to for this to be made into a book or another medium that may last longer than a web page.

Just My Type & Thinking With Type

I am not that into typography. In fact, I am routinely annoyed when people spend way too much time looking for new typefaces to use in their stuff. It was for this reason that I bought two books to educate myself on the topic: Just My Type by Simon Garfield and Thinking With Type (2nd edition) by Ellen Lupton (I also own her excellent Design It Yourself).

I have only flicked through Thinking With Type, because as the subtitle says, it’s “A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students” and thus not something one reads before going to bed. I will have to make time to really dive into this one.

Just My Type, however, is a book that one can in fact read as bedtime stories. For instance, it tells the story of how Comic Sans and other typefaces came about. You will also learn something about Helvetica (one of the most overrated typefaces, if you ask me) and how it is related to Arial. There is also a brief introduction to distinguish the terms “typeface” and “font” which I as a layman found very helpful.

Showing Up for Life

Showing Up for Life was written by William H. Gates, Sr, father of Bill Gates and talks about his principles and values for life and particularly family life. He also uses the expression “showing up” a lot – and I mean a lot – to the point that it gets kind of annoying sometimes.

All in all, though it’s a great, very personal book. It makes it sound like Bill Gates was blessed with a wonderful childhood, which may have played a large role in where he is today. I’ve also learned that Bill Gates was called Trey (for William H. Gates III)in order to avoid confusion with his father Bill.

I also just love the foreword from his son:

Dad, the next time somebody asks you if you’re the real Bill Gates, I hope you say, “Yes.” I hope you tell them that you’re all the things the other one strives to be.

Capital

Unlike the aforementioned works, Capital by John Lanchester is a work of fiction. For a long time, I hadn’t been reading any fiction at all, but in recent months the share of fiction I read has been increasing steadily (thanks in large part to the excellent recommendations from M). As I said on Twitter the other day, Capital “with its many intersecting storylines is the most captivating book I’ve read in a while”. In fact, a large part of my time in Amsterdam last week was spend sitting in Vondelpark enjoying Capital.

I don’t want to summarize the book here in fear of giving away anything (M is still reading it, I think), so if you want to, check out the description on Amazon. It’s just wonderful. In the beginning, it reminded me sometimes of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy which had a couple of elements occurring in more than one of the stories, linking them in interesting ways.

Other

There are two other fiction books, I’ve read recently and would like to mention/recommend, although they are both available only in German: Bestattung eines Hundes by Thomas Pletzinger and Der Tag ist hell, ich schreibe dir by Tanja Langer.

In the non-fiction department, I am currently reading Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson, a very interesting book about maker culture. I have wanted a 3D printer for quite a while now, but they are still to expensive to buy as a toy. If Anderson is to be believed, however, they will become affordable in the not to distant future. Until then, one might want to check out Hackerspaces (there are even some in Germany).

The Amazing Kindle: Part 2

About 18 months ago, I got my first Kindle. It has truly revolutionized the way I read, so when the Kindle Paperwhite became available here, I ordered one on the first day and finally got it 21 Nov 2012. As I said, I was blown away by my first Kindle, so I was maybe too excited about this one and consequently underwhelmed a little when I got it.

After two weeks of using it daily, I have say, though, that it is a substantial improvement over my previous Kindle Keyboard. For a detailed review of the Paperwhite, I am going to refer you to Engadget’s review, which I think is spot-on. I will, however, highlight a couple of the issues that I think are important. Because I have only used the Kindle Keyboard for a meaningful period of time, that’s my basis for comparison.

Things I liked

  • The introduction/tutorial I got when first turning on the device was quite helpful. Being shown where to touch the screen to do what, and I was ready to use the device at once.
  • I don’t use the light on full brightness, but have it on just a little bit. This way it’s not at all straining the eye the way LC displays on phones or tablet computers are, but it still helps to illuminate the screen when reading in bed or with insufficient lighting outside. The screen’s illumination is a bit uneven, but mostly at the bottom where there isn’t any text.
  • The best new feature is probably the indicator in the bottom right corner showing me how much longer until I finish the chapter. That is super helpful when deciding how much longer to read at night.
  • The contrast and sharpness of the new display is much better, and it also turns over noticeably faster.
  • Using touch to go through menus is obviously much better than using arrow keys. No discussion; well, some discussion: see the Things I didn’t like section.
  • The Paperwhite just feels much better than the “plasticky” Kindle Keyboard, particularly the front. The rubber on the back makes it harder for the device to slip out of your hands, unfortunately it also makes it harder to slip the device into my jacket pocket.
  • It is smaller though, so I can carry it more easily once I got it into my jacket.
  • The on-screen keyboard is really fast and a pleasure to use. Much simpler and faster to type on than the physical keyboard of my previous Kindle. Even though the screen takes a moment to update when typing, the keyboard registers your touch immediately, so you can just hack away.
  • People who have used the entry-level Kindle before tell me that the Paperwhite is heavy, but I don’t think that’s the case compared to the Kindle Keyboard.

Things I didn’t like

  • Touching the screen to flip pages isn’t as convenient as using physical buttons on the side of the device. I read a lot lying on my side in bed, and having to reach around the device to touch the screen is a lot less comfortable than just pressing the edge of the device.
  • In addition to a next page (and maybe a previous page button), I would also like a back and maybe a home button. I think the dedicated back button is one of the most important advantages of Windows Phone and Android over iOS. Making it easy to go back, e.g. after going to a footnote, would make navigation a lot simpler. Requiring two steps (and page refreshes) to go back – tap the top of the screen, then tap back – makes using footnotes or hyperlinks so much more cumbersome.
  • There is an alternative for going back: tapping the number at the beginning of the footnote. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take me back to the same position I was on before. Instead the location of the footnote is now at the top left. Meaning the sentence that the footnote was following is on the previous page. That is very annoying. This needs to be fixed before one can even think about reading scientific books and papers or other works relying heavily on footnotes on the Kindle.

Conclusion

I really like my new Kindle. I am not sure though it was worth the 129 EUR I spent on it. I probably should have kept the Keyboard until the next generation Kindle, which will hopefully address some of the issues I pointed out above. But I guess that’s the price of always trying out the latest stuff. And also, I got to give my old Kindle to my dad, so now everyone in the family has one.

Book Report

While compiling the statistics for my look back at year three, I noticed I hadn’t posted anything in the Books category during the previous year. That’s strange, because I don’t think I have ever been reading as much as I do now. I even started reading fiction, imagine that. Anyway, so here is a rundown of the most interesting books I have been reading as of late.

The book I am currently reading is Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power by David E. Sanger. It’s a fantastic book that provides valuable insights into U.S. foreign policy. While you hear about those policies everyday on the news, the book provides you with information from the inside explaining how those policies came about and why certain things were done the way they were and not differently. One great line from the book describes each foreign policy decision as a “balancing act between Americas values and its interests”. Often times, this means there isn’t an option that is the right thing to do, but only the lesser of two evils.

Also kind of on the topic of foreign policy is Trojan Horse by Mark Russinovich. It paints a very bleak picture of the current situation concerning Iran getting a nuclear weapon and the Chinese involvement in that. While it is inspired by current events, this book is of course a work of fiction and I surely hope that those parts were written with some artistic freedom.

Another related title is Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century by P. W. Singer. It discusses the technical capabilities the U.S. military has developed with its drone programs. A capability that has increased dramatically over the past ten years. For all the technical advanced and the resulting ability to use force more accurately and limit civilian casualties, the book also leaves a lot of room to discuss the implications of this new technology. What it means in legal terms that the soldiers operating these weapons are on U.S. soil with little thread to their lives while civilian contractors are deployed in the war zones to maintain the drones where they are at much greater risk; let alone in a legal gray-area as to whether they are actually civilians or combatants.

The final technology title on my list is Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. I have been following McAfee’s blog for many years now love his work non Enterprise 2.0. In this book, he and hos co-author take a look how advances in technology are changing the economy and labor market forever. For instance, with computers as advanced as Watson, many knowledge worker jobs may be done by computers in the not too distant future. One interesting line from the book: a knowledge worker’s job is more likely to be taken by a computer than a hair dresser’s job, because people will not tolerate robots operating with blades near their heads. So true. The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care is supposedly a similar story specifically about health care. I haven’t read it yet, but is already only my wish list.

Then there is Spies Among Us: How to Stop the Spies, Terrorists, Hackers, and Criminals You Don’t Even Know You Encounter Every Day by Ira Winkler. When you are done reading this book, you cannot help but wonder why there aren’t more high-profile cases of espionage or terrorism every day. The techniques described just seem too easy. It has certainly made me be more careful when I get into work or how a respond to requests to information over the phone from people I don’t know.

I am kind of surprised how much I have been reading about technology and current affairs, but the final non-fiction book I wanted to mention has nothing to do with either of those things. It’s The Smart Growth Manual by Andres Duany, Jeff Speck and Mike Lydon. It’s one of the books for the Smart Growth approach to urban planning. It describes recipes for designing an ideal urban environment that is pleasant for people to live in and is environmentally friendly at the same time. What I found most interesting about it, is that even though it describes ideal scenarios, the city that I am living in Düsseldorf, Germany, does come very close to what is described there. Because I have spent the majority of my life here, it often don’t realize it, but life here is actually pretty good :)

The first real fiction-book is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have always been upset that I haven’t read more of the American classics that are traditionally read in High School. Because whenever these are referenced in American media (because they are assumed to be common knowledge) I don’t really get what they are talking about. So when I saw the trailer to that new movie based on the book, I decided to read the original. And I am glad I did, because it was a wonderful weekend I had reading it.

The next one is a bit strange: The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe. I had first encountered this book as a radio drama in 2000 or so when my father was working in Berlin and we were visiting him there. We were there for a couple of days and the play was broadcast in several parts that were on the radio during breakfast. I am not sure why, but I didn’t remember the title, but only fragments of the story: Paris, a murder, a gorilla, leaping out of the window. With the help of Google I was able to find the book and get it on Kindle. I must say, though, it was much better in my imagination.

Finally, there is The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, a set of three stories in a book I had bought as reading material for my Norway trip after M recommended it. She had also gotten it at the same time, so as we were reading at roughly the same speed, we could talk about the book and its many weird turns and connections between the three stories. It was a fun way to approach a book. Also based on her recommendation, I have bought Sunset Park by the same author, but haven’t yet had a chance to read it.

Semi-interesting Side Story

While I was looking up the books mentioned above on Amazon, I noticed that for several of them there were multiple Kindle editions available. I understand that for regular books there are always different versions (hardcover, paperback, maybe one with different cover art or an additional intro). But how different can two eBooks possibly be? In most cases one doesn’t even see the cover art and at least I just read the main part of the book front to back with little regard for any other material. From what I can see, the various Kindle versions have no discernable differences, except, and this is funny, their prices. For instance, when I bought Trojan Horse, there were two versions: one for around 10 EUR, and one for 2 EUR. I have no idea why anyone would buy the former.