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« September, 2003 »
The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium

With all the hubub surrounding the millenium here a few years back, little attention was given to the last millenium. Or rather, some was, but not much. Very few people know much about what life was like a thousand years ago. For one thing, there are few records that exist, for another, the Dark Ages seem to make everything that preceded them also seem doomed to darkeness. Lacey and his co-author Danziger, using a calandar from the year 996 as a starting point, explore the things that were important to people living in what is now England in 996.

And what was important? Well, living through the winter for one. With no refrigeration and much less advanced husbandry and crop-rearing, every year was sort of a crapshoot in terms of whether the harvest would yield enough for the coming winter. Religion also played a large part. Christianity was a much newer religion and was still practiced with many pagan trappings. And of course, war and strife were still present. This book takes on much more of a tone of “a day in the life of...” than a dry historical text, even though the information is presented with much factual research backing it up. It’s a short book and not super-memorable. but it answers a question that many of us doen’t even know we had.... what did the world used to be like; or, where did we come from?

Brotherhood of the Rose & The Fraternity of the Stone

I decided to review these two books with “The X of the Y” titles together, even though both were good and memorable enough to stand separately. Morrell is better known as the writer of First Blood, the Rambo story. He’s also a good suspense and spy writer in the tradition that includes all the training sequences as part of the story

One of these books has to do with an assassin/agent who leaves the trade and lives in a monastery with no human contact for six years. Then the bad guys find him and all hell breaks loose. The other story has to do with two brother agent/assassins who get a series of bad assignments, decide to leave the craft, get tracked down by the bad guys and all hell breaks loose. They sound a bit formulaic but they’re really not. There are compelling characters, interesting though infrequent female characters, and enough plot twists to keep you involved in the book though not so many you get nauseated.

It’s hard to get over the cheesy covers and the somewhat gimmicky historical vignettes that open these books, but worth delving in to if you can get beyond that.

How Would You Move Mount Fuji

People are going to just skip ahead to the puzzle part of this book but it’s worth reading the whole thing. Microsoft, and other tech companies specifically, have interview processes that are decidedly non-standard. Instead of asking the normal questions, which will generally elicit the standard answers, they ask the applicants to think and demonstrate their thinking.

Since Microsoft [and other tech companies, but really it’s mostly about MS] need smart creative thinkers they try to give applicants ways to show off their abilities and intelligence. So, they give them puzzles to solve, complicated variants of the Fox, Goose and Corn puzzle, and the like. Of course, over time, this unorthodox means of interviewing got out, got publicized, and now it’s so well known that people compile lists of puzzles that applicants can crib from. Poundstone, who writes the Big Secrets books among other things, compiled a bunch of them -- with answers -- in to this book. He thinks Microsoft is a bit cooler than I do [and I emphatically disagree with some of his assertions like the one that says MS doesn’t recruit from “top schools” they just want good talent, nonsense!] but the puzzles are fun, and his investigation into the interview techniques is pretty riveting.

At the end, he gives some advice for interviewers and interviewees which takes some of the negative examples he uses -- people asking trick questions or devising untrue scenarios for applicants and new hires -- and encourages a more humane system of interviewing where the puzzles may still be a part of it, but not the entire goal of getting new people no board. A fun quick read.

Thinking in Pictures

Temple Grandin is autistic. She is also one of the foremost designers of animal handling facilities in the US. She is high-functioning enough that she is good at her job and able to communicate how her mind works. This makes for fascinating reading for people interested in an insider’s view of autism.

Grandin’s book goes back and forth between describing her autism and the different kinds of autism that others have, and talking about her job. She is very matter of fact and readers hoping for an analysis of the moral issues inherent in animal slaughter will come away displeased. Grandin takes as a foregone conclusion that slaughtering facilities will exisit and posits that they should be made as humane as possible: that is the primary focus of her life’s work.

One of the things that becomes immediately apparent when reading this book is that there is obviously a wide range of differing kinds of autism and Grandin is very high-functioning. It is also made clear that she probably has more in common with low-functioning autistics than with non-autistic adults. Her ability to give the reader a look inside her own ultra-literal and ultra-visual mental space really differentiates this book from other non first person non-fiction books about autism. The book is readable when it’s personal and readable when it’s not, getting to see a very different mind at work is a very interesting thing.