HICSS 2009 Book Club

HICSS book club.  Meeting at the Kaumela Provision Company, Kona, HI.  

Jan 6, 2009

Top row: Joan, Mike, Yan, Jun;  Bottom row: Tom, Katie, Dan


We began with a once-around of “best book of the last year.” 

Tom Erickson:  The World Without Us.  Alan Weisman.  "It’s depressing, but this group is normally so upbeat that I feel okay suggesting a downbeat book..." said Tom.  The conceit of the book is to ask “how long would our built-up world last without us?  The method used is clever… To find out the answer to this question, go visit places that simulate this depopulated world.  Think the DMZ between the Koreas, the Green Zone in Cyprus, the abandoned places that show us how tenuous our hold is on the infrastructure of our world.  (Dan's note:  Tom has recommended this book to me three times now.  I'd better go read it.) 

Katie Salomon:  Discovery of France. Graham Robb.  Imagine touring around France by bicycle. Now, see France as though through the eyes of a landscape historian.  The land reveals the politics and infrastructures of times past.  France is often regarded as the center of elegant civilization, so it's surprising to find that as late as 1890, most of the population was far from civilized—outside the confines of sophisticated Paris.  Great swathes of countryside were terra incognita: dark places inhabited by illiterate tribes professing pre-Christian beliefs and lethally hostile to outsiders. They spoke not French but regional dialects; and many in the rural areas lacked surnames. The book is a curious mix of personal observation, scholarly diligence and historical narrative as Robb discusses the formation of both the French character and the French state.

Dan Russell:  Gut Feeling:The intelligence of the unconscious.  Gerd Gigerenzer.  I read a lot of psychology books each year, but this was the first popularization I'd read in a while that really got me thinking in a new way.  His thesis is that intuition is non-mystical, but a real--and measurable--cognitive psychological phenomenon.  The punch line is that "intuitive" feelings arise from the application of many very simple heuristics; rules of thumb that can stand-in for long, complex "rationalistic" thinking.  A fascinating read.   

Yan Qu:  Sky Eye (or maybe “Heave Eye” is a better translation).  A remarkable new kind of novel that’s being serially written by a young Chinese author.  She’s putting it out in blog form, but she actively responds to comments from the readers, up-to and including rewriting previously written chapters!  The story is pure Chinese Indiana Jones, involving tomb robbers, supernatural creatures, gangsters, and heros with a third eye in the top of their head. 

Jun:  Angels and Demons.  Dan Brown.  Sure, it’s a potboiler, but it’s a really FUN potboiler.  If you liked The Da Vinci Code, you’ll like this even more.  Theology and science; the eternal tension continues.  Imagine any novel that can link CERN, Tim Bernes-Lee, antimatter, the Illuminati and multiple murders.... that's this one.   (Besides, there’s a movie coming out this summer with Tom Hanks.  Read the book before the movie!)

Mike DiMiccio:  Christine Falls.  Benjamin Black.  In this expertly paced debut thriller from Irish author Black (the pseudonym of Booker Prize–winner John Banville), pathologist Garret Quirke uncovers a web of corruption in 1950s Dublin surrounding the death in childbirth of a young maid, Christine Falls.

Joan DiMiccio: Bel Canto.  Anne Pattchett.  In an unnamed South American country, a group of hostages are taken in palace and held for months.  Alas, only the translator can understand what all of the individuals are saying, and only he understands all the versions of their stories.  In this Gedanken problem of a setup, the questions are really about what matters at the end of the day.


Phase 2:  The Once-Minute lightning round. 

Tom: Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us).  Tom Vanderbilt.  Traffic engineer takes a counter-intuitive approach to traffic design… and achieves an astounding reduction in traffic fatalities in the roadway he redesigns.

Katie:  Blind Spot.  Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore.  Boston—1764.  Historical fiction of the best order.  From Bookmark Magazine: A tribute to—and a send-up of—18th-century melodramas, Blindspot addresses 21st-century themes while mimicking the bygone era's literary techniques: first-person, epistolary narratives; adventure-studded storylines; and sensational plot twists, including mistaken meanings, hidden identities, and unexpected revelations. At the same time, Kamensky and Lepore skillfully capture the contrasts of early American history, particularly the colonists' struggle to free themselves from British tyranny while blithely ignoring the growing African slave trade (Colonial America's "blindspot"). Most critics were charmed by this witty, irreverent novel,

Dan:  Lionboy.  Zisou Corder.  A mother and daughter team write a clever piece of juvenilia that incorporates a boy of African and English parents in a post-oil, near-future Britian.  But when his scientist parents are captured by the evil henchmen of the Corporacroacy (which IS the future of government), the boy discovers he can talk to cats, steals lions from a travelling circus, stows aboard a train bound to Venice and steals a boat to take him, and the lions, from Venice to Africa.  I won’t even start about the flight to the US… let’s just say that we’re not in "Dick and Jane see spot territory" any more.  (Note:  this is a trilogy that I listened to as Books on CD.  It made a long road trip very bearable.) 

Yan:  The Historian.  Vampires writ on a large page.  Good summer reading,  if your pulse flutters at the thought of castle ruins and descents into crypts by moonlight, you will savor every creepy page of Elizabeth Kostova's long but beautifully structured thriller The Historian.

Jun:  The Eygptologist.   Set mostly in Egypt in the early 1920s, the book stars Ralph Trilipush, an obsessive Egyptologist. Trilipush is more than a little odd. He is pinning his hopes on purported king Atum-hadu, whose erotic verses he has discovered and translated; now he must locate his tomb and its expected riches.  A mystery....

Mike:  Profile in Courage.  JFK.  You should have read this by now… probably the best known book that nobody has read.  Mike says that it’s actually incredibly well-written, and still worth reading.  Stories about senators taking on (and winning) unpopular topics. 

Joan: The curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.  Autistic boy solves murder mystery... This is one of those books that makes you think "Gee.. wasn’t I like that as a child?"  (Or at least, the people at the book club would probably all feel this way.)  Fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone is mathematically gifted and socially hopeless, raised in a working-class home by parents who can barely cope with their child's quirks. He takes everything that he sees (or is told) at face value, and is unable to sort out the strange behavior of his elders and peers. Late one night, Christopher comes across his neighbor's poodle, Wellington, impaled on a garden fork. Wellington's owner finds him cradling her dead dog in his arms, and has him arrested. After spending a night in jail, Christopher resolves--against the objection of his father and neighbors--to discover just who has murdered Wellington. He is encouraged by Siobhan, a social worker at his school, to write a book about his investigations, and the result--quirkily illustrated, with each chapter given its own prime number--is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.


Phase 3:  Other media besides books

Tom:  Consider looking for comedy sketches on YouTube. “Bird and Fortune  about fairly deep economic issues presented a very easy-to-understand way.  Excellent. 

Katie: Mad Men (on DVD).  The TV series has compelling characters and wonderful 1960s situations and set design.  Well worth watching.

Dan: RadioLab podcast.  www.radiolab.org  Incredible sound design to communicate complex ideas, far beyond what you might have ever believed was possible.

Yan: social online forum in China.  <link?>  Story about information filtering up from grassroots to highest-levels of government to locate and identify a landing field for support helicopters. 

Jun:  Dancing your PhD.  Background info:    Jun wins the award for most unexpected media entry.  Imagine a competition where participants have 60 seconds to verbally describe their thesis work, THEN they do an interpretive dance.  Sounds bizarre, but trust me, this is highly amusing stuff.  Where else can you see a dance about “"Refitting repasts: a spatial exploration of food processing, sharing, cooking, and disposal at the Dunefield Midden campsite, South Africa”? 

Mike and Joan:  The Wire.  (on DVD)  A compelling series about crime in Baltimore.  It portrays a more complex world than you’d believe.  “Never again will I assume that all these issues are quite so cut and dried…”   The complete series ($148; or ~$40/ season).  Long, complex, slowly building story arcs… but “exquisitely crafted.” 



Tom:  “Remind me” YouTube video.  Animated diagrams of how things work.  Well worth watching. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBvaHZIrt0o

Dan:  Boston.com/bigpicture Every week, this is reliably the best in current photojournalism.  Add a weekly remind to your calendar to check this site out.  It truly does open your eyes to world vistas that you haven’t thought about, and in ways you haven’t thought about.  Think of this as continuing education… that’s visually stunning. 

Dan: YouTube videos – For a few years now, the Discovery channel has been putting together excellent videos about how things are made.  Many of these are now on YouTube.  Ever want to know how ballbearings, marbles, condoms, balloons, bubble gum… (the list goes on!)… are made?  Go here: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=95DA3715A4BDDC60&search_query=discovery channel "how things"  See also their official channel. 




Last edit:  May 25, 2009