Archive for August, 2007

Aug 31 2007

The Echo Maker

Published by under Books

by Richard Powers

This is the first novel by Richard Powers that I’ve read in a year and I enjoyed it as I did his earlier books. In many ways it is similar to those other novels ( Galatea 2.2 , Gain, and The Gold Bug Variations). Like those three stories, it is set in the Midwest and encompasses a small group of people involved in a project or activity that is relatively small, local or particular. Many of the characters are intensely or obsessively involved in the central endeavor. One of Powers strengths is in portraying obsessive people pursuing a good, bad, or ambiguous cause.
The story line of Echo Maker is simple: a sister is called back to her small, Nebraska, home town after a very serious accident that nearly kills her only and younger brother. He eventually “recovers” except that his brain is messed up with the main symptom something that is (really) called Capgras Syndrome; basically, he fails to recognize his sister as his “real” sister. He knows she looks right, that she knows his history, etc. but without an emotional affirmation he thinks she’s a fake despite all the evidence of his senses.
The sister eventually involves a psychological researcher turned popularizing author from Long Island who becomes obsessed by the case and its implications on his writing and his life’s work. His interactions with the brother and others in the small town shakes his confidence in what he was doing with his psychology patients and brain research. The small town provides a cast of supporting characters including flocks of sandhill cranes (AKA “echo makers”) that temporarily stop near the town during their annual migration. The unravelling of what happened to cause the accident provides some mystery and helps move the story along.
To a significant extent, this book provides a novelization of the kind of mental oddities that can be caused by accidents or medical experiments which then provides a vehicle for speculation on the manner in which a brain holds a personality together amidst a wide variety of sensory data. An interesting topic and one of the books appeals to me. How does a brain create a person?
The sandhill cranes and economic development that will impinge on their stopping grounds provides an embedded ecological sub-tale as well.
All in all a fairly complex very well crafted story that pulled me along.

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Aug 10 2007

Spreadsheets: Excel & Numbers

Published by under retro

Apple has introduced a new “spreadsheet” product as part of its iWork suite, and as usual for Apple, it is ‘different’. Not an Excel clone but a page layout oriented numerical table, chart, image and movie masher! Sounds very modern, but it is very retro in that printing paper seems to have been a major factor in its design.nd it is lacking features essential for effective use “on screen”. A very odd choice of features for Apple to have made.

In Numbers, tables can have header or footer rows and header columns, but only one of each. This makes sense in that Apple can then display this corresponding text to make formula much easier to read, but it limits the ability to associate descriptive text for display or printing. In essence, letting ‘programming’ interfere with display. Is that Apple?

So far, its worst deficiency for me is in handling big tables. In Excel, a standard practice is to be able to ‘freeze rows or columns that provide identifying information to rows or columns on the screen to help orient the eye when viewing large sets of data. Near as I can tell there is no way to do that in Numbers. The print view sort of addresses this problem but only very poorly. You can scroll through and edit the pages on the screen and each page will have the header information. But then the paper paradigm again intrudes unnecessarily.

On the positive side, the change from one big sheet that is mashed different ways tor different purposes to separate tables, charts, etc. that can be related and manipulated on a “canvas” is a real step forward.
I seem to recall a failed spreadsheet named Canvas which tried this approach years ago. Not sure of that, however. Lotus’ old Symphony also had some of these capabilities. So Numbers is retro and current at the same time. A lot to like, but I’m having to adopt to its limitations and work around them. Haven’t decided to switch.

Update: The old program was apparently called Trapeze

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Aug 07 2007

The Final Solution: A Story of Detection

Published by under Books

by Michael Chabon.

A short book that might have been written as a practice exercise to achieve a particular style. Style in this case being musty British detective stories. A very old, retired ace detective turned beekeeper is faced with an odd situation that eventually involves a murder. The story is set during 1944 in the war time English countryside. Nicely told bits and nice characters, but overall just a little piece of candy. Chabon is a good story teller, but not much is accomplished in this one. Not particularly satisfying.

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