Tag Archives: Review

Harry Connick Jr. – Your Songs

I’m a pretty big fan of Harry Connick Jr. I listen to his Christmas album year-round. And look at the picture above! He’s totally man-crush material. So it is with a heavy heart that I have to give his latest album, “Your Songs,” a bad review.

HC Jr. is best when he’s singing jazz standards, or songs that have been creatively arranged as jazz standards, like his Christmas songs and his really cool album, “Songs I Heard,” which consists of a bunch of songs from kid’s movies. I really like Songs I Heard because it takes familiar songs and transforms them into something unique that Connick can work with.

Your Songs pretty much seems like a cash-in album. Harry C basically loaded a bunch of popular songs into this album so that people would buy it. “Oh, it has ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ on it! It even has a Beatles song!” The problem with the album, and I’m not sure how the producers didn’t catch this very early in the process, is that the arrangements are so dull that Harry sounds like he’s in pain throughout the album. The arrangements don’t fit his singing style because they’re popular songs, and Harry Connick Jr. is not a pop singer. The thing that bothers me most is that this is a completely safe album. There were no risks taken in the vanilla arrangements. So what we get is a really sub-standard pop album from a really good jazz vocalist.

These may be my songs, but Harry: you can keep them!

(Yeah, so what if my only reason for writing this review was the cheesy last line? I’ve done worse on this blog!)

Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else – Book Review

It looks like I’m continuing my long list of book reviews on my blog. Here’s a review of Linked by Albert-László Barabási (yes, I copy-pasta’ed that).

Linked is the story of the birth of graph theory and how early network models evolved to how we understand them today. Barabasi does a really good job of inserting character and context into the early scientists that formed the early ideas about networks. For example, he introduces Euler with a story about how he gave his nephew some lessons and worked on calculations that would some day lead to the discovery of Neptune. Oh, and he died that day, never to see the fruits of his labor. This kind of narrative is what I found lacking in Connected, and the kind I also noticed in Six Degrees. Go Barabasi!

That isn’t to say that Barabasi isn’t the king of all prose. One bugaboo I kept running into while reading linked was that Barabasi seems to have a certain idiosyncrasy in his writing. To be blunt, he starts too many sentences with the word “indeed.” I’m not sure if anyone else has noticed this, but in some paragraphs he uses “indeed” twice! I think the max number on a page was three. I have taken the liberty of documenting one of these pages:

Please note that this doesn’t mean I don’t like the book or Barabasi’s writing. Indeed, I just complemented his writing earlier in this review. I just think his editor needs to help him with a larger vocabulary.

Besides that pet peeve, I thought the book was really well written and interesting. It had my attention up to Barabasi’s discovery of scale-free networks and the near-ubiquity of them in other systems. The book started getting a bit slow around the 13th chapter when the subjects were biology and business. I’m not sure if I was just scale-free fatigued or what.

I feel the book was not balanced enough. The beginning, which consisted of a lot of history, was much more interesting than the explanations of how scale-free networks seemed to pop up everywhere. While it is a key takeaway that many of these observed properties of networks seem to be universal, it also isn’t as interesting as evolving a model of network analysis. I guess this isn’t really a fault of the author though. Also, this book was published in 2002, before many of the popular social network websites became super popular. I just looked up Barabasi on Amazon and it appears he has a book due out this year. Sweet!

I think that I can safely say that I enjoyed Duncan Watts’ book more than Linked. But it also isn’t a fair comparison because I read Watts’ book first and much of the content of both authors overlaps, so I may have felt that reading Linked was redundant. Linked came before Six Degrees, so maybe a lot of Six Degrees’ success has to do with Barabasi’s book. Either way, both books were good. I’m glad I read both of them. Now that I discovered the existence of a second Barabasi book, I can look forward to reading it in April.

The Last Lecture – Book Review

I grabbed the audio version of The Last Lecture onto my iPhone a while back for a long car trip, but in typical Hung Truong fashion I didn’t take advantage of my over-preparedness. Recently I’ve been riding the bus a lot, and I recently took a series of long flights, so I had a chance to listen to the whole book over a span of a few weeks.

Randy Pausch’s story is pretty interesting. He was a professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – not the most survivable. His diagnosis gave him 3-6 months, and for his “Last Lecture” he showed people how to live their childhood dreams. The video really caught on! I watched it quite a while ago and it really is incredibly inspiring. You can see it here.

The Last Lecture: The Book, goes into further detail on things that Pausch touched upon during the lecture. It’s a more thought-out version that makes sense as a book, since a four or five-hour lecture might be a bit rough on the audience. Randy’s main points are that if you try hard enough, you can get what you want. Persistence pays off. Enabling others to succeed is often more rewarding than serving yourself. Throughout his life, Randy got to do all sorts of stuff that he dreamed about since he was a kid.

Maybe it’s a product of having a one-sided view of Randy’s life, but it seems like this dude is a total saint! He even jokes about it in the book. I personally think that he probably was a really awesome person who deserved everything that he worked for. While it really is sad that he died, he crammed in a bunch of cool stuff in his life! To his credit, he says in his book that the thing that bothered him the most was that his kids wouldn’t be able to grow up with him as a presence. It’s really wonderful that some people can be so selfless, even when they have a very limited time limit.

I think we all need a reminder sometimes that our time is limited. In some cases, it can be extremely short. One thing that I have struggled with, given the reminders I have had that life is short, is that I really get antsy when I don’t feel like I’m moving forward. I can appreciate that patience is a virtue, but I also think that being proactive is one of the best things a person can do for him/herself.

I often think of my lifespan as a progress bar (think a file transfer dialog box or something) that is always moving towards 100%. But you can’t see how close you are to 100% (unless you’re Randy). So how much of my life would I like to spend unhappy? 1%? That’s more than a year, if you assume <100 year lifespan. Oh, I guess I'm not really reviewing this book anymore, am I? One thing I noticed about the audiobook version is that it's not Randy reading the book to you. This makes sense since I'm sure Randy would have rather spent the studio time doing stuff with his family. But it's also kind of weird listening to this dude who isn't Randy talk about all of his awesome life experiences. Maybe they could've just recorded all the possible syllables Randy could make, then piece them into words and sentences? Nah. Anyway, The Last Lecture is a really nice companion to the actual last lecture. It puts things into perspective. I personally strive to make the most out of every day. I hope I have a lot of quality time left doing the things I love. But if I don't, at least people will know I made the most of it!

Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives – Book Review!

I just finished reading this book with a really long title: Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Whew. Being a connoisseur of social network research, this book was very relevant to my interests. Previously I had read Six Degrees by that Duncan Watts guy.

In Connected, Christakis and Fowler argue that social networks are a natural part of our lives. We’ve evolved to be good at navigating them and using them for our needs. While it’s simple to prove our actions have an effect on people who we are directly connected to, we apparently also have an effect on the people who are connected to the people we are connected to. This effect fans out from us to our third degree contacts (friends of friends of friends). Our actions might affect others’ obesity, happiness, loneliness and promiscuousness. Conversely, people we don’t even know can affect whether we’re happy or fat (not mutually exclusive).

I actually saw James Fowler talk about some research that made it into the book at a complex systems seminar at the University of Michigan back when I was a student. He focused on how happiness could spread and talked less about the fatness issue. He apparently caught a lot of flack for writing about how the obesity “epidemic” really is an epidemic. That is, the more fat friends you have, the more likely you are to become fat. You could imagine how this could make overweight people feel: like some vector for a contagious disease known as chubbiness. While the oversimplification seems funny, when you boil it down to human behaviors (as the book describes), it makes sense. People mimic each other. When everyone else around you is overweight, it’s easy to assume that behaviors that lead to weight gain is the norm. It works with lots of other things too. And that’s basically what the book amounts to. Many examples of people in networks spreading ideas, diseases, love, hate, etc. The book also touches on how technology has amplified our natural ability to network into hyper-networks.

One criticism of the book I have is that it feels a bit too dry. The book is describing all kinds of interesting phenomena, but it does so in a really scientific way. Don’t get me wrong, I like science, but I also like a story in my non-fiction hardback book. Six Degrees is a good example of a great non-fiction book that tells a wonderful story. The narrative fits together well and the content is interesting. Duncan Watts is good at both science and storytelling. You could compare this against Malcolm Gladwell, who is good at telling a story but stinks at actual science. He kind of makes stuff up and jumps to conclusions that aren’t really backed by anything factual. Christakis and Fowler (which one did more writing?) are great at the science but the story lacks a clear narrative. Extending the idea for Pasteur’s Quadrant, Gladwell is in the “only story” quadrant, Christakis/Fowler seem to be closer to the “only science” quadrant, and Watt sits pretty well in “story + science” quadrant. Freakanomics authors Dubner and Levitt seem to fit into “story + science” though sometimes I feel they like to jump to conclusions like Gladwell does. If I were a researcher-cum-book-writer, I think I’d like to sit in that Watts quadrant myself.

Overall, I think the book is compelling and interesting. The ideas from the book have already gotten my head juices flowing and thinking about future network analysis directions. Connected could definitely be improved by including some underlying narrative or cohesive theme, but it’s still worth reading as it is.

Next on my plate is “Linked” by the guy who was named after that preferential attachment network model thing. Or was it the other way around? I just realized that the set of names for these network analysis books is growing smaller day by day! We’ve already seen books called “Linked,” “Connected,” “Nexus,” and “Six Degrees.” I wonder what the next one will be called? “Affixed?” “Conjoined?” “Hooked Up?” Maybe I should claim the name of my book before someone else does.

Ender’s Game – Book Report!

Ender's Game

I recently re-read Ender’s Game. The first time I had read it was in middle school, probably around 6th grade. Now I’m in ~19th grade or so. Or maybe grades stop when you get a terminal degree. Anyway, I thought it’d be interesting to write up my thoughts about the book. I previously wrote about them in web form, yet the editorial quality was a bit lacking. I actually dug up the “OSC” page I had made and here’s a screencap:

OSC Page

What you can’t see is that the red text on top blinked. I’m not even joking.

So what did I think of Ender’s Game this time around? I still liked the story, but I had quite a different perspective this time. I first read the book when I was around 11-12. The same age as the protagonist when he’s at the top of his game. I must’ve read the book more for the action and less for the things happening behind the scenes. There’s a twist ending that I won’t spoil, but since I already remembered that, the story was a bit different the second time for that reason as well.

I think that when I was reading the book for the first time, I wanted to be like Ender. I wanted to be a genius (I always thought geniuses were pretty interesting). I wanted to do things that other people could not. I wanted to be recognized for talent. Maybe things haven’t changed much since middle school, but I feel I have a different perspective now. I see Ender as a victim, more than a hero or a genius.

One thing I didn’t find very realistic was that Ender is basically put into boot camp at the age of 6. And he takes all the punishment up until he’s something like 12 years old. Are kids just that good to listening to adults? I think that in real life, there would be a lot more AWOL kids running around asking to be sent home. I guess Ender wanted to avoid his evil brother back on Earth.

The book seems much more violent this time, too. I guess that when I was in middle school, I couldn’t get enough of the gore and brutal beat-downs. But imagining little kids kick the crap out of each other is kind of sad. Lord of the Flies is cool because the kids just kind of naturally gravitate to going insane, but Ender’s Game has adults who egg them on.

It’s interesting to think of what I remembered from reading the first time and how it translated to the second time I read the book. For example, there’s a description of a “desk” that Ender uses to play a realistic video game. Ender goes from environment to environment, killing giants and being killed in numerous ways. I remember imagining the game looking something like Mario 64, since that was what was around at the time. This time I thought of it as much more realistic. The interesting part is that the game’s specifics were never really described. Your imagination was required to fill in the blanks and the image in my head ended up being different than before.

I may or may not continue reading the Ender Wiggin series of books. I remember not liking the next book in the series as much as the first, then quitting in the middle of the third (or simply sleepwalking through it and forgetting the entire plot). Pair that with the fact that Orson Scott Card has some very negative beliefs that I don’t agree with and it’s hard for me to get into his books. I’ll give Ender’s Game **** (pretty good). I guess I’ve become more critical in my advanced age.