Archive for September, 2009

Iain Pears: Stone’s Fall

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Iain Pears’s 1998 novel An Instance of the Fingerpost was one of the most addictive novels I’ve read, one of those books where you plan your life around when you’ll get to read it. It’s a long murder mystery set in 17th century England, told by a succession of unreliable narrators who keep exposing the lies and mistaken assumptions of the previous ones. I reread it a year or so ago and it was a bit disappointing — I think a lot of its impact comes from having your assumptions overturned, and when you already know what’s coming you’re largely sitting around waiting for it to happen — but it was a ton of fun the first time around.

Stone’s Fall is a similar sort of novel, this time “about” the European financial empires of the late 19th and early 20th century. As before, the story is told from the viewpoint of a succession of protagonists, each of which explains some of the mysteries left hanging earlier. The schtick this time is that each section takes place earlier in time than the preceding one, so you start out knowing how everything ends, and slowly discover the background that led to it.

As usual, I’m trying to remain spoiler-free, but I can say that I enjoyed it a great deal. Most reviewers seem to agree that the middle section is the most interesting; they tend not to like all three of them, but opinion is divided on whether the first or the last is disappointing. For me it was the last that I had the most trouble staying interested in; I wanted a headlong rush of mystery-resolving surprises, and had to reorient myself to the rather slow pace of the section. But fear not, the main questions do get resolved, and in a satisfying way. If you haven’t read any Pears, I would go for An Instance of the Fingerpost first (and I might even recommend The Dream of Scipio second, although it’s a slightly different sort of book), but if you loved that and were waiting for another similar book, this one shouldn’t disappoint you.

Sergey Ivashchenko et al: Chess School 1–3

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

If you know anyone who plays the board game Go, try asking them, “Hey, I learned the rules, I’ve played a bit, and I want to improve; can you recommend a good book?” I will lay even money that they will say, “Go this minute and read Graded Go Problems for Beginners.” GGP is a series of four books containing nothing but hundreds of problems (here’s a position, find the best move) and brief answers. Volume 1 starts with problems that basically just test if you know the rules, and by the time you eventually get through Volume 4 (I can’t, yet), you’re probably a dan player, or expert. You’re led through every basic tactical technique along the way; there’s no more efficient way to improve your game.

While there are tons of chess problem books, I’ve never been able to find a good GGP equivalent. The books are usually either aimed only at beginners, or only at experts, or mix up a bunch of problems of wildly different difficulty in order to keep you on your toes. But with Chess School I’ve finally found it: a graded problem book series that starts from square one, ends at square sixty-four, and covers every basic tactical technique. They were originally made for teaching Soviet children, and it’s hard to argue with those results.

There are four volumes, but Chess School 4 is an endgame collection; 1–3 are the real meat of it (to further confuse things, Volume 1 has been split up into 1a and 1b in this edition, and they’re sold separately). Volume 1 starts with mate-in-one problems and ends 1300 positions later with problems that I have to think about and sometimes get wrong (I’m rated 1800, for reference). Volume 2 is really the sweet spot for me. When I was taking chess lessons my teacher would give me homework problems from Volume 3, among other sources, and I’d rack my brains over them for a week; a master could still benefit from working through it.

If you want to improve your chess game and are rated below 2000 or so, there’s no better way than by studying tactics. And if you’re studying tactics, it’s hard for me to make a higher recommendation than these books. It’s not a complete chess course — you’ll need to learn about openings and endgames and strategy elsewhere — but it’s a great foundation.

(Unfortunately, these books can be kind of hard to find in the US. I’ve had good experiences with Chess Books From Europe.)

Philip K. Dick: Time Out of Joint

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

I had never actually read a book by Philip K, Dick before, despite having seen what must be around twenty movies based on his works. I forget how this particular one — it’s not one of his more famous books — ended up on my reading list, but there it was, and I was in the mood for a shortish science fiction novel.

It was pretty good. There’s a common problem with a lot of speculative fiction, which is that it’s a lot easier to come up with an interesting premise than an interesting plot. So it is here; the premise is pretty cool, and the first half of the book as we slowly uncover it is interesting. Then it turns into a more generic adventure story, and that’s where my interest started to wane.

My attempt to keep these posts spoiler-free is a problem with books like these, since the whole point of the book is discovering the premise, so I feel like I can’t discuss it at all. So I don’t know how much more there is to say. The premise was cool (although totally implausible), the writing was fine, and the characterization was as good as it had to be. Apparently this is pretty early Dick, before he really hit his stride, and I will try to check out something from his classic period.

Mnemosyne update

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Mnemosyne is a spaced repetition program for aiding memorization; see my first post about it for the whole scoop. That was the one-month report, and it’s now time to post a three-month report.

The chess opening memorization is still going very well. I’m now up to 471 positions in my database and am reviewing about 20 a day. One thing that can be a little bit of an issue is that since my flashcards are just positions, they’re a bit contextless; often part of the work I have to do to recall the correct move in a position is to deduce what sequence of moves led to it, so I can consult the right part of my mental library. Of course this is not an issue in an actual game, so it makes the flashcard experience a little artificial. I could try adding the appropriate moves to the problem, but I’m not convinced that’s a good idea either. For one thing, some of the positions can be arrived at by multiple sequences of moves, and for another, the best move in a position shouldn’t depend on how you got there; I should be able to deduce (or remember) it without hints. But on the other hand, if I’ll have the hints during an actual game, why not use them here? I’ll keep thinking about it.

I’ve only played four tournament games since I started using Mnemosyne, but in none of them did I have any trouble recalling the moves in my repertoire. So that’s good so far.

Meanwhile, with Esperanto vocabulary I’m testing exactly the scenario I foresaw in the original post; my interest has waned a bit again, so I’m not reading regularly, but I am keeping up with the memorization. I am holding steady at 1926 cards, and the number I have to review every day has dwindled from a high of around 200 to somewhere in the 30s, which I can get through in a minute or two. I have a better than 90% recall rate, so I do seem to be retaining the information. So that’s perfect — I’m confident that if I picked up an Esperanto book today, I’d be able to read it with close to the same ability as two months ago. I’ll happily spend a minute or two (and dropping!) a day to retain that knowledge.

Agatha Christie: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Monday, September 7th, 2009

The other day I was in need of a comfort-food book, and what is more comfort food than Agatha Christie? Only her first couple of books are out of copyright and freely downloadable, so I grabbed the very first one. I read dozens of these as a kid, including this one, although of course I’ve forgotten all the details except for the famous ones like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express.

As a first mystery it’s totally reasonable. I don’t know enough about the history of murder mysteries to know how much Christie innovated and how much she was just good at churning out quality product, so I don’t really know how it compares to similar books from the same period.

It does suffer a little bit from an issue that also often plagues authors of interactive fiction. When writing a work of IF it’s easy to feel that the game you’re writing is too easy, that every puzzle is totally standard and will be solved within minutes by any half-intelligent player. So there’s a temptation to make every puzzle really tricky, and to make every object be used in a non-obvious way. The danger is that the resulting game will be a frustrating collection of tricky exceptions, with no standard puzzles to ground it that those exceptions to play against.

And so it is here; pretty much every clue is not what it seems, and not only is every normal hypothesis overturned, but usually the hypothesis that replaces it is replaced in turn. It is a murder mystery so Christie is careful to ensure that the eventual solution is actually logical, but by that point she’s screwed with you so much that you just throw up your hands and say, “Okay, fine, you win”, rather than “Wow, awesome!” I don’t remember whether she got better at this or whether it’s just a standard trait of her mysteries; if I read a few more I’ll report back.

Jack Vance: Night Lamp

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

Another Vance novel — I guess I’ve read over twenty by now —and it pretty much goes according to formula, but hey, I love the formula. An adventurous young man has to achieve his destiny by overcoming a smattering of obstacles on various worlds spanning the galaxy, each of which has some charmingly odd culture and people who love to haggle.

Night Lamp was published in 1996, so it’s pretty late Vance, and it feels kind of loose (not that his novels are ever particularly tight), but everything does pretty much fit together in the end. Around a quarter of the way through, I was thinking, “Hey, this is really good, I wonder if this would be a good recommendation for newcomers to Vance.” But then things slow down a little as the focus shifts to the reminiscences of a second character, and I felt that the pace never quite recovered. In addition, a new plot element (which, to be fair, had been hinted at earlier) popped up literally 90% of the way through the book, mostly just made me feel uncomfortable for the characters involved, and was then resolved in a completely unsatisfying manner. That left a weird taste, and the book was already a bit overlong (close to 400 pages) anyway. So overall I’m not going to put this up there with his best. If you’re not a Vance fan there are better places to start, and if you are you’ll probably read it anyway, and still get some enjoyment out of it. And how many books have as a major plot point a quest to become a member of the exclusive social club the Clam Muffins?*