Randy Pausch and Richard Feynman   January 11th, 2011

I recently finished reading The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, the memoirs of the CS professor who gave a moving lecture after being diagnosed with cancer. It’s a nice collection of essays and memoirs, dramatic and inspiring. It has the wisdom and creativity of one adept at engineering, both technical and social. Reading of his work in Virtual Reality and the sabbaticals he did at video game companies and at Disney Imagineering was fantastic.

I was also recently reminded of physicist Richard Feynman, autobiography, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman which I read in college. I started re-reading it today and have been enjoying that as well. Like Randy Pausch, Richard Feynman is an entertaining character. Both men are brilliant and smart, but not just with standard “book learning.”

They both show creative insight and love of solving puzzles, but also demonstrate a social knowledge which a lot of smarter people don’t always have. Pausch used that to teach his students how to be better collaborators and Feynman used social engineering along with his love of pranks to have lots of good-natured but devilish fun. I’m looking forward to reading about his time at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project, where he became a master safe-cracker, among other things.

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Originally Written 12/29/04

I just finished the audio book to The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I have mixed reviews on it. The writing could’ve been better and it was very melodromatic, pithy and cliched at points. It was also predictable in a few places too.

However, even with those problems, the emotions of the story did ring true a lot of the time and I smiled and felt my eyes tear up in places. I also liked some of the narrative styling about how you learned about the characters life from layered flashbacks.

The theme of the interconnectedness of people and the worth of one’s life, reminded me of It’s a Wonderful Life; I liked the sentiment. It could’ve been better, but I also enjoyed it some and it was a good diversion and worth spending the five and a half hours I listened to it while driving around this past week.

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Originally Written 03/01/05

I just finished listening to a really interesting audio book tonight. It’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach. It’s all about the various ways cadavers are used in all the fields of medical science, from disections in anatomy labs, to car-safety tests and firearm and armor testing. It also covers a lot of history, from the dark days of grave robbing for disection cadavers in Victorian times, to all sorts of funeary practices.

The author is pretty good too. She had a nice wry sense of humor, which helped deflect from the heaviness of the subject matter, but she was also sincere. I liked the choice of narrator for the audio book too. It was a fascinating read or listen, sometimes macabre, but in a neat way and always interesting, and definitely profound. It makes you think about what to do with your remains after you die. While medical science still sounds weird to me, I should really go ahead and register as an organ donor.

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Into the Wild   April 24th, 2010

Originally Written 11/08/07

I saw Into the Wild tonight. I really didn’t know what I’d think of the film, the journey of a young man, who graduates college, drops out of society and ends up trekking to the wilderness of Alaska where he ultimately dies of starvation. I was a little worried about my own prejudices going into the movie. There is something to be said for living your life your way, but you also have to be smart about it, especially doing something like that. You don’t screw around in the woods.

I was really happy with the film though. I thought it was pretty even handed with things and didn’t praise or judge him too much. I did feel that the beginning of the film kind of romanticized his adventures to some extent, but in the end it did show the harsh reality and the consequences of getting in over your head. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that most of the film didn’t take place in Alaska.

The narrative kept on jumping back to fill in the story of the past. We learned of his troubled family life and also saw the two year journey where he tramped around the country, before heading to Alaska on his final stage of self-discovery. Those two years were made up of several little vignettes, stories where he’d meet people who became his friends and even surrogate families.

There was some wonderful drama and joy in those stories. Even there though, the film did show moments where he was being selfish, as he’d move on when he got wander lust and also touched upon how he’d left his family in the dark and never told them where he was. There were several scenes where I wanted to shake him and tell him to see what he had where he was, and to abandon the useless quest.

In the end, the movie was sad and beautiful and made me long for what might have been. The greatest irony is that he’d wanted to head out of the wilderness, but had been trapped there and then his situation had deteriorated. If not for a couple of mistakes, he might have lived to tell his tale and learned to make it back into people’s lives again. Of course this is a dramatization of a book written about him, but it’s my understanding that it was written from reading the journals he kept and talking with the people he’d met on the road, so hopefully it’s somewhat accurate.

The shots of nature were wonderful in the movie as well. There were scenes of beauty and wonder that were also tempered with the stark reality of the expanse of wilderness. The artful choreography of the film was quite wonderful. If not for the chapter in Alaska, it made an good travelogue, made only more riveting by the knowledge of what was eventually going to pass. In the end, I was left with a profound sense of loss and a bit of futility, which I think is fitting.

Update 04/24/10

After seeing the film, I listened to the audio book of the same name which the movie was based on. The book was longer and gave a lot more information about Christopher McCandless and explains some of his problems with his family, especially his father, which led up to his walkabout trip. There were a lot more details about the places he went and the people he met as well.

The book is more matter-of-fact about things, so it didn’t have the same emotional and dramatic impact as the film did. However, the film is liked a dramatization of many of the events, so while it plays better as a narrative, the book might be closer to the truth. However since McCandless didn’t survive, we can never know.

The book also talked about other people’s misadventures in the wilds of Alaska, many of them who died from it. The author even tells of his own crazy youth on a mountain climbing trip that he was lucky enough to return form, despite a few bad ideas. These added stories gave a lot of depth to the book and complemented McCandless’ story.

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Left Behind   April 21st, 2010

Originally Written 04/26/05

When I first joined Audible a few years back, they offered a few free books to download. One of them was the first of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye andJerry Jenkins. I was curious about it, so I checked it out. That book just plain stunk.

Now to be fair, it was an abridged version of the book, so it had been edited and compressed. However, even giving it the benefit of some doubt, I don’t believe that the editing could account for how bad the writing was. It struck me as a really bad Tom Clancy kind of novel, where the characters would stop and take a break from the action to talk about religion. It had turgid narration, ridiculous plots, unbelievable and cardboard thin characters, and some really lame dialog.

The characters didn’t talk in any fashion like real people did, instead they sounded like they were always giving a lecture or a sermon, not to mention the actual sermons which were sprinkled liberally through the text.

One of the biggest annoyances in the book for me is that the Rapture occurs and a good portion of the population just vanishes. That causes some buzz, but then after the first chapter and a couple of brief background news stories, nobody mentions it again. It’s such a profound event, but it’s tossed aside. The author made his point and since the characters didn’t have any real internal lives, the rest of the world just ignores it.

Now granted I wasn’t the book’s target audience, but that’s still not an excuse for bad writing. If you ignore the leaning of the book, and look at the story itself, it’s barely even second rate. And that’s what annoyed me. I’m all for authors having a theme and putting some of their thoughts and views in a book, but above all else, have a good story. When a book becomes a sad vehicle for your agenda, then it’s an insult to the reader’s intelligence.

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