Category Archives: Books

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information – Edward R. Tufte

Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.

This book is a classic of how to design a good graphic. It contains some of the most inspirational graphics ever seen and Tufte puts the basis of what makes informational design beautiful and practical.

The content is mostly graphs and charts from the 1970s (even though the second edition is from 2001), which contain the main ideas of a good or a bad chart, but more contemporary design would have been more entertaining.

Undoubtedly, the book is useful in teaching to avoid bad graphic design pitfalls, but it often looks at it would need an update.

The designs presented are elegant and powerful, but sometimes forget about the new displays of space, fonts, colours, images, movement.

I was impressed by the simplicity and power of some charts made in the 18th and 19th century, by pencil and rule. They expressed ideas so strongly, only using good use of images, numbers and space.

A good design cannot supplement bad information, but a good design can made good information, memorable.

The Last Wish (The Witcher) – Andrzej Sapkowski (Translator Danusia Stok)

I don’t believe in Melitele, don’t believe in the existence of other gods either, but I respect your choice, your sacrifice. Your belief. Because your faith and sacrifice, the price you’re paying for your silence, will make you better, a greater being. Or, at least, it could. But my faithlessness can do nothing. It’s powerless.

The Witcher is a series that you either know or you don’t. It was widely popularized by the TV games and the Netflix series. The story follows a demon-hunter, Geralt of Rivia, in his quest to basically make the world a better place, without attracting too much attention. The adventures take place in a fantasy world, with elves, mages and dwarves, similar to a pre-gunpowder, medieval world.

The appealing of the book is in the main character and the universe created. His choices are real and well-motivated. He is hated for being different, basically a mutant, and his helped sought only in dire need. Geralt wants to help and make a better world. Yet, he needs to make a living and he asks for money for his exploits. This gives him a great emotional burden, as too much involvement would get him in trouble, as any wrong move could mean a death verdict by a mayor or a king. Our hero wants to help, but most often then not, he is chased away, despite his best intentions.

The beauty of the story is that the protagonist, despite being often despise, chased away and confronting mortal danger, does not give up of his humanity and keeps seeking the light. It is truly a beautiful story.

The Last Wish is built as a series of short stories, introducing our main character and his friend, the troubadour Dandelion (Jeskier in original Polish manuscript). The love interest is Yennifer of Vengerberg, but, as Dandelion, she is much more than a support character.

Dandelion understands human character on a profound level. He is a good person, a superb artist and a practical guy who marries his genuine desire to help the Witcher with building his own fame. What the Witcher needs is basically some solid public relations and Dandelion provides that by composing and singing songs about the Witcher tales, making him known to people and, so, approachable.

Yennifer is the love interest of the main character, but she is not a damsel in distress. She is powerful woman, smart and independent, thinking with her own head. Her character is developed later in other books of the series, The Last Wish only introducing her as a powerful sorceress, way stronger than Geralt.

There is no doubt that the stories are well-thought and nicely built. The conundrum is real and there is no easy way out. Despite a world of magic, the solutions are very real and sometimes painful. The reader is engaged and wants to know more about the protagonist. The author does this in a craftily way, not by cutting a story and leave it for later, but by creating interest in the world and the Witcher.

The pace of stories is absolutely perfect, you never feel that the descriptions are too long or details are missing. The vocabulary is rather mediocre, but hard to say if that is because of the author or of the translator.

To sum up, the Polish author Andrej Sapkowski created one of the best characters in the fantasy world, Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher.

Death’s End – Liu Cixin (Translator Ken Liu)

Some call them doomsday ships. These lightspeed ships have no destination at all. They turn their curvature engines to maximum and accelerate like crazy, infinitely approaching the speed of light. Their goal is to leap across time using relativity until they reach the heat death of the universe. By their calculations, ten years within their frame of reference would equal fifty billion years in ours. As a matter of fact, you don’t even need to plan for it. If some malfunction occurs after a ship has accelerated to lightspeed, preventing the ship from decelerating, then you’d also reach the end of the universe within your lifetime.

By many accounts, this is one of the best science fiction books ever written. The volume is the third in the Three-Body Problem trilogy and the best of all three. The story follows the development of humanity after the encounter with the aliens and finding the precarious balance. Many eras pass by, each one bringing amazing concepts and developments, surprising the reader. The protagonist is this time Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer, who is not a driver, but an anchor for the narrative. She is placed in the middle of all important decisions, from Swordhandler to speedlight ships development. However, her decisions are only a consequence of being chosen as such by humanity.

Trisolarians become at the end allies in an ending universe, gargantuan, dark and soulless. The Dark Forest remains a grim fact of the universe for the author, following the same rule less world perception developed by Thomas Hobbes: Homo homini lupus, but on a cosmos scale.

The boundless imagination of presenting new eras, technologies and aliens is mindblowing. The author manages to give the right length of description with unprecedented precision: enough to give the essence of an era, summarizing the relevant developments.

The logical tightness of the tale is astonishing, managing to captivate the imagination of the reader and make him wonder of what could it be beyond the stars. The concepts brought forward: dark forest, deterrence, civilization development, dimensions of a universe, galactic distances, human choices in face of critical situations, human society evolution having different stimuli, alien courses of action, make the book and the trilogy on par with the best of scifi writers.

These volumes of hard scifi are stunningly well-research as well, replying to practical, physics questions that arise in the wave of civilization and technology development with plausible, well-thought solutions.

No doubt, this is one of the best hard scifi books written so far, bringing enthusiasm for humanity to look at starts and see what lies beyond our planet. This is despite the fact that, ultimately, the story is one of fatalism, where humans, societies and civilizations, are at the mercy of cosmic events.

[Feature image: Yayoi Kusama – Infinity Room]

The Dark Forest – Liu Cixin, (Translator Joel Martinsen)

The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life—another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

This is the second book of the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy by Liu Cixin. The book continues the story in the Three-Body Problem and explores the decisions humanity makes finding that an alien civilization heads for Earth, bent on destruction, in 400 years.

The story is followed through the eyes of Luo Ji, a lackadaisical astronomer and sociologist, who is named one of the four Wallfacers, the humanity project to hide its intentions from the Tri-solarian aliens. The anchor of the book remains Luo Ji’s quiet protector, the detective and policeman Shi Qiang.

Years and generations pass and humanity oscillates from the height of optimism and arrogant self-confidence to the depths of despair, when its fleet is easily taken out by a single alien droplet.

The questions addressed and the hard science put into the plot makes the novel a fascinating read. Weaker than the first book, this volume gives less space to the aliens and more to the personal story of Luo Ji.

The book is not a hero’s story, struggling for humanity, but of an unambitious fellow put, sometimes inexplicably, in positions of decision with grave effects for humankind. The book has no real protagonist, as Luo Ji is not sufficiently explored to understand all his decisions.

The alien motivations and the world building are beautifully exposed and are logically impeccable, while humanity’s response is lackluster, even disappointing. Few raise to the task, including our main personage.

The volume is of excellent writing quality and the story is well followed and expanded from the first book. A less exhilarating experience than The Three-Body problem, but, nonetheless, a great book to read.

100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings: How to Get By Without Even Trying – Sarah Cooper

2. Translate percentage metrics into fractions

If someone says “About 25% of all users click on this button,” quickly chime in with, “So about 1 in 4,” and make a note of it. Everyone will nod their head in agreement, secretly impressed and envious of your quick math skills.

3. Encourage everyone to “take a step back”

There comes a point in most meetings where everyone is chiming in, except you. Opinions and data and milestones are being thrown around and you don’t know your CTA from your OTA. This is a great point to go, “Guys, guys, guys, can we take a step back here?” Everyone will turn their heads toward you, amazed at your ability to silence the fray. Follow it up with a quick, “What problem are we really trying to solve?” and, boom! You’ve bought yourself another hour of looking smart.

The book presents a sarcastic view of how to act during meetings, including 100 advises of how to look smarter, while not having a clue of what the discussion is about. The funny thing is that it resembles so much the modern world.

Some of the advises include:

1. Draw a Venn diagram. …

2. Translate percentage metrics into fractions. …

3. Encourage everyone to “take a step back” …

4. Nod continuously while pretending to take notes. …

5. Repeat the last thing the engineer said, but very very slowly. …

6. Ask “Will this scale?” …

7. Pace around the room. …

8. Ask the presenter to go back a slide.

The author, Sarah Cooper, is a comedian that worked for companies like Yahoo! and Google and has a blog called The Cooper Review.

When I started reading the book, I genuinely thought that it is some self-development book. Well, it is mostly a humorous take of corporate meetings, but, as the motto says, “It is funny because it’s true!”.

Tarkin – James Luceno

His strategy of flying boldly into the face of adversity was studied and taught, and during the Clone Wars would come to be known as “the Tarkin Rush”.

The book, happening in the Star Wars universe, presents an important episode in the life of Wilhuff Tarkin, the Imperial general. His unique and advanced stealth ship is stolen and used against the Empire by a cunning crew. He is tasked, together with Darth Vader, to catch the thieves by the Emperor himself. The entire story is told by using flashbacks and memories, neatly arranged.

James Lucerno is a veteran of Star Wars novels, specializing in stories of the antagonists. In this book, the reader can gave a glimpse in the life and of personality of the famous Imperial Moff, later Grand Moff, Wilhuff Tarkin.

Tarkin is meant to represent the military power: ruthless, efficient, domineering. But his personal background is rather surprising, and seems unfit with the personage.

The plot is compelling and the characters are well developed, but I would not go so far to say they were memorable. The Star Wars universe is beautifully constructed, giving depth and engaging the reader.

However, I have found the vocabulary used rather poor, despite some good tries of the author. The background of the protagonist does not seem fit with his career and personality. It often feels that his inner motivations are not explored in depth. The plot is engaging, well-thought and unpredictable, but more could be drawn from it.

Overall, a solid piece of work from Lucerno, an enjoying book for the fans of the genre.

 

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

She didn’t need ordnance; she needed someone who could work around the problem. And that left her the single undead general in the Kel Arsenal, the madman who slept in the black cradle until the Nirai technicians could discover what had triggered his madness and how to cure him. Shuos Jedao, the Immolation Fox: genius, arch-traitor, and mass murderer.

The book is the first in the “The Machineries of Empire” trilogy, a military sci-fi saga set in a humanoid futuristic world.

The story of the first book revolves around Jedao, a genius strategist with a twisted story. The protagonist is undead, his conscience being kept alive by a black cradle, and he needs a human anchor to move. Jedao is a prisoner of the hexarchate, an all-dominating, tyrannical empire, which we find later our strategist wants to destroy.

Jedao’s anchor is a woman, Kel Cheris, an infantry company commander, with remarkable military skills.

Jedao, the undead genius strategist with a twisted story. His conscience is kept alive by a black cradle, and he needs a human anchor to move. A breathtaking military scifi saga, awarded by Nebula and Hugo awards.

The world-building is profound and brusque, the reader being immediately immersed into the new vocabulary and organisation of the world. The explanations come only later and they are sometimes subtle and sometimes straightforward.

The plot is rather simple, a difficult rebellion needs quelling and the infantry commander chooses as weapon the infamous undead strategist. They go together to fight the rebels. However the story progresses rather nicely, with a entertaining action, careful character construction and motivations, and unexpected turns.The strong point of the saga is the world-building: a humanoid world divided into six classes, with exotic weapons, needing constant balance and removal of heresies.

Yoon Ha Lee’s saga is similar to Warhammer 40,000 stories, but less grim and hopeless; and no new species, but castes.

The story won multiple sci-fi nominations, including to Nebula and Hugo awards. A good read for the fans of the genre.