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Matt Austern
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Matt Austern

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George O'Connor, Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess

Second book in the Olympians series of graphic novels. Discussion question from the back of the book: “In the story of Arachne, Athena deals with her anger at Arachne by turning her into a spider. Is this a good way to deal with conflict? Are there better animals to turn Arachne into?”
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The "Looking East" exhibit is mostly about how Japanese art influenced Western artists, but this 1925 print by Yoshida Hiroshi is a reminder that influence went in both directions.
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J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur.

Winner of the 1973 Booker Prize, and second book in Farrell's Empire trilogy — trilogy in the sense of three books that are thematically related, that is, as opposed to a story split into three volumes. The first book is Troubles, set in Ireland in 1919, while The Siege of Krishnapur is set in India in 1857, in what Britain used to call the Sepoy Mutiny.

The edition I read comes with an introduction by Pankaj Mishra. I learned from his introduction that in Victorian times there was a whole subgenre of “mutiny novels,” generally romances. The Siege of Krishnapur is a postcolonial take on the mutiny novel. Like Troubles it's a very funny book and that's a big part of the point. The British characters (there are no Indian characters of any importance) are in the grip of one ludicrous ideology or another, whether the 19th century certainties about rationalism and progress and a mission to spread civilization, or romanticism, or Christian religious fanaticism, and they don't know a thing about the continent they think they rule. The main tone is irony.
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+Shreevatsa R I had read Jules Verne's The End of Nana Sahib, which as I just found out from your link, was also called The Demon of Cawnpore. While it is nominally mutiny-related, the story is primarily about their steam-powered elephant-house, which I guess also puts it in the steampunk genre.
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L. Frank Baum, The Emerald City of Oz.

The further depredations of the Nome King.
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Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks.

A relatively recent children's book, but somewhat old fashioned in spirit: the adventures of four sisters, ages 4 through 12, on their family summer vacation. The characters read some of the same books that the readers probably do, including C. S. Lewis and Edward Eager. The Penderwicks is one of my daughter's favorite books these days, so she wanted me to read it too.
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Did North Korea just test a hydrogen bomb? The obvious answer is that we don't know, because the North Korean government is paranoid and secretive and we can't believe anything it says. A less obvious answer is that we don't know, because exactly what is and isn't a hydrogen bomb is fuzzy and contested.

It's a definitional question as much as anything else. The "super" that was imagined in 1941 is very different from the modern Teller-Ulam design, and there have been many other designs along the way. This isn't even the first time that people have wondered whether a nuclear test by an unfriendly country counted as a hydrogen bomb, and then as now, the question was highly political.
In 1952, the United States detonated its first full-scale H-Bomb, a Teller-Ulam thermonuclear device nicknamed “Ivy Mike,” on Enewetak Atoll. Credit Photograph courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory
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Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife

Paolo Bacigalupi won a Hugo a few years back for his first novel, The Windup Girl. The Water Knife is his most recent novel, and I think his second non-YA novel, and it's the first thing of his that I've read. I ought to read more.

The Water Knife is set some time in the relatively near future, maybe a few decades from now, when the aquifers in the western United States have all been drained, climate change has turned the Colorado River into even more of a trickle than it is now, and the water wars between California and Nevada and Arizona and Colorado have become more literal. I'm sure California must be pretty hard hit in a future like that (the present-day reality in the Central Valley is already bad enough after a few years of drought), but to the characters in a dying Phoenix, especially to the desperate refugees from Texas living in camps run by UNHCR and Chinese and MSF aid workers and trying to somehow get across the closed borders, California is partly a menace and partly an impossible dream.

The plot is noirish, in some ways reminiscent of Chinatown, except that nobody in this book ever has any doubt that what's at stake in all the scheming is water. Most of the characters in this book, including the titular water knife, i.e. an enforcer for Las Vegas's powerful water boss, have read Cadillac Desert and point to the fact that the disaster was entirely obvious at least as far back as the mid 20th century. Reminds me that I haven't reread Cadillac Desert recently.
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Frances Hardinge, Fly Trap

Or Twilight Robbery in the original British title. Either way it's the sequel to Fly By Night, the further adventures of Mosca Mye, Eponymous Clent, and Saracen the goose. I've enjoyed all of Hardinge's books that I've read so far; her inventiveness is astonishing.
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George O'Connor, Zeus: King of the Gods.

First book in the Olympians series, a series of graphic novels about Greek mythology. Each focuses on a particular god and they're also roughly in chronological order, which is especially appropriate for the first book since much of it is about Chronos.
Zeus: King of the Gods is the first book in Olympians, a graphic novel series from First Second that retells the Greek myths. This book is the story of how the
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Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

“SPQR” is an ancient initialism for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, The Senate and the People of Rome. SPQR, the book, is a sweeping book of about a thousand years of Roman history. The author is an eminent classicist who teaches at Cambridge. She's written more than a dozen books, but all her previous ones seem to be on specialized topics for fellow scholars. This is her first book with this kind of breadth.

“Ancient Rome is important,” Beard begins, and I agree with her. This book isn't mainly about the many aspects of our world today that come from Ancient Rome, although that's occasionally explicit and it's more often implicit in the ways that the ancient controversies and concerns still seem relevant. It's also not a retread of Gibbon; it's not about how or whether Rome fell. It's more in the spirit of the ancient historian Polybius, whom Beard quotes: “Who could be so indifferent or so idle that they did not want to find out how, and under what kind of political organisation, almost the whole of the inhabited world was conquered and fell under the sole power of the Romans in less than fifty-three years, something previously unparalleled?”

Starting and ending points are always arbitrary. Beard chose to go from the (mythical) founding of the city by Romulus and Remus in 753 BCE through the emperor Caracella's grant of citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire in 212 CE. One of the real strengths of this book is Beard's clarity about what is and isn't known, how we know what we do, to what extent we should be skeptical of things we think we know and should look below the surface for alternative explanations. This is most obvious in the period covering the first few hundred years, when we have little but myths and oral traditions recorded by ancient writers; obviously we can't take them at face value (even many of the ancients were skeptical of Romulus and Remus's birth to a virgin priestess, and debated what it meant that the city began with the murder of a brother and mass rape), but she explores how the content and debate over the myth illustrated the way ancient Rome saw its own history. She points out an instance where a single word on a mostly indecipherable inscription in early Latin changed our understanding of this distant past — RECEI, meaning that the ancient historians were right and there really was a time when pre-Republican Rome was ruled by kings. She explains the painstaking scholarship that allowed us to reconstruct the Twelve Tables, the earliest version of Roman law.

Even in better documented times, times where there is so much surviving literature that no one person could possibly read it all in a lifetime, much is more mysterious or poorly understood or problematic than it seems. We know how Cicero portrayed Catiline and how Caesar portrayed Pompey, but not the reverse. We know very little of the lives of the vast majority of the empire. We know when Hadrian's Wall was built, but not why. (You might think the answer is obvious, as I did; it's not.) How seriously should we take the stories of the individual emperors, for example of Nero as monster? There are at least some indications that Nero wasn't universally hated; perhaps the more important part of the story is the way in which the imperial system maintained continuity for a couple centuries and may not have depended very much on the emperor himself.

I find ancient Rome fascinating, and I've been a fan of Beard's writing for some time (I read her blog regularly, and her articles in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere), so it's unsurprising that I liked this book a lot and learned a lot from it. Even if you're not an enthusiast, I can't think of a better introduction.
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I need to borrow it now.
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This link has been making the rounds lately, and I'm not sure everyone gets the point. This is not an accurate depiction of either a geocentric or a heliocentric model. (The orbital speeds are all wrong; the distances are all wrong; the orbits are circular.) It's also not a demonstration that the heliocentric model is right and the geocentric model is wrong. It's not supposed to be any of those things. The point is that these two models are equivalent, but one is much more complicated than the other. If you start with a heliocentric model with very simple orbits and then transform to a reference frame where one of the planets is stationary, you get a real mess. It's just math.

It's worth going to the linked-to page, by the way, even if you've seen this picture as an animated GIF. It's prettier as Javascript.
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William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrown upon them”
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Education
  • Taylor Allderdice
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    Physics, Math
  • University of California, Berkeley
    Physics
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Matthew Austern
Work
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Software engineer
Employment
  • Google
    Software engineer, 2005 - present
  • Apple Inc.
  • AT&T
  • Silicon Graphics, Inc.
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Palo Alto, CA
Previously
Alameda, CA - Menlo Park, CA - Berkeley, CA - Cambridge, MA - Pittsburgh, PA