What non-Go book are you reading right now?

I have finished two detective novels today: Darkest fear, by Harlan Coben, and When Red is Black, by Qiu Xiaolong.

Darkest Fear is a very fast thriller about the search for a bone marrow donor. A 13-year-old kid’s life depends on a bone marrow transplant. Only one compatible donor has been found, but that donor has mysteriously disappeared. On closer investigation, it looks like this donor might have been using a stolen identity. Who is the mysterious donor? Why did he disappear? In a sudden unforeseen development, the investigation about the missing donors mixes with an investigation about a serial killer who might or might not exist. A journalist once wrote a story about a serial killer, claiming to have been contacted by the killer directly. The journalist is then accused of having invented this story, or even to have plagiarised it from a novel. But now it looks like the serial killer might be real after all, and might even be the bone marrow donor.

Like most Harlan Coben books, this one reads very fast. In a way it’s also less serious than some of his other books. There is a lot of irony used in the writing style. It gave me the impression that maybe, Harlan Coben wrote this book faster than his other books, but was aware of resorting to more clichés than usual, and somehow managed to make fun of his own writing in the book itself. The result is surprisingly very good.

When Red is Black is the third novel in the Chief Inspector Chen Cao series. The main character, is a literature graduate, published poet, and detective novel translator, who is assigned as a Chief Inspector of police by the Communist Party. He leads a special unit who only investigates murders with high political impact. Because of this, he is under a lot of pressure and scrutiny by the Party.

The investigations take place in Shanghai in the 1990s. They are mostly a pretext to paint a picture of China in the 90s, in particular the impact of the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong and the economic reforms that followed under Deng Xiaoping.

None of the main characters play go, but the author and the main character love a good metaphor, and of course go is full of them, so occasionally he encounters a go player in the street. Here is an example:


Turning another corner, he saw a white-haired old man playing go on a board resting on a stool, the black pieces in one of his hands and the white in the other, studying the board as if he were taking part in a national tournament. Chen liked go, too, but he had never tried to play the game solo.

“Hi,” he said, coming to a stop by the stool. “How come you are playing by yourself?”

“Have you read The Art of War?” the old man asked without looking up. “Know your enemy as you know yourself, and you will win every time.”

“Yes, I have read the book. You have to figure out why your opponent has made a certain move. So you must try hard to understand your opponent.”

“From my point of view, the positioning of the black piece does not make any sense, and the best I can do is to guess, to try to understand, as you put it. But that’s not enough. Knowing your enemy actually means that you not only have to think as if you were reading his mind, you have to be him.”

“I see. Thank you so much, Uncle. That is profound,” Chen said sincerely. To him, it seemed as if the talk were not just about the game of go. “I will put your teaching into practice, not just on a go board.”

“Young man, you don’t have to take me so seriously. When you play a game, you want to win,” the old man explained. “When you are absorbed in it, every piece counts, every move matters. Happy to win a corner, sad to lose a position, you are carried away with the illusion of gains or losses. Not until after the game will you come to realize it’s nothing but a game. According to Buddhist scripture, everything in this mundane world is a matter of illusion.”

“Exactly. You have put it very well.”

Chen decided to walk back to his apartment. He could not afford to spend a whole day in the lane. The conversation about go had cost him another ten minutes. The translation lay unfinished on his desk at home. Still, he wanted to think a little about the case, at least on his way back, after this talk with the elderly go player who had been as mysteriously enlightening as the old man of the Han dynasty who had helped Zhang Liang two thousand years ago.


I recently bought a library discard for a buck, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (University of Oklahoma, 2009) by Jeremy Black, and began reading it last night. Like most Americans, I know comparatively little about that war (having read only two books about it), even though it had huge effects on U.S. politics, economics, and military organization, as well as on the crystallization of Canadian identity. I was especially motivated to buy the book because it provides a European political context that is almost never discussed. So far, the writing is lucid and absorbing.


I have read one chapter, I find it is hard for Lindsey Stirling to write and read sentences because her eyes’ rare disease. She can not focus properly, so she wear the eyeshade to help her eyes. And it makes her looks like a pirate, so the book title “The Only Pirate at the Party” comes.

The Federalist Papers has been on my list for years, and finally I’m making some slow progress through it.

I’m hoping to get some appreciation for the design of the US Constitution and also an sense for the style of debate that was popular at that time. It’s interesting to compare it to, say, Twitter threads :laughing: Maybe I’ll update this post with notes as I go.

One thing I’ve noticed about the style is how abstract it is: the authors make their claims without any specific evidence, such as actual events or people. For example, when Madison writes in #10 that democracies have historically been “incompatible with personal security or the rights of property” he does not list a single example. Not knowing much about history, I wonder what he is thinking of here.


Sue Burke (of “Semiosis” fame): Immunity Index

(note that she wrote this before SARS-CoV2 turned up!
<edit> Slight correction: AFAIK at least she began writing it before </edit>)

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I will be interested to hear your further thoughts on The Federalist Papers. I began to read it about 10 years ago (it was my reading-while-waiting book), but got distracted about half way through and never finished. Have wanted to get back to it ever since. Some books are like that for me, for unknown reasons. I started Conrad’s excellent Under Western Eyes five times over several years before I finished it.

Of course, when you finish The Federalist Papers, the next order of business is to read The Anti-Federalist Papers and Constitutional Convention Debates (Ralph Ketcham, ed.) and then the third leg of the tripod of U.S. governance, Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention.

In the passage you cite, Madison is not really asserting something that needs evidence. He is reminding educated people of something they already know. The educated people of the past, in my opinion, were in general much better educated than most of us are today (I include myself in that criticism). Most of them had learned Greek and Latin and had read many ancient classics, so they knew that the Athenian legislature had ordered Socrates to commit suicide and that a popular vote of exile was a common feature of their democracy. Similarly, the Roman Senate could condemn a man and seize his property. Much later, popular opinion, in or out of nascent democracies, contributed to the witch mania (which had a substantial component of property theft) and could snowball into the factionalism of civil war.


Maybe a new topic?

“How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet”. Great topic but it’s more of a scientific work so reading it is really really hard. The history of USSR trying to create internet networks to manage socialist economy. USA made ARPANET and USSR was trying to make OGAS but didn’t quite work out. Starting from Soviet rejection of cybernetics. With quotes.

Cybernetics: a reactionary pseudo-science that appeared in the U.S.A. after World War II and also spread through other capitalist countries. Cybernetics clearly reflects one of the basic features of the bourgeois worldview—its inhumanity, striving to transform workers into an extension of the machine, into a tool of production, and an instrument of war. At the same time, for cybernetics an imperialistic utopia is characteristic—replacing living, thinking man, fighting for his interests, by a machine, both in industry and in war. The instigators of a new world war use cybernetics in their dirty, practical affairs.


Oh! My! Goodness!

How little did they understand …

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I just finished reading Son of heaven, by David Wingrove.

This book is part of the Chung Kuo series, which tells the story of Earth after it is conquered by China at the end of the 21st century.

The other book in this series that I’ve read is The middle kingdom. Son of heaven depicts the conquest itself, starting by the fall of the stock market and concluding by the erection of a massive Chinese city on top of London. The middle kingdom takes place two hundred years later and relates an attempted coup by a small group of occidentalists.

I’ve really enjoyed these two books. The Chinese worldwide empire serves as a good opportunity to explore and oppose different viewpoints. Traditionalism, modernism, racism by the west against China, racism by China against the west, racism by the Han against other Chinese ethnies, ten different facets of self-preservation in the face of a crisis, every character has a different view on the same situation.

The middle kingdom also contains an Easter egg in the form of a history book. History is written by the Victors. David Wingrove took this proverb quite literally. After China’s conquest of the world, history books are rewritten. The new truth is that China’s armies have defeated the Roman empire and that China has ruled the world since antiquity. Every scientific discovery ever made is attributed to Chinese scientists. Newton, Kepler, Einstein, these names are forgotten. Wingrove gives us an accelerated real-versus-fake history course when one boy begins to suspect the truth and stubbornly searches every resource in the world to compile “The Tycho Brahe files”, his own what-really-happened history book.

Icing on the cake, there are several mentions of wei ch’i in the story.

In The middle kingdom, investigators of a murder scene notice a console in the bedroom of the victim; the console offers several games, one of which is wei ch’i, and one look at the last-played game tells the investigator that the player must have been pretty good. Since the victim is not very educated, he concludes that it was the killer who played wei ch’i on the computer in the victim’s bedroom while waiting for the victim to come home. A further look at the game convinces him that this killer must be a professional assassin because, as everyone knows, professional assassins have a distinctive style when playing wei ch’i.

In Son of heaven, the worldwide stock market comes under a vicious cyberattack. This attack is so effective, so well-planned and beautifully executed, that the main character, who has never played wei ch’i in his life, immediately concludes that there must be two men behind it, a genius military strategist and a genius computer programmer, who must both be strong wei ch’i players, because obviously only wei ch’i prodigies could come up with the strategy and tactics required for such an attack. There is a paragraph in which he looks at parts of the code that destroyed the stock market and explains “This is not a virus, it’s not a program, it’s something entirely new. It’s a brilliant game of wei ch’i in computer code”. Needless to say, this hunch is right on point and allows him to identify the two men by typing “military general wei ch’i” on Google. This knowledge does not do him much good, since the Western world falls without resistance and the brilliant Chinese strategist becomes emperor of the world.


I finished my reading of Raymond Chandler with his first and most famous novel, The Big Sleep. (Not planned, just happenstance.) I may surprise some by saying I think it is one of his weaker novels, because of the bifurcation of the plot. This arose due to his awkward incorporation of two novellas, which detracts from the unity of effect that one expects from a novel. For the record, my favorite Chandler novel is The Lady in the Lake; I thought its characterizations especially good and enjoyed the two surprises (only one of which I guessed).

I also finished all his short stories except three that seem to be uncollected. Although I am a great appreciator of short stories in general, Chandler’s novels are better than his short stories, because the latter are all early apprentice work (though good, nevertheless).

Now I have started Scenes from an Afterlife: The Legacy of George Orwell, by John Rodden (ISI Books, 2003). I am a huge admirer of Orwell’s work, having read all of his novels and most of his nonfiction, as well as several biographies and critical assessments. This one deals with Orwell’s continuing iconic status in politics and culture, and it bristles with interesting insights. Since I am also keenly interested in the use and effects of symbols in culture, both ancient and modern, this book pushes two button for me.

On the fiction side, I have also started Rex Stout’s, The Rubber Band (1936), the third Nero Wolfe novel. Two friends urged me to read some of the Wolfe mysteries next.


Just about to start …


I haven’t done much reading lately, but I did squeeze in a slim volume of poetry, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The twelfth century Persian astronomer was preoccupied with life’s big questions and therefore carried out a thorough investigation of the matter. Not surprisingly he concluded that the store of human knowledge was of no avail. At which point he seems to have poured himself another cup of wine and decided that life is best spent seizing the day, gathering rosebuds while ye may, and so on. This is surely nothing we haven’t heard before. However, it’s all in the presentation; the turn of a phrase, clever use of metaphor, possibly some displays of genuine passion. On those counts I would say that The Rubaiyat is worth the reader’s trouble, especially as these verses are easily read in a single sitting.

Although Khayyam repeatedly declares that there is no life beyond this one, he does seem to fancy the idea that the dead linger on in some shadowy, half-apprehended sense. He often draws a link between the dead and the delights of nature, as though the most exquisite vegetation to be seen could only happen with the aid of human fertilizer. He is quick to deflate all pretension, from the humblest to the most powerful sultan. But he also expresses compassion, as in the poem’s conclusion, where he urges those who have just drained their cup to upend it and set it on the ground for some departed soul who just might experience one faint final whiff of the old vintage.

Here’s a passage that broadly recounts Khayyam’s intellectual and spiritual journey and where it brought him:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand labour’d it to grow;
And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d—
“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

Up from Earth’s Centre through the seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,
And many Knots unravel’d by the Road;
But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate.

There was a door to which I found no Key;
There was a Veil past which I could not see;
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There seemed----and then no more of THEE and ME.

Then to the rolling Heav’n itself I cried,
Asking, “What Lamp had Destiny to guide
Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?”
And----“A blind understanding!” Heav’n replied.

Then to this earthen Bowl did I adjourn
My Lip the secret Well of Life to learn;
And Lip to Lip it murmur’d----“While you live,
Drink!----for once dead you never shall return.”

Not to be overlooked are the colour illustrations by Edmund Dulac for the 1909 edition. Think of young lovers enjoying a cup in the shade, lush vegetation, garden walls, turrets, potentates and their attendants, learned men in lively debate, wizened old men, celestial beings in starry skies. It does stimulate the imagination, and it’s always encouraging to see that distant civilizations were, in large part, civilized.

Happy New Year everyone.


Finished “Immunity Index”, an awesome book with strong female protagonistists and admirable humanist attitude. Strongly recommended.

Now begun “Children of Memory”, the third in the fabulous “Children of Time” trilogy by Adrian Tchaikovsky.


In the past month, I’ve expanded my exploration of the mystery field, finishing two Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout and two Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald. All good to excellent. MacDonald’s hallmark digressions (meditations? lectures?) were startling at first, but he keeps them brief, and they are so adroit and wise that I look forward to them now.

Now I am reading The Martian by Andy Weir (about 2/3s done), for my SF book group. I liked the movie very much, but it was actually somewhat demotivating for reading the book, as I felt like the book was unlikely to add much to a story of that kind. I was wrong and very silly. I should have known better. The book is completely absorbing, much richer, and more complicated.

It’s so refreshing to read an old-fashioned hard-science problem story. I got tired of the obsession with aliens, invasions, and weird world-building decades ago. Weir is phenomenal. His research is awesome, and his narrative control is rare for a first novel. When I finish, I plan to reread Rex Gordon’s First on Mars (a pioneering book on this theme, from 1957), so I can compare them.

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The movie was excellent, but the book had so much more detail. The science was refreshingly okay, and I loved all those completely believable engineering calculations! I couldn’t put it down. If you have other similar recent “hard sci-fi” recommendations I’d be happy to hear them.


Although my knowledge of science fiction before 1980 is almost encyclopedic, my knowledge after 1980 is very sketchy, consisting mainly of what I have read in our book group. I don’t know of any other story that has the minute, scientific detail of The Martian. Also, most problem stories are at the shorter lengths, because they typically focus on a single problem. The premier scientific problem story before TM, was Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity (1953; he even wrote a separate article, “Whirligig World,” detailing the scientific background for the story).

An amusing example from 1935 is “The Irrelevant” by John W. Campbell, Jr. (writing as “Karl van Kampen”), which broke a scientific law deliberately to spark controversy, leading to months of debate in the letter column and definitively refuted by a teenage David Bohm, then a student at Penn State University and later a renowned physicist. Campbell also wrote the classic “Who Goes There?” posing the question of how to identify a shapeshifting alien monster (filmed as The Thing, a straight monster movie, and horribly remade by John Carpenter, but with the saving grace that it actually used Campbell’s solution).

Lester del Rey’s “Nerves” (1942), although outdated, is still a tremendously suspenseful story about a nuclear accident (the novella is better than the novel expansion). Gregory Benford’s widely praised Timescape (1981 Nebula winner) dealt with the problem of sending world-saving info backward in time. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (Harry Hart Frank), 1959, is still widely considered the best post-nuclear war story. Asimov’s I, Robot stories are problem stories, although they hinge on the fictional Laws of Robotics. Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero (1970), which I recently reread in our group, is still a good treatment of time dilation and an associated problem, but I think the characterization does not equal the ambitious theme.

Murray Leinster wrote four wonderful novelettes about Star Trek-like explorers encountering problems in four different alien environments (one, “Exploration Team,” won a Hugo Award in 1956), and they were collected as Colonial Survey. Similarly, Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) had a lot of technical ingenuity about survival on a desert planet.

Finally, James White wrote a great many scientific problem stories. The Watch Below (1966) is about surviving in a sunken ship. (In my opinion, Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure, made into a movie, was a mainstream rip-off of The Watch Below.) Second Ending is a tour de force about recreating life on a dead Earth. All Judgment Fled preceded Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and is superior to it. And Lifeboat (1973?) deals with surviving an accident in space. Also, his popular Sector General series, about doctors in space, has so much medical detail that many people think White was a doctor (he wasn’t).

All these are 1980 and earlier, off the top of my head. Other than TM, the only post-1980 work I can think of is Michael Crichton’s novels, which often have an appendix or prologue detailing the factual foundation. The only one of his I have read is Predator (killer micro-robot swarms), which was entertaining.


Liu Cixin’s The three-body problem is from 2006. I suppose it qualifies as a “problem story”, unless I misunderstand the term.


About to start with Michael Spitzer’s

Just ordered it .



Yes, we actually read that in the group a few years ago. I liked it moderately well.