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Nov 13

The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov


As mentioned in an earlier post, there were quite a few books from NPR’s list of Top 100 SF & Fantasy Books that I wanted to get around to reading. I’ve always liked Asimov as an author but have never read any of the Foundation books, so the original trilogy seemed like a natural place to start. Unfortunately, despite being a classic, almost foundational series in the genre (see what I did there!), I found it to be a little disappointing.

The first book, Foundation, was engaging and I liked the premise: the galactic empire is on the decline and mathematician Hari Seldon has developed the science of psychohistory, which¬†claims to be able to predict the coarse-grained future based on societal trends. Based on these predictions, Seldon believes the period of chaos following the inevitable collapse of the empire can be minimized to no more than 1000 years. To help shepherd the galaxy through this period, he establishes two Foundations at “the opposite ends of the galaxy”. Their nominal missions are to carry on the work of Seldon and hasten the end of the post-imperial period of disorder.

Foundation goes on to describe the series of events following Seldon’s death and focuses on the efforts of the first Foundation. The plot skips ahead in generations, each of which has to deal with a particular “Seldon Crisis” that threatens the planed transition to a stable future within the 1000 year timeline. Overall, a fun read.

The second book, Foundation and Empire, was a terrible slog for me. Its plot revolved around an unpredictable character called “The Mule”, whose very existence threatened the Seldon Plan. The first 80% of the book seemed to be aimless hand-wringing around this point, but the last bit picks up some as all the threads are drawn together and a resolution is reached.

The final book in the original trilogy, Second Foundation, shifts focus to the nature of the mysterious Second Foundation. It regains a bit of the pace of the first book and progresses the overall plot in a satisfying and intriguing fashion. However, we still haven’t made our way out of the post-imperial phase, though I’m not planning on reading the remaining Foundation books to see what happens.

There were a few things that stood out for me while reading these books:

  • The fact that Asimov started writing the original Foundation stories when he was 22 seems pretty impressive. While nominally SF books, they’re really just about politics and intrigue (as is much SF or general story telling, under the covers). For being relatively young, he does a good job of spinning a credible tale of long-term political maneuvering.
  • The miracle technology that the empire is built upon, and which differentiates the strength of various factions, is nuclear. This pretty clearly reflects the post-WWII cultural fascination with nuclear technology, but comes across as a bit dated.
  • And speaking of period-specific cultural fascinations, everyone in the galaxy is constantly smoking! I’m sure this is just a reflection of the societal norms of 40’s-50’s America, but the extent to which people are smoking in all sorts of situations is even more jarring than the thought of handheld, nuclear-powered can openers.

Nov 13

Do You Think You’re Clever? – John Farndon


Before I talk about this book, I have to talk about “The Microsoft Interview Question”. There was definitely a time (and maybe there still is?) when the Microsoft-style puzzle / brainteaser interview was en vogue. Basically, the interviewer asks you some to solve some bizarre problem which sometimes has a non-obvious (and perhaps elegant) answer. They then observe you as you flail work through the problem, trying to determine if you were Microsoft material. In theory, this can be a useful way to get a sense of how a candidate approaches and deals with tricky problems. In practice, there are too many unsophisticated interviewers who treat these as “gotcha!” questions; they put the candidate on the spot and only look for the “right” answer versus using it as an opportunity to get a feel for the person’s interpersonal style or other, more intangible attributes. This practice was in place prior to my joining Microsoft in 2001 and was certainly in the popular culture in the early and mid-2000’s (see 2004’s popular title “How Would You Move Mount Fuji” for an example). However, I was happy to see that this style of interview question actively discouraged during my time there as a manager.

Anyway, when I first noticed “Do You Think You’re Clever” on the shelf of my local, independent bookstore, I flipped to the table of contents and immediately (and sarcastically) thought “Great, another compendium of Microsoft-puzzle-style interview questions”. And to a certain degree, I was right! Some of the questions had, in fact, made appearances in Microsoft interviews. However, it turns out that this book more broadly covers “The Oxford and Cambridge Questions”. These are questions that have been asked of candidates applying for entry to Oxford or Cambridge and a few things stood out for me. They seemed to be asked in the true spirit of this kind of question; in an attempt to get a feel for how a candidate approached and dealt with the question, not whether they got the “right” answer. Also, the types of questions went beyond the mathematical or logic-based you might see in a tech company interview and delved into other interesting, more humanities-based areas.¬†For example, some of the questions that seemed intriguing enough for me to end up buying the book were:

  • Do you think you’re clever?
  • Are you cool?
  • Should someone sell their kidney?
  • Can history stop the next war?
  • Where does honesty fit into law?
  • What books are bad for you?
  • Why isn’t there a global government?
  • If you’re not in California, how do you know it exists?
  • Chekhov’s great, isn’t he?
  • Why do so few Americans believe in evolution?
  • Would you say greed is good or bad?
  • Is there such a thing as ‘race’?
  • What makes you think I’m having thoughts?

Of course, this book isn’t just a list of questions – the author takes a stab at answering the questions himself. I particularly like Farndon’s approach of pointing out that there aren’t necessarily right answers in many cases, but he puts forth what his answer would be and why. Many times the most interesting reading was the supporting background information he gives for his opinions. Overall, I found his style to be thoughtful and engaging, which made for good reading even in the cases where I found myself disagreeing with him.