I S S E N . T K

a coding group with political views

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This is the homepage of the ISSEN.TK group. We provide our views on current research in information systems, coding, writing, politics, and trivia. An archive of posts is available.

Review George Orwell 1984 19 February 2019

George Orwell’s 1984 is certainly a classic that has made its way into pop culture. Whenever I read political news about novel surveillance acts, their proposal or implementation, be it from the Five Eyes, China, Germany or some other state, I read at least one comment that compares the news to George Orwell’s 1984 – which, when that happens, is called Arken’s law (similar to Godwin’s law). The reasons for all these references is the dystopian society that Orwell depicts in his story, consisting of extreme surveillance, propaganda, and violence if a person deviates from the established ideology; and political critics seeing similar issues arising with contemporary policies on state surveillance, e.g. CCTV and others. As such, Orwell, in the year 1949, has modelled a world that is still relevant today, which manifests itself in various awards, e.g. from Time magazine or BBC, critical acclaim, and the mentioned references in popular culture.

However, this review does not only deal with the novel’s popularity, but it considers the plot and character development, that is the quality of the novel itself. Disclaimer: I read a translation and not the original version. The novel starts of well to introduce the main character and the world, so immersing yourself into the world is solely a matter of your imagination. Unfortunately, when developing details of the world, in particular the relationship between the two main protagonists, the quality of the plot falls short. Although, the idea of developing the relationship for the further purpose of the plot makes perfect sense in hindsight, it was executed poorly. In the middle part, where this development happens, the plot drags on and on - tedious - without much happening. Instead of feeling the characters, feeling the world, the reader is more likely to rationalize why this development needs to happen, for it is the necessary epitasis, the rising action, to the climax that the readers will find in the last third of the story. Contrary, the last third is very tense and makes up for the dull middle. It really gets under your skin and lets you wonder until the very last moment how the plot will wrap up – a nail biter, so I could not stop reading during the last 100 pages!

Interesting side note, my opinion aligns with C. S. Lewis’ criticism, “claiming that the relationship of Julia and Winston, and especially the Party’s view on sex, lacked credibility, and that the setting was ‘odious rather than tragic’” – which I found on Wikipedia while researching details on the book.

Summarising, this book is an entertaining read with some tedious moments in the middle. Given its popularity, it definitely makes sense to read it. Due to its relevance and original plot it gets one extra point that makes up for the literary shortcomings.

Review Brooks Landon Building Great Sentences 19 December 2018

Brooks Landon’s book “Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read” is a spectacle of writing style, a pleasure for your eyes. Brooks makes sure to use his own advice, crafting a great composition of short and long sentences, which despite their length are always easy to understand, using his proposed constructs in myriads of ways, e.g. parallelisms, suspenseful sentences, and by that illustrating the power of his proposed craftsmanship. Not only is his own writing a pleasure in this regard, he also gives plenty of examples from other famous authors, comparing and positioning different perspectives on the nature and structure of sentences. He equips the reader with exercises after most sections, for them to get a grasp on the concepts. In the end, he suggests further reading to back his claims with empirical evidence and, for the interested reader, he presents a brief summary on schools of writing and style.

Following up on that, Brooks critiques the prevalence—or what he quotes as the “imperative of the imperatives”—of only writing short, concise and clear texts, rather he emphasises that selected rules can and should be bent, for the writer’s style is intrinsically linked to the personality of the authors and his or her content.

Bothersome about the book is that the author proceeds in miniscule steps, rendering the text repetitive after the first half. He goes into pedantic detail for explaining marginal differences in sentence structure. Some constructs are conflated and could have been summarised more briefly.

In summary this is a great book providing perspectives and ideas contrary to the prevalent dogma of precise and concise text. It is very well written, all the way down to the single word. However, the length of the book could be reduced by 50-80 pages due to the overly detailed descriptions in the middle. In summary, I can still recommend this book, if you just skim over the repetitive parts. Focus on the first and last part.

Review Cal Newport Deep Work 04 November 2018

The book is about deep work, meaning focused hours of concentration to tackle complex tasks without distraction, its benefits, and how one can achieve it.

The concept of deep work is plausible and convincing and, to me, seems worthwhile to strive for as it enables excellence in demanding and complex situations. The book provides a clear depiction of the problem and provides pointers on how to achieve the state of deep work. For example, the author suggests to reduce (or eliminate) social media, for it leads to habitualised distractions, he proposes to embrace a strict schedule, incorporating quite hours (“predictable time off”), to maximise time without distraction, elaborating both pointers in more detail.

However, the author seems to exaggerate the value of his concept, when providing examples of its success. He likes to describe celebrities from science and economics, e.g. Bill Gates, who, seemingly, are experts of deep work, without the author considering other confounding factors leading to the mentioned celebrities success, that is, they are probably smart to begin with and are doing variety of things leading to their success. Additionally, the author contradicts himself, for example, arguing for a strict schedule and no after hours work on the one hand, and praising himself, how he is thinking clearly about his work in various out of work situations on the other hand. The self-praise, I agree with other reviews, is bothersome at times.

In total, this is yet another book, amongst others, about how to improve attention, concentration and focus, to tackle challenging tasks in an increasingly distracting environment, consisting of internet, smartphone and company. Since it does provide a few helpful tips and some hints of other valuable material on the topic, I can still recommend it as a quick read.

Review William Zinsser On Writing Well 21 October 2018

William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well - The Classic Guide to Writing Well” is a book originally published in 1976. In four parts, late William gives his view on writing non-fiction imbued with many examples. The first part takes on the principles and methods of writing. The second part goes into forms of writing and the last part addresses the attitudes of the author.

Let’s look at a few details of the book from the back. William states that you should, despite any fears of controversy, stay true to yourself. Stay true to the facts and your own conscience. Stay true to your own voice, but write as well as you can.

As such, William describes that he is quick to decline offers for writing, when he thinks that he cannot write about the offered topic, adequately. In one moment, however, he decided to go for it, despite hesitating at first. It was an essay on Roger Tory Peterson. Roger is well known for watching birds, and then drawing and writing about them. When William was approached, he refused the offer to interview Roger. But he was impressed by Roger’s age, 84 years old, at which Roger was still going strong drawing and writing about birds every day. No so much interested in birds, William’s interest was caught by the person behind the pencil and camera. Visiting Roger, the two couldn’t stop talking and the interview lasted a whole afternoon. The two discussed Roger’s work, and happened to explore Roger’s collection of birds. Impressed by the interview, William went on to write an acclaimed essay on Roger.

Despite refusing the work at first, because he was neither interested nor knowledgeable about birds, William wrote a story on the person behind the bird. He argues that stories should always be about people, not about things or landscapes – about people, who do things, or visit landscapes.

In his book, William provides many anecdotes, examples and useful guidelines for aspiring (and established) writers. One guideline that struck me, was rewriting and cutting content. It is impossible to for the you, as the author, to tell everything. Your research, notes and experiences will be too much to all go into the manuscript. Instead, you should describe the significant details, which illustrate your point. This is line with William’s credo “cut, cut, cut”. According to him, rewriting and cutting is the most important part of writing – and for him the most fun.

To provide a glimpse on what makes good and bad writing, William uses examples. I do like the examples as he selected high quality quotes from other renowned authors. However, he uses too many of them for my taste. Sometimes, they are not well embedded into the surrounding context. I guess that he did not have enough space, to be thorough with each example – and probably it would have been boring if he was. But why not use them more sparingly and focus on a fewer, but more significant ones? On the first 200 pages I counted around 100 examples.

Nevertheless, this book contains many useful hints for writing and is well written. Despite some repetitiveness, I recommend it for a relaxed read, if you are interested in the craft of writing.

Review John Stillwell Maths And History 07 October 2018

After several months I finally finished John Stillwell’s book Mathematics and Its History. It is a decent book with a broad range of topics covered. In particular, the history parts are very interesting. For me, as a non-mathematically inclined person, the formulas were tough to understand, especially when reading while tired. And only knowing maths from school in a foreign language did not make it easier.

Interesting note: 40 pages of bibliography!

Definitely recommend for people with an interest in Maths and Its History. Although it is a long read.