T minus 354: Bursts (a.k.a. Power Law)

I’m finally down to the last couple of chapters of this book by Barabasi entitled “Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do.” I was in Borders last month looking for a gift for a friend, when I chanced upon this book in the non-fiction section.  I was looking at the name of the author, it was very familiar… it turned out that he is one of the collaborators of my previous mentor (where I did a 5-month lab rotation and was fortunate enough to generate relevant data that were included in an article published in Genome Research).  I have never personally met the guy, but I have this “thing” with physicists – they never fail to amaze me.  I read the short description on the book flap, and it really caught my interest.  However, since it was a relatively new release and only available in hardcover, I could not afford it.  A few days later, I went to the public library to return some stuff and found the book being displayed on the shelves facing the entrance!  I immediately borrowed it and started reading it that same day!  It is such a fascinating book!  I liked the way he explained complicated and technical terms by using very tangible examples, even using personal experiences and his own personal history (that dates back to the 1500s in Transylvannia) to get to his point.  I have to say, he had a tendency to keep you on your toes while reading, which got tiring for a while (I caught myself  saying – get to the point already! – a couple of times), but it was all worth it.  The different scenarios and stories he wove together in “Bursts” actually made sense in hindsight.  If I summarize the whole book, I can write it down in one sentence – one “ennui-inducing” sentence – that human behavior is not actually governed by randomness (following a Poisson or Gaussian distribution) but is defined by bursts (or Power Law), which allows us to potentially predict what one is about to do next.  Don’t let the physics terms scare you off, he did a great job in making his research focus very accessible to non-physicists (or non-mathematicians or non-statisticians or anyone not so good with numbers for that matter).  Albert-Laszlo Barabasi definitely amazed me with how he looks at the going-ons in the world.  Really cool stuff!

John Adams: The HBO 7-part Miniseries

Simply put, “John Adams” is a story of a New England family during 18th century Massachusetts at the dawn of the birth of the United States of America.  What sets them apart is that they played a crucial role in the road to independence of these American states from their British colonizers.  Moreso, the father and son served as presidents of the young USA.

I would say that John Adams, his son, John Quincy Adams, his wife, Abigail, and the rest of the Adams family (including the more famous Samuel Adams) contributed much to the freedom that Americans are experiencing today since 1776.  HBO did a lovely adaptation of David McCullough’s biography of the same title.  I love to watch historical pieces, especially biopics, and “John Adams” is one of those that I could not resist watching until I finished all 7 parts (about an hour for each part, I finished the whole series in three days – watching it on top of my regular schedule). The depiction of the era and the cinematography is realistic, and living in Massachusetts and having visited some of the historical sights in and around Boston made the series more interesting and relatable.  The acting was delivered effortlessly by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as John and Abigail.  It was also a learning experience for me as well, since I am not a student of American history.  If you have extra time this July 4th weekend, amidst the barbecue parties and the fireworks (for the folks here in the USA), or if you are quite curious or want to know more about America’s road to independence from the eyes of one of its greatest patriots and founding fathers, watch John Adams. (Originally written on 16 June 2009).

Of Greek tragedies and Geek comedies

Make that Greek tragedies with a Nippon twist.  And a geek comedy about physicists and their social skills. I have spent the past summer reading Haruki Murakami and watching episodes of The Big Bang Theory.

My sister introduced me to Murakami, one of the more popular and well-known Japanese contemporary authors, whose novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,  drew praises from critics and regular readers alike.  (I have yet to read the Chronicle though).   The first Murakami I read is Norwegian Wood, which featured a man who reminisces the two loves he cultivated in his college years, both of which are strikingly different from each other.  I would say that Murakami books, or those that I have read so far, have a Greek tragedy-esque mood to them.  The Japanese era of the 60’s and 70’s, and some spanning through the 80’s, seem to be a common backdrop of his stories.  He is very straightforward and nonchalant in his depictions of his characters and allows the dialogue between characters to paint their emotions and struggles, instead of the third person narrator doing this for them.  Murakami is also very blunt with his descriptions of physical intimacies, which I think can be attributed to his being a Japanese.   His style leaves you with weird and unconventional resolutions, which is not always typical of modern story-telling.   Below are short descriptions to the books I have finished over the summer. (These are English translations of the original Japanese books).

Kafka on the Shore – Mind-blowing.  Literally.  I was left scratching my head for the most part of it.  They say you have to re-read the book to fully understand what the two main characters were going through.  I would classify the novel as being in the fringes of the supernatural, sci-fi and resolving family issues ala Oedipus rex.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – This is a collection of short stories Murakami published in different magazines or publications throughout his career. My favorite story is “Birthday Girl.”  The device he used to build up the story was so powerful, I was sooo begging for a sequel to learn more about the girl and her birthday wish.

South of the Border, West of the Sun –A bittersweet story of love lost, found and resolved.  It has a Norwegian Wood sentimentality and crisis, with the protagonist hoping to come to terms with a young love he pines and longs for the rest of his grown-up years.  This is the most emotional and relatable novel of Murakami’s I have read.  It left me numb and heartbroken, and again the resolution is not your typical love story ending.

And now, on to my other interest – TV series!

I have recently discovered Big Bang Theory, and boy, oh boy, I’m just loving this show.  This sitcom has caught my attention several times, with their CBS ad showing the guys doing rocks, papers, scisssors and spock.  However, Monday nights has been relegated to watching Heroes, House or 24, thus I have not seen the show on its regular time.  Add to that the fact that CBS is really stingy in putting up their shows online.  Good thing I have Netflix!  I borrowed the Season 1 DVDs and devoured them with delight and peals of laughing-out-loud moments.

The show is just hilarious!  It has a superb cast, who work their characters really well, and awesome storywriting.  I love their dialogues!  I don’t think I am uber-geek, but I can sympathize with the guys in their awkwardness and naivette – maybe because there are times that I am like them.  The episodes revolve around the witty banter among the four geeky guys and their relationship with the pretty Cheesecake factory waitress who lives in Apt. 4B.  I definitely recommend you watch an episode or two.