Bird Lives!



Originally uploaded by hablando del asunto.

I recently finished reading Ross Russell’s Bird Lives!, a biography of Charlie Parker, the legendary jazz saxophonist who revolutionized the world of jazz in the early 1940s.

One of the things that surprised me on reading the book is just how unremarkable Parker was as a young musician.

We all hear stories of young Mozart; how audiences were astounded by his musical talents as a child. Mozart seemed to have some inexplicable innate musical from the moment of his birth.

Not Parker.

He was relatively late coming to music. He didn’t pick up an instrument until he was in high school. When he did, all accounts indicate that he was awful. For years he was considered a joke amongst his local Kansas City musicians, if they noticed him at all. His tone was terrible. He didn’t have any real understanding of music theory or harmony. He just plain sucked.

But what he might have lacked in raw talent, he more than made up in dedication. He spent every spare minute practicing. Despite several demoralizing incidents at local jam sessions — all of his early attempts to solo in public ended badly; one with the drummer throwing a cymbal to the floor to get him off the stage — he continued practicing. He was determined to master the alto sax.

He did eventually, of course. He spent a summer learning to play the solos off some Lester Young records and learning music theory from other trained musicians. Slowly he became competent. Then he became good. He kept working at it until he became the great player that history remembers him for.

While reading the biography, I was reminded of an article Kathy Sierra wrote about becoming an expert:

The only thing standing between you-as-amateur and you-as-expert is dedication. All that talk about prodigies? We could all be prodigies (or nearly so) if we just put in the time and focused. At least that’s what the brain guys are saying. Best of all–it’s almost never too late.

I’m not suggesting you can consider Charlie Parker a typical example of anything, but his experience does seem to support what Kathy is saying.

Dedication makes a difference.

I find that encouraging.

Books of 2006

As it’s coming to the end of the year, it seems appropriate to sound off on the books that I read this year.

The Wisdom of Crowds – Citing stock markets and sports betting odds Surowiecki contends that under the right conditions the collective guesses of a group of people are as good or better than that of any individual expert. It’s an interesting idea, but I came away unconvinced. The conditions that Surowiecki identifies under which collective wisdom wins seem awfully narrow. Worth a read, anyways.

The Long Emergency – This is the most pessimistic book I’ve ever read. Kunstler argues that the global supply of oil is nearing it’s peak in production while demand continues rising. The result will decimate the world’s economy. Poverty, starvation, war, disease, pestilence and lawlessness will follow. Technology can’t help us. Prepare for the end of civilization. This book is as gloomy as they come. On the other hand, it’s hard to take seriously if you’ve read any of the Singularity is Near.

The Singularity Is Near – This is the most optimistic book I’ve ever read. Kurzweil predicts that in the next 20-40 years, computer intelligence will surpass that of humans. When it does, us humans will be able to take a permanent vacation, leaving all the hard work to machines since they’ll be so much better than us at everything. Biological people will be able to enhance their abilities with all sorts of intelligent technology and even back-up their brains so they can practically live on eternally in cyberspace. Nanotechnology will render biological death a thing of the past. Immersive virtual reality will allow us to go anywhere with anyone as anyone. The future is a techno-utopia. Don’t worry. Be happy. It is hard to take this stuff seriously, but it is well-researched and hard to argue against, considering how history is littered with naysayers that were proven wrong.

Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie – If you are at all interested in the origins of bebop or how one of its founding practitioners rose to prominence, this biography is well worth the read. It follows Dizzy from his earliest years in the churches of Cheraw, South Carolina, through the birth of bebop in the clubs of 52nd Street in New York, and on through the rest of his prodigious career. A little slow in spots, but highly recommended if you are a fan of jazz.

Freakonomics – This is a book that demonstrates what you can find if sit down and examine the numbers. Are sumo wrestlers throwing matches? If drug dealing is so lucrative, why do so many dealers live with their parents? Why did crime rates drop so precipitously in the 1990s? How does a child’s name affect his chances of success later in life? It’s an entertaining read and the results of Levitt’s work are interesting, but I wish Levitt and Dubner had spent a little more time showing how they came to their results than just stating what they found. Recommended.

What Should I Do with My Life? – This is an excellent book. Po Bronson tells the stories of real people who have struggled with their purpose in life. Not everybody finds an answer. Even when one does, it often takes a major disruption in one’s life, such as a layoff or separation, before one even thinks of pursuing it. People are more often forced into major life changes than they choose to pursue them. Ultimately, some people do figure it out and are happier for it. For some the happiness doesn’t come. This book is an honest, touching look at life. Highly recommended.

Pattern Recognition – A logo-sensitive ad consultant tracks down the creators of underground online video. I could take it or leave it.

A Short History of Progress – History is replete with civilizations that have over-consumed and consequently collapsed. Wright argues that technology hasn’t made us any smarter. It’s only enabled us to carry out our unsustainable practices at a grander scale.

Metamorphosis and Other Stories – The tragic story a man who wakes up one morning finding himself transformed into a massive bug. Some of the other stories are quite fascinating, too. Recommended.

On Bullshit – A somewhat serious philosophical examination of the nature of bullshit. This is a fun and illuminating read. Recommended.

Opening Skinner’s Box – Slater examines ten experiments in psychology that have changed the what we understand of ourselves. Slater’s writing is excellent: engaging, thoughtful, fun. You might not expect a book about psychology to be especially interesting. I think this one might surprise you. Highly recommended.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – This covers a lot of the same ground as Opening Skinner’s Box, but does so with an eye on how compliance professionals (marketers, salesmen, con men, etc.) apply what we know about psychology to influencing people. It isn’t written as a how-to book, but the lessons are definitely there for those eager to exploit them; as are some tips for defending yourself against the classic tricks. This is powerful stuff. Highly recommended.

A Million Little Pieces – A junkie goes through rehab. This is a captivating story of a young man putting his life back together. It is an embellishment on a true story, which is part of the reason it is so compelling. Highly recommended.

Life of Pi – The fantastic story of a boy trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger. It’s by no means a life-changer, but it definitely is a page-turner. Highly recommended.

Big Book of Drawing – I still suck pretty bad at drawing, but if it weren’t for this book, I’d be drawing stick figures. Lessons on drawing portraits, figures, and animals. In graphite and colour. Highly recommended.

It’s Not Funny If I Have to Explain It: A Dilbert Treasury – A collection of Dilbert cartoons with commentary from Scott Adams. Typical Scott Adams hilariousness. Highly recommended.

Concepts, Techniques, and Models of Computer Programming – From declarative computation through object-oriented, shared-state concurrency, relational, distributed, and constraint programming, this book surveys the vast field of programming paradigms and demonstrates them using the Mozart/Oz language. Good stuff. Recommended.

SCJP Sun Certified Programmer for Java 5 Study Guide – This book is an excellent book for what it does: prepare its readers for the SCJP exam.  I found the subject matter somewhat disheartening, though, as the exam seems to be set up more to test the student’s ability to parse java code for syntax errors than to understand the semantics of the language itself. Can’t hold that against the study guide, though. If you have to take the SCJP exam, I’d recommend it.