The last few times I went to the cinema a new trailer was shown with funky pseudo-animation effect. Turns out it is for a movie called A Scanner Darkly, with Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, and Robert Downey Jr. More importantly, it was based on a story by Philip K. Dick who also penned classics such as Does Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner), We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (Total Recall), The Minority Report (Minority Report), and Paycheck (Paycheck).
So you can guess my surprise earlier tonight when I was looking for a new book to read, now that I’ve finished Droid Maker last night, and found a mint copy of A Scanner Darkly in the midst of my bookshelf! I didn’t remember buying it but I noticed that there was a business card wedged in the first few pages so I took it out and examined it. It was a business card from the Citibank manager when I first arrived in NYC more than 5 years ago. Obviously I bought it back then and had only read a few pages before I moved onto other books. But wasn’t it coincidental that I found it now, just before the release of the movie? The scientist in me says no, but human instinct says yes…
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I’ve read many books of difficult subjects for the past 10 years. Ranging from scary (The Hot Zone), to hopeless (Deliver Us from Evil), to heroism (D-Day : June 6, 1944) and many in between. But, no books is as difficult for me to read as the The 9/11 Commission Report.
Reading history as recent as 2001 and as involved as I did, it was almost like reliving that day again. And memory I have of the WTC is as vivid as 2001. I can still remember the shopping mall layout in relationship to the Chamber Street subway station exit, or the Courtlandt Street station exit. I remember the shops that were next to the stations. I remember the lunches that we had in the courtyard between the towers. I now understand why the relatives of those who perished that day won’t want to listen to the FDNY/NYPD/PAPD radio conversations, or the audio tracks from the four hijacked aircraft, let alone released to the public.
But read I must because I am a information/history freak, but more importantly, how else would I be able to make informed decision without the necessary information to put my decision in correct context? Am I suppose to just trust the American media to inform me?
Leah has always commented that for a peaceful person, I sure know a lot about military history, hardware, tactics, and effects of weapons. An example of this happened during one episode of CSI:NY when a cop was killed in Central Park by a sniper. When Gary Sinise’s character, Mac, finally obtained a model of the bullet and before the kind of weapon used was revealed in the show, I had already told Leah that it was a 5.56mm NATO round from an assault rifle such as M-16 or AR-15. And to be able to penetrate body armor as shown in that episode, the round must be a armor piercing round with tungsten tip. Turned out that I was complete on the mark and Leah was incredulous as to how did I know all these.
Of course it is not just military information that I have a fair amount of knowledge, I’ve more or less stopped reading fictions about 6 years ago and have since read non-fictions only. I read what I’ll called ‘geek’ subjects such as history in military, medicine, space, and other technical areas. And I choose my books very carefully so that they are not just tightly focused topics concern with a specific subject. Rather, I pick books that put the significant historic events in the context of that era. I want to learn about how the social, political, economic, etc. contributed to a particular event.
For example, I am currently reading Comm Check… The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia and despites the title it was not a technical description on how and why the shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry in January 2002. It describes the events leading to the event and afterward with the objective of showing the reader a bigger picture than just the form strikes damaging the leading edge of the port wing during ascent. It shows how the CAIB (Columbia Accident Investigation Board) found that the form shedding from the External Tank was not the only cause of the accident. Intense schedule pressure to complete construction of the International Space Station, pressure to keep cost down, the continual and gradual acceptance of form shedding as non flight safety critical events, as well as the lapse of safety culture in NASA as a constitution all contribute to the Columbia accident.
Finding the hardware responsible (the External Tank bipod form) or the person(s) responsible (the External Tank project team or the project management) and fixing them will not fix the root problem. It merely fixes the symptom and setup a repeat for the future. Discovering the cause in the wider context in which the accident occurs, hopefully a similar accident can be prevented in the future. But then, that was also the aim of the Roger Commission after the Challenger accident and see what had happened 17 years later with Columbia.
Back to the topic of learning about historical events, what I gained is the understanding of how present geographical, political, economical, just to name a few, situations were largely determined by what happened in the past. During the 18th century of empire building by the British, French, and the Dutch, etc., the subsequent collapse of their empires and oftentimes arbitrary division of country borders in Africa and Middle-East brought about the volatile political climate we have today.
For example, after reading The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another I’ve started cracking jokes about “Tea is the root of all evil”. This is because the British government was nearly bankrupt by the trade deficit with China’s tea during the 18th century. The British solution was to sell the opium they had in India to the Chinese to offset the trade deficit. This led to the infamous Opium Wars and the annexation of Hong Kong island and Kowloon peninsula as well as other territories to the British. So tea is not as benign as every one think it is! But the, without the British administration, Hong Kong will never be the vibrant city it is and I won’t be able to emigrate to the U.K. first and then the U.S. and be where I am now.
So my point is that literacy is important in education but knowing history is also very important as to understand how we get to where we are now and why we do things the way we do.
I prefer non-fiction over fiction books, and thus I tend to know a bit of everything. However with the U.S. presidential election in November coming up, there are almost nothing but pro/anti-Bush books on display in the non-fiction section of Barnes & Noble! Do I really have to endure another six months of not having many new non-fiction books that have nothing to do with Bush or Kerry?
[Posted with ecto]