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Various books I’ve read

More Spooky Tales for Fall and Cold Winter Nights

More Spooky Tales for Fall and Cold Winter Nights

While looking around for more great old-time ghost stories, I came across another great website collection of stories here. To avoid the risk of them disappearing, I copy them here (again) for your enjoyment.
Wailing Well – M.R. James
http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX31.htm

The Shadow in the Corner – M.E. Braddon
http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/shadcorn.htm

The Furnished Room – O. Henry
http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/FurRoo.shtml 

In the Tube – E.F. Benson
https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/benson/ef/in-the-tube/

The Open Window – Saki
http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/OpeWin.shtml

What Was It? – Fitz-James O’Brien
http://www.bartleby.com/195/13.html

The Lost Ghost – Mary E. Wilkins
http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/LostGhos.shtml

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar – Edgar Allen Poe
http://poestories.com/read/facts

The Burned House – Vincent O’Sullivan
http://www.unz.org/Pub/Century-1916oct-00843

Christmas Meeting – Rosemary Timperley
http://recursosdidacticos.es/textos/texto.php?id=414

The Little Ghost – Hugh Walpole
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0604071h.html#s10 

The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance – M.R. James
http://www.thin-ghost.org/items/show/156

The Middle Toe of the Right Foot – Ambrose Bierce
http://www.online-literature.com/bierce/2010/

W.S. – L.P Hartley
https://frankzumbach.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/l-p-hartley-w-s/

The Upper Berth – Marion Crawford
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0604221h.html

At The Gate – Myla Jo Closser
http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Gate846.shtml

A Ghost – Guy de Maupassant
http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Ghos835.shtml

The Red Room – H.G. Wells
http://archive.org/stream/theredroom23218gut/23218.txt

The Ash Tree – M.R. James
http://www.thin-ghost.org/items/show/133

Smee – A.M. Burrage
https://anilbalan.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/smee-by-am-burrage-_-scary-for-kids.pdf

Hand in Glove – Elizabeth Bowen
http://www.angelfire.com/mt/benson/glove.html

The Cigarette Case – Oliver Onions
http://shortstories.ucgreat.com/read/018/238.htm

The Ebony Frame – E. Nesbit
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0602551.txt

The Mezzotint – M.R. James
http://www.thin-ghost.org/items/show/145


Collections these stories come from for further reading:

Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (1947)
M.R James: Collected Ghost Stories (1992)
The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe (1992)
Gothic Short Stories (ed. David Blair) (2002)
The Virago Book of Ghost Stories (2006)
Ambrose Bierce: The Spook House (2008)
The Oxford Book of Ghost Stories (2008)
The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (2009)
Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories (2012)
Tales from the Dead of Night: Thirteen Classic Ghost Stories (2013)

The Gathering of 100 Tales

The Gathering of 100 Tales

Ghost stories exist in just about every culture of the world. You can learn a lot about a culture by the ghost stories they tell. But these stories are not only created in modern times, but also go back as far as the oral traditions of each culture. Just as with Greek odyssey’s and ancient poems like Gilgamesh, ancient ghost stories provide amazing windows to the past and the strange.

Besides a recent adventure through Victorian era ghost stories, I also recently learned of an old ghost story telling tradition in Japanese culture. Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (百物語怪談会, lit., A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales) was a popular Buddhist-inspired ghost telling parlor game during the Edo period in Japan.  The exact origins are unknown, but it was believed to be first played amongst the samurai class as a test of courage. In Ogita Ansei‘s 1660 nursery tale “Otogi Monogatari” a version of the game was described in which the narrative tells of several young samurai telling tales in the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai fashion. In the tale, as one samurai finished the one-hundredth tale, he began to extinguish the candle when suddenly he sees a giant gnarled hand descend upon him from above. While some of the samurai cowered in fear, a swipe of his sword revealed the hand to be merely the shadow of a spider.

Setup

According to early texts, the tradition method went like this:

  • The game was to be carried out on the night of a new moon when the night is darkest without even moonlight. All light sources should be covered or extinguished.
  • The location should be the home of someone in the group in a selection of 3 neighboring rooms. The best configuration is if the rooms are arranged in an ‘L’ shape where one cannot see the room at the top of the L from the room at the bottom right of the L.
  • The participants gather in one of the end rooms with a few lanterns. The room next to that is to be pitch black.
  • The most secluded room has 100 lit candles or andon (traditional Japanese paper lanterns) and a writing desk with a mirror on top.
  • All dangerous items should be removed from the rooms (decorative swords/etc).
  • Each person is to wear a blue robe.

Play

  • The participants take turns telling 1 ghostly or supernatural story at a time. They should be of ghostly encounters, folkloric tales passed on by villagers who encountered various spirits, and the like. These tales became known as kaidan.
  • After each story is told, the teller gets up with a lantern wrapped with blue paper.
  • They walk alone through the dark room to the room lit with 100 candles/andon.
  • They extinguish one candle, look into the mirror on the table, then return to the story telling room.
  • Play proceeds like this with the most secluded room becoming darker and darker until the final story.
  • In some versions, only 99 stories are told and play stops until the sun rises to tell the final story.
  • In other versions you tell the final story. When you enter the lit room and extinguish the final candle while looking into the mirror – some spirit or image may be evoked.

While this might have started as a test of bravery for aristocratic warrior classes, it quickly spread to the working classes. As it gained widespread popularity in the 1600’s, people began scouring the countryside for mysterious tales and collected them into books. The stories also started merging ghostly vengeance with elements of Buddist karma. The collections and popularity of the game grew and is still deeply in the culture today.

Today

For those that have caught Japanese horror movies and popular Japanese anime/manga/literature, the influence of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai and the themes those stories created during that era is very clear. Some shows even have mock recreations or clear spinoffs of the very game.

While many of the stories might seem strange to us today, they are also very interesting and often some very similar characteristics as western ghost stories. I recommend picking up one of the many collections of kaidan/ghost stories from Japan and give them a read.

Here are 10 famous Japanese ghost stories to start your journey. See how many themes you recognize.

Retiring Overseas on a Budget: How to Live Well on $25,000 a Year

Retiring Overseas on a Budget: How to Live Well on $25,000 a Year

Who hasn’t thought of chucking it all and moving overseas to some cheap little beach villa or living in some exotic country? When I saw this at the library, I figured I’d pick it up:

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International Living Guide to Retiring Overseas on a Budget: How to Live Well on $25,000 a Year

First off, this book was written by people who lived what they’re writing about – which makes it highly credible. It is an easy and fast read written like a good buddy chatting about his life over coffee. It is clearly geared for people who are thinking about retiring abroad for the first time as opposed to an in-depth or technical guide. Its main strengths are that it gives you a great broad overview sufficient for you to begin your deeper dives elsewhere, and for the realities/questions to ask yourself to see if retiring abroad is really right for you. Its biggest weaknesses are that it lacks depth in legal/technical/financial matters and definitely paints an overly rosy/optimistic picture on most of its topics.

Good points/advice:

  • Probably the best part of the book is the chapter on if life abroad will mesh with you or not. He tells you to really dig deep and be brutally honest with yourself. I wish he’d gone into this more, but it was a great eye opener. I believe he correctly asserts that the more brutally honest you are with yourself, the better your decision will be. He breaks his points down into about 10 questions and refers you back to them again and again. They boil down to these points:
    • Are you ok with change and living as your new country lives? This isn’t a retirement community, it is a lifestyle change to live more as a traveler. Do you love at least a little adventure every day doing even common things like getting around, buying toothpaste, etc – or do you want to ‘nest’ in US comforts?
    • You cannot afford to ‘take it with you’ nor will you likely want to. Living abroad on these budgets means you will live and eat as that country lives. Cosmetics, medication, deodorant, snack foods, tv shows, furniture, etc – all will be different. In many cases, you simply can’t live as you did. Electronics here might make no sense in a country with no internet fast enough to stream Netflix – or will not work at all on 220/50hz. That heirloom cloth pattern chair will do nothing but mold on a humid tropical beach. That fancy washing machine will not work with local hookups or water quality/electric . You will also need to eat local foods to live cheaply. Are you ok with that, or need your steak dinners each night?
    • Be honest about the weather you like. Are you really a beach person or would mountains suit you better? Are you ready for sand all the time and 100% humidity every day for 6-8 months? Are you ok with rainy seasons? Have you traveled to your country of choice during the ‘worst’ season?
    • Are you ready to live, recreate, eat, and pattern your life after how your target country lives? How attached are you to watching US football or sports? How do you spend free time and are you able to get supplies for hobbies there? Are you ok with neighborhood roosters crowing at 6am every day (with no noise ordinances)? Are you ok with the slower, possibly more corrupt pace of business and government services? Poverty, food safety, and animal treatment in your new country may shock you. Will you be ok with building new local friends/connections on relationship and spending time rather than business/utility?
    • Are you really ready to leave natural support nets with your grandkids, family, friends, communities, and lifestyle here in favor of skyping/visits? Flying home is one of the biggest costs you’ll have – are you cool with only 1-3 visits a year? Are you ok leaving business associates and other professional contacts behind?
    • If you have a spouse, are you evaluating these questions with them and both onboard 100%
  • The book is very easy and quick to read. Covers a lot of ground and give a great broad overview.
  • Sample real-world budgets of his own living expenses along with discussions about what that buys you (at least in the author’s country).
  • Great common-sense advice like:
    • Take at least one long trip, and hopefully several/yearly trips, to your destination before moving. Preferably at least once during the ‘worst’ season (hottest/rainiest/etc).
    • Don’t decide to buy a home there while drinking a margarita by the beach. Contact a local lawyer and ask yourself the deep soul-searching questions he had above.
    • What we would have done differently from those that went there.
    • Getting a reputable local lawyer for real estate purchases and protecting surviving spouses by writing contracts properly.
    • Don’t expect to make any extra income by working there. The pay will not be sufficient to make up gaps.
    • You may not need to become fluent, but if US tax laws confuse you, imagine doing legal documents and taxes in a foreign language. You’re going to need to hire a few lawyers at the beginning for sure.
    • Be prepared/able to return if this doesn’t work for you. Some people find it very difficult and give up. Others do great for years, but ultimately decide to return for family.
    • The US is based on Common Law, while most of the rest of the Americas are Civil Law. This makes getting a good lawyer for things like buying a home essential.
  • He has information about individual countries in the book. The best communities in that country for ex-pats on a budget and interesting social/financial/cultural notes. It’s a great place to get started to dig deeper.
  • Basic overview of how medical insurance works in other countries – especially private/public coverage and important key questions/differences to ask to make sure you’re getting the coverage you need.
  • Basic information and common issues with buying a house abroad and the fact you will absolutely want a local lawyer for this type of transaction.
  • Some basic differences between Common Law and Civil Law:
    • You must codify transferral of your home/property to surviving spouses after your death or they might have to go fight for their own home.
    • You must do very thorough ownership history checks or you could end up in a legal fight with a great grandchild that never signed a release on property that you purchased.

Shortcomings:

  • Big sections read like just common sense since it doesn’t give enough specifics on many topics. This, however, might be what some romantic types need.
  • Focuses primarily on Central and South America, even though none of those (except Mexico) are in the top 10 countries of expats. However, some of the top 10 are likely not livable on $25k/year.
  • Feel he paints too rosy a picture of living aboard when it comes to personal safety and health care.
    • He makes many valid points about several countries on his list having tentatively ‘better’ healthcare – but that was as defined in an old study he quotes by the UN and his metrics of office wait times. Without specifics of their metrics used, I’m tempted to believe a country might get great marks for maternity care and treating common ailments but may not for what the average 65 year old (til death) will deal with. His budget numbers/livability also assumes you are a ‘relatively healthy 65 year old person’.
    • Missing all together is an honest discussion about inevitable end-of-life care you will receive there (terminal cancer, organ failure, etc). There is no discussion about handling or treatment of those permanently disabled by stroke, dementia, etc.
    • He asserts more security that I believe is safe. While traveling abroad is usually safe, there are real concerns. A good example is how he talks about how great his own Ecuador is, yet never talks once about the real security threats that a personal friend who was in the Peace Corps encountered. During an uprising, they were evacuated from their mountain towns to the capital, protected under armed guards in a compound, then flown home as things deteriorated. Brazil has serious safety issues in their big cities with paid executions in broad daylight. He doesn’t mention the growing dangers of kidnapping, car jacking, etc in Mexico. At best, he mentions that ‘he has stories’ and that one lady was fleeced in a real estate purchase, but doesn’t give sufficient details for my tastes.
  • Not enough really detailed financial advice. I can’t fault the book on this since you could write a whole book on that, but this book simply doesn’t give you enough information on how to handle taxes/etc.
  • The book simply is not sufficient to actually plan a move abroad. It gives a great starting point, but you will need to do a lot more.
Best Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror episodes

Best Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror episodes

I recently hosted a night in which my friends and I sat and watched a pile of the over 25 Treehouse of Horror episodes. Since watching them all was impossible, we picked 9 of the best ones.

Here they are:

“TREEHOUSE OF HORROR IV: TERROR AT 5½ FEET,” SEASON 5, EPISODE 5

Bart fights off a demonic little gremlin aka the Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000ft.


“TREEHOUSE OF HORROR VI: HOMER³,” SEASON 7, EPISODE 6

 The episode where Homer turns 3D and contains numerous awesome mathematical easter eggs.


“TREEHOUSE OF HORROR V: TIME AND PUNISHMENT,” SEASON 6, EPISODE 5

Homer invents a time toaster and is totally unprepared for the consequences of time travel.


“TREEHOUSE OF HORROR VI, NIGHTMARE ON EVERGREEN TERRACE,” SEASON 7, EPISODE 6

This homage to Nightmare on Elm Street sees groundskeeper Willie as Freddy Krueger. Equal parts funny and creepy, plus the Stephen King’s It” twist ending of Spider-Willie is just perfect


“TREEHOUSE OF HORROR III: CLOWN WITHOUT PITY,” SEASON 2, EPISODE 3

Another Twilight Zone homage to the episode Living Doll as a possessed Krusty doll. As far as I’m concerned, this segment was also the pop culture moment that put the term “frogurt” into the lexicon.

“TREEHOUSE OF HORROR XIX: IT’S THE GRAND PUMPKIN, MILHOUSE,” SEASON 20, EPISODE 4

This 2008 episode is a clear satire of It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. It also has a fantastic take on Mad Men and an Election Day bit on a malfunctioning touch-screen voting machine that mocked the Florida election.


“TREEHOUSE OF HORROR VII: CITIZEN KANG,” SEASON 8, EPISODE 1

The installment from this particular edition where Kang and Kodos come to earth and impersonate Clinton and Dole in their thwarted effort to take over earth. It was brilliant.


“TREEHOUSE OF HORROR I: THE RAVEN,” SEASON 2, EPISODE 3

Homer gives a rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s classic tale of terror The Raven. Homer as its protagonist, Marge as his lost Lenore, and Bart as the interloping raven.Narration by James Earl Jones.


“TREEHOUSE OF HORROR V: THE SHINNING,” SEASON 6, EPISODE 5

 

Simpson’s homage to The Shining. The best of them all IMHO.

Autumn Short-story Literary Countdown!

Autumn Short-story Literary Countdown!

Autumn is without a doubt my favorite season of the year. The trees turn, pumpkin patches open, corn mazes draw crowds, hoodies, jackets, scarves appear, and fall decorations of leaves are made by children everywhere. As the nights grow+ colder and days shorter, who couldn’t also love a good spooky story told around a campfire while cooking smores and drinking hot cider?

Dana Mele created a list of amazing short spooky stories from solid literary sources. These aren’t your blood and gore stories, gimmicky kiddie tales, or cheap jump scares. Many come from the golden ages of the 1800’s when proper authors would often write short, scary tales. I approve of her entire list. Best yet, each is short enough to read before falling asleep. So pour a warm drink, toss a few logs on the fireplace, and settle in under a warm blacket before bed and read a good story!

(The link to her countdown is here, but I’m always afraid of such beautiful resources getting lost/shut down. So I make a copy here.)
Do you have any spooky stories you would add? Please share!

31. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, PDF – Free Audiobook version

 

Yellowwp med.jpg

30. The Tapestried Chamber by Sir Walter Scott – Free Audiobook version

29. The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards, PDF – Free audiobook version

28. Squire Toby’s Will by J.S. Le Fanu

27. The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford – Free audiobook version

26. The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker, PDF – Free audiobook version

25. Man-Size in Marble by Edith Nesbit – Free audiobook version

24. The Roll-Call of the Reef by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch – Free audiobook version

23. The Friends of the Friends by Henry James

22. The Red Room by H.G. Wells – Free audiobook here

21. The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, PDF – Free audiobook here

20. The Lost Ghost by Mary E. Wilkins – Free audiobook here

19. ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ by M.R. James – Free Audiobook version (2 parts)

18. The Empty House by Algernon Blackwood, PDF – Free audiobook version

17. Widdershins by Oliver Onions (6 ghost stories) – Free audiobook version

16.  Rose Rose by Barry Pain

15. The Confession of Charles Linkworth by E.F. Benson

14.  On the Brighton Road by Richard Middleton – Free Audiobook version

13. Bone to His Bone by E.G. Swain, PDF version

12. The Taipan by W. Somerset Maugham

11. A Visitor From Down Under by L.P. Hartley

10. Fullcircle by John Buchan

9. The Clock by W.F. Harvey

8. Mr. Jones by Edith Wharton

7. Smee by A.M. Burrage – Free audiobook version

6. The Little Ghost by Hugh Walpole

5. The Hollow Man by Thomas Burke (small print- view in fullscreen and adjust)

4. Et in Sempiternum Pereant by Charles Williams

3. An Encounter in the Mist by A.N.L. Munby, PDF version


2. The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe – Free audiobook version

  1. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving – Free audiobook version

List of Honorable Mentions:

Book Review: Penpal

Book Review: Penpal

Penpal is a book by Dahan Auerbach – but it didn’t start as a book. It is a terrific story and it’s also a fascinating example of how new kinds of stories and budding authors can come out of nowhere in our new internet world.  (note: this is a no spoiler review)

Penpal started as a couple of ‘creepypasta‘ short stories posted in the user-contributed, scary story ‘No Sleep’ area of Reddit.  It’s since been turned into illustrations, audio recordings, and even short films made by fans.  There’s even a rumor of a movie deal.

The book is a collection of several interconnected/overlapping short stories about a young boy trying to put together some strange events from his childhood.  As he goes over his memories, a very strange and terrifying tale begins to emerge from the pieces.

The book itself isn’t terribly long, but really draws you in.  I found myself reading at bedtime and next thing I know it’s 1am.  By the time I’d finished I felt like I’d had gone on a hair-raising roller-coaster ride and twisted around like a towel getting wrung out – but in a good way.  It left me thinking back on my own childhood and wondering about the things that I experienced as a kid and just how right/wrong I had understood them.

Told from the narrator (who is now an adult), the book is an adventure in watching what he as a kid experienced.  He does a masterful job capturing what he was feeling and the confusion while describing an unfolding story that would even terrify most adults.  You patch together what is going on via his own half-understood descriptions – and your own imagination patches together the rest – often much more terrifyingly than if you actually knew what was going on.

What makes Auerbach’s writing really unique is his ability to capture and communicate the feelings and experiences we had as kids.  His simple descriptions bring back a flood of your own memories of hanging out with your childhood best friend(s).  I found myself realizing I had the same feelings/fears such as staying back in the woods behind our house a little too late, going into a dark basement, or the little games we play with ourselves like trying to get back into our house before the street lights come on or not breathing while driving through a tunnel.  Auerbach also really hits the head on how kids misunderstand adult interactions and the ways we seek out parental love. Indirectly, he also captures the gut-wrenching moral/ethical decisions that adults make to protect their children from the harsh realities of a sometimes frightening world. If you ever had to explain to a kid why grandpa at the nursing home doesn’t remember you between visits – you’ll get an idea of these types of decisions.  Auerbach does a masterful job capturing these interactions with simple, approachable style.

Is it scary?  I would say that it is.  Not a jump-out-of-the-closet kind of scary – but the kind of scary you get because he’s nailing the emotions of childhood but telling them with the full knowledge of an adult.  The fact his descriptions are so real makes it even doubly impactful.

Sure, there are a few small plot holes and problems.  The biggest is the fact the individual chapters were actually separate clips that were written separately is a little apparent.  The flow and overlap are a little messy.  Part of the final resolution left me feeling a bit perplexed as well. But it doesn’t matter.  All that is easily overlooked by the great experience it is of reading this story.

Overall, I give this a solid A-.  It’s a great read.  It’s also scary. It won’t win any literary awards or upset any kings of horror, but it describes the experience of kids growing up so well that it’s worth the read alone.  It’s also a fascinating snapshot of how publishing is working now – much like how game development is working.  People work on a snippet of something, publish it on a forum, and see if it sticks.  If it does, they keep at it.  If not, it dies.

Regardless of how it was written/found – it’s a great read.  At the end, I found myself sitting there and re-visiting my own childhood, friends, and memories and feeling very thankful.  That alone is worth the time spent for the read.

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

Often considered one of Agatha Christie’s best mystery/murder books – this is the story of 10 strangers lured to Indian Island by a mysterious host. Once his guests have arrived, an unknown host accuses each one of a murder from their past. Unable to leave the island, the guests begin to die one by one and they struggle to figure out who is killing them before it’s too late.

This is a great classic of murder-mystery storytelling.   So classic in fact that it has been converted to several movies and a wildly popular play.  Currently it’s the world’s best-selling mystery novel and one of the top 10 best-selling books of all time.  Its various plot devices have been copied so often that many say that it actually create a genre of its own.

The story (no big spoilers):
Ten people are invited via letter to a mysterious island.  Upon arriving, they find a beautiful mansion fully stocked with all modern conveniences and comforts – but no host.  As the settle in after dinner, a mysterious recorded voice accuses each one of a murder from their past.  As they argue over the accusations and struggle to figure out what is going on; the guests start dying.  Trapped on the island by a storm, they die one by one as they try frantically to figure out who is the murderer and why.  To add to the terror, they die in the order and method specified by a child’s nursery rhyme tacked in each of their rooms.  As the guest numbers dwindle, the levels of suspicion and hysteria rise dramatically until a crashing finale.

Review (no spoilers):
It’s a very different kind of murder mystery.  There is no master sleuth – no Hercule Poirot or Ms Marple.  There is simply you the reader and 10 ‘ordinary’ guests trapped on an island – as an unknown murderer slowly removes them one by one.  You feel as if you struggle right along with the characters trying to sort it all out.  Christie’s handling and revealing of their internal emotional states is dated but very well done.  With a few exceptions, the characters all tend to act in accordance to their very different natures – which really adds spice to the story considering you have such different folks as a war hero, a judge, a governess, two servants, a private gun, and a prim spinster.

I would suggest this is a must-read for anyone who loves the genre and for those that love house mysteries or isolated party type of spooky affairs.  As a lover of all these genres, this is the standard by which almost everything since is compared to as it rises above all the rest.  I give it a solid A for it’s enjoyable read (I listened to it via audiobook and found myself several times sitting in the driveway just to get to the next chapter), relatively quick story, and for the fact it is the canon for this type of genre.  Highly recommend

Google and Microsoft-esk questions

Google and Microsoft-esk questions

Read an interesting book How Would You Move Mount Fuji.  The author does a little critique of the modern approach of puzzle interviews.  His take-away – since an employer can legally no longer ask questions about age/gender/orientation/etc – we have moved to a new realm of interviewing.  This method of interviewing attempts to ascertain the raw ability and behavior of the candidate devoid of these contexts.  This is both for good and ill – as it can have a very dehumanizing effect.  Interestingly enough, while this method of interviewing is still popular (and was the RAGE in the late 90’s early 2000’s) there have been more recent articles written about the problems of this style and possibly better ways of hiring.

For instance, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell says this method would likely not find the next Steve Jobs – and that he would not likely be hired by anyone today using similar methods.  For creative jobs, he believes in finding the person’s passion is more important.  Others have suggested that we actually get more narrow and hire by their knowledge of an important algorithm a company needs vs more general principles.

Either way, the fun part for me were the questions themselves.  There was a list of Google interview puzzles that I liked too.  Here’s a collection of some of the more interesting ones in his book, and from other sources.  I find they break down into three categories – Fermi problems, hypothetical problem solving, and deducible problems:

Deducible problems:  These are designed to see how good your raw deductive skills are:

  1. A country that only wants boys, every family continues to have children until they have a boy. If they have a girl, they have another child. If they have a boy, they stop. What is the proportion of boys to girls in the country?
  2. How many times in a day do a clock’s hands overlap?
  3. Explain the meaning and relevance of the term ‘dead beef’ as it relates to programming/debugging.
  4. You need to check that your friend, Bob, has your correct phone number but you cannot ask him directly. You must write the question on a card which and give it to Eve who will take the card to Bob and return the answer to you. What must you write on the card, besides the question, to ensure Bob can encode the message so that Eve cannot read your phone number?
  5. How many places on the earth can you walk 1 mile north, 1 mile west, and 1 mile south and end up at the same place? (hint, its far more than just 1 place)

Problem solving:  These are designed to see how you would attack a problem and your thought process:

  1. Design an evacuation plan for San Francisco
  2. You’re the captain of a pirate ship and your crew gets to vote on how the gold is divided up. If fewer than half of the pirates agree with you, you die. How do you recommend apportioning the gold in such a way that you get a good share of the booty, but still survive?
  3. You have eight balls all of the same size 7 of them weigh the same, and one of them weighs slightly more. How can you find the ball that is heavier by using a balance and only two weighings?
  4. You are given 2 identical eggs. You have access to a 100-story building. The eggs can be very hard or very fragile means it may break if dropped from the first floor or may not even break if dropped from 100th floor. You need to figure out the highest floor of a 100-story building an egg can be dropped without breaking. The question is how many drops you need to make. You are allowed to break 2 eggs in the process.
Running Man – Stephen King

Running Man – Stephen King

I’ve been on a big 80’s kick since reading Ready Player One.  I even went to the library and picked up a copy of The Running Man movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger.  But I also knew that there was a book version – which I’d never read.  So, I pick up the audio-book version from the library too; and off we go.

The book itself is quite short – only 6 audio CD’s.  Apparently King wrote the story in 48 hours or so.  It’s definitely got the feel of a longer short story to it.

Story:
It’s the year 2025.   The dystopian society is split between haves and have-nots. Ben Richards’ is in the latter group. He’s been blacklisted from most jobs after protesting conditions at a plant with leaky radiation shields that makes everyone sterile.  His wife has had to resort to hooking to pay the bills and his baby daughter lies seriously ill.  Desperate and at the end of his rope, Richards goes to the all-powerful media station ICS and tries out for one of their sadistic reality shows in hopes of earning enough money to save his daughter and free his wife from her state.

Richards shows up in a mass of people also desperate for a chance at cash.  After passing through hoop after hoop of evaluations, he is selected for the biggest of all the games, “The Running Man.” He is given a few thousand dollars to start, is dumped on the street outside the building with a 24 hour grace period, and then becomes the quarry in a 30 day hunt.  For each day he evades his pursuers, his family earns a large sum of money.  If he doesn’t evade them – it won’t matter because he’ll be dead.

It seems like suicide, since nobody has ever survived more than 8 days.  The network requires Ben to mail in 2 videos a day – which allows them to track him.  His face is plastered on the TV every night with dastardly satire and stories conjured up about him to get the whole country screaming for his death.  Unlike the movie, the chase happens in the open – anywhere in the country and the public are offered rewards for reporting him and for confirmed sightings.

Without giving away too much, Ben manages to stay a little ahead of his captors with tons of action and plenty of violence.  The stalkers in the book aren’t the comic-book style stalkers found in the movie.  They’re regular police and anonymous hunters that are never really described.  He hides in regular hotels, runs through streets, hides in the woods.  Yet, he manages to find a few sympathetic people who help him in evading capture. There’s lots of good social commentary during these moments since those that help him are some of the very poor of the poor.  The most downtrodden.

Eventually, however, Richards is inevitably cornered and the final showdown takes place.  The playout of those confrontations (more than one!) are very good.  King gives you get a peek into the minds of these all-in poker players raising and re-raising each other again and again.  Each side makes shocking and unexpected moves.  When the cards are finally laid on the table, what is revealed is shocking and Richard’s response is no less so.  It’s an excellent bit of psychology and imaginative writing that keeps you quite at the edge of your seat.   While the final resolution feels just a little forced, it is still quite good.

Recommendation:
Overall, I really liked the book.  In some ways, I liked the movie better (a set playing field, comic-book style stalkers, etc).  But the dsytopia that is painted in this book is raw and very believable.  There’s a lot of excellent social commentary on where we’re going as a people when societies are split so badly between the haves and have-nots; and where we go when we stop valuing people as human beings of equal dignity and just see the downtrodden as annoying grime left in the cracks.  I give the book a solid A- and recommended read.

 

Ready Player One by

Ready Player One by

Another audio book down!  This time it’s Ready Player One by Earnest Cline.

Plot:
The year is 2044 and the world has not fared well. A global recession has struck and poverty is rampant with all resources scarce.  The protagonist of this story is an 18 year old named Wade Watts who has fared worse than most. Wade lives in abject poverty with his abusive aunt who simply keeps him around for extra food vouchers. Wade has one escape – the OASIS.  The OASIS started as a massively online multiplayer game, but has become all things in this dystopia. He goes to school there, works there, and plays there.
Yet the OASIS has no leader.  It’s creator, an unbelievably rich and reclusive programmer, James Halliday has died and left an easter egg in this world of the OASIS.  The person who finds it gets control of the OASIS, and all his worldly goods – a sum of billions of dollars.  Wade becomes a ‘gunter (egg hunter) in his spare time.  Hunting down the egg has gone on for years with little progress.  It requires the collecting of 3 keys – and each key is hidden and protected with challenges.  Halliday’s only hints lay in his obsession with all things 80’s: movies, D&D, music, styles and most importantly, their games.
While the independent Gunters are searching for the egg, so are the Sixers – a group of corporate lackeys – that are out to get the egg for themselves and change the utopian free OASIS into a commercial vehicle.  So the race is on.  Will Wade (Parzival as his avatar is known), along with fellow hunters Aech and Art3mis beat the Sixers and win the most amazing game prize ever?

Summary:
This was one of the most enjoyable reads I’d had in a long time.  I was apprehensive when I read that it was a book about 80’s culture and games.  Often times the well-meaning author butchers or panders the topic.  But not so with this book Every great 80’s reference to classic cult/nerd content is there: Dungeons and Dragons, movies such as Wargames and The Quest for the Holy Grail, classic video games such as pac-man, and joust, and music and pop-icons such as Max Headroom and the Cap’n Crunch hacker – as well as more modern advancements such as massively multiplayer online games.  All the greats are in there in all their shining glory.

Best of all, Earnest Cline was clearly a lover and know-er of all these as well – his descriptions and treatment of each piece of history is accurate and spoken of with the same reverence as I knew and loved them.  As a nerdy child of the 80’s, I loved this trip through memory lane – and it’s clear Cline was just as much a lover.  I found myself knowing and able to play along as Wade walked through the challenges and puzzles.  I too had run the D&D dungeon The Tomb of Horrors, had played through some of the PC-based games he mentions – although I was not a very good master of classic arcade games.  Still, watching the young Wade and others of his generation learn to fall in love with the awesomeness of the 80’s was like falling in love again myself.  It made me want to whip out my old D&D set, pull out my Tandy coco and play Dungeons of Daggorath (which I DO have a copy of and a working Tandy!), and all the other great games and adventures I had as a kid.  It re-vitalized and reminded me of why I got into computers all those years ago.

I give this book a solid A.  Sure, it’s not a heady examination of the deeper things of life nor Pulitzer-quality writing – but it’s an absolutely romp if you were a child (and especially a nerdy child) of the 80’s.  I found myself sitting in the car long after I’d got home and listening to ‘just one more chapter’.  I haven’t always had that recently – and it was a great pleasure to have that much fun with a book again.

Highly recommend for the child of the 80’s