“Roadside Picnic” by Arkady Strugatsky – Book Review

I read this book because I watched a film based in it, “Stalker” (1979). As usual, the book is much better than the film, and in this particular case, the book has almost nothing to do with the film. Roadside Picnic is not regular easy fiction, with beginning, middle, end, and all the sci-fi tidbits already chewed up and spit there on the paper for the reader’s digestion pleasure. When you start reading it, it feels like you’re in the middle of a book and the first pages are missing, because you can’t quite understand: all these things that the characters are talking about, where do these come from? What are this things? What happened? These questions are slowly elucidated through the characters dialogues. There are only a few occasions in Roadside Picnic where things are actually openly explained to the reader.

Half way into the book I was starting to ask myself “why on earth is this called Roadside Picnic”? Am I missing some big obvious metaphor? Then the answer to my question came in the book’s greatest philosophical passage. And after that the reading only gets more interesting… until we get to the end, that leaves you with the same feeling you had when you started the book: there must be some pages missing. Which is not a bad at all. 🙂

Norwegian Justice

A lot of people are very critical of Norway’s maximum sentence being only 21 years in the face of the mass murders this past Friday. Some are even going so far as to hope that they will raise the sentence limit and apply the new limit to the crime.


To the first part of that, within the bounds of international laws and treaties to which it is party, Norway is free to craft its justice system however it wishes. It doesn’t have to fit your idea of justice, or mine, or Burundi’s, or whatever. Furthermore Norway has a very low crime rate, so it is difficult to level much legitimate criticism at it as being dysfunctional in any systematic way.


The idea that Norway should alter itsjustice system after the fact and applying it this crime is particularly odious. Regardless of whether you think this sort of emotional knee-jerk change is justified, it is not going to happen. Known as an ex post facto law, they are forbidden by the Norwegian constitution (as well as many other countries’, including the United States’ and Brazil’s, even Iran’s).


It is not like Norway is some banana republic rife with crime and corruption. If it were, I would add my voice right along side these critics.


I am not going to that one doesn’t rewire ones justice system based on one extraordinary event, Norway may decide that is something they wish to do. I will say that doing it in the heat of the moment is nearly always a bad idea. This is the same sort of emotional spasm that led to the US congress passing, without barely a debate, the tome of civil rights pummeling laws known as the Patriot Act.


According to some ideals, 21 years is not enough, but as this is a Norwegian crime, committed in Norway, by a native of that country. It is their ideals that matter here and now.

Amy Winehouse is dead

I don’t think anyone is shocked by this news. In July 31 2008 I made a blog post in Last.fm (in portuguese) titled “Place your bets” because since then it was obvious to me that she wouldn’t last long. She actually lasted longer than I thought.

Amy Winehouse was a talented performer and composer with a unique voice that was without a doubt the greatest female singer voice to surge in pop music in many decades. Her vocal ability and peculiarity are comparable to that of great late Nina Simone. Sadly, Amy succumbed to drugs and alcohol faster and deeper than any other singer/songwriter in the past (or recent) history. Amy had her last attempt to release a new album declined by the record label, who claimed the songs were not up to her two previous albums. Imagine the impact of that in the mind of someone who is already deeply troubled. Her last musical novelty was a re-recording of “It’s my party” by Lesley Gore, a lesbian teen singer from the 60’s, which has been broadcasting in Brazilian radio stations.

Also, unlike many probably think, Amy wasn’t proud of being a drunk, drug addict mess, as she earlier expressed in an interview about which I blogged here, also in portuguese.

Amy Winehouse’s death is as much a loss to pop music as Jeff Buckley’s was to rock. Only Amy screwed up long before she died.

Rest In Peace, Amy.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – HeLa Cells

I’m finishing Rebecca Skloot’s account of the story behind the HeLa cells.  I can’t tell how much of my fascination with this book comes from the uncanniness of the story itself and how much comes from Skloot’s incredible mastery of the art of reporting a real story. It’s a non-fiction work but it looks like a work of  fiction when it gives each of its characters/facts a beginning, middle and end. It was so well written! Every phrase passed in front of my eyes like a scene from a film, a very sad film, where black people were relegated to medical apartheid and scientists and science played the great villain. When you work with people (and I know about that because I’m a doctor) sometimes it can be hard to balance professionalism and emotional detachment from the person who’s your work subject. It’s a thin line. I guess anyone who read the book can tell Rebecca Skloot got deeply involved with her research got emotionally involved with the Lacks family, and she pretty much wrote herself as a “character” into the book, in a very clever – and very professional – way. Congratulations to the author, it’s probably the best non-fiction book I have ever read.


Edited: and I should not forget to mention the book’s awesome approach to the ethics of tissue research at the end of the book.


HeLa Cells from Radiolab on Vimeo.

Podcast on HeLa cells from Radiolab

I’m in the middle of reading two books…

One is “The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements” by Sam Kean. It speaks about the development of the periodic table by telling stories the involve the use of the each element. I’m only in the beginning of the book, thus I wasn’t very surprised perhaps because the explanations were aimed (mostly) at lay people (since I studied chemistry for one and a half year…). But I was perplexed by the tale of  the exploration of Niobium and Tantalum in Congo and its repercussion. Niobium and tantalum are fundamental parts of cell phone batteries (or mostly other electronics batteries) , and are part of the root of conflict in this country – yes, the same country of the “blood diamonds”. It seems it’s not only the diamonds that are bloody after all. At this height  is there anything that comes out of Congo that is not blood tainted?


The other book I’m reading is another non-fiction called “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebbeca Skloot. 

I’m in the middle, I’m loving it and there’s so much to say about it that my comment alone would make another book! I’ll write a longer review about it after I’m finished, now all I can say is: highly recommended!

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