Nov 182012
Memorable Moments in Slaughterhouse FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Published by Delacorte, 1969
Genres: Modern Fiction
Pages: 186
Synopsis: Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the world's great anti-war books. Centering on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.

I recently read Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.  It is commonly listed as a great American classic, widely prescribed as required reading in grade school, and often described as an anti-war novel.  My impression of it was slightly different.

I found Slaughterhouse Five to be an stark tribute to the confused nature of a human search for meaning in life, and the problems we all have when coping with grief and loss.  The protagonist of the novel, Billy Pilgrim, does not live according to a linear conception of time.  He jumps around, informing the reader of various significant moments in his life in no apparent order.  All throughout his story, the effects of war abound.  Billy lived through World War II and the Allied fire-bombing of the German city of Dresden.  The consequences of his experiences manifest in varying degrees of mental quirks and instability throughout the novel.  He is a man who knows how, when, and why he will one day die, yet who finds the inner drive to carry on and persevere.

As I was reading on my Kindle, I highlighted a few passages.  They don’t necessarily represent the core ideas of the novel, but I found them to be significant moments in the development of the plot and characters.  The first two were not written by Vonnegut, but quoted in the course of the narrative.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.




Derby described the incredible artificial weather that Earthlings sometimes create for other Earthlings when they don’t want those other Earth-lings to inhabit Earth any more. Shells were bursting in the treetops with terrific bangs, he said, showering down knives and needles and razorblades. Little lumps of lead in copper jackets were crisscrossing the woods under the shellbursts, zipping along much faster than sound.
A lot of people were being wounded or killed. So it goes.


“That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.”


Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree.  It had twenty-dollar bills for leaves.  Its flowers were government bonds.  Its fruit was diamonds.  It attracted human beings who killed each other around its roots and made very good fertilizer.  So it goes.


In any case, if you have the opportunity to pick up a copy of Slaughterhouse Five, give it a try.  It’ll be worth it.


The Old Man and the Sea

 Posted by on November 4, 2012  Modern Fiction
Nov 042012
The Old Man and the SeaThe Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Published by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952
Genres: Modern Fiction
Pages: 157
Buy this book through Amazon.
Synopsis: The Old Man and the Sea is one of Hemingway's most enduring works. Told in language of great simplicity and power, it is the story of an old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, and his supreme ordeal -- a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. (adapted from

This short and much-read classic has quite a reputation preceding it.  After reading the book, it is obvious that The Old Man and the Sea has rightfully earned all of the praise bestowed upon it.  On the surface, it is a simple tale of an old sailor’s struggle to bring in the fish he has fought while out at sea.  Yet a closer reading of Hemingway’s prose reveals much more of this novella’s message.  It tells of a man’s ability to overcome adversity, to remain focused on the “prize” despite the odds, and to reap the sweet victory of triumph.  Hemingway’s crisp, concise writing style helps to tell the old man’s adventure in a manner that is both captivating and refreshing.  But most of all, The Old Man and the Sea teaches us to make the most of the lives we have been given and to never take anything for granted.

This review was originally published at on June 21, 2009.


Nov 012012

Back in February, I participated in the Interdisciplinary Competition in Mathematics (ICM).  The ICM, which is run every year by the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications, challenges undergraduate students to devise a solution to a single, multifaceted problem.

The 2012 problem focused on dynamic network analysis – using mathematics in an attempt to analyze a network of numerous interconnected nodes, and subsequently drawing a conclusion about the network and its members.  Specifically, the problem asked competitors to analyze a network of 83 employees at a small company.  Each individual was a node in the network, and email communications between the employees comprised the links.  Several “conspirators” had already been identified within the company, and we had to use network analysis to identify other employees that might be participating.

The problem was released February 9 at 8pm, and we had until 8pm the following Monday (72 hours) to come up with a solution. I worked with two seniors (an Operations Research major and a math major who also had some background in network dynamics).  I focused on designing the logical and empirical models for identifying conspirators, the math major built network models to calculate metrics of centrality, and the O.R. major built psychological profiles of conspirators to figure out how they would interact with each other. We were allowed to use whatever resources and programs we could find, and we set our own work schedules.

Our solution was (I think) pretty good.  We received distinction as “Meritorious” participants, placing us among the top 9% of teams who submitted solutions.  None of us had participated in the ICM previously, so we were happy.  The solution itself has some application to the identification of criminals and terrorists, who might communicate within a network that also includes innocent individuals.

The ICM was actually a nice break from the regularity of the school day.  I did spend an entire weekend crunching numbers and programming in the lowest basement of Thayer Hall,  but this is West Point.  I can’t say my other weekends as a plebe were much more exciting.