Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Phantom of the Opera

I couldn't help but hear Andrew Lloyd Webber's music playing as I made it through this book. It is a pretty easy read, though it tends to go off in tangents. It is also difficult to place. There is the underlying love story. Christine is torn between the "real life" love of a found childhood friend, and the "phantom" love of the angel of music. However, the "romance" is downplayed, and not the primary point of the book.

Then there is the "opera" itself. The opera "structure" itself is grandiose. (Was it really normal for operas to have so many stables, passages, etc.?) The attendees all dressed their very best, and concerned themselves with the very minutia of finery.

And of course, we have the ghost story. Like, the love story, this part is also downplayed. Many people just seem to acknowledge the presence of the opera ghost. "Sure, there is a ghost. You just have to make sure you treat it right, and all will go well. If you don't, then beware. Bad things have been known to happen to those who get on his bad side.

And finally, there is the story of a brilliant anti-social nonconformist. The "ghost" is a great singer and a master craftsman. But, he is also hideously ugly, and doesn't dare show himself to anybody out in the world. The story is really about him. He lives in anonymity, and has no qualms with seriously harming others as he advances his own personal goals. He falls in love with Christine, and finally is overjoyed as she reciprocates, even allowing him to kiss her before she is dead.

The narrative is told journalisticly, with a number of "accounts" in different styles. It is hard to identify any underlying agenda for writing this novel other than entertainment. It does succeed in entertaining, even if the narrative structure can at times be difficult.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Coach Hyatt is a Riot

My daughter checked this out from the library because she likes the series. However, she put it down when she discovered it was about football.
My soon loves football, and immediately picked it up when he discovered the contents. This was the first chapter book he read.
Ironically, the theme turns out to be pro girl. The football team is getting clobbered, but then the girl joins up and they end up winning by one point. She even gets a hug at the end.
The story is cheesy and over-the-top goofy like the other books in the series. I guess the author knows his audience.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Invisible Man

A black boy starts out with idealistic views of society, but finds himself beat down by society. Both blacks and whites accept the status quo of society. He gets a scholarship to a black college, but finds himself in big trouble when he takes a white trustee to see how the "other side" lives. The trustee claims that the boy is his "destiny", but is visibly upset at seeing the continued conditions of squalor in the black community. He still maintains his idealism as he is sent to make his way in the big city. However this is shattered when he discovers that his letters of introduction say that he is a persona non grata at his college.

He then has numerous experiences in the city, and becomes primarily involved with "the brotherhood". Eventually, he even has a falling out there, and becomes "invisible". Eventually, he meets the trustee that caused his trouble. He introduces himself as the trustee's "destiny", yet the trustee fails to identify him.

He realizes that he is being used as a pawn by others to achieve their goals. When his goals are in sync with their's, he feels great. But problems occur when they start to diverge.

There is an obvious statement being made of race relations and unfulfilled promises. However, this is only one symptom of the underlying problem. In a large society, the "goals" of the group are often set by a few strong individuals. These goals may be shared by some people, but rarely does one person share everything. When the initial focus is on the areas of strong mutual agreement, things go well. But what happens when we move down to the areas of less consensus? And what happens when "theory" and "practice" come in to conflict? It is easy to encourage others to "suffer" in order to bring up the underprivileged. But opinions change when that suffering is inflicted upon oneself. What is one without power to do? And how do you deal with conflicting forces for the same "ideal"?

Alas, the narrator here simply gives up, leaving many of the large questions unanswered.

Basics of Genetics

Basics of Genetics does exactly what is advertised. It presents a comprehensive overview of the basics of genetic principles. It does not go overboard in to the detailed minutia of modern genetic theory, but does provide a solid grounding in the "evolution" of genetic thought.

Having spent significant time immersed in advanced genetics scholarship, I was not expecting much from these lectures. However, I was pleasantly surprised. She did an excellent job of explaining the basics in an easily understandable manner (with plenty of analogies and examples.) I came away with a much clearer understanding of things that I thought I already understood, as well as knowledge of ideas that I "took for granted" rather than trying to understand. The analogy of the "Rube Goldberg cookie making machine" is still stuck in my mind.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


At the doctors' office they had a "survey". Would you rather skip eating a donut or run for 30 minutes to save a couple hundred calories. Most people selected "skip donut." What? Definitely not me.

Eat a donut and go jogging. Two great things to do. Why skip both of them?

I suppose the posting of calories at chain restaurants was also not intended for people like me.

I tend to use the calories as a guide to make sure I get the most calories. When grabbing a quick sandwich at a fast food place, the $1 for 400 calories easily beats out $1 for 200. (And besides aren't they all variations on corn anyway?)

At places with real food, it helps make decisions easier. If three dishes look good, I can simply opt for the 1200 calorie one, rather than one that is only 400 calories.

Maybe "glycemic index" will be next.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Shades of Grey

Having thoroughly enjoyed every Jasper Fforde novel I've read, I had high expectations with this book. Unfortunately, I was let down. I had trouble getting involved with this book.
After reading it, I'm still not sure what it was about. I think it was some futuristic society, where shade and color play a very important role. There is also a dictatorship in place. When people don't conform, they are sent off for a "reboot". However, out heroes discover that a reboot is actually death. They want to go and reform society. In the end, however, they decide to conform like everyone else.
It also has color smuggling, arranged marriages between colors to get the proper hue, and analysis of color profiles to determine compatibility. I'm sure he spent a while thinking of this scenario. But, alas, it just didn't make a good book. And the wittiness of Ffforde's other novels just wasn't here. There was nothing to save it from its confusion.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

bcs number two

Blog Poll

Looking at the results so far this season, it is pretty clear that LSU is the best team. They beat the champions of two BCS conferences. They also went undefeated and won their own conference.

Number two is less certain. For every team with one or two losses, LSU beat them them or beat a team (that beat a team...) that beat them. Most of these wins were by a touchdown or more. (Sorry Pac-12). However, there are a few "narrow cases". Alabama was only beat by 3 points. Getting to Oklahoma State or Boise State requires a couple narrow wins.

So, Boise State, Alabama and Oklahoma State seem like the likely targets.

Who should be the #2 in the championship game?

Alabama had a narrow loss, but it was at home. And they lost directly to LSU. Even if Alabama won the championship game, there would be the argument that LSU is better. (Even with a loss, LSU would still have a better resume, and an equal record.)

Boise State lost by three points to TCU, but it was at home.

Oklahoma State, has the worst loss. However, it was by less than a touchdown, and to get the LSU chain, you also need another narrow loss by less than a touchdown. The Oklahoma State loss can also be chalked up to mitigating circumstances. It was played on the road immediately after two basketball coaches died in a plane crash. If it wasn't "football", this game could have easily been postponed. A victory by either team would be a more clear cut champion.

So, of course, this being the BCS, we will see Alabama in the championship game. Oh well.

LSU beat Alabama (3pt)
LSU beat Arkansas which beat Texas AandM (4pt) which beat Iowa State which beat Oklahoma State (6pt) (which beat all Big 12)
LSU beat Oregon which beat Stanford (which beat USC)
LSU beat Arkansas which beat Texas AandM (4pt) which beat Baylor which beat TCU (2pt) which beat Boise State (3pt)
or LSU - Arkansas - Texas AndM which beat SMU which beat TCU
LSU beat West Virginia which beat Marshall which beat Southern Miss (6pt) which beat Houston
LSU beat Arkansas which beat South Carolina which beat Clemson which beat Virginia Tech
LSU beat West Virginia which beat South Florida which beat Notre Dame which beat Michigan State (which beat Wisconsin and Michigan)
LSU beat Georgia (which beat Georgia Tech which beat Clemson)

Free Range Kids

The media has trained parents to be paranoid, thus depriving kids of the chance to be kids. This book presents a folksy tail of a mom who dared let her tween navigate by himself home on the subway - and live to tell about it. It is fun, entertaining ramble.

Parents do many stupid things in the name of "safety". Some of the concerns are shown to be total crocs. There has never been a case of somebody tampering with Halloween candy in an attempt to injure children. (The only "documented" cases were of family members often trying to use it as a ruse to collect insurance.) Yet, parents are still restricting Halloween activity. Ironically, they are encouraging more "junk" candy rather than healthy. The candy companies benefit by this false sense of danger and are thus in no hurry to fight it.

Other fears are more often grounded in "poor" math. There is an infinitesimal chance of a child being kidnapped on the way home from school. However, these kidnappings are sensational news stories. Even people that act rationally, knowing they are rare still justify driving their children. They could never live with themselves if their child happened to be the one in ten million that had something bad happen. Of course, the odds of being injured in a car accident are much greater than the odds of being kidnapped. And the consequences of inactivity. Hmm... Pollution... And what about the congestion and the potential harm caused to other pedestrians. The world just becomes a much worse place because of people's inability to properly judge the likelihood of rare events.

There are plenty of people who know this. However, they are still afraid to do things out of fear of what "other people may think". I have even heard that from neighbors. Sure school is only half mile away from home, and walking over a pedestrian freeway bridge makes walking not much longer than driving. But, they don't want to let the kids walk themselves because they are afraid of what other parents would think of them. Sigh. In example was given of a mother of a young child that asked the lady behind her (with two young children) to watch her child while she ran to get something. The second mother was later flabbergasted. "How could the first mother have trusted a total stranger? What if I would have kidnapped her child?" Of course she didn't kidnap the child, and she new she wasn't the type to do it, yet she judged the other mother as bad because she was trusted. Huh? Even had she been villainous, she would have had a difficult time trying to kidnap a child while managing two others. Irrationality at its best.

And sports. Instead of playing, kids spend more time in organized sports. However, in organized sports, they spend more time sitting around. And there is the matter of being driven there, and only competing for a few hours a week. Oops.

In some cases the busybodies are well meaning, but cause huge overreaction. The Danish mother who parked her infant-containing stroller outside a restaurant is a great example. The busybodies thought is was a great travesty to do it. Think of everything bad that could happen. Oh yes. Plenty of bad things could happen. Passerbys could call the police. The police could send you to chail. Child protective services could be called. Yep. Lots of bad stuff. All caused by our paranoia.

Perhaps relaxing the paranoia is the key to solving our government financial crisis. We just need to back off on the regulation and official "support" in society. Let kids run around. Close the streets off near school. Why not prevent parents from approaching the school grounds. (Hey, that would even help the paranoid - no adults getting near the kids.)

The author does, however, go schizo in a few places. She has a long rant against "formula-feeding guilt". People that are fed formula turn out fine. But, she highly favors seat belts and helmets. "you never know". However the more apt thing is that people have succeeded with the worst possible upbringing. If we worry to much about things, we wont necessarily make life better for the kids. However, we will make it miserable for ourselves, which in turn can make life worse for the kids.

It is time for society to back off!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Religions of the East

Religions of the East covers some of the more popular Eastern "religions". The definition of religion is important here, for some would argue that they are just philosophies and not religions. (While others that appear to be philosophies would argue that they are religions.) In these lectures they are somewhat glommed together. Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Sikhism are all covered.

The relationship between a religion and a community are also important. While a religion may be very mainstream in one area, it may be symbol of counter-cultural rebellion in another. Many of the eastern religions are much less dogmatic than western or middle-eastern religions. They often more closely resemble schools of philosophy than belief sets. (They sometimes use these characteristics to help gain inroads in the west, leading to "popular" western versions that differed significantly from the eastern versions.)

These lectures lacked some substance. There was not enough history and analysis of the belief sets and the roll that the religions have played in the society as a whole. This may be a function of trying to cram too much in to a short time period. However, there also seemed to be a little too much "fluff" in the lectures that could have been cleaned out to provide more "meat".

Building Great Sentences

Brooks Landon appears to be a talented writer. Unfortunately, he is not a great lecturer. He sounds as if he is reading a lecture test verbatim - thus it becomes difficult to tell when he is lecturing originally or simply quoting another source. Take away the delivery problems and you are left with a long, but good lecture.

In Building Great Sentences, Brooks Landon focuses on the importance of "length". He even quotes from a multipage essay that consists of a single sentence. Cumulative syntax is one of his favorites. (And we hear him mention this over and over again.) He also stresses the importance of independent style. The author's feelings should come through in the writing. There is no way to prescribe the perfect writing style (though it is often easy to identify "bad" writing. There are many good points in here, though it may have been improved by cutting its length in half.

Smiles to Go

Dudes play Monopoly, hang out and skateboard. Little sister gets in the way. Best friend has crazy family. Friend manages to do the impossible and skate down Dead Man's Hill. A Proton dies, meaning the earth may end. A girl kisses a boy. A girl has already been asked to a dance, before a boy can ask her. A boy goes to a chess tournament, and is on track to win it all, but then...

The little sister has disappeared. She, inspired by the friend, tries to skate down Dead Man's Hill. Only, she is not so talented, and takes a very nasty fall. In the hospital, she is in an induced coma, and looks absolutely miserable. Her brother then discovered that the little sister really admires and respects him, though in her own special way. She was longing for him to "pass the pebble" as part of the elementary school tradition. She his favorite black jelly beans to give to him later as a gift. (He had thought she had just been throwing them out.) And meanwhile, the girl decides that she will not go to the dance because of all that has happened. Eventually the little sister comes out, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Smiles to Go is warm-weather, slightly younger version of Who Put the Hair in My Toothbrush. Swap out skateboards with ice hockey, make the kids a little younger, and add a little bit about protons and Monopoly and you have this book. (I liked Hairbrush better.)

The proton stuff still seems a little random. It allows for a dichotomy between "proton destroyed, universe ending" and "dude skated down dead man's hill!". For teenagers, the immediate is much more important than the billion years into the future. It also helps bring out the nerdiness of the chess-champion, monopoly-loving brother.

Epochs of European Civilization: Antiquity To Renaissance

Epochs of European Civilization: Antiquity To Renaissance starts with a lecture on the Jews.

Wait a second. Israel part of Europe?

Well, geographically, it may not be. But the European geographic boundaries are arbitrary at best. Culturally, the Jewish culture has played a big role in the European state. Christianity sprung out of Israel to become the dominant religion of Europe. Even the Jews that remained played important parts in the emergence of the European power. The Jewish bankers were indispensable to the European monarchs. Even as they were persecuting Jews, they would hold on to their key financial authorities. The separation and persecution of the Jews helped them to grow stronger and develop special skills and attributes that benefited European society. (Does that mean that the integration of Jews in to modern society will hurt them?)

These lectures pay a lot of attention to the role of religion and church within the culture of Europe. This makes a lot of sense. The Catholic can be considered the de facto continuation of the Roman empire, and spent a thousand years as the dominant force in Europe. The conversion of different peoples were also significant events in the middle ages. From this perspective, the crusades were seen as a way to "unite" the disparate small kingdoms. The underlying theme helps tie together many of the other key "battles" and "events" in ancient European history and makes for very informative lectures.