Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How Music Works

David Byrne rides his bike around Manhattan and plays guitar and sings in a rock band. What a life, eh?

This book contains a few different sections exploring "how music works". Part of it explores the origins of music and the impact on society and individuals. Even though music is different in various societies, it frequently plays a major role. While it once required a very individual experience, through recording and amplification it can now be mass-produced. Societies all seem to have their "popular music".

Another section provides a biography of the author's experience in music. He describes how he started playing instruments, how he formed a band, and how the creation process worked. He later spends some time describing the economics of the music industry itself. Detailed examples are given of how band can help their music to get out there. Now the barriers to entry are supposedly much lower. However, getting people to find music remains a difficult task.

The final section deals with music's role in modern culture and the place of music in education. Music is deemed to be important due to its creative impact. Byrne criticises focus on certain types of "received" music. Instead, people should be encouraged to make music themselves. Playing an instrument is more useful than "appreciating" a type of music that you don't care for. You may eventually decide to explore Beethoven or African drum music. The music that impacts and individual person will be different. Even classical music was closely tied to its place, with the music evolving to fit its appropriate venues. Even commercial pop can have its place.

Recording and electronics have changed how people can play or listen to music. (Vibrato on string instruments was mentioned as a response to music recording.) Things are still evolving. The personal way in which you experience music can be just as important as the music itself.

The book is more a series of independent long essays than a unified work. The last essay on arts education and society was a little dry, but all the others were well written. After reading, I googled my old high school band director. I found that he was promoted to "fine arts director" at the high school, only to have the position eliminated 2 years later. (The positions seems to have been created a few decades earlier for another retiring band director. And it was filled by his replacement afterwards. Poor timing with the whole no-child left behind thing.)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us

I'm not much of a fan of "evidence-based medicine". Yes, there are lots of good advances that have come about out of it. But, there is also plenty of bias that has been built in to the system. It is geared towards finding isolated drugs that have a certain impact on the general population. This may be the "best" that can easily be done today, but it is far from ideal. The "treatments" often distract people from the well known (but harder to follow) "cures" that can be achieved by appropriate lifestyle changes.

The bias towards chemicals also leads to a disregard of ways in which the human body can influence itself. Some people may have better ability to cause changes in their health themselves. However, the studies typically try to remove these "outliers" from the double-blind studies so they can focus only on the specific treatments. Even studies that attempt to be purely objective require a huge amount of interpretation. There are numerous places that bias can creep in. Large meta-studies allow an even greater chance to make the data fit one's own beliefs. (There is always something "horribly wrong" with the methodology or results of the contradictory study.)

With all that being said, I approached these lectures with trepidation. Was this going to be another one of those pandering medical lectures? Was he going to come out and say "the current accepted medical wisdom is 100% correct and everything else (including last decade's accepted wisdom) is all quackery? Luckily, it wasn't so bad. There was actually some good information in here - with only a few contradictions.

First the problems. Other than the general issues with evidence-based medicine, there were some problems with "out-of-domain" coverage. (This was all the more humorous as it followed a criticism of some doctors for attempting to influence policy outside the medical domain.) GMO plants are given as pass as being "just as healthy" as non-GMO plants. You would hope so. However, the problem with GMO is not so much the impact on the food source but on the environment as a whole. How will the GMO plants impact the overall ecosystem? This is a question outside the domain of medicine. Similarly, organic plants were found to have little health differentiation from non-organic plants. Some of the "organic" pesticides were criticized as being "Worse" than the traditional alternatives. Again, this is going outside the domain. While, the organic standards due tend to be somewhat arbitrary, a doctor is not any more qualified than a farm worker to discuss their specific impact.

Discussions of ADHD and Autism were also interesting. They are both on a continuum, so the diagnosis is somewhat subjective. Treatment is seen as something that can help people coping with these to succeed in our society. (Though perhaps we need to ask the question as to why they need to. Aren't we in a society that prides itself on diversity.) The increase in both (especially ADHD) is claimed to be due to better diagnosis. (But you have to wonder what other diseases would be more common with better diagnosis.)

Other areas were a little better. He did a fairly decent job of covering many medical "myths" and providing the studies that backed up the alternatives. Often times popular culture or media influenced false perceptions (like of hypnosis.) There are also many folk remedies that have no basis in the "evidence-based" medicine culture, while others have been shown to be effective. (I wonder about the origins of some of the ineffective ones. Were they always "quackery", or were they previously effective remedies that had been stripped of their "effectiveness" over time. (Perhaps a key ingredient in a concoction was substituted, living the new remedy less effective.)

Overall, the lectures were not bad. Sure, they were biased towards meta-studies, but they did contain plenty of decent information.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs

This was Heinlein's first book, yet it was not published until after his death. It is nominally a science fiction book. However, in reality it is a platform for the Heinlein's political beliefs. It starts with a guy driving in the summer of 1938. He gets in a crash and suddenly finds himself rescued in the winter of 2068. The protagonist gets to know his rescuer and his new world. That's about it for the plot.

The new world is a Heinlein libertarian utopia. Europe has been pretty much destroyed by wars and their aftermath. The US has an isolationist policy with a new "economy". (Bankers are evil.) There was a war against south america that killed off most bankers and led to the better government. People can do what they want. The government prints money. People get a regular subsidy and can work whenever they want to. (and not work when they don't want to.) Family relationships and clothing are optional. Public and private life are separated.

The book contains long treatises on the economics and other points of view. This seems like an academic paper that was then transformed into a novel. Alas, there are huge flaws in the "world" he envisions, but it is always nice to dream. Exploring the world in a novel is much more interesting than writing a dry economic paper. Perhaps the best way to criticize it would be to write a novel where a society attempted to implement the Heinlein utopia with disastrous results.

College Football Playoffs

It likes like we will again have an SEC team play in the BCS championship game. Auburn vs. Florida State. Yawn. The SEC manages to continue to play in the championship game because the conference has a reputation of winning it. The strict formula of rankings and ratings almost guarantees it.
Luckily, next year there will be a college football playoff, albeit only of 4 teams. The teams will be chosen by a committee rather than a formula. Hopefully this will give us a better set of teams.

How would we pick teams if we did it this year?

Well, Florida State would definitely be in. They are the only undefeated team. Undefeated teams should always make it to the playoff. Otherwise there will still be other claimants to the championship. Even if a team such as Northern Illinois makes it through undefeated, they should be in the playoff.

After Florida State, we need to use some tools to find the best teams. The conference championships can be helpful for picking participants. Pac12, Big10, SEC, ACC, Mountain West, MAC and C-USA all have a championship game. While we can't include the winner of each game, we can reasonably exclude the losers. (We could consider it as a play-in round.)

The SEC and Pac12 have been the strongest conferences this year, so their champions should get the first look. Do they pass the smell test? Auburn's lone loss has by a couple touchdowns, but it came back in September. They have the best record in the conference, and have beat the next-best teams (Alabama and Missouri) in their last two games. Looks good.

Stanford has two losses. However, they have played one of toughest schedules in the country (#4 by Sagarin - the only teams with tougher schedules are teams that Stanford defeated.) They have more victories over Sagarin top-10 (3) and Sagarin top-30 (6) teams than any other team. The two losses were both close (and could have been wins if a single play would have gone a different way.) They have recovered from their last loss with 3 victories, including the last two against top-25 teams, with the most recent a strong road win over Arizona State. Also looks good.

Now who do we get for the last spot? Oregon and Alabama were both early season favorites with records equal to Auburn and Stanford. Alabama's loss came on a time-expired kickoff return. However, that was the last game they played. (Do we call it a play in game?) Oregon's loss to Stanford was more of a drubbing. Since then, they lost one more game, and had to struggle to beat rival Oregon State.

Michigan State is the Big-10 champion. Their lone loss was a 4 point defeat at Notre Dame. However, the recent victory over Ohio State is the lone signature win. Other than that, they have just a trio of wins over 8-4 teams that are worth talking about. Yet, they have beat all teams by at least 10 points. Maybe.

Baylor is the 1-loss Big-12 champion. However, their loss 32-point loss to Oklahoma State was just a few weeks ago. They also won a close game at TCU last week. Their signature win was over 2-loss Oklahoma. Other than that, there is just a win over an 8-4 Texas. Sorry Bears.

What about the AAC? Louisville and UCF both have a single loss from early in the season. Alas, they lack signature victories. UCF's best win was against Louisville. And then 8-4 Houston is it. For Louisville, its 9-3 Cincinnati and 8-4 Houston. Meh. Neither team has been dominating their opponents.

Northern Illinois has one loss, but that was in the MAC championship game. Fresno State lost one game, but that was last week. Neither team has played a very strong schedule. C-USA champion Rice has 3 losses. The top Independents are 8-4 BYU and Notre Dame. Sun Belt Champion Louisiana-Lafayette has 4 losses.

Without a better option, the fourth spot comes down to a battle between Alabama and Michigan State. They both suffered a narrow road loss to a good team. Alabama would be a strong pick and the likely higher-ranked team. However, their last game was a loss and their opponent is represented in the playoff. Why have a rematch when their are better options? Thus, the spot would go to Michigan State.

Thus the playoff would be:
#1 Florida State vs #4 Michigan State
#2 Auburn vs #3 Stanford

As it turns out, this year, all four teams will likely be playing in the Rose bowl, with Michigan State vs Stanford in the Rose Bowl game, and Florida State likely playing against Auburn in the championship game the next week. Perhaps we just need one more after that to declare a champion.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Don Quixote

Quick! How many Spanish novels can you name that are more than 100 years old? Yeah, I didn't get much past Don Quixote either. There is a reason it has survived and has been named one of the best books of all time. It is really good.

The modern version was actually written as two books. The first book contains the classic Don Quixote stories. He fights windmills and thinks he is a noble night and all that fun stuff. In the second book, most everybody has read the first book and is enthralled with the character of Don Quixote. We get many elaborate ruses created by people to allow Don Quixote to be his entertaining self. (Alas we also get a more rambling narrative.)

Reading the book in a modern translation is the way to go. The language is "fresh" and modern, similar to how it would have been to the original readers. Don Quixote himself, however, talks in a more flowery, archaic language. Sancho Panza is constantly quoting and misquoting popular sayings. It all makes for a very entertaining book that is easily accessible to the modern reader.

You can easily picture a Monty Python crew acting out some of the different scenes. The story has a slight plot, but that is really just a thread to hold together a series of crazy adventures. Sancho Panza knows that Don Quixote is mad. Yet, he follows him and participates in his crazy adventures in hopes of receiving wealth and positions. In the process he chances on just enough to keep him continuing on his quest (in spite of all the negative things that befall him.)

There are also elaborate sub-stories within the story. (The "man who was recklessly curious" comes to mind.) At one time Sancho Panza becomes a governor (as part of a Duke's ruse.) He does a surprisingly good job, dispensing bits of wisdom and resolving some difficult cases. (He uncovers coins hid in a cane in one story. On another, he asks a woman to defend her virtue as well as she does her purse.)

Throughout these adventures, some of Don Quixote's friends try to cure their friend's madness. However, many of their attempts end up backfiring as he win's mock duels or manages to complete quests. Finally, near the end of the book, a friend (dressed as a knight) defeats Don Quixote in battle and forces him to give up Knight Errantry. Don Quixote then goes home and "repents" of his madness - and promptly dies. Perhaps his madness was all that was sustaining him.

The episodes (especially in the first book) are tied together well in a narrative. (Most also stand alone quite well.) As entertainment, it still works well today. There is also plenty of commentary on human nature as well as the society of Spain of Cervantes day. Altogether, this remains a classic.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained

Sea Salt may not differ a whole lot from table salt. (And on the west coast, it may be the same.) "Raw" sugar has already been pretty well refined. This and many other interesting tidbits related to food and cooking are contained in this book.

While I listened to the audiobook, this is one of those books that would be good to have sitting in bathroom to pick up and read interesting chapters. It contains plenty of interesting tidbits about the art and science of cooking. To cover a few additional ones: Microwaving and rolling lemons doesn't increase the juice in lemons. However, it makes it easier to hand squeeze more juice out. Microwaves cook by exciting molecules. Silver would make the best frying pan, but it is a little on the expensive side.

There are plenty of additional tidbits regarding food and cooking that can be read in just about any order you desire. They are divided into sections that cover a number of different aspects of food preparation and eating.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

American Religious History

American Religious History provides an overview of religion and its role in religious history. Religious has remained one of the most religious major economies. Most European countries have seen a great fall in religiosity as the economy boomed. America, however, has factors that have caused it to hold on to religion. One factor may be the establishment clause that prevents the country from establishing a religion.

In many European countries, a single religion is supported by the state. If people are upset with the state, they tend to be upset with the church also. By not supporting a religion the US may allow people to maintain the religion even when they object to the state.

The religions also have an important social role. Americans tend to be more on the move, and a particular congregation can be a social outlet in a new location. This is especially important for immigrants moving into the country. (They may congregate in the church from their homeland.)

I loved how these lectures went through the history of the United States with a focus on religion. This helped provide a better understanding of the events and the evolution of religious practice in the US. Many religions were imported from the old world and gradually modified to meet the needs of the new world. Other religions sprouted up locally, especially during the great awakening. The key to survival was often whether they could be successfully passed on to the younger generations.

Religion was important in the founding of the colonies for different reasons. At the time respecting and tolerating other beliefs was often seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Thus, various religious groups tended to run different colonies. (This also led to the creation of tolerant colonies.) Even nominally unreligious orators would use religious rhetoric to speak to the masses.

The civil war was a deeply religious war. The conflict was predicted by the separation of the churches into pro-slavery southern wings and anti-slavery southern wings. Each side thought they were fighting for God's justice as they knew it.

Religion also tends to converge. At times there would be a different catholic church for each group of immigrants. Gradually these converged to be just "Catholic". Similarly, Christianity as a whole has began to become more united as Islam and other non-Christian religions become more prevalent. However, each different sect retains its unique aspects contributing to a engaging history.

Filter Bubble

Companies like Google, Facebook, Axiom and Blue Kai know a lot about you. They can use this to taylor websites and advertising to individual users. This can have serious impact on our society.

Huge amounts of information are produced every day. Determining what is relevant is a huge challenge. That is where algorithms come in. Google taylors search results to the individual users. Facebook's news feed is based on what it thinks users are interested in seeing. Advertisers and retailers also customize their online promotions based on what they think users will be interested in seeing. This can cause people to reside in a "bubble" where they only see things that they like. They may not see opposing viewpoints or anything that allows them to think. This is even more worrisome since most of this data filtering is done transparently without users knowing they are living in a bubble. (Perhaps this is a form of "mind control" where the big companies can gradually nudge people in a direction they would like.)

Personalization is treated as a "black box" by most companies. The companies themselves may not even know exactly what results are being returned. They can tweak algorithms based on feedback. However, they probably could not tell exactly what type of results would be returned. The algorithms can use various different data points to personalize. Thus, even if a user is not logged on, their location, computer or web browser could identify them and provide personalized results.

This book rambles on to sound the alarm against "filter bubbles" that allow individuals to live in their isolated worlds filtered to provide what they want. This will keep out information from opposing viewpoints. It will also tend to stock them up with the most "sensational" junk-food content rather than the "good for you content." This could result in a dumbing down of society as people don't work their brains to get around new thoughts. Also, it can make it more difficult for new thoughts and media to get out there. (Since discovery is often based on "likes", only things most like what already exist will tend to get more exposure. Thus, even though it is theoretically easier for new things to be discovered, it is actually much more difficult to find innovation.

The filter bubble is often transparent to users, and can gradually steer content to more extreme viewpoints. This can lead to highly cantankerous partisan discussions. (Since each side is not exposed to the opposing view, they not even understand how others can feel that way.) Even worse, people wont realize they are living in the filter bubble and assume that everybody else is receiving the same information. Discovering "new" ideas can actually be more difficult than it was in the days when everybody was force-fed the same broadcasts.

I was expecting this book to be a discussion of the difficulty we have today of "filtering" through all the information out there. Instead, it focussed on the danger of a personalized web. The two are tightly related. However, this book seemed to spend a lot of time rambling from bullet point to bullet point. It contained plenty of good ideas, but the connections where not very strong.

The amount of information out there is enormous. Discovering useful information is becoming more and more difficult. The quantity of "junk" out there seems to be growing at a faster rate than the amount of useful data. Fifteen years ago, it was easy to put a website out there and get visitors interested in the content. You might get a few random spammers or bots, but most traffic was legitimate. Similarly, if you wanted to search for something, you could use one of the numerous search engines and find relevant sites. The search results may contain a bunch of sites that you were not interested in, but this was more a result of bad algorithms than bad sites.

Today, however, there is so much junk out there. You may have to wade through numerous spam and junk sites to get to the site you want. People are much less likely to find a site that somebody just put up. I see more traffic on this blog than on my proto-blog from 1996. However, the quality of traffic seems to be much worse (at least judging from the ratio of real comments to spam comments.) It is harder to discover quality new content. And it is harder for quality new content to be discovered.

I find myself spending more time on "established" sites. They may occasionally guide me to independent sites. However, they are more likely to simply direct to other well-known commercial sites. With so much information out there, curation has to be done somewhere. I don't have the time to do it (or even to create an algorithm to do it.) I'm dependent on somebody to do it for me. Since this is a huge undertaking, these "somebodies" will likely be large corporations that need to earn money. Since I am cheep, putting up with advertising is my most likely "payment". This puts me in a position vulnerable to being influenced by whatever the corporation or the advertisers desire. (Ironically, at the same time the internet is giving away unlimited content for the price of advertising, broadcast media has become more reliant on "subscriber fees" as part of its business model.) Thus, we become subject to whatever whims the big algorithms have. Is this really much different from being beholden to the broadcaster's desires? At least with the broadcasters, we were likely to find something new we liked. With personalization we can find ourselves further ghettoized. (I'm often finding that problem with online radio. I can create a station that plays songs I like within a very narrowly defined range. However, I get sick of the same type of music and want more variety. However, it is difficult to get variety without a bunch of junk. I'd almost prefer to have a DJ picking the music for me.) I still haven't found a recommendation engine that does a really good job. With the glut of information out there, one of the big challenge is filtering the unique from the derivative. Perhaps now is the time to reinvent the web.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Forward the Foundation

Forward the Foundation is the final book that Asimov published. It deals with Hari Seldon as he ages and develops his psychohistory. Along the way, he sees almost everyone close to him leave this world before him. His wife is shown to be a robot and destroyed by somebody that didn't like her. (This book hints at her super-human strength and lack of aging, but he appear to not know that she is one until her destruction.) The "robot" minister leaves (leaving Hari as the minister.) The emperor is assassinated. His closest psychohistory coworker dies from overwork. His adopted son dies in a rebellion, while his daughter-in-law and one daughter are "lost in space." Hari himself eventually dies at the end.

The galactic empire gradually starts to fall apart. Asimov appears to be espousing some of his politics in the view of how it happens. The beauracracy (and especially taxation mechanism) grows too big. Dissafection and corruption within lead to major events without. Police and security become too independent. Democratic institutions slow real progress.

Eventually, Hari discovers that his granddaughter is a mind reader. She locates some other "mentalics" and these people are used to set up the second foundation. They also use their power of persuasion to help get access to the library and get the funds needed to set up the first foundation to create the galactic encyclopedia at the end of Galaxy.

The "science fiction" in this story is rather weak. Computers are seen as something through the "mainframe age", seeming to be less advanced than they are today. Asimov's obsession with robots grants them strange significance. Psychohistory does seem somewhat plausible. However, it is more an issue with getting all the needed datapoints than crafting intricate equations. (and why would people care so much about it?) Mind reading and pushing? Yeah I guess that could be interesting.

The story is, however, more about growing old. Hari is concerned with his age. We have sections as he reaches each decade of life. The "big picture" events in the plot all seem a little too contrived to be believable. A few people always seem to know exactly what needs to be done at a certain point in time, whether for good or for bad. The dumb luck and predictive power play too important of a role to be believable. In the end, Seldon manages to survive to create the foundation that can save the world from millenia of fighting. But, he still dies. It makes for an ok story. (At least he wasn't hunting for earth!) However, missing it is no great loss.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Foundation's Edge

This was the first of the "written because there was fan demand" foundation books. It seemed better than the other two that I have read. However, it deals with similar themes and the story of finding planet earth.

Here we have parallel stories of both the first and second foundation. Members of each fall out of favor with their group and are sent on missions. They end up finding each other on Gaia, where one has been "recruited" to make a decision on the course of humanity. He decides on "galaxia" instead of the basic Seldon plan. This most of "chosen" to provide for the "free choice" rather than forceful adoption. People of Gaia are all independent parts of a collective. However, they must chose to do that. (The Mule from the main Foundation books was a rougue escapee from there.) Through the mind control mechanism, the others have been send back thinking they have eeked out a minor victory.

There seems to be some concern here with institutions becoming too old and set in their ways. New blood is needed to invigorate them. However, the old blood often tries to push out the more radical ideas. The desire of individual legacy can often interfere with the long term goals of the institution itself.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink

This book starts out well. It details the origins and early history of the Coca Cola company. It places the beverage and the company clearly in its place and time and debunks some of the "creation myths" that are commonly proffered. It then brings it towards today, detailing many of the social and legal struggles that it has faced as it has grown to be the behemoth it is today. There were plenty of unsavory characters and actions in the process. However, there were also many innovations that were carried out well.

After spending the first third of the book on the narrative it begins to focus on contemporary issues. The battle over obesity and childhood marketing is well described. Coke clearly provides a beverage that provides minimal nutritional value and is consumed primarily due to the marketing. Coke has signed marketing agreements to "force" school children to have only access to coke products in return to much needed funds for schools. (However, this often exposes them to the very beverages that they are taught to avoid.) High fructose corn syrup-laden beverages have also been shown to encourage people to consume more calories and their consumption appears correlated with increases in obesity.)

Bottled water is also an issue. Coke has tried to branch out into the "healthy" beverage. However, they don't want to cannibalize the sales of their sugary beverages, so they end up positioning it as an alternative to tap water. This creates problems, because there water is primarily glorified tap water. Most consumers can't even tell the difference in the water. Instead of replacing sugary drinks with bottled water, most people end up replacing tap water. This results in increased pollution (due to the production and shipping of the bottles). It also costs a whole lot more. Coke is criticized for this behavior. (However, the whole industry blame. There are also cultural issues. I don't think I've seen a single water fountain in China, pretty much forcing you to buy bottled water if you have not carried it yourself.)

The final section on international and labor issues takes up the bulk of the book. Alas, this presents the least convincing argument. I found myself siding more with the company in this section. The "allegations" seems to center around a couple circumstantial accusations that are repeated ad nauseum by activists to further their agenda. In many cases it seems that they are attacking Coke for something that commonly occurs everywhere in the country. Sure, the big multinational may be easy to blame, but often their behavior is "above average" for the country. What good does it do to simply replace Pepsi with Coke in the US because some union in Colombia had issues with paramilitaries years ago. This could discourage any further change (because they will still be attacked for old problems.) It could also benefit other big companies that have similar problems.

Cut off the last section and this book is a great history and expose of Coke. The last section, alas dilutes the argument. However, you still find yourself amazed that one company has convinced so many people to drink a beverage that isn't nutrition and doesn't taste good.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Nurtureshock analyzes some trends in child-rearing and refutes many commonly accepted notions. They use scientific studies to refute fads (which were started in part due to other scientific studies.)

One section talks about praise. It was assumed that praise helps kids to succeed, while criticism causes them to fail. However, it turns out that it is how it is done that is more important. Praising a kid for being "smart" will often cause them to give up earlier rather trying hard to learn difficult subjects. Praising them for being a hard worker is more likely to encourage additional hard work. Similarly encouraging them to analyze areas and self-improve will produce better results than simply praising for good work.

There is also plenty of analysis of our educational system. Gifted programs and private schools often use a cognitive test on young children to grant admission. However, these are very poor predictors at young ages. Programs also lack mechanisms for kids to "leave" the program. (What would happen if they just assigned random people to be "gifted".)

Early preschool programs are also shown to have minimal long-term impact. In the short-term, preschoolers see improvement. However, this improvement tapers off in the long term. (This is likely a case of confusing cause and effect. Kids that attend preschool tend to have more supportive parents and thus perform better.)

Lack of sleep has been shown to have an extremely negative impact on younger children and adolescents. However, in an attempt to help them to succeed, many parents are overscheduling their children, reducing sleep.

The analysis of spanking best encapsulates the book. Studies have shown that spanking has a negative impact on children. However, studies among black and evangelical Christians show no negative impact. It seems that if spanking is a normal part of the culture, it is ok. However, if the parents view it as a negative aberration, it is bad.

TV and media also have an unexpected impact. Some violent shows show a small increase in physical violence among children. However, peaceful "educational" shows such as Arthur often show an even more dramatic increase in negative relational behavior among children. They see the negative behavior modeled and duplicate it (yet don't grasp that they are actually supposed to be following the "solution" not the negative behavior.) These even extends to books such as Berenstein Bears that are supposed to be teaching positive traits, but spend much of the time modeling the bad trait.

There are many studies about raising children out there. However, children are a diverse group. What works for one may not work for another. There is also the matter of understanding the details. Fads often attempt to find the key "thing" that helps produce great children. However, it is often a complete package that is needed. With children it is often the case that "positive characteristics" and "negative characteristics" run perpendicular rather than on a continuum. Kids may have a lot of a "bad characteristic" as well as a lot of its "opposite". Increasing the good may not reduce the bad.

Perhaps using "instinct" to parent is not so bad after all - as long as it has not been corrupted by scientific studies.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Eye of the World

I really liked Brandon Sanderson's young adult Alcatraz books. That inspired me to try out some of his mistborn books, despite my poor experience with other high fantasy. They were actually good books (though not quite up to the Alcatraz quality.) Sanderson has also written the final books in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. He was chosen to do so after Jordan's widow was impressed by his Mistborn books. I want to read the Sanderson books. However, since they are in the end of the series, it would probably be best to start with book one. Hopefully the series would be as good as Sanderson's.

Thus, I am starting on Eye of the World. The book is really slow going. I'm halfway through and not a whole lot has happened so far. There has been some conflict. People fled a village. There is some gender-linked magic. There are some half-human monsters that fight.

Now I've made it to the end, and there still hasn't been a whole lot of stuff happening. Its tough to understand what the purpose was of all the words. The characters seem fairly flat, the action is pedestrian. I fell asleep listening to part of the audiobook and didn't seem to miss much. Apparently, Jordan tried to write his novel in the style of Tolkien. At least he got the tedium part right.

There are people out there that like the work of Tolkien and Jordan. Alas, I am not one of them. If they were shorter books, I might consider slogging through. But a dozen big fat novels? Nope. I think I'll be skipping to the end to get to Sanderson's novels. At least has a track record of fantasy that I can handle.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Foundation and Earth

This is one of the "later" foundations books that Asimov wrote because people wanted to write them. We start with Travize on Gaia. Gaia is a collective mind where everybody shares the thoughts of everyone else, whether they be thoughts or emotions. Travize is going on a mission to try to find the legendary planet Earth.

Most of the novel consists of the group traveling around ancient, "uncharted" planets trying to find earth. Asimov uses this as a route to explore how isolated societies can fall. We have one planet that is now devoid of people, but now ruled by dogs and other carnivores. Another planet has people that have become hermaphrodites in order to not require the interaction with other humans and obtain maximal "personal freedom". (They also produce power on their own through 'tranducer lobes'.) Another society has a primitive culture that has advances in biotechnology and weather manipulation. They seem very peaceful. However, in order to maintain their their isolation, they inflict visitors with a deadly virus.

And so the novel goes, exploring these and a few other planets in order to find out more about the legendary earth (and hopefully find earth itself.) The exploration suffers from being very tied into the time Asimov's writings. These societies are separated by vast distances of space and time, yet they are very late-20th century in their outlook and behaviors. A "primitive" society looks a lot like 18th century Polynesia, despite being settled from earth many years in our future. (They also manage to maintain the same language despite thousands of year of time passing.) There are occasional "big differences" in technology, but somehow these don't cause any alterations to the society beyond their direct impacts.

Eventually the protagonists find earth. However, as in the legends, it appears to be too radioactive to support life. However, through something that looks like happenstance they end up on the moon, where a 20,000 year old robot has been manipulating human activity for some time.

The robot is on its last legs an has been quietly manipulating them so they can arrive there. This is an Asimovian robot with strong human characteristics. (The society at large is devoid of robots, viewing them as something that leads to degeneration.) The robot can manipulate people. However, it must adhere to the laws of robotics which require it to help humans and humankind. Thus it relies on Travize to make the decision to implement "Galaxia" instead of the Seldon plan for the betterment of humanity. Travize agrees and everything is happy.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is subtitled "A comedy of manners." A lot of really bizarre things happen to the main characters. They react to them in a matter-of-fact way. (The opening starts with a guy sitting down next to the main character and asking him to kill a guy. Then the guy is suddenly killed himself. The restaurant staff quickly cleans things up, and nobody in the restaurant even seems to notice.) Later the guy and his soon-to-be-wife find themselves locked out of their apartments and just go with the flow as they have to move.

Things gradually get weirder and weirder. There is some time travel group that goes on alternate histories. They save people from all sorts of bizarre things so that they can influence future events. Some alternate paths turn out worse than the one they were trying to avoid. (For example, preventing a tyrant may actually lead to global destruction in a nuclear war.) Different key events may happen in different ways in different alternate histories. We also get computers that become self-aware and a number of Heinlein's political beliefs (free-love military conservatism.)

This contains a number of similar characters of other books such as Moon is a Harsh Mistress. While it starts out with some interesting story, that gets lost in the final 3/4s of the book as more space gets spent on the random beliefs and just plain randomness.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sunnyvale politics

Perhaps now would be the time for the council to simply ban contributions from businesses that do business with the city. Then we could actually have debate on the real issues. However, for the the time being, corporate and developer contributions are allowed. So, we have to filter through this before getting to the meat of the campaign.

As for the donations, some candidates are making much ado about peanuts. In the current election, none of the candidates "need" developer contributions to run their campaign. If we exclude the "micro-financed" campaign of Gustavo Magana, all candidates are their top contributor. Excluding developers would not pose any significant hardship on the campaigns. Donations are a viable means for third parties to show support for candidates. Refusing the donations would not change the developer support for the candidate. Accepting the donation would, however, show a willingness to work with the developer for the good of the city.

Claims that these are "career politicians" that are out soliciting heavy donations could also fairly easily be debunked. Four of the candidates are middle-aged (around 50) engineers. There is also a middle-aged CEO and retirement-age investment manager. All six of these guys would likely be well past the prime age for entering a career in politics. They would also be taking a significant pay cut to do so. The only one that seems a likely candidate for a "lifer" is Magana. Alas, he has been fairly well ignored in this election.

It is not likely that developer donations play a strong role in the council decisions. But, lets suppose that they did. Suppose that city council members simply looked at their contributions and voted for the party that would benefit the most. Would this be a bad thing? We have a free market and donation information is publicly available. Opposing parties could make contributions to balance out any big developers. The mantra given by "anti-development" people is that candidates are favoring developers over "ordinary residents". Well, most candidates receive much more from individual residents than they do from developers (much less single developers.) The calculated politician would thus vote in the best interest of the "residents". However, this could very well be in line with the developer.

Pat Meyering raised another issue. Perhaps contributions influence the city to grant better contracts to companies doing business with the city. He suggested the contributions caused the Sunnyvale city council to approve some "pork" for the Smart Station operator. This case can easily be rebuffed by the facts. (Only two candidates received contributions. Even if they had recused themselves, the measure would have passed.) The nature of a "city-manager" type of government makes blatant favoritism more difficult to carry out. Most of the work is carried out by the apolitical city employees who work under the city manager. The primary role of the council is to approve these details. The garbage contract was placed on the "consent" agenda, meaning the council will typically approve it with a number of other items. Politicking only becomes involved when it is removed from this agenda. This is, in fact, exactly what Meyering did. He introduced politics into the discussion as an attempt to discredit the other councilmembers. (In the process, the city staff of Sunnyvale and neighboring cities were also assumed to be corrupt.) The details showed that the owner of the company that runs the Smart station contributed to one candidate in his most recent election, and another candidate in the previous election. Both candidates were terming out of office with no immediate intentions of seeking other office. The tie to receiving a donation is tenuous at best. (I'd saw the fact that one candidate did not receive a donation in the most recent cycle would make him likely to be prejudiced against the company.)

Once we subtract out the issue of "donations", we get to the other issue brought up by the anti-establishment candidates: "development." Development is bad. Developers are bad. City council constantly votes to violate city policy to support these evil developers. The council should stand up to developers and not let them "urbanize" our city and bring with it all the congestion and urbanization. We should try to be like Los Altos Hills or at least Los Altos. Or so the party line goes.

The comparisons can be misleading. Los Altos Hills has an idyllic, rural setting. Lot sizes are large. This limits the number of residents and requires lots of driving, but keeps traffic congestion low. It is located on the periphery of the urbanized area. While 280 passes through on a north-south axis, there is very little reason to travel east-west through the town. Housing prices there are very expensive. Most people in Sunnyvale could not afford to live there if they wanted. If Sunnyvale were to adopt similar policies, people would be priced out of Sunnyvale. There jobs would also leave the city, and overall driving distances and traffic congestion would likely increase. Sunnyvale is "in the middle", with three freeways passing through or near the city, with an additional two expressways passing and numerous major roads passing through.

Los Altos borders sections of Sunnyvale and may be a closer comparison. Los Altos has 28% of the area of Sunnyvale, but only 15% of the population. That leaves it at about half the population density of Sunnyvale. However, Los Altos is almost entirely residential, while Sunnyvale includes a large swath of industrial land. Sunnyvale is also much more diverse in land use than Los Altos. Perhaps a better comparison would be the 94087 zip code. It has a similar "mostly residential" makeup to Los Altos and about the same area, but more than 50,000 people (compared to under 30,000 in Los Altos.) Sunnyvale is just more dense than Los Altos. Los Altos home prices are higher than those in Sunnyvale. Los Altos also has higher taxes (both due to higher values and special measures for schools, libraries, etc.) Sunnyvale residents that prefer the area are more likely to be able to afford the move, however, it wouldn't be without cost. Not only does Los Altos cost more, it lacks some common amenities (like sidewalks and storm drains in most residential areas.) Los Altos has also made a decision to eschew overbuilding roads. (Just take a look at Fremont. From Foothill to expressway to the Sunnyvale border, it is a tree-lined, 2-lane 30 mph road. In Sunnyvale it expands to a 6 lane, 40 mph road. During evening rush hour, there can be a mile-long back-up in Los Altos, while the road moves freely in Sunnyvale.)

While Sunnyvale shares a short border with Los Altos, it primarily borders Cupertino, Mountain View and Santa Clara. All of those cities have approved large scale development. Santa Clara has a new 49ers football stadium. Mountain View has a giant mixed-use project at a former mall on El Camino and San Antonio. (Sunnyvale has tried to do something similar, but at a smaller scale downtown, but it has been eternally stalled.) Cupertino just approved a gigantic Apple spaceship campus right across the street from Sunnyvale. All of these cities get the tax revenue and development fees from these projects. They also have a significant say in how the projects proceed. Sunnyvale can attempt to grovel, but it has no authority in the decision process.

These developments will all produce significant traffic within Sunnyvale. Even if Sunnyvale ends development altogether, traffic will still continue to grow. Sunnyvale also has a large number of employers of its own. Simply cutting off residential development will mean people have to travel from further away to work there, also driving up city traffic congestion. There is high demand for development in the area. If it is not met in Sunnyvale, it will be met in Mountain View - or perhaps Gilroy. The further away the development, the greater the traffic.

Increasing density in a good manner can significantly reduce need for cars and driving. Density also helps to enable lower cost housing. (Simple math: house costs $1.3 million, with $1 million the cost of the land. Put 4 slightly smaller houses on the same land and now you have 4 $500,000 houses. I was disappointed to see one candidate attack density by saying that high density cities like New York have high some of the highest housing costs. This totally confuses cause and effect. New York is dense because of the high demand. Without the demand, costs would plummet. Density is a way to meet the demand. A million dollar Sunnyvale house would cost many times that in a similar-sized lot in Manhattan. People build dense to meet the demand. This makes housing more affordable.

Sunnyvale is lucky to be a core suburban area that remains in high demand. In many other metropolitan areas, cities similar to Sunnyvale are deteriorating. Development has focussed on the inner city and the new outer-ring suburbs, leaving the inner suburbs behind. Sunnyvale is lucky to still be in strong demand for employers and residents. If it were not for development, the city would simply fade in importance and be changing in the "wrong direction." If we force residents out to the central valley, eventually companies will start to locate there, and the allure of Sunnyvale will fade. Rather than fight development, the best reaction is to encourage it to be done right. The development should be coerced together to make a cohesive, walkable community (rather than a series of big box buildings.) There may be issues with development that can be resolved, but fighting development itself is nothing more than a naive sound-bite.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party

At first I thought this was a futuristic novel about a remote kingdom. Then I realized, it was historical fiction, focussing on the life of a northern slave during the time of the civil war.

Octavian grew up in an intellectual house in Boston during the pre-revolutionary time. He both studies himself and was well-studied by the other intellectuals there. The people had a degree of respect for the blacks. They didn't quite see them as equals, but saw them as people capable of intellectual achievement.

However, the patron of the house passes away. Things look good with the new patron until Octavian's mother rebuffs his advances. He promised all sorts of things in England, but she knew she would just continue to be a slave. (It turns out, that England would soon thereafter free the slaves. However, it was too late for them.)

They have a "pox party" where people are all infected with pox together in a house. The slaves are also kept there (in part to prevent the possibility of a revolt.) Octavian's mother dies, but most others make it through fine.

Shortly thereafter, Octavian runs away and aligns with revolutionary forces. He is eventually caught and brought back. (The 'intellectual' slave who spoke multiple languages and played musical instruments was easy to find.)

The story provides an interesting underside to the the American Revolution. As an attempt to defeat the insurgency in the colonies, Britain freed slaves. Had the American revolution failed, the US might have retained a population of free blacks, and never had a need for the Civil War. (Or slavery may have simply reinstated.)

There is also the subplot of dubious science. When the intellectuals received patronage from southern plantation owners, their studies were supposed to help prove blacks were inferior. This they accomplished by changing the study so that it "looked" objective, but in fact was so removed from the real world to make the results a foregone conclusion. There are always way to spin things to make extremely valid looking "lies" with science.

This story brings Octavian back to his slavery and "wraps" some things up. However, there are plenty of areas open for doing additional stories.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

The history of information can be a broad topic. Even narrowing it down to "modern" advances in uses of information still leads a lot to cover. This book focuses on the technology and theory that have changed the way that we process process and transfer information. Speech enabled more verbose communication to be shared among people. Different aspects of the language were used to communicate stories over time. Epics like the Iliad relied on a number of verbal clues to allow the bards to relate the tale.

Then came the revolution of writing. This enabled greater spreading of language across time and space. It also lead to a decrease in the abilities of the oral story-tellers. In the process, it also changed the way that we think about the world. Different means were used to record speech, including pictographs, syllabaries and alphabets.

The telegraph was one of the first modern technological advancements that enabled widespread communication. However, this in essence simply mirrored African drummers that were able to "talk" with their drums over great distances. Telegraphs required translation of speech into a digital code of "dots, dashes, short pauses and long pauses". Associated with this codes were different additional codes to "encrypt" and "compress" the information via codebooks or other shorthand phrases.

The telephone started to allow communication with analog signals. This set off a revolution where everybody could use the long-distance communicator without an intermediary. From there, the information revolution took off into high gear and never really stopped, with computers, internet and more enabling rapid communication.

This book covers all the communication and the theory behind it. Information theory, mathematics, biology, computer science and more are all covered. It even "jumps the shark" to talk about "jumping the shark". With a topic as broad as "information" it is easy to meander into all sorts of different areas from DNA to the Enigma machine. A little more focus would have been helpful. At times it can get awfully boring as the author rambles on about some topic. Then it can turn around an start to cover something interesting.

Alloy of Law

Alloy of Law is set 300 years after the previous Mistborn novels. The world has continued along since the final events of "Hero of Ages". The world is somewhat similar to our world, though with some key differences. The "magic" is present, but in a lesser degree than in the early novels. All this provides the basic setting for a crime novel.

Some people have been mysteriously robbing train shipments. Eventually they start taking other things and eventually are taking hostages.

The crime fighters had previously worked out in the "roughs", but have now returned to "civilization. Waxilliam is part of a noble family on hard times who has two powers, while Wayne has the ability to "speed time".

Eventually they solve the crimes but find the mastermind behind it all is an unexpected relative.

This seems like something that was fun to write. Sanderson had this nifty fantasy universe created and then said "hey, what if I throw in a crime story here." It made for a fun book, and leaves plenty of loose ends to continue if he still maintains the interest. If not, he can start exploring elsewhere.

Dumbest Generation

Perhaps "the Dumbest use of statistcs" would be a more apt title for this book. He begins with some anecdotes describing massively overworked students. Then he attempts to turn it on its head and cites study after study showing that kids are getting dumb today. We are bombarded with statistics and anecdotes without much coherent organization. He rants against "search engine learning" while writing a book in that exact style.

The arguments come up flat. Young people are "stupid" because they don't know the basic facts that the older generation know. Isn't that the nature of knowledge? Some facts fade in importance through history and new facts get added. Today, detailed knowledge of Sumerian leaders is not well known, but a few millenia ago, everybody in the fertile crescent could name their last few leaders. Even looking at things such as "reading" can be misleading. A few century ago, reading was a primary source of popular entertainment. Now other media sources such as TV, internet and music provide the source of entertainment. This sounds awfully similar to arguments that have been going on for thousands of years. Back in the days of ancient Greece, Socrates was worried that Greeks were getting stupid because they were writing instead of carrying on knowledge orally.

The core argument boils down to: younger people access "popular culture" in a different way than older people. If a teenager eschewed internet for newspapers and novels, he would be able to relate better to his seniors. However, he would find it difficult to relate to his peers who would expect electronic communication and knowledge of current pop culture. For teenager's life, social networks and communication with others is important. Problems of the larger world are of little importance compared to problems in individual cliques. Digital technology use mirrors these needs.

Another argument is that too much time and money is spent on technology. This is deemed as not producing useful results. Alas, this comes back to the Socrates argument. If the ancient Greeks spent a lot of time on reading and writing, yet tested the outcome on how well people could orally recite the Iliad, they would get bad results also.

Technology in the classroom is a problem, but not necessarily for the reason the author gives. Technology in the classroom is often used to simply do what could otherwise be done without technology. Add in the overhead of "starting" and "using" the technology, you end up with a net loss. Students are criticized from doing "real work" with the technology. You can see this in the recent case of the Los Angeles school district. The district gave everyone iPads, but quickly took them away when students learned to hack them to surf the web and load games. Alas, the district is removing the learning devices right when students are truly learning. Hacking requires advanced research and problem solving skills that are more directly applicable to work. Running simple "educational" apps is often just a waste of time.

He even goes on to criticize accounts of kids that do amazing things with technology as being the exception, rather than the rule. This is akin to noting a teenage novelist as being an anomaly and thus attacking the waste of time schools spend on creative writing.

Individuals now focus on many short bits of information on a screen rather than long, detailed arguments.

He had background in "the arts", and thus wants people to be interested in "the arts". But, much of the "arts" is actually popular culture from the years past. The really good stuff filters down to become the arts (as well as the seed for "contemporary art.") Involving oneself in popular culture is a way of developing the "new art".

The endless blather of cherry-picked anecdotes and studies will either have you cheering (if you agree) or seething (if you disagree; however, it does a poor job of providing any convincing argument. It is not until the final chapter when we finally breaks from the pattern and starts to express his own ideas. This actually is a compelling argument. There is some advantage of requiring adherence to a given standard. The "arts" have found their way down to our time due to a long-term filtering of the less-valuable. Alas, the many citations he gives detract rather than add to this argument.

Napoleon Hill's Golden Rules: The Lost Writing

Napoleon Hill was a popular motivational speaker and self-help author from a century ago. These writings from around 1920 remain fairly accurate today.

I enjoyed the "details" of the societal concerns of 1920s business. The country had come out of the Great War and had yet to experience the depression. Business was booming, but in a different way than it is today. It was interesting hearing about how women in garment factories worked better with music or how new inventions change the way we work.

He has a few key points in his discussion. One is the concept of "auto-suggestion". Basically, if you want to succeed at something, you need to think positively and focus on the success. Eventually this positive belief can help to bring about positive actions. Physical appearance also helps to achieve this success. Also, it works better to agree with adversaries rather than attack them. They are often expecting the attack, however, the compliment can help them to let their guard down and gradually bring them to your side.

One story of a bum he meets brings out all of those points. The man thinks that Hill can help him turn around his life. Hill says that he knows somebody right here in the office that can help him do it. He leads him through the office to a door and shows the man his reflection in a mirror. The man does eventually turn his life around and becomes a successful, well-dressed businessman.

Many of the other "teachings" contain similar bits of fairly timeless advice. If you want to succeed at something you must want it enough to put forth the effort. If you want to convince somebody to agree with you, you must first find the points where you can agree with him. At times this advice can sound like it makes somebody "fake" or not genuine. However, eventually, the "fakeness" can become a reality.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

The title "tubes" comes from a quote from the late Senator Ted Stevens who described the internet as "a bunch of tubes." In this book Andrew Blum travels the world to see the physical structures that make up our modern internet.

He starts with the story of his local internet going down because of a squirrel chewing on cables. He then goes on to describe the structure of the internet. He sees the massive switching centers, undersea cables and even data centers. The "last mile" connections from the fiber to the individual cable-modem was harder to come by, but he was able to end with some basic details of how the network finally reached his house.

The concept of peering was interesting. The internet is made up of a number of different networks. These networks all operate on their own. They must be joined somewhere to the outside world. Often this linkage will be in a big city, so you might have all traffic between two networks in Minnesota routed through Chicago. This networks may later decide to link themselves, allowing traffic to pass directly between them.

The internet is also highly redundant and decentralized. There are multiple paths to reach most destinations. This paths are typically not contained in a central location, but instead contained in individual routers. The global backbones help provide fiber-optic cable to the world.

The book was an eye-opener in the physical world of the internet. The one open question that I had was "who gets paid and who does the paying?"

Prelude to the Foundation

Asimov's foundation series was one of the most popular in science fiction. As a kid, I had heard about it. However, I preferred reading Asimov's other books. Later, I finally read the original Foundation series. It wasn't bad, but when I think about it in retrospect, the final books seemed to ramble a bit. He seemed to be done writing.

Enter Prelude to the Foundation. In the introduction he admits that he thought he was done, but was convinced by his readers and publisher to write more books. So we get this uninspiring work.

Prelude to the Foundation is a critique of 1950s cultural norms, written in the 1980s and set tens of thousands of years in the future. Just imagine a world that sees rapid technological innovations, robots, space travel, quadrillions of people, the domination of science. Yet somehow, through all of this, people still have the morals and concerns of people in the 1950s. Yuck.

A "hand on thigh" story of situational moral relativism is repeatedly referenced. Why? Perhaps he just couldn't think of anything else to bring in the point.

The plot is also held together by threads without much substance.

Hari Seldon delivers a paper on "psychohistory", a mathematical concept in which large-scale history of people can be predicted given enough data. For some reason, people are interested in this. Some people try to chase him down. Others try to help him. He always manages to escape just in time. He also comes across as brash, violating norms of different cultures in an attempt to gain more knowledge to carry out his psychohistory. Somehow these actions all end up being just what is needed. In spite of some close calls, he and his friends have just the needed fighting skills and manage to escape without any harm.

In the end, it turns out that the emperor's assistant has been controlling them all along. Only Hari is able to determine that he is in fact not a person, but a robot who has been using powers of emotion to influence everyone and attempt to protect society.

The plot is a real yawner. The characters are not believable (or appealing.) The theme about questioning the norms of societies falls flat. Perhaps the only interesting idea here is that of information. In the quest to find all that is needed to "create" psychohistory, Hari realizes that knowing what unuseful information can be discarded is the most important part of accumulating knowledge.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Stars Like Dust

A young son of a rancher is on a ship where an attempt is made on his life. He eventually sneaks away with the daughter of a sycophantal ruler and they attempt to find the rebel groups who are fighting against the local tyrants. They are caught but don't find the tyrants. Eventually, they reason that the rebel home-base is actually the girl's home planet and the rebel leader is her father. In the process there are a number of different twists and turns and a few bold leaps of intuition. It is all mildly entertaining, but not exceptional.

One part that did stretch reason a bit was the "important document" that the boy's deceased father knew about. This document was seen as being key to the revolution and the installation of power by the people instead of a ruler or oligarchy. This "old document" turned out to be the US constitution. It guess it makes it a raw-raw patriotic work. It was written in the 1950s after all.

Hero of Ages

Hero of Ages is the final book in the Mistborn triology. This is probably the first series of "big-thick-fantasy" that I have actually enjoyed. I may try checking out Robert Jordan's fantasy series (since Brandon Sanderson finished it after his death.)

This book completes the typical trilogy arc. In the first book, the heroes complete a major victory over the bad guys. Everything is nicely wrapped up, but a few threads are left to allow the possibility of additional stories. The second book knows it is in the middle. In it the heroes often do the most struggling and growing as characters as the bad guys start to gain ground. Finally, in the third book everything really gets running, with a major battle and large scale triumph of good over evil.

In Hero of Ages, the Elend and Vin Venture are the rulers of the central dominance. They both now have "mistborn" powers and have taken over much of the former empire of the Lord Ruler. However, the ash is falling heavily from the sky and bad things seem to be happening, with even the mist killing people. They are trying to locate the store of the precious metal "atium" that the Lord Ruler had left behind as well as other clues to uses of metals that can be used.

In the quest, they discover that their revolution against the Lord Ruler has had its problems. One area has simply flipped the tables with the previous slaves now oppressing the previous nobles. Other areas long for the good-old days when they were slaves and had reliable jobs and food.

They also discover a lot more about the Lord Ruler. He actually had very noble intentions. He had modeled the different classes of people after those that had existed before. He had set up many different hiding areas with food caches to help support the people in case there was a time of crisis. The ash that covers the land was actually set up to benefit people and shield the planet from the hot rays of the sun. (This was, alas, caused by an attempt to perfect the orbit of the planet.) He froze technological innovation. However, it turns out he was helping to protect the world from an even greater force, that of Ruin.

Ruin had battled with Preservation for control of the world. Ruin can control others, especially when they are pierced with metal. However, he cannot read metal. Preservation had given of himself to create man. By taking of the power of preservation, the Lord Ruler was able to help fend off Ruin. However, he was eventually freed, in part through the aid of Vin. The mists present are actually the forces of preservation. The harm they cause is in fact, the mists way of granting the mistborn powers to people.

Vin ends up taking the power of the mists (only after her ear-ring is removed by the sacrifice of Marsh, who goes against the will of Ruin) Elend and his soldiers find the huge cache of atium - and burn it all in order to launch one final battle against Ruin's armies. It is subterfuge at its greatest, because the atium is in fact part of Ruin's power, and in burning it the weaken Ruin so that he can be defeated. Both Elend and Vin die in the process.

During all this time, Sazed has been suffering self-doubt and becoming agnostic. He is part of the "Keepers" who store knowledge about everything. (The Lord Ruler himself had been of his group.) His focus was on the various religions of the world. Previously he claimed to believe all the religions of the world. However, after the woman that he loved died, he found faults with nearly every one. People had gradually helped him to overcome these doubts. However, it was only during the final battle that he realized that Vin was not the "Hero of Ages" from prophecy. As he overcomes his doubts about religion, he realizes that he is in fact the Hero of Ages. He takes the power and with it and his knowledge is able to recast the world in its proper form, eliminating the ash and restoring plant life.

The pacing is quick with plenty of action. The magic works well and the story has multiple levels of twists. (Both the Lord Ruler and "Ruin" had been outflanking each other on numerous different levels.) While Ruin is a strong "evil" power in the story, the remaining human an semi-human characters are all balanced with both good and evil sides. They mythology is also well developed without being overbearing. If only all fantasy could be this well done.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

As I Lay Dying

I've realized that I just don't like Faulkner. I want to like his work because of the style in which in writes. However, I just don't like the content. The characters are mostly dysfunctional southerners who live a type of life I can't relate to. The language of some can be even more annoying. I just can't get arouse much sympathy or even hatred for the characters - just annoyance.

In this novel, the characters plan on the fulfil the wishes of burying mother in a nearby town. Each chapter is told from the view of a different character, and each seems to have their own ulterior motives. This leads to all sorts of bizarre and comedic things happening as they try to get mother to her proper burial spot.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Well of Ascension

This is the second book in the Mistborn trilogy. As such, it builds upon the previous characters and events. However, it is enough of a story to stand alone. In the previous book, Vin and her team had toppled the Lord Ruler and the final empire. In this book, however, they have the much more difficult task of running the empire.

This book is loaded with action, but also deals with the coming of age and personal relationships. (We even get a marriage near the end.) Vin struggles with the words of Zane, her soon-to-be husband's half brother. He almost convinces her to join his cause, but she realizes her affection towards him is real, overpowering their physical differences. (And in the end, he gets the "mistborn" power.)

The quest of the novel is to arrive at the well of ascension in order to take and "release" the power. However, it turns out that doing so benefits some negative force instead of good.

The characters her struggle with decisions that have no clear best path. Being true to oneself seems like a good way to rule. However, doing so fails to inspire the confidence of the subjects. Being a strong, forceful ruler helps to inspire confidence. While it may not appear to be "real" at first, it may eventually better express true feelings and meaning.

This book combined nonstop actual with plenty of paradoxes and difficult decision. I was eager to get through it to find out how things worked out. I found myself surprised, but not upset with the way things turned out. Now I'm ready to hit the next book in the series.

Bronze Bow

A Jewish boy (Daniel) vows vengence against the Romans. He joins a band of mountain robbers that are fighting for the cause of freedom. One task he has is to help capture a large slave being transported by some traders. This slave ends up being one of his "burdens" (though he later realizes he is a friend.)

He ends up caring for his disabled sister after her previous caretaker dies. He comes to know life in the town better. He also knows the people who are being hurt by the acts of the robbers. However, he still supports them and their cause of freedom. One day, one of his friends (Joel) is caught. When the leader of the band of robbers refuses to help him, Daniel organizes a group on his own to rescue him. He does it, but at the cost of the black slave and another friend.

During this time, he also meets with Jesus. He marvels at his understanding of doctrine and his simple explanations. He hopes he will be their leader. However, he is not willing to drop the hatred that he feels towards the Romans.

His sister had made great progress towards normalcy. However, it turns out she had been talking with a homesick Roman legion. This drove Daniel nearly to the breaking point. He wanted to kill the Roman to seek his revenge. This hatred, however, nearly led to the death of his sister. Finally at the end of the story, after his sister has been healed by Jesus he gets the courage to forgive the Roman and let him know about his sister.

The story provides the powerful contrast between the force of hatred and the force of love. The Roman legion was also serving from a conquered land. He was just a normal person with normal emotions. Daniel's hatred made it difficult for him to see through the uniform to the person beneath.

Daniel observed that some people may not really want to be healed from their ailments. (Perhaps the blind man would be disturbed by what he would see.) However, he failed to see the same with his country's condition. (The Romans were rather benign rulers and their overthrow could leave somebody even worse in power.) The blinders of hatred can cause bad things to happen and end up destroying the hater even more than the target of their vengeance.