Monday, February 28, 2011

The Last Battle

A clever ape's chance encounter with a dead lion starts a serious of destructive events in Narnia. The ape is able to dress his donkey friend in the lion skin, and thus convince everyone that he is the great lion "Aslan". Others fall for this, and blindly agree to follow his words, eventually enslaving themselves to nearby enemies. The enemy-Ape crowd continue to use their detailed knowledge of Narnian believes to spread small lies and entrench their leadership position.

With conditions really bad, all the previous "Narnian children" are called back to help resolve the problems. It turns out that they were "called" back via a train crash in their real world, and are now permanent residents of Narnia. After the calamities of Narnia, it too is transformed to a "new Narnia". Those that were not worthy did not make it through the door to the new area. (And some, like the Dwarfs, failed to believe of the goodness, and thus continued to live in darkness.)

. People are eager to accept the appearance of the long-missing deity. The eagerness encourages them to blindly follow him - without stopping to question or think that it might be an impostor. Many of those that finally stop following the "false Aslan" are so disturbed by the experience that they begin to abandon their faith altogether. By subtly mixing small lies with the truth the evildoers are able to undermine the faith for their personal gain. (However, they are soon undermined when they discover that even their 'evil' deity is real.)

The end is a story of the rapture and the joyous afterlife. Those believers were obvious participants in the joy. While others with strong belief and morals, even if misplayed in an evil god were also allowed to join, as they were willing to accept the true "good" Aslan.

This completes the epic, coming from the creation on to the final destruction of the Narnian world and the afterlife. This book feels somewhat different than the other Narnia books. Its not a mere battle that they children are set join, but a true destruction of the world. While things are extremely ominous, out of the destruction rises one of the most joyous occasions. This makes this also one of the better books in the series.

What Christians Believe

What Christian's Believe is a short Christian apologetic essay. The ideas closely resemble those in other C.S. Lewis Christian works. He presents an argument in favor of general Christianity over atheism and pantheism. Atheists have the burden of proof that their is no deity and all religions are wrong. One bit of truth from one religion would disprove atheism. Other religions and belief sets may have perfectly valid belief sets even if they lack some key components. Thus, Christians can believe that other religions have valid truths, even if they don't believe them completely.

A dualistic belief of equal forces of good and evil is refuted because evil is a negative response to good - and many evil actions use are enabled in part by "good" characteristics.

The arguments are more well thought out than the summaries I have given. However, since this is a brief book, there is not a whole lot more to them. "Mere Christianity" may be a better place to go to get the detail of his arguments.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures

This is a collection of Malcolm Gladwell essays in a tone similar to some of his other popular books. They all generally describe situations where the "obvious" is not necessarily the "truth". The various essays include stories of people who succeed in very narrow niches. Many essays also cover many common policies and actions that are known to be inferior, yet still done that way.
It opens with a tail of the chopomatic. The good pitchman is a great actor who also has the great ability to get people to part with their money. However, part of being the great pitchman was also innovation. Marketing and engineering were integrally combined in order to create things that could be well sold - on streets and via infomercials.

A story about plagiarism questions the line we have drawn between unlawful copying and "fair use". Homelessness is analyzed as a "power distribution" problem. Spending money to give apartments and regular care to the most chronic homeless may seem unjust, but it is much cheaper than having them regularly appear in the ER. "Safety features" can often cause more harm. Drivers with new anti-lock breaks became worse drivers than those without the safety features, while the accident rate plummeted in Sweden after they switched from the left to the right side of the road. Faults of profiling and improper generations are also included in some essays. It also shows how easy it is to find retrospective fault with efforts to counter terrorism (or Enron fraud), while many of the seemingly ignored "critical warnings" could legitimately be brushed aside as useless noise. "Puzzles" and "Mysteries" both require different tools to solve. Many problems today have huge amount of information available in plain sight. Making sense of it is the big problem.

Overall, it is a very good book that encourages a questioning of conventional wisdom, and the "crowd-think" reactions to many major events.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Junie B Jones: First Grader

Junie B Jones goes to first grade and finds things different than kindergarten. Her old friends are in different classes and she struggles to make new friends. And just when she thought things could not get any worse, she finds she needs glasses. She is initially so embarrassed, but eventually every thing works out.

This beginning chapter book is light and mildly witty. However, the end comes abruptly.

The Silver Chair

Eustace Scrub and a girl are being chased by bullies. They wish for an entry in to Narnia. Then they go through a door and end up there. Narnia time has aged a generation since Eustace's last trip. He and the girl are supposed to go find the young prince to restore him to his thrown. Only, they don't communicate well and end up on a few detours before they go on their mission. They eventually strap a knight to a Silver Chair (hence the book's name) and manage to break an evil witch's spell and bring him back home.

This novel shows the gradual evolution of Scrub. He is still a little prick, but lets more of his good side show through. We also see the nefariousness of the witch, who manages to belittle everything with week comparisons. (When they say the sun is like a light, she belittles their world as being a mere imitation of her real world. Finally, they are able to overcome her be acknowledging that they would rather live in their potentially better world than be stuck in her 'known inferior' world.)

They also get their share of fantastical adventures, being blown by a lion's breath away from a miles high cliff, narrowly avoiding becoming the key ingredient in giants' meal, and finding an underground revolt.

This book is a pseudo-tangent. Read after Dawn Treader, it seems to flow fairly naturally. However, the story seems somewhat of a tangent from the main Narnia line (after all, Scrub was not introduced until the previous book). It also seemed to lack the engagement of the earlier books. However, it is still a fairly good story.


Many people say they want power, yet when it comes down to it, they shy away from the hard things that need to be done. This book comes across as a modern version of The Prince providing blunt plans to rise up the corporate ranks and achieve power. Some people may have a head start in having the skills needed to obtain power. However, anyone can develop them with sufficient effort.

Most people are not willing to put forth the effort. It is easier to make excuses and retreat in a hole than to make progress and actually learn from past mistakes. A positive attitude and flattery can be beneficial in winning influence. It is also important to focus effort where it is needed most. Performance can help, but is really only a small part of what is needed. Following the "book" advice of those successfully in power may not be useful - they are likely to gloss over the "dirty" tasks that had to be done to rise to power, while remembering.

This book does not present "easy" or "comfortable" paths to power. Instead it stresses hard work and learning from mistakes. Interpersonal relationships are also of key importance. Asking for things can provide a great benefit - and people tend to be more willing to give than we are to ask. You also have to be noticed to have any hope at achieving power. There are many ways to do this, including breaking the rules and taking on small but critical tasks.

While most of the book concerns the steps needed to obtain power, the end adds chapters on power's pitfalls and how to maintain power. Power can result in some loss of schedule autonomy and privacy. It can also require a great deal of effort and become like a drug (with associated withdrawal symptoms.) Once in power, many people will be after your position of power. You must be constantly vigilant to possible threats as well as diligent to uncover the truth. (Many people will only say what they think the person in power wants to hear.)

The roll of organizational politics and the quest for power is even viewed as a benefit within organizations. Without these internal struggles, organizations would grow stale and not be as receptive to new ideas. People need to take the motivation to obtain power to be a positive influence, rather than whine and resign themselves to a position of little influence. While obtaining power does require effort, there are benefits (even health benefits) in requiring organizational power, whether in corporations or other areas.

The book provides plenty of examples of how people in various situations positively (or negatively) carried out the quest and manifestation of power. The biggest fault in these was the lack of completeness. The author provided brief snippets, but did not tell complete stories, leading me to Google more details on people such as Jeffery Sonnenfield. Some of the best anecdotes were the contrasting ones - such as the comparison of a Oliver North and a Stanford president testifying before congress. Even though both were appearing due to negative events, North parlayed his self-assured appearance on to a future career. The Stanford president's academic answers lead to his downfall.

The message of this book can be summed up with the Nike slogan "Just Do It". The power is there for those who want it. If they take the effort and don't let the power go to their head, they can have a positive impact on themselves and society.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

This continues directly where the previous book left off. The books follow the typical "trilogy" outline: the first book is fairly self contained, while the second leaves people hanging for the third book. This novel keeps the action going from the start. However, now it is more political and government intrigue than underworld drama. The centerpiece is a courtroom cross-examination where the bad guys get exposed for lying and the good guys get set free.

Unlike the other Larsson novels, there are very few surprises in this one. And the few surprises that do pop up are quickly squashed away. (Only one really advanced the plot.) The novel also seems to go on for a while after it reaches its conclusion. It is intent on tying up all the loose ends of Salander's life. While the second book left plenty of open plot points waiting, this book leaves almost none. The 'hero' is a free billionaire with all of her enemies quashed or dead.

During the book, I felt obvious sympathy towards the main characters. However, they are pretty scummy themselves. Had the story been told from the point of view of the 'villains', it would have been just as easy to feel sympathy towards them at the expense of the "heros". They are all very flawed characters. The "heros" would probably not be the type of people you would want to be friends with. The author feels willing to brush of their defects, while being critical of the defects of the others. (Well, hey, that's why he wrote the book.)

Another defect is that the good guys also manage to anticipate the bad guys' moves just in time. It helps play towards my sympathies as a reader. However, it becomes more and more improbable as it goes on. It became more and more unbelievable as it went on. It seems that the author got tired, and started inserting cliches to bulk up his book.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Girl Who Played With Fire

It starts out very slow. It serves mainly to build up characters and to provide references to events that took place in a previous book. Finally about a third of the way through the book, the adventure stops.

The story involves a murdered journalist and criminologist. (In a bit of irony, the journalist has the draft of a potential best seller that is ready to be published after his death. Did Larsson anticipate his book would not be published until after his death?)

It gets moving along well after the long exposition. The author does a masterful job of introducing details as they are needed in order to maintain interest. Everyone seems to be connected, both in ways we expect, and ways that seem to come totally out of the blue.

The book ends with a typical "second book" ending, resolving some issues, but leaving plenty more hanging in wait for the next book.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

This book in the Narnia series contains a series of "adventures" similar to Gulliver's Travels or a Jules Verne novel. A couple of the "Narnia" kids are with their do-gooder intellectual cousin (Eustace) when they get sucked in to a picture of a ship they see. On the ship with Prince Caspian, they participate in a number of fairly unrelated adventures. They are sold as slaves, only to depose the ruler of a realm. Eustace is turned in to a dragon, only to be eventually rescued by Aslan. They run in to invisible monopods that they help turn visible. (And in the process Lucy regrets that she cast a spell to learn what everybody thought of her.) And what magical adventure is complete without water that turns everything it touches to gold?

Eustace becomes the main thread through the story. He is a bookworm, snobbish teetotaler who is set in his ways. (Lewis also uses alcohol as part of his 'separation', with the others freely drinking while Eustace stays away.) Eventually, he starts to realize that perhaps he is part of the problem. When the kids finally return home, he is seen as having a much improved character.

This is a "fun" novel in the Narnia series with a number of small adventures. It ties in a few moral and religious messages (such as faith, and the disadvantage of knowing too much about others.) And it also ties in Lewis's views of the benefit of socializing and not being too uptight. Each of the adventures could just about be released as its own short story. Thus far, this is probably my favorite Narnia story.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Man Who Lied to His Laptop

People interact with computers in a way similar to how the interact with other humans. People will return favors to computers and behave "humanly" to computers, even while denying they are doing so.

A few interesting studies presented:
  • Americans will reciprocate to a helpful computer, helping it out after it helped them; however, they will not help out another computer.
  • Japanese will reciprocate to a computer family. If a MAC helps them, they will help all Macs
  • If a computer is part of somebody's team, they will favor its input over a non-team member
  • People are much more willing to volunteer information to a computer if they computer first volunteers information to them
  • People favor a computer that follows expected stereotypes. A male voice is trusted more in physics discussions, while a female voice is trusted more for relationship discussions. Inappropriate accents (such as an Asian face with an Australian accent) are treated poorly.
  • People liked a computer that flattered them; while they respected one that criticized others

Computers turned out to be a great model for human behavior because they were able to invariably model the desired behavior. People would treat the computer's behavior similar to how they would treat humans in similar situations.

From this, attributes of human activity were determined. People love to be flattered. People don't like to be criticized. They also don't like people that criticize others. However, they think people that criticize are smarter. People respect and trust people with whom they have a common bond. They are also able to pick up on differences between verbal and nonverbal behavior, and are very put off by it.

In all, it is a very good book analyzing the subconscious social behavior of the human animal.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The original Swedish title would be more accurately translated as "Men Who Hate Women". That title more accurately describes the book. It is gruesome, yet a page turner. The story itself has a number of intertwined plotlines. There were a few minor plotlines that seemed primarily to build characters (leaving plot threads opened.) The plot centers around a journalist who lost a libel lawsuit. He was recruited by an old man to uncover the decades-old mystery of his missing niece. The journalist ends up getting involved with a private-detective firm and its freelance ace, Lisbeth ("the girl with the dragon tattoo") Things jumble around and all sorts of disgusting things happen, and eventually things seem to come to a logical end. But, then it goes on, and a few more seemingly tangential plot threads are carried out to their conclusion. Then it really ends. Even in the book's world of dystopian amorality, the "good guys" win out.