Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Royal Ranger: A New Beginning: Ranger's Apprentice, Book 12

Royal Ranger takes place many years after the previous Ranger's Apprentice book. Will's friends have a 15 year old daughter who is driving them crazy. Will is distraught due to the death of his wife. Assigning the girl as an apprentice seems to be the solution to everything. The characters are compelling. The 15 year old Maddie is both a dainty princess and a bold hunter. She likes to pick whichever position suites her best, but eventually learns that being a ranger is more than just a short vacation to the country. She becomes a valued friend and companion to Will. The characters are well written. Maddie is becoming a ranger, but still a teenage girl at heart. The battles have a little drama, but all ends up well in the end.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Brisingr: The Inheritance Cycle, Book 3

The third Inheritance book is another long one. They are now out there working to complete the revolution. Eragon learns more about his life, including the true identity of his dad. We also learn about abilities of dragons. An interesting scene has a dragon battle a tree to try to get a special metal to fashion a sword. Eragon gets his sword, but also loses some friends. He is also getting experienced at defeating evil "shades". We also run into more people that have sworm unbreakable oaths to "bad guys", yet they still have some ways of obeying the "letter" of the oath while being part of the rebellion.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Wish List

A girl doesn't gets involved with a bad crowd and finds herself in limbo with devils arguing over her future. She ends up going with a guy to try to fill of the things from his "wish list". Some involve meeting famous celebrities and kicking a ball on a field. It is fairly short, but at times can be confusing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Sorceress: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 3

William Shakespeare and Billy the Kid show up as new Immortals in the third Nicholas Flamel book. The stakes have now gone greater. The dark elders want to unleash demons stored in Alcatraz and take over the world. The twins are still struggling to determine who the good guys and bad guys are. Josh is becoming ever more linked to his sword. They are also gradually being awakened, learning the power of water. John Dee and Machiavelli are chasing them down, but do not manage to catch them.

Eldest: The Inheritance Cycle, Book 2

Eldest is a long fantasy novel. I managed to get into the first book, but this one was harder. Eragon finds out more about his real family. They discover another dragon (his dragon is really happy about that.) He starts to look more like and Elf. They have some battles. There is some conflict between the sides. Is he really on the good side? Is the other side really that evil? Those are some of the key points. There is a lot of fluff in between.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja: Ranger's Apprentice, Book 10

Nihon-Ja is a version of Japan, where the rulers think of themselves as being very much above the common folk. (And the common folk think of the ruling class as being very much above them.) The current emperor wants to enact reforms to help the common people. However, the rulers will have nothing of that.
There is also a narrative of negotiations with other groups. The Rangers Apprentice books have moved on to a full-scale global diplomacy. The cultures have evolved, with the Skandians now realizing there is benefit in peaceful relationships. (However, they are still tough and ready to fend off anyone that tries to wrong them.)
The "girls" play a more significant role in this book. They finally resolve their differences over "the boys". (Of course, it turns out that there was no conflict, but they didn't know that.) They also handle significant moves on their own, including battling a giant tiger in order to help recruit a tough army. These are not waifish castle maids. They are strong battle-tested women. (They they do still have a few "feminine" skills that come in handy.
People always seem to come at just the right time to help save the day. The rangers manage to embed themselves with the Nihon-ja emperor-in-exile and save the day. The emperor does, however, show the peaceful strength. (Even though it is backed up by a ranger sword.) There is plenty of violence, but the "good guys" eventually win. The kids seem to be growing up. (Weddings are in the making!) It feels like the apprentice is soon ready to go out on its own.
The strategy of making a "Fantasy" world that is easily recognizable as a "real" world works nicely in this series. It is easily to engage in the books because you come with a base level of historical understanding. However, since it is not the "real" world, the author is free to change things around and make an "alternate" history of his own.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Ranger's Apprentice, Book 9: Halt's Peril

Halt's Peril centers around (surprise surprise) Halt's Peril. He is nicked by an assassins poisoned crossbow arrow and is in a fight for his survival. Once he is "curried" he must fight not work too hard that he can't recover. Will and Horrace must help to find the healers to help him. They also have their main quest to carry out. Halt was originally injured as they were tracing the assassins as part of a plan hunt down a fraudulent cult leader. This leader had duped may gullible townspeople out of their fortunes in the name of his fictional deity. (This god would protect people from the shyster's own cronies.) He had gone one step further and caused a King (Halt's twin brother) to be murdered. The heroes eventually complete their quest to knock the bad guy out of commission. The book is typical of the Ranger's Apprentice books. The plot is fairly linear, with a few unexpected turns. There are many fictionalized lands which are similar to ancient European lands. This book revisits some places and characters from previous books without adding many new places or faces.


Holes could almost be considered magical realism, except it doesn't really have much "magic" in it, other than "curses". The characters are believable, yet caricatured. Stanley Yelnats IV is the fourth in the line of the cursed Stanleys. It all comes from a great grandfather who failed to come back to take the pig and the old lady up the hill the final day. This resulted in him not getting the "airhead" daughter as a bridge and set about the curse on his family. They occasionally do have good things happen, but even those are met by tragedy. Stanley had sneakers fall on his head, was accused of stealing them and then sent off to a prison work camp. He makes friends with one of the boys, teaches him to read, and eventually expose some bad characters and lift the curse.
The backstory also relates Stanley to the land of his prison. His ancestor was robbed there. An old schoolteacher was victimized by racist townspeople and became a great bandit. Onions can also save lives.
The style works really well. The plot moves quickly, and the story has just the right amount of quirkiness.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World

The lowly battery is perhaps the most important and most neglected technology of today. Small and efficient batteries underpin most of our modern technology. However, we rarely pay attention to battery guys. In the US, they tend to be mostly immigrants drawn from a few related disciplines, such as physics, chemistry and material science. Powerhouse focuses on a group of them, primarily associated with Argonne Laboratories in the Chicago suburbs and a battery startup Envia. There is the conflict between the corporate and the scientific world. There are pioneers like "Goodenough" who made great advancements, yet never profited. Then there are those at Envia who did make some small advancements, but oversold their world and were exposed as fraudsters. Battery science is a tricky business. Some things look good in the lab, but then have bad properties (like a significant fade of capacity or density over time or a issues scaling.) There is also the case of GM vs. Tesla. GM kept hoping for the great increase in battery technology that would help them sell an electric car. Tesla just decided to go with what was there and make a great car. Tesla's strategy has paid off. It has also helped lead to improvements in battery technology. Build a market and the science will eventually come.

The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse

A passage from Conundrum was on an SAT practice test. After reading that brief passage, I knew this would be a great book. The book touts some of my preferred arguments about the environment, namely that we need to look at the big picture and not pieces in isolation.
Many "green" actions can have significant negative implications for the environment because they encourage us to continue much larger scale environmentally destructive behaviors. More fuel-efficient cars may eliminate a small amount of tailpipe emissions. This will save some money and make a slight dip in local pollution. However, the money saved will likely be cycled into other purchases that impacted the environment. Furthermore, the new car had to be purchased. The environmental impact of car production is often more significant than the impact of fuel to power it. However, the negative impacts of production are spread across many locations and not as readily noticed. Lower costs also encourage more driving. This encourages more development that is optimized for driving, including spread out areas with large roads and parking lots. More trips now require a car, leading to more pollution.
Similarly, efforts to relieve automobile congestion are often couched in environmental terms. If cars are not stuck in traffic, they wont pollute as much, right? Wrong. Adding new traffic lanes almost always increases demand. While there may be a short term reduction in congestion, in the long term, cars come to fill up the area, resulting in more congestion and much more pollution, along with more car-centric development. Even public transit can be damaging. While public transportation systems in dense urban areas may be helpful, most systems built today are sold as ways to "reduce traffic congestion". These far-flung transit systems often require park and ride lots and encourage more car-centric development in the netherworlds of metropolitan areas. Cars get a short term boost in faster travel times. If we truly wanted to help the environment and reduce traffic, we should also remove car lanes when we build transit system - however that is rarely done.
Residents of Manhattan are some of the greenest in the country. The emissions produced per person are much lower than any other major city in the US. Residents of supposedly "green" Vermont are among the most damaging to the environment. They use more resources, drive more and have a much more negative impact on the environment. They get to "enjoy" the nature that they are simultaneously destroying.
Many so-called sustainable and environmentally friendly practices are not scalable. A local farmers market lets residents access fresh fruits and vegetables. However, there is often a great deal of driving to get there. It cannot scale up to feed an entire population. Eating locally can also result in more negative environmental impact than eating "globally". Even "organic" farming practices can require inputs that are deleterious to the environment. Even our cleaner air and water come at a cost. We are often "exporting" pollution to other places (like China.)
What is one to do? The easiest is to consume less. Money spent does correspond fairly closely to environmental impact. Look at the big picture. Car emissions are something we see locally. However, the emissions from a single car are almost a rounding error in the total impact of automobiles. The production of vehicles and infrastucutre that supports this mobility is where the bulk of the impact is. Ditching the car will do much more for the environment than buying a fuel-cell electric hybrid. However, the significant benefit will not occur until enough of us drop the car and change the way our land is built up. Similarly, many other "small actions" may help us feel good about ourselves, but do very little for the environment. "Green energy" may help a little, but it still has significant costs. Consuming less is really the only solution.

"All the Real Indians Died Off": And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans

What could be a good book gets too bogged down in the contradictions of racial studies propaganda. They assume there is a monolithic "White supremacist" culture that seeks to oppress everyone else. All aspects of this "white" culture oppress the non-white victims. However, they make this argument in the context of "white" academia, and "white" culture. The arguments vacillate between identifying "Indian" concerns and concerns of individual tribes.
The authors even argue that the English developed their colonial oppression methods through the colonization of Ireland. Yet, now the Irish are grouped in the "white" group of oppressors. Huh? Why were they able to assimilate, but the Indians were not? And why can we get away with having "Fighting Irish" mascots, but not "Fighting Sioux". Is this justified because there are a good number of Irish catholics that got to Notre Dame? What about Spartans? Has San Jose or Michigan received permission of the Greeks? Or do they not need to do it because they are all "white"?
There were plenty of wrongs and treaty violation committed against the Indians by the colonizers. However, there were also many wrongs committed against "white" groups also. Trying to focus on us vs. them based on skin color may sell well in racial studies academic circles, but doesn't help in society at large. The irony is that racial studies invokes a very conservative view of the culture in question in a very liberal environment. They expect a majority culture to sacrifice their cultural beliefs and norms so that the minority culture can cling to a very conservative way of life in their culture.
The "indigenous" argument also echos "NIMBY" arguments seen in many communities today. People want a community to remain the same as it was when they moved there. What is not clearly explained is how long the American Indian culture had lasted in its present form before the European colonization. Were some tribes and cultures only recently formed? Had some lived the same way for thousands of years before? Were there some tribes that had annihilated other tribes, only to be decimated by the Europeans. Have some tribal cultures existed longer as minority cultures in a European world than they did originally on their own. These would all be great topics of exploration. Alas, that is not the topic of the book.
The myths here focus more on the "agenda". Some times the arguments are fairly clear. Indian casinos do make great amounts of money for a small number of tribes. However, most tribes barely break even. The government does provide health care for Indians as part of a treaty obligation. However, the funding is quite low.
Other arguments get muddled. The "myth of the drunken Indian" acknowledges that alcohol related crime is high among Indians. However, this is justified as something forced upon Indians by the Europeans. And then arguments are given to say that Indians are not more susceptible to alcohol. There are also discussions about "victimhood" and "wards of the state". The authors try to refute these misconceptions, even as the theme of the book seems to say otherwise.
Pan-Indian identity also gets conflated with tribal identity. Indians rightfully cringe when others attempt to mimic their sacred ceremonies. However, what if another tribe takes it? Tribal identity was said to be fluid in Indian cultures, with those from one tribe being adopted into others. Yet, now there are strict blood limits. And what about adoption into mainstream American culture?
There is a great challenge to keep minority cultures alive. However, the "Racist" approach ends up marginalizing many cultures due to their skin colors. There are many cultures among the "whites" and many among the "Indians". There is a lot we could learn from all of them.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

How Not To Be Wrong is part an exploration of the joys of math, and part a manual on how to avoid getting duped (or duping oneself) with math. There is also a bit of namedropping of famous mathematicians for good measure. Politicians are great at coming up with good sounding, but meaningless numbers. Wisconsin may have claimed that its 5000 net new jobs accounted for 50% of all new jobs for a year. That could be technically correct. However, since some states lost jobs, a state with 12000 net new jobs would claim to account for 120% of net new jobs, showing the craziness of the data. Science is also rife with "statistically significant random results" from insufficiently large or small studies. There is also a "survivors bias", with many failed studies not being published. If 20 people study something, one is likely to randomly discover a significant result. If that person is the only one to publish, we don't realize the significant result was just random. The "5%" p-value acceptance threshold is just an arbitrary value. However, it does result in a serious amount of 'p-hacking' There are a lot more studies that just meet the threshold than would be suspected by a normal distribution. Similarly, people tend to favor numbers ending in 7 as "random numbers". Thus, an excessive preponderance of vote counts ending in 7, may indicate a rigged election.

Zero: The Biography of A Dangerous Idea

In Zero, Math journalist Charles Seife explores the concept of "0" and at the end brings in zero's cousin, infinity. Many ancient cultures did not have the concept of zero. The led to numerical systems like Roman numerals. It also resulted in odd year number. (1BC is followed immediately by 1 AD). Zero helped unlock new abilities in math, and made writing numbers easier. The author also explores Pythagoreans and their problems with irrational numbers (such as the square root of 2 that pops up in the pythagorean therom.) He mentions incidents where division by zero caused great calamities. Zero also opened the door the calculus and the concept of limits that approach zero (or infinity) Towards the end, the author spends a lot of time delving into worm holes and theoretical physics.