Sunday, May 31, 2020

Scorpion Mountain: Brotherband, Book 5

The fifth brotherband book has the brotherband team engaging more closely with the Ranger's Apprentice team. They visit the castle and meet the King and princess. Hal invents spectacles to help a team member. The team travels to a desert land to try to lift an assassin cult's death sentence on the princess. They build a "land sail" to travel across the sand. They defeat the bad guys, complete there adventure and make it back safely. It is all the typical story. There is just enough conflict to keep things interesting, but you know that the good guys will win in the end.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Goldfinch

Goldfinch centers on the life of a New York City boy, Theodore Decker who loses his mother in a museum explosion. He is with his mom, dreading a visit to the principal's office. However, they decide to visit a museum and his life changes. There is an explosion. His mom dies. An old man gives him a ring on the way out and he decides to take a painting. His dad had previously left his family, leaving him a ward of the state. He remembers an elementary school friend and goes to live with them. He also traces down the partner of the guy that gave him the ring and becomes friends with him. (He is also attracted to the girl that was with the old man.) He learns about the antiques business. Months later, his alcoholic, gambler dad picks him up and takes him to Vegas. He is pretty much left alone. He befriends Boris who also lives with his rarely present father. They have a lot of fun drinking and taking drugs.
Theodore's father has some gambling issues and dies after driving drunk. Theodore decides to go back to New York, and ends up going back to the antiques man. The story skips past his time in college and has him back working in the antique shop. He puts things in order financially by passing off remakes as antiques. He has a few chance encounters, discovers his childhood friend is dead and eventually becomes engaged. He runs into Boris, goes to Europe, gets the stolen painting back, kills some people, and loses the painting. He is on the brink of suicide, then decides to turn himself in. Just then Boris appears. He has collected money for reporting the location of the painting (and also uncovering others.) He uses the money to fix the antique fakes, calls off the engagement, and then pontificates at the end of the novel.
The novel is set in the hear and now and attempts to be realistic. However, there are just too many coincidences. There are so many "chance encounters" in Manhattan. Most seem to happen right when needed. Boris seems to come out of nowhere exactly when he is most needed in Theodore's life. The boys also seem to get along pretty well when they are inebriated, yet others get knocked out. You could just about call it "magical realism", except the "magical" is mostly coincidental. The end of the novel also goes on with some random thoughts that seem out of character with the rest of the novel. The story is a "coming of age" for a boy that seems to lose everything again and again, but still manages to bounce back. There is also a bit about art.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Key to Creation

The Key to Creation brings the Terra Incognita series to a satisfying conclusion. The two warring groups have an experience that is closely modeled after the Arab/Israeli conflict. Or perhaps even the Suni/Shiite division. Each group is descended from a brother. Their relgious histories are similar, however, they bicker over the minor differences. Each side sees the other as heretics. They see similar areas as holy, yet they constantly fight against each other. The devout religious leaders are more concerned with their dogma than the truth. When a religious leader sees evidence that contradicts his religious understanding, he destroys it.
The main threads of the story finally connect and wind down in this final novel. The two warring factions have a huge battle with great destruction. Two expeditions both succeed in finding the source of their society. They awake the "father" of the founders of all their religions. He and his fellow beings are worshiped as gods. However, he admits that there are others with more power than him. He uses some of his technology to quickly return to the site of the great battle and help order peace. Both sides reverence him and finally put aside their differences. It is with great difficulty that they do this. They also maintain some of the keys to their respective religious, merging their established iconography, rather than than destroying it. Could this be a possible template for middle eastern peace? (Though it may be difficult to get Abraham to come back to order it.) Endless tit-for-tat revenge seeking will never be appeased.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Phule’s Paradise: Phule's Company Series, Book 2

The second Phule's company book has the motley crew being sent on a "punishment" mission to try to protect a casino. The owner is a young heir who is in over his head. He inadvertently leans on the very people that are trying to take over his operation to help him out. Phule hires some actors to help supplant his band, while sending others undercover as hotel employee. A crime boss, Maxine, owns all the other casinos and nearly has control of the this one before Phule outfoxes her. However, she is sneaky as him and sets things up for a longer term battle. It is yet another funny episode in this "sitcom in a book".


A Snapshot is a "replay" of a past point in time. A couple of "real detectives" can go back into the snapshot to observe what happened. However, since they are active participants, they can create "deviations" from the actual events. The snapshot computers provide a fully accurate replay of a small region. They also are able to calculate the degree of "change" that occurred in the snapshot. However, only "real people" in the snapshot can observe the details. The real people can also suffer and die within the snapshot. They can't really bring anything out of the snapshot. (Though they may be able to swallow something.) There are also plenty of privacy concerns with Snapshots. They can only be explored under warrant. The snapshot detective positions are low prestige, and typically takes those with minimal other opportunities. In a Snapshot, however, they are near omnipotent. They can flash a "snapshot" badge which lets people know they are in a snapshot, causing interesting reactions.
The Snapshot story follows two partners who are on duty to try to hunt for a murder weapon. They are able to find that, and then are told to stay in a safe house while waiting to explore a domestic violence incident. However, rather than do that, they explore another case of a serial killer that seems to be working around snapshot detectives. They also take time to visit family including one detectives non-custodial child. Things take a few turns, and we also end up with a Snapshot in a Snapshot and a few murder cases being resolved.
The snapshot is an intriguing structure. The story explores a lot of the concerns and abuses. It is also set as a "one burst of technology" in the near term future. There is a great deal of opportunity to explore this technology in future work.

The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills our Children Need - and What We Can Do About it

Tony Wagner became disillusioned with the education system after spending time working as a teacher and administrator. In Global Achievement Gap, he identifies the problem with the education system and proposes solutions. He levels significant criticism at the "testing system." High stakes tests that are required for graduation have encouraged teachers to teach towards the test. Alas, the tests are created in a way that makes them easy to grade. This results in kids spending time learning facts rather than how to think. AP classes are also geared towards the test, with students required to memorize a great breadth of material rather then truly understand it. The importance of SAT and ACT tests also creates significant problems.
Testing is just one of the problems teachers face. There are many attempts at "education reform" that appear. Teachers are often presented with the "improvements of the day." The application of these new ideas takes time, but rarely sticks. Teachers become accustomed to going through the motions, knowing that these ideas will fade in a while. There are also "standardized curriculums" such as those in Now Child Left Behind. Teachers become "drones" instead of educators.
Teachers also receive minimal feedback. Administrators are overworked with responsibilities. Evaluations are perfunctory. Rather than look at learning experience, the evaluation focuses on completing a few "required actions." Even when outcomes are taken into account, the outcomes are based on "testing" rather than on actual learning.
What can be done? The author did have good things about the IB curriculum. This includes more detailed writing experiences and discussions on the theory of knowledge. Teachers also need greater feedback in their work. Instead of being isolated in the classroom, teachers should have more opportunity to work with other teachers and learn how to improve their teaching. Teaching itself should focus on students learning rather than recall. Writing and expressing thoughts should be stressed rather than recalling knowledge. Creativity is also important. Learning should also take into account the real world and students' desires for learning. The changes would make it more difficult to provide "standardized evaluation." However, it would result in students really learning rather than "going through the education system."

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Phule's Company: Phule's Company, Book 1

Phule's Company is a band of misfit space legion recruits led by an ultra-wealthy heir to a Phule company munitions fortune. (Though Phule claims to have earned his money himself.) The legion does not know what to do with him. Rather than kick him our, the send him to be in charge of a remote outpost where nobody wants to be. There he manages to build up the esteem of his group and transform them into a viable fighting force. He always seems to know how to use bureaucracy and rules to his advantage. (Though padding things with some money doesn't hurt.) The rise is not perfect, but they are eventually able to use cunning to tie an elite army group in a contest of abilities. At the end, there is an alien visitation on the outpost. They manage to diffuse the conflict, and Phule gets rich through some business negotiations with them. It all seems very similar to a typical rags to riches sitcom.

Slaves of Socorro: Brotherband, Book 4

Slaves of Socorro is a "standalone" Brotherband book that starts to tie in more closely with the Ranger's Apprentice series. The crew of the Heron set out on their first mission. They are to be the treaty duty ship for an Araluen treaty. They also discover that their former brotherband nemesis has turned rogue. They give him chase, but he gets away. They meet up with a Ranger who wants them to go see the King. However, they end up going to a slave port to try to rescue some people that were taken in slavery. There is a lot of death and destruction, but all the good guys survive. The team also adopts a big dog that comes in handy to save the day. It was surprising that they just let a whole ship full of their nemesis sink. (Though they did have to be cajoled into not saving them.) The various talents of the team members continue to come in handy as they complete their adventures.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Missing Microbes

Microbes have existed long before we have and make up a greater share of living biomass than their "larger" counterparts. Two bacteria may be much more genetically different than a human and a tree. These organisms occupy just about every possible environment, including within the human body. The microbes are responsible for a great deal of human functionality, both good and bad. Alas, widespread use of antibiotics has pushed things out of whack. These drugs indiscriminately attack microbes, killing off the bad and the good. However, microbes evolve rapidly, thus allowing antibiotic resistant microbes to dominate. Widespread use of antibiotics helps "favor" the antibiotic-resistant strains, making our miracle cures less viable. There is a widespread tendency for doctors to prescribe antibiotics even when an infection would likely not respond to antibiotics. After all, if there is only a 1% chance of this drug helping, they should use it, right? Unfortunately, this logic leads to over-prescription and makes it more likely that the resistant strains develop, making the drugs useless for the people that really need it.
In addition to killing of the bad, the microbes also kill the good. This may be leading to a large number of different maladies, from asthma to allergies to obesity. Research is only in its early stage. However there are some connections visible now. Other practices have lead to a decreased amount of micro-biota present. C-section bearths reduce the pickup of microbes through the birth canal. Antibiotics fed to animals enter our food supply. Microbes cause ulcers. However, the absence of them may also be a contributing factor in other conditions. Many digestive issues seem to have a close relationship with microbes. (Alas "probiotics" are totally unregulated, so it is difficult to know what is good or bad.) Autism may also be related to microbes.
We have a synergistic relationship with our personal microbes. We should think twice before randomly killing them off.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes Book 3)

I thought this was the final book in the Ember in the Ashes series. It did seem to wrap things up, however it did it in a very unsatisfying way. The evil ones always seem to be a step ahead of the good guys. The characters are primarily in hard-core "war" mode. There is little time for caring for others. Often time spent loving others causes more negative than good. The struggle of the boy that is the "Reaper in training" is especially prescient. He must learn to not love others in order to use his magic to "reap" the dead into the after life. His failure to let go of love to others led him to neglect his duties, and with that neglect he gave enemies a chance to hurt his friend.
There are numerous times when the "good guys" seem on the cusp of "winning", but then bad things happen. The book continues to focus on two main girls and one boy as they work on their own goals that become interrelated in different ways. In the end, they all seem to fail. It makes for an ending that wraps things up, yet begs for more.

Thursday, May 14, 2020


Transparent centers around the life of an invisible girl, Fiona. She was dropped on her head as a baby because nobody could see her. She was one of many children born with unique "defects" cause by their parents use of a radioactive drug. The drug has been heavily restricted, but has a huge black market following. Her brothers also have powers (flying and smells.) Her father is the leader of a crime syndicate, and he uses his children to help out in nefarious efforts. (Fiona's invisibility makes her a great spy. Once she removes her clothes, nobody can tell where she is. She can also hide things in her mouth to make them invisible.)
Fiona and her mother have had enough and try to escape. She enrolls in a school in small town Arizona, and then struggles as a fish out of water. Some of her friends have powers also. All of the typical big-city girl in small town tropes apply. She makes friends with a girl in a big Catholic family and a smart boy and his brother. Fiona's brothers also appear to help her (though she thinks her "flying" brother is there to hurt her.) It is hard to keep track of all the different characters - especially the boys. Fiona struggles with her feelings towards a boy - even more so after she discovers that he can see her. Eventually they make peace and the family manages to defeat the charming father.
The book is a very "chick-lit" take on super heroes. Not much time is spent going into details about the society or the science of the story. (That is a good thing - there are so many holes in the scenario, that even spending a little time would detract from the experience.) The book provides a literal take on the figurative story of the girl that nobody can see finally finding the boy that sees her for what she is.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Map of All Things: Terra Incognita, Book 2

Two groups of people descended from the same original group. However, they have adopted different customs and religions and absolutely hate each other. Hot heads on both sides continually lead to an escalation of tensions. One guy tries to make his royal fiance happy by massacring people in a religious site. This leads to the other side killing the Queen's brother. Needless to say, the queen is not happy, and leads another attack. This goes on and on. The people have so much animosity that they just can't get along. Religion is very important, but becomes a differentiator rather than a uniter.
Meanwhile, there is a quest that has gone on to map and find key sites. Alas, violence and religious fanaticism continues to get in the way. There are also spies that are weeded out by their ability to read text, as well as a girl who sneaks on to a ship disguised as a man. And then there is the assassin who becomes an informant. It all makes for a very crazy society.

Friday, May 08, 2020

The Warlock (The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel Book 5)

In this books, the twins are separated. They are each on different sides of a battle royal for the future (and past) of the earth. More historical figures keep popping up and intersecting with mythological characters. They also discover that many of their family members are more than it seems. Things take place less in the "here and now" than in the other books as time and geography become fluid. How will the final book end?

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs

Michael Osterholm wrote "Deadliest Enemy" a few years ago to warn against the dangers of infectious disease. There have been a number of cases of disease outbreaks that have sparked immediate action (SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola). However, once the disease is contained the interest fades. Significant research is performed initially. However, funding goes away after the threat fades, leaving incomplete results. Even diseases like Malaria get brushed off as "third world" diseases, and little effort is spent on containing them.
We have also reached a level of complacency with the seasonal flu. The annual vaccine provides a steady revenue stream. However, getting it every year may provide less immunity than receiving it occasionally. We have also stalled on achieving a "permanent" vaccine. Like other vaccines, the financial component may be getting in the way of some research.
Many of the novel viruses transfer from animals to humans in areas where they live close together. Third world megacities are especially vulnerable. Mosquitos are also primary vector for other diseases.
In one section, he describes a flu pandemic which sounds earlier like the current Covid-19 pandemic. Alas, we have still not prepared for it.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the New Innovation Era

Our current education is stuck in the past. There is an excessive emphasis on the memorization of facts and the application of formulas. These are things that are easy to test on standardized tests. This may have been useful in past centuries where knowledge was difficult to obtain. However, now most everybody carries a device that allows access to vast stores of knowledge and the easy computation. This leaves much of what is learned in school useless. Most students forget the knowledge learned. (In one example, they tested students at the start of the next school year on a "dumbed-down" version of the final exam. The scores went from Bs to Fs.) Today, the problem is not obtaining knowledge, but being able to properly evaluate and discern the truth. People need to be able to do, not know. (A funny example was given of "bicycle riding" and a Bicycle Aptitude Test. We could easily test that students have esoteric knowledge of bicycles, but that is not useful when it comes to riding.)
I'm reminded of the case where a Chemical Engineering department was concerned about the lack of language proficiency of its (mostly non-native English speaking) students. However, most of the foreign students passed the test, while the native English speakers were stuck in "remedial English" classes. Some people had "test knowledge" of English but couldn't communicate, while others could communicate, but couldn't pass the test.
The argument here is starkly different from many education reformers and education apologists. We can let other countries excel at tests. What we need are more creative thinkers. Teachers are doing a horrible job in part because of the system they are in. Most of the skills learned in school are irrelevant. Lecture courses are largely irrelevant these days. Instead education should be focused on helping students to learn. Multiple choice tests are easy to grade and fit people to a curve, but they just don't help. We should not deny students resources available. Don't teach towards the test. Let people learn what interests them. It is almost an "unschooling" within a school that is advocated. It is time to stop 19th century education in the 21st century.