You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Hiding in the Mirror

Hiding in the Mirror is by Lawrence M. Krauss, the author of The Physics of Star Trek. It is a narration of how extra dimensions have come and gone as theories of physics, and how they have stuck in the public's imagination.

Krauss describes how dimensions were treated in Flatland, written in 1884. The premise was a two dimensional being encountering a three dimensional being, and how that would relate to our meeting a being of four dimensions. He also talks about Alice in Wonderland and other books that explore multiple dimensions.

The author gives a good description of how various discoveries about light, electricity, and magnetism came together to form basic electromagnetic theory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And then Einstein came along and produced his theories of special relativity and general relativity, concerning the nature of the speed of light, time, and the warping of time-space that we experience as gravity. I must admit that my scant knowledge in these areas was much improved after reading all this. I had thought I sort-of understood it, but Krauss's explanation was very good and thorough.

One thing that impressed me was his descriptions of theories and experiments being done in the twentieth century, and how often they validated each other. The existence of the positron was observed in 1932, but had been predicted by earlier theories.

Krauss gives a good description of how multiple dimensions came into theories as a way to explain various observations and unite theories of forces of the universe. At one point, twenty-six dimensions were posited. String theories today include up to ten or eleven dimensions. One recent discovery was that some of the ten dimensional theories can be expressed as variations of the eleven dimensional theory.

Eventually I get lost in all the theories. Relativity and quantum mechanics are just the beginning, and they have been well understood (at least by physicists) for nearly a century now. The various string theories and other theories build on them and get much more complicated.

The book is mercifully light on math. Honestly, I think I could have used a little more math to make sense of the concepts, but I don't for a second believe that any of the equations would be within my understanding, so he was probably wise to leave them out. Still, I was curious to see how some of the ten dimensional equations would work. One factor that intrigued me was the possibility of an extra curled up dimension that gravity works on. Since the force of gravity is reduced with the square of the distance between two objects, if gravity is propagated along an extra small dimension for short distances, then it could conceivably be very strong at extremely small scales.

The author touches again on multiple dimensions and alternate realities, but most of the last half of the book is descriptions of physics theories and experiments. The liberal arts major in me appreciates the cultural perspective, and the science part of my brain appreciates the complex physics. Overall it's a good mix, a well balanced meal, a B+.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is about a man who awakes from a coma with amnesia and tries to rebuild his life. He ends up delving into books and finally reaches the memories of childhood.

Yambo does not recognize his wife or grown children. He goes home from the hospital and tries to remember his life. His grandchildren are glad to see him, even though he does not recognize them either. He goes to the rare book store that he owns and his assistant Sabila shows him the books. He finds out from his best friend that he used to be a womanizer, and lusted after Sabila even though nothing happened.

Frustrated, he goes to his family's house in Solara in the country. There he encounters the old woman who helped raise him. He rediscovers old things in the house, the grounds, and especially the attic. When even portraits of his family do not help his memory, he goes through old books and finds that he remembers them. It turns out that only his memories that are attached to his personality are missing. He can remember a story as long as it was something he read and not something that actually happened to him.

Yambo discovers a secret room in the house. The old woman won't talk about it at first, but then he manages to get her to divulge the secret. It turns out his father had hidden a group of refugees there to keep them from being found by the fascists during WWII. Yambo gets into the room through the attic and finds other old things there. He reads old papers and wonders at his indoctrination into fascism and how he changed over the course of one school year.

Finally he finds himself in an extended memory, perhaps dreaming or perhaps dying. He remembers life during the war, and an old anarchist he made friends with, and a big event towards the end of the war. Some Russians on the run from the Nazis hide out in a nearby town, and only Yambo can save them since the Nazis have blocked the only road down the mountain and he and his friends know how to climb the gulch behind the town. He manages to lead the anarchist up the gulch and they get the Russians down the gulch and to safety, killing two Nazis. The anarchist ends up dead.

A final memory is of a girl that he loved in high school but he never was able to approach her. He had fond memories of her and fantasized about meeting her again, until a few weeks before his accident when he learned that she had died shortly after high school. And it turns out her real name was Sabila. The book ends as his memories of her grow, and he believes he is finally going to be able to see her face again, just before everything turns dark.

The book is rich on the subject of memories and nostalgia. The element of fog pervades the story. There is fog that surrounds the town when they save the Russians, and his mind is always clouded by fog that he tries to see through. The poring through the items in the attic, and finding the secret room in the house, both symbolize the memories that he sifts through and finds. The myserious flame is a flash of memory that hits him at times. Learning about his childhood is a strange experience, when he reads about himself like he is discovering a new person.

The lack of strong conflict in the story leads me to give it a B+. At times it gets a little rambling, and I would wonder where it was going. But still it is entertaining to read about Yambo getting to know himself "backward", as it were. From meeting his own family, to finding his old family house, to finding the stories he read as a youth, to reading his own writings. The pieces of the stories he read interweave in a fun way with the memories of his life.

Friday, May 11, 2007

How to Cut a Cake

I picked up How to Cut a Cake, by Ian Stewart, at the library while looking for "emergency reading" for my car. If I'm on break or eating lunch, or have to wait for something, I like to have something to read, and sometimes whatever book I'm reading isn't available or is too involved. How to Cut a Cake was just right.

The book is adapted from a list of columns that the author wrote that detail mathematical puzzles and paradoxes. The first chapter describes the various methods that have been devised for cutting a cake for more than two people, so that each person feels like they have an equal share. Methods vary from having everybody cut a piece in sequence, to having a slowly moving knife move along the cake.

Many of the puzzles have real-world applications. Take the problem of map-coloring. A map of contiguous areas can be colored with only four colors and ensure that no two areas that are next to each other have the same color. This fact was not proven until 1976 with mathematics and computer models. A related problem is coloring a map of empires that have states on the Earth and the Moon. Each plane has a coloring number of four, but when you link the two planes, the number is somewhere between eight and twelve. The true answer is not known. The real-world application turns out to be testing circuit boards. The circuits on boards are connected in networks that are analogous to connected areas on a map. With some calculations, the number of tests for short circuits can be brought from thousands down to just a handful.

One surprise was re-discovering Pascal's triangle. It turns out it is related to Sierpinski's gasket, a triangle-shaped curve that touches itself at every point. The open nature of this curve is related to the fact that the numbers in Pascal's triangle (binomial coefficients), as they approach infinity in the limit, are nearly all even.

Other interesting items are the shapes of bubbles and minimum surface areas; the law of averages and what it really means; and fireflies that flash in sequence. Tangled phone cords are a study in topology and the similarities between a write and a twist. They also are related to DNA and how it twists into double helix's.

The book is an A-. It is entertaining and educational. I enjoyed reading about interesting math problems and their even more interesting solutions. Sometimes it got a little complicated, but it was always a good read.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


I decided to read some works by Jorge Luis Borges after listening to the lecture series on fantasy literature. I picked up a copy of Labyrinths as was pleased that I read it.

Borges wrote short stories and essays, and some poetry. His stories have a sense of magic, or perhaps philosophy dissolved with theology. Thus his genre is called magical realism.

The first story, "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", is about the discovery of a volume of an encyclopedia that has extra sections describing a country that never existed. What follows is the tracking down of the creation of the country and the other volumes of the encyclopedia. This story is typical of Borges style, where he mixes truth and fiction to create a strange sense of verisimilitude.

"The Garden of Forking Paths" describes the creation of a book that represents a story told as if every decision had been made multiple ways, which chapters repeating parts where the characters did something different than before. "The Library of Babel" is another fascinating story about a vast library that contains books of every combination of a certain set of letters (and puctuation and spaces) in a certain number of pages, so that every work of literature is represented. However, the librarians go made trying to find anything that makes sense out of the endless rows of books containing nothing but gibberish. "The Secret Miracle" is about a man who is condemned to be shot by a firing squad, but at the last moment time freezes and he realizes he has been granted a chance to finish, in his mind, his great work.

Many of Borges' stories use the element of a book to use as a hook into another world or dimension. It is interesting to explore the worlds that live in books in a different way.

My favorite story is "The Lottery in Babylon". It describes the beginning of a simple lottery in Babylon. The lottery becomes more complex, and the stakes get higher. Soon everyone is playing, and in fact participation becomes mandatory. To make things more interesting, an extra element is added, where one person will win, but another person will lose. Someone may win a new house; someone else may lose a family member. Since everyone plays, everyone has their fate determined by the lottery. Everything that happens is a result of the lottery. Thus, the lottery becomes a metaphor for fate itself.

His essays, while not as fantastic, are also interesting. "Avatars of the Tortoise" describes the different uses of the paradox of ever-halving distances to prove that movement is impossible. "The Mirror of Enigmas" describes how we view things "through a glass darkly", as in Augustine's words.

Borges is fascinated by circles and repetitions, by representations that mean two different things. A character will discover something that makes him realize two different things are really the same thing seen in different ways. Or a single thing will turn out to have to distinct parts. His visions are fascinating, and stick with the reader for a long time.

This book is an A+. I am definitely glad I read it.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Coming Soon

Just a quick note on what I'm currently reading and plan on reading soon.

Just finished Labyrinths by Borges and How to Cut a Cake by Ian Stewart.

I'm currently reading a book about the science of extra dimensions, including relativity and quantum mechanics.

Next on my list:

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Dune by Frank Herbert (finally)
The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

My problem seems to be that I keep adding things to my list fast than I can read them.

Next plans for audio books:

More Aubrey/Maturin books
More Modern Scholar lecture series, likely science fiction literature or astronomy.

I'm currently listening to The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umerto Eco.