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.

Monday, February 25, 2008


I have recently come to appreciate the graphic novel as a distinct art form in its own right. It has potential to tell a story in a vastly different way from traditional fiction or film. There is a specific talent to using the features of the medium. Dialogue, narrative, and visuals all work together to create a unified whole. The format lends itself to stories with a strong science fiction or fantasy element, often with grand themes.

One such story is Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. It takes the theme of superheroes and gives it a few twists. Superheroes are often portrayed as popular, powerful forces for justice. Watchmen shows another view of superheroes, as troubled vigilantes with their own code. The story narrates the background of several superheroes in a group known as The Crimebusters, the successor to a group called the Minutemen, who fought crime together in the 1940's. A lot is made of the contrast to the war years and immediately after, as opposed to the more decadent and less hopeful years of the Seventies and Eighties. The superheroes are as much reviled as loved. Laws have been passed against masked heroes. Some have gone into hiding, others have given up their careers.

The Comedian is a masked hero who decides to join the government as a way of pursuing his career legitimately. He has a negative, cynical outlook on humanity, and sees life and society as a joke. The Nite Owl is two different men, one in the Forties and another man who takes his place when he retires. Rorschach is a vigilante who wears a strange mask and has a solitary, harsh code. Ozymandias is a known as the smartest man in the world, and a great athlete. He hangs up his uniform to go commercial and sell figures of himself and his comrades. Dr. Manhattan is a scientist who is turned into a powerful force after a freak atomic accident, but it leaves him disconnected from humanity. Silk Spectre is the daughter of one of the original Minutemen.

Each character is developed with a backstory during most of the chapters. Each chapter except the last is followed by text from sources inside the story that elaborate on the story's themes and history, such as Nite Owl's autobiography and a treatise on Dr. Manhattan's affect on the Cold War. The nuclear threat from the Soviet Union is a large part of the background and context of the story, as is the crime of that time. The superheroes are seen as going from fighting America's enemies to being a public nuisance. Their lives take different paths.

Bringing another element to the text is the pirate graphic novel that is a story within the story. Read by a boy at a newsstand and written by a missing author, it tells about a man stranded on an island by a death ship and his quest to get back to his home to protect his family. There are strong parallels with the main story and the madness of the character behind most of the plot.

The visual style and the narrative complement one another. Repeated visual elements add to the story, tying it together and building on the themes. One repeated phrase, written in graffiti, is "Who watches the watchmen?" It plays to the theme of distrust of vigilantes, and a general alienation of society.

The plot centers on Rorschach's belief that someone is targeting the masked superheroes, and his attempt to get others to join him after the Comedian is murdered. But more than this synopsis, the story is about the lives of the superheroes and how their troubles lead them on different paths. Old rivalries and old grudges come into play as they struggle against each other as much as against crime and an unknown force. I have rarely encountered such a strong unity of form and function, character and plot. The story is very memorable, and each character is distinct. I give it an A, and I think it lives up to its description on the back cover that it "changed an industry and challenged a medium."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Tipping Point

Ever since I read his book Blink, I've been meaning to read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. It's an overview and analysis of social epidemics and how they spread through society.

Gladwell looks at the types of people who help ideas spread. He calls people who are charismatic and know a lot of people Connectors. They are critical in making lots of connections between people, taking ideas they like and spreading them around. Salesmen are people who excel at persuasion. Mavens are people who are experts in their fields. The special thing about Mavens is not just how much they know but how readily they impart that knowledge, and how people listen to them.

The author also talks a lot about what makes ideas sticky, and why some ideas spread and others don't. I learned all about how the creators of Sesame Street did research and testing to figure out a way to keep kids interested in the show. Some of their first ideas turned out to be bad ones, based on flawed notions of child psychology and how kids learn and watch TV.

He also discusses the context that ideas flourish in, illustrating with the heavy crime of New York in the 1970's and 1980's and the improvement of the 1990's. Lots of different incremental changes happened to make crime go down. The one he focuses on is the "broken window" effect, the influence of a broken down environment including graffiti and trash on crime. There's a real psychological effect based on how people perceive their environment and what they are used to, which affects how they are expected to act. Apparently it's much easier to be a criminal in a criminal world. (I relate this back to Plato, who constructed his idea of a Utopian society based on the question, "How can a man be just?" He claimed that a truly just man must be found in a just society.) When the subways were cleaned up in New York, and the criminals were made to understand that fare jumping and other petty crimes would not be tolerated, serious crime fell.

There's also some discussion of the concept of a hundred and fifty people being the biggest group that can function as a unit with real cohesion. This has been born out in religious communities, factories, and the military. People are more likely to know each other, and thus spread ideas, in these smaller groups.

One of the best examples of stickiness Gladwell uses is smoking tobacco. Apparently there's a limit of about five cigarettes a day for people to be casual smokers, and many don't go on to be hard core addicts who smoke a pack a day or more. There are differences in physiology that are tied to mental illness, including depression, that make one more likely to be a hard core smoker (though I think this should be fairly obvious and straightforward, as someone with an addictive or obsessive personality is more likely to be addicted or obsessive in general). However, I disagree with his suggestion of cutting the nicotine levels of cigarettes so that light smokers never get the high doses that get them addicted. I think people will just end up smoking more, though I am ready to be surprised.

There's a lot of good information here. I especially like the insight into psychology. Particularly useful is the knowledge that people are much more influenced by their environment than we like to believe. Studies have showed that the biggest factor to how someone responds to a situation is the circumstances that led up to it, not their background or beliefs. Counterintuitively, people are less likely to respond in cases of need if they believe their are others around--if no one else is responding, then there must not be a problem!

All this plays into which ideas spread, and how fast. Some of this is disheartening, but with the knowledge we should be able to understand why an idea has taken off, even if we can't predict so in advance. Sometimes the smallest things in environment can make a big change in people's thoughts, which can affect how things tip. I consider it a solid A. It's made me become more convinced of the importance of psychology and understanding how things shape the mind.

Monday, February 18, 2008

In Defense of Food

Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food is not a book I would ordinarily have picked out to read. But it turned out to be an engaging treatise on an important subject: the quality of our food.

Pollan expands on the central dictum: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." The catch is that most of what we see at the grocery store is not food, but processed nutrition. Pollan makes a big distinction between raw food that comes from nature and products that have been through the industrial processing to remove the parts that don't hold up well for storage, and refine it to have more calories, in the form of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. But all this processing removes the vitamins and minerals that are required for our bodies. And whenever science discovers an imortant nutrient that's missing from the processing, the food processors add it back in, claiming new health benefits.

What's more, the very raw food that's the source of these products is less and less nutritious, due to farming methods that promote fast growth over absorption of nutrients, and the wearing out of soil. Moreover, species have been homogenized, and the single species farming has led to more disease. Instead of fruits and vegetables, our diet has become more dominated by corn syrup, refined grains, and saturated fats.

Pollan provides a lot of historical context, showing political, economical, and commercial forces that have come together to produce the "Western disease." He shows that wherever a society adopts a Western diet, what soon follows is an onslaught of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Humans have evolved with their environment to be able to survive on varied diets, but the Western diet is just too deficient to be healthy.

To his credit, Pollan admits that's it's not always easy to eat good food, with the glut of processed products on the shelves and organic foods being expensive for most people. But he does lay out the framework for choosing healthy foods. With his guidelines, I feel like I have a new outlook on eating. I'm glad my wife encouraged me to read it, so much so that I think it's an A.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Island in the Sea of Time

S. M. Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time is a novel about the time travel on a massive scale. The island of Nantucket is mysteriously transported from the late 1990's to about 1250 B.C. Along with the island is the Eagle, a U.S. Coast Guard training ship captained by Marion Alston, a black gay woman. Alston takes the ship to the island, and together with Jared Cofflin, the island's police chief, and Ian Arnstein and Doreen Rosenthal, and many others, they figure out how to survive on the island without constant supplies of food, or electricity or running water.

The islanders send a boat to the mainland, where they encounter natives who quickly attack them then get sick. The islanders use their ingenuity to figure out how to survive on fish, hunt whales for food and fuel, clear woods and plant grain, police themselves, and reorganize their economy to keep everyone busy. They make a trip to England to trade for grain and other food, picking up a merchant (or pirate) who speaks ancient Greek, and Swindapa, a slave girl from the Earth people, the native tribes who are at war with the new people.

Halfway through the story, one of the sailors takes a group of conspirators and steals one of the ships, sailing with the translator back to England. There they begin building an empire based on technology far beyond what the Bronze Age people can build. Alston must first rescue Cofflin's pregnant wife, who was kidnapped and taken to Mexico in a misguided attempt to help the natives against an imagined invasion from the Nantucketers. Then, the island builds weapons and trains men to fight, so that they can attack the growing threat from across the ocean.

The last part of the book consists of a series of battles, pitting the Nantucketers against the rebels and their allies. Alston has to manage modern battle tactics with fierce warriors and primitive weapons, albeit weapons made of steel much stronger than the locals can produce. The rebels use the same strong weapons, but also include a pair of cannons.

The story is basically plot-driven, but there is good characterization. Alston is the central character, and we get a close look at her struggles, both against outside enemies and the people of the island. Her romance with Swindapa provides an important emotional element to the story. We also get a good look at Cofflin, who gives up his position as police chief to become a political leader and organizer. He and the other islanders are faced with mass suicides and religious fanatics soon after the Event. I think this is a likely result of such an event. The story illustrates different realistic responses to the situation.

Much of the first part of the story centers on discussions on survival, and how people can make a life without twentieth century amenities. It doesn't sound exciting, but it turns out to be pretty interesting. A lot of research went into the book, especially this part. The author studied about survival on primitive foods, as well as forging simple weapons.

I was a little disappointed in the ending, in that it didn't provide the sense of finality that I was expecting. But it still seems believable, so it rings true. I think the author has created quite a work of fiction, starting with an imaginative, outlandish premise, and developing it with steady logic along a natural path. It certainly got me thinking about how I would survive an island winter with fish and nuts and berries to eat. A-