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, July 28, 2009

Harry Potter

I saw the latest Harry Potter movie last weekend, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I enjoyed it; it's a good installment in the series. I particularly enjoyed watching the delectable Emma Watson. On the survey I took after the movie, I selected Snape as the most interesting character. His dual nature is central to the plot and brings the only interesting mystery.

However, I have decided not to read the last two books. As much fun as the movies are, the books are not well written. The prose is plain. The plot is simplistic and depends on single unbelievable elements. But what bothered me the most about the books (at least the first five) is that Harry himself is a very weak character, hardly ever acting on his own. He was always being led by others, especially Hermione. She was the true heroine of the stories. At least in the sixth book he is enabled to act on his own with the death of his mentor.

This essay by Harold Bloom expresses some of the sentiments I feel on the books.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Perdido Street Station

Every once in a while, as I read books from different authors, I come across an author who blows me away. China Mieville has just such a work in Perdido Street Station.

The story is a dark fantasy set in the decadent and decaying city of New Crobuzon, an ancient city surrounded by the ribs of a dead leviathan. New Crobuzon is run by a corrupt mayor and legislature, policed by a brutal militia, and filled with drug lords and other cartels. The population is human and cactus people, insect-like khepri and various other intelligent species, all living together in a tenuous peace.

Isaac is a human scientist studying arcane scientific and magical subjects. His lover is Lin, a khepri woman with a human body and insect head. Lin is an artist who builds sculptures with the secretions from her insect glands. She is introduced to Mr. Motley, a drug lord whose body has been remade into a multifaceted chimeric form to make a sculpture of him. Isaac is approached by a man in his laboratory with a special request. Yagharek is a garuda, a humanoid race with large wings that enable them to fly. Yagharek has been shorn of his wings and desires to fly again. Having learned of Isaac's expertise, he offers a bag of gold if Isaac can return him to the sky.

Both Isaac's and Lin's decisions to accept these requests turn out to be disastrous. Isaac's research accidentally unleashes a force that terrorizes the city. As nightmares spread across the city, different factions try to fight the terror. The government and criminals forge a tentative alliance to rid the city of the nightmares. Lin becomes a prisoner.

A fascinating variety of characters come forth in the chaos: creatures who live in pairs and control human or other hosts; remade creatures who have had their bodies altered; water creatures who can shape water; a spider like Weaver who travels between dimensions. Mieville shows an amazing imagination in these characters. Each species is well thought out and the characters themselves are fascinating individuals.

Isaac is the central character and driving force of the plot. He maintains a steadfast determination to make right his mistakes. He remains dedicated to Yagharek, who in turn becomes a steady friend and dependable ally. Together with Isaac and Lin's mutual friend Derkhan they come up with plans and resources to defeat the nightmares. I believe that choices are what define a good character, and Isaac's choices show him to be a solid character up until the end.

The plot starts off strange and gets even stranger. There's no predicting what will happen next in this story. The plot is logical yet surprising, and the author seems to have a neverending bag of surprises. There is always a good deal of suspense. The writing is solid and inventive, often just as intriguing as the plot and characters. The book is a complete joy to read. A

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Stuff of Thought

Steven Pinker's book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature presents an investigation into how our use of language reveals how our mind works. Pinker brings a solid view of language as a social construct and function of our cognitive processes.

Pinker starts out by discussing the nature of verbs and how we use them. Verbs illustrate an underlying conceptual framework of how we view the world. Sometimes verbs can have multiple meanings, as in "Load the wagon" versus "Load the hay into the wagon". In this instance the wagon's state is being changed from unloaded to loaded whereas the hay is moving and not changing state. Likewise you can say "Pour the water into the glass" but not "Pour the glass with water". These similar kinds of verbs break down when you try to use them in similar situations, and this shows the fine grades of semantics involved in language.

He then contrasts the concepts of Extreme Nativism and Radical Pragmatics. Extreme Nativism is the theory that most definitions of words are innately understood, that we have a pre-existing set of concepts that we draw on in language. Radical Pragmatics is the nearly opposite theory that "a permanently existing conceptual structure underlying the meaning of a word is also as mythical as the Jack of Spades, because people can use a word to mean almost anything, depending on the context." He talks about Linguistic Determinism, which is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the extreme, saying that humans cannot conceive of or communicate concepts that are not in their language. Pinker rejects all three theories as extreme and proposes a sort of compromise in conceptual semantics, "that word senses are mentally represented as expressions in a richer and more abstract language of thought."

Pinker then discusses how our words break down concepts into discrete pieces. This reveals our inner formation of the world into causes and events, causers and recipients. The most interesting section I found to be the chapter titled "The Metaphor Metaphor," where he talks about how much of language is metaphoric, even if the original images are no longer evoked. Metaphors build on each other, creating a rich web of meaning. He answers the question of why the idea of "moving up" a meeting can be ambiguous: because our concept of time is either of proceeding along a line or of a river moving past, so "moving up" can mean advancing in either direction, towards or away from us.

There is a whole chapter given to profanity and its source. Part of it is rooted deep in the amygdala, a primitive part of our brains. Some people who have lost their ability to express themselves with language can still curse, and the nervous tics from Tourette's syndrome can cause uncontrollable urges to curse. The reason curses are perceived as shocking is that they are forcing negative images on others. I must admit that this section was more enlightening (and entertaining) than I imagined it would be.

This book provided a good deal of insight into how our languages are structured around our cognitive processes. Languages have built into them logical frameworks that we use without thinking about it. Language is an innate ability of humans, but there is much discussion over how much is built-in and how much is generated from society. Pinker does a great job illuminating features of English and contrasting it with other languages. I was a little puzzled at his starting with the book with a discussion of verbs, but it turned out to be most enlightening. Pinker focuses his attention on places where language breaks down, where words become ambiguous and illuminate their underlying abstractions. A

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