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.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Modern Scholar: Basics of Genetics

I recently listened to the Modern Scholar lecture course Basics of Genetics on our long trip back from Colorado. It is an entry level course on genes with a good bit of history.

Professor Betsey Dexter Dyer starts with the history of genetics as practices by humans for thousands of years. She then describes how Gregor Mendel experimented with pea plants and discovered basic principles of heredity. He discovered that the descendants of plants with one green pea and one yellow pea parent would be in a three to one distribution green to yellow. Though Mendel's work was not well known for decades, this proved to be a critical discovery of statistics and genes.

Professor Dyer gives a basic description of how genes work inside a cell, using two different colorful metaphors. I found the cookie factory metaphor to be useful, if a bit simplified and clumsy, but the monk copyist metaphor really brings out the details of copying and mistakes. I could have used a little more details about how genes are expressed or how mutations occur, but in general it was a good high level discussion.

The professor does give good examples of how genes turn into characteristics. The best examples are with mammal coat color. I now understand why all calico cats are female. I also understand the basics of the sex genes, though again I could have used more detail.

There is also a decent description of chromosomes and how they are built and how they replicate. It is difficult to picture this with just a lecture but the professor did well (and there is a course book to accompany the course, though I didn't look at it). I was surprised to learn that much of the DNA in our chromosomes is virus DNA. Professor Dyer wraps up with a short talk about the uses we can put our genetic knowledge. Genetics is still a young science: there are new discoveries all the time and there is still much to understand about how our genes work. DNA is extremely complicated, more so that simple three letter codes can express. This course is a good start in the basics. B+

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales

McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales is an anthology of short stories published in 2003. The stories are somewhat thrilling but of mixed quality. They have elements of alternative history, science fiction, and westerns.

One of the highlights is Elmore Leonard's "How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman". The story follows the title character in two episodes: the first when he witnesses a mobster kill a police officer, and then when years later when he sets a trap for the mobster and gets the drop on him. The main character is a tough young man who becomes a capable and crafty lawman.

Another interesting tale is Glen David Gold's "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter". It is about the death of a circus elephant, and the history of one of the clowns that may have been involved with the elephant for years. The story is a tragedy with a strange twist. I enjoyed reading "Catskin" by Kelly Link, even when I realized I had read it once in another anthology. It is a very weird tale of fantasy, in which a murdered witch's cat leads the witch's surviving son on a mission of vengeance. The story is full of transformations and strange powers.

Neil Gaiman's "Closing Time" is a gem of a story, told inside a framing story by someone at an English club. The narrator tells of an eerie old house and the spooky woods, where three boys end up getting lost. It evokes the dark side of childhood, when mysteries are everywhere and dark things are just around the corner. Michael Moorcock's "The Case of the Nazi Canary" is a fun alternate history story concerning Adolph Hitler and the death of his niece in 1931. Another fun tale was Michael Chabon's "The Martian Agent, a Planetary Romance". It's another alternate history story in a Wild West where Queen Victoria still rules and General Custer is a rebel fighting for freedom. It follows two sons of one of Custer's rebels as they escape and are caught and try to survive in a tough group home.

Some of these stories were fun and imaginative, with interesting historical twists. The characters are strong and well-drawn, within the confines of a short story. But some of the stories fell a little flat. I was a bit disappointed in the stories by Stephen King and Michael Crichton's stories. Other stories were adequate but hardly what I'd call thrilling. They certainly had a fantastic or strange setting but the story didn't quite come together. The stories cover a wide range of settings, moods, and characters. B-

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Monday, July 19, 2010

The Drunkard's Walk

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, written by Leonard Mlodinow, is one of those books that makes an arcane subject understandable. Mlodinow explains statistics and probability in very clear language, with many examples and counter examples.

He tracks the history of probability theory from when gamblers started analyzing the games they played in an effort to improve their chances. Different people analyzed dice and cards and came up with algorithms to predict different odds. One gambler analyzed the different roulette wheels at a casino and discovered one that landed on certain numbers more often than other numbers. He used his findings to place large bets and won big until the casino got rid of the offending machine.

There is a good discussion of the rules of large numbers, including a description of Benford's Law. Benford's Law is an observation about numbers in real life that says that smaller digits are more likely to occur than larger digits. There is also a long discussion of how difficult it is to estimate probabilities with small sample sizes. And some mention is made of the difference between statistics, which describes a set of measurements in the real world, and probability, which takes those measurements and tries to make predictions based on it. He also discusses the concept of randomness and whether it implies equal likelihood of the outcomes.

I learned a lot about probability (even though I think I'm already pretty educated about it) when Mlodinow explained some of the contradictions and counterintuitive results in probability. He explains the Monty Hall problem well enough that I think I actually understand it now (and believe it's true). He also explains related paradoxes such as the Two Daughters question by showing how to expand all the possibilities of the sample space. Some of the solutions can be shown not only by deductive logic but by looking at actual results in the population.

Mlodinow also discusses how our minds interpret randomness and make a sort of order out of it, whether correct or not. A long succession of heads for coin flips or a long hitting streak in baseball is not necessarily a non-random event. Given enough chances, a lot of different outcomes can be expected. The streak of a Wall Street analyst can be explained by showing that the population of analysts can be expected to produce at least one such winning streak over a long enough time period. However we see numbers and understand them differently for individual events that happen to us. A story with a lot of detail is more likely to be remembered than one without. Combinations of events can appear more likely than the events separately, which is impossible. I appreciated this psychological look at how numbers and chance are processed in the mind.

I also appreciated the explanation of false positives: how a test with small chance of a mistake doesn't necessarily mean that the results are certain. Indeed, after listening to this audiobook I have a much better understanding of certainty and chance. It is important to appreciate the vast numbers that are relevant to our lives. This book gives a great understanding to how numbers and randomness work in real life. I highly recommend it. A

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Lost Books of the Odyssey

The Odyssey has been one of my favorite stories for a long time. I've always enjoyed the fantastic tales, then I appreciated the mythic structure and rich background. Lately I've come to an appreciation of the poem's later stages as Odysseus spends years with Calypso and returns home as a beggar to scope out the situation at home. The whole story has such rich layers from fascinating material. I've occasionally wondered what other stories there might be of Odysseus. Dan Simmons' Ilium was a great story that used the material from The Iliad and The Odyssey and made a totally new science fiction work.

I had read a review of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason's debut novel, so when I found it at the library I snatched it up. First off, it's not really a novel so much as a series of short short stories. There's no overall structure to the book. Instead each story looks at the character of Odysseus or one of the related characters and presents a different view. There is the story about Odysseus coming home and finding the island of Ithaca deserted. Another tells of his return as a beggar and warning that the master will be home soon, and returning the next day as the true king of Ithaca to find that all the suitors have been killed and Penelope playing the part of the dutiful wife (though Odysseus knows better). In a masterpiece of irony, one story finds Odysseus at Troy faced with a man who claims to be him, including knowledge that only the true king of Ithaca would know. He sends the man away with some food and gold and the parting advice that perhaps he is better of being without any ties or responsibilities. When he finally returns home after years of war and wandering the sea, he finds the same man in his house with his wife. The man sends him off with the same gifts and parting advice.

One story tells the story of a sympathetic Polyphemus, who suffers blinding at the hands of a nefarious captain. Another tells of Telemachus as he waits for the return of his father and witnesses a great wave that washes over Ithaca. The visit to Circe's island is retold as we watch Odysseus make the decision to join the witch in bed after realizing all his men have been killed.

Some of the stories twist around in a sort of meta story. One tells of Odysseus as he leaves the Trojan War to become a storyteller and hears the stories of his adventures grow. Another piece describes how the Iliad grew out of the elaborations of a chess manual.

I enjoyed reading the further adventures of one of the greatest mythic heroes. These stories are great variations on a theme. Achilles is recast as a golem made of mud. Agamemnon becomes a tyrant who demands the secret of the universe. The final piece shows Odysseus retracing his steps as an old man, finding the world changed and feeling much smaller. One story has Odysseus fall into the sea on the way home only to be plucked out by Agamemnon on the way to Troy, and he is forced to relive the whole war again. While the book has no central structure, the themes are built and woven and remade into a vast new look at the ancient Greek myths. The book is both new and old at the same time, quite a feat with the oldest stories around. A

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Tuesday, July 06, 2010


I have been interested in the brain for a while and have recently gotten interested in neurology. Oliver Sacks is a noted neurologist and author on brain science, yet I hadn't read any of his books until I picked up Musicophilia. The book is a compilation of cases of people who have particular capabilities or impairments of enjoying music after suffering neural damage or a brain disease or in some cases being born with the condition.

Sacks doesn't start off with any theory or analysis of how the brain processes music, he just jumps right in to the cases. Starting with a man who suddenly gains intense enjoyment of music after getting struck by lightning, he discusses extreme cases of music processing in the brain. While some people have heightened enjoyment of music, others are plagued by musical hallucinations. These auditory hallucinations are different from the musical imagery most people can conjure up in their minds--the auditory processing of the brain makes it sound as if a real orchestra were playing in the room. Other people can have seizures when listening to music.

I was struck by the section on music and memory. Sacks shows that music is stored in a different sort of memory structure than normal episodic memory. Some patients who have lost all memory of who they are can still remember and sing songs from their past. One man with severe memory impairment could go through his daily routine as he kept songs running through his mind. Music can even help those who have lost all language; they can sing even when they can't talk.

Another interesting case is that of synesthesia, the condition of mixing of the senses. Some people can see colors in music. One man sees each key as a different color, but individual notes are meaningless. Others see each note as having a unique color. They sense music differently than the rest of us but to them it is just part of the experience.

Other people can memorize vast amounts of music, while others can barely perceive music at all. For the few people with absolute pitch, there is evidence to support heightened activity in certain auditory processing parts of the brain. In other cases, those who have lost hearing in one or both ears hear noise, sometimes nice, sometimes terrible, as the nerves in the brain replace the missing input with new sensations. A wonderful section describes the condition of Williams syndrome, where the patient is mildly retarded but very outgoing and extremely musical. Williams patients are often drawn to music. Sacks closes with a positive note about how music has helped many people with neurological deterioration improve their condition, and especially their enjoyment of life.

A wide range of experiences are described in this book, some wonderful and many terrifying. It is a fascinating look at how music works in the brain and how it can malfunction. I was most intrigued by the sections that described how music can help those with mental impairments. It is illuminating to consider that even if we lose all of our memories or our speech capabilities then we can still have a sort of musical existence. It is also interesting to ponder how music is perceived by those with extraordinary musical abilities. Even normal people can hold a tune and keep a remarkably close rhythm to the original piece. Music is a central part to the human experience. A-

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Hundred Days

The Hundred Days is the nineteenth book in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. Jack Aubrey is a commodore in the English navy and is assigned to the Mediterranean when Napoleon escapes from Elba. All of Europe is an an uproar as Napoleon quickly rebuilds his armies and tries to dominate the continent again. Captain Aubrey is commanded to monitor the ports in the Adriatic Sea, find ships being built for the French, and either convert them to English ships or destroy them.

Stephen Maturin, Jack's friend and the ship's surgeon, is mourning the death of his wife in a road accident. The story focuses on him as he is assigned a mission to prevent a large amount of gold being transported from Africa to Europe to assist mercenaries in joining Napoleon's army. Maturin travels into Algeria with a new friend Dr. Amos Jacob. They convince the Dey of Algiers not to transport the gold, but are dismayed when they learn he has been overthrown and a new Dey more friendly toward Napoleon. The ship with the gold tries to sneak through Gibraltar but Jack spies it. A long chase ensues but Jack finally captures the ship and the gold. When Jack and Stephen make it back to the port of Gibraltar, they learn that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.

This is a fun installment in the series, but it lacks a bit of suspense and excitement in some of the other volumes. The first half of the book is taken up with small successes as Jack attacks shipbuilding in various ports. There is not much of an overall story form here. Stephen's adventures in Algeria are more interesting, especially when he goes hunting and shoots a lioness. There is real intrigue when Stephen deals with the Dey and his assistants as well as the local English ambassador. The chase at the end is when O'Brian shines, with days of firing guns back and forth and suspenseful changes of the rigging. This book is not my favorite in the series but was still worth the read. B+

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