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, March 29, 2011

The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass is the third book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The story is fun and provides a satisfying conclusion to the series. As the book opens, Lyra is being held by her mother in a cave. Mrs. Coulter keeps her asleep, and we learn that she has become attached to Lyra and wants to protect her, in her own way. Will is devastated at the death of his father, but two angels come to his assistance.

The angels provide background to Will and the reader. We learn that the Authority is an angel who has claimed God's name, and Lord Asriel and others have vowed to defeat him and declare a Republic of Heaven. This struggle ties the story to Paradise Lost, Milton's poem about Satan's struggle against God. Like Satan, Asriel and others are fighting arrogance and tyranny. The two angels wish to go to Lord Asriel's mountain stronghold to offer an alliance and information. Will refuses to go, instead insisting on finding and rescuing Lyra. One of the angels goes with him, and with Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear, they rescue Lyra. Will uses the subtle knife, but it breaks when he tries to escape. Fortunately, Iorek is able to repair the knife.

Meanwhile, Mary, the scientist they met in Will's world, comes to a new world where strange intelligent creatures called mulefa live. The mulefa tell her that the substance she knows as Dust has been dwindling and affecting their livelihood. Mary tries to find a solution to the ecological problem. But a priest from the Magisterium (which has rival factions) has entered the world to search for Lyra and prevent her from being tempted according to a prophecy.

The most fascinating person in the story is Mrs. Coulter. Captured by Lord Asriel, her loyalties are uncertain. She claims to love Lyra, then tells the Magisterium that she can't stand the girl and wishes she were never born. She uses her seductive powers to convince Asriel she is on his side, then steals an aircraft to fly it to the Magisterium. But they betray her and steal from her locket some of Lyra's hair to use for a bomb to kill her from far away. There follows a huge battle where Mrs. Coulter tries to stop the bomb from going off. Mrs. Coulter, despite all her devious plans and backstabbing appears to have come to truly love her daughter; whereas Lord Asriel is devoid of any human love and only sees Lyra as a part of his plans.

The central mission in the story is Lyra's desire to go to the land of the dead to visit Roger, the friend she rescued at the end of first book only to see him murdered by Lord Asriel. Using the knife and the golden compass, they find a way to the river that they must cross to reach the land of the dead. However, they must leave their daemons behind (Will learns that he has a daemon he cannot see). Throughout the three books, we have known the daemons as integral part of humans, and here the reader can feel the anguish in Lyra as she realizes what she must do. She must leave part of herself behind, making a betrayal as prophesied, a strong element of pathos.

The story wraps up the mysteries of the series pretty well. We learn about Dust and human history, about how the knife was made and its connection to the Specters. We learn about Lyra's destiny and why she and Will cannot live their lives together, despite falling in love. They must make a sacrifice that will improve their worlds, and all the worlds. Lyra and Will come to accept what they must do, even if it is tinged with sadness. The ending is not spectacular but it is good and satisfying. It brings the elements of the three books to a close. I appreciated how everything started to make more sense. Lyra ends the story with a view to her future, which she hadn't considered before. It is a fitting conclusion. B+

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Saturday, March 19, 2011


I always knew that lack of sleep could affect children's academic performance, but I hadn't realized that an hour of lost sleep effectively lowered IQ by 7 points. And I used to think that young children would lie more than older ones, but it turns out that children lie more as they get older. In NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman discuss current research and scientific explanations for growing minds and bodies, and in the process blow away some old beliefs.

One of the biggest discoveries they include is the nature of teen rebellion. They look at research that turned the tables by researching teenagers' attitudes towards their parents instead of parents' attitudes about the relationship. It turns out that while parents are stressed out by arguing teens, the teens are less stressed and actually consider their home life in a positive life. The authors explain this by saying that teens are being respectful by arguing with parents instead of say, ignoring them or lying outright. It is a mark of adulthood that they can participate in the rule-making.

Some of the research they discuss simply takes a long standardized look at children as they grow. For example, in the chapter on intelligence testing, researchers kept track of children from early intelligence tests on through the higher grades. What they discovered is that the tests for private preschools, prep schools, and gifted programs were not very good at forecasting academic performance later in school. It turns out that intelligence grows in fits and spurts, and we are doing a disservice to young children by testing them before their minds have really grown. Late bloomers often do not get retested, and early bloomers by not do well in gifted programs, but there is a lack of followup testing. This is a bit counterintuitive, because educators want to provide advanced children with more motivation and stimulation, while slower children require more attention and training.

Other research consists of studies that took a new approach to a problem. They discovered that praise can often backfire. Children who are praised for being smart can come to fear the expectations, and may not try as hard a problem so that they won't be disappointed in the results. The conclusion is that children should be praised on their work and effort.

I found the chapter on sibling rivalry to most intriguing. This is a special concern of mine given that my own two children play very well sometimes but at other times fight terribly. The basic conclusions seems to be that siblings fight more than friends because they know the sibling will always be there, unlike the friend. So there is less motivation to be kind to a sibling. One of the studies they found discovered that one strong indicator of how well a child would treat a sibling was how well they treat their friends before they had a sibling.

Some of the discoveries are useful, like about praise, and some are less practical but still insightful. Learning why children lie is nice to know, but there is little practical advice on how to deal with it. The main takeaway is to encourage trust and honesty, including by being a good example (the best thing a parent can do for a child in my opinion). Still, it is nice having insight into children's growing minds and bodies. The authors have done a service to provide the well thought out research and discoveries to the public. B+

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Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Difference Engine

The Difference Engine is an alternate history novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The novel is set in 1855 and is an example of steampunk: there is advanced technology based on steam power and Charles Babbage's difference engine. In this version of 1855, Babbage's invention led to an information revolution and upheaval in society. In addition to a strengthened British Empire, the United States is a divided country, vying for power with the Confederate States of America, the Republic of Texas, and California.

The story follows two narratives. The first is that of Sybil Gerard, the daughter of a Luddite leader killed in the chaotic 1820's. Working as a lady of the night, she takes up the role of adventuress with one of her gentleman customers. Engaged in a plot involving the exiled Texian president Sam Houston, her friend ends up dead and she flees to Paris.

The main part of the book is the story of Edward Mallory, a paleontologist famous for his discoveries of dinosaurs in North America. Mallory gets involved in a strange plot when he attempts to rescue Lady Ada from two strange captors at a racetrack. She gives him a package which contains a set of French style punch cards. Intrigued by this mysterious program, he hides it at the museum, yet finds himself followed by strange men. He finds himself involved in a strange conspiracy.

The plot is a bit confusing and muddled at times. While the punch cards are desired by Mallory's opponents, it's not clear what they are for until the very end. There is an intriguing theory that they represent a modus, a calculation for gamblers to get an advantage. In truth the set of cards is a sort of Incompleteness Theorem, but it is not clear how it is useful, except perhaps as a weapon of sabotage since it made the main French difference engine unusable. This idea has potential but it doesn't feel like it reaches it.

The characters are interesting takes on historical or literacy figures. The prime minister is Lord Byron, and his mysterious daughter Ada is the known as the Queen of Engines for her programming skill. The Royal Society in the story is a more adventuresome group with ties to espionage. Mallory is a complex character with a past and a family to protect. But the biggest draw in the story is the technology and how it changes the society. It gives an interesting look at what the Nineteenth Century would have looked like there had been different technology. B