Tuesday, October 30, 2012

One, Two, Three: Absolutely Elementary Mathematics

by David Berlinski

The author, a mathematics and philosophy professor, writes about the basic concepts of simple arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division), starting with the premise that numbers exist outside of human endeavor, then on to the definition of addition (which is just adding by one), lingering at the problem of zero, then through some rather convoluted proofs of various theorems, to stop at the abstract algebraic concepts of rings (structures which include sets of integers and provide the definition of addition and multiplication) and fields (which define division through multiplicative inverses).

If the summary above makes it seem as though this is a jaunt through the math you learned in elementary school, think again: “The recursion theorem justifies definitional descent by drawing a connection between the recipe or algorithm embodied in definitional descent and the existence of a unique function, the one that definitional descent has presumably defined.”  Berlinski is often this recursive; I often found myself wondering what was being proved or defined, and what was being simply assumed.   But aside from tortuous mathematical definitions, the book is written in an airy, conversational, sometimes jocular (sometimes smug) tone, with many sentences given their own paragraphs in order to give them Weight.  Berlinski is even quite funny, as when he discusses Guiseppe Peano (whose axioms provide the groundwork for what Berlinksi attempts to show) and his bizarre simplified Latin that no one used or understood, or when he imagines early mathematicians’ dialogue when encountering the apparent absurdity that is negative numbers (“Can I do that?” “Why not?” “I’m just asking.” “What next?  I mean besides giving up.  That always works”).  As a philosophical treatise on the concept of mathematics itself, the book makes some trenchant points (“across the vast range of arguments [in psychology, logic, physics, etc.]… it is only within mathematics that arguments achieve the power to compel allegiance because they are seen to command assent”).  But as a tour of elementary abstract principles, it’s a bit abstruse for the layman.  I enjoyed his insights on sets and some of the simpler chapters, but finished the book feeling as though Berlinski was a bit too clever for his own good, and yet not quite clever enough to make it all clear.

two stars

Thursday, October 25, 2012


by John Scalzi

In a galaxy far, far away, a group of ensigns and other junior officers aboard the “Intrepid” (flagship of the Universal Union, their mission to boldly go…) notice that strange things are afoot on this ship.  Everything seems off, from the bizarre over-dramatic way their captain and commander act, to the ridiculously high fatality rate of junior officers on away missions, to the flat-out illogical events that seem to occur on a weekly basis (why do they always send the navigator out on away missions?  Why do only decks six through twelve sustain damage during fights?  Why do electrical components on the bridge sustain visible damage when the ship’s hull is hit with a torpedo?).  With the help of an eremitic engineer who has spent his entire career hidden in the cargo tunnels to escape the captain’s notice, the crew realizes to their horror that, as real as their pasts and their experiences are to themselves, they are actually figures on a weekly television show (“and not a very good one”) produced in Hollywood, 2012.  The crew concocts a ludicrous plot to go back in time and across the galaxy to confront their writer, and the actors that play them, to stop the show, and thus the carnage that impacts their own very real lives.

This is a pretty fun, but flawed, book that doesn’t take itself too seriously – though that might be a point against it, really.  I felt that Scalzi used the meta-Narrative trope a bit too liberally, serving to excuse rather clunky chunks of exposition at times, especially at the beginning.  Though the idea and the execution is quite good, Scalzi’s prose is unimpressive; he seems firmly in the camp of “tell don’t show” when it comes to character interaction.  He constantly uses shorthand for emotion rather than description, using bland phrases such as “Duvall sat down, pissed,” or “’Thanks,’ Dahl said, irritated” or “he gave her a ‘what?’ look.”  Scalzi also seems to think he has to explain jokes that would better off remaining subtle, as when an officer and the actor that plays him do a “freckle check” to ensure their exact match; this seems to me to be obvious, with no explanation needed, but Scalzi explains it anyway.  He does this a lot: “’You met Lou at Pomona,’ Samantha says, mentioning her sister’s alma mater.”  That last phrase is so unnecessary it’s distracting: clearly if one says you met your spouse at college, it’s understood that you attended that college with him, not that, say, you drove by one day and picked him up there.  Finally, I felt that Scalzi didn’t think through the finer points of his universe.  For example, the writer makes a decision to not televise the final show, hoping that it will affect the Universal Union universe “anyway;” since an enormous amount of life and happiness depends on this final show, it seems absurd that he would so recklessly gamble that such a change (never tested, unrepeatable, and unobservable) wouldn’t scuttle everything.  I did enjoy the four final endings, which wrapped up a lot of the minor plot points.  I felt that Scalzi was at his best here, putting a human face on the tragedies, loves, and challenges of the various people (once unnamed characters who became real people with entire lives and dreams) who were affected by the show’s universe-altering properties.  So, nitpicking aside, this was a good read, and quite clever overall.

four stars

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Whipping Boy

by Sid Fleischman

The 1987 Newbery Winner, this fanciful tale is set in a quasi-medieval kingdom, and tells of the arrogant Prince Brat (as everyone calls him; his real name is Horace) and the titular Whipping Boy who has been impressed into service as the stand-in for all the punishments the Prince would get for his behavior, were he not of royal blood.  When the clever whipping boy, Jemmy, decides to run away, the sullen, lonely prince insists on accompanying him.  They are immediately captured and held for ransom by two doltish outlaws, then manage to escape, but remain only a few steps ahead of the pair.

This is a fun, lightweight adventure, full of memorable period characters such as the illiterate outlaw Hold-Your-Nose Billy (so named for his garlicky breath), Captain Nips the hot-potato seller, and Betsy who displays a trained bear for cash.  It’s a good mixture of silliness and suspense in tone.  Fleischman skillfully shows not only a gradual change in the prince, as he is shamed by being mistaken for the whipping boy, since he is lazy and illiterate himself, then saddened to learn what people think of him; but he also manipulates the readers’ expectations by showing that the prince’s life, in its own way, has been oppressive and unfair to him.  When Jemmy learns that he is wanted for “abducting” the prince, he hopes that he and Horace have actually become friends during their adventure.  A very enjoyably, witty tale.

four stars

Monday, October 15, 2012

What the Dog Saw And Other Adventures

by Malcolm Gladwell

A collection of Gladwell’s articles from “The New Yorker” – musings on what makes people tick, why some ideas fail, and how well we can predict a person’s success in a particular field, profiles of leaders, “obsessives,” and quirky geniuses.  As with all of Gladwell’s books, he turns every story into a human-interest story, every idea into a lesson about what humans believe in their innermost souls.  So the tireless Ron Popeil (of Ronco fame) and Cesar Milan and the female copy writers behind hair dye ad campaigns have in common not just “obsessiveness” and passion, but also a knowledge about what makes the world tick that makes their success seem inevitable.  He investigates the unusual approach to the stock market of Nassim Taleb (of Black Swan fame, although the profile predates that best-seller), the Enron collapse, the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster, not by rehashing old stories but by looking at them through the eyes of his subjects.

This is the main point shared by the various stories: can we learn from those who see things differently?  What is Cesar Milan thinking when he trains a dog?  (He seems to be thinking you’re not a very intelligent person if you fawn over a dog after it misbehaves.)  More to the point, what is the dog thinking?  (Here is someone who will tell me what to do, at last.)  What were the Enron executives thinking?  (As it turns out, they were victims of what Carol Dweck called the “fixed” mindset in her very good book Mindset).   Why don’t we manage hopeless cases of alcoholism and homelessness better, by setting them up to succeed rather than picking them up and hospitalizing them every time they fall?  (Because we don’t find the idea fair, although it would be cheaper.)  Not everything in the book is pure genius.  The section on what it takes to be a good teacher, while well-intentioned, is so ignorant of the subject (he swallows what the “experts” tell him without question) that I wondered what else he might have missed that I don’t know enough about to catch.  But even when Gladwell’s conclusions are a bit off, the book still beguiles.  Gladwell’s moody, affable, warm prose is a huge help, but his real skill is in social psychology, of making even the most discussed events (such as Enron and Challenger) fresh by looking at them as a human story: not populated by villains and victims but by flawed people who fall into patterns and make mistakes and start getting lax about the future because things have worked out in the past.  By turning dry news stories into compelling tales of everyday life that can teach us about what we like and don’t like (why doesn’t ketchup come in varieties?), Gladwell makes us think about cause and effect, and may just make us think about why we do the things we do.

four stars

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Maniac Magee

by Jerry Spinelli

This 1991 Newbery winner tells of Jeffrey Magee, an orphan boy who runs from his unloving aunt and uncle’s house and keeps on running.  Possessed of a preternatural athletic talent, he passes, throws and catches his way across the playgrounds and fields of working-class and racially divided town Two Mills, dubbed “Maniac” for his skill.  Eschewing school but loving books, he sleeps in a band shell, someone’s shed, even a zoo, when he isn’t being adopted by any family that will take him in.  Magee is unusual in not just his athleticism, fearlessness and nomadic life, but also in his ignorance of race relations and his near-inability to see why anyone should care about skin color.  So he trots from the east end of the town to the west, making friends equally, but also making enemies because of his blithe acceptance of everyone, and their acceptance of him.

Despite such heady themes, this is a fun, rollicking story, equal parts modern legend (told as if looking back long after the facts have become lost, in the language of legend, starting with “They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump…”) and morality tale.  Over a series of vignettes, Spinelli shows how Maniac becomes known, then respected, until finally… Well, the climax is a bit of an anti-climax, in that Magee inspires change rather than trailblazing it himself, but perhaps that’s a point in its favor.  Maniac is a hero, certainly, but he’s a product of his fears and the losses in his life as well as his persistence and friendliness; his speed and physical skill may be fictional, but his character is real.

four stars

Friday, October 5, 2012

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance

by Atul Gawande

The author, a general surgeon, discusses some challenges and discoveries of the medical field, and what qualities it takes to improve performance.  Drawing on the history of medicine and his own experiences, he investigates not only what makes improvement, but how it is implemented.  For example, the simple act of hand-washing nearly removed the risk of “childbed fever,” an infection which killed newborns; but the successful implementation of hand-washing in an institution comes not by diktat but through spreading positive deviance – seeing where it has become acceptable and trumpeting those practices – hoping to turn the deviance into the norm by giving a voice to those already successful at it. He also writes of watching doctors in India campaign to eradicate polio, a gargantuan endeavor which works not through some miracle pill but through diligence, the simple but exhausting legwork of knocking on doors and spreading the word.  He looks at innovation, such as Virginia Apgar’s eponymous test, which is so simple and so obvious, yet drastically improved infant survival rates simply by quantifying results and giving surgeons a number to beat.  Or Watson Bowes, a doctor of obstetrics who also improved infant survival rates simply by treating premature babies as though he expected them to thrive.  Gawande also discusses some other facets of medical culture, such as malpractice, wages, and lethal injection, but these – while interesting – are vaguer musings compared to the book’s overall arguments about the application of improvement.

It’s a compelling book, written in clear, assured, intelligent prose.  Gawande posits that success comes not through science but mainly through performance (as with Indian doctors whom he witnessed perform surgeries in impoverished hospitals with very few instruments, make do with what they had and improvise where they could, but in no event just give up).  This conclusion is both heartening and demoralizing, the former because it is so simple – merely expanding current know-how and following basic guidelines can improve survival rates dramatically – but it is also demoralizing because it raises the question of why these simple steps are not already being taken, and it makes us realize that our doctors are fallible, sometimes arrogant and stubborn, humans like the rest of us.

four stars