Monday, May 31, 2010

The Bell Curve, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray

Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (A Free Press Paperbacks Book)I seem to recall a while back that a president of Harvard University got into some trouble by quoting from this book, but I could be mistaken. The ideas presented by its authors would certainly be regarded as controversial, if not downright inflammatory in some circles. Hernnstein and Murray performed a statistical analysis of a long term study following thousands of young people through their lives, called the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, NLSY, trying to determine the effects of IQ, or cognitive ability, on life outcomes.

Intelligence among the general population when placed on a graph, forms a statistical distribution called a bell curve, with the bulk of people in the middle, and a very small percentage at both the lowest and highest ends, hence the title of the book. When the authors talk of "low" or "high" intelligence, they're talking about the ends of the bell curve, not the great mass of "average" people in the middle.

The authors claim that in nearly all measures of success or failure in society, cognitive ability has an influence. It's obvious that those who test higher in intelligence have a better chance at getting a good education, and also rising to higher levels of education. But it's perhaps little known that students at the top end of the bell curve have been increasingly skimmed off the top to attend ten of the most elite universities in the country, and the people who graduate from those universities go on to run our industries and government, mostly.
Job performance in nearly all fields is affected by intelligence, as well. "It may be said conservatively that for most jobs, based on most measures of productivity, the difference in productivity associated with differences in intelligence diminishes only slowly...The cost of hiring less intelligent workings may last as long as they stay on the job."

While the authors make the point that "you cannot determine what a given person will do from his IQ score", they also say that high cognitive ability is "generally associated with socially desirable behaviors, low cognitive ability with socially undesirable ones." and "...the brighter young people in the NLSY are also the ones whose lives most resemble a sometimes disdained stereotype: They stick with school, are plugging away in the workforce, and are loyal to their spouse."

By the way, for the first half of the book, in order to take away the subject of race from the discussion, the authors used only the data from the white youths studied. So all of the results of low intelligence they discuss are with respect to caucasians.

Poverty is also strongly correlated with intelligence. They say it's actually better to be born smart than to be born rich. Interestingly, in 1939, half of the US population lived below the poverty line, but increases in productivity after WWII began to lower that rate, up until the mid 60s, when it leveled off around 10% and has remained ever since. Poverty actually began to be systematically studied in the mid 1800s, and it was believe that the poor fell into two categories, "deserving" and "undeserving". Some were poor because of circumstances beyond their control, and others were poor as a result of their own behavior. Whatever happened to that line of thought?

Hernnstein and Murray also link criminal behavior with intelligence. In contrast to theorists who offer a sociological explanation of crime's causes, such as poverty and unemployment, they say that more serious or chronic offenders generally have lower IQ scores than casual offenders, and that high IQ scores provide some protection against lapsing into criminality for people who have lived in environments regarded as risk factors for criminal behavior. One good quote, "Many people tend to think of criminals as coming from the wrong side of the tracsk. They are correct, insofar as that is where people of low cognitive ability disproportionally live."

In the second half of the book, the authors begin to look at the issue of race or ethnicity and intelligence. I believe this is where that Harvard president got into trouble. Although it's extremely unpopular to say it these days, there are - in the aggregate - differences between ethnic groups. The authors talk a bit about the whole issue of  cultural bias that is assumed to make it nearly impossible to test a person's IQ accurately if they've come from a different cultural background than the population the IQ test is allegedly written for.

It turns out that there are some tests available that have a strong correlation with cognitive ability scores, which appear to have no way to be culturally biased. One of these, called digit span, involves repeating a string of numbers spoken to you, either forwards or backwards. Whites, blacks, and asians perform differently on these tests. Another one involves placing your hand on a button, depressing it. Lights of different colors are arranged around the button in a wheel. When certain lights turn on, certain actions are required, such as touching the light to turn it off, or perhaps a more complex action with multiple lights. Again, different ethnic groups score differently. It's difficult to imagine that either numeric values or flashing lights can be culturally biased.

One standard test that's been used for many years to test cognitive abilities is the ASVAB. It's taken by all people who enter any of our armed forces. Strangely, scores on the ASVAB actually do a very good job of predicting success within various MOS's. Even more strangely, given assumptions of cultural bias implicit in intelligence testing, the ASVAB does a good job on predicting outcomes for whites, blacks and asians alike.

The authors go on to make some predictions about what the future may hold, and offer some ideas for helping to solve today's pressing social problems, based on their understanding of the underlying causes. I think they're on a lot more shaky ground with predictions than on their data-based conclusions about IQ and outcomes, but this is really an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Bad Beats and Lucky Draws by Phil Helmuth

Bad Beats and Lucky Draws: Poker Strategies, Winning Hands, and Stories from the Professional Poker TourWell, I couldn't find the book by Doyle Brunson that I was looking for on the shelf at the library, so I settled for this book by Helmuth, instead. This book provides an interesting look at some of the history and personalities of professional poker. Phil describes a lot of the venues where the game has been played, and seems to have nothing but good things to say about many of the other pros in the game.
I like to play online poker, though not for real money, and it's often frustrating to me how often I catch a "bad beat", get "rivered", or just can't seem to catch a decent flop with a strong set of hole cards. Reading this book at least let me know that it happens to everyone, even the skilled professional players. Despite the fact that the odds may be against a particular run of cards, it can and still does happen.
There's a lot of commentary by Phil on game situations he's encountered, and more from other players, as well. The bottom line seems to be, in the words of Kenny Rogers, "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." I don't know if it will help me be more philosophical about my bad beats, but it's somewhat comforting to know that even World Poker champs lose to lucky draws.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Blackout by Connie Willis

BlackoutConnie Willis took a long hiatus from writing and publishing SF, and this was hailed as a great return to the field. I'm sorry folks, but I'm gonna be brief and to the point. This story is about a bunch of college history students who travel back in time to observe historical events. Despite talk of the Crusades and other bloody eras, the only one Ms. Willis takes us to is Great Britain during WWII. There are a handful of protagonists in this book, each observing various aspects of the war, such as the evacuation from Dunkirk, the Blitz, and the evacuation of all the children from the cities to the country (as seen in the first of Narnia Chronicles by Lewis). Unfortunately, I never felt any connection to any of the "heroes", and by time I was half way through the novel, I hadn't any great desire to find out what happened to them. It seems as if someone was trying to figure out what to do with all the random trivia they studied in their Masters in English History, and tried to turn it into a time travel story. If you're a serious anglophile, go for it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Charisma, by Steven Barnes

CharismaI've always enjoyed Steven Barnes' work, since his early days with Streetlethal. I picked up a copy of Charisma at the library, and enjoyed reading it, too. I wonder, however, why in the world it's classified under science fiction. Have they just gotten into the habit of classifying an author in a certain category, and anything else he/she writes just gets thrown in, as well? The only thing remotely science fictional is the underlying idea in the plot - a group of at-risk preschoolers is exposed (via hypnosis?) to the brain patterns of a very successful black soldier/businessman/statesman, Marcus Alexander. Over the years, they are monitored to see if this imprinting increases their success in school and life. Everything else about this story is pretty mundane. I mean, it could have been about a ritalin replacement drug for hyperactive kids, and the rest of the story would have worked fine with a few minor mods.

That said, it was a pretty good book. I got engaged quite quickly with the main characters, a boy who is part of the experimental group named Patrick, and Renny Sand, a reporter who begins to uncover the true story behind his idol, again, Marcus Alexander. If you read the synopsis in the book jacket, you know more about what's going on behind the scenes in the novel than any of the characters, and sometimes wonder how they could be so dense as not to suspect anything about the sinister forces opposing them.

Barnes always seems to have a pretty heavy martial arts emphasis in his stories somewhere, and this one has a lot of philosophy from Musashi's Five Rings. There's some good stuff in here, albeit brief, about sharpshooting competitions. Barnes tells a good tale, with interesting heroes and villains throughout, only using a few stereotypes for his throwaway bad guys.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Language of God, by Francis Collins

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for BeliefHaving enjoyed Francis Collins' other book, The Language of Life, so much, I thought this one was sure to be quite good, as well. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite what I was expecting. Collins borrows quite frequently from the apologetics of C.S. Lewis, which I happen to have read and possess copies of in my library, so if I wanted to listen to the "usual suspects", I'd just go to the source.

Collins came to faith a bit late in life, and had some issues reconciling contemporary Christian doctrine, especially that of the Young Earth creationists and the Intelligent Design proponents, with his background in science and genetics. Much of the book describes his personal quest to do this. If you're a scientist trying to figure out spiritual principals, or a christian fundamentalist struggling with scientific dogma, this book may help a bit.

One of the key things to bear in mind is that the Bible was never intended to be a science textbook. Its authority is supreme in spiritual matters, but it really doesn't address things like atomic structure or the universal gravitic constant. Interestingly enough, in Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, he mentions that certain prominent scientists in history, such as Newton and Bacon, believed that the bible contained a wealth of scientific knowledge, if only it could be decoded. Brown dances around this point cleverly by expounding on Noetic science in his novel, wherein humans are able to affect changes on the world around them soleley by the power of their minds. But, I digress.

Some quotes from Collins:

"...I found it difficult to imagine that there could be a real conflict between scientific truth and spiritual truth. Truth is truth. Truth cannot disprove truth."

"The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful - and it cannot be at war with itself."

"...If God is truly Almighty, He will hardly be threatened by our puny efforts to understand the workings of His natural world. And as seekers, we may well discover from science many interesting answers to the question 'How does life work?'. What we cannot discover, through science alone, are the answers to the questions, 'Why is there life anyway?' and 'Why am I here?'".

He quotes Lewis frequently, as in this bit of his views on Man and evolution, " the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say 'I' and 'me,' which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgements of truth, beauty and goodness."

Whatever your position, this book should make you scratch your head and think a bit.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Grave Secret, by Charlaine Harris

Grave Secret (Harper Connelly Mysteries, Book 4)I've always really enjoyed the stuff Charlaine Harris writes, from the Sookie Stackhouse novels on which the tv series True Blood is based, to the Aurora Teagarden, Shakespeare, and Harper Connelly series, so I was happy to see this latest from her. For those of you who are new to the serires, Harper Connelly was struck by lightning as a teenager, and as she recovered, she discovered the ability to listen to the dead, to learn just a bit about the last minutes of their lives. She's traveled around the country using this ability to help people know how their loved ones died.
Harper and her step-brother/lover Tolliver have returned to the Dallas area to work for a rich family, the Joyces, who want to know how their grandfather died. He'd been found out on the ranch after an apparent heart attack. The things that Harper discovers during her walk throught the family gravesites stir up the past in ways that bring trouble to the Joyces and to her, as well.
She and Tolliver had a rotten upbringing. His father and her mother were both drug addicts, who neglected their children to the point of abuse. They have a pair of younger sisters who were adopted by Harper's aunt and uncle, who now live in Garland, near Dallas. So, they decide to hang around for a while to visit with the girls. While they are there, they find out that Tolliver's father has been released from prison, and wants to reunite with his family.
Harper has also been haunted for years by the disappearance of her older sister, Cameron, which happened about eight years ago. Wherever she travels, she's on the lookout for evidence of her sister's fate.
Someone in town either doesn't like Harper's work with the dead in the first place, the results of her investigation of the Joyce's family patriarch's death, or something else entirely. A drive-by shooter wounds Tolliver, leaving him in the hospital, then kills a couple of other people who get too close to Harper. Figuring out whodunnit in this case involves some interesting twists, and is definitely an enjoyable read.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the KitchenI'm putting this one up as a "twofer" today, since the other review I'm posting is a little brief.

I saw a reference to this book on another website (I'll hat tip it if my memory functions at some point), and thought it sounded quite interesting. Indeed, it is, but it's not something you just pick up and read through in one sitting. In fact, after having it checked out from the library for six weeks, I managed to only finish the first chapter! Sixty nine pages about milk, its history, its chemistry and its uses as a food product. I was about to start the egg chapter when I got the overdue notice from the libary.

This would be a fantastic textbook for people in a culinary arts class, or perhaps more of a reference book.

Just a couple of snippets of "fun" facts.

"If it's not too far gone, you can sometimes rescue a tightening cheese sauce with a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of white wine."

"Eating cheese slows tooth decay...eaten at the end of ta meal, when streptococcal acid production is on the rise, calcium and phosphate from cheese diffuse into the bacterial colonies and blunt the acid rise."

One of these days, if I run across a copy of this book at a used book store, I'll have to grab it for my personal reference collection.

Great stuff, but not a quick ready by any stretch of the imagination.

The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown

The Lost Symbol (Robert Langdon, No. 3)Dan Brown's latest novel seems to me, unfortunately, to just be "more of the same." Once again, Robert Langdon is needed to solve a puzzle involving ancient secret societies, while pursued by a madman and the CIA. The secrets this time around are the ones that the Masonic Order has been keeping, and they are of apparently world-shaking importance.

Langdon is invited to come speak in Washington DC by an old friend, Peter Solomon, a wealthy man who is also a Masonic Grand Master. When Langdon arrives, he finds that Peter has been kidnapped and tortured, and sets out to decode the secrets of the Masonic pyramid to satisfy the kidnapper, who wants access to the Ancient Mysteries for his own sick purposes. The director of the CIA also needs Langdon to unlock the secrets, so that she can keep the kidnapper from releasing Masonic secrets which have national security implications.

There are a couple of interesting plot twists, but by and large this novel just continues the barrage of conspiracy theory-based plots in a little different location. I'm sure Mr. Brown has researched the secret societies thoroughly, but trying to squeeze all views of U.s. history and the designs of our founding fathers through the lens of Masonic symbolism gets old in a hurry.

I'm glad I only checked this one out from the library, and didn't spend my own money on it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Trade of Queens, by Charles Stross

The Trade of Queens: Book Six of the Merchant PrincesA friend of mine once commented on a novel, saying in effect "The Dungeon Master is tired and wants to go to bed, so everybody dies". I get a little bit of that feeling after reading Stross' latest - and last - book in the Merchant Princes series. If you haven't been following the series, it's an alternate universe tale. On a planet Earth that physically resembles ours, but in which the industrial revolution never happened, there's a family of people who have the natural ability to "world walk". They focus on a special symbol and their brains take them from their world to ours.

Since none of the geopolitical boundaries in our world exist in the one next door, they're able to make their fortunes mainly by smuggling goods without ever crossing a border checkpoint. In their business, they've developed some interesting ties with organized crime and organized government. As a bit of insurance against one of their employers, who has become the vice president of the U.S., some of their agents have world-walked into secure military facilities, and absconded with some backpack-sized nukes.

Just as the previous novel ended, the Clan was involved in a massive civil war between its progressive and conservative factions, and the conservative faction somehow decided it would be a good idea to demonstrate to the U.s. that they were not to be messed with. As this novel begins, that faction sends three nukes to Washington DC, detonating two of them successfully, destroying the White House and killing the president.

In the meantime, the heroine of the series, Miriam, a woman raised from birth in the U.S., but who is actually a Clan heir and capable of world-walking, is trying to get to a safe place in the midst of the civil war. In earlier novels, she discovered a third alternate Earth, where the Revolutionary War never happened, and the Americas are still ruled mostly by a British king. She had been involved with the resistance movement there, and her contacts are now people in power after a semi-successful modern revolution.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the U.S. government has come up with a technical solution to cross between universes, and the newly sworn in President declares war on the Clan, sending a fleet of bombers across the world boundaries to retaliate for the attack on DC.

Murder, vengeance and mayhem abound, and very few live happily ever after. Stross claims in the forward that he's done with the series, but he may have left the door open a crack for later stories in this alternate universe universe, should his publishers make him an offer he can't refuse. If you've been following this series, you've gotta read it for that sense of completion, but don't expect a great deal of satisfaction at the wrap-up.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served ColdAs you might gather merely from the title, Best Served Cold is a tale about revenge. Monza Mercatto is a leader of The Thousand Swords, a mercenary company fighting for the Duke of Orso. She and her brother go to meet with the Duke, and are ambushed by the Duke and his cronies, her brother murdered outright, and she is strangled, beaten, stabbed and thrown from a cliff, assumed to be dead. Shades of Rasputin, anyone?

But Monza, nearly lifeless, is found by a surgeon and experimenter of sorts, who patches her back together. After she has healed up sufficiently to get around on her own, she runs away from his care, and finds her way to a remote farmhouse where she and her brother once stashed a great deal of gold they'd seized during one of their conquests. At this point, one begins to believe that this will be a tale similar to The Count of Monte Cristo, but unfortunately this tale is not nearly so morally uplifting.

Mercatto begins to gather a gang of allies to help her with her vengeance on the seven men who betrayed her and murdered her brother. The first is Caul Shivers, a Northman who came south to become a "good man". It doesn't take long for his association with her to take him far from that path. Together, they catch the first of her targets and beat him to death.

Next, she recruits a master poisoner, Morveer, to take out the next on the list, a banker. Morveer ends up poisoning not only the banker, but several dozen other people whose only crime is being in the wrong place at the right time. She also recruits a former convict called Friendly, her former mentor, Cosca, the mercenary captain of the Thousand Swords whom she replaced via her own betrayal, and female spy named Vitari.

Together, they attack the Duke's son, Ario, in a brothel, once again killing a crowd of innocents when they set the brothel on fire during the fight.

This tale continues to descend into brutality and the degradation of most of Monza's allies, as they accompany her in her single-minded quest for vengeance. In fact, the most decent character in the whole sordid story is the ex-convict, Friendly. This reminds me of the movie, Get Shorty, in which John Travolta's character, the loan shark, is arguably the most honest, ethical person in the film.

I finally gave up on this book about 100 pages from the end, as it was just far too depressing. Perhaps people who enjoy extremely dark fiction will like it, such as those who were able to finish all of the novels in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.

Read at your own risk.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Language of Life, by Francis S. Collins

The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized MedicineI was just browsing the New Books section at the library and saw this book, decided it sounded interesting. I wasn't wrong. Collins is the former head of the Human Genome Project, so he's seen the field of genetics explode over the last few decades, providing him with unrivaled insights into the past, present and future of the intersection of genetics and medicine. Given some of his discussions of hemophilia in the book, one could rightfully say he's on the bleeding edge of this technology.

Mundanely enough, Collins says that the single most important source of information about your future health is to be your family health history! "Family health history turns out to be the strongest of all currently measurable risk factors for many common conditions..."

Collins mentions the science fiction film, GATTACA, when he's discussing the potential of newborn genetic screening. Strangely enough, I've never watched that film, and it suddenly dawned on me as I was reading The Language of Life that the title of the film is a genetic code, containing the letters for the four DNA bases, Guanine, Adenine, Cytosine and Thymine. Insert forehead smack here. Interestingly, he says it's estimated that 60 to 70 percent of one's adult body weight is determined by genes, so if a child is born with a predisposition to obesity, parents could adjust the child's diet so as to avoid the all too commonly seen childhood obesity later on.

It's even possible to do a genetic scan earlier than at birth, with a process called PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis). This isn't practical for naturally conceived children, but for parents undergoing IVF (in-vitro fertilization) procedures. At the eight-cell stage of division, it's possible to remove one cell without affection future development of the embryo, and to then perform a genetic scan. Of course, there are ethical questions raised about what we do with this information, but if it was used to inform the parents or the child, itself, of possible future medical issues, rather than as a go/no go decision point to abort the fetus, I don't think most people would have an ethical problem with it, any more than performing an amniocentesis is done today.

There are actually several readily available commercial genetic screening tests at this time, which can scan for some of the most common genetic risk factors. They're a little spendy, but what's it worth to know that you're at a higher risk for a specific disease than the general population and to be able to take preventative steps? Some of the more common diseases for which genetic risk factors are well-identified are heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, sickle cell anemia, and diabetes.

Collins describes the three types of genes that have a role in preventing cancer; any of which can pose a cancer risk when they're defective. There are the oncogenes, which code for proteins that normally promote cell growth. The oncogenes' growth signals are ordinarily tightly regulated, occuring only in the right conditions. A mutation in this type of gene, however, can remove the restraints from the growth signal, causing cell growth to go out of control, like a Toyota on the highway. There are also cancer genes called tumor suppressors, whose function, as you might suspect, is to act as a brake on cell growth when it's time for cells to stop growing. One of these genes, called p53, actually stops the process of cell replication if it determines that the DNA in those cells has been damaged. A third type of cancer gene is one that performs like a DNA spell-checker. If there are defects in the genetic code, it will create repair enzymes to fix the code.

Collins says that most of the mutations in a cancer cell are not hereditary, but are acquired during a person's lifetime. Just the error rate in copying 6 billion base pairs of DNA in the 400 trillion cells within the human body causes most of these mutations, without taking into account any envirommental effects. That most of us go through life without being afflicted with cancer is the result of the work of the cancer-preventing genes.

Knowing how these and other genes do their work has proven key in the treatment of a number of diseases. This knowledge has helped doctors and pharmaceutical companies develop drugs that treat the causes of some diseases at a genetic level, or by stimulating production or suppression of proteins that are lacking or in too much abundance. It has helped avoid some adverse drug reactions - what was the figure he used? - there are 100,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone from adverse drug reactions!

The areas where genetics is a little less sure are that of personality, spirituality, intelligence, and sexuality. In his section on researching the causes of male infidelity, Collins mentions one fun fact you can use to astonish your friends. Among North American voles, "Prairie voles make lifelong monogamous pair bonds, while their close relatives, the montane and meadow voles, do not, indulging instead in a series of one-night stands." So Tiger does have an excuse; he wasn't under his own vole-ition.

In total, this book is fascinating reading for the layperson. Collins does a great job of explaining a horrendously complex subject in simple words and sentences.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Vanished, by Kat Richardson

Vanished: A Greywalker NovelThe latest in the Ghostwalker series is quite interesting. It starts off with Harper receiving a phone call in the middle of the night from her dead boyfriend, and just gets weirder from that point, if you can imagine that. She decides she needs to return to the scene to investigate further, so she flies to Los Angeles, back to her roots. She pays a visit to her mother, and gets the astounding revelation that her Dad didn't die by accident, but killed himself. Digging through his old journals, she begins to understand that he had also been plagued by visions of stranged creatures living in the Grey, and finally took his own life to keep them from exploiting him for their nefarious purposes.

After a few days there, she gets a call from Edward Kammeling, leader of the vampires back in Seattle, and returns on his private jet for a meeting with him. One of his fellow vampires back in London has been looking after Edward's business interests there for some time, and has disappeared. He convinces Harper to be his agent there, to find out what's happened. Harper has also had a couple of vivid dreams about her ex-boyfriend, Will, who works at Sotheby's there, being in danger, so she may be able to look into Kammerling's problems and check on Will, at the same time.

Richardson's tale of Harper's escapades in London is filled with all sorts of interesting little details about the area and its history. It feels like she either just got back from a vacation there, spent a lot of time studying Lonely Planet's London, or was a student of British history; maybe all three of the above.

As one might surmise, the vampire's troubles and Will's situation are linked. The cabal that has taken over Edward's territory has also kidnapped Will as a lever on Harper, and some of her old enemies are trying to trap her and use her for their own ends.

This one has some great action, eerie moments, and is pretty fun. The only downside from my perspective is that at the end of this novel, there's still some integral details that have to be dealt with back in Seattle, and we last see Harper on the plane, flying home. So, we'll have to wait for the sequel to see how this batch of troubles gets dealt with. Looks like the book, Labyrinth, won't be out till August, so check back then and we'll talk.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett

The Warded ManIt's always interesting to find a new author, and I'm not disappointed in the discovery of Peter Brett (I think I heard about him on Orson Scott Card's web site). The Warded Man is the story of three children, Arlen, Leesha and Rojer, whose lives are horribly uprooted by separate yet related tragedies. The story is set in what appears to be a future timeline - at least there is mention of a previous age of machines and technology - when "demons" emerge from "The Core" each night when the sun goes down, to kill and destroy. There are several different types of demons; wind, sand, fire and wood, and while they each have their own distinct appearance and abilities, they all seem consumed by a nearly mindless ferocity and hatred of humans and their works.
The only thing which stands in their way is the efficacy of human-created "wards", geometric drawings which bar the demons from specific locations. The wards can be drawn on buildings, in stone or dirt, or on lacquered wooden plates to form warded circles for travelers to use when night falls.
When Arlen's mother is killed by the demons, and he watches helplessly as his cowardly father does nothing to save her, he is driven to leave his home and set out on his own, traveling with one of the local duke's Messengers (yes, with a capital M).They reach the city of Angiers, and he takes apprenticeship with a master Warder there, with the goal of eventually becoming a Messenger, himself.
Leesha's village suffers a catastrophic attack by the demons one night, and when she displays a talent for healing, she is noticed by Bruna, the local master Healer. Leesha had been looking forward to a normal life in the village, marrying the man to whom she was promised, bearing children, becoming a respected Mother, but when her betrothed betrays her, slandering her reputation in the village, she decides to leave her family home and become Bruna's apprentice.
Rojer's family is also killed by the demons, during the visit of a Messenger and the Jongleur who travels with him. With nowhere else to turn, the Jongleur, Arrick Sweetsong, takes him along on his travels, and eventually takes him on as an apprentice, too. He's not the best at this trade, but Rojer's one distinguishing talent is playing the fiddle. His playing is so good, in fact, that not only does he enthrall human audiences, but demons dance to his tune.
After the scene is set, we jump forward about seven years, when each of our protagonists have finished their apprenticeships, and begin to make their own way in the world. The tone of this novel reminds me strongly of some of Robin Hobbs' work, in that each of them continue to face hardship, loss and challenges along the way, and you begin to wonder how they're ever going to get through these events. Eventually, Brett draws these three separate threads of the tale back into a single cord, and our heroes end up, if not in a necessarily better place than where they started, with at least a better understanding of who they are and who they might become.
I'm also always interested in finding a new "magic system" in fantasy novels, and Brett has something different here. Unfortunately, he just throws it out there and then seems to forget about making it either systematic or understandable. For instance, in the early part of the novel, the master Warder berates Arlen for creating wards without any knowledge of geometry, telling him how dangerous that is. Arlen then goes through seven years of apprenticeship to learn the craft of warding, but we never hear another word about how geometry applies to warding.
When Arlen first arrives in the city, his master is excited to hear about the "new" wards Arlen learned to use in his remote village, and there's mention that each master Warder in the city has his own proprietary book of wards, and it's implied that different locales and regions each have their own wards. Later on in the book, Arlen discovers some lost wards in the ruins of a city, and these are all added to the number of wards in the total set of wards. If there really are some mathematical theories behind why a certain type of drawing functions as a ward, and others do not, then how can there be so many wards. Can we just draw something at random and assume it's a ward, and maybe we just haven't figured out its function yet?
A couple of times it's mentioned that the exact positioning of each ward in respect to another ward is crucial. If they're knocked out of alignment, the protection of the wards can fail. Arlen discovers the lost runes, carved on a spear, that make the spear both an offensive and defensive weapon against the demons. When the spear is stolen from him, he tattoos the wards on his own body (hence the title of the book), and he is able to battle demons with his bare hands, and his skin itself is warded against them. If the positioning of wards is so crucial, how can wards that are placed in fixed positions on a rigid object act in the same manner on a thing so malleable as the human body?

Despite some of these issues, it was an enjoyable read, and I've placed a hold on the sequel at my local library.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Four-Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss

The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New RichThe first several chapters of this book were just ho-hum. I'm thinking, "Yeah yeah yeah, so you're a successful entrepeneur making tens of thousands of dollars a day, and you have incredible freedom to travel the world, do whatever you like...what in the world does that have to do with my life?"
So, if you should, by chance, be reading this book, I suggest you might just want to skip the first couple of background chapters, and get to the real meat of things, when I started to think, "Hey, why not ME?" I almost hesitate to talk about this book in as public a forum as this blog, just in case the big bosses at work read it, and start to worry about what I'm up to. Some of Ferriss' ideas are pretty subversive.
I'm not going to get into all of his ideas here, in some of the later chapters they come along so fast and furious that I know I'm going to need to find a copy to study in depth for some of the resources and links he mentions, but one of the things he talks about that really intrigued me was the whole concept of outsourcing your personal and professional tasks to various types of firms in India. I mean, I know that big companies do this all the time, but I never thought of taking it to the micro-level. For instance, if you want to create a business plan or a feasibility study or a marketing plan or...whatever, it can be done extremely cheaply and in a short amount of time by people overseas, and you can spend your time doing something else, especially if that particular thing is not your forte. Have an idea for a gadget, but don't have the engineering and fabrication skills to build even a prototype? There are firms that will do that for you! I've always spent a lot of time wondering, when I had such an idea (I came up with the idea of spray-on sun screen back in 1978), how in the world to create that prototype and get it to market, or who I might know that was good with machine tools that I could cadge into building it. Heck, why didn't I think of outsourcing it to cheap labor in Bangladesh? Ferriss even suggests, just to get used to the idea, outsourcing some repetitive chores in your personal life. Gawd, it's tempting!
Ferriss also talks a lot about putting yourself in a situation where you're no longer location-dependent, able to do your work from pretty much any remote location. The first thing that has to happen is to become more efficient and effective in the way you do your work (hence the four-hour work week title) so that you don't spend all of your time tied to your laptop, cell phone and PDA, like many people I know who take their work along with them on "vacation." Yeah, Greg, you know who I'm talking about. Another key step is making the break from the office, whether you're a business owner or an employee, and each situation holds its own unique challenges. I've been working towards the goal of working remotely full-time for a while now, encountering a few obstacles from traditionally-thinking management, and my wife has been working from her home office for several years now, so Tim is preaching to the choir around here.
Anyway, there's far too much in this book to list here, and I suggest you just go grab yourself a copy and prepare to have your assumptions and world view challenged a bit.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Diplomatic Immunity, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Diplomatic Immunity (Yorkosigan Adventure)It may just be a reaction to finishing Bujold's best book in the series, A Civil Campaign, but Diplomatic Immunity just falls flat in some way. A happily-married Miles is a good thing, but he's lost some of the frenetic energy and forward momentum at all costs that made the earlier novels so fun. I suspect Bujold felt the same way after writing this one, leading to her long hiatus from Miles' milieu, which hasn't necessarily been a bad thing, she's written some awesome fantasy novels in that time.
Miles and Ekaterin are at the end of their honeymoon tour, about to become parents when their children are "hatched" out of their uterine replicators when they return to Barrayar. Miles gets a message from the Emperor, directing him to get his Auditorial presence to an out of the way space habitat where a Komarran merchant fleet, escorted by Barrayaran military ships, has run into a bit of trouble with the local authorities.
We end up with a reprising return to QuaddieSpace, from Bujold's earlier novel, Falling Free. On arriving there, Miles is surprised to find an old friend, the hermaphrodite Bel Thorne, serving as Portmaster, and an old rescuee, Nicole the quaddie (human genetically altered for free fall conditions with all four limbs being arms) dulcimer player whom Miles and Bel stole out from under Baron Ryoval in an earlier adventure on Jackson's Whole.
One of the Barrayaran security officers has disappeared under suspicious circumstances while in port, and a near riot caused when another man goes AWOL and the security squad sent to return him to the ship gets a little carried away has landed the squad in the quaddies' brig. It will take what diplomatic skills Miles possesses to get them released without costing the Empire too much, and his tenacious investigative skills to figure out the case of the missing officer. All of this turns out to be much more than he expects, but not, perhaps what we've come to expect from a Vorkosigan adventure.
It's a must read from a completeness point of view, but just not as good as most of the rest of the series.