Archive for July, 2011

Susan Donovan’s “Not That Kind of Girl” — When Opposites Attract

Not That Kind of GirlSusan Donovan’s NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL is a romance between two people who seem to be all wrong for each other, but of course are not.  The pair in this case are Roxanne “Roxie” Bloom, a known man-hater and owner of a Web site called “I-Vomit-On-All-Men,” and Elias “Eli” Gallagher, a dog whisperer.  The reason Roxie needs a dog whisperer is because her rescue dog, Lilith, hates men as much as Roxie does and has recently bitten someone.  Though Lilith was provoked, and was protecting Roxie at the time, this caused Animal Control to come and take Lilith away.   So the book starts out with there being only twelve short days between Lilith being released to her owner’s care and proving in “dog court” that Lilith isn’t a vicious dog that needs to be put down.  Eli gets involved because he feels there are no bad dogs, only owners who haven’t been shown what to do yet (shades of Cesar Milan), and besides, he’s always loved a challenge. 

As if that wasn’t enough to pique the reader’s interest, Roxie has three good girlfriends who’ve all paired off in serious relationships or are about to pair off who are worried about Roxie and how bitter she’s become since her last love affair.  Her best friend Bea is a lesbian who’s been looking for her soulmate for years but has never “come out” to anyone, not even Roxie; the other two are pregnant and newly-married.  All of the women are above twenty-five (with Bea being the oldest, as she’s in her mid-fifties), have lived their lives and have made their choices, for good or ill. 

This is relevant because all of them — every last one — ran across one particular woman, an old-fashioned matchmaker (who seems to do this out of the goodness of her heart rather than for pay), who actually found them the right mates.  (Or in one case, put the woman in the right place at the right time to find her mate without any further help being required.)  Which is one reason why they’re all so concerned about Roxie, since this same matchmaker has told Roxie to “leave her heart open a crack in order to let the love in,” meaning someone’s on the horizon.

But will Roxie let him love her?  (Hint, hint: if she didn’t, there wouldn’t be a book here.)

So, there’s some nice paranormal bits here with the matchmaker, who considers her calling a divine gift and wants to pass it along, and a lot of good stuff about dogs and dog training, but of course the main plot is about this rather unlikely romance between Roxie and Eli.  Which begs several questions: why are these two both exciting, young, and attractive people single?  Why is it that Roxie’s turned her avocation — hating men — into her vocation?  Why is it that Eli doesn’t seem to trust himself enough to let himself go with a woman, or didn’t before he met up with Roxie?  And will the sparks ever stop flying long enough between these two to actually re-train Lilith to the point that she’s not frothing at the mouth or straining at her leash whenever someone strange is about so they can all prove in dog court that Lilith doesn’t need to be put down and they can get on with their “happily ever after” already?

This is a romance, and a traditional one in many respects, so the “feel good” ending is de riguer for the genre, and so is not a spoiler.  Getting there, though, is half the fun, and there are some genuinely humorous moments here amidst the sturm und drang.  Eli’s a guy who maintaines a calm, cool, debonair demeanor, but is hiding a passionate heart, while Roxie’s passion is on the surface, ready to boil over at any time in any direction — that’s where the “star-crossed lovers” aspect comes in, or at least the whole “opposites attract” thing I alluded to in the title — but has inner reserves of peace and serenity in her that Eli senses but doesn’t know how to tap into.  But of course he’s going to try, and that’s where the story is that lies between them.  (Pun deliberately intended.)

I enjoyed this novel a great deal except for one aspect.  The lovemaking here, I just didn’t “get.”  That these two would be incendiary in bed, I do understand; how that passion takes shape, I don’t.  To be blunt, the way Eli behaves in bed doesn’t seem to flow from his character so much as it seems to be necessary for plot purposes in order to “tame” Roxie so she can “submit” to Eli’s wishes the way he wants.  Even though Eli can be playful out of bed, and Roxie responds to it, there’s just none of that in the lovemaking episodes we see — instead, once Roxie surrenders to Eli’s “alpha male” dominance, that’s pretty much it.  (He figures she’ll get something out of the deal once she’s done so because that’s just the way it works in his “alpha male” world.)  That’s a big weakness.

Further, the parallels to Eli being a dog whisperer and needing to show dogs just who the boss is before they’ll relax and behave, and him being Roxie’s personal “whisperer/lover” and needing to show her just who the boss is so she can relax and enjoy herself in bed is heavy-handed and completely unnecessary. 

The way Roxie submits to Eli — to his “alpha male” dominance — is the only sour note in an otherwise realistic, down to Earth story that worked on every other level.   That one rather jarring note aside, NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL is a fun summer read with some laugh-out-loud moments that did enough to make me want to read another of Susan Donovan’s books in the future.

Grade — B.

— reviewed by Barb

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Mario Livio’s “Is God a Mathematician?” — Math as Philosophy

Mario Livio’s IS GOD A MATHEMATICIAN? is a book about the philosophy behind math, about great mathematicians and their discoveries, and also about the most fundamental questions mathematicians ask themselves about their discipline, to wit: was math always present in the universe, just waiting for human beings to be advanced enough to understand and “discover” it?  Or is math a human invention, something that describes the universe as we see it, but isn’t so much a part of the universe as simply describing what we humans can make sense of instead?   The former proposition is called the “Platonist” position because as far back as Plato this has been discussed; the newer thought of math being a human invention has been discussed openly since approximately 1880, though much more frequently since 1930.

First, Livio goes through the history of math as we know it, starting with the Greeks, diverting a bit to discuss the Chinese (who didn’t have some of the same concepts as the Greeks), then coming up to the modern day.  Because the Chinese concepts were different than the Greeks, that lends support to the latter philosophical proposition that math is a human invention rather than something that was always out there to be found (a “divine language,” in short, that might lead us to God, or perhaps lead God to us).   That’s because if math truly was universal in nature, why didn’t the Chinese discover the very same things as the Greeks?

As far as that goes, there is some discussion of simultaneous discoveries in IS GOD A MATHEMATICIAN?, particularly when dealing with knot theory (or the theory of knots, as to what their properties are and how they apply in various circumstances).  That fact lends itself to the second philosophical argument, that of the Platonists — that mathematical concepts are universal, something anyone can understand if he or she has enough knowledge to do so — which shows in shorthand form how difficult this philosophical problem is as to whether or not math was designed by humans for humans, or designed by someone else (or something else) and is only now being discovered by humans since we now have the facility to do so.

The main point of IS GOD A MATHEMATICIAN? isn’t so much whether or not God can be deduced mathematically; in fact, Livio doesn’t try, which might be wise.  It’s rather the point of whether math is a universal language/constant or not — thus, perhaps God’s own language, though this is implied rather than directly stated — and whether or not math was always there but couldn’t be described before human beings had developed the concepts, or math is a human invention, period.  Livio goes through various forms of math and when they were discovered, with one of the more intriguing points being that the most abstract math, such as the theories behind knots and strings, eventually became something that applied mathematicians can use and use well.  This point may be the strongest one made for the Platonist point of view, as when mathematicians started studying knots they certainly had no idea that their insights would eventually lead to real-world solutions — they studied them merely because they found knots interesting.

This partially being a history of math and mathematicians, Livio hits all the major figures in math since the dawn of recorded time.  From Isaac Newton to Galileo, from Descartes to Einstein, from Boole to Goedel, they’re all here and their impact on subsequent mathematicians, engineers, etc., cannot be underestimated.  Livio does a good job in making mathematicians human, such as discussing the feuds that went on within the Bernoulli family (which had no fewer than eight mathematicians in successive generations), and reminds the reader that mathematicians are no different than thee or me no matter what their skill-sets are; they get jealous, argumentative, or annoyed as easily as anyone else.  Livio also makes a strong case that Isaac Newton was far from a saintly man, all of which helps humanize mathematicians and keep them from God-like status, which Livio certainly doesn’t want to imply considering his overall premise.

The way the mathematicians, physicists, etc., have built on each other’s work bit by bit is also explored in depth by Livio in a way that reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion in OUTLIERS that no one stands alone in this world — that even geniuses need some help now and again, and wouldn’t be what they are without a whole lot of help.  In this case, that “help” resides in the thousands of mathematicians who came before Isaac Newton (or Galileo Galilei) in that there’s no way, shape or form Newton could’ve done what he did without centuries of other theorists behind him.  Nor was there any way Einstein could’ve come up with a theory of general relativity without all the people since Newton’s time discovering, then rejecting, other forms of math either, for that matter.

That even the greatest mathematicians make mistakes is a point Livio also makes, though not to the point of absurdity; it’s by building on those mistakes that another mathematician may find a good answer that will lead to discovery after discovery.  So one man’s “mistake,” as it were, is another man’s treasure, and as such, there are perhaps no bad ideas — simply some ideas where the time for them hasn’t yet come.  Mind you, this latter thought is more subtext than anything else, but it makes sense in an odd way, bolstering the idea for mathematics to be man’s way of describing the universe he sees around him.

In the end, Livio hedges his bets as to whether or not math is a human invention, or whether math truly describes the fabric of the universe in a language everyone, anywhere, of any species could understand if given enough time to do so.  But by raising the questions, Livio has done a great service; he’s helped to illustrate this problem in language that’s neither too obtuse to be understood by a non-mathematician nor insufficient for a technical observer to appreciate — a neat trick indeed.

So to sum up IS GOD A MATHEMATICIAN?, we have a historical overview of math, including the problems the Catholic Church had for many, many years with Galileo’s observation that the Earth went around the sun.  We have a historical overview of important mathematicians, engineers, etc., who’ve improved lives for the better by understanding how math works, then others finding ways later on to apply that esoteric knowledge for the overall betterment of mankind.  And we have a profound philosophical discussion going on as to whether or not math is a human invention, designed by humans in order to describe what we observe of the universe, or whether math is instead something that was always there, just waiting for us to understand the universe well enough to describe it in a comprehensible manner.

All of this adds up to an A-plus book that should be on every writer’s desk — especially those of us in the science fiction and fantasy community — as it fully explains what’s going on with math in a way that’s engaging, interesting, sometimes humorous, and always compelling.

— reviewed by Barb

** Note: Cover image was unavailable for this review due to potential copyright concerns. Never mind.


Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” — Success Requires Many Helpers Along the Way

A single marble is in the center, while a group of marbles is at the top.Malcolm Gladwell’s OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS is about successful people — the “outliers” who skew the curve, supposedly the smartest and best among us.  In other words, it’s a story of genius — what it is, what it isn’t — and how they’ve become “the best and brightest.” 

As Gladwell says, we love to celebrate the “self-made” man — but in actuality, there is no such thing.  For every Bill Gates, who had a series of fluke events help him achieve enough expertise at an early age that he was able to seize the right opportunity when it was presented, there’s a Chris Langan — a man who is brilliant, but for whatever reason was unable to capitalize upon his opportunities (or in Langan’s particular case, just wasn’t presented with very many — Langan couldn’t succeed because he had no way through to success).

Here’s a passage from page 155:

Success is not a random act.  It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities . . . .

But how do you ever get to the point you can recognize an opportunity when you see it?  Gladwell talks about the “10,000 hour rule,” which states that it takes someone approximately 10,000 hours to become proficient in his field.  Those who achieve the 10,000 hours in any field — whether it’s music, computer science, medicine, you name it — are the ones who are able to recognize an opportunity, to seize it, because they have become experts in their field and know what they’re doing.  

But just wanting to get good at something and practice doing that thing isn’t enough; there usually are economic factors at work as well.  As Gladwell states on page 42:

You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side, there won’t be time to practice enough.  In fact, most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program — like a hockey all-star squad — or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours.

Here, Gladwell is discussing computer pioneers Bill Joy and Bill Gates, who both received extensive and unusual early opportunities at the exact age they needed them in order to develop into the men they became.  He’s also discussing hockey players; in chapter one, Gladwell made the point that most hockey players on junior all-star teams (and thus, the vast majority of those who are drawn into the minor leagues, then the majors in time) are born in four months — January, February, March, and April — because the cutoff for who qualifies for what is January 1.  And the kids selected throughout for training are the biggest, strongest, fastest, and best coordinated — which mostly equates out to those who are the closest to that arbitrary cutoff date, because the oldest members have had the most time to get used to their growing bodies.

Now, it should be painfully obvious from knowing this fact that many, many people have been left behind in hockey programs (or other athletic pursuits; any arbitrary date will provide the exact, same data) that really did have the ability to play in junior leagues and work their way upward, but were hampered because their birthdays were later in the year.  Thus their bodies were less coordinated, smaller, and probably weaker, to boot — only a truly extraordinary kid would be able to get past all that and advance in the ranks.

So, an “outlier” — those who break the curve in any discipline — might start out being only marginally smarter, faster, better athletically, what have you, not a whole lot better.  But because that person was a bit faster or smarter, etc., to begin with, they get the extra opportunities to train that they need to attain true expertise — something Gladwell calls the “Matthew Effect,” otherwise summed up as, “He who has, gets.”

The real myth that’s been punctured is that of athletics being a meritocracy.  It’s not — there are numerous other factors in play that make a huge difference there.  Another myth that gets punctured is that of geniuses always rising to the top — as Chris Langan’s story painfully proves, if you’re born into the lower classes in this country, no matter how strong, smart, or talented you are, you have an enormous handicap to overcome and even being a genius may not be enough to do so.

But the biggest myth — that of the “self-made man” — is one Gladwell carefully and painstakingly tears down, because without some really good breaks, it’s unlikely Gates’ career, or Joy’s career, or even folks like Steve Jobs or Paul Allen, would’ve been able to do anything close to what they ended up with because they’d not have put in their 10,000 hours toward becoming experts so they’d not have any possible way to seize upon success when it was finally within their grasp.

All of this is a very long-winded way to say that one of Gladwell’s main points is this: our backgrounds matter.  (Yes, they can be circumvented.  But they still matter.)  Our ethnicity may matter more than we’d thought.  Our parents being born to the middle class, upper class, etc., definitely matters more in the long run to children than anything else (even though this fact, too, can be circumvented with careful preparation in school systems).

But the most hopeful main point is simply this: persistence.  Being willing to persist in the face of enormous obstacles goes a long way toward recognizing that golden opportunity when it finally arrives.  (Or, in the case of people like Chris Langan, help you deal with the fact your opportunity really never arrived and maintain a love of learning in the process.)  And being willing to persist when others would’ve quit will lead you to solutions others may well never have thought were possible, too.

Gladwell’s ideas are extremely thought-provoking and resonate long after you’ve read the final page of OUTLIERS.  That’s why this book rates a solid A, and why I’ll think about it for a long, long time to come.

— reviewed by Barb


Chris McMahon’s “Flight of the Phoenix” — Solid Fantasy Novella

Chris McMahon’s novella Flight of the Phoenix is a solid fantasy novella set in McMahon’s larger “Jakirian” universe.   It stars Belin, a General in the Bulvuran Empire who’s sixty years old but still lean, fit, and a great fighter.  Belin should be in retirement, but his fate lies elsewhere; instead, he must fight one last battle in order to save the scion of a dying Empress.

Belin is a sturdy rationalist who’s always put his faith in what he can see — his hands.  His weapon.  His narsiit (a winged mount which he rides as others might ride a horse).  His brain.  But now, he has visions to contend with, visions of his Emperor’s impending demise, that can only be due to his suppressed talent for sorcery; he’s not used to anything like this, and is not sure what, if anything, he can do to help his Emperor.

As he’s about to go to his Emperor’s side, he receives another vision — now, the Emperor is dying, begging Belin to go to his wife’s side (the Empress, Evylin) as the Emperor fears treachery in the capital city of Raynor.  Belin’s visions are unfortunately all too accurate; when Belin makes it to Raynor, he finds it held by someone previously thought the most inoffensive of men, Steward Delphos.  But, of course, the real Delphos has been killed; his place has been taken by a nasty Eathal shapeshifter.  (We know the Eathals are terrible people due to what they do to Belin’s narsiit mount, which is killed ruthlessly — and gratuitously —  just to prove the point that the Eathals are mean and nasty with no redeeming social value whatsoever. )  And of course we find out that the Eathals are to blame for the Emperor’s death, for the seizure of Empress Evylin, and for the unrest in the streets.

Worst of all, Evylin is pregnant and is due any day.  One of Belin’s visions makes it clear that Belin himself must remove the baby from the capital or it will never survive, so Belin is forced to fight his way through without much in the way of allies.  Only one man, an old friend, is able to help Belin by the use of sorcery.  This helps Belin get into the Palace far more quickly and easily than otherwise, but it comes with a price.  Sorcery had been suppressed by nearly everyone in the Bulvuran Empire due to the previous Emperor’s hatred of it, so Belin’s friend using it openly showed real courage along with utter desperation.

At any rate, Belin wins through to the Empress to find her, her newborn child, and a midwife confined to a small series of rooms.  But the Empress thinks she knows a way out . . . will they succeed before the Empress dies?  And how will this particular flight end — in judgment, in triumph, or worst of all, in disgrace?

McMahon’s story is a compelling affair that combines quasi-medieval feudalism with fantasy elements.  The action here rings true.  The characterization is believable.  And I’d definitely read more from McMahon in the future, especially due to the insert of McMahon’s next novel in the “Jakirian” cycle, The Calvanni, which features more intrigue in this world about twenty years after the end of Flight of the Phoenix.

Grade: B-plus

— reviewed by Barb

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Economist Tim Harford’s “Adapt:” Trial and Error the Only Path to Success

AdaptEconomist Tim Harford‘s ADAPT: WHY SUCCESS ALWAYS STARTS WITH FAILURE is a hard-headed, sturdy rationalist’s look at why it’s important to try, try, and try again when looking for success because it’s nearly impossible to find it any other way.  Harford uses real world examples to illuminate the very real premise being explored here: people make mistakes all the time, and so do companies.  The only way anyone gets anywhere is to learn from mistakes, or, in other words, to adapt.

The first “real world” premise Harford explores is Thomas Thwaites’ “Toaster Project.”  Thwaites, a postgraduate student in design at the Royal College of Art in London, decided to re-make the toaster from scratch.  In the process, Thwaites learned that the humble toaster is much more ingenious of an apparatus than it seems; it contains hundreds of small, moving parts.  Think about the amount of time it took for people to design a workable toaster, then think about how the toaster has adapted to become safer, cheaper, and more reliable over time — then think about Thwaites, who finally figured out how to manufacture a toaster from scratch, only to watch it short-circuit once he plugged it into a modern power system.

This very first example in the book — about a page in length — illustrates Harford’s main point.  It took many, many years to make the modern toaster, with presumably many, many failures between its inception as an invention in 1893 and its modern incarnation circa today’s date.  But there was a proven demand for a working toaster (for example, we know the Romans liked toast), which is why many people worked on the idea and perfected it.

With many other ideas, it’s not clear as to whether or not an innovation will succeed.  Yet if military commanders in Iraq or Afghanistan had refused to adapt, would there have been any success whatsoever in those theatres?  And when corporations fail to adapt to deal with known problems and concerns, as did TransOcean prior to the recent Gulf oil disaster, that just makes the magnitude of the disaster a thousand times worse.  Harford discusses these examples, and explains why some companies (and armies) adapt and succeed, while others refuse to adapt and fail.

Mind, as Harford also explains, success in business can be extremely fleeting.  At the start of the 20th century, names like Pullman and Singer dominated the top 100 companies/corporations, yet by the end of the century, they were nowhere to be found.  (And just saying that the technology was outmoded isn’t enough to explain their decline and failure; Harford points out that Toyota started its business life constructing looms.)  Only a few companies, like General Electric, stood the test of time for a century, which proves there’s value in successful adaptation.

Harford spends a considerable amount of time discussing iconoclasts, like mouse geneticist Mario Capecchi.  Capecchi determined at various points of his life what would work best for him, and did not deviate from this course.  So for some people, refusing to adapt is the right strategy; it’s a way of letting the world “catch up” to them, which is actually their way of adapting to changing circumstances in a strange, roundabout point of view.

Harford also spends time discussing the importance of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in order to help an company survive and thrive in an ever-changing marketplace.  A successful organization, whether it’s the United States Army or Whole Foods Market, wants people to tell them the truth about whether or not something is working.  This goes contrary to the belief that “only the ‘yes man’ can climb the corporate ladder” because the successful commander (or captain of industry) wants the truth with no sugar coating whatsoever and often has to “re-train” people how to speak their minds before he or she ends up with a valued team member/subordinate.  Harford shows that it’s often the commander who refuses to be told the party-line — and who makes something out of a dead-end job or assignment, as did David Petreus at one point in his career — that will succeed.  There’s evidently great evolutionary value in iconoclasm, short-term or long.  (Who knew?)

Finally, Harford (aka “The Undercover Economist,”) dons his economist’s hat to discuss the global economic meltdown of 2007-8.  He explained that the market failed to adapt to changing circumstances, failed again to adapt to the huge increase in markets, and failed yet again in implementing any useful regulation that might’ve slowed things down.  Only an eleventh-hour solution, thought up by a number of incredibly bright people, saved the world economy from tanking any further, but the process was a brutal one that the world is still trying to recover from to this day; Harford’s unstated, though very real, point here is that organizations must “think outside the box” now and again to realize potential problems exist in order to try to circumvent them in advance.  And woe betide them (and us) if they fail to understand — and perform — this critically important step.

In short, Harford’s ADAPT is a witty book that’s fun to read, yet is also erudite and literate — a neat trick, that.  It’s a book that will stay on your shelf to be read again and again because it has a great deal to say about business, economics, adaptation (natch), iconoclasm, and much, much more. 

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb