Monday, September 30, 2013

Finished (E-Reader) - "Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein" - Mario Livio

I expected more from "Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein" by Mario Livio.

I had expected more "accidental" discoveries that went on to be big breakthroughs, but that would be another book.

This one focuses on the myopia of the famous scientists.  Einstein launching quantum mechanics, then distancing himself from the theory later was not a particular theme, though Einstein adding the "cosmological constant" to his relativity equations to account for a seeming static universe, thus missing the chance to discover the expanding universe that made Hubble famous.
Darwin was an interesting case as he seemed to not have the strongest handle on the mechanics necessary to underlie the evolution theory of natural selection.

All in all, I like the book, but was not particularly surprised that the "big shots" didn't master all domains, and all showed some natural stickiness to their own theories and ideas.

Science is not about geniuses as much as it is a discipline that keeps the most empirically relevant theories alive in order to be investigated and built upon.  This may be the take-home Livio intended - you are a genius for uncovering science - science actually exists whether discovered by fluke or by hard work - genius not required, and not necessarily transferable to other domains.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Read first 2 years of "Action Comics" and "Superman" - DC Comics (iPad)

I was certainly aware of DC's re-launch - (New 52) in 2010, and saw the artwork for the characters, very dramatic covers and new action figures.

I hadn't, however, read much of the new titles.  I rectified that by reading the first two years of both Action Comics and Superman.  I've read Superman pretty regularly in the mid-70's through the mid '90's and on and off since then.  Not sure that I had any specific expectations for the new launch.
Superman #1 (2011)    
My experience with Superman re-launches was the "Sand-Superman" era around issue #233 (1971) where an experiment to destroy all the kryptonite on earth causes feedback and removes about 1/2 of Superman's powers.  This was a reasonable thing to do, as Superman seemed to get exponentially stronger with each decade of publication, moving from jumping over buildings to flying fast enough to go back through time.  In fact, he became so powerful that there really wasn't any decent stories to tell - if he was defeated, but not killed, why not just go back in time and stop the villain and avoid the entire "defeat"?
Superman (1939) #233 - Still one of the best covers ever.
The Man of Steel (1986) Mini-Series to re-launch Superman
My second experience was the mid-80's, formal re-boot by John Byrne.  This re-boot took offline both Superman and Action Comics for a few months, a "Man of Steel" mini-series re-launching the origin and character into a newer timeline and re-launched with a new #1 for Superman (with "Adventures of Superman continuing the numbering from the previous "Superman" series).  The new Superman was less powerful than he was prior to the re-boot, but certainly more familiar than the "original" Superman of the 1930's.

I like the "New 52" Superman.  The "he's an alien" sub-plot is a good one, and it explains the Lex Luthor wish/need to destroy him much better than the "he made me bald" sub-plot from the original series.  The military being cautious also makes perfect sense, as does the small mentions of international concern.

Re-tooling Lois and Jimmy is good as well.  I like that Lois and Superman aren't an item right away, and that Lois is actually portrayed as a strong female character.  I always wondered what the appeal of the '50's/'60's/'70's Lois was.  Giving the supporting characters a well-developed life outside of their Clark-Superman relationship only makes the potential storylines stronger, and makes the characters less like two-dimensional hostages.

I like the new suit - I really don't know if I'd have thought much about it either way as being "new" if there wasn't a fuss about it.  It really seems like a new-artist rendition of the original suit, with the only striking difference being the removal of the red underwear of the older model.  I did like the t-shirt and jeans look before the kryptonian suit was introduced.
Updated Superman Suit

Compared to the odd re-launch at Marvel (Marvel Now), where they are coy about what is actually happening with characters and history (particularly the odd handling of Spider-Man), the DC approach is refreshingly honest. I don't feel "betrayed" by changing Supermen - he is quite different than the one from prior eras, but it still "feels" like the same character.  

Marvel's handling of the evolution of their characters leaves much to be desired - Marvel tried to erase several decades of character development, primarily to erase the marriage to MJ).  How did they do it?  They tried to say the Spider-Man of the last decade or more was really a clone introduced in the '70's and the "real" Spider-Man was this guy (Ben Reilly), so forget all those stories you invested in.  Later they made Peter the current manifestation of the Spider-Clan, a mystical bunch of hogwash, where he is in a long line of Spider-Men over time (this also gave him organic web shooters).  The last, and current, move was to have Peter and Mary Jane make a deal with Mephisto (the Devil) to erase their marriage from existence in order to save the life of Aunt May.  What does dealing with the Devil do to a character based upon conscience-induced nightmares?  Also, where is the "trick"?  Doesn't the Devil always extract another cost besides the one you signed up for?  Current status on Peter is that he's dead, but his body is inhabited by Doctor Octopus, with Peter showing up as a memory flash (haven't read in a while, they should be wrapping this up soon).

All in all, the DC re-boots seem to be much better handled - they are doing a re-boot to re-invigorate a character, and doing it overtly seems much more respectful to the fans, and to the character itself.  Marvel seems to either not value their characters, or not value their fans.  The only reason the characters are so well know as to generate the millions of movie revenue is the consistency of the characters over time to generations of fans - they seem to be shooting that model in the foot.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Finished (E-Reader) - "The Book Thief" - Markus Zusak

I really liked "The Book Thief".  I had run across the title as a recommendation on best seller lists, but otherwise had not heard of the story.

I started it and found the story very compelling.  The basic storyline is an orphaned girl adopted by a family in the Munich area during WWII.  The father of the family was as WWI veteran who made contact with the family of a soldier who had saved his life during the war, and offered to help out the widowed family.  Years later a man showed up on his doorstep - a displaced Jewish man, the son of his wartime friend.
The story is narrated by death, which is interesting in itself, and focuses on the orphaned girl and her experiences primarily during WWII - wartime austerity, drafting of friends and family, wartime losses in the community, and eventually the bombing of her hometown by the allies later in the war.

The "Book Thief" title is derived from the orphaned girl's initial struggling to read and her fascination with stories and books, and her occasional foray into acquiring books in a less than appropriate manner.

There are many strong characters in the book - Max (the man in the basement), Liesel's parents, Rudy the neighbour boy, all of which are developed enough to provide compelling storylines on their own.

All in all, a difficult book to put down, and very much worth the read.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Finished (E-Reader) - "Zoo" - James Patterson

"Zoo" was a very quick read, a page turner.

Unfortunately, the resolution of the story probably needed a little more thought.

The basic plot is that animals are suddenly and uncharacteristically attacking humans, pretty much across the globe, eventually with packs of housepets, rats etc. behaving as if they are hive creatures such as bees or ants, moving in packs and killing everyone (and with remarkable foresight and planning).

The explanation comes from the typical outcast, blogger, drop-out PhD student who's been tracking animal-human conflict (HAC - Human-Animal Conflict) before it became a front-line story.

It appears that our reliance on petrochemicals have had the environment permeated with unique compounds, and when we added wide-spread cellphone signals, the additional radiation "cooks" the floating petrochemical stew into artificial pheromones, which induce the male mammals into stress-and-attack mode.  In addition, we humans, through long-term exposure, are leaking fake pheromones as well, making us the irritant that the animals need to eradicate.

Believe it or not, I'm OK with the story up to this time.  It would have been nice if Patterson didn't try to think from the animal perspective, as the "scent" clues given early on in the story kind of give the story away to a degree.  It might have been nice to have some unexplained areas of the earth that aren't suffering from the situation which would provide the clues to the causes (e.g. some poorer nations with fewer cellphone towers having fewer effects, countries like India which kind of skipped the landlines and became cellphone users almost overnight showing dramatic, immediate changes...).

The solution
When the radical figures out the connection between petrochemical pollution and the cellphone radiation, he doesn't bother to do some small scale experiments (e.g. isolate a mammal or two from cellphone radiation and petrochemical pollution and see the effect; or even separately isolate each and see if only ceasing one of the two was sufficient; or even better, maybe perfume to mask the pheromones as at least an emergency or temporary solution).

I'm amazed, that without any experimental evidence, they "blackout" the world; and am even more amazed that widespread environmental damage clears up in a matter of hours.  In fact, this might have been a better outcome - the explanation is correct, but the "world" can't keep the power off long enough to recognize the effect - maybe show smaller countries who successfully eliminate the problems, and the larger ones, too tied to electronics, who self-destruct.

All in all, the book seemed to take a turn to the "Washington types are spoiled and can't take any penalty for their lifestyle" instead of a broader "1st world nations are too reliant on technology to their own detriment" moral.  It certainly could have been illustrated as the rich and powerful being first to flaunt the tech bans, but the take home would have been more complete.  Maybe a country in South America or Africa could rise to world-power status, their pervious lack of money and technology suddenly becoming a huge advantage....

The book ends on a sour note - the "heroes" are trapped in Greenland, away from most mammals, but the U.S. is increasingly going to Hell.

Add in a few nations which learn from the cause-effect hypothesis and survive, and you have the start of the sequel novel.