Archive for July, 2007

Book review: Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 6: Conrad’s Fate

Saturday, July 14th, 2007

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Author:Diana Wynne Jones
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 8 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 8 and up
Year of publication:2005

Either Diana Wynne Jones must have had a truly rocky relationship with her uncle, and found that her mother did not protect her from him, or else she's just got a thing against uncles. In any case, evil uncles are major drivers of plots in Jones' intriguing set of worlds, as Conrad Tesdinic, the 12 yr. old narrator of this book, learns. Conrad's uncle is every bit as evil in his own ways as Christopher Chant's (who becomes the Chrestomanci in Diana Wynne Jones' universe) was to him.

A 16 yr. old Christopher Chant and his future wife, Millie, play supporting roles in this, the eventful, but not frenetic story of how Conrad avoids the terrible fate his uncle attempts to foist upon him and instead finds himself a mentor.

My now-11 year old and I really enjoy our glimpses into Diana Wynne Jones' multiple alternative universes, in which the outcomes of historical events led to the preeminence of technology in some universes and the preeminence of magic in others.

Although Conrad's Fate stands well on its own, we recommend that readers enter this interesting and complicated universe by reading at least A Charmed Life and then The Lives of Christopher Chant before reading this one.
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If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 6: Conrad's Fate

Book review: A Beautiful Mind — The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

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Author:Sylvia Nasar
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:Non-fiction, biography
Year of publication:1998

Biography of the brilliant mathematician, John Nash.
"How could you, a mathematician, believe that extraterrestrials were sending you messages?" the visitor from Harvard asked the West Virginian with the movie-star looks and Olympian manner.

"Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way my mathematical ideas did," came the answer. "So I took them seriously."

In this workmanlike biography of the brilliant mathematician John Nash, Sylvia Nasar, a journalist, describes Nash's pioneering early mathematical discoveries, his decent into madness, and his eventual recovery and receipt of a Nobel Prize in Economics.

Along the way, Nasar describes:
  • How MIT and Princeton became celebrated research institutions.
  • How members of the mathematical community, many of whom had not been well treated by Nash, even when he was well, cooperated to make sure he survived when he was too ill to work.
  • The story of Alicia Nash, Nash's ex-wife who at tremendous cost to herself made sure that Nash was cared for throughout his life.
  • How the Nobel committee decided to award its prize in Economics to Nash (sounds like the process was as lovely as the making of sausage).
Nasar is much less successful at explaining the mathematics, Nash's as well as everyone else's. In fact, she seems to often resort to just listing mathematical disciplines and then saying that they are hard to do.

It reminded me of a visit to a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit we paid a bunch to visit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry last summer. The exhibit consisted of quite a few obviously very expensively produced wooden models of sketches of machines that Da Vinci drew in his journals. Next to each model was a large poster explaining in text and diagrams what the machine was supposed to do. I think that the word "genius" was used at least once, possibly several times, in each of these posters. However, the posters never actually stated whether the machine would actually do what Leonardo intended it to do.

Yeah, so Leonardo was a genius. And with that and, what is it now, $1.50, you can get on the subway.

The cool thing about Nash was that he was a genius who did truly work at his craft. He specifically chose problems that people he respected labeled as being difficult. (Nasar seems to look down on Nash's problem selection process, or perhaps she felt that Nash's colleagues did.) Once Nash had chosen a problem, he worked on it diligently and only gave up if he realized that the problem had already been solved.

The not so cool thing about Nash was that for the first nearly 70 years of his life, he was downright nasty to pretty much everyone he met or interacted with.
  • Does meanness go with genius?
    Based on my experiences with some exceptionally brilliant people, I don't believe it has to.
  • Does madness go with mathematical genius?
    Well, Godel was certainly suicidally nuts. Turing was driven that way, but seems to have been pretty sane for most of his life. Nash's explanation, that his mathematical intuitions "just appeared" in exactly the same way as the voices in his head, makes a lot of sense to me.
    I often know things will happen long before they do. And I am often accused of "jumping to conclusions", or "being overly pessimistic", or thinking differently. And family members who think that my ideas are overly controversial are certainly quick to let me know they think I'm crazy to express them.
  • Can madness be overcome through sheer will?
    Seems like maybe Nash has succeeded in doing this, but maybe it's only because of his genius that he did. In explaining his recovery, he talks about how he now post-processes his thoughts and kind of throws away the ones that seem not-normal.

A Beautiful Mind is not a book for young readers. It describes a brilliant man's entire life (and if his mind was indeed "beautiful", it seems to me that it was beautiful in the way it processed mathematics, not beautiful in its humanity or generosity), including his homosexual experimentation, his fathering of a child outside of wedlock, his refusal to marry or even care for his mistress, and his neglect of his child. However, it gives interesting insights into the functioning of the intellectual community (and it most certainly is a community) and the advantages and disadvantages of being an unusually gifted person in our society.

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If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Beautiful Mind, A: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash

Two highlights of our school year

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

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1. My 12 yr. old aka dd built a hovercraft as part of her science fair project. Having watched the Junkyard Wars episode on hovercraft, I was quite worried about whether it would ever get off the ground and had actively discouraged dd from choosing this as her project. However, on her own, dd located really excellent plans for building the hovercraft. (The skirt folds in on itself and so forms a closed pouch, and then dd punched holes in the center of the bottom pouch. Which is much more efficient than an open skirt — all the air immediately pushes down.) Then, with just a short lesson about machine tools from her dad (and he did oversee the work) dd pretty much built the whole craft in a day, then took another day to punch the holes and attach the leaf blower (most of that time was spent worrying about where to put the holes). Herself. For example, dd came up with a very clever scheme for where to cut the air holes using a protractor and a pencil on a string for deciding where to cut them… ANYWAY, no limbs, not even any blood lost on the construction. Dd had allocated a week of debugging, but pretty much none was required.

THEN, in terms of the experimental design — dd was trying to determine whether additional weight slowed or sped up the hovercraft — I could tell that she had really no way of even starting to think about what her hypothesis should be. SO, I steered her (really, just emailed her a link) to a webpage with Newton’s 3 laws of motion. And, it was astounding how quickly she understood what F=MA means. And also, when you can sit motionless 1/2 inch above the ground, the law of inertia starts to make a WHOLE lot more sense.

Then, she weighed each of her classmates and had them ride the course she’d laid out to get the data. We had MANY volunteers.

And then, there came the time when dd had to write her report and create her board. I think that figuring out what the difference between \”weight\” and \”mass\” are and what the word \”gravity\” means took the most time. Finally, I pulled out our older daughter’s old AP Study Guide to Physics B & C, and the light bulb turned on over all our heads. No one really knows what the word \”mass\” is — it a property of matter having to do with how gravity affects it. And so, what is \”gravity\” — it is a theoretical force that explains how matter interacts. So we got to learn what recursion means, and at some point dd stopped and said, \”How come this took me so long to understand? I must be very stupid.\” (Must’ve been all of 20 minutes.) And I pointed to the cover of the AP Study Guide to Physics B & C and asked her if she knew what an AP was, and pointed out to her that this was a book for sophisticated high school students, and that, really, it was obvious from the definitions that even physicists don’t truly understand these terms.

Then, there were some very \”smart people\” (dd’s words) who served as the judges. They were very impressed with dd’s board and with her deep understanding of Newton’s laws. The hovercraft gives you SO many ways to understand inertia. It does not move (horizontally) unless force is exerted on it. It then goes and gives no indication that it intends to stop, once pushed. And then — action/reaction. So there is the leaf blower blowing air down. And — SOMETHING is blowing that air right back up. And that air is pushing the hovercraft up off the ground. (Enough air to lift a 300 pound adult. AMAZING. EERIE.)

Anyway, go now. Build a hovercraft. It is fun. Exciting. To build and ride.

2. Every year dd’s school goes on an Intensive Studies trip. This year’s was to the Southwest. We’d never seen the Grand Canyon before. We live on the coast, where it’s mostly cool and damp most of the time. We had some friends of the school show us Hopi. (The entire trip website is not completed yet. But here are some of the pages.)

One of my photos was named Sony’s Picture of the Day. We saw so many magical places.

So, it was a good school year. I don’t have any idea if dd learned any math or English. Next year is her last year at this school. I am already traumatized at the thought of investigating high schools. Perhaps we’ll just home school.

Book review: Gossamer

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

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Book review: Cheaper By the Dozen

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

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Author:Frank B. Gilbreth
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 8 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 8 and up
Year of publication:1948

Skipping grades in school was part of Dad's master plan. There was no need, he said, for his children to be held back by a school system geared for children of simply average parents.

Dad made periodic surprise visits to our schools to find out if and when we were ready to skip. Because of his home-training program -- spelling games, geography quizzes, and the arithmetic and languages -- we sometimes were prepared to skip.

... The standard reward for skipping was a new bicycle.
My 12 year old loved almost everything about this true story about how a couple of pioneering efficiency experts raised their 12 children. Except the ending.

Although I tried to warn her about the ending by pointing out some of the foreshadowing and emphasizing that this is a true story, she was pretty much devastated by it.

Homeschooling parents and those seeking ideas for enriching their children's learning opportunities will re-read this humorous collection of family anecdotes, written by two of the children themselves, often. Mr. and Mrs. Gilbreth, efficiency experts that they were, strove to ensure that even times of "unavoidable delay", such as when their children used the bathroom, were used for learning. For example, the father painted the constellations on the bathroom ceilings, hid messages in Morse Code throughout their vacation home, insisted that the children listen to phonograph records in French and German for the entire time they spent in bathrooms, etc., etc.

The story of the mother of the twelve children, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, is told in the biography, Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth -- A Life Beyond "Cheaper by the Dozen".

-- Emily Berk

If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Cheaper By the Dozen