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This page provides two services: links to book review, news, and catalog sources on the web, and capsule reviews of notable books. The reviews are written personally by us, so they are highly subjective; take these reviews with a grain of salt!

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Ziring Book Reviews for March-June, 2000

Here are some books that you might find interesting.

Go Figure! Using Math to Answer Everyday Imponderables  by Clint Brookhart
ISBN 0-8092-2608-1

Educators and social critics noticed, in the late 1980s, that general familiarity with basic arithmetical concepts and techniques was low among the American population. J.A. Paulos even coined a word to describe it: innumeracy. The real key to improving numeracy, many of its advocates point out, is to make mathematics seem more real and applicable to people's everyday lives.

Clint Brookhart has stepped up with a book to combat innumeracy, using sound mathematical insight and principles to answer everyday questions about the real world. Unlike many of the recent bumper crop of popular mathematics books, Mr. Brookhart eschews lofty mathematical principles in favor of solid mechanics. This book focuses on effective application of arithmetic, geometry, and simple statistics. Also, to make the book more engaging and interactive for readers, it includes detailed directions on how to perform many of the calculations on a simple scientific calculator.

The main body of the book is broken in to two large sections and two smaller sections. The two large sections cover earthbound and astronomical topics, respectively. Each chapter covers a single problem start-to-finish, with very little dependency between chapters; this makes it very easy to pick up the book any time and read through one analysis, or skip around. The selection of problems is broad, but mostly quite sensible. Some of the best are listed below.

An engineer by trade, Clint Brookhart manages to convey mathematical ideas an procedures in a very concise and direct way. I would recommend this book for anyone looking for an entertaining way to brush up on their numeracy.

Conclusion: Recommended


The Road to Mars: A Post-Modem Novel  by Eric Idle
ISBN 0-375-40340-X

Eric Idle spent much of his early career as a primary member of the British Monty Python comedy troupe. Since then, he has engaged in a wide variety of pursuits, including acting and writing. This novel, a sort of science fiction comedy parody morality action story, shows off his sharp comic sense and wit. It also succeeds reasonably well as a straight story.

The title The Road to Mars refers to the circumstances facing the book's three primary characters, comedians Alex and Lewis and their robot, Carlton. In the 2300s, the ultimate destination for entertainers is the showhalls of Mars; Alex and Lewis dream of reaching that kind of success with their comedy act. As they journey together from cheap vaudeville gigs out by Saturn in toward Mars, they hone their skills, while Carlton begins to analyze the very meaning of comedy.

The story is told in two threads: in the third person focused on Carlton and his employers, and as first-person narrative from a historian hundreds of years later. Despite his relative inexperience as a novelist, this is only his second novel, Eric Idle plays off the two threads against each other quite well. As the Carlton's adventures, and his understanding of the meaning of comedy, get more intense, so does the historian's obsession with Carlton's findings. (I don't want to give them away, but if anyone can claim to really understand what makes something funny, Eric Idle can. Carlton's division of comedians into "White Face" and "Red Nose" types is not unique, perhaps, but the treatment is direct and smart.)

Incidentally, perhaps, the science behind the science fiction in The Road to Mars is quite reasonable, with a few odd blind spots. The main disaster scenes late in the book are well-paced and engrossing without being frenetic.

Overall, this book offers a little something for a lot of readers: good characters, some science fiction, some adventure, several obsessions, and even some things blowing up. Plus, you'll laugh the whole time.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended


DUNE: House Atreides  by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson
ISBN 0-553-11061-6

Many science fiction fans regard Frank Herbert's 1965 DUNE as one of the best books that the genre every produced. In the 1970s and 1980s, Frank Herbert produced five more Dune novels, each one extending the original book's story further and further into the future. However, for fans of the original, there remained a lot of unexplained and unexplored history.

In this new novel, Frank Herbert's son Brian, and popular science fiction author Kevin Anderson team up to tell some of the history behind Dune, and its central family, the Atreides.

The main character of Dune was Paul Atreides, but the events in that book were largely set in their course by Paul's father, the Duke Leto, and the evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Dune: House Atreides tells the story of Leto Atreides, explaining how he became the leader and honor-bound tragic figure depicted in Dune. Fans of the Dune series will be totally captivated by the links and history that the book provides, and in that regard it is quite successful.

Leaving aside the relationship to the Dune series, though, how well does House Atreides succeed on its own? It has good characters, plenty of action, and lots of detail. Particularly interesting are Leto's parents, and young Duncan Idaho. The sub-plot that explains Duncan's background, and how he came to serve the Atreides, is strong and intensely written.

In addition to the central thread of narrative about Leto Atreides, the authors mix in several supporting threads: the schemes of the Emperor's son, the breeding program of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the origins of the Fremen dream to remake Arrakis, the intrigues of the rival Harkonnen family, and the relationship of two young brothers trying to join the Spacing Guild. The complexities of all these plots and events make the book a little turbulent; despite its length of almost 600 pages, it does not have any leisurely or placid sections. It almost seems that the authors set themselves an impossible task: explain over a dozen unexplained background areas of the Dune series, in the form of a coherent novel that would appeal to all science fiction readers.

The original Dune, ultimately, was a book about man's relationship with himself and with nature. The great desert of Arrakis symbolized natural systems, driven by energy and water, while the Empire symbolized man and his greeds and drives. While House Atreides has some elements of this theme, it is more focused on history, plot, and character development. In some ways, the themes get lost in the action. One theme that does stand out clearly, though, is that of the struggle between honor, as personified by Leto and his father, and greed, as represented by the Emperor's son and the Baron Harkonnen.

House Atreides does stand on its own as a solid science fiction novel, but the writing and the structure does not approach the maturity or stature of Dune. For fans of that series, though, this book should be on the "must-read" list.

Conclusion: Recommended, strongly recommended for DUNE afficionados


The Advent of the Algorithm  by David Berlinski
ISBN 0-553-11061-6

The subtitle of this book is "The Idea the Rules the World", and it matches the book's ostensible thesis that algorithms changed how people look at the world around them. In this highly personal narrative, Dr. Berlinski explains some of the history of logic and algorithmics, along with some philosophy and a little mathematics.

The areas of mathematics and mathematics history that this book covers are well-chosen and very interesting. The coverage of Gottfried Leibniz is sympathetic and detailed, giving him much more of his proper credit in the development of logic and the calculus than he usually gets. The description of the predicate calculus is only fair, but the description of Alonzo Church and his oft-overlooked invention of the lambda calculus is very good indeed. The coverage of David Hilbert is good but uneven. Some of the other topics covered in less depth include Turing machines, Post production systems, Cantor's infinities, NP-completeness, Maxwell's demon, neural nets, numerical integration, and Godel's incompleteness theorem. For the reader interested primarily in math history, this book will shed some light on some lesser-known topics and historical figures.

Despite the breadth of the topics covered in the book, Dr. Berlinski keeps the complexity under control. The text is fairly well supported by simple diagrams and equations; it should be quite accessible for any reader with a solid recollection of high school mathematics.

It is possible to look at this book in a several different ways. As a history of one branch of mathematics, algorithmics, it is good but unremarkable. As a personal muse/memoirs, it is for the most part readable and interesting; Dr. Berlinski's dialog with a Cardinal on the subject of recursion is fascinating.

However, the book is not very convincing in its establishment of the idea claimed in its subtitle, that algorithms rule our intellectual lives. There have been several books published in the past few years that attempt to identify fundamental changes in intellectual climate: James Burke's The Day the World Changed and Peter Bernstein's Against the Gods come readily to mind. An unspoken implication of The Advent of the Algorithm is that the legacy our modern society has inherited from Leibniz, Cantor, Turing, and Church enables us to plan and compute in superior ways. The points and support for this thesis are all there, spread through the text, but nowhere collected or tied together into a coherent, explicit form.

Conclusion: Recommended

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook  by Joshua Piven and Bavid Borgenicht
ISBN 0-8118-2555-8

This handy little paperback is stuffed with interesting and useful information on how to cope with various situations. The situations vary from somewhat risky to generally lethal, with most of them falling toward the more dangerous end of the scale.

All of the writing in the book is open and accessible, but serious. The instructions for each situation are all very practical; for each section you get an overview of the circumstances, and a set of steps or alternatives. The authors never mince words about the danger, but they don't dwell on it either. (Interestingly, the authors consulted over a dozen survival specialists in writing the various chapters, and these individual are listed in an appendix at the end of the book.)

The book is not very long, only 176 page, but it covers over three dozen situations ranging from "How to Escape from Killer Bees" to "How to Identify a Bomb". Some of the situations may seem improbable at first, like "How to Jump from a Bridge or Cliff into a River" or "How to Win a Swordfight". Many of the rest are all too possible these days, like "How to Treat a Bullet or Knife Wound" and "How to Jump from a Moving Car".

Much of the survival advice is supplemented with precise line drawings and diagrams. For example, the section about "How to Land a Plane" includes a labelled diagram of a typical small plane console.

Some of the situations seem amusing, but actually kill people. The frontpiece of the book includes the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. That's good advice; if you read this book carefully, you'll be prepared to save your life or somebody else's when the unexpected strikes.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended

Coming soon: EATER  by Gregory Benford

For more reviews, see the book review list.

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This page written by Neal Ziring, last modified 6/24/00.