Thursday, July 31, 2014

Realm of Measure (Asimov)

Realm of Measure From the yardstick to the Theory of Relativity, by Isaac Asimov, 1960 Removed from circulation from my school library and regulated to the trash pile before I spotted the circa-1960 photo of Isaac Asimov on the back cover (looking younger than I've ever seen him before, so I surprised myself by recognizing him), serendipity brought Realm of Measure: From the yardstick to the Theory of Relativity into my possession.

I'm happy that it did. Though billed as an exploration of mathematics, he veers off a bit into scientific measurements, but I'll still count this toward my goal of reading one interesting book on math each summer, and this one does it without spinning out of control with endless, overly-complicated and overly-ridiculous equations.

Asimov goes into the history of measurements and how certain units came about and how the different units relate to one another. Not only did lengths like palms and feet have to be standardized from person to person and town to town, but also in relation to each so that they could be divided more evenly among people without formal education but who could count and compute the basic operations.

Asimov pushes for the metric system often throughout the book, as it's used a lot in science (where he was quite at home), not to mention in most of the non-English-speaking world. (He doesn't actually mention the measure of the English-speaking world using British units.)

The biggest problem with his arguments is that he presented the beauty of American/British system in its origins. If you were a wordsmith, you might be interested in the etymology of words, where they came from and how they came to be. You wouldn't stand for simplified spellings that are attempted from time to time. (Benjamin Franklin had a serious plan to change the language and simplify spelling, for instance.) When you read the origin of who's foot we use and who's armlength, and why a furlong is 1/8 of a mile, there is a wonder to it that goes beyond, "You see, there's this stick, and it has these two marks in it...."

Further, the system of divisions make sense. Think of the times. Think of the people and how they lived. If they split things, they likely halved them. If they had to quarter something, they halved it again. How often did someone come along with nine of his friends and need things sorted out evenly among them. And for all those divisions, 10 isn't a great number to work with: you can only divide it by 2 and 5, but not 3 nor 4. Dividing 12 by 2, 3, 4 and 6 proved more convenient, if it you lose 5. Moreover, metric conversion is easy in that you can switch units simply by moving the decimal point, but first you had to invent the decimal point! And that didn't happen to, what, the sixteenth century?

Oddly enough, I can sit here and argue that the time for the metric system has passed. We're living in a computer age, ruled by binary and hexidecimal. The number 10 really doesn't fit well into that scheme. And once you get passed 11th year math, base 10 goes out the window in favor of natural logs and e.

Not that any of this took away from my enjoyment of his book, which I heartily recommend to all with the proviso, "Don't try to read it in bed when you're really tired."

And I'll close by considering how close NYC came to allowing 16-ounce soft drinks while banning 500 milliliters. Metric: not even once.

Apparently, this is the first Asimov book I've reviewed, as his name was not one of the tags, which is odd because I have read some of his books since I started this blog, or at least since I kept track of the books in my paper journal. The most recent Asimov book I read which comes to mind was The Currents of Space. It's an Empire book and I remember wondering when the Robots would show up because I had Caves of Steel on my mind.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Guilty Pleasures (Hamilton)

Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #1), by Laurell K. Hamilton, 1993

Before Buffy was slaying vampires on television, Anita Blake was executing them in a series of novels.

Anita is an Animator, she has the ability to raise the dead, creating zombies who can, briefly, retain their memories and personalities. She also kills vampires, but there's a catch. Vampires have are people, too, you know. They have rights, and they can only be put down by court order. Otherwise, they stay and operate in their own districts of the city. Guilty Pleasures is just your typical vampire nightclub. It isn't hiding anything nefarious. Of course, it's not.

As the story opens, Anita is being hired by a vampire whom she recently knew as a person. They want her to look into a series of unsanctioned vampire killings. She's not a private detective, but they think that she knows her stuff. Who better than someone who kills vampires to deal with another vampire killer.

Oddly enough, even though she isn't a private detective, that didn't stop me from reading the book if, in fact, she were. Actually, in my mind, the narrator had the same voice as the woman who reads the Sue Grafton, "Kinsey Millhone" audiobooks. It made for an interesting but unintended mash-up. I enjoyed the book, although I wasn't riveted. I took my time, mostly reading it on the trains, and occasionally before sleeping. I would recommend it if you like your vampires straight-up evil, manipulative and oozing with power. They may have the rights of humans, but they aren't trying to be human.

I found the first five books in the series on a shelf at the Salvation Army Thrift Shop. Unfortunately, I only picked out the first book because I didn't want to spent that much money upfront on a series that I knew nothing about, hadn't heard of before. For all I knew, I was buying "chick lit". You may like that sort of thing, but it's not high on my summer reading list (even if I did buy it in the springtime). It's probably better this way because buying the first book forced me to read it sooner so I could decide to go back for the others before it was too late. A good plan, but I didn't move quickly enough -- someone picked up the rest of them before me.

By the way, had I bought all of them, they could still be sitting there on my shelf. I have bought quartets of books only to return them a year or two later, unread.

Two notes about the series:

First, they seem to have been popular, despite my not having heard of them. I asked online if anyone nearby had copies of the books. I got quite a few responses. Two guys I might've expected had had them, but they're too far away to borrow the books (the tolls just to Jersey are over $20, and let's not forget the gas!). And two women who I wouldn't have suspected both told me that they had read them when they came out, but neither had them any more.

Second, be warned that the series changes after the fifth or sixth books. Fans debate whether or not the change was for the better. What was the change? I don't know, but I could guess. And if I couldn't, my sister's response of "LOL! Oh, yeah, they changed!" tells me that it's probably not in a direction I'm wanting to follow.

That said, if I can find these books, I might have 4 or 5 more good reads this summer.