A brief greeting and less brief GRE prep book review

Happy 4th to y’all Americans! (Hmm, I think half my viewers are from the Commonwealth. So, um, happy day to you too. 🙂 )

Since I did almost as well as I wanted to on the Quantitative section of the GRE, I decided to write a nice review of the math prep book I used. Yeah, yeah, the test is changing in four weeks, but the basic concepts will remain the same, so I figure some folks may still find this book useful. Anyway, here’s the review.

I can’t comment on the quality of other books for math prep, as I used this one almost exclusively. As another reviewer recommended, I worked through the entire book, skipping or skimming nothing. I took my time; I learn math best when I work through it carefully and practice until it’s almost second nature. I found the huge number of geometry practice problems especially helpful, as I took geometry in my first year of high school and am now a couple years out of college already. I only took two math classes in college, of which only one (Discrete Maths) was useful at all in my prep, for combinations/permutations and probability questions.

There were a few errors in the latter half of the book (in one, for example, the question quoted in the answers section was nearly opposite to the question that had been asked, so the answer given was incorrect). However, considering the number of problems in the book, the accuracy is excellent; and if you can catch the book out on its errors, that’s probably a good sign of how well prepared you are for the real test. 😉

When I first took a diagnostic test, from the Barron’s general prep book, I scored 560Q and 760V; I ran out of time on the quantitative section, in addition to getting several wrong. On ETS’s PowerPrep software the day before the test, I scored 800Q and 760V–the best prediction for me. A second Barron’s diagnostic predicted 700Q, 760V. And on the real thing, I earned a 780Q and 760V. (Yes, I’m rather consistent on the Verbal section, it seems. I chock it up to four years’ prep as a philosophy major.)

I’ve always been pretty good at math, but I freeze up if I’m out of practice on a particular subject. This book covered everything I needed it to, with enough practice of enough variety to bring me to a 780 on the Quantitative section, in spite of my shaky nerves. I know the GRE will switch to the new format within a month, but I would highly recommend this book, even so–it’s a tried-and-true guide that will continue to be useful while publishers are working out the kinks in their material for the new test. Even beyond that, it will remain a good source of extra practice problems.

Oh…I should have noted that the sections were written by different people, some done better than others. Toward the end, where I found errors, was often also where I found poorly written sections (by which I mean unclear or having really minimal review–or overly voluminous review). Maybe I should check which those were and update the review soon.

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A ramble on books, from old favorites to new freebies

I do love Barnes & Noble. I always have; I remember making trips to the nearby college town with my best friend, back in grade school, and staring at the shelves for as long as our parents would allow. That’s how we found The Serpent Never Sleeps, a historical fiction novel by Scott O’Dell (one of my favorite authors back then). I wore that book out like none since; it had adventure, the New World when it was still New, a mysterious magical ring that came to our heroine directly from royalty, and Pocahontas. This was a brilliant equation of what ifs that I loved. I haven’t picked it up in a long time; maybe I would find it disenchanting now. Regardless, it was great then.

But I digress. My intent was to mention Barnes & Noble’s Free Fridays: they highlight a free NookBook every week. Sometimes it’s only free for a day, sometimes longer, and the genres covered are quite diverse (although they probably tend toward the ones I don’t love so well–thrillers, mysteries, and romance). Recently they featured The Winds of Khalakovo, a fantasy novel with a Russian flavor written by Bradley Beaulieu. Below is my review as it is on barnesandnoble.com (I was responding in part to other reviews that complained about it being “too hard” because of unfamiliar names):

An intriguing fantasy — 4/5 stars

Maybe it’s because I’ve read some of the works of Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, and Turgenev, but the Russian names didn’t bother me. It took a little bit to get used to them, since fantasy novels so often use Celtic or otherwise Western European names, but then it was kind of refreshingly different. I did have to look up a word or two that wasn’t Russian because I was unfamiliar with the archaic or alternate spelling (“gaoler” for “jailer,” for example).

I was worried that the story might be awkwardly pieced together when I saw one of the central characters described as an autistic savant. That kind of real-world technical term just wouldn’t fit in the oftentimes archaic language of fantasy. Thankfully, the book is never so explicit about the boy’s mental condition; in fact, I was left not even sure that it’s an accurate description, because the character of his mental state is only described (never given a name) and is so enmeshed with the magics of Anuskaya.

I did find the story a little bit difficult to follow at times, but in a good way–it kept me thinking, trying to figure out what exactly was going on. That much actually did remind me of some of the Russian literature I’ve read. And the mix of technology and magic reminds me of the Final Fantasy rpg series, with airships and summoning and so on.

In all, it’s not the easiest read you’ll pick up, but if you’re okay with that, the story and the characters are quite interesting. An enjoyable read.

So anyway, I’d recommend checking it out if you need a new fantasy read. It’s no longer free, unfortunately, but it is a lendable NookBook, so if you’d like to borrow mine (I can only lend it once), let me know. I think you have to be “Nook friends” to lend books; my username is the same over there.

Today’s free book is The Blue Light Project, which is apparently a social commentary wrapped up in a multiple-storyline fictional tale (drama? thriller?) of a hostage situation in a television studio. The people through whose eyes we see are neither the hostages nor the criminal, from the descriptions I’ve seen. We’ll see how it goes. It’s free for now, but like I said, some of these freebies expire quickly.

Update, July 4: It looks like the freebie offer on Blue Light Project has expired.

Science books ahoy!

A few weeks ago, one of the people I follow on Twitter posted a link to a blog post about reading challenges. I wasn’t aware of these before; someone posts a challenge, like “read 12 books this year and blog about them,” and people sign up to participate. Some offer prizes; some are just for fun. This one caught my eye: “Science Book Challenge 2011.”

Science Book Challenge 2011 from Scienticity

A program called Scienticity hosts this science reading challenge yearly (since 2008), and they collect and post the notes that bloggers submit on the books they read. The challenge is to read three science books (loosely defined) this year and blog about them. There’s a decent collection of notes on books ranging from minimally scientistic novels like Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons (not sure how that one got in there) to popular science or social science books like Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents and Levitt’s Freakonomics. Someone even reviewed the first real work I read for a philosophy class, Dan Dennett’s Freedom Evolves.

They provide a nice rubric to help bloggers organize their notes and to help readers get a quick picture of how the bloggers rate each book. Each book gets a rating from one (least) to five (most) for how well it meets each of these five criteria:

  • Scienticity (how “science-y” the book is)
  • Readability (how easy it is to read – low isn’t necessarily bad; it could just be challenging material)
  • Hermeneutics (how well the author understands and conveys the material)
  • Charisma (how fun or engaging the book is to read)
  • Recommendation (how strongly the reviewer recommends the book)

Of course, different people will be more or less generous in their ratings, but that’s what notes are for. 🙂

I love that they keep the reviews available for visitors to read (in fact, that’s a significant part of the challenge’s purpose); I’ve already added a book to my reading list because of the reviews it had there. I heard of Natalie Angier’s The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science through a podcast I listen to sometimes, but didn’t plan to read it until I saw an enthusiastic review in the science challenge book notes. (Oddly, the second review, which is negative, added to my desire to read it – I guess reviews that spend a full paragraph complaining that a book is too hard because it has a few 30-35 page chapters have that effect on me.)

I like the premise of the challenge enough that I think I’ll jump in, myself. I don’t know for sure which ones I’ll read, but here are my current ideas:

Wish me luck, and go check out the Science Book Challenge 2011!

A little (ok, not so little) book review

I’ve never written a book review at Amazon before, and I just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion recently (people get so mad about it, I just had to read it!). So I decided to post a review of it. Granted, there are already over 1600 reviews of the book, and thousands more comments on the reviews (thanks especially to one or three trolls with a habit of posting pseudo-logical gibberish in reply to nearly every review, and to many of the comments). But hey, why not, right? So, I thought I’d put a copy of my review here. Here ’tis. 🙂

(4/5 stars) Worth reading & examining for yourself (posted October 1, 2010)

A lot of people get fired up about this book, so I wanted to read it to try to see what the fuss is about. And from many of the reactions I’ve seen to Dawkins, I had the impression that he must be veritably livid himself – all but foaming at the mouth as he spits cruel, cruel attacks at his poor (religious) victims.

That really isn’t what I found in The God Delusion.

Of course, Dawkins doesn’t write with the cool detachment and (extreme) caution of a good philosopher; he’s a scientist, and he writes with a scientist’s frustration in the face of a too-common dearth of reasoned thought and scientific literacy in lay society. Yes, the frustration shows through, but I don’t see why anyone should fault him for that. People have committed gross atrocities in the name of “God” — that is rightly very frustrating. But the book is not written in the style of a polemic; it’s a reasoned argument, and it has the feel of such at almost every point. The humor is a nice break now and then, and he does get a bit quote-happy sometimes – but the quotes are interesting, so I enjoyed them as well.

One thing I noticed was that I had to keep reminding myself that Dawkins was using the word “God” in a specific way; early in the book he explains precisely what he means by “the God hypothesis” and thereby what he means by “God”. In a nutshell, that is a supernatural intelligent being that designed and created the universe and everything in it. This is a basic (many religious people would probably want to add to it) but common definition (this is kind of an essential – gets the essence of it – concept of God that many, even across religions, would agree is true of their God).

(Side-note: there is a philosophical/logical problem with the notion of a supernatural entity fiddling around with the physical universe, and that’s why I had to keep reminding myself that Dawkins was arguing against God as commonly conceived – otherwise I wouldn’t see why he’s cold as he is toward agnosticism.)

Of course, if you think “God” is some kind of pattern in nature (or is nature itself), then Dawkins’ arguments aren’t going to work against your “God” – but you’re also not talking about the God described in the scriptures of the major world religions, you’re not talking about a personal God who created the universe and listens to your prayers and gave commandments and rules etc. to prophets … in short, you’re not talking about the kind of God that most people talk about, or go to church to worship, or believe works miracles from time to time, or in whose name people have committed atrocities. That is the kind of God that Dawkins is arguing against.

And he does a fine job of it. Not a perfect job, but then I doubt I’d say that anyone has done a perfect job of arguing their point on any difficult and debated position. In the chapter on morality, it felt clear that he is not a moral philosopher – but that’s probably a good thing, as moral philosophers can’t even manage to agree on whether moral statements (like “it is wrong to kill”) mean anything at all. Dawkins OTOH is writing for people in the real world. 😉

His chapter arguing that religion is akin to child abuse sounded like it would be too extreme, but on reading it, a lot of what he had to say made a lot of sense. I grew up in an area with a lot of Amish, and Dawkins does strike pretty hard at them – but it seemed fair, and his condemnation of the rest of us for helping to forcefully perpetuate the culture seemed more so. I know the feeling of lament that we often have about old traditions dying out (particularly when they aren’t our own traditions); but I also have to wonder why we should lament the fading of outdated traditions more than we lament the limited life possibilities available to the actual people who are trapped unwittingly or even grudgingly in those traditions. Dawkins rightly calls us out on this.

…I still don’t understand why people get so angry about The God Delusion, though. It’s an argument, and the great thing about arguments is that if you disagree, you can try to dissect the argument and prove it wrong (or show why your own argument is stronger or more cogent). You can learn a lot from an argument whether you think it’s right or wrong – so why get mad?

Oh yeah, and…

…I finished the Harry Potter series. Um. … … I think I already knew that Snape is supposed to turn out a good guy in the end; what I can’t decide is whether Rowling did an incredible job playing him up as a treacherous vermin, or a really lousy job glossing the story so he’s good. The main clue that he’s good (that I remember) was some hesitancy to take the unbreakable oath, which happens at least a book and a half before his story is revealed; meanwhile, I can’t make out why Dumbledore would have been pleading with him. I can make stuff up, but then I’m writing the story. With situations like that, isn’t the ‘actual fact’ supposed to make just as much sense as the illusion you’re supposed to believe?

(I did enjoy the series, though, don’t get me wrong.)