Thursday, June 14, 2018

Tree and Leaf by J. R. R. Tolkien

I wanted to try challenging my mind a little so I picked up Tree and Leaf, a collection by Tolkien! It made me miss my literature days because I felt like I missed a lot. This collection consists of;

- On Fairy-Stories: I’ve actually read this essay before but I found it so hard to read the first time round! Shows you how much my mind has rusted. It was much better the second time round and I managed to appreciate it.

This essay explores the definitions and origin of fairy tales in a fairly academic but lyrical style (as odd as that description is). Personally, I prefer Chesterton’s chapter (The Ethics of Elfland) in Orthodoxy even though it looks at fairy tales in a very different (and less academic) way.

- Mythopoeia: This was a lovely poem although I didn’t completely understand it.

- Leaf by Niggle: I really enjoyed this short story about a man named Niggle, who neglects preparing for his eventual journey to paint a leaf. But his painting is always interrupted by his neighbour and though Niggle doesn’t like it, he more often than not helps him out. Apparently Niggle might have been a stand-in for Tolkien himself, which is something interesting to consider!

- The Homecoming of Beorthnoth Beorthelm’s Son: this is apparently a play inspired by a myth and I would normally be into this sort of stuff but I:

a. Tend to be very inept at understanding plays
b. Didn’t really get the three part structure of this

So it was kinda wasted on me.

Like I said at the start, this book made me wish I was still actively studying literature because I think I would have understood it a lot better if I was still using those muscles. Still, it was a good change from what I’ve been reading.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The High King by Lloyd Alexander

This is the last book in the Chronicles of Prydain and it is AMAZING! I really loved it and it’s definitely something you should read straight after Taran Wanderer because it’s tied very closely to it and the other books.

In The High King, the story comes full circle and Taran and his friends must once again face Arawn and his Cauldron-born. While the first book dealt with Arawn’s servant, the Horned King, this book deals with the evil lord directly.

In The Book of Three, Taran dreams of being a hero. Now, many adventures and wanderings later, Taran knows more about what being a hero entails and he feels the weight of the quest a lot more acutely. In many ways, this quest is similar to the one in The Book of Three, but the difference lies primarily within Taran. He’s grown from an assistant pig-keeper into a leader, although he won’t admit it out loud.

For a YA fantasy, this series really doesn’t shy away from death. While important characters have died in previous books, the body count for characters I remember and like is probably the highest here. This is where Taran fully suffers the loss that war brings, and that’s where he learns a valuable lesson:
"A grower of turnips or shaper of clay, a Commot farmer or a king - every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone."
Wise words from Taran.

I really loved this series! It is everything a fantasy series should be - filled with related characters, magical, giving us hope, but at the same time not shying away from the darker side of life. It’s a pity that I didn’t read this earlier, but I am glad that I’ve finally finished it!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

Like I mentioned in my review of The Castle of Llyr, I borrowed the remaining books of the Prydain series as soon as I could. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get The Foundling and other Tales of Prydain, but at least I got the last two books of the series!

In Taran Wanderer, Taran decides to leave Caer Dallben and search for this true parentage. Well, the truth is that he’s hoping to find out he’s of noble parentage so that he can ask Eilonwy for her hand in marriage. And so, Taran and Gurgi wander through the land, meeting people and having adventures.

Truth be told, I thought that this was the weakest book in the Chronicles of Prydain series so far. While Taran does have a quest to find out his parentage, much of the book reads like a series of loosely connected adventures rather than a story with an overarching focus.

That said, there are plenty of great moments in the book, especially in the second half of the story. Taran starts to learn about the true value of things and he starts to see that his original goal of hoping for noble blood isn’t what he thought he was. And as he wanders through the land and tries his hand at different skills, he also learns more about who he isn’t - an important lesson for everyone as they try to figure out who they are.

For me, the character that really shone in this book (even more than Taran) was Gurgi. Gurgi was introduced as an odd creature who is cowardly. And though Gurgi retains his old manner of speaking, I’ve noticed that he has really grown in courage and loyalty - it is no small feat to keep following Taran around. I find that this is the book where I really start to appreciate Gurgi as a character.

Overall, while this wasn’t as strong as the other books in the series, it still has a lot to offer. Taran’s journey of trying out different things mimics what a lot of us will do, and I think the lesson of learning to try things that may not work out is a valuable one for everyone reading it.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Efficiency Paradox by Edward Tenner

I knew I had to read this book once I saw it because the title is too good to resist. Plus everyone is generally so positive about big data I was quite interested to see some criticism of it.

First, a definition of efficiency. The author defines it as “producing goods, providing services or information, or processing transactions with a minimum of waste”. The book basically goes through the history of the idea of efficiency and then goes on to discuss specific examples: the internet and democratisation of information, teaching, GPS, and medicine.

The way I see it, the entire argument can be summed into: automating things can be inefficient because innovation requires serendipity (which algorithms cannot provide). In other words, innovation requires inefficiency, i.e. ‘wasted’ or failed ideas.

To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced by some of the arguments. I can see how innovation may require ‘waste’, but for specific examples like GPS, it may be that we don’t have enough information to for the algorithms to be useful. Same for teaching - the bigger the database, the easier it is for lessons to be customised for the student.

And for some things, like medicine, I feel that the argument took the wrong direction: the author argues that automated note-taking doesn’t make things more efficient as doctors still spend a lot of time on the computer, but the author doesn’t discuss how the shared information may make the process more efficient if the patient moves between departments. So I felt this was more of a misdirected argument (and not that relevant to the central premise).

Another example would be the argument about ‘waylosing’ (finding something unexpected when you get lost). I agree that it does have benefits, but I don’t think that ‘the inefficient wanderer, on the other hand, will be using his or her time more efficiently by discovering what is less documented, or even undocumented.’ That really depends on your aim in travelling - to learn something new or to get from point A to point B.

Overall, I thought that the book was interesting, but it didn’t really fulfil the ‘promise’ of telling me the limitations of big data. Instead, the arguments in the book talk more about how we’re misusing the platform innovations, which is interesting but not quite the point. Perhaps these are the ‘limitations’ that the subtitle was talking about, but there really should be a clearer line between the limitations and the purpose of each technology.