Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Notter

Things to read while waiting in line for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I'm not a fast reader -- perhaps I am dyslexic, though I was never diagnosed -- so I often enjoy children's books. Over the past year I've read quite a few, and here's a review of some of them. You can read them instead of, or in addition to the ones by J. K. Rowling.

Magyk (Septimus Heap: book one)
Septimus Heap is the story of a family of "ordinary" wizards and their trials after the "ExtraOrdinary" wizard is overthrown by the evil Necromancer DomDaniel. Older readers might find that some of the plot feels predictable, but the story is nevertheless compelling -- perhaps because the characters and settings are just enough like real-life to be relatable, and just different enough to feel mystical. Unlike Harry Potter, this book has a pretty even split between major male and female characters, which should make for a slightly broader appeal -- at least once Potter-mania dies down a bit.

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials: book one)
Easily my favorite of the bunch, The Golden Compass is probably already considered a classic by people who make that sort of judgement. Known as The Northern Lights in England, and soon to be made into a US Movie (can't wait!), this book follows Lyra, a human, and her "Daemon", a magical, shape-shifting animal that accompanies all people in the world of this novel. Lyra is an orphan who has her basic needs seen to by her caretakers, but her caretakes are distant, so at the start of the novel, her character is tomboyish and outwardly tough, but we also see her fragility and need for more human connections. Through exploration of issues such as family, trust, gender and social norms (including norms created just for this world), the reader watches what happens as Lyra grows up, and ultimately how she matures and draws from her few positive experiences to become something closer to an adult. Books two and three are next on my list.

Midnight for Charlie Bone (The Children of the Red King: book one)
Charlie bone is a barely-veiled take-off on Harry Potter. Even so, it is not without virtues: it's easier to read, simpler and less frightening than Harry Potter, so it aught to be good for younger readers. Potter fans won't be surprised that Charlie, who thinks he's ordinary, finds out he has a special power, goes to a wizard school, and so on. You already know the story, more or less, and, actually, you probably know most of the characters too, although Charlie's friends, instead of being Ron and Hermione, are a slightly socially awkward kid across the street with no wizarding powers and his dog. I'm not sure what that says.

The Once and Future King
This classic by T.H. White contains the familiar stories of the sword in the stone, Sir Lancelot, King Aurthor and Queen Guenever, the Knights of the Round Table, Merlyn the Wizard, and so much more. Much to my surprise, this was not a children's book, though. Really: don't read it to your kids. After book one (which I found enjoyable, but a bit boring) the series gets quite violent and suggestive, and it's probably too tough a read for most kids anyway. All of the main characters in this book are fated to have hardships, but those hardships, White tells us, are what built the foundations of modern England, such as Civil Law. White's obvious admiration for all of his characters, despite their flaws, is contagious, and it impossible to take sides fin the love triangle that emerges between Sir Lancelot, King Aurthor and Queen Guenever. The end of the book, which contains White's unveiled argument in favor of free trade, is a peculiar non-sequitor and, to me, a bit of a let down. In the thirties, when the book was written, it may have fit more plainly into the book's narrative of the foundations of English History.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Listenting with Your Scanner

A few years ago, someone sent me a link (via Slashdot) about a Ofer Springer, who figured out how to use his scanner to take pictures of vinyl records using a scanner and use software to read the grooves off the pictures and ultimately create audio files. The original site is still up and has some cool pictures and audio. The results aren't great, but it's a neat concept. (One slashdotter suggests why it might not be possible to get super high fidelity audio using this technique, although on casual reading I think he incorrectly makes the assumption that not being able to hear quiet sounds means you can't hear anything).

Just this morning, NPR did an interesting story of a newer attempt at the same problem. Physicist Carl Haber developed a system based on the same idea, and is currently being tested at the Library of Congress. I wonder if these two folks know about each other.