The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra

It has again been a while since I have reviewed a manga book. This is one of several atypical educational books that use graphic art to help teach difficult concepts or illustrate the action and another wonderful entry in the “Manga Guide to…” series that I have been reviewing.  I keep requesting review copies of each title in the series as they come out, and I have yet to be disappointed. This is an impressive series that consistently makes very difficult academic topics more interesting and a little easier for students. I would not consider these a replacement for a textbook, and neither would the publishers of the series, but every book that I have reviewed from the series would make an excellent supplement, especially for the struggling student.

The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra follows the actions of a Reiji, who wants a black belt in Karate and to gain the interest of the girl of his dreams, Misa. She happens to be the younger sister of the captain of the university Karate club, and although her brother is intimidating, he offers to give Reiji lessons in exchange for Reiji tutoring Misa. You will have to read the book to see how that turns out.

The book starts with an introduction to the characters, then an introduction to linear algebra. I admit, it has been many years since I studied the topic and I was interested to see how quickly I would pick it back up. The book made it easier than I anticipated, partially because it gives context for each concept presented. Knowing why something is important and how it fits into a greater scheme makes it much easier to understand and remember.

Topics covered in the book include fundamentals like number systems, implication and equivalence, set theory, functions, combinations and permutations. We then transition into matrices with a “what is a matrix?” section, calculations, special matrices and lots more. Once matrices are covered in depth, vectors are introduced along with calculations, geometric interpretations, linear independence, bases, dimensions, and coordinates. Once we move into linear transformations and spend some time trying to get a handle on this difficult topic, the presentation turns to an interesting discussion of the relationship between linear transformations and matrices–again, this helps provide some useful context to a difficult idea to grasp. Finally, the book discussed Eigenvalues and Eigenvectors, including how to calculate them, multiplicity, and diagonalization. Then, the storyline surrounding the mathmatical topic is brought to a close.

Studying linear algebra? This won’t replace your textbook and doing your homework, but it may help you figure out the context for and gain a deeper understanding of what you are doing. That alone makes the book valuable and earns it my recommendation as a quality introduction to the topic.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

The Manga Guide to Relativity

It has again been a while since I have reviewed a manga book. This is one of several atypical educational books that use graphic art to help teach difficult concepts or illustrate the action and another wonderful entry in the “Manga Guide to…” series that I have been reviewing.

The Manga Guide to Relativity follows the actions of a high school class president who steps in to save the rest of the students at the school who were being threatened by the school headmaster with a punishment for their lack of scholastic success. To save them, the brave student leader agrees to take a special summer course on relativity and write a report for the headmaster. The student doesn’t know what relativity is, but a kind and attractive teacher volunteers to teach him all about it. The story line is okay, but not as good as some of the other stories in the series. However, it still succeeds in its main task of easing the reader into the topic.

The book covers all the main questions and topics you would expect such as the definition of relativity, the Urashima Effect (where times slows down as speed approaches the speed of light), mass and the contraction of length (again, as speed approaches the speed of light),and the difference between Special Relativity and General Relativity. Each chapter contains a manga section with an introduction to and discussion of the topic. This is followed in each chapter by a more detailed and technical section filled with equations and deeper explorations of the chapter’s subject.

I’ve studied physics, and although I am rusty, I believe the book is accurate and it is quite clear. The story created to assist with that presentation is kind of silly, but does fulfill its mission of making a difficult topic a bit more approachable and the science communicated in both the manga and the technical sections is clear and well expressed.

My kids are too young to really understand all of the details of the topics covered in this series, but they continue to read the books with great interest. Most of the science is above the grade level even of my oldest (age 9), but their attention remains fixed on the art and the story and the kids are absorbing some of it as they read.

Overall, I would say the book is a success and recommend it without reservation for anyone wanting an accessible introduction to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and how it changed our understanding of physics.
Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology

It has been a while since I have reviewed a manga book. This is one of several atypical educational books that use graphic art to help teach difficult concepts or illustrate the action. This is another wonderful entry in the “Manga Guide to…” series that I have been reviewing.

The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology follows the actions of a two students who failed their molecular biology class and have to take a special summer course. The story line is enjoyable and eases the reader’s entry into the topic rather than being a distraction.

The book covers all the main questions and topics you would expect: what is a cell, what are the common parts of a cell, how do cells combine to make various organisms, what are proteins and how do they function within a cell, what is DNA and what are genes and how do they work to express the information coded in them? My favorite part was chapter 5 which focuses on potential applications for everything discussed earlier and theorizes what the future may hold in the field.

I work in a software project that is helping biologists do research, including helping process the vast amounts of data that comes from genetic sequencing. As a result, I have become familiar with most of the content this book presents. I believe the book is accurate and it is clear. The story created to assist with that presentation is enjoyable as well. I have a seven year old daughter that is reading the book with great interest. Some of the science is above her grade level, but her attention remains fixed on the art and the story and she is absorbing some of it as she reads.

Overall, I would say the book is a success and recommend it without reservation.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

Footnotes in Gaza

Henry Holt and Company recently sent me a complementary advance, prepublication review copy of Joe Sacco’s history in graphic novel format Footnotes in Gaza.

This may be one of the most heart-wrenching books I have ever read. This well-researched history relies on both interviews with eyewitnesses and official documents to provide the information for its powerful telling of a bloody event in 1956 in Gaza when 111 Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli soldiers and many others wounded and scarred. Some call it a massacre, others a dreadful mistake. No one disputes the number of dead nor the painful events of one incident in a long and difficult struggle.

This book is written from the perspective of a historian who is seeking the facts of an event that happened a full 50 years before the research began and shows his struggles with differing accounts, even from people on the same side of the conflict, and the difficulty, or perhaps impossibility, of separating the events of previous generations from the events of the current day. The people involved are human, fallible, full of pain and longing for safety, security and a life of peace.

To tell the story, Joe Sacco uses powerful drawings and shows an impressive understanding of the comic/graphic art style. Every word and image are vital. Not one moment of the reader’s time is wasted. My full attention was on the book from the moment I picked it up until I (grudgingly) had to put it down to do something else. This was true until I finished reading the final page. The author spent a significant amount of time in the Gaza Strip, living in refugee camps and towns with Palestinians. He conducted many interviews and took hundreds of photos while staying in people’s homes and walking the very streets where the events occurred. This dedication shows in the final project which is written and drawn with a voice and perspective that is unparalleled in my research on the region (which is extensive).

This, and other events in the region, deserve far more attention than they receive, but not merely from the angle of politics and warring opinions. These are not covered in this book. Rather, what needs to be seen and understood is how real people and their lives are affected. This book shows that in a way that never succumbs to sappy attempts to provoke pity. It is a dispassionate and clear sharing of personal memories from diverse sources of one main event, often pointing out moments of disagreement or comments that could not be corroborated. It is the events, not any attempt to manipulate the reader, which provokes the response.

If you only read one book about history and foundations for current day conflicts in the Middle East, read this one. I give it my highest recommendation. I will also warn you that it is the first book in a very long time that genuinely moved me to tears, so be prepared.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

After my review of another of their books, I asked W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. to send me a review copy of The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb. They didn’t respond. However, I saw the book in a bookstore and was so impressed that I went ahead and bought it for myself.

There are two notes on the cover that immediately grab attention.

The first says “adult supervision recommended for minors,” and I agree, at least as far as younger kids go, solely because the book of Genesis itself is filled with stories and themes that children will not fully comprehend or that they are not developmentally ready to deal with, just as a parent wouldn’t let a child watch an intense movie alone or perhaps at all while they are young, something like Schindler’s List for example, because there are things they don’t need to confront or know about quite yet. That doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the content. There is also some nudity and violence in the book, and although it is of the pen and ink comic illustration variety and merely illustrating what is clearly described in the text, some may not be comfortable with children seeing it in some of the contexts in this narrative.

The second note says “the first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out!” This is the first time I have ever seen a graphic version of any portion of the Bible that both included the complete text and also chose not to add anything like dialogue to “help the narrative” or “assist comprehension.” As a result, there is no editorializing whatsoever, neither positive nor negative. The text is presented as it is with illustrations along the way.

I have a feeling that religious people could be offended because R. Crumb is known not to be a religious person. Those fears are not well founded as this text is treated respectfully and with no sense of judgment or editorial comment whatsoever implying anything negative about any belief system. What is presented in the illustrations is what is clearly stated in the text.

It is just as likely that non-religious people could be offended because an illustrator and artist of such quality and stature has chosen a religious text as his subject matter. Those fears are not well founded as this text is stated to have been chosen because of its historical importance and with no sense of judgment or editorial comment whatsoever implying anything positive about any belief system. What is presented in the illustrations is what is clearly stated in the text.

For many readers, the most important facet of this review is the question of whether this work stands up as a piece of art. I wholeheartedly believe it does. Some may not prefer R. Crumb’s style, and this is a pretty typical example of what he has focused on doing for years, but I don’t think anyone could complain that he has not done it well. The illustrations are focused, clear, emotive, and powerful. At times he demonstrates his cultural perspective as a modern-era westerner and some of the motifs are almost clichéd (eg. God is pictured as an old man with long white hair and a flowing beard wearing a white robe, almost Gandalf the White like, but with more hair, a bigger beard, and a larger halo of light around him), but those are the exception, and they don’t progress from overused but commonly understood symbols into caricature or parody. Most of the time the illustrations are interesting with what appear to be culturally appropriate styles of dress and terrain. The bottom line for me is that the illustrations never detract from the story; they add to it by making things more clear.

This is one I will definitely recommend, but in the case of children, only with parental consent.

Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book

I had very high hopes for this official history of a well respected world leader. The publisher, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. sent me a review copy last fall and I was immediately impressed with the artwork. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as impressed with the writing.

The history contained in the book is accurate to the best of my knowledge, and Mandela’s life is certainly interesting enough for me to force my way through reading the entire book, but the narrative style is dull and unsuited to the graphic novel format, where one could tell the story much more effectively using images and dialogue instead of treating the artwork as mere illustrations to accompany walls of text.

The bottom line here is that if you are looking for a biography of Nelson Mandela that has good information and nice illustrations, this book is worth your time. If you are looking for a quality graphic novel, using the criteria generally considered for rating items in that format, you will be disappointed. The quality of the art is better than adequate, good even, but the failure to truly adapt the narrative style to the format being used was disappointing. I am glad I read the book for the history it contains, but I ended up giving my copy away after I read it as it is highly unlikely I would read it twice.

The Manga Guide to Calculus

Over the last year or so I have had the privilege of reading several atypical educational books that use graphic art to help teach difficult concepts or illustrate the action. This is another wonderful entry in the “Manga Guide to…” series that I have been reviewing.

The Manga Guide to Calculus follows the actions of a young newspaper reporter, Noriko, who wants to cover the big stories, to be a hard-hitting reporter who uncovers and reveals hidden facts about world affairs, the economy, and politics. She is saddened to discover that she has been assigned to work a small post in a small area where she is unlikely to find stories bigger than the opening of a local amusement park or the improving reputation of a local watermelon grower.

However, her time is not wasted. The bureau chief is a lover of mathematics, and specifically calculus. Noriko is shocked to discover that calculus can help her become a better reporter by assisting her to discover trends in data that might otherwise have been overlooked.

This story line makes the discussion of very complex and sometimes difficult to grasp mathematical concepts much easier by framing the discussion in ways I have never seen. In my experience, a typical calculus class will start with mechanics like how to compute a derivative or somewhat esoteric sounding concepts like lines tangent to curves without giving a clear background as to why these things might be meaningful or useful. That usually comes much later, after a large number of students have been weeded out because of disinterest or an unwillingness to learn difficult concepts without knowing why they might be important.

What this book does better than any calculus book I have seen is give a context to the processes and concepts. The story line is enjoyable, but more importantly it serves the function of enabling a reader to understand how the mathematics help solve problems or answer questions that are useful and relatable. That in itself is a great and useful accomplishment and makes the book worthy of a recommendation.

The book covers a large number of concepts. As a result, none are covered in exhaustive depth. I would not consider this a primary text or useful for learning calculus alone, but rather as an accompaniment to a course, useful for review or assistance in understanding concepts as they are learned.

Some of the topics covered are using functions to approximate data, such as fluctations or trends in prices, calculating relative error and calculating the derivative of constant, linear, quadratic, composite, inverse and other functions. Norika learns how to use different techniques for differentiation while discovering the importance and usefulness of knowing the maxima and minima for a given formula. Not long after these and other foundational aspects are learned, Norika finds out about the fundamental theorem of calculus and learns to integrate using supply and demand curves and later trigonometric functions. Finally, she discovers Taylor Expansion, distributions, and partial differentiation, especially as applied to economics.

The book includes exercises in each section with solutions in the back of the book. Again, there aren’t enough practice problems for this to be useful as a primary teaching text, but what is there is useful for confirming that the concept just discussed is clearly understood and would be helpful as a review.

I would have preferred to see more examples of calculus in use in other sciences, like physics, but this is a short book that is intended to be an overview of the topic and not an extensive or exhaustive presentation. It is also fair to note that the Manga Guide to Physics does use some calculus in it, although not much. These are books aimed at people finishing high school or just starting at the university and I think they hit their target well, confining themselves to discussions within well chosen boundaries to make sure that the intentionally and necessarily narrower set of concepts may be discussed clearly and completely enough for good understanding.

Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation

I first read about this graphic novel adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic book about a month ago. I was immediately intrigued. The original book is one of my all time favorites and I wanted to see if a graphic adaptation could do it justice. In short: it does.

Tim Hamilton and the folks at Hill and Wang, with the blessing of Ray Bradbury, who writes the introduction to the book, have produces a beautiful and well crafted retelling of the classic story that is both true to the original and able to stand on its own.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Guy Montag is a fireman, only in his world firemen don’t put out fires, they start them. Books are banned and are the target of the firemen’s activity. One day, Montag meets a person who intrigues him with her joie de vivre. He has never met anyone so alive and vibrant and he wonders why. He also begins to look at his own life and realizes he is not happy, that there is something missing. The rest of the tale revolves around his struggle to find meaning in a sterile, inoffensive world where everything is brought down to a common denominator of homogeneous agreeability. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by revealing more than that.

Those of us who know the story well will note a few details are missing from this adaptation. Like when a movie is made, in this graphic novel it appears that some details of the written story were sacrificed to enable a cleaner telling in the new medium. Again, to avoid spoilers I won’t mention here what has been left out, but I will say that the overall structure and message remain intact and the story does not suffer from the loss. Instead, those who move from this as an initial taste will find the book richer and even more enjoyable.

What about the artwork? That is the main point here, isn’t it? I loved it. The artist chose a wonderful style to convey the emotion and action that is reminiscent of the minimalism of 1940s propaganda art, with a limited color palate on each page and just enough detail to convey the main point. Please don’t read that to mean the art is simple or simplistic. On the contrary, Hamilton does an amazing job of choosing which details are most important and distilling the scenes down to only those which further the plot, emotion, or scene. Extraneous information is nowhere to be seen. That can only be by design and due to the disciplined intent of the artist. Detail that is useful is everywhere, and throughout the book the art complements the text beautifully while taking nothing away from it. That is an achievement.

I confess, I am a reader. I always have several books being read concurrently, stashed here and there for convenience. Fahrenheit 451 is a book I have read several times and which I love. I admit there was some trepidation when I heard about it being adapted into a new form. In this case, none was needed. I am not only pleased by the quality of the graphic novelization, but happy to recommend it. In fact, this makes me want to request a few other classic novels to be adapted, not as replacements, but as introductions to whet the appetites of the curious in the hopes of satisfying their initial curiosity about the works as well as convince some who might not otherwise to delve in and read the originals. Now, I wonder where I put the publisher’s email address?

The Manga Guide to Physics

What a fun book series this has been to read and review! I have been impressed by the book series so far and its treatment of the various topics. This may be my favorite of the series, although I will be reading The Manga Guide to Calculus later in the summer or early fall, so I won’t yet make that a definite statement.

As with the other books in the series, this book uses well drawn manga art to introduce and give a context for presenting the material–in this case, Newtonian physics.

The Manga Guide to Physics does not require knowledge of calculus for most of the book, although there are a few times in which knowledge of mathematics higher than algebra and geometry would either be useful, or in a couple of places necessary (such as during the discussions of springs and the conservation of energy).

I would not consider this book to be useful as a beginning physics textbook, but for anyone who has taken a high school course, it will be a useful way to review for a final exam and learn a bit more than would have been studied in the year long course. If you have completed a university basic course in physics that uses calculus (not the non-calculus version for non-science majors), this book will be below you. If you are reviewing for that non-science major course, you may find this book extremely useful and a fun way to help shore up and retain your studies.

Topics covered in the book include all the basics: Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, gravity, force and motion, inertia, momentum, impulse, energy, work, and so on. There is also a useful appendix titled Making Sense of Units, which helps the student do exactly that.

I haven’t taken a physics class since 1990. I’m sure I would have difficulty trying to pass the final exam for Physics 101 at the university based solely on my memory. After reading this book, paying careful attention to the examples and working through the problems in each along with the characters in the story, I believe I might be able to do it. That’s pretty good for someone so rusty. I think the book would be extremely useful to a student with less time between now and a careful study of the material in a class setting, especially someone preparing for exam time or who had or is having difficulty absorbing the topics and principles involved in basic physics.

There are a couple of weaknesses in the book. Some books in the series provide study questions for readers/students to answer on their own, with solutions in the back of the book. This one does not, so you have to pay careful attention and choose to work through the examples as they are discussed. The other weakness is that most basic physics courses will cover, at least in my memory, an introduction to electronics and electricity. This book does not, probably because there is a separate book in the series dedicated to that topic and because it really doesn’t fall under the precise topic of Newtonian physics, even though it is covered in those elementary physics courses. That’s it. Otherwise, I can recommend the book without reservation.

The Manga Guide to Databases

I have used relational databases for years. I’ve used them to store mailing lists, email account data for postfix, blog and forum data, and more. They are convenient and powerful time savers. Most of what I have learned has been indirectly learned while studying something else; documentation for a computer programming language like PHP or Python, a book on website design for commerce, or documentation and code for an open source project like WordPress or Drupal. As a result, my knowledge is adequate for simple tasks and queries, but I’m nowhere near ready to be a database admin. What I know is incomplete, adequate for my actual needs, but with gaping holes in my knowledge.

Until this week, I was comfortable with this fact.

Since I read and enjoyed the other manga guides in this series that I have read, I picked up a copy of The Manga Guide to Databases. I wanted to see whether the book made the subject interesting and whether it taught the subject well.

The short answer is that I found the systematic and foundational introduction to database design clear, interesting, and enjoyable–so much so that I have ordered a few more books on database theory and design and SQL for further study (stay tuned, I may review them later). Contrast that with the indirect introductions I have previously encountered that made me want to ignore the topic, except for the aspects vital to my task(s) at hand.

The Manga Guide to Databases uses a somewhat silly, but pleasant story with well drawn artwork to ease the reader into a complicated subject that requires paying a bit of attention to for comprehension. It begins with the assumption that the reader knows nothing about the topic, so it would be perfect as a base level introductory text, especially for high school aged readers (or those of us who are a bit older, but who still enjoy a bit of whimsy).

We start with the question “What is a database?” and a great description of how and why they are useful. We move into a basic definition of relational databases with a very brief mention of other types of databases that exist. The fun continues with a chance to design a database around the model of entities and relationships.

Once the foundation is laid with a conceptual understanding of databases and their design, structured query language (SQL) is introduced. I was thrilled to discover this wasn’t product specific language, but rather standard ANSI, at least as far as I can tell (okay, I know a little more than I let on earlier, but I still consider myself a database/SQL novice). That is great, because it means that whatever is learned here should apply anywhere, whether using MySQL, PostgreSQL, Oracle, Access, Microsoft SQL Server, or whatever, so long as the product conforms to the standard. This certainly isn’t a complete SQL introductory text, but it is enough to get a person started understanding the basic concepts and how to operate a database.

Ultimately, the book was a success. I wouldn’t kid anyone into thinking that reading and understanding this book would make a person capable of real database administration, but it does give a clear and solid foundation for further study, and in my case has whet my appetite for going back to fill in some personal knowledge gaps that I have been content to let exist for a very long time.