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.

The Manga Guide to Statistics

I so enjoyed the last book in this short series that I decided to pick up all of the currently published titles. I’ll review each of them as time goes on. This time around, I will discuss The Manga Guide to Statistics.

Ahh, statistics. The subject that so many of us need to understand, too few grasp, and even fewer seem to enjoy. What better way is there to test the quality of the book than for me to read about something I don’t particularly enjoy and have never been terribly good with?

The book is designed to give an elementary understanding of basic statistical concepts and methods in a creative and approachable manner. I’ll skip to the bottom line and say that I think it succeeds in doing so. The art is very well done, the story line is a bit better than in the Electricity book I reviewed previously, although it bogs down near the end, and the information is presented in a clear and logical manner.

The Manga Guide to Statistics begins by defining various data types and how to determine in which category the data you have belong. Then it digs deeper into understanding numerical (quantitative) data and categorical (qualitative) data. Later, you are guided through normalization, scoring, deviations, probability, relationships between variables, and testing hypotheses. All the standard foundational aspects of statistics are covered in enough depth to give a valid and useful introduction.

One thing I really liked was the appendix, which shows very clearly how to do all of the major calculations using Microsoft Excel, with xls spreadsheets available for download from the publisher’s website. While it would certainly be my preference to not have this topic tied to a specific program from one vendor, I did test out many of the spreadsheets and instructions using OpenOffice.org‘s Calc spreadsheet. Good news! With the exception of menu locations for functions being different and requiring a little bit of not-too-difficult searching, I was able to follow all of the directions I attempted from the appendix using OpenOffice.org Calc. That freed me from an expensive and unnecessary expenditure (or at least from having to find a place and way to use software I don’t want to use).

If you already know statistics pretty well, this book wouldn’t be useful to you. If you are looking for an easy to understand and quality introduction that includes a bit of frivolity, you will find this book both useful and enjoyable. I did.

The Manga Guide to Electricity

I picked this book up for fun. I already know a lot about electricity. I have been known to read electron tube spec sheets and circuit designs for fun and amusement. I’ve been known to scrounge around at ham radio festivals and used book stores looking for old design manuals or tech books. You may remember my blog entry about one of my projects where I built a tube-powered guitar amplifier. So, I didn’t buy this book because I needed/wanted to learn the material. I already know it.

I picked up The Manga Guide to Electricity because it looked like a fun way to introduce the topic to a new generation. Guess what? I think it is. The book was originally drawn and written in Japan a few years ago and was only recently translated into English. The story line is okay, but it won’t rank up there with Watchmen and the like. This isn’t a graphic novel. However, it is interesting enough to make a subject that can sometimes be difficult to absorb for new learners more accessible.

The book begins with the assumption of no real background in electricity or electronics. It then builds up to a pretty solid foundation in basic theory and gives a clear understanding of how electricity works and can be created, influenced, and corralled by an engineer or circuit designer to do specific tasks. The book doesn’t teach actual circuit design, but it does give a very clear introduction to very important concepts and components including voltage, potential, current, resistance, Ohm’s Law, capacitance, batteries, magnetism, diodes, rectification, motors, both alternating and direct current, and even the main types of electricity generation in use.

Each chapter starts with a part of a graphic tale that introduces specific concepts for that chapter in a clear and fun manner. Then, to make sure the conceptual understanding can be made solid, each chapter has an additional and more traditional text and diagram section with a more detailed explanation of each concept.

If you know anyone, especially someone who enjoys manga, whether a teenager or a kid at heart, or just someone who appreciates art with their text, who also is interested in a solid and interesting basic introduction to electricity, this book is well worth the read. I recommend it highly and am going to take a closer look at the entire series of manga guides that is still growing.