Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review: Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson

I feel like my doing a meaningful reading of certain types of books grows in complexity inversely with the complexity of the prose. I mean when I read dense, rambling, stream-of-consciousness postmodern stuff I never really have any trouble figuring out exactly what I did and didn't like about a book. But when it's young adult literature, my feelings are more complicated. Reading Suite Scarlett let me explore these feelings and get them on paper; honestly, this is an achievement in itself for which Johnson should be applauded.

This is kind of the same way I feel about a lot of books. It doesn't have to be a perfect novel to make me think. And a hypothetical perfect novel might not even help me express myself the same way that this book is. So I guess what that might mean is that sometimes "good" is better than "perfect".

Modern Literature Reminds Me of Jazz Music


What it comes down to, for this book, is that it's a member of several different traditions, some just in modern literature, and others that have existed since the novel was first being developed. And a book like this gains merit for partaking in these traditions, even if that means that someone ignorant of them would dislike it.

The best analogy I can think of is a well-constructed bebop solo. Jazz established itself as a new "musical language" with its own unique licks and phrases. More than any other quality that defines it, these phrases are jazz. It doesn't matter if you swing your rhythms and play over a lot of ii-V-I progressions, if you don't use these phrases, you still aren't playing jazz. This is taken to the next level with the sub-genre bebop, where an entire solo might consist of absolutely nothing but exact quotations from other songs, rearranged and juxtaposed intelligently in a way such that it makes sense, or at least makes a statement.

So, in theory, a music critic that has listened to and analyzed every piece of classical music from 1600-1920 or so, but who had never heard any other music at all, could listen to the most incredible bebop solo and not only find it poorly-written, but bizarre and confusing. Even meaningless. This hypothesis is absurd, but it still makes a valid point--you can't listen to jazz in a vacuum. And you also can't read in a vacuum. So the rest of this review is going to be about how Maureen Johnson celebrates (intentionally or not) a great diversity of other literature in Suite Scarlett.

The Great Expectations I Bring to Young Adult Literature

[Not those Great Expectations. Wait ... yes, those Great Expectations.]

I don't read much YA, especially since growing out of its supposed intended age range, but this has been changing due to its prevalence among book bloggers. Much of the YA books that I have read are fantasy, but many of those might be better categorized as children's fantasy anyway. In my experience, YA fantasy novels tend to combine the tropes and themes of fantasy with the form of YA literature, rather than the other way around. So the expectation that I brought to this book is that I'd be familiar enough with its form, but less so with its tropes and themes. But this is all just guessing. The point is to let you know what kind of expectations I'm talking about, and how my first reading of Suite Scarlett compared to them.

A lot of people out there think that genre doesn't imply style--that is that YA literature is exactly like adult literature and that there are no meaningful distinctions between them besides the intended age range. I think that this is kind of silly, and misses the point. Think about what I said about jazz music. I think that while the age range is what originally defined YA literature, the genre has taken on a life of its own and established a set of traditions that define YA more usefully than the intended age range alone.

That said, YA literature is not limited to these traditions. They are just part of the language that serve as the context and the backdrop for reading YA, and readers will use these traditions to help interpret the author's work whether the author wants them to or not. So an author that defies the typical YA style is still reacting to that said style, and reactions to YA are inherently part of YA.

In terms of tropes, there is another genre of literature that Suite Scarlett could be characterized as that I am not extremely familiar with. This is "girl books"--honestly it is less a genre and more of a stereotype. I try not to put too much stock in stereotypes, especially concerning gender, but that didn't stop it from shaping my expectations, and it's something that I've tried to keep in mind during this review. I mean, marketing exists. What else can I say?

For me, one of the defining elements of the YA tradition is the way that characters develop. It is not hard to imagine that in general, growing people will relate better to characters that are growing too. I feel like the growing/not growing dichotomy is the most important and most obvious way that YA authors show contrast between characters in their books.

Despite the hatred that its forced reading brought to me when I was younger, the best example of this kind of character development remains Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. I find that the best way for me to understand how a young protagonist in any novel is developing is by saying "they're developing in the opposite way of Pip from Great Expectations", by saying "they're developing in the same way as Pip", or by saying something else along those lines. My hope is that this reveals less about the way I read books and more about the fact that Great Expectations, while widely considered boring, is as close to the Platonic Ideal of young adult character development as you can get. This ideal is as follows: the character starts out one way, then their circumstances change, and then the character grows (or possibly shrinks) in response to their circumstances.

That ideal covers what happens to Huck Finn, what happens to Holden Caulfield, what happens to Harry Potter (once per book), what happens to precisely one character in each of the Narnia stories, and each volume of His Dark Materials. My aim here is not to make it sound like all these books are the same. What makes this concept, and these books worth interesting is how the reaction manifests itself each time, and especially how the supporting characters frame the growth.

Huck Finn's growth is framed by the pathos of Jim's unchangeable situation--imagine how much better off Jim would have been if he was the young one, who got to have his circumstances changed! In many cases, Harry Potter's growth is juxtaposed with the lack of appropriate reaction of both his peers and superiors, each time revealing a particular flaw in the framing character. Part of Rowling's genius is this type of subtlety: instead of character flaws being revealed by the presence of incorrect action, it's the absence of correct action. Even the mightiest, most pure, and most good characters can be flawed--without even requiring them to ever fail in their goodly endeavors. Lewis takes the opposite tack--revealing these flaws in order to show that everyone except one specific character's goodness is fallible--yet he does it with precisely the same technique, merely targeting different characters.

On To The Actual Review

[Maureen Johnson. Believe it or not, I kind of have a weird internet-celebrity crush on her.]

So when I read Suite Scarlett, the whole time I'm working on figuring out why she's reacting the way to the change in her situation, and how this particular change is different because it's a "girl book" rather than if it wasn't. But where Maureen Johnson succeeded in terms of form, for me, was that the pieces of literary language that make it a "girl book" were really only taking place in the scenery. Rather than being the defining elements of Scarlett's growth as a character, most of the stereotypical content simply served as Scarlett's reward. So what I'm saying is that Scarlett's situation, and her successes and failures, and even her desires and relationships with others were something that any reader could relate to, and that's why I'm still suggesting that you read it, even if you're a boy.

Another aspect of Scarlett that resonated with me was its parallel development of internal conflicts against different types of chaos. As Scarlett's story begins she is in a typical place for a novel's protagonist: she is meeting the status quo but is still slightly disappointed with herself. Then, chaos is thrust upon her, and she panics and flounders around. But eventually, she embraces the constructive aspects of that chaos, overcomes the negative aspects, and by doing so surpasses the original source of the chaos and finds herself its master, or at least its equal.

There are at least three different plot-lines in Scarlett that the previous paragraph could be describing, and the way that they develop in parallel, interwoven with each other, intensifies the importance of every event that makes them up. Honestly this is the most incredible and intriguing aspect of the novel for me--despite any other feelings I have, it shows that Johnson definitely has some chops.

Whether Johnson intended to make some kind of Taoist point about the reconciliation of opposite types of energy--if you interpret Scarlett at the beginning of the novel as anti-chaotic, rather than neutral--or if she intended to merely make a statement about chaos alone, is difficult to say. I definitely look forward to reading Johnson's other novels (particularly the sequel to this one) in order to further explore her imagination concerning this type of conflict.

So, that's the good. As unlikely as it seems that she intended her novel to reinforce my positive feelings for eastern philosophy, they say you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.

My Personal Opinion on Prose

[Joan Jett: I love you.]
[Cedric Diggory: Stay away. I am a scary vampire. Our author feels the same way about scary conjunctions. Also scary dependent clauses.]
[Joan Jett: I also love rock and roll.]

The less good is that I don't prefer the prose. But I'm using the word "prefer" there for a reason. I readily admit to being a complete snob about prose. Although by all means they do not dominate my reading habits, I seriously enjoy reading books that require extra effort just for me to parse the words into thoughts. So you can take this whole section with a grain of salt.

Here's how I rank the prose of other books, for comparison: Twilight was so bad that I literally could not finish the first page--it was like trying to read the magazines they sell by the checkout at the grocery store. I successfully read The Da Vinci Code, but it was bad enough that once per page I involuntarily twitched--like reading the average newspaper. Reading most YA literature isn't too bad, it's more like reading a slightly more distinguished newspaper, like the Sunday edition of The Wall Street Journal or something.

Classic YA like J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye is usually much better than those; it's got intricacies and patterns that develop and establish the narrator as a real character--this is even the case in books I like without a character narrator, like one of my favorites, William Gibson's seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. And then above this is prose that blurs the line with poetry. I love translations of actual epic poetry like Beowulf and Homer's Odyssey, but my favorite style of writing is the postmodern "prose-poetry" of authors like Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace.

Maureen Johnson's prose in Suite Scarlett is extremely average. It doesn't cause me any distress or unwanted distraction but I don't feel like it's really an active part of the novel. I feel like it's the goal of some authors to make the prose as transparent as possible, so that you don't even notice it and the ideas just kind of appear fully formed in your imagination, like you're watching a movie, which can be good, but unfortunately it isn't the style I prefer. Instead, I feel like prose is a wonderful tool that the author could be using to make their work more interesting and multifaceted, but in this case it's just kind of lying there, neglected. But others disagree with me, and I'll readily admit that this is personal preference, albeit a preference I feel strongly about.

New York

[The New York that the book does not make me think of.]

Ironically, the aspect of the book from which it gets its title is also the one that I remain the most indifferent towards: the setting. Scarlett takes care of a suite, in a hotel, in New York City. New York is barely explored by the plot, and was rarely used for imagery and mood--it seems to me that the only reason New York was chosen was because the plot required a city with an active theater scene. The hotel serves as a perfect excuse for much of the previously mentioned chaos introduced by the primary chaos-introducer, but the plot itself didn't require that Scarlett live there, just work there, with the possible exception of the payoff of Scarlett's development at the very end of the story.

On the other hand, having it set in a hotel was fun, and provided an excuse for many of the characters' attributes. Unlike the city as a whole, the hotel flavored the atmosphere pretty effectively. The problem might be that when someone brings up old New York hotels, the first thought that pops into my head isn't "how interesting!", but even still, I would have liked to hear more details in the description of Scarlett's particular suite. So while the setting added some flavor and color to the characters and plot, I wish it had been fleshed out a little bit more.

That pretty much wraps it up--despite anything I said to the contrary, I really enjoyed the read. I mean look at all these thoughts that this book caused me to think! Isn't that just as interesting as a book that was actually about those things? Even if Maureen Johnson's intent was simply to make me think about hotels and cute boys, she did a lot more than that. Her writing is fun, inspiring, and refreshing, therefore:

I recommend this book for anyone who loves giraffes who love giraffes.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Exploring the 555: Why the 555's latch type is responsible for it's ability to function as a frequency divider

So I've done a fair bit of analysis of the canonical monostable multivibrator #circuit implemented via the 555 timer integrated circuit. I pretty much grok almost everything about it, with one problem. According to Wikipedia, the internal latch is an RS-latch, but based on its operation, {R,S}={1,1,} sets Q to 1, rather than toggling it or resulting in instability or oscillation.

Unfortunately, the schematic provided by National Semiconductor is a mess of transistors, and the corresponding component in the block diagram is labelled "flip-flop", with no intermediate block diagram or extra details concerning the type of flip-flop present at all.

Googling, however, reveals that it must be an S-latch, and indeed, the fact that the 555's latch is specifically an S-latch is vital to the operation of the Atari Punk Console, or any circuit that uses a monostable mode 555 as a frequency divider. It is not surprising that I can't find a design for such a frequency divider circuit that comes with a proper explanation.

The insides of a 555:

Anyway, the way that the 555 works is this:

  • The timing cycle is initiated by a certain voltage at the trigger input, TRG.
  • The timing cycle is terminated by a certain voltage at the threshold input, THR.
  • When the output is high, the discharge input, DIS, becomes grounded by a low impedance.
  • These aforementioned "certain voltages" are proportional to the common-cathode voltage, VCC, unless the control input, CTL, is used. The precise way in which it is affected requires too much mathematics for this blog post.
  • The reset input, RST, hard-resets the entire device.

The inputs that start and end the timing cycle, !TRG and THR, are fed directly to a type of circuit called a comparator. A comparator compares two voltages, and outputs either a high voltage or a low voltage, depending on which of the two input voltages are higher. One comparator compares THR to (2/3)*VCC. The other comparator compares (1/3)*VCC to TRG. These comparators detect when the timing cycle should be initiated or terminated by those "certain voltages" I was talking about.

The two comparators are connected to a latch. A latch is a circuit that "remembers" whether it's previous output was high or low if it is given no inputs. That is, you turn it on with a pulse to one input, and turn it off with a pulse to the other input. Between these pulses it remains on if the last pulse was to the S, "set", input and remains off if the last pulse was to the R, "reset" input.

Here is the actual monostable circuit:

In monostable operation, nothing happens until TRG falls below (1/3)*VCC. This comparator is connected to the "set" input of the S-latch, which turns the latch on. The latch remains on whether the "set" input is left on or off, until the "reset" input of the latch is enabled. This input is connected to the other comparator, and therefore the latch is reset only when THR rises above (2/3)*VCC.

The operation depends on two external elements, a resistor and a capacitor. A capacitor is like a tank that holds electrons. If you put a bunch of electrons in it, then its voltage rises. If you let the electrons out, its voltage falls. A resistor acts like a valve that controls the rate that the electrons enter the capacitor. If the capacitor was connected to ground, all of the electrons would leave immediately. If it was connected to a battery, as many electrons could fit inside the capacitor at that voltage would enter it immediately. But through a resistor, it charges or discharges more slowly, at a very specific rate.

(This rate can be found by solving this first-order differential equation:)

C\frac{dV}{dt} + \frac{V}{R}=0

The way that THR's voltage changes, and the existence of DIS, is what causes the circuit to be a timer, rather than just a flip-flop with analog inputs. When the output is low, DIS shorts the capacitor to ground, and all the electrons leave immediately, but when the output is high, the capacitor is charged via the resistor, and THR takes a certain number of seconds to reach (2/3)VCC. By setting THR equal to the capacitor's voltage, a negative pulse of any relatively short duration at TRG is converted to a positive pulse of a precise, constant duration dependent only on the values of the resistor and the capacitor.


Enjoy this graph:By "relatively short", I mean shorter than the time it takes for the capacitor to charge from it's initial voltage to (2/3)VCC. If it's longer, then the output pulse will be exactly the same length as the input pulse. This characteristic is precisely what allows this implementation of a monostable multivibrator to function as a frequency divider, and is due to the fact that the latch must be implemented such that {R,S} = {1,1} is hardwired to result in Q = 1.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Circuits 101: What is a multivibrator?

I mean, in a certain sense physics-based or mechanical engineering-based metaphors for electrical engineering problems are not metaphors, because the mathematics representing these problems are not merely similar enough to draw a useful comparison, but they are actually identical down to every last number. And since numbers are the only objects that exist, any work that can be done by the devices described in these EE problems can be done equally well by the devices described in these ME and physics problems.

[After clicking that link try this one, it's pretty fun.]

Anyway, the point of my last post that I didn't mention to you is that I'm not going to be able to explain what an LM555 Timer Integrated Circuit does without first explaining what a multivibrator is. [And I won't be able to explain how an #LM555 Timer IC works without first explaining what a comparator and a flip-flop is.]

So, a multivibrator is a circuit that has multiple states, with rules that describe when the state changes.

Anyway, here are some pictorial examples of one mode of multivibrator, an astable multivibrator.

EXAMPLE ONE: Electrical engineering

EXAMPLE TWO: Physics

astable

As you can see, if the ball is at point A, it will roll to point B. If it is at point B, it will roll to point A. Likewise, if capacitor C1 is charged, it will discharge and charge capacitor C2, if capacitor C2 is charged, it will discharge and charge C1. The amount of charging that has to be done depends on the size of capacitors C1 and C2, and the rate at which they charge depends on R1 through R4. Likewise, the height of point A and B determine the amount of work that gravity must perform to move the ball down from slope A and back up slope B. The rate at which the ball actually moves is determined by the slope of each slope, just like how the size of the resistors determined the rate of charging.

So, the ball moves back and forth, the electrons on the capacitors move back and forth. If you put the same numbers in for the slopes as you did for the resistors, and the heights that you did for the capacitors, and assume that friction doesn't exist, then it's the same damn equation that describes the ball and the electrons.

Likewise for the other two modes.

Monostable:

=monostable

If the ball is at point B, it moves to point A. If the ball is at point A, it stays there. The parameters affect how long it takes to get from B to A and that's it.

Bistable:

=bistable

If the ball is at point A, it stays there, if the ball is at point B, it stays there. You can add energy to the system to move it from A to B or vice versa, but once you do it'll stay wherever you put it.

There you go, three types of circuits that do things exactly like balls on funny shaped hills. Even a caveman could understand it!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Atari Punk Console

So I've decided to finally get cranking on my supposed "career" as a DIY synth builder. I have a lot of experience designing, analyzing, and breadboarding circuits because of school, but I've only occasionally actually had to solder stuff together and fit it into a box. So that's why I've decided that my first synth project should be one that's "for beginners".



The Atari Punk Console is a very simple oscillator circuit that utilizes the ubiquitous LM555 Timer IC. It consists of something like 3 resistors, 3 capacitors, and 2 LM555s, and that is seriously it, meaning that the circuit components cost about twenty-five cents whereas things like the plug and knobs cost two or three bucks.

I like the idea of me getting to know the LM555 well. It is one of those components that are seen almost everywhere, and every circuit designer knows how to use them, but few know exactly what is going on inside. I feel like I could greatly better myself by learning how the internals actually work. All I know is that it's basically two comparators and a flip-flop.

The Atari Punk Console is a monostable multivibrator that is driven by an astable multivibrator--both multivibrators implemented using the LM555. By changing the time delay on the astable multivibrator, the frequency is changed, and by changing the time delay on the monostable multivibrator, the pulsewidth is changed. The brain interprets frequency as the sensation "pitch" and puslsewidth is related to the sensation of "timbre".

Anyway, I just ordered enough parts for me to make five of them. I will probably start adding features to them after making two or three. I have in mind a "tone" knob like you would find on an electric guitar, or I could use a higher-order filter like the one in this video:



Anyway, expect a bunch of posts detailing what I learn!

To know more, read its Wikipedia article or this how-to guide by the original designer, Forrest M. Mims III or simply wait for my upcoming posts.