Monthly Archives: December 2012

Book: Capital

Capital by John Lanchester
I love the Little Planet-style cover. Pepys Street really is a world of its own.

Like playing with the Flyover feature in Apple Maps.
577 pages, ★★★★

Capital zooms down Pepys Street and documents the lives of its residents over almost two years. People rise and fall, die, move, fall in love, and have strangers wreak silent havoc on their Wifi. I feel like I’m watching all of their lives from above; floating into their homes like some silent, door-to-door spy.

Pepys Street 2
That’s Pepys Street, right there in the middle
Pepys Street
Reading Capital, I feel like I’m flying into people’s lives from this aerial perspective.

The title Capital has two meanings. First, the book is set in London, and reminders of London life are peppered throughout. Wimbledon, Marmite, Pot Noodles, Top Gear, Hello!, and Tesco deliveries of baked beans, bin liners and “No substitutions today, Madam”, taken together, are unmistakably British. Most British of all, was this segment on page 31:

“…laser-print-quality 80 g paper and the A4 envelopes and the A5 envelopes which had become so popular since they changed the way postal pricing worked…bottles of Ribena and orange squash, and the [Oyster card] terminal and the Lottery terminal…”

I love this excerpt because all of the above would be alien to Americans. These aren’t clichés of London (e.g. red buses and the Queen) that tourists drool over; these are anecdotes of daily London life that only those who’ve lived there could relate to.

Another meaning of “capital” is “wealth”, and Pepys Street is remarkably wealthy. The introduction tells us that they didn’t become wealthy through hard work or inheritance; but merely through good luck. House prices on this street rose so fast that millionaires were created within a generation, seemingly without anyone needing to lift a finger.

Aside from lacking a sense of purpose, Pepys Street suffers from one more existential threat. Postcards emblazoned with “We Want What You Have” started arriving at people’s letterboxes. A blog, then another, more provocative blog, followed. Mysterious DVDs, pictures and dead birds then started arriving in the mail. This strange portents are the only thing that unites this otherwise neighbourhood of strangers.

There are a dozen characters in this book. Disappointingly, they don’t interact as much as I wish they would (think about the film Crash, and how everyone’s story was knitted together by the end). Too much interaction, however, would be distinctly un-London—remember that this is a city where glancing across someone else’s newspaper on the train is considered highly uncouth. More character interaction would have made for a better story, though.

The most memorable character is Roger Yount. He needs a £1,000,000 end-of-year bonus to keep up the exuberant promises he’s made to his family. Nannies, second nannies, multiple luxury holidays, and boutique shopping sprees have to be cancelled when his massively underwhelming bonus. We see this character rise and fall, and then re-invent himself more than any other by the end of the book.

Capital was better than Our Hidden Lives because (a) the characters interacted more with each other (although still not much); and (b) it was better-written. I gave that book three stars, so I’ll give this one four. ★★★★

Book: The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon
The cover reminds us that a dozen rare elements are required to produce US banknotes.

Guided tours of the periodic table.
392 pages, ★★★★

War elements, star elements, biologically-important elements and political elements are among the 20 element categories in The Disappearing Spoon. Each chapter guides the reader into unexplored parts of the periodic table, where we find gadolinium, molybdenum, europium, francium, and hafnium.

The Disappearing Spoon introduces these elements with interesting stories. We learn about the true nature of Jupiter (as a failed star), Haber’s lesser-known dark side (manufacturing chemical weapons for the Nazis) and metal spoons that melt safely in the palm of your hand (at 29°C). Oddities abound.

The writing style is more intelligent—and more wit-laden—than that of Stephen Fry. Author Sam Kean’s writing style is similar in knowledge, breadth and wit to that of the legendary science writer Stephen J. Gould.

I preferred The Disappearing Spoon to Eurekas and Euphorias because the former was more interesting, and less piecemeal, than the latter. This book felt like a fascinating guided tour of chemistry, whereas the latter felt like a collection of bad jokes.

Here’s the real “disappearing spoon” in action. It’s made of gallium and melts at 29°C. You can use it to mould your own keys at home.

This, and other interesting tidbits, make this book worth reading. I’ll be recommending The Disappearing Spoon my secondary-school science students. ★★★★

Book: The Power of the Sea

The Power of the Sea
This book is as dark and precise as its cover.

Disaster-focussed book mostly about deep-water dynamics.
320 pages, ★★★

I disagree with the gleaming reviews that this book has received on Amazon for purely personal reasons. First, The Power of the Sea is too disaster-focussed for me. It talks too much about maritime disasters and hurricanes, and there are two whole chapters dedicated to the December 26, 2004 tsunami. Second, this book concentrates mostly on what goes on below the surface, which is neither visible nor friendly to human beings. I was almost dragged out by a strong tide once, so I prefer to stay above water, especially while reading.

That said, I learned a lot from this book. The opening chapters are the best, and they’re filled with historical details of Napoleon’s Battle of the Pyramids and his escape into the Red Sea, and the slow discovery of what causes tides (basically, the sun and the moon, and the wind). We learn that tides are “giant waves”; and the vivid description of the Queen Mary’s being broadsided on page 99 also stuck in my mind.

Page 29 was best of all, which describes tides as a combination of three oscillations: the elliptical orbit of the moon (1.90 cycles per day); the position of the moon in relation to the ground (1.93 cycles per day); and the effect of the sun (2.00 cycles per day). Calculated together, these predictable rhythms give us the precise tide tables that all coastal inhabitants will be familiar with. (Tide tables are the things we’re supposed to read before surfing in dangerous waters. I know that now.)

The Power of the Sea is a well-written, well-researched book, and it’s worthy of five stars even if I can’t give them. My low score is entirely a matter of personal taste: I prefer studying visible, less scary stuff such as atmospheres, weather, climate and how they interact with oceans, so The Dance of Air & Sea was the five-star book for me. ★★★

Tea Types 2012 PDF version

Tea Types 2012
Tea Types 2012. Created on iMindMap 5.0 for Mac. Click to download the PDF version.
Tea Types 2012 mini
Teas are classified by type (black, green, etc), by location, by shape and by pluck.

Readers have been asking for my Tea Types 2012 diagram as a PDF, and I’ve been sending it to them by email.

So I thought I’d put the PDF version here for everyone to enjoy (for free, of course). Download it, print it, and feel free to share any feedback with me. Merry Christmas!

Book: Liquid Gold

Liquid Gold
I live near here.

I’m not interested.
438 pages, ★

Synopsis: Australia now makes wine. Originally, snobby Europeans told them they’d never make good wine because the climate wasn’t suitable/ the workers weren’t talented/ the vineyards weren’t mature enough/ or it all tastes the same and is therefore too boring to sell.

Defiant Aussie wine-growers persisted to build a strong wine industry in the face of a declining gold industry. Australian wine is now considered among the best in the new world.

I usually admire stories of triumph against the odds, and I would fall in love with this story, too, if were about anything but alcohol.

Most readers would give this book 4-5 stars. Most readers, though, probably also love drinking wine. I’m not interested, though. ★


Book: Eurekas and Euphorias

Eurekas and Euphorias
“The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes” is an apt subtitle. Place this book alongside the Oxford English Dictionary.

Too many anecdotes. Read just parts of it.
356 pages, ★★★

Eurekas and Euphorias is a collection of 181 anecdotes surrounding scientific discovery. Each anecdote is short (one or two pages) and contains large amounts of quoted text (in an annoyingly small font) from external sources.

The anecdotes are interesting, but there are too many of them. Rather like a dictionary or encyclopaedia, this book contains no narrative and no recurring characters, which makes it unbearable to read in one sitting. Honestly, I didn’t finish this book.

It’s categorised in my library as “popular science”, but I would reassign it somewhere between “humour” and “reference”. These anecdotes don’t serve well as a standalone book. The information is interesting but the compilation is simply too intense. Instead, I think these stories should be blended into regular science textbooks to make them more relevant and interesting to students.

I suggest only reading parts of this book. Choose those parts at random, or pick such cryptic topics from the contents page as “the crackle that made history” or “the physicist’s peregrinations”. You might find a story that’s memorable and that you enjoy.

Anecdote number 31 about barometers was most interesting for me. Start there, perhaps. ★★★

Book: Three Cups of Deceit

Three Cups of Deceit
Only use a cover this bold if you’re absolutely sure you’re right.

Demonstration of how malleable the human memory can be.
75 pages, ★★★★ (must be read following Three Cups of Tea)

In Three Cups of Deceit, author Jon Krakauer accuses Greg Mortenson of two major ‘crimes’:

  1. Lying — changing the sequence of events and making stories up, sometimes in stark contrast to the truth;
  2. Spending charity money irresponsibly — up to $23 million was spent on flights to exotic places to promote his own book, and the company finance records were patchy at best, and fabricated at worst.

I believe that both authors are telling the truth as they remember it. The discrepancy arises from the fact that Jon Krakauer has successfully altered his memory, and now believes this alternative version of the truth.

Human memory remarkably elastic. It can exaggerate events and fool itself into believing things happened differently to the truth. Books such as The Invisible Gorilla and Think! explain the science behind this process.

Memory-alteration is a very useful skill. We can delete troubling episodes, exaggerate happy ones, and re-write history to fit our goals in the present. People do it all the time to great effect.

Memory-alteration is troubling, though, and conflict can arise when people stubbornly believe different versions of the truth, with sometimes devastating consequences. The co-author of the original book, Three Cups of Tea, for example, committed suicide this month. I wonder whether accusations of ‘lying’ and ‘irresponsibility’ were among the stresses on his mind before he did it.

Read this pair of books to understand the flexibility of human memory. ★★★★

Book: More Than You Can Say

More Than You Can Say
The poker, running, and targets on the cover represent this book accurately.

High-speed adventures of a war veteran struggling to adapt to civilian life
320 pages, ★★★★

This action-packed adventure novel describes one man’s journey after his return from a tour of duty in Iraq. He can’t settle into sleepy civilian life, so he ends up hustling, fighting, and gambling money he doesn’t have on ridiculous bets. In a post-war confused state of mind, he makes some shockingly rash decisions (e.g. befriending people he shouldn’t, and shooting people he shouldn’t). The entire story is ridiculous, well-written and has comic value, but also leaves a meaningful impression by the conclusion.

The story is set in a high-stakes, high-speed part of London. The protagonist loses money at a poker table and tries to win it back by first, bankrupting his wife’s business, and second, taking a double-or-quits bet that involved walking to Oxford overnight, drunk and jet-lagged.

The story then grips the reader. Episodes with guns, Hummers, poker, cash, bankruptcy, marriage, divorce, people trafficking, kidnapping, escape, terrorism and counter-terrorism all ensue. It’s action-packed.

The conclusion is that soldiers find it very difficult to adapt to civilian life after war. In chasing what he wanted (a high-speed, fight-to-survive hustle), he ended up destroying the sleepy, but beautiful world he worked so hard to build before going to Iraq. Even by the end of the book, he hadn’t managed to mend any bridges.

More Than You Can Say reminds me of the film Run, Lola, Run, in which the protagonist and her reckless boyfriend spend the entire movie sprinting in search of the €20,000 that they owe to some dangerous people. That film, and this book, are equally action-packed. It also reminds me of Johnny English and Crank for its elements of comedy. ★★★★

Book: Organic Chemistry I

Organic Chemistry I
All you need, in theory.

Systematic and super-concise. If only I could take all this in at once.
160 pages, ★★★★

Organic Chemistry I is the most concise guide to organic chemistry I’ve ever found.

The reality is, though, that you’ll have to spend a lot of time using the methods described in this book before they’ll finally sink in.

It would work well as a pre-exam study aid, or as a pre-university Chemistry refresher (as it is for me).

It only lacks the fifth star is because there’s too much to take in at once. While it’s possible to summarise all of Organic Chemistry into a 160-page book, it’s impossible to learn that much simply by reading it. Despite appearances, this book is no replacement for hours of classes, lab experiments, homework tasks and writing assignments. You’ll still need to go to school. ★★★★

Book: Two Steps Forward

Two Steps Forward
Never judge a book by its cover—especially this one.

Bland, disorganised pregnancy rant with negative spin.
190 pages,

The English is atrocious in places. Take this sentence, for example, on page 10: “You’ve never seen inside the house and it’s really something.” I wouldn’t even let my middle-school students leave that sentence uncorrected.

The next sentence lacks a verb, and the sentence after that ends with “and a spiral staircase your childhood self would have died for.” Making such careless exaggerations seems inappropriate for a book that also focusses on the sufferings of failed pregnancy. (Yes, that’s weird.) Author: be careful what you say.

This book’s cover is misleading. The cover promised prose that was “sharp” and “ravishingly metaphorical”, when it was actually “sloppy” and “strangely obsessed”. From the outside, this book looks like a collection of upbeat short stories, but inside, you’ll find one badly-written, bland story peppered with graphic descriptions of failed pregnancy and problems during childbirth throughout. Bizarre.

All the “ravishing metaphors” allude to pregnancy, all of them are negative, and almost all of them are too graphic to write on this blog. One character is eating breakfast and has some jam on his face, which, according to this author, resembles “an embryo in a womb” (the tamest of this book’s metaphors). Why that metaphor, in particular? I don’t know whether this is for art’s sake or for shock value, but either way, I find it unsettling and confusing.

Neither cover nor blurb reveal the true nature of this book. They mislead the reader entirely.

This book is short and badly-written; basically unfinished. The cover is irrelevant and the metaphors are unhealthy. Don’t read it. ★

Book: Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea
Author Greg Mortenson builds schools on challenging ground in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region.

Sounds like a Bible story. Heroic.
349 pages, ★★★★

Greg Mortenson, a nurse by profession and avid mountaineer from the United States, built over 50 schools, mostly for girls, in the challenging Afghanistan/Pakistan border region (Af-Pak).

Every step of this project was difficult. Building materials are hard to find and even harder to transport (much of the timber was lugged up a mountain by hand). Local leaders were averse to educating girls (and Mortenson intended to prioritise girls in his schools); and regular attacks between ethnic groups kept everyone on edge. Despite getting lost, kidnapped, and his passport destroyed, he nonetheless succeeded spectacularly.

Three Cups of Tea feels like an adventure novel throughout. It opens with a lucky plane landing, where the pilot uses a shop-bought GPS navigation system to determine whether they’re heading the right way (and they’re not—they do an about turn and land the plane with seemingly no fuel). Later, on page 179, Mortenson shares his medical experience to save the life of both a new-born baby and its mother in what the locals described as a ‘miracle’. Greg’s remarkable story is written in the third person, which makes it feel like an Indiana Jones adventure story. Some of Mortenson’s achievements even feel Biblical in proportion. (Indeed, many have pipped him for a future Nobel Peace Prize.)

Humor is added occasionally. “The British must have had a sense of humour to draw a border across an indefensible wasteland [Af-Pak], Mortenson thought” (page 159). The part where the guard destroyed Mortenson’s passport (“immediately rendering the entire document useless”) is also written with humour.

Jon Krakauer wrote a book exposing “lies and exaggerations” from Three Cups of Tea called Three Cups of Deceit. This is interesting because Three Cups of Tea describes Jon Krakauer as one of the biggest financial supporters of Mortenson’s schools project. He organised fundraising events and sold $25 tickets. Why Krakauer then wrote a book criticising Mortenson’s approach remains a mystery to me. I’ll have to read it and find out. ★★★★

Book: Information

Information: The New Language of Science
Info about info. That’s all there is.

Never really takes off.
272 pages, ★

Information lacks relevance throughout. I was asking, “What’s the point of this book?” somewhere around the middle. I only finished this book because I was in a hospital waiting room and found it slightly more entertaining than watching kindergarten programmes on the overhead TV.

I lost interest completely at this point:

“Imagine twisting the beads on your team’s necklace and watching the corresponding beads on the other team’s necklace twist in the opposite direction. Now imagine shattering that necklace and asking them what order the beads were in by asking them to re-twist them. Of course, the only beads whose directions can’t be communicated are the ones attached to the clasp. That’s basically Quantum Theory.”

Paraphrased from page two-hundred-and-something

This drivel disappoints me. I expect PopSci (that’s Popular Science) to bridge the gap between theory and application, thus bringing researchers closer to the public. Unfortunately, this book pushes them further apart.

This is a shame, because there’s some fascinating research being done in the field of Information Theory:

  • Enigma machines (WW2)
  • earthquake prediction
  • election fraud
  • stock market fluctuations
  • gambling cheats
  • evolution of religion
  • music analysis
  • and more…

This book fails to communicate all of this amazing stuff.

Information needs to be edited by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki to make it relevant and fun. I sincerely hope that this book isn’t the “new language of science” as its subtitle claims. ★

Book: Science is Golden

Science is Golden
Science is Golden, and so is this book.

Freakonomics for middle-school children.
252 pages, ★★★★

Science is Golden is as informal as its cover suggests. It’s a humorous tour of science from the highly relevant (plane travel) to the highly irrelevant (black holes). Each chapter is clearly illustrated and contains no more than five pages of text.

The author not only contemplates (and subtly mocks) absurd theories about a 2012 apocalypse, and busts dozens of myths with scientific evidence, but also loads his writing with interesting facts that go beyond the original topic of each chapter. We learn about the iridescent keratin structures in peacock feathers; the difference between a meteoroid, a meteor and a meteorite, and the origin of the 40,000 tons per year that the Earth gains in mass. Most memorably, we learn about the structure and function of a spotted hyena’s clitoris. You’ll be amused and surprised.

Everything in this book is presented with calmness, balance, and undertones of fun. It touches on sex (e.g. the spotted hyena chapter), but even those parts are written in a very responsible way. The language level, fonts and cover design of this book are clearly aimed at a young-teenage age group. And I’d have no hesitations in recommending it my own science students.

Where Freakonomics is for high-school students, and Stephen J. Gould is for university students, Science is Golden is for middle school students. Let Dr Karl Kruszelnicki convince them that science is cool★★★★


Book: Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire
Book two in the trilogy

Too much Hunger Games.
474 pages, ★★★★

Book two begins with Katniss Everdeen at Victor’s Village.

The first book described the 74th Hunger Games; this book describes the 75th. There’s a “Quarter Quell” this year, a major Hunger Games battle with 48 veteran tributes (rather than 24 newbies), held every 25 years. Katniss and Peeta are, once again, called up to fight.

75 years? Tyrannies in the modern era have never survived for more than 90 years. In fact, most of them get toppled after 70 or 80. Without reading any further, I think this could be the last Hunger Games in Panem. It’s not unthinkable that this trilogy could see the end of Panem altogether, in a rebellion possibly led by Katniss herself.

Katniss talks about marrying Peeta (chapter 3) and having his baby (page 309), but disguises her love for him as rebelliousness against her country, Panem. She convinces herself so much (too much) that she ends up joining a real rebellion with her other crush, Gale (yes, that’s a man). She kisses both of them in several times in this novel. Panem is outraged at their being together, so Katniss and Gale pretend to be cousins for their own safety.

Ligatures. The kerning in this book is imperfect, and ligatures are altogether absent. This affected my enjoyment of the book, but most readers probably won’t notice anything’s wrong. The words, ‘mockingjay’, ‘flower’, ‘fish’, ‘fling’ and ‘Right’ all look awkwardly-spaced—ugly, even. Book one was fine.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as the first book, but I’m still hankering for more—especially because the last line tells us that Katniss’ home district has been destroyed. I’ve ordered book three and will review it in a few weeks’ time. ★★★★

Book: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games book 1
Book one in the trilogy

Gripping, linear, action-packed, first-person, protagonist-centred extreme coming-of-age story.
374 pages, ★★★★★

The Hunger Games are no-rules, last-man-standing battles organised by the tyrannical rulers of a fictitious North American country. Two fighters (“tributes”, as they’re called) are picked from each of the country’s twelve districts at annual nomination ceremonies (“reapings”). Brave, 16-year-old protagonist Katniss Everdeen volunteers to enter this deadly battle to save her younger sister, who was initially chosen. Unlike her sister, Katniss is proficient with a bow-and-arrow, and thinks she might stand a chance at being the one surviving fighter in the arena.

Such challenging circumstances can catalyse the process of falling in love. Enter Peeta, who was chosen to fight alongside Katniss. Peeta is a weaker, more sentimental character who has had a crush on Katniss since they were children. In a confused, teenage way, they kiss many times on the battlefield, and fall in love.

Falling in love is a rite of passage for Katniss. On page 137, she says Peeta’s love makes her feel grown up. Naturally, she’s confused by her own feelings. On page 373, Katniss whines, “it’s no good loving me because I’m never going to get married anyway and he’d just end up hating me later rather than sooner”.

Sometimes, she doubts whether she loves Peeta. On page 358, she says that rebelliousness, not love, was her reason for kissing him. On page 298, she discounts her actions and says, “this is the first kiss where we actually wanted each other”.

On other occasions, she admits to being completely besotted. By page 345, they threaten the Hunger Games organisers with a slightly-silly near-double-suicide pact rather than continuing to live without each other. In just a few days, their love has become more important than life itself. Teenagers can be quite like that.

Reading The Hunger Games, I feel like I’m standing right in the protagonist’s shoes. This fast, action-packed, first-person and linear book would lend itself very well to a first-person shooter (FPS) computer game.

I think the Hunger Games is a caricaturisation of the dog-eat-dog mentality in some schools. Kids are forced to undergo gruelling examinations when they would rather be playing—or falling in love. Could that be why teenagers worldwide have clicked so avidly to this “cruel adults make teenagers fight to the death” story? Possibly so.

Book one was so good that I bought book two. Review coming tomorrow. ★★★★★

Book: Stories of the Invisible

Stories of the Invisible: a guided tour of molecules
A modest cover for a modest book.

Rapid tour of the sciences, from Chemistry to Biology.
380 pages, ★★★★★

Reading this, I feel like one of those busy tourists who takes a coach-tour of 17 European countries in the same number of days.

The book’s travel plan looks like this:

  • Pure Mathematics (smallest)
  • Statistics
  • Theoretical Physics
  • Particle Physics
  • Applied Physics
  • Theoretical Chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Genetics
  • Cell Biology
  • Physiology
  • Psychology
  • Medicine
  • the Social Sciences
  • Philosophy (largest)

By reading this book, you’ll get a glorious tour of all the subjects in bold above. Equate that to dozens of stamps in your passport.

You’ll learn why spider silk becomes insoluble when it solidifies as it comes out of the spider (and thus can’t be re-constituted like dried vermicelli can). You’ll learn the history of some chemical discoveries (all of which occurred by accident). You’ll learn why bacteria can ‘swim’, and how this technology can be harnessed to make nano-robots. You’ll learn how ambiguous names such as “A-bands” and “H-zones” (in muscle sarcomeres) indicate that the discoverers hadn’t the faintest clue as to their purpose. On top of all that, you’ll even learn how nerves work (that’s physiology).

This book even dispels my two favourite high-school lies: first, that mitochondria are round (actually, they are long and blobby, like the wax that drips down the side of a burning candle); and second, that ATP has a “high-energy phosphate bond” (actually, it’s only a high-energy bond under normal cellular conditions because cells manufacture a strong intracellular disequilibrium in favour of ATP).

This book is a quick primer to Chemistry and Biology. It’s clearly-written, and big diagrams are used when necessary. I recommend Stories of the Invisible for all prospective chemistry, biochemistry, or biology students. You all have time to read it. ★★★★★