Monthly Archives: December 2013

The 100 or so books I read in 2013

I have completed the Mad Reviewer Reading Challenge successfully!

The 100 or so books I read in 2013
Click to enlarge (2.2 Mb JPEG)

At the beginning of 2013, I set myself a goal to read and review 104 books in one year. I’ve done it, and it feels very good 🙂

My goal next year is 50 high-quality books. I want to read more good books in 2014, more classics, more fiction and more books that interest me (so no more one- and two-star reviews—they’re a waste of my time).

Happy New Year!

What’s your reading goal…?

Book: Genetic Modification in Food

Genetic Modification in Food

Balanced introduction to GM foods for absolute beginners.
<100 pages, ★★★★★

Quick review today. I spent a long time making a table of organic compounds and their smells (view it here).

This book, Genetic Modification in Food, it’s one of the few books that succeeds in conveying a controversial scientific issue to the public while maintaining balance and accuracy. It’s suitable for readers who know nothing about science at all. It appeals to people who are concerned (with good reason) after reading/hearing/seeing reports about GM crops in the news. The concerned British public, for whom this book was intended, has an unusually high resistance to GM foods—so this book, which is free from ‘pro-green’ or ‘pro-science’ extremism, is a welcome addition to the pop-sci literature mix. ★★★★★

Book: The Night Guest

The Night Guest Book Cover

Originally posted on Dark Matter Fanzine

Extremely dark and bitchy.
256 pages, ★★

The Night Guest is the story of a 75-year-old widow who has a government carer arrive unexpectedly to take full-time care of her. The widow sadly declines into dementia throughout the novel and becomes increasingly dependent on her carer. However, not everything is as it seems. As you progress through this book, you’ll find yourself asking yourself what’s real and what’s not: is Freda (the carer) really a government worker? Does Ruth (the widow) really have dementia? Is Freda taking advantage of Ruth?

The ending, which I won’t reveal here, is darker than anyone but the author could have imagined. Not only is it dark, but its characters are bitchy and unpleasant and I didn’t learn anything positive from this book. I didn’t even enjoy it. Some reviewers have commended the author for creating these nasty characters and the book’s unpredictable plot in a debut novel, but personally, I think the author’s crossed a line of “negativity” and this book doesn’t deserve any credit.

There are no men in this book (not in major roles, anyway), which instantly throws its character cast off balance. What bothers me more is that nothing positive happens in this book from start to finish. The Night Guest is a gloomy, uninspiring novel with a small number of silently vindictive female characters and absolutely no point to it. I learned nothing, I didn’t enjoy it, and I would have stopped reading after 80 pages if I weren’t obliged to review it.

The “suspense” that some newspaper reviews have written about is actually just “boredom”. The “darkness” is actually “bitchiness” and the “horror” is more sickening than frightening. The relationships between all the characters are covertly abusive and become more so as you read on. This novel has no likeable characters.

So who might enjoy this book? People who enjoy horror movies, possibly? Fortunately, I’m not one of those people, so I can only give it two stars. ★★

Book: Do/ Improvise

Do Improvise 

Yawn. At least it doesn’t cost any money (it’s free on Readmill)
144 pages, ★★

I love Readmill. It’s an iPad app for social reading. In this free iPad app, you can download free (or cheap) books and make highlights, page-marks and annotations with your fingers just the same as in iBooks and many other popular reading apps. In Readmill, however, your comments are shared with all the other people reading that book—and you can see everyone else’s comments, too. You can start a global discussion between strangers from any sentence on any page!

Not only is it interesting to see other peoples reactions to certain part so of the book that you found interesting, but it also gives all readers a crowd-sourced, pre-highlighted, pre-annotated version of the book available from the moment you open the first page! Social reading apps like Readmill could provide the social aspect that textbooks currently lack, and that students are craving (sometimes unknowingly) in today’s classrooms.

I am also glad that I teach. Reading this book aimed at corporate office-workers reminded me of the team-building exercises and networking opportunities that, for the most part, comprise the biggest highlights of those ‘corporate’ office jobs. The most useful of those in this book, and the most applicable to my career as a teacher, was called “Yes, and…”. It’s a variation of “Today, I went to the store and bought…” and the author touts it as a way of training your audience’s listening skills.

Games like these are fun, memorable ice-breakers but they honestly don’t teach anything. Education is far ahead of the corporate world with its modern, interactive teaching practices and we could actually teach the corporate world a thing or two. PEEL is just one example (although I wish it were free to access).

So I won’t be reading these free corporate books on Readmill any longer. Reading them is a waste of time, and reading education books and articles is a much better use of my time. That’s all I learned from Do Improvise: don’t read irrelevant books. ★★

Side note: while the book was awful, a workshop based on this book might actually be fun to attend (should I ever have the time…)

Book: The Secret of Scent

The Secret of Scent

Mesmerising, thrilling quest for what causes scent.
Brimming with chemical structures.
200 pages, ★★★★★

Wow. The Secret of Scent looks like a bottle of Chanel No. 5. It even says 1 fl oz!

The book’s subtitle, adventures in perfume and the science of smell is totally accurate (after some rearrangement). If we were to split this book vertically, like an avocado, the first 100 pages would describe the smell of perfume, while the latter 100 pages could be titled adventures in science.

The smell of perfume half tells us the main categories of smell and how altering compounds alters their smell. This half of the book is full of chemical structures and IUPAC nomenclature. This half of The Secret of Scentinspired another perfume-related graphic, which I’m making as we speak. 🙂

The adventures in science part is an exciting journey towards the discovery of the secret of scent (which hasn’t quite yet been discovered, but scientists are getting very close). Two main theories prevail in the science of smell: that odorous compounds are recognised by either (a) their vibrational frequencies; or (b) their chemical shape. This book provides more evidence for the former (vibrational frequencies), implying that it might be possible to predict the smell of a molecule from its infra-red spectrograph! Unfortunately, this theory doesn’t explain chirality, and how humans can perceive chiral enantiomers sometimes of different smells (e.g. orange and lemon) seems to violate this first theory. Or, merging the two theories together, it would seem that our olfactory glands are doing some kind of chiral spectroscopy on the molecules we breathe!

Fascinating book. I love Chemistry and I love perfume so this was a perfect book form me. Also consider A Natural History of the Senses by Diana Ackerman★★★★★

Book: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

I’ve been saying this for years.
300 pages, ★★★

The book’s opening quote:

Colleges and universities, for all the benefits they bring, accomplish far less for their students than they should. Many students graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers… reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems.

The book then demonstrates, somewhat repetitively (because each chapter was written by a different author) that students aren’t learning anything in university. They’re studying less than 40 years ago, putting less effort in, and preferentially choosing the easiest classes, but at the same time expecting much more: an amazing job, a salary high enough to repay their giant student loan, and lots of prestige to bask in after graduation. Invariably, they will get none of the above.

This book blames universities, not just students, for post-graduation disappointment and the looming student debt crisis that’s intertwined with it. According to this book, while universities are waxing lyrical about the “critical thinking skills” and “good writing skills” that are supposedly important to “success”, university courses do very little to train the critical thinking skills and writing skills of their students. Reading lists are short and optional (most students don’t read); writing assignments are few and not taken seriously (plagiarism largely goes unnoticed, and the plagiarising student receives a grade anyway); and students make very little progress in their three years of study (at a huge cost).

I saw a lot of these troubles while I was doing my undergraduate degree in Britain. Much of this is true there, too: students are lazy, spoiled and expect fantastic jobs despite being completely incompetent. Writing essays isn’t important and nobody notices plagiarism. (The list goes on…)

Two key findings stand out from this book:

(1) Education starts at home. Most of the variation in high-school test scores in the US can be explained by gender, race, education level of parents, number of parents in the household, and occupation of parents. Your parents are your biggest teachers.

(2) Test scores of people who drop out of high school, on average, improve at a faster rate post-dropout than the scores of students who go to college. This is shown in the graph on page 56. Amazing!

I didn’t learn anything new here, but I did feel comforted that I’ve been right all along. Some university students are lazy, spoiled and have an unjustified sense of aggrandisement. They expect too much after graduation and, especially in the current economic climate in the US and Europe, will ultimately be very disappointed.

I saw no evidence of any of these problems in Australia, though 🙂 ★★★

 

Book: How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place

How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place

Aimed at politicians. So dull. No story. 
208 pages, ★★

When I choose a terrible book worthy of only one or two stars in a review, I’m actually saying more about my inability to choose good books that I am about the books themselves. This made me wonder: is reading ‘bad’ books a waste of time?

There is a limit to how many books we can read in a lifetime:

If we read one book every day (upper estimate), between the ages of 6 and 100 (again, upper estimates), then there’s only time to read 34,310 books in a lifetime.

There exist over 7 million books written in English. Assuming that 7% of them are in genres that interest us at some point in our lives, and that only 7% of those are of excellent quality, that leaves 7,000,000 ✕ 0.07 ✕ 0.07 = 34,300 five-star books in the world that interest me.

So there are 34,300 five-star books out there that interest me, and I have time (upper estimate) to read 34,310 books in a lifetime. Conclusion: we don’t have time to waste reading books we don’t like!

I loved Lomborg’s Cool It!, and I love watching his talks on the internet, but this book, How to Spend $50 Billion, certainly isn’t aimed at me. It’s aimed at politicians who have $50 billion of government funds at their discretion and who also need some guidance from authors as to how to spend it. That’s a minuscule audience. Most of the rest of us would be quite happy just reading the conclusion, which is only a Google search away. Don’t waste your time reading the rest. ★★

Book: Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

Countdown

Factual, optimistic tour of the Earth that spans space and time.
513 pages, ★★★★★

One bacterium is placed in a bottle at 11:00am. It divides into two bacteria every minute until the bottle is completely full of bacteria at exactly midday. The author asks two questions. One: at what point was the bottle half-full? Two: and at what time exactly did the bacteria start to realise that they were running out of space?

The answers, of course, are “11:59am” and “they didn’t”—which should make any successfully proliferating organism shudder! The author uses this analogy to kick-start the topic of human overpopulation, which the author says is the root of all our problems (climate change, pollution, resource shortage, floods, biodiversity loss—basically everything) and is also the theme of this book.

Rather than focus on the problems, however, the author focusses on the population management solutions that education (educated women have fewer babies), economics (access to birth control) and religion (changing attitudes) are bringing to the table. This was all a pleasant surprise. With the certainty and pessimism of a title like Countdown, I was expecting to read a prophesy of how humankind will die out from ecological disaster by 2050. I opened this book expecting doom-and-gloom climate threats like we saw in Al Gore’s infamous keynote, where everything bad in the world was due to CO2 emissions and CO2 emissions were all our fault. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Countdown had happy overtones throughout—this book bas the anthropological depth of Jared Diamond’s Collapse blended with the optimism of Robert D. Kaplan’s MonsoonCountdown is a celebration of life across different cultures, and how humanity will continue to thrive despite the problems we face.

Most of Countdown is an enlightening tour of the Earth. Reading Countdown makes me feel like a spy satellite, looking closely into global communities that span decades and continents with ease. Reading this book feels like watching Life (a little-known documentary flim) or using the Solar Walk app for iPad. Such detailed, top-down insight of communities in China, India, Israel, Japan and the Philippines make Countdown a fascinating, liberating read. Many of humanity’s ambitions and problems appear to be the same wherever we look.

Countdown begins by examining Israel’s rapid population expansion since 1948. The author then tells us that the limits Israel is facing as it expands beyond its ecological capacity also apply to the entire world. We then learn about rapid population growths in Japan, the post-war Philippines, 1980s China and its one child policy, Britain with its Islamic influx, and in the United States under President Obama. We also visit India, where farmers are suffering so much from the effects of overpopulation that suicides are commonplace and whole communities are constantly on alert to try and prevent them. In each place we visit in this book, the author zooms in on particular characters and dialogues that bring each community to life.

There’s a massive emphasis on three religions in this book: Judaism, Catholicism and Islam. These religions play a huge role in dictating family sizes, birth control (if any) and the level of female education worldwide. Countdown takes a fascinating look at the mentalities behind family size and the preferred methods of birth control in different religious communities. The reader is shown the obvious health benefits of monogamy and a low birth rate, and how female education can help to promote both. The book gives ample examples of how religious leaders (even the infamously busy Mormons) are doing their bit to reform their practices, reduce the local birth rate and improve women’s rights at the same time.

The author is very positive throughout Countdown. Even though he describes some miserable scenarios (particularly in India and Pakistan), the book’s respectful, optimistic tone and abundance of success stories make it a very uplifting read.

One of those success stories—although not connected to population—is hydrogen fuel cells. I was at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in 2009, where one of the speakers told us that only hydrogen fuel cells powered by hydrogen obtained by the solar-powered splitting of water could power all human activity sustainably. I’m a huge fan of this idea, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn that the author is also a fan of this little-known technology in Countdown. (The only thing holding back further development is the lack of an artificial “photosystem”—a kind of crystal—but we’re slowly getting there.)

Some other interesting points the author raises include:

  • Eradicating diseases also increases the human population. Should charities who help eliminate malaria also be required to invest in family planning education initiatives in the same places?
  • Reduced breast feeding (a worldwide phenomenon) leads to hormonal changes that result in more pregnancies because lactation suppresses ovulation.
  • The Population Bomb in the late 1960s predicted massive famines, especially in Asia. Fortunately, Norman Borlaug invented a dwarf wheat with a high yield so that impending crisis was averted.

In conclusion, population reduction—a topic so controversial that most scientists don’t want to address it—is the answer to all of humanity’s problems. It’s a magic bullet. Two billion is the “ideal population” of the Earth that Daily and the Erlichs calculated back in the 1990s. I commend the author for tackling this highly controversial topic (spanning religion, birth control, female education and poverty) with respect and optimism, and making Countdown a fascinating, uplifting read in the process. Highly recommended for anyone interested in climate, sociology or human geography. ★★★★★

Holmes or Tufte? Mineral Water Composition chart

I’ve just watched some lectures on the two major schools of design: Tufte and Holmes.

This was one of them (Vimeo.com)

They’re radically different. Tufte advocates simple data visualisations with a maximum data-to-ink ratio. Holmes likes to add visual elements, pictures and illustrations onto charts, which Tufte calls “chartjunk”. You’ll have noticed the striking difference between these two competing schools when you upgraded your iPhone from the Holmes-inspired, skeuomorphic iOS 6 to the Tufte-inspired, clear and minimalist iOS 7.

iOS and iOS 7 comparison
LEFT: Holmes-style design (iOS 6). RIGHT: Tufte-style design (iOS 7)

Clearly, the Tufte-inspired version on the right looks much better.

Here is a simple introduction to minimalist Tufte design:

Data-to-ink ratio

I’m on the side of Tufte here. I like complicated data visualised in a simple-looking graphic. Looking back at the graphics I made last summer, I decided to update the Mineral Water Composition chart I made last year according to Tufte’s design philosophy.

Here’s the new, Tufte-inspired version:

Water water everywhere v3
Tufte school of design. Click to enlarge (JPEG)

And here’s the old Holmes-inspired version I made a year ago:

Mineral Water Composition by Brand
Holmes school of design. Click to enlarge (JPEG).

Which design do you prefer…? Holmes or Tufte?

E-xplosion: E-numbers Explained!

Yesterday, I uploaded Visual Guide to E-numbers. Today, after I thought it was all finished, I woke up with a completely redesigned version in my head—and couldn’t resist making it and uploading that, too. Here it is: E-xplosion: E-numbers Explained!

Click to download large JPEG version
E-xplosion- E-numbers Explained!

Book: Climate: The Counter Consensus

Climate the Counter Consensus

Sharp, focused, lucid rebuttal to the climate change consensus. Very academic.
316 pages, ★★★★

I love ecology, I love climate science and I love reading climate skeptics’ arguments. They’re optimistic yet scientific at the same time. After reading books like Climate, I feel reassured and optimistic about the future—and this is exactly where mainstream climate science books fail. Climate reassures the reader by presenting boundless evidence in support of the Gaia Hypothesis that James Lovelock proposed back in 1965.

The Gaia Hypothesis suggested that Earth isn’t just teeming with life, but that Earth itself is a giant living organism: a giant living cell, if you like. The implications of this hypothesis were (a) that planet Earth is alive, by some standards; (b) that planet Earth is designed to heal itself from any reasonable amount of damage, and has done so in the past; and (c) that Earth, no matter what humans do to it, will fix itself eventually even if the repair process involves ridding the Earth of Homo sapiens altogether. (This idea that our planet is a giant, healthy, happy organism could only have prevailed in the 1960s!)

The first of these self-healing Gaia-like feedback loops is about cycles in solar intensity. We know that solar intensity cycles every 11 years and every 60 years due to solar activity, and also cycles every 23, 41 and 100 thousand years due to changes in the Earth’s orbit. Armed with this knowledge, Climate debunks all the major climate myths without mercy, saying that present climate change is linked to changes in solar activity and will self-correct in due course. Regardless of whether this is true, this notion at least has entertainment value for doomsayers and naysayers alike. (For the record, I keep my distance from climate politics!)

Other reassurances in this book include the CO2-temperature link being ‘tenuous’, the temperature rises being much smaller than predicted (despite ever-increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations) and how plant growth and water usage is increased greatly by increased atmospheric CO2. All of these claims are based on solid evidence. (Surprisingly, the author doesn’t make any “warming would be good anyway” arguments—some scientists do.)

My only criticism of this book is that it becomes too academic towards the end. It tackles the Stern Review, Mann’s hockey stick and the IPCC’s Assessment Reports head-on. (These are battles I was hoping the author would avoid.) I would have preferred if this book had retained its balanced, optimistic tone throughout. Instead, we’re served up an intense academic rebuttal of ten current consensus. (for a more positive, thesis-driven (as opposed to antithesis-driven) argument, read Bjørn Lomborg’s Cool It! instead. ).

Overall, this climate book is a thrilling ride up to around page 200. The ending (I’m not spoiling anything here—it’s non-fiction!) is an academic barrage rather than a call for balance in climate science, which I would have preferred, but I still enjoyed this book enough to give it four stars. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with the book’s thesis or not.

Recommended for people who have already done extensive reading about climate science. For beginners, read Cool It! by Bjørn Lomborg instead. ★★★★

 

Visual Guide to E-numbers: E100 Series—Colours

I love making graphics. This latest one is part of a series called “Visual Guide to E-numbers”. I’ve made two versions of this graphic, and this is the first.

Visual Guide to E-Numbers
Click to download large JPEG version

We can see that most E-number colourings are red or yellow. Most of the lower numbers are worse for our health (azo dyes), while the higher numbers tend to be healthier (e.g. plant extracts), but this isn’t a fixed rule. The very last few aren’t edible—they’re used in lipsticks and suncreams.

Comments are welcome as always.

Book: From Clockwork to Crapshoot

From Clockwork to Crapshoot

History-heavy skim of all of humanity’s Physics achievements.
340 pages, 

From Clockwork to Crapshoot appeals to readers who, like me, enjoy reading history of science. It covers ancient theories of astronomy, including how the measuring the relative distances between the sun, Earth and moon, and how the camera obscura was discovered; and goes right up to today’s most advanced theoretical physics—including QED and a ‘theory of everything’.

Its only flaw is that by choosing to cover all of humanity’s Physics achievements in only 340 pages, it skims over entire centuries, leaving some fascinating characters largely unexplored. There’s no time for characterisation in this fast-paced book—reading it, we just skim from one scientific snapshot to another every one or two pages. If this book were a CD, it would be an entire album of skits with little music. People who enjoy continuity and character arcs in their books will be disappointed with this one.

Dozens of characters are introduced (and then forgotten) very quickly; it’s easy to get lost within the first 100 pages. The best way to get he most out if this book is to draw a timeline as you read. It will allow you to learn much more than from reading alone.

That said, I like how the author describes not only successful theories whose key ideas persisted for centuries—but also rival theories that were abandoned long ago. Recommended for people who enjoy reading Physics non-fiction and don’t care much for characterisation.

Also consider this book I read last year: Chasing The Sun. 

Book: Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell

Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking

A perfected, revised sequel to A Brief History of Time suitable for everyone!
216 pages, ★★★★★

I read somewhere in one of Michio Kaku’s books that Stephen Hawking admitted making a blunder about predicting the existence of universes in which time runs backwards. (This is exactly the criticism I had when I reviewed Hawking’s last book, here.) This book, The Universe in a Nutshell, is a perfect sequels it hall such blunders corrected. It inspires, it educates, and it has an enchanting blend of humorous prose and engaging graphics. It’s suitable for all ages, which, especially for a physics book, is very difficult to do.

The Universe in a Nutshell describes the history of our universe, the nature of space-time (including relativity and red-shift) and what might be possible if we were to take full advantage of the science we are starting to understand. The concluding chapter, touching on time travel and teleportation, makes enough predictions to inspire young people to study science without getting too lost in conjecture. In my opinion, the concluding chapter strikes a perfect balance between fact and fiction.

I found this book much easier to understand than The Illustrated A Brief History of Time. Many of the illustrations are the same but the text in this book is clearer. This is one of few books I’d recommend for anyone, of any age, in any career or discipline. ★★★★★

 

Book: Disturbing the Solar System

Disturbing the Solar System

Tour of the solar system with “gravity” as its theme
362 pages, ★★★★

Watching the film”Gravity” at the cinema renewed in me a love of Physics. I downloaded the iPhone game (which is very good!) and then searched for more physics-related books and apps. Two of the best physics iPad apps are Star Walk and Solar Walk. They’re both rated five stars, both cost $2.99 and both are pictured below.

Solar Walk app for iPad (screenshot)
Solar Walk app for iPad (screenshot). Explore the solar system freely in four dimensions.
Star Walk app for iPad (screenshot)
Star Walk app for iPad (screenshot). Point iPad at the sky to see constellations, nebulae, galaxies, supernovae, meteoroids, asteroids, satellites, the ISS, the sun, moon and planets. You can even point it downwards and see the sky ‘above’ the other hemisphere!

Disturbing the Solar System was the book equivalent of these amazing iPad apps. It tours the solar system, including moons and asteroids, and focusses on the collisions and orbits that helped to for the solar system we live in today.

Two interesting observations stood out. First was the story of Titius and Bode’s Law on page 100. Bode’s Law states that the orbital distances of all the planets between (and including) Mercury and Uranus follow a pattern:

a=0.4+0.3 \times 2^m

(where a is the semi-major axis of each planet in astronomical units and m is a positive integer).

Second was the role of the moon in stabilising Earth’s climate. The book explains that without the moon, our planet’s axis would wobble wildly every million years or so resulting in unstable climates that wouldn’t allow sufficient time for adaption by natural selection. Without our moon, the author argues, evolution on Earth would have been thwarted and humans might even have not existed!

Disturbing the Solar System an interesting read and is a perfect companion to the incredible iPad apps that I mentioned earlier. Use them in tandem so you can ‘see’ what you’re reading about. Recommended for anyone interested in the solar system. (For anyone less interested, just get the apps!) ★★★★