Tag Archives: 5 stars

Book: Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Originally written for Dark Matter Fanzine

High-class tasting menu of sci-fi sub-genres
392 pages, ★★★★★

Adam Robots is a collection of science fiction short stories. It’s a five-star tasting menu of sci-fi sub-genres. It was perfect  for a novice sci-fi reader like me because it allowed me to discover which sci-fi sub-genres I enjoy reading the most.

By far the best story in this book was ‘Thrownness’, a twist on Groundhog Day. The title, ‘Thrownness’, is a rough translation of the German word “Geworfenheit”, which is a philosophical term used to describe the feelings people have about a past that is neither deterministic nor chosen. Author Adam Roberts brings this bizarre abstract concept to life by making the protagonist’s world ‘reset’ itself every 70 hours. After a ‘reset’, all the characters go back to where they were 70 hours ago and start going about the same 3-day routine in perfect repetition. The only difference between each cycle is what the protagonist chooses to do (his location and thoughts are not reset each time). He starts off well-behaved, but soon learns that the only way to survive is to rob, cheat and steal. (He steals from the same people in each 3-day cycle but his ‘crimes’ are forgotten after 3 days!) There’s definitely an element of dark, understated humour that’s unmistakably British underlying this short story.

‘Thrownness’ also makes a political point about incarceration and the notorious problem of reoffending. The situation, not the man himself, propelled the protagonist’s downward spiral. With no roots and no long-term direction in his life, he very quickly resorts to crime.

‘Shall I Tell You the Problem With Time Travel?’ was another one of my favourite stories in this book. Protagonist Professor Bradley, a scientist developing time travel in the near future, has realised that every time travel attempt causes a giant explosion at the intended time and place of arrival. He also notes that he can only travel into the past—not into the future. I won’t give anything away here, but the story is very cleverly-written and not contradicted by present-day scientific theories, which is important for me.

Reality is very important for me in books, which is why I read so much non-fiction. I’m not a fan of the extremely farfetched sub-genres in sci-fi—complicated alien civilisations and the like, or artificial intelligence—and I’m put off by scientific impossibility. I learned all this by reading Adam Robots. I learned that I enjoy reading sci-fi that’s set either in a believable future, or in a slightly altered present, and Adam Robots gave me a very generous serving of both. ‘The Time Telephone’ and ‘A Prison Term of A Thousand Years’ in this book were also very good.

Recommended for people who want to get more into reading sci-fi. Five out of five stars. ★★★★★

Book: Screw Business as Usual by Richard Branson

Richard Branson - Screw Business as Usual

“Do good, have fun, and the money will follow”

372 pages, ★★★★★

Screw Business as Usual starts and ends with stories about natural disasters. In the opening pages, author Richard Branson’s Necker Island family home catches fire following a lightning strike. Times like this “remind us that stuff doesn’t matter”, he writes. The closing pages describe how a category III hurricane hit Necker Island while Virgin Unite (the charity arm of his multi-billion dollar Virgin empire) was staying there. In each case, Branson writes how opportunity rises in the face of adversity; how destruction clears way for the new; and how every unfortunate event has a ‘good’ side. I couldn’t agree more.

On page 12, he issues the readers a warning: “make sure you’ve read [this book] and can articulate its contents before you consider having this book on lying around on your desk!” (The contents, should they need to be articulated, could be summed up like this: Capitalists no longer face a choice between making money and doing good. Many businesses that “do good” (environmentally or socially) are finding that good deeds boost the company’s profits overall”.) Between pages 200 and 250, he includes plenty of detailed case studies to support his point.

I really like that despite Branson’s massive persona, he still laughs at himself sometimes. On page 21, he hints that he name drops too much, and it’s true. Honestly, though, I expected him to: Richard Branson is a ‘big’ personality known for his outlandish gestures and it would have seemed disappointingly out-of-character if he were too modest in this book. (Just type “Richard Branson” into Google Images for some examples of this.) After admitting he name-drops too much, he proceeds to name-drop throughout this book: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Queen, James Lovelock, Ban Ki-Moon and Al Gore are mentioned many times each. Page 230 adds Ray Anderson, Jochen and Ted Turner to the list of superstars he has close connections with. He laughs at himself on this and on several other occasions. I like the self-aware, self-mocking Branson that we see in this book.

I also really like the emphasis on “doing good”. This is clear not only from his many not-for-profit groups, which work worldwide in many different sectors, but also from his willingness to “do good” even if “doing good” means breaking the law! Twice, he breaks the law and the law changes for him, not the other way around. Once, at he beginning of the book, Branson breaks an old law that made it illegal to mention “venereal disease” in public. Branson felt it was a serious social problem at the time, and that the law was preventing useful health information from reaching the public. So he broke the law, got arrested, then took Her Majesty’s Government to court. (They apologised to Branson and then changed the law!) Later, the end of the book, Branson’s group tells factories in South Africa to ignore the law on racially-segregated toilets, which resulted in many black workers having to urinate, dehumanisingly, in gutters. This time, too, the law changed for him, not the other way around!

I learned a lot from this book. I learned that Peter Gabriel was signed by Virgin Records in 1983. I also learned that Virgin’s staff must love their jobs—Branson holds parties for Virgin Atlantic staff tropical island house and writes them personalised letters of invitation. In these letters (one is copied into the book), I learned that Virgin Atlantic was the first airline to introduce fully-non-smoking flights, and was also the first airline to have entertainment screens on the back of every seat!

Branson tells us all to love our jobs. He gives examples of businesses that do this very well, such as a greengrocery chain in Sussex that hires “local heroes”—people who love their job and their produce, and aren’t there “just for the pay check”. I’m really pleased to say that I’m one of those people 🙂

This quote fits perfectly with this book’s philosophy:

“And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.”

― Randy Komisar, Monk and the Riddle: The Education of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur

(I am still yet to review Randy Komisar’s book, Monk and the Riddle.)

In one respect, Screw Business as Usual reminds me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Both books straddle the non-fiction and biography genres. Both books tell tales of opportunity and what makes people succeed. In particular, the story about Peter Avis in this book seemed very similar to a scene in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. In this book, Branson writes about Peter Avis, who, like Branson, is also dyslexic. While Branson has long talked quite openly about how his dyslexia shaped his thinking, and how it inspired the clean, easy-to-navigate customer experience that Virgin’s companies offer, Avis found dyslexia very debilitating throughout school and early adulthood. Avis, unlike Branson, didn’t come from such a supportive background, and his dyslexia went unnoticed for many years until someone cared enough to help him solve the problem. Malcolm Gladwell gives a similar example in his book (which I haven’t reviewed yet), where a child might be “blessed with confidence, acting skills and bursts of creativity” if they come from a rich background; but diagnosed with ADHD if they come from a poorer background. What’s more interesting about Branson’s stories, though, is that they’re from his own life—and his own friends—not from unrelated case studies.

In conclusion, Branson says that unrestrained capitalism (“Greed is Good”) versus the flower power peace-and-love of the 1960s have merged to form a new era of capitalism, and Richard Branson labels, “Capitalism 24902”. (Read the book to find out what that means.)

This is a rare, high-quality business management book. It’s laced with personal examples, which are always much more interesting than random case studies, and I love the message he sends out in this book. Recommended for anyone who admires great people. ★★★★★

Book: Physics of the Impossible

Physics Of The Impossible

Tour of the future. Written with poetic grace and a child’s wonder.
328 pages, ★★★★★

Michio Kaku is one of the most readable pop-sci writers of today. His books straddle the boundary between physics and science fiction. He uses sci-fi technologies (such as teleportation, warp drive and invisibility) to get readers excited about real-world physics, which, he predicts, will resemble current-day sci-fi in a few millennia from now.

He’s one of few scientists lucky enough to work on what we call “sexy science”. Sexy science is the stuff that gets everyone excited; the stuff that doesn’t bore people when they ask you what you do; and only it constitutes about 1% of all scientific research. Unlike biology (much of which is “sexy”), research at the forefront of physics can be extremely complicated and abstract, and seems to have little practical implication. Kaku succeeds not only because he’s a great writer, but also because he writes about fascinating (“sexy science”) topics that have a direct connection to everyone’s lives.

In Physics of the Impossible, Kaku tackles 15 “sexy” physics topics in three groups:

  1. Class I impossibilities: impossible this century (e.g. invisibility)
  2. Class II impossibilities: impossible this millennium (e.g. time travel)
  3. Class III impossibilities: violations of the known laws of physics (e.g. perpetual motion machines)

Most of these 15 topics are in Class I, and I’m really excited that some will even become true in our lifetimes (cold fusion, perhaps, or fission-powered rockets?)

Author Michio Kaku is extremely optimistic not only that these incredible technologies will eventually come to fruition, but also that humanity will use them all in a benevolent way. He assumes that humanity won’t exterminate itself, and I’m pleased to say that there’s no mention of climate change or nuclear bombs in this book whatsoever! Kaku’s books make me feel very excited about the future of science—and reassured about the fate of humanity. Kaku’s books invoke feelings of wonder, excitement and hope. Kaku, and authors like him, are doing Physics a great service.

(Makes me wonder—Chemistry really needs a Michio Kaku to balance out the damage done to its reputation by Breaking Bad’s Walter White.)

Physics of the Impossible is similar to his later book, Physics of the Future, which I reviewed two years ago. They’re both captivating reads. The main difference is Physics of the Future’s much smarter conclusion: that once we’ve solved one major technological problem, such as cold fusion or warm superconductors, all the other technological barriers we now face will disappear. Excitingly, Kaku just announced a new book, Future of the Mind, which is coming out in February 2014, and I definitely want to get my hands on a copy. 🙂

I recommend this book for moderate fans of either physics or science fiction. ★★★

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


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. ★★★★★

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: Chemistry by Whitten, Davis, Peck & Stanley (9th Edition)

Chemistry by Whitten, Davis, Peck & Stanlet (9th Edition)

The Most Perfect Chemistry Textbook in Existence.
1168 pages, ★★★★★

Here’s an early Christmas present for any Chemistry learners reading this post.

In the last few days, I’ve scoured dozens of Chemistry textbooks in search of “the perfect one”. My search came to an end this morning when I finally discovered Chemistry by Whitten, Davis, Peck & Stanlet (9th Edition)—commonly known as “Whitten”.

It’s visual. It’s perfect. It’s layout is clean and simple to understand. Everything’s colour-coded consistently across all 1000+ pages, and all in the right colours, too! Title fonts are humanist (similar to Myriad Pro, which is also used by Myer and Apple), instead of geometric (like Helvetica, which looks too harsh in comparison). Body text is set in a traditional, serif font (like Adobe Garamond), which is easy on the eyes during extended reading. Best of all, white space is left white, and not filled with distracting nonsense like cogs, cork boards and screws. Enjoy the sheer beauty of one of its pages here:

Whitten beautiful Chemistry textbook
A typical page from this gorgeously-curated Chemistry textbook

I was hooked already by page xxxvii.

The book looks wonderful on an iPad. It doesn’t come with all the digital bells and whistles that some textbooks have (such as 3D models) but to be honest, the static, 2D graphics in this book are of more educational value than all the graphics in interactive textbooks I’ve ever seen.

Hinze et al (2013) image
Click to read Hinze et al’s 2013 paper on the importance of ECPMs in Chemistry education

For example, electrostatic charge potential maps (ECPMs) of which I’m a huge fan, are used extensively in this book. I strongly believe in their educational value (read this paper on electrostatic charge potential maps by Hinze et al., 2013). ECPMs explain melting points, boiling points, covalent and ionic bonding, van der Waals’ forces and dipole-dipole interactions, hydrogen bonding, pH, K-values of acids and bases (Ka and Kb) and solubility, and then even help us to understanding reaction mechanisms. I believe that ECPMs are a golden bullet for learners of Chemistry, especially for visual learners, and Whitten’s Chemistry textbook uses ECPMs repeatedly throughout the whole book. Most textbooks don’t use them nearly enough.

Here’s an example of how Whitten uses ECPMs to explain trends in acidity:

Chemistry by Whitten page 358
Electrostatic charge potential maps are shown in colour. Perfect, right?

I’m reading this book on the new iPad Air. The back-lit white space that surrounds the body text clears your mind, soothes your eyes and makes the vivid diagrams stand out much more than they otherwise would. This is a no-nonsense textbook—every pixel is serves an educational purpose. And holding over 1000 of its beautiful pages in a device only 7.5 mm thin is a powerful feeling in itself! It’s like having an entire art gallery in your hand.

At over 1000 pages, it’s a very long textbook but the authors state explicitly in the foreword that nobody’s expected to read it from cover to cover. Instead, read its chapters as a supplement to your existing textbook while your Chemistry course progresses. Suitable for high school to undergraduate levels. Available easily online. Recommended for anyone who learns Chemistry visually—which is everyone 😉 ★★★★★

Book: Nelson Chemistry VCE Units 1 & 2

Nelson Chemistry VCE Units 1 & 2

Colourful VCE Chemistry textbook especially good for visual learners
492 pages, ★★★★★

I care a great deal about colour and design. My revision notes always have a colour-scheme that makes sense to me, and I draw colour-coded character maps of the novels that I read (see examples in the “Popular Today” section on the right!). Information makes so much more sense to me in visual form. You can see some of those visualisations on the infographics section of by blog.

That’s one of the reasons I loved this VCE Chemistry textbook. While it doesn’t say so explicitly, it’s noticeably designed for visual learners such as myself.

First, I love the varied yet consistent use of fonts. The main text is set in Garamond on a white background, which makes it easy on the eyes when reading. Titles, tables and questions are set in a tall, rare, old-fashioned sans-serif font on a colourful background, which gives this book its unmistakably unique appearance. Annotations and extra information is set in a neutral sans-serif font (similar to Helvetica) off to the side, usually in colour, and balances the old-fashioned feel of the other two fonts beautifully. The whole book is visually pleasing, which makes me want to spend longer looking at the pages!

I also love the visual summaries at the end of each chapter. (This is where Heinemann—another VCE Chemistry textbook—falls down.) In particular, the visual summary on page 156 explains the properties of metallic bonding clearly and beautifully in one diagram. The diagram made a relatively complicated topic very simple to understand.

Nelson VCE Chemistry 1 & 2 page 156

I hope textbooks become more and more visual. Maybe with the introduction of the iPad in schools, colourful diagrams and interactive animations will become more common in the classroom. I hope so.

I’m also not alone here. Many students I’ve taught in schools are actually averse to reading the main text in a textbook. They don’t even notice the Garamond—they only see the titles and diagrams. While we still need to focus heavily on improving literacy on the one hand, we also need to acknowledge this trend towards more visual ways of presenting information on the other.

As a teacher, I advocate more ‘translation’ activities as discussed on PEELweb.org and as is routinely done with ESL students in IELTS: set students the tasks of translating diagrams into prose and vice-versa. We need to incorporate visual learners in our curricula, for which, this textbook is an excellent starting point. ★★★★★

Book: IELTS to Success

IELTS for Success

Great IELTS advice for native speakers of English
184 pages, ★

I took IELTS recently and achieved the highest grade, band 9. IELTS is the examination system by which Australia (and many other countries) tests the English level of new immigrants.

Scores range from band 1 to band 9. Someone at band 4 is a “limited user”, band 7 is “very good”, and band 9 is “expert”. Band 7 is usually high enough to enter most professions—however, the bar is being raised to band 8 in many industries.

Most IELTS books cater to the lower bands—4, 5 and 6, across which, you can make improvements simply by learning new vocabulary and making fewer grammar mistakes. I used to teach IELTS to this category of students. Many of the other IELTS books out there will ask you to practice prepositions, spelling, word lists and simple punctuation page after page. Most native speakers, however, don’t need that kind of practice.

IELTS for Success aims to raise your score from 7 to 9, which is much more difficult to do. Only knowledge of the IELTS test can do this. The book tells you the marking criteria and the style of writing the examiners are looking for—after which, native English speakers can achieve a band 9 score.

The writing section is the trickiest. IELTS examiners are looking for a very particular style of essay. A good IELTS essay describes the merits of both sides of a given argument before reaching a wishy-washy conclusion, in which you’re allowed to sit on the fence. TOEFL, however, which is used in the United States, asks for a strongly-opinionated, one-sided argument that merely acknowledges the counterargument in no more than one sentence. IELTS for Success tells you all these tips and more.

IELTS for Success is the best IELTS book that’s aimed at native speakers.  It gives you “knowledge of the test”, as I call it, without the mid-level English practice. 

Book: Heinemann Chemistry 2 Enhanced (VCE Units 3 & 4)

Heinemann Chemistry 2 Enhanced cover

The best textbook for VCE Chemistry Units 3 & 4
496 pages, ★★★★★

Heinemann Chemistry 2 Enhanced (Heinemann 2) is the best VCE Chemistry textbook in existence. There are two other major brands (Nelson and Jacaranda) but Heinemann 2 beats both of them in terms of comprehensiveness and clarity.

I read the whole book from start to finish in preparation for teaching VCE Chemistry. I love the clarity, the use of full colour and the connections to real life in this book. I also love how the most difficult unit,  Unit 4, consists of hard and easy chapters in alternation! Left-brained chemical production processes are interspaced with right-brained “chemistry in society” chapters, which are easier to understand. The whole book is organised according to the VCE Chemistry Study Design, too—and the Key Knowledge from the Study Design are pasted at the start of each chapter.

Heinemann 2 isn’t perfect, though. I noticed two errors:

Page 91: the infra-red (IR) spectrum of ethanol is wrong. Compare the book’s example (top) with a typical example found online (bottom):

Ethanol WRONG Infrared Spectrum

Ethanol Infrared Spectrum

Why is the O-H stretch in Heinemann 2‘s spectrum so narrow and short?

Page 445: the bottom paragraph on tin plating is very unclear. The book uses “tin” to refer both to the “tin can” and to the “tin plating”, even though only the latter is actually made of tin. An extract from Heinemann 2 is below.

Confusing Extract from Heinemann 2

…that’s confusing!

With the exceptions of IR spectroscopy and tin plating, Heinemann 2 gives you comprehensive coverage of all the topics in VCE Chemistry. As long as you look up those two topics on ChemGuide, Heinemann 2 is the only textbook you’ll need to buy. ★★★★★

More resources might pique students’ interest, though. Try these websites:

  1. ChemGuide — succinct, text, covers VCE well ★★★★★
  2. Richard Thornley — tutorials for VCE and a little beyond ★★★★★
  3. Kahn Academy — tutorials for VCE and far beyond ★★★★★
  4. ShowMe — covers most of VCE ★★★★

And try these iPhone apps for organic chemistry:

  1. Organic Chemistry Nomenclature — revision flashcards ★★★
  2. MolPrime — great for drawing organic molecules with your finger ★★★
  3. ChemSpider — look up properties of the molecules you drew in MolPrime! These two apps work seamlessly together. ★★★

Book: Choose Life

Choose Life

A vision of utopia shared by East and West
375 pages, ★★★★★

This book entered my reading list via a DVD called Let Harmony Redeem (和谐拯救危机). The DVD is a dialogue between Buddhist monk Ven. Master Chin Kung and renowned Buddhist Dahui Chen. This approximately 12-hour dialogue has had massive influence in Asian countries and in overseas Asian communities by revitalising traditional Chinese culture.

The DVD was modelled on a book called Choose Life. Choose Life is a dialogue between Daisaku Ikeda and the renowned British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee. Their conversations cover all aspects of life and culture and are organised by theme. Like the DVD, Let Harmony Redeem, the authors reach a consensus on all the topics despite their very different cultural perspectives. The result is calming and utopian.

Topics in Choose Life range from subconscious thought process to the social role of literature; from our animal instincts to the ideal property market. Most interesting was the dialogue on the purpose of a school education. The authors agreed that the primary aim of education should be to teach children how to live, and practical benefit should be relegated to just a secondary aim. I agree completely.

Choose Life reminds me of The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang (reviewed here). These two books describe a meaningful life at large and small scales.

I recommend Choose Life particularly for non-Asians who want to explore East Asian culture in more depth (like me!) ★★★★★

Book: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Beautiful, credible, vivid glimpse of the future.
565 pages, ★★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

2312 is a science fiction story of love, politics, and interplanetary terrorism. While the plot is interesting in itself, the futuristic setting in which the story takes place is definitely the book’s main selling point.

This book is set in the year 2312 at a time when humans have already colonized Mars, Venus, and many asteroids and moons in our solar system. Most of them were terraformed before being settled (terraforming is a process of drastic geoengineering that involves removing entire atmospheres, changing temperatures by hundreds of degrees Kelvin or manipulating collisions with other celestial bodies to import necessary resources). Humans travel in hollowed-out asteroids called ‘terraria’ that spin to simulate gravity on their inside walls. Venus now has a giant sunshield, Mars has people living in underground caves, and the inhabitants of Mercury travel perpetually westwards to keep in line with the temperate crepuscule (and thus avoid deadly extremes of hot and cold). Mercurian ‘sunwalkers’ do this on foot, while Mercurian cities move westward on rails that circumnavigate the entire planet.

Genders are diverse in 2312. Hormone interventions before and after birth give rise to about ten different genders between between ‘male’ and ‘female’. The book implies that these intermediate genders are more advantageous than either of the traditional sexes.

Quantum computing has advanced to the point that people can wear quantum-classical hybrid computers as implants or wristwatches called ‘qubes’. Qubes can listen, speak out loud, analyse vast amounts of information and serve as a perfect memory aid for the wearer. They can’t, however, transmit signals to each other. Qubes are too personal for that—they’re used more as implants than as cellphones. I particularly love how the qubes entertain their wearers by playful use of the English language. I’ve learned about exergasia, synathroesmus, anaphora, pretended dubitation, synchoresis, aporia and many more rhetorical devices from the qubes in this book! Qubes might be inhuman in many ways, but they do have their own sense of humour.

Biomedical advances abound. DNA repair, limb regrowth, telomere extensions and wearable pharmacies (controlled by wearable qubes) have increased lifespan to at least 200 years in space. Regular visits to Earth are still necessary, however, for optimum health and longevity. The reasons for this are unknown.

Earth is devastated in this novel. Countries have been decimated into nearly 500 mini-states (and groups of mini-states with varying levels of authority), while China is the only major power. Earth is overpopulated, plagued with poverty and misery, and most progress is stifled by laws, politics and taboos. My favourite criticisms of Earth are that the gravity is “too high” and “nobody looks at the stars”! Protagonist Swan says that gravity is much more comfortable on Mercury and Mars—both are just 0.38 g.

I loved how China was so powerful in this novel. Best of all, heroic protagonist Swan Er Hong, who is both male and female, and capable of interplanetary travel at over 100 years old, has an unmistakably Chinese name. Venus is inhabited by Chinese descendents and Venusian streets are cluttered with slogans written in Chinese characters. On Earth, China has been strong for “most of history” except for the “brief period of subjugation to Europe” (referring to the period between 1850 and 1949). As a massive fan of Chinese culture, all these subtle details make me proud. Even the title of this book, 2312, makes a subtle reference to China’s power: “GB2312” was the code name for the first official set of Chinese characters used on computer systems worldwide in 1980.

The notion in 2312 that space-dwellers should return to Earth every few years to recuperate (called “Gaian replenishment”) is an ironic one. Reading this, I immediately thought of overseas Chinese who return to China to ‘recuperate’ every so often—despite the crowds, the pollution, and the stress that it causes. The idea of ‘recuperating’ in such a dystopian environment reminded me that just as Earth is an integral part of human nature in 2312, China is an integral part of Chinese people today—however irrational that might seem.

I also loved the mixture of writing styles in this book. The author uses ‘lists’ (descriptive poetry that sets the scene much quicker than prose); ‘extracts’ (snippets of scientific journal abstracts that explain science fiction much quicker than prose); and ‘quantum walks’ (which follow the thought processes of a personal quantum computer called a ‘qube’). In my opinion, these diverse writing styles, which amount to about 10-20% of the book, enrich the story, not distract from it. However, some reviewers disagree. Many of this book’s worst reviews make negative reference to these ‘poetic’ chapters. I love them, though.

The broad range of themes in this book should appeal to a very wide audience. Readers with an appreciation for science fiction and human development may enjoy it more than those without; and readers with the patience and imagination to understand poetry will appreciate the chapters written as ‘lists’, ‘extracts’ or ‘quantum walks’ much more than those without. This is one of few books that I can positively recommend for anyone who enjoys reading. ★★★★★

Finally, the blurb for this book on Goodreads is completely wrong.

Book: Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences

Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences

Comprehensive analysis of ALL American/Chinese differences—starting with sex!
568 pages, ★★★★★

Many books are dedicated to the differences between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ culture. I’ve reviewed The Geography of ThoughtMao’s Last DancerBomb, Book & Compass and many more here on this blog. None of these books are nearly as comprehensive and readable as Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences. This book covers almost every aspect of culture—starting with sex—and makes The Geography of Thought—to which I naïvely gave five stars the first time around—look especially simplistic by comparison.

The book begins with a premise that American life discourages intimacy. The author goes on to say that Americans chase money, material objects and weapons more readily than do their Chinese counterparts because Americans generally lack the tradition of strong social ties—guanxi—that are so prevalent in China.

While The Geography of Thought over-analysed the simplistic thesis that “America is a line; China is a circle”, this book gives us a more intelligent alternative:

U.S. society is individual-centred;
Chinese society is situation-centred.

This book goes describes differences in:

  • Relationships
  • Love (“how does my heart feel?” vs “what will other people say?”)
  • Raising children (bottom-up vs top-down) and how people celebrate children’s birthdays
  • Art and storytelling (briefly)
  • Education (fun vs rigid)
  • Religion, monotheism and the role of God
  • Attitude to animals
  • Sense of security
  • Attitude towards old age
  • Weaknesses and how they are dealt with

In all cases, this book focuses more on the “what” than on the “why”. It’s very lucid, very readable, and is authoritative without being dry. Basically, this book’s perfect!

Best of all, I love the examples and stories that illustrate these differences. In one instance, the author compares the flood story from the Bible with a flood story from Chinese history (~2500 B.C). The author shows how the responses and attitudes towards fate, nature and the common people in these two stories represent their respective cultures. (Noah was a saved, chosen ‘hero’; whereas the Chinese were supposed to stay put and abate the effects of their flood collectively.)

This book makes it easier for westerners to understand Chinese ways. Many books have attempted to do this, and some have succeeded, but this effort outshines the competition by far. For anyone who wants to increase their understanding of Chinese/Western culture, this book is an excellent place to start. I highly recommend this book. ★★★★★

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Book: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Life-changing classic about pursuing dreams.
174 pages, ★★★★★

I loved this book but many online critics have given it just one star. Critics say it’s too simple, too cliché, and the moral of the story is either too individualistic or only concerns men. Personally, I give it five stars for all the same reasons. Commercially, The Alchemist has been a huge success (65 million copies have been sold). Fans of this book include Bill Clinton and Will Smith.

Rather than show you my opinion on this book, check out the following video instead. Watch Will Smith talk about The Alchemist at 01:25.


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Book: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Comical, surreal, unmistakably British.
400 pages, ★★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages takes ‘normal’ British life and makes it increasingly surreal. The story focuses on office worker Polly and her brother Don (who reminds me of the man who nearly adopted Juno’s baby in the film Juno), whose lives become punctuated by increasingly bizarre episodes. The story is set in modern-day Britain, and British references are glaringly obvious on every page.

Bizarre incidents begin after page 53 when Don’s desk snaps completely in half under the pressure of a brass pencil sharpener. What’s equally strange is that it repairs itself on the same page, and this doesn’t seem to surprise Don in the slightest. The book is very ‘normal’ up to this point so I started to rationalise the desk’s breakage logically—Is it a folding desk? Is is actually a portable picnic table? By the time I realised this book was logically irreconcilable, I was already 30 pages from the end.

More bizarre events include shops, houses and streets that vanish (becoming green fields) overnight, Mr Huos being translocated suddenly up a mountain, the introduction of seemingly irrelevant, disconnected storylines, and a Ford Cortina being driven by a flock of chickens. Characters take notice of these surreal events about halfway through the book and start referring to the “It” and then “magic” influencing their lives. The most obvious piece of “magic” happens when Stan Gogerty meets a real-life CGI gingerbread-man copy of himself—an impossible meeting that gives him great insight into the perpetual “chicken and egg question” that emerges later on.

The most subtle piece of ‘magic’ in this novel is when two characters morph into two of the other characters. This could be easy to miss. On page 152, we meet Mary and Martin, whose relationships with Mr Huos and with each other seem remarkably similar to those of Polly and Don, who we met in the first chapter. Then, between pages 152 and 158, the storyline of Mary and Martin becomes the storyline of Polly and Don! Page 152 uses the former pair of names (just once); page 158 uses the latter set of names (twice), and the pages in the middle use pronouns (he, she and Mr. Huos) to disguise the subtle transition. This happens again later when we learn that Rachel, Polly and “dozens of others” work simultaneously in the same office for Mr Huos; and again when Ed Hopkins, Jack Tedesci and some other characters all discover the houses they bought just yesterday have gone missing.

British humour is found throughout. Most obviously, it’s in the sheer absurdity of the plot (we Brits find that funny in itself). Finding humour in futility is also a remarkably British trait, and the introduction of apparently irrelevant storylines (such as the motorcade of world leaders) and the intermittent discussion of the “chicken and egg question” serves that end very well.

I grew up in Britain, and therefore found such overtly British jokes as “…like what would happen if the Tardis’ navigation system got replaced by the computer that runs baggage handling at Heathrow” and “…like the M25 tailback in ‘92 that became so dense it achieved critical mass and collapsed into a black hole” much funnier than if I’d grown up elsewhere. The more subtle jokes, though, such as, “caught the Tube at Livingstone Square” on page 222, might only be intelligible to people who have lived in London for some time. In fact, some of the jokes in this is novel are so British that I question whether non-Brits would find them funny at all.

There are also many similes and metaphors that use animals—I counted a daddy long-legs, a “goldfish impression”, two elephants, three cats, and dozens of chickens and pigs. The best animal reference of all was, “still looked very sad indeed, like a spaniel whose bone was stolen by an Alsatian”. Animal references made me smile in many places.

I strongly recommend this book for those with an appreciation of British humour. When reading it, challenge yourself by seeing how long you can keep track of the logical inconsistencies in this book. Treat it as a mental exercise. I’ve attached a character map below, to which you can refer if you get stuck. ★★★★★

Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Book: Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs and Steel

460 pages, ★★★★★

Guns, Germs and Steel does three things:

  • It counteracts the misconception that “since the fifteenth century, enlightened Europeans have colonised simplistic New World natives”. Author Jared Diamond demonstrates how stronger societies have colonised weaker societies for all of human history, not just in the last 500 years.
  • It counteracts the idea that “European society was advanced compared to the rest of the world because European people were more intelligent”. The author states that people worldwide are of roughly the same intelligence—so something else must have accounted for the developmental disparity among cultures pre-globalisation (i.e. before 1500).
  • It reasserts the idea that China is a unique place that tends to buck the trends of world history, usually to its own benefit.

Some notes I made on this book are listed below.

Why farm?

  • Nutrition decreases.
  • Risk of starvation decreases.
  • Settlements, villages and towns are built.
  • No need to carry babies when migrating, so birth rate increases.
  • Population increases.

Food production originated in four main places:

  1. Iran/Iraq
  2. Mexico/Andes
  3. China
  4. African Sahel

We domesticated plants that were:

  • Convenient
  • Available
  • Self-propagating
  • Easy to modify/breed selectively (this depends on their genetics)
  • Not sought after in huge numbers by animals (squirrels prevented us from cultivating acorns)

Humans first domesticated animals with the following characteristics:

  1. Herbivores—carnivores are too expensive to feed;
  2. Fast-growing;
  3. Safe—poses no threat to humans, even in large numbers;
  4. Timid—pose no threat to each other;
  5. Willing to breed in captivity—even today, cheetahs can’t be tamed for this reason;
  6. Have a social hierarchy that features subservience—they obey humans

Anna Karenina Principle: “all families are the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Author Jared Diamond applies this logic to animal domestication (all undomesticated animals, such as cheetahs, giraffes and llamas were unsuitable in varying ways).


Why was Europe so advanced by the year 1500?

  1. Its East-West axis is easy to populate with humans, animals and crops. Most other continents have a North-South axis.
  2. Its native domesticable crops had a high protein content.
  3. Europe has no “severe ecological barriers” such as deserts, isthmi or impassable mountain ranges.
  4. Agriculture led to: food surplus, high population density, government, technology and the spread of germs. These all proved useful when conquering overseas territory.

There is still some debate as to whether idea diffusion (slow) or blueprint copying (quick) allowed for the spread of pyramidswheelsgunpowder and the atomic bomb.

There are no geniuses in history. Author Jared Diamond called statements such as “X invented Y in year Z” a “fallacy”. All great inventions (the example of the steam engine is detailed in this book) were built upon long chains of previous ideas that spanned long periods of time.

Both East and West are resistant to innovation. QWERTY keyboards were designed to slow typists down as not to jam old typewriters. Transistors were not adopted because of vested interests in vacuum tubes.

What makes societies welcome innovation?

  1. Labour shortage—search for technological solutions
  2. Patents reward innovation
  3. Technological training provides people with the means to innovate
  4. Capital investment structures invest in start-ups

What personality traits in a society make people welcome innovation?

  1. Individualism—personally, I question this one.
  2. Risk-taking behaviour
  3. Scientific outlook
  4. Tolerance of diverse views
  5. Religion must support technology—or it will not be adopted

States are inevitable in the long-run and arise from the following factors:

  1. Aristotle: “states are a natural condition of human society”. Too vague.
  2. Rosseau: “states are a social contract”. Not always true.
  3. Hydraulic theory: “complex systems (e.g. irrigation) require states to manage and maintain them”.

    Jared Diamond prefers number 3, Hydraulic theory, then suggests two more factors:
  4. Food production (1) requires division of labour, which needs to be decided; (2) creates a food surplus, which needs to be managed; and (3) gives some people sedentary jobs, which require being allocated in some way.
  5. Population expansion beyond a few hundred people makes most people strangers rather than friends. Large populations thus need some fraction of society to be responsible for maintaining social order. Author Jared Diamond suggests that any large population without a state would have quickly collapsed into anarchy (or formed a state).

Of bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states (human population groups in increasing order of size), only chiefdoms and states can justify kleptocracy.

Kleptocracy needs to (author says, “it is in the interests of a kleptocracy to…”):

  1. Disarm the populace and arm the ruling élite;
  2. Redistribute wealth in popular ways;
  3. Promote happiness;
  4. Promote an ideology or religion that justifies kleptocracy. The author notes that governance ideology can be as strong (or stronger) than technology in giving power to states. Mao’s China and the Mtetwa Chiefdom are two technologically-weak, ideologically-strong states.

What helped unify China?

  1. Large East-West rivers helped East-West expansion
  2. China is wider than it is tall (that’s the East-West thing again)
  3. No major deserts/mountain ranges/isthmi in the middle
  4. Graphic writing system allowed for the unification of different spoken dialects—the author doesn’t mention this in Guns, Germs and Steel but has mentioned it elsewhere.

Most amazingly, Taiwanese explorers colonised both Polynesia and Madagascar! Evidence includes:

  1. Ta-p’en-k’eng pottery & stone tools, originally from Taiwan, which reached Polynesian islands at different dates;
  2. Canoe design, which evolved from island to island.

Four crucial technologies for the advancement of society:

  1. Germs—endemic germs weaken any enemies upon contact;
  2. Metallurgycopper then bronze then iron;
  3. Military technology—including animals and military philosophy;
  4. Machinerywagons, ploughs;
  5. Wheelstransport, power;
  6. Seafaringships, navigation systems;
  7. Writing—allows for the last point, which is:
  8. Political organisation—allows for large projects via pooling of capital.

Back to the point about “there are no geniuses in history”, the author states that Alexander the Great, Augustus, Buddha, Christ, Lenin, Martin Luther King, Pachacuti, Mohammed, William the Conqueror, Shaka (and I’ll add Confucius, echoing Roger Ames’ example) weren’t single-handed geniuses. They just described/personified trend that was already underway. In other words, Confucius didn’t invent Confucianism!

What’s missing from this book is:

  • How crops shaped religion (rice: collective work; wheat: exaggerated gender differences; fish: superstition).

Jared Diamond’s conclusion:

  • History is a science;
  • Historians can predict large trends but not the minute details;
  • The three conclusions I wrote at the top of this post.

I recommend this book for everyone. A perfect sequel to this book is Collapse by the same author. My review of Collapse is also coming soon. ★★★★★