Fine, let’s do this. Last year’s entry is here, though both it and that of the year before are still on the front page, too.
Apparently I finished 64 books in 2011. Specifically, these:
Fine, let’s do this. Last year’s entry is here, though both it and that of the year before are still on the front page, too.
Let’s do this while I’m still sort of sober.
Looks like I didn’t blog a lot this year. Last year’s book post is still on the front page. Anyway, I didn’t finish quite as many books this year as I did then, but I surpassed my annual target of fifty; I finished fifty-eight:
It’s probably unlikely that I’m going to finish another book in the five and a half hours left in 2009, so I’m going to post this while we’re waiting for snacks.
I don’t have any bad habits, so my only New Year’s resolution tends to be to read fifty books in a year. Last year I didn’t quite make it, but apparently I more than made up for it this year. I finished eighty-eight:
The Ancestor’s Tale Richard Dawkins
Snow Crash Neal Stephenson
An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe Leon Trotsky
The Origin of Species Charles Darwin
The Fabric of the Cosmos Brian Greene
Anansi Boys Neil Gaiman
I Am a Strange Loop Douglas Hofstadter
Why I Am Not a Christian Bertrand Russell
Gödel, Escher, Bach Douglas Hofstadter
JPod Douglas Coupland
Your Inner Fish Neil Shubin
Deep Simplicity John Gribbin
On Natural Selection Charles Darwin
Mathematics for the Imagination Peter M. Higgins
The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1 Karl Popper
Atheist Manifesto Michel Onfray
The Satanic Verses Salman Rushdie
Yiddish Policemen’s Union Michael Chabon
The Extended Phenotype Richard Dawkins
The Chronicles of Narnia Clive “Staples” Lewis
Freakonomics Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
How to Solve It George Pólya
Failed States Noam Chomsky
Hegemony or Survival Noam Chomsky
Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft H. P. Lovecraft
What We Say Goes Noam Chomsky
Wealth of Nations Adam Smith
Consciousness Explained Daniel Dennett
Life’s Grandeur Stephen Jay Gould
A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper John Allen Paulos
The Myths We Live By Mary Midgley
The Tiger That Isn’t Michael Blastland, Andrew Dilnot
The Essential Turing B. Jack Copeland
The Mismeasure of Man Stephen Jay Gould
Faust (Frühe Fassung) Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Paradise Lost, and Other Poems John Milton
Physics of the Impossible Michio Kaku
Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond
The Trouble With Physics Lee Smolin
The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood
De la Terre à la Lune Jules Verne
The Drunkard’s Walk Leonard Mlodinow
Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck
Stephen Fry in America Stephen Fry
The Road Cormac McCarthy
Voyage au Centre de la Terre Jules Verne
De Weduwe Becker Maurice Roelants
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Susanna Clarke
You Shall Know Our Velocity Dave Eggers
Frankenstein Mary Shelley
Computer Networks Andrew S. Tanenbaum
Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie
Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
The Fountainhead Ayn Rand
Lolita Vladimir Nabokov
The Greatest Show on Earth Richard Dawkins
Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen
Dubliners James Joyce
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S. Thompson
Het Achterhuis Anne Frank
God Created the Integers Stephen Hawking
Shalimar the Clown Salman Rushdie
Nation Terry Pratchett
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Jonathan Safran Foer
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Seth Grahame-Smith, Jane Austen
A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole
The Penelopiad Margaret Atwood
Dracula: the Un-dead Dacre Stoker, Ian Holt
House of Leaves Mark Z. Danielewski
The Universe John Gribbin
The Zombie Survival Guide Max Brooks
Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Mark Haddon
Curious Pursuits Margaret Atwood
Speak, Memory Vladimir Nabokov
We Have Always Lived in the Castle Shirley Jackson
Winnie-the-Pooh A. A. Milne
The Night Watch Sergei Lukyanenko
The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing Richard Dawkins
Unknown Quantity John Derbyshire
A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens
The Yellow Wallpaper, and Selected Writings Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Day Watch Sergei Lukyanenko
The Twilight Watch Sergei Lukyanenko
The Last Watch Sergei Lukyanenko
Lord of the Flies William Golding
So I guess I only need 46 next year to maintain my average.
Reviews for a significant number of those can be found on the Facebook (or here, which is the same place). I’d use LibraryThing, but you need a paid account to have more than two hundred books on it, and I don’t trust them enough to give them credit card information.
If someone wants to send me money for it, though, you know my Paypal address.
Best fiction: probably Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, though Margaret Atwood is a good writer.
Worst fiction: Rand, obviously. CS Lewis is a close second. Even Neal Stephenson isn’t that shit.
Best non-fiction: Nothing earth-shattering this year. I guess John Allen Paulos’s A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper was pretty good.
Worst non-fiction: Mary Midgley’s Myths We Live By. I’m not sure it even deserves to be called non-fiction. Runner-up goes to Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.
My social and academic environments aren’t exactly intellectually stimulating, so I get most of the programming problems I fill my days with—and of which the ones that are the most fun to talk about end up here—from books I read. Since I’ve already read every interesting sciencey non-fiction book available in Leuven, I’ve mostly been reading fiction lately, which doesn’t exactly inspire interesting algorithms, which is why I haven’t been bloggering as much.
In an effort not to let my programming skills get too rusty, I decided to write a thing that validates and parses ISBNs, extracting the publisher information and other things that are supposed to be in ISBNs. This turned out to be annoyingly non-trivial, so instead I’m just going to write about the numbers themselves.
As you probably know, ISBNs are a book numbering scheme standardised by ISO in 1970 (as ISO 2108), based on an earlier 9-digit scheme (SBN) used in the UK. It had ten digits until recently (January 2007), when it was expanded to 13. I assumed the expansion was because they were running out of numbers (which they were), but I also noticed every 13-digit ISBN started with 978, which was odd.
Old ten-digit ISBNs consist of a group identifier, which mostly identifies the language the work is in and is of variable length (it’s a prefix code,0 to avoid ambiguity; the 9-digit SBNs ISBN is based on didn’t have a group identifier, but prepending a 0 to them (one of the codes for English-language works) turns them into valid ISBNs), followed by a publisher code (again of variable length), followed by an item identifier, followed by a single check digit, used to make sure the other numbers were entered properly.1
New thirteen-digit ISBNs are basically the same thing with 978 prepended, and the check digit is calculated differently.
So hey, this doesn’t expand the number space. What’s the deal?
The deal turns out to be EAN, or European Article Numbers.
EANs are similar to North-American UPCs, with which they are compatible. It’s a barcoding technology intended to help track items in stores. UPC numbers are twelve digits long, and EANs thirteen.2
EANs start with a two- or three-digit GS1 prefix, which is basically a country code. Somewhere along the way someone realised that books are things that are sold too, and books have ISBNs, and let’s not waste a lot of disk space storing two numbers when one will do, so the GS1 prefix 978 was created, for Bookland, the magical land where all books are printed.
Because someone had the foresight to realise ISBN would run out of numbers eventually, they also reserved 979, and since the last digit of an EAN is also a checksum digit, people didn’t want to maintain two different methods of computing checksums, and the 13-digit ISBN was created. All of the old ISBNs map to new ones seamlessly, and new ones will mostly continue to be allocated in area 978 until that’s full, which is why 978 numbers are still by far the most common ISBN-13s.3
The term Bookland is now considered deprecated because people are boring twats and GS1 prefixes stopped being country codes and started being organisation codes, and 978 and 979 are registered to the International ISBN Agency, but it’s a cute bit of trivia.
Anyway, because I don’t want this post to be entirely worthless, here‘s a tiny script that takes a 9-digit SBN or 10-digit ISBN as input and produces the new 13-digit equivalent.
(Incidentally, that image is the ISBN for Karl Popper’s Logik der Forschung. It should not be taken as an endorsement of that tedious asshole’s work, but rather as laziness on my part, because it’s the first picture in the Wikipedia article on ISBN.)
1 Wikipedia claims it’s a modulo 11 affair, with X substituting for 10, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen X as a check digit. I’ll admit I haven’t been paying a lot of attention, though.
2 EAN-13, at least, which is the most common. There are others, but I’ve never seen them used. Apparently EAN-8 is common on cigarettes.
3 Something analogous happened with periodicals and their ISSN, with Unique Country Code 977, but that story is a bit more complicated because ISSNs are only eight digits long.
Writers of the world: if you’re going to write about how all of science is wrong, at least have the decency to understand at least one of the specific topics you intend to write about.
Every fucking sentence in this book is wrong in some way.
She whines about memetics (which apparently says ideas are like alien insects that can be exterminated with the right pesticide), objectivity (apparently the fact that there are degrees of objectivity means that it’s an incoherent concept), social contracts (incompatible with fundamental human rights, in her mind), the “omnicompetence” of science (being the idea that science can answer any question; she doesn’t even make a case against this, but just repeats the definition a few times while waving her arms wildly (though she does reinvent NOMA yet again while doing so)), parsimony (I still don’t know what she thinks that word means), reductionism (her understanding of which is unplagued by such concepts as emergent complexity, and of course reductionists never see the value of high-level abstraction), behaviorism (which apparently says mind doesn’t do anything), sociobiology (which can’t discuss altruism because it’s not supposed to deal with motives), genes influencing behavior (without even having the decency of building a decent straw man out of genetic determinism), “scientific monoculture” (she doesn’t explicitly say “science is just one way of knowing”, but her arguments, such as they are, do boil down to it), memes again (even more confused than the first time; did you know that in spite of what Dawkins actually said, Dawkins defined memes as static entities?), reductionism again, free market economics (it’s social Darwinism, dontchaknow), the explanatory power of selection (apparently the fact that wrongheaded rules-lawyering is possible undermines the whole concept), and a host of other misunderstood topics (reductionism and memetics among them) too tedious to enumerate.
Her examples of science “done right” are far in between, but equally sad: the Gaia of Margulis and Sagan, and Paul Davies’ dipshitted blather on consciousness and religion.
Considering how obsessed this woman seems to be with Dawkins, she seems to have read very little of his work. If not for some intensely dishonest quotemines sprinkled throughout the book (though Dawkins is far from her only victim in that regard), I’d say all of her information comes from glancing at a blurb on the back cover of The Selfish Gene.
And considering that this book is supposed to be anti-establishment wank, it seems to rely on appeals to authority a bit too much. For instance, did you know Darwin said in the sixth edition of Origin that he didn’t think natural selection was the only driving force behind evolution? Mary Midgley does! Never mind that Darwin didn’t know about genes and so was understandably confused about genetic drift, clearly Dawkins and Dennett are so wrong even people a century-and-a-half ago disagree with them!
It’s not just the things she explicitly tackles that she’s ignorant about though; her digressions and off-the-cuff remarks indicate that she’s ignorant about topics ranging from basic history all the way to basic physics. It should be obvious by now that she’s also incapable of elementary-school-level reading comprehension, though apparently she can type (but not necessarily spell; she mixes British and American spellings (though to be fair, so do I)), if not actually construct a coherent argument. I really don’t know why any publisher would print her drivel, or why anyone with a high school education would read it and come away liking it, as at least six people seem to have done, judging from the cover. I can see how you could fall for the quotemining if you aren’t actually familiar at all with any of the work she discusses, but I find it hard to believe anyone unfamiliar with all of it (which would require both homeschooling and living under a rock) would actually pick up a book by a self-proclaimed “philosopher of science”.
The Myths We Live By is easily the worst book I have ever read. It beats out even Snow Crash. Compared to this, Gödel, Escher, Bach was
a masterpiece worth reading. This is now the third book, after Paul Davies’ The Goldilocks Enigma and Paul Arden’s God Explained in a Taxi Ride, that I refuse to keep on my shelves. It’s an endless parade of straw men and painful (and hopefully deliberate) misinterpretation.
tl;dr: Mary Midgley doesn’t know shit about anything she writes about and is a profoundly unpleasant person. I find it hard to believe anyone could genuinely be that dense, so I would say she’s senile or otherwise feebleminded, insane or driven to deliberate misunderstanding (perhaps by lust for publicity or hatred of Dawkins), or a very elaborate troll.
Since I’m a very generous person when it comes to judging others, I’m going with senile.
I want my €20.15 back.
So I didn’t quite reach my goal of finishing fifty books this year like I did last year (or my personal record of 200, in 2004). I blame the dearth of good books I haven’t read yet in the various bookstores I frequent, and the fact that I started taking my laptop to school instead of books, now that the wireless internets finally work throughout the building.
I still finished sixteen:
- Irreligion John Allen Paulos
- Math Hysteria Ian Stewart
- Introduction to Cryptography and Network Security Behrouz A. Forouzan
- Barking Tom Holt
- The Goldilocks Enigma Paul Davies
- I Am Legend Richard Matheson
- God Is Not Great Christopher Hitchens
- Making Money Terry Pratchett
- Animal Farm George Orwell
- God Explained in a Taxi Ride Paul Arden
- Jippus et Jannica Annie M.G. Schmidt
- The Red Queen Matt Ridley
- Flatland Edwin Abbott Abbott
- Collapse Jared Diamond
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick
- Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities Ian Stewart
Most of those were either relatively unremarkable or utter crap. And no, Snow Crash isn’t on that list, because it was too shit to finish.
But at least it’s over now. Exams start January 8th, Dynamic Websites project is due December 31st. I’ve done all my Christmas shopping, and the first family Christmas party isn’t until some time around New Year. I’m just not going to leave my bed for a week, I think.
In unrelated news, apparently the people recommending Snow Crash were trolling.
That may be too generous an assumption, but the alternative (that someone would actually like this book) is a bit too hard to believe. It reads like Jargon File fan fiction co-authored by Cory Doctorow and Shii.
The protagonist is a
weeaboo half-Asian nigra Hacker™ (the last one, naturally) who wears a black leather kimono and carries around two Japanese Nipponese swords, being the best swordsman in Second Life the Metaverse (he doesn’t get credit for “predicting” Second Life; this was written after the invention of the Internet and right in the middle of the first 3D gaming hype). His sidekick is that classic cyberpunk archetype, the 15-year-old technoslut who takes off her clothes in her very first character development scene. The storyline is basically masturbatory techomysticism catering to 15-year-old wannabe Hackers™.
It’s one of those books where the author tries to disguise the fact that he has the vocabulary of a third-grader by making up half the words, and where “deliberate” shit writing is supposed to mean that he has a self-deprecating sense of humor. I’m sure the over-the-top stupidity is just parody, or something.
I really want to like cyberpunk. The concept is great in theory, and it tends to make for pretty visuals. If this and William Gibson are the best it can do, though, maybe it’s time for the genre to die.
I said I was going to read fifty books in 2007, and I thought I was at 48, but when I was actually making the list earlier (because bored) it turned out I’d miscounted, and I had, in fact, read fifty.
Since it’s unlikely I’ll be finishing any of the books I’m reading right now before New Year (I tend to only read when skipping class), I’m just going to post it now and declare victory. As such, in alphabetical order by author:
This took a while to finish. In part because I’m reading too many books at once, but also because it’s so depressing I had to put it down a few times.
Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, published in 1962, is single-handedly responsible for revitalising the environmental movement around the world. I wanted to read it just for historical context, but the message is so powerful and important that it’s still a very important book.
The book is mainly concerned with indiscriminate pesticides (biocides) such as DDT and various chlorinated hydrocarbons. The book is, of course, famous for inspiring a movement that would very quickly get most of these banned, and it’s very obvious why.
She describes the various projects in the ’50s and ’60s that used these biocides, and how they have a tendency to not just affect the insects or plants targetted, but also, through a process of bioaccumulation in which the pesticides get stored in the bodies of animals in greater and greater doses as they travel up the food chain (that is, a single insect may contain X amount of DDT; a bird that eats twenty of those insects would contain 20X, and because it passes from the system only very slowly, it will remain there while that bird keeps eating insects, or while it is eaten itself), with the result that in the end, applications of these biocides end up killing enormous numbers of larger animals; several projects she described have been successful in wiping out all birds, squirrels, and fish in the (generally very large) treated areas, while not affecting the target insects very much at all, except by removing its natural predators, which, of course, is rather counterproductive.
And of course it’s not just dangerous to birds and the like. She documents a number of cases of human casualties; hardly surprising, given the toxicity of the products involving. Even if death doesn’t occur, permanent brain damage is far more common than it should be, in people handling or just being casually exposed to these supposedly safe products.
And even forgetting the immediate toxicity, there are long-term effects to be considered. Many of the products she talks about (including DDT) are powerful carcinogens. And speaking of long-term effects, insects, with their short generation times, are, of course, going to build up a resistance (and already have), so people will only keep using more and more dangerous pesticides.
She ends the book with alternative approaches to insect control, mostly through introducing natural predators of the insects involved. This has the advantage of being much cheaper and species-specific, and there’s no danger of developing resistance. Or, of course, poisoning your cat.
It’s all very, very depressing to read. If nothing else, it destroyed the myth that “if it’s bad for you, the government wouldn’t allow it!”. Fortunately, Carson’s book made a difference and got all of the products she discusses essentially banned; DDT was banned in the US in 1972, and in most of the rest of the world over the next few decades. Dieldrin, aldrin, endrin, chlordane, heptachlor, and its ilk soon followed.
Regulations on biocides and pest control became stricter and more sane, and most of the projects Carson describes would now be immediately dismissed as retardedly reckless.
Still, it’s alarming how many assholes are out to reverse the DDT ban. The meme that a DDT ban caused thousands/millions/billions of preventable deaths due to malaria is still out there, and for some inexplicable reason gaining support, even though it’s complete nonsense.
It’s important to remember that these people, regardless of their motivation (be it Kool-Aid-flavored ignorance or outright malice (well, greed; same thing)), are very directly working to kill your children.
This is only barely hyperbolic.
(If Rachel Carson and the things she cares about interest you, Deltoid is a very interesting blog that often deals with DDT nutjobs.)
I finished this one a while ago, but I guess I never got around to reviewing it. What is Life? is, of course, a famous work by Erwin Schrödinger, of cat fame.
In it, he argues that chromosomes behave according to physical laws classical physics can’t really approach, since classical physical laws are statistical, and only hold for large numbers of molecules, while a chromosome is in essence just one very large molecule. He speculates that DNA is, in fact, a large aperiodic crystal, and muses about the ways in which it could encode hereditary information.
And yes, it’s all speculation. This was written in 1944, well before the actual structure of DNA became known, and, indeed, long before much of anything was known about genetics. It still speaks about DNA as being the carrier of heredity in the hypothetical, even.
What is Life? was a visionary work, and its influence is undeniable. Even today, it can still inspire people because of the intense sense of curiosity it conveys (Schrödinger was, after all, a theoretical physicist first, but he didn’t let that stop him from delving into this alien field of biology).
As a source of accurate information, though, it’s much more likely to misguide than to educate, at this point, so it really isn’t a book uninformed laypeople should be reading. Still, if you know a bit about genetics and molecular biology, it’s a very interesting read for its historic value.
This edition also contains Mind and Matter, an essay I didn’t bother reading since I figured it would make me angry (especially since Roger Penrose wrote the introduction), and Autobiographical Sketches, in which Schrödinger talks about his life.
This is particularly interesting, since Schrödinger was, after all, a scientist during the World Wars (which is always an interesting topic; just look at Richard Feynman). Moreover, he was Austrian, so he spent much of his time on the side we never really hear first-hand accounts from. It’s nice to hear someone talk about this without the off-hand demonisation we’ve become so used to.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, could have been a reasonably interesting book, if only it hadn’t been written by a moron.
It purports to present a general overview of the state of our knowledge of the world around us, but it… doesn’t.
Bryson just jumped into a few specific fields, but it’s painfully obvious he doesn’t have a science background, and he doesn’t have any way to tell unimportant details and junk science from the real stuff. The former wouldn’t be that much of a problem, but the latter is absolutely fatal.
I’m not sure if Bryson thought he could do this because he was motivated by a genuine thirst for knowledge, or if he was just assuming that anything a scientist could do, he should be able to understand fully with ease (that is, this refusal to believe that some people are just smarter than others, which is characteristic of many, many stupid people), but somewhere along the way I think he realised he just didn’t understand what he was talking about, so he turned to human interest stories and sensationalistic catastrophism.
Don’t get me wrong—I like reading about people. Most works on popular science do tend to overlook scientists are human too, and just ignore the combination of situations that led up to important discoveries. In his eagerness to provide this “novel” view of things, though, Bryson is far too willing to just pull things out of his ass.
Still, that doesn’t annoy me nearly as much as his aforementioned catastrophism.
Maybe he felt the general public kicks on fear. Maybe he was right. Either way, after the first section, the entire book just collapses into a pile of FUD: asteroids are going to kill us all and there’s nothing we can do about it, Yellowstone is going to kill us all and there’s nothing we can do about it, disease is going to kill us all and there’s nothing we can do about it, we almost never existed thousands of times over, &c.
All of it is empty bullshit designed to grab people’s attention without having to bother with facts.
Because obviously, facts aren’t his strong point. He perpetuates some embarrassingly obvious myths (like the medieval flowing glass one, and one particularly painful creationist quotemine), and gets some easily-checked facts spectacularly wrong (including the definition of hominid, and a particularly bad one where he called the Spanish flu the worst epidemic in recorded history).
His chapter on climatology seems to be designed to feed global warming denialism, and the bit on human evolution seems designed to bolster supporters of special creation (or, at the very least, multiregionalists).
Even if you’re willing to put up with that, it’s painfully obvious that Bryson just doesn’t understand how science works.
Fully half of the book is devoted to “failings of science” (unafraid to invent some along the way), emphasising how little we know and how often we’ve “changed our minds”. We could use some books to point out limitations in our current knowledge, but Bryson seems to be attacking the very idea of scientific knowledge itself, again simply to get attention.
It’s more than pathetic: it’s harmful.
Bill Bryson probably did more harm to the cause of science with this one book than a thousand earnest creationists ever could.
The fact that it was so popular and got such good reviews indicates just how insidious its effects will turn out to be.
Bryson deserves as many public ridiculings as there are atoms in the period at the end of this sentence: over nine thousand.
(I’m not even tagging this as anything science-related.)
Imagining Numbers (Particularly the Square Root of Minus Fifteen), by Barry Mazur, is about the history and mathematics of imaginary numbers, and how mathematical imagination lines up with the more classic, “poetic” imagination.
That’s quite an ambitious undertaking, and I don’t think the book quite lives up to it.
Maybe I just have a really idiosyncratic way of looking at poetry, but most of the poems he brings into play don’t seem very interesting to me at all, and his interpretations of them strike me as too personal to be of much use in this general kind of topic. I could be wrong.
Either way, the bit I bought the book for was, of course, the history of mathematics, and the mathematics itself.
It’s possible there just isn’t a lot of history to imaginary numbers, but I was disappointed to find he only talks about a handful of European mathematicians, and never even mentions similar concepts in other civilisations. Maybe there just aren’t any.
The mathematics themselves are kind of all over the place, too. It’s like Mazur either couldn’t decide between an entry-level book and a “proper” work on mathematics, or he just got tired of explaining things somewhere along the way. He devotes most of a chapter to very tediously explaining the associative and distributive properties of addition and multiplication, and later on just breezes past important concepts with a simple “Here is an exercise for you”.
The various exercises throughout the book are pretty interesting and fun to do, though, but it does mean it’s hard to read it between classes and on the train and whatnot, which I tend to do.
Still, figuring out what equals (and what that means), while not particularly hard, is the type of mathematics I haven’t been able to do in a long time, and it’s a nice change of pace.
So, on the whole, I thought Imagining Numbers was a pretty good book, though I doubt most people would enjoy it much. It’s not as good as some other popular science type mathematics books I’ve read, but still.
I do think it could have been much better if it had been twice as long, though. It’s about 230 pages (not including notes), and it feels kind of superficial and rushed in places.
Innumeracy, by John Allen Paulos, is about (surprisingly) innumeracy, or mathematical illiteracy. Distinct from the more pathological dyscalcia, it instead implies something closer to functional analphabetism: an inability to grasp simple mathematical concepts, not because one isn’t smart enough or the concepts are too arcane, but simply because whatever mathematical skills the person once might have had have eroded from lack of use.
Most of the book deals with simple probability and how misunderstanding it is both quite harmful (both to individuals and to society as a whole) and extremely widespread.
The problem, as Paulos sees it, is that it’s harder and harder to get away with being (functionally) illiterate, but society almost encourages innumeracy, with a lot of people seeing no shame in declaring they’re “not a math person” (even taking some perverse pride in it, sometimes), in part because so many people see mathematics as dry and boring, and not a good avenue for creativity. Much of the blame falls on shitty education, of course (and it’s getting worse).
It’s a great little book. Despite the very serious subject, Paulos manages to keep a light-hearted tone, and manages to be pretty engaging and funny. He clearly loves mathematics, and manages to convey this love to the reader quite readily.
There are a lot of small math problems interspersed throughout the book, and even though I didn’t have any problems with it (and nobody should, really), I can clearly imagine the average person just not getting it at all. And that, of course, is why everyone should probably read this.
The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene, is a guide to physics in general and superstring theory in specific.
Greene starts out by explaining, in simple terms, the basic ideas behind the theories of relativity and quantum physics, and how they’re increasingly coming into conflict.
Relativity dealing with massive things moving quickly, and quantum physics dealing with tiny things, the theories have managed to coexist for a while, but the discovery of singularities like black holes, which are both massive and tiny, need something to tie it all together without actually getting infinities anywhere (be it infinitely small sizes, or infinite densities or temperatures, or what).
Clearly, string theory is the solution, and the second half of the book is devoted to explaining why this is the case.
Keeping in mind that string theory hasn’t made any predictions yet that can be tested with current technology other than ones that can be explained by other, older theories as well (which Greene openly acknowledges), he makes a pretty good case.
Without going into the underlying mathematics, he manages to explain how the various particles and forces we observe (including gravity and the as yet undetected graviton) flow naturally from string theory, and how it seems to accomodate supersymmetry, which is just pretty, and how the theory is really too elegant not to be true (which, I’ll grant, isn’t a valid argument on its own).
It’s a very interesting book, both for the physics (even if you dislike string theory, the bit about relativity and quantum physics is good enough in its own right) and for the history lessons. The way string physicists approach mathematics is, of course, obnoxious, but even that isn’t too bothersome.
Definitely worth reading, even—or especially—for those with no background in physics whatsoever.
The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris, is about humans, from the perspective of a zoologist.
I mostly read it because my mom loves the guy, but I’d been meaning to read it because I’d been told he touches on the neotenous ape hypothesis too. (Turns out he doesn’t say anything new.)
While the zoologist perspective is refreshing even now, forty years after it came out, most of the actual information in it is either very obvious (to anyone with half a brain) or very outdated.
A lot of religious people were apparently outraged by it, but I’m not convinced most were just because “it places man in nature”. The sections on sex and sexuality were often just gratuitous (and if I noticed, you know it has to be bad), and a much more likely source of outrage.
It really is quite dated, though, and likely to give inexperienced or casual readers completely wrong ideas about a number of things, including some basic facts of evolution.
My copy was a new edition released in 1994, and the preface made it clear Morris thought everything he wrote still applied perfectly, and wasn’t in need of updating, even though his editor had asked him to, so I’m not inclined to cut him much slack on that account. The Naked Ape just isn’t a very good book.
The Double Helix, by James Watson, is an account of Watson and Crick’s part in the discovery of the structure of DNA, and of the people involved.
A lot of people have called this a brilliant work of non-fiction, and an important step in de-mystifying science for the general public, but to me it mostly demonstrated that James Watson is a arrogant, prejudiced asshole and a condescending sexist, who has a ridiculously poor understanding of his own field, but managed to ride the coat-tails of his betters (almost all of the work had already been done long before Watson turned his attention to it, and he still had to depend on the insights of Crick, Donohue, Franklin, and others to get there in the end) and convince himself that he’s the center of the universe in the process.
It was written fifteen years after the fact, so even it’s factual accuracy isn’t something I’d put too much faith in. If it’s supposed to give people an idea of how “creative science really happens” (as one of the cover endorsements suggests), it’s no wonder most people are distrustful of scientists.
The same book written by Francis Crick (or Maurice Wilkins, or Rosalind Franklin, or anyone besides Watson) would’ve been infinitely more interesting.
Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is widely considered to be one of the great three heralds of New Atheism (along with Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Harris’ The End of Faith), but I don’t think it really fits the pattern.
Like the title says, it really is about religion as a natural phenomenon, and primarily an attempt to understand what motivates religions and religious people, and where they came from, not a polemic against religion in se.
Like Dennett’s other books, Breaking the Spell suffers somewhat from prolix verbosity, but not to the extent that it becomes unreadable.
He takes rather too much time trying to convince any religious readers that he only means to take an objective look at the history of religion, and that this shouldn’t be construed as an attack &c. &c.
This gets old after a few dozen pages of it. Still, if it convinces even one religious person to keep reading, I suppose it’s worth it.
To his credit, though, Dennett doesn’t hide his atheism (though he never really discusses his reasons for it, instead just referring people to his most famous book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), and he’s a lot less ambivalent about dismissing creationism as bullshit and creationists as wrong.
After all of that, though, he finally starts at the beginning, with folk religions and the various ways human brains work that encouraged their development. While some of the conclusions he tried to reach seem a bit unlikely to me, he offered some perspectives I hadn’t really considered before.
From there, he moves on to the development of organised religions, and the way they shape themselves, and are shaped by their followers, drawing on Dawkins’ meme theory.
An important point he makes (not a revolutionary one by any means, but one people tend to forget quickly nonetheless) is that belief in [Gg]od isn’t as relevant as belief in belief in [Gg]od, and that we may be fighting the wrong battle.
The final chapter is devoted to thinking about where we go from here, and if religion still has value in a modern society.
What Dennett tends to miss when discussing the various positive sociological benefits to religion (many of which I don’t think have applied in centuries; it doesn’t help that he tends to avoid the obvious negative ones) is that whether or not religion is good for society, that has no bearing whatsoever on whether it’s true, and truth (and reason &c.) are too important to disregard as casually as he does.
No doubt he realises this, and is just trying to avoid scaring off the religious, but still. He seems to be too willing to sacrifice intellectual integrity because the alternative would be a bother.
Besides some shaky conclusions he reached, there were also some (minor) factual errors, most pathetically obviously that atheists are represented in the US prison population in the same degree as they are in the US population at large. In fact, atheists comprise just .2% of the prison population, compared to anywhere between 5% and 10% atheists in the general population.
Still, on the whole, Breaking the Spell is a very good book, and definitely worth reading.
It’s much more careful (and in some ways, thorough) than The God Delusion, but it really isn’t the same kind of book at all, despite what so many people seem to want to claim, and it’s definitely worth your time.
Godot never shows up.
It’s such a short book I’m almost tempted not to count it towards my goal of 50, but I’m going to anyway. Pile is shrinking.
Any review I could write would be as long as the play itself, though, so I’ll skip that.
Anyway, that’s what I did today, mostly.
I also watched Idiocracy, which is a surprisingly good movie. Ten-minute clip follows.
It feels like this book took too long to finish. It’s only 161 pages, but when I was reading it it felt like it dragged on forever, though I guess it only took a few hours altogether.
It’s not even because it wasn’t interesting. The writing style is just very dry (or perhaps just old-fashioned) and it takes a bit to get into the right mindset.
In Praise of Idleness is a collection of fifteen short essays by Bertrand Russell, purportedly on the topic of idleness. In them, Russell explains his vision of society, essentially. He talks about what he sees as fundamental dysfunctions in the way the world works, and how to fix it.
He talks about economics, politics, history, education, mortality, &c.
All of these essays were written during the Interbellum, at a time when many people in Britain were apparently defending Fascism as a viable way of doing things, so he spends some space to explaining what he sees as the problems with that (and Communism) as well.
While they’re all very interesting as far as understanding the mindset of people between the two World Wars goes, most of them are of very limited use today. Much of what he says is immediately obvious to anyone today, and some of his predictions have just fallen flat entirely.
Russell is a socialist as well (and he’s very careful to distinguish that from Communism, as it should be), but his vision of socialism suffers greatly from the biases of his time. Almost none of his Case of Socialism can reasonably be said to still be relevant today, except to provide a convenient straw man to its opponents.
Still, the whole thing is a pretty interesting read, for historical context if nothing else, and I’d recommend it. Only knowledge of the past can help us avoid repeating it.