Category Archives: Books

Build Miniature Cities with LEGO

LEGO Micro Cities: Build Your Own Mini Metropolis! is a LEGO building idea book that provides a macro number of examples of building buildings, or other structures using a very small number of bricks. It is like the N-guage of LEGO. This is sort of the opposite of the LEGO idea book I recently reviewed, The LEGO Architecture Idea Book, because the latter is for large scale, and the former for very tiny scale.

Author Jeff Friesen is a famous LEGO builder, and a photographer, who tweets at @jeff_works.

You get an idea of how to build skyscraper, bridges, public transit elements, and tightly packed downtown zones. There are suggestions for how to build the geology that underlies the buildings and other infrastructure. And the subways.

The author suggests where to buy bricks, including used bricks that work just fine. But you can also use the bricks you have, and modify the design. Or, really, use the gestalt to become a better creator of your own entirely novel things, which I think is the real purpose of all this sort of book. Theory.

This is a fun book, and great holiday gift to accompany a LEGO building set.

Difference and Disease: Excellent new book on medicine and race in the 18th century British empire

Suman Seth is associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, at Cornell. He is an historian of science, and studies medicine, race, and colonialism (and dabbles as well in quantum theory). In his new book, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire, Seth takes on a fascinating subject that all of us who have worked in tropical regions but with a western (or northern) perspective have thought about, one way or another.

As Europeans, and Seth is concerned mainly with the British, explored and conquered, colonizing and creating the empire on which the sun could never set no matter how hard it tried, they got sick. They also observed other people getting sick. And, they encountered a wide range of physiological or biosocial phenomena that were unfamiliar and often linked (in real or in the head) to disease. A key cultural imperative of British Colonials as to racialize their explanations for things, including disease. The science available through the 18th and 19th century was inadequate to address questions that kept rising. Like, why did a Brit get sick on his first visit to a plantation in Jamaica, but on return a few years later, did not get as sick? If you have a model where people of different races have specific diseases and immunities in their very nature, how do you explain that sort of phenomenon? How might the widely held, or at least somewhat widely held, concept of polygenism, have explained things? This is an early version of the multi-regional hypothesis, but more extreme, in which god created each type of human independently where we find them, and we are all different species. (Agassiz, with his advanced but highly imperfect geological understanding, thought the earth was totally frozen over with each ice age, and repopulated with these polygenetic populations of not just humans, but all the organisms, after each thaw).

Seth weaves together considerations of slavery and abolition, colonialism, race, geography, gender, and illness. This is an academic book, but at the same time, something of a page turner. Anyone interested in disease, colonial history, and race, will want to re-excavate the British colonial world, looking at disease, illness, and racial thinking, with Suman Seth as your guide. I highly recommend this book.

The Fourth Impeachment

Andrew Johnson was impeached for matters related to what to do with the South after they were defeated in the American Civil War. I would like to know more about that. What I understand of it now is that it may have been a great Irony, in the sense that Johnson was a Democrat, appointed as a Republican’s VP, who had the intention of implementing that president’s policies after his assassination by a pro-Slavery assassin, but those policies went easier on the South because that is how Lincoln wanted to approach reconstruction, and the Republicans in Congress wanted to crush the South. But I’m sure I’m leaving out important details. Anyway, Andrew Johnson was impeached and nearly thrown out of office.

Later on, Richard Nixon was impeached because he and his minions carried out crimes that were kinda bad and then tried to cover them up, which led to the absurd modern day aphorism that “it’s not the crime, its the cover up,” implying that no matter how bad the crime is, the cover up is worse (wrong). Nixon was not thrown out of office, but rather, he left on his own.

Later on, Bill Clinton was impeached for his affair with a White House Aide. But other than anti-Clinton Republicans, most people, while not liking the affair thing, did not see this as worthy of impeachment, and recognized the Republican effort to impeach Clinton as a bald faced political move.

Now, we are faced with Trump. We don’t know where impeachment will go. It may be impossible until there is a Senate super majority, and that may not happen any time soon. Trump will have to be caught talking on the phone to Vladimir Putin, discussing their recent successful assassination of Bambi. But likely, that won’t do it either. Republicans put party over country every time. The only way Trump is going to leave office is feet first in the case he croaks on his own, or by being voted out of office, and the latter is not likely to happen because, face it, Trump represents American values in he (slim) minority, but that minority rules due to voter suppression and Russian-powered ignorance.

Whatever. The point is, impeachment is on the table, and there is a new book out that helps us understand the earlier impeachments, and I recommend it. Impeachment: An American History by Jon Meacham, Peter Baker, Tim Naftali, and Jefrey Engel.

Four experts on the American presidency examine the three times impeachment has been invoked—against Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton—and explain what it means today.

Impeachment is a double-edged sword. Though it was designed to check tyrants, Thomas Jefferson also called impeachment “the most formidable weapon for the purpose of a dominant faction that was ever contrived.” On the one hand, it nullifies the will of voters, the basic foundation of all representative democracies. On the other, its absence from the Constitution would leave the country vulnerable to despotic leadership. It is rarely used, and with good reason.

Only three times has a president’s conduct led to such political disarray as to warrant his potential removal from office, transforming a political crisis into a constitutional one. None has yet succeeded. Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 for failing to kowtow to congressional leaders—and, in a large sense, for failing to be Abraham Lincoln—yet survived his Senate trial. Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against him for lying, obstructing justice, and employing his executive power for personal and political gain. Bill Clinton had an affair with a White House intern, but in 1999 he faced trial in the Senate less for that prurient act than for lying under oath about it.

In the first book to consider these three presidents alone—and the one thing they have in common—Jeffrey A. Engel, Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, and Peter Baker explain that the basis and process of impeachment is more political than legal. The Constitution states that the president “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” leaving room for historical precedent and the temperament of the time to weigh heavily on each case. This book reveals the complicated motives behind each impeachment—never entirely limited to the question of a president’s guilt—and the risks to all sides. Each case depended on factors beyond the president’s behavior: his relationship with Congress, the polarization of the moment, and the power and resilience of the office itself. This is a realist view of impeachment that looks to history for clues about its potential use in the future.

Read this book as a distraction from the current intense and rather explosive (nearly explosive?) political climate. A little history to distrat you from the future…

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe

I’m about to trash skepticism (as a cult) but before I do, I want to recommend that you get Steve Novella’s excellent new edition of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

I no longer call myself a skeptic. Well, actually, I probably never really did, but now I’m more explicit about that. Why? Two reasons. 1) Global warming and other science deniers call themselves skeptics, and I don’t want any confusion. 2) The actual “skeptics movement” is described as…

…a modern social movement based on the idea of scientific skepticism (also called rational skepticism). Scientific skepticism involves the application of skeptical philosophy, critical-thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).[1] The movement has the goal of investigating claims made on fringe topics and determining whether they are supported by empirical research and are reproducible, as part of a methodological norm pursuing “the extension of certified knowledge”.[2] The process followed is sometimes referred to[by whom?] as skeptical inquiry.

[source]

That’s all nice and all, but I discovered that the actual skeptics movement is made out of people not quite so cleanly guided by a philosophy, roughly one third of whom are not really skeptics (such as Penn Jilette and James Randi, who allowed their libertarian philosophy to drive “skepticism” of anthropocentric global warming long after the scientific consensus was established), “mens rights activists” (MRAs) who vigorously attacked anyone speaking out in favor of women’s rights, against rape, etc., and #MeToo movement poster boys, who have for years used skeptical conferences as their own private meat markets.

Besides, I’m an actual scientist, so I can be a fan of science without having to be a fanboy, which makes it easier for me.

I started writing publicly, blogging, partly to be an on-line skeptic, to take on politically charged topics, especially as related to evolutionary biology, but other areas of science as well (and more recently, climate change), addressing falsehoods and misconceptions. But I very quickly discovered that there multiple and distinct kinds of “skepticism” make up the larger conversation.

There is a lot of very low level, knee jerk skepticism that is little more than uninformed reactionism, based on, at best, received knowledge. That is about as unskeptical as it gets. The Amazing Randy says Global Warming is nothing other than natural variation. Therefore, I will believe that. Uncritically. Some of this is what I long ago labeled as “hyperskepticism.” This is where potentially valid skepticism about a claim is melded with hyperbole. “There is not a single peer reviewed study that shows the bla bla bla bladiby bla” coming from the mouth of a person who has never once even looked for a peer reviewed study about any thing. They hyperskeptic may create entire categories of things that include claims worthy of debunking, and put all of the thing into the debunked category even if they are not.

A fairly benign example of this relates to CAM medicine. “CAM” refers to “complementary and alternative medicine” like acupuncture, rolfing, and the like. These are mostly forms of treatment that have no basis in science, and probably don’t do anything useful even if they sometimes cost real money. Hypersketpics put all CAM into the same category and light a match to it. But, there is a subset of CAM that is legit … the very fact that I wrote that sentence just there will disqualify me, and my entire post, and everything I ever say — there will be comments below that say “I stopped reading when you said “there is a subset of CAM that is legit”. OK, hold on a second, count to four. One two thee four. Now that all the hyperskeptics have gone off in a huff I can continue … and I can give you an example. There are people who undergo regular, uncomfortable, sometimes painful or sick-making treatments as part of their normal medical routine. Chemotherapy, dialysis, that sort of thing. We know that the quality of an individual’s life can be improved, their stress levels, reduced, and thus, probably, the outcome of their treatments improved or made less complicated, if the environment in which they get the treatments are more comfortable. This is why dentists put ferns and pictures of the ocean in their waiting rooms. There is evidence to suggest that surroundings should be considered in design of treatment rooms, waiting room, etc. (See for example, Brown and Gallant, 2006, “Impating Patient Outcomes Through Design: Acuity Adaptable Care/Universal Rom Design. “Critical Care Nursing Quarterly. 29:4(326-341) and Ulrich, Zimring, and Zhu, 2008, “A Review of the Research Literature on Evidence-Based Healthcare Design. HERD 1(3). They hyperskeptic wants divide the world into evidence based double blind study proven and everything else, with everything else being always wrong in all ways. (Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but only for the irony.) This concept, of considering room and environmental design, now standard, did exist before CAM (those dentists and their ferns) but the study an implementation of stress reducing design as we now know of it comes from the CAM movement. What is needed is not closing down CAM, but making it accountable. It would probably get much smaller if that happened, but what is left of it would be useful.

Having said all that, the skeptical world includes a number of excellent and widely respected actual self-identified skeptics who have science or medical backgrounds, and who occasionally write books that everyone should read. One such individual is Steven Novella, who wrote some time ago a skeptics guide to the universe. Well, that book is out of date (universes evolve) and there is now anew edition: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

Four others contributed to this volume, Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein.

I do not agree with everything in this book. For example, although the discussion of placebo effect is excellent, I have a different take on it. I like to divide the effect up into different categories than I do, and I want to make a more explicit connection between the phenomenon called placebo effect and the role and meaning of a control. But for the most part, every single one of the more than 50 topics covered in this book is well treated, informative, and enjoyable to read. (See what I did there? I was a little skeptical of the book, so now, you know it must be good!)

Do get and read this book, get one for a friend for a holiday gift, and enjoy. But right now, before you even do that, to tho the Amazon page and find the negative reviews. There are only two now (the book just came out) but they are a hoot.

Birds of Central America: Review

Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama make up Central America. Notice that had I not used the Oxford Comma there, you’d be thinking “Costa Rica and Panama” was a country like Trinidad and Tobago. Or Antigua and Barbuda. Or Bosnia and Herzegovina. Anyway, those countries have about 1261 species of birds, and the newly minted Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (Princeton Field Guides) by Andrew Vallely and Dale Dyer covers 1,194 of them (plus 67 probably accidentals). Obviously, many (nearly all) of those birds exist outside that relatively small geographic area, up in to North America and down into South America. But I’ll remind you that there are some 10,000 bird species, so this region has a bird list that represents 10% of that diversity. Nothing to shake a beak at.

This is a classic Peterson/Petrides style guide, with the usual front matter about bird id, geography, habitats, etc. Species draswings are on the left leaf while descriptions and range maps on the left. The drawings do not have Peterson Pointer lines, but there are a lot of drawings to clarify regional versions and life history stages. In fact, the attention to regional variation is a notable and outstanding feature of this file guide.

There is also an extensive bibliography with over 600 references. The book is medium format, not pocket but not huge, and just shy of 600 pages long. Also, last time I clicked through it was on sale. Know somebody going to Central America over winter break? Get this for them as their holiday gift!

Like the Princeton guides tend to be, this is a very nice book, well written, well constructed, and likely to become the standard for that region for the foreseeable future.

Happy Anniversary Frank!

It was a dark and stormy century. Ghosts and goblins and spirits and ghouls were everywhere. Technology was taking on a life of it’s own. (“Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”) Novels were written. Dark novels. Gothic novels. The dead cam back to life.

On this day 200 years ago a scientist willing to play god ordered his assistant, Igor, to throw the switch, and the energy of a thousand lightning storms coursed through the sluggish veins of an assembly of a dozen parts, taken from the ground. The man, nay, monster, awoke and began an unbelievable journey. He, or rather, it, would terrorize the townspeople, battle with Dracula and the Wolfman, get together with Abbot and Costello, and enchant a dozen dozen generations of Halloween revelers. Even Mel Brooks would get a cut!

Bwahahaha! It’s alliiiiive!

Happy Anniversary to the Publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Now is your last chance to read Isaac Azimov’s Foundation Trilogy

… before it gets made into a TV show.

There have been, I think, two earlier failed starts for a project that turns what might be the number one interstellar long-history science fiction book written. This project looks like it is going to happen. The producer is Apple, so you will probably have to buy their latest computing device to get permission to watch it. (And therein could lie the plot for a very Azimov-like science fiction story…)

Anyway, you need to read the books before you watch the show, so get started. There is no information available as to when this series will be released. And, despite my snark above, it is not know where it will be shown, but it will be streamed. And, it will be in 10 parts.

The three books in the Foundation Trilogy are:

Foundation
Foundation and Empire
Second Foundation

There is a complex publication history, and there are other stories and books, but that is the central bunch of words.

Alternatively, the Foundation Trilogy plus: The Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation), The Stars, Like Dust; The Naked Sun; I, Robot

These may also be among the most commonly available used books in science fiction, so check your local used book store, if you can still find one. (Hint: On line, the cost of one of these volumes, because of their continued popularity, used, is above $4.00 with shipping, with the shipping price dropping as the volume price increases, to make the actual cost per volume between $8.00 and $12.00. So, don’t bother with used on line.)

When the Uncertainty Principle goes to 11

When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11: Or How to Explain Quantum Physics with Heavy Metal is a new book by the amazing Philip Moriarty. You may know Moriarty from the Sixty Symbols Youtube Channel.

You can listen to an interview Mike Haubrich and I conducted with Philip Moriarty here, on Ikonokast. Our conversation wanders widely through the bright halls of education, the dark recesses of of philosophy of science and math(s), the nanotiny, and we even talk about the book a bit.

Moriarty, an experienced and beloved teacher at the University of Nottingham, uses heavy metal to explain some of the most difficult to understand concepts of nano science. Much of this has to do with waves, and when it comes to particle physics, wave are exactly half the story. This idea came to him in part because of what he calls the great overlap in the Venn Diagram of aspiring physicists and intense metal fans. Feedback, rhythm, guitar strings twanging (or not), are both explained by the same theories that help us understand the quantum world, and are touchstones to explaining that world.

I’ve read all the books that do this, that attempt to explain this area of physics, and they are mostly pretty great. When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 does it the best. Is this because it is the most recent? Does Philip Moriarty stand on the shoulders of giants? Or is it because the author has hit on a better way of explaining this material, and thus, owes his greatness to the smallness of his contemporaries? We may never know, but I promise you that When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 is a great way to shoulder your way into the smallness of the smallest worlds.

As you will understand if you check out the Ikonokast interview, Moriarty has taken the risk of using math in this book. The math is straight forward and accompanied by explanation, so you do not have to be a math trained expert to use it and understand. Most importantly, while Moriarty uses music, metal, and other real life things to explain quantum physics, these analogies are more than just analogies. They are examples of similar phenomena on different scales. As Philip told me during the interview, we don’t diffract when we walk walk through a doorway, because the things that happen on nano scales don’t scale up. But wave functions function to pick apart both quantum mechanics and Metallica, so why not explore guitar strings, feedback, and mosh pits together with condensed particle physics?

I strongly recommend this book. Just get it, read it. Also, the illustrations by Pete McPartlan are fun and enlightening. Even if you think you understand quantum physics very well already, and I know most of my readers do, you will learn new ways of thinking or explaining.

Philip Moriarty is a professor of physics, a heavy metal fan, and a keen air-drummer. His research focuses on prodding, pushing, and poking single atoms and molecules; in this nanoscopic world, quantum physics is all. Moriarty has taught physics for more than twenty years and has always been struck by the number of students in his classes who profess a love of metal music, and by the deep connections between heavy metal and quantum mechanics. He’s a father of three — Niamh, Saoirse, and Fiachra – who have patiently endured his off-key attempts to sing along with Rush classics for many years. Unlike his infamous namesake, Moriarty has never been particularly enamored of the binomial theorem.

The Nature and History of Presidential Leadership: A book of olden times.

The timing of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book is perfect.

She is an excellent historian and writer, and you probably know of her as the author of several of the best, or at least very nearly the best, volumes on a range of key subjects in American History. She wrote Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln about Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written about Johnson, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II about FDR, and The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism about TR.

And now, we have Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Does the leader make the times or do the times make the leader?

In Leadership, Goodwin draws upon the four presidents she has studied most closely—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson (in civil rights)—to show how they recognized leadership qualities within themselves and were recognized as leaders by others. By looking back to their first entries into public life, we encounter them at a time when their paths were filled with confusion, fear, and hope.

Leadership tells the story of how they all collided with dramatic reversals that disrupted their lives and threatened to shatter forever their ambitions. Nonetheless, they all emerged fitted to confront the contours and dilemmas of their times.

No common pattern describes the trajectory of leadership. Although set apart in background, abilities, and temperament, these men shared a fierce ambition and a deep-seated resilience that enabled them to surmount uncommon hardships. At their best, all four were guided by a sense of moral purpose. At moments of great challenge, they were able to summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.

This seminal work provides an accessible and essential road map for aspiring and established leaders in every field. In today’s polarized world, these stories of authentic leadership in times of apprehension and fracture take on a singular urgency.

The Unspoken Alliance between Science and the Military: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new book

Years ago I was visiting a relative of a friend in a house near a major east coast University, and a friend of the relative of the friend was visiting. He was a professor emeritus who had just gotten a renewal of a grant. The grant was from the US Military and it was to further develop a machine he had been working on for decades. The machine, if it ever worked, would be part of a Death Ray (and yes, that’s a thing.)

“The point of my work,” he told me. He was drunk, old, and forgot that this was all a secret. “The point of it is this. It lets us see things we could never see before. Very small things. This will help us cure cancer.”

“But what about the Death Ray,” my friend asked him.

“Oh that. The Death Ray can never work, and my machine can’t help that project along at all. But I had to get the funding somehow. This is very expensive research.”

“But won’t you get in trouble?” my friend asked him.

“I’m sure I would if I was younger. I’ll be dead before those morons catch on.”

And I’m pretty sure that is exactly what ended up happening. He died about 25 years ago. The Death Ray never really took off. Yet, we can see very very small things using machines. The part I don’t know is whether or not his machine ever worked out, but I’d wager it did.

Anyway, the famous and widely loved Neil deGrasse Tyson has a book coming out (for preorder) that reminded me of that story. It is called Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military. The co-author is Avis Lang. Here is the publisher’s description:

In this fascinating foray into the centuries-old relationship between science and military power, acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and writer-researcher Avis Lang examine how the methods and tools of astrophysics have been enlisted in the service of war. “The overlap is strong, and the knowledge flows in both directions,” say the authors, because astrophysicists and military planners care about many of the same things: multi-spectral detection, ranging, tracking, imaging, high ground, nuclear fusion, and access to space. Tyson and Lang call it a “curiously complicit” alliance. “The universe is both the ultimate frontier and the highest of high grounds,” they write. “Shared by both space scientists and space warriors, it’s a laboratory for one and a battlefield for the other. The explorer wants to understand it; the soldier wants to dominate it. But without the right technology?which is more or less the same technology for both parties?nobody can get to it, operate in it, scrutinize it, dominate it, or use it to their advantage and someone else’s disadvantage.”

Spanning early celestial navigation to satellite-enabled warfare, Accessory to War is a richly researched and provocative examination of the intersection of science, technology, industry, and power that will introduce Tyson’s millions of fans to yet another dimension of how the universe has shaped our lives and our world.

John Le Carre’s Smiley Books

This started out as one of those posts I put up pointing to a cheap book on the Kindle. And it still is a post pointing to a cheap book, but then, I have a pitch for you to read John le Carré’s Smiley series (and one other book).

If you have never red John le Carré’s Smiley series, you should. Well, you may or may not like Le Carré’s writing style. He requires work on the part of the reader and can be dense and intense. The stories can be grueling in their detail. But that all makes it very realistic. If you have been keeping up with all the newspaper accounts and findings regarding the Trump-Russian scandal, and if you have been doing so over the last two years, then you are experiencing something much like reading all of Le Carré’s novels in sequence, except a) Le Carré is a better writer than reality and b) reality is much scarier.

The Smiley series happens in the context of the Cold War (as to all of le Carré’s books up until the cold war ends, more or less). You pretty much need to read them in sequence, then, when you are done, watch the various movies and TV series based on them.

I bring this all up now because the seventh book in the series, Smiley’s People: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley Novels Book 7), is now in Kindle form for cheap.

And, for general reference, John le Carré’s Smiley books in order:

Pre-Karla Trilogy, from the author’s page-turner period:

Call for the Dead: A George Smiley Novel (which is also JlC’s first novel.)

A Murder of Quality: A George Smiley Novel

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

The Looking Glass War: A George Smiley Novel

Karla Trilogy:

At this point the novels shift in several ways. The dynamic at the British intelligence agency is set up around factions that involve class and ethnic differences (in this case, “ethnic” means one kind of British white guy vs. a different kind of British white guy), and Karla (East German) emerges as the main bad guy. The next three books are a trilogy. You can read them without having read the above, but this is the point where JlC’s writing style changes from something you might really like/not like to something you might really like/not like, so I’d not skip the titles listed above. (I think what happened is, le Carre made it big enough that he was able to tell his editors what to do, instead of the other way round. Sort of like JK Rowling after Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A George Smiley Novel

The Honourable Schoolboy

Smiley’s People: A George Smiley Novel

Latter day Smiley novels

The Secret Pilgrim: A Novel

A Legacy of Spies: A Novel

Le Carré wrote several other novels (and continues to do so) but they vary a lot in how much I like them. I won’t discuss them here. But, there is one book I want to mention.

If the Smiley series (above) is one of the greatest stories ever told set in the world of spies and espionage of the 20th century, then it is possible that A Perfect Spy: A Novel, by Johyn le Carré, is one of the single best books in this genre (and beyond). It is shocking, wrenching, fascinating, and, while you read it, you should know that it is autobiographical to a certain extent. It is likely that John Le Carré, who was (with a different name) an officer in the British intelligence agency MI6, would be dead or in prison for life had he committed all the acts of his counterpart in this book. But otherwise it is pretty autobiographical, including the character that is the “perfect spy’s” over the top father. I recommend reading the Smiley series first, then, if you like Le Carré’s writing, read and enjoy A Perfect Spy.

President Obama’s Factfulness and the Death of Expertise

I hear President Obama is reading Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling.

When asked simple questions about global trends?what percentage of the world’s population live in poverty; why the world’s population is increasing; how many girls finish school?we systematically get the answers wrong. So wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently outguess teachers, journalists, Nobel laureates, and investment bankers.

In Factfulness, Professor of International Health and global TED phenomenon Hans Rosling, together with his two long-time collaborators, Anna and Ola, offers a radical new explanation of why this happens. They reveal the ten instincts that distort our perspective?from our tendency to divide the world into two camps (usually some version of us and them) to the way we consume media (where fear rules) to how we perceive progress (believing that most things are getting worse).

Our problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know, and even our guesses are informed by unconscious and predictable biases.

It turns out that the world, for all its imperfections, is in a much better state than we might think. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real concerns. But when we worry about everything all the time instead of embracing a worldview based on facts, we can lose our ability to focus on the things that threaten us most.

Meanwhile, Mike Haubrich and I just recorded the next Ikonokast Podcast and our guest recommended The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols.

Technology and increasing levels of education have exposed people to more information than ever before. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise shows how this rejection of experts has occurred: the openness of the internet, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine, among other reasons. Paradoxically, the increasingly democratic dissemination of information, rather than producing an educated public, has instead created an army of ill-informed and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement. When ordinary citizens believe that no one knows more than anyone else, democratic institutions themselves are in danger of falling either to populism or to technocracy or, in the worst case, a combination of both. An update to the 2017breakout hit, the paperback edition of The Death of Expertise provides a new foreword to cover the alarming exacerbation of these trends in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. Judging from events on the ground since it first published, The Death of Expertise issues a warning about the stability and survival of modern democracy in the Information Age that is even more important today.

Amazing Book On Amazing Arachnids

I am strongly recommending Amazing Arachnids by Jillian Cowles.

This book is in line to win the Greg Laden’s Blog Science Book of the Year.

Sample text, to give a taste of the science
It looks like a high quality, almost coffee table like, book on the arachnids, things like mites and spiders and such. But that is only what it appears to be on the surface. Just below the surface, it is a compendium of evolutionary amazingness, a detailed description of the photogenic history, behavioral biology, and co-evolution of plants and animals, with almost all the protagonists in the numerous loosely connected stories being one sort or another of amazing arachnid.

Geographically, the book focuses on the arid American Southwest. This allows the author to be quasi-comprehensive in coverage of species (about 300 from among 11 orders). It also allows the author to tell the story of these critters as a story, with interconnected features of evolution and ecology. This is literary hard core science, with great illustrations (about 750 color photos, and other illustrations).

Because of the US SW focus, it might be a better purchase for people living in just that area. But as is the case with a handful of other nature-oriented books, like the The New Neotropical Companion, the science content and overall interest of the book transcends geography. You’re not really going to want to get that close to these arachnids anyway….

This is a very good book. You will learn things, even if you already know a lot about arachnids.

The author is a clinical microbiologists and photographer.

Kids Learn Coding with Scratch Cards

First, in case you don’t know, “Scratch” is a programming language and environment.

Its mascot is a cat, of course, but the name “scratch” supposedly comes from the use of scratching by disk jockeys. Scratch was first developed at MIT back in the early 2000s, and has advanced considerably since then. You now see the basic format of this language either duplicated or mimicked in many different environments.

Scratch can be an online langauge or you can run a stand alone version, but the former is easier and better. To get started, go here and follow instructions.

If you want (your kid or you) to learn scratch fast, you may want to consider getting the cards produced by No Starch Press. You can get ScratchJr Coding Cards for ages 5 and up, or the much more advanced Scratch Coding Cards for kids 8 and above.

The idea is simple. You put the stack of cards on your desk next to the computer, which is tuned to the MIT Scratch site. Then you try out the stuff in the cards. By the time you are done you (or your kid if you step aside and allow access to the computer) will be pretty good at scratch programming.

I used the 3 year and above cards with Huxley, and we are about to start on the 8 and above cards, although he is very advanced and we are likely to skip past the first several.

By the way, Scratch runs on the web so you can access it from any sort of desktop or laptop computer including Chromebooks,a nd there are iOS and Android versions. It runs on the Kindle Fire as well.

Tolkein Fans: The Fall of Gondolin

Gondolin was an Elvan city located in the Hither Lands. But you already knew that.

But the story of the fall has been lost, which we know because it is part of the widely known Lost Tales.

But now, The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, is available to those with the correct magic ability. By that, of course, I mean, preorder.

In the Tale of The Fall of Gondolin are two of the greatest powers in the world. There is Morgoth of the uttermost evil, unseen in this story but ruling over a vast military power from his fortress of Angband. Deeply opposed to Morgoth is Ulmo, second in might only to Manwë, chief of the Valar: he is called the Lord of Waters, of all seas, lakes, and rivers under the sky. But he works in secret in Middle-earth to support the Noldor, the kindred of the Elves among whom were numbered Húrin and Túrin Turambar.

Central to this enmity of the gods is the city of Gondolin, beautiful but undiscoverable. It was built and peopled by Noldorin Elves who, when they dwelt in Valinor, the land of the gods, rebelled against their rule and fled to Middle-earth. Turgon King of Gondolin is hated and feared above all his enemies by Morgoth, who seeks in vain to discover the marvellously hidden city, while the gods in Valinor in heated debate largely refuse to intervene in support of Ulmo’s desires and designs.

Into this world comes Tuor, cousin of Túrin, the instrument of Ulmo’s designs. Guided unseen by him Tuor sets out from the land of his birth on the fearful journey to Gondolin, and in one of the most arresting moments in the history of Middle-earth the sea-god himself appears to him, rising out of the ocean in the midst of a storm. In Gondolin he becomes great; he is wedded to Idril, Turgon’s daughter, and their son is Eärendel, whose birth and profound importance in days to come is foreseen by Ulmo.

At last comes the terrible ending. Morgoth learns through an act of supreme treachery all that he needs to mount a devastating attack on the city, with Balrogs and dragons and numberless Orcs. After a minutely observed account of the fall of Gondolin, the tale ends with the escape of Túrin and Idril, with the child Eärendel, looking back from a cleft in the mountains as they flee southward, at the blazing wreckage of their city. They were journeying into a new story, the Tale of Eärendel, which Tolkien never wrote, but which is sketched out in this book from other sources.

Following his presentation of Beren and Lúthien Christopher Tolkien has used the same ‘history in sequence’ mode in the writing of this edition of The Fall of Gondolin. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, it was ‘the first real story of this imaginary world’ and, together with Beren and Lúthien and The Children of Húrin, he regarded it as one of the three ‘Great Tales’ of the Elder Days.

Also, there is a coupon here.