Category Archives: Books

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.

Getcher programs here! Can’t tell the players without yer program!

Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide by Cass Sunstein, Harvard University Press.

As Benjamin Franklin famously put it, Americans have a republic, if we can keep it. Preserving the Constitution and the democratic system it supports is the public’s responsibility. One route the Constitution provides for discharging that duty?a route rarely traveled?is impeachment.

Cass R. Sunstein provides a succinct citizen’s guide to an essential tool of self-government. He illuminates the constitutional design behind impeachment and emphasizes the people’s role in holding presidents accountable. Despite intense interest in the subject, impeachment is widely misunderstood. Sunstein identifies and corrects a number of misconceptions. For example, he shows that the Constitution, not the House of Representatives, establishes grounds for impeachment, and that the president can be impeached for abuses of power that do not violate the law. Even neglect of duty counts among the “high crimes and misdemeanors” delineated in the republic’s foundational document. Sunstein describes how impeachment helps make sense of our constitutional order, particularly the framers’ controversial decision to install an empowered executive in a nation deeply fearful of kings.

With an eye toward the past and the future, Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide considers a host of actual and imaginable arguments for a president’s removal, explaining why some cases are easy and others hard, why some arguments for impeachment have been judicious and others not. In direct and approachable terms, it dispels the fog surrounding impeachment so that Americans of all political convictions may use their ultimate civic authority wisely.

Just sayin’

A Big Garden Is A Big Book

At least is measured in the up-down, back-forth direction, and not the thickness direction.

A Big Garden is by Gilles Clement, Professor Emeritus at the Versailles National School of Landscape Architecture and holder of the Chair of Artistic Creation at the College de France in Paris. He is famous for creating several public gardens such as the Andre? Citroe?n Park and the garden of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris and the Henri Matisse Park in Lille. The illustrations are by Vincent Grave.

This is a large format coffee table or get-together-with-the-family-to-read style book. Interesting and insightful text accompanies a brilliant and detailed illustration for each month. The text waxes between poetic and informative, giving the impressions of a master gardener’s master gardener. The illustrations are of the type that invite a long period of inspection, looking for proverbial waldoes, and are often fanciful and humerus.

Even though the book is about gardening, which tends to be a seasonal activity, it well and truly covers every month of the year. This can be on your gift shopping list for anyone’s birthday or for the winter holidays, not necessarily someone who is a heavy duty gardener. We spend some time trying to figure out if this was a kids book or an adult’s book. After a while we realized we were asking the wrong question. Clearly the text is not for young readers, but it is for any listener, of any age. And, again, the illustrations are amazing and for everyone. Each of them is equivalent in content density to an entire graphic novel, which is not surprising since Grave is a graphic novel illustrator.

I highly recommend this book, for yourself, or as a gift.

Carl Hiaasen

I was reminded two days ago of Carl Hiaasen, when I was going trough a pile of books someone was getting rid of, and came across one of his. I always grab whatever Hiaasen books come along free, because I know that at some point, this will happen:

“Huh. That reminds me of something in a Carl Hiaasen book. Have you read any of those?”

“Uh. No. Never heard of him.”

“Well, you should. He writes pretty fun novels, like the one where the Native American guy and the ex-reporter hired a helicopter to drop Guccis and Macy’s gift bags full of poisonous snakes onto the deck of a luxury cruise linger off the Florida coast.”

“Huh.”

“Oh, and there’s one about bass fishing. Double Whammy. It’s the name of a lure. Get it?”

“Uh.”

“Oh never mind, it can’t really be explained, you can’t really describe these books so anyone. Just read it.”

And by this time I’ve dug out one of those Hiaasen novels I’ve been saving to give away, and I shove it into the person’s hands. “Just read this.”

And they do, then they read all the other ones too.

Carl Hiaasen’s first novel that got widely read is Tourist Season. It has been some time since I read it, but roughly, it is about a group of renegades who are living in the everglades (as in IN the everglades) and intent on stopping tourism in Florida, in order to see development roll back. They use interesting techniques.

The rest of Hiaasen’s novels, at least for several in a row, follow a similar approach. The main character is an ex-something. Ex journalist, ex cop, whatever. This individual finds himself embroiled in some sort of scheme or plot, typically involving grungy good guys pitted against truly evil villainous villains. Somewhere in there is a female love interest of the ex-dude.

While most of the characters change from story to story, two stay the same. One is the former governor of Florida, and the other his the Governor’s former body guard named Jim.

So the next two are in line are Double Whammy (the bass fishing one) and Native Tongue which is, obviously, about the blue nose vole.

Hiaasen also wrote several books for kids, with the same style but OK for eight to 12 year olds or so. Both my kids like them. See: Hiaasen 4-Book Trade Paperback Box Set (Chomp, Flush, Hoot, Scat).

The actual order of Carl Hiaasen non kid, fiction, books is as follows:

Not including the Governor of Florida:

Powder Burn, 1981
Trap Line, 1982
A Death in China, 1984

Including the governor of Florida, mostly, though I’ve not read the last three:

Tourist Season, 1986
Double Whammy, 1987
Skin Tight, 1989
Native Tongue, 1991
Strip Tease, 1993
Stormy Weather, 1995
Lucky You, 1997
Sick Puppy, 2000
Basket Case, 2002
Skinny Dip, 2004
Nature Girl, 2006
Star Island, 2010
Bad Monkey, 2013
Skink-No Surrender (2014)
Razor Girl (2016)

Hiaasen is a journalist and commentator long with the Miami Herald. He’s written several non fiction books that include his columns.

Today, of course, I’m reminded of Carl Hiaasen again, for a sad reason: His brother, Rob, was one of those killed in today’s tragic shooting in Maryland.

This Book Is A Little Too Perfect For Summer Reading!!!!

When climate scientist Michael Mann and cartoonist Tom Toles wrote The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy, they had no idea how bad it was going to get. Perhaps they needed to be more alarmist.

Anyway, this overview of climate change politics and denialism, in both text and cartoon form, is out in a new edition that has an updated “in the times of Trump” chapter, and in paperback form.

Pick up your copy of The Madhouse Effect, excellent summer beach reading, today!

The award-winning climate scientist Michael E. Mann and the Pulitzer Prize–winning political cartoonist Tom Toles have been on the front lines of the fight against climate denialism for most of their careers. They have witnessed the manipulation of the media by business and political interests and the unconscionable play to partisanship on issues that affect the well-being of billions. The lessons they have learned have been invaluable, inspiring this brilliant, colorful escape hatch from the madhouse of the climate wars.

The Madhouse Effect portrays the intellectual pretzels into which denialists must twist logic to explain away the clear evidence that human activity has changed Earth’s climate. Toles’s cartoons collapse counter-scientific strategies into their biased components, helping readers see how to best strike at these fallacies. Mann’s expert skills at science communication aim to restore sanity to a debate that continues to rage against widely acknowledged scientific consensus. The synergy of these two climate science crusaders enlivens the gloom and doom of so many climate-themed books?and may even convert die-hard doubters to the side of sound science.

Facts and Fears: The Russians Did Elect Trump

General James Patton is famous for this advice. Carefully account for and consider all the facts, and all your fears. Armed with this information, make a plan. Then, put aide your fears and attack! James R. Clapper, who is the offspring of an intelligence operative and who has spent his entire life engaged in intelligence, under each and every one of the United States Presidents from Lancer through Renegade, just wrote a book. In it, he gives us something to be afraid of, when he presents a startling and important conclusion. Continue reading Facts and Fears: The Russians Did Elect Trump

Tom Wolfe

American Studies expert and author, Tom Wolfe, has died at an appropriate ripe old age. If you have not read The Bonfire of the Vanities, which is one of his fiction books that is essentially, pure non-fiction, then you must. Never mind that a mediocre movie was made out of it. Bonfire is one of the key books of modern history, documenting in a fictional story about fear and loathing among the ultra-privileged, about racism and class, about Masters of the Universe and social bouquets. It is the quintessential novel of the 1980s, and since the 1980s is the most important decade ever, you must read it. I personally missed the 1980s, I was either underground, literally, under a huge pile of graduate work, literally, or in a remote jungle, literally. But when I got back from all of that I read the book and learned what had happened.

Wolfe also wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and The Right Stuff.

His book The Kingdom of Speech critiques both Darwin and Chomsky, for reasons that seem pretty legit to me, though I hasten to add I’ve not read it, only summaries of it (and maybe an article somewhere by Wolfe).