Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Einstein's Telescope

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

einsteins_telescopeEinstein’s Telescope by Evalyn Gates is probably the best random choice I’ve made of a book since I picked up Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel 12 years ago. Wow! I’d heard about gravity lensing, dark matter, dark energy, MACHO and WIMPs, but I’d never seen them discussed in-depth in a readable format before. I’m learning more with each page here than I do in most entire books (What Would Google Do, being a more typical example). This is good science, extremely well done. Highly recommended.

My Kids are Hard Working, Not Smart

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

brain… or at least that’s what we tell them. I originally heard about this on Marginal Revolution, an economics website (link here), and it sounded like a good idea. It cropped up again in the book, How We Decide (my review here, Amazon link here). The book had the original research study. The academic paper is on the internet behind a paywall, but it has been actively written about (here, by the original researcher in Scientific American).

Paraphrasing, a group of fifth graders are given a task to complete. They are divided into three groups. One group is told at the completion that they are very smart. Another group is told that they must have worked hard. A third group is a control, and not told anything.

On subsequent tests, the hard working group improved substantially. The smart group regressed, performing worse than before. And the difference was substantial.

It all makes a great deal of sense. If one feels that your native intelligence is the gauge by which you can complete tasks, then anything you cannot complete naturally means that you are (relatively) dumb. If you are hard working, on the other hand, then failing at an assignment means that you simply did not work enough and there is room to improve yourself. Someone who has been told they are smart, but fails, has no such recourse.

How We Decide went into delicious detail on this, remarking that the hard working group better reflects on how the brain learns. We all learn from our mistakes, and almost solely from our mistakes, so these should be emphasized.

How We Decide – Book Recommendation

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

how_we_decide_lehrerHow We Decide by Jonah Lehrer is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It is in serious contention with the Black Swan, and is much the same type of book.

How We Decide is a layman’s walk through current brain research, and what the current thought is behind the nature of intelligence, thinking and decision making. This is not a dry tome; the stories in it are nothing short of riveting. Battleships blowing up, planes crashing, footballs thrown, countries invaded, Costco’s being shopped (well, maybe not the last one) …

The stories are masterfully woven with current brain research in a very readable style. In fact, maybe too readable. This book was very hard to put down.

I put it in the same category as Black Swan since it also represents a change of viewpoint. Where Black Swan says the world is far more random than you or I think it is (and proves it quite elegantly), How We Decide takes the study of the brain and, through stories, shows how we inaccurately perceive our world and our own thinking. It’s delicious stuff (kudos to the cover).

One Month Old

Saturday, September 12th, 2009


One month old on Friday – time for her first book! Veronica joined the nightly book reading Friday with Sandra Boynton’s “Your Personal Penguin”. If you haven’t read it, take a look at Davy Jones of the Monkees singing it here.

Reading the Hobbit to Very Young Children

Friday, September 4th, 2009


We finished reading The Hobbit on September 1. We started on July 24, so this was a long time in reading. It was quite a success.

My strategy reading chapter books to very young children now is not to force them. We’d tried Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Narnia and others during the normal reading time (when I do Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman, Bill Peet, and Maurice Sendak for all the kids). This did not work. Books without pictures bore the two year old and can’t keep the attention of the four and six year olds.

Instead, I started reading The Hobbit after they’d gone to bed. With the four year old and six year old in bed (two year old sleeps in a separate room), I’d sit in my reading chair and go through 5 or 10 pages. If they were interested, they could listen. If not, they could sleep or play quietly. I’m sure neither of them heard or understood every word. But when Bilbo Baggins was talking with Smaug, I had their rapt attention.

In general, I did not stop to explain words (there would have been too many). I tried to voice act the conversations as best I could, so the kids could follow those. And, every night, before starting and after finishing, I would summarize the latest events in the book. I’d also bring up the latest events as part of our dinner time conversations.

The biggest problem is that the book continues for 40 pages after Smaug is killed, and the kids couldn’t see any point in continuing the story after that. It was hard keeping enthusiasm for the story after that.


Krugman and Stross Transcript

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

Paul Krugman (PK). Nobel Prize winning economist and columnist for the New York Times.

Charlie Stross (CS). Hugo-winning science fiction author.

Anticipation World Con, Montreal, Quebec
August 6, 2009

Transcription by Edwin Steussy, Apogee Communications. Please send corrections to ed “at” my last name “dot” com.

CS: Good evening, we’re very pleased to be here and thank you very much for inviting us to talk.


Even More on Neil Gaiman

Thursday, August 6th, 2009


I wrote earlier about how impressed I was with Neil Gaiman. American Gods (winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards) is the first traditional novel I’ve read by him. What impressed me? Not the fantasy elements, nor the universe created. No – it was the American Midwest: Wisconsin and Illinois. I have rarely read a non-native (read East or West Coast) novelist who can adequately handle the laid-back attitude of my home region. I have never read a non-American author handling Midwestern characters adequately (yes, I’m looking at you! Mr. Smarty-Pants Vladimir Nabokov – I’m looking at you! Mr. Smarty-Pants Economist). It probably helps that Gaiman lives in Minnesota – but, dang!, he has the character and cadence completely down pat.

Very impressed.

Neil Gaiman

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009


Wow. I thought I was beyond the stage when I would suddenly discover a startling new author, with a full back catalog of unread books. Neil Gaiman is definitely such a writer. And the reason I missed him? He works almost exclusively in graphic novels.

After running into no fewer than three references to the Sandman series of graphic novels in a few days (“…the novel we’re reviewing here is not as good as Gaiman’s Sandman series from 20 years ago, but …”), I found it at the local library. Great stuff – Norman Mailer described the series as “a comic book for intellectuals” – and it’s true. References to Herodotus, Shakespeare, Dante, the great myths (in their original, unsanitized forms), Arthur C. Clarke and so many others, it would be hard to list them all.

But this is more than a collection of references – this is a living, breathing series that stands on its own (albeit, on the shoulders of giants). I spent a month reading through the full collection, and loved them all. Highly recommended.

Amazon link for Volume 1 of 11 here.

First Contact

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009


While I was in Wisconsin, I was rereading Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee for the third time. A great book, and clearly a forerunner to Guns, Germs and Steel.

The book deals a bit more with Diamond’s work and personal experience in New Guinea. The most fascinating aspect is that the central highlands where the last major population center of Stone Age people living into modern times with no knowledge of the outside world were discovered. Estimates range from 250,000 to one million people living there.


There were two regions of people – one in the east that was discovered in 1930, and a western group that was discovered in 1938. The First Contact with the Eastern group in 1930 is fully documented and readily available on the web in a fifty minute video here. Quoting from the Third Chimpanzee:

First-contact patrols had a traumatic effect that is difficult for those of us living in the modern world to imagine. Highlanders “discovered” by Michael Leahy in the 1930’s, and interviewed fifty years later, still recalled perfectly where they where and what they were doing at the moment of first contact. Perhaps the closest parallel, to modern Americans and Europeans, is our recollection of one or two of the most important political events in our lives. Most Americans my age recall that moment on December 7, 1941, when they heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We knew at once that our lives would be very different for years to come, as a result of the news. Yet even the impact of Pearl Harbor and of the resulting war on American society was minor, compared to the impact of a first contact patrol on New Guinea highlanders. On that day, their world changed forever.

A book by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson entitled First Contact poignantly relates that moment in the eastern highlands, as recalled in their old age by New Guineans and whites who met there as young adults and children in the 1930s. Terrified highlanders took the whites for returning ghosts, until the New Guineans dug up and scrutinized the whites’ buried feces, sent terrified young girls to have sex with the intruders and discovered that whites defecated and were men like themselves. Leahy wrote in his diaries that highlanders smelled bad, while at the same time the highlanders were finding the whites’ smell strange and frightening. Leahy’s obsession with gold was as bizarre to the highlanders as their obsession with their own form of wealth and currency—cowry shells—was to him.

This is a truly amazing document. I sat fascinated for the full 50 minutes. Again, the link is here.

Charles Stross

Monday, June 15th, 2009

taa-aceI’ve been reading science fiction off-and-on for three and a half decades now. The 50’s and 60’s were full of great science fiction. For whatever reason, the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s had only a few titles or concepts that truly stirred the soul (Larry Niven’s Ringworld comes to mind as a positive example).

Since 2000, there has been a resurgence of good science fiction from a new set of authors. I’ve frequently sent friends and readers to Marc Andreesson’s second or third blog post (a blog he no longer updates, unfortunately), which had the best list of new science fiction works available. I’ve enjoyed several of them.

I point to three who seem to have taken over the world of science fiction: Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi and Charles Stross. All three have active blogs (which are the links I’ve set up).

Doctorow is the only one not on Andreesson’s list, and I can see why. His writing is very work-a-day, his fictional insights are not great and his characters (never an SF strong point) suck. However, primarily through his blog, he wields considerable clout with the internet generation, taking on issues of copyright, intellectual property and such. He’s virtually required reading on these topics.

Scalzi is a young author whose works are incredibly entertaining. They tend to follow a Robert Heinlein sensibility, which really appeals to me. Old Man’s War is one of the best science fiction reads in the last decade.

Charles Stross, however, is untouchable. His works bristle with new ideas and new concepts. Accelerando has more new ideas in it than most people will have in a lifetime. All of his novels twist the world in unique ways, which make his writing fun to read. His Family Trade series has been quoted and referenced by Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist writing for the New York Times. I’m finishing the Atrocity Archives just now from the Laundry series, which is truly great. Highly recommended.


ADDENDUM: I just remembered that the reason I started this blog was due to a Charles Stross speech – made before I started pursuing his books. Prior to starting the blog, I avoided any personal reference on the internet – now I embrace it. Read my link and the speech to see why.