Monday, December 31, 2018

A Short History of Nearly Everything

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson starts with the beginning of the universe and works his way down. He laments the poor stats of science textbooks. They often have a few diagrams that attract you to the possibilities of learning, then let you down with very poor text. In this work, he tries to provide an accessible "history" of the world. It starts with the big bang, works through how the universe, suns and planets were formed, then goes down to describe life on earth. From here, it goes through the initial history of organisms, the evolution to different species, and the many extinction events that have taken place and the new species that have come to fill voids. The narrative follows a dual chronology approach. The author discusses key events in rough chronology that the occurred. Within the discussion of the events, he discusses the way that our knowledge of the events has unraveled, with special attention to the key figures in the discovery process. In many of the cases the "first discoverer" is disregarded by society, and only comes to light after somebody else has popularized and attached his name to the discovery (it is almost always a he). The earth has often been much hotter than it is today. (We are in part of a long term ice age.) However, global warming has a lot of uncertainties that could make matters worse. The book ends with a look at homo sapien and how he has come on the scene, with both the ability to both understand and destroy the world.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Emperor's Soul

The Emperor's Soul sounded familiar when I started reading it. It turned out that I had read it before in Brandon Sanderson's Arcanum Unbounded story collection. However, I had not written about the interesting thought behind it. In this exploits, we follow the exploits of a master forger. She uses "soul stamps" to help forge things (both living and inanimate) into something else. The target appearance must be somewhere in the realm of plausibility. A rock could be another type of rock if that type could have logically been mined instead of this one. Works of art tend to be fairly easy. A simple painting could have easily be painted as a master work of art. However, the forger would have to have an intimate understanding of the work of art to properly forge it. These can be extended further to change people. A possible fork in a life can be used to create a "soul stone" that gives a person an alternate life. It poses interesting chances to relive "missed opportunities".

Sunday, December 23, 2018

My Plain Jane

Similar to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, My Plain Jane takes the story of Jane Eyre and spins it on its head. Here, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre both exist in the same world. A Victorian "ghostbuster" society is trying to rationalize its existence and recruite Jane Eyre to its membership. However, Jane likes her ghost friend and doesn't want to join. There are also the advances from Rochester as well as other shenanigans going on. With this and the Eyre Affair, I've now read two books in the Jane Eyre universe that have left me totally confused as to what the actual book is about. Maybe I should try to read the original. This one, however, is rollicking good fun.
It presents the actual novel as a story that was inspired by Charlotte Bronte's experience with the real Jane Eyre. Charlotte and Jane are friends in this novel. Other historical and fictional characters also have various roles. I can make some educated guesses as to who is from the novel and who is from the author's life, but some could have just as well been created solely for this novel. The understanding doesn't really matter. (Though it could make things more interesting.) There are various cases of good ghosts, bad ghosts, and ghosts just meandering around. The bad guy ends up being super bad, but there are plenty of twists and turns, with just about everyone being a possible "bad guy". The book is a great "ghost mystery comedy" on its own.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People's Lives Better, Too)

The author divides people into four categories: Obliger, Upholder, Rebel, Questioner. I can see myself being a little bit of each, but probably reside more in the questioner category. These are just aspects of people's lives and how they "get things done". The tendencies can be used together with other different types of frameworks. Each of the tendencies has certain advantages and disadvantages. Most of these are "inbuilt", so there is not much sense in trying to change. However, it can be useful to know your tendency to help cope. A rebel will want to be in control, and will be reluctant to respond to requests to do something. Yet, they may do something just to be contrary, or they might do it to avoid being stuck doing something else. An obliger has trouble doing things for themselves, but if somebody else is depending on them, they are likely to do it. A Questioner must understand why something needs to be done. Good reasons can help them to do things. An upholder will follow the rules and do things for themselves because they are needed. Some types can work well together, while others are more challenging. Understanding people's tendencies can help you to work better with them.

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think

Nature tends to win out over nurture when it comes to raising children. So, why are we so stressed out over the job we do parenting? Why do working moms of today spend more time with kids than stay at home moms from the 60s? In trying to focus on children instead of ourselves, we often hurt the children. Modern parents have grabbed too much responsibility for themselves, and it doesn't really matter. Children are most likely to turn out like their biological parents, regardless of how they are raised. Many twin and adoption studies show that genetics plays a significant role in adult behavior. Nurture, alas, provides some short term advantages, but little advantage for adults. These studies were mostly done with first world, middle class parents. Nurture can benefit those that are an extreme poverty. But for most middle class families, it wont make much of a difference. Alas, the book does spend a long time drilling down every facet of genetic determinism. I got the point on the first few examples, and did not need every last study. The economic and societal benefits are presented almost as afterthoughts. Our world needs children to support the elderly. Most of the improvements come through inventions. More people means we have a greater likelihood of more inventions. The "ills" of overpopulation are mostly caused by excessive consumption of resources. Don't reduce the people. Instead, reduce the excessive consumption. In the end, the author does not suggest that everyone should be a Dugger, but that we are capable of adequately raising more kids than we think we can.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Mincemeat: The Education of an Italian Chef

I often think of Chef's as being elite, skilled professionals. They have the talent of picking out the right ingredients, preparing them properly and presenting a beautiful meal. A chef at a small mom and pop diner or an elite restaurant is exercising creative juices in an edible art. I have thought of them as being apart from the other restaurant staff, which is primarily low-wage workers (often including illegal immigrants and short-termers aspiring to do something else.) Mincement, however, portrays a different view. Chef's are the "boss" of the kitchen, but they often integrate themselves with the depravity. It is not unusual for them to be paid under the table. Fake resumes and the like are not unheard of. Experience is valuable, but as long as a chef can feed people, they can have a job. The restaurant business is not a stable one. Most restaurants are run by small scale entrepreneurs. Some know how to run a business. Many do not. The employees are used to turn over. They live a life that is filled with vices. (And these are the people feeding us?) The author lived and worked in Italy, though his experiences sound like they could have taken place anywhere.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Storm Front: Dresden Files Book 1

Harry Dresden is a wizard and a private investigator in Chicago. He is recruited to help solve crimes. Lots of stuff happens. The end. I felt I was just powering through this book. Seemed like an interesting premise, but I could not get into it. I also had trouble with the narration on the audiobook. The narrator's voice seemed to oscillate in volume and be difficult to understand at times.

Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts - Becoming the Person You Want to Be

Adult behavior change can be very difficult. Often we go into change as optimists. However, an "improbable" event of some sort is likely to occur that helps derail us from our desired change. We also encounter various triggers that can help or hurt our prospects for change. OFten the problem we ha is that we don't follow our own boss (ourself.) We have things we want to do, but then do not follow through. There was one example of a group of high ranking executives at dinner. Somebody said that anytime somebody talked poorly (rude, mean, etc.), they had to pay $20 that would go to charity. They ended up with a lot of charity. The only person who did not have to pay was a man who had a little note written down to remember to behave himself. Similarly, little reminders can help us. Sometimes, they can be small things, like an hourly reminder to be happy when guests are over. This can make the drag of showing people the same thing again a happy experience. You are doing it not out of obligation, but as a means to have a positive, happy friendship. Other times, they are items that you want to fulfill on a longer term basis. You score yourself on how well you have done on these goals and continue to work to improve. Once it is second nature, you can drop the goals.
The book does not have any "quick fix" solutions, but instead encourages you to acknowledge challenges and continue remind yourself to work to improve.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

The Red Pencil

The Red Pencil is a children's book set in war torn Africa. It is told from the point of view of a young girl who suffers through much as a young child, yet doesn't really realize how bad things are. Becoming literate and using a red pencil become highlights of her life. The book "trys hard" to give us a feel for the refugee children in a state of conflict. It almost succeeds.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation

Fascinate talks about the 7 triggers that fascinate people. People tend to have one that is the primary one that they use and one that they do not use. Using a different trigger can help make something more fascinating. However, it can also be a negative if it is too far apart. The triggers include Power, Passion, Mystique, Prestige, Alarm, Rebellion and Trust. (Though in this edition, Lust and Vice were used instead of Passion and Rebellion. Almost seems to be a turn away from the "fascinating.) Different attempts to make more money can often backfire in reducing the rarity of items. Negative publicity can often usefully inspire people to seek out something. A lot of marketing and media today seems to be based on fascinating, even if it does not seem to be explicitly doing it.
The book contains some applications for individuals, but is primarily focused on business and marketing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018


Anathem is a long philosophical novel. The world is just different enough from ours to make it difficult to understand what is going on. Most of the book involves conversations with "math monks". They discuss math, philosophy, theoretical physics and their interaction with the secular world. Interspersed with this philosophical discussion is a "mission" and the appearance of alien visitors. They discover that they are similar but different from the humans of their planet. Eventually people from both meet up and explore possible outcomes. In structure and length, the novel feels like a fantasy work. On content, however, it is science fiction write with clear modern day mores. There are plenty of ideas to keep for a long "geek" conversation.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life

In Growing a Revolution David R. Montgomery advocates farming practices that center upon building healthy soil. Conventional agriculture depletes soil of nutrients and gradually leads to an erosion of topsoil. Fertilizer attempts to restore some of the critical nutrients. However, it does not restore the important micro organisms that help make healthy soil. Also, a good portion of the fertilizer runs off, contaminating water supplies. In addition, the tendency to plant the same crops over and over makes them more subject to pests, requiring more pesticides, leading to resistant pests and more pesticide use.
He advocates for "no till farming" with crop rotations. Rather than plow the ground, the previous crops are used for mulch. New crops (of a different variety) are planted in the ground. The organic matter decays and improves the health of the soil. The rotation and planting of cover crops helps improve the health of the soil and make it more resistant to pests. This healthier soil is also much better at holding water than plowed soil. No till farming can be either organic or conventional. In general, it may more closely resemble organic farming because of less dependence on pesticides and fertilizer. However, the practice can be done with either conventional or organic approaches. (Pest control with conventional would still be an acceptable if needed.) An initial shift to no-till farming may see a drop in productivity. However, as the soil health builds up, productivity tends to be similar to conventional farming. However, the input costs of no-till farming practices are much less. Thus, even when productivity is lower, the no-till farms are still much more profitable.
The main problem with no-till farming is that there is not a business interest behind it. It results in lower demand for big agrichemicals. Perhaps what they need to do is get big farm implement companies behind it. There has to be a good deal of money behind "no-till" tractor equipment. Perhaps seed companies could also get behind selling more seeds. (Though the author does discuss a breeder who is working on perennial grains.)
The author also takes the discussion across the world. In Africa, he meets with a no-till advocate. In Asia, society has been returning human waste to the ground as fertilizer for many years. (Cities even sell their waste to farmers.) Even Tacoma sells processed sewage as fertilizer. Farmers in North Dakota have adopted no-till to significant success.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Light in August

Light in August tells the story of various people in the small town south. A preacher is disgraced by the bad behavior of his wife. However, he refuses to stop preaching until he is locked out of the church. He finally resigns, but refuses to leave town, even after he is attacked. Gradually, he is forgotten. Too guys make whiskey. They leave town after an incident where their land lord is murdered and house burned down. Later one of them comes back to try to collect a reward for the death of the lady. He claims his friend was having an affair. His credibility seems to go way down - until he brings out the trump card of his friend having negro blood. Now the town trusts him. (Were southerners really that racist?) He also had come to town to escape the pregnancy of a girl. Alas, she has followed him, and now has another guy chasing after her. The various stories are woven together with a timeline that flows back and forth to gradually provide backstory and action. The background helps explain the "scars" of the characters and why they behave the way they do. (Even though the civil war ended a few generations earlier, racism is still going strong.) While the primary characters get most of the print, there are other characters, such as a "wanna be military" gun nut. The storytelling also seamlessly switches between different styles, helping things to move along quickly. The novel was much better than I anticipated.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Tuck Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting is a whimsy tale of immortality. A girl is "kidnapped" by a family. However, they just want to befriend her. They have drunk from a spring and now cannot age or die. They don't want other people to drink from the spring. However, a man in a yellow suit wants to bottle up the spring water and sell it. He trick's the girl's family into signing over the property in exchange for delivering her back. In an altercation with the family, he is hit and eventually dies. This leaves the possibility of the gallows - which would not be pleasant for somebody that can live forever. However, the girl helps them escape. She also helps toad become immortal via the spring water. At the end of the book, the family visits the girl's grave. She had lived a full life. They also spot the toad, who is now ambivalent to any vehicles that may cross the road.
The book presents immortality as a lonely experience. How can you really have life if you don't have death?

So Cold the River

I fell victim to promotions and borrowed this book after hearing a preview at the end of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The first chapter seemed interesting. A failed filmmaker has a knack for identifying important things in people's life. After witnessing a funeral slide show he created, a woman hired him to do a project on her father-in-law's life in French Lick, Indiana.
The book continues with us learning more about his life. He is on the outs with his wife - mostly because he feels dejected for his failed film career. His anger seems to get the best of him.
Once in Indiana, he discovers that the namesake of the person he is researching had lived long ago and would now be well over 100. He also drank some of the mineral water from the area (Pluto Water). This caused him to have hallucinations where he felt he was experience events that occurred in the area. He discovered that his subject was notoriously evil. He also became "addicted" to the water, and would have serious withdrawal symptoms. He hooks up with another out of towner that is also doing research in the area (his family has connected with the black hotel economy of the area.) He does find that "original" water from an elderly widow helps relieve the cravings, while letting him experience situations from a distance. We also meet a Josiah Bradford, a good-for-nothing descendant of the research subject. He is the bad guy and eventually "becomes" the historical figure they are trying to research. There is a huge storm that comes through the area, with everything reaching a simultaneous climax before everyone lives happily ever after.
The book piqued my interest in the area of Indiana. (Apparently, the old hotels in the area inspired the author to write the book.) The book is fast moving and doesn't try to spend much time explaining why some of the supernatural things occur. Some of the key twists (like HAM radio) are fairly well broadcast, though there are some curve-balls. Amazon has it categorized as "horror", though contemporary fantasy may be a better categorization.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

The Hero With a Thousand Faces combines Freudian psychoanalysis with mythology to present a "universal" of human beliefs. The comparison of different archetypal myths across different culture is appealing. However, the book gets really bogged down in the psychoanalysis. The discussion of myths is interrupted with analysis of dreams (which often seems to show some sexual or maternal feeling.) The analysis of different mythologies has an odd relationship with "non-western" mythologies. They are at the same time referred and treated as inferior. This may just be a symptom of the analysis which seems to bring out the most extreme views that match the thesis. This leaves me wanting more, and stories are often left half-told, ending once they have got their point across.
I was less than impressed with the book. The conclusion and epilogue were especially demoralizing. He was attempting a focus on mythologies and had great respect for the importance in societies. He acknowledged the many different explanations of myths, and laments the lack of myths in modern society. (Society discovered the "light" of science, but lost the "light" of myth.) There was so much potential in a work of comparative mythology. Alas, the actual work got bogged down with the then-modern theory of psychoanalysis that it was not able to provide adequate treatment of the different myths.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

The House of Seven Gables

House of the Seven Gables is written in the flowery prose common in the mid 19th century. The story deals with a house that has been in the home of the Pyncheon family for some time. However, it was originally obtained by not so good means. (Somebody was accused of witchcraft, and then their property was taken.) Alas, since then, the house has been "cursed". One of the current residents opens up a store. There is also a resident that is in poor health - however, he is rumored to know the source of a vast wealth sought after by a relative (a judge.) The Judge dies and it turns out there is an "indian dead" that is now worthless.
It brings about an interesting point about wealth. If somebody has accumulated a vast amount of wealth and nobody else knows about it, what happens? It may be something that the owner could call upon. However, the people currently working with it would probably just continue on their lives with it as is. It probably wouldn't do anybody else any good.
The book itself has stood the test of time. It has served as an influence for other writers and genres (alas, not ones that I have a particular fondness.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Auto Biography

Auto Biography interweaves the history of the 57 Chevy with the life of Tommy Arney. Among other things, Arney had a car yard with plenty of "project cars." One car was a 57 Chevy that had the complete lineage available. The author goes through the lives of each of the owners and their experience with the car, combining that with the history of the car. Tommy's biography is much more complex. He was an elementary school dropout who grew up very rough with a strong temper. He lived a very vulgar, violent youth. He was regularly getting in fights, and would try to seek out vengeance for any perceived wrongs. He later discovered cars and eventually built up a "redneck empire" including a car lot, gogo bar, restaurant and various properties. However, he did that by taking loans from a bank. The bank was perhaps a little too liberal with the money, and he eventually plead guilty to defrauding the public (by taking loans to pay off loans) and had to serve time in jail. he also had regular run ins with the local authorities who wanted his property to have proper "bushes" and other landscaping features.
The restoration of the 57 Chevy takes a long time, and thus gets interleaved with many events in the book. Part of the length is simply the need to take time to work on it. Other projects come in and out in the process. However, finding the parts and doing the work also take a singificant amount of time. Parts need to be found from various other parts. Missing chunks of metal need to be replaced. Everything needed to be smoothed and sanded. The frame and body needed to be worked on independently. The total restoration cost much more than the value of the car. However, it did make for a nice car. The author then attempted to invite all possible previous owners to view the restored masterpiece. Many of the later owners did not recognize it. (The portion with the VIN is still the same, but much of the rest had been replaced.)

Monday, October 29, 2018

AgeProof: Living Longer Without Running Out of Money or Breaking a Hip

Age Proof is written in a way that treats the audience like three year olds, and then asks them to behave like millionaires. Are they writing to people living paycheck to paycheck? Or are they writing to people that employee a cadre of assistants while they eat caviar on the beach? It is unclear. However, they do seem to feel they are above the audience they are writing to. (But what do you expect when one of the credentials is an expert on a TV show?)
They site the study where people preferred to have $50k when everyone else had $25k rather than $100k when everybody else had $200k. Their explanation was that people would rather "keep up with the Jonses". However, perhaps they just understand money as a relative indicator of value. $200 million zimbabwe dollars sounds a like a big number, but would be worth a lot less than $1 US dollar.
The advice seems to a be a hodge podge of various health and finance advice that is in fashion today. Much of the advice is justified by "science". However, many of the studies are of fairly preliminary nature. It attempts to be very prescriptive with specific bits of advice that are not necessarily compatible with each other. It would be interesting to see how this "advice" pans out in the long run. There are some good bits in there, but also plenty of things that will likely be proved detrimental in the future.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning

Louder Than Words provides a brief overview of the philosophy and physiology of language. The human concept of language is more advanced than anything in the animal kingdom. Humans are often creating "mental images" of the language as they are hearing it. Athletes can improve heir performance by visualizing their activity because it is the same part of the brain that activates. People also process the language as they hear it, even guessing the remainder of a partially uttered word. The grammatical structures of various language do, however, influence how they are processed.
The book contains a mixture of interesting information about language, but reads more like a research summary than a book.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Seth Grahame-Smith had visited a book store and it seemed every book was either about vampires or Abraham Lincoln. All that was missing was a book that incorporated both. Hence, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The books is presented as a the story derived from Lincoln's secret journals. Vampires had come to the new world to escape the persecution in Europe. The slave trade provided an easy source of "blood" for the vampires. After Lincoln discovered vampires had killed his family members, he vowed revenge. In the process, he meets a "good" vampire who helps him out in the battle against the "bad ones." The bad vampires are very concerned about a possible end of slavery and want to do all they can to keep the institution alive. Lincoln and the "good" vampires are working to overthrow slavery and the domination of the "bad vampires".
The book weaves actual historical events and figures together with the fictional vampire stories to provide a well written historical narrative.

Close Encounters with Humankind

Close Encounters with Humankind is a book of paleoanthropologic essays that originally appeared in a Korean magazine. The explore the evolution of man and the nearest relatives. Man is unique among other animals in that language is used extensively to pass on long term knowledge. The role of fathers and grandparents also sets humans apart from other animals. With most animals, mothers tend to have sole responsibility for raising the young. However, human fathers stay around. Longer lifespans have also allowed grandparents to continue to play a role.
Evolution and culture have worked together to help bring about change among humans. Tightly packed cities have allowed for greater sharing of knowledge and talents. It has also allowed greater numbers of diseases to spread. Agriculture has been arguable one of the greatest and worst things to happen to humankind. It allowed the growth of culture and cities. It allowed or a rapid population boom. It also allowed for property ownership, war and disease. Similar to the transportation and communication improvements of today, there are great costs of the great advancements.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for A Better Future

Usually, I like the "about the book" introductory material even better than the book. Hieroglyph is the exception. The intro goes on much too long and pontificates so much, I was about to stop reading the book. However, once it was through, the stories were fairly good. The first story was about building a 20 kilometer tall tower. There are plenty of engineering problems. However navigating the politics of it proves to be just as challenging. Other stories talk about a border wall controlled by corporate security, a solar powered machine for fabricating building materials in the desert (and the moon), a "biological city", a criminal that "becomes" his victims and a hotel in Antarctica. The stories ran the gamut of "storyness". The one about building materials from sand was a true story that happened to have an interesting premise. The "biological city" was essentially an essay that tried to wrap itself in a story. Overall, the emphasis was more on the "science" than the fiction. The stories tend to feel a little too full of themselves. They want to provide profound insights on the future of technology. However, that often makes them come across as week science fiction stories. The best stories spend a lot of time on the human and less time on trying to provide insights. The result is something in between essays and stories. They are more insightful than dry essays on the subject, but not as entertaining as true stories.

Saturday, October 13, 2018


>Hygge is a Danish term that does not translate well to the English language. It is somewhat like coziness, but that is only part of it. It involves relaxing behavior with friends, often with more muted lighting and comfort food. Natural materials are almost always more hygge than modern creations. Hygge, with the comfortable relationships with humans and surroundings is a significant factor in the overall happiness of the Danish people. It can be practiced on an individual basis, but is best with a small group of friends - and even better when all of society understands.


Gratitude is a short work containing a few essays written by Oliver Sacks shortly before he passed away. He takes stake of his life and helps. He details finally taking a trip to Israel after shunning it for a long time, and finding he and his partner were warmly received. The overall work is very short and tends to serve the writer more than the reader.