Sunday, January 31, 2021

And Then There Were None (Dramatised)

And then there were none is a sanitized version of Agatha Christie's popular mystery novel. Ten people that have caused the deaths of others are together on an island. There is a poem about 10 little soldier boys in each room. (In previous editions, there were other terms that would be offensive today.) Each one suffers death in a strange way. In the story, each of the people suffers death in a similar way. It turns out somebody was seeking "revenge" in this way. People may think they can escape their misdeeds, but they find the way back to them.

Rhythm of War: Book Four of The Stormlight Archive

Rhythm of War is long. the audiobook clocks in at over 57 hours. (Thank goodness for 3x listening speed!) There are a lot of characters and a lot of things happening. It is also filled with increasing conflict among values. The honorspren are bound to honor. But what honor? My favorite part was the trial. It was filled with twists and turns as each side did something that was beneficial for the other. In the end, the "star" from one side ended up destroying the whole case after discussing their willingness.

The different beings continue to struggle to come to their own identity. They are challenged when they see negative things happen at the expense of others. Yet, without the others they cannot achieve their true potential. There are many corollaries to our current life. (Sanderson has even mentioned that Fantasy and Science Fiction are just ways of expressing today's concerns in different environments.) Some of the beings also are very parochial in their skills, not believing that any outsiders are capable. And there is also the researcher that makes potentially world-breaking discoveries. Plenty of things are going on, though it can be hard to keep track of the overall narrative.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

From Muddy River to the Ivory Tower: The Journey of George H. Brimhall

George H. Brimhall served as president of Brigham Young University as it pivoted from being a general purpose educational institution to being a full-fledged university. This was not without conflict. The school was in danger of being closed numerous times. There were also conflicts with the twin goals of providing secular and religious instruction.

Brimhall attempted to professionalize the school, bringing in professors with advanced degrees (often from the University of Chicago.) Alas, these professors taught concepts like evolution. Brimhall saw a compatibility between the scientific and religious instruction. However, other people did not see it that way. Some students claimed to lose their faith in religion in response to the teachings. The church leadership became involved and requested that they change their teachings or leave the University. Brimhall was devoted to support his religion and relented in dismissing the controversial professors. 

Brimhall's family was directly connected to part of history. His father migrated to Utah, divorcing his first wife who did not want to follow. He remarried in Utah and had a big family. Brimhall's first wife developed mental illness and lived the end of her life in the mental institution. Brimhall then entered into a polygamous marriage with a second wife. This seems to be one of the ideal cases for plural marriage. He fathered a large number of children from his two wives.  He grew up in Utah, though spent time on "mission" trips to explore other parts of the mountain west. He was devoted to creating curriculum for various church organizations and was known for his "short sermons"

Brimhall died in questionable circumstances due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound after suffering from chronic illness. Some tried to explain it as an accidental discharge, though there is no certainty. Was it just the pain of illness that did him in or were there other skeletons in his closet?

The book covers his life, but seems to jump around a bit. Perhaps due to lack of primary sources, there appear to be some gaps in the life history.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

The Secret of Our Success explores the importance of cultural evolution in the success of homo sapiens. The book also explores the ways in which cultural evolution can synergisticly work with genetic evolution.

The social aspect of culture can be compared somewhat to moving work to the cloud. On one side, you can get more and more powerful computers. However, you can also combine many smaller computers together to achieve similar results. Combining the smaller computers also allows for more resiliency and rapid expansion. The culture can provide similar benefits. We don't need to re-learn what foods are safe and how to prepare them. Our culture is built on previous discoveries. Today we have tools and technologies built on top of many levels of previous ones.

This does have some challenges. As isolated societies grow smaller, they can lose cultural knowledge. There are also challenges when certain knowledgeable people are lost. (There is an example of a society that lost its kyak builders.) 

Skin color is an interesting example of cultural and genetic evolution working in tandem. Darker skin is beneficial in warmer, sunnier climates. In more northerly climates, paler skin allows for more vitamin D formation and is beneficial for farming societies. However, Inuit societies are able to obtain the needed vitamins from the animals they consume in the arctic. Thus, the lighter skin is not as beneficial. We see cultural and genetic needs working in tandem.

Norms and goals are important. Societies have different languages, taboos and ways of doing things. They are often adopted based on observance of "models".  Often these norms are based on some need that is now no longer understood. There are often seemingly "odd" behaviors that were built on a social requirement. (For example, food may be prepared in certain ways to provide needed nutrition.) There can also be cultural norms that were merely adopted based on models without any useful requirements. Different languages result in different types of communications. Some also have a sound structure that is optimized for the particular environment.

Cultural evolution became an integral part of human evolution. We have trouble surviving individually without our culture. Even eating is dependent on cultural learning. Our digestive system is not optimized for eating available raw foods. We need cooking and other processing for most of our eating. Genetic evolution has worked in tandem with the cultural evolution to optimize for the beneficial genes and let redundant ones to fade out. We don't need to rely on one individual brain, but can take knowledge from society past and present.

Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World

Lisa Randall is an expert on particle physics and very enthusiastic about the work. Knocking on Heaven's Door contains a hodgepodge of her thoughts on science and the physics. It starts with some analysis of science and the differences among science, art and religion. She views the three as different ways of understanding the world. Science attempts to discover what happens. Religion looks for Why. Art provides an alternate view. Conflicts arise when they try to go against their "core" area. There is also the question of "adequate" explanations from science. Newtonian mechanics is not 100% accurate. However, it is adequate for most of the areas that we need. There are many other areas where we have general scientific principals that have been adjusted based on new findings, yet are still in use. We don't need to concern

The work then pivots to talking about particle physics and talking about high speed colliders. It is nearly a history of the CERN and the background of the collider as well as the aborted US Super collider. She mixes the discoveries in particle physics with details of the working experiences at CERN. There are some significant details on the recent discoveries in particle physics as well as the background in how the experiments were run to accomplish these.

Monday, January 25, 2021

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century

The 14th century is probably best known for the plague of the "black death" that swept over Europe. Huge numbers of people died. The middle ages were winding down and the Renaissance was still a little way off. Written records from the time period were fairly sparse. This makes the task of creating a comprehensive history challenging. A Distant Mirror was not quite up to the task. It feels like a long amalgamation of facts without a very concrete story. There was a lot of stuff that happened. There were leaders that did things. Death, debauchery and other things happened. Every now and then there would be an interesting section. Even the narration of the audiobook was hard to understand. For a history of the 14th century, we are best waiting until somebody creates a more concise work.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design

There are many things in our built environment that we just take for granted. For example, stop signs. Why are they octagons? And why red? Turns out somebody thought that the number of edges was an indication of degree of danger. And red seemed like a good color for stop.

99% Invisible City attempts to explore many of the parts of the built environment that we see every day, yet often don't think about. There are sections on the inflatable "things" at car dealerships. Why are there no more metal fire escapes? Why tall buildings? What happened to all the mail order houses from Sears? There are so many good parts of this book, it is hard to put down. I will definitely check out the podcast

The Original

The Original is an audiobook-only novella that takes place in a near "singularity" world. People experience life through "themes", a form of augmented reality. They may be walking around in a drab city, but it will appear to be vibrant in a way they desire. (A couple could be "alone" in a park, even as many people next to them are also "alone".) There are ways to "check in" for repairs that allow people to experience near immortality. However, people can still be killed via bodily injury.

The story centers around the copy of a woman that had killed her husband. The "copy" was made from the most recent "backup". She feels like herself. However, she also has had combat training implanted. She is tasked with seaking out her "original". This story is fairly simplistic detective story. However, the universe is the main story here. There is a lot of potential to explore, but it seems to end too soon. This world is more interesting, but I think Snapshot had a better story.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Aurora Rising: The Aurora Cycle, Book 1

A bunch of "recruits" are set to join a space fleet. Some girl finds herself awake a few hundred years in the future. There are some different species. People fall in love with each other - and even have "attractions" across species. There are some national conflicts. There are places the fleet is not supposed to go, so of course they go there. Aurora Rising is a confusing mish-mash of different science fiction and young adult tropes.

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World

David Deutsch is a physicist by training. In The Beginning of Infinity, he weaves in physics with the theory of science, philosophy and the future. He has an optimistic view of society. He gives little credit to stories that "the world is doomed." While in school, a professor told everyone that global cooling would lead to an imminent food shortage. That didn't happen. Today we are concerned with global warming. Sometimes people are obsessively concerned with whether the warming is caused by humans or naturally occurring. However, if there are negative consequences to warming, the cause is irrelevant. The scientific method can be used to help find solutions. Political "fixes" will often set things back, in part by forcing effort in the wrong area.

He also gives the example of somebody who thought color televisions were a needless luxury. There was little that color TVs could do that could not be done with black and white screens. Color TVs also depended on rare elements of limited supply, thus would only be available to a limited set of wealthy people. Today, color screens are everywhere. The dependency on rare elements, however, is gone, with CRTs pretty much nonexistent these days. New technology made the previous problems irrelevant. The new technology was built upon the previous technology.

The enlightenment enabled humankind to master the world. The problems we solve today were likely not thought of previously. Scientific explanations can be used to explain everything. They are constantly subject to re-evaluation. He feels that science should seek to explain things based on observations and theories that can be disproved. Supernatural or religious explanations cannot be easily disproved and are not "scientific". (It could be argued that that science and religion live on different planes. They are trying to do very different things. There is little need for them to try to compete with each other.)

The book goes into long discussions about Infinity and the "Infinity Hotel". Greek Philosophers also get significant coverage. Quantum theory, the theory of relativity and Newtonian physics are all covered with their inherent conflicts. There are many different theories of the universe today. Static societies think they have all they need today. These societies eventually die when faced with an external shock they cannot deal with. The Enlightenment helped enable dynamic societies. They use the existing knowledge. However, they also seek to gain new knowledge, possibly throwing out beloved theories in the process. There is no single source of authority other than the truth. (The author has some negative things to say about "post-modernism" which seems to say everything is relative, but only is acceptable if approved by certain "authority figures") 

America's cultures seems at odds with the "enlightenment views" advocated. The left tends to favor "science", but also is subject to adopting certain "beloved beliefs" regardless of new knowledge. The right tends to be more conservatively static, however, it also encourages more freedom of action. A good future for science needs a bit of both.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: A Hunger Games Novel

The Ballard of Songbirds and Snakes is a standalone Hunger Games prequel novel. Knowledge of the main series will help to quickly understand the universe, but is probably not necessary to enjoy the novel. The name of the main character seemed vaguely familiar to me since it had been a while since I read the main series. This may have made the novel more enjoyable. I kept hoping for him to succeed and make it against the odds. Only after completing the book did I realize he was the "bad guy" from the main Hunger Games series. Perhaps this book explains why he was so "bad."

In this book, Coriolanus Snow hopes to be able to get the education and career he wants. However, the odds seem to be stacked against him. He has an opportunity to serve as a mentor to a Hunger Game tribute. He discovers that the tributes are treated horribly - often like expendable animals. (After all, they all will be fighting each other to the death.) His tribute is a small girl with a great singing voice. He befriends her and even falls in love. He makes suggestions to make the games more "exciting" for the viewers. He also ends up actively participating - going into the games kill somebody and training snakes to help his tribute to win. He believes he will get a full scholarship by winning. Alas, they find out about his cheating and he loses out on education. Dejected, he seeks escape in the military and is stationed in the district of his tribute. He finds out that the Hunger Games was originally conceived as a drunken joke, but ended up getting implemented. His friend ends up getting stationed with him, and later plotting an escape. Coriolanus nearly joins the escape with his girl, but ends up making it back to the capital where he has been hardened by his experiences to engage in subterfuge for personal gain. It seems like there were so many simple ways that the future "evil" life could have been avoided. Alas, the accumulated life experiences result in a psychopathy rather than empathy.

Naked Lunch: The Restored Text

Naked Lunch is a series of somewhat autobiographical experiences from the author's drugged up mind. The "book" is only about half the audiobook. Afterwards, there is some correspondence, including the author's views of best ways to treat drug addiction. There are also some "outtakes" and editorial details. The analysis of the different types of drug addiction and different ways to help an addict were some of the best parts. The book itself does not try to do anything to glorify the underground sex and drug scene. It is horrible depravity. It feels absolutely disgusting. The junkie is stuck with a nasty addiction and a need for more "junk" just to put up with living in their world.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Magic exists, but is not very common. Fairies are also a separate race that can cause all sorts of problems. Other than that, things are pretty much as we would expect in Victorian England. That is the scenario for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The book centers around the two named magician who learn the art of magic and try to document the history. Magic is used to help win wars. However, fairy magic has also lead to plenty of bad historical events.

The book contains a number of "stories" that are related. I found some of them to be quite good. However, I had trouble keeping interested at the end. It is a long book that may have been better if shortened.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

China Wave, The: Rise Of A Civilizational State

China Wave analyzes the growth of China from the Chinese perspective. The book was popular in China, selling over half a million copies. The author introduces the concept of "Civilization State" to separate China from other "Nation States". China is far larger than any other developed economy. It has more people unified under a similar language and culture than any other country. (India is also large, but it is less developed, more fragmented and has only been unified in the last century.)

The China system is "different" than the western system. The author compares it to a company. CEOs are not elected popularly by a one-person, one-vote system. China is lead by a "CEO" that is accountable to the people, but not subject to short-term populist predilections. China has a long history of meritocracy and leadership. The upper leadership makes plans and focuses energy in long term efforts. The coastal cities were built up and industrialized first. Interior cities followed.

Chinese culture and values plays a key role in the success of China. People have strong ties to family as well as greater respect for the government. In the west, the government is more of a necessary evil and individual rights are paramount. In China, people have worked together for millennia. They are more willing to work for society than for individual short term gain. (At the same time, they are also very entrepreneurial and eager to innovate for their short term benefit.)

Since 1978, China has developed rapidly by following its own course. The government has picked parts of the western system that it sees as most valuable, while eschewing those that are not beneficial. That has resulted in the capitalistic communism that seems baffling to westerners, but makes sense in China. We continue to see the growth today. China doesn't seek just to take things it finds valuable. It seeks to understand and adapt. Today, the economy has moved beyond being a producer and copier to being an innovator in many areas.

China is large.  China has brought 400 million people out of poverty in the past few decades. That group alone would be one of the largest nations on earth. Many nations are smaller than second-tier Chinese cities. Switzerland is the size of Nanjing. Chinese municipalities have a lot of freedom to innovate and set policies. The national government coordinates and plans, propagating positive innovations. The high speed rail network is just one example of a coordinated system that rapidly went from nothing to the largest in the world. However, problems are also on a large scale. 

The author is very well traveled and has witnessed first hand the rapid pace of Chinese development compared to the rest of the world. China has managed to keep the pace with minimal bumps in the road. However, how will the country manage when the growth slows (or stops)? At present it is easy to say that their way is best. We said the same about Japan until their economy entered a long period of malaise. Will China be able to continue? What will we say about Chinese development in 50 years?

The west often dings China for failures in human rights. The author posits that this is often due to a variance in priorities. China views lack of poverty as a human right. The Chinese prefer to focus on that before focusing on other rights. Many examples are discussed of countries that have adopted western-style democracy, yet not helped bring about economic prosperity. Corruption and instability is also rampant in these "democratic" countries. India is a prime example of a large democratic country that is filled with factionalism and corruption. Large scale democracy and populism has also started to get uglier and more polarized throughout the world - and especially in the United States.

China can also be more flexible. If there is obvious malfeasance within the law, the perpetrators will still be punished. He brings up the concept of "second degree corruption" This includes things like the wall street crisis and political contributions. People do things that are legal, yet still corrupt. Just like wars are now fought with technology that isolates the participants from direct participation, corruption has moved away from direct actions to the indirect. Many eastern countries that have adopted western-style democracy have actually seen an increase in corrupt behavior and government distrust.

Through most of history, China has had the most advanced civilization in the world. China closed itself off and fell behind. China is now awakening and realizing that it can borrow aspects of other cultures while still remaining Chinese.  The book has positive spins on all of China. There are many questions that arise. (The final debate with Francis Fukuyama put many of these in the open.)  I doubt China will ever be fully "westernized". However, western society will be smart to learn some of the positive aspects of Chinese development.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Red Queen

"Silvers" have silver blood. "Reds" have red blood. The Silvers rule and have power over the reds. The reds often work as servants to the silvers. The reds don't like this, so they start some terrorist actions. There is also a war going on between a couple of different Silver/Red factions.

The protagonist lives in this world. She works the streets, pick-pocketing bits from the wealthy. She tries to avoid serving in the war. She lucks out and pickpockets somebody who gives her a job with royals. She discovers that she has lightning powers. The royal family decides to "make" her appear to be a silver. Meanwhile, her brother was killed for his role in the rebellion.

It seems to be a fairly strong metaphor for slavery, with many of the silver not seeing how the reds could not have it any other way. 

Eventually, things take a bunch of turns, people that we thought were dead are alive, and revolutions and counter-revolutions break out. It somewhat comes to a conclusion, but is obviously the first book in a series.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking

The Antidote discusses the power of negative thinking in a positive way. IN our western culture we are often driven by the need to achieve an succeed. Plenty of self-help gurus tell us what we must do to succeed. We need to believe in ourselves and visualize the success. However, this rarely leads to happiness. Many studies on success tend to suffer from survivors bias. Successful people have a number of traits. However, there are probably plenty of abject failures with similar traits - they are just never interviewed.

The book also discusses the concept of self. What is the self? What is not the self. We could argue that the entire world that we live in is part of the "self". Out happiness is tied to those around us. Many very material poor societies have greater happiness than rich ones. Is it the community that helps cause this? Is the problem with positive thinking that it just pushes us to continue on the rat race that is not necessarily what brings us to happiness?

People also get stuck hoping for security. "These insecure times" is a common expression throughout history.. It is common to have a fear of the unknown void after death. What about fear of the unknown void before birth? What about other irrational fears that cause us to do things not in our best interest? A form of realism can be a legitimate way to achieve happiness.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

Fungi are one of the earliest life forms. They behave in a way that doesn't quite match our understanding of plants or animals. They have a form of intelligence. (He gave an example of a slime mold able to easily navigate a model of an IKEA) They are also essential for life as we know it. Many of our food depend on various fungi: from the nitrogen fixation of plants to the yeast used in bread. Fungi form relationships with many other beings. Lichens are a symbiotic combinations of algae and fungi.

The book is a great intro to fungi and their importance. It is told from a personal perspective with the science combined with tales of truffle hunting. It does start to ramble a bit - especially when talking about the psychosomatic mushrooms. It is almost as if the book went on a mushroom trip. 

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

Drawdown is an encyclopedic book of things that can be done to reduce emissions and global warming. There are dozen of topics that are described with details including financial costs and benefits. It does acknowledge that many things will pivot in unforeseen ways. Some "solutions" have already done that. ("Car sharing" is lauded as a possible help to reduce traffic pollution. However, Uber and Lyft have now pretty much pivoted to taxi services rather than car sharing.)

The book is very comprehensive. It covers changes in animal production, transportation, urban layout, forestry, fuel sources and many other areas that do not get much attention. It is a great "start" to the solution of combating human emissions. However, it will work best as a "living" work that will be updated as the world and technology are updated.

Monday, January 04, 2021

2020 Books in Review

 For 2020, I read and/or listened to 173 books. Of those 22 were books. However, some of those were listened to at least partially via text to speech.

I only tagged one book to the great books: The Conundrum. This book is nearly a decade old. However, it does a good jon at looking at the various trade offs made to respond to climate change. Often the "easy" solution will end up causing unexpected changes that will make things worse. This is a common problem whenever people are involed.

Books read by year

By year, the oldest was 1856, the most common were 2020 and 2019. (There are some books which had multiple years: date written and date translated, etc.)

1856: 1
1899: 1
1940: 1
1941: 1
1954: 1
1966: 1
1968: 1
1977: 1
1990: 1
1992: 2
1998: 1
1999: 3
2000: 3
2001: 2
2002: 1
2004: 2
2005: 2
2006: 6
2007: 2
2008: 10
2009: 9
2010: 9
2011: 12
2012: 8
2013: 13
2014: 12
2015: 9
2016: 7
2017: 13
2018: 13
2019: 16
2020: 16

Significant categories of books:

I just use the labels for everything, so there are authors, narrators, genres and series names all mixed in. And I am not super consistent in the usage.

fantasy: 26 - I'm not s big fan of fantasy, so this was a surprise
young adult fiction: 19 - I can be inconsistent labeling young adult vs. childrens books
history: 17 - I do like history
John Flanagan: 15 - I went through a lot of ranger's apprentice and brotherband
science fiction: 14
childrens books: 14
John Keating: 14 - The Narrator for most John Flanagan books.
ranger's apprentice: 14
historical fiction: 9
politics: 8
science: 8
brotherband: 7
social science: 6
education: 6
Michael Scott: 6
Nicholas Flamel: 6
Robert Asprin: 6
self help: 5
Paul Boehmer: 5
technology: 5
math: 5
psychology: 5
Noah Michael Levine: 5
Phule: 5
Gerard Doyle: 5
Christopher Paolini: 5
Inheritance Cycle: 5