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Tue, 01 Mar 2005
Some more books
Conned Again, Watson, by Colin Bruce This is an excellent book that explains a slew of logic and statistical puzzles and problems using the format of Sherlock Holmes stories. The stories are just vehicles for the puzzles and problems, but most of them do a decent job at that, providing a sort of conversational way to explain problems that would otherwise by very dry (and in truth, some of them remain dry). The good thing about the book is that it manages to make a lot of non-trivial problems understandable without introducing any mathematical formalism whatsoever. There's even a simple introduction to game theory.Fri, 31 Dec 2004
Miscellaneous Non-Fiction, 2004
Hiding the Elephant, by Jim Steinmeyer. A nicely written book about the golden age of magic (about 1880-1930), and the inventions---"it's all done with mirrors"---that baffled audiences for two generations. The book spills the secrets of a few tricks, which is interesting, but also discusses the businesses and personalities. I liked it.
Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser. If you don't know about this book already, welcome back from your round-the-world submarine voyage. Like everyone else, I think this is a very good, informative, thought-provoking, sometimes horrifying book. I recommend it.
Krakatoa, by Simon Winchester. The author of "The Professor and the Madman" (about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and one of the odd people who contributed to it) brings us another easy read about a historical event. This time, it's the eruption of the volcanic island of Krakatoa, off Sumatra, in the late 1800s... the first catastrophe (Winchester says) whose news rapidly spread around the world, thanks to the international telegraph. The explosion and subsequent tsunami killed about 36,000 people. This is a good book, and unfortunately is rather timely since it is relevant to the tragic Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.
Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz. The author visits (by plane, mostly) most of the Pacific Ocean islands that were visited by Captain Cook, writing about equally about Cook's experiences and his own a couple hundred years later. Sometimes amusing, sometimes depressing, usually interesting. This isn't a great book, but it's a good book, and if you're going to be traveling in the Pacific or have an interest in Cook, it's definitely worth reading.Fri, 03 Dec 2004
Nonfiction: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
Although Mudgett's story is certainly the more sensational, I found the story of the Columbian Exhibition more interesting. On a nearly barren patch of sandy lakeshore, the country's foremost architects and landscape architects built an entire city -- known as the White City for the uniformly white color of its romanesque buildings -- in just two years. The buildings were some of the largest built up to that time, and the city was so beautiful, and in such contrast to the "black", garbage-strewn, smelly, crowded, unsanitary cities of the day (including the host city of Chicago) that some visitors were literally moved to tears just by the sight.
It's a good, interesting book, and I recommend it.Sat, 31 Jan 2004
Nonfiction: The Next Hundred Years: The Unfinished Business of Science, by C.C. Furnas.
Here are a few selected quotes from the book, arranged by chapter title.
The proper way to choose a remedy for a cold is to write down all known methods, each on a separate slip, mix well and while heavily blindfolded, withdraw one from a hat. One has the satisfaction of knowing that the remedy thus prescribed will be just as good as any other.
...The childhood diseases will have disappeared, the common cold will have gone the way of the dodo, smallpox will only be a matter of record of the past generations. But these curses will still be lingering in some forgotten spot and there will be an old-time epidemic of smallpox around the corner just waiting for us to cease vaccinating for a few years.
The expert practicing dietitian cannot recommend a perfect diet but she can suggest a very good one. The general plan seems to be to call on the old shotgun recipe and thus include a little of everything partly to please your taste and partly to be certain that you get all the essentials. Everyone must have all the vitamins and he must have minerals. ... The perfect diet is not yet and will not be for a long time to come, but until it gets here it will be best to rely on the experimental information already gathered than the harangue of the food faddist.
What of Death?
...Inherited life-span might be defined as the length of life of the average person if everyone died of old age instead of dying by accident or from some specific disease...We do not know what this theoretical life-span is, for so very few people die of true old age that we cannot strike an average; but if we could, the figure would probably creep up towards the century and would surely be more than 70 years. [Note: at the time that the book was written, life expectancy in the U.S. was a bit less than 60 years.--Phil].
Poor Plants and Ailing Animals
Twenty-five years ago the New England hills were covered with a growth of chestnut trees that made a magnificent showing. Today there is probably not a full-fledged native chestnut in the entire area. Someone unwittingly introduced the chestnut blight from Europe or perhaps indirectly from Japan and that was the last of the chestnut. This devastation was due to a fungus that is parasitic on the chestnut but one that was so unwise as to kill its host. (The spreading chestnut under which the Village smithy stood did not share this fate. It had previously fallen in the march of progress, being cut down in 1879 to widen Brattle St. in Cambridge).
There is a real need for vest-pocket receiving sets weighing not more than half a pound, which a man can carry conveniently anywhere he may go and pick up the ether waves at will....Vest-pocket transmitters might be very desirable but they offer far greater difficulties than a small size receiver....Housewives should not anticipate their wholesale use for calling up the husband in his car and telling him to bring home a loaf of bread. The ether is already so cluttered up with a little bit of everything that a few million additional messages along towards dinner time would prove fatal. [Failing to anticipate the invention of cellular technology, this is one that Furnas got wrong.--Phil]
Leisure Without Lethargy
We may look forward to the day when the average struggle for existence will be relegated to a minor problem. Only those who have endowed lives are in that fortunate position now, and they are not certain how long it will last. Every man is not a king nor is everyone in the future going to be rich nor is he going to be able to lead a workless life, but the working obligation for an average scale of living will decrease to the dimensions of a chore, leaving ample time for leisure. The balance of power in American life will then shift from the job to the hobby...(snip)...There will be more golf courses, if the game survives, more tennis courts and bathing pools, almost anything might turn up. Archery might become as important as in the days of Robin Hood. Unheard of games might arise [Like Ultimate Frisbee--Phil]. It does not make much difference what they are. It is only necessary that they shall be enjoyable.
There shall be more fishing, be assured of that. It will be a national problem to shorten the time between bites....
...The average man will have the means to travel considerably in modest style and he will have the time. Why shouldn't he go?
Sun, 04 May 2003
Nonfiction: Salt, by Mark Kurlansky
Nonfiction: In the Wake of the Plague---The Black Death and the World it Made, by Norman Cantor
Book: Blinded by the Right, by David Brock