Friday, September 14, 2012

Book Review: The Immortal Game: A History of Chess,or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War,Art,Science and the Human Brain- David Shenk

     This was a great book that I waited way too long to listen to because I was afraid it would be dull or hard to follow.  As an audiobook it was difficult to follow the notation he used as he described a match between Adolf Anderson and Lionel Kieseritzky known as The Immortal Game.  I did however take a moment to read the Wikipedia article about it and watch a quick YouTube animation of the game.  The game is an amazing one as Anderson (white) sacrifices a bishop, both rooks, and a queen to establish check with a bishop and two knights while almost the whole game looking like he was down.  The author interwove their match within the text of the book, which leads to my biggest complaint with the book- it is not in chronological order which made it more difficult for me to follow.  However, he mostly arranged it by topic.
     He started with a history of the game itself including its predecessors from China and India, but essentially the game has been around in its modern form for 1500 years.  Furthermore, it was always meant as a symbolic game, but Islam forced the pieces to be symbolic as well since pictorial representations were seen as idols.
    The game has severed not only military and strategy purposes though, it also has assisted researchers in computers and artificial intelligence, brain research and psychology, the arts and humanities, and been a staple of much of human history.  The author, maybe at times, puts too much importance on chess and its actual influenced versus its simultaneous presence to actual events, but I think he tried very hard to be fair and balanced and to point out that although the presence of chess may have been influential it certainly was not the sole instrument.
     The author also happens to be a 5th or 6th generation descendant of a famous Chess Master and became interested in the game in adulthood as well as how to learn the game.  For me, he reinforced my interest in learning the game and how to best teach it to others.  He also finished by looking at some efforts in New York City and elsewhere that attempt to use chess as an instructional tool for at-risk youth and the benefits it has bestowed.  Chess can be all-consuming or it can be fun and social; either way it can teach useful cross-over skills and benefit those who learn to play this complex game of simple pieces.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Book Review: Imaginary Girls- Nova Ren Suma

     I finished this book at the end of last week and I have been slow to write about it because it was just weird.  Don't get me wrong the book hooked me and I wanted to know the solution to the mystery and what was going to happen next- it was just weird in the process.
     The book revolves around a girl, Chloe, who finds a classmate's (London's) dead body floating in a boat on a lake.  This discovery disturbs her enough that she moves away from her hometown where she lives with her barely adult and somewhat irresponsible sister, Ruby, and go live with her father.  Ruby then invites her back to their hometown a few summers later so that everything can be "just like it was before".
I am fine with fantasy or magic coming into play in a book as long as it is used consistently, but usually it is nice to somehow be told early on that this is the norm for the world the book is set in- although that was part of the mystery I suppose.
     One last part I feel obligated to comment upon.  My wife, an English teacher, believes a book should have a moral or some deeper meaning beyond just entertainment and that good morality should be a part of the book.  Mostly this revolves around the notion of evil being punished in the end or there at least being consequences to bad action.  That is only ind of here.  I don't know whether the author intended a deeper meaning or for the main character to have a na├»ve view of her sister and their relationship, but otherwise the consequences for Ruby's actions are minimal.
     I'm reminded of when I read A Wrinkle in Time last school year and was thoroughly unimpressed and my wife pointed out to me that there are some books that are so well geared towards youth that adults truly cannot enjoy them.  I say that because I can imagine if I had given myself the chance I would have enjoyed that book and this one if only I was younger.  The idea of these kinds of travels [Wrinkle] or fantasies [Imaginary Girls] would have hooked me when I was younger, but now I just have a hard time believing in them.  And not it the "it must be real sense" or I can't enjoy fantasy either, because I enjoyed Harry Potter, I loved the start, but hated the end of the Inheritance Cycle, and my favorite series (right now, although I long to read the series A Song of Fire and Ice) is the fantasy series Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan.  The book was enjoyable and engaging, just weird.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Book Review: A Universe from Nothing- Lawrence M. Krauss

     I first heard of Lawrence M. Krauss when he kicked off the "Physics of..."/"Science of..." book idea.  His contribution was Star Trek and I'm not a big Trekkie, at the time I had only seen 1.5 movies and only a few minutes of reruns way to late at night.  I didn't realize he was a serious physicists until I stumbled across his wonderful book Atom, which imagines life from the perspective of a single atom.  He's done a few other books as well, but I've had trouble finding audio versions until this one.

     This book was a really short one (4 discs, about 5 hours) to listen to and was the third book I listened to over Labor Day weekend while repainting the upstairs of my house.  The introduction is great covering the last 100 years of cosmology and physics with an emphasis on the development of the Big Bang Theory.  He told lots of stories that I was very familiar with, but a few I had never heard before.  For example, I was unaware that it was a female astronomer, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who first carefully calculated the period of Cepheid variable stars and proposed using them as standard candles to measure the distances to stars, which then helped Edwin Hubble support/prove that the Great Andromeda Spiral Nebula was actually a galaxy outside of our own Milky Way.  With that, our realization of the size of our Universe jumped from a few thousand light years across to at least millions.

     From there he explained the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) and how it had been predicted by the Big Bang Theory and then was later found, on accident, and has since been studied in detail.  From there he began to focus on more modern efforts to explain origins and the focus of the book revolves around the discovery that the Universe is expanding at an accelerating rate [discovered in 1998 and winning the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics].  Specifically he showed how the evidence points to the Universe being formed from nothing.  He gets into theories that debate whether nothing is more stable or less stable than something.  He talks about the future evolution of the cosmos to where space will be expanding faster than the speed of light [no this doesn't violate Einstein's relativity] and so eventually we'll be so far spread out from all the other galaxies and spreading faster than their light can reach us and so they'll start to wink out and eventually it will appear that our galaxy is the only one [the idea we disproved about 100 years ago].

     He uses this evidence to suggest that we study the cosmos now because we can and someday in the very, very distance future civilization won't have that luxury.  Krauss also uses it as an attack on religion that nothing was needed for something to come about.  He gets philosophical and suggests that if our universe was created by a Creator what created the Creator [Prime Mover/First Cause argument].  From there the book closes with an afterword by Richard Dawkins, which was more harsh and anti-religious than Krauss himself.  Dawkins even goes as far as to suggest that this book could be the physics version of Darwin's On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, which is overly ambitious for this work that includes too many anecdotal stories and theories that are admittedly constrained by at worst a lack of evidence or at best in need of more support from data.  The first half of the book is great, from there it gets into theory and philosophy.   I learned from it, but I don't know that I understand all of the author's arguments or that the data fully supports his theories- parts were probably too complex for a casual listen on audiobook.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Unintentional Physics Lesson- 2012-09-06

     Today a student walked into class and told me that they had a physics related debate all day that they wanted to settle.  Usually this means that I need to just answer a physics related question or misconception.  This time, however, was different because the debate came out of left-field, almost literally.
     The debate was about one student's claim regarding his own athleticism.  As they originally put the claim he said that he could throw a baseball 30 meters in under 1 second.  I wanted to clarify the distance because I didn't think that the baseline was measured in an even metric number, so after confirming that distance down a baseline was 90 feet which converts to 27.432 meters I said let's test it.  So we got a measuring tape, a trundle wheel, stopwatches, and a digital camera and headed to the gym to test it.  We chose the gym because of weather and because I wanted a more consistent background for the camera, as well as the confined space which has the ability to contain students who have trouble staying focused.
     So we measure 90 ft on the diagonal of the basketball court and then he started warming up.  I used the that time to explain to the timers what their job was and where to stand so that they'd be out of the way of the filming as I was up in the bleachers trying to catch the toss on my camera.
Here's the first take, without being slowed down:

The pitch leaves his hand between 6.28-6.31 and the camera does not track the ball well, but it appears that the catcher has the ball between 7.17-7.32.  This puts the pitch between 0.86 s and 1.04 s.  Taking the mean or median the claim is true, but the video is hard to follow and we had other data collected and no way to accurately review the film while testing.

   The frame rate of the video is 30 frames/second so the next data point was to try to slow the video down.

It is hard to count the individual frames, but it appears that the ball travels in 28 frames +/- 3 frames.  This gives a time of 0.83-1.03 s.  Again mean and median would support the claim.  However, my camera does have a better option that I switched to.

   The camera has a "Sports Mode" that takes a burst of up to 30 shots at a frame rate of about 13 frames/sec with the trade-off of low-quality images.  Those images are in the slideshow that follows [click on the icon in the bottom right corner and then click on the album title on the new image to go to a larger version of this slideshow].

Again, counting together in class we came up with 12 frames +/- 2 per pitch.  Again giving us values that are borderline low but with included uncertainty the claim could be true or false (0.77-1.08).

     Of course, we had the stopwatches with us also and recorded all of that data, although the recorder did not include who each time came from or which pitch was which.  That data is in the table that follows, and all seems to indicate that the pitch is faster than 1 second, but if we factor in the students' reaction times these values again fall within a narrow border around 1 second.

     This leads us to two options.  The first one is unsatisfactory, but to concede that the student can pitch faster because the data tends to indicate the low side of 1 second rather than the high side and would average out to be less than 1 second.  Or, we can attempt to find a better way to measure the speed of the ball, which allows us to extend the activity and debate a little longer and come to a more firm and decisive conclusion.

     A radar gun would be nice, but we don't have access to one.  Another option is to use motion sensors, but again we're limited by access as well as the ability of the devices to detect such a small object.  The final option is to film the release of the ball up close and instead attempt to determine the speed of the ball and from there calculate the travel time.  To this end we are setting up a contrasting background and a well lit area for filming this and will attempt to film it and then analyze the video.

   Considering we were going to go over a homework assignment and then the students were going to do seat work today this was a much more entertaining and informative lesson and the debate continues as will the discussion here.

Note: This reminded me of an article from the author of the online comic xkcd in his new section "What If" about throwing a baseball at nearly the speed of light.  Reading that article became homework for physics students after we did this impromptu lab.  You can read the article here.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book Review: Flatland- Edwin Abbot Abbot

     Another book I listened to this weekend was Flatland.  I've wanted to read it for some time and last week Science Friday picked it as their Summer Book Club Read of the Month.  This motivated me to finally read  it.  The nice thing about classics is that they are easy to find in the Public Domain: Project Gutenberg, Librivox, and others.  I found my copy through Librivox (and I've also started volunteering as a reader for them).

     The first section of the book surprised me because it was very harsh towards women.  I told my wife that it might be satire, but it was some of the worst satire I had read because it was so harsh.  I've read a little satire and I really enjoyed Gulliver's Travels, Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, and Animal Farm.  The satire in those others was funny, but here it was just so unapparent that the book seemed mean or harsh.  It is supposed to be satire of the Victorian Era and especially how women and the priesthood were treated and if the satire is even fractionally correct then I understand the neglect of women and the need for the suffrage and women's rights movements all the more, but for me at least I had to be told it was satire it was not apparent.

     After the world of Flatland is setup then the square telling the story visits Lineland in a dream (a world of 1 dimension).  After failing to get the king of Lineland to understand the 2nd dimension he wakes up from the dream where he encounters the same problem where he is now the shortsighted one.  A Sphere from Spaceland comes and talks to the Square and eventually takes him to Spaceland where he can enjoy 3 dimensions.  Later they together visit Flatland and Pointland (a land of no dimensions with one inhabitant).  The square also inquires to the existence of extra dimensions beyond that which were not recognized in 1884 when the book was written.  In 1905 Albert Einstein suggested that time was the 4th dimension and that we live in space-time.  It was later that this idea was compared to the book Flatland and the book became popular again.  Now of course, with theories like String Theory that surmise we live in a Universe with even more than 4 dimensions (all versions require at least 10 and up to 26 dimensions) the idea that there are dimensions we can imagine and mathematically calculate, but probably can never conceptually understand is an important lesson to learn- even if it turns out that String Theories are incorrect.

     The really nerdy will call this classic a work of mathematical fiction rather than science fiction.  To be honest part one is really slow and it hard to get through especially since the culture being parodied is far enough removed from us, and furthermore the humor in the satire is lacking which just makes it sad.  But if you can make it to part 2 the book is well worth the read (and to be honest if you started at part 2 you would follow most of it except the layout of this house and the hierarchies in his societies politics).  I'm glad to have read the classic, but it is not one that I will return to again.

Book Review: The Moral Landscape- Sam Harris


     Over the weekend I finished a book, The Moral Landscape, that I spent less than a week on.  I should have paid more attention to the subtitle of the book How Science Can Determine Human Values (emphasis mine).  I chose to read this book as part of my venture to read more philosophy and at the recommendation of a friend.  My best friend is an atheist and on occasion we get into debates about faith and science.  When telling him that I had not yet read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which he owns as well as several of Dawkins' other works, he commented to me that he wasn't sure why Dawkins got so much attention when some others were 1) more confrontational to religious faithful, 2) better spoken and more suited to speak on the subject, and 3) Dawkins didn't present new ideas in The God Delusion, but rather added his own anecdotal stories and examples to old arguments.  One of the alternative authors he recommended was Sam Harris.  Both The Moral Landscape and Letter to a Christian Nation are short, but Moral Landscape was the only one I could find on audio so I made it to that one first.

     There are many points Harris makes that I do agree with, but the main lacking of the text is that he does not address what morals we should hold, but simply that science (and specifically neural science) is advancing to the point where morals could be prescribed by science.  But essentially he asks us to hold off on waiting for those moral guidelines to come until science advances a little more.  The other main weakness I see with his argument is that there is no universal moral compass and that morals like social fades may change.  He of course has all sorts of great examples of religious short-comings, but so few of them are universal even to the faith or denomination that he pulls the example from- there are bad examples from every walk of life.
Where I do agree with him is that humans do not naturally agree on what is good or seek to do what is good without outside, whether it be religious or social or legal, motivation.  I also have no problem with science prescribing morality, especially when it agrees with faith.

     To disagree with him again, I do not see the sole purpose or benefit of religious faith being to define morals, so I disagree with the conclusions that faith has only arisen out of a need for humans to explain their own morality or that religions will die out as unnecessary if science can give us morality.

     He also seems to forget that First Amendment rights will keep religion from disappearing and keep wrong speech protected.  Those two don't seem to go together, but I remember a video I saw this summer that made me very distraught.  Basically, a private school district in Indiana is using a textbook that claims the Loch Ness Monster is real (like proven beyond a shadow of doubt and is fact real) and that Nessy is probably a dinosaur, therefore dinosaurs didn't go extinct and evolution isn't true.  Now I am very familiar with the teachings of Creationism and Intelligent Design and I have no problem with that, but how can such backwards and unscientific proof be allowed?  Of course, I know that it is allowed, but it frustrates me that such weirdness is protected.  But, of course, that's part of why it is protected and as much as I disagree with it I know it will stick around.  Sam Harris seems to miss this point.
I don't want it to come across that I am anti-religious or that I agree with Sam Harris on a lot, but there are some good points he makes and some short-comings in our society and our religions that together make easier targets for attack.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Biblio- & Audio-phile

I love reading books and unfortunately I don't have time to read as much as I would like.  Fortunately I discovered audiobooks Junior High and fell in love with them in College.  A few years ago I decided to make some big changes in my life to address some dissatisfaction.  This led to me choosing to broaden how I entertain myself.  I watch a lot less TV now and don't listen to talk radio unless it is news (mostly form NPR [related note: a recent study found NPR listeners followed closely by Daily Show/Colbert Report listeners were most informed about world news]).  Along with those changes I try to avoid re-watching movies or TV shows and to vary the type of reading that I do.  With that I chose to stop listening to as much fiction and listen to at least an equal amount of nonfiction [split between science & math and history & philosophy as much as possible].  Currently I am trying to hold to the cycle of:

  • Children/Young Adult Fiction
  • Classics
  • Nonfiction (general or biographical)
  • Adult Fiction
  • Science
  • Science Fiction
Though I may not follow that order and there are plenty of times when I cheat.  So far it has been a great adventure.  In future posts I hope to talk about what I've been reading.  This Labor Day weekend I finished a philosophy book, listened to a classic/science fiction book, and expect to complete a science book before beginning a new one [probably YA fiction].  Normally I don't get to listen to quite that much, but the upstairs needed repainted and one book was really short.  By the way, I refer to listening to audiobooks alternately as reading and listening- to me there is no difference other than convenience and pace.

More to come soon.